The Things You Leave Behind


I had never seen so many people at one time in my entire life. The funeral home was spilling over with grief-stricken people, all with ashen faces waiting for their turn to see the beautiful Natalie one last time, even if now she was pale and gaunt and dressed in an outfit she wouldn’t normally have been caught dead in. The people though, all looked at her as if it were the end of an era before them, an era of the perfect people.

It was true that even in death, Natalie was beautiful. Her hair in soft waves around her face, her lips forever upturned in that smile of hers, the one that made you certain she had a secret. It was hard to imagine her sitting there in the state she died in. Blood matted in her perfect hair, clothes torn and ripped to shreds on her body, broken and mangled almost beyond recognition. It had been a terrible accident, the police had said, it was a wonder that anyone had survived it at all even. It was strange to think that out of Natalie and I, it had been me to survive, instead of her who always seemed to have some sort of force field around her that protected her from the awful things us regular people had to go through. Maybe it was a trick of fate, a lesson that we were meant to learn from, a lesson that said even the mightiest among us must fall.

There was not a dry eye in that room that day. Everyone was sniffling and wiping their faces with the back of their sleeves. Natalie’s friends sobbed loudly across the room, collapsing on top of one another, shaking and convulsing from their overwhelming grief and I had to turn my eyes away from them. It seemed like a moment to private to be taking place here, it was the kind of emotion Natalie would have been sure stayed behind closed doors, and she would put on her best stony face for the crowds and her friends and they would learn to follow her lead.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” one woman said, her face was somber and her eyes were slightly watery. I recognized her as the woman who owned the restaurant Natalie worked at, with her steely blue hair from age, skin wrinkled and rough like leather from too much sun. She extended her hand to me and I took it, gently shaking it as I nodded back to her, unable to find my voice in the crowd.

I wondered if anyone assumed that I was there. Everyone knew how she had died of course; it had been all over the paper and whispered from ear to ear through the days. No one had known that I had been there too though; nothing had ever been said about the little sister who had cheated death, who had survived where the other had died. But I knew that I still had that small cut on my forehead, held together with a Band-Aid and that my lip was still swollen from where it had smacked against the dashboard and that my arms bloomed with tiny bruises. It wouldn’t take an idiot to put two and two together and realize that Natalie had not been alone in that car that night.

“I’m so sorry Regan, I know how awful this is,” A friend of her said, now standing in front of me, blubbering and quivering and I wanted to wrap my arms around her and pull her in and comfort her. I wish everyone would have been strong that day, the way that Natalie would have liked it best. Instead, the friend was the one to reach out, pulling me into her body and wrapping her arms around me, rocking form side to side like I was an infant. “I’m so sorry that this happened to you,” she whispered to me.

I knew why they were all sorry, and I knew why they kept casting me those pitying looks across the room. Losing someone like Natalie was just about the worst thing imaginable to the people. And maybe indeed it was the worst thing imaginable, but it seemed as if for the moment I was the only person who had mustered up enough courage to be strong for the girl in the casket. I knew if she saw me know she’d send me that tiny knowing smile of hers, the one that told me how proud of me she was, that I was getting it right while everyone else was getting it wrong.

The girl pulled away and looked into my face, as if searching for something there. Maybe something that reminded her of Natalie, or something that would prove something she had been guessing for a while, or maybe just a friendly pair of eyes. She bit her lip softly and shook her head at me, “This is so horrible.”

I nodded at her, and when I spoke my voice croaked because it had been hours since I had used it last, “Thank you for your condolences,” I said, wondering if she would get the hint to move on. There was just too much sadness in her eyes for me to want to look into them anymore. It was overwhelming, the sorrow here, there was enough sadness to drown in it.

The girl thankfully moved on, and for the moment there was no one in front of me and my father’s arm wrapped around my shoulder and pulled me into his side, his hand patting at my back. I knew that he knew how I was feeling, and if there was one thing I could depend on it was that my father would always understand me in times like these. I had always been told how much I had looked like him and acted like him, and in turn he always seemed to know what I was thinking even when I didn’t want him too. I turned my head up to where he was and he smiled down at me but his eyes didn’t hold the smile. A light behind them had been extinguished, the candle had been blown out and it was hallow and dark behind them now.

“Kiddo you should go, a place like this isn’t good for you,” he said, his smile stretched thin over his face and it made me sad for an entirely different reason. “Too much sadness isn’t good for anyone young.”

He pushed my shoulders the slightest bit, not enough to move me but just steer me in a general direction. I knew that he wouldn’t make me leave and that if I had wanted to, I could stay exactly where I was and never move. Maybe I would stay there forever, next to my dead sister and hollow parents and be the strong one for both of them. I could be a tree, rooted to the place, never moving or wavering, just strong and tall and sturdy.

I looked up at my father again and saw his face. I hated that he looked the way he did, shoulders slumped and back hunched, he looked worn out and fragile, like someone much older than he was. The past few days had aged him so rapidly that his body was just waiting to catch up with his emotions now, and it made my heart break to look at him like that. My mother beside him with her dark hair pinned back from her face and her face crumpled in tears looked no better than he did. She couldn’t even speak when people came to express their sympathy; instead she stood there in front of them shuddering from all the grief that had collapsed inside of her.

I nodded at him then, moving away from them and towards the door. Through groups of people who would all shoot me those same sad eyes and reach out a hand to me to pat my shoulder or hair like I was a child. In times of grief everyone is always like this, reaching out to people whether they want it or not, trying to grasp onto them and hold them there for a moment. I kept moving though, past all those outstretched hands and to the door where it could be just me for a moment in the outside world.

The sky was bright and blue, dotted with big puffy clouds that you could make shapes out of. It was by all definitions, a perfect day outside, which struck me as mildly ironic and more than a little sad. I expected it to be pouring rain on this day, for hail to hammer down on the ground, thunder to crack the sky and the earth to shake and shudder on a day like today when their perfect Natalie was put to rest. Instead a bird chirped in the distance, a car whizzed by on the road with its windows rolled down and music blasting for everyone to hear. There was no indication whatsoever that Natalie was gone, not even an ominous cloud in the distance; it was as if everything was exactly the same. Maybe I should have expected this, the lack or reaction to her death in the universe, but I had always believed just slightly that there would be at least something different now that she wasn’t here.

Instead there was a cough a few feet in front of me, coming from behind a shiny car and behind it stumbled out a boy with matted brown hair, dressed in a sloppy dark shirt that had come out of his dark pressed pants. He was coughing into his hand stumbling forward like he was blind with his head bent at a severe angle. Of course, I knew him right away, it had taken me less than a second to place the boy who was always lounging on our living room couch with an arm draped over the back and around Natalie. The boy whose car was almost constantly parked in our driveway, and who would appear at the most random times for Natalie with a smile on his face and his hands shoved into his pockets like he was trying to lose them.

He had showed up two years ago on our doorstep for the first time. He had a bruise blooming on his cheek and his breath reeked of alcohol and Natalie had loved him right away. He was torn up and messy and broken, and right away Natalie was there to take him under her wing and fix him up right. She had always had a weak spot for the most hopeless of people, the kind she could make a project out of and improve them while improving herself. One look at this boy and I knew Natalie was a goner, because already he was beautiful even if he was a mess, and I could tell that Natalie knew this too, and saw how much more beautiful he could become if she could help him the way she had always helped others.

Now though, standing in front of me, he looked like more of a mess than he was to start off with. His eyes had heavy bags under them, his whole body was curved over like he was going to vomit at any second, his entire being reeked of something that was surely illegal and his face was red and blotchy like he had been crying. It was strange that this was the first time it had occurred to me how badly he must be taking it. Natalie had swooped into his life and made everything better and perfect, and now she was taken away from him, and he was left all alone to figure out how to fix things.

He looked up now, meeting my eyes as if somehow made aware of my silent presence and he looked absolutely bewildered for a moment before something clicked in his eyes and he tried to erect himself and a hand went to automatically smooth down his hair. “Regan,” he said curtly, nodding his head slightly but then wincing as if the movement caused him pain.

“Are you okay?” I asked, my brows furrowing up and my hands going to wrap around my midsection, holding me in like they did every time I found myself uncomfortable in a situation, my arms would always be there holding me in.

He kept his eyes on me for a moment, clearing his throat and shuffling his feet for a second. I was almost worried that he would be suddenly pouring out all of his problems on me and that I would once again be overwhelmed by everyone else, that for some reason I would become the new helper instead of Natalie, and that made my skin prickle and my stomach drop down even farther.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he lied, because he was obviously not fine. I had never seen anyone in my life who looked less fine than he did at that moment, but there he was, his face stony and straight the way Natalie would have taught him and his hands still shoved where I couldn’t see them, secret hands.

“Okay,” I said, not sure how to continue here, unlike Natalie who would know exactly what to say.

“Um,” he looked slightly uncomfortable, “Are you okay?”

“Of course,” I said back quickly, and my voice sounded almost harsh to my ears and it made me want to wince but instead I put on my calmest face, the one that wasn’t much of anything and stared into his broken eyes.

He shrugged his shoulders once, letting them drop heavily by his side, “I’m sorry,” he offered, obviously trying to play the part of the polite person.

“Thank you,” I said, casting my eyes downward at the ground, the sidewalk was bare under my feet, an ant scurried along around my ankles and darted off to safety.

He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, and looked around us for something he could possibly say, “This sucks,” he finally admitted, kicking one foot across the ground and my head snapped up at his words to look at him again. Before Natalie, Tate had a reputation of speaking his mind bluntly, not holding anything back. Of course that was one of the first things Natalie had done away with when she fixed him, and now here he was again after her death, speaking bluntly and shortly no matter what anyone else was thinking. It was bold and stupid all at the same time.

“Yeah I guess,” I said, my voice soft as if I didn’t really think so even though I completely agreed. This sucked, more than anyone could imagine.

Not once in their entire relationship had I ever carried on a conversation with Tate. There was never any need too, because Natalie would do enough talking for both of us whenever we were in the same room together. It was fine with me, Tate was far too unpredictable for my liking at the time, and it made me nervous to be around him, like a firecracker that was about to go off in your hand. And now here we were, standing awkwardly apart from one another, barely able to make contact, the one thing we had in common twenty feet away in a casket. I started to move beyond him, past this conversation and the newly broken soul that he was, onto my car and safety, home where the door to her room would be shut tightly and I could pretend that it wasn’t there.

“Where you there?” Tate called softly just as I passed a few feet away from him and my feet froze in place, my blood ran cold for a second and a sweat broke out on my body. My mind flashed the red again, so much red, everywhere and her screams, the earth breaking again and I thought for a moment I was going to collapse. My hands reached out around my stomach again, my nails digging into my side and my arms planted firmly against my being, holding me upright.

“Yes,” I said, my voice so low it was barely heard over the rushing of traffic and the chirping of birds.

He was silent then, stony and still like the whole world had paused for a second. He moved slowly a step away, closer to the funeral home, and his voice was low too when he spoke, “I’m really sorry about that,” he said and his tone was so sincere that I felt teardrops spring to my eyes and I sharply looked away and shut my eyes tightly, casting away the water droplets and composing myself again before I could speak.

But before I could form any words he was moving away quickly, into the home and out of sight and I was left standing there with his parting words that made my stomach churn. If there was one thing you could be sure about with him, it was that everything he said was the truth, and you could bet your life on his words. That much I knew from hearing Natalie talk about him for the past two years that much I knew from just watching him in my home, never moving unless he absolutely had to.

My arms didn’t leave my stomach for a solid minute, and I stood there in the middle of the sidewalk with nowhere to go and no one there to reach out to. I felt acutely alone and small in the world, I felt the weight of my sister’s death crush down on my shoulders, threatening to break me at any second, and I felt the sorrow of the people inside the door, and the tragic story of the broken boy all at once and it felt like for a moment, there would never be happiness again.

And then a bird chirped again in the distance, its song cheerful against the bleak state of my mind. And the world started up with a shudder, began its rotation and life around me carried on.
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A much deserved update. I can't tell you guys how much I loved all of your lovely comments just on the first chapter. I'm really rather excited about this one, even though it may be a bit more sad than my usual stories. I really want to know what you guys are thinking.