Authors: Crystal Walton
I grabbed the gearshift but stopped. A drawn-out exhale collected in the cold.
I cut the engine and jogged up the walkway toward a faded blue door.
Inhaling, I lifted my hand to knock. Something crashed inside the house. The sharp noise tunneled through an open side window and echoed over the small porch. I froze with my arm an inch from the door.
. Adrenaline kicked in. Was someone trashing the place?
I crouched around the window. A woman’s muffled shriek followed another crash. I couldn’t see through the opaque glass, but the heavy-scented gust of alcohol seeping through the crack meant one thing.
Ms. Mendierez was home.
Halfway back to the car, the memory of Dee’s face drew me to a stop. He’d want me to be courageous. Not only for the kids in this neighborhood, but for his mom too.
I turned and marched straight up to the door without hesitation this time. “Ms. Mendierez?” I called. “It’s Emma. Emma Matthews . . . from the center. We met last week.”
Noise rattled behind the door, but it didn’t budge.
“I was a friend of Dee’s.” I held my breath. Would the mention of her belated son make things worse?
The front door creaked open an inch. A distorted replica of the confident woman I’d met at the center peered from inside. Her hair was matted down from every angle as if she hadn’t showered or combed her hair in days. Deep circles under her eyes matched the door she was clutching to keep from tumbling over.
“Ms. Mendierez? I’m Emma. We met—”
“I remember.” Her voice sounded pained, distant.
I had trouble finding my own. “Would you mind if I came inside for a minute?”
Her gaze wandered over her shoulder.
Maybe I should’ve at least called first. Gave her some kind of warning. “If it’s a bad time, I understand.”
Shoulders dropping, she staggered backward and tied a loose belt strap around a gray, tattered bathrobe. The door swayed open and released another gust of alcohol-infused air from inside. This time, a mixed odor of stale laundry and expired milk joined it.
Ms. Mendierez transferred her grip from the door to the staircase banister. Inside, I glanced into the living room from the entryway. A collection of drained liquor bottles cluttered a coffee table piled with papers and clothes overflowing onto the couch.
She stumbled into the hollow doorway and obstructed my view. “What can I do for you, Miss Matthews?” she slurred.
I backed up in search of the reason I’d come. “Um, actually, it’s about Dee.”
She hugged her arms to her stomach and stared right through me into memories I didn’t need to see to feel. The disheveled place carried enough brokenness of its own.
Was there any way to restore what’d been lost? I paced across the small entryway. “Your son was a very gifted artist. I was hoping—”
A rueful laugh caught me short. I looked up. “Ms. Mendierez?”
“I never even knew my boy liked to draw.” Her face contorted with pain. “I found a sketchbook in his desk after . . .”
Compassion drew me toward her. “I think Dee was very self-conscious about it. He didn’t realize how talented he was.”
Her glassy eyes stayed locked on the wall.
I reached for her hand. “I think we have a good chance of getting his artwork printed. Maybe even selling some. My brother has connections. I came to ask if you’d be okay with us trying. Dee’d probably be embarrassed,” I said, smiling. “But I think it would’ve made him happy.”
For the first time since I’d arrived, a genuine smile graced her face. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I think you’re right. It’d make him happy.”
She motioned for me to go ahead of her up the worn staircase. Daylight dimmed behind us once we reached the top. Ms. Mendierez nudged me toward a bedroom door on the right.
I paused with my hand on the knob. She didn’t move from the top of the stairwell. Only gestured for me to enter.
A door had never felt so heavy. The glare from a window on the opposite wall flooded the darkened hallway. I inched inside. The room looked like she’d left it exactly the way it’d been the last night Dee was there—rumpled covers balled up at the bottom of his bed, an untouched pile of dirty clothes hanging down the side of an open hamper next to the closet, textbooks strewn across a small desktop.
My feet might as well have had weights tied to them. Surrounded by memories torn between what was and what would never be, I couldn’t blame Ms. Mendierez for keeping his door closed.
I reached over an old wooden chair in front of his desk and picked up a black metal picture frame. An ear-to-ear smile radiated from an elementary-aged image of Dee, who had his arms wrapped around a man’s broad shoulders. Must’ve been his father. The resemblance left little room for doubt.
Despite the damage his dad’s abandonment had created, Dee’s eyes didn’t hold a drop of bitterness. Only grace.
“He loved that fool.”
Ms. Mendierez’s frail silhouette lined the doorframe as though an invisible barrier prevented her from stepping into the room and into a world where even breathing felt unbearable.
“Damian ran off before Dee was out of training pants.” That same dark laugh from earlier shadowed her words. “Oh, he’d show his face whenever he needed somethin’. Even put on a show like he cared ‘bout spending time with his son. But it always ended the same. Always empty words. Same empty promises. He never had to see the look in Dee’s eyes the next day.” Lines of resentment burrowed into the creases on her forehead.
She stared absently at the picture in my hands and laughed lighter this time. “No matter what Damian did, that boy of mine loved his father something fierce. I’ll never understand it.”
Me neither. Even now, Dee was still teaching me what it meant to live with the kind of grace and courage no circumstance could shake.
I set the picture frame back in the spot on his desk outlined in dust and pointed to the center drawer. “May I?”
I only had to sift through a few loose papers to find the sketchpad Dee had shown me months earlier. Removing it uncovered a small brown leather journal. I peered at Ms. Mendierez again for permission.
She backed into the hallway. “Take your time.”
The tremor in my hands kept me from opening the journal’s worn binding all the way. This was part of Dee. A part I wasn’t so sure I could handle seeing. But a name caught my eye before I closed it. I scanned backward until I found the beginning of the sentence:
I never blamed A. J. for his reaction when I first came to the center.
I flipped the page over to the beginning of that day’s entry. He’d written it only a couple of days before he died. I sank onto the chair as the memory of Dee’s voice lifted off the page.
I wonder if this is what it’s like to have a brother. Someone who cares about me enough to teach me when to man up to my potential. To show me how to treat a girl and live without holding anything back.
I never blamed A. J. for his reaction when I first came to the center. He saw what everyone else saw. But when he accepted me—even after he knew the things I’d done and was capable of doing—that didn’t make no sense.
Guess it sounds crazy to think God would’ve gone to so much trouble to get me to the center just so I’d understand what it means to have a family. But what if he did? For the first time, I know what it feels like to walk through life with a brother by my side.
I wiped off the tears collected at the bottom of my chin. Did A. J. have any idea what kind of impact he’d made on Dee’s life? He needed to read this. For Dee and for all the kids at the center, A. J. had to know what he’d be forfeiting if he didn’t come back.
After one last scan around the room, I closed the door to the visible reminder of what we’d lost. But with the treasures Dee’d left behind in my hands, I left knowing I’d do whatever it took to see his artwork printed.
“Ms. Mendierez?” I called when I reached the bottom of the steps.
Not a single sound. I crept around the banister and followed a slender hallway into the kitchen. She sat at the table with a look of detachment glossing her eyes. A half-empty bottle of Bacardi weighed her arm to the floor beside shards of broken tumblers. That must’ve been the crashing noise I’d heard when I’d first arrived.
I stepped into her line of sight and raised the pad and journal. “If it’s okay, I’d like to borrow these two things for a little while. I promise to return them just as they are.”
She didn’t stir. Didn’t speak.
Had I overstepped my bounds? “If this is too much, I can—”
“It’s fine, Miss Matthews.” With a forced blink, she veered her focus toward me. The simple motion took longer than it should have.
Midway in a turn toward the door, I stopped. I couldn’t leave. Not yet. I knelt by her side, pried the bottle from her cold, feeble hand, and held on.
“I know this is difficult to hear, and the last thing I want to do is be insensitive to what you’re going through, but I can’t leave without saying this.” After how many times I’d needed people to speak hard truths into my life, it only seemed right for me to do the same for someone else.
“I won’t pretend to understand what you’re experiencing right now, but I know what it’s like to lose a family member. To want to stay in bed instead of facing another day of unanswered questions.” I sat back on my feet.
“But someone Dee loved very much had to remind me that giving up would only be dishonoring his memory.” I squeezed her hand. “For Dee, please. Please don’t stop living.”
Her eyes softened but didn’t release the fear of what returning to the present might cost. As much as I wanted to help her, she had to make the choice herself. I set her hand on her lap and pushed up on my thighs.
At the front door, I stalled one last time before closing it. The sunlit warmth soaked through my coat onto my back. What would it take to penetrate her walls?
A group of elementary kids raced toward a rundown playground a little ways up the street at the same time a city transit bus picked up a handful of people most likely headed into evening shifts.
Surrounded by the day’s evidence that life carries on, I listened for any sign of Ms. Mendierez joining it, but none came. Not even a hint of motion.
Unmoving. I’d been there. Lived through it. But maybe it wasn’t my place to influence her. Maybe it was Dee’s. This was exactly why the center couldn’t afford to close. Even though Dee was gone, I had to believe his legacy would continue to impact those he left behind . . . including A. J.
I’d done my best to stay occupied and keep my mind off the sense of helplessness yesterday had stirred. But after cramming for finals all day, I needed a break.
The coffee fumes taking over the living room swallowed up my tea’s spicy aroma. It was two cups against one. Not to mention Jaycee and Trevor’s mugs were almost double the size of mine.
Trev tossed a throw pillow in the air above his head like a basketball. “So, what do you two want to do tonight?”
He’d probably asked that same question a couple hundred times over the last three and a half years. We were best friends. We hung out together all the time. But something about hearing him say “
” wrought an unavoidable reminder of who was missing tonight.
A. J. wasn’t busy with other plans or out of town. I’d lost him. Things would be different now. They had to be different.
Trevor caught the pillow midair and appraised the look on my face. “What’s wrong?”
“How is he?” I didn’t have to say A. J.’s name.
He glanced at Jaycee, hesitating. “To be honest, I haven’t seen much of him. He’s pretty much been living in the gym, self-medicating.”
Jaycee thrust an elbow shot to his ribs.
He doubled over. “What was that for? We all know Em broke his heart.”
Jaycee gear-wrenched a hand around his forearm. “Trev!”
“No, he’s right,” I said. “There’s no reason to pretend I haven’t hurt him.”
She tilted her head at me. “He’ll be okay. Just—”
“Give it time. I know.” My shoulders caved with doubt. I didn’t want to argue, but she was wrong. Time, yet again, was the enemy.
Thoughts overlapped until I knew what I needed to do.
I scooted to the edge of the couch and ran my fingers along my mug handle. “Listen, you two go out and do something fun tonight. I’m going to stay behind this time.”
Jaycee darted her head in my direction. Her angled bangs swooped across her eyes, but not before laser beams of warning streamed at me.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “No sinking back into depression. Promise. I have something I need to take care of. You guys go on. Really.”
The laser beams narrowed. And I thought
had doubt issues.
Trevor towed her up from the couch. She dragged her feet across the carpet and stared at me over her shoulder until the door closed behind them.
I unfolded the piece of paper I’d photocopied from Dee’s journal and reread it twice in hopes he would transfer his courage to me one more time. Ready or not, I threw on a coat and headed to the gym and the confrontation waiting for me there.
A quick scan across the empty basketball courts led me down stairs toward the weight room. Weights clicked together and tunneled a sharp echo through the hall straight into the clatter already pounding against my ribcage.
I stopped outside the doorway. Seeing A. J. alone—basketball shorts, favorite red hoodie, ball cap on backward, like always—almost turned me right back around.
His gaze flickered to my reflection in the mirrored wall. A faint smile touched his eyes. “I had a feeling you’d come down here eventually.”
His voice was as real and open as it’d always been. I looked away before he saw how much I hated having to let go of that sound. “I’m sorry. I know I have no right to come—”
“Is that why you came? To apologize?” The dumbbells clanked into the rack and raised my shoulders even higher. “To apologize for what exactly?” He faced me. “For all we went through together? Because I’m not sorry. For any of it.”
Head down, I folded the corner of the paper in my hands back and forth. “A. J., I—”
“I know.” He peeled open the Velcro straps on his gloves. “Riley’s already won that battle.”
“It’s not a battle.”
He tossed his gloves over his gym bag in the corner and smiled at my reflection in the mirror. “Still naive.”
A pang of defensiveness rose inside me, but the truth weighed it back down. The gravity of what my naiveté had cost us both filled the tiny room.
I stared at the black and white tiled floor. “You’re right. I
naive. I thought we could just be friends. Thought we could be close without—”
“Without what?” He edged closer. “Letting me into your heart?”
The intensity in brown eyes withered my voice to a whisper. “You’re my friend, A. J. Of course you hold a place in my heart.” Even if it was one neither of us could visit again.
The familiar grin I’d leaned on too much this past semester slanted to the left. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
Though he was standing directly in front of me now, I couldn’t bring myself to meet his eyes. I untwisted the paper, but the knot in my chest kept tightening.
“I’m not saying I won’t move on.” He inched close enough to hear my soft inhale. “But no amount of time will ever take away what I’ve experienced with you. Those memories aren’t replaceable.”
He bent forward and lowered his head in front of mine until I couldn’t avoid looking at him any longer. “Carrying you up to your apartment. Fighting with you in the pouring rain. Smoking you on the basketball court. Getting you to play in front of the kids.” His mischievous grin melded into a look of transparency. “Feeling your heart race in my arms.”
I staggered backward, afraid he’d misinterpret the sound of my heart racing now. It wasn’t what he thought.
He strode forward, not letting me slip away. “Those memories are mine, Em. They’ll always be mine.”
They were my memories too. The pain of losing them trekked up my throat.
He moved closer still. The doorframe brushed against my back. He raised my chin. “Does it have to be this way?”
No matter how many times I’d asked myself the same question, the answer never changed.
I caged my tears behind my lashes. “Yes.”
Silence pressed in. I straightened and grasped for strength to remain steadfast, for both our sakes.
A pained smile creased his face. “You’ll always hold a piece of my heart.” He took off his ball cap, ran his fingers through his hair, and tugged it back on. When he looked up again, the smolder in his expression hadn’t waned. “So, I won’t lie to you this time. I’ll respect your decision and say goodbye, but I won’t let go of what we had, Em.” He shook his head. “Not ever.”
Oceans of promise poured from his eyes to mine. I turned to leave before my resolve crumbled. Halfway down the hall, I stopped and curled my fingers around the reminder of why I’d come to begin with. The center needed him.
A deep breath led me around. “I came to give you this.” I handed him the photocopy of Dee’s transcribed memories. “You need to know the difference you made in Dee’s life. The difference you’ve made in all the kids’ lives.” I folded my hand over his. “Please don’t give that up because of me.”
A. J.’s focus drifted down to the note, but he didn’t respond. I strode through the door again without stopping to look back.
The path to my apartment stretched longer than it should have. Same as my thoughts. Truth was, I couldn’t control A. J.’s reaction any more than I could change Ms. Mendierez’s. We each made our own choices. And for now, my only choice was to keep walking.