Sunlight drifted through the open window and crisp spring air breezed through the screen. A cardinal sat perched on a nearby tree branch, its radiant red feathers artistically contrasting the newborn spring greens, glowing in the April sun. It was the first cardinal spotting of the year. I marveled at the creature as it centrifugally hopped along the branch of the elderly sycamore. Speckled eggs nestled comfortably in a messy swarm of twigs, soon to break with the new life of hatchlings. It paused for a moment, providing me the perfect opportunity to capture the cherry of nature. I zoomed in on the majestic bird and snapped a photo. Too blurry. Stealthily creeping closer to the window for a better vantage point, I focused the camera for the perfect shot with the shallow breaths and the steady aim of a sniper. The bird was in perfect focus, surrounded by vibrant greenery with the sun’s light saturating every last feather and leaf.
My phone rang.
It flew away.
I closed my eyes and sighed, then put the phone to my ear the answer on the fifth ring. Guess whattttt, she said.
Um, that’s not the response I was expecting. What’s with the attitude?
Nothing, I just saw a cardinal and was trying to get a good picture of it but it flew away when you called. Should’ve turned my stupid phone off loud.
Well, alright Mr. National Geographic. Sorry to interrupt. We’re getting off the exit now and we’re almost there. Can you sound excited to see me?
Ha, shut up. I’m sorry. I can’t wait ‘til you guys get here. I spent the whole day cleaning my place, so I hope it’s up to your standards. It gets kind of messy when I don’t have visitors for a long time.
Oh, trust me, I know, she said. Well we’re about to pass the drive-thru. Do you have beer?
Some, I replied. But we’re gonna need more for sure. If you guys pick up a case, I’ll pay you pack.
Oh hush. This is your weekend to relax and have fun. It’s my treat. As long as you have some fun juice left in your freezer for me.
Between pauses, I tiptoed to my kitchen and opened the freezer door, moved some frozen dinners out of the way and pulled out a bottle of Dragon Berry Bacardi rum. It was halfway full. Yeah, I continued, plenty of fun juice for ya.
Great. Alright babe, we’re pulling up to the drive-thru now, need anything else? Do you have any juice or mixers? Yeah, okay, I’ll get some cranberry juice too. I think that’d go well with the fun juice.
Whatever you want, I chuckled.
Okay, be there in five. You better be waiting for me outside so I can embarrass you with big hugs and kisses in front of your friends.
You’re ridiculous, I said. I’ll be waiting. Love you.
I love you too, she said as she made a kissing noise into the phone.
I stood in front of my apartment building. A black SUV parked in the nearest parking spot. She hopped out, jumped into my arms as she said she would, and kissed me all over. My best friends slowly trickled out of the car with their bags and beer and smiles. No better feeling in the world exists. After our exchanges, jokes and pleasantries, we went inside to pregame and prepare for the evening.
I nudged her, let’s go outside and get some fresh air.
Why what’s up, she asked. Are you not feeling well?
I just want to go outside, I said.
Before she could answer I began walking toward the back of the bar. I heard her call out, Jordan – wait, I’m holding Michael’s drink while he–
Her words, lost in the noise of music and conversation, soared over me like a cloud on a windy day. I continued to the back door.
In a trance, I walked out to the back patio and drifted to an empty picnic table in the back corner, never once looking back. Sat down with my back facing the crowd. I aimlessly stared at the ground and for a few moments and took a hearty swig from my bottle of beer.
Strategically positioned with my face hidden away from any onlookers, I slowly lifted my eyes from the ground, above the wooden fence, and gazed into the stars. It was a full moon.
With my eyelids drooping, face without expression, I allowed myself this one release in my disinhibited state. My eyes began to glisten. Jordan, she said, prodding my shoulder. Jordan, what are you doing? Why are you out here? What’s going on?
The first tear escaped and rolled down my cheek.
Oh my god, what’s wrong Jordan? We’re at a bar, we’re out, we’re having fun. Come on, you can’t do this here.
I miss them, Izzy. I just miss them.
I know you do, Jordan, but they’re in a better place. It’s okay babe, it’s okay, she said rubbing my back in attempt to comfort me. Come on, let’s take a minute and get yourself together so we can go back in there and have fun. All your friends are here. Let’s wipe those tears away and get back inside, okay? Sound good, babe?
I don’t sleep.
I don’t sleep. I never sleep. I have nightmares.
What? Jordan, you’re scaring me. What are you talking about?
After a staring into the night sky for a minute in silence, I turned my head and looked at her.
I don’t sleep. I don’t know how else I can put that for you. Every night, when I lie in bed and try to sleep, I think about them. I picture it. I imagine what their last moments were like. Ryan, lying in that front yard, bones broken, bleeding out, gasping for air as that piece of shit just left him there to die. Michael, sitting in his bedroom with a needle in his arm as everything faded to black nothingness. I always wonder what they were thinking, in those moments, right before they died. I wonder if they were scared. And, Tommy, I mean, shit – the kid got into an Uber and got T-boned by a truck. Harmless night out. Then dead. He was so young. At least he was probably just drunk then – snap – dead.
I returned my attention to the stars. She looked at me, eyes wide, too stunned to speak.
This is the shit I think about while I’m lying in bed at night, I said. When I say “goodnight”, I never actually go to bed. I lie there and just think for hours. When I eventually do exhaust myself, at five in the morning or whenever it is, I have nightmares. They never stop. Every night. Nightmares. It’s the same ones every time. I’m at a crowded party where I don’t know anyone, and I can’t find my friends. I start to feel… drunk… or drugged or something, and I panic. I eventually find people who look just like my friends but it’s not them. Then I feel guilty and I don’t know why. I ask for help and no one helps me. I eventually collapse and die. Every night, in my sleep.
Jordan, why don’t you ever tell me these things?
You don’t care, I said, taking another swig from my beer. Or maybe it makes you uncomfortable to hear about. I don’t know. I never wanted to be anyone’s burden.
Don’t say that. You know I love you and I care about you. I know you miss them so much, Jordan. I know you loved them. They’re in a better place now.
See — You really think that? You really believe that shit? How? How can you justify that being buried in a coffin in the dirt at age twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-two or however the fuck old Tommy was, is a “better place” than here on Earth with their families and friends? So spare me the “better place” bullshit. Acting like the brutal deaths of kids – KIDS – is anything other than a tragedy. There is no silver lining. Better place, what a joke.
Jordan, don’t get angry with me, she said. I’m trying to help you. I want you to find peace with this.
That’s what you don’t get, I said through gritted teeth. You don’t get it. It’s not about me. It’s not even about them. It’s about the aftermath. All the pain and suffering it caused for everyone else. The way my mom described Michael’s mom getting the news that her son, her baby, was dead while she was at work. All is calm and well on a normal work day — then a woman, a mother, is screaming a yelling in panic about her baby boy. It’s horror. Hugging his parents and looking at his dead body in that casket. All the tears. My mom says she doesn’t even talk to anyone else at work anymore. She says that Michael’s mom just talks about how life has no meaning anymore. Yeah, I got through that one.
Then Ryan. His parents. His little brother. His cousins. And all our friends. All the crying and the tears. You think Carmen is okay? J.T. talks to Kiersten more than I do, because he’s the sensitive one. Says she can’t go out, go anywhere, without crying. And J.T., we got drinks over the winter one time. You know him. You know his personality. Him and I, before, we could never stop talking. We could talk for hours. His stupid jokes. His stupid sense humor. We could just sit there and riff for hours. When we got drinks over Christmas we just sat there for an hour and barely spoke. His sense of humor is gone. He’s gone. No one’s the same. No one’s okay. Oh yeah, then I go home for my grandma’s funeral and see my dad cry for the first time in my life. I’ve never seen him cry before. Then the very next night I get back to school and you give me the news that Tommy was in an Uber and got T-boned by a truck and killed on impact? I just see all of this pain everyone’s feeling and I absorb it. All the caskets and tears and shit. And I didn’t just lose the people who died. I lost ALL of my friends. No one’s the same. And I’m here at school and I have to shut up and smile and study and I can’t be there with them. Everything is wrong. I just can’t shake it.
I paused and clenched my eyelids together. As I finished pouring out my feelings, I stopped fighting it. I stopped being angry. With my eyelids squeezed tightly and my face contorted, isolated and facing away from the crowd, my brain poured water from my tear ducts.
I’m so sorry Jordan. I’m sorry. I know that I don’t get it. I just want to be here for you. I love you.
I nodded and dried my face. Come here, she said as she wrapped her arm around me. I leaned my head into her shoulder and said, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take this out on you. I’m sorry. I just can’t shake it. I just want the thoughts and the nightmares to stop. I just want to sleep and stop thinking about everything. I just want to rewind. I just want them back.
I know, she said. I just want you to know I’m always here for you. I love you.
I love you too, I said. Then I tilted my head to the sky.
I looked into the moon and saw a skull.