I gave him another swig, and a little leaked out of the corner of his mouth. I grabbed a tissue from the box on his nightstand and carefully dabbed it away. He stared me dead in the eye while I did it, almost as if he were willing me to understand and be okay.
He had to have known I’d never be okay.
Not with being forced to leave him and Logansville, not with raising a baby at sixteen, not with him dying. I didn’t know how I’d ever come back from all of that.
I didn’t know if I even wanted to.
I had to, though, because if Ritchie dying taught me anything, it was that so many lives are ripped away without warning or reason. For me to give up because my life was too hard was an insult.
He was right about me needing to leave, but in that moment, the thought of walking out that door and never seeing him again nearly killed me. My knees were weak and shaking, and I didn’t think they’d even hold me up long enough to do it. I could feel my heart splitting into two. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.
“I can’t do it.”
“You have to.”
“I c-c-can’t.” Tears trailed down my cheeks.
“You have to.”
“Please don’t make me leave you.”
“I’m going to miss you, too, sis, but I don’t want you driving all the way home after dark.”
“Stop minimizing what I’m feeling.” I started getting angry.
“I’m not.” He was serious, and at his tone, I instantly quieted. “I love you, and I know you’re dying inside because… if our places were reversed… I would be, too. But I can’t… stop this from happening and… neither can… you. So, go. Learning to live on your own… begins… now. Whenever… you need me… visit me. I’ll be waiting.”
I grabbed another tissue and wiped my face, and fought against every instinct in my body that wanted to break down again. Leaning over the bedrail the best I could with my belly in the way, I tucked his blanket higher on his chest and kissed his cheek. I touched his bald head and patted his shoulder and gripped his hand. Stalling.
“I won’t say goodbye.”
“I won’t. But I will say I’m going to miss you.” My voice cracked, and I swallowed hard. “And,” I swallowed again. “That I love you, Witchy.”
“I love you, too. Now go.”
I gathered my tote and held my fingers to my lips. We locked eyes in the doorway, but neither of us spoke another word.
And somehow, I forced myself to turn and walk out, leaving my brother behind.
I took a detour home that night. I drove the hour and a half in the opposite direction to Logansville, up and down my old neighborhood streets. The lights were on in my old home as I passed. A new family had moved in over the past month. Shadows crossed the closed curtains, and I’d sent up a silent prayer that they had more luck in that home than my family did.
Out of habit, I found myself parked across from Law’s house, and it wasn’t until then that I finally cried. A dam broke, and the sobs ripped through me at a frightening pace. I couldn’t catch my breath. In that moment, it was okay. I wasn’t sure I wanted to breathe again in a world that Ritchie wouldn’t be in.
Headlights pooled over my car, and I ducked like a coward, frantically swiping at the tears that continued to fall. A truck drove passed. That was my cue to get on the road home. I didn’t want anyone to see me there.
It took three-and-a-half hours to get back to my apartment, and the entire way there, I clutched my cell phone for the call I was dreading.
It came three days later, on Ritchie’s actual birthdate. He was gone.
I finished my flask some time ago and tossed it toward the other one. I’m drunk. I remain upright against the headstone, clutching it for support. Melted snow soaks the front of my jeans, and the icy cold seeps deep into my knees. I can’t feel much of anything. Mostly I’m numb. Numb and selfish and sad.
“So, you see, brother,” I slur. “You wanted me to visit you on your birthday, and instead I only visit on mine. Because I’m selfish. Though, it’s mostly because it hurts so damn much.”
“He’s not alone.” Law’s deep voice rumbles from behind me. “Nice setup. You do this often?”
“Go away.” I drop my hands into the snow.