It all had happened when I had been five. I could still smell the heat of the summer intermingling with the rough salt water air every year on this day, May twenty-eighth, for the last fourteen years. I felt the tightening of my lungs every time I saw a picture of him since it reminded me of how useless I had been. My mother's lost screams of agony would serve me as an alarm clock every year.
This year was no exception.
I opened my eyes suddenly, head sweating and lying flat on my pillow. My hands were holding onto the blankets around me too tightly and my toes were curled together uncomfortably. There had been so much water in my dream, a nightmare. The darkness had promised me nothing but an end of childhood. Hands had grabbed me tightly directly after, making me forget my troubles. A shattering scream within the nightmare had awakened me.
"Alejandro," my mom called me from the kitchen. "Mi hijo, it's time to wake up, we have to go to the cemetery, you know I don't like being there too late."
I turned around in my bed, covers following me lazily and I pulled the pillow from under my head and used it to block out the sun and the sound of her warnings. My plain, white curtains swayed in the morning salty breeze coming in through my open window, and my bare back was covered in goosebumps as an aftereffect. I could hear the weight of my mom's footsteps as she approached my room on the hardwood floor and I instinctively made my body go tense, feigning sleep.
"Alejandro, por favor, we have to go!" She pleaded as I heard her walk over to my bed. I felt the mattress shift as she sat beside me. "I know how you feel about going, but we have to."
I grunted, she knew I wasn't asleep anyway.
"Your papi will meet us there like always." She softly tapped my back. "Come on."
Mom and I stood in front of his grave. I took in the smell of the soil that I associated with death since the day that they first buried him. My white shirt felt out of place in the holy darkness of the cemetery and the wind felt chilly as it hit my bare calves. Time had passed mercilessly in the form of clean-cut, healthy grass that had obviously sat on his grave for the last several years.
Dad walked behind us after he'd parked his old green Chevy truck on the road beside the tombstones. His hand automatically reached for my mother's curved shoulders as she bent down and took in every detail of what she saw. I was sure that she was seeing everything that I could see, but with different eyes; different grief.
My brother Manuel Rodriguez Gomez had died when I was only five. He had been seven when he'd tried to save me from drowning. For years I felt guilty, knowing that if I would have obeyed the rules and stayed away from the deeper parts of the beach Manuel would still be here. Since it was so long ago I could only remember things like the scent of the waves as they crashed over us and the feel of the sun as I was the only one of the two to be revived. I could still clearly remember the sharp taste of the salt water burning my throat.
I couldn't remember what he looked like, I only had pictures to get me by. I always recalled how eerily identical he was to me with his curly blond hair and brown eyes. While I had gotten our mother's nose he had attained our father's. I couldn't remember him always jumping on my bed to wake me up in the mornings like my parents always said he used to do. I couldn't remember anything, just the smell and taste of his death.
Dad's dirty blond hair often got stares from the citizens of Pueblo even if they all ready knew that he and my mom were Cuban. His blue eyes always had a way of sympathizing with people who didn't know that they needed his support, and his smile welcomed tourists to visit his restaurant without it being in their original plans. Mom was his opposite, which I guess, made them perfect for each other. Her light brown hair was almost always in a short ponytail as she did the accounts for the restaurant while singing a currently popular Spanish song. Her brown eyes always searched out the truth, while her ears knew everything. Only she understood my dad's sense of humor and only he truly felt her sense of loss.
I walked down the sandy beach several hours later and I had to bypass several kids building miniatures of sand castles. By the end of the summer the beach would be covered with them. Their slow decay would be the timeline for the Fall and Winter months and their temporariness always reminded me that not everything could ever last, no matter its strength and built.
Nearly stumbling over an abandoned pail of sand I let my eyes fall on a lone figure sitting on one of the sand dunes by the white fence. Her black hair flew in a flurry around her and her once pale face had taken on a tinted glow. Her legs were bare and one hand kept flying up to control her mischievous hair.
I jogged up to her, trying to wash the memories of the day behind me, but I knew that the ghostly reminders of my past were floating in the murky pools of my eyes. "Hey," I yelled up at her as I climbed the dune. "How're you?"
She shrugged. From where I sat I could tell that she too had been lost in some sort of memory and I quickly felt the pangs of guilt at my disturbing her. "You all right?"
"Yeah," her voice was quiet, forgiving.
"The day's beautiful isn't it?" I asked while hanging my arms loosely on top of my knees. The sand felt hot and full of past footsteps of memories. "I could sit here for hours and forget everything."
"Me too." The way she said this made my heart hurt for her. Even if I knew her name I still didn't know anything about her and I could tell that her heart was laden with something that she would need time to share.
"Avery," I suddenly said and she looked at me, her grey eyes intense in the sunlight. "I'm sorry about anything I've said to hurt you, those were just my reactions to what I thought you represented."
"I'm sorry too," she responded turning back to the view of the ocean. "It just gets lonely on my side sometimes and it's hard for me to handle it."
I wanted to grab her and hold her. I wanted to let her know that she didn't have to be lonely. But I only nodded, understanding. What was I doing? How could I so simply let myself go for a girl that I barely knew? Why would I put my emotions and my past with vague details of my dead brother behind me in order to alleviate some girl that I didn't know?
Before I could ask myself anymore questions my mind began answering them, quickly, one at a time. I was letting my guard down for a girl once more. She was someone different, someone who my heart oddly beat a different rhythm to. Because Avery was perhaps my present and future and my past didn't stand a chance in defeating that reality.