By Julia Perkins
I heard the swish of his feet stepping on leaves and turned my head to look at him. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but our eyes met and he closed it. I faced the shadows of the trees again and searched for stars in the spaces between the branches. There weren’t any, not yet. It was dark, but only because the sun sets faster in the woods. Cicadas buzzed all around me, sounding like the hiss of water spurting from a sprinkler. My flip flops had fallen off my feet, and I ground a pebble into the dirt with my big toe. Several mosquitos had gathered around my ankles and another two were buzzing in my ear. I made half an attempt to swat them away, but then brought my hand back down to rub the string of the hammock. It would be months until I would be here again. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the steady peep, peep, peep, peep of the crickets, and on the little dips and ridges of the hammock, trying to force my fingers to memorize how it felt to grip the taut rope. The string creaked and grew more rigid. My toes lifted off the ground for a moment as Jacob sat down next to me.
His fingers closed over my right hand and I traced the callous below his thumb, then the valleys in between his knuckles where his eczema was the worst. His hands had grown rougher and dirtier throughout the summer, but they stayed warm. I reached up with my free hand to bring my fingers through his thick hair, savoring the feel of his curls. With my eyes closed, I ran my hand down his long neck, sticky with sweat, to his shoulders. Dried dirt was caked onto the collar of his shirt. He hadn’t changed since work and still smelled like suntan lotion and sawdust. I opened my eyes so I could look at his face, his stumpy nose and thick eyebrows. I knew every part of him, but most of all I knew his eyes. I loved how they were deep and dark and knew me.
We had twelve hours, twelve hours until I would board a plane and fly across the country to Berkley. More than 3,000 miles away from where I had grown up in my hammock in my little Massachusetts town. More than 3,000 miles away from Jacob.
Jacob moved to lie down on the hammock and he pulled me with him. I rested my head on his collarbone and he wrapped his arm around me. He lifted my shirt a little, so he could rub small circles around my lower back. I traced the letters spelling out Stone’s Construction on Jacob’s shirt. If it hadn’t been for me, Jacob wouldn’t be wearing that shirt, I thought. He and Ben would be getting ready to take on the world.
Mrs. Draper our guidance counselor had tried to convince Jacob to apply to college. She brought me into her office to meet with him. I think she thought I would change his mind, but this was in September, six months after the accident and I had nothing to say. Mrs. Draper kept dragging her hand through her hair and readjusting the position of her coffee mug on her desk, before leaning forward and repeating: You’re so smart, Jacob, so smart. But Jacob said he wanted to go into his dad’s construction business. He liked building things, he told her.
When we were little we had all liked to build things. The three of us, Ben, Jacob, and I, built worlds and stories in this little clearing in the woods behind our houses. In the summer, I was a princess and they were princes. Our palace was the hammock my father set up. Tree branches were our swords, which we used to fight the dragons and evil sorcerers who assaulted our kingdom. In the winter we were Eskimos, building snow forts to stay warm. We stayed out in the woods, even when it rained, until my mother called us inside. And then we’d lock ourselves in my parent’s room, taking turns holding up the covers to create a tent of blankets, ignoring Jacob’s mother rapping on the door, saying he had to get home for dinner. We could last a while underneath the blankets, we told ourselves. My parents had a bathroom where we could get water to drink. Ben and I already had our toothbrushes in there and Jacob could use one of the unused ones under the sink.
We pretended Jacob was our brother, not our neighbor, that Ben and I weren’t just twins, that the three of us were triplets. Our third grade teacher Mrs. Adler thought we were related anyway. We went back to visit her every year, but she still always called Ben “Jacob” and Jacob “Ben.” She said Ben and Jacob looked more alike than Ben and I. This always prompted me to point out the little differences between the two. Ben’s hair was shorter than Jacob’s, Jacob was a few inches taller, and Ben had freckles. But now I wished more than ever that the two were identical. Maybe it would make remembering my brother’s face a little easier.
Sometimes I walked down the street and for the shortest of moments I would think I heard his laugh. But then it would be gone and I couldn’t remember what it sounded like and I’d be left standing in the middle of the sidewalk, not knowing if I had imagined the whole thing. Every time I looked in the mirror I saw his eyes and the shape of his round face, but I couldn’t see all of him. And whenever I tried I just saw him slumped in my passenger seat, shattered glass glittering on his skin, all the blood, all the life dripping from his forehead onto my lap.
I called Jacob before I called 911. That’s just where my fingers went to first.
Jacob had stood next to me in the driveway when I pulled the acceptance letter out of my mailbox. It was February and our breath clouded together as we leaned over the large envelope. It’s big, he said, that’s a good thing. I didn’t answer. My fingers couldn’t open the envelope with my gloves, so Jacob tore his off and threw them in the snow. He tried to slowly break the envelope seal, but halfway through he just gave up and tore it open. His eyes glowed brighter than they had in months and he squealed my name. He picked me up and spun me until we were too dizzy. We came crashing down into the snow, my hair falling into his laughing mouth. It felt so good to smile again. Ever since the accident, any time we smiled had been out of obligation, any excitement had been mechanical and rehearsed. Still giggling, I apologized and brushed my hair away. He whispered my name and then we were kissing in the snow and I didn’t care that slush was seeping into my coat or that my acceptance letter was lying wet on the ground because he tasted like the chocolate covered strawberries we shared for lunch.
From then on Berkley became our escape. When I noticed Jacob staring out my window, out into the woods, I mentioned Berkley. When we got into Jacob’s truck and my hands shook as I buckled my seatbelt, Jacob would smile softly at me and mention Berkley. But as we crept into summer, I pretended not to notice that when I brought up Berkley, Jacob’s back would tighten and he would ask questions about my classes and whether I had bought everything I needed, but he didn’t listen to my answers.
I chose not to see that going to college meant Jacob would slip away from me. I needed something to look forward to. I wouldn’t have to fall asleep to my mother’s muffled sobs every night. I wouldn’t have to walk by my father standing in the hallway, eyes glazed over, mouth half open, staring at my brother’s closed bedroom door. I wouldn’t have to stare at his empty seat at the dinner table or accidentally grab his water bottle from the cabinet. And I wouldn’t have to go near that curve in the road.
It wasn’t until this morning that I realized. Bailey’s Ice Cream was five miles from my house, but I biked or walked to work every day. I couldn’t drive anymore. Sometimes family friends or people who had been strangers 18 months ago pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride. I never took them up on their offer. Jacob, his dad, and five other tanned men were putting an extra bedroom into a house downtown. Two of the men were laughing and swearing, Jacob’s dad was singing along to a rock song on the radio that I didn’t know. The sun was in my eyes, so I had to squint to make Jacob out, and even then all the light made his figure blurry. He didn’t look like my Jacob who dreamed of fighting monsters and saving the kingdom. He looked like he had laid down his sword a while ago. He climbed slowly down from a ladder, wiped his forehead, and moved over to a work bench. He sifted through a toolbox, looked up, and our eyes met. And they were so sad. I had been so focused on all the reasons I wanted to leave, that I had forgotten I would have someone to miss and that someone would be missing me.
The crickets seemed to have gotten louder and a bullfrog had joined in. Jacob moved his hand from my back and touched my cheek. I closed my eyes and tried to turn off the sounds of the night. All I wanted to hear was his breathing, all I wanted to feel were his hands on me, the strings of the hammock cradling my body. But there was so much sound and everything was moving too fast, I was moving too fast, too fast for the curve that was coming too close, and I was slipping, slipping on ice, and my brakes were screaming, and I was screaming.
When I opened my eyes there were teardrops clinging to my eyelashes. I looked at Jacob and saw my brother’s eyes and they were full of understanding.