If, p.25

If, page 25



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  I meandered back out to the loft and looked over the edge back down to the painting. Things were so much less complicated back then.


  I was too late. Too fucking late.

  Miller and I sped to the hospital. Our mother was sitting in the waiting area, alone, looking down. Her eyes were dry, maybe she was still in shock. It happened so fast. She was talking to him. They were joking about putting him on a huge diet when he returned. Miller told them I was coming. Apparently, he had already decided he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

  She left to get some coffee and when she returned, all hell had broken loose around him. Then he was dead.

  “Mom,” Miller called out.

  I think the moment when she saw her sons, the reality of what had just happened hit her. She stood and burst into tears, nearly wailing. We both hugged her. It wasn’t awkward. There was no room for awkwardness. We were all raw.

  She turned to me, grasped my face in her hands and took me in. “My boy . . . my beautiful boy.” She embraced me, weeping into my chest. “Your father loved you so much. We missed you so much.”

  I wanted my heart to warm, but it was overwrought with regret. I was always too late.

  I was convinced she’d be angry, but all I felt was her unconditional love. I don’t know why I ever allowed myself to think my parents only saw Sarah’s death when they saw me. My illness and guilt had shadowed my thoughts. All I could see was darkness.

  Bird had been my only light in that time. Just before I left Bird, I was becoming the Ash who lived with hope. Then I let her go, falling back into the shadows. Would I do it again? Hell yes. I would do it all over again to ensure that Bird would become the star that she is. But this—missing the opportunity to see my father—was the price I had to pay.

  I thought I had time. My father was always so strong. I still thought of him as someone who towered over me. He would always be the fearless Marine. I remembered as a child how I thought he looked like a superhero when he put on his uniform. He had gone to war and returned unscathed. I thought my father would never die.

  “Mom, I’m sorry,” I whispered into the top of her head.

  “I’m just glad to see you again. Honey, I know you were in pain. I just wished we could’ve helped. I wish you had allowed us to.”

  “No one could. I’m my own worst enemy. I am so sorry about dad, but I’m gonna stay here. I’m gonna make it up to you.”

  “You don’t owe me anything. I brought you into this world. I’m supposed to take care of you.”

  I gave myself all the time I needed to grieve and when my mother was weak, I never gave her the time to become herself again. Mourning is temporary, but I had assumed I had ruined her irreparably.

  Miller chimed in. “Mom, we’re going to take care of everything. I know dad and you already had plots set up with a funeral home.”

  She nodded.

  “Why don’t we head home? Ella is going to meet us there so we can all be together,” he said.


  My childhood home had barely changed and that included both Sarah’s and my room. Just like Miller said, it was like we had both died, both frozen in time.

  The urge to drink tugged at me. I hadn’t had a sip since seeing Bird and it wasn’t that hard. I had hope again. But so many emotions were swirling inside of me and I couldn’t manage them all.

  My mother had taken a few sleeping pills to force herself to get some rest. She had been at the hospital for two days straight. Miller was on the phone downstairs with Ella working on the funeral arrangements. I wandered around the house.

  It was rife with memories. I saw the ghosts of Miller chasing Sarah and I through the upstairs hallway and my dad yelling for us to cut it out. I saw Miller and I under a glowing blanket fort in the middle of the night. I saw myself banging on the bathroom door on a school morning, telling Sarah to hurry up and reminding her she was going to look like crap no matter what. She used to loooove that.

  I slipped into Sarah’s room and locked the door behind me. The room was filled with tokens that proved her existence: Soccer trophies, school photos, posters of her favorite musicians and bands. I spent a lot of time in museums and now I found myself in a morbid memorial to my sister.

  A scrapbook rested on her desk. I picked it up and flipped through the pages. Stick figure drawings, a lanyard, ticket stubs to a concert. A childhood homework assignment. A sentence was written and she had to complete it.

  One of them said: When I grow up I want to be _________________.

  In her clumsy handwriting she wrote: Like my brother Ash. He sees rainbows everywhere and paints them.

  I slammed the book shut and sat back on her bed and wept. I hadn’t lived up to that. I stopped seeing the rainbows. I let her kill my spirit when it would have been the last thing she wanted.

  I started to feel myself slipping into the hole. The monster of depression might consume me if I didn’t find a way to stop it. I peered into her bathroom as the ugly thoughts tried to make themselves heard. I knew they were irrational. I knew I needed to call my therapist. I might need to recalibrate my meds: the travel, the unexpected high stress, the triggers. But I didn’t want to call. I just wanted to heed to the ugly thoughts.

  I knew I would devastate my mother, Miller, even Bird, but the drop was so sudden and fast, like someone had pulled the floor from underneath me and there was nothing to slow the descent.

  I got up and walked into Sarah’s tiny bathroom, rummaging for anything to make the free fall stop. To make the empty sinking feeling end once and for all. There was nothing, and I was so distraught, I punched the mirror in front of me and it shattered into pieces.

  Then they were staring at me: Shards of glass, hundreds of broken Ashes looking back at me, judging me, taunting me.

  I slid my bloody hand into the sink, reaching for a piece and gripped it. Blood flowed as I tightened the grip and it sliced into my palm. The searing pain made me feel real again. It gave me something to grasp on to and distract from the hollow feeling of a free fall.

  My phone’s ring jarred me out of the fixation on the glass. I shook my head as if to break the spell, and whipped my phone out of my pocket.

  I didn’t recognize the number.

  “Ash?” The doorknob to the room jiggled. “Ash?” Miller began pounding on the door. “Everything okay in there? We heard a bang.”


  “A—Ash?” the voice on the other line was broken by tears.


  “It’s me . . .” Bird, but something was wrong.

  “Bird? Are you okay?”

  “I—I need you here. Puh—please,” she was hysterical. In an instant, I forgot about all of my own misery and wanted to make her better.

  “Calm down, Bird. What’s wrong?”

  “Jordan. Jordan,” was all she could muster.


  I WOKE UP from a terrible nap. The kind of nap where your head hurts, you don’t know what century you’re in, or who you are. It was dark outside, but the sun was still out when I had plopped on the bed to cool off after Jordan had told me that he had been lying to me for five years.

  I walked downstairs, audibly snickering at the painting still on my living room floor. My two favorite guys. My two biggest disappointments. I found the time on my microwave: 8:31. Awesome. I would probably be up all night. I fumbled through the dark for my electric tea kettle and flipped its switch. As I waited for the water to boil, I grabbed the remote control to my television and turned on the TV.

  The evening news was on, and I moaned to myself, in no mood to watch the news, but really I was in no mood to watch anything.

  Blahblahblah . . . traffic . . . blahblahblah . . . surprise, it’s going to be warm again . . . There’s a pileup on I-5, a tractor-trailer flipped, multiple fatalities.

  I faced the television with my piping hot mug of tea as the helicopter camera zoomed in on the scene.

  I shook my head at the
mess. Cars were turned over, a few were smashed so that there was debris everywhere, traffic seemed to go out for miles behind it.

  Things could be so much worse. I hated those kinds of comparisons, like it was a way to say sucks to be you! But at this moment, it gave me perspective. Nothing is as bad as it seems. Well, most things aren’t.

  I flipped through the channels and mindlessly watched Love and Hip Hop for a while. No matter how messed up my love life was, at least I wasn’t those people. Then I wondered about my phone. I assumed Jordan would have tried to text or call. I hadn’t heard from Jessa or mom in a few days and they might be checking in on how I was settling back home.

  I ran back upstairs and found it tangled in my bed sheets.

  15 Missed Calls.

  It felt a lot like getting a phone call in the middle of the night. I just knew something was bad.

  I looked through the call record.
















  I fumbled through my menu to get to the voicemails.

  “Hey Birdie-Bird. Jordan texted me he was on his way back home. I heard you two had a little spat. Yikes. He should have been home about an hour ago and he’s not answering his phone. I thought maybe you had heard from him.”

  I clicked on another one.

  “Bird . . . oh my god. Jordan was in an accident. I can’t believe it,” Trevor was barely understandable. “Call me when you get this. I need you to call me. Where are you?”

  I played Jessa’s.

  “Bird. I just got a call from Trevor. Something really bad has happened. He’s trying to reach you.” She sounded somber.

  I passed up on the other voicemails and called Trevor, bouncing out of my skin with anxious energy. Now Trevor wasn’t answering. After four consecutive calls he answered.

  “Bird!” he cried out. “I can’t believe it.”

  “Believe what?”

  “Jordan’s gone. Jordan’s gone,” his voice erupted.

  “What? Trevor, what are you saying?”

  “Have you been watching the news? He was in the pile up. He didn’t even make it to the hospital.”

  “Oh my god. No. No,” I whispered to myself. This wasn’t happening. I was still upstairs, sleeping in my bed and I would open my eyes and this would all have been some dream so that I could forgive him for what he had done. But I wasn’t waking up.

  “Wait. I don’t understand. He’s in the hospital?” I thought if I kept asking, I would get a different response.

  “No. No . . .” he cried.

  “Where are you?”

  “At the hospital.”

  “I need to go.”

  He composed himself quickly. “I don’t want you driving in your state. The freeway up here is backed up for miles anyway. Come tomorrow.”

  “I can’t sit here,” I cried. “I can’t just be here alone.”

  “Please, Jordan wouldn’t want you driving up here like that. Just be safe.”

  “I can’t be alone,” I cried. “Oh god.” I slid down to the floor. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real.

  “How’s Anna? Is she okay?”

  Trevor sobbed. “She’s with my mom. I haven’t told her yet. I don’t know how I’m going to tell our little girl.”

  “This isn’t happening,” I murmured.

  “Please call one of your friends to stay with you. Bird, I have to go. Jordan’s family is on the other line. I love you, girl. Please, stay home tonight. We’ll be here tomorrow waiting for you. See if you can find someone to come with. I don’t like the idea of you driving up alone like this.” That was Trevor, his husband had just died, and he was worried about my safety driving up.

  “I love you guys,” I cried into the receiver. “I’m so sorry.”

  “I love you. We have to be strong for each other. I’m gonna need you. Anna is going to need you.”

  I hung up the phone and sat in the dark, the sound of my sobs overcoming the TV in the background.

  I had just inherited a daughter and lost a best friend. A gem of a human being. Someone who made the world a better place. He wasn’t perfect, but his biggest fault was caring too much. And the last thing I did to him was kick him out of my house and towards the last drive of his life.

  That realization stormed my heart like an incursion. I led Jordan to his death.

  The grief came in quick waves, each greater than the last so that I was barely ever able to catch a breath from drowning.

  Jordan was my security blanket when I moved to LA. He protected me, he mentored me, he guided me. I felt safe because Jordan existed. I took him for granted: his lectures, his protectiveness. I always gave him a hard time for caring. But now, I would kill for one of his lectures.

  I stared at my door, waiting for Jordan to barge in with news or a hysterical YouTube video, just like our days as neighbors. But the door was still and Jordan would never walk through it again.

  I didn’t want to be alone. I had friends I had made over the years. Marley and I had grown close since she apologized to me in the bathroom, but few people understood what Jordan meant to me. I thought about the painting lying on my floor. Very few people lived in those moments we shared in the studio apartment by Skid Row when we were struggling dancers. So few people knew me, I mean really knew me—my greatest fears, my weaknesses, my vulnerabilities.

  I was drowning and I needed someone to wrap their arms around me and pull me to shore. Like an invisible force took my hand, my fingers flipped to my Facebook messages, and then to the last message I received from Ash. I hadn’t opened any since the first one, my willpower wasn’t strong enough not to answer if I did.

  My dad is sick. He’s stable, but I’m heading to LA to be with my family. I just wanted to let you know I’ll be in town for a while. And I know you have a great life, but I’m keeping my promise.

  Ash’s number was included in the message and I pressed my finger against it. He was a ship, crashing against the waves, coming to my rescue.

  Ash was too close for me to resist.


  The apartment was in complete darkness when I let myself in. The brittle undulations of her sobs were the only thing I could see. She had the most whimsical, illuminating laughter I have ever seen, but she also had the saddest, most broken sobs. I closed my eyes for second, but the colors also lived in my mind’s eye, and even with my eyes closed, I couldn’t escape her misery.


  “Over here.” I followed her voice and when I finally saw her, a soft purple light framed her dark figure. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” she murmured, seated on a windowsill, staring out at downtown LA.

  I brushed my hand through her soft curls. “I’m so sorry, Bird.”

  She turned and collapsed towards my torso and I took her in my arms as her body convulsed in agony. I held her in silence as her tears soaked my shirt.

  “He told me about what he told you. I had no idea.”

  “I figured he might.”

  “I was so angry at him. I never wanted you to feel like you were a burden. You were never a burden to me, Ash. Ever.”

  “I know you never saw me as one, Bird. I know you loved me.”

  “But you left.”

  “Because I knew you had turned down the show. I gave you a chance to tell me. When you didn’t I knew what that meant. It meant I was in the way. And you loved me too much to see it.”

  She moaned like the pain was physical. “It hurts so much. I don’t know how I am going to do this.”

  “You’re strong, Bird. Stronger than me.”

  She began to weep erratically. “It’s my fault. It’s my fault. I told him to go. And he went home and that’s when he had
the accident. He was supposed to spend the next few days with me. How am I going to explain that to his little girl one day?”

  “Bird, whatever happened is not your fault. It was an accident.”

  She locked her hazel eyes on mine. “Why is it so easy for you to say those words to me, but not to yourself?” Her words lifted a huge boulder from the pile of stones that had weighed down on me for so long. It was like all the pain I had ever experienced had a purpose, so I could be here for her in this moment and understand what she felt in a way no one else could. It was not just a sense of loss, but a sense of responsibility. I would feel a thousand years of my pain, just so I could make hers easier.

  I didn’t believe Bird was responsible. And for that fleeting moment when she challenged me, I was able to step outside of myself and see that maybe Sarah’s death wasn’t my fault either.

  Bird’s eyes caught a glimpse of my hand, haphazardly wrapped in blood-soaked gauze. She grabbed it. “What happened to your hand?”

  “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

  “Tell me.”

  I didn’t want to make this about me. “My dad died today.”

  “Oh my god. This can’t be for real,” she bowed her head into her hands. “I’m so sorry. And you’re here. I didn’t mean to pull you away. I had no idea.”

  “There’s no one else I would rather be with. I need you.”

  “You did this?” she asked, looking at my palm.

  “Not on purpose. I punched a mirror.”

  “Ash . . .”

  We save each other. It’s what we do. Years ago, I was a depressed kid wanting to disappear when she bravely stepped in. Today, I was a man who was on the brink of snapping. Both times she saved me.

  I finally realized that I was here to save her too.

  Bird called me, sinking into the lonely waters of grief. She needed me to pull her out of the black depths, where only a tiny glimmer of light reached, and bring her back to shore. But in order for me to do that, I would have to swim towards that lonely flicker of light too. I wouldn’t be able to get her out of the depths if I wasn’t willing to pull myself out with her.

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