This is chapter two of a story I’m working on called The Other One. For chapter one, click here.
As expected, my first day back was a massive blur of southern hospitality. Everyone acted as if this were the first time we had even seen each other in years, not just my first time back in Manchester. There were sports to watch, ornaments to hang, and food to eat. Not to mention so many collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens that I was certain I was through with the color green forever.
Thankfully, the next day was different. Things were calm, or at the very least calmer, and it allowed me time to borrow a car and explore the city. I wanted to eventually make my way to certain places I hadn’t been in years, though for some reason I felt like I had to build up to that.
More than anything else, though, it gave me time to process. Think about how things felt different, though they looked the same. Think about the past seven years. And to think about how things were seven years ago.
I can’t say that I was some complete outcast in my city, like I was forced to live in some leper colony on the outskirts or something. Truth be told, I was actually fairly well thought of. Most of that, though, was because I followed the reputation of my older brother. People expected me to be just like him. Or maybe they just wanted me to. But I was never my brother. I wasn’t entirely sure WHO I was, and that’s what made me feel so isolated at times.
It was frustrating. I didn’t exactly want to be just like Alex. I also certainly didn’t want to be a loser. So I rambled through the social scene, being friendly and most importantly visible and it was fine. But I never felt connected to any of those people. I never really felt connected to anyone except, to a regard, my sister. And, of course, Ethan.
Ethan McLaurin was in the same situation. His older brother, Barker, was a close friend of my brother, and the two of them were the kings of Manchester. There wasn’t a place in the city they could walk into without knowing at least ten people there. And then that burden was placed on me and Ethan, and trust me, it’s certainly a burden.
The difference between Ethan and myself, though, was that none of this phased him at all. It’s the like awkwardness of the whole situation washed right over him. I constantly wondered why I was supposed to care about being Alex’s brother, but Ethan never once seemed concerned with any of it.
Then again, the McLaurins were all unique people to begin with. You wouldn’t be able to think of any sort of social archtype that they would fit in. Barker, especially in high school, was the most popular person around without being anything resembling a “cool” kid. He didn’t play sports, wasn’t in a band, and didn’t ever have an undeserved sense of entitlement that high school “cool” kids have. He liked the people around him, and people liked him because of it.
Ethan was similar in many ways, but he was content to live in his own world. His greatest enjoyment came from his little oddities. His strange personality quirks. Most of the time, people couldn’t get why he did the odd things he did. But Ethan got it, and that’s all that was important to him. He loved the things he loved, and most of the time the stuff he did was just because it entertained him.
No matter how odd he came across, though, you would never meet a kinder soul than Ethan. There was no stranger he wouldn’t make small talk with. There was no acquaintance whose story he wouldn’t hear. People were one of his odd fascinations, and because of this, he endeared himself to the community.
He was the weird McLaurin kid to Manchester, and people loved him for that. That’s why his death was hard for everyone to handle.
I had to take a moment to prepare myself when I pulled that borrowed car into the McLaurin’s driveway. Took some deep breaths, wondered whether I even wanted to do this, and just forced myself to the front door.
Mrs. McLaurin was as kind as ever when I reached their house. She greeted me as if it was her own son coming home, not just a friend. Our families were very close, so really it did feel like being back with family. Just a part of the family that had a huge, irreplaceable hole.
When we were seniors at Man High, Ethan was diagnosed with leukemia. The diagnosis was given in May, right when we should have been focused on graduating. Ethan wasn’t given the option of going off to college that Fall. He had this sudden situation to deal with.
Of course, when I say that Ethan dealt with the situation, I mean it seemed as if Ethan was never hit with the news. Sure, the physical effects of the disease and the treatments were clear, but he acted as though it was just normal. Never was he discouraged. Never did he stop caring about his little hobbies or other people’s stories. I never understood it.
The McLaurins didn’t want to keep Ethan’s room the same as when he was alive. They didn’t feel like there was any sense in that. They held on to a few things of his that held significance, and that’s all they needed. It was good for their coping process, though obviously full healing was far, far away.
At this time every year, Mrs. McLaurin in particular would spend more and more time at Ethan’s grave. I joined her on this particular day, though I really wasn’t even sure how I got there. We were in the living room, catching up, when suddenly, we just weren’t. We were in the car, driving.
Then we were at the gravesite, silent.
I’m not sure what I expected to feel when I got there. Sadness? Fond memories, crashing back into my mind? Even just sorrow? None of those things were there. Mrs. McLaurin had gone back to the car, giving me a moment alone. It just felt….right being there.
It didn’t seem right to go off to college and leave him in Manchester by himself. College could wait. He couldn’t. When we graduated, we instead tried to do things that he wanted to make sure he did while he still could.
I still distinctly remember our trip to the beach. The coast was close enough to drive to without it being too much of a burden on him, and he always found something soothing about that disgusting water. It was just me, Ethan, and his family, trying to act like things were alright.
To me, the dirty sand and cloudy water just didn’t seem appealing, but when he was able to carry his frail frame out into the water, he seemed like he was on top of the world. His family couldn’t hold their emotions back, but for Ethan, it was like for just this one trip, nothing was wrong with him. It was like God wanted to give him just one last moment at full strength, and that moment will always stay with me.
Not long after that, things took a turn for the worst. I wish we could say that it was unexpected. Even Ethan seemed to know it was coming. The rest of autumn was like watching a football game where your team has held on to a lead against a much better opponent, but time is running out and they’re pushing. There’s a unique feeling when you just know that it won’t work out in your favor. It’s an imminent defeat hitting you right in the gut.
Then December came. It’s a hard to celebrate Christmas in a hospital, but our families made those sacrifices. Traditions had to take a backseat to what was really important. At times, though, it felt like traditions really had to take a backseat to pain.
And that’s why standing at his grave was so strange. Christmas for me was always going to be associated with that hospital waiting room. Being in Manchester was always going to be associated with that. That’s why I couldn’t be here anymore. That’s why I couldn’t even be in Mississippi anymore. That’s why I had to leave. It’s almost as if I didn’t have a choice.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, speechless, staring at that stone tablet. I never wanted to be there. But I had to. I knew Ethan would want that, and I had to at least do it for him. Better to come here early on in my visit than keep putting it off. I owed it to Ethan, since I had spent the past seven years trying to forget this particular place even existed.
Seven years? Really that long since I had even seen this plot of grass? That fact itself was hard to swallow. Everything seemed like yesterday. The smell of the hospital. The weight of the silence when we knew it was over. The cold tears when we put him in the ground here. The painful knowledge that I had to leave. I had to go away.
When I asked why he loved the number seven so much, Ethan just always replied with “It’s just the perfect number.”
I can’t really see how anything in this world could be perfect, though.