Thursday, December 24th
I paid the cashier for the hot water and tea bag. I’ve always preferred coffee for myself, but this seemed like a safer bet in the hospital cafeteria. Besides, tea was Nathan’s favorite, and he could drink it when he woke up. I dipped the tea bag up and down, watching the hot steam escape from the styrofoam cup. Its sweet, floral fragrance lingered in the air, tickling my nostrils as I sipped.
I thought about the last time I spoke to Nathan. I could tell he was… off. I probed him about his medications, and he blew up at me. My mind wandered to the first time he warned me about this. Could I have done something… more?
Then I heard the overhead announcement. “Code blue, room 417.” Oh, no. Nathan’s room — my heart sank to the bottom of my stomach. I rushed as fast as I could, my thoughts as erratic as my legs as I trekked up four flights of stairs. When I arrived at the ICU, a crowd of people surrounded the entrance to his room. Get out of the way! I pushed through them all, then stopped to look at Nathan as he lay motionless in his bed.
A nurse touched my arm, as if attempting to break the spell that suddenly petrified me. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Friday, December 25th
I stared at the gifts underneath the Christmas tree. Colored boxes of different shapes and sizes. Some with bows, others without. We were supposed to open these together.
As I rummaged through them, a bright tag with “NATHAN” scribbled in sloppy handwriting caught my attention. The card exploded with glitter as I opened it. This had to be from mom and dad—they knew how much he loved glitter.
For his birthday one year, we sneaked into his work office and covered every surface with glitter. Even the computer keyboard and paper files! Normal people would find that sort of thing absolutely annoying, but Nathan had this child-like wonder about him. When he was happy, truly happy, his eyes sparkled just like glitter. The same glitter that now covered my hands and scattered all over my lap.
I shut the card as my chest tightened, pushing away the memory. I’d cried enough last night, and my puffy face reminded me of the Jigglypuff plush he kept on his bed.
I ripped away the wrapping paper and opened the box. Even the gift tissue had glitter on it. Remnants of him. Something I would yell at mom and dad about later.
I saw the familiar packaging of Nathan’s favorite morning beverage—Mango Tango Tea. He used to describe all the notes to me that he tasted with each sip: the mallow flowers, marigolds, passionfruit, and the mango, of course. I’d roll my eyes as I sipped on my latte, a mixture of oat milk and cinnamon. I always preferred the bitter, harsher flavor of dark roast coffee. A stark contrast to his mango tango. Nathan was always the sweet one in our pairing, just like his tea.
Monday, December 28th
Chris visited today and suggested we go jogging by the lake today. “Something to take your mind off… stuff,” he said.
Like an idiot, I agreed.
Running beside my handsome, athletic younger brother was not such a good idea. Especially since I’d been a complete slob since Nathan’s accident.
I struggled to keep pace, like a lumbering cow gasping for air behind a shiny, groomed racing horse.
Picking up on my frustration, we finally stopped by a bench to take a break. Chris handed me a water bottle, which I uncapped and devoured like a puppy who didn’t know when to stop slurping from his dish bowl.
“When’s your appointment with the lawyer?” he asked.
We sat in silence for a bit. One advantage of being close to your siblings is the almost psychic connection you share. Kind of like those Hollywood mediums without their larger-than-life hair.
Chris looked at me with his eyebrows drawn together. “Do you think his family is going to…”
“Fight it? Yeah.”
Nathan was many wonderful things, but if I could offer what his boss would call ‘constructive criticism,’ he never had his life affairs in order. Like the day we got pulled over in college, and he had been driving for six months with an expired driver’s license. But what he lacked in responsibility, he more than made up in charisma. Somehow, he escaped with a warning.
But dying without a will was... stupid. Add an unmarried partner to that equation, and you have what my mother liked to call ‘a pickle.’ Not the crispy sweet ones, but the soggy ones in a sandwich.
Chris rested a hand on my kneecap. “Maybe the lawyer will figure something out. They get paid big bucks for this kind of thing, you know?”
I slumped my shoulders as I leaned back on the bench. As much as I wanted to stay positive, there was a nagging feeling I couldn’t ignore.
Tuesday, December 29th
The lawyer stopped by today, leaving me feeling dejected and broken. It wasn’t her fault, but no shield could have prepared me for the barrage of questions.
“Were the two of you married?” she asked.
“I see,” she said. She left me with a stack of papers, all of which painted the same, gray picture. It reminded me of our first serious conversation. We weren’t even an official couple but it was almost as if he was warning me that the path with him would be somber.
I cried myself to sleep that night.
Wednesday, December 30th
I tried to declutter the house today to prepare for the move. Chris offered his spare bedroom for as long as I needed it. My goal today was to box up everything I would take with me and leave the rest behind.
I used the expert knowledge gleaned from Netflix to tackle the task. Marie Kondo would be so proud.
I divided the job into categories.
I started in our closet. His half was always a mess. A complete jumble of t-shirts, jeans, hangers, and shoes. It’s any wonder he looked presentable day in and day out. I picked out clothes from my side, most of which were for work. Thankfully, organization was my jam, so emptying my side was quick and efficient.
Just before I closed the closet door, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt caught my attention on the floor. Nathan always wore it around the house, so much that the sleeves were tattered. It was the first gift I gave him, and no matter how many times I offered to buy him a new one, he couldn’t part with it.
I pinched the bridge of my nose as the pressure welled in between my eyes. I picked up the shirt and added it to the box, leaving the rest of his clothes behind as I shut the door.
Most of the books I cared about were on my Kindle. Found his Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, which he always kept by his side when playing tabletop with his friends. Packed it.
Found a box of my old journals. Some of them go way back. Spent the afternoon reading through them. Bookmarked a page I want to reread later.
Packed the necessities, like detergent, medicine, and toiletries. Chris likely had most of the “every day” things I would need. Found a scratched-up Evanescence CD. Nathan bought this for me using his employee discount when he worked at Best Buy. We used to jam to this late at night when studying for exams. He argued that the instrumental music I played put him to sleep, so this was our compromise.
I walked down the stairs, picking which pictures mattered most off the wall. Decided on our high school graduation, a trip to Cabo, and some holiday photos with our old dogs. Everything else I would ever need was saved on the cloud, anyway.
I found an old shoebox of handwritten letters from him. When we were separated during grad school, Nathan thought it would be more intimate to write letters instead of emails. ‘Just like in the olden days,’ he would say to me. What a nerd. I opened one and pressed my fingers against the blue ink, imagining him at his desk while listening to that Evanescence CD. The idiot must have known I would keep these.
Nathan’s mom showed up unexpectedly and asked me what the hell I was doing. I almost gagged on her cheap perfume.
“Packing up my things,” I said. Before you kick me out.
“Make sure you leave Nathan’s things behind. We’ll sort through them after the movers empty everything out.”
I clenched my hands, taking a deep breath before relaxing them. “Why don’t you like me, Jackie?”
Nathan’s mother removed her sunglasses and batted her fake eyelashes in my direction. “It’s not that we don’t like you, Taylor. You’re a decent enough person. You were just… a bad influence.”
My stomach felt heavy. Twenty years. High school sweethearts. And this is what I am reduced to? A bad influence?
I told her to get out, then stormed up the stairs. I heard the front door slam behind me, holding my sobs until I was under the protection of our bedroom. Pleasantries with his family were no longer required. I pulled out the old journal from high school, finding the page I bookmarked.
(Monday, March 8th
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. “For this morning.”
He yelled at me right before a calculus exam. Pretty sure I bombed it.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“No,” he said. He leaned away from me as I went in for a kiss. “We can’t just forget it. It happened, and it’s going to happen again.”
I stared at him, tilting my head and biting my lip.
“I don’t know how to control this,” he said. “I don’t want to put you through… I don’t deserve you.”
“What are you saying?” I asked. It was just a fight. Happened before and will happen again.
Nathan looked to the side, avoiding eye contact. “I’m saying… sometimes, I won’t be nice. Like this morning.”
I held his hand in mine, and he pulled it away.
“Sometimes, I’ll sleep for a whole week. I won’t feel like doing anything. Other times, I’ll be super excited for no reason.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
Nathan reached into his pocket and pulled out a prescription bottle. I read the label, finally putting the pieces together.
“Taylor, I’m going to put you through hell. I will yell. I will leave. I’ll blame you for stupid things.” Nathan grimaced and took the prescription bottle back from me. “Sometimes, I won’t take these. You’ll have to make sure I do. And it’ll piss me off when you ask me. Sometimes, I’ll lie about it.”
Nathan placed a hand on my cheek, and I leaned into it. “I tend to do that when I’m happy,” he said.
I looked at the bottle in his hand, struggling to find the right words to say. The air between us was charged. Heavy.
His gray eyes pierced into me, as if warning me of a future filled with the highs and lows of a roller coaster. Only the brave should fall in line. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
I placed my hand over his, hoping to calm his tremble. “Even if we argue, I’d rather be with you and upset once in a while than not be together,” I said.)
Thursday, December 31st
Last day in the house. Brushed my teeth this morning and saw Nathan’s meds when I opened the cabinet to pack up the floss and mouthwash. I held the prescription bottle in my hand, thinking about the first time he told me. Warned me.
I rubbed at my chest as I walked down the stairs. I should have watched him more closely. He’d still be here if I’d just…
Chris called to check on me. I let him know I was almost done packing. He invited me to a New Year’s Eve thing, but I told him I wasn’t up for people tonight. Nathan was the social one, the light of the party. I relied on him to hold the spotlight. But unless you knew him, like really knew him, you’d never know there was darkness there, too.
The kettle whistled on the stove, and I shut off the gas. I scooped some tea leaves into two mugs, pouring the hot water and watching the steam rise. I sat at the kitchen table with my mug, sipping slowly as the liquid burned the tip of my tongue. I could almost hear Nathan’s voice as I inhaled the scent of mallow flowers, marigolds, passionfruit, and mango.
“I’m sorry, Nathan,” I said as tears welled in my eyes. “I was supposed to take care of you, and it’s my fault. I was complacent.”
I looked around the house one last time to take it all in. To memorize it and file it away in the archives of my mind. The Christmas tree was still there, with all of Nathan’s gifts intact. The sofa, where we spent many mornings lounging as we watched the snowfall outside, was lonely without us. The game room, where he hosted countless tabletop games with his friends and imagined worlds without limits, cried out for one more campaign of orcs against humans. The heart of the house was gone now.
I set the second mug next to his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt, neatly folded at his spot on the kitchen table, wishing he could enjoy his favorite tea one last time.