Her limbs were heavy and she couldn’t move. A deep cold seeped into her bones and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make her body work.
She couldn’t breathe. Her lungs burned for air but she couldn’t even get her mouth open to suck in a breath. She felt a great pressure against her chest and suddenly she was gasping.
Water rushed into her mouth, into her nose, down her throat and to her lungs. She was drowning. She still couldn’t move her arms to swim to the surface of the water and she was only sinking deeper and deeper below.
‘Help me,’ she wanted to say, but even if she could speak there would be no one to hear her. ‘Someone help me, please.’
The cold unforgiving waters drug her deeper into the dark depths. No one would be coming to rescue her.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We commend his body now to the earth.”
Gail barely heard the words of the preacher as the casket was lowered into the ground. She couldn’t even look at the casket herself; she just stared ahead of it, out across the cemetery. The air felt thick with humidity and she was finding it difficult to breathe.
When the burial had been completed, those who were present began to turn away. Gail just stood there gazing absently into the distance when a hand touched her shoulder. She glanced up slowly to see her father standing there, a solemn expression on his face.
“Come on, Abigail. He’s gone now. We should get going.”
She shrugged away from his touch, standing and taking a few steps away from him. “You go. I need a few minutes.”
“Abigail, please, we need to be together as a family now.”
Gail snorted and glanced over her shoulder at the woman who stood a few feet away from her father. “A family, huh? Is that why you brought her?”
He tensed a little then let out a sigh. “Please don’t do this right now. I know you’re upset, but-”
“She shouldn’t have come. It’s not as if she knew him anyway.” Gail turned away from him and started walking in the opposite direction. “Don’t talk to me about family when you’re toting her around.”
She half expected her father to raise his voice at her for that, but he remained silent and didn’t follow after her. Gail was thankful for that. She glanced once at the gravestone then kept on walking, heading for the little band of stragglers that were left behind who hadn’t yet made it to their cars.
Her mother stood with a couple other women, all of them appearing to be recovering from a fresh bout of sobbing. Gail thought about going to talk to her mother, but she couldn’t get up the nerve. She glanced back over her shoulder to see her father and his girlfriend had headed back to his car, though they were watching everyone else from the distance.
Gail let out a deep sigh and turned to head to her own car when someone stopped her. “Hey, Gail.”
She turned and saw Vance standing there. The sight of him set her heart at ease just a little. Somehow she’d rather be talking to him than any of her other family at that moment. “Hey. How are you holding up?”
He shrugged his shoulders, shoving his hands into his pockets. “It’s rough. Losing a roommate and a friend like that is… well, you know.” He frowned and turned his head toward the grave. “And it kinda just hit me how much this is going to make my life change. You never really realize how important people are in your life until they’re gone.”
Gail sucked in a breath and nodded her head. “Yeah, I know all too well.”
Vance cleared his throat and nodded his head. “Right, sorry. He was your brother after all.” He glanced around at everyone else still standing around. Gail turned her attention back to where her father had been standing, but he was long gone by this point.
“We should go,” Gail said after a moment. “I’m not sure how long I can stand being here.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to be with your family right now?” Vance asked. Gail nodded her head sternly.
“I really don’t want to be around them. It’s just… well, I can tell you about it later.”
“Alright. Still, it seems just a little soon to be doing this, but I guess it’s best to do it sooner than later. You wanna get some food first or just come back to the apartment?”
“We can eat after,” Gail said with a sigh. “I don’t really have much of an appetite right now anyway.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t.” Vance lightly rubbed the back of his neck and sighed, then he gave Gail a faint smile. “Well, I’m gonna go ahead and drive back. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Vance waved to her and went to his car. Gail stood there for awhile longer, watching her mother and other extended family members exchanging hugs and crying into each other’s arms. She was just about to leave when her great aunt came over to her and wrapped Gail in a suffocating hug, sobbing.
“Oh, Abigail! I’m so, so sorry about your brother. This is just awful.”
Gail grit her teeth a little, wanting nothing more than to pull away and just run to her car, but her aunt was now dragging her over to the rest of her family. Gail’s mother pulled her from her aunt’s embrace to hold Gail in her own arms.
“I just never thought anything like this would ever happen,” Gail’s mother cried, her breaths heaving and her voice trembling. “Axel was always distant, but I can’t believe he would…”
“Mom, please,” Gail muttered, mustering the energy to pull away from her. “I’m sorry, but I need to go. Vance is waiting for me. I’m going to pick up Axel’s things from the apartment.”
Her mother dabbed at her eyes with a tissue for a moment before gazing straight at Gail. “Now? So soon after the funeral? Couldn’t you give it at least a day? You need to spend this time with your family.”
“I want to get it done as soon as possible,” Gail said, brushing a strand of red hair out of her face. “Please, I need to do this right now. I can’t really handle being around all of this at the moment.”
“You think this is any easier for the rest of us?” her mother said, sounding like she was ready to burst into another fit of sobs at any moment. “I’ve just lost my son, and now you want to get away from me too?”
“It’s not like that, Mom.” Gail turned away, running a hand through her hair, then she glanced back at her mother. “I just need time to process things in my own way, alright? Please, just let me do this.”
Her mother gazed at her for a long moment before slowly nodding her head. “Alright, fine. Go then, but you’d better come back soon, alright? I need my family right now.”
“I will,” Gail said with a nod. “I probably won’t be able to do it all tonight. I’ll be back tomorrow, and I’ll call before I leave. Promise.”
“Okay.” Her mother let out a shaky breath and wrapped Gail in a tight hug, tears beginning to fall from her eyes once more. “Please be safe.”
“I will.” Gail held her mother for a moment before pulling away from the crowd of relatives. She got to her car and closed the door, sighing deeply while leaning against the steering wheel. She took a few deep breaths before buckling her seat belt and putting the key into the ignition.
As she pulled out of the cemetery she turned on her stereo and cranked up the volume, letting the music resonate through her to help her concentrate better on where she was going rather letting her thoughts overwhelm her.
It took her almost two hours of driving before she arrived at the apartment. She pulled the key from the ignition and leaned back in her seat, breathing steadily for a few moments, telling herself to just relax. She could do this. Once she felt she was sufficiently prepared, Gail got out of the car and headed up to the apartment and knocked on the door. Vance opened it and motioned for her to step inside.
“Hey, I just got back a few minutes ago myself. Do you wanna start now, then? I feel like this is going to take awhile.”
“Yeah, it is, and I’m probably not going to head back until tomorrow. But we can work on boxing up his stuff and get it ready to be packed tomorrow.”
“Were you planning on going to a hotel or something?” Vance asked.
“Yeah, or something,” Gail said with a shrug, her eyes wandering the room absently. “I don’t really mind.”
“You could just stay here,” Vance offered. “I’ve got a perfectly good couch, and there is an… empty bed.” He cleared his throat a little and turned his attention to the hall. “Uh, yeah, let’s just get started.”
Gail watched him closely for a minute then nodded her head and murmured, “The couch will be fine. It’d save me some money anyway. Thanks.”
“No problem.” Vance headed down the hall toward the now unoccupied bedroom and Gail followed. He flipped on the light switch and stepped aside to let Gail appraise the room. Gail gazed at the room for a long moment before letting out a deep breath.
“What a nerd.”
“Hm?” Vance raised an eyebrow and leaned a little closer to her. Gail was smiling faintly, though she kept her back turned to him for the most part.
“You’d expect the room to be messy, wouldn’t you? The bed’s all nice and neat and everything looks so clean and tidy. Axel was always such a nerd.”
“Were you the messy one, then?” Vance asked with a hint of a smile.
“Maybe.” Gail shrugged her shoulders and sighed a little, settling down on the edge of the bed. She glanced at all the band posters decorating the walls. They were all more about the art and aesthetic than the band image. She sighed deeply before glancing back at Vance. “Could I ask you a favor?”
“What’s that?” Vance asked.
“I just… I think I’d prefer to do this alone, if that’s okay with you. Going through his stuff, I mean. If you’ve got any boxes or anything that I could put this stuff in, that’d be great, but I just… need to be alone I think.”
“Sure, I understand.” He laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “I’ll be here if you need me, just yell for me. Let me know when you get hungry and we can grab some dinner too, alright?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Vance.”
He nodded his head and turned to leave the room, closing the door behind him. Gail let out a deep breath once she was alone and laid back against the bed, staring at the ceiling. Silence filled the room and even her previous buzzing thoughts had grown still and quiet.
Part of her didn’t want to do anything but lie there. She didn’t want to disturb the peace of the room. She didn’t want to disrupt the neatness that Axel had gone to such lengths to preserve. But it had to be done eventually and there was no sense in delaying it. The longer she waited, the harder it would become.
She finally made herself start, deciding to go through his clothes first. She put most of it into large trash bags, intending to take it all down to the donation center, though she found a few things that she decided to keep for herself: a couple of jackets and some graphic t-shirts. Gail also found a small box with some jewelry in it that had been sitting on top of the dresser. She would keep that, too.
There was a necklace in the box that caught her eye. She lifted it out carefully and peered at it. It was a large black skeleton key with silver angel wings attached to the back and a small purple gem in the middle. Axel had owned that necklace ever since they were kids. He’d always told her that the first person he ever loved gave it to him, but he never told her who that was.
Gail remembered teasing him when she was young, going around and telling everyone he had a girlfriend. He’d insisted that he didn’t, and it was true: he never did. Though she couldn’t remember now what he had told her, she thought that whoever it was had given him the necklace just before moving away, only for him to never see them again.
He had always told her he would give her the necklace one day, if she found someone she could be with. That never happened either, and she had a feeling it never would. Still, she’d always loved that necklace. Now it was here in her hands. She let out a shaky breath and slowly put it around her neck, sliding it down under her shirt. It felt cold against her skin at first, but there was something comforting about it.
By the time Gail had finished going through all of the clothes, she was feeling rather exhausted, though it wasn’t terribly late yet. She realized that it was most likely due to not having eaten much if anything that day. With a heavy sigh, she reluctantly left the room to find Vance.
“I think I’d like to get something to eat now,” she said when she found him in the living room. “Did you have anything in mind when you mentioned it earlier?”
“I had a bit of an idea,” he said with a slight nod of his head. “There’s this little pub style restaurant not far from here. It was one of Axel’s favorites, actually.”
“That sounds good,” Gail said. “Let’s go. I think I’ll be able to keep working once I’ve got some food in me.”
Vance smiled at her and stood up, holding his hand out to her. “We can go in my car, then. I’ll even pay for your meal.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Gail said, shaking her head. “I may be a college student, but I’m not that destitute.”
“I insist,” Vance said firmly. “It’s the least I can do.”
Gail let out a sigh then nodded her head. “Alright, let’s go then.”
The two of them got into Vince’s car and he drove them down the road until they came to a quaint little pub. It was rather busy when they got inside, but they were seated rather quickly and they got their orders in. Once the waitress left, Gail leaned back in her seat and let out a heavy breath. People were talking all around them and music was playing in the background, along with televisions mounted on the walls showing sports games. It was noisy, but in a strangely calming sort of way.
“So,” Vance murmured after a moment, looking as if he couldn’t stand to sit in the non-silence any longer.
“So,” Gail said in return, turning to gaze at him. “Are you… doing okay since it happened? You were the one who found him after all, right?”
Vance breathed in deeply and nodded his head. “Yeah, I was. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know how I feel right now. Everything just happened so fast and I haven’t really had time to process that he’s… that he’s really gone.” His eyes glazed over for just a moment, then he looked at Gail and cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to sound insensitive-”
“You’re fine,” Gail said with a nod. “Just because he was my brother doesn’t mean you can’t miss him too. You lived together after all.”
“Yeah.” Vance sighed and leaned back in his seat. “Problem with losing a roommate is now I have to reassess my own financial situation. I can’t exactly afford the rent all on my own. I’m gonna have to either look for a new roommate or find a cheaper place to stay.”
“I know how that goes.” Gail frowned a little and glanced away from him. “You know, you asked me earlier why I didn’t want to spend this time with my family, all things considered.”
“Yeah?” Vance leaned in a little closer and rested his chin in his hand. “So why’s that?”
“It’s just…” Gail breathed in deeply and slowly shook her head. “I’ve never particularly gotten along well with my family. I was closest to Axel and back when we were kids, and especially after our parents divorced, it just felt like it was the two of us against the world. I knew him better than anyone else did. And considering what happened…” She grit her teeth a little and let out a shaky breath.
“Do you blame them for his death?” Vance asked quietly. “He talked to me a lot about his problems with your parents, and the rest of your family for that matter. That no one accepted him besides you.”
“No, I don’t blame them, exactly. I just… maybe I’m being selfish, but their grief feels almost dishonest. Obviously they’re sad, but they were still horrible to him and I can’t help but feel bitter toward them for that right now.”
“I understand,” Vance said with a nod. “And maybe they realized what they did to him was awful and they regret it. Maybe not, I don’t know. I don’t really know any of your family.”
Gail shook her head slowly. “Like I said, I’m probably being selfish thinking that. I don’t know.” She let out a deep breath and glanced across the room. Vance was about to reach his hand out and touch hers, but their food arrived at that moment.
They ate in silence together and while Gail still didn’t feel particularly hungry she did manage to finish it all. It tasted better than anything she had had for the last few days, though she hadn’t really been eating much since she got the news without feeling like it was going to come back up.
“You know something,” Vance said after awhile, a slight smile on his lips, “Axel talked about you a lot. He was quite fond of his little sister.”
“Mm, is that so?” Gail took a sip of water, staring across the table at Vance.
“Anytime you sent him pictures he would show them to me and brag about you every chance he got. He told me that you two were planning on finding some place together once you finished with college. New York, right?”
“Well…” Gail sighed a little. “New York was one place we had thought of, yeah. But you know.” She bit her lower lip before shoving another bite of food into her mouth.
“He was really proud of you and everything you did,” Vance went on. “He kept on saying how you were gonna do great things and that he was an embarrassment since he was supposed to be the gifted child and still didn’t have the most stable job or career picked out.”
Gail frowned and mumbled under her breath, “Isn’t that just like him?”
“I don’t know why he said stuff like that,” Vance admitted. “It’s not like we were struggling to make ends meet or anything. He had a pretty good job and he almost never complained about it. I guess it’s just because it wasn’t something he really wanted to do.”
“It’s my parents’ fault,” Gail said. “They always pushed this idea on him since we were kids that he was some sort of musical prodigy. He really was talented since a young age, but they just pushed him too much. The fact that he never made a career out of it, well…” She paused to take another drink.
“Another thing to be disappointed about?” Vance murmured a little darkly.
“Something like that,” she said with a sigh. “He didn’t make a have a career at all, not really, and when you have parents with far too high of expectations since you were six years old, that can mean hell when you don’t achieve all they dreamed you would be.”
“It was his life, not theirs,” Vance muttered. “But I guess I can see how pressure like that could take passion out of you completely.”
“Yeah,” Gail said with a sigh.
Once they had finished their meals and Vance paid the bill, they headed back to the apartment and the two of them started going through some more of Axel’s things together, specifically his collection of music albums. Vance kept a few of them and Gail took the rest. Axel had always had good taste in music, so she decided she would treasure all of them.
They worked on going through his room for a good long while before Gail needed to get some sleep. She settled on the couch with a blanket and closed her eyes, wondering if she’d even be able to get any sleep. Exhaustion overtook her and she fell asleep almost immediately without any disturbances for once.
The next morning she was woken by the smell of food cooking in the kitchen. Vance made breakfast and they both ate together. Gail was glad to see that her appetite was indeed coming back and she could enjoy food once more. When they finished eating, she began loading Axel’s things into her car.
The last thing she found in the room that she decided to bring with her was an old guitar that had been pushed far under the bed. She set the case on the bed and opened it to look at the guitar. She could tell it hadn’t been played in quite some time. She shut the case again and strapped it over her shoulder, then she left the room and closed the door behind her.
“Whatever else is left in there is yours to do with as you will,” she told Vance as she made her way out of the apartment. “You can keep it or sell it or whatever. There’s not really that much, though.”
Vance nodded his head and went out to her car with her, helping her put the last of the things into her car. Once she was all set to go, Gail opened the door to her car but hesitated before getting in. Vance tilted his head to the side and asked, “Are you going to be okay, Gail?”
She sniffed a little and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Probably not. Not for awhile, anyway.”
“Yeah, well do me a favor and call me when you get back, just so I know you made it there safely.”
“Alright, I will.” She hesitated then held her arms out to him. Vance smiled a little and gave her a hug. Though Vance was a lot taller than him, it almost felt like she was hugging Axel again. When she pulled away her eyes were a bit moist, though she managed to keep herself composed.
“Hey, thanks for everything,” she murmured. “And thanks for being there for Axel.”
Vance smiled a little sadly and nodded his head. “He was a great guy. I’m gonna miss him. I wish… I could have done more.” He shook his head a little and ran his hand across his face, letting out a deep breath. “You should probably get going since you have a long drive back.”
Gail nodded her head and settled into her car. “Bye, Vance.” She shut the door and put the key into the ignition, starting the engine of her car. As she pulled away she saw Vance waving to her. She breathed in deeply and shook her head a little.
As she was driving along the open road intrusive thoughts began filling the silence in her mind. She felt a pressure against her chest and found it difficult to breathe. She pulled to the side of the road and closed her eyes, gasping for air. It felt like she was drowning.
Someone help me, please.
No one was there to help her, though. She quickly turned on the stereo to let the music block out the loud thoughts in her head. She pressed her hand against her chest and felt the key necklace hanging around her neck. When she touched it, it almost felt like a wave of warmth washed over her and her breathing returned to normal.
Once she had calmed herself, Gail turned on the car again and started driving once more. She would get through this, she told herself. It might just take some time.