I know what you're thinking, Mrs. Galloway. I imagine you rolled your eyes when you read the title of this personal essay. Maybe you sighed and shuffled my paper to the bottom of your grading pile. I wouldn't blame you. You told us not to squander these essays writing about our dreams, to use them only to reflect on stuff that actually happened to us—I know that, I do— but please make an exception. Just this once.
This dream of mine happened last Friday, the day after my weekly therapy appointment. To tell the truth, I forgot that I even could dream. I don't think I've had one since what happened last October. In any case, dreaming was the last thing on my mind when I was sitting in my therapist's office.
We talked about Teddy that day, Dr. Barton and I. She and I, we always talk about Teddy. I wouldn't be enrolled in therapy if it weren't for him. That sounds like I'm blaming him for how things turned out, but I'm not. Honest.
"You keep blaming yourself," my therapist said. She removed her horn-rimmed glasses and looked at me. "But you had nothing to do with what happened. You weren't there. You have to let yourself off the hook if you want closure."
I looked down at my scuffed shoes and traced patterns in the carpeting.
"You do want closure, don't you?" she asked, and I spent the rest of our session thinking about that.
"How was it today?" my mother asked when I'd finished and hopped in the back seat, and I told her "Fine," and we drove home without saying anything else. This is usually how things go when Teddy is the topic of discussion.
What can I say about Teddy?
We knew each other better than anyone else. He taught me how to play the guitar, coached me for hours until I could strum all of the major chords from memory. He defended me in school, shielded me with his legacy and social status. He'd always say that he didn't mind helping me out, even though I knew better. He prided himself on being a good liar, but I saw through it. With Teddy, he always got this faint twinkle in his eye whenever he lied, a total dead giveaway. I know I was a burden. But I let him keep saying that stuff anyway because he's my brother. Was my brother.
Maybe you remember him from your class a few years ago, Mrs. Galloway. Or from the newspapers. Or the assembly we had the day after he'd crashed on his way home from garage band practice. Maybe when we all shuffled back to class that day you wanted to pull me aside and ask me questions about the whole thing, like everyone else later did, questions I was ill-equipped to answer.
This is the story that I've been told: Last Halloween, instead of partying or handing out candy, Teddy and his bandmates decided to spend their night having a jam session at the drummer's house. They may or may not have been drinking alcohol. Around 10 p.m., the drummer's parents called to tell him they were on their way home from a business function, so the band stumbled through one last song, a cover of Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," and then they were off.
Teddy was halfway across town when it happened. Turning down one of the dark residential streets, in the dim scope of his headlights he suddenly saw a shadow appear in the middle of the road, a girl in a black cloak and matching witch's hat. She screamed and held her Halloween bucket in front of her face, paralyzed by fear. Teddy swerved sharply to the right, an overcorrection, and in the dark blur of the night the grille of his Buick collided with the oak tree in someone's front yard. Lights clicked on in houses. Curtains were parted and blinds were peeked through.
The girl who Teddy almost hit was the first one to reach him. She called 911 and stayed with him the whole time, crying and apologizing and blaming herself, even after my brother was freed from his vehicle and already halfway to the hospital. She still calls sometimes to check on us, the girl, still sends us gift baskets and handwritten cards that reek of cinnamon and perfume and guilt. It's funny how life works sometimes—not ha-ha funny, but more like why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road funny, where you're still waiting for some kind of punchline.
The chronicle of my brother's death has come to me piecemeal: from the girl, from Teddy's bandmates, from rumors in the school hallways. I have learned not to question it; I have been taught not to ask.
When my mother and I returned home from therapy, my father and I switched places. I unbuckled and staggered into the house while he rode shotgun next to her. They both go to their own therapy session after mine. We used to all go together as a family, but now they like to give me some space and time to reflect and process what Dr. Barton and I have discussed. I waved meekly as they backed out of the driveway but they didn't see me.
I wandered around downstairs for a little while. My room is upstairs. So is Teddy's, down the hall from mine. I try never to look at it. I walk around my own house with my head down like a convict, a prisoner. We never talk about it, never go inside, don't even pretend like we might someday use it as a guest bedroom because all his stuff is still in there.
I believe, now, that it was Dr. Barton's talk of closure that spurred my decision that night. When I walked to the bottom of the stairs and looked at the floor above me, I couldn't be sure I would do it. It wasn't until I was halfway up the staircase, squeezing the banister with both hands, that I decided I would open Teddy's door.
I can never remember my house being as quiet as it was when I reached the top of the stairs. There is always sound, the noise from a television game show or my parent's voices rising up from under my bed. But I only heard my heart beating in my ears as I turned Teddy's doorknob, one finger at a time, and stepped inside.
I am not sure, Mrs. Galloway, what I expected to see when I entered Teddy's bedroom. Perhaps I thought that I might find Teddy laying on his bed, grinning at me and telling me how this whole thing was just an elaborate prank and that he'd really been hiding in his closet the whole time, sneaking out during the night to pilfer food from the fridge. Maybe I figured the room would be bare, mysteriously stripped of everything Teddy had once called his own. Neither were true.
I took inventory of it all: Teddy's eternally unmade bed, the lone sock on the floor, the half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew on his desk, the overflowing wastebasket, the posters of Journey and Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi tacked in a triangle above his bed. On his dresser was a framed photograph of the two of us from years ago in Halloween costumes, Teddy with his blue Dr. Spock shirt and pointy ears, me with my red Power Ranger helmet. His guitar, miraculously recovered from his smashed Buick, sat in the corner, catching the sunlight from the window.
Bile started to bubble in the back of my throat and I closed the door harder than I meant to. The slam echoed through the silent house, rattled and shuddered through my body. I kept having to remind myself to breathe. When the tears came I let them. When I trudged down to the hall to my room, I locked the door and didn't open it for the rest of the night, not even when my mother came up and left me a plate of food.
I spent the night wondering if this was the closure that Dr. Barton was talking about, if it was healthy not to be able to even step into your brother's room without crying or tossing your cookies. Every time I thought about Teddy's room I had to turn my face into my pillow to muffle my sobs. It wasn't until halfway through the night that I came up with another method of gaining closure.
When I passed Driver's Ed last year, my parents got me a car. It's nothing to write home about, just a used little Honda Civic they paid a few thousand bucks for and bought from some friend of a friend. But it's mine. Even if I have been too scared to drive it ever since Teddy's death.
The next morning, I stayed in bed. My parents are used to this now. They no longer question me whenever I miss the school bus. They understand the bereavement process more than they ever thought they would.
I waited until I heard the jingle of my mother's keys and her voice from downstairs, trailing up through the floor to meet me: "I hope you have a good day, Baxter." She was gone before I could reply. I watched her from the window as she buckled herself and reversed out of the driveway. Then I grabbed my own car keys from my desk.
The staircase creaked as I made my way through the house. The floorboards were cold under my feet. When I stepped inside the garage, there was my Honda, sitting in the same place it'd been for months, unused and unwanted. My hands trembled as I slowly unlocked the door and took a seat behind the wheel. Once again I had to force myself to breathe. I had to remind myself what I was doing, and why, and for whom.
I took a breath, stuck my key in the ignition, rolled down the windows, and listened to the purr of the engine. I don't know how long I waited like that before I drifted off.
That's when I dreamt of heaven.
It was so bright, like a movie theater when the film ends and they turn the lights back on. But other than that, it was nothing like you'd expect. It looked more like a meadow, with a bunch of grass and wildflowers and a riverbank off to my left and a bunch of big oak trees around me. There were no fluffy clouds, no golden gates, no angels roaming around. Unless you count Teddy.
I almost didn't recognize him in the brightness. I squinted, put one hand above my eyes to see better, and sure enough, walking down the meadow in my direction was my older brother. He wore now the same Star Trek costume as in our Halloween photo, light blue shirt snug around his body, pointy ears tilted to the sky. My mouth went dry. I couldn't even stand.
"I come in peace," he greeted when he got closer, parting his fingers in a V, two on each side, the Vulcan salute. He flopped down on the grass beside me.
"Teddy." My voice sounded different, scratchy and hushed. I blinked and the dam burst and I was crying more than I ever had. He rubbed my back as I wept. "Teddy, it's really you."
"Come on, Bax," he said, softly but sternly. "You gotta stop crying. We don't have much time together."
I dried my eyes with my sleeve and sniffled. I was looking right at him. "What do you mean? What's going on?"
He turned to stare at one of the oak trees in the distance. "I can't tell you all that," he said.
I grabbed at the grass, just to hold onto something solid. "Teddy, I don't understand."
Teddy paused before speaking. "This place is heaven." He extended his arms and gestured to our surroundings. "But it's only for the dead, Bax. You can't be here."
"But I am dead," I protested, and for a moment my brother stopped to inspect me. "I am. I died this morning. Carbon monoxide. I did it myself."
Teddy's voice rang out, three syllables, the culmination of this conversation: "You didn't."
I brought my legs up to my chin and wrapped my arms around them. I couldn't understand what he was saying. "I miss you, Teddy. I miss you so much." I had to stop myself from crying again.
"I miss you too," he said, and I could tell from how far-off his voice sounded that he wasn't looking at me anymore. "You and Mom and Dad. But don't do that to them, Baxter. I can't imagine they took my death that well. Don't make them go through that again. Please."
"But," I began, then stopped when Teddy shook his head.
"No buts," he said. "You don't belong here. Besides, you'd hate it here. There's nothing but old people." He chuckled and I felt myself smile. "Man, I'd give anything to be back down there."
And just as he said that, everything around us started to get dark, the flowers, the river, the oak trees. I thought it might just be sundown in heaven (I forgot to ask if they get sundowns up there) but Teddy was getting dark too. I could see him properly now, see the way he spoke, how his eyes followed the river's stream or traced the stars that were now in the sky, looked anywhere but my face.
"I just don't want to lose you," I said. I felt something funny in my body, like I was being pulled someplace else. Like I was, for the second time in my life, being separated from my brother. "Not again."
He finally looked at me. "Don't worry, I'll see you again," he said, eyes crinkling as he smiled. His voice was softer, quieter. "Just not now. I just know it's not your time yet. Believe me on that."
I reached out to touch him but my fingers missed. The last thing I remember is Teddy giving me another Vulcan salute, complete with his usual farewell: "Live long and prosper."
At first when I woke up I thought I might still be in heaven, but two things promptly dispelled that idea: the overpowering stench of bleach and Lysol, and the fact that the overhead lights were bright, but they weren't heaven-bright. It didn't take me long to realize I was in Swedish Medical Center, the same hospital the ambulance had whisked Teddy to last year. The same hospital where he died. You get pretty good at recognizing what a place looks like when you have to visit it every day.
This is the story that I've been told: While I was dreaming of Teddy up in heaven, my mom had forgotten an important document on her way to work and had to rush back to retrieve it. When she walked in the house, she heard my Honda sputtering away. Thinking that I'd finally conquered my fear of driving, she went out to the garage to congratulate me, and that's when she found me slumped against the wheel, eyes closed, exhaust fumes clouding the room. She ran to the driver's door, wrestled the key out of the ignition, dragged me into the living room, and called for the ambulance. She tells me she acted completely on adrenaline and instinct, that she was not in control of her body, that she practically watched herself do these things like an errant bystander. I do not question it.
I have been in this place for almost a week now, and the doctor says I get to go home today. And as nice as everyone here has been, I'm ready to leave, to get on with my life. I'm ready to live long. To prosper.
I make my way to the window and gaze out at the world. My room is up on the seventh floor, and from here the people on the ground look like specks. They move with purpose, dodging each other, crowding into buildings and doorways and cars. My parents will be here any minute to pick me up. And then I'll be a speck too.
As I wait for my mother and father, I make a game of my people-watching. I look for all the people wearing blue. I track what they do, where they go. One man in a blue hoodie enters the coffee shop down the street. Another in a blue baseball cap is unloading his truck. A woman in a blue dress sits at the bus stop on the corner, checking her phone. My heart knows what my mind won't say: I am looking for Teddy.
For a brief moment I imagine myself back in heaven, only this time I am old and gray and prosperous. I will look for him down by the river. I will see a pinprick of blue in the impossibly bright distance, coming closer. I will meet him halfway this time. Maybe he will wave to me, my brother, forever young. When that time comes, I hope he will recognize me.
But that time isn't now, and I know because my brother told me so. Teddy told me so and I believe him. Even if he did have a little twinkle in his eye when he said it.
P.S.: I'm sorry for turning this in so late, Mrs. Galloway. I hope you can understand.