Authors: Jasinda Wilder
Something with sharp, shuddering claws seized my chest and shook me. A sob wracked me, and another.
I clamped my teeth together and cried silently for a full minute, hot tears on my face, refusing to sob out loud. I was hyperventilating, gasping for breath, face buried in my hands, choking on my own tears. I had no thoughts, only sorrow. Confusion. I was alone in this. Dad was alone in this. Shouldn’t this bind us closer?
But there I was, alone in my agony.
I forced myself to my feet, wiping at my face with my palms. I found a towel from the hall linen closet and wiped up Dad’s mess. It was slimy and hot under the towel. It took four bath towels and half a can of Resolve carpet cleaner. I put the towels into the washing machine. After a few minutes of tinkering, I found the pull-out drawer for detergent, which was clearly marked with “normal” and “max” fill lines, and another cup for fabric softener. I found the corresponding bottles and filled the machine, turned it on, and set it to run on normal.
The first load of laundry I’d ever done on my own.
I felt older than fifteen. I felt ancient. Empty and worn through.
The kitchen was dark and silent and seemed like a foreign place, a strange land I’d never seen before. The green-blue numbers of the microwave clock read 3:32 a.m.
I was exhausted, but knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Already, every time I closed my eyes I saw Mom, saw the way her eyes had gone dead. Her hand going limp. Dad smashing his fist against the door frame. Nurses watching with pointless sympathy. The flatline tone of the monitor.
I refused the sob that trembled inside me, closed my eyes and breathed through it. It passed, and I leaned back against the counter by the sink, listening to it drip, a slow
The letter. Ever’s letter. I turned on the overhead light and sat down at the kitchen table, placing the crumpled envelope flat on the surface and smoothing it with my palm. I slid my finger under the flap.
Why was I nervous? There was no reason to be. I think I was hoping her letter would provide some kind of comfort.
Or I suppose I might actually address the letters “Dear Caden,” since you are dear. To me, I mean. Is that weird? Maybe it is. “Dear” means, according to Google, “regarded with deep affection; cherished by someone.” I hope that’s not too weird for you, but I feel like you and I have a special connection. Do you think so, too?
I’m so, so sorry about your mom getting sicker. I can’t imagine going through that. When I lost my mom to the car accident, it was the most horrible thing I’ve ever experienced. One minute she was there, alive and fine, and then the next Daddy was telling me she was dead. No warning, just…dead. I was home, doing homework, and Daddy came into my room. He was crying. A grown man crying is just…wrong. Grown men don’t cry. They just don’t. You know? And he was crying, big fat tears on his cheeks and his chin, and he could barely get the words out. Still, I remember the moment as clear as day: “your mom…she was in a car accident, Ev. She’s dead. They couldn’t save her. On impact, they said.” He couldn’t say anything else, the words just wouldn’t come out. He hasn’t been the same since. He just…stopped being himself. Whoever he is now, it’s like some part of him died with Mom. You hear about that, right? You read about it in books. I have, at least. But now I see that it’s true.
I guess my point is, for me, it was just bam, she’s gone. For you…watching it happen? I don’t know. I’m just so sorry you’re going through it, and I wish I could say something or do something that would help you.
My dad kind of lost it, too. I think I already said that, but it’s worth repeating. He’s never been the same since. I don’t know. I’m fifteen, and I need my parents, but I only have one and he’s not really a parent anymore. He goes to work, and he’s there all day, and he doesn’t really care what we do. He’s just…a paycheck, I guess. Which, if I have to be basically an orphan, at least I don’t have to worry about starving, right? #alwayslookforthebrightside
Sorry for the hashtag. Everyone at school uses them. Like, ALL THE TIME. It kind of irritates me sometimes, all the text messages and Facebook posts with hashtags in them, but it’s become part of the popular method of expression, you know? So I sort of end up using them.
I know I’m rambling. Sorry. I’m supposed to be doing homework, but I’m putting it off. I’d rather spend my time writing you a letter. I know I look forward to your letters, so I guess I’m assuming you look forward to mine, too. I reread your letters, and I have them all saved in a shoebox. Is that weird? It’s a box from a pair of Steve Maddens that Daddy bought me the week before Mom died. The shoes don’t fit anymore, but the box is awesome, and they were seriously killer shoes.
I guess you don’t care about shoes. Guys don’t, right?
God, this letter is like four pages long. I’ll sign off and do my homework I guess. Write me soon!
Dearly and sincerely,
Your forever friend,
PS: You can start and end your letters however you want. It doesn’t matter to me. Nothing will sound stupid to me, I promise.
PSS: No, and yes. A photo is a picture, and a picture can be a photo. But a picture is not always a photo, while a photo is always a picture. LOL. Sounds like an algebra word problem, doesn’t it? The point is, you can call it a photo or photograph, or a picture. I tend to use “photo” since that sounds more…professional, I guess. That’s just me, though. I didn’t have an envelope big enough to send a photo without bending it, so I’ll get some big envelopes and include one in the next letter, okay?
I read the letter four times. Especially the “dearly and sincerely” part. And the “Your forever friend” part. I wanted that to mean something, to be deep and personal and meaningful and lasting.
Or I suppose I wanted anything to be all of that, since nothing in my life right then was.
painted by pain
I dropped Caden’s latest letter onto the bed and cried. It was for him that I cried, but also for me. His mom’s death reminded me all too poignantly of my own dead mother. I knew there was no comparison in the ways we’d lost our moms, but I also knew pain was pain, always relative to the person feeling it. All I could go by was my own pain, and try to empathize with Caden. He’d lost her in the most horrible way possible: slowly.
His pain bled through the pages of his letter. It was in the way he was clearly drunk while writing it, in the uncharacteristic misspellings, in the things he didn’t say. I’d learned to read between the lines of his words to see what he wasn’t saying, but was trying to. He was lost and alone and desperate.
I wished I could do something besides write him another letter. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have a license or a car, and Daddy was at work, probably not due home until nine or ten at night. He stayed at work later and later these days. He’d be at work already by the time I got up for school at six, and he wouldn’t be home until eight at the soonest, usually later. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home at all. He slept in his office, I supposed.
The only thing I could do was write Caden a letter.
Or…I could paint him a picture and mail it to him.
I left the letter on my bed and went into my studio. There were five bedrooms in our house; Dad slept in one, Eden in one, me in another, and then Eden and I each had our own private studios, me for painting and Eden for playing cello. I put on my painting shirt, an old white long-sleeved button-down of Daddy’s. It was huge on me; the sleeves rolled four times still came to my forearms, and the hem fell just above my knees. I liked to paint wearing just the shirt. The free feeling of the soft cotton against my skin let me focus all of my attention on painting. I left my T-shirt and jeans in a pile on the floor, locked the door, and unfolded my painting case.
I stroked the smooth wood of the case’s edge, thinking of Mom. The case was the last gift she’d ever given me, a reward for getting straight A’s for the first half of the year. I was supposed to have gotten an even bigger gift for a 4.0 at the end of the full year, but she’d died and Daddy hadn’t followed through on her promise. Not that it mattered now. If it wasn’t
giving me the present, it didn’t really matter.
Now the case was my most prized possession. I didn’t care about anything else. The expensive clothes I’d once been so consumed with, the latest iPhone and jewelry, all that? None of it mattered. Mom had been an artist, and the paint case was all I really had left of her.
Thinking of Mom, and then Caden, I dabbed my brush—a medium-point one, just to start out with—into the blue. Sometimes, if I knew exactly what I was setting out to paint, I would use a pencil and sketch it out first. Other times, like now, when I was letting my instincts take over, I just painted without any planning or forethought. I imagined my mind as a canvas as blank as the one in front of me, and let my hand and wrist take over. It was pure emotion, really. I tapped into my gut, my heart, and my soul.
One stroke began the process. A single diagonal sweep across the lower left corner of the canvas. Another. A curve. Suddenly, it was a lake, rippling and unfocused. More brushes, finer ones, broader ones, melded colors and smeared shades. An image of Caden flashed into my mind, the way I’d drawn him that day beside the lake. I imagined him alone at home, in bed. On his back staring up at the ceiling, tears trickling down the side of his face onto his pillow. He’d cry alone, in his room.
Me? After Mom died, I would burst into tears at the most random times. I couldn’t help it. I’d be in math class and then I’d be crying, and people would stare at me because they
Caden would likely hold it in and wait until he was at home in his room, and then he’d just quietly let go. Or maybe he wouldn’t, not ever. He’d hold it in and hold it in, and never let it out, and then someday he’d explode, because he never let it out.
A sun appeared in the sky above the lake, blurred yellow and bright, reflecting on the water. Trees. Bushes. A clearing just beneath the lake, which would be the foreground, the focal point of the piece.
And then Caden. Just the back of him, his hair shaggy and thick and brown like bear fur. Broad shoulders, also like a bear. He’d be big like a grizzly when he was full-grown, I knew. I had an image of him ten years from now, huge and burly, with unkempt but beautifully wild hair, and eyes like burning dark brown orbs in his handsome face. I didn’t paint him that way, but I imagined it. I saw his eyes, and in my fantasy he was smiling at me, teeth white as porcelain and even. In the painting, he was facing the lake, one hand at his side, the other, the left, stretched out to the side. He was reaching for something. For someone. For someone to hold his hand.
I couldn’t help it. It was how the painting was meant to be, so I let it happen. I painted myself beside him, my hair loose and tangled in the breeze around my shoulders, nearly to my waist. My right hand was outstretched as well. Reaching for him. Our fingers didn’t quite touch. It was painful to paint it that way. Literally, physically painful. I wanted our hands in the painting to touch, to tangle and twine, but they didn’t. A breath of wind blew between them, in the space between our fingertips. I could feel the wind, and so I painted the leaves skirling around our feet, autumn reds and yellows and oranges, broad maple leaves.
I stepped back and stared at the painting, head tilted to one side, trying to figure out what it was missing.
Two doves, flitting between the trees, almost invisible through the foliage. Two doves, side by side, flying away from Caden and me.
He’d know what that meant. He’d get it.
It was done, then. I took off my paint shirt, washed my hands and face, as I inevitably got paint on myself, then re-dressed and left the piece to dry. For once, I hated the length of time it took to let oil paint dry; usually I didn’t care, as I only painted for myself. I had stacks of paintings in the corner of my studio, dozens and dozens of unframed pieces, with others lying face up on my drop cloth to dry. I left Caden’s piece on the easel, knowing I’d want to look at it later, perhaps adjust it or correct it. I preserved my mixed colors and washed my brushes, closed the window, and left the studio.
For the next few days, though, I couldn’t get the painting out of my head. The next time I looked at it, I knew it was complete, needing no alterations. I saw it when I closed my eyes to sleep, the way Caden’s and my fingers didn’t quite meet. It was torture.
What did it mean? Why did I want our paint-selves to hold hands?
I even dreamed of the painting. I was on a bluff overlooking a too-blue lake. Everything was that too-colorful, too-vivid brilliance of dreaming. I felt wind blowing, a stiff, steady breath smelling of pine needles and distant campfire. I wasn’t quite standing, either; I was floating a few inches off the ground, just high enough for my toes to point at the leaf-strewn forest floor. It wasn’t odd, in my dream, that my feet didn’t touch the ground. It was perfectly normal, and I simply noticed and accepted it, the way you do in dreams. And then something changed. The peace of the moment vanished, leached away without warning. I twisted my head, and the motion took a year to complete, the ninety-degree rotation lasting for minutes and minutes, as if I was moving through thickened water.
Caden. He was beside me, floating like me, staring out at the water and the green needle points of the pine trees. He knew I was there. I could sense his awareness. He turned to look at me, and this action, for him, was unfairly normal and quick. His eyes pierced me, deep brown and heavy with sadness.