The Ones That Are Left Behind
By R.J. Santos
The tree house was really too dark for Sam to see who was in it. That didn't matter though, because at the moment, he knew that there was only one person who could be up there. He could see a somewhat orange little glow that slowly winked on and off inside it every few seconds, enough confirmation that the person he was looking for was indeed up there. Still, as with all the other times that Sam had gone to talk to his friend—well, former friend—he just couldn't muster the courage to actually climb the stairs up the tree house to give the guy the chance to make some things right.
Tonight was no exception.
In the end, or at least, when Sam could no longer see the telltale glow of the cigarette inside the tree house, he decided to leave. A large part of him was hoping that a cigarette butt would hit him on the head so he could have a reason—other than past friendships—to turn back and climb up the tree house.
That had been how the first time went. He had stared at the tree house for maybe five minutes, psyching himself up, before convincing himself he could wait another day. The moment he had turned to leave, something soft had bounced off his head, landed on one of his shoulders, then, the ground. It was a cigarette butt, and Sam had been sure that his hair had been sprinkled with ashes from it. The thing he could distinctly remember, though, was the stifled laughter from the tree house.
There wasn't any of that now, and Sam knew that he would probably regret leaving. He knew Jan, his chain smoking former friend, would probably never forgive him for not telling him that they would be pulling the plug on Ash's life. But then, it was also Sam's own anger against Jan that had kept him from climbing up the tree house. It was, after all, Jan's fault that Ash was the way he was now—braindead.
The thought of Ash made Sam quicken his pace so the bastard's cigarette butt would miss. Just in case he decided to throw it at him again.
“Hey,” he said to no one in particular, but the way he patted Jenny's back disguised the almost lifeless way he had said it.
She sighed before looking up at him. His eyes were focused on something else, and she knew that he wouldn't look at her if it meant that there was a chance he might make eye contact with her. She sighed again before turning her attention back to her brother, the tube coming out of his mouth, and the machine that was keeping him—his body, the doctor said—alive. “Sam,” she finally said. The tone of her voice wasn't as lifeless as his, and there was definitely a hint of emotion. Kind of sad, needy, Sam thought.
“Been to see Jan again?”
Jenny watched as his fists balled, and sure enough, his cheeks seemed to pulse as his jaws clenched every few seconds. He walked off across the room and looked outside the window, and Jenny wondered if the streets outside the hospital were really more interesting than having to talk to her. She continued to watch him until he got the stool on the other side of Ash's bed, the one across her, and settled back in front of the window, leaning on it. Again, he wouldn't make eye contact.
Too bad, she thought, maybe this is really the end. After Ash gets buried, Sam would probably avoid her like the plague. Thing was, she couldn't understand why, and she probably never would. He just... changed, all of a sudden, right after she had made the decision to finally let Ash rest, almost like he refused to understand why she had made that decision. She kept getting the impression that Sam believed he was the only one who wanted to keep her brother alive or was hoping that he would still wake up, and when she tried to explain what the doctors had said, how she felt about prolonging Ash's suffering, and even her finances, he just wouldn't listen.
And now she's just about ready to give up.
It was a good thing that it was almost over. Tomorrow, she would check her brother out of the hospital.
As if on cue, tears started streaming down her face. She quickly wiped them, not wanting Sam to see her like that, and nearly chuckled at that thought. What better way to get a guy than through the damsel-in-distress routine, right? Except, Jenny knew, Sam wasn't that kind of guy. He was the kind that you would have to keep your eyes open for just so you won't miss him when he gets into a receptive mood. Despite sharing a few nights on the same bed, however, she couldn't get anything out of him besides friendship, and ever since Ash's accident, she had already given up trying.
This, though, Sam pretending she wasn't around, was too much at times.
He saw her wiping tears off her face when he glanced at her reflection on the windowpane and instantly felt guilty about it, but as he had started to realize, there was nothing he could do about it. Not really much of anything. Things happen all on their own, and he's just a helpless bystander.
He sighed, thinking that maybe someday he'd know just what to do.
“I did,” he heard himself say. His thoughts were in too much of a jumble he didn't know what prompted him to speak, or what made him want to keep on talking. After all, the only thing he ever wanted whenever he was inside Ash's room was to cry. Seeing Ash, all pale, tubes here and there, and basically dead just couldn't fit into the word hurt anymore. Sam couldn't even remember how Ash had looked like alive anymore, and that just made him feel desperate. At times, he'd spend hours looking at pictures of them with Jan—the guy was never out of a picture—and sometimes, he would remember. But being in this room seemed to take care of that.
“I went to see him. Jan, I mean.” He kept his eyes outside the window at the road below, feeling calmed by the way headlights were coming and going. “I couldn't though.
“I wanted to tell him what was happening, or what had happened, and what was about to happen, and how it was all his fault. But I couldn't do it.” The last word came out more like a sob, and when a hand settled on his shoulder, he nearly flinched away.
“Look, Sam, he would know. Everyone would know.” Jenny's voice was shaking when she said this. “I decided... we'd have a wake at the house. And a funeral. Instead of the original plan.”
It just felt so wrong.
Both Sam and Jenny could feel it. Ash was just a few feet away from them, and here they were, talking about his funeral.
It would never feel right though, Sam thought.
Then, it occurred to him that there would be a funeral, instead of the cremation that Jenny had first wanted. He nearly stood up to confront her at that realization.
He understood why Jenny had first wanted it to be kept a secret, why Ash had been kept hidden in this room for nearly two months now, and why nobody but the two of them knew about it. In fact, he had also agreed with her reasons. Once everyone learns of Ash's death, it would only be a matter of time before they learn why and how. He had wanted to keep those a secret as much as Jenny had. He had wanted for everybody to remember Ash the way they had always known him. Now, Jenny wanted to change that, and for what?
“Sam, I don't think Ash would've wanted to just disappear,” Jenny told him, walking back to her chair. “While I would've wanted to keep this from everybody, I realized that this has never been about me, and I have no right to make that decision. Neither do you.”
“And what about Jan, huh?” he asked, managing to keep his tone casual. He had caught himself just as he was about to yell at her.
“I don't care a thing about that bastard.” Her tone left no room for discussion, Sam felt. “If... if he goes to the wake or the funeral, you take care of him. He's your friend.”
“Sam, please.” The way Jenny had sounded tired when she said it stopped Sam from saying anything more. “Jan is your friend, and I think the reason why you can't confront him about this is that deep down you knew that this would hurt him even though you're blaming him for what happened to my brother. He's actually been calling me, looking for Ash, asking what's up with you. He doesn't know what's happening, and I got the impression it's hurting him too!
“Look, Sam, I probably would not be able to stop myself from blaming the guy, but you're not just Ash's friend. You're Jan's friend too. You know him more than I do. I know he didn't intend for Ash to kill himself when they broke up, but I can't help what I feel right now. You, though, can blame him all you want but there's no need to stop being his friend. I can see that that's got you broken up. Just talk to him. I know you think I or Ash would be mad about it, but we won't. Just don't make him expect he can talk to me. And please tell him to stop calling me too.”
Sam heard her stand up and walk away. Then, the sound of the door as it shut filled his ears. He looked up at the reflection of the room on the windowpane to find her gone.
The next three days were every bit of what Sam had expected it to be the moment Jenny had told him there would be a wake and a funeral, except for one thing. Jan never showed up, and Sam had been too busy helping Jenny out to even think of going to see him again. It was only when Ash's casket was being lowered to the ground that he realized that fact. He had been looking around, thinking that something was missing and sadly realized that something was indeed missing. Well, someone was. And as soil and flowers joined together on top of the casket, he felt, kind of miserably, that that was his friendship with Jan being buried, the friendship he'd had ever since he could remember.
He knew with his whole being that he couldn't let that happen.
He turned to Jenny, telling her, “I'm going to Jan's,” and left before she could respond. Before he could think twice, he was standing in front of where his childhood friend had lived all his life. He took a deep breath and knocked, but no response ever came. Nobody was home, even Jan's parents.
He didn't give up. He decided to check on the tree house, the only other place he expected to find Jan, and he found him there. Or, at least, the sound of him crying. Sam could hear it coming from up the tree house and, for the first time in months, found the courage to climb it. But the moment he stepped foot on the tree house, Jan met him with a glare, and he stood there, frozen.
“Get the fuck out.”
For all his anger, Sam suddenly found himself feeling guilty. Jan was still crying but had turned away from him, and Sam felt as though his friend had indeed expected him to really go away.
“Jan, please, can we talk?”
“No,” Jan responded. “You kept everything from me! You were supposed to be my—our—friend, but when we broke up, you just had to take sides. And now this! Ash was my friend too, you knew that!” He chuckled bitterly and finally looked into Sam's eyes again. “Leave me alone, Sam. I really can't talk to you right now.”
It hadn't gone the way Sam thought it would, and now he felt like begging Jan for forgiveness. But Sam knew him, so he climbed down the tree house, hoping that this meeting won't be their last. Somehow, some way.
Jenny was missing.
It had been three weeks since the funeral, and she still hadn't turned up. But Sam couldn't do anything about it. Jenny had left him a note, and it simply said, “I'm leaving – Jenny”. Then, a week later, he learned that Jenny's and Ash's house was up for sale.
He'd called everyone he knew, but they too didn't know Jenny's whereabouts.
It was just one more reason to be depressed. Ash was supposed to be turning twenty-one today, but nobody had really known he'd never be present for that.
That didn't mean Sam would just forget about it. But when he saw Jan, sitting near Ash's headstone, he'd thought about leaving and coming back later. Instead, he opted to be brave. He picked up his pace and sat right beside Jan.
“I wish you'd forgive me,” he said. “It was hard to think clear through all that.”
Jan didn't move nor did he say anything. Somehow, though, Sam felt at peace with everything, regardless of what Jan would say or do.
They sat together until they couldn't bear the sun's beating down on them anymore.
It was Jan who stood up first.
“You're all I have left, Sam,” he said. “I wish you'd forgive me too.”
This story was written for The Authors' Haunt's Ash: The Unseen Character Anthology.