Old Things Die (But Not Us) -- Chapter nine: The Fourth of July

Fiction By Madalyn Clare // 3/28/2019

“Levi, how do you walk so fast?”
I smiled to myself as I turned back to see Josh struggling to keep up with me. He was never really athletic. He was breathing heavily as he reached me on the beach. Sweat beaded at the ends of his choppy hair (he had recently cut with safety scissors) and his face was red.
His eyes were sparkling, though. He was okay.
For being a ten year-old, I had a lot of experience in studying people. I knew when people were lying to me, or even to themselves. Because I had to protect Josh I had to know.
“I dunno,” I replied, “other than the fact that you have to stop and pick up rocks or look at birds all the time.”
Josh laughed but looked down at his worn shoes. Out of his hoodie pocket came a small animal that he held like it was butterfly wings. I looked down closely at it. It was a small cottontail bunny. It made no sound as it looked back up at me with its beady eyes. Its ears were piqued as it laid in Josh’s careful hands. I gasped.
“She was left in your neighbor’s hedge,” he explained. “I saw that her leg was stuck in the briars. She needed a little care and comfort.” He petted her head slightly. She blinked a few times, looked up at him, then back at me.
I smiled at Josh, then allowed the bunny to sniff my finger. It never seized to amaze me how good Josh was with any animal. I couldn’t believe how he learned to be so gentle.
“Wouldn’t the human smell drive her family away?” I asked.
Josh raised his brow. “Well,” he stuttered, “I wasn’t thinking about that.” His voice became quiet. His cheeks burned red. “I just wanted to help her… did I – did I ruin her?” His eyes got all watery as he sniffed. He held the bunny close to him, but still gently. Her nose twitched violently but she did not resist. “I’m sorry,” he choked.
I was taken aback. “Wait,” I stammered, “wait, Josh. Maybe my mom can help out. I don’t know if that rule goes for bunnies, too. Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps, in a day, her family’ll be looking for her.” I put my hand on his shoulder, trying to get his attention as he cried. Finally, he looked back up at me. His eyes were sparkling still, but in the not-good way.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I told him firmly. “If not, we can help raise the bunny. How does that sound?”
Josh allowed himself a little time to compose himself before nodding. “Yeah. That sounds good.” Looking down at the cottontail, he said, “Besides, cottontails are surrounded by human-smelling things, right?”
I nodded.
Finally, he took in and let out a shaky breath. “Then… she’ll be fine.”
I nodded.
He smiled weakly, then his ears went red. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I was scared.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. We started to walk down to the lighthouse. The sun would be disappearing soon. “We all get scared.”
“Even you?”
I paused, then nodded. “Of course I do. I’m still a kid. Things are gonna stay scary for a while.”
“You never seem scared.”
I let Josh walk ahead of me a few paces as he reverently slid the cottontail’s body into his pocket, propping her head with his hand, so that she would have fresh air. His gait stuttered as he noticed I stopped walking, but started up again when I resumed.
He didn’t know my fears because they were his fears. I was scared that, one day, I’d wait for him to walk to my house, and he wouldn’t come. I was scared that one day, he wouldn’t show up at school. I was afraid of seeing news in the morning should anything say something about a kid found dead.
I always saw these fears as his own. I projected my fears on him, and I don’t know if that made me less scared, or something. If someone else was as scared as me, it helped me to understand my fears as reality. If it was reality, it was unchangeable. Josh’s chances of disappearing were astronomical, and that was unchangeable.
I didn’t want him to disappear. I wanted him to never leave me. We would grow up best friends. We could move out of this town, he would be safe. We would go to college together, even if it meant I’d have to work all night to keep us together. I’d work hard to make his life better than it was.
When we got to the lighthouse, I shrugged my backpack off of my shoulders. My mom urged us to bring beach towels, because no matter the weather, whenever we came down here, one of use got soaked. I laid the towels on the gravelly shore as the sun finally disappeared. I had a flashlight, some candy, and Mom’s phone. She made sure the landline was the first number to call before she let us go, both of us sent off with kisses and ‘have fun’s.
We were quiet for a while as Josh laid the injured bunny in his lap and stroked her head. His hood was up over his head, covering his face as I glanced at him.
“Why does your mom act like she’s my mom?”
At first I didn’t understand. Then my heart sort of sank at the quietness in his voice.
It was ten months since he mentioned her.
Ten months passed since his mother died.
I brought my knees up to my chin and I frowned. “Well,” I paused. “She knows you miss her.”
Josh nodded. His lips were pursed. “I thought so.”
It was quiet again.
“I miss my aunt.”
I nodded slightly. I didn’t know his Aunt Grace well; she stopped visiting Maine a few years ago. But there was something in her that Josh wanted so badly to see her all the time. He mentioned her several times since his mom died.
I didn’t really know what to say, so I just showed I heard him.
More silence.
“Are you okay?”
Josh slowly met my eyes. “Yeah, I guess.” He sighed out. “I just… I want her back.”
I was about to say I understood, but I realized I didn’t. My mom was still around. I never knew my dad, so it was hard to say anything about him. I might not have come from the richest family in Maine, but I at least had comfortable clothes for each season, a bed that I fit in, and a mom who loved me. I knew nothing about what Josh was going through. After he said it, I shut my lips tight and sat on my hands. I could do nothing to bring his mom back, but I could sit there with him and look at the night sky.
We were quiet for a long time as we watched the tugboat pull out of the Cape. Josh leaned forward as it stopped almost straight ahead of us. I knew how much he anticipated tonight.
“Why does your mom love me?”
I was silent as I pieced together his question. Who can blame me? I was ten.
“Because,” I knew I was treading extremely dangerous waters. I didn’t know what to say. “Because… she just does. She loves you like she loves me.”
“Because we’re brothers?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Just like that. We’re brothers.” I slung my arm across his shoulders just as the fireworks began to go off.

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