This is chapter four of a story I’m working on called The Other One. For chapter one, click here.
Pots and pans clanging in the kitchen jarred me from my sleep upstairs. In the groggy moments where it took everything in me just to figure out what time it was and why I had slept so late, it dawned on me that no other day had started this way. Something was different, and why I realized what day it was, it hit me.
Ashley had finally made it home.
It took four days before I had a chance to actually see my sister, as she had left town for a few days before I arrived. She was fiercely loyal to her friends, having maintained the same core group since high school, and the main four of them stayed close even now in graduate school. Since they ended up in school in different areas, they would always celebrate seeing each other again with a small road trip at the end of each semester.
Where Alex had his charisma and his large networking circles, Ash had the ability to nurture, and she used that to keep strong ties with her best friends.
I always had a bit of a unique bond with Ashley; almost like we were really blood, not a girl with her adopted older brother. Maybe it was just the fact that I was always there as her brother, so having me around was all she really ever knew. It was different than with my parents and brother, who had a family established by the time I came along. Regardless, it was nice having somebody else around who for whatever reason adored me.
Ashley had a beautifully naive outlook on life. It was like part of her never really outgrew the little girl who played with princess dolls and dreamed of one day owning a pony. She gave up on dressing up, but I always suspected that part of her held onto hope for a pony.
She was also just beautiful. Ashley routinely drove guys crazy. She always had a effortless, natural grace to her that was only heightened by her demeanor. That aloof demeanor, though, meant that she she never really dated any of those boys she drove crazy, always acting like there were far more important things to do. Sure, she went on dates, but they rarely turned into reoccuring events. She would frequently even offer to pick up the check, just trying to be polite, but also trying to show that she wasn’t exactly looking for any acts of machismo to keep her safe.
Being her older brother was easy. Nobody mocked her, because she was too kind, and nobody ever treated her poorly, because she wouldn’t allow them to. There was one guy she called her boyfriend, but it was short lived, ended amicably, and she walked out of it saying that high school relationships were silly and a waste of her time. She was some sort of old soul; a teenager with a mind much more mature than it needed to be. Being her older brother was easy, but sometimes felt entirely unnecessary.
We had planned to go out for lunch together to catch up as soon as she got back. I wasn’t actually planning on sleeping in until lunch itself, though. Last night, I happened to find some of my old comic books and stayed up far too late remembering some of the fun times I had with Peter Parker. I don’t think anyone could blame me.
Walking down the stairs confirmed that Ashley was back, as I could hear her unmistakable humming coming from the kitchen. Ashley was almost always humming or singing something, and never particularly on key. For as wonderful as she was, she was never terribly musical, but that fact never stopped her from seeing every opportunity as a chance to sing. Life was actually a musical for Ashley, and if she was allowed to swing around on light posts in public, she might actually attempt it.
“Oh geez, I didn’t realize the concert started already. Will the usher still let me in the doors?” I said as I wandered in the room.
Ashley actually let out a squeal. “Brother! I can’t believe you’re actually here!” For just a brief moment, she wasn’t the woman in her 20’s pursuing her master’s degree. She was the little girl I remember opening her first Barbie on Christmas morning. It was a little odd to be the reason for such excitement.
“Yep, it’s me. But I’m a little upset at the turnout for my homecoming parade. It was sorely lacking.” I held out my arms, bracing myself for the inevitable spine-popping hug.
“This is great! So great! Let’s go get lunch!” Her embrace was killing whatever appetite I thought I had. “There are so many fun new places here in town that you haven’t been to! Come on, I’ll drive.”
You could never fault Ash for her enthusiasm. When she had something to do, whether it was going to a party or cleaning the house, she jumped on it like she would die if it didn’t happen right then. And today? It was time for lunch, so we were getting lunch IMMEDIATELY. No time for showers or anything, so my 24-hour smell was rising as I found something to cover my bed head.
I don’t think any real conversation happens when people are driving somewhere. Nobody admits a deep dark secret or confesses their love while on the way to their destination. I haven’t seen a movie where major plot points are revealed as the characters are driving to somewhere important. It’s just a drive. Afterwards, on the drive home important stuff can happen, but most of the time it’s just a recap of what had just happened. But never on the way there. The same happened between me and Ashley on the way to lunch. She told me about her trip with her friends, and a few highlights about the end of the semester she hadn’t told me yet. She even mentioned how excited she was to spend Christmas in Manchester this year and not New York, but otherwise, it was sort of basic small talk.
We ended up at this new, organic place that had opened. I wasn’t sure an organic deli could survive in the state of Mississippi, much less Manchester, as the town isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. Being close to Greymont University seemed to benefit the place, as the student body was rapidly embracing the organic trend, but with the students gone for the holiday, Ashley and I had the place to ourselves.
I wasted no time as we sat down and jumped straight into what had been sitting in my mind: “Hey, do you remember Jennifer Riley?”
“Yeah,” Ashley said, “of course I do. We were in some clubs and stuff at Man High, I think. Why? Wasn’t she in your grade?”
“She was, but she remembers you pretty well. I saw her yesterday at the store. She must have a good memory, cause she seemed to remember a lot more about school than I do. She’s now an elementary teacher here or something like that.” I said this as though the thought of her teaching in the district she attended was unheard of.
“Aww!” Teachers may not get paid much, but they seem to always invoke a nice “aww!” from females who learn what they do for a living. “That’s so cool! I’ll have to get in touch with her sometime. Do you know what school she works at?”
“No, but I do have her number, so I can give it to you or something.”
The waiter was placing our food on the table when Ashley nearly gave him a heart attack. “Wait, WHAT? YOU got a girl’s number? And at a grocery store?”
“She gave me her number, Ash. I didn’t ‘get’ it from her. But yes, I do have it. She invited me out with some people in a few days.”
“Aaron! So when’s the wedding?”
“Oh you’re hysterical, Ash. I’m going out with a group here. To like, a bar or some sort of nasty spot in Jackson of all places. Trust me, it’s far from romantic.”
“But still! She invited you out, and gave you her number in the process. She wants to see you. That’s farther than you’ve ever gotten before, right?”
I was beginning to think Alex had been influencing my sweet little sister. “Ouch. I know I haven’t exactly been very active Ashley, thank you. But it’s not like that. I’m sure she’s just excited to see somebody from high school again.” I didn’t want to mention that I was also positive I would make a fool of myself and she would never want to see me again. Maybe if I expected it, my eventual failure would go over easier.
“But still, that should be fun! Just enjoy it. And hey, be sure to tell mom. I’m sure she’ll need a little pick-me-up this week.”
I had to wedge my bite of pastrami into my cheek to get my question out. “Why? Christmas depressing for her or something? We could have stayed in New York. I knew hosting it back in the house would be stressful on her.”
“No, you know she loves Christmas. It’s just that she’s still waiting to hear on whether she needs to start treatment and all. That’s the only stress.”
Swallowing that bite took a huge amount of effort. “Treatment?”
I’m not sure how long we sat there in silence. Ashley had clearly realized that she knew something I didn’t yet know, and she wasn’t sure it was her place to reveal this to me.
“Oh gosh, Aaron. I….I could have have sworn she had told you. I’m so sorry. I thought you knew. I’m so sorry!”
I had to stop her before she got in a constant loop. “Ash. What are you talking about?”
“Aaron, I’m so sorry! I guess maybe she didn’t want to worry you way up in New York. Or maybe she wanted to wait til she heard back. Oh gosh. I feel terrible now.”
“Ashley, just tell me what is going on. What is she having to find out about? What is going on?”
If there had been anyone else in the restaurant, I’m sure they would have left after I inadvertantly raised my voice just then. In fact, there could have been other people there for all I actually knew. I wasn’t even aware of any employees at this point. At that moment in time, it was me, my sister, and my pounding heart, waiting to hear.
“Aaron, she….she….her cancer is back.”
I didn’t feel like eating that pastrami anymore. I didn’t feel like eating anything ever again.