In the Middle: Ch. 1

**Don't forget to read the Prologue first!**

It’s graduation day, and I haven’t spoken for a year. Not a word. The therapist my parents dragged me to every week the first six months after Brad died claimed it was my “way of coping with grief” but I don’t feel sad. Not really. I just feel empty. 

Like no matter how many breaths I take, there won’t be enough air in my lungs to speak.

Eventually, my parents gave up on therapy, and tried instead to rally me into excitement for whatever experiences the end of my high school career permitted me. For three months straight, my mother brought home brochures to universities and colleges all over the country, promising me no price was too high, the sky the limit, I could go wherever my heart desired. She’d pull me out of school early once a week to take me on a mini-vacation to a destination university, dragging me along with the group of dreamy-eyed prospective students and their nervous parents following the upperclassman tour guide around campus. She’d even research the college towns ahead of time, taking me to eat at the top-rated restaurants, whirling me through local shops, museums, and sights.

When that didn’t work, she started in on Prom. Again, she’d pick me up from school early to take me to a fancy dress shop, where she would have me try on dresses for hours, begging me to voice a single opinion. I didn’t go, of course. How could I? I had already gone the year before with Brad.

After the time for Prom passed, she started in on graduation. My school guidance counselor had a session with my mother and I a few weeks ago, assuring me I would not need to attend graduation if I “wasn’t feeling up to it” but that I would be receiving a diploma, despite my lack of proper participation the past year.

“The school and I understand the severity of this situation, and agree this tragedy should not hold you back from the bright future ahead of you,” the guidance counselor had said with a courteous smile.

My mother had been relentless ever since. This morning--the morning of graduation--no exception.

“I just think,” my mother says while we eat breakfast this morning, “that graduation is something you’ll regret not participating in. You know, whenever you’re ready to move on. I’m not saying you need to speed up your grieving process. I mean, I understand fully that everybody grieves at a different pace, and I am in no way suggesting that your pace is too slow, or, well you know what I mean, sweetie.” She reached across the table to give my hand a small pat. “I just…I just want you to promise me that you’ll be there. Okay? Can you do that for me, sweetie? Can you just promise me you’ll go? I just need one picture of you on that stage, in your cap and gown, getting your diploma, and then we can leave. Deal?”

Like a shark that keeps swimming in order to live, my mother seems to keep talking to save us both from my silence.

I nod my head, and swirl my spoon around the gummy bits of Honey Nut Cheerios in my bowl. My mom sighs.

“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she says, almost whisper-like. “Excuse me.”

She gets up from the table, and I can hear the dramatic sob right before she slams her bedroom door. 

She cries a lot. My therapist once suggested a family session, during which my mother confessed to feeling helpless to save me from myself. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t the one who needed saving, but the words died somewhere in the back of my throat before they could escape.

“You made your mother cry again,” my father says as he takes a seat at the table with a heavy sigh. 

He opens up the morning paper my mother left on the table for him, and takes a long sip of coffee from the ceramic mug I made him in the second grade, Best Daddy Ever written in green crayon. 

He’s had an easier time adjusting to my silence. Truthfully, I think he’s grateful for it.

 I stand up, my chair making a harsh scraping sound along the tile floor. My dad takes another sip of his coffee without looking up from the paper. I dump the contents of my breakfast down the garbage disposal, and wash my bowl in the sink. Then, I grab my backpack from underneath the end table by the door, my car keys from the bowl on top, and walk out the door. 


My first year of high school, Brad drove me to school every morning. He would park his rusty old pickup truck at the end of the gravel drive leading to my house, and wait for me to arrive. If I was running late, he would honk exactly three times as a warning. If I didn’t arrive within the next few minutes, he would leave the truck running and walk right up to the door. 

Sometimes, I would ignore his warning bells on purpose, just to see him standing in the doorway with an adorably frustrated look on his face.

In the early days of our high school romance, he would bring me fresh-picked flowers from his mother’s garden every day, along with whatever delicious remnants of the breakfast pastry she’d cooked up that morning. 

His mother adored me. She would often introduce me to guests as her “future-daughter-in-law” and brag about my recent accomplishments. I called her "Mom" and helped her make dinner during the holidays.

Now, I drive past her house on the way to my graduation rehearsal at school, and feel a lump in my throat full of all the unspoken words I can’t bring myself to say to her.

I wonder if she knows it was my fault Brad died. 

I wonder if she blames me as much as I blame myself.

I imagine when she found the silver promise ring in the pocket of the bloodied pants Brad was wearing when he died, and read the sweet inscription, she cried, mourning the future Brad and I wouldn’t get to have after all. 

But then she would notice my purse, left in Brad’s car, it’s contents spilled all over the floor, mixed with shattered glass, and she would know.

I wasn’t there when I should have been.

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