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I come home late one evening and my parents are finishing dinner, not speaking to each other, staring disinterestedly at the news.
“Where’ve you been?” my mom looks up, and it’s only now that I see the bags under her eyes, the quietness in her voice.
I place my bag and camera down on the couch and sit down quietly at the dinner table.
My dad grunts a greeting at me and gets up to place his dishes in the sink.
“Therapy.” I reply honestly, the word falling onto the table like the violent clatter of a fork.
My dad immediately looks over, eyes sharp, and my mom leans forward, her eyes widening slightly.
“We need to talk,” I say quickly, but my voice now is steadier than it has been in months. “I know things have been hard for us, but you need to understand – losing Lucas, especially in that way – it was traumatic. It really was, and that’s the word I got to use for it, because that’s what it was. And ignoring it isn’t going to help anyone anymore. And it’s been really, really hard, mom, but I’m trying – ”
“Isaac, I know. And I’m – I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” my mom says, and my words falter into stunned silence.
I meet her gaze, and there are tears growing in her eyes. Any other word I’m about to say gets choked and tangled in my throat, and I find myself taking her hand gently in mine.
“I know,” I say quietly. I tense as my dad comes to sit back down, but he doesn’t say anything, only stays there still with his hands clasped in front of him.
I take a deep breath.
“I think we should all go in for a session one day,” I suggest quietly. I wait for any retorts but there are none.
“I don’t need therapy,” my dad begins, but my mom cuts him off.
“Okay, Isaac. I want to know what’s going on, too.”
I exhale, rubbing my eyes and letting my body finally relax slightly on the spot.
This is a start, at least.
I meet Marcus at his place and he holds out a large, heavy bag at me.
“What’s this?” I ask curiously, taking it from him as I settle in my usual position on the bed.
He sits there before me leaning on one hand and gestures at it.
I peer inside and begin to pull it out; it’s a heavy, warm blanket that I can barely lift fully.
“It’s a weighted blanket,” Marcus explains.
“I know,” I reply, feeling the soft fabric between my fingers. “My therapist told me it might be a good idea to get one. How’d you know?”
Marcus rubs the back of his neck and looks shyly up at me for a moment. “I was searching up ways to help you sleep better. To help with your nightmares and insomnia and stuff. And this was a big suggestion. Sorry if that was overstepping – ”
He doesn’t get to finish his sentence because I throw my arms around him, my heart beating rapidly in my chest.
“Thank you so much,” I say to him as I pull back, slightly embarrassed but smiling. “Really. This will help a lot.”
He smiles at me and gets his laptop, opening up his homework. I settle underneath his blankets and place my earphones in, shuffling our piano playlist and opening up my history textbook.
We sit together as the afternoon rolls around us like many similar afternoons have done before.
My laptop is open before me as I keep refreshing the page, and the weighted blanket is draped over my back.
One of Lucas’ photos is in my shaking hands and I can barely bring myself to look down at it. My friend’s face swims in my vision, and the roaring noise starts again, and I hug the photo closer to me. The world is growing further and further away, tunneling into nothing but this photo that Lucas took of the rolling fields, and the competition web page being constantly reloaded in front of me.
I place the photo down, turning it over, and run my hands up and down the blanket, closing my eyes and breathing, leaning closer to the window so the cool air drifts past my face.
Finally, I lie down and hug my laptop next to me for a moment before turning it on.
I scroll up and down the competition webpage for a minute longer before refreshing again, holding my breath, my entire body tense and taut.
We are happy to announce the winner of this year’s photography competition: The Natural World –
I close my laptop slowly and continue lying there, staring up at the ceiling. My entire body is foreign to me. The fluttering leaves outside fill my ears and senses. And I start smiling. And I can’t stop smiling. And then I’m laughing, and I’m dialing Marcus’ number.
“Isaac?” he greets.
“I won. Marcus, I won.”
“What? Holy shit, you’re kidding me.”
“I’m not, Marcus. I’m not – I won. I’ll be getting an exhibition. Marcus – Marcus I – ” I stammer, picking up the photograph I was holding earlier. My hands are trembling now more than ever, and I still can’t turn it over, but I clutch it close to me, breathing quickly.
“I’m coming over. We gotta celebrate.”
“Let’s meet at the diner,” I suggest, and with a sound of acknowledgement, Marcus hangs up, and I’m half dancing around the room, grabbing the red box from underneath the bed. I place the photo I was holding back in, and hold the box in front of me for a moment.
I bow my head down at the now scrapped up box and I’m crying as a chaotic whirl of emotions crash through my body one at a time, together, all at once – happiness and grief and excitement and guilt and joy and nostalgia.
“Lucas, I wish it could’ve been you. But this is the best I can do, for you, for us.”
I gently place the box underneath my bed again and run out the door.