I told my sister she was lying when she said she saw you at the grocery store that day. I said, “Stop lying,” and she blinked at me like I’d smacked her in the head. She pressed her sticky hands across my arm and pushed her nails into my skin and she said, “No, it’s true! It’s true!” And even though out loud I said, “Oh, shut up,” in my head I said to myself, “Oh, please be true.” I went to bed that night with my hands shaking around a picture that we took together one morning when it was lightly drizzling and it was also icy, icy cold. I’m wearing a hat that I had to burn because you got sick and then my parents lost their minds. I had to burn it all; I had to burn the shirts and hats and books and notes- all my many letters- anything you touched I threw into the fire. Nothing, not the flames licking across paper, not the sun drilling through my bathrobe, not my parents eyes glaring at me through the kitchen window, none of it was as warm as the tears I caught on the bridge of my nose. I told my parents they would have to burn me too.
My brother came home and sat across from me and said, “You’ll never guess who I saw today.” I threw a pillow at him and he fell off the bed and laughed at me but I wasn’t laughing because I was too busy gritting my teeth, trying not to cry until I could reach the safety of my bathroom. I looked into the toilet and my eyes were shining in the reflection. I threw a roll of toilet paper into the bowl and watched my face ripple, shatter, cool. Then I heard my mom knocking on the door with her light knuckles and I opened the door and she put her hands on my shoulders and said, “I’m sorry,” because she made me burn all the things you touched after the world turned to mush and the only thing that stayed cold was my heart and my eyes and always my hands. I tucked them under my legs at dinner and couldn’t eat any of the mashed potatoes or crinkled lettuce that my grandma set out.
Please be true. Please be true that my sister saw you at the store and that my brother was talking about you and please be true that my mom is sorry she’s the one who set the yard on fire because she was scared. And she should have been scared, of course she was scared, I was too. But I would have liked a few of my things, is that too much to ask? In that book, the one with the bunny and the boy and the fever, that bunny got to be real again, to be true. Maybe… I don’t know. I wish you could be true again. But last spring I went to your funeral and put three flowers in a vase I stole from the Dollar General and I stared at your gravestone until my eyes hurt and my stomach revealed breakfast all over the shiny graveyard grass. Why’d the grass have to be shiny, anyway? Isn’t that stupid. I think a lot of things are stupid. I think my family’s acting stupid, meddling in things they shouldn’t. I think lunch is stupid, because it’s in the middle of the day, sticking up like a sore old thumb in a palm full of new limbs. I’d never eat lunch if I wasn’t hungry. I’d never miss you if you weren’t dead.
You’ve always been in my wallet. I keep a tiny sliver of your picture tucked behind my dollar bills, weighed down by my collected coins. It’s folded probably seventeen times over and there’s a heavy white faded line running down the middle but I still take that picture and look at it when I start to forget the edges of your face, the places best for tracing. I hate to say it, but I did press a picture of myself into your cold dead hand that day of your spring funeral. It’s just a small one. I think I spilled hot chili on it one day and it’s probably gross but hey, remember that one time when we were sitting on the porch and I tripped over my shoelace and fell off the side and broke my nose in three places? That was gross. You said, on the way to the hospital, and when I said wow, don’t I look gross, you said, “You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re always good.” And I held those words for the next seven minutes, and couldn't even say anything back. The idea, the very concept that someone, that you thought it was fine and alright and I was always good… Yes, that was lovely. And your car, on the way to the hospital, smelled like broken nose blood overshining the cake you’d brought to my house. It was a carrot and tuna cake and I ate it in four point three seconds because if I loved anything, it was carrots, and tuna, and you. I can go to the store and find tuna and carrots. I could go to Mars, Venus, all the mountains and the valleys, and I’d still never find you again. It’s really a shame that coupons don’t reach into the afterlife. If they did, I’d buy you get one free.
My math teacher asked me if I loved you. I told her that labels are for soup cans and did I look like a soup can to her? She didn’t love that. She handed me her label maker and told me to print something up. I put the label maker down on the table and took a soup can from my bag and printed a label that said soup to paste across the front of it. “How’s that,” I asked her, and she shook her head and went right back to grading papers. After I’d taken my seat, she walked over to hand me my last test and she said, “I know you two were close, very close. I heard the family’s coming back-” I stood up from the desk and went to sit in the bathroom until my head calmed down. I found the picture of you in my wallet. Before the next bell rang, your face was blurry with my tears. I wished more than anything that your hands- even if it was only in the picture- would swipe those tears away. But you’re gone, and not even my imagination can bring you back when I need you.
You know, I don’t think I ever asked too much. Even near the end, when you were drear and pale and you could barely loop your fingers in mine, I don’t think I asked too much, whether or not you’d be scared when you died. Maybe I didn’t ask enough, or at all, and I regret it. I wanted to know but I was scared too and when I looked at you so gray and small in your bed, the sickness all gone away but the rot still welded deep in your bones, I couldn’t ask. I asked you, “What did you have for dinner?” and “How is your mother?” and “What would you like to watch?” but I never said, “Are you scared?” And now I don’t know. I never will. I wish sometimes that I could find a journal of yours, or a letter, maybe an old school test that would tell me in slices and slivers a piece of what you were thinking. People keep telling me you’re here, you’re here, you’re back, but I can’t believe them. As much as I want to, I can’t. I know you’re gone. I killed you myself.
I guess it’s true, then, that your obituary was premature. That the flowers I laid so meticulously across your grave were put there too soon, and that all the tears I wept were wept in vain. I guess it’s true, then, what my sister said, and what my brother said, and what my math teacher always knew. Did I love you, she asked me, as though it was defined so simply in a word that you can find anywhere, any context. I love tuna! I love carrots! I love music and cupcakes and I love it when I go to someone’s house and take a big dump in their toilet and it doesn’t clog. I love that I needed you. Like rain and plants, I needed your sunlight and your warmth. I aspired to grow, one day, as elegant as you were, effortlessly. I twisted my lips to smile like yours, my teeth glistening, covered in Vaseline I stole from my parent’s medicine cabinet. When you announced one Thanksgiving that you wouldn’t be eating meat anymore, I chucked all of my turkey into the trash can and stood by you when your family laughed. If I stick my thumb through a hole in my jeans, I know I put it there because I wanted to match. I was creating, I think, a carbon copy of you with every thought I had. So isn’t it only natural that, when you got sick, I was dying too?
I see you. We’re at a baseball game and I’m sitting with my family. You’re crooked in a wheelchair, halfway glaring at me through lidded eyes. I’m choking on a hamburger bun. My sister is pointing. You stand up and start walking towards me, arms jerky and lips ajar. There’s spittle threaded through your hair and your nails are long, jagged, detached. I sink into the sidelines, but it’s too late. You wield a pillow, white and bleached and so similar to the one I held once too, and you’re bringing it down, down, down over my head. I can’t breathe. I’m gasping for air and you press the corners down into my brain, wrapping me in a blanket of suffocation. But I know it’s not real. You can’t, can’t, cannot be true.
Today is Valentine’s Day, and the curse is sickly sweet, settled in my hollow bones like a million swarming, angry bees. Everywhere I turn, there are people in love with each other and life and they are in love with something true and real and honest and whole while I’m staring at them, still clutching at a dream I stutter awake from every night. My mother woke me up with her cold hands this morning and she gave me a box of chocolates shaped like a heart, but not my heart, because the one in my chest is broken like the front window of a bombed out house. Maybe, though, I am the bomb, too. I can’t eat the chocolate, I told my mother, and she laughed and said I was being dramatic, it’s sugar, you’ll feel better. I took two bites of a chocolate filled with something sickly sweet and pink and when I throw up into the bushes now, the muck that sloshes into the leaves is the same, sickly sweet and pink. I miss the bus. I miss the school day. I miss doing all the things we were supposed to do together, I miss you, I miss me before you. I think I miss waking up and not feeling like I’ve tied myself to a toaster and am trailing along the lines of your family’s hot tub, like one wrong move will send me crashing into a puddle of electric truth. If you’re out there, and I know you are- but what do I know- don’t come back. It would only take a needle to stack the hay I need to set the world on fire with your clothes again.