by Aliki Dimitoglou

“Dear AJ,  

     I wish I could tell you this ends well for you.”

 

I paused, the rain falling on the paper I was reading off of, slightly smudging the words. 

 

     “You were definitely not perfect. You didn’t get straight A’s in high school, you didn’t have a huge group of friends, you didn’t go to college and you never got a girlfriend. But, you were yourself, and that was enough. Your brown hair always fell into your milky hazel eyes whenever you moved. Your shoulders were big, and a perfect size for my head to rest on if I needed a good crying session here and there (who am I kidding, I was a wimp). You were tall, but not too tall for a 21-year-old. Your laugh was contagious, and never half-hearted. Your smile wasn’t blinding, apart from being infectiously bright. If you were put in a room with 100 strangers, chances are you’d make friends with 90 of them.”

 

I heard a small chuckle from somewhere in the black-clad crowd.

 

     “When I turned nineteen, our parents moved to the countryside, living within a 30 mile radius, but still close enough to nag us sometimes. Your schedule would always change at the last minute, but you always somehow found the time to come over to my apartment on Sundays, even after your soccer practice. On that day, we would hang out in my living room, not getting up unless nature – or our rumbling stomachs – called. 

Sitting in Loredana’s little diner last Friday across the street from my apartment, you had ordered your usual: sardines on a small blue plate.

     ‘That’s gross,’ I had said, wrinkling my nose at the odour of the tiny fish. 

     ‘It’s gourmet,’ you had jokingly replied, a smile tugging at your lips. You had held a small pilchard up to my face and wiggled it in front of me.

     ‘No, AJ-’ I’d protested, the smell invaded my nose and I almost threw up right there in the diner. 

     Popping the fish into your mouth, you finally let the smile onto your face. 

     ‘Was that a bone?’ I had groaned, disgusted at the sound of a loud crunch that came from your mouth.

     ‘Shut up, they’re good for you!’ You smiled your goofy smile.

     ‘I could never eat those.’ I had crossed my arms tightly over my chest.  

     ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re nineteen and you’ve never had a sardine? How do even know if you like them if you’ve never had them?’

     ‘Because, just the thought of them sickens me.’ I grinned at you. You had rolled your eyes and I knew I’d won.

     ‘Are you sure you don’t want one, just to try? For me?’ I shook my head. You had grinned and mockingly taken a bite out of the rejected fish. 

     Looking back, I wish I’d eaten the stupid sardine.”

 

I paused again. My heart began to ache but I knew I had to finish.
     Last Sunday seemed almost like any other. Sitting in my living room, waiting for you to come over after your soccer practice. I had glanced up from the TV; the digital clock read 4:37. Practice usually ended at 4. I clicked open my phone and saw a text from your: the guy I usually get a ride home with didn’t come to practice 😦 can u pick me up? I punched an affirmative reply into my phone, grabbed my sweatshirt and car keys, and left my apartment. Driving through the bustling suburbs, I finally reached my destination; a small field of an abandoned and broken-down high school where you guys would practice. I saw you there, waiting patiently. There was another kid there, about your age, talking to you about something. I pulled up and lowered the window.

 

     ‘Hey, what’s up?’ You’d greeted me, then grabbed the other boy and pulled him closer to my car. 

     ‘This is Memphis. His step-dad is our coach. M, this is my sister, Amara.’

     Memphis had waved awkwardly and I had returned the gesture. 

     ‘Well, I better bounce. I’ll see you Tuesday?’ You clapped Memphis on the back.

     I could see Memphis’ eyes light up a bit.

     ‘Yeah, see you then!’ We all parted ways and I started the car to go back home.

‘Why didn’t you get a ride home with Memphis? He seems nice.’ I’d said after a couple minutes driving.

‘I just met the kid, I didn’t really want to impose like that. Plus, I like it when my sister comes to pick me up!’ You’d leaned over and shuffled a hand through my hair, messing it up. 

I wrinkled my face and laughed a little. 

“‘Hey!’ I’d protested. 

You laughed and started playing with the brown bracelet that lived on your wrist 24/7, except for showering. 

Wait, you just met him? I thought you said his step-dad was the coach?’ I’d said. 

‘He is. It’s just…. His step-dad doesn’t really think soccer is in Memphis’ skill set.’

‘Was the coach not at practice?’ I had kept my eyes on the road, but I could see you shaking your head.

‘Business trip. Left about a three-and-a-half weeks ago.’

‘Oh. Well-’

I was about to ask another question when a car that had been behind me for a couple minutes suddenly swerved to the right and almost crashed right into us. The driver, who I saw was a middle-aged man, stop swerving behind us and seemed to gain control of the steering wheel.

‘WHAT IN THE NAME OF FRED JUST OCCURED?!’ You’d looked around, your breath hitched like crazy. I was a little scared too, but your word choice made me laugh.

This caused everyone listening around me to chuckle as well. 

‘Who’s Fred?’ I had said, through giggles.

‘More importantly, who was that?’ You’d settled in your seat but kept glaring at the car behind us. 

‘We don’t wanna get too close to him.’ You’d said, and I pressed my foot a little onto the gas pedal, gaining distance between the reckless car and mine but still maintaining the speed limit.

We sat in silence for maybe five minutes, and suddenly the reckless car jerked to the left behind us. The driver was rolling his head, as if he were listening to music. 

‘AJ, what do we do?’ I was starting to panic. You, on the other hand, were calm. Like always. 

‘Okay, it’s fine, don’t freak out. Turn on your blinker, pull over to the side, I’ll call the police.’

I nodded my head, my heartbeat rising, and I clicked on my right-turn signal and started to pull over to the right side of the road; no cars were in the right lanes. A couple seconds before we reached the edge of the road, I heard a crunch from the back of my car. I jumped up at the sound and I was propelled forward, my head colliding painfully with the steering wheel. Pain ripped through my body as I felt the car slam into the guardrail of the street, the (presumably) drunk driver basically squished into our bumper. I tried to look at you to see if you were okay, but your head, leaning against the window, was turned away from me. I tried to move, but a wave of discomfort tore through my body and everything turned to black.”

 

I heard sniffles echo through the people around me, and I felt hot tears begin to fall down my face. I shifted my hands, gripping the paper I was holding even tighter than before.  

“I remembered details of the day. That careless driver smashing into our car; ours being squished up against the guardrail; the police sirens and the ambulance wails echoing in the distance; my head screaming in pain; a body being lifted onto a gurney and into the ambulance; the bright hospital lights passing over my head as I moved what seemed like in slow motion; a hospital bed; an x-ray of my broken bones; blood, lots of blood. Flashes of the day consumed my other thoughts. A soft knock echoed on the door of the hospital room and I had whispered, ‘Come in.’ A doctor, a woman with short blonde hair and big red-rimmed glasses stepped in, closing the big white door behind her.

‘Hi, Amara. I’m Doctor McCannen. You were a car crash, and you have,’ she had paused, looking at her clipboard, ‘a mild concussion and two broken ribs.’

I didn’t know what to do with that information.

‘Is my brother okay?’ My voice had broken out hoarsely and I had cringed at the sound.

‘Your brother had received terrible injuries-’

‘Is he okay?’ I persisted. 

She had shaken her head slowly. ‘I’m so sorry.’

 

My breath caught in my throat and I stopped talking. People were full on crying. I was no exception. Tears spilled out of my eyes and I managed to voice a rough whisper, 

     “Love you, AJ. I’ll miss you.” 

I folded up the rain-soaked eulogy that I had written over and over again unand placed it on his coffin and stepped back, picking up my umbrella. 

     I felt my throat tighten; my heart felt like it would explode right out of my chest and fall right by my feet onto the grass; my hands were shaking and I could feel my knees threatening to buckle. I kept my eyes trained on the coffin that was being lowered into the ground and tightened my grip on my umbrella that was protecting me from the rain.

     That was it. It was over. He was gone. I shook my head to myself. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t. But I’d have to. My brain was convinced that as I walked down the pathway to the parking lot of the cemetery towards AJ’s car, I’d see him there, sitting in the passenger seat, grinning, his hands fidgeting with his bracelet, saying jokingly,, “What took you so long?”

I opened the car door, sat in the front seat, put the umbrella in the back seat and waited. I glanced to the right at the passenger seat. It was empty. Tears that I had been holding back burst out, and I covered my face with my hands. I heard the rumble of the other cars echo on the road as they left the cemetery. Minutes seemed endless, and after I couldn’t cry anymore, I lifted my head and wiped my face with my sleeve. I was about to put the key into the ignition when someone knocked on my passenger seat window, startling me. 

 

     “Holy-” I jumped maybe three inches in my seat, thankfully my seat belt wasn’t in place or I would’ve choked. 

     A small boy with big shoulders that looked very familiar was standing patiently in the rain. I unlocked the door and he climbed inside, shivering. 

     “Sorry for getting your seat wet.” He breathed out and I exhaled, smiling a little. 

I looked over at him; he was wearing a black suit and sticking out of his pocket was a (hopefully unused) tissue. 

     “Do you remember me?” He asked. 

     “I’ve seen you before.” I responded. It wasn’t a lie; his features were all too familiar: his blonde hair that reached past his ears that was flattened by the rain and his cloudy blue eyes.

     “You remember the day you picked up AJ from practice?” The boy asked.

     “Of course.” I whispered. 

The boy nodded. “My name’s Memphis.”

     Oh. “I remember.”

Memphis smiled a little. “For about a month, my stepdad had to leave on a business trip, and he left AJ in charge of the team. Every single practice, AJ would let me play.”

I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was look at him. A tear fell down my face and turned my head to look at the steering wheel. All the other cars had left, except for a black Toyota, which I assumed was Memphis. After what seemed like a long time in silence, a smalL soft cry burst from my right. I looked over at Memphis, and he was sobbing, his hand over his mouth, and after looking at me for permission, which I solemnly granted, he leaned his head on my shoulder and cried. 

“I miss him.” Memphis words trembled with such force it was like an earthquake was shaking only his body, his breathing heavy and filled with sobs.

“I know, I know.” My heart broke for him. Intertwining our hands, we sat there, the slight drizzle not the only drops that were precipitating. 

After maybe ten minutes, Memphis took a shaky breath and lifted his head off my shoulder. He looked at me, his eyes red from crying and his big shoulders heaving, he started to look for something,  fishing his phone out of his pocket.

     “What’re you doing?” I wiped my tear-soaked face with my sleeve. 

     “Let me give you my number. Just in case you need someone to talk to.”

He punched in the digits and as he slowly left my car, he turned back, his voice still shaky. 

“Thank you.” 

I nodded, watched him get into his car that was parked behind me, and as he was pulling away to leave the cemetery, he gave me a reassuring smile. I returned it, and after a couple seconds, put the key into ignition.  

 

Taking a left turn at the intersection instead of a right towards my place, I reached my destination and I didn’t run out of the car to avoid the rain. I walked slowly and I entered Loredana’s and sat down at our booth. 

“Santo cielo!” Dana’s Italian accent jumped maybe two octaves as she walked into the room, startled.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” I responded, putting the menu onto the shiny table. 

“It’s all good. Sometimes a scare is good for the old heart.” Dana put a hand on her heart as she moved across the room and sat in the booth seat opposite me.

She glanced at the funeral attire that I was wearing and seemed to put two and two together. Dana glanced at where AJ would usually sit when we’d come to her restaurant together, then back at me. I nodded, slowly. Her eyes began to brim with tears. She took a shaky breath. 

“Oh, mio condoglianze.” Dana stood up and straightened her apron. A stray tear fell down her cheek, and she brushed it away quickly. She took another look at me, patted me on the shoulder softly and went into the kitchen. 

     My heart pounded in my chest, the beat unsteady, and overwhelmingly loud.AJ, my brother, my brother, the one who adored oxymorons; the one who wrote stories about the two of us leaving town someday; the one who adored sardines; the one who loved me, more than anyone else I’d ever met, was gone. 

My phone chimed and I pulled it out of my pocket to see it was a text from an unknown number. It read: Thank you for earlier. You ever need a chat, I’m here.

I assumed it was Memphis. and quickly responded with: Likewise. Stay strong. I clicked my phone off and looked up as I saw Dana by the counter. 

“Know what you want, miele?” Dana slowly approached me, looking at me as if I were some magical object that could save the world but one false step, I would explode. 

I nodded and folded my hands on the table. Like AJ always would. 

“I’ll have the sardines.”

 

Aliki Dimitoglou is a student at Winston Churchill High School 

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