Ryans bed, p.27
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       Ryan's Bed, p.27
 

           Tijan

  I didn’t feel Willow beside me, but I heard her. And you always thought I was stupid for fighting. You get the appeal now? You can forget yourself . . .

  They were her parting words as I walked away.

  We went through a drive-thru for a couple of burgers. Ryan pulled up to the window and started fishing for his wallet to pay, but an older guy replaced the food attendant at the window. He shook his head, holding out the bag of food. “Not for you. Your food is always free during basketball season.”

  Ryan grimaced. “No. Thank you, but I’d rather pay, sir.”

  “I won’t hear of it.” He held the bag out and shook it a little. “I know you’re going to take us to the championships again. This is an easy payoff. Take the food, Jensen.”

  I could tell Ryan was reluctant, but he took the bag. “Thank you.”

  The man nodded before pulling his arm back inside and letting the window close behind him.

  Ryan didn’t move forward, not at first. His head bent forward, the bag in one hand and his money in his other. “Fuck it,” he growled.

  There was a donation box for a children’s hospital past the window, and Ryan stuffed the entire wad of cash inside before heading out.

  I didn’t say anything, only took the food from him so he didn’t keep squeezing the bag. I understood—Willow was the artistic star, and Robbie is a genius. I understood the special favors that came their way because they were that: special.

  “I know it may seem stupid, but—”

  I cut him off. “I get it. I’ve seen it happen time after time with Willow and Robbie.”

  People like people who are deemed gifted, which was a good thing, but there were consequences to that too.

  “It’s starting. I like getting free shit, but after a while, there are hooks inside you, and you never know when someone’s going to pull one.” He paused at a stoplight and looked over. “Does that make sense?”

  “Yeah.” I said it lightly, but I knew how he felt. I saw it tear Willow apart some days. “People give you things and are nice to you, and it’s wonderful at first, but there can be strings attached.”

  “Exactly.” He rubbed at his chest. “You start to owe so many people that you lose yourself. It’s a weird feeling, and I feel like a dumbass bitching about it. There’s a reason I’m getting the free shit. I shouldn’t be complaining too much.”

  “No.” I turned toward the window, lost in thought. “I get it. I do.”

  Was that what Willow had been feeling?

  Did she feel pulled in too many directions? Did she feel like she owed too many people? Or did that add to the problem?

  “You okay?” Ryan asked.

  “What?”

  We had started to drive again, but Ryan was skirting looks at me. “Did I lose you just now?”

  “Sorry. I . . .”

  I needed to talk about her. I knew I did, but the words weren’t there. I could think them. I could feel them, but the idea of saying them aloud filled me with dread.

  I shook my head, turning back to the window. “No. I was thinking about something else. I hear you, though. Too many people wanting something from you can make you lose yourself.”

  Ryan and I pulled the queen-sized mattress from one of the guest rooms out to the theater room. We’d fallen asleep watching a movie, but the credits had already rolled through and the screen shut itself off, so I didn’t know what woke me.

  I didn’t need to go to the bathroom.

  There was no chill in the room, but I sat up, the sheet falling to my waist. The mattress was on the carpet so I crawled to the floor before standing. Ryan was still sleeping. He was turned toward me, his arms curled under his pillow, and I watched the way his shoulders and chest moved with each deep breath.

  I didn’t want to be one of those girls who devalued themselves, but I didn’t get why he cared. I really didn’t. I was a mess, and yes, he said he understood. He said he’d been there, but I had baggage up to my neck, and I’d only dealt with the tipping point of it. There was so much buried deep inside me, buried so far down that I was half wondering if Willow’s ghost had woken me. That made sense.

  Willow and I had shared a Jack-and-Jill bathroom at the old, new house, and there was one of those in this basement. The two guest rooms shared it, but no one had used either of the rooms so far. This was the first night we’d even touched the room, pulling the mattress from the frame.

  Maybe that was what had woken me. Awareness had tugged at my subconscious all night. Maybe it had finally rose to the surface. I left the theater room and went to stand in the doorway.

  I could smell her.

  She’d liked vanilla-scented perfume, and she’d mixed it with a lotion called Pink Promises. It always reminded me of a vanilla rose. I could smell it. The early morning sun wasn’t up yet, so I didn’t know what time it was. My guess was around four or five, maybe even earlier. The moon was still out.

  I shouldn’t go into that bathroom. I knew I shouldn’t, but my legs weren’t listening to me.

  I was pulled there.

  My stomach churned in its place.

  I could hear her laughing. It was a whisper on the wind—but there was no wind, and I knew there was no whisper. It was only an empty room and me.

  There was light coming from inside the bathroom and spilling out into the guest room.

  The laughter faded, and a song took its place. Willow’s favorite song.

  I shook my head. Recognizing the song, I knew it wasn’t Willow’s favorite. It had only recently come out, and I’d heard it for the first time this morning. “Barbies” by Pink.

  I heard the rest of the song play out in my head.

  “Ow!”

  I almost fell. That was Willow’s voice, but it wasn’t in my head. It sounded real. It sounded from the bathroom.

  My knees were shaking as I stepped inside.

  Willow was bent over, shaving her leg, her hair pulled up into a messy bun. She wore a tight top over cut-off jean shorts, and the radio on the counter was blasting that song.

  I rubbed my eyes.

  I was seeing things. I had stepped into a full-on hallucination, and my next stop would be the hospital.

  Pinch yourself. You’ll wake up then.

  But as I reached over and pinched myself, I felt the pang. I wasn’t dreaming.

  Willow danced in place, that razor sliding up her leg in rhythm with the bass.

  “Willow?” My voice cracked.

  She looked up, a bright smile on her face. “Took you long enough. Jeez. Do you know how many times I’ve shaved my legs, hoping to get you down here? Too many, my sister, too many.” She touched her leg where there was no shaving cream and rubbed it. “Feel it. Totally smooth. I don’t even need to shave, but what do you do, I guess.”

  “This isn’t real.”

  She straightened, putting the razor in the sink and cleaning it off. “That’s what you think. It feels real to me.”

  “You’re a ghost then?”

  She tilted her head to the side, her messy bun tipping too. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t feel like a ghost.”

  “But I can see you. I can hear you.” I could talk to her. I could smell her. If I reached for her, would I be able to touch her too?

  Could I hug her, one last time?

  She finished rinsing her razor and put it in the drawer. “You’ve been talking to me for months, but you keep thinking I’m a voice in your head.”

  She was. Wasn’t she?

  I rubbed my forehead, starting to feel some pressure there. “You’re saying this is real?”

  She held her hands up in a helpless gesture. “I’m saying why do you have to classify it? Maybe you’re supposed to see me tonight? Maybe you’re supposed to hear me at times? Maybe you’re supposed to let me help you when I can, and maybe this is all your baggage trying to wake you up. Who knows? Who cares? You shouldn’t. You aren’t getting more messed up by talking about me. Trust me. You’ll only get more fucked up b
y not talking about me.”

  I couldn’t handle this.

  Grief rose in me, sharp and hungry as it threatened to eat me alive. I felt it taking over me, taking little bites.

  What was happening to me?

  But then Willow was in front of me. She had crossed the room. A light came from behind her, and I felt its warmth on me. Her vanilla-scented rose infused my nostrils, and she was so real. Tears slid down my face.

  I wanted her to be real.

  I wanted to see my sister one more time.

  “Ssshh.” She touched my cheek, and all the pain was gone.

  It was swept away, replaced with a warmth like sun touching my skin.

  “Willow,” I choked out.

  “I know. I know.” She traced her hand down the side of my face, tucking some of my hair behind my ear. “I know, Mac. I really do, and I am here. I am real. I’ll always be here.”

  I was still crying. “You aren’t really here. I can’t laugh with you, grow with you. I can’t—I’m alone, and you know it.”

  I didn’t know when I’d be able to touch her again.

  “Why’d you go?”

  I couldn’t bring myself to say the actual word for what she did, but I could see it all again.

  My face: dark eyes, golden blonde hair, heart-shaped chin

  My body: slender arms, long legs, and a petite frame

  My heart: beautiful, broken, bleeding

  All of it on the bathroom floor in a bloodied pile.

  I was down there. I lay beside her, my palm in her blood, and my face turned toward hers.

  “Don’t. Don’t, Mac.” She tried to soothe me, pull me back. Her hands kept tracing down my face, trying to shake my memories. “Don’t go there. Don’t remember me that way. I was sick. I was sad. I was hurting, and I didn’t ask for help. I was sick, Mackenzie. I was sick. You can’t understand because I never told you.”

  There were warnings. I knew there had been.

  Her dried puke on the toilet.

  Her exercising at midnight.

  How she cried when she got an A- on a test. Her spending whole weekends in bed.

  “You shut yourself off from us.”

  “Yes.” She made sure I maintained eye contact with her. If I stared at her, I couldn’t see her the way she’d been the last time I saw her. “I was sick, Mackenzie. That’s the best I can tell you. It was horrible what I did. I can’t go back. I can’t make things right. I can’t . . .” She broke off, and I saw her crying.

  Could ghosts tear up? Could she do that, whatever she was?

  She sniffled, shaking her head briskly to clear the tears. “I never talked. I never said what was going on with me, but you have to. You have to talk. You have to talk about me. You can’t keep yourself bottled up and suppressed. Nothing good will happen then. I know you don’t want to feel the grief. I know you don’t want to let me go, but you have to. You will make yourself sick like I was. I don’t want you here. You got it? I don’t want you with me. Not you. This is mine to carry. Not yours. I want to watch you live a long life. I want to see you married. I want to see my little nephews and nieces. I want to see what my children would’ve looked like—”

  I gripped her arms and squeezed.

  “Please. Please, stop. I don’t want this,” I whimpered.

  She wasn’t letting me pull away. She wasn’t letting me fall back. The more she said, the more my grief rose and bubbled inside me.

  I didn’t want to feel what she wanted me to. I wanted to stay like this, with her. She was happy. She was dancing. She was alive. I felt her sunshine against my face, and I only wanted that. I didn’t want to think about her gone.

  If I started, that darkness might open again. I shoved it down. I’d gotten better the last two months. Things were better.

  “No,” she snapped. Her eyes blazed with determination. “You aren’t better. You’re faking. I can’t let you do that. Feel me. Mourn me. Say goodbye to me. Then . . .” She was fading.

  The warmth chilled. The room’s coldness returned.

  The light was leaving. The shadows were returning.

  I couldn’t smell her perfume anymore.

  The song fell away, leaving the ticking of a clock from the hallway.

  “Willow,” I cried out.

  Her legs disappeared.

  Her arms.

  Her face—I clung to her eyes. I clung to the feel of her hands on my face, and then she said, “You have to tell them, Mac. You have to tell them.”

  Her hands were gone.

  So were her eyes.

  I was alone.

  But I heard her last words, “Remember me, and cherish me. That’s the last step, Mac. I love you . . .”

  I collapsed, sobbing. My chest heaved. Salt filled my mouth, and not knowing what else to do, I crawled to where I remembered her lying as if we were back there, as if this was that same bathroom.

  I lay there, my palm down, my face turned toward where she’d been.

  And I stayed like that until I fell asleep.

  Two more pieces fit. They fit right.

  A bunch of things happened later that day.

  I woke up before Ryan did, and I crawled back into the bed with him.

  We went to school.

  Robbie came home.

  My mom and dad smiled at each other.

  I didn’t know if Willow was real in that bathroom, though, I did know I wasn’t going to torture myself trying to explain it. I’d always thought I was going crazy, but when I woke that morning in Ryan’s arms, I felt a little less crazy.

  I felt a little bit better.

  And I felt a little more whole.

  The stands were full. Almost literally.

  People couldn’t line up against the court’s walls—it was a safety hazard—so at any given moment, ten people were huddled in the doorway. Their necks craned as they tried to watch the game. A few students hung out on the side of the bleachers, but every few minutes, someone acting all official would go and wave them away.

  Basketball had been popular in Arizona, but not like this.

  When I saw a woman wearing a basketball jersey with Jensen on the back, I assumed there was another Jensen on the team. She wasn’t his mother, and he hadn’t mentioned any other family coming
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