“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you,
pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Cool air brushes past me, carrying the first scents of spring – blossoming flowers, rain, freshly-mowed grass. Dew sticks to the leaves of nearby trees, glistening like thousands of crystals suspended in the sky. The only sound comes from the twittering birds, flitting about high above us.
I take a long breath, staring down at the gravestone nestled in the trimmed grass and mounds of budding flowers. It reads: Here lies Courtney M. Banner. My body quakes and trembles. The weight of the sky is pressing down on me, but my head is clear and quiet.
My mother’s slim fingers stroke my hand, and I look over at her. She looks very tired, makeup trying to cover the bags under her eyes and new wrinkles carved into her face. But she gives me a faint smile, putting her other hand on my shoulder lovingly. The gesture leaves my heart twisting inside me. I glance to my other side. My father stands next to me, with Aiden and Lucy in front of him. They are grim and quiet, but my parents took an hour out of their schedule to come here with me for the first and last time, and I couldn’t have been more grateful.
Ever since my brother and I escaped the hostage situation, things had changed around the house. Visitors came less frequently. Our parents seemed desperate to pour as much love into us as they could manage at every free moment. It was as if they finally realized we were there.
I lean my head against my mother’s shoulder, and she gives my hand a squeeze.
The last six months hadn’t been easy. When I first woke up in the hospital, a fresh head injury left me disoriented and confused, though no longer clinging to my previous delusions. As I lay in that hospital bed, hurting all over and grieving for Courtney, I looked back over my memories and found myself struck by my own selfishness. By all the wounds I had inflicted on my family and friends. This realization left me desperate to make amends.
My parents were there when I woke up, but I wasn’t self-aware enough to have a real conversation for several days. During that time, my family practically lived in that hospital room. We clung to each other as if we were afraid of being torn apart again. When I was finally lucid enough to speak, I asked my parents if I could talk to them alone. They sent Lucy and Aiden to get lunch from the cafe and sat on either side of my bed, looking at me intently.
I hadn’t been able to meet there gazes, swallowing hard, my fingers playing with the sheets tucked around me. “I’ve been thinking...” I murmured, “about everything that’s happened and about...how much of a jerk I’ve been to you... I—I don’t know why you paid for my apartment...and why you didn’t give up on me. It would have been what I deserved.” My voice cracked, and I had to clear my throat. “I...guess I don’t even know why you’d care anymore. B—but I just wanted to say that I’m...so sorry...”
I looked between them as tears welled up in my eyes and blurred my vision. “I—I’m so sorry for how...I acted... And treated you... And...please please forgive me... I swear, I—I can change...”
“Oh honey...” My mother came forward, gathering me into her arms, and I sobbed on her shoulder in shame. My father sat beside us and wrapped his arms around our quaking forms.
“It’s alright, Jack,” he murmured. “It’s alright. We’re going to help you now...”
And they did indeed help me. I needed another surgery. My parents – who had cleaned out their bank accounts in order to fork over that 80K – took loans to pay for my treatment. Over those six months, I drifted in and out of confusion, straying back to those previous delusions. My parents didn’t send me back to the institution, but they took me to counselors and gave me medication. I went in for electroshock therapy, but this time it actually helped. The delusion no longer clung to me, now that I had accepted my loss. As my brain slowly began to recover, the voices faded, and I could think with clarity for the first time since I’d been assaulted.
I still struggled with organization, but I’d moved back in with my family, so there were plenty of people to remind me when to eat and bathe and sleep. In an effort to help myself find a routine, I made a chart and worked through it every day. Things were getting easier.
I wasn’t very involved in the legal end of things, but I had to give my testimony in order to convict mine and my brother’s kidnappers. The ones that survived, at least. I still saw Mandus’ tattooed face in my dreams, but I knew I never had to fear him again.
Dominic never reached the court. After taking my brother and I to the hospital, he slipped away before he could be questioned. I hadn’t seen him since.
“Can we go home soon?” Lucy asks, fiddling with her skirt in boredom.
I can’t help but smile down at her. I love that she could come to such a depressing place and remain untouched.
“Come here.” My father picks her up.
Over the last few months, my health had improved by leaps and bounds. Some color had returned to my face, and I had filled out a little. That morning, I’d even made the effort to run a comb through my hair and wear a nice jacket. This was my time to say goodbye to Courtney, and I wanted to look my best.
After a moment, my mother looks over at me. “Would you like to be alone for a few minutes? We can go wait for you in the car.”
“That would be nice,” I say. “Thank you.”
She smiles, gives me a hug, and then my family starts across the graveyard in the direction of my car. I watch them go for several seconds, then turn back to the stone marker. My parents had been nervous about bringing me here, but I needed some form of closure. Bluebells and baby’s breath sprout up around the gray stone. I crouch in front of it, running my fingers through the grass tenderly as if it were Courtney’s hair. A few minutes or an eternity could have passed in that small piece of heaven.
In the quiet of the graveyard, I said my last goodbye and then walked to the car amidst the spring colors and fresh air, ready to live again.