The mud-saturated tires crunch the mixture of gravel and twigs as the worn-out red pickup truck rolls down the road, dust flying in its wake. It only has a few scratches here and there, but with the dent on the left side and the paint chipping off, it isn’t the truck that is prized on its good looks. Instead, it’s mocked by the people who drive Porsches to the local grocery store.
The loose coins jingle in the ashtray as the vehicle bounces in and out of the sporadic pot holes and ditches. Jane wobbles in the leather front seat. Her frozen hands adjust the knobs for the air conditioner to turn it down. Despite the chilly air outside, she refuses to turn the air off completely. Her trembling hands spin the steering wheel to the left when the familiar sycamore tree comes into view.
Due to the rain the night before, the road is a slide of mud. Usually, Jane would be praying in a moment like this, hoping her vehicle doesn’t get stuck, but this time she doesn’t even wince when mud splatters on the driver side’s window. The truck makes it to a clearing, the flooding river coming into view. A deer runs from its place by the water the second Jane’s headlights scan over its startled face. Jane parks in the grass that has not been mowed in the past year, the only source of trimming was from the multiple cars that have driven into here and the animals that have strayed from the shelter of the trees. After a moment of hesitation, Jane finally takes her foot off the break, staring at the river in front of her as a memory of the last time she was here clouds her mind.
Last time, Jane grinned from the front seat of the car at her nephew in the back, who nodded at her while toying with the top of his sippy cup. Jane’s eyes drifted to the pickup truck breezing past their car, rolling her eyes at the driver. Her gaze followed the car steering into the spot next to them. She shook her head at her brother-in-law, Kenneth, who was bobbing his head in the passenger seat of the red truck to the music reverberating through his vehicle. Kenneth was always like a brother to Jane, but that doesn’t mean she always enjoyed his lively personality. “This should be fun,” she sarcastically mumbled to herself, hoping her sister didn’t hear.
Presently, Jane hops down from the truck, ignoring the mud that is seeping into her black Converse sneakers. She slams the door shut, never taking her eyes off the body of water in front of her. The stream is moving at a faster pace than she remembers, any fallen branches or leaves become swept up in the current. Her feet crunch the red, brown, and orange leaves that were pushed down by the wind, revealing the bare tree trunks. Jane cautiously eases her way to the edge, hearing a voice in her mind that she hopes to never forget.
“Are ya hav’n fun?” Jane popped her head up from the ground where she was carefully eyeing a safe path down to the water. Following the sound of the elated question, her eyes landed on her brother-in-law who was grinning down at his son. Emory kicked his legs vigorously with the biggest smile on his face while he looked up at his dad. The excited expression on her nephew’s face made Jane’s anxiety lessen. Jane’s sister ran past her, beating Jane to the water.
“Hey!” Jane yelled to Rae who was chuckling at Jane standing positioned like a flamingo on the grass. Throwing caution to the wind, Jane rushed after without hesitation.
Today, the atmosphere next to the river is crisper than Jane remembered from that day. Feeling the wind kick back up, she tucks her stray hair back into the tattered Cowboys baseball hat. Jane peels her sweating feet out of the soaked shoes, stepping onto the cold boulder next to her as she does so. The sun glistens on the ridges of the muddy water. Jane closes her eyes and sucks in a deep breath of cool air, before stepping into the freezing water.
The memory of Kenneth splashing Rae on the stomach flashes in Jane’s mind. Rae sighed in response to his childish manner before splashing him back with a big grin. Kenneth ran in slow motion through the thick, heavy water. Emory copied their actions, splashing Jane. Jane glanced at her nephew, taking note of the mischievous grin on his face, before pushing a gentle wave of water towards him. Hysterical laughter echoed through the trees surrounding the river as the water war began.
Now the trees couldn’t be any more silent. Jane wades through the current, ignoring the sting on her toes from the cuts of the rocks and the forming frostbite. Her ears pick up on the unfamiliar silence echoing through the trees. She feels her throat begin to burn as tears escape her reddening eyes, lighting a warm trail down her cheeks as the memory plays out in her mind. Her body drops on the boulder, thankful she only made it a foot deep into the water. Jane’s arms try to hold her body upright, but her weight becomes too heavy, even for herself. She drops her face in her hands, sobbing.
It’s been exactly one year, one month, and eight days since they pulled the plug. Despite the time, Jane’s heart continues to feel the squeeze of remorse when his memory appears in her mind by any means. Goosebumps still creep up her skin when she feels his looming absence, something she wishes she wasn’t used to. She continues to feel her breath hitch in the back of her throat when his name is echoed.
“Why?” she mumbles through exasperated breath. “Why did you leave?” her cries scare the birds from their perch on the tree branches around her. Jane glances up at the sky, hoping he is watching. “I miss you…” she whispers, before the lump in her throat swallows her words.
Jane pulls her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around her shaking legs. She rocks back and forth, instinctively hoping to gain as much warmth as possible. Jane buries her face into her knees as her cries escape. Her blue mouth and pale skin are a perfect reflection of the crisp chill in the air. She closes her eyes as she tries to drown out the world around her but his image pops into her mind instead.
A sudden warm touch spreads around her shivering form, trailing from her tear-stained nose to her wrinkled toes. She opens her eyes, staring up at the sun that has peeked out from hiding. It smiles down at her, blaring its heat on her quivering body. Jane wipes the stray tear from underneath her eyes, smiling gently at her guardian angel, the brother she wishes was still here.
“I miss you Kenneth,” she whispers, closing her eyes once more.