I watched him.
I watched him shovel away snow. I watched him break into the hard, frozen earth. I watched his hands bleed with the effort. I didn't offer him help. Let him bleed, I thought. She had bled for him. Gone … for him. Maybe he was thinking the same thing because, even though his blood dripped off him and painted the melting snow a bright crimson, he kept pounding into the earth. Like he could change something. Like the harder he tried, the deeper he went, the number he felt, the closer he'd get to her. Like he could save her if only he could break through the unforgiving soil.
No one could. But, he tried. We all had. It didn't matter, though. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.
* * * * *
“Ask her!” Quinton demanded, finally fed-up with my utter failure in the matter.
“I will. I will,” I answered, brushing him away. I took a deep breath. Then, I straightened my tee-shirt, ran a hand through my hair, and took a step forward. I grinned back at Quinton, set my shoulders back, and took another step. Today was the day. I was going to –– buzz, buzz. I stopped. Quinton glared at me and shooed me forward. I threw my hands up passively. I'm going, jeez, I thought. Again, I began advancing toward the girl I'd been dating for the past three years. This was it. This was the –– buzz, buzz. This time I didn't stop. Instead, I hurriedly handed my phone to Quinton. I ran to catch up with Nichole and ask the question that would change my life.
“Strawberry Burst, or Watermelon Blood?”
Lucy shoved a spoonful of her latest crushed ice concoction into my mouth. My baby sister was always experimenting with something. Before, her experiments might've blown up the house, but since her discovery of money, she'd been unsuccessfully trying out different business ventures. Her latest one was a flavored crushed ice shop. My lips puckered. My whole face contorted at the bitter taste. With a shudder, I gulped down the ice. “Needs work,” I gagged out. Then, I pushed past her and resumed my mission.
“Nichole!” I shouted as she climbed into the backseat of a cab.
She stopped and turned toward me. Her face told me how hurt she was. But, it had all been a misunderstanding. I'm not an excellent wordsmith. It has all just tumbled out wrong. Now, though, I'd get it right. She'd understand, and everything would be perfect!
Before I could get a word out, though, Quinton practically jumps down my throat. “Dude, it's – it's … she's on the phone … wants to talk … after all this time …” Quinton kept babbling, and I was going to ignore him. But, then, he muttered her name. “Leila.”
I snatched the phone. “Leila!” I shouted. “Leila, is that you?”
“Leo.” Her voice sounded hoarse and strained. I clutched the phone tighter. “Meet me at the abandoned supermarket in ten.”
“What?” I asked, bewildered. “Why? Are you okay?”
My mind jumped to horrific conclusions. Briefly, I heard the taxi door slam shut, and the car peeling away. It didn't matter, though. All I could think about was my younger sister. We'd all just assumed she'd died, taken by some evil or another. She's alive! She's alive! My mind screamed in relief. But, she sounds like absolute crap.
“I'm fine. Just be there in ten minutes, okay?”
“Okay. Are you in town? Where've you been? Leila? Leila!” I yelled, but she was already gone. Again.
I sat on the snow-covered asphalt.
Quinton patted my head awkwardly, then, went inside to grab my keys, leaving me to my thoughts. I had plenty, too. Enough to drown in. Again, I replayed that night. Again, I didn't save her. Again, again, again.
* * * * *
It was early fall. The heat made it seem like mid-July, though. The night air was warm, but the earlier day had been warmer. Sweat plastered my clothes to my skin. The humidity was a thousand percent. I didn't want to be outside, but here I was.
I heard yelling and screaming as I got closer to the lake. A massive bonfire's light flickered across my face. The music was so loud I thought my eardrums would pop. Kids were passing around jewels and chugging warm beer. I sped up. I had to get Leila and get her home. Mom would kill Leila if she knew she'd set foot at a party like this. Then, again, maybe Leila was hoping for any kind of attention from Mom. A few teens were skinny dipping in the lake. Some were diving off the side of a cliff, which was where the screaming was coming from.
Finally, I found Leila behind a clump of bushes. Her shirt was off, and Grant was working on her pant buttons, too. I thought of the old woman from The Shinning. I almost puked. My sister –– my little sister! –– with this doof? My disgust turned to rage. I grabbed the guy, balling his shirt collar in my fists.
“What the he––” he started to say as my fist met his mouth. I punched him again and again until he fell back to the ground in a crumpled heap. Leila was shrieking the whole time.
“What is wrong with you?!” she screamed at me. She was bent over Grant, helping him to his feet.
Thankfully, her shirt was back on. That still didn't quench my rage, though. I hated him. I hated him before he started dating my sister. Afterward, the animosity had only grown. “He's twenty-frigging-years-old!” I yelled.
“And?” Leila said defensively.
“And, you're sixteen! He can't –– he can't be with you.” I stumbled over my words. The image of him with my sister nauseated me.
“You aren't Dad, Leo,” she spat at me. “You can't tell me who to be with. Mom is fine with us together.” She finished, taking Grant's hand.
I was fuming. I've never been good at keeping my emotions in check, and that night was no different. “No, I'm not Dad. Dad's dead, and Mom's zoned out, so who else is gonna care about you? Do you think I wanna be Dad?! I'm twenty-one, Leila! I should be at Dartmouth, drinking shots, and worrying about papers and professors. Instead, I'm here because nobody else is. Now, get your butt in the truck!” I shouted, dumping all my frustrations onto her too young shoulders.
“Don't you dare order me to do anything,” she warned me.
“Get in the truck!” I demanded louder.
Leila slapped me soundly. The people gathered around us hooted and hollered. It infuriated me still further. “Fine. Stay here. Get knocked up. Don't come crying to me for help.”
Then, I left.
* * * * *
Now, she'd called. For a year and four months, I hadn't heard a peep from my younger sister. We'd had a funeral service for her. No one knew where she was. Every day I thought about her and cursed myself for alienating her. Every week I went to church with Mom and Lucy and begged for my sister back. For my family back.
Now, I was driving to the abandoned, Hispanic food market. I thought about how we used to play in the empty aisles after school. The owner had refused to sell it, even when his business tanked in '08. I planned what I’d say when I saw Leila again. I wondered what had changed to make her want to see me. I hoped the snow would let up, but it didn't.
I pulled in behind the dilapidated building. Seeing my breath cloud in front of me, I hurried into the supermarket. “Leila!” I called, searching down the dark aisles with my phone flashlight. “Leila, where are you?”
No one answered.
I waited. For two hours, I waited. Desperately, I held out hope that she'd turn up. Please, God, please. But, eventually, I gave up. As I started to leave, I heard something. It was a faint wail. It was almost like … like a child's cry. Quickly, I dismissed the idea. It must be the wind. Then, I heard it again. This time the cry was unending. Following the piercing noise, I found a small bundle wriggling around aimlessly in an unsold, plastic tub. I reached in and pulled out an under-sized baby boy. In his fist, he clutched an envelope with the name Leo scrawled across it. It was Leila's chicken scratch.
I held the baby close, rocking him slowly to stop his crying. With trembling hands, I opened Leila's letter. There was no Dear like a typical letter. Then, again, no part of Leila had been typical. I started to read the letter, but red-and-blue lights showed through the glass doors at the store's entrance. I practically flew out of the eerie, old place. While I was running, Leila's letter fluttered out of my grasp.
* * * * *
“The car took a curve going ninety-miles-per-hour,” the cop told me. He wouldn't meet my eyes. He twisted his hands together fretfully.
“What, um, what does that mean?” I ask him. My mouth felt like it was full of cotton. I felt sluggish and unable to process.
The cop looked up from our front porch steps. “The car didn't make the curve. They're towing it out of the snowbank now,” he clarified.
“And – and my sister?” I croaked.
The female cop at the young cop's side reached for my hand. She told me that the odds are slim but not impossible. “We were notified almost immediately because the driver behind them saw the crash.”
I looked into her eyes. They were kind and had seen a lot. I was going to ask Nichole to marry me today. I was almost got my sister back today. I found a baby in a grocery store today. Then, I realized it might not have a mother anymore.
Suddenly, Lucy appeared in the doorway behind me. “Leo, why are the cops here? What's going on?”
I steeled myself and turned toward the little girl behind me. “Everything's fine, Luce. The cops are just returning something that we lost," I fibbed. “I have to go with them now. Please, stay with … ” I didn't even know the baby's name. I dropped the letter before I could find out.
Lucy didn't miss a beat, though. “Okay,” she answered softly. She knew I was lying, but she didn't ask why. I had always known she was a genius, but only then did I realize she must be the smartest twelve-year-old alive.
In a daze, I went with the cops. I saw them reel Grant's red pick-up out of the snow. I watched them put Leila's frozen body in the back of an ambulance, and it roll away without its lights on. I saw them revive Grant and care-flight him to the hospital. Then, I rode home. I had to tell Mom that another one of her family members had died. I organized Leila's funeral. I held her baby and wept.
Days went by, then weeks. Life reverted to almost normal. I continued working at the garage. I helped Lucy with her English and grammar. I named Leila's baby Logan after Dad. I officially adopted Logan after Grant forfeited his parental rights. I convinced Mom to get up every day and try to move on. I watched Grant bury the mementos of his life with my sister in the place that they crashed. Every day I blamed Grant and myself and God. I didn't try to get Nichole back. She moved on and found someone new. I tried but couldn't.
One day I remembered Leila's letter. I returned to the supermarket. I found the letter and snatched it up. I sat down heavily, clutching the last piece of my sister to my chest. I read it. Then, I cried and knew I had to start living again.
You were right.
You were about Grant, about me, and about Dad. I'm sorry, Leo. I love you, but I love my son more. He can't stay with me. Grant is not fit to raise children, and my baby deserves so much more than I could ever give him. Love him, Leo. I know you will. I know you are the best thing I could ever give my baby. You are always there. I'm sorry I didn't see it before, but now I need you. Please be there for my Logan.