Hero gazed out the window at the trees and rivers that passed by, nothing more than green and blue paint smeared across canvas with how fast the train was speeding past. He shifted uncomfortably as his arm started to ache. Kel had been sound asleep with his head resting on Hero’s shoulder for the last half-hour, but Hero didn’t have the heart to push his brother away. They’d be in the city in just another hour anyway.
It had been a little over a month since they last saw Sunny in the hospital, and that time had been hard for both of them. Kel had become especially clingy and would find any excuse to be around Hero as often as he could. Neither of them would ever say it aloud, but it was clear that Kel had become a bit overprotective ever since he’d almost lost his brother to gravity. Hero understood, though. Kel just wanted to make sure he was okay.
Of course, Hero would never admit that he was far from alright. Pretty much everyone is familiar with that falling sensation that happens right as they’re about to fall asleep, and a quick internet search would tell you that it’s completely normal and harmless. However, it seemed to be happening to Hero every night, more and more often, triggering similar memories of nearly plunging to his death that day at the hospital in the light of the dying sun.
He’d jerk back awake, heart pounding in his chest, trying to remember how to breathe. It’d gotten to the point where Hero was afraid to sleep at night, and the insomnia was beginning to take its toll. He was exhausted all the time, unable to concentrate on anything for any length.
It was like he could feel the depression creeping back in, the same darkness that had left him helpless and bedridden an entire year after Mari had died, but this time, he was determined not to give in to it. The last thing he needed was anyone treating him like they did then. Like he was this delicate thing that they needed to tread carefully around in case he snapped and hurt himself.
Hero let out a deep exhale as the side of his face pressed against the cold glass window, and he could feel the train’s vibration as it moved along the tracks. The landscape outside went from sprawling fields to small streets dotted with homes, and soon enough, the train was thrown into darkness as it sped beneath the city and to the station.
“Kel, c’mon, wake up. We’re almost there.” Hero gently nudged his brother.
Kel groaned and sat up, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted to the light. “Is it already nighttime?”
“No, we’re in a tunnel,” Hero said, starting to gather his things. “Get your stuff together. Our stop is next.”
Fifteen minutes later and they were both standing outside the station on the side of the busy street while Hero squinted at the directions he'd written down, trying to figure out how to get to the address that Sunny had given them. It took them another 20 minutes and a wrong turn before the two of them found themselves at an upscale apartment complex.
“Are you sure this is it?” Kel asked, looking at Hero.
Hero glanced at the number on the door, then back down at the address. “Yep, this is it.”
They shared a nervous look, remembering the state Sunny had been in the last time they saw him, empty and lifeless, a ghost. Kel knocked on the door, and a full minute passed before it was slowly opened by a tired-looking Sunny.
He looked the same as ever, albeit a little pale and sleep-deprived. A small black patch covered his ruined eye, and Kel wasted no time letting Sunny know that he looked like a pirate.
With a small sigh of relief, Hero watched Sunny tolerate the hug Kel was forcing upon him. Maybe he didn’t have to be so worried after all.
They trailed behind Sunny as he led them into his new home. It was a cozy two-bedroom apartment with a small kitchen attached to a living room with a sofa and TV. It was modest but noticeably more welcoming than Sunny’s old house, which seemed colder and emptier with only two people living in it.
Hero noted that Mari’s piano was nowhere to be found, and he doubted there was any room for it in the apartment. Just another crack in his already fractured heart.
“My mom set up a blow-up mattress for you guys to sleep on tonight,” Sunny said as he showed them into his room.
Hero set his stuff down as Kel did the same. “Cool. Is your mom here?”
“No, she left on a business trip this morning. She’s coming back tomorrow night.”
“Does she leave you alone like this a lot?” Hero asked with a slight frown.
Sunny shrugged. “Yeah, but I don’t mind.”
An awkward silence enveloped the room until Kel spoke up. “So, what do you guys wanna do?”
When Sunny stayed quiet, Hero suggested they walk around and explore the city. Something told him that even after weeks of living there, Sunny probably still hadn’t seen much of it.
They walked down the sidewalk in single file, Kel leading the way, recounting just about everything he’d done in the past month to Sunny, who was following close behind. Hero brought up the rear, only half-listening to his little brother’s incessant chatter with an amused look on his face.
A half-hour or so later, the three of them came across an empty playground with a basketball hoop that Kel insisted they hang out at. They dug a dirty basketball out of a bush somewhere, and Hero and Kel played some one-on-one while Sunny watched from the swingset.
After Kel had accidentally hit him in the face with the ball for the third time, Hero took a seat on the swing next to Sunny, who was half-heartedly moving his legs back and forth. They sat there together in comfortable silence for a few minutes, content to watch Kel aggressively smacking around a tetherball by himself.
“Do you miss your old house?” Hero eventually asked.
Sunny thought for a moment, kicking some mulch with his shoe. “Not really.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Hero said with a small smile. Sunny was never very talkative. At least that hadn’t changed at all. “I remember when I first went off to college. I was a little sad to be away from everyone, but I also kinda liked it. It was fun being somewhere new. It was like I could start over.”
He glanced over at Sunny, who looked like he was contemplating what Hero had said.
Right then, in that moment, when everything was quiet and peaceful, and it was just him, Sunny, and Kel at the playground, Hero could almost pretend that it was like it used to be, four years ago before everything went south.
Hero watched as the sun began to sink below the horizon, painting the sky rich oranges and yellows that bled into deep blues and purples. “I think we should start heading back. Don’t wanna be out too late,” he said, jumping off the swing and going to get Kel.
Once they’d returned, Hero took it upon himself to search through Sunny’s kitchen for anything he could make them for dinner but was dismayed to find the cabinets and refrigerator almost completely empty. He made a mental note to take Sunny grocery shopping the next day so he’d at least have something to eat and also so his mom didn’t have to worry about it as soon as she got back from her trip.
They settled on ordering pizza, after which they piled onto the sofa to watch a movie that Kel had picked out. The tension from earlier had dissipated entirely, and it was starting to feel like a real sleepover, one that was much different from the last time they had all been together like this—the last time which had ended in screams and blood and tears and-
Hero was pulled from his thoughts when Sunny decided to lie down, dropping his head into Hero’s lap. He was momentarily stunned but recovered quickly, resting a hand on Sunny’s head with a gentle smile and playing with his hair a bit. It was something he’d watched Mari do so many times before and reminded him that Sunny probably missed her just as much as he did.
Again, Hero couldn’t help but reminisce about the good old days. Long afternoons spent swimming at the lake in the heat of summer. Sunny, Kel, Basil, and Aubrey would fall asleep, curled up on the picnic blanket, and then it would just be Hero and Mari. It was those little moments they had alone, watching over the others, that he cherished so much. He couldn’t stand how those memories held so much pain now.
It was when he saw Kel struggling to keep his eyes open that Hero called it a night and sent them all to bed. Half-asleep, Sunny slowly made his way to his room, Hero right behind him, carrying Kel on his back.
After they had all settled down, Hero lay there for a while, unable to fall asleep. He stared at the ceiling and listened to the sound of cars passing by as he processed the events of the day. Everything just felt so…weird, so normal. It was familiar and strange all at the same time, and Hero didn’t know how to feel about it.
There was no counting how many times Hero had wished he could go back in time and do it all over again. Now everything just seemed like a cheap imitation of the friendship they once had. Mari was gone, Aubrey had a new group of friends, Basil kept to himself mostly, and Sunny was in the city now. Hero had promised them that they would all be there for each other, but maybe that had just been wishful thinking after all…
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but the sound of the bedroom door opening and closing dragged Hero back to consciousness. He sat up, careful not to wake Kel (although it was unlikely that anything could wake Kel up), and saw that Sunny’s bed was empty. There was some shuffling from what sounded like the kitchen and the quiet sliding of wooden drawers.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling, but something told Hero to go check on Sunny. Just in case. It was probably nothing, but still…
He slipped out of bed, wincing as the blow-up mattress bounced up and down with the sudden shift in weight, and shut the door behind him as silently as possible.
Hero stepped into the small kitchen, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. It was dark, but there was enough moonlight for him to make out Sunny standing by the counter, turning a knife over in his hands.
“Sunny? What are you doing?” Hero said with a yawn.
Startled, Sunny jumped back, gripping the knife tightly and pointing it at Hero.
Hero put his hands up in mock surrender. “Woah, hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” He waited, but Sunny made no move to put the knife down.
“I’m done running from you,” Sunny said, his voice low and laced with desperation.
Hero looked around, confused as to who Sunny was talking to, but they seemed to be the only two in the room. Maybe he was sleepwalking? Under normal circumstances, Hero would try to talk some sense into him, but he was a bit preoccupied with the knife he was currently being threatened with.
Sunny brandished the weapon again and fixed Hero with a piercing gaze. “I am sick and tired of you following me everywhere.”
Hero took a step back. “Sunny, i-it’s me, Hero. Let’s just put the knife down, okay? We don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
“I’m not scared of you anymore,” he said shakily.
“Sunny, whatever you’re seeing, it isn’t real.”
“This is what Basil was trying to do.” A single tear fell from his good eye. “I’m ending this right here, right now.”
“Sunny-” The air was knocked from Hero’s lungs as he suddenly took a heavy blow to the stomach. He staggered backward, barely keeping himself from falling over. Everything froze. Slowly, so slowly, he looked down at the growing stain on his shirt, then back up at Sunny, at the bloody knife in his trembling hands.
Hero’s mind went blank. There was nothing to do, nothing to say, just complete and utter shock.
Sunny blinked a few times, then gave Hero a weird look, like he was just now seeing him for the first time. “Hero? W-when did you- You weren’t…” His eyes widened in horror as he caught sight of the red covering his hands. He looked back at Hero with terror written all over his face. “What did I do?”
Before he could say anything, Hero’s knees buckled, and he collapsed face-first onto the cold tile. He barely registered the sound of the knife clattering to the floor and Sunny dropping down beside him.
“No no no no no no no,” Sunny muttered. “Not again, not again, please not again.”
Hero distantly wondered what Sunny was talking about as darkness clouded his vision. His eyes fluttered shut for just a moment, then snapped back open as white-hot fire seared through his stomach. All he knew was pure agony, all-consuming, worse than anything he’d ever felt before. It was inside him, tearing, ripping, shredding him apart. He was going to die.
After what felt like an eternity, the pain subsided just enough for him to become aware of his surroundings once more, and Hero realized that he was now lying on his back. Kel hovered over him, pressing a towel to the wound.
When he saw that Hero was awake, Kel gave him a comforting smile, contradicted only by a steady flow of tears streaming down his face. “Hey, you’re gonna be okay.” He let out a choked sob. “Everything’s gonna be fine. We called the police, and there’s gonna be an ambulance here real soon. It’s all gonna be okay. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.” He took Hero’s hand in his, dropping his head with another pained cry when Hero laced their fingers together and gave a small squeeze.
He wanted to comfort his brother. He hated seeing Kel cry, but Hero barely had the energy to think, much less speak. It was like his mind was in overdrive, random thoughts and memories coming and going one after the other in rapid succession, taking him through a full range of emotions.
He was afraid. Scared of the unknown. Of what comes next. Of what Kel will do if he doesn’t make it through this.
And he had his regrets. He wished that he’d lived his life in the present and not in the past. That he hadn’t closed himself off and confined himself to his parents’ expectations instead of following his own dreams.
But he was also content with the time he’d been given. With all the memories that he’d made. With having gotten to know people like Aubrey, and Basil, and Sunny, who he had the privilege of calling friends. Content with having gotten to love Mari, as short as their time together was.
His gaze shifted to the window where the city lights obscured the night sky. He wished he could see the stars one last time.
There were sirens in the distance. Kel was shouting something at him.
At least he’d be with Mari again.