I shouldn't be up here. I really shouldn't be smoking. How many times had Mom told me? Hundreds, certainly. She knew it would be the death of one of us.
It was Sarah.
I remembered sitting with her, slipping out onto the roof when she jumped to it from the tree, sneaking in.
I'd idolized Sarah. She wasn't the typical big sister, responsible, providing an example. She was a rebel.
"Pete. Dad is gonna kill you." She told me when she found me sitting on the shingles. I watched her bare toes grip the rough surface. She took off her shoes to be quieter and safer. "What are you doing?"
"You're going to have a smoke, right? I want one too."
She rolled her eyes. "No, you don't; you almost puked the last time." Of course she already had her pack out and offered it to me. "I'm not Mom. If you wanna puke your guts out, just don't do it on me." She put one to her lips and lit it. Then she gave it to me, taking the unlit one from my fingers.
"Thanks, Sarah." She took several long drags, sitting beside me.
Finally she said, "You'll be cursing me in a minute. Go on." She motioned for me to take a puff. I did and coughed harshly.
She chuckled, her stream of smoke interrupted slightly. "Don't sweat it, Pete. Not everyone smokes. Let's go in before it rains."
She rubbed her cherry out on the shingles, pocketing the remnant. I passed mine to her as well. She put it next to hers, wrapped an arm around my shoulders and guided me into the house.
I inhaled deeply on the cigarette I now held. I didn't cough anymore, but they still made me nauseous. More with memory than reaction to the contents of the cancer stick. It had killed her, jumping from that stupid tree to the roof. That was the real reason I'd sent Beth the message. I couldn't bear to lose anyone else that way.
Broken body in the flower bed, limbs at odd angles. One shoe still on her foot.
She knew not to wear shoes. She knew the soles of her feet were the best traction. She must have been rushed that night. She had slipped, the forensic team determined, landing the jump, but falling and cracking her head on the eave that broke her neck. It could have just as easily been a broken arm or leg, but instead she had been paralyzed, face down in the muddy dirt.
Why had Mom and Dad let me know that? I rubbed the tears from my face. I'd been sixteen. Couldn't they have told me she died instantly? Why would they want me to know that she had tried to inhale mud until she had drowned in it, unable to move? I wished for the millionth time that I'd been waiting for her that night. That I could have run down, turned her head. But no, I'd played football with friends and passed out early.
I had meant to cut that tree down. Instead I sat out here in a robe and flannel pants, smoking, tempting the fates to finish me the way they had finished her.
"Sarah," I whispered, blowing the last of the smoke from my lungs. "Beth would have liked you." I crushed out the butt imagining Sarah among Beth, and Mary. She would have fit right in. If anything she would have been annoyed that Beth was too 'straight-laced.'
I needed to let her go. Seven years was long enough. I'd already finished mourning Mom and Dad, but I couldn't let go of my big sister. I felt vulnerable without her. This house didn't help. It was filled with memories of them, and me with them, but I couldn't sell it. I couldn't bear to think of anyone else living here. And Mom and Dad had nearly paid it off. It wasn't any trouble to keep up the mortgage, especially after the life insurance came through.
I stood up carefully, looked at the scraggly tree, and sighed. Who would have thought that once again, the best thing in my life would come from it. It looked like it could barely support itself, let alone the women I loved most.
Beth couldn't know I thought that. I had to keep it close. No sense in scaring her off before our first date. No way I was telling her I'd had dreams of her standing in my mother's kitchen, brushing her hair in my bathroom, laying with me here under the stars. Too much, over the top for sure.
No, I'd play cool, as I had all along. Take her to a casual restaurant, maybe Mexican, and then out to see the improv troupe I enjoyed so much. The humor was right up her alley. She'd love it. I had almost lost it tonight, kept her here. I'd do better next time. I'd have the week in the office to settle back, establish the distance I needed. And I'd walk her to her place, not here. That was the real problem. I couldn't have her here unless I could keep her.
One day, if I didn't screw this up.