“Abigail, can you hear what I’m saying?”
Gail glanced up to see her mother standing in the doorway, a slightly exasperated look on her face. Gail sighed and pulled one earbud out so she could listen. “What is it?”
“You know your relatives are here. It would be nice if you came down and talked to everyone and just spent some time socializing rather than locked up here in your room.”
Gail frowned and turned her face away, returning her attention to the box of photos she’d been looking through. “Yeah, well I’m kind of busy at the moment.”
“You haven’t seen any of them in so long, I think you can spare some time to come and talk with them,” her mother said.
“No, I really can’t,” Gail said shortly. “I need to finish this all up before I go back to school. Getting caught up in all of this is just going to make everything more difficult.”
Her mother stayed quiet for a time before turning away and murmuring, “You’re not the only one who’s been affected by this. I know it’s hard on you, considering how close you two were, but it’s hard on me, too, along with everyone else. Don’t close yourself off or it really will be more difficult.”
She shut the door behind her as she left the room, leaving Gail alone to ponder what she had said. Gail gazed at the closed door for a time before sighing and replacing the earbud, turning back to the box of photos in front of her. She had found them amongst Axel’s belongings and took the box without really looking through them. Now that they were here in her hands, she couldn’t stop staring. They were all pictures she had taken and sent to him. She had never printed them herself, so he must have had them printed.
Axel had always said she took the best pictures he’d ever seen. Most of the time she was sure he was just saying that to encourage her, not because it was actually true, but she did end up majoring in photography anyway. She remembered when she told him she’d been accepted to college and how happy and excited he was. He seemed more excited than she had been. “You’re gonna be great, I just know it!” he had said.
When Gail got to the bottom of the box she found an old photo that she was rather surprised to see. It was one she had taken back when she was a child and had stolen her dad’s camera from out of his office. She had nearly gotten in trouble for it, but Axel talked their father out of punishing her, especially considering the picture she had taken. It was of the old pond out on the hill behind their property. Axel had always said it was her best photo.
Gail turned the photo around in her hands and saw there was writing on the back with a black marker. It said, “Gail Wellers, age 7, a masterpiece beyond compare.” Gail snorted a little when she saw this and put it back into the box.
She stayed in her room awhile longer, setting the box aside and closing her eyes to listen to her music, but after a time she started to feel hungry. She tried to ignore the feeling at first, as going to get food would mean having to run into the people downstairs, but her hunger ended up winning out in the end. With a sigh she stood up and headed down the stairs.
Having mastered the technique of quietly going down the stairs and making her way through rooms without anyone noticing since she was a kid, Gail managed to make it to the kitchen, though here she had to freeze. Her mother, grandma, and great aunt were all in the kitchen seeming to be preparing some sort of meal. Gail’s first instinct was to turn and go right back up the stairs, but it was too late. She’d been spotted.
“Oh, Abigail! We were wondering when you’d come down. We’ve been so worried about you! You look just ghastly, you should have a bite to eat.”
“That’s what I came down here for,” Gail murmured. She crossed the kitchen, trying hard to ignore everyone else standing around her as she headed to the fridge. She could feel her mother’s eyes on her as she rummaged around for something to eat.
“We are getting dinner ready, you know,” her mother said. “You could just wait and eat with the rest of us.”
“I need something to tide me over,” Gail replied, pulling out a block of cheese and closing the door. She skirted over to the cabinet and grabbed a box of crackers before trying to make her way back out of the kitchen, but her grandma caught her by the sleeve.
“You know you could help us in here. Just because you’re going to college doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be a proper lady and do some work in the kitchen.”
Gail scowled and pulled away. “There’s not really much room for more than three people to be doing stuff in here,” she said, “and I wouldn’t call this being a proper lady.” She managed to get away before her grandma or aunt could say anything else, a vein pulsing in her neck with annoyance.
She got back up the stairs without any of her relatives noticing her, or if they had they were smart enough not to bother her as she determinedly made her way back to her room. She closed the door behind her and fell onto her bed, lying still for a moment before munching on her snack.
Gail glanced across the room at the guitar case leaning up against the wall and let out a little shaky breath. She pressed her hand against her neck, sliding her fingers under her shirt to grip the key necklace she was wearing that had been Axel’s. She hadn’t taken it off since she found it, not even to sleep, and she wasn’t likely to anytime soon.
After a time, Gail’s mother knocked on the door and peered in at her. “Dinner’s almost ready. You should come down and eat with us, even if you don’t want to be around anyone else.”
“I can get some food later,” Gail mumbled, gazing absently up at the ceiling with one earbud in as she listened to music. “I’m not really in the mood right at the moment.”
“Just because you’re not in the mood doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come down and be with everyone,” her mother said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“No one would want me to be around and ruin dinner if I’m in this kind of mood,” Gail said, turning to look at her mother. “Would they?”
Her mother stared at her for a moment, then slowly shook her head. “No. I suppose not. But you could at least try to make an effort.”
“I am trying, believe me,” Gail said as she sat up. “I just… can’t be around them right now. It’s making this all way worse. I want to go home.”
“You are home,” her mother said, going over to her. “This is your home and your family.”
“No, I meant back to college. I just…” She let out a shaky sigh and shook her head. “I don’t know, it feels suffocating being here. I keep expecting to see him and he’s not here and I can’t…” Gail pressed her face into her hands and let out a shaky breath.
Her mother sat down on the bed beside her and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Alright, sweetie. It’s okay. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to push you so much.”
Gail managed to swallow back a sob and scrubbed at her face. “Everything happened so fast and I just can’t deal with everyone right now. Please, just let me handle this my own way, Mom.”
“I’m not so sure how healthy this is,” her mother said. “It seems like you’re just shutting everyone out and trying to bottle up your emotions.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” she muttered. “I’m just trying to hold it together, that’s all.”
Her mother sat with her for a few moments before sighing and giving her a little hug. “If you get hungry, come down and eat, I’m sure there will be leftovers.”
Gail nodded a little and her mother left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. After lying there for a little while longer, she let out a deep breath and made up her mind what she was going to do. She grabbed her phone from the bedside table and sent a text to her roommate.
“Hey, I’m gonna head back tomorrow. You’re there already, right?”
It wasn’t long before her phone buzzed with a reply.
“Yeah, I’m here. I can’t wait to see you, I’ll be waiting with a stocked fridge.”
“I can’t wait either.”
The night was restless and Gail had a hard time getting to sleep. She tossed and turned in her bed, her chest feeling constricted and making it difficult for her to breathe. It was that nightmare again. She was drowning and she couldn’t get out of the water no matter how hard she tried. She woke in a cold sweat more than once, gasping for air.
It was around six thirty in the morning when Gail decided to properly get up and start packing her car to leave. It didn’t take her long to get everything loaded in, since she really didn’t have all that much, except the things of Axel’s she had decided to bring back with her like his guitar.
Once she got her car loaded up she went back inside to grab something to eat. Her mother was standing in the kitchen, her arms crossed over her chest. Gail blinked in surprise, not having expected to see her there.
“So you are leaving?” her mother asked in a quiet voice.
“Yeah. I need to head back. Haley’s waiting for me.”
“You could have told us, you know, or wait until everyone else is up so you can say goodbye. Maybe have breakfast with us.”
“I can’t, I have to go.”
Her mother reached out and put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her a little closer. “Abigail, please don’t run away like this. I know this is hard on you, but seeing you like this is hard for me, too.”
Gail let out a deep breath before laying her head lightly on her mother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to push you away, I’m really not, I just can’t… be here right now.”
“Do you really think you’ll be able to handle this any better by going somewhere else?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know,” Gail said, shaking her head. “All I know is this place is suffocating me. It’s not you, or them, just this place. I have to get out. It’s… full of too many memories.”
Her mother sighed then hugged her a little tighter. “Alright. I understand, I suppose. I just hate to see you leave at a time like this. We need to be a family and stay together right now.”
Gail curled her lip a little and muttered darkly, “That’s exactly what Dad said at the funeral.”
Her mother frowned, but her expression grew a little softer and she murmured, “He isn’t wrong, but he should know better about how he says such things, or what company he says it in. Axel was his son too, after all.”
Gail sighed then pulled away from her mother and turned to the door. “I need to go. I have a long drive and like I said Haley is waiting for me.”
“Don’t you at least want something to eat first?”
“I’m going to stop for coffee anyway. I can grab something to eat there. I’ll be fine.”
“You don’t seem like it to me,” her mother said. Gail stood at the door for a moment longer before stepping outside.
“Bye, Mom. I’ll call you when I get there.”
Gail walked out to the driveway and settled into her car, putting the key into the ignition but not yet turning on the engine. She gazed out through the windshield at the house and across the backyard to the hill that led up to the pond and the woods. Memories of when she and Axel used to play in those woods when they were kids started flooding through her mind.
With a slight shudder she turned the key and fired the car engine to life then pulled out of the driveway and got onto the road. She drove in silence for a time but when she could no longer stand it she turned on the stereo and put in one of the CD’s she had taken from Axel’s collection.
Gail drove into town to stop off at the coffee shop before making the trip back to college. She bought the largest size of coffee they had along with a croissant then sat down to check her phone. She decided to send Haley another message to let her know she was on the way.
“I should be there sometime in the afternoon. Don’t wait up for me if you have work or anything, I’ll be fine there by myself until you get back.”
Since it was so early in the morning, Gail figured Haley wouldn’t get the message until later. She slid the phone back into her pocket and finished her croissant. With a sigh she picked up her coffee and headed back out to her car.
Just as she got out the door a man ran smack into her, nearly knocking Gail off her feet. She gasped and stumbled away from him, gripping her coffee cup almost hard enough to crush it. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” she growled at the man.
“Sorry, sorry, so terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to, it won’t happen again.” The man bowed his head apologetically at her. Gail huffed a bit as she looked him over then raised an eyebrow. He had a rather disheveled appearance and his clothes seemed just a bit untidy.
“Is something wrong?” she asked. “You don’t look so good, if you don’t mind my saying.”
The man took a step away from her and cocked his head to the side, looking almost shocked that she was talking to her. “No, I’m- I’m fine, I just… I have somewhere I need to go.”
“Right, sure.” Gail nodded her head and stepped out of the way for him. “Have a nice day.”
He blinked at her then smiled a little, but then his expression turned panicked and he started to hurry along. “Sorry, I have to go right now. Goodbye.”
He took off running, glancing over his shoulder and up into the sky. Gail watched him until he was out of sight, then she peered up at the sky. There wasn’t anything there that she could see.
“That was odd,” she murmured. She sighed and shrugged it off as she got back into her car, taking a long gulp of coffee and settling back in her seat. She had a long drive ahead of her and she didn’t have time to worry about strangers doing strange things.