When Andrew was four, the doors of his house opened and a stream of relatives and acquaintances flooded in. They came like a stream, rushing and roiling down a canyon, but in a world where all sound had been sucked away. They were dressed in black, and stayed hushed. Andrew’s house, too, was covered in black, as if it was also in mourning.
Some cried. All looked somber. Andrew didn’t quite understand why they looked this way, but he could understand that this was a sad occasion. His face matched the expressions of the strangers who were standing in his house.
His older sister Analise stood behind him. A few days before, she had come into his room and sat on the bed next to him, to explain what was going to happen. Analise was already ten, and six years older than him. She was smart. She was worldly. She understood what was going on.
“Mom and Dad have died,” she said simply. Analise, who was older, wept. She stayed a wreck for a long time afterwards. She was upset. Andrew could hear her crying at night, through the thin walls separating their rooms. On more than one occasion, Andrew had crawled into bed next to her. And she hugged him, and he hugged her, and he could feel her tears on his head. But eventually, she fell asleep.
Andrew couldn’t make himself go to the same level of upset that Analise was at. His parents were Agents working most of the time, and he didn’t spend much time with them. Analise was like his mother and father. She was kind. She was smart. If she died, then he would be filled with grief.
The people dressed in black at the (funeral, as Analise called it) stopped to tell them that they were sorry, and that the deaths were terrible. They wished Andrew and Analise well. They looked at them through sad eyes. Andrew found himself staring at people’s lower legs more than actually looking into faces.
The person that talked to Andrew for the longest time was a man with a bushy beard. He bent down and looked into Andrew’s eyes. “How are you doing, little guy?” he asked.
Andrew shrugged. He couldn’t trust himself to speak.
The man smiled sadly. “These things always happen to the best people. Your mom and dad were too young to go, and they had you guys to take care of too. It was a freak accident that never should have happened.”
Andrew nodded. “Yeah,” he muttered.
“How are you feeling?”
Andrew shrugged again. “I don’t even know. Sad.”
But there was a knowing look in the man’s eyes, as if he knew that Andrew wasn’t feeling anything, even if Analise was crying behind him as she talked to an older woman. “It’s natural to feel numb,” the man told Andrew. “You’re going to go through the five stages of grief—that’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You’re probably in denial right now.”
Andrew nodded, even if he didn’t quite understand what the words meant. He could ask Analise. She would know. But what the man didn’t understand (and what Andrew was glad he didn’t understand) was that Andrew was pretty sure that he wasn’t feeling anything at all.
The man patted Andrew on the shoulder, and moved on to talk to Analise.
And eventually, the relatives all left. Andrew still felt as numb that he had felt ever since Analise told him that their parents were dead. Analise’s eyes were red, though, and Andrew comforted her as best he could—hugging her and saying that it was going to be okay. (For a four-year-old, Andrew at least understood what he needed to do to make his sister happy.)
That night, Andrew felt something akin to pain and sadness for the first time. For some reason, he couldn’t stop the tears from flowing from his eyes (despite the fact that his parents had barely been around and his mother’s face was already fading from memory). And for the first time, Andrew understood the enormity of the loss he and Analise were facing.
It didn’t take long for Andrew to run to Analise’s room and snuggle up to her. She turned and hugged him. “Hey, little guy,” Analise breathed. Her voice was thick with grief. “How are you holding up?”
Andrew hugged her back tightly. He just couldn’t respond to that question. He was still questioning himself when it came to that. And he had a feeling that if he mentioned his grief, the floodgates would open and he would not stop crying until he drowned in his tears.
“Analise, promise you’ll never leave me?” Andrew whispered. Somehow, that question was more important than anything else in the world right now.
Analise hugged him even tighter. “Of course, Andrew! I love you more than anything else in the world! I promise that I will never leave you.”
Almost the next day, Andrew and Analise were taken away from their home in a long black car and to a run-down concrete building (orphanage, as Analise explained). It was incredibly different from their last home. Andrew and Analise were sent to different sides of the building. Andrew shared a room with three other boys. Andrew didn’t really mind his new roommates. They were actually very nice. What he did mind was that he couldn’t comfort or be comforted by Analise anymore. He missed her.
The orphanage wasn’t bad at all, other than the fact that he and Analise couldn’t spend as much time together. All of the children in it were given food and instruction. Andrew started school as soon as he turned five, and while he didn’t excel, he enjoyed it. Andrew heard rumors that Analise was a prodigy in the academics. (He was happy for her.)
But because he and Analise were so distanced, Andrew couldn’t help but wish that one of the many relatives or friends of his parents would come and adopt them.
It was lucky that at lunch, Andrew and Analise sat together. Andrew enjoyed the time that he got to spend with his sister, especially since they weren’t in the same classes and slept in totally different places. The orphanage had free periods where siblings could spend time together, but the time seemed terrifically insufficient compared to how Andrew and Analise had spent so much of their time together previously.
And soon, Andrew was celebrating his fifth birthday. On this day, Andrew and Analise got the exercise yard to themselves, along with a few friends Andrew had made. Andrew’s parents had at least always been present at his birthday parties (except for when he was turning one, but really, who’s counting?). This was one of the first times that Andrew really felt their absence.
Luckily, Analise was still with him. With Analise, his world was complete.
But not for long. The Agency where his parents had worked prior to their deaths apparently scoured orphanages for children that were talented in ways that could be useful to them. Because Andrew and Analise’s parents had worked at the Agency, the Agency visited their orphanage only a year later, when Andrew had turned six. (What with all the deaths, there was about one orphan to three children who still had at least one parent. Making it very hard for the Agency to visit every single orphanage frequently.) The last person to leave the orphanage for the Agency had apparently been a boy named Anders six years ago.
But the Agency finally came to the orphanage that Andrew and Analise resided at. It didn’t matter what age the children were. Whether three or fifteen, the Agency tested them to see if they were as talented as they wanted. In hindsight, Andrew felt stupid. Stupid that he hadn’t realized that Analise was definitely smart enough to be wanted by the Agency.
Andrew remembered the strenuous day of testing. Andrew and every other child in the orphanage had taken a fill-in-the-bubble test. Most questions were on math, and Andrew didn’t even understand the ones that weren’t basic addition and subtraction. A few questions were comprehensive about passages they read.
Almost as soon as those questions were over, they were herded into individual rooms and questioned by Agents. They asked him to tell them exactly how many desks there were in a classroom and tested his logic and observational skills and Andrew couldn’t help but believe that he was terribly disappointing. He exited the room with no real hopes about his future with the Agency.
And two days later, Andrew got the news. Analise had passed the tests with flying colors and set a whole new standard for the Agency. Andrew later learned that she was what some people called a “genius.” And of course the Agency wanted her to train with them.
She met him in the courtyard a few hours later. “Look, Andrew,” Analise said. “I think that I might go with the Agency. Not only is it an amazing opportunity, but I get paid and I can help you get to a better life. But Andrew…I would have to leave.”
Andrew felt the familiar numb overtake him. “You’d be leaving here? You’d be leaving…me?”
“I wouldn’t be here anymore,” Analise told him, “but Andrew, I’ll be perfectly safe. I’ll write often. I’ll visit every month. And I promise that I will never, ever leave you. I won’t die on you, Andrew. Ever.”
Andrew nodded. He tried to be happy for Analise. He really did. But the majority of him was screaming out against this. That was the part that wanted everything to remain as it had, with Andrew firmly planted in the ground and Analise by his side.
He would have to let her grow. He would have to let her go and let her grow.
Andrew’s sixth birthday passed without incident. Andrew may have flunked the Agency exams, but the teachers were happy with how fast he was progressing in reading. Analise stayed true to her word. Andrew missed her presence with him at meals and in the courtyard, but he had other friends. He was glad to know that she was getting more opportunities in life, but he always looked forward to the mail deliver. Analise wrote often. Andrew wrote back, too, in his large and messy handwriting.
It’s your big sister Analise. I liked your last letter, your picture of the flower in the courtyard was really pretty. We don’t have any flowers here, just rocks. It’s very gray.
At lunch, I made a friend. Her name is Fallon, and I think you’d like her. She’s very funny. She has brown hair and green eyes. She accidentally tripped me, and then helped me up and helped pick up my stuff. That’s when we became friends. We sit together at lunch, along with my roommate.
How is school going? Is Liam still being mean to you? If he is, he better watch out! We’re still learning karate. I hope you write back soon. It makes me happy every time I get a letter from you.
Love you always,
Andrew was careful to observe everything that Analise asked about so that he could write the best response back. He had already explained that his friend Liam was being rude to him and that his birthday party had just been a teacher singing him a funny birthday song. He carefully composed responses to every letter Analise sent him and sometimes sent her other letters to prompt her to write back. She wasn’t there with him in person, but Andrew tried to keep up the illusion.
Hi! It’s me again. This week, we started training with guns. We’ve been training in hand-to-hand for a long time, but we started working on actual weapons now. It’s kind of weird to be in a room full of twelve-year-olds who are all completely battle ready. I feel kind of awkward, like I’m the only one who finds it disturbing that we’re so young and yet being trained in weapons. But I guess that youth doesn’t really exist anymore.
Sorry to be so cynical. In any case, I really miss you. Fallon also sends her regards. She says that she can’t wait to meet the boy that I yammer on about all of the time.
I miss you, love you, and will never leave you,
When Andrew turned seven, the Agency came back. He was excited; perhaps this time he would be taken! Unfortunately, Andrew was not one of the ones that left. This time it was Erica, one of his friends. He knew that Analise would never have been disappointed with him for not being as talented as her, but he couldn’t help but feel disappointed with himself. He should have done better so that he could be with her.
The years went by without consequence. Andrew learned higher reading and higher math. The letters from Analise arrived every week. Andrew’s teachers were able to tell Andrew about the things that the Agency had Analise doing. Andrew was proud to hear that Analise was going on missions and helping the world already.
And one week when he was ten, the letter from his big sister didn’t arrive.
“Do you have anything for me?” Andrew asked Myra, the woman that handed out the mail.
Myra looked at him, and an emotion like sadness registered across her face for the briefest moment. “I don’t think so, Andrew. I’m sorry.”
“Can you check?” Andrew said.
Myra handed him the bag. “Why don’t you look yourself?”
So he did. And he didn’t find anything. What did he expect?
He thanked Myra and moved on.
The letters didn’t come ever again. Andrew wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Every once in a while, he wondered whether the unthinkable might have happened, whether it was over and Analise had…passed on. He couldn’t bear to think of that, though. He knew that nothing bad could have happened to Analise, so invincible, so smart. She was just held up. He must have done something wrong.
Then, on the day of his eleventh birthday, the confirmation came in. Andrew was celebrating his getting older with a few of his friends, and some small cookies that the cook had made for him.
“Andrew, could you come with me?” his teacher asked.
The rest of the boys looked at the teacher. “It’s his birthday!” one of them said. “Can he do this tomorrow, maybe?”
The teacher looked at Andrew. Her eyes were reddish. “I’m sorry, but this can’t wait. It’s best to get it done with.”
Andrew should have logically realized that something was wrong then, but he didn’t. He went with the teacher, who handed him a letter.
My dear Andrew,
If you’re reading this, it means that I’m dead. And that I’m sorry, ever so sorry. I never meant to leave you alone. I never would have wanted to leave you. Remember that I love you.
I’m sorry. But I know that you can be strong. I know that you can get through this and show everyone the talent that you have. I am sure of it. I love you, Andrew. You’re the best little brother someone could have. I’m sorry.
Love you forever,
And Andrew looked at the teacher in a fit of confusion and then it hit. His Analise was dead oh my god she was dead and if she was dead then everything should be dead, because she was almost invincible and nothing should have been able to hurt her and if she was dead she’s dead she’s dead deaddeaddead then it should have been him and why, how, could she be dead?
The teacher was crying, but Andrew couldn’t muster any tears. It was like all of his body was suddenly devoid of feeling. He wanted to tell the teacher that it all had to be some kind of hoax, that Analise couldn’t be dead. The idea was so ridiculous that the he almost started laughing.
“I’m sorry,” said Andrew. “She’s not dead. Analise can’t be dead, this is just some kind of mistake.”
“Andrew, she’s gone,” said the teacher. “Please understand that.” A tear ran off her face and hit the floor.
“No!” he exclaimed. “Analise would never die and just leave me here! She loves me, and she promised that she would never leave! She promised!”
“Andrew…” the teacher started, but Andrew simply walked out.
A few weeks later, Andrew had finally accepted that his sister was dead. His denial of that fact was replaced with the fact that Analise had lied to him. She had said that she would never leave him, and she did. She had left him when she left the orphanage for something bigger, something better. And she had left him when she died on one of her missions. She had probably never even loved him! That was another lie that she had told. And she had lied about leaving him. She was a liar! She was dead because she was a liar. She deserved to be dead because of that.
“Andrew,” said one of the counselors in one of their weekly meetings, “are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine,” Andrew said as always. He was lying too, now. He wasn’t fine. He felt angry, and sometimes he felt numb. (He almost preferred the anger.) And he was lying because Analise had taught him to lie. His feelings were all her fault. He hated her. He would always hate her. He didn’t understand why he hadn’t hated her before.
The anger had passed. He was glad. The numbness had passed. He was glad about that, too. But it was replaced with something that made him feel so empty, so wretched, so bone-crushingly despondent and forlorn that he wished the numbness could come back. But now he hated Analise for making him feel this way. He hated himself for feeling sad over her, too. She was a liar. Liars deserved to die when they lied to the people who loved them.
And then, one night, he found himself offering the world to trade his place in the orphanage for her life. He would leave this place where he was safe and learning and sometimes happy if it just mean that she would come back to him. And now he hated her even more. Couldn’t she see what her death had turned him into?
“Andrew, can you please stop daydreaming and tell the class what caused the start of the Disasters?” an exasperated teacher asked him.
Andrew looked up from his desk. He hadn’t heard the teacher answer the question. He hadn’t done the homework that would allow him to know the answer. He simply plodded from place to place, breathing being the barest chore that he completed. Everything else hurt too much to do.
“Um….I think that it was...flooding?”
The teacher sighed. “In a way. It was global warming that led to flooding.”
Andrew looked back at his desk.
The next day, he met with the counselor again. He didn’t understand why, as they had stopped meeting weeks ago. Andrew didn’t experience the irrational anger anymore. Or anything, really.
“Andrew, you seem depressed,” the counselor said.
Andrew shrugged. Maybe he was. If he was, then it was Analise’s fault.
“You know, this is natural,” the counselor tried. “When someone you love dies, most people go through the five stages of grief. Depression is the fourth.”
Something in Andrew snapped. “Well, then I’m not going through the five stages of grief! No one that I love has died! I don’t care about Analise! She deserved to die! She lied to me!”
He kept screaming that for a little while, crying while he did. And eventually, the screams gave way to hysterical sobbing and then he couldn’t even cry anymore.
“It’s going to be okay,” the counselor told him. “I’m glad you let that out. But I want you to know that your sister didn’t lie to you in any way. She died in a freak accident on a mission. She died helping the world and doing what she believed in. She loved you, I’m sure.”
“How do you know?” asked Andrew.
“I was her counseler too,” the man said. “And she always talked about how she never wanted to leave you.”
“But she did.”
“She didn’t mean to.”
“But she did!”
“Yes, she did!” the counselor said. “But she never would have wanted to! She loved you, Andrew, and you love her!”
Andrew started crying again. “I want to go home,” he wailed helplessly. “I just want to go home.”
The counselor patted Andrew’s hand. “I know. We all do. But I want you to remember that you will always have a home here.”
“Yes. But I can promise you that she never would have wanted you to be sad like this.”
That phrase registered with Andrew. Analise had lied to him, and he couldn’t help but hate her for that. But he also loved her, and understood that it wasn’t her fault.
She was dead.
He was alive.
But somehow, he would make it work.