This story is by Caitlin Townsend and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
What was once my favourite season, now carried little more than memories of the painful remnants of a past I couldn’t shake. A year after the accident, I was lost and alone. Meadow Heights was my home. I was born and raised in this small town. School, birthdays, friends. Everything I knew was here, and yet I never felt so detached. What was once my home was now a world I no longer knew how to be part of. I don’t belong there. I was as much a stranger as the few tourists who passed through; they never truly understood what Meadow Heights is and what it means to the residents.
A part of me was trapped there; lost to the shadows of a year old scene. Ever since that fateful day, the crash refused to be forgotten. Tyres squealing; grinding metal accompanied the nauseating spin. A screeching halt as the car stilled wayside; upturned and misplaced.
Buried deep in the past, I would never again be that girl. The innocent seventeen-year-old. Happy, carefree and full of life. A part of me died that day; cast to the depths of an abandoned world. A graveyard without a key. How was I supposed to live in this small town when I was barely alive?
Gavin would have known how. My older brother was always there for me. A constant source of light no matter how dark. We did everything together. Our birthdays were a week apart and led to a shared celebration. Trips to Willow Tree Lake, my safe haven, were once my favourite. The peace one felt under the canopy of leaves overhanging the water was like nothing else.
Now, it only reminded me of Gavin.
We were close from the day I was born. ‘The inseparable siblings’. A nickname earned during our childhood, given to us by our Aunt Linda. We were almost never apart. It only changed when Gavin was accepted into college and left town.
Footsteps approached; a flock of birds taking flight at the sound. I didn’t move; gaze fixed on the lake’s surface, devoid of peace. A blank stare as Gavin came to stand beside me under the Willow tree. I shouldn’t be here.
Willow Tree Lake.
It was our special place. Our escape from reality. A sense of isolation forged by distance from the road; a curtain of leaves. Now, it was yet another reminder. A link to everything I lost that day. One year later, I stood facing the lake for the first time since the crash.
“Aunt Linda had her baby. Six month old Henry.” My voice came out emotionless; words forced with no attempt to feign adoration. Gavin didn’t respond at first, simply allowing me to proceed at my own pace. I should be happy for Aunt Linda, but I felt nothing. A void where my heart should be. My ability to connect lost, I could do no more than stare at the water.
“I wish I could have met him.” Gavin answered with a wistful lilt to his voice.
“You’ve missed a lot this year, Gavin. Your funeral… I never imagined it would be me saying goodbye. Mum stopped working at the diner for a few months, before returning as if nothing had changed, and I lost touch with Mira and Annie.” As close as we once were, we hadn’t spoken in months.
Silence descended over them; only broken when Gavin asked gently, “You’re not acting like yourself, Willow. Is something wrong?”
I came back to Willow Tree Lake, and brought the pain with it. The sense of being in that car; of watching Gavin die. Memories of our childhood followed, and a reply slipped loosely past my lips. “It’s just that today marks an anniversary.”
“Which one?” Gavin turned to watch me, and a deep breath rattled through my chest; eyes closing against the threat of tears. He stood close to my side; never leaving; never letting me down.
My answer came as a soft whisper; words lodged in my throat. “Today was the day you died.”
When people think of death, they don’t think it’ll occur to them. Not here. Not now. It seemed far off and not worth worrying about. No one thought death would come to us, or that it would claim the soul of a twenty year old boy.
A simple drive to Willow Tree Lake during the holidays, turned into devastation and loss. We slid on a spill hidden by shadows; the car skidding out of control. Dragged from the wreck, I tried to run to Gavin, but someone held me back. Dizzy and in shock, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but wait. I begged for someone, anyone to help Gavin. Unconscious and trapped under the crushed metal, he needed help, but they couldn’t reach him. Sirens rose in the distance, but it was too late. A damaged petrol tank was a lit fuse. The car ignited seconds later, engulfed by flames.
I screamed. A primal pain one only knew when one of the most important people in their lives died, and they could do nothing more than watch. The way your heart broke.
My brother was gone. Now, a mere ghost.
“You were so young; too young. You had your entire life ahead of you, Gavin. You didn’t deserve to die.” I whispered, voicing words I haven’t spoken since the funeral. With a hand on my shoulder, Gavin stepped closer; a reminder that he wasn’t going anywhere. That he would stay. The one person I could rely on, even when I failed to save him.
“We can’t change the past, Willow.”
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes; regret and guilt clawing at my chest. Releasing a shaky breath, I couldn’t bear to face Gavin; instead, choosing to maintain my current focal point.
“It should have been me.” My confession was carried away on the wind into the cool air.
I shouldn’t be here. I should have died that day, not Gavin. He should have lived; he would have known what to do. He could have survived this; I just keep disappearing into the dark abyss. Out of my depth, I had no way to relate to those around me or the person I once was. I tried to go home, but I don’t belong there anymore.
“If it were you, I would have taken your place. I would have lost my sister.” Gavin soothed. “It’s not your fault, Willow.”
Mum doesn’t like me talking to Gavin. She says it’s ‘not healthy’. She wants me to pretend he doesn’t exist; to leave him behind. As if a mother telling her daughter to abandon her own brother was normal. I won’t do it. Gavin deserves better, and I need him.
I need him more than I need life.
My mother’s house was nothing more than a building of pity and judgement. Decisions were made for me with Mum and Aunt Linda declaring me unstable. They said I need to realise this isn’t real; that Gavin isn’t really here. I don’t care.
Hallucination or not, he’s real to me.
I was hardly a danger to anyone; so, why am I in the wrong? Why am I being controlled? I’m barely alive; half of me stayed with Gavin that day. It was still my life, and my brother is all I have.
“Mum wants me to see a psychologist.” My gaze never left the lake. Gavin stood beside me, listening without interruption. “She says it’ll help; that I can heal, but I don’t want to ‘get better’. Mum wants me to leave you behind; to say goodbye and be myself again. How can I do that? I don’t know that girl anymore. I don’t belong in this world. I can’t do this alone. Without you, I’m only half a person, and one half cannot exist in this unforgiving wilderness we call home.”
“What if it does help? Would it really be so bad?” Gavin proposed softly.
“I just want my brother back. I don’t want to lose you, Gavin.” My voice shook with the truth; a shallow breath escaping as Gavin’s hand slipped into mine.
“It’s your choice, Willow. If you need this, if you need me, it’s okay to listen to yourself. Don’t let anyone decide on your behalf. Do what’s right for you.”
Staring into the water ahead, his words began to sink in, and the answer became clear. I had known all along what needed to be done, but only just acknowledged the answer. It was time.
“I’m coming home, Gavin.”
Stepping forward, the cold water lapped around my ankles, rising as I slipped further into the lake. Cool water sloshed over my waist; chest; shoulders. One moment, and it would all be over. It was the only option I had left. The only way to escape a living death. Taking the final steps, I left the world behind. Light flickered into darkness; eyelids drooping, my breath fades.