Fresh, crisp air spread like fingers through our valley. The valley we lived in. It was ParadiseValley, a place no one knew about outside of our little bustling town. Early summer and everyone was in full bloom. The sun shined warmly and brightly down on us, in the way it usually did. I stared up at it, sheltering my eyes. It should be raining, but Matt would've preferred it this way.
Gwen was sitting on the ground in her best dress. One I only see at weddings and funerals. The one she loved and hated. It was hot pink, her favorite color. Strapless and going down just above her knees. I stood in the doorway, watching her sing to herself. It was beautiful, how peaceful she was and how graceful she was alone. I leaned against the door frame, gazing at the enchanting angel that I was secretly in love with. I couldn't tell her though; she'd never want me like I want her. I smiled, adoring her. Her hair was dark and curly, bouncing around her shoulders like a tropical Shirley Temple. 'Cept she had that one blonde streak, just one curly little strand of white-blonde. She was born with it, she was unique. Little freckles spotted her cheeks. Just a few though; she didn't freckle much. Dark tan stretched over her body, making her radiate heat. Her hazely-brown eyes, surrounded by long, long dark lashes, stared at the ground, coaxing and working her magic.
As I stood in the villa house door way, a flower bloomed. A picturesque white rose was twisting its way to her fingertips, balancing gingerly on its newly formed stem. I stared, awe-struck, at her natural born gift of creation. I considered her to be an angel. The ground and water yielded to her soft, gentle hands. She was capable and strong, tough as nails but a little girl on the inside.
I was staring blankly, thinking about how and why she was so talented when I got that piercing feeling. "Jon," She hid the flower from my gaze, self-conscious and blushing. "Gwen, you don't have to hide from me."
She sighed, "I know I don't...I just get afraid it won't be someone who knows next time..." Her gaze dropped to the pure, unscathed rose. "Jon..." Her bottom lip trembled and she refused to look at me. "Please go, I don't want you to see me this way."
I stepped into her garden, the dreamy backyard off the HGTV channel everyone wished they had. She crouched away from me, "Go away!" She yelled, her voice heavy with the tears I knew she was holding back. "You know he was my friend, too. I miss him. A lot, Gwen." I walked slowly over to her, knowing at any moment she could get hostile. I crouched down in my good clothes next to her. "Gwen," I put an arm around her shoulders, trying to be comforting. "He would want you to be happy, you know that right?" I consoled her quietly and in my most soothing voice.
She didn't speak, just shut her eyes tight. I'd known her for years; I knew exactly what was coming next. Her body shook as she launched herself into my arms, sobbing loud and streaming tears all down her cheeks. "Gwen," I spoke softly and rubbed her back, holding her to my chest. I wanted to make this better, but I couldn't heal her. She cried and cried, her tears staining one of my only nice shirts but I didn't care. "Shh...shh. Gwen I'm here for you, okay? Nothing changed between you and me, we're still best friends and I'm still gonna be here, okay?" She nodded meekly into my chest, her body collapsing. "We're going to be late," I whispered, rubbing up and down her arms. She stood on shaky feet and gripped my hand, surprising me. She's holding my hand.
I wanted to tell her that I cared about her, right there. But, it was the last thing she needed today. I didn't wanna take advantage of her feelings...I cared too much about her. Before we left, she picked her delicate rose. "For him," she whispered, tears catching in the petals.
"He always admired your art," I said, trying to make her show a heart stopping smile. "He was like me, I owe him a tribute," she murmured.
But it wasn't a good day for that.
We were in the car a few minutes later, she had been insistent on not wearing shoes. She felt more connected that way. I knew what she could do...she told me all those years ago. I didn't argue. I stared at her from the driver's side. She looked like a cherub. I wanted to tell her how amazing she was...but I couldn't muster up the courage to.
"Jon...why did this happen to Matthew? He was...all I had." Her throat was filling with tears again, I heard it. I touched her hand with the utmost care. "I don't know why stuff happens to the best of us Gwen, but I do know that I'm here for you now. You got me."
She smiled a watery smile. "Jon," a tear ran down her cheek, "Thank you." I nodded as we pulled into the church parking lot, filled to the brim with cars and people. She had a heavy heart and her body froze. I patted her hand. "Time to face the giants."
I got out and walked around to Gwen's side door. I opened it up for her and tugged her out gently. She nudged a pretty pink flower I hadn't seen before behind her ear and looked at me. "Will you sit with me? I can't do this alone..." I nodded and shoved my hands into my pockets. "Yeah, course."
She smiled a bit and put her arm through mine and walked unsteadily and unsure to the church. Tears threatened but didn't faze Gwen as we entered the church.
Black was a trending color.
Everything was tainted deep black around us...even the church seemed to be a dim black with grief. I shuddered, thinking about the color. Black was death...
Black is Matt.
Gwen, though, shined as she normally did. She never blended in; she stood out like a beacon in the night. She was getting nervous next to me, her hands pulling at her dress. It seemed like everyone in our small town had come to remember Matt. I mean who wouldn't? Matt was a great guy, I can't argue with that. In small town, USA, everyone knows everyone.
I bit my cheek, looking toward the front of the church, suddenly wishing I hadn't. The blackness became blacker as my eyes couldn't be torn from the big, black casket. With Matt inside. I gulped hard as I finally knew Matt would never be coming back again. Gwen was fighting the emotions as the rose dropped from her hands. She was shaking, her hands barely able to keep from quaking. I leaned down and picked up the rose as she walked down the center aisle. Her face was dazed as she turned in a lost sea of black. People rushed to her,
"He was very kind."
"He'll never be forgotten."
"The hurt will pass."
"So sorry, we're here for you."
Over and over, they gripped her hand, telling her it'll be okay. But she was too far gone to notice. I rushed over to her, hoping to calm her nightmare. She was turning away from people, just wanting to be closer to Matt.
She moved through the crowd, ignoring her friends and the kids at school. I grabbed her arm, just before her fingers grazed the casket.
I pulled her to the front pew, sitting her down and looking into her eyes. "Gwen, he's not in there." I said, trying to keep her gaze. Her lip was trembling and her eyes shut. I kneeled in front of her. "I won't believe it," she said, her fists clenching. I gaped, opening and closing my mouth like fish outta water. Jessi and Edd, our longtime friends made their way to us, morning like everyone else. We hung around with them a lot, and I knew seeing them meant the world to Gwen. Jessi was skinny and had straight, long blonde hair and these bright blue eyes...like a model. Edd was tall, like me, but had orangey hair and freckles speckling his body. Jessi put a hand on Gwen's shoulder. I moved away, allowing them room.
"Gwen," someone said so faintly it was like a dream. I turned and saw Patience standing in a daze near Gwen. Gwen stood slowly on shaking knees and looked at her. They hugged and broke down in sobs together. It was one of the saddest things I had ever watched. Unsure of what to do, I tried to be discrete. Patience soon collapsed onto the pew and Gwen stayed at her side. Patience was one of the nicest girls I knew. She was one of the only people that understood Matt as good as Gwen, his own baby sister. Patience was Matt's girlfriend; one of the only girls that could love Matt as much as Gwen could and soon she was to be a bride. Matt's bride. Gwen rubbed her back and tried not to fall into grief.
I should have gone over there. I should have saved Gwen from that moment. But I was stuck where I stood. Right next to Matt. My stomach began to sink. I stood with Edd when I knew Gwen wouldn't have a meltdown. Edd looked at the casket. "Matt...I don't know what to say..." Edd began, one hand in pocket, the other scratching the back of his head nervously. "He's gone..." I murmured lost in thought about how...good Matt had been.
He was one of those guys that in a world where no one was nice anymore or cared anymore, Matt did. He was like, the perfect guy. One of God's other angels. Like Gwen, he was 'talented' with the water and earth. He bended it at will. He played football, helped people and was just plain good. He really would be missed.
"Should we say something?" I whispered, looking at the closed and final home for him. Edd shuffled his feet. "I don't know what to say..."
I walked over, a few feet closer with Edd at my side. "Uhh...Hey Matt. We miss ya, a lot. You've always been a good friend to me...Don't worry about Gwen...I'll take care of her. I guess this is good bye then. I can't imagine a better friend or better kind-of older brother. Thanks for the life lessons. Well...Bye."
Edd wiped his nose, "I'm always gonna miss him. Wish he didn't go."
I nodded, "What will Gwen do now?" Edd looked at me and shook his head. I looked back at the nervous little girl who was looking at me.
Soon we were all seated. Gwen's mom, Gwen, me, Jessi and Edd. Altogether, sitting in the front. The rest of our town and friends and families sat behind us, sniffling, crying or straight faced. Our preacher began with a soft opening hymn. Amazing Grace. That had everyone crying; even I cried a bit. Gwen looked at our preacher, not even wanting to sing. I don't understand why; she liked singing. When we were seated, our preacher began with scripture about how every life is precious and how Matt will be missed because he was a beautiful soul. "God does everything for a reason and Matt is gonna soar on the wings of eagles to his forever home in heaven."
Gwen wiped her eyes and held her mom's hand. Ms. Pallara, Gwen's mom, was a flurry of tears. She kept dabbing her eyes, looking at the casket, then the scripture, and cried more. I rubbed my temples, thinking hard about Matt and Gwen and how I felt obligated to take care of her.
It continued on, slow and sad. More than sad - morbid. Gwen put her hand in mine sometime during the middle of his sermon. I smiled, then felt like a jerk 'cause I was smiling at a funeral. I squeezed her hand and nodded at her. She laid her head on me as the songs progressed on. I squeezed her hand and finally came time for the burial. Half of the town went to the burial. The pastor spoke for only a short time. "Matthew was a boy like no other. He was a leader, friend, kind soul, teammate, and strong, faithful man. I admired him and even though he may be gone, his spirit is still among us. In our day to day, in our hearts. To honor such a boy, I just say, show the love and compassion he showed." The choir started up with yet another hymn. It was a closing song.
Everyone had arisen so they could walk past his casket and say good bye. Friends from school stopped by Gwen, to give their condolences and hug her. She smiled a bit and thanked each person for supporting her and Matt. A lot of football players stopped by her, to hug her and talk to her. They were family to her and it made her feel better to have them there I guess. I stood at a distance with Edd, waiting to take Gwen home.
After everyone had passed, Gwen was standing there. Alone. She wasn't exactly alone, her mother was there. But Gwen never imagined her as 'mother'. It had been Matt that took care of her, mom was just a face.
Jessi and Edd watched Gwen next to me. Gwen was crying but she needed this moment. She needed Matt. She needed a moment to realize that he isn't going to come home. Tears were falling. I couldn't stand to see her alone! I should have run to her, right then. She needed someone. She needed me.
Gwen was talking to herself, whispering, her lips moving but barely making a sound. She stared down at the casket, her hands shaking as she placed the white rose on top. "I...I love you," was the only thing I heard her say.
Gwen was silent the entire way back to her house. I turned to look at her and I sighed. She was asleep, her head lying against the window, and tears on her cheeks.
Is she okay? Is she sick? Is she depressed?
I pulled into her driveway and stared at the small house.
Matt breathed into that place, Matt brought life and love to Gwen's world. She didn't need to be there anymore. Her mom wasn't going to help, she'd fall into depression. Gwen said her and Matt were linked... she was prone to too many things now. What if she decided to kill herself? It made me sick and looking at her then... I had promised Matt to keep her safe and I was going to make sure she was okay.
I ran into her house and threw her back pack over my shoulder, then out again. I put it in the back seat of my car and drove to my house. She wouldn't have to stay there. I wouldn't let her. Gwen stirred just as we pulled into the drive. "Where am I?"
"My house." She sat up straight, her eyes opening wider. "What?"
"I brought you here...so you can be okay here."
"Why not my house?" She rubbed her eyes and yawned. My heart kinda jumped a bit as she did.
"Because, you need to be away from that. You should visit just for a little while."
She twisted her fingers and after what seemed like ages of thought, she nodded, "Okay."
I got out and grabbed her backpack, then opened up the door for her. She got out, looking at my house, then bit the inside of her lip. She pulled at the hem of the dress, then looked at me.
"Are you sure I should be here?"
"Gwen, mom adores you. You're like family. Don't worry." I walked her up to the front and walked her inside. I laid her bag down as mom called, "Jon, is that-"
She stopped and smiled at Gwen with that soft, mom smile. She whipped her hands on a towel and looked at us, at her. "Hey Gwen, I sure missed your company lately." Mom hugged Gwen, who seemed to be getting smaller, like she was shrinking.
"I was just making spaghetti. Want some?"
I nodded and so did Gwen, "Yes please."
Gwen was curled up on the couch under a blanket when mom sat a plate in front of her. Mom treated her like a daughter - her only daughter with three boys. We'd known Gwen for ages and mom considered her as her own. She sat down next to her, observing Gwen's lack of appetite.
"Gweny, you barely touched your food."
She sat up, "Oh..."
"Maybe it's just your cooking," I snickered. Mom smiled a bit, "Oh, hush."
Gwen tried to force her fake smile, "No Ms. Molly, I love your cooking... I'm just not hungry."
I looked at mom, then at Gwen. "Mom said you can stay here!"
Mom stared at me, her eyes wide for a moment. Then it fell upon Gwen. Gwen knew I had just made that up and was now stuck in that awkward moment with us. She was staring with her giant, shining eyes. Her little hands pulled at the blanket. "No, I'm not staying here. I can't... You have a big family and I'm just..." Her voice dropped suddenly and so did her head, "A space taker..." her whisper barely made it past her lips.
I sat down on the floor near the coffee table and looked at my mom.
"I want you to stay, Gweny." Mom put an arm around Gwen. I sighed and breathed a bit better. Perfect. Thank you, mom. Gwen needed us. Her self esteem was low... she was timid, quiet when she was nervous. She needed us. She felt like her mom didn't know or love her. We could be that family.
Mom was the perfect mom.
"You can stay in Jon's room. Kyle's at home for a few weeks." Mom said, keeping her arm around her shoulders. Gwen looked like she may cry again. "Thank you. You didn't have to do this."
"I want you here, Gweny. You are always welcome in here."
Gwen seemed so quiet, so alone there on the couch.
I shoulda jumped onto that couch with her and just told her it's okay... but it's not. I couldn't... I wasn't strong enough to move. But mom was, she always was.
"Maybe later, we can run you by your house and you can grab a bag of what you need. You can stay as long as you feel that you need too." Gwen's bottom lip trembled and suddenly the water works fell. Mom took Gwen in her arms the way she used to take me or Kyle or Reese. Or the way Matt would keep her.
Mom wrapped her arms around Gwen and tried to comfort her, "Oh honey, you don't have to worry. We have you here. Matt is just fine where he is and you are here. Just safe. You don't have to be scared. Kyle and Reese and Jon will take care of you, just as I will."
Gwen was in a mess of tears when Kyle walked in.
"Gweny? Our little Gwendolyn?" Kyle, my cool, accomplished, and adult older brother with the looks and hair and a cool life, strode on in and jumped over the couch in his Kyle fashion. "Hey, how's our little Gweny doing?"
He was similar in some ways to Matt. He was always nice to the ladies and comforting. He was honest and a model brother. He was five years older than me and of course, acted like I was a baby. I was actually the middle child.
He put an arm around Gwen and pulled her close. "Gwendolyn, you're like an adult now." He looked at her at arms length and smiled at her.
"Gwen's going to be here for a little while," Mom said, looking at Kyle with a wary eye. "Do you have everything from your house?"
Gwen shook her head, "No." She sniffled and wiped her eyes.
"I'll take you there," Kyle said smiling, "I'd love too." Kyle's natural charm always brought a tiny smile to her face. He stood up and walked her out of the house, starting an easy conversation. "So, how's volleyball?"
They left the house and as soon as the door clicked, mom sunk into the cushions on the couch. "Jon..."
"Mom, I'm not going to do anything with her! I'm just worried!"
She had her mom eyes on, "We can't fix her Jon. She has a lot of family problems and maybe even worse problems, but we aren't able to fix every-"
"We can be her family, mom. Even if we don't fix it, we can make it easier. She just lost a family member. What if you lost me or Reese or Kyle? Or dad? She just lost the only family member that took care of her. Her mom's just like a wall in that house. It's not a home! She needs us please mom."
"Jon, I know you've liked this girl for some time..."
"I'm not going to do stuff with her...she just needs a friend, mom. I don't wanna be misunderstood, mom. I'm being serious about this."
"But at this age, it's so inappropriate for girls-"
"Mom. You know her."
Mom had a long, drawn out sigh. She shook her head, "If I didn't like her..."
"So it's okay?"
I smiled, "Mom... Thanks. She needs it, I'll feel better-"
"You're acting like a dad."
I almost gaped at my mom, "Me? Dad? No. I just..."
Mom patted the spot on the couch next to her and I sat down. "I know how you feel about her Jon. Just be careful. She isn't ready for it yet."
I nodded, "I know."
Reese walked in, changed from his funeral clothes and looked at us. Mom had an arm on my shoulders and both our gazes fell on him. Reese was fourteen, the youngest, and three years younger than me, eight years younger than Kyle. We all looked alike. In every picture we looked similar, like different ages of the same person. All our baby and kid pictures looked the same. Reese bounced a soccer ball and stared at us. "So Gwen's staying?"
Mom nodded, "Just for a little while, yes."
Reese stopped and put on his quiet face. He was a quiet boy sometimes with a stone face around people he didn't know. It wasn't a good face to most people. He highly resembled a gargoyle when he froze his face that way. He did this scary stone face for almost a year at Gwen. He was just shy, I'd say. Usually I'm great around people and kids, she'd say. Eventually her smiley, happy attitude and her perseverance about not giving up on making him laugh, worked. She tripped while playing soccer with him.
He laughed out loud.
Now the face was back and I didn't know whether I should be worried about baby brother's approval. "Is she okay?" His stone face almost melted away.
"What?" I asked.
He tilted his head at me, "Is she okay? I care about her, too."
I almost laughed, "What? You do?"
"I like her...She's nice."
I smiled, "She's quiet. Very quiet. Very upset. She just lost Matt so try to be sensitive, not sarcastic."
Reese rolled his eyes, "I know, geeze."
"I didn't think you cared for her all that much..."
Mom looked at me, "You know Reese." And just like that, we didn't comment anymore.
"How long is she gonna be here?"
Mom and I exchanged glances. "Uh..."
"As long as she needs to be." Mom said. My face must have broken into a giant grin because Reese was snickering at me.
Gwen came back, freshly showered and changed into casual, lazy day clothes. Her angel grace wasn't missed as she stepped back into our house. Everything became a bit quieter and all eyes went to her. She blushed and a small smile formed on her face. "Hey," she was quiet, yes. But she loved being in the center. She was so contradictory... but it was just her way. The quiet girl blossomed in center stage. She was a little bloomer, mom said.
Kyle came in just after her, duffle bag in hand. "Your room clean, Jon? Last thing she wants is to sleep in your pigsty."
I launched off the couch and up the stairs. I picked up boxers, dirty shirts and binders, and everything else that were in heaps on the floor. I started changing the sheets and grabbing a spare comforter from the hall closet. I stepped back and after about ten minutes it was way nicer than it had been before.
When I began creeping down the stairs, I saw Gwen eating a bit and Reese glued to her side. I grinned. No one could be shy for long around her beautiful attitude. I walked in and crashed in the chair. Gwen was smiling shyly at me and it probably made me blush.
"You guys have a big house," she said at some point.
"Naw," Reese said, piling chips into his mouth.
She looked around at our high ceilings and open spaces and mumbled something quietly. Her house was small, like some sort of foreign villa. It was small. Very small compared to our house. Only a few rooms, but she never complained, she just marveled at our home. I felt bad sometimes about it. She was an observer, taking in our giant house and everything around her.
It was when she was quiet that I knew something was wrong or she was in some sort of deep thought. I didn't like it; it made me nervous.
I walked into the kitchen to get Gwen something to drink and I ran straight into dad. My eyes popped and I began to stammer, "D-dad..."
"Jon, he is okay with Gwen staying." Mom stepped out from behind my dad and I exhaled a breath I didn't know I was holding.
"Dad, I'm not after that! I'm sincerely worried and her mom can't take care of her. But you guys can 'cause y'all raised three boys. And that's a hard job."
Mom rolled her eyes, "Just be careful of her feelings."
I nodded, grabbed a water bottle from the fridge and retreated back to the den.
At dinner, just to be casual, we had chicken in the den and we watched a movie. A comedy, to make her laugh. Not long after nine, mom showed her the shower and she went to bed. It was funny, her going to sleep so early.
She's emotionally exhausted, mom said. She hasn't had time to adapt to no longer having a brother.
I looked over at my brothers. Yes, a lot of the time I wanted to punch one of them or we'd get in arguments. But without one of them, the house would be just walls. Mom was flipping through her Bible. She must've been under some sort of distress.
"What's wrong?" Kyle asked, noticing too.
"I feel bad."
"Why?" He asked.
"Her mom really doesn't take care of her, does she?"
I shook my head, "Matt did."
"Is she your project, Jon?" Mom asked.
"Are you trying to fix her?"
"You can't fix her." Kyle said.
"How come? We're a good enough family to take her in-"
"Jon we can't adopt her."
"I didn't say that. I just meant-"
"Jon," Dad said, in a short, serious manner. "This girl needs her own family."
"But she doesn't have one. We are so different, Dad! Think about it. Those kids in school, the ones that go home and hate being there. The ones that we wouldn't compare ourselves to because we have a great family...that's her. She isn't the only one. She goes to her house and imagines going somewhere else. She doesn't have a family. A person, called a mom by relation but she gave up on them years ago. Why? Why? Because her husband died. Gwen, in that house, that girl you admire and say is just charming, she will be exactly like her recluse mother... but can't we change that?"
Couldn't we? Couldn't we? I thought, staring my family down.
Mom and dad stared back. They were in shock. They didn't know what to say, it seemed.
After silence that dragged on for ages, "Have you ever seen...ever wondered about those kids?" I asked. I was shocked at myself; all those things just spilled out. What had I said? Why did I say it?
I bit my tongue and looked down at my lap. Mom was looking at me. Her stare bore holes. "Maybe not change her, but help," Kyle said. I lifted my head to see my parents' faces.
"People don't change people," mom said, closing her Bible, "God does." She whispered.
It was quiet and dark. I woke up on the couch and almost forgot why I was there. But then I sighed, Gwen was in my house.
Time on the clock read 3:02. "Great," I grumbled, sitting up to stretch. Why am I up?
I fumbled around the coffee table. Might as well take a tour around the house while I was up. I went for some milk and shuffled slowly around the house. I rubbed my eyes and yawned as I went up the stairs. Everyone else was asleep. Reese's snores resounded around his room. He wasn't a pretty sleeper and I kinda grinned when I saw him turned half way in his bed.
When I came across my room, I didn't know whether to push the door open or walk away quickly. What if she was awake? I'd be so creepy. What if she was asleep? Then it'd still be creepy if I sat in there.
I pushed the door open, and silently it moved forward. She was laid out, her body facing the windows on the far side. I looked out there and there was a light drizzle falling. I crept in, praying she wouldn't wake up. I stretched around, just to look at her. Yes, creepy. I know, but I just wanted to...
She looked so peaceful, so quiet... but in the pale moonlight coming through the blinds, I could tell she wasn't at peace. Her cheeks had glistening tears and I found myself there at her side, reaching to wake her up. But I stopped and pulled away as quick as I could.
Was she dreaming of Matt? She was crying so softly, at first I hadn't heard. I should have figured, with the rain and everything.
What should I do? What could I do? Wake her up? Walk away? I was kneeling at her side, my mind going blank about what I should be doing. Help? Bring it up tomorrow? Never bring it up?
I stood up, barely breathing and looked at her one last moment, then left the room. She didn't need me, she just needed sleep.
I shuffled out, trying to be quieter than a ghost. I closed her door and went back to the couch. Nothing interesting on TV, just the random shows that have been on rerun a hundred times and cartoons that are never really finished just stopped.
After about ten minutes of some boring show I was out like a light.
I must've been drooling 'cause someone was laughing when I finally woke up.
Reese was laughing like a kid, "Gwen said you looked beautiful."
I rubbed my eyes and tried to sit up but it wasn't easy, "What? Gwen?"
"She made breakfast. She was up super early."
I rubbed my eyes, "What time is it?"
"10:30. Early for you."
I swung my legs off the side of the couch and wandered unsteadily into the kitchen. "Mom? Dad?" I yawned and looked around. There was some bacon and toast left over on a plate. I claimed it for my own and ate it ferociously.
"Where is she? She didn't go home, did she?" The thought of her crying in her sleep hadn't left me alone. I was going to ask...maybe. She wasn't anywhere to be seen or heard and I knew I didn't want her to leave yet.
"Kyle's with her outside."
I set my empty plate down and walked out front. There were passing a volleyball back and forth and just talking. She looked comfortable and had a little smile on her face. I smiled from the porch and walked over to join them.
"Hey Jon," she said with a 'good morning' smile.
I opened my mouth and the first words in my head slipped out, "Did you sleep well?" She froze for a second and blinked, "Uh...yeah. I was comfortable." She chewed her bottom lip for a moment, then smiled. "Thanks."
"Jon's room smells like dirty feet, doesn't it?" Kyle asked, after noticing her slight hesitation. She let her awkward moment roll off her shoulders, "Yeah, that's it."
"Told ya Jon, if you just cleaned up every now and then." I rolled my eyes and slapped the ball away from him.
I didn't wanna leave Gwen alone; I didn't wanna leave her side but I had to. I left to shower (as fast as I could, I might add), then walked out back. Scout, our Australian shepherd bounded over bushes and plants and stumbled to my feet, barking. She whimpered up at me and snapped her jaws. I sat down on the step and tussled her soft fur. "Hey girl." She licked my face and tried forcing her way into my lap - my current girl friend.
Gwen was still in my mind. What did she think about my house and staying here? Was she okay? Did she feel alone? How did she feel? Is Matt her every thought?
"May I join you guys?" It was Gwen, so close it made me nervous. "Sure."
Scout whined and licked Gwen's face until she cracked a smile. "Hey pretty girl." She tussled her ears and picked up her favorite ball. "Want it girl? Huh?" She lobbed the ball across the back yard and Scout hurdled for it.
She chewed her bottom lip again then looked at me. She tried pushing her wavy blonde streak out of her face and looking over at Scout. "She's a beautiful dog."
"I think you've been her favorite." As if to prove my point, Scout bolted back and dropped the ball at Gwen's feet. Her head tilted then her tail thumped. Gwen threw it again and watched Scout the entire time. I stared at her. I couldn't take my eyes off her, Gwen I mean. She was just that beautiful. Not sexy. Just beautiful.
Her eyes were clouded and they closed for a moment. She sighed.
"You asked if I slept well."
"Yeah, just being...courteous," I said, struggling not to say 'curious'.
Her slight tick of biting her bottom lip gives her away every time. She looked up at the clear blue sky, then down at the soft green grass. Scout was back at her side and realizing her distress, she laid her head in Gwen's lap and whined. Gwen came out of whatever she was thinking when she heard Scout. She ran her fingers through her fur.
I still couldn't take my eyes off her, not for anything.
"I had...a weird dream. I mean, I had a dream about Matt." Her words came out slow, like they were heavy on her. "Gwen...you can talk about it. You look stressed."
Her eyes grew wide and they met mine. Beautiful, of course. But through the beauty was fear and worry. "Are-are you scared?" I whispered, looking into those mesmerizing eyes.
Her hand stopped for a second and the glaze from her eyes melted away.
"Maybe... I am scared... I... I..." She looked at the grass, the sky, and almost every leaf it seemed on every plant. I was so unsure and by her subtle hints I knew she was too. I wanted to reach my arm around her and pull her close. But I couldn't. I meant I shouldn't. She wasn't ready, I wasn't ready...
When I saw the look on her face, I felt guilty. All these things I was thinking. I wanna be with her; I wanna take care of her. It wasn't fair to her. "You can say anything here, Gwen. You can trust me and I wanna listen."
She bit her bottom lip and nodded. "Okay...last night, I dreamed of me and Matt. It was green and blue and rainbows of colors swirled a little like water colors. But suddenly, it was like Matt fell off a cliff or something, everything went grey and black. I was alone." She hugged Scout closer, without knowing it, I think.
I opened my mouth, then closed it again.
"I...I'm afraid for mother. She isn't right. And..." She stopped and hesitated, "I've decided that I shouldn't use my little...you know...'talent' anymore."
My eyes grew wide, "W-what?"
"Matt's dead, Jon." She slapped her mouth as soon as she said it and a tear slipped over the brim. She began crying and her head fell against my shoulder. I didn't have to think to put my arm around her and comfort her.
"Matt's dead!" She kept repeating it over and over again. Scout sat up to lick her tears. "I know... and I'm so sorry." She blubbered in tears and shook at my side. "I'm...so...confused!" She covered her face and tried to hide from me. "Gwen, you don't have to hide."
"I...I don't know what to do!" Mom said death was a part of life, I knew that. And with this, grief came too. I had to wait, wait for Gwen to be ready. Scout leaned into Gwen's lap, trying to help, like any pet would.
When Gwen fell still and her tears became steady, she began a soft, slow mumble about her thoughts. "At the funeral," she began slowly, "I placed the white rose, the-the one I made, on his casket. It turned...black, it wilted and turned black as soon as it touched him!" She covered her face again and I was ready to be there for her again.
"I, I don't know if you understand but I can't do it, Jon! He was the yin to my yang and I can't make anything without him. I refuse to create anymore." She crossed her arms and that child-like, angel innocence led me to almost smile in the awful situation.
"Jon, you don't get it... You don't understand me. I'm alone. I'm so confused... I... Matt always led my way. Who can do that now? We kept each other balanced. Jon, it was weird. We could have been twins but it wasn't that way. We connected every moment. Now I'm gone... You don't understand."
"Gwen, I may not understand but I can help..." Her blonde streak fell out of place and bounced daintily in front of her eyes.
"How can you help? You don't understand, I-"
"I understand you. You have a God-given gift. He wanted you to use it to create and be unique."
"It must've been a mistake. I am just a freak. If I was an angel, why did God take Matt?" I didn't know what to say, nothing came to mind. It was as if a blanket lifted off of us because suddenly she was staring at my arm. We both began blushing and I moved it away as fast as I could.
"You weren't a mistake." I said quietly. "Why did God kill Matt?"
"God doesn't kill people, Satan does."
"Why did God let him? Why not me? Why did God kill his own angel'? I can't be an angel because he died. Angel's don't die."
"He didn't die," I began slowly, "He just went to a better place. Where he doesn't have to hide your gifts."
She tilted her head, "What am I going to do about mother? She's going to whither away, Jon."
"You don't have to worry yet. Not yet." She looked at me, tears still threatening to spill over. "You don't get it Jon... Mother can't take care of herself. I have to keep my job and work to pay for the house and my phone bill..."
She clung to her phone. It was one of the things that never left her side. I had an idea as to why; she was alone and the phone was the only thing that kept her connected to someone outside her life.
"Matt's college fund..." She stopped.
"Maybe I could use that money to help..."
"You don't have to worry right now," I heard myself saying again. She kept looking at me and both of us had no idea what to say. She hung her head a bit after a few moments, "There's too much going on in my head. I'm so confused. God's supposed to help. Why'd he take Matt? How am I supposed to take care of mother if she can't even take care of herself? I...I... can't do this..."
Just then Reese came out back. He saw us and suddenly backed away. Scout barked at him and trotted after him.
She gripped her knees and sighed. She stood, "I have to go to the clinic."
"I'll go, too." I stood up. "Jon, no you don't have to go."
"I'll drop you off." She kinda smiled, "Thanks."
She had a few jobs. Mondays, Tuesday, and Fridays were spent at the pet clinic, she'd recite. Saturdays were for baby sitting, and Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sunday afternoons were for the little grocery store. Every store in this town was small. We were the kind of small town with a slow internet connection and a bus that came through on a route every few days to take people to the city not too far away. This was the kind of town that had the last century charm to it. Behind the general store, or I guess a "Mini Mart", was an old rail road and train stop.
Small enough that everybody knew everybody. When you got in trouble one place, the very next moment your parents knew.
Today was a pet clinic day. Gwen was quiet the entire way there, which wasn't that long, but silence made it feel like an eternity.
"Gwen... we should talk about your gift."
Her head was against the window, "What about it?"
"Don't stop using it."
"What happened is a sign. God wouldn't take away..."
"Gwen, please. Your power is perfect. It's beautiful. It's like creation and you can make life. Wouldn't neglecting it be a sin?"
She shut her eyes, "Jon, it's not your place to talk about it."
"Gwen, it won't be easy but you can move past-"
"No I can't, Jon! Maybe this is what I want to think about, okay?" I shut my mouth and sunk back into the seat. I wasn't thinking about what she thought. We didn't look at each other until she got out. "Thanks for the ride. I get off at 5:30." She shut the door and I pulled away feeling crumby.
That night she came back, grabbed her things, and left for Jessi's. I had royally screwed up. Jessi told me she was okay - shaking and worried, but sane. I didn't believe her. There was always more to Gwen than meets the eye.
"She needs space," Mom said, preparing salads for dinner.
"Did I make her not wanna come back here?" I asked quietly.
She gave me a caring look, "Right now, she's just confused and disorientated. She doesn't know what to feel. Give her time. But don't leave. She needs a good friend like you."
It was a few days before I saw Gwen again. I spent a little while feeling guilty and bad, like I had driven her away from a place where she could be honest. She was at her house. No one had seen her leave. I realized that she had never called it 'home'. Just a house. I didn't have to be in her position to see a bit of what she thought. It wasn't a home, just a house. Home is where the heart is, right? There wasn't much heart there. She is a girl seeing it as a half way house, hoping and dreaming she can move on. Just a temporary set of walls and a roof over her head.
I was going by the church one day and I came to a dead stop. There she was, sitting on the steps, alone. I pulled up and got out. "Gwen? Gwen, do you need a ride?"
She shook and looked at me, "What?"
I walked around the car and sat at her side. "Do you want me to take you to Jessi's?" Her eyes were red and puffy. It'd been four days and it looked as though she hadn't stopped crying. It'd been raining for the last few days. Just that moment was a dry moment. She rubbed her eyes and tried to clean her face up. She looked as though she'd been sitting in the rain.
"No. I can walk."
I sighed and got up. I went over to the truck and sat on the tailgate. I swung my feet, "You may be mad at me Gwen, but I just want what's best." She got up slowly and walked cautiously over to me. She hopped up next to me and swung her legs too.
Her quiet mumble began, "I've been thinking a lot. A lot about what to do next. Matt is dead... he won't ever be coming back again, will he?" Her careful eyes remained on her bare feet and she sighed again. I didn't think I should have said anything so I just listened.
"He's gone now. I made plans for his college money to help my college, the house, and other things." Her fingers intertwined and she focused on breathing in and out. "Mother hasn't left her room. I doubt she ever will..." Her voice drifted away and I thought she'd begin crying again. "Now here I am. Alone. No Matt, no family. You don't understand how deafening loneliness leaves me. It makes me sick to my stomach." She covered her face and I waited patiently, just for her to speak again.
"You don't understand, Jon... What this feels like. It's like my heart is gone. It just feels like a giant hole." She got up from the tailgate. "I'm sorry I left in a huff. You keep saying that I'm some kind of angel because only angels can do this... Well, if my opinion counts for anything, I put in a good word for you with God." She began walking in the direction of her house. You don't have to be alone, I thought, I can be there for you.
I climbed back into my truck just as the drizzle began again. I slammed my head into the steering wheel, on purpose.
Jessi called a day later, "She's fine Jon. She's not mad at you."
"Jessi, does she need help? She isn't talking right. She isn't moving on."
"She doesn't know how, you have to understand that." I groaned, "Now you're starting to sound like her."
I could tell she was rolling her eyes. She grumbled at me, "Jon, people sometimes can't move on."
"That's called depression." She fired back, "Just don't pressure her."
I chewed my tongue and gulped, "I didn't mean to-"
"So you did pressure her." I sighed, "It didn't have to do with-"
"Look Jon, just give her time." That really is it, isn't it? Everyone's saying the same thing...
"Okay...tell her if she wants to talk..."
"Yeah, yeah okay...Jon?"
I twisted my bed sheet, "Yeah? What is it?"
"She's been sleeping...a lot. She's been asleep every since she got here yesterday."
I sat up right in bed, "Is she okay? Is she sick? Have you woken her up?"
She paused for a few moments, "I... think she's in shock. All the emotional distress, right?"
I fell back onto my pillow, "What else?"
"I think she's building up walls."
"To keep stuff out of her heart. People want to lock away their hearts, so life doesn't have to hurt as much."
I groaned, "Jess, just keep an eye on her okay?"
"Okay, bye." She hung up and I threw my phone on the floor.
There was a knock at the door. "Just go away!" I exclaimed. I needed think time and I should pray or something like that...plus I just didn't want to talk to anyone.
Kyle opened that door, "Sup?"
"I said go away."
"Look, I know you like Gwen-"
"'But give her time and she'll be fine. Give her space.' Yes I know, thank you." Kyle stood in the door way, leading against the side. "Everyone handles grief differently. You're trying to stop her from being depressed right? Well let her be sad, but when time passes and she hasn't changed, intervene."
"Kyle it's been four days. She hasn't changed or anything."
"She had a brother for seventeen years. Let her be sad." I nodded, just to get him to leave. I was zoning in and out, trying to forget it and let her do what she wants. Kyle left, knowing I wasn't paying attention.
Time did pass and I was sad. Soon the few days turned into a few weeks. She was at her house, then Jessi's house, moving around like a homeless nomad. Is she homeless now? It sure seemed that way. I didn't like the way she let herself go. If she just came back, if she just saw that there was hope, she'd be fine. By what I knew, she hadn't even thought about using her power. It was a waste and I'm sure God didn't want this for her.
Edd said he saw her at Matt's grave, just sitting there.
He offered her a ride, but when she looked up, "It was like she saw right through me."
That was enough if you asked me.
I walked along the roads, twisting and turning, wandering slowly to her house. I kicked a pebble all the way to her house and tried balancing it on top of my shoe. I left the pebble on her front porch and continued on. Her house wasn't pretty anywhere except the backyard - Matt and Gwen's domain.
My feet led me down a lot of dirt paths and trodden grass. The trees covered our path like a green canopy. I shuffled along by the tiny stream that eventually led me to the train tracks.
Near the tracks, a small pond formed and this was a special place. Gwen grew plants here I'd never imagine before. It was a beautiful oasis, hidden of course from everyone else. The plants and flowers here grew taller and fuller and more pure than any others in town. The sun was shining and glittering off the water. Today was a beautiful day. I waited on the rocks for Gwen to come.
Someone placed the pebble on my leg. "I found this on my porch." Gwen's tiny self seemed even smaller than it used to. Her personality was crushed somewhere inside her, locked away and hidden. Jess had said she was putting up walls.
"I just wanted you to be here."
"I haven't come around here in awhile." She looked around and sat on the rock next to me. "Everything looks really good still." I looked at her, as she dipped her toes into the water and nodded. She began chewing the inside on her lip.
"Mother has decided... that she no longer wants to be my guardian. She's shunned me...she doesn't want me anymore!" She tried so hard not to cry as she stared down at her toes. The clouds began to move in as she restrained her crying.
"I want you around, Gwendolyn." I tried to sound as sincere and serious as possible. "Your mother may think that you aren't worth it, but I think you are. And Matt did. He wanted you around, he loves you. You are worth it and you may not want to remember the good times, but think about this. Remember the good times, not the bad. Your brother loves you, and you may wanna forget this gift you were given, but Matt wouldn't want you to forget. I don't want you to forget. You don't need your mom. Everyone else in this town thinks you are something. And you are."
She looked at me, searching my face and every detail on it. She surveyed the waters, the flowers, the rock, her hand and mine. She stared up into my eyes, trying to see through me. "Are you being honest?"
"I don't lie to you." She sighed and tried to see what I was thinking. Her eyes glittered with tears and she sat a little closer.
It was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining down on our bustling little town and every thing was quiet, as it should be. I stood in the doorway of that small cottage, staring down at the most beautiful girl in the world. She was quiet and concentrating. She looked down, forming her beautiful creation.
She began creating one day, almost at the end of summer. She didn't want to tell me why, at first. Said I'd think it was cheesy or weird. "It means something," she'd smile and say, "For Matt. It makes it mean something."
"And that's what makes it special, making it for a purpose."
She looked up at me and smiled. She ran, jumped, and gave me her best hug. I rubbed her back and held her tight. "Ready to go, pretty girl?"
I felt her nod against my chest and I smiled. She was smiling a lot now. She was recovering and trying her best to smile. It was coming easier and easier everyday for her. Her mother moved out in the middle of the summer. She was old enough to live alone, but she didn't want that, not in that old house. Jessi's parents decided that she could stay there, in their spare room. That made Gwen cry, but in happiness.
She was ready to leave and finally she could be happy Gwen, beautiful Gwen.
She still had walls, unfortunately. She didn't find it easy to trust others and I know she felt very outside. Gwen was shy at times, when she didn't want to do anything about what she felt.
"You don't have to be afraid to tell me what you feel," I'd say. Something was at work inside her, healing her. Maybe the fact that she wasn't all alone and God too. Helped his angel and mine. Her heart was healing. She wasn't sick to her stomach, she was able to move on. We walked out of the house, arm in arm.
On her way out, she kicked the door.
Author Notes: First short story I've ever written