Chapter 5: say, come to me and I will keep you warm...

I awoke the next morning with a slight aching in my head, and Isaac at my bedside with a prescription bottle and his guitar. I blinked, adjusting my eyes to the light and watched him take four Valium, and place the bottle on the nightstand by my bed. I groaned, "It's not a nightmare... is it, Ike?"

"Tay, you ask me that all of the time..." He said, sighing.

"I just... I just wish it was..." I sighed, turning my face into the pillow, feeling the tears coming... feeling the downward spiral, whirling lights, and then eventually plopping at the bottom of a hole, where there was nothing but an empty pain. I was so empty without him.

Ike began to play a sad song on his acoustic guitar, I covered my ears trying to block it out. I didn't want to hear it, not now. I was crying and I heard Ike sigh softly in his singing. He put down his guitar and sat on my bed.

"Hey... Tay," He said, probably hoping to get me to face him. I did not oblige. He didn't get flustered and give up, he just sat and talked - whether I was listening or not. "Do you remember a time... when we were young - You, me, and Zac... When we used to sit up in that tree house and dream? There was this conversation we had late one night that I was thinking about earlier - Zac said that if one of us died, he would just wither away to nothing. We laughed at him at the time... But I don't really think... We shouldn't have laughed."

"I remember that," I responded, tears thick in my voice.

"We always laughed, Tay. Why does being an older brother equate to being a dick, too?" He sighed, "I wish we weren't so naive then... Zac was such a smart kid.."

Isaac's voice dropped off, and there wasn't a sound in the room for a good five minutes.

"Why can't I wither away?"

"Because Zac doesn't want you to..." Ike said, leaning over my shoulder with the prescription bottle, "We should probably go get lunch... take these and go to sleep..."

He got up and I heard him making steps toward the door. I turned over, "Hey Ike?"

"Hmmm?"

"That girl at the store told me she loved me," I said softly, "She was so genuine... I'm... I'm... I'm so lonely." Hot tears poured out of my eyes. I was lonely, and I had to go see the girl at the convenient store.

He didn't answer, he knew I didn't want an answer. He opened the door, and responded with, "Come get lunch when you're ready."

I stood up, a little unsteady on my feet, "Alright, let me wash my face."

I sauntered into the bathroom, and splashed cold water on my face. I looked up at myself in the mirror and I suddenly remembered - tomorrow was the wake. I couldn't even recognize myself, and I was going to be forced to face thousands of people tomorrow? I was empty, there was a huge gaping hole in my eyes... the missing piece. I turned away.

I headed downstairs for a small lunch, I had no appetite today. After my meal, I slipped away from the house. I drove slowly, I don't know why. When I walked into the store, I noticed the clerk who had retrieved my cigarettes yesterday sitting at the register. I pretended to busy myself with the notion that I needed something, and proceeded to walk down the isle, after giving a small wave to her.

I picked up a box of tissues, a pack of gum, and a magazine. We were on the cover (A small picture in the corner, of the three of us.) I looked at his face, and knowing that that face wasn't ever going to be in my life again made me want to cry. But I couldn't, not here. I grabbed an extra copy and headed to the front.

"Hey, how are you today?"

"I'm okay," Then, casually, "Hey - where is that girl that was here yesterday?"

"She's coming in to work in like... a half an hour."

I looked at my watch, "I'll wait," I paused, "Not like I have anywhere to go today, anyway." I felt myself wavering and I turned from the clerk, rubbing my eyes. "I-I... I'm going to go smoke a cigarette while I'm waiting..."

I grabbed my stuff and sat down on a bench outside, lighting up and watching the cars go by. The tears were there... they were sliding down my cheeks and I was looking at a magazine. The article advertising his death. I looked up every now and then, just to make sure no one was watching me cry, here... outside of the convenient store, by the road, watching the cars go by... by... by, reading my magazine, thinking about the life that's lost... thinking about the life that won't ever be in mine again.

My cigarette was burnt out, and I didn't realize it was a half an hour, and I had reread that article, like, twenty times... the pages were wet with the tears. That was when she showed up.

"Hey Tay, how odd to see you here again today..." She said, and I realized I had been caught crying and wiped my face furiously and swallowed before I looked up.

"Oh, hey," I said, smiling and pretending that I was okay. Just fine. I closed the magazine because I didn't want her to see the water wrinkled pages.

"Are you okay?" She knelt down, and looked me in the face, "Hey, come on look at me... it's okay to cry."

I closed my eyes and sat up, digging for a pen in my pocket. I took the fresh copy of the magazine and I began writing, "I just wanted to thank you..." I said.

"For what?"

I looked at her thoughtfully. That was a good question. "I'll get back to you on that."

"What are you doing?"

"Here." I said, handing it to her, "Keep it... I bought it for you."

She opened up to the page I had written on and read it aloud, "To the girl behind the register: Thanks for supporting our band. Please be there tomorrow, at the Collin Funeral Home between 6 and 8. I love you too, even though I don't know you, I love you because you supported us. - Taylor."

I looked down, feeling silly now...

"Taylor, that's sweet of you, do you mind?" She said, motioning to the empty space next to me. I moved my bag and nodded at her. She sat down.

"What's your name, by the way?" I asked.

"Annissa."

"Annissa..." I repeated, closing my eyes, "That's a nice name. I like the way it sounds."

"Taylor..." She said, "There's something musical about your name, Tay... Tay... Taylor..."

I popped open my cigarettes and started lighting another one, "Would you like a light?" I said.

She took one, and I lit the lighter for her... "I never knew you smoked so much..."

"I..." I paused, "Well, I didn't."

"What's happened to your fingers?"

I looked down at my hands with the cigarette in my mouth, "Burns..." I said, sucking in the nicotine.

"Burns? Tay, you should watch out for yourself, I know I don't know you... but please..."

I was shaking with emotion, and I turned my face to her, my red eyes looking into her pale green ones, "I... I don't see the point."

She placed a comforting hand on my shoulder, "Shh... you'll be okay..." She held my hand steady, "Cry... Taylor... You need to let it out..."

I wiped away the tears already in my eyes, and she smiled at me, "Here.. I'll go tell Beth I'm here and I'm going to take you somewhere, okay? If you haven't noticed, this place gets no business anyway... I'll take it off my paycheck..."

"That... would be nice," I said, weakly.

She smiled, and placed a comforting hand on my shoulder before disappearing into the store. I finished my cigarette, and when she returned we stepped into her car.

She drove down the road, and I watched the trees go by out my window. They pass, they pass, they pass... I noticed that the car was silent. So, almost unconsciously, I turned up the volume and pushed play on her CD changer.

"1...2...3...4..." The guitar chords poured through the speakers and I knew what it was right off, "Everyday I wake up and it's Sunday... whatever's in my eye won't go away... the radio is playing all the usual - and what's a wonder wall anyway?"

"Travis..." I said, to myself. I closed my eyes, feeling the words in my body, "It's good to know that you all know I'm hurting... it's good to know I'm feeling not so well.. cause my inside's on the outside and the outside's on the inside..." I thought I heard Zac's voice singing along in the back seat, and I opened my eyes and looked back, expecting him to be smiling at me in vivid color. No one was there. All I saw were the beige leather seats. Things looked strangely bland for such a sunny day.

I slumped back in my seat. I was so perplexed by the idea that Zac would never be in the back seat singing along to "The Man Who" ever again. "He can't be gone..." I said to myself... slowly. Annissa glanced over at me, and I think she had tears in her eyes. It made me wonder - who is this girl? Why was she going out of her way for me? Why was I letting her?

We arrived at a small park that I had never seen before. "Come on," She said, helping me on unsteady feet down the path with her. "Now," She said, holding onto my arm, as if for comfort, and to keep me standing, "Is there anything you want to talk about?"

I stared at my feet as we walked, trying to think of something to say. "How long have you been a fan?" I wondered aloud.

"Since the beginning," She said.

I stopped and leaned against a tree, looking at her, "Why are you doing this for me? You don't have to worry, you know..."

"I know I don't, Taylor..." She said, "But... I love you, and I love your band. You guys have given me something irreplaceable with your music... and you have been there for me through times much like these - the least I could do is return the favor, the best I can..."

I smiled, feeling the gratification of knowing I've done something worthwhile wash over me, "Thank you," I said, then, hesitantly, "Have you.. have you ever ... lost someone?" I frowned - I didn't like that phrase.

"My mother died three years ago," She said, "So I know how you're feeling... and I know that you came back to the store because you wanted someone to talk to. You don't know me, but you can talk to me..."

I turned and continued walking, "Thank you for doing this..." I said, not knowing what else I could say. I was putting a lot of trust and love in the hands of someone I barely knew, but at the time... I didn't care. I was so doubled over... and she was the first person I found that really understood... Someone who wasn't in the family that I could confide in. Someone with a clear mind.

She smiled at me, "I just think you need to clear your mind and talk a little... and there's no better way to clear your mind than nature."

We came to a clearing and I sat down on a tree stump, and she joined me. I looked around and took a deep breath, "It's chilly out..."

"It's February..."

"Yeah..." I said, looking at my feet, "But its not cold... not completely. It's like fifty degrees out..."

"Are you cold?"

"No."

I sat and closed my eyes, leaning my head on her shoulder, "I just miss him so much..."

It was the only thing I could think about, and though she was almost a total stranger, I felt like I could be strangely open with her... for the first time in my life, I felt like I could talk to someone (a fan, no less) without fear of it getting to the press, and becoming tomorrow's front page story. There was something about her - something that made her seem genuine... something that attracted me to her. She was gentle with me.

"I know you do..." She said... stroking my head, "The wake tomorrow is going to be very hard, I promise you."

I nodded, "I know... because right now... the reality of the situation hasn't fully set in yet... It comes in waves... you know? Suddenly I think about it... and it's like... wow, Zac won't ever be in my life again... and I just start crying... and I read all the newspaper articles... and it just makes me want to scream. But there are times when I'm just... not buying it... like I don't believe it's happening to me. It's a weird wave of feelings..."

"I know what you mean... You're still in that weird stage..." She said, "Where you're like... doubled over with pain and shock... but still trying to grasp what happened as reality, and almost denying it."

"Yeah..." I said looking up at her, "Exactly." She stared back into my face and I felt tears coming again, out of nowhere. I wished she would stop looking at me so sincerely, like that. I wished I could stop the tears that were sliding down my cheeks.

"Tay, stop trying to hold back... I could hear the tears in your voice the whole car ride up here... just cry... It's the best thing you can do right now..." She said wrapping her arms around me in a hug.

"Will you cry too?" I said, "Aren't you sad? You're so much stronger than me..." I cried into her shoulder and she held me.

"Tay..." She said into my hair, "You are strong. Right now, just by opening up to me, you are being courageous - you are being strong. You just lost your brother, you should be crying." She patted me on the back, "If you weren't I would be worried." She tried to laugh slightly, but I thought I heard a tone of sadness in her voice.

I heard my prescription bottle rattling in my pocket, and I felt intense shrills of pain and heartbreak through my body. I couldn't hold myself together; I felt so isolated. I knew I couldn't take my Valium then - I was with her. I started to choke on my tears, because they were coming so fast, and I pushed her away in an attempt to stand up and begin walking but I only stumbled to the forest floor.

My whole body shivered and tears weren't even coming anymore, I was just moaning incoherently. I took out my bottle of medicine, and dumped two pills in my hand. I had to take them I was in so much pain... and the only thing that helped ease it was the Valium. I looked at her as I swallowed the pills, and I could see the tears sliding down her cheeks. I closed the cap on the bottle before I spilled it from my shaking, and handed it to her.

"Look at me," I said, "I can't handle it. I can't even function without Valium." I felt like a fool, and I curled myself up into a ball hiding my face in my knees. I was ashamed of myself.

She stepped toward me and placed her hand on my back, "Shh... Tay... Shh... it's okay... it's okay."

My fists were clenched tight at my sides, and I didn't see how it was okay at all. I didn't think it was okay... I certainly didn't feel okay, I didn't think I was going to be okay, I didn't think anything was going to be okay. I tried taking deep breaths to calm down, because hyperventilating wasn't getting me anywhere. The drugs numbing effects began to push through me, I could feel it as the tears were drying on my cheeks. I wanted to take more, but I couldn't with her watching, holding me, comforting me. Because I didn't know her, and I was taking a big risk opening up to her, right then.

But at the same time I couldn't help it. She had her arms open to me, she was inviting me to cry. Saying it was okay to feel this way... not minding, not trying to avoid me... not commenting on how she doesn't want to hear it. She was someone to talk to. I turned my face to her and loosened my body from its tense position. Reaching in my pocket, I pulled out a wrinkled package of cigarettes. I offered her one, "Want a smoke?"

She took one with a shaky hand, she was crying. I took my pills from her hand and popped open the case, still shaking from my outburst and poured more out, placing two in her hand.

"No, Tay... I can't... They're yours..."

"Take them... I've eaten too many." I popped one more into my mouth, and hoped this would keep me conscious and without pain for the next few hours at least.

She obliged and placed them on her tongue, swallowing hard, and then lighting up her cigarette with me. There was a silence about us, and the sweet smell of cigarette smoke filled my nostrils. I wanted to sleep, fatigued by the emotions ... and fatigued by the drugs. I stood up and held her hand.

"I think we should walk back to the car..."

"I think so too..."

"I'm sorry..."

She squeezed my hand, "Don't be... you didn't do anything wrong..."

"How did you cope with your Mom's death?"

"It takes time... a lot of time... and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of her..." She said, looking at my face, "There will be days, Tay, where you're gonna wake up, and you're gonna think he's still alive... and then it'll hit you. It'll be torture for a while, but you'll soon get used to it... the sinking feeling. But... please don't give up."

I squeezed her hand before we broke apart to step into her car, "Will you be there tomorrow?"

"Yes."

I sat opened the door and she stood by hers, "Tay, get in the back seat, I'm really tired I don't think I should be driving..."

"I would drive..."

"No, Tay... not in your state... You're not going to drive... come chill with me for a while... the Valium is getting to me..."

I agreed, and stepped in the back seat of the car and sat next to her, "I'm sorry for making you take 'em."

"It's okay Tay... I took them... my fault... Do you need to get home anytime soon?"

"No..."

"Alright."

I leaned against her shoulder and I felt her hands rubbing my shoulders softly, comforting me. I felt drowsy and weak, and was totally taken aback by everything this girl was doing for me. But I didn't thank her at the time... I didn't think to. All I had on my mind was Zac. I was consumed with him, and fell asleep with my head in her lap, and her hand caressing my shoulders gently.

The next thing I knew we were back at the convenient store, and the sun was setting. I opened my eyes and suddenly I felt my head throb. Augh. Advil.

She pulled into the drive and stepped out of the car. I joined her, and somehow I ended up on the hood of my car watching the sunset, as smoke swirled from my burning cigarette.

"I guess I'll have to take a shower tonight," I said, realizing how long it had been since I had used the bathroom for anything but absolute necessity.

She ran her hands through my stringy hair, "You need it."

"Hey, stop it... Traumatic situation here... Remember? Duh! You wouldn't shower either..." I smiled.

"Well I'm glad you're feeling better."

"I'm actually not, but I think I'm going to have to get used to that..."

She paused and moved closer to me, "Tay, can I tell you something?"

"What?"

"No matter what, Zac's always a part of you. Even if you want to think he isn't - he will always be... he's in the way you talk, the way you think... the way you function. You are as much him as he was you. So I think... one day... you'll be okay. Maybe not today, Maybe not tomorrow... but one day."

I watched the sun disappear over the horizon, and her words struck me. I looked down at my outfit, covered in that orangey glow, and realized when I was last wearing these clothes. Well, I guess I should say, when I changed into these clothes, six days ago. Brown cords... Black Grateful Dead T-shirt. Inhale. Swallow the nicotine. Swallow the emotion. I didn't say a word. I was afraid, now... Afraid of how easily I opened up to this girl who I barely knew, afraid of her openness to me. Afraid of her love and affection. Afraid of her understanding. She inched over and pulled me into a warm sweet hug. But inside, all I could feel was a hole.

"Taylor?" She said, nuzzling her face in my neck. I lay, staring straight up at the sky, numbed, sucking my cigarette. No response.

"Taylor?" She pulled back and looked at me, "You okay?"

The sun was gone now; I sat up, and slid off of her hood. "I think I have to go now... I never told anyone I was leaving."

"Okay..." She said, "See you tomorrow..."

I turned away, stepped in my car, and drove home. I couldn't believe what I had done that afternoon. I was so open to her, like she was a good friend of mine or something. Hell, I couldn't even think of a friend of mine with whom I could be so open. Whether it was because I was so desperate for someone to talk to, or because I really actually wanted to. She made me do something that day that I had never done for anyone. Open up. Cry. Admit that I'm not okay.

I was so confused when I got home. When I stepped into my bedroom I stripped off my clothes and let them hit the floor. I stood in front of the mirror, looking at myself, trying to figure it out. Trying to understand the truth behind me. Because I couldn't think clearly, I couldn't see clearly, and I just didn't get it. Why would some one go out of their way for me? Was she just being kind? Why did I open up like that? How do I feel? Why won't I stop crying?

I couldn't even stand up straight. I couldn't even look myself straight in the eyes. They were red, and there were circles underneath them. My hair was stringy, skin oily. My knees felt weak, and my face was paler than my body. I felt ugly. I felt useless. I felt like I didn't want to show tomorrow.

But I took a shower. I washed my face. I dried my eyes. And I went to sleep.