Rachael wanted to know. She couldn’t help herself. She needed to know if it had really happened. She needed to know how it had happened; not just in the vague ‘some sort of accident’ way. She was filled with a perverse desire to know exactly what had gone on in the seconds, minutes, hours before and what had happened immediately after. When exactly had his heart stopped pumping, his blood stopped running and his body stopped breathing? What he had said, how it had smelled – was he even really gone? Because it couldn’t – it just sounded stupid.
She had gone to Dan’s hospital room at some point during the night, or it might have been the day; who could tell anymore? Who even cared? She didn’t want to hold her mother in her arms or watch her dad’s resolve crumble. She didn’t want to see anyone else’s heart break. She was sick of being hugged, sick of being cried over and sick of being sick to her stomach at the thought of what might have happened to Rob. So she had left, her footsteps squeaking dimly on the shiny linoleum, the clamour of the emergency department fading slowly as she made her way up the long hallway. She thought she might have brushed up against a shoulder and mumbled an apology in the elevator but she wasn’t sure. Her ears were filled with a quiet beeping and buzzing; it might have been the machines or it might have been entirely in her head. She didn’t really know. She just knew she wanted to talk to Dan. Dan, who had been getting a lift home from the party with Rob, who wasn’t a part of their family (although he was, really); Dan, who was her sort-of boyfriend and who was alive. The door to Dan’s room had been left open and she slipped through, leaving the confusion and noise of the ward behind her. She stood for a moment, letting the quiet of the room settle like dust around her, falling silently to the carpet beneath her feet.
She had thought she needed to think, but up here in this stillness her thoughts made no sense. Up here, she felt like the only living person left in the world. Everything was hazy. The blues and whites of the room dimmed around her and she was vaguely aware of feeling cold but Rob might be gone forever and so it didn’t matter. That was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. That he could go from existing to just not all of a sudden. She squeezed her eyes shut and heard Rob’s laugh fade as a car swerved into oncoming traffic. There would have been the squealing of tyres and a panicked turning of the wheel and the sudden, sickening crunch of metal on metal and then…nothing. Rob had just…gone, as though on some kind of trip, but not the kind you could check his facebook for updates on. Her heart stopped as she realised Rob might never again update his facebook, and then she laughed, because her mum’s voice in her head was saying, “honestly Rachael, what a thing to think of at a time like this!”
She had to make sure, though, absolutely sure that there hadn’t been some terrible mistake; that she wouldn’t wake tomorrow to find that this had all been a dream. She knew it had happened, but, what if?
Her brothers were okay. Physically, they were okay, but she didn’t think she could ask them for the proof she needed. She couldn’t ask Justin, because he had made a stupid joke to lighten the mood, but it had left a bitter taste in her mouth and Rachael had turned away. She couldn’t ask Steve because he was Rob’s twin and how unfair was that and she wasn’t even sure he could hear her, anyway. She wasn’t even sure she could hear herself; and seventeen year old girls never have a problem hearing themselves.
Dan had been asleep when she entered the room, curled on his side amongst the blur of white on white. For a moment she didn’t want to disturb him, but then he was stirring and stretching and sleepily blinking his eyes open. He tensed as he saw her there and shifted in the bed; a movement that seemed to say, “I’m here” and he sighed, once, and held out his arms as if to say, “I’m so sorry”.
Rachael nodded, finally, and (because Dan was alive and he owed her this at least) asked him if her brother was dead.
Justin’s girlfriend Lisa comes into the kitchen, arms full of books and face full of tired. She searches Dan out and finds him sitting on the counter next to the stove.
“I was up all night trying to find something that would help me to verbalise it. I went through poems and verses and articles.” She sets the books down on the table with a heavy thud. “I found some. They might help.”
Dan sees that she is trying, that she hates feeling impotent and can’t stand the idea of not being able to solve a problem. He sees that books and words have always been able to give her solace, but –
“But nothing seems to fit,” she says. “They’re not-”
“Enough,” says Dan.
They stand there in the kitchen together not saying anything, because they are both a part of this and outside of it and they don’t know what to do.
It’s the third night after the accident, and Rachael and Dan are sharing her single white bed. Normally this wouldn’t be allowed but normal is a place so very far away from right here that everyone just sort of turns a blind eye. A part of Rachael feels as though she is taking advantage of this situation, but she has locked that part up somewhere very small and out of the way (maybe behind her left knee), because right now she needs him.
She is lying with her head pillowed on his chest. In the silence, she can hear his heart beating and without warning the tears come, slowly at first but then in earnest, until she is gasping and shaking in his arms. He holds her and she is curled against his chest, all arms and hands and awkward elbows pressed between their bodies. She taps the place where she can feel the beat and says, “It’s your heartbeat. You have one.”
Dan groans and pulls her closer and mumbles something into her hair; something that might be “I love you” but all that matters to Rachael is the solid press of him against her. She thinks that might be enough for her to get to sleep tonight.
Sometimes Rachael gets so angry she can't stop shaking. It happens at stupid things, like when people tell her to stay strong, or when the florist asks her if she minds waiting till she has finished serving someone else. An unreasonable surge of fury will course through her, scaring her a little bit because she has never been a really angry person before, but now she feels like yelling at everyone, at everything. Yelling things like, “Are you serious, you dickhead? Don't you know that my brother just died?” She doesn't think she should have to wait to talk about the flowers for the funeral; she in fact shouldn't be organising a funeral at all because Rob should be here with her instead, chatting the assistant up while winking at Rachael as she rolls her eyes at him and the whole thing is ugly; so ugly it hurts. She can't believe she uses Rob's death as an excuse for being a bitch but she can't stop and the worst part is that she doesn't really want to.
Rachael has a lot of time to think, because no one is saying anything, except by accident. And so she thinks.
She thinks it's funny that she spent her entire year thinking about Dan because her world had become about him, but Dan is here and her brother isn't and isn't that ironic? She could have been spending every last second with Rob instead; maybe then she wouldn't be left with this horrible pit in her stomach that told her she wasn't a good enough sister; that she should have tried harder, been better, somehow.
She thinks that the funny thing about her brother dying is that she doesn’t die too; her body still needs to eat and pee. Rachael sees the looks on people’s faces; the understanding glances passing between friends and hates that they are thinking it is a good sign that she is showering.
Rachael wonders about these things that make up a person; these hearts, these veins, these lungs encased in skin. She has always known that skin can be touched and tasted, that it can shiver and grow and breathe, but she has learnt that it can tear and bruise and bleed; that it can be ripped from your body and that there is nothing you can do about it. She has learnt that really, it isn't that hard to die and she hates how fragile people are; hates that Rob wasn't (as it turns out) ten feet tall and bulletproof.
Then there is Dan, Rachael thinks. Dan, who has never had a family (except for hers, when her mum insisted he stay with them rather than his dropkick parents), Dan, who knows loss better than almost anyone, but he doesn’t get it, not really. He doesn’t get the fact that there is one less person in her world; one less person who will nag her and call her names and stick up for her virtue and make her laugh and make her cry until she laughs again. One less person who she loved who loved her back.
It is a week before Rachael smiles. This happens on the same day that she has put on make up since it happened. It is also, incidentally, the day of the funeral and she is upstairs, leaning against her bedroom door, trying to breathe.
She hears Rob’s – no, Steve’s – voice say “Rach”, very softly. She opens the door and Steve is standing there, looking so much like his twin it hurts, the memory of Rob hanging between them like some kind of twisted double vision. Steve is smiling and holding a piece of paper. A ripple of fear runs through her and she thinks he might actually have gone mad, but then he flips the paper over to reveal a diagram scribbled in boyish scrawl. Steve is laughing, saying something about going through Rob’s things and finding a blueprint for a robot from when they were thirteen and stupid and Rachael smiles then, a real smile, and feels the bubble of something strange gurgle inside her. It’s laughter, and even though it’s not that funny, they sink to the floor together, stomachs aching from laughing so much. Gasping for air, Rachael feels like she can breathe again.
Dan is in the yard and he looks up as he hears the back door open. Rachael is standing on the veranda, leaning over the railing watching him. Dan pulls a face at her. The ghost of a smile flits across Rachael’s face and then is gone, like a child scurrying home just as dark begins to fall. Dan wants to grab on to that moment, the moment where he feels powerful, like how you feel when you make a baby laugh. Only thing wrong with feeling that way is the baby will tire of silly faces eventually and will be more interested in sticking its feet into its mouth, and you wind up feeling worse because you know what you are missing out on.
Sometimes Rachael walks into a room and stands there for a while, then walks out again because she can't remember what she is doing. She is too busy wondering.
Wondering whether he knew, whether he could see his life as though on a timeline, the ones of your own life you had to draw at school during ‘Personal Development’ lessons. Could he see where the end was marked, hazy and indistinct until those moments; those final, fleeting, forever-moments just before it happened? Did his brain click and slot the last piece of his life into place like a jigsaw puzzle? Rachael hoped not, because Rob had hated jigsaw puzzles; hated the way they always made an entirely different picture from the one you imagined.
Rachael walks into the kitchen to find her family (minus one) sitting around the table. Her mum beckons her over and she does something she hasn’t done since she was a little girl and climbs, rather awkwardly, into her mum’s lap, jabbing her in the stomach. Her mum doesn’t mind and Rachael closes her eyes, letting the talk of the others wash over her as she leans into her mum’s chest. She hears her mum’s heart beating a steady thump against her own and she smiles, glad the beat is so strong.
Beside her, Justin is pissing himself over a story Steve is telling about Rob making a dick of himself to impress some girl and her dad keeps interrupting them, shit-stirring them by reminding Steve exactly who it was who had run screaming up the stairs after finding out where he came from and Justin is saying in an imitation baby voice, chin wobbling, “You mean, I wasn’t delivered by a stork?” Rachael isn’t sure whether they are laughing or crying; her mum’s shoulders are shaking so hard that Rachael’s head knocks painfully against them but she doesn’t care because she feels so close to normal and she doesn't want to let that go.
Later, she goes up to her room and Dan is there, having snuck in the way he always does these days. The shadow light filters through the curtains and something stirs within her. She is suddenly right here, in this moment, in a way she hasn’t been in weeks, then she is beside him, under the covers with him and their faces are too close together and they are kissing like kisses are light and they are stuck in the dark, trying to get out.
Afterwards, they lie there cramped on the single mattress and Rachael feels compelled to talk, to say something to reassure Dan that she is getting there, wherever there is.
“I’m trying,” she says to the ceiling.
He rolls toward her, slipping an arm around her waist. An “I know” is mumbled into her back and they are kissing again, and Rachael feels as though each kiss is one stitch back together after being broken open for so long.
Justin leaves the next day, saying something about needing to get away and spend some time with Lisa. Rachael doesn't like how lonely he looks as he heads towards his car, shoulders slumped and hands in pockets, kicking idly at the grass pooling around his ankles.
Steve is spending more and more time at his and Rob’s shop, though it’s really just his now. He is interviewing for a new Assistant Manager and each night when he comes by the house he looks at Rachael's hopeful expression and shakes his head. "Not yet. But there's a guy coming in tomorrow I've got a good feeling about."
Her parents visit the grave everyday before work, and her mum volunteers at the hospital whenever she can.
The world-heart beats on, on, on. Water runs through its river-veins, the earth-skin breathes in, out, in. Days spin by and some things (but not everything) are lost in the pain-haze of the then and the now.
Rachael looks up. Dan’s blue eyes meet her brown ones.
“Hi,” (I’m still here).
She will be okay.