I’m remembering times when we’d stay at hotels as kids. I never knew why we did, still don’t, but we’d flip through channels late at night, watch stuff we’d never have access to at home. Spill fast food on ourselves, the floor, and if we were really lucky, we’d get to swim in the hotel pool. Sean and I would stay shallow, and if there were pool noodles then we’d whack each other with those, and try to talk through them without swallowing chlorine, and sometimes we’d have contests to see who could hold their breath the longest. Sometimes Nick would wait until we weren’t looking, take in a real deep breath and calmly put his head underwater, maybe let out just enough air to make it seem like he was sinking. He’d stay there like that, in the middle of the pool, head down and arms out, legs loose, make it look like he’d drowned there. He did it often enough where we got used to it and started calling his bluff, but the first couple times we’d swim over and team up to turn him over so his head was facing sky, or at least whatever they’d made the ceiling look like, and he’d breathe in and laugh his ass off, splash us and chase us around the pool, dunk us if we couldn’t escape fast enough, and after that Sean and I would have one more fighter in Pool Noodle Gladiators. Then after, once we’d dried off and gone back to the room Mom had gotten for us, Nick would show us a perspective trick. If the hotel had one of those bathroom doors with a mirror on it, he’d open it up so the mirror in the bathroom was directly across from the mirror on the door. He’d wave his arms up and down, and Sean and I would jump and laugh our heads off, seeing thousands of versions of ourselves doing the exact same things, on and on down the line, till it reached a point at the end where you couldn’t see anything at all anymore.
I’m remembering every big storm we ever got in our old neighborhood, and how no matter how crazy it was, Nick would run outside and circle the block, sometimes not even wearing shoes, and I always wondered what it was like from his perspective, because all I ever saw was what it looked like from the window as he’d hop up and down in the cold and the rain, run down and out into the dark, disappear into it, and then we’d just have to wait until he’d made his trip to come back around and through the door. It was just a waiting game until you’d eventually see him again, drenched, clothes sticking to him, chest heaving, hair swept to one side of his head.
Even when we had a big snow, he’d do the same thing. He’d have to be out in the storm just as it hit, feel it on his skin and in his bones, and all Sean and I could do was watch and laugh and listen when he told us not to do what he’d just done.
It’s like that: watching your brother go out and into a storm, with that pit of fear in your stomach that you laugh away when the worry comes. Because I can still see what his body looked like after they pulled it out of the river. What the water had done to him, how it had claimed him. Every night I see his gray face, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find a way out of that.
They give you the pamphlets for grief group, and maybe you go. Maybe you drink the coffee that’s given to you, and maybe you go to the bathroom where you cry it all out and run the sink real high so it’s almost like you’re just freshening up. Maybe you sit in semicircle with these people you don’t know, these people you have so much in common with. Maybe you give them your story that first night, maybe you don’t. Maybe you keep coming back, week after week, and imagine that progress is being made. Maybe you hope it is, that this will do something, anything for you. Maybe the nightmares go away for a night or two, and maybe they come right back just as bad. Maybe you try to draw that gray face to get it out of your head. Maybe you try to write it away, sing it away, meditate it away, something, whatever it’ll take. Maybe you dig through his old Game Boy collection, the games perfectly preserved in one of those green see-through plastic tubs with the flip-top lid, the ones you’ll find in any dollar store in the country, the ones that look the same whether you bought them in the ‘90s or yesterday. Maybe you slot in one of those old games and put in a fresh pair of double-A batteries, and maybe you put in each game, one after another, to find your brother’s saves right where he left them, a piece of him buried in game progress, games forever left unfinished. And maybe you take a couple of those save files, copy them to another slot and continue where he left off, so that way you can have it both ways. He can be perfectly preserved right where he is, and you can finish the story too.
Nick Olson (he/they) is the author of Here's Waldo and Editor-in-Chief of (mac)ro(mic). Originally from Chicagoland, he now lives in North Carolina. He’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and other fine places. Find him online at nickolsonbooks.com or on Twitter @nickolsonbooks.