Ryan had always wondered who decided to put a graveyard across the street from a local pool. Or to put a pool across the street from a graveyard, since he wasn’t actually sure which came first. In the distance, he could hear children playing, screaming, splashing. Living. Isabel had worked there as a lifeguard. As a teenager, she had practically lived there, but now she didn’t even glance across the street. Instead, her attention was fixed on the small pile of leaves that had accumulated on the grave.
“Does no one ever keep this place clean?” she growled, clearing a space for the flowers.
Ryan put a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t think it looked that bad, but Isabel was displeased about something every time they visited.
“I miss them,” Isabel said. “More now than ever. Could you imagine if they were around for all this?”
Despite the sadness he always felt at the gravesite, Ryan grinned. “Assuming they believed it was real?”
Isabel wiped her eyes. “Yeah, assuming that. What would they say?”
“Mom would tell me that I shouldn’t let it go to my head. Dad would tell me I should pray for guidance. Assuming they didn’t think I actually was the Antichrist.”
“They wouldn’t,” Isabel said firmly. “You know better than that.”
“I don’t, though.” Ryan sighed. “I don’t think they ever really forgave me for ‘making up’ Nabu.”
They lapsed into silence as they stared at the grave. A long, low whistle blast floated over from the pool, followed by a splash. A number of other whistles joined in the chorus – a lifeguard had jumped into the pool to rescue someone.
Isabel’s hand went up to her neck, and then chuckled as she realized she had automatically reached for a whistle.
“Old habits die hard?” Ryan asked.
“It’s that damn pool. A foot deeper in the middle than the edges. I swear, jumping in to save someone became routine.”
“I remember all too well,” Ryan said. “You never stopped texting me about it on your breaks. ‘I just saved someone’s life, what did you do today?’ was my personal favorite.”
Isabel chuckled. “I used that one on mom when she caught me sneaking in after midnight one night.”
“What’d she say?”
“‘Good for you. I grounded my daughter today. For a week.’”
That got a long, hearty laugh from Ryan. “They never caught me sneaking in after midnight.”
Isabel rolled her eyes. “You had to leave the house to get caught sneaking in, Ryan. You were a boring teenager.”
“I’m not boring anymore?”
“Nope, still boring. Just not a teenager.” Isabel smiled at him, and turned back to the grave. “You know, there was another time I got caught sneaking in. I think it was like three or four a.m, senior year. I was pretty blitzed.”
Ryan smiled. “I’m sure mom was thrilled about that.”
“Worse. Dad caught me.”
Ryan winced in sympathy. “What happened?”
“He started laying into me about respect and truth and all that. Said if I couldn’t act like a responsible adult, maybe I should live at home my freshman year, and you know how much I was looking forward to living on campus. I…like I said, I was drunk. I shouted at him something along the lines of ‘Ryan lied to you for years about an imaginary friend, but I’m in trouble for having a life?’” This time, Ryan’s wince had nothing to do with sympathy. Isabel held up a hand. “There’s a point, I swear.”
Ryan motioned for her to continue.
“I’d never seen Dad get that red before. Not when he caught me with weed, not even when I told him Shelly had cheated on me. You know how you’d always know he was really mad because he stopped yelling?”
“Oh yeah, I remember that one all too well.”
“He told me we’d talk in the morning. That he wasn’t having this discussion when I was drunk. The next thing, first thing in the morning he woke me up, soon as Mom had gone to work.”
“And?” Ryan asked.
“He told me that I was never to bring that up again. Not with you, not with him, not with Mom, not with anyone. He was worried about you, Ryan. But he wasn’t angry with you, not anymore. He thought you were having problems, bigger problems than you’d ever talked about, and it scared him shitless. Scared me, too. Remember the time I randomly called you to tell you I loved you, and wouldn’t say why?”
Ryan nodded. It had disturbed him, and he’d called his dad immediately afterwards. “I thought you were in trouble. Or high.”
Isabel chuckled. “Neither. We’d just had that conversation. We talked about it again after I finished college. Dad told me he didn’t know what was going on, but he wasn’t worried anymore. That you were doing fine, so whatever was wrong – if it had been in your head or just something else – had to be dealt with.”
Ryan felt tears coming to his eyes, and gave Isabel a hug. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That I used the biggest fight you ever had with Mom and Dad to deflect that I was drunk, and then Dad scared me with how worried he was about you?” Isabel broke the hug. “Why the hell do you think I didn’t?”
Ryan sniffed and then laughed. “Fair enough. Thank you. I…I needed to hear that.”
Isabel smiled, and there were tears in her eyes too. “You know, this might have been our last chance to come here and not cry.”
Ryan nodded. “I’m not sad that we blew it. Are you?”
They took a moment to say goodbye to their parents one last time, and then turned to leave.
It was time to look after the living.