My memories of that morning are scattered. I don’t recall things as they happened, but I have these snapshots in my brain, as though I wasn’t there in person and only saw photos of it afterward.
Neil was lying face up in the grass, his blue eyes focused on the sun in a way that living eyes never could without going blind. His skin looked pale and waterlogged, his dark blonde hair matted against his forehead in slick, glistening curls. It wasn’t until we were given the official cause of death that I realized it wasn’t the sprinklers that made him look that way. Neil had drowned. His lungs were full of fresh water from nearby Lake Erie, and given the condition of his body, it appeared he’d been in there for several hours.
The police didn’t know what to make of it, so neither did we. Had he jumped off the pier and killed himself? His body showed no signs of foul play before he drowned, though he did have quite a bit of alcohol in his system. That wasn’t entirely surprising since he’d been at the West Oakley prom the night before, but none of that speculation accounted for the fact that he drowned in the lake and somehow ended up three miles away, on our front lawn. Somebody had put him there.
Everyone who’d been at the prom was questioned, with an initial focus on Cedric, who had to be interviewed through his own devastation. He claimed that he and Neil had gotten into an argument at the dance—something about their future together after high school—and Neil stormed out. Cedric swears they hadn’t been drinking and that Neil was sober the last time he saw him. There were phone records to prove Cedric’s claims he’d tried to call several times that night, though Neil’s cell phone was never found. Cedric’s alibi that he’d gone straight home from the prom checked out with family, friends and even a security camera at a corner store near his house. Cedric hadn’t been with Neil since their fight at the school. So who had?
Answers weren’t coming and for months my parents and I lived in this limbo state of trying to grieve without closure. Not an easy feat. Our family was forever changed. We stopped doing things together because it would only highlight the big, gaping hole that had been blasted through us. We were simply too broken to be a family anymore.
Mom made me go see a bunch of therapists in the weeks that followed Neil’s death, but none of them took because I was convinced I didn’t need them. I’d found my own methods of therapy. I spent a lot of time with my best friends, Naomi and Beth. They totally got that I didn’t want to talk about Neil’s death and provided excellent distractions in the form of shopping trips, stop-the-presses gossip, and late night hangouts that often involved a swiped bottle or two from my parents’ suddenly well-stocked liquor cabinet. They never seemed to notice.
I’d also started exploring different looks for myself. Changing my hair color, nail color, eye makeup, clothes. It kept my mind off things, off the past, off the way my life had been drastically warped from what it used to be. It started the morning of the funeral, when I looked in the mirror and saw Neil’s familiar blue eyes staring back at me. I then decided to chop my long, dark blonde hair off to half its length, bringing it up to just below my shoulders. It felt liberating to instantly be someone other than the girl I’d been a few days prior. The hasty cut job left my hair looking jagged and uneven at the memorial service, but then Mom took me to a stylist to have it fixed. The day after that, I began coloring strands of it with permanent marker and started to experiment with everything from accessories to entire outfits. I wasn’t trying to be anything. I was trying to be everything.
But the best form of therapy I could find was to seek out ways to feel like I was still close to Neil. I found myself spending more and more time in his room, lying on his bed, listening to his music, staring at his posters and immersing myself in missing my brother. At first my parents didn’t seem to want me in there, but they either realized it was best to let me grieve in my own way or were so consumed by their own misery that their concern melted into apathy because they didn’t press the issue for long.
Then one afternoon, about three months after Neil died, I was lying on his bed, drawing in a sketchpad Mom had given me when she was still trying to encourage a variety of hobbies. I remember the AC was on full blast because it was mid-August and the humidity was trying to suffocate us all. If the AC hadn’t been on, I might have gone back to my own room to retrieve a new pencil when the tip of the one I was using snapped off due to overzealous shading, but the cool air moving through the room rustled some papers on Neil’s desk and it occurred to me that he probably had a pencil I could borrow. Then it occurred to me that it wouldn’t really be borrowing since that implied returning and there was no returning anything to Neil. Not anymore.
I dragged my somewhat-hungover-from-the-night-before butt off the bed and started rooting through Neil’s drawers. I don’t know if anyone had looked in there since Neil last used the desk to do his homework—maybe the police when they’d briefly searched his room—but it sure looked as though nothing had been touched.
I pulled the bottom drawer out, but it caught halfway. Kneeling beside it, I peered in to see what was keeping it from opening but saw nothing but the back of the drawer. That didn’t make any sense. Why was this drawer so much shorter than the desk itself? What was on the other side? I stood and gripped the edge of the desk, dragging it away from the wall.
My suspicions proved correct. There was a secret drawer on the opposite side, occupying the back half of the space the bottom drawer took up on the front. Did anyone know this was here? Surely Mom and Dad knew. They’d bought him the desk after all. But maybe they didn’t. Maybe they forgot. Or maybe they were just so in their own worlds since Neil died that they wouldn’t have thought to look.
I crouched down and pulled the brass ring handle that was sunken into the wood. The drawer slid open to reveal a swirl of color. A stack of dog-eared comic books. Great. I lifted them out of the drawer to get a better look and then noticed there was something else at the bottom of the pile. A journal.