The shallow knocks on the door felt like a jarring in the depth of my fledgling soul. I sat on bed twirling a jittery finger around a loose thread in the fluffy pink comforter that did nothing to cushion the blows to my heart. I looked up at the ceiling naïvely and wondered if God would grant me a small reprieve. I couldn’t face what lie beyond the door without revealing myself, my emotions and what state of downfall was consuming my soul.
“Bug, I know you’re in there. I’m not leaving until you come out and say goodbye.”
I didn’t answer.
The tears pooled in my eyes, threatening to crest and spill hotly down my cheeks. I had every reason to cry, but it was a masquerade. The tears could easily be played off as juvenile sadness over the departure of my older brother, Sam, but I knew better. My cover would be blown once I opened the door. I was transparent…but not invisible.
“Katie!” Archer’s voice rose pleadingly.
My stomach twisted into a wretched knot. I tucked my hands beneath my thighs so they’d quit shaking. The warmth of the soft flesh against my palms did little to curtail my unease. Again, I offered no answer.
“Come on, Arch. Let’s get this party started.” I could hear the loud tenor of my brother’s words as they echoed in the distance. He was begging his best friend to give up his stupid attempt to coax me from my hiding spot. I prayed he’d listen.
“Go on outside, I’ll just be a minute.”
“Ugh, Dude!” Sam jeered. “She’s my sister. It’s not like you’ll never see her again.”
“Just go outside, Sam,” Archer yelled, frustration was all that he had left to defend his need to see me. “I promise I’ll just be a minute.”
“Whatever!” Sam harrumphed, all temper and brawn from the bottom of the stairs.
I heard his heavy footsteps teetering down the hall below and then the loud clap of the screen door, followed by the familiar frustrated voices of my parents telling him not to slam the door. He was leaving for college and probably took those words with a grain of salt. Letting them flow in one ear and out the other like needless banter from two people that wouldn’t be calling the shots anymore. Or so he thought, but I knew better. Sam was about to claim a false freedom.The University of Mississippi wasn’t cheap, despite Sam’s academic scholarship. Considering he pledged a fraternity and preferred the easy life of laid back, jobless luxury, over manual labor, the rules weren’t going far. In fact, they were going to college, just like Sam.
I eased up from the mattress and hoped with a little effort I could subdue the squeal of the pigtailed coils from alerting my childhood crush of movement from within. I tiptoed over to the picture window, leaned my forehead against the hot glass and watched Sam take position up against the front fender of his new Chevy Camaro. His graduation gift. He was waiting for his cohort in crime. His life-long friend and the virtual fifth child to my parents, Archer Thomas. The boy I’d grown to love. The one who stood outside the door of my childhood bedroom clinging to the hope of one last goodbye that would most likely destroy me.
“Please, Bug.” The mere sound of his voice sent shivers up my spine. The way he used my pet name so easily made him feel like mine – but he wasn’t.
My breath was lodged somewhere in my throat as I walked to the door and grasped the painted white frame with trembling hands. I edged forward and rested my ear against the cool wood. I could hear him breathing, low and deep, soft and rhythmic. I wondered if his heart was as steady. I knew it would be an odd contrast to mine, which was threatening to catapult from my chest and land at his feet.
I ran my fingers under my eyelids, clearing the dampness and remnants of despair from my face then slowly opened the door. Leaning against the door with both of his hands bracing the frame, legs crossed at the ankles and leaning forward with restrained eagerness, was the boy that owned my dreams. The boy who’d grown into a man right before my eyes. The one who was about to pull out of my driveway with my heart in his pocket and he didn’t even know it.
His sun-kissed brown bangs swept across his forehead while the rest of his tightly groomed hair remained smoothly in place. It was the perfect mix of youthful defiance and clean cut maturity. I always loved the many facets of color it took on through the seasons. Like the leaves of an oak tree bending to the will of the weather, richer and darker in the winter and lighter in the summer. It begged to be fingered, but my hands remained glued to my sides. His rich cognac eyes were glittered with specks of gold and green. He grinned mischievously, revealing perfect white teeth that gleamed brightly. I melted like butter under his attentive gaze. I wondered if he knew how much power he had over me.
“Come here you.”
He grabbed me quick and tight with a rush of hands and legs in playful frustration, lifting me into the air and spinning me around like a parent would a weightless toddler. It was just one more shining example of why I adored Archer. He was caring, thoughtful, full of life and honest.
My dad called him “soulful.” I never understood the true depth of the word but knew it sounded cool and if my dad said it, it was probably worth heeding. Archer always seemed mature beyond his years, which seemed to be a direct contrast to my goofy brother. I often wondered how they’d become best friends when they seemed so unlike one another. But it worked for Sam and Archer like yin and yang. We’d all but adopted him at age seven when he pulled up on his blue Huffy bike asking to play with Sam. From that day on it felt like he’d never left. He was family and we loved him as if he were ours. Me even more.
I could smell the Polo cologne lingering against his smooth skin. An old school fragrance that he loved and I’d grown to cherish. I buried my head against his neck, taking in the woody musk and freed my mind enough to wrap my arms around his shoulders. I wanted to beg him to take me with him, but he was about to start college and I was just a girl about to enter her junior year in high school. It just wasn’t going to happen for Archer and me.
“Were you going to let me leave without saying goodbye?” I could feel the heat of his words steam the shell of my ear. I pulled back to looked at his face, my feet still dangling like useless noodles. “Surely not,” he joked.
My stomach sunk. “Yes,” I answered honestly.
“Bug?” He sounded mortally wounded. He set my on my feet and grabbed both of my hands then released one and spun me around. “Don’t go breakin’ my heart.”
His words were like daggers, each one piercing me painfully. He lightheartedly joked that leaving without a goodbye from me would break his heart, but the truth was that mine was splitting into a million pieces watching him leave.
He was going to The University of Mississippi, “Ole Miss” with Sam and I was going back to Madison High School. The injustice was crippling.
“Have a great time at college, Arch,” I mustered, barely able to push the words off my sandpaper tongue.
“I’ll be back, and I’ll always be a part of your family. You’ll see me over Christmas break and summers. I’ll never lose track of my little sister. I promise.”
As if it could get worse, after referring to me as his little sister, he went straight for the kill.
“I love you, Bug.”
“I love you too.” I barely eek the words out before he leaned in and kissed me gently on the cheek. I wanted to climb his body like a Koala and never let go, begging and screaming for just one more moment in his presence. I knew better and forced a fake smile that would let him know I was happy for him and the new adventures that awaited. My heart was imploding. Tears pricked the back of my eyes and I looked up at the ceiling to curtail their downpour.
Archer gently clutched my chin with his thumb and index finger, using them pull my eyes back to his. “It’s okay, Bug.” He kissed my forehead then ran the back of his knuckles down my cheek. I pulled in a ragged, shallow breath and let my eyes close. He leaned into my ear and offered up three nails that would seal my coffin. “You’re my girl.”
I was drowning in despair as he hugged me like a life preserver that was keeping him afloat, but I was sinking…alone.
Archer Thomas walked down the wooden stairs from the second floor of my house and through the foyer to the waiting arms of my entire family. Hugs and kisses, tears and slaps on the back were issued with love as Archer and my brother jumped in their cars and followed one another out of our driveway. It was the start of a new phase of their lives and the day a piece of mine ended.
I wouldn’t see Archer Thomas again for several years despite his promise.