Cassie stood and looked in the mirror. She reached out and tenderly touched the reflection across from her. “Alex, I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I have to do this. Please forgive me.”
She walked into the bathroom and opened the box of hair color. With shaking hands, she worked it into her hair and piled it on top of her head.
She set the time on her phone then sat on the toilet to wait. She cried the entire time. She felt like she was killing Alex all over again. Her heart actually hurt inside her chest. She now understood why people said heartbreak. Regardless, she simply couldn’t be Cassie anymore. She died along with her sister.
Once the timer went off, she swallowed her tears and got in the shower to shampoo her newly colored hair and wash away the pain. It was done. Now maybe her mother could look at her and not see a ghost.
She dried her hair. But it wasn’t enough. She looked too much like Alex and Cassie. So picked up the scissors and began to cut her long hair off.
Better, but still, Alex’s eyes stared back at her.
Cassie went to her room and sat down at the vanity. She picked up the eye pencil and outlined her eyes. Then she colored her eyebrows to match her new hair color. Much better. She could finally breathe.
Cassandra stared back at her. Not Cassie, and definitely not Alex.
Her brother knocked on the bedroom door. She knew it was Grayson. He always knocked hard. Her father knocked softly and her mother never knocked, because she never came in their room while Cassie was in there.
“Cass, are you okay?” came his voice through the door. “I thought I heard you crying.”
She closed her eyes for a minute and took a deep breath. She knew he wouldn’t be happy with her. He already hated that black was her new pink. She simply couldn’t wear any of those old clothes anymore. It made her sad to see Alex’s matching outfit hanging alone in the closet.
Finally she got up and opened the door. He would just keep knocking until she did.
Grayson just stood there with his mouth open. Finally he found his words. “Cass … why?”
“Cassandra from now on please. Cassie is … dead.” Her voice hitched as she said the ‘d’ word and she almost lost her shit.
“Cass, did Mom and …”
“Cassandra,” she corrected.
Grayson looked uncomfortable. “Cassandra, did Mom and Dad know what you were going to do?”
“I’m 16. I don’t need their permission. Besides, they should like it. It will stop them from seeing Alex every time they look at me. Well, maybe they will look at me now, but really, I don’t care if they do or not.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said and grabbed her arms to get her attention.
Cassie thought for a minute before replying. “I don’t care. I couldn’t look at her any longer either, so I don’t blame them. Alex is dead and now Cassie is finally dead too.”
Grayson began to get emotional. “Stop saying that. You aren’t. She wouldn’t want that.”
Cassie pulled from his grip. “YOU don’t get to use that! YOU don’t know what she would want!” Cassie immediately felt bad for going off on her brother and softened her tone. “Grayson, I’m sorry,” she muttered.
“Let’s go downstairs and face the music. I’ll back you up. You really do look … different.”
Cassie gave her brother a hint of a smile. “That’s the idea,” she said. She loved Grayson. They had never been super close before, because she had Alex … then after … he made it his mission to take care of her. He rarely left her side. Poor Grayson even lost his girlfriend over her. She felt guilty, but he promised it didn’t matter. ‘There’ll be plenty of hot chicks in college’ he had said.
But, it wasn’t the same as having someone that could finish your sentence, or knew what you were going to do before you did it. Someone you could tell anything. However, his presence helped. If it hadn’t been for Grayson, she would probably be with her sister now. It secretly frightened her that he would graduate in just one month and would leave for college only a couple of months later. She linked her arm in his and they went downstairs to get it over with.
“Grayson,” said their father, “I didn’t know you had company … Cassie?”
“Cassandra,” said Grayson before she could say it.
“What?” he asked, confused as he looked back and forth between them. “Cassie, what did you do to yourself?” Her father was yelling.
“Cassandra, Cassie is a kiddie name,” she said flippantly.
“You didn’t answer my question!” replied her father, getting angry.
“I dyed my hair … and cut it … duh,” said Cassie, feigning nonchalance.
Her mother had dragged herself off the couch, clearly having heard her father’s raised voice. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Evan, why are you yelling?” When her gaze landed on Cassie her eyes went wide and she started to scream, “Oh God …. NO! Change it back! Right now!!!”
Her father quickly gathered her mother into his arms and led her into the other room, talking softly. She had dissolved into tears muttering incoherently. “Alex and now Cassie… my babies …”
After they left she looked at Grayson and rolled her lined eyes. “Well, that went well. At least it’s over.”
“Are you going to change it back?” he asked.
“Uh, nooo Grayson. I happen to like it.” She looked at her brother and softened her tone. “But, thank you for being here for me. And about that. After you graduate, don’t feel like you have to stay here. I can handle it – for two more years. Blegh.”
“That settles it. I’m staying, at least for the first year of college. I can get my basics out of the way and then apply to the college in Brindleton Bay. They have a good medical school there. Besides, you shouldn’t have to deal with Mom alone. You know, I’ve been thinking Cass – andra. There’s one more thing I wish we could change before I leave for college. I wish we could move from this house.”
“Don’t let Mom hear you say that. She’ll say you’re trying to pretend Alex didn’t exist. Every time she and Dad try to talk she ends up yelling at him. But maybe, it would be easier, especially once you leave.” Cassie was trying not to freak out thinking about being alone in the house with her mother.
“I’m gonna suggest it to Dad,” said Grayson finally. “Grandpa Ben’s place is sitting empty. Maybe we could move there?”
Cassie curled her lip in disgust. “Ewww. I don’t know Grayson. That’s a creepy old person’s house. It would be weird.”
“Yeah. But it has a super cool basement in it. I’d give you dibs on it since I’ll be moving out in a year. I bet Mom could be persuaded to remodel it. I mean that’s basically her and Dad’s job. Well, it was hers when she was working. It might give her something to think about besides Alex.”
Three weeks later….
Cassie took one last look around her room. It was still very much a girly teenage room. It no longer reflected who she was. And she knew, she would never be that person again. Half of her soul had been ripped out and it could never be put back.
The pictures and selfies, evidence of a life she would never have again, were now safely stored away in a box, stuffed in the suitcase she’d just finished packing. Precious memories that were too painful to see.
Her mother wouldn’t even look at her because it upset her too much. She reminded her of what they’d lost, and no doubt blamed her. Rightly so. It should’ve been her in that street. She single-handedly destroyed her family, simply because she was too nosy.
They’d gone from a loving happy family, to strangers that took up space in the same house. Her father worked all day, came home and took care of her mother. Neither of them had time for her or Grayson.
Grayson’s firm knock came on the door startling her. “Cass? Are you ready? It’s time to go.”
Cassie quickly shut the suitcase, then swiped at the wetness on her cheeks. “I’m ready,” she called out. She took one last look and tried to swallow the lump in her throat.
When she turned and saw her brother, she lost the battle with her emotions. He quickly pulled her into a warm hug and held her until she stopped crying. “It’s okay Cass, I understand.”
Finally, all cried out, she sniffed and wiggled out of his embrace, embarrassed. “Sorry. I’m good now. Let’s go.”
They were spending the night with her grandparents while the movers packed and moved everything to Grandpa Ben’s old place. When Grayson suggested the idea of moving, their father was all for it. He called Grandma Sofia and they had everything worked out within two weeks.
The bad thing was the house hadn’t been remodeled yet, but Cassie would get the basement to herself. It was like a little apartment, complete with a huge living area, bedroom, game-room, small kitchen and bathroom. Too bad she didn’t have any friends to crash with her. At least she wouldn’t have to be upstairs with her parents, and maybe she wouldn’t hear her mother cry or yell at her father.
When they walked into her grandparent’s house, her Grandmas Sofia and Dannie took her mother into the dining room and poured a glass of wine for them all.
They left her with Grandpa Cole, her father and Grayson. She knew why they didn’t bring her into the dining room with them. Her mother still got upset when she looked at her. Now it was because she didn’t look like Alex. She couldn’t win.
She got up and went to play with Buster, her grandparent’s little schnauzer. She walked near the dining room and listened. “I’m so happy you are moving into the family home,” said Dannie to her mother, “It’s going to make it easier for you to make a fresh start.”
“They’re trying to pretend Alex never existed. It’s wrong.” Cassie could’ve predicted that response from her mother.
“Oh Honey, no,” said Grandma Sofia gently, “Evan is only trying to make life a little easier, without the constant reminder of what you’ve lost. It’s almost been two years. You can’t continue to live in the past sweetheart. Do you think Alex would be happy that you are still in mourning? She’s up there with Ben … and they are having a grand time. He’s probably telling her who knows what kind of crazy stories.”
Sofia paused and sniffed back her own heartache before she continued. “You know sweetheart, my Ben lost his wife right after your daddy was born. He was a tiny infant. just two weeks old. It took him awhile too, but eventually, he moved on and made a wonderful life for your father, me and Ami. The park is a memorial to her and it helped him let go of his pain. Maybe we could add Alex’s name to the park memorial as well. We aren’t forgetting her dear, that will never happen. But honey, you have two wonderful children and a loving husband that need you now.”
“You think adding her name to the plaque will make the pain simply go away?” asked her mother. “That doesn’t make any sense. How can I be happy when she’s gone? It seems … wrong.”
Her father walked in the room. “Reagan, sweetheart,” he said, “there’s someone here to see you.”
“Hi Reagan,” said the visitor. Her voice was kind and soothing. “Your lovely husband called to see if I wouldn’t mind a house call. You do remember me, I hope. I certainly remember you, and how hard you fought to regain your life. When he told me who it was, well, there was no way I could say no. I’m very sorry for your loss sweetheart.”
Cassie was confused. She had no idea what they were talking about, but her mother looked shocked, just standing there with her mouth open.
“Would you mind if we talked for a few minutes, alone?” the woman asked.
Cassie’s mom nodded. “We can talk,” she mumbled.
The woman looked at Grandma Dannie, “Hon, is there a place we can go for privacy?”
She jumped up quickly. “Of course Dr. Brown, follow me please.”
When her mom still didn’t move, Dr. Brown walked over to her and offered her hand. It broke the spell she seemed to be under and her mother fell sobbing into the Doctor’s arms.
Cassie watched in horror as her mother fell apart in the arms of the Doctor. It pissed her off. Why would she let a stranger comfort her when she would barely even look at her, or just yelled at Daddy when he tried. Guilty fingers danced up her spine. This was all her fault.
When her mother eventually calmed down, Dr. Brown gently guided her to the room that Dannie had indicated, keeping her arm around her. Cassie just stood there and watched them walk away.
“Cass?” she heard Grayson’s voice behind her and tried to quickly swallow her anger. She knew he was checking on her.
Cassie turned around, “It’s not fair Grayson.”
Grayson hugged her again. She wouldn’t be alive today without his hugs. “I know it’s not, but soon, you’ll have your bad ass space,” he said trying to offer comfort. “At least Mom finally stopped fighting about moving. I’m ready too Cass. It’s too depressing at home. And who knows, maybe this doctor will help her. She seems to have a connection with her. Come on, let’s go wait with Dad.”
“Oh god, Grayson. Now what’s wrong with Daddy?” They both looked over where Dannie and Cole had sat him down on the couch. He was crying. She hadn’t seen her father cry since the funeral nearly two years ago.
Grayson held her back from going to him. “They have it under control. He’s just worried about Mom. You remember how embarrassing they used to be, always hugging and kissing all the time? Now they’re embarrassing because they fight. I much prefer the PDA.”
“He seems better now. I want to know what’s going on,” said Cassie. She walked over to her father, her shadow following close behind. “Daddy, who is Dr. Brown?” she demanded, “and how does she know Mom?”
Her grandfather stood up and her dad motioned for her to take his seat. He put his arm around her and pulled her tight to him. “You know we love you, right?” he asked instead of answering her question.
“Who’s we?” she asked skeptical.
“Me … and Mom.”
“I’m not so sure about Mom. She hated me because I reminded her of Alex, and now she hates me because I don’t.”
“It’s hard for her,” admitted her father, “but she’s with a very good therapist. She went to Dr. Brown back before we got married. She helped her a lot. If not for her we probably wouldn’t have gotten together.”
Cassie turned to look at her father. “Mom’s crazy?”
“No, sweetheart, she’s depressed. She can’t let down the walls she built around herself to deal with the pain of losing your sister. She’s having a hard time coming to terms with the fact…” Evan paused and swallowed hard to get his own emotions under control before continuing, “that Alex isn’t coming back and it’s okay to live.”
Dr. Brown walked in the room, silencing it. Cassie’s dad stood.
“Mr. Connor, your wife would like for you to join us.”
“Is she okay?” he asked.
“Actually, yes,” said Dr. Brown with a smile, “She is.”
Her smile was infectious and her father smiled back as he followed Dr. Brown into the room where her mother disappeared.
Grayson quickly took his father’s place next to Cassie. “Cass, don’t be upset. I think that was a good sign.”
“He’s right Cassie,” said Sofia, “your mother and Dr. Brown have a connection. And asking for your father is indeed a very good sign. Hun, it’s never going to be the same, but Dr. Brown is helping your mother open herself up to feel love again.”
Cassie swiped at her face. “I guess,” she said. Maybe her mom could be helped, thought Cassie, but that was only because she’s not the reason Alex is gone.
Later that night back at the Connor’s house …..
Instead of spending the night at Cole’s, Evan and Reagan had jointly decided to go back to the house they had lived in for 18 years. They wanted to spend one last night there before the movers came in and finished packing it up. Evan was determined to make the last memory of their home a good one – with just the two of them – like it was when they first moved in.
He was cautiously optimistic as he put the take-out on the table. When they arrived she said she was going to go change. He feared she had just gone to sit in Cassie’s bedroom.
Even if Reagan wasn’t ready to welcome him back to their bed, he at least hoped she would let him hold her until she fell asleep. When he lost his daughter, he’d also lost his wife. Today had been the first day in a very long time that he and Reagan had a real conversation without angry words or ugly accusations. Dr. Brown was practically a miracle worker. He prayed he was finally getting her back. He needed her.
He sighed and went to the fridge and pulled out a beer for each of them.
After he sat them down he turned to call for Reagan. When he looked up, she was already standing there, watching him. She looked beautiful. She’d let her hair down and changed into a pretty nightgown. It took him a minute to gather himself. “Reagan … you look lovely.”
“Thank you. Evan, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe you don’t hate me.”
He walked closer to her, his heart pounding in his chest. “Stop Reagan,” his words were soft but firm, “I love you. We’ve both been to hell, and together we’ll find our way back. You heard Dr. Brown. No blaming each other, or ourselves, for anything. Let this be our time to rediscover each other. To draw strength from one another.”
He reached out to tilt her face to his, fearing she would flinch away. But she didn’t, and his heart soared. “I promise, we won’t do anything you don’t want.”
“But what about what you want Evan?” she whispered. She was as nervous as he was.
“I want only what you’re willing to give. How about we start with stir-fry and a beer? I would’ve done wine, but the glasses are packed.”
Then Reagan’s face softened and she smiled. “Sounds good,” she said.
He wanted to grab her and swing her around with joy for that simple ghost of a smile, but instead, he pulled the chair out for her and they sat down to eat. Baby steps.
After only a few bites, Reagan began to fiddle with her beer bottle. Evan knew from experience that meant she was finished. She’d become rail thin from not eating, so her lack of appetite wasn’t surprising.
“We actually have dessert,” he said drawing her attention to him. He hoped she’d eat a little of it. “And not fortune cookies either. Sofia sent it home with us. She said it was her and Ben’s favorite and she was pretty sure you liked it too.”
Reagan’s eyes lit up and a grin split her face confusing Evan, but making him ridiculously happy nonetheless. “She didn’t!” said Reagan, more animated than he’d seen her in a long time. “It’s Tiramisu isn’t it?”
“Oh, you already know. How? You were already in the car when she gave it to me.”
Reagan was literally laughing out loud. “God. I love that woman so much!”
Evan cleared the plates and sat the dessert on the table. “What am I missing here Reagan?” he asked as they each took a piece. “It’s just a cake or pie or whatever – dessert.”
“Darling, Tiramisu was Grandma and Grandpa’s code word for sex. Ben’s mother made it for him when he was courting Sofia so he’d have an excuse to invite her to his house.”
“Wait,” said Evan holding up his hand. “Let me get this straight. Ben’s mother helped him seduce Sofia? Ben?” Evan was shocked. He wasn’t sure if it was because Ben’s mother helped him or because Ben was one of the most self-confident, borderline arrogant, people he ever knew and shouldn’t have needed help.
“It’s a beautiful love story,” she said with a smile, “She said it was obvious the two of them were very much in love, and Ben just needed a nudge. Remember, he too was recovering from a loss, the loss of his wife. So it’s very poignant that Sofia would send you home with Tiramisu. Evan, I’m really glad she did.”
“Sofia helped him heal,” said Evan slowly, as the full significance of the coffee flavored Italian dessert hit him. “Now she’s nudging us. Sofia is amazing. I guess she’s sorta paying it forward.”
Reagan stood up, held her hand out to Evan and smiled. “I think it’s time for bed.”
Evan took her hand and pulled her close. “I love you,” he whispered. Then he turned her face to his and searched her eyes for any hint that she was only doing this because he wanted it. When he saw his own love reflected back, he pressed his lips softly to hers.
Reagan deepened the kiss and he was instantly ready for whatever she wanted.
He picked her up effortlessly and carried her to their bedroom. He gently sat her down on their bed. “Are you okay?” he asked. “We don’t have to do anything – except sleep.”
Reagan reached for his hand and he knelt in front of her. “You’re wrong Evan,” she said softly, “We do. It’s been too long. We need each other. I need to feel your love. Please, make love to me Evan. Let’s help each other heal.”