“I didn’t mean to yell. She thought I was mad at her and I wasn’t. I’m not,” Ike looked out the windshield, his jaw clenching with tense anticipation. Now that we were all sitting still in the car, waiting impatiently to arrive in Columbus, the importance of the plan we had formulated seemed to dim as quickly as the sun was setting.
It was the golden hour. My favorite time of day.
“She knows that,” I replied, trying to assuage Ike’s guilt. None of us liked yelling at each other, but at the end of the day, we were siblings. Fights happened. Cricket and Zac went at it all the time, but usually it was just silly bickering that ended in one of them storming to their room to cool off, then coming down for dinner as though nothing happened. It had gotten worse in the last month though. Something was wrong. None of us knew how to fix it.
I looked out the passenger side window listlessly, savoring the hour before dusk when everything was cast in a perfect, yellow glow. Cricket and I used to play pretend for hours each day, and everything became so heightened around this time. Anything seemed possible. I screwed my eyes tightly and tried to send her some sort of message. We hadn’t told her our plan, because we knew she would try to stop us, and we were already set in our ways. We only wanted to find him. Throw a few punches. Let him know that you don’t mess with the Hanson family. You don’t rape a girl that has three teenage brothers, always ready to pick a fight. That was just common sense, right? You would think. I saw the city skyline and instinctively looked behind me, before remembering that Cricket wasn’t with us. I missed her already. It had only been a couple hours.
They say when you die, there’s a tunnel with a brilliant light at the end of it. They say you see all the things and people and places you love, and then you step into the golden glow, happy and relieved. They say you see your loved ones that have gone before you. They say it’s painless.
Clearly “they” have never died before.
I stayed in the treehouse. It’s where I woke up. There was darkness and pain and yelling. Red and blue lights behind my eyelids. My sister shrieking; her tears falling on my face. Then there was nothing.
Until I woke up in the treehouse.
I don’t think I realized I had died until that afternoon, when I saw Zac out on the back stoop, his face in his hands. I slung the top half of my body out of the window and called to him, asking if he was okay. He sat there, silently shuddering with sobs. I had never seen him cry like that. I wanted to go to him, to comfort him, but something held me inside of our tiny wooden oasis of youth. I yelled again, hoping maybe if I was loud enough, he would hear me.
“ZAC?! I’m up here. I’m right HERE.”
His head shot up and I smiled, an expression that quickly faded when I saw his own - complete horror and grief and guilt and hopelessness. The night’s events suddenly rushed to the surface. David. Sunset. His knife in my stomach. Sirens.
“Come to the tree house,” I said loudly, hoping my voice would project all the way to the other side of the yard. He stood up and walked back into the house.
I stayed in the treehouse, every hour that passed confirming the fact that I was not in fact really there, even though I could feel the rough wooden floorboards on my skin and the July sun made sweat spring to my temples. You grow up thinking that when you die, things will become clearer, and yet, I had no idea what game the universe was playing with me. I saw my family members in glimpses. Zac seemed to come out to the back stoop often to cry, but he never ventured to the tree line. I could see into Ike’s bedroom window, where he paced more often than not. I saw my father in the golden light of the kitchen late into the night, drinking bottle after bottle of beer.
I was laying down in a patch of sunlight when the sound of shoes on the ladder made me jump. It was only seconds until I saw Cricket’s head pop up through the hole in the ground, and tears of relief sprung to my eyes. This had been the longest I had ever gone without seeing my sister. A flash of hope coursed through my body. Maybe she would be able to see me, or hear me, or at least know that I was there. We were the closest, after all. Maybe that was how it worked. We could still play together in the treehouse, and tell each other about our days. We could still go through life, the two of us.
“Cricket!! Cricket, you’re here!” I exclaimed loudly, ready to see her face brighten in joyful bewilderment. Instead, she settled herself in the same patch of sunlight I had been laying in, turning her face into the light and closing her eyes. Her cheeks had tear tracks etched over each freckle. “Cricket…” I said, my voice turning into a whimper. “Look at me. Hey. I’m right here.” She opened her eyes and squinted into the sunlight.
“Um...Hey Tay?” She said quietly, her voice catching with every word.
“Yeah?” I put my face right next to her, practically yelling into her ear. I would make her hear me. I had to make her hear me.
“Your um...your funeral was today.” She closed her eyes again, and I knew it was because she felt silly. To her, she was in an empty treehouse talking to someone who wasn’t there. But I was there. I scooted around so that I was sitting right in front of her, our crossed legs touching at the knees. Just like was always did when we told each other stories for our ears alone.
“A lot of people were there that we don’t really know. So many...so many girls were there,” she laughed nervously, and I smiled. “I don’t know any of these girls! I don’t think you would either. Well...we probably know of them, but I’m sure we’ve never talked to them.”
“No, we probably never did,” I said quietly.
“Anyway...um...Dad took us to the Grille afterwards, which threw us all for a loop. I think he feels really sorry for us. The whole town does. Um…”
“Whoa, that doesn’t sound like Dad,” I said with a loud chuckle. I couldn’t even imagine the scene. “I wish I could have been there. I could go for a tuna melt right about now. I’m not even hungry but...that sounds delicious.”
She cleared her throat and opened her right eye. I knew that all she saw was the window. The sky beyond. She crawled over to the hole in the floor and peered down, making sure that she was still alone and that Zac or Ike wasn’t coming to check on her.
“Um...so...I know it’s only been a couple days but I miss you a lot. Probably too much. I don’t know...I don’t know exactly where you are or what you can hear or see but…”
“I’m right here, Cricket!! I’m right here.” I placed my hand on her knee and she swatted as though there was a mosquito dancing on her skin. “Please see me,” I whined desperately. “Please.” I felt tears spring to my eyes just as I saw them start to fall from hers. “Please…”
“...But I hope you know that I love you so much and...and I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing you, okay? Mom was different. I don’t miss her anymore. I don’t know if I ever really did. But...I don’t know if I can do this, Tay. I really, really don’t know yet. I know I have Ike and Zac and...and thank God I do but…”
Her voice caught and suddenly all her words were lost to a symphony of sobs. She crumpled over and curled up in the corner, her whole body heaving. I crawled over to her and stroked her back until she fell asleep. This wasn’t fair. None of this was fair.