Thumbnail graphic by June Woo / North by Northwestern

Content warning: This story contains mentions of grief and intoxicated driving. If you need support, please contact CAPS at 847-491-2151 or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s National Helpline at 800-487-4889.

Even with my headphones on max volume, she kept talking. Some people can’t take a hint.

Mom ripped the headphones off my head when we reached the parking lot. “Bryant!”

“Hey!” I reached for them, but she held them out of my reach.

“I said, you’ve got to try to talk to people. These-” she motioned to the headphones that were blasting heavy metal, “won’t help.”

I groaned. “I’m already going to school!”

“You’ll get them back when you’re settled in. Just find some friends and you’ll be fine.”

My hands clenched into fists. I didn’t look at her when I muttered, “You’d let Bree have headphones.”

Silence hung in the air. Finally she repeated, “You’ll get them back when you’re settled in.”

Fighting with her was too much effort. Ever since Bree left, Mom and Dad constantly nagged me. As if I could ever live up to her. I didn’t acknowledge Mom again as I stepped out of the dented Honda Civic.

Bridgeburrow Academy stood in front of me, a fortress –an abomination of dark gray cement blocks, sagging flags and faded posters of students with lifeless eyes. After everything that happened this last year, it stood exactly as I remembered.

Except for the people. As soon as I walked inside, a hundred eyes were on me. My face heated up and I looked down at my feet. Of course they couldn’t forget and move on. With my graduating class gone, only the rumors around me remained –the idiot who had a mental breakdown and had to take a year off. Even the freshmen were avoiding eye contact.

Already, the lack of pressure around my ears made my head pulse. Just great.

Bree’s shadow followed me. Even when she was far, far away, I was still just her twin brother. They even had a picture of her in her cheerleading outfit hung up in the Commons like a fricking shrine. It wasn’t that special to get a full-ride scholarship to Stanford.

The voices circled me and crammed themselves into my ears. Oh, how my headphones would make this all better. I pushed past the swarm of people as quickly as I could. How the heck did I ever like this place? Not just liked, adored. It was difficult to forget the awe that filled me from head to toe that first day of freshman year all those years ago.


The cream-colored castle glistened in the sunlight, making Bree and me gasp. Its shining windows, proud flags and sophisticated architecture managed to rise above the glistening city.

My stomach turned. Destiny brought me here. This was my school.

Well, destiny and the free tuition because Dad was a janitor for the connected Bridgeburrow tutoring academy and dormitories. As long as he kept working 12-hour shifts every day, we could attend heaven without spending a dime.

“Do you have to drop us off so close?” Bree asked Mom when she pulled into the parking lot.

Mom beamed at us. “We need pictures of your first day.”

Her smile made me smile in turn. The pictures breezed by and before I knew it, our parents were peeling out in their old Honda Accord. I looked at Bree with a grin. “Ready?”

She stared at a group of well-dressed freshmen and patted down her wrinkled t-shirt. “Do you think we’ll be able to keep up with them?”

“They’ll have to keep up with us,” I said, echoing Mom’s words from last night.

Bree stared at the group for another second before giving a small nod. “See you,” she said and walked over to them. In a matter of seconds, she was laughing along as if she had known them for years.

I smiled at her and stayed where I was, already lost in the crowd.


When I told Mom I wasn’t ready for school last week, I hadn’t realized just how right I was.

Classes dragged by at a snail’s pace. A few teachers asked me to stay behind for a ‘chat’. I assured them all that I was fine and left as soon as possible. It was humiliating enough to retake senior year; I didn’t need special treatment from teachers.

A couple acquaintances from an old club were in my English class. They approached me during the break and tried to be nice by starting a conversation. I forced a smile and greeted them with all the energy I could fake. Though we tried our best, long pauses quickly dominated the interaction. There was just so little to talk about. When the agonizing five-minute break finally ended, I was ready to go home and listen to music in my room until I dozed off.

Passing periods hit me like a baseball bat to the face. Hundreds of conversations at the same time, all elbowing themselves into my head. Oh your math teacher’s awful. Did you see the football game last night? What do you think about…

Heck no. There was not a chance I could deal with this in the cafeteria for 40 minutes. The crowd pushed me towards the death trap, but I managed to slip into the bathroom. After the noise died down, I headed towards the library. Sure, I couldn’t eat lunch there, but I wasn’t that hungry anyway.

The library stood next to the nurse’s office and various offices in the furthest corner of the school. For the first time since I came here, no one was talking. I took a deep breath when I saw the entrance. For 40 minutes, I would be okay. Heavy rock was better – it drowned out all the noise and stopped me from thinking, but silence was alright. Blocking out thoughts was easier than voices.

Well, until a syrupy-sweet voice broke the precious silence. I looked up from my feet. A cheerleader held the elbow of a tall, bulky guy as they left the nurse’s office.

My body froze into place and I nearly fell. The guy limped from the nurse’s office towards me, his gnarled hand tightly wrapped around his black crutch. He stumbled forward with an unnatural gait and the cheerleader fussed over every misstep.

Dylan Peterson.

My knees buckled and I reached for the wall to steady myself. My vision blurred as my heartbeat pulsed in my ears. No no no, he wasn’t supposed to be here! Mom promised they’d all be gone and I could have a fresh start and I would meet new people and…

He looked up at me.

I snapped my gaze away. Hide hide hide. My heartbeat raced as I looked for any way to get out of this. My refuge took the form of the closed closet five feet away from me. I pursed my lips, trying to keep a neutral expression when taking tiny steps toward it. Hopefully Dylan couldn’t hear my racing heartbeat.

When inside, I shut the door with all my strength and leaned against the door. My knees buckled and I slid to the ground, my chest rising and falling from short, shallow breaths.

I hadn’t seen him since the accident. He had looked me straight in the eye and said he was sorry, as if that changed anything. I swore to myself I’d punch him straight in the nose the next time I saw him, but when that moment finally came, I ran. I could practically feel Bree’s disappointment.

Water splashed into my face. I blinked out of my vision and saw two wide brown eyes.

The girl’s face reddened as she hastily screwed on the cap of her water bottle. “You okay?”

I took a few deep breaths and reached for my face. It was soaking wet. “What the heck!”

She grimaced and said, “You couldn’t hear me.”

Whatever. I whipped my face with the back of my hand and stood up, hitting my head on a low shelf in the process. My sanctuary ended up being a tiny broom closet littered with paint cans. I reached for the handle, but hesitated. Dylan could be anywhere. Waiting to laugh at Bree’s pathetic little brother who couldn’t protect her. Of course he had to retake senior year; he spent all that time in the hospital. Unless he purposely stayed back to terrorize me.

I turned back to the girl. “Can I stay here?”

She looked up at me from the paint can she sat on. A frown touched the bottom of her lips.

Whatever, she probably already knew how pathetic I was. “I, uh, saw my sister’s ex. He didn’t treat her very well and I didn’t stop him.” I looked down at my feet, blood rushing to my face.

She gave me a long look before returning to the book she was reading – The Great Gatsby. I read it last year for English class before I dropped. She dragged her finger along the sentences and whispered the words under her breath, fumbling every few phrases.

I shakily took out my sandwich. Silence wasn’t good enough anymore. Knowing Dylan was here forced me to think about that terrible accident last year when he nearly killed my sister with drunk driving. And all he got for terrifying my family was half a year in the hospital and a bum leg. He probably would have been held back senior year for his crap grades anyway, so really the car crash changed nothing. My hands clenched into fists, my nails digging into my palms. If my headphones were here, none of that would matter. Ugh, why did Mom take them!

Wait, she said she’d give them back if I made a friend. I glanced up at the girl I didn’t recognize. If she was eating lunch in a broom closet, she must be new. And she had to be a senior too because she was reading The Great Gatsby. Surely her parents must be just as concerned as mine.

“You a transfer?” I asked.

She nodded, a small frown placed firmly on her lips.

If she didn’t know me, she wouldn’t feel sorry for me. That meant it wouldn’t be awful to hang out with her, and in turn Mom would give me back my headphones for finding a friend. After this morning, I was sure there was no way I could survive in this torture chamber without them.

Before thinking better of it, I asked, “Do your parents know you’re lonely?”

Her face heated up and she didn’t respond.

My face also heated up. Bree was always so much better at talking to people. Nevertheless, I persisted. “Look, no offense but you’re hiding in a broom closet. What if you let me help you read The Great Gatsby after school? Then we can tell our parents we have friends.”

I sucked in a breath as I looked at the only one who could bring back my headphones.

She stared at the book for a long moment before saying quietly, “Sure.”


When I dropped out of school, I had an awful lot of time on my hands. Still, it took me five months to pinpoint the moment Bree began even considering dating a loser like Dylan.

Junior year, Dad drove Bree and me home from the science fair. We had to wait an hour after everyone else so he could finish his shift at the prep school.

Mom came out of the kitchen to greet us. “How was the science fair?” she asked.

“Good,” I said with a grin. I gave her my shiny first place ribbon.

She smiled at me, making me feel all warm inside, before turning to Bree. “Second?”

Bree stared at her feet. “Third,” she muttered.

“Oh. Who beat you?” Mom asked.

“Zach Zigmond,” I answered when Bree stayed silent. “It was really close, though!” I took her ribbon out of my pocket and showed it to Mom. Bree didn’t want it, but I thought the green satin ribbon was too pretty to throw out.

Mom frowned and said to Bree, “I knew you shouldn’t have gone bowling last weekend.”

Bree kept looking at the ground.

Mom sighed and said dinner would be ready in half an hour. She went outside to help Dad with the car. The battery was being finicky again.

“Zach totally got help from his parents,” I told Bree. “You did really well.”

“Yeah,” she said without looking at me. “I’m going out.” She walked to the front closet and took out a checkered designer jacket. She liked to borrow expensive clothes from her friends.

“But dinner’s in half an hour,” I said.

“You can eat with those ribbons.”

I frowned. Oh, that's what this was about. “Mom and Dad will be upset if you leave.”

“Cover for me.” She looked down at the two ribbons in my hand.

I shoved them in my pocket, my face heating up. She left through the back door, leaving me alone with the two worthless awards.

After hanging out on five separate occasions, I learned her name was Liv.

Every day after school, we’d stay in the library and read a chapter. At first, the interactions were painfully awkward. I mean, she saw me freak out. Liv didn’t ask me any questions about it and I didn’t give any answers. At least she didn’t think I was acting out to take attention away from my perfect sister like everyone else. To her, I was just a lunatic.

It wasn’t as bad after the first few days. She mentioned she liked horror movies once, so we talked about that. I knew a decent amount about them because Bree loved them in middle school and would force me to watch them with her.

After a week of meet ups, I believed I did enough to get my headphones back.

Mom didn’t agree. “Is she real or are you just staying an extra half an hour at school?”

“She’s real!” I pulled out my phone, but quickly realized I had no proof of our interactions.

Mom rolled her eyes. “Find a good friend and you’ll get your cheap headphones back.”

Another week of overlapping voices. “I’m getting A’s!” I protested. That used to be enough.

She didn’t smile like she used to. “You need balance. It’s okay to take some time off from school to make good friends.”

What? Was this my mom? The woman who grew up on a struggling farm and had to fight for everything? My hands balled into fists and I stared at my feet. She never told Bree to be balanced. Maybe if she did, Bree wouldn’t try so hard to be perfect.

I followed her word and asked Liv if she minded padding out our hang out time with some chess. While we played, we discovered we both loved Super Smash Bros and discussed every character. It was nice to have a conversation that didn’t revolve around Bree.

“Hey, uh, do you mind if we take a picture together?” I asked when she was about to win the game. “My mom doesn’t believe you’re real.”

She nodded and we both put on cheesy smiles. Afterwards she said, “My parents don’t think you’re real either. I was actually wondering if, uh, if you’d go to that volleyball game with me tomorrow.”

For the first time in days, uncomfortable silence surrounded us. Friends went to games together, not acquaintances.

“Just to get my parents off my back!” she quickly added, her face red. “We can take pictures, I don’t care. It won’t be that bad; they might give away free stuff ‘cause it’s the first game.”

My face heated up as well, but I agreed. “For our parents,” I said.


It was September of senior year when Bree really started to change. I was practicing piano when she and Dad came back from cheerleading practice.

Sobs covered the entire house in thick ugly strokes. My fingers tensed and the piano screeched when I missed a key. “What happened?” I asked while turning to face her.

Mascara ran down her face and her light brown hair, usually pulled back in a neat ponytail, was matted across her forehead. Teardrop stains drenched her cheerleading uniform. “They don’t wanna, they don’t wanna…” She stopped talking to wail some more.

Mom ran in from the kitchen. “What’s wrong?”

Dad turned to us and whispered, “Her friends said they don’t like her anymore.”

“Oh.” Mom pursed her lips and turned to Bree. “You wasted all that time with them and they still left you?” She glanced at me with a knowing look, as if this was a life lesson.

Bree’s wailing loudened.

Mom approached her and put her calloused hand on my sister’s shoulder. “It’ll be alright. Now you’ll have more time to study.”

“I’m g-getting B’s!” she screamed through sobs. She pushed Mom’s hand away and turned her back to us.

Mom sighed. “Help your sister, Bryant,” she said. “Maybe you two can do homework together.” She left the room with Dad, not looking at Bree again.

I brought Bree to the couch and sat her down. “What happened?”

“They s-said they don’t wanna be friends with me b-because I took their clothes.”

“But you said you borrowed them-”

“I did! T-they just wanted an excuse.” She sniffled and buried her face in her hands. “T-they must’ve found out we’re poor because you invited f-friends over. Your friends must’ve told them.”

I frowned. “Was it a secret where we lived?” Sure, I hadn’t invited friends over until senior year, but that was because we weren’t that close outside of classes. Also, Mom would grill them with questions.

“Yes!” Bree picked up her phone and texted someone. They responded immediately. “I’m going out.”

“With who?”

She gave me a glare so nasty that I apologized. “Cover for me,” she said.

I watched her storm out the door, checkered designer jacket in hand, not daring to say a word.


“She gave me my headphones back!” I said with a grin as I stepped into the broom closet. I showed her my worn pair. “She was so happy when she found out about the volleyball game.”

Liv smiled at me, showing all of her teeth. She had a nice smile. “My parents didn’t complain at all when I said I wanted to play video games after dinner.”

“What game were you playing?” I asked while I scrolled through my phone for my playlist. Teachers weren’t too keen on me listening during class, but the headphones worked like a charm during passing periods.

“I just got the new courses for Mario Kart 8. Daisy Circut’s the best.”

I snorted and turned on the music.

“What does that mean?” she asked with a smile.

“Nothing, there’s just better options. Daisy Circut’s perfectly fine for mediocre players.”

“Mediocre! We’re gonna play sometime and I’ll destroy you.” Liv’s face heated up and she quickly added, “You know, for our parents.”

Wait, I didn’t need her anymore since I had the headphones. Surely Mom would be satisfied after I attended the game. I fiddled with them on my neck as I looked at her. But I just knew she’d be wonderful to play video games with. “I’d like that,” I said and shut off the music.

The game began at eight. Liv was waiting for me at the front doors when Mom dropped me off. Seeing her made me smile, though I wasn’t sure why.

While the players warmed up, they blasted pop music. It was a little loud, but not as terrible as expected. Liv and I walked into the gigantic gym and sat in the bleachers furthest back. The crowd trickled in and chose seats around us.

“I’ve never been to a volleyball game before,” Liv said while watching the players warm up.

“I’ve been to a few.” Bree used to drag me to all the games she’d cheer for. She stopped asking after sophomore year.

The audience began to cheer when the first of three sets began. Cheerleaders waved their pom poms from the sidelines as the players jogged onto the shining court. Oh, they must’ve brought the cheerleaders since it was the first game of the season. I pulled the headphones off my neck and held them in my hands. Every time the crowd screamed and the cheerleaders waved their pom poms, I gripped them a little tighter.

“You can put them on,” Liv yelled over the noise, nodding to the headphones.

“It’s alright,” I yelled back. I loosened my grip on them and gave her a smile. This wasn’t too bad. The game was interesting enough and the noise could be worse. I found myself clapping after a few particularly good points. Our team won the first set by five points.

After the first set, the cheerleaders ran onto the stage for a short performance. The girl in the middle – my sister’s replacement – hesitated a few times throughout the act. Bree was light years better.

As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I snapped my gaze to my feet. Why would they even bother with cheerleaders, it was just a volleyball game! My heartbeat sped up as I counted. After 93 seconds, the act was over and the next set began.

“You okay?” Liv asked when the second set was nearly over. It looked like the competing team was going to win this one.

I ripped my eyes away from the cheerleaders. A couple of them were stretching – likely for another performance. “Hm?”

She frowned. “Let’s get outta here.”

“Don’t you want to finish the game-”

“It’s boring.” She stood up before I could protest.

I sprung to my feet to follow, my hands still tightly wrapped around the headphones. The set ended as we left the gym. A few seconds later, music for the cheerleaders’ next act began. My body tensed. Bree used to blare that same song over and over again to practice.

“Wanna go on a walk?” Liv asked, her voice unnaturally loud.

I blinked a few times before looking at her. Mom wasn’t going to come back for at least half an hour. “Okay,” I said while putting my headphones back on my neck.

We walked past the endless mansions while talking about bad horror movies. Before I knew it, we agreed to watch Friday the 13th together over the weekend. Sure it would cut into my heavy metal music time, but something about her smile made me want to learn more about her.

In a blink of an eye, half an hour passed. We both called our parents and asked for more time, to which they happily agreed. We walked around the village for hours while going on about any dumb little thing that popped into our minds – there was just so much to talk about.

Music bellowed from a particularly big mansion, its flashing LED lights practically visible from space. I wasn’t sure who the popular kids were this year, but apparently they weren’t messing around. I quickened my pace to pass the house.

Now that I thought about it, I was awfully close to the place Dylan crashed. I winced and looked at Liv. “Could we go back?”


But as soon as we turned around, a black Mercedes parked next to us. The cheerleader from earlier popped out of the car and walked over to the passenger’s seat with a crutch.

Dylan Peterson stepped out of the car with a big grin on his face. He wrapped his beefy hand around her waist and said something that made her laugh.

After a few seconds, he glanced in my direction. His eyes widened.

Like last time, my body froze. I had been so careful to not see him, heck, I barely even looked up at school. But here he was, two blocks away from the crash, clutching the arm of his new girlfriend, ready to party and get drunk again.

He killed my sister.

I couldn’t bring myself to look away. My heartbeat pounded in my chest and my vision began to blur. This wasn’t like the last time when he was leaving the nurse’s office. He was going to a party, as if Bree never existed.

My hands curled into fists and I took a tiny step towards him.

“Bryant?” a voice whispered. A gentle hand wrapped around my forearm and shook it.

My vision cleared when I looked down at Liv. Her wide eyes stared at me and only me when she said, “Let’s go.”

I stared at her, my body trembling. But looking at her made my breaths slow down to almost normal. The rage churning inside me quickly dissipated, leaving something worse. Slimier.

I couldn’t help but glance at Dylan again. He turned away from me, his arm no longer around his girlfriend. He hobbled towards the mansion as quickly as he could. He’d always been like this. Ever since freshman year, the entire student body knew he played women, drank like there was no tomorrow, and did anything to preserve his ego. When he messed up, he just looked away.

And I still let him near my perfect sister.

My body began to run. I sprinted past the car, my vision fading in and out. The headphones Bree had given me for Christmas slipped off my neck and fell onto the sidewalk, but I didn’t bother to pick them up.


“Where are you?!” I hissed when Bree finally answered my 20th call. Heavy sleet fell in layers from the November night sky.

Bree giggled. “Out. Can you cover for me?”

“It’s 1 a.m., they’re worried sick! Tell me where you are and I’ll get Dad to pick you up.”

“No!” She stopped to yawn. Music beats and hundreds of indistinct conversations boomed through the phone. “Dylan’s driving me home.”

I wrinkled my nose. “He’s drinking, isn’t he!”

“He’s not doing anything, we’re just having a little fun.” Bree laughed, her voice as uneven as coarse waves. “Nothing wrong with that, it’s senior year.”

“You don’t sound that well. Please, I’ll talk to Mom and make her go easy on you-”

“I don’t need your help!” she snapped. “Just ‘cause I didn’t get a full-ride to Stanford doesn’t mean I have no common sense!”

I grimaced. “I didn’t say that.”

“But you thought it. You’ve always thought you’re better – that I need your help.”

“What? No! I…I’ve always wished I could be as social as you,” I mumbled, my face heating up.

Bree scoffed. “Cover for me.”

She hung up. I stared at my phone for half an hour before finally setting it aside. I sat next to my window as I always did on nights like these and waited for her to show up. An hour passed. Then two. By 4 a.m., my sister was still nowhere in sight.

Instead, the house phone rang.


The tree stood proud, no different than it was a year ago save for a thin green ribbon tied around it. I stood on the cracked curb in front of the tree and stared at the green satin. A ribbon, that’s all they left for her. They left all the remembering for me.

Liv ran up to me, her breath ragged. “You dropped this.” She handed me my headphones.

I took them and didn’t respond.

We stared at the tree in silence. A few seconds – or maybe hours – passed.

“Sorry about your sister,” she said.

“You knew?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.

“There’s a picture of her in the Commons.”


Apparently a drunk Dylan was trying to impress her by speeding through the slush on the side of the road and ended up losing control. They assured me she went quickly, but I knew she wouldn’t have gone without a fight. Was she thinking about me in her last few moments, when her legs and arm were completely shattered? Was she betting that once again, I’d swoop down and protect her?

Well, try to protect her anyway. Really, I just brought her here.

During the wake, funeral, and memorial ceremony, the silence was suffocating. All I wanted were these crappy Five Below headphones. But with Liv…the thoughts weren’t as scary. “It was my fault,” I mumbled while turning the headphones in my hands.


I frowned at her. “What do you mean ‘no,’ you weren’t there!”

“I heard what happened.” She stepped between me and the tree and went on her toes so I’d have to look her in the eyes. “You wanna talk about it?”

Her warm brown eyes led me in. She would listen and understand, I just knew it. “Not right now,” I said, my voice a mere whisper, “But sometime, if that’s okay.”

She nodded and smiled at me. “I’ll always be here to splash water on your face.”

The left corner of my mouth turned upwards. I glanced at the tree. Bree would want this – she would want me to be happy. Sure, my phone would soon blow up with texts when Mom checked my location, I’d have to face Dylan, and I’d have to acknowledge what happened to my twin sister, but right now, I shouldn’t worry about that. Maybe all those therapists were right. Maybe moving on didn’t mean forgetting.

The idea still boggled my mind, but not as badly as before.

I smiled at Liv, my friend. “Wanna watch Friday the 13th?”

“For our parents?” she asked, still smiling.

“No,” I said. “For us.”