She finally pulled her eyes from the blank spot beyond, focusing on my face. Her body began to shake slightly as silent sobs turned to tears welling up in her eyes. Her grief caused my own pain to rear its ugly head. I jumped to my feet, not wanting to be sucked in. Someone had to remain strong here.
“Never mind, I got it,” I mumbled, exiting the room before the despair that growled deep in my stomach could claw its way out.
Megan’s room was several doors down the hall from mine. When she was three, Megan begged my parents for the room directly across from mine, but I balked at the idea of having her so close, feeling she would cramp my style. Yet another decision I wish I could retract.
Walking into Megan’s room was like stepping into the ultimate princess getaway. My parents let her re-do her bedroom on her fourth birthday. All her baby stuff was stored away and her room was completely redesigned to celebrate her new “big girl” status. The room was dressed in plush purple carpeting and soft pink walls adorned with pictures of fairies and princesses, and even her very own “Mirror Mirror on the Wall.” They bought her a beautiful sleigh bed made of mahogany with a matching wardrobe and highboy dresser, but what really brought it all together was an elaborate mural of a castle and its grounds decorating the eastern wall of the room. Megan absolutely squealed with delight when she saw it the first time, completely forgetting about her previous desire to inhabit the room closest to mine.
She was still in her nightgown when I entered, sitting in her reading corner with one of her favorite chapter books resting on her narrow knees. Megan was gifted in reading, devouring anything she could get her hands on and could already read at a fifth-grade level. Keeping her in age appropriate books proved to be a challenge. The shelves in her room overflowed with books that I could remember reading when I was much older.
“Hey, Peanut,” I said, sinking onto the foot of the velvet plum-colored chaise lounge were she perched.
Her slender shoulders stiffened at my words, but her gaze remained fixated on the pages in front of her. I cringed at the glaring dark bruise on her forehead and her white plaster encased arm, all evidence of the traumatic experience she had been through. The hospital could have at least given her pink or some other colored cast.
“It’s time to get ready,” I said, stroking her hair.
She acknowledged my words by closing her book and studying me with solemn eyes.
“Do you know what today is?” I asked quietly.
She nodded without speaking.
Megan hadn’t uttered a word since the accident, but no one has seemed to notice except me. I missed her cute little lisp when she called me by a nickname she had coined for me when she was younger. She couldn’t say Kassandra, so I became Kass, Kass to all the members of my family.
“Are you hungry, Peanut?” I asked as I pulled a light pink dress over her head.
She shook her head ever so slightly.
“Are you sure? Not even a peanut butter and strawberry sandwich?” I enticed, naming one of her favorite treats. Her passion for peanut butter was a longstanding joke in our family and was how she had gained her nickname.
She shook her head again.
“What about an ice cream sundae with melted peanut butter on top?” I said, willing to offer anything to get her to come out of her shell.
She remained silent and I sighed with resignation.
“You have to eat, Peanut,” I said, running a brush through her long golden locks before fixing it into a French braid down her back the way she liked. I helped her strap on her black Mary Janes and grasped her small hand as we left the room together.
The rest of my family was gathered uncomfortably in the living room when we entered. My Aunt Donna stood tall, although pale beside my sobbing grandma, while my Aunt Karen kept an arm firmly wrapped around my mom’s shoulders. I wanted to shield Megan from the pain that saturated the room, to flee to a happier place and a happier time, but those days were over. Instead, I scooped her up in my arms, marveling at how light she was. She took after my mom, having a more delicate bone structure, while I had the solid frame of my father.
“The limo is here,” my Aunt Donna said, helping my grandma to her feet. My mom rose at her words and followed behind them, still clutching my dad’s t-shirt in her hands. Megan watched them file solemnly out of the room ahead of us.
“It’s okay, Peanut. We can do this,” I said, pulling her more snugly into my arms.
I set her down as we neared the oversized vehicle parked outside the house. She climbed into the car and onto her booster seat that the limo driver had fastened to one of the long bench seats inside. I waited for my mom to methodically strap her in like she always had before, but she remained fixated on a spot out the window and beyond my line of vision. Sighing, I reached over and buckled Megan myself, pulling the belt tight to make sure it was securely fastened like I had seen my parents do hundreds of times. It had been their diligence to sa
fety that saved Megan’s life in the accident when my dad had slammed into the telephone pole.
The ride to the cemetery was slow and silent as we made our way through town, passing the brightly-colored store-fronts and droves of people strolling around the sidewalks. To them, this was just another normal day. We finally reached Shady Oaks Cemetery, and all I could think was how this place felt like it was mocking me. It was beautifully inviting with lush grass, perfectly manicured trees, and freshly bloomed flowers everywhere, but there was certainly nothing beautiful about coming here. The driver turned smoothly into the graveyard, pulling up slowly to the spot where we would say our final goodbyes. The one thing that my mom and grandma had agreed on was that my father would have hated the whole church funeral thing, so they settled on a graveside service. I could see the seats under the oversized maroon tent were filled with mourners with many more people standing in rows behind them. The kind limo driver helped Megan and me climb out first and all eyes from the tent focused on us. I felt myself flush slightly at the attention I was receiving, which was unusual because I had spent my life thriving on the attention of others. Whether at dance recitals from my younger years or cheerleading as I got older, I was used to hundreds of students cheering for me as I effortlessly tumbled through complicated routines with my parents watching proudly from the stands. I had always been the envy of most of the student body and I liked it that way.
This attention though was different. It oozed with pity and empathy combined with a mix of relief that it wasn’t them in our shoes. I wanted to be anywhere but here, and for a brief moment, I considered fleeing the scene. That is, until Megan’s tiny hand tightened around the three fingers she was gripping on my right hand. I couldn’t leave her here. When I looked down to see her lower lip trembling, I pulled her closer against my hip as we slowly made our way to the seats reserved for family members.
The minster started talking when we were seated. Quiet sobbing filled the air as he droned on about all my father’s attributes. My father was a pillar of our community, well loved by all, but none of them knew what truly made him special. Like the way he made “Pancake Sunday” a special event each week by adding different goodies to the pancake batter to mix things up. Or the way he would act like a rock star when he played Rockband with Megan. They would always beg me to play with them, but I always seemed to have something to do, like paint my nails or text a friend, or some other activity that now seemed meaningless in comparison.
I was brought back to reality as my Aunt Donna stepped up to the microphone to speak. How ironic that my dad’s least favorite relative would give his eulogy. He had joked for years about the stick up his sister’s ass and yet, there she was, probably because she was one of the only dry eyes here. Grandma had asked me if I wanted to say something, but I just didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of sharing my now precious memories with anyone else. Besides, would they really want to hear what I had to say if they knew all of this was my fault?
I would give anything to go back to the day that changed everything. Now, my life was filled with If onlys…If only I hadn’t picked a fight over my car…If only I hadn’t acted slow and sullen to make a point….If only I had picked any other day to be a whiny bitch, everything would be different. We would have been on time and the crazy asshole behind my dad and Megan would have picked another car to take out his road rage on!
“This was my fault,” I thought bleakly as I scanned the attendees, searching for a break in the crowd. My eyes settled on a lone figure leaning against a tree twenty feet from where I sat. Our eyes locked and bile rose in my throat.