A smile spreads across my face at the memory. It was his tell when I was digging myself into a hole. I easily recall him standing somewhere behind mom or dad and frantically rubbing the back of his head to warn me to cut it out. It never worked. I was too stubborn to listen to my wise big brother.
“Hear that big brother? I just called you wise.”
The only answer I receive is an arctic wind blowing across my face. I’m used to it. A little cold won’t scare me away.
“He never called, Ritchie. He didn’t answer my text,” I whisper dejectedly. “I thought us having sex was his way of saying he was willing to work on putting the past behind us. I’m not naïve.” I crinkle my nose and tip the flask into my mouth. “I didn’t think we were suddenly back together and everything was hunky–dory. But I thought we’d be something more than this.”
The sun peeks out from behind the clouds; the warm rays a welcome surprise. “He didn’t even wish me Happy Thanksgiving. What do you think my chances are for a Happy Birthday text?”
From somewhere in the direction of the highway, a car horn blares.
“Yeah, me neither.”
I stare at my fingers as I fiddle with the flask. I twist and untwist the cap, and pass the flask from hand to hand. I try meditating in some form or another while I soak in this time with Ritchie, but no matter what I do, I remain restless.
When I have a warm buzz going, I crouch in front of the headstone, uncap the second flask, and pour it out in the snow. I toss the empty container toward my chair. Crossing my arms on the cold marble, I rest my head against them.
“I know this isn’t what you asked for, and I know it makes me selfish to do what I want instead of what you asked. I also know you’d understand. And if you don’t, that’s just mean, because I visit you all the time.”
A warm tear courses down my cheek. I roughly swipe at the wetness before it freezes on my skin.
Closing my eyes, the alcohol carries me back to the last time I saw Ritchie alive.
Fourteen years earlier…
I drove my red Honda around the circular drive at the front of St. Margaret’s Hospice Center. A chill had settled within me in a way I knew it would not leave. Each time I made the drive to this place, I was more frightened than the last.
But this time signaled the end.
I’d never felt more alone than I did pushing through the heavy doors into the reception area for one of the last times.
McKayla sat behind the lone white desk and greeted me with a small, sad smile, her eyes drifting to take in my heavily pregnant belly. I didn’t have it in me to wave. I offered what semblance of a smile I could in return and hiked my tote further up my shoulder as I made my way through the familiar halls to Ritchie’s room.
I knocked twice and pushed it open, calling out, “Hey, Witchy.”
“Hey.” Even that one word was too much, as he immediately started coughing. It took longer than usual for him to catch his breath. My heart froze in my chest with each second that ticked past and he continued to struggle.
It was more real than e
ver that he was here to die alone, and I was responsible for not being here with him.
“I’m sorry I had to come so early. I start my new job tomorrow, and they need to train me. I couldn’t… I tried to move my start date, but… I need the money.” My voice dropped to a sorrowful tone. “I’d never leave if it were possible, but the baby will be here in less than two months.”
“I get it,” he said slowly.
Even speaking took a lot of energy from him, and I reminded myself not to leave my sentences open for responses.
“Anyway, happy early birthday, big brother. I brought you something.”
He tracked me with his eyes as I crossed the room and sat down on the side of his bed. He was so thin; I hated it. It broke me to see him this way.
My hands trembled as I dug through my tote to find the bottle of dark amber liquid. I pulled it from beneath my extra sweatshirt and showed it to him with a flourish. “Ta-da! I thought we could share, but I’m obviously unable to, so it’s for you.”
Scooting back on the bed so I was sitting beside him, I uncapped the bourbon and offered it. I nudged his frail leg with my own.
“Here.” I held the bottle to his lips. He tipped his head a bit, and I poured some in.
He swallowed noisily and groaned. “That’s good, sis. Where did… you get it?”