Unedited and subject to change.
Saving Tantum by Micalea Smeltzer
I jolted awake at the sound of someone trying to beat our front door down. I sat straight up, the blankets pooling at my waist. My head twisted to look at the blinking orange numbers flashing on the clock beside my bed. Three in the morning.
Fear slithered down my spine like a serpent.
Nothing good came from someone at your door that early in the morning.
I heaved my tired body out of bed. My muscles were stiff and overworked from a rigorous cheerleading practice the night before.
I opened my bedroom door and poked my head out. I saw my mom and dad coming out of their bedroom. A baseball bat was clutched in my dad’s hand. What did he think he was going to do to an intruder with that? Knock them out? Besides, if someone was trying to break in, why would they be knocking on the door?
“Stay up here, Tate,” my dad warned, quietly tiptoeing down the steps. My mom followed him even though he warned her to stay put as well.
I kept watch on the door.
My dad looked through the peephole and muttered, “What the hell?”
Swinging it open, I saw red and blue flashing lights and an officer stood at our door.
I rolled my eyes. The neighbor’s kids were probably vandalizing again.
I was about to close my door and get back in bed, when I heard the officer speak.
“Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor?” He asked. He was young and nervous, obviously new to the police force.
“That’s us,” my dad answered, “is there a problem?”
“It’s about your son, there’s been an accident. I’m so sorry to tell you this, but he didn’t make it.” His face was somber, eyes downcast.
My mom let out a piercing, soul-crushing wail, and started to fall. My dad’s arm held her upright.
But there was no one there to hold me up.
I crumbled to the floor, clutching at my chest.
I couldn’t breathe.
I was suffocating under the pressure.
He didn’t make it.
He was dead. My big brother—my best friend—was gone.
“I’m sorry,” I heard the officer say one more time before my dad closed the door. His cries soon joined the sound of my mother’s.
Tears streamed down my face, but my sobs were silent.
Graham was gone. In a matter of hours he’d been ripped from my life forever. I’d just seen him at dinner and we’d been talking about school and how I’d be cheering at the football game on Friday. He was telling me how proud he was of me.
Everything had been perfect. The way it was supposed to be.
Something like this wasn’t supposed to happen.
This was Graham’s last year of high school. He was supposed to leave for college and study to be a lawyer like our dad.
He. Wasn’t. Supposed. To. Die.
None of this was supposed to happen.
My perfect life wasn’t supposed to explode like this.
But it did.
Over night, I went from having it all, to having nothing.
I watched my mom close herself off from everybody.
I watched my dad spend his every waking hour slaving over his job so he didn’t have to think about Graham, or mom, or even me.
I watched myself slowly spiral from a carefree happy girl, into a complete and utter cynic.
And I knew exactly who was to blame for everything.
I grinned as the Professor explained our final assignment. As he talked an idea formed in my mind. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. As a journalism major, we were always writing papers and doing interviews, but this one was to count for fifty percent of our final grade. I wanted to make sure mine stuck out.
“The next time I see you, I’d like for you all to have an idea for your paper. Come to me for final approval before you leave class Wednesday.”
When the professor dismissed us, I calmly made my way down the steps to his desk.
“Professor Taylor?” I asked, my voice soft and hesitant.
He looked up, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Yes, Ms. O’Connor?”
“I already know what I want to do my paper on.” I rocked back on my heels, clasping my books tightly in my hands.
“All right,” he steepled his fingers, “what is it?”
“I have a friend here who’s studying to be a nurse, I thought maybe I could shadow her and learn more about the process of going into the medical field. I want it to be more than a question and answer session. I want to delve into all the hard work these students go through to become our health care providers.” With a sigh, I waited patiently for him to think it over.
He nodded slowly, mulling it over. “It sounds interesting. Go for it.”
“Thank you!” I exclaimed. Sobering, I said in a calmer tone, “Thank you so much. I’m really excited about this.”
He chuckled. “Ms. O’Connor, I think you’re always my most excited journalism major. It’s refreshing. It reminds me why I wanted to do this job in the first place.”
“Thank you again,” I told him. I jogged up the steps and out the door.
I headed across campus to the cafeteria. It was a crisp March afternoon. Some days were down right freezing, while some held the promise of spring. I let the small amount of sun filtering between the tree branches warm my face. I smiled, my blonde hair swaying around my shoulders. I couldn’t believe that in a few short months I’d be graduating. It didn’t seem real. Once college was over, it was time for real life. While I was mostly excited, there was a small part of me that was terrified. I’d never liked the unknown.
Once in the cafeteria I got my food and sat down at the usual table I shared with Rowan…and sometimes Jude. God, I hated that guy with every fiber of my being. Unfortunately, he was also friends with Rowan, which meant I was kind of stuck with him.
Rowan took the seat across from me, dropping her bag on the floor. With a heavy sigh she poured dressing on her salad and used a fork to swirl the leafy pieces around the bowl. “I’m so tired,” she propped her head on one hand and took a bite. “Between classes, and wedding planning, on top of the kids, I’m beat.”
I frowned. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s my own fault,” she huffed, pulling her long light brown hair into a ponytail. “I should’ve told Trent that I wanted to wait longer to get married. But he was adamant on not waiting more than a year.” She scrubbed a hand over her eyes. “At least he’s been helpful, but there’s only so much a guy can do when it comes to wedding planning,” she rolled her eyes.
With a clatter Jude dropped his backpack on the table. I glared up at him. “Can you not put your stuff down gently like a normal person?” I asked him.
“No.” He grinned, backing away to go get his food. Everything Jude did got on my nerves. It was like he had a special talent for irritating me.
Rowan and I fell into silence. I itched to ask her if she’d help me with my project, but I wasn’t sure if I should in her current mood.
Jude finally joined us again and I couldn’t stand it any more.
“Row?” I cleared my throat.
“Yeah?” She looked up, wiping a piece of lettuce from her lip.
I explained my paper and what I wanted to do. Her face fell.
“Oh, Tate, I wish I could help you but I’m far too busy.” She frowned, looking at me sadly.
I groaned. “But I already got my paper approved! Come on! I won’t be in your way!” I begged, desperation overtaking my tone.
“I can’t, Tate. Not with all I have on my plate. I’m really sorry.” I knew she was, but it didn’t make me feel any better.
I buried my head in my hands. Great, now I had to start from scratch. Lovely.
“You can shadow me.”
“What?” My head snapped up and I glared at Jude. “No way.”
He sighed heavily. “Don’t be stubborn, Tate—”
“Once again, you are not allowed to call me Tate,” I interrupted him.
Grinning, he said, “Tatum, I can help you with your project. Now be a good girl, nod your head, and accept my help.”
Why? Why did Jude have to be studying to be a nurse too?
Nibbling on my bottom lip, I did what I had to do. “Okay.” I couldn’t believe I was agreeing to this. I was willingly going to be spending time with Jude Brooks—the guy who singlehandedly ruined my life. Monday’s sucked.
“That was easier than I thought,” Jude smirked, crossing his hands behind his head. “This is going to be fun.”
“No, it’s not fun,” I spat the word. “It’s my final paper. I need a good grade for this, so don’t screw with me,” I pointed a finger at him.
“You need to chill,” he eyed me. “You’re too stressed. You know what’s an excellent stress reliever?”
“What?” I asked, even though I knew I shouldn’t.
My eyes widened. “Oh, really. Are you suggesting I have sex with you?”
His grin became even bigger. “I mean, if you’re interested, I could always show you a good time. I promise to make it worth your while,” he winked.
“Keep dreaming,” I muttered, returning my attention to my lunch.
“I don’t have to dream. I’m not giving up on you Tate.”
I looked up, choosing to ignore him calling me Tate again. “There will never be an ‘us.’ Besides,” I leaned closer and lowered my voice like I was letting him in on a secret, “it’s not like you’re hurting for a little fun between the sheets.” I nodded towards all the girls that had their eyes on Jude. I might hate the guy, but he was hot—in that All-American sort of way. With his brown hair and eyes, and that grin, he drew women to him like a magnet. Everyone on campus knew he was a player, but most girls didn’t care. They were more than happy to be a notch on his bedpost. Not me, though, and I knew that was the real reason Jude wouldn’t leave me alone. I was the only female on campus that posed a challenge.
He gasped dramatically and put a hand over his heart, like was offended by my words. “I deserve to have some fun while I wait for you to wake up and realize that we’re perfect for each other.”
I rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to my food. I wasn’t wasting any more of my time on Jude. I couldn’t believe I was going to be stuck shadowing him…hours of just the two of us. It was like my own personal hell.
“Well, ladies, this has been nice and all, but I need to go,” Jude mumbled, standing up and grabbing his backpack. He shoved his phone in his pocket, his brows furrowed together in concern. I wondered what was wrong, but there was no way I was going to ask. He grabbed an apple off his tray and stuck it in his mouth. He gave us a salute and headed out the double doors.
Rowan looked across the table at me and sighed. She did that a lot. “I really am sorry I couldn’t help you, but at least there’s Jude. I mean, it won’t be that bad, right?”
I glared at her. “That bad? I hate him.”
“But why?” She asked. “He’s not a bad guy at all, Tate. He’s really nice once you get to know him. I wouldn’t be friend’s with him otherwise.”
“You don’t understand,” I squirmed in my seat. “You don’t know him like I do.”
“You’re right,” she grinned like the cat that ate the canary. “I know him better.”
I was over this conversation. I knew even if I told her the truth, I’d never be able to make her see.
We finished our lunch in silence and went our separate ways.
When classes were over I met Rowan for our daily study session in the library. A lot of time Jude joined us, but today wasn’t one of those days. When my homework was done I knew I couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer. I had to go home, back to the place I dreaded the most.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I told Row, shrugging my backpack on. She barely nodded at me as I left. Even though she had her fiancé, Trenton, to take care of her now, she still wanted to get her degree and have a job. I couldn’t blame her. I craved independence too. There was something satisfying about knowing you could stand on your own two feet without anyone else’s help.
I made the drive home blasting the radio. I enjoyed the noise because once I got home there would be nothing but silence.
Once upon a time we’d been a happy family. We’d laughed and talked and sometimes even fought. But that was before Graham died. Now we were broken, merely a fragment of the family we’d once been. We lost the glue that held us together.
My dad buried himself in work, and when he was home he was always angry, yelling at me and telling me to do better.
Mom retreated into herself. Her eyes now held a vacant, lost look. She stared listlessly for hours out the window, and it was like she was always watching for Graham to return.
I worked hard to be the perfect daughter, to be noticed by them, but it did no good.
I didn’t know why I kept trying.
I parked in the driveway and headed inside.
The house was dark. Not a single light on. That was normal.
“Mom,” I called out. No answer. “Mom?”
I found her standing in the kitchen by the sink, looking out the window that overlooked the street. She didn’t move as I approached.
“Come on, mom,” I whispered, taking her hand in mine and pulling her away.
I led her to the living room and forced her to sit on the couch. I turned the TV on, but it wasn’t necessary. She wouldn’t watch it.
“I’ll make dinner.” I kissed her forehead.
She did nothing to acknowledge my words. It was like I didn’t exist…or maybe she was the one that didn’t exist. Watching someone you loved wither away to nothing was hard. She’d lost a lot of weight since Graham died seven years ago. I swear, she couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. She was skin and bones.
I really hated the look that was always in her eyes now. Like she was lost and didn’t know where she was. It hurt that she couldn’t be strong enough to be there for me. At the same time, I understood. Graham was the golden boy. He was the perfect son and brother. I loved and admired him. He was my best friend growing up and unlike other siblings we never drifted apart. I missed him every day, but I refused to shut down like my parents. Graham might be gone, but I sill deserved to live my life.
I made dinner, took a plate to my mom, and then sat by myself at the kitchen table.
It didn’t matter if my mom or even my dad was here, I was always alone when I was home.
The moment Graham was buried we stopped being a family.
I knew in the amount of years that had passed I should be over it, but I wasn’t. I missed my mom and dad, but there was nothing I could do to fix the mess we’d become.
I was torn about leaving. Most people had already moved out of their parent’s place, but I was scared of what would happen to my mom if I left. I was starting to crave my independence, though. I felt trapped by the memories here. I wanted a fresh start, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get one.
I guessed only time would tell.