Grey skies were the only welcome Sage was met with as they drove back to the dingy little town they’d grown up in. Dark clouds loomed menacingly, blocking out any warmth the sun could’ve offered, replacing it with a gloomy, bitter chill in the air. A stiff breeze carried the scent of the first rain of the year across the dismal town. The hair on Sage’s arms prickled and stood, and they felt an unfortunate tension creep into their shoulders as they carefully drove the familiar streets, watching how everyone they passed walked with their heads down and shoulders hunched. It was as if the darkened sky was an omen they were all too afraid to look at, like maybe if they all ignored it enough, this ill-fated weather would pass over them. Of course, they could also just hate rainy days. Perhaps Sage was simply projecting their own dread at their reluctant return.
It had been years since they’d visited this little town, months since they’d so much as spoken to any of their family here. As they slowly worked their way through the streets and grew closer and closer to their childhood home, the tension in their back seemed to spread, hollowing out their chest and making it hard to breathe. They’d meant to come home sooner, really they had! It was hard, though, when calling this place “home” didn't seem to fit anymore. Guilty as it made them feel, Sage couldn’t pretend they held any affection for the dank town, with its quiet, grumbly people, who all knew each other and hated it. Nor could they say they’d missed their family here. Their grip tightened on the wheel at the thought. The last time Sage had been here, their mother had been screaming at them as she chased them down the driveway, running her voice ragged and thin as she told them it should’ve been them. She was right, of course, Sage had always agreed. Sometimes, after they left, they would sit on the roof of their apartment building, try to pick out the pinpricks of starlight through the hazy, polluted air, and wish on every single one. They begged each star to rewind that fatal clock, pull their sister from the dark, frozen water, and drown them instead. Let their mother keep the good child, please. Let the person they’d loved most take one more breath, so that she could laugh one more time. Let that laugh grace her with one more smile, and maybe one more breath to cry all the tears she had held inside. There were so many hurts she’d never let anyone see, Sage knew that now. Now that it was too late. So many, that maybe when she was done crying her tears, she would feel light enough to breathe again, and again, and again, and if there were enough “one more” times, she would never have to feel like her only escape was down. Sage would give every star in the sky to make that trade. They glanced in their rearview mirror for a moment, and were surprised to see that their eyes were red and glittering as tears raced down their cheeks. They tried to take deep breaths as they turned into their old neighborhood, but the gaping, aching emptiness in their chest felt like it was expanding, suffocating them. The closer they got to their mother’s house, the closer they got to both the truth and the past.
When they finally pulled into the painfully familiar driveway, the first drops of rain had begun to fall, tap, tap, tapping, one by one onto their windshield. They traced their way down the glass, quickly followed by more, until the rain was pounding just like Sage’s head as their tears mimicked the sky’s and began to fall relentlessly. The small, shabby brown house in front of them looked more worn than they remembered, and seemed to blur behind the tears and rain falling in torrents. This had been home for so long, where they used to help their mother bake brownies on rainy days just like this. It hadn’t been nearly as miserable back then, when their little sister was sure to run into the kitchen, bubbling over with laughter that made the cold room warmer and cozier than any fireplace. Their mother would smile gently as she scolded her for running around so recklessly, and Sage could hear the rain pounding angrily outside, but this little room would become a little bubble of safety. The sweet smells of chocolate and sugar would wrap around them, and the warmth of their mother’s hand on their shoulder while laughter floated through the room would bite back the chill of the dreary weather outside. It was hard to look at the house now, knowing that there was no warmth inside to chase away the ice that had seeped into their bones now. No sister, no mother, both were gone. They didn’t have any more breaths to laugh and smile and keep the storm at bay. The rain was just angry now, and no jacket or umbrella would protect them from the lashing drops that pounded on the windows all around them. Sage was shaking now, shoulders heaving and lungs gasping, begging for a breath between each sob that tore itself from their throat. Slowly, they reached out with trembling hands, and opened the door, tentatively stepping into the miserable onslaught just outside.
They stood like that for a moment, face upturned, openly crying to the sky. The icy water quickly soaked their clothes, chilling their skin to match the freezing emptiness within that had consumed them for two and a half years now. The rain drops covered their face, and as soon as tears left Sage’s glassy eyes, the sky washed them away with its own. Soon, Sage could hardly tell which tears were their own and which had fallen from above. They took a deep, shuddering breath, trying desperately to find some bravery to call their own. Another breath, another moment, and they gathered the courage to step forward, walking toward the silent door that loomed ahead of them. One step at a time, their breathing ragged, they approached the door, pulled out the key they’d never had the heart to throw out, and unlocked the door. It creaked eerily as they opened it, and they were faced with the dark, gaping entryway. Not a single light on. Why would there be? Death isn’t afraid of the dark, after all. Sage had never thought they were, either, until they stepped into that lonely hallway. It was cold. It was freezing, and so quiet. Sage knew their mother’s body had been removed as soon as the neighbors realized she’d passed, but this house felt stale, empty, and haunted like a tomb. It didn’t help at all, when they flicked on a lamp near the door. The soft glow was barely enough to illuminate the pictures lining the walls, but the second Sage saw them, something in their chest seized.
Their chest felt less empty now, but only so they could feel the way their heart shattered all over again. It filled the yawning cavity they’d become so accustomed to with razor sharp shards of their poor glass heart, stabbing every piece of them with the overwhelming grief. Sage approached the first frame, and this time there was no rain to disguise the hot tears falling down their cheeks once more. They pressed their shaking hand to the picture as softly as possible, afraid that maybe this memory was as fragile as they were, and would break into a million pieces again at the slightest touch. It didn’t break, though, and behind the cool, dusty glass, Sage saw their family. Their mother stood behind her beloved children, one hand on Sage’s messy, shaggy hair, the other holding the hand of her daughter. They all had the same dark brown hair and eyes, but Sage was pale and gaunt, and their sister was covered with the same freckles as their mother, her tiny face painted with a smile so wide it looked as though her cheeks might burst. This had been their family, before all of the hurt, before all of the anger, before all of the grief. Sage choked back a sob, moving on to the next frame. Small, bright and sparkling in all this darkness. It had been a gift for mother’s day, made of popsicle sticks messily glued together and painted bright pink, covered in rhinestones and stickers that messily spelled out her name. O l i v i a. The glass in Sage’s chest felt like it must be burning, searing through every last shred of control they had, melting into a bubbling pool of anguish that washed over them. Olivia. They hadn’t dared say her name since she’d died, never written it, couldn’t stand to see it. And now, here it was, right under a picture of her in summer, her favorite time of year, in their mother’s favorite picture. Her smile was crooked and wild and so real and bright that it felt like she might move any moment, come back to giggle and tell Sage they were the best big sibling ever one more time, even if it wasn’t true. Sage squeezed their eyes shut and turned away, giving in to the pain. They slumped to the floor and let it hit them, wave after wave, and they cried. They cried and cried, and outside the whole world seemed to cry with them, shaking the windows, flooding the gutters and soaking everything in this moment of shared grief. Sage didn’t know what the clouds could possibly be mourning, but through all the burning, guttural pain, they felt the tiniest bit grateful to see that something as big as nature could cry this much too.