"So any words of wisdom for your brother before the big day tomorrow?" Joseph was just joking with me. "After all, you've been married two years now and just had a baby."
I laughed at him, bumping my shoulder with his. We were sitting at my piano, supposed to be practicing but just chatting instead. "I could hardly give you advice." I shook my head, "You've been with Roxanna a whole lot longer than I've been with Sarah. Just because we got married first..."
"And had Henry..." Joe interrupted.
"And had Henry, but still, that doesn't mean I know more than you. I mean, every time Sarah and I argue, you're the one who always gives me advice, hell, I'm still asking for advice about marriage and babies and stuff, and you're not even married yet."
Joe gave out this half chuckle at my words and started to rise from his seat. "Yeah well, I'm a man of many talents, but you and Sarah, you guys don't need any advice from me. You have the perfect marriage."
I just rolled my eyes at him.
"Now we better get out of here, or the girls will have our heads." He started reaching for his jacket.
"We can't go yet. We need to practice it one more time Joe. Come on, I know Roxy will flip tomorrow when she hears you play it." This was our last chance to get the song right. I wanted it to be perfect, without a flaw. Joseph been coming over every day for the past three weeks so that I could teach him how to play the melody.
"We're already late Matt." Joseph shook his head, "We need to get back over to my place, the rehearsal dinner starts at eight, and you know how Roxy is, everything needs to be just right. Sarah is over there helping her get ready; she's going to be just as mad at you as Roxy is with me, if we're not there on time."
"Alright, alright, we'll go in a minute. Just play the last three lines, then we can leave, promise." I placed my finger down on the piano; Joseph sighed and reluctantly lowered himself next to me.
"Just one more Matt. I don't even think Roxy is going to care anymore, she's still going to be seeing red at me being late tonight."
I just chuckled at him, "She's going to melt when she hears it." My fingers began moving over the keys slowly, guiding Joseph through the beginning of the last set. "It's not everyday the bride gets serenaded by the groom on their wedding day."
Joseph just smiled at me, "You think so huh?"
I nodded at him, grinning. Together our hands flew over the keys; my movements were fast and fluid while Joe's seemed more mechanical and shaky. Still, if you didn't know any better, you would think it sounded perfect.
Roxanna was really going to be stunned, she had no idea Joseph was planning to do this for her. He wanted to do something special on their wedding day, something that would take her by surprise. I convinced him that this was it, the most romantic idea for his wedding day. He hesitated at first, but at my insistence he finally gave in.
So here we were, the day before the wedding, playing Roxanna's song. It was slow and beautiful, the harmonies delicate and light. It filled the whole room with happiness, and we were both grinning at the end. By the time we ran through the last of the chords we were already fifteen minutes late. Sarah was going to have my ass...
"Okay done. Let's get the hell out of here." Joseph pushed himself back, flung his jacket over his shoulder, and grabbed his keys that were sitting on the foyer table.
"I'm right behind you." I grabbed my own keys and jacket on the way out the door.
Night had already fallen, the air hung heavy and still, no wind in sight, not even a breeze.
We both scrambled down the steps, Joseph turned to me quickly, a sly smile creeping over his face, "Race you home little brother." He chuckled and tore out of the driveway in a cloud of smoke.
"You're on!" I yelled after him, laughing.
We took off into the night, both of us, full of anticipation and excitement about tomorrow...
I pulled my jacket around me for the third time. I wasn't cold, the air around me was warm, but I stood there on Ben's doorstep hesitant and unsure. I could see my shadow on the ground next to me, for some reason it gave me comfort, didn't let me feel so alone.
I couldn't bring myself to knock just yet. What I was about to ask him was going to test our friendship in ways it hadn't been tested yet.
Ben was the first one who tried to help me, and the last one to let me go. Of all the people who loved me, I treated him the worst and he took it, all my bullshit, over and over again. Ben and Cassie even took me in for a few weeks after my breakdown. I guess he thought it would be a good idea, he could keep an eye on me, try to convince me to go back home. He never backed down, never turned away from me, until I crossed the line.
I spent the entire night drinking, and then even more in the morning. Cassie found me passed out on their kitchen floor when she came down the stairs. It wasn't even noon yet, but I was already dead drunk. She thought I did die, screamed her head off and called 911.
I don't even remember the fucking ambulance or what happened next.
Ben told me they had to pump my stomach, they wanted me to go to rehab, wanted to refer me to the psych ward to talk to someone.
I just pushed back the covers of the hospital bed and headed for the door, not really listening or caring about anything Ben had to say.
"Matt, come on, listen to me. The hospital knows what they're doing. Why don't you try rehab? Just for a few days, maybe it will work?"
I kept shuffling around my room trying to find my shoes. I didn't answer him, didn't even grunt. I just wanted to grab my shit and get back home. I knew there was a bottle under my bed, and I wanted it now.
Ben tried to step in my way. "Hey. Look at me. Matt? Look at me."
I finally glanced up at him, his face was a mixture of anger and pain. He looked old, why did everyone around me always look so fucking old?
"Matthew." His voice sounded naked and hollow. "You can't come back to my place. Cassie, she's still home crying. She can't do this anymore, she thought you were dead. Dead!"
I just stared at him, narrowing my eyes.
"She was so scared Matt. I can't let her be scared anymore. She doesn't want you there, you can't come back."
Still I said nothing.
"I'm sorry man, but it's killing us, do you know that Sarah calls me every night."
My body tensed up at hearing her name. I kept my eyes locked to his; he could see my breathing change at the mention of her.
"She calls me, to ask how you are, to beg me to try and reach you. Every single night. I hear it in her voice, the pain, the hurt, when I tell her you are still the same. That nothing's changed." Even though I could see the pain in his eyes and hear the anguish in his voice, I just turned away from him, grabbing my jacket and brushing past him.
I was full of rage at that moment, unjustified I know, but still full of rage.
"If you're not going to listen," Ben's voice broke, "Then you need to get the hell out of our lives. I mean it. I'm not going to let Cassie and Sarah watch you fucking kill yourself."
His words hung heavily in the air. My fingers gripped the doorknob in fury and torment. Ben was the last one, the last connection I had to my life, and I was losing it.
But even his words were not enough. I walked out of that hospital the same way I went in. Sick. Sick with disease, sick with heartache, it never went away.
Despite his harsh words, Ben really never stopped looking out for me, he came around to my apartment every now and then. He was always alone. He would bring me food sometimes, whatever Cassie made for dinner that night.
We would talk about mundane things, the weather, sports, whatever god awful shit happened that day in the news. We would never talk about the past or Sarah, or the accident. He was always careful not to bring it up, for fear it would send me back in a downward spiral, and it probably would have.
I could hear Ben's voice behind the door, and faint laughter, it sent a rush of adrenaline through me and before I realized it, I was knocking on the door.
The look on Ben's face when he swung the door open was nothing less than shock. I swear he turned white as a sheet.
"Ma...wha...what are you doing here?" His voice was low, mumbling, he turned his head quickly towards the living area and then back to me.
I was in too much of a hurry to get Ben to let me in that I didn't pay much attention to his face or the tone of his voice.
"Ben, can I talk to you, I need to tell you something..." The words just tumbled out of me, and I took a few steps forward trying to get past the door. Ben quickly put up his hand, but I didn't think he was really trying to stop me, more like slow me down.
"Matt, no wait!" This time I could hear the panic, but it was too late, there was no slowing me down. I pushed right past him, walking right into the living room, right into the middle of some kind of fucking get together.
Cassie saw me first. She was directly across from me, sitting on a small wooden chair. Her head snapped up, he eyes locking to mine. Her face was a mixture of alarm and fear; she let out this loud gasp, bringing her hand up to her mouth, her eyes wide.
Her reaction made their guests on the sofa turn around to see what was so alarming. I glanced around me quickly, and once I saw then on the sofa together, his arm around the back of her seat, it just sent waves and waves of anguish around my heart, my body shook with it.
I was frozen in my spot, my words forgotten now. My heart began to race, a red haze filled my vision.
Sarah's face, that's all I could see, she was looking at me as if she saw a ghost. Her fingers gripping the cushions of the pillow so hard you could see the veins of her hands stretched taut against her skin.
She didn't move. Her eyes bore into mine, and for that first brief second, I thought I could see it there. That tiny bit of love in her eyes, and then as quickly as it came, it was gone, and she jerked her head around as Cassie bounded up from her seat at the same time.
I never backed down from any of Joe's challenges. Whether it be a basketball game, board game, or who can do it the fastest game. When we were younger I began to suspect he was letting me win on purpose so I did what any little brother would do, I threw a fit and tattled to our mom.
Our mom just laughed and ruffled my hair, telling me that I should consider myself lucky to have such a loving big brother, but I huffed and complained until Joseph promised he would never let me win at anything ever again.
He kept his promise...
I slid into the driver's seat hurriedly checking my review mirror, clicking on my seatbelt, and trying to think of a good excuse to tell Sarah and Roxy once we got there.
The red glow of Joseph's taillights brightened up in front of me, and in a flash he was gone, rounding the corner of my block.
I laughed out loud, stepping on the gas pedal with more force than usual. The engine roared to life and made this squealing sound as the tire rubbed on the pavement. I was confidant I could catch up to him. I had a strong notion he still let me win every now and then...
The streets were pretty empty as we both maneuvered through the town. Two right turns, three straight blocks, two stoplights.
I fiddled with the buttons on my satellite radio as we both flew down the streets, we passed the bakery, and then the school.
The slight glimmer of red glowed steadily in the distance, the stoplight silently warning me to slow down before I reached it.
Still, I kept my foot on the gas, not letting up, Joe wasn't slowing down either, why should I? If our timing was right, the light might turn green before we got there.
I glanced down at the radio once more, sighing, there was nothing good playing. You would think with all the satellite channels offered at least one would have something worth listening to.
Okay, less than a block away and the light was still red. I felt my foot instinctively lift from the gas pedal. Joseph was hunched over his motorcycle racing away, his shadow flying down along the pavement next to him, he wasn't slowing down.
I wanted to yell what the fuck was going on here but words escaped me. Had they all just moved on and replaced me that easily?
Cassie didn't say anything but her mouth was open. Her eyes flew to Ben in desperation, looking for direction, not knowing what to do.
I could hear Ben come up beside me. I didn't look at him, I couldn't tear my eyes off of Sarah.
She didn't move, her body stayed twisted in its position, in shock.
We probably would have stayed frozen in our spots forever but then the last person I thought who would open his fucking mouth, decided...to open his fucking mouth.
"Matthew! Nice to see you again. How have you been?" Clay rose from the sofa, breaking silence in the room.
I hadn't seen Clay since the funeral, and even then it had been brief. He spent most of his time with my parents, offering words of comfort to them.
He moved around the side of the sofa and came up to me and Ben. I ordered myself silently to take deep breaths of air, to stay under control, don't explode Matthew, not yet.
And I probably could have stayed in control but that fucking bastard extended his hand to me, the same hand he had wrapped around Sarah's shoulder, reaching out and grabbing at my wrist.
I couldn't stop the fury that exploded from me.
"What the fuck is going on? What the hell are you doing here Clay?" The words spewed forth as I yanked my arm back out of Clay's reach.
"Matthew!" Ben immediately grabbed my arm in a tight grip; I struggled with him, trying to tear myself our of his grasp.
Clay stared at me stunned, a wounded look on his face, but I didn't fucking care.
"Get the hell out of here Clay!" I tried to step towards him but Ben wasn't letting me go. "Get the fuck off of me!" I turned to Ben, directing my anger towards him.
"No!" Ben looked just as angry as I was, "No! Hell Matthew! Stop it!"
But I couldn't stop, it was already too late to stop.
Shit, the light wasn't going to change it was going to stay red. My foot lifted from the gas and hovered over the brake pedal letting the car coast a bit. I kept my eyes on the stoplight, trying to calculate the distance before I really had to put full force on the brakes.
Joseph's taillights suddenly flashed a brighter red in front of me and I chuckled to myself. He had stepped on the brakes. I kept grinning, we were going to have to make the stop, it would put me back in the game.
My car jerked as I hit the brakes, making a couple of cds I had resting on top of the console slide forward. My right hand reached out automatically to stop them, my left still handling the steering wheel. My eyes flew quickly to the cds and then back up to the stop light.
Damn! It had turned green at the last second. I hadn't needed to slow down after all. Joseph took off like a shot, gunning the motor of his cycle as if he were trying to tease me, egg me on. I pushed the cds off the console and over to the passenger's seat before jamming my foot down on the gas.
I hated losing.
Both hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as I increased the pressure of my foot. I could see Joseph flying across the yellow lines of the crosswalk in a blur. I glanced one last time at the green light before lowering my eyes back to Joseph.
It came out of nowhere, in the adjacent crossway, a dark blue sedan with tinted windows. His light had to be red, or just turned red. He didn't stop, he flew right through the stoplight at the same time Joseph was going through it. I don't think Joseph even noticed.
The sound of metal hitting metal exploded in my head as I watched the scene unfold right before my eyes. There was this horrible screeching, a spew of silver and red sparks, twisted wheels, pieces of rubber flying, and broken glass. Both vehicles were locked together, skidding right toward me. I yanked hard on the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes at the same time, horrified at the sight, my face contorted in a terrified mask. My own car let out this rumbling, shrieking sound as I forced the tires to turn in a direction the car didn't want to go. My car spun around three times before I hit the back bumper on a lamppost. I could hear glass shattering, more metal crunching. The car ran up over the curb near a blue newspaper stand and came to a grinding stop.
Everything became eerily quiet. I could hear the labored gasps of my own breathing. My hands still clenched tightly to the steering wheel. I was disoriented at first, my eyes shifting wildly around me, trying to figure out where I was, which direction I was facing. Then I looked in the rearview mirror. I could see both vehicles still attached to each other, lying deathly still in the middle of the street.
With trembling hands I fought with my seatbelt, trying to free myself. Joseph! My brain screamed, Joseph is in there!
I pushed open the door with all the force I could muster. It creaked and groaned as I shoved my shoulder against it. My mind was spinning. I stumbled twice, nearly falling to my knees as I made my way along the dark. There he was! I could see him. His hand was moving, I could reach him.
I'm coming Joseph! I'm coming! Just hang on.
And then the whole thing burst into flames.
Cassie let out this little shriek as Ben shoved me up against the wall, gripping both my arms in his hands roughly.
I was still struggling with him, trying to get him to let me loose. Clay was just standing there, staring at me, this fucking little smirk on his face. I wanted to kill that bastard.
"Matthew! Calm the fuck down!" Ben was stronger than I remembered. I shoved my body against his, using my elbows to hit him in the chest.
"Get off me!" I grunted, the red haze was still there, fueling me on.
Ben huffed at the the impact but didn't back down, he pushed back against me with the same amount of force. "Dammit Matthew! Are you drunk?"
My breath hitched at his words. Those words hurt me more than any force Ben could use, because I knew, I knew that from here on out it was always going to be the first same fucking thing everyone was going to think whenever I did or said anything they didn't like.
"No!" Her voice was suddenly louder than everyone in the room. "No Ben, stop. Let him go."
Her voice filled my ears, sent a surge of emotion pour through me. I suddenly lost my will to fight, my arms falling limply to my sides in defeat. Ben felt my body relax and he loosened his grip slightly.
Everyone in the room was frozen except for Sarah; she didn't look like she was in shock anymore. She rose from the sofa, this determined look on her face. It made my heart start racing because she looked almost angry, at Ben.
She walked right up to me with long purposeful strides. When she reached me, she placed on hand on Ben's arm. "Let him go Ben." she said quietly, her voice firm.
Ben took a step back, his eyes darting back and forth between Sarah and I. I could feel my hands flexing at my sides, not from anger but from having Sarah so close to me. I lifted my eyes to hers as she took this tiny step closer to me. Her hand lifted ever so slightly as her eyes searched mine. My first instinct was that she was going to slap me, she should've slapped me, I deserved it, I was acting like an ass.
But she didn't, instead she took in this deep shaky breath, her hand slowing rising up to my face. She didn't touch me, her hand ghosted near my jawline towards the end of my chin. She stayed that way a few seconds and I didn't move, didn't want to move. I wanted to lean my face into her hand and close my eyes, my entire body ached for her, for her touch. I just stood still, watching her. Her eyes rose to mine again and she finally spoke.
"You need to go Matthew," her voice was soft, "You're angry, it's scaring everyone. You need to go." Her words fell over me in a gentle caress, she wasn't trying to hurt me with her words, I could see that clearly, she was trying to protect me. "I know you're not drunk." she whispered pulling her hand back, her voice shook slightly.
Neither of us moved for a few seconds but there was something in her eyes, some little shadow of hope, it sparkled and glistened inside me, that tiny bit of love in her voice.
It was agonizing to walk away from her. To leave her there in Ben's house knowing Clay was in there with her. But somehow her words gave me the courage to leave, and the hope that maybe I hadn't lost her, maybe she was still mine, maybe she still loved me.
The roar of the fire filled my ears and the searing heat hit me like a giant wave, sending me sprawling backwards, spilling to the pavement. I crawled forward until I could see straight again, jumping up and running towards the flames. Joseph was in there, I had to get him out.
I could hear the sirens in the background, people who had been eating in one of the nearby restaurants had come out, standing on the street pointing and gasping.
Huge balls of black smoke were pouring into the night sky, filling it like a haunted cloud, making me cough and gag. But I was almost there, I was so close.
I peered into the flames looking for Joseph. I could see the top of his helmet lying there unmoving.
The firemen were running towards me, waving their hands in the air, yelling at me to get away, get back. Women were screaming, covering their eyes with their hands. The flickering orange and red were all around me, the heat was unbearable, but I couldn't stop, wouldn't stop, nothing could make me stop.
Just then I saw it move, Joseph's helmet, it made a sudden jerking movement and I cried out his name hoping he could hear me.
"Joseph! I'm here! Hang on!"
And then he lifted his head, his visor was down all twisted and melted and gnarled. I didn't think he could see me but then I saw his eyes.
And they warned me.
Get away! They were round and wide. Run!
But I wasn't going to run, I could reach him, I could do it.
The rough force of the firemen's hands yanked me backward, their yells falling on deaf ears. I tried to shake them off of me, push them away, but they overpowered me, grabbing onto me and pulling me back.
"No!" I yelled at them. "No!"
But they didn't listen, they just kept pulling, wrapping their arms tightly around my torso and dragging me away.
I still kept struggling, trying to break free. I could see two or three firemen running near the flames, squatting down, trying to reach Joseph, they almost had him, almost.
The last thing I remember is another woman shrieking as a huge orange ball of fire exploded in front of us. Thick, black smoke rained down around us, people were running and shouting.
The firemen pulled me down to the ground, throwing themselves on top of me, shielding my head with their arms. Tiny burning ashes floated down from the sky, glowing bright red for just a brief second before burning out as they landed on the hard concrete.
There was more yelling, more sirens, more confusion, panic, fear, and then nothing...empty, black, meaningless nothing...
We buried Joseph four days later. He was supposed to be on his honeymoon, instead he was in the ground.
Everyone wept quietly around me, it was a tragic accident, they all whispered, so senseless, why did it have to happen?
I didn't answer. I stood icy hard at his grave, my face emotionless. Their whispers swirled all around me, their voices soft and mournful, yet it sounded so accusing to my own ears. My eyes stayed glued to the pile of dirt where my brother lay. I wanted to shove my hands over my ears and squeeze my eyes shut to block them all out.
I knew why my brother was in the ground instead of standing next to me. I knew why the accident had happened.
It was because of me.
Because I made him stay and practice that fucking song one more time. Because I convinced him of the fucking brilliant idea that Roxy would have loved that song, and because he loved Roxy, because he loved me, he stayed. I made him late, if we had just left ten minutes earlier we wouldn't be standing here.
I never told Sarah or Roxy about that song. I never told anyone. And it ate at me, consumed me, turned me into someone I didn't even know. And that new guy, the one it turned me into, I hated him. I blamed him. I wanted to hurt him, make him suffer. So I did. And no amount of love from anyone was going to change that...