I really was happy for her.
I wasn't lying, either. I didn't feel jealous of Alissa, that she was going and I wasn't, that she got asked and I didn't. It wouldn't have been the same, anyway, and we both knew it. Without Tom, the two of us together would have been awkward and sad, a long silence stretching on into what felt like eternity.
Well, that's what started this, I guess—eternity. One of us got called, and the other two got left behind.
Oh, Tommy, Tommy, why couldn't you have waited till I felt less like a child? Why couldn't you have waited until I felt solid ground beneath my feet instead of the shifting mire that's been our life? Why, Tommy?
Some questions are meant to be unanswered forever.
"How do I look?" Alissa asked, smoothing her dress over her stomach and hips. I smiled.
"Beautiful," I told her, lifting the camera I held and snapping a photo. She laughed, her beautiful smile sending shockwaves through the whispering sunset hour.
"No, really, Madison, how do I look?"
"Gorgeous," I said, lowering the camera. "Simply gorgeous." A mist came over my eyes, and it was hard to see her standing under the small tree, the breeze lifting her wavy brown hair away from her flushed cheeks. "You look absolutely gorgeous."
"Thanks," she murmured, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear. "Maddie, I—"
"Liss, Tommy would have been proud." The words spilt out in a rush before I could stop them, and as I clapped my hand over my mouth, I saw Alissa's eyes fill with tears.
"Really?" she whispered, her voice broken. I nodded hard, swiping at my eyes.
"Really really. Liss, you're beautiful—inside, too." And as I watched, my little sister stood there in her gown and makeup and high heels and cried. I put the camera down and stepped toward her, my arms out, but she shook her head.
"It'll make it worse," she sobbed. "It'll make it so much worse." Gasping, she dabbed at her eyes, trying to stop the tears from mingling with the mascara. "I miss him so bad," she gasped. "So so bad—especially on days like this."
"Special days," I murmured, patting her back. She nodded.
"Yeah—special days." Her expression changing, she turned toward me. "It isn't right!" she cried. "It isn't right that Tommy should have to miss this! Maddie, why—"
"Hush, baby," I said, taking her in my arms. "Hush now. 'Why's don't help. It only makes it worse. We can't know why."
"I wanna," she whispered, her voice muffled against my shoulder. "I wanna know why." She started crying again, and I rocked, back and forth, back and forth. I closed my eyes, fighting my own tears.
Tommy, look what you've done to us. How am I supposed to get her through this? You were always the strong one, the one who was there to fix the problem and dry the tears. I can't do this, Tommy!
As always, nothing broke into the suffering.
Liss pulled away, sniffling and dabbing at a few stray tears. She laughed, her voice shaky.
"How do I look now, Maddie?" I smoothed back her hair and smiled at her.
"Beautiful as always." Her lips trembled, but she managed to smile.
"Thanks," she whispered, hugging me again. As she let go, I heard someone call her name, and saw her eyes illuminate. "Mel!" she called, lifting one hand. I turned, shading my eyes with one hand, and watched the tall, handsome young man cross the yard to us. When he arrived, he was grinning broadly, but looked nervous.
"Hi, Alissa," he said, his grin growing. She smiled up at him, her face glowing. He turned to me and extended one hand. "Hello, Madison," he managed, his voice catching. I shook his hand, trying not to laugh.
"Hi, Mel. What time do you need to leave here?"
"Six-thirty," he told me, his smile returning. I nodded.
"And it's about six right now, hm? Want me to take some photos of you two?" Mel's eyes glowed and he handed me a camera.
"Oh, that'd be great! Well, if you don't mind . . ." I waved off his protests and stepped away from him and Alissa. He moved in close to her, settling an arm around her shoulders, and smiled down at her.
"Perfect," I whispered, snapping the photo. Alissa raised adoring eyes to meet his gaze, and I moved a little to my left, zooming in to catch their expressions.
For the next half-hour, I followed my baby sister and her date around the yard behind our dorm, over the campus to the apple grove, back across campus to the gardens, and even to their car, capturing every move they made and every glance they exchanged. With every camera snap, though, I felt a growing knot within my stomach.
Tommy, Liss already said it. It's not right that you should miss this. Oh, Tommy . . .
What else was there to say?
As Mel opened the car door for Alissa, I noticed the dozens of other couples taking last-minute photos and getting into their cars. For a moment, I stood and watched them, mesmerized by the colors and the grace of their movements. A sudden sharp pain in my chest took my breath away, and I dropped my eyes to the ground. I heard the car door shut, and I fought to breathe, knowing I had to make it one more minute. Mel came around the car and shook my hand again.
"Thanks for letting me take Alissa tonight," he told me, his eyes warm. I smiled—a real smile—at him and nodded.
"I know you'll have fun and be safe," I said, handing over his camera. Mel's nervousness seemed to melt away and he smiled, too.
"Take care, Madison," he said as he got into the car. I stepped back and waved as they drove away. After they turned the corner, out of sight, I started back toward the dorms. The tears were threatening to choke me, but I fought them off.
"Just a few more minutes," I whispered to myself. I passed other couples, hurrying toward their cars, their voices lifted in happy chatter. Suddenly, as I began to cross the commons, I heard my name.
"Hey, Maddie." I lifted my eyes to see who was speaking to me.
"Oh—Josh." My voice was flat, but I couldn't help it. I shook my head and forced a smile. "How are you?" I tried again. It must have worked because he smiled at me.
"I'm good, I'm good—just having fun watching everything, you know." I laughed, the sound brittle in my ears. Suddenly his eyes searched my face, a smirk on his lips, and he crossed his arms. "Why aren't you going, Maddie? Didn't anyone ask you?" His words left me speechless, and I groped for an answer. What should I even say to that?
Actually, my dead brother was going to take me and my sister.
Oh, I had a date; he just had an unexpected death, that's all.
Well, I had plans, just sometimes things get in the way—oh, you know, like death.
Yeah, someone asked me. Then he got a better offer.
My head spun until I couldn't see anything. I dropped to my knees and heard my own voice moan.
"Maddie? Maddie, what is it?" Josh's voice floated in and out, and I shook my head.
"Josh, what're you doing?" Another guy—it was Pete. I closed my eyes, willing the earth to stop moving.
"Gee—all I said was, 'Didn't you get asked?' and she just kinda . . . fell."
"Idiot!" Pete's voice was hushed as he said, "Couldn't you see she didn't get asked?" I buried my face in my hands, my chest heaving, knowing only one thing.
I am going to be sick.
Oh no no no no no no—not here, please not here, not now . . .
Just as a new group of people came into earshot, though, I felt my stomach heave. Right there on the commons, in front of a bevy of couples all dressed up for an evening out, I puked all over the freshly mowed grass.
"Oh, man," I heard a hushed female voice say. "Do you think that splattered?" I gagged, trying to force the taste out of my mouth, and felt Pete patting my back.
"Maddie? You okay?" I wiped my mouth with my hand, then scraped my hand along a clean patch of grass.
"Yeah. I'll be fine."
"Listen, Maddie, Josh and I had plans to go out to O'Malley's, get some dinner, maybe hang out and walk around the Square. You should come along." I could hear the concern in his voice, and for a moment, I was grateful. Then my bubbling rage took over before I could thank him.
"Stop being idiotic!" I shouted, scrambling to my feet and pushing him away. "I'm not upset over the stupid formal!" I saw his eyes widen and his mouth start to open in an answer, but I cut him off. "Tommy was going to take me and Liss, okay? And without him—well, it just wouldn't be the same. It'd be no use trying to make it the same. Tommy's dead, Pete; he's dead! Just leave me alone, okay?!?" Pete's face went white, and I shook my head hard. I saw Josh, pale and frozen beside Pete, and I couldn't bear to look at them a moment longer. Dropping my eyes, I brushed past Josh and sprinted up the stairs toward my dorm. I thought I heard someone call my name, but I ignored it and kept running. Only when I had slammed my room door behind me did I stop running.
Tommy, why did it have to be you?!? Why couldn't it have been any other one of those guys in your car—someone who deserved it, who'd actually been drinking?!? Why did it have to be you? Why didn't they listen when you said to slow down? Tommy, why would God let this happen to you, to Liss—to me? I can't understand it!
I sank to the floor, hugging my knees close to my chest and sobbing into my arms. His sweater on my body still smelled like him, though, and the scent pushed me further into grief.
Oh, Tommy. Oh, God. God, God, God, God, God.
And I think, that night, He did.
It'd been so long since I'd hurt bad enough to pray, so long since I knew that God had something I needed. Every since Tommy had died, I'd pretended I didn't know God existed. It was easier to ask why of an impotent, ignorant Fate than it was of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. I just couldn't understand how God—Who said He loved me enough to die for me, Who made me and my brother and my sister—how this God could then so cruelly do nothing to stop my brother's death. There was no good answer to my why . . . so I just stopped asking. It was when I broke enough to stop caring about the answer that I finally woke up in the peace of my Jesus.
Hey—it's been a long time since we talked . . . and I'm really, really sorry about that . . .
Dusk had fallen in deep purple shadows over my dorm room when the phone rang. I opened my eyes and stood up from where I still sat, leaning against the door, resting my arms on my knees. Clearing my throat, I picked up the phone.
"Hello?" A long pause greeted me, then a guy cleared his throat.
"Maddie, it's . . . it's Pete." He stopped, as if expecting me to slam down the receiver. When I didn't, he coughed and continued. "Maddie, I just wanted to say we—Josh and me—well, I'm sorry about earlier. I should know you better than to think that you would get so worked up over something . . . well, over something so silly. I guess—well, I guess I wanted to say that I know you're a lot deeper than that, and I'm sorry for making a stupid assumption." The phone line was silent for a long moment, but I waited, feeling like he wasn't finished. "And Maddie?" His voice was so small, I could barely believe it belonged to the same Pete I knew. "I'm sorry about your brother," he finished, sounding stricken. Swallowing hard, I closed my eyes.
Thanks, God . . .
"Thanks, Pete," I mumbled, my voice feeling thick. "And . . . well, it wasn't your fault that I blew up. I was just . . . just so sad, and so hurt, and you were the first one around, and—"
"Hey, Maddie?" he broke in. "Forgive me?" I felt a smile grow on my face.
"Yes. Hey, Pete?"
"Forgive me, too?"
"Of course. Hey, I wasn't kidding about tonight. Josh and I are going out to O'Malley's. It's really clear out tonight, Maddie, and the stars are beautiful. You know what they say about the Square on clear nights."
"'Watch the stars bring your wishes true.'"
"Yeah. Hey, I don't believe in wishes, only God, but it's still awesome to just sit out under a sky like this. You should come with us." I smiled, cradling the phone as if it was a treasure.
"Thanks, Pete. I'd really like that."
"Meet you on the commons in ten minutes?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll be out." As I hung up the phone, I hugged my arms against my body.
Tommy, it's not the same without you here, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I think we'll be okay.
I closed my eyes, picturing Liss's smile, Mel's trembling hands, Josh's tousled hair, and Pete's kind eyes.
Yeah, Tommy. We'll be fine here. You just enjoy what you've got there.
I took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly.
God? I think the pain is better than pretending everything's okay.
Yeah. It is. I don't just think that, actually—I know. It's when I admit I hurt, God, that I can give in and run to You for comfort.
So thanks . . . for never letting me down . . .