I was in the back of my dad’s grey pickup truck, the summer sun stinging my skin through my favorite blue hoodie. My sisters sat on either side of me, fighting over an ice cream cone that had found its way to the floor. I shoved away their sticky hands as they grasped at each other and tried to find out who was to blame. My dad was complaining about the reek of our hockey gear, oblivious to the harassment I was being subjected to behind him. We were going about 60 down highway J back to Minocqua, sweaty and exhausted from a morning practice. I rested my head against the seat and let my sisters fade away, and my aching muscles stopped screaming long enough to let me fall asleep.
I woke up to a different atmosphere, both my sisters still and silent. My dad’s hands strangling the steering wheel, and the speedometer off the grid. I thought I was imagining the tension thick enough to sever with a sword, but when I tapped Suzi on the shoulder she put a finger to her lips. In the rearview mirror I saw a nightmare, in the form of salty tears. I’d never seen my dad’s green eyes stained like this before. The highway home was merciless; every red light held us up. I was anxious for the race to end although I didn’t know the finish line.
My heavy lids betrayed me and I fell asleep again, woken by a sudden jolt and a car door’s ruthless slam. The picture in the window was a pretty one, a sunset masterpiece with reds and yellows and every shade of beauty in between. It didn’t seem right that the sun was down, it wasn’t even noon when we’d left the rink and it was only a half an hour from home. I realized then that my seat was cold, and my sisters nowhere to be found. The ice cream on the floor had turned to a puddle of warm milk. I rubbed my eyes and looked out front, and my heart leaped to my throat. The windshield framed a neon sign that no one wants to see. I stumbled from my napping place wearing just one shoe, searching for the other in the red glow on the blacktop, eerie and unsettling in the hospital parking lot.
It didn’t take me long to find my grandpa’s van. I knocked on the window a few times before someone grabbed my wrist. “Don’t wake them.” My grandma Donna whispered. I couldn’t see anything through the tinted black glass.
“Don’t wake who?” I whispered back.
“Your sisters. And Luci, he’s here too. Your mom is on the helicopter, and your dad is leaving soon.” I couldn’t see my own expression, but I’m guessing it reflected the confusion that was clogging up my throat.
“Why? What do you mean on a helicopter? How long have I been sleeping? Where’s Nik?” At the sound of my older brother’s name a hot flow of tears washed her cheeks. My twelve year old mind started spinning, and I clutched at my grandma’s elbow, my ice cream stained fingers leaving tracks on her worn leather jacket.
“Listen, honey,” she said gently, her voice shaking like the thin evergreens lining the road behind her, “Nik was fishing with a group of his friends on the highway this morning.” I nodded. Nik always rode his bike home from his workout, and there was rarely a day that he didn’t stop at the bridge on 71 to play catch and release with his friends.
“What happened?” I asked. My voice seemed too loud in the cool air; it echoed off the grey buildings around me, seemingly taking forever to fade into the night. She cleared her throat.
“He was hit by a car, honey.” Everything went cold. “It was going really fast, he was dead when they found him. They managed to restart his heart, but there’s nothing more they can do for him here. Your mom is on the helicopter that’s taking him to Madison. You’re going to stay with us until your dad comes back.” I opened my mouth; shut it again. I stared at my untied shoes. Well, Nik’s untied shoes. I’d stolen them the night before. They didn’t fit me, and they were my least favorite colors. I hated the design on the sides; I hated the pointy toe and I hated the frayed laces. The last conversation I had with my brother was that morning, when I was lugging my hockey bag up the stairs to the parlor, and decided to swing it into his gut when I passed him in the hallway.
He proceeded to give my ponytail a solid tug, and use the momentum of my swinging bag to shove me down the stairs. I’d abandoned my gear on the floor and chased him into the kitchen, when both of us were dragged out by our ears.
"Is Nik going to come back too?" I locked eyes with my grandma, silently pleading her to be straight with me. The air was cool but I was sweating, I struggled to hold my hands steady. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my grandpa Barry emerge from the sliding glass doors at the entrance of the emergency room. His face was a blank slate, with no more emotion than the most dedicated of the guards outside the Vatican.
"Is Nik going to come back too?" I asked again. I knew it wasn't fair to ask her. I was young but I understood that she had no way of knowing. She stared back at me, her chocolate eyes soaked with sadness. She never got the chance to answer. My grandpa grabbed me firmly by the wrist and led me back to my dad's truck to get my stuff.
"Don't say anything to Luci. Not until we know." He didn't need to explain himself. My 9 year old brother Luci was closest to Nik. In my mind's eye I could see him break down, his small heart forgetting to pump blood instead of wishes. I held his hand the whole car ride home. His eyes never opened but his fingers locked around mine, and squirmed a little every time one of my sisters moved their legs. My grandparents said nothing until we got to their house, then they shook everyone awake and led us downstairs. All four of us, Suzi, Isabelle, Luci, and I, piled into one of the guest rooms. We settled into one king bed, Luci snoring softly.
It wasn't until all of them were asleep that the tears really came. I stared at the ceiling and tried counting sheep but they all played too close to the road. When I woke up my phone was on fire and I think that's the worst of it, people that didn't even know him pretending to care. I threw it at the wall so I missed my mom's call, it wasn't until after lunch that I heard Nik's vitals were normal.
My grandma said there were pictures, but I wasn't allowed to see. When she was washing dishes i looked anyways. I ran outside shaking. Along with the pictures there was a list. 9 broken ribs, a shattered elbow, 2 cracked vertebrae, a broken spleen. I squeezed my eyes shut and knelt in the driveway, pretending that the colored stones didn't hurt my tiny knees. There were pieces of skull that had caved into nik's brain, and over 40% of his chest was a ****** mess. I guess my mom has nightmares about his screams when they pulled the gravel out.
Two weeks later he said his first words, when his spine let him sit up and the drugs subdued the worst of it. I was the only one allowed to see him. When I walked into the hospital room, he was playing with the chords hooked up to his chest. He smiled big and I lost it, running to his side. He promised he was fine and I shouldn't worry, all this with bandages on his head and a monitor in the corner. I watched the green lines jump on the screen, the same color as the veins on my big brother's wrist. I stared at his arm and wondered what it would be like if he were dead. If those veins had lost their color and his eyes their midnight blue.
"You okay, Em?" My mom was asleep in a chair but she woke at the sound of his voice. It was fragile and unnerving, Nik was never anything but strong. He remembered nothing of the accident except a brilliant golden light, and I wonder if it filled his dreams when I thought that he was gone. It's hard to explain what happened next, but eventually he came home.
We share a wall between our beds so in a way I shared his dreams. I think there was more scar tissue than anyone could see. I tried to help but he kept his door locked, so I sat with my back against the wood and talked to myself instead, his cold-sweat screams burning me like sticky snow against bare feet.
He started lashing out, forgetting things, lying all the time. He snuck out at night and changed his mind and stopped eating like he should. He was trying to escape, and he thought if he slipped out after daybreak it would all start to make sense. I don't think he recognized that the world he wanted to leave was between his ears, lovely but so lonely. The only thing is he didn't want me close anymore. His sky blue eyes met thunder clouds and the rain was drowning him, I could see and I could've handled it but he wouldn't let anyone in. It's not that I'm not close to him. I mean he still pushes me down the stairs. But his heart was stopped for quite some time and since then it's been offbeat.
My mom said the part of his brain that was most damaged connects actions to consequence. That might be why yells at me, or why we haven't spoken since June.
I remember when we lived in Utah, before my dad died, there was a field that he would take us to to watch the mountains and the moon. One time Nik asked him why the moon moved and all he had to say was "just because." He said if everything beautiful stayed forever people would eventually stop caring. Reminiscence is so deceiving I wonder if it could be all be true. Maybe next time I see Nik he won't flinch when I ask how he's doing, and I can pretend that I don't notice that his head hurts all the time.
I don’t long for the things I know of him, but the things I’ll never understand. I think there are parts of him still on the pavement and I think he’s forgotten them. The best day of my life was finding out he was alive, but I think all the worst ones after that have been spent wondering if he's living.