I slung my guitar over my back, grabbed the bouquet of carnations, then pounded my feet into the soft earth of the desolate cemetery. The scent of rain hung in the air, and the dark ominous clouds threatened to open up at any minute.
I sneezed. The May weather had been quite rainy, jacking up my allergies. A headache loomed as my eyes watered. It didn’t help that the light wind carried with it pollen and fresh-cut grass, making my nose itch to the point I wanted to sneeze again.
Passing a headstone on my way to the apple tree, my body shook as I let loose a massive sneeze, not once but three times. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. Not the most sanitary thing to do, but I’d forgotten the wad of tissues I had in my truck.
A lawn mower buzzed. Scanning the area, I let out a thankful sigh when I spotted the groundskeeper on the far side of the cemetery. Grass clippings were far worse for my allergies than the sea of flowers dotting the landscape or the bouquet in my hand.
My runny nose went by the wayside as I approached Mandy’s grave. Six years ago today, Mandy’s family, friends, the entire student body of Kensington High School, my brothers, my dad, and anyone in town who knew Mandy had gathered at her gravesite in Ashford, Massachusetts. We’d paid our respects to the beautiful, vibrant, and sweet girl, who I couldn’t get out of my head. A sting in my heart had settled in on that gloomy and abysmal day, and even years later, it felt as strong as ever. I’d met Mandy on the first day of school, and I would never forget how her brown eyes lit up, how she smiled as though I was the only person in the hallway, or how she shied away, flirty and beautiful, when I returned the smile.
I placed the bouquet of flowers on the ledge of her gravestone before I unhooked my guitar and sat down on the damp and dewy grass. Another sneeze wracked my body. Damn, I would have to take an extra dose of allergy medicine later. Once I cleared my eyes and nose, I started strumming my guitar. Every year, I visited her grave and always played a song from her favorite artist, Sarah McLachlan. I hummed the tune before I started singing out loud. “You’re in the arms of an angel. May you find some comfort here.”
As I played and sang, goose bumps blanketed my body. The song was so powerful, but it also brought back so many memories. I’d always told her she was my angel, a light who had shone on my darkest days. She’d taken away my sadness, lifted me out of my depression, made me laugh again, and above all else, gave me a purpose to live… until her death. I had moped around like a zombie after my sister’s fatal accident. That depression consumed me once again when Mandy died, and it still lingered to this day.
I picked at my guitar, blending the words of the song into a low, soft hum. Tears pricked at my eyes as I remembered our phone call just before Mandy had crashed on her motorcycle. She’d been spooked when she’d run into a nemesis of my brother, Kade’s, at a gas station outside of town. I’d told her to ignore Greg Sullivan and get on the road. Deep down, I blamed myself for her death. If I hadn’t urged her to get the fuck away from Sullivan as fast as she could, she still might be alive, although I also blamed Sullivan. I’d always believed he chased her out of that gas station and through the back roads of Lancaster that day. But the police, with all their calculations of tire marks, ruled her death an accident.
My dad had said to put the past behind me. We didn’t have evidence to prove otherwise, and I had to get on with my life. Easier said than done.
Over the years, I’d slipped into a routine. I didn’t date that much, and when I did, I found older women who didn’t want a serious relationship. I couldn’t bring myself to let anyone in. My psychiatrist, Dr. Davis, said some people took years to move on with their lives.
I wiped away the tears, staring at Mandy’s headstone. The epitaph read, “Mandy Louise Shear, loving daughter, tomboy, and sweet soul.” She was more than a sweet soul. She was life, happiness, and the girl who still had a strong hold on my heart.
I would give anything to change the past and that fateful day so I could have another chance with her—another chance to hold her hand, to hear her laugh, to snuggle with her on the couch as we watched action movies—instead of visiting her gravesite, mourning her loss.
A soft breeze blew as I began picking at my guitar again. I sang another of Sarah’s songs, “I Will Remember You.” Mandy had been the one to turn me on to Sarah, and since then, I listened to Sarah’s music any chance I had.
My eyes drifted shut as my fingers glided over the strings. I sang softly until someone sniffled behind me.
I popped to my feet and found Mandy’s mom with tears flowing down her rosy cheeks. My body stiffened. She reminded me so much of Mandy, with her dark hair framing her face and her big brown eyes. As my breathing increased, I was glad I hadn’t seen Mrs. Shear in years. Memories of Mandy began to skip through my brain, and one in particular stuck out. She and her mom had walked into the local coffee shop in Ashford the first day I’d met Mandy at school. I’d been sitting at a table, doing homework, when the bell on the door jingled. Mandy and her mom had come in, laughing, and I remembered how the two could’ve passed for sisters.
Mrs. Shear craned her neck to look up at me as she wiped her tears. “Sarah was Mandy’s favorite. She would’ve loved hearing you sing.”
I frowned. I hadn’t been playing the guitar or singing when I’d met Mandy. We’d both loved music, but I hadn’t taken up the guitar until after her funeral. Music had become my healer, a way for me to cope, a way for me to get lost in my own world—one that didn’t include death or unhappiness.
Mrs. Shear skirted around me to place one white rose on top of the carnations. “Mandy adored roses, white ones in particular. She always said that a white rose was the prettiest of all the colors.”
Mandy had had a thing for the color white. When I’d asked her why, she had always said it was because no one picked that color as their favorite, and she liked to be different. And different she’d been. She was the first girl at Kensington High to play on a boys’ baseball team. She rode motorcycles and dirt bikes and loved fast cars. On Sundays during football season, I couldn’t tear her away from a New England Patriots game. When I’d tried to make out with her during a game, she would push me away. My brothers had always laughed at me.
Kade had said, “Dude, you have to marry that girl someday.”
A pain as sharp as a tack stabbed me in the chest, but I smiled anyway.
Mrs. Shear touched my hand. “Kody.”
I blinked away the memory.
“I saw your parents at church last week. Your mom tells me you haven’t found a girlfriend yet. As much as I miss and love my daughter, we all have to get on with our lives. She would want you to find that special someone.”
I swallowed the huge-ass lump in my throat. She was right. Dr. Davis was right, and even my father was right. I just couldn’t kick the tight feeling in my chest, and I didn’t know why. I felt like it was just yesterday that Mandy and I had been kissing or lying on the baseball field at Kensington High, laughing and talking about everything and nothing.
“It’s hard,” I said. So fucking hard.
She gave me a hug. “I know. But what helps me is Mandy died doing what she loved, and as much as I hated her riding, I would never have stopped her because motorcycles made her happy. There are risks in everything we do on a daily basis. Just remember that.”
My phone rang, startling both of us. Mrs. Shear let go of me as I fumbled for my phone in the pocket of my jeans. By the time I plucked it out, the ringing had stopped.
“I should call my dad back.” My dad hardly called when he was working unless he needed something. Maybe he wanted me to bring him lunch. I could go for something to eat. “It was great to see you.” I hiked my guitar over my shoulder.
Mrs. Shear gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Take care of yourself.”
Nodding, I hoofed it back to my truck, tapping my dad’s name on my phone. “What’s up?”
“I need you to get to the hospital.” His voice was sharp, but shaky. “I had to take your mother to the emergency room, and someone needs to sit with Raven.”
My hunger pangs turned to nausea as my heart stopped. “Is Mom okay? What happened?” The cemetery narrowed to a pinpoint.
“I’ll explain when you get here.” The phone went dead.
My dad was always the calm one in the family unless the situation involved my mom. I didn’t blame him. My brothers and I were the same when it came to our mom. She’d been so fragile after Karen had died, and rightfully so. She’d been the one to find her daughter dead on the garage floor.
My guitar bounced on my back as I sprinted the rest of the way to my truck. My mind scrambled, while my insides felt as if someone had taken a knife and carved a hole in my gut.
In a flash, I was driving through the streets of Ashford. Thankfully, the neighborhoods were quiet as I tried not to speed through stop signs. Within ten minutes, I was plowing through the emergency room doors like a bulldozer on steroids, trying to regulate my breathing, which was erratic—and not from running.
The minute I was inside, the scent of cleaning fluid knocked me back a step as I searched the room full of waiting patients. A little boy cried on his mother’s lap. Two people waited in line at the information counter. Doctors sped by with nurses at their sides.
I despised hospitals. I hated the atmosphere and the memories that surfaced anytime I was in one. But I wasn’t there to remember how I’d lived in a hospital for quite some time when Sullivan and his cronies had beaten me to a pulp.
My dad was nowhere to be found, which didn’t surprise me. As a psychiatrist, he had several colleagues who worked there, and he knew most of the staff as well.
I dialed his number. “Where are you? I’m here.” I bit on a nail, my pulse still off the charts. If anything happened to my mom, I wouldn’t recover.
“I’ll be right out.” The line went dead.
In less than a minute, he stalked out from a door adjacent to the information counter, with Raven bouncing in his arms. My dad looked like an older version of Kade—tall, light-brown hair, and eyes to match—eyes that were clouded with tears.
Fear writhed through me, creating a large knot that grew tighter and tighter the closer he got. “Tell me.”
Raven extended her arms. “Uncle Kody.” Her bright-blue eyes and smile told me she didn’t know what was going on.
I opened my arms to my adorable five-year-old niece, who was sporting two black pigtails. “Hey, bumblebee.” My brother Kross always called his little girl his bumblebee.
She giggled as she latched her tiny arms around my neck.
“Your mom was experiencing chest pains,” Dad said. “We’re waiting on the doctor now. Can you take Raven home? I’ll let you know as soon as I hear something.”
“I’m not leaving.” No way. I wanted to be there in the event that something happened. I would rather bite my nails and pace the halls of the hospital than wait at home, only to rush through the streets again. “I’ll head down to the cafeteria. Maybe they’ll have some ice cream.” I kept my voice soft and light. I didn’t want to scare Raven any more than she might have been already, although she didn’t show any signs that she was sad or afraid for my mom.
Raven wiggled in my arms. “I want cookie dough.”
“Kody,” Dad said. “Let’s not worry your brothers right now.”
Driving over there, I hadn’t exactly been thinking about my brothers, but they needed to know. Kade would be more furious than anyone if we didn’t call him. If the roles were reversed and I weren’t close by, I would have wanted him to call me. After all, as brothers, we kept each other informed of everything, especially when it came to family. But since Mom wasn’t in immediate danger, it was probably best to wait until she saw the doctor. Besides, Kross and Ruby were out of town for one of his boxing matches, and Kade and Kelton lived in Boston, which was about an hour’s drive, depending on traffic. We didn’t need them speeding down the highway to get there and running the risk of an accident.
Dad vanished through the double doors. With Raven in my arms, I followed the signs to the cafeteria, chills wracking my body. I prayed with each step that nothing was seriously wrong with my mom.
“Uncle Kody.” My niece’s voice was so sweet. “Do you think Nana will be okay?”
Maybe she was a little freaked after all.
“The doctor will take good care of her.” I couldn’t lie to her and tell her that my mom would be fine. If she weren’t, then Raven would always remember that I was the one who said Nana would be okay. Then she would hate me. I wasn’t into lying, anyway. Lies led to distrust, and those were two things I hated. “Maybe the cafeteria will have ice cream that tastes like honey. Because you know bees like honey.” I had to take her mind and mine off Nana.
She rolled her eyes as we navigated the halls of the hospital, passing nurses and doctors, and patients in wheelchairs. “I told you I want cookie dough.”
“Have you been talking to the cookie monster?”
She shrugged. “Maybe.” Then she giggled.
Once in the cafeteria, I set her on two feet and held her hand. She broke free and ran up to the case of desserts and sweets. I would bet she was eyeing the cupcakes. Aside from ice cream, she loved cupcakes. She had helped me bake a batch the week prior.
Two male doctors paid for their coffees then headed toward the tables behind us. I checked the menu. If they sold ice cream, they probably didn’t have cookie dough, only the basics.
Raven ran back to me, pointing at the assorted sweets. “I want that cupcake with the blue frosting.”
I bent over slightly. “What about ice cream?”
She shook her head, her pigtails swinging. “Cupcake, please.”
The young girl behind the counter, who was dressed in a red uniform, removed the cupcake from the case before I could give her our order. “You can’t deny a pretty girl a cupcake.”
I couldn’t. No one in the family could deny Raven much except maybe her mom, Ruby. She was strict with Raven on sweets. “They ruin your teeth,” she’d said many times to her daughter. They also gave Raven a sugar high, and at times, she would bounce off the walls with tons of energy. But I was her uncle, and uncles gave their nieces what they wanted, within reason, of course.
The young brunette helping us asked, “And for you, sir?”
“I’ll take a milk for my niece, and I’ll have a black coffee.” I didn’t go for the fancy coffee drinks. Black and strong was how I liked mine.
I pulled out my wallet and paid. Once the bill was settled, I went to grab Raven’s hand, but she was gone. As I turned, a dark thought flickered through my head. Raven had been kidnapped once by a thug who’d had a beef with her mother, and in a busy place, no less. But the cafeteria wasn’t busy and had only six people sitting at tables that were scattered around the room.
“She’s over in the corner,” the brunette said, seeing what must have been horror on my face.
I spotted Raven standing at a table beside a lady who was picking apart a tissue as though she was plucking the petals off a flower. I faltered where I stood. I blinked what felt like a hundred times then set my sights on the lady in a flowered top.
“You see her?” the cashier asked.
Oh, I saw more than my niece. I muttered curses under my breath, swearing like a sailor because the lady in scrubs could have passed for Mandy. Then I shook off that notion. I had Mandy on the brain, especially just coming from the cemetery.
Blowing out a quiet breath, I collected our food and said thank you to the cashier. As I crossed the room around tables, I kept my eye on the nurse, who was now smiling at something Raven was saying. If I weren’t so darn freaked out by the uncanny resemblance between her and Mandy, I might have been able to hear what Raven was saying.
I set the food on the table beside my niece and the nurse, admiring the myriad of blond, red, and brown colors woven in her long hair.
“Why are you crying?” Raven asked the woman.
I squatted down by my niece’s side. “Let’s leave the lady alone.” I had the urge to run like the wind. For some odd reason, my palms were sweating. I hadn’t felt like this since Mandy.
“She’s a nurse,” Raven said. “Her name is Jessie.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at my niece, but I dared not look at the pretty lady. I was afraid I would lose my shit since I’d been so emotional at Mandy’s gravesite, and I might do something as foolish as ask Jessie to marry me. Regardless, I couldn’t be rude. Whenever my mom cried, it ripped out my heart, and even though I didn’t know Jessie, I could feel her sorrow as though it were my own. No one should be sad. No one should be crying, and if so, someone should be there to console her or catch her when she falls.
I slowly averted my gaze from Raven to Jessie, and when I did, a sense of relief washed over me, or more like that stabbing pain in my chest subsided to a dull ache. Up close, she didn’t look as much like Mandy as I’d first thought. Her chocolate eyes were darker, she had a pierced eyebrow, a tattoo of a skull on her right ring finger, and thick, full lips, top and bottom.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Jessie. “Raven is a social butterfly.”
Raven stuck her hands on her hips. “Hey, I’m a bumblebee, remember?”
Jessie giggled, setting her chocolate-brown eyes on me. Holy hell. My knees went weak, my mouth went dry, and my heartbeat flew off the fucking charts. The last time I’d gotten that stomach-swirling, light-tingling feeling had been when I laid eyes on Mandy for the first time back in the ninth grade.
“She’s a cutie pie,” Jessie gushed. “She looks just like you.”
And my brother Kelton, and Raven’s daddy, Kross.
Raven slid into a chair opposite Jessie as though she was settling in for a long conversation. “Uncle Kody is a triplet.”
I rose to my full height. “Let’s give Jessie some space.”
Jessie wrapped her long fingers around her coffee cup. “It’s okay. I need to get back to work.”
“Don’t leave,” Raven whined.
Jessie sniffled. “Sorry. My break is over. I have to take care of patients.”
Setting her hands on the table, Raven interlocked her fingers. “Will you take care of my nana? Her name is Eleanor Maxwell.”
Jessie slanted her pretty gaze at me.
Again, my knees wobbled. “My mom was rushed in earlier for chest pains.”
“I don’t work in the emergency room, but I have a friend who does,” Jessie said.
“You really don’t have to go.” Some force of nature was drawing me to her like magnets to metal.
She gave me another groin-throbbing smile. “Sorry. I do.” Then she glided over to the trash can, deposited her tissue and coffee cup, and left.
I dropped into her warm chair, completely dumbfounded that in a matter of minutes, my body had gone through several emotions—shock, a lightheaded feeling, fear, and the urge to take away her sadness. Out of all that, fear resonated the loudest. Of all the women I’d dated over the years, none—not one—had made my heart flip out like Jessie had a moment ago, and that alone made me pause.
I blew out two quiet breaths as I reached over to the other table and grabbed our food. “Here’s your cupcake.”
Raven dove into the chocolate goodie while I opened her milk. Then I took a sip of my coffee, hoping the caffeine would calm my nerves. My mom was in the hospital, today was the anniversary of Mandy’s death, and I had just met a woman—a very curvy, buxom, beautiful, and sad woman—who I wanted to know more about. But I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t risk my heart only for God to take her away from me.
Dr. Davis had counseled me on such thoughts. “You can’t live believing anyone you love will die.”
It was hard to believe otherwise when darkness and despair were the norms in my family. My sister had died. Mandy had died. My mom had spent time in a mental health facility. At times, my mom’s despair had nearly been enough to kill me and the rest of my family.
Concentrate on your music career instead of wallowing in the past. I was trying to develop a positive attitude, to look forward and not back. But I was having a hard time. My goal was to sign with a record label. I’d sent CDs of my songs to various record producers, only to be told they weren’t interested in my music. I had yet to hear from several others. Mr. Robinson, who was a big-time record producer and the father of Kade’s girl, Lacey, had advised me to be patient. At one point, I’d considered applying to Berklee College of Music, and that option was still viable. I knew trying to kick-start a music career without any credentials behind me might be tough, but I wanted to try to make it on my own. I wasn’t into sitting in a classroom all day, either.
“Uncle Kody,” Raven said, bringing me back to reality.
Her bottom lip trembled. “I want to go see Nana.”
“Good idea.” I was dying to see my mom too, but I wasn’t sure if the doctor would let us in.
I cleaned Raven’s face, gathered our half-eaten food, and deposited everything in the trash can. Once we were in the hall, I lifted Raven in my arms.
“Can we find Jessie too?” Raven asked.
I chuckled. “Nana first.”
The little girl had to be in my head. Even though my heart wasn’t ready to test the waters, I’d been thinking that very thing.
Copyright 2017 – S.B. Alexander