Due to the concussion caused by the impact, the doctors want to keep Pandora overnight for observation. So, after we say goodbye, Michael and I head back to campus together, both tired and shaken from the events of the day. The ride back is quiet and I squirm in my seat, trying to come up with a safe topic to break the silence.
“So whose sweatshirt is that?” Michael asks eventually.
“Sweatshirt?” I ask, uncomprehending.
“The one you’re wearing.” Michael tips his head towards me and I look down and see that I still have the green sweater on.
I flush. Shoot, I stole it. “Oh. I don’t know. I found it on a seat, and just… took it.” I run my thumb over its tattered sleeve.
Michael lets out an abrupt laugh. “Thief.”
I begin to giggle and it continues all the way back to the apartment. By the time we pull into the parking lot the giggles have turned into full-blown laughter and Michael joins me. I don’t know why either of us is laughing, but as we stumble out of the car I’m finding it hard to breathe and have to lean on Michael for support.
“Why are we laughing?” I gasp and we stagger forward and I fumble in my coat pocket for my keys.
“Because today sucked,” he replies shaking his head. This starts another round of hysterics for me and Michael ends up almost having to carry me inside. Finally, we’re back in my apartment and the laughter has subsided a bit. Exhaustion takes over and I flop down onto the couch which lets out a satisfying sigh as it accepts my weight.
“Today really did suck,” I say soberly, running my hand over my eyes. “Let’s have this never happen again.”
“Deal,” answers Michael. He heads over to our fridge and pulls out a bottle of coke. “Just keep your lunatic brother out of here.”
“Hey,” I say, trying to muster up some defense for Jude, “He’s… Oh I don’t know.” I grab one of our overstuffed red pillows and pull it over my face, enjoying the muffling effect it has on the world around me.
“Hey,” Michael says, sitting down next to me. He pulls the pillow from my face and I wince. “It’s not your fault, alright?”
He’s leaning forward, trying to make eye contact, but I look away. If I give in to his compassion I know I’ll end up crying. “Yeah,” I say gruffly. “I know.”
“Come here,” he says, pulling me into a hug. I snuggle against him, enjoying his familiar scent. I can’t describe it, it’s just… boy. But in a clean way; Michael always has impeccable grooming. He’s much more of a brother to me than Jude ever was, I think, trying to convince myself. Michael’s hand moves to my hair and begins to stroke. I’m starting to submit to the relaxation pervading my body when I sit up and shove Michael away.
“You should bring Pandora some things for tonight. She’ll want to see you again anyway.”
Michael nods and gets to his feet, then turns to look at me. “Are you going to be okay?” His blue eyes – so close in color to Pandy’s – are concerned but I wave a hand dismissively. I need him to stop looking at me like this.
“I’m always okay,” I say wryly. Michael nods once and then heads into Pandora’s room. A minute later he comes out with an overnight bag, raises a hand in farewell, and then exits. I nestle back into the nook on the couch and watch the door after he leaves. I expected for exhaustion to sink in now that I’m alone, but instead I feel restless. I get to my feet, grab my camera, and walk out the front door, picking up right where I left off.
Campus is too crowded. People are everywhere, lying on the grass, walking on the pavement, throwing Frisbees back and forth and not one of them has any idea that Jude just hit Pandora. My footsteps echo my shame as I forge through the crowd. I need to find somewhere quiet to think. Or not think. My brother. My brother. My brother. My camera bangs impatiently against my chest and I break into a jog, desperate to get away.
My first impulse is to head towards the highway but instead my feet take me down the path where I had gone with Geri. I must not have been paying close enough attention last time because soon I’m caught in a thick mass of trees and can’t find my way out. I pocket my anxiety and slip into the protection of the greenery, cradling my camera and pulling solitude in close. I don’t try to find my way. Instead I wander, following speckles of sunlight until I smell dampness and see a little river jumping in front of me.
It’s not the same part I went to with Geri; here the trees are thicker, the riverbed is wider, and the water is galloping along unbridled. Everything seems freer and wilder, dancing with life and secrets. I sprint towards the stream, and then, taking a giant leap, plunge my feet right into the water.
The river rises up over my sneakers. There’s a second’s delay and then I feel the liquid seeping in over my socks and down to my feet. It’s bizarre and uncomfortable, but I keep my feet where they are, shifting around so I can hear the squelch of mud beneath my soles. I must have done this once as a child because the feeling is familiar. My feet are so very cold.
I stand for a while, listening to the distant highway. What would happen if the water rose and swept me away? The idea of frigid water overtaking my body makes me shudder, but I don’t move. Instead I close my eyes and allow my teeth to chatter.
He’d find me here. He’d always find me, no matter how hard I’d try to hide. He’d come from the other side; probably find an easier way to get here too. He’d sit down next to me, put his arms around me, and whisper into my hair. The wind picks up and my hair blows back. Why aren’t you here? Where did you go? Who are you now?
My eyes fly open as a sense of desperation grips me. I glance around, looking for something, anything, and a tall cement bridge about fifty feet away catches my eye. It looks like it used to be a road, but from its condition I’d guess it’s been long since anyone has driven over it. I make my way up the stream and stop when I’m directly under the heavy cement archway.
I’m fidgety. I’m restless. I search for an outlet for this energy and an old bucket of red paint comes into my sight. It’s obscured almost entirely by tall grass; I’d be surprised if there’s any liquid left in there at all, but even so, I struggle over to the can and look down into it. It’s filled up halfway with grassy maroon sludge. Good enough for me. Whoever left the can here didn’t leave a brush, but that isn’t a problem. I plunge my hand downwards into the chilly goo, then pull it out and begin attacking the wall. I slap and slash as hard as I can, feeling the bumps on the wall bite into my hand and tear away bits of my skin. My palm stings but I forge onwards, thrusting my hand back into the bucket each time my lines grow thin. Finally I step back and, pushing my hair out of my face with my muddy hand, I read what I have written.
I MISS YOU.
There it is. Right there for the world, or no one at all, to see. I drop to the earth, leaning backwards on my elbows and let my hair tumble down over my back. The paint on my hand is starting to dry, stinging my crackling skin. I feel exactly how I should. Once I get my breath back I’ll wash my hands and photograph my moment of raw insanity and present it to Geri with the nonchalance that always covers pride. After that I’ll have to see what else I can come up with because one good picture is never enough. I’ll do all of that in just a minute but first I’m going to drop backwards onto the grass and finally close my eyes.