“We lie together on her bed in silence as Dad walks in. He lies down with us as we stare at the walls as a family. Yes, we are an injured family, full of confusion and pain, who love each other more than words”
Star Bright by Anna McNulty
My room is shrinking. My walls are covered in old photos glued to the paint. The photos are fading and wrinkling, and I have no new family photos to replace them. It’s going to be two years on Friday, two years since life released my mom into the heavens. She fought and began her own quiet war, but the medications failed on her and us. All of us. But, family therapy has helped. I tell my therapist, this lovely lady named Patrice, everything. I’m made of laughter and tears, joy and pain, but pain doesn’t have to be part of me forever. I can set it free.
My mom told me when she was sick that I needed to move on and Dad and Franki had to, as well.
Before she slipped away, she said, “I’ll always love you guys, and I wish I could be here and watch you all grow, but life is ready to take me away too soon. I’ll always be watching down on you. James, you were my first real love and you always will be. Franki and Stella, I’ll be there for your graduations, your weddings, your baby showers, wherever life leads you. I’ll always be there, waiting and watching.” Then she kissed us all on the forehead and her hands went cold. Her bed of tubes and wires fell asleep forever.
I walk on Column Avenue, the main street in Beaver Creek. After therapy, I take the shuttle home and run inside past my red door, covered in snow, and into our navy blue house that sits on a hill.
“Hey, Stell, how was it?”
“The usual, fine. Kinda borin’,” I say in a hurry, grabbing my gloves. “I’m going to the woods.”
“Why? It’s freezing, and anyways, the Reynolds are coming over tonight.”
“You know, I always go to my fort in the woods. Just call me back when Jesse comes over.”
I walk into the forest like I do whenever I need time to think.
The trees calm me and help lighten my day. The crisp whispers between the leaves, the calming laugh of the wind, and the echoes of the trees help me relax. I’ve only taken three people here, my sister, Dad and my best friend Mia. I only take people who understand me, and who I trust. I started building my little fort in the woods the day after my mom passed away, right before her funeral. I needed a place by myself where I could go and escape my haunting reality. My fort now has a mattress, tree lights, a little couch and a mini fridge. It’s in a tent, and I put it right where my mom used to take me at nights to watch the stars shine. Once in a blue moon, we’d see stars fly across the banner of twilight.
I lie on my mattress, and for once, I try to think about people other than my mom or Jesse, but I can’t. Jesse, my best guy friend and a good family friend, was the first person I called when my mom was diagnosed and the first one I told that my mom passed away. He’s not complicated like my friend Mia, he just gets me. I stop daydreaming and grab my jacket, the Colorado snow is caving into my tent.
Someone knocks on the fort outside,
“I’m coming, Dad!” I say as I zip open the door.
I look outside. “Franki!” I scream as my older sister jumps in and hugs me. I hold her close as I start to cry with joy.
“I didn’t think you would come back from college ’til March!” I burst out as my body shakes.
“I’ve got so much to tell you. Does Dad know you are home yet?”
“Of course, I wanted to surprise you!” She says as she kicks the snow in my face.
“Ohhh, Stell, the Reynolds are coming over tonight. That means Jesse, too!”
“Shut up, Franki, you promised you wouldn’t tell anyone or make jokes, seriously. I haven’t even told Mia.”
“I know, I know, I would never,” Franki says laughing at me.
We open the door and Dad comes and hugs us both.
“It’s been so lonely without you, Frank. We’ve missed you.”
“Franki, please stay. I need you here for the rest of 8th grade.”
“I can’t, Stella, I would love to, though.”
The kitchen smells of chili and cocoa as the fireplace sparks, and jazz music plays through the speakers of our loft-like house.
“The Reynolds are here,” I say as I wave at Jesse and his younger sister through the window.
Franki winks at me, and I start to kick her, and Jesse runs in and starts hitting Franki. We and the Reynolds are like family, which in some ways is good, but it scares me in others.
At the end of dinner, Jesse, Franki, and I walk outside and talk. We sit there ’til 11 o’clock, and then Franki leaves to go upstairs.
“I know this is an important and hard week for you, Stella, but I want you to know I’m here for you, if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” I say, holding back my tears.
“Jesse,” I say choking up, “You were the first person I called when my mom died. I trust you with everything.”
“I thought you called Mia first,” he said looking at me through his hazel eyes.
“No,” I said my throat dry, “you.”
“Don’t be scared to cry in front of me,” he says.
‘I’m an ugly crier,” I say, and we both laugh.
My laugh becomes tears, and he gently puts my head on his shoulder as I cry. My sadness is only a dream with Jesse, as he holds my head and keeps me strong. We sit there on the steps of my house, as we watch the stars.
“Look, a shooting star–Make a wish!” he says and points to a star that is flying through the night.
“You’re crazy,” I say as I giggle and wipe my tears away on my sweater. I silently make a wish.
Friday comes as I feared. I hoped it would never come, I hoped I could pause life or maybe fast forward past this day. But I can’t run away from reality, I have to face it. I don’t go to school today, and Franki is staying home ’til Sunday. I lug my body to her room and hurl myself onto her floral bed.
“Two years,” I say under my breath.
She looks up at me and then grabs me close.
“Mom would have loved to see the little woman you’ve become. She was so strong and did everything to put others before herself, just like you, Stell.”
We lie together on her bed in silence as Dad walks in. He lies down with us as we stare at the walls as a family. Yes, we are an injured family, full of confusion and pain, who love each other more than words. “We love you, Mommy,” I say.
“Mom didn’t want us to suffer because of her. She told us not to stick to her, but for us to live on and move on with her in our hearts,” Dad says, trying to lift our spirits and convince himself.
“You’re right, Dad, let’s make some breakfast.” Franki says.
We make Mom’s famous pancakes as a family and light candles as snow whispers outside our windows. The day moves on slowly, as we mourn but try to move on from our solemnity. I go to my fort with Franki, and we sit and look through photos from when we were little. We share our favorite stories as we cuddle in blankets and pillows. Finally, we walk back home and sit with our dad. In the afternoon, the doorbell rings and Jesse stands there in his big jacket with flowers.
‘Hey, Mr. Milam,” Jesse says as he leans in and hugs my dad. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s so kind of you to stop by,” Dad says.
“I brought you guys some flowers, and my family sends their wishes. Can I see Stella and Franki?”
“Yeah, they’re upstairs,” Dad says.
Jesse walks upstairs and comes into my room.
‘Hey,” he says and leans in and hugs me. “How are you doing?” he says.
“I’m fine,” I say as I pull my long curly brown hair up.
Franki comes in and hugs Jesse, and we share our favorite memories of our mom with Jesse. He sits there and listens like a good friend and doesn’t interrupt. When we break down in tears, he waits and calms us. Franki eventually leaves to call her best friend, and I think I should probably call Mia, but I wait.
“You know, I’ve never taken you to my hiding place. Where I go to escape. I’ve only taken Mia, Franki and Dad, but I want you to come. I started building my fort the day after Mom passed away.”
“I’d love to go, Stellie,”
My eyes widen and almost smile; He’d never called me a nickname before. We walk through the snow and I tell him about my fort.
“It’s the most important place to me, and I only take the people I trust.”
“I’m honored,” he laughs as we walk on.
When we enter the fort, Jesse freezes.
“This is amazing, Stella. It’s magical.”
“The first memory I had with my mom is right here, it’s where we would go to talk and watch the stars.”
“Stella…” Jesse says struggling for words. “This is hard to say, but I’m going to try, so please listen. I’ll always be here for you to talk to, and I always want to be. You mean beyond the world to me and I want you to know that. You’ll always be my best friend.”
I look at him startled.
He grabs my hand, and it starts to snow.
I hold on to his hand, as he protects me, and I place my head on his shoulder. The trees guard us. He gently stops walking and pulls me into him and kisses me. My body heats up, and I hold onto him closely.
“Is that okay?” he says, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“I’ve always wanted you to,” I say and laugh.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a star fly by. Finally, I’m set free as my mom lets me slip away.