The day I buried my brother was the worst day of my life. Worse than when our father died from cancer, or when Mom died from her heart breaking, literally.
At least when they died, I had Kevin there to hold my hand and tell me everything would be okay. But when they lowered his coffin into the ground, I would officially be alone.
Ian Keller, tall and gorgeous enough to turn the head of every female present, even if it was at a funeral, held out the only thing I had left of my big brother. I thought I’d follow Kevin into the ground as I stared at the Stars and Stripes that were meant to offer comfort. My heart fractured into impossibly tiny pieces as I stared at that flag, tremors fighting for control over my body while I tried to force myself to take it. The black dress I’d put on that morning pressed against my skin, making it impossibly hard to breathe. The sun beat down on my head, causing sweat to build up on my scalp and on the back of my neck.
Every eye in the crowd was on the two of us. I didn’t have to look up from Ian’s hands to know that they were watching, waiting for what came next. They wanted me to collapse into Ian’s arms.
“Chloe.” Ian said my name quietly when I didn’t lift my hands to take the folded-up flag he was offering. “Chloe, you need to take the flag. It’s yours now.”
Ian was my brother’s team leader. The man responsible for keeping Kevin alive during his deployments. At least, he had been before Ian got out of the Marine Corps. Now, as he stood in front of me in his dress blues, I wanted him gone.
Numbly, I took the flag right as a bugler started to play “Taps.” Marines surrounded me, just like they would any time I needed them in the future. Kevin’s unit. Men he trusted with his life… and men who left him to die as they moved on with their lives.
I didn’t even have his body.
“I hate you,” I told Ian when I finally raised my eyes to meet his. “I hate every single one of you.”
“I know you do.” He stared at me with an expressionless face. The same one he’d used to lie when he got in trouble with his parents. “But if there’s ever anything that I can do for you, you know where to find me.” His face might not have any sort of expression or tell, but his eyes were wild. Without blinking, I watched as anguish, fear, agony, and finally acceptance passed over his face.
I didn’t acknowledge his offer. Did I know where to find him? Yes. Yes, I did. After all, I’d been his neighbor since the day I was born.
“If I could trade places with him, I would, just to spare you this pain.”
My heart lurched at his words, at the truth in his expression. I saw his parents out of the corner of my eye. They were standing to the side, watching our interaction as though it was the only thing in the world worth watching. Like they weren’t lowering an empty coffin into a grave at that very moment for Kevin.
“They miss you almost as much as I do. Mom talks about the wedding like it’s still happening. Like it could heal everything.”
The lurching pain in my chest amplified to a sharp twist of the knife I could feel pressing against my ribs. Tearing my eyes away from his parents and the grief I could see in their eyes, I faced the man I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with. “I gave you the ring back, Ian.”
“I didn’t want it back, Chloe.”
“Then you shouldn’t have killed my brother.”
I turned away before I could see the pain in Ian’s eyes. I knew I was wrong, that he hadn’t actually pulled the trigger, but that didn’t change anything. If Ian was there… Kevin would be alive.
With my back to them, I held on to the flag with all of my might, praying I’d wake up from the nightmare all around me. But when the bugle faded, and the bagpipe started a melancholy rendition of “Amazing Grace,” I had to go. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t let them see me break. I couldn’t let Ian see me break.
I left, hating the way the black dress I wanted to rip from my body swished around my calves with every step. I despised the way my black patent Tieks sank into the grass and mud of the cemetery, like even the ground itself wanted me to stay. The soft material of Kevin’s flag weighed more than I wanted to admit, and my arms ached as I carried it, along with all the memories that would forever live in its folds.
I didn’t want a flag.
I didn’t want a funeral without my brother’s body.
I wanted to burn the world down.
I wanted to demand answers from a military that wouldn’t give me anything but the promise that my brother died serving his country.
I wanted to scream. To shatter into pieces so small that there would be no chance of ever putting me together again.
But nothing would bring Kevin back.
And nothing would take away my pain.
Nothing but the bottom of the bottle of tequila I had sitting on my kitchen counter. The last of Kevin’s weak attempts to help me celebrate my twenty-first birthday a few years before.
Walking away from Kevin’s grave was the hardest thing I’d ever done. With each step, the haunting strains of the man playing the bagpipes faded more and more until I reached my car and slammed the door shut, cutting off the music.
When I pulled into the driveway of my parents’ house, the one Kevin and I inherited and agreed to fix up together when he got out of the Marine Corps, I couldn’t see through the tears in my eyes. The flag sat on my lap, pressed against the steering wheel, and I knew it was absorbing the tears that slipped from my cheeks.
By the time I finally pried my fingers away from the steering wheel, the sun started to drop in the sky.
The worst day in my life was almost over.
Taking the final steps into the house was harder than I ever thought it could be. Perfect, depressing, and all-encompassing silence met my ears when I finally closed the door behind me.
Ghosts of the people who should be standing there with me started to play in my mind. Mom and Dad, wrapped in a blanket together on the couch while they watched replays of their favorite movies, insisting that both Kevin and I join them for a marathon until we were arguing about the reality of lightsabers and Jedis into the early hours of the morning.
Crying didn’t help the ghosts and memories fade; if anything it just brought them all back with a force I wasn’t prepared for. And because I’d pushed him away, Ian wasn’t even there to help me put the pieces back together again.
Even as my traitorous heart ached for him, I hated him. I hated him and all the rest of Kevin’s original unit. The men who’d gotten out of the Marines years before my brother. The ones I had to see every single day while he still served in a country far away.
Like a spell gone wrong, I saw familiar headlights pull into my driveway while I sat on the edge of my couch, clutching Kevin’s flag in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other.
I should have known there was no way in hell that Ian would leave me alone. The man didn’t know when to quit, and he didn’t know when enough was enough.
“I’m coming in, Chloe. Don’t shoot me.” His voice rang out loudly through the open window next to my front door.
I didn’t answer. I was too busy trying to work up the courage to drink Kevin’s whiskey to get up off the couch or even say anything to the man I used to love. “Have you had that entire bottle?”
I looked down at the almost-empty bottle of whiskey in my hand and blinked, trying to figure out why he’d even ask me that, or what he was doing in my house.
“I thought it was tequila waiting for me,” I whispered brokenly. “I thought I could make the pain go away.” I didn’t actually think anything would ever take away the pain. Not really. “Oh well.” When I tried to tilt the bottle back and take a drink, my arms weren’t even strong enough to lift it.
How much had I cried?
“It was one mission.” Ian’s voice broke as he watched the tears flow down my face. “One mission that went wrong.”
“Yeah,” I told him without breaking eye contact, letting him see the hate I still felt buried in the depths of my heart. “And it ruined what was left of my family.”
“Not just yours,” Ian said quietly. “We were supposed to have forever.”
“Forever doesn’t mean shit when my family is gone.”
I pulled Kevin’s flag closer to my chest, using it to keep a barrier between the two of us. Needing that space to keep from admitting the truth. To save myself from the fact that I was pushing away the only family I had left.
“Come on, Chloe, I’ll get you to bed.” He stepped forward and if I could have retreated back further into the couch, I would have.
Instead, I was left holding the flag between us like it would protect me from the pain I’d caused myself.
“What are you doing, Chloe?” Ian gently took the flag from my hand, his eyes staying glued to the fabric, and I could swear that his hands trembled while he carried it to the mantle above the fireplace.
I watched him place two fingers to his lips and then touch one of the stars and my heart broke into impossibly smaller fragments.
With one hand held out for me to take, Ian waited patiently for me to pull myself together. Once I did that, he guided me to my room, and it felt like I was floating on air with every step we took.
“Chloe,” he whispered my name. “You hate alcohol. What are you doing?”
“Want to be numb.”
Couldn’t he see how much pain I was in? How hard it was for me to even get out of bed every day, knowing I’d never see Kevin again? Couldn’t he see anything anymore?
“I see all of it, Chloe. But I can’t walk away from you.”
I said that to him.
Normally, I would flush with embarrassment and apologize, but not anymore. I was too numb to care, and too hurt to worry about Ian’s feelings. I couldn’t find the strength to care about anything.
“Go away, Ian.” I sniffed into a pillow that I didn’t remember grabbing and turned my head to see him sitting on the edge of my bed. His eyes were locked on mine, watching me like I was the only thing in his world. “You don’t have any reason to stay.”
He didn’t move, and I couldn’t tell if I was happy he stayed or angry that he didn’t respect me enough to leave.
“You were wrong, Chloe,” he whispered as I finally welcomed the oblivion I’d been searching for since I heard my brother was never coming home. The oblivion I was trying to search for at the bottom of my brother’s last bottle of liquor.
Instead of telling him he was the wrong one, I curled into the nest of pillows and blankets that offered the only warmth I wanted… at least that’s what I’d keep telling myself until it was true.
“I have every reason to stay. One day, I’ll prove it to you. When you’re ready to face the truth. Right now, I can be your villain, if you need. I can be the one you blame. But that won’t stop how I feel. How I’ll always feel. And when you’re ready for it, my heart and the ring are both yours.”
Ian’s words were the broken lullaby that finally chased away my demons, at least for a little while.
I dreamed that he brushed my hair out of my face and pressed a kiss to my forehead.
“I love you, Chloe Young. No matter what you say, or what happens, that will never change.”
I had to be dreaming, right? Nobody could take all the hate. All the evil I’d thrown at him, and let it roll off his shoulders so easily. How could he tell me he still loved me? How could he promise forever when I couldn’t even let myself love him?
In my dreams, it was easy to love him. Easy to forget that he came home, and Kevin didn’t.
Maybe one day, my dreams could become reality. Maybe I could forgive him for choosing me over my brother.
Until then, all I had were the nightmares to keep me company.