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It's been 7 years since his sister Ann died and Matthew tends to think he's over it. He was only 8 when she died. Just a kid. Kids are resilient. They get over stuff like that. A sister dies, no big deal. A father dies a few years later, like Matthew's had, and it's a bigger deal. But, his father was an alcoholic, sure to die someday of liver disease if that heart attack hadn't gotten him first. That wasn't as ominous a death as Ann's had been, not some monster waiting just around the next corner, every day a blessing to be counted that that monster hadn't claimed her yet. But, it was still ominous enough. And, Matthew was 13 by the time the monster took his father. Any of the ominousness was drowned out by adolescence and life in general. He was getting older, growing up.
His father's death, though foreshadowed so clearly in binge after binge, came as a surprise. And, it came on the very same day Matthew had taken a life, that of Henry Wallace, a boy his age that had tried to hurt Paige. Paige, if you don't know, is Matthew's girlfriend. In many ways, she's been his girlfriend since they were kids, since 6 and made it official. In some ways, they've been a couple since long before even then. And, in such clear ways to the both of them, they will be together until the day they die--and they will die on the same day; somehow they know this--or even after that if the gods allow it. The shock of his father's death wasn't in the simple fact that it was his father. It was that it seemed so much to come out of nowhere, whereas Ann's death was no real surprise, her condition getting gradually worse day by day until finally she couldn't fight any of it anymore. Matthew tends to think that his grief for his sister was, at the time of her death, the greatest sadness he will ever know. But, it faded quickly. He was a child. He knew little of the world or of life. His sister had always been sick. Her death was just another event along the way. It was easier to shake than the suddenness of his father's death.
The thing is, today, the 7th anniversary of Ann's death, Matthew isn't feeling much of the grief for his father that he'd felt for a while after he'd died. He isn't one for big remembrances or pilgrimages to the cemetery on anniversaries of people's deaths. Hell, he isn't even one to really think, at least immediately or purposefully, of the day being the anniversary of such a thing. He's much more at ease with thinking of his sister's life than he is thinking of her death, of his father's life than he is his death. He doesn't want to be one of those people that dwells too much on such specific moments in a life he hopes will be a long one. There is so much more to think on, and there is still so much more to live. And, he doesn't drink--and, though he is still 6 years too young to purchase alcohol illegally, he DOES have easy access to it through friends and acquaintances; his friend Henri, Matthew thinks, drinks too much, like alcohol is the key to being popular--and he's not sick like his sister was. He's got himself a girlfriend. He's got friends. He does well enough in school. He gets along with his mother as well as could be expected for an adolescent boy. He has no interest in dwelling on the past except insomuch as it decides the present. It cannot override the present, and going to his sister's or his father's grave very year, he believes, would be letting the past take over.
But, this morning he awoke thinking of Ann. At first, he figured he'd dreamt about her, and by the time he was dressed for school she would fade from his mind. And, if not by then, then when he would meet Paige outside to walk with her to school, Ann would fade from his thoughts. But, as he pulls on his pants for school he happened to glance at the calendar on his wall. Today was the 29th of September. It was 7 years ago today that Ann died, 7 years ago today that she finally succumbed to her cystic fibrosis. He freezes for a moment, his gaze stuck on the calendar, his mind drifting back. He thinks for a moment he hears coughing. He quickly pulls his pants up the rest of the way and hurries to his bedroom door to head across the hall to check on Ann. Except, there is no coughing. There is no Ann across the hall. That was long ago.
He thinks for a moment of a day not long ago when he was sure Ann was there in her old room all over again, drawing away at a picture of a dragon perched on the bridge over Justin Island. Invented by his mind or somehow back from the beyond, she?d been a ghost, an apparition. He hadn?t feared her at all. He?d had no reason to. He loved her. He loved her that day like he always had. Like he always would.
A little saddened, he goes to his dresser and retrieves a shirt to wear. He grabs his backpack and thoughts of the math homework from last night lets him off the hook for a moment from thinking of Ann. His eyes fall on one of his paintings, Brittany Doyle, Paige?s older sister, her belly large with a child on the way, a protective hand on that belly, her gaze lowered in contemplation. Ann would love that one, he thinks. Then, he looks at the painting on which he?d been working the night before. Paige, her bare back to him, looking over her shoulder, a sly half grin revealing so much more about her than her nakedness.
He hurries out of his room, eager to see the real Paige. He grabs a granola bar for breakfast and heads out the door as he opens it. Paige is already waiting for him. The sight of her would usually banish any dark thoughts, any anger, any grief. But, today the sight of her, her wonderful smile, those beautiful eyes, washes over him and tears out the feelings that had only half been there when he'd reached for his snooze button not long before. And, suddenly, it hits him like it was yesterday--
--or today. His mind flashes on an image of Ann. But, it's not Ann at her liveliest, Ann when she was drawing and brilliant and happy. It's Ann at the end, dying. It?s Ann how she looked that last morning when he pulled her out from between her bed and the wall. She had been so tiny by then, her body almost impossibly shrinking in on itself. She had barely woken up. She?d?
"What's wrong." Paige asks him.
Her acknowledgement of the turmoil in his head right then brings it all to the surface. Even as Paige puts her arms around him, he begins to weep.
When he can finally speak, he says, simply, ?Ann.?
Paige holds him a little tighter.
In his head, he thinks of that last day. He thinks of hearing Ann choking again, stopping breathing altogether. He thinks of getting some sense that this is it, this is the end. But, he jumped up onto her bed and got her breathing again, defiance against a god that would allow a life suffered as Ann?s had been.
?You?ll be okay,? he hears Ann say. ?Take care of mom and dad. Take care of Paige.?
With that, Ann had choked, her body had seized one last time. Then, there was stillness. Death.
?It?s today,? Paige says in the present. She doesn?t have to ask. She knows it is. She pays more attention to calendars and dates and anniversaries than he does.
Matthew nods then pulls away from her. He looks at her, just looks at her. ?I love you,? he says.
?I love you.?
Like any pair of 15 year olds, they take those words as seriously as they can. Unlike a lot of kids their age, though, they both know, really know, that they?re gonna stay together.
Matthew leans in and kisses her, then wipes tears from his eyes, grabs Paige?s hand in his, and they head off to school.
?I must?ve dreamt about her or something,? he says under his breath. ?I don?t know.?
He changes the subject. ?I finished the painting last night.?
Paige knows which one he means. She thinks of posing for it. She thinks of when she got him to take a break and join her on his bed.
?What are you grinning about??
?Nothing,? she replies. They both know she?s lying.
They walk in silence for a few blocks, thinking about that break.
Then, Matthew?s thoughts drift inconspicuously back to Ann. He wishes she were still around to see how he and Paige are getting along. ?She thought we?d end up together even before we did, you know,? he announces. Paige doesn?t have to ask whom he?s talking about. She knows. ?She?d just love this,? he says raising their hands between them, ?us walking to school hand in hand everyday.? His mood falls again abruptly. ?I should go visit her later.?
He means to visit her grave, something he rarely does. ?I?ll go with you,? Paige says, as if it needs to be announced for it to happen.
?Anytime, anywhere, anything for you.?
He slows a little, looking over at Paige. ?I love you,? he says again.
?Yeah yeah, we covered that,? she replies with a wink.
Paige lets go of his hand and runs on ahead of him. He chases after her.
Later, in the break after math class, Paige runs up to Matthew. ?It?s time,? she says. ?It?s time.?
?Time for what??
?Brittany,? she says. For most people, that wouldn?t be saying much, but Matthew gets it immediately. Afterall, it was only last week that he put the finishing touches on the painting of Brittany and her belly.
?Principal Day pulled me out of class,? Paige says. ?A whole minute before the bell-couldn?t Brit have gotten me out of class altogether?? She smirks. ?My mom called, Brit?s in labor. Apparently, she?s been in labor since a few hours ago. They only bothered to let me know now. Can you believe that??
?You going home??
?Yep. And, I?m sure she?ll end up at the hospital. She?s ready for the whole Lamaze thing but she?s such a wimp.?
Matthew laughed at that. ?Lucky you, you get to skip out early.?
?You wanna come? Brit wouldn?t mind. Well, she?d act like she minded, but it?s not like you?ve not seen her naked before.?
Matthew thought of the painting of Brittany and how long it had taken to get her to pose for it, and man had she made a big deal about watching him burn the Polaroids he?d taken before getting started.
?I doubt they?d let me leave school to see your sister give birth, or I?d be there. You know I would.?
?I know you would,? Paige says, smiling. ?You okay??
He nods. He?s been thinking of Ann off and on all morning, but he can handle it.
?I?m sure. Go be with your sister.? Cause I can?t be with mine, he thinks but does not say.
Paige kisses him. Then she heads off down the hall and out the door to go home.
And somehow, not too surprising actually, thoughts of Brittany giving birth drift into thoughts of Ann dying. The beginning of one life drifts right into the end of another.
?We all die,? Matthew says, out loud but not loud enough for anyone to hear but himself. ?We?re all born. We all die. If we?re lucky, we find someone great to share it with.?
?You talking to yourself??
Matthew looks up. Standing there is Rice Canavan, neighbor, friend, in a parallel universe somewhere probably his girlfriend in place of Paige. ?Yeah, got a problem with that?? Matthew smiles.
?Nah, but you should do it louder, so us nosey people can listen in.?
?Sure Rice, I?ll do that just for you next time.?
?Sounds good. Where was Paige off to??
?Brittany?s in labor.?
?Cool. It?s a boy, right? They found that out from the doctor, I heard.?
?Yes.? Briefly, Matthew wishes it would be a girl. Paige had told him something about trying to convince Brittany to name the baby Ann. And, for that, he loves Paige. That, and so many other reasons. ?Leonardo,? he says, and he shakes his head.
?Ah, she?s already got it named and everything,? Rice says.
The bell rings.
?We?re late,? Matthew says, always one to state the obvious to anyone but Paige. With Paige, everything?s obvious. So much of their time together ends up passing in silence cause they tend to know what each other are thinking.
?Who cares,? Rice says. ?It?s just school.?
?Good point.? Matthew pauses before adding, ?let?s get to class.?
?Spoilsport. I was all for skipping today. But, nobody?s game.? Reluctantly, Rice follows Matthew to class.
When the schoolday ends, Matthew thinks briefly of calling to see if Paige is still at home or at the hospital and going to be with her. But, Ann is still on his mind.
He finds himself walking to Homeland Cemetery without Paige. He knows she won?t get mad at him or anything for it, but he keeps wanting to turn back and go find her first. Except, he doesn?t want to drag her away from Brittany right now. Brittany needs you more than I do, he thinks, and he keeps on walking.
He goes right to his sister?s grave like it?s something he does everyday. There?s a single fresh rose lying on Ann?s marker. For a moment, Matthew?s gaze fixates on that rose, the bright red of its petals and bright green of its stem and leaves striking against the dark metal of Ann?s marker. Then, he focuses on the words.
Ann Laurel Rubin
A Child of God
A Creator In Her Own Right
January 18, 1979 - September 29, 1992
She wrote her epitaph herself. Not even 14 years old and she wrote her own epitaph. Even if she weren?t his sister, that fact would sadden him. She?d known she was dying. She tried to hide her worsening condition for a little while, and Matthew had caught on to it before anyone else. But, even then, he hadn?t wanted to really believe she?d be dead anytime soon. She?d been around his whole life, always there to give him some great advice, or to make fun of him when he had done something stupid. She wasn?t supposed to ever die.
?She?s not gone.?
Matthew looks around, but no one?s there. My imagination, he thinks, and he shakes it off.
It?s then that he notices the folded piece of paper beneath the rose. It?s crisp, fresh. It?s not been there long. Curious, he slips it out from under the rose and is a little shocked to find his own name on it. Needless to say, he opens it.
It?s a note to him from Paige. She knew he?d go to the cemetery without her. He smiles at that as he starts to read it.
Brittany?s doing okay. The doctor?s-yes, she went to the hospital, the wimp-says she?s getting along fine. But, I left her side for a bit to get you this rose. It?s for you, not Ann. Well, it?s for both of you.
I want you to know I love you, and I always will. And, next year on this day, there will be another rose here for you. And, the year after, there will be another. And the year after, and the year after, and, well, you get the idea. Ann told me when we were little about how they call it 65 roses, cause some kids, sick like she was, can?t pronounce it right. Well, that?s what you?re going to get from me. One rose every year on this day for 65 years. I figure by the time we?re 80, we?ll be dead of old age or something.
And, I know she wanted us to be together. I know she knew that you even asked me to marry you when we were 8. She was right about us, you know. And, no matter what happens now, we?re stuck together, you and I. And, not just because you saved my life, either. But, I know you know it?s much more than that. Of course, I do love that you saved me. But, I loved you long before that. And, I?ll love you long after now. I?ll--
?She will, you know?
Matthew looks around. He knows that?s Ann?s voice in his head. But, he wishes, oh how he wishes, she were visible.
He looks down at her grave marker through tearful eyes, then returns to Paige?s letter.
--I?ll love you long after now. I?ll love you forever. Maybe even longer than that. Gotta love the Fox and the Hound.
You wrote to your sister the year she died that ?there is magic that makes it okay.? Well, there is magic that makes it okay. There?s magic that makes everything okay. You?ve lost your sister and your father. But, you?ve still got your mother and you?ve still got your other sister, and you?ve still got me. You?ll always have me. All dreams come true in the end, Matty. Don?t forget that.
P.S. Ann would be proud of all your drawings and paintings, but I?m sure that goes without saying.
A hand touches his shoulder. It?s a comforting touch. ?Paige,? he says, smiling through his tears.
But, he turns, and it?s not Paige. It?s no one. The cemetery is empty besides him.
?Ann,? he says, tears welling up in his eyes all over again. ?I miss you, Ann.?
At the hospital, Paige is sitting by her mother in a waiting room drinking a soda when Matthew arrives. He has the rose in his hand, the note in his pocket. Seeing him and seeing the rose, Paige gets up and hugs him.
?Thank you,? he whispers in her ear.
?Anytime, anywhere, anything for you,? she replies.
Their embrace ends. ?Has she had it, yet,? Matthew asks.
Just then, a nurse comes out. ?It?s time,? she says.
Paige grins and grabs Matthew?s hand. ?Come on.? And, she drags him, regardless of any protest from hospital staff, with her into the delivery room.
And, not for the first time-he?s seen Lelia Braden, Henri?s sister, deliver a few babies before-he watches a child be born. And, it?s a beautiful thing, he thinks. A life beginning. Ann would love it.
As they clean up the child and do all their doctorly stuff, then hand off the tiny boy to his mother, Matthew?s already thinking of ways to capture this moment in a painting. Paige tightens her grip on his hand and smiles at him.
?This is what it?s about,? he says to her. ?This is what it?s all about.? Life, not death, but that goes without saying. Paige knows exactly what he means.
After the moment has calmed down a little, Matthew takes his turn getting a better look at little Leo. ?He?s beautiful,? he tells Brittany.
?Yes, he is,? she says, absolutely beaming with delight.
He feels a hand on his shoulder again. He doesn?t bother to look to see who?s there. He knows who it is.
He holds out the rose to Brittany. ?This is for you and Leo,? he says.
There are tears in Brittany?s eyes as she takes it from him. ?Thank you, Matt,? she says. ?Thank you.?
?You?re welcome,? he says.
Then he turns away. Paige looks at him and smiles. ?That was nice,? she tells him.
?Yeah, Ann woulda loved it.?