“Do you remember the bed in the basement of my grandpa’s house?”
Charles laughed. “You broke it!” he said.
“Whoa, whoa whoa, now. It broke. I didn’t break it.”
“You were sliding when it happened, though.”
Izzy looked at him indignantly. “Yeah,” she said, “but I didn’t break it. And besides, nothing would have happened if you hadn’t broken the pool table!”
Charles looked down. He hadn’t broken the pool table. Chelsea had.
It had been a few years ago, when Matt was two or maybe he wasn’t even born. Charles, Chelsea and Izzy had gone down to grandpa Jim’s basement and found an old mattress and box springs leaning against the wall and held in place by old bar stools and shelves and chairs. A pool table sat nearby. Charles had taken the mattress and set it diagonally against the pool table to make a slide, and they had taken turns climbing up and sliding down while they talked and made plans.
Chelsea had jumped too hard on the pool table and knocked it lopsided. It really was Izzy who broke the bed, though. She slid down and knocked a hole in the fabric of the base with her foot, and slammed hard into the springs and the wooden frame that held it together. She had pretended that it didn’t hurt, and in her mind it didn’t.
Charles and Izzy sat in the tree house in the dark, remembering what being little was like.
“Do you think we ever actually finished coming up with a game while we were doing that?” Charles asked.
“No. Why? Did you get bored?”
“No. We just spent all our time planning instead of playing anything.”
Izzy yawned. “That was the fun part, though,” she said.
“What were we always going to play? It was the same game every time.”
“That’s why we never played,” Izzy said. “Who were you going to be?”
“Sonic the Hedgehog,” Charles said, laughing.
“And Chelsea would always say that he wasn’t a superhero, so you’d have to pick somebody else,” Izzy said.
“I never did.”
They laughed as loud as they could, drowning each other out. Charles had been crying.
“God, she was a brat.”
“She was! You didn’t have to live with her,” Charles said. “She got those grades and moved up in school and stuff, and she always teased me about it. She was fucking smart. Jesus.”
“She was good to Matt, though.”
“Yeah.” Charles laughed. “Do you remember last year when we convinced Matt that the house on Mulhead was haunted?”
“She got mad at us,” Izzy said, smiling. She pushed the hair out of her eyes and did her best impression of Chelsea’s angry face. “’Oh, grow up, guys!’”
They laughed so hard that Charles fell over. Still giggling, Izzy gripped his hand and hoisted him back up. She pulled too hard and he tumbled into her before catching himself. Very quickly, Charles kissed her on the lips.
Izzy looked at him for a long time in confusion, and then punched him in the arm. She hid a smile. Charles turned away and sat back down next to her.
There was silence in the tree house for a long while.
“It’s not funny, guys,” Izzy said in an affected voice after almost a minute of sitting and thinking.
They both lost it, laughing until their stomachs hurt, until they cried, until they couldn’t remember what had been so funny. That had been the biggest sign that they had gone too far teasing Matt.
It’s not funny, guys, Chelsea would say.
“Oh, shit,” Izzy said, sighing. “She was a good sister, wasn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Charles said. “She was. She’d look out for me.”
“I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Quiet again. He had kissed her, and she didn’t know what to do.
“What do you think happens after you die?” Charles asked.
Izzy told him what her mom had told her an hour before. “They’re still around for as long as we remember them.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Izzy thought for awhile.
“Nah,” she said.
“I think it’s pointless.”
“Yeah,” Charles said.
Pauses and silence again. Charles kicked a rock that had been stuck to his shoe, and Izzy contemplated asking him if he had seen anybody else in the house. If he had seen what she thought she saw.
“Hmm,” he said. It woke her up from her thoughts.
“I recognize that song, I think.”
“What song?” Izzy asked. She knew. The one she had heard when they followed her mom and grandpa to the house. She had told Charles about it, and he said that he had heard music as well. It was the first thing he had said that whole day to her.
“Something-something-it’s-just-a-shot-away. Children, something-something.”
Izzy had gotten very still. It was the same melody. In the house it had been just music, but there were words to it, and she knew them.
“Children, something-something. Do you remember that song?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m serious, didn’t –”
“Shut up, Charles.”
A storm is threatening my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, I’m gonna fade away.
Charles looked at her carefully. He seemed to make his mind up about something.
“You and Chelsea had class together in third grade, the year before she moved up,” he said. “I was so jealous. I asked my mom to ask the principal, but she said no.”
“They never let brothers and sisters be in the same class, I don’t think.”
“Yeah. I don’t know why not. But Chelsea always liked you better.”
Izzy shrugged. They sat in silence for awhile. She knew where this was leading.
“Izzy,” Charles said. She winced. He had grabbed her hand and was squeezing hard.
“What did Chelsea tell you at recess on Monday?”
“Come on, Charles.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “You made me look for your bracelet. I’m not stupid – what was it?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Izzy said.
“She’s my sister.”
“It wasn’t anything. I don’t even remember.”
“She was my sister! Was it about Jake? Izzy, come on!”
“I don’t –”
He shook his head and went quiet.
“Did it have anything to do with this?”
“No! Charles, it was stupid, come on.”
“Then why was that song playing in my house, Izzy? I know that song! Why – what did she tell you? It was important! She made me go away and she would only tell you, and –”
And what if Jake had killed her? And what if Jake had killed her because she had said something she shouldn’t have?
And now she was dead, and she’d never tell him. Izzy hugged him as he began to sob, banging his fist on the floor next to him.
Where did Chelsea go in the afternoons when Charles was playing with Matt? What were she and Jake doing together?
He had seen them a few times, and he wasn’t stupid. And he had heard that song come from Jake’s garage every Friday afternoon when the weather was nice. The flood is threatening my very life today; gimme shelter or I’m gonna fade away. Chelsea had been there every time he had heard it, and sometimes they closed the garage door. He felt sick.
“What did Chelsea tell you, Izzy?”
Izzy was shaking. “She told me not to tell anybody.”
“What was it?”
“She said that she had a boyfriend.”
“Was it –”
“Yeah,” Izzy said. “Chelsea said she and Jake –”
“Izzy, come on,” Charles said. He had closed his eyes.
“She was pregnant, she said.”
And they sat together in the tiny tree house they had built, and were numb together.
They looked out over the neighborhood. It would be dawn soon. From here you could see the school and the little wall they used to climb up, and the hill. There was her grandpa’s house and her old house, and Charles and Matt and Chelsea lived right there, and there was the soccer field. Once in sticky weather they had camped out up here in the tree house and watched the sun come up over the roofs. The next day they had tried to fry an egg on the sidewalk, and Chelsea had said that they would need a car engine. Car engines can reach four hundred degrees, she had said.
How did she know that? Had Jake told her?
How many of their memories was he waiting in?
It took them longer than they had thought for the March frost to thaw in the sunlight, and after a long night in the place they grew up, they decided it was time to go home, where they would have to pretend to be adults.
On the way home, they passed Mr. Marshal, who greeted them politely with a sad little smile. He said that he had heard about Chelsea from Izzy’s mom, and he was so sorry, and he knelt down in front of Charles and whispered something to him in his ear. Izzy stared dully at the way Mr. Marshal seemed to contort himself and fold over double to reach her friend’s face. She was barely even curious of what he had told him.
What he had said was this: “it isn’t pointless. You should tell her it’s not, because she’ll believe you if you tell her. It’s not pointless. Go ahead and remember your sister.”
That was it. He stood back up, smiled sadly, looked back at Izzy and nodded, and kept walking.
Charles looked back at him, confounded and exhausted. He let the words go in and out of his mind, turned them over, and lost them. They went home and fell asleep in the living room, where they dreamed about Chelsea.