The clouds are splattered against the brilliant blue sky, big and white and promising. A cool breeze rustles the leaves on the trees, the long grass against my legs. I dig my toes into the cool soil and cake my feet in mud, feeling the earth seep into me through my skin.
Nana called days like this Sublime Days of Summer. They come right at the end of June, before the humidity of July sets in and the last of spring’s newness has vanished. These are days where you can still go into the creek, barefoot and bare-shouldered, without worrying about the sun turning your skin pink. They’re days where the sun sinks lower and lower on the horizon, and still the fuschia light that comes before dusk stretches across the hills, kissing the land a dozen shades of pink.
Charlie, my brother, doesn’t care about the Sublime Days so much anymore. He’s four years older than I, almost twenty, and he abandoned the magic of summertime years ago, around the time he abandoned playing tag in the grass in front of Nana and Papa’s big farmhouse, sneaking through the woods that edge the property, and being nice to his sister. He always tells me I’m too old for it, too, for the bruises and scrapes on my knees, the twigs and leaves in my hair. Too old to play pretend, to dream, to hope and pray that there is a place in this world where childish days like this last forever.
Perhaps I am. But I will not give it up.
When I was eight, I asked Nana what sublime meant. This was before Papa died, before Charlie and I thought we could be anything but invincible. We had spent the day together on the property, staying out until fireflies blinked their yellow-orange lanterns at us and the air started to smell damp. I remember the feel of wet denim against my ankles and solid oak floorboards under my feet as Charlie and I ascended the porch steps, dipped our toes into the warm glow of Nana’s front room.
Ever eager to please, Charlie wiped his muddy feet on the mat and his sticky hands on his denim coveralls. He rubbed at the dirt on his cheeks and hid the grimy crescents of his fingernails in his pockets. I stepped onto Nana’s clean floor and sent mud flying, an explosion of earth with two tiny footprints at its center. I grinned at her where she sat in her rocker, waiting for the scolding I knew would follow.
Nana just clucked her tongue as if amused and fetched a clean rag from the kitchen. Sitting on the floor, she toweled my feet off, slowly, and with fondness in every movement. Charlie looked on, sputtering, the picture of adolescent indignance.
“Ah, Charlie, my good boy,” Nana soothed. “I made cookies for you while you were out, you know. They’re on the kitchen counter.”
My brother never could hold negativity when there was food involved. With a garbled “thank you,” he raced to the kitchen, feet pounding and cheeks flushed.
“And bring some back for Vivienne,” Nana called, but Charlie had fallen too far into his gluttony to hear her. I would get my own cookies, later, when Nana had finished with my feet and everything felt rosy, but for now, I turned to watch her.
Nana was a strong woman but even then, half my lifetime ago, the hallmarks of old age made their homes on her face. Lines cut deep into her skin, especially deep around her eyes, memories of laughter that had faded into the years. Her hair, once dark as mine, had gone gray before I was born and now sat atop her head in tight curls. That night, she had already put it up in rollers, precise and even.
“It seems,” Nana said ponderously. “That you have had a Sublime Day.”
The capitalization was clear in her tone. It was a title rather than a descriptor, all-encompassing and simple. A Sublime Day existed as something apart, something you couldn’t quite describe no matter how you tried.
I asked Nana what sublime was, and she pulled me up into her rocking chair with her. Cradled in the warmth of her tiny body, dripping muddy water from my feet onto her long nightdress, I leaned my head against her shoulder until I was comfortable. I hadn’t sat in Nana’s lap since I was five years old, but it was a position that leant itself to remastery. When I was settled in Nana’s arms, it almost felt as if I had never left.
She explained to me, then, the intangible wonder that characterized a true Sublime Day, that blissful, unnamable joy that existed only when the nights started to shrink. For a moment, it was a secret shared between the two of us, held between Nana’s heartbeat and mine.
Then, Charlie returned and, as twelve-year-old boys are wont to do, demanded to be privy to the magic.
Nana let him in, of course, because he was her grandson and because, back then, he still believed in magic. Charlie and I spent the remaining days of summer caught up in that glow, as pirates and princes and space explorers. The Sublime Days of Summer allowed us to be anything, do anything, see anything.
I’m not quite sure when the magic left, but I think I noticed it waning earlier than Charlie did. When Charlie was twelve, he was still my best friend, my playmate and, on some rare occasions, my knight in shining armor. When I reached that same age, Charlie was sixteen, practically an adult in my eyes. And I knew, as I had suspected in the years before, that we would no longer have the friendship I had once relied on.
So it became my mission to preserve the simplicity and whimsy of childhood, the days spent with tadpoles in our pockets and the scent of wildflowers drifting under our noses. As Charlie and I grew up, as he stuffed himself into suits that never quite fit right and slicked his hair back into presentable but uninspired styles, I became increasingly less restrained, became wilder and more dirt-covered, a girl more at ease outside than in her own home.
That is who I am now, as I sit in the grass where Nana’s yard ends and the wild begins. Girls my age are already talking about what comes after school, about husbands and babies and housekeeping. I still feel like too much of a child for it, too young to be expected to do anything but play outside and climb trees. Somehow, though, I got older, and I can’t say for certain when it happened.
I close my eyes and flop back into the grass, letting the sensation of a Sublime Day wash over me, the scent and feel of it. At Nana’s, where the outdoors seems infinite, it’s almost possible to believe that nothing has changed since I was that eight year old wrapped in her arms. I’ll stay out until I can’t see an inch in front of my face, come in to cookies and cold milk, sandwich myself between the cool sheets of the brass bed in Nana’s guest room. When I open my eyes, everything will be pure and whole.
Mother is shouting in the house, but still I lie back, pretending it doesn’t matter. I can hear her voice, becoming ever shriller as her agitation grows, squeezing through the crack under the door and between the window panes until it hits me, all the way out in the yard.
If I had to guess, I would say that Mother’s yelling at Charlie. Whenever she raises her voice recently, it seems to be directed at him. My brother, who put college on hold to help when Nana’s arthritis became debilitating. My brother who, for all his faults, has done more to help this family than anyone else.
Mother’s shouting began the day Nana died. In the waiting room of the hospital, her words tore about like feral animals, attacking viciously and indiscriminately. I stared up at the bruises on Charlie’s face, especially vivid under the fluorescents that lined the ceiling, and watched his features still, unchanging as slate. Even as Mother hurled insults, hurled accusations, his face remained calm, not betraying a hint of what lurked in his head.
When she lunged at her own son, Dad was the one to hold her back, to drag her, wailing and pounding on his chest, from the room into the hall.
“Charlie.” My throat felt constricted, the opening for words thin. My brother didn’t answer. “Charlie, it’s not your fault.”
His eyes, perfect dark reflections of my own, were blank when they met my gaze. “Yes, it is, Vivienne.”
I didn’t know how to convince him otherwise. I don’t know that there was anything that would. Charlie sat slowly, lowering himself into one of the plastic, stiff-backed chairs set out for grieving loved ones. So I sat next to him, and didn’t say anything else at all.
Come to think of it, I can’t say for certain whether I’ve spoken to Charlie once since that day. I don’t blame him, not like Mother does, but there’s something uncrossable about the silence that fell over us that day at the hospital. I don’t think I can be the first to breach that divide. I don’t think he wants me to.
He’ll talk to me when he’s ready. That’s what Nana would say. Nana was all about giving people their own time, which was insane, as she couldn’t go a day without pressuring a person, but I guess that isn’t the point. I’ll learn from her, I suppose, from the only flaw I ever found in the woman. I will give Charlie as long as he needs.
I miss my brother, sometimes, even though he’s right there next to me.
When I finally sit up, it’s because Mother’s tirade has been punctured by the last sound I expected to hear. It’s Charlie, and he’s calling my name.
When I close my eyes, I can still see the light, white and yellow and blinding. Sometimes, I think it’s brighter behind my eyelids than it is out in the world. The world has gone dark recently.
If I stand very still, I can feel the impact vibrating through my bones. It’s a violent tremor, rattling my brain in my skull and cracking my head against the driver’s-side window. I feel my body slam sideways and forward, slipping off the bench seat of Nana’s old pickup and onto the ground. My knees shake, and my mind goes black.
Vivienne, my sister, would tell me that I have to breathe. I have to breathe and clear my head and concentrate on nothing else. I’d like to think Vivienne is wrong, and only thinks she’s right because she’s sixteen, but she’s always been this way, a know-it-all and a bit arrogant to boot. The problem is, she actually does know a fair bit.
But Vivienne doesn’t know how my toes are curling inside my shoes right now, my socks sticking to my skin. She doesn’t see that my fingers are twitching all on their own, that I can’t stop them. I have to let them twitch and pretend that I am just fine.
Nana’s house smells like dust. The air is still and thick with silence, and everything is just as I remember it. The poker leaning against the fireplace, the bright green ribbon Vivienne threaded through the handle ages ago still firmly in place. Nana’s rocker at the bottom of the stairs where it’s always been, wearing pale ruts into the wood floor. The blue clay mug I made for her when I was seven sitting on the kitchen counter, coffee cooling in a ring halfway down the inside. I would think that Nana’s about to walk in, if I didn’t know any better.
Nana’s not walking anywhere. Nana’s not going to do anything but lie under six feet of earth and rot.
It’s my fault. No matter what Vivienne says, it’s all my fault.
Nana was the kind of indomitable force who seemed immortal, unshakeable. She didn’t take **** from anyone, didn’t let any outsiders disturb the calm she had built for herself at the farmhouse. The only time I saw Nana cry was when I was thirteen, when Papa died.
After the funeral, after the condolences and prayers and burial, Mother and Dad, Vivienne and Nana and I drove back to the farmhouse in Papa’s old pickup. It became Nana’s the day his heart gave out on him. While Dad and Nana and Mother crammed into the cab, Vivienne and I sat in the back, air rushing over our heads and knifing through my thick suit jacket.
Mother and Dad and Nana sat inside the house, telling stories about Papa and nibbling sympathy lasagna brought by neighbors. My sister and I sat on the rail and dangled our legs off the porch, mosquitos buzzing around Vivienne’s bare legs and up the inside of my pants. Vivienne had a plastic cup of red punch clutched in both hands, bleeding sticky condensation onto her fingers.
“Charlie,” she said, a question in her voice before she even asked one. “What are we going to do without Papa?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Papa didn’t say much, didn’t even really do much, but he was a constant. It was hard to imagine the farmhouse without him, sitting in his plaid recliner next to Nana’s rocker and throwing out sarcastic one-liners. He was a fixture, a staple, and losing him was as unsettling as losing the sky.
“We’re going to be strong,” I finally told her. “Like Nana. Like she would want us to.”
Vivienne stared at her punch, kicking her legs against the railing. When I turned my head to look at her, silent tears coursed down her face. For the last time, I put my arm around my sister’s shoulder and let her put her head down on mine.
A strangled, inelegant sound behind us caused me to whip my head around, and Vivienne to raise hers. I expected Mother, a woman who was never in control of her emotions, crying over her dead father and now her children. But it was Nana.
Nana, the sturdiest woman I’ve ever met, had her hands over her mouth, and I could see the moisture from her eyes gathering on her fingers. I always thought that adults were supposed to be emotionless.
“Vivienne, your mother and father want you to eat.” It was almost an order. Vivienne opened her mouth, about to protest and, inexplicably, closed it without saying a word. She dragged her feet into the house, letting the screen door slam behind her.
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what I was sorry for, just that there was something odd about seeing your grandmother cry, like seeing a dog ride a bicycle, and I wanted to do whatever I could to make it stop.
“Don’t be, Charlie,” she told me. She swung herself up onto the porch next to me, where Vivienne had just sat, and wiped at her tears with the sleeve of her dark funeral dress. “Now that Papa’s gone, you’ll have to be the man around here when you visit me.”
“I thought I already was the man around here.” It was a joke, and it wasn’t.
“Of course you are. But it’s even more important now, do you understand?”
I did. In that moment, I saw Nana like I never had before. I saw the dark veins visible under her wrinkled, spotted skin, the slight tremor of her hands where they were folded in her lap. I had never thought of Nana as anything other than my playmate, the woman who loved me and Vivienne more than anything, but now I saw her in the most terrifying light imaginable: old and frail and weak.
“And you’ll be strong for me, Charlie, won’t you?” she continued. The musky scent of Chanel No. 5 washed over me. Nana had the drugstore special order it just for her. “And brave?”
“Of course I will, Nana,” I told her.
I was. I was so strong that it would have impressed a professional wrestler. I was so brave that the fiercest warrior would have cowered before me. And I never broke, not once, even when Vivienne asked me why I was being so cruel to her, even when girls my own age asked me why I was so serious. I never once slipped, because I promised Nana I wouldn’t.
And oh, God, I am so tired of being strong. I wish for one second I could let everything out to the sky, let the anger and guilt and grief inside me well up and pour down my face. I wish I could sob until my throat went ragged, until my eyes went dry, until I lost feeling. Until I can’t feel anything anymore. Until I stop existing.
“Charles!” Even if I didn’t recognize my mother’s voice, I would know who was calling me. Since the accident, Mother has only called me Charles, like I’ve become foreign to her, entirely unrecognizable. Every time I hear it, I feel something between my ribs shrivel. “Were you listening to me at all?”
“No, Mother,” I admit. Mother has lines between her eyebrows that weren’t there two weeks ago, angry lines that reveal how much time she’s spent worrying. “I’m sorry.”
“I told you to go clean out the guest room.” Whatever I do that I don’t notice, it’s the wrong thing. She throws up her hands, exasperated. “Honestly, Charles, are you able to follow simple instructions?”
I don’t know why this is what finally breaks me, after weeks–no, years– of trying not to crack. I don’t know why it sends me back into the darkest recesses of my mind, the places I’ve been tiptoeing around since Nana died, the places that are too pitch black to think about touching. I fall to my knees, fall back into my memories, and let the whole ordeal wash over me.
I was supposed to take Nana to the doctor’s and, in a way, I suppose I did. Her arthritis was acting up, and the medication they had given her just wasn’t strong enough. It was why I was staying with her, in the house that was more familiar to me than my own. I would do anything for that woman.
“Charlie, darling, be a dear and take me into town? Dr. Conrad wants to take my blood, and I need to pick up my perfume.”
Of course, Nana. We got into Papa’s pickup, with its peeling teal paint and rusted wheel wells, me in the driver’s seat and Nana hunched over her handbag next to me. The dirt road that led to town was bumpy and uneven, but Nana was used to the ruts. She held onto the door handle and allowed herself to be jostled.
It happened so quickly that I hardly understood it. One moment, I was ready to turn left onto the highway, blinker on and eyes open, and the next, my ears burst under the sound of crumpling metal and shattering glass. I felt the lump on my temple more than I felt the strike of my head against the window, realized I was on the floor of the car without knowing that I fell.
The pickup spun, out of control, shooting sideways down the highway. My face pressed under the steering wheel, I fumbled for the gearshift and threw the truck into park.
We slid, tires screeching against the asphalt, sparks jumping as high as the windows. When the movement stopped, I pulled myself onto the pickup’s bench, eyes searching for Nana.
The truck had folded itself over her body, a bizarre cocoon of metal and glass wrapping around her tiny frame. Blood pooled in the creases of her skin and, no matter how I screamed for her, she didn’t answer. Later, I saw the car that hit us was virtually untouched, a small dent on the front bumper the only indication that something may have happened.
So you see, I killed my grandmother. And my penance is that it will haunt me forever, playing over and over in my mind like a horror film.
I’m stumbling outside, across the porch’s worn floorboards and into the yard. I feel the grass even through my clothes, the same grass that Vivienne and I wove into crowns and belts and ropes, the same grass that greeted us every time we visited Nana and Papa. I stumble past the marks in the trees from my knife throwing practice when I was ten, the sharp rock that was too big to move, but we were never to play on. Vivienne didn’t listen, and cut her knee on it once, so badly that it required stitches. And I stumble to the place where the trees meet the yard, where my sister lays with her face turned to the sky, her eyes shut against the reality of cleaning out the farmhouse.
When I say her name, it feels like the word is pulled from the sinew of my throat.
“Charlie?” My brother’s name is the only word that can force itself out of my mouth, and it fights tooth and nail to get that far. I assumed he was going to help Mother and Dad clean house, not come out here with me, the daughter no one expects anything of.
“Vivienne, I-” His voice breaks, his face plummets and I see, to my surprise, tears in his eyes, threatening to spill over. I can’t remember seeing my brother cry.
“Sit with me,” I tell him. The words are barely out before his legs give way and he crumples, folded like an accordion, on the ground next to me. “Charlie-”
“I’m sorry,” he says. That’s what Charlie says when he doesn’t know what to do. His first line of defense is to apologize for whatever’s happened and, if possible, his own existence. I expect him to stop there, as he always does, but he presses on. “Do you blame me? For Nana?”
“What?” The question is so unexpected that all I can do is keep talking. “Charlie, no. Why would you think that?”
“Mother does.” He unfolds, sits on his knees. Charlie and I have the same straight black hair, same dark eyes, same high cheekbones and same dimples. People used to mistake us for twins, especially back when I was taller than he. We have the same pale skin, too, prone to sunburn and flushing.
Charlie’s cheeks are red and *******, his eyes rimmed in a similar hue, and he looks nothing like the responsible older brother I’ve come to know. The welt on his temple where his head struck the window has gone down considerably, but his skin is still a mess of blues and violets and yellows. He looks, somehow, smaller than I’ve ever seen him, and I hardly know how to help him.
“Mother doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” I say. “She’s just mad with grief. We all are.”
“You wouldn’t be,” Charlie mutters. “If it weren’t for me.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? It isn’t your fault.” I smooth my skirt down over my knees, more so my hands have something to do than because it needs smoothing. “You didn’t crash into Nana’s side of the truck. You didn’t do anything that you weren’t asked to do. I don’t blame you, and I wish you wouldn’t blame yourself.”
It’s not enough. Nothing I say to him will be enough. For the first time, I wish Nana hadn’t died for my brother’s sake. If she was still here, she would laugh at how self-pitying he’s being, the huge spectacle he’s making of this thing that isn’t nearly his fault. But Nana’s gone and, without her, I lack the words to pull him out of his head.
“Take off your shoes,” I finally say. Charlie looks surprised, but he kicks his feet out in front of him, unlacing his brown Oxfords. “And your socks.”
Only Charlie would wear extra layers on a day as beautiful as this one. He follows my instructions, though, and carefully tucks his socks into his discarded shoes. His bare feet are larger than I remember, and noticing makes me wonder when my brother became a man.
“Alright,” I announce, wiggling my toes. “You need to put your feet in the dirt.”
“What?” You’d think I asked him to soak his feet in oil and stick them in a fire. He stares at me like I am the most brazen and ridiculous person alive.
“Do you remember what Nana used to call days like this?” I ask.
“Sublime Days of Summer,” he says immediately. I smile, my heart soaring and eyes simultaneously watering. He’s so quick to remember. “Of course.”
“These were her favorite kinds of days,” I say. I poke at the mud in front of me with my toes, making a show of testing it even though my feet are already covered in dirt. “And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think she’d appreciate you moping during one of them.”
Charlie’s sorrowful mask cracks, a smile creeping out from behind it. I grin back, full and bright.
“No,” he says softly. “I don’t suppose she would.”
“So,” I say. “I’ll make cookies if you put your feet in the mud, clear your head, and enjoy the day.”
His smile expands, so large that it seems likely to engulf the whole world. I don’t know what I said that made it through, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I have my brother back, at least in this moment, and my heart feels so full that it’s cracked open.
Vivienne is right.
I am never going to forgive myself. I’m going to carry Nana, her death, my part in it, with me for the rest of my life. I’m going to see her in every rocking chair, in every bottle of Chanel No. 5, in every **** chocolate chip cookie.
I won’t be able to drive a car. I won’t be able to catch fireflies or smell the woods or look at my mother, because she knows what I took from her. I can’t imagine a world where this ache isn’t pressing out from the inside, raw and throbbing and terrible. I can’t imagine not thinking about it every second of every hour of every day for the rest of my worthless life.
Today is not a day to worry about these things.
Today, the clouds are splattered against the brilliant blue sky, big and white and promising. A cool breeze rustles the leaves on the trees, the long grass against my legs. And I dig my toes into the cool soil and cake my feet in mud, feeling the earth seep into me through my skin.
And I am here with my sister. And today is sublime.