This is chapter FOURTEEN of a story entitled The Other One. It’s getting close to the end. To start at the beginning, click here.
“Well, here we are.”
Jenn and I stood in front of a tombstone that seemed all too unfamiliar to me. I don’t think she had ever actually known Ethan McLaurin, but she certainly knew who he was. I figured this would be the closest she would get to meeting him, and I figured I owed him another visit before I flew back to New York.
My bags were packed. I had already been to see Alex and Rachel and little Bryce, who has spent a great deal of time since his surgery sleeping. Recovery would take time, but all signs pointed to him living a life with very little limitations. I said a few words to Alex, we had a few laughs, and then I said my goodbyes. Jenn drove me here to the cemetary, and after this I would grab my stuff, say goodbye to my parents and Ashley, and she would drop me off at the airport.
“So why did you feel like you had to come back?”
I pondered her question just a bit before answering. “You know, I guess because his death was such a dividing point for me. I had a life that ended seven years ago at this very spot. I guess I had to stand here again when I still had the opportunity. Standing here seven years ago prompted this stage of my life. Maybe standing here again will prompt the next.”
“The next? You starting to look down the road now?” Jenn had a bit of a playful tone in her voice, making even potentially serious life questions seem much more whimsical.
“I think so, yeah. Can’t say I’ve honestly ever done that too much before. I think my move to New York was more of a reaction than anything else. Now, I’m able to actually calculate what happens next. At least to an extent. I….well, I guess you had a lot to do with that.”
“Oh really? How so?”
“Well, it’s that whole thing about being ‘needed’ by my family these past weeks. I think I needed to move away seven years ago. I really do. It wasn’t just a decision made in panic or anything. It was necessary. Now, though? I’m not so sure it’s necessary I stay there. I don’t think I’m needed up there, I guess.”
“Where do you think you’re needed? Here?”
I hadn’t given a huge amount of thought to that stage, really. Had just been considering my situation back up north.
“Maybe so, Jenn. Maybe here is where I’m needed. I don’t know that for sure, but I’m willing to consider it. Maybe I can actually grow if I live here, despite how I always thought it would drag me backwards. Maybe my family needs me around more so than I ever thought they did. Maybe….I dunno, maybe I need to be around all of them too. All the people around. My family….and you too.”
I worried that I had been too rash with my last statement. I felt less stupid about it when I noticed she was trying to hold back a smile.
“Maybe you’re right.”
She was silent for just a second, and I worried she would pull away. For whatever reason, she didn’t, and instead continued to ask questions.
“Did you feel think you would be dragged down if you stayed here?”
“At the time? Yes. Now? Well, I’m standing here at the biggest reminder of why I ever felt that way, and I know that the feeling is gone. I always thought that Ethan would’ve wanted me to leave this place and do so much more with my life. Now? I’m thinking he would’ve just wanted me to appreciate whatever is around me, no matter where I end up. I would be doing a disservice to his memory if I didn’t try to live more like he did, and look at the world with wonder. Or to live more like you, and look at those around me as being uniquely important. I always looked at Ethan that way, and nobody else. I think it was just safer that way. I don’t think I need him to protect me any more, though.”
She turned her eyes from the tombstone and directed them at me. “Alright, then. I have to ask. What exactly will you do next, Aaron Palmer?”
“That, Jennifer Riley….is one heck of a good question.”
She chuckled. I smiled at her, and we stood there, suspended in time for a brief second. For that one second, there wasn’t anything else happening in the world.
When that moment ended, I asked Jenn if I could have one quick second alone at the grave. She obliged, and started walking back to the car. I couldn’t help but stare as she seemed to almost skip down the path back to the parking lot. Even her movements were wrapped up in an effortless charm, and I couldn’t stop admiring her grace as she walked out of sight.
“You know,” I said, as I turned back to face Ethan’s name, “I used to think that you would have been ashamed of how I acted. How I just left. How I ran away. It was like I felt you were a better person than I could ever become. Now I think I see how it really was, though. I think I understand that you would have done whatever was necessary as well. Whatever was needed. It took me a while, but I think I figured it out.
“I don’t need your protection anymore, but I’ll always appreciate it. You did so much for me, Ethan. You helped me find my identity. It just so happens that so much of it was formed years after you left. I’m sorry you don’t get to see how great your impact has been, but I feel like you must have known at least a little bit how it would turn out. So thanks. Thanks for being a protection when it was needed, and thanks for letting me go now that it isn’t.”
“Plus, I think I’m well taken care of.”
Mom was predictably inquisitive when I stopped by the house to say goodbye. Jenn and Ashley were chatting in the living room, leaving me with her and her millions of questions, and my dad in the corner nodding at things she said. She felt the need to ask if I had all of the things that I needed that there was no way I could forget, but that fact wouldn’t stop her from worrying.
Though I suppose there were bits of the worrying that I had missed over the years. There was some sort of aspect of it that reminded me that she was there to look out for me. That she wanted to do so. Living far away, I guess I had started to view her as being doting or controlling something. I had lost sight of the fact that she actually just cared.
We got things packed, she hugged me, I shook hands with my father, and carried things down stairs to put them in the car. Ashley was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs.
“Alright, well besides the obvious, was your visit good?”
“Yeah, I think so. It was great to see all the places I hadn’t seen in so long.”
“Oh yeah, all the places, huh? Just places? Not any….people?” She smirked, as Jenn had just walked into the next room to say hello to my mother.
“Yes. Just places. Thanks, Ash. At least you waited til she left the room.”
“Well you know I’m supposed to pry. It’s my job.”
Jenn was starting to walk back in, so I started my move towards the door by first hugging my little annoying sister.
“You’re good at your job. And I guess it was pretty good to see you again too. You need to come up and we can explore the city again, alright?”
“Yeah, I will.” She lingered just a bit on the hug, reminding me that my little sister would actually miss me when I left. I enjoyed this moment, because I would secretly miss her as well. I just couldn’t let her know that.
“Well guys, thanks for having the bed set up for me. I’ll be sure to let you know when I land and all.”
Mom moved in for a cheek kiss and tried to offer me more food that wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. After I coaxed her down from that, Dad helped me carry my bags out and load them in the trunk. We all lingered for just a little while outside, as if to savor the last moment before I left. The goodbye eventually happened, though, but as I was about to climb into the car, Ashley stopped me.
“So, when will you come back to visit?”
I paused for a second, turned around, and couldn’t help but smile a bit. “Oh, don’t worry. I think I’ll be back again real soon.”