She blushed and ran her fingers across her wet lips. He took her other hand and led her over to their bench. They sat down before he asked, “Rough day, huh?”
She jogged through her memory to recall what he referred too, but she couldn’t place it. Bits and pieces scattered in her mind, but they weren’t enough. She struggled to remember when Austen pressed her. “Think, Katherine. Remember your conversations today with my sister…and with Kylie.”
The moment Austen said Kylie’s name, it hit her with the force of a Mack truck. Her face twisted and her eyes filled with water. “You remember now, don’t you?” He gently wiped the falling tears from her eyes.
“Oh, Austen, it was awful. I feel so bad...hurting her like that.” Kat tumbled into Austen’s chest.
“I know; I feel bad too. I never want to hurt Kylie. I know that my dying was hard on her. I used to visit her at first. Mostly because I was confused and wasn’t sure where I was, so I went to where I was pulled. Her pain and longing for me was stronger than almost anything else I felt at the time. I found myself in her dreams often.” Austen paused and ran his fingers through her long brown hair.
“Once I realized what happened and I had more control over where I could go and what I could do, I stopped visiting her. I felt like being with her wasn’t good for her. She could barely carry on as it was, and the dreams weren’t helping,” he explained.
Katherine listened to every word he spoke about his first love. It was difficult for her to imagine him loving anyone else. “You guys really loved each other didn’t you?”
“We did. I don’t want to diminish what Kylie and I shared because it was love. Ridiculous, high school, teenage love…but still—love.” He lifted her chin to face him. “But it’s nothing like how I feel about you.”
He pressed his lips against hers and softly parted them with his tongue. She saw flashes of places, people, things she didn’t recognize. His kisses awoke her otherwise dormant subconscious. He made every part of her feel alive. “I love you beyond the depths of my soul.” His words sent shivers down her spine as she nodded her head in agreement.
“I want to take you somewhere. But it’s not going to be easy,” he told her.
“What do you mean?”
“I want to show you something. Will you come with me?” His voice was darker now and she started to get nervous. What did he want to show her? Where did he want to take her?
She reached for his outstretched hand and before she even blinked, they were walking down a darkened street. Katherine heard screams and cries in the distance. And smoke...the smoke choked out the air. Her eyes worked to focus on the scene in front of her. Twisted metal wrapped around more metal. She tried to make out what she was witnessing, but she needed to get closer. Austen reached out his arm to stop her.
“I’ve watched this probably a hundred times. Nothing ever changes,” he said solemnly.
Katherine looked on, horrified. A small passenger car sat smashed beyond recognition underneath an unscathed big rig truck. Smoke from the airbags flooded out of the shattered car windows. The big rig driver paced back and forth nervously; completely freaked out. He had trouble breathing and frequently slammed his fist against his chest. Police cars and ambulances finally arrived on scene, their sirens blaring into the otherwise quiet night. They yelled frantically as they directed heavy equipment toward the crushed car. The earsplitting sound of power tools grinding against metal screamed into the air.
They finally pulled out two limp and lifeless bodies from the battered car. Katherine recognized Austen’s frame immediately. She dropped to the ground and tore at her shirt. She started to cry and scream, but no one could hear her. When she felt a warm hand on her shoulder, she suddenly remembered that he was still right there with her. She turned and forcefully pulled him to the ground with her. She glanced back at the heartbreaking scene in time to see the two bodies covered in sheets, being wheeled into the ambulance. Katherine could barely stomach this reality as her insides churned.
“Why did you show me this?” she asked through her sobs.
“My death is a big part of how people remember me. They’ve stopped seeing all the other moments. Instead, they focus on the one that took me from them. They think about the road I was killed on, or the truck we smashed into, or where they were when they heard the news. It’s like they have to get past the part where I died before they can get to the parts where I lived.”
“So you showed me this so that I’d think of your death too? I don’t understand.”
“I wanted you to see where I spent my last minutes. This accident is a part of me. For you to truly understand how everyone who ever loved me in this life feels, I had to show it to you. Not to make you sad, just to help you see.”
He intertwined his fingers with hers and they were suddenly in a very crowded church parking lot. Katherine had never seen so many people vie to be in one space before. Austen and Katherine waded through the crowd and into the building. There were flowers everywhere and a large picture of Austen greeted everyone inside the church.
Katherine looked around and found Taylor as she wiped her eyes in the front row. She watched as Taylor’s mother and father held on to each other while they sobbed. Blake sat next to Taylor, and looked as if every emotion that had ever lived inside his body had vacated for the day. While everyone around him fell apart, Blake looked as though he refused to do the same.
Then Katherine heard cries and screams that were filled with so much agony, they made her tremble. She looked around and noticed Kylie being held by her mother. She was in so much pain and Katherine’s heart hurt for her. The overwhelming amount of sadness in the room almost broke her.
Austen reminded her, “Don’t be sad.”
Heartbreak flowed through her. “Poor Kylie,” was all Katherine could get out before she was overcome with emotion.
“I know. It’s hard to see her like that.” Austen turned away from her. Katherine noticed him cringe each time Kylie screamed out. He kissed the top of her head and took her hand again, “One last stop.”
They walked on the grass toward a row of headstones. The lawn was meticulously manicured and each gravesite was filled with trinkets and flowers. Even though it was supposed to be a place filled with death, it felt more like a place filled with love.
Austen pulled her toward a light gray stone. She could read his name now. Austen Dailey, beloved son, brother, and friend. The front of his site was filled with little white rocks. There were all sorts of figurines, stuffed animals, and toys. There was a picture of him on the stone and Katherine bent down to get a better look at it.
“I know what you’re thinking. I’m way better looking in person,” he radiated. She tried to smile, but she was too caught up in everything she had just witnessed. “I didn’t bring you here to make you sad. I didn’t show you any of this to make you upset.”
“I know,” she reassured him.
“Then what is it? Tell me.” He sat down on the grass in front of his stone and pulled her down toward him. She sat between his legs and he wrapped his arms around her. She swore she felt his heart beat. He kissed the side of her face as her tears fell onto his lips. “Please don’t cry, Katherine.”
“I don’t mean to. It’s just that…I can’t imagine how Kylie must have felt to lose you like that. Or Taylor…or your parents. It just breaks my heart for them…and for whatever reason, for me.”
She felt his warm breath against her neck as he whispered softly into her ear, “I don’t have to be living in your world to love you. I’m sorry to have caused you pain.” He brushed against her cheek with his lips before he kissed the nape of her neck. She closed her eyes and got lost in how he made every fiber of her being feel warm and alive. “I love you,” he told her, “beyond all reason.”
Katherine woke up and gasped for air. Taylor sat up immediately and stared at her, “What did my brother do now?”
“He took me to the scene of his accident,” Katherine choked out the words.
“He did what? Way to go Austen. You really know how to romance a girl.” Taylor shouted up at her ceiling and waved her hands around.
“He also showed me his funeral and his gravesite.”
“Jesus,” Taylor rolled her eyes. “What’d he do that for? Is he trying to depress you?”
“He said he just wanted me to see. I think if I saw how painful it was for everyone who loved him, I might understand it better? I’m not entirely sure.”
Taylor shook her head, “Understand what better? And how the heck would seeing any of that make you feel anything other than sad?”
“I don’t know?”
“But that does remind me. I need to go to the gravesite and bring Aus flowers. Did you maybe want to come with or does that freak you out?”
“No, that doesn’t freak me out at all. I’d love to go, actually,” Katherine wanted to see it. She wondered if it would be anything like her dream.
The girls got dressed, ate cereal, and headed out. Taylor’s dad asked where they were going and once Taylor told him the location, he put his head down and smiled. Katherine gathered that Austen was a topic of conversation that didn’t come up often. She completely understood, but it still made her sad. They stopped to get some white calla lilies and then Taylor drove into the cemetery and parked next to Austen’s grave.
It was exactly like Katherine had seen in her dream. There were angel figurines and notes in plastic bags. Taylor placed the lilies on the top of his headstone and leaned in to kiss the picture of Austen’s face. She talked softly to him and said things Katherine couldn’t hear. When Taylor had moved away, Katherine picked up a couple of the small white rocks from the base of his stone and held them in her palm. Warm sparks shot through her fingers.
“Taylor, would it be weird if I kept a couple of these?”
“Not any weirder than you already are.”
Katherine settled the two small rocks into the coin part of her wallet. “So that you’re always with me, wherever I go,” she murmured under her breath.
She sound of tires crunching against gravel forced Katherine to look toward the cemetery entrance. “Taylor, is that Kylie’s car?”
Taylor looked over her shoulder. “Sure is. This ought to be fun,” she inhaled deeply.
Kylie parked her car behind Taylor’s and opened her door slowly. She took a few steps before she spotted Katherine and abruptly stopped. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why is she here?”
Katherine stood up and pleaded, “Kylie, please.”
“Don’t…talk to me. I already told you that. God, are you stupid?” Kylie turned around and walked back toward her car.
Katherine’s mind flashed to the image of Kylie the day of Austen’s funeral. She flinched as she remembered the sound of Kylie’s anguished wails. “He loved you so much.”