Emily sat on the living room floor surrounded by her family photos. The breeze blowing through the open window slid the pictures around so she had to get rocks and paper weights to hold them still. She hadn’t brushed her hair in several days, so it was up in a messy-messy bun. Her face was as plain as it could be: no foundation, no eye-liner, no mascara, no lip gloss. The clothes she was wearing were clothes she pulled from the bottom of her closet and they probably needed to be washed. Joe didn’t mind if she smelled, though. He was curled up next to her with his head resting in her lap. Em ran her fingers through his fur as she stared at the pictures in front of her. In every one of them, her family was laughing and smiling. There was no pain or sadness. There was no fear of the future. Everything just seemed so carefree and perfect. And Em wanted to remember it that way.
The girl reached behind her and retrieved a plastic bag that held a bunch of different picture frames. She had taken a trip to Pa’s storage closet upstairs and found several nice frames that still had their tags on them. She figured there was no point in them sitting around and getting dusty, so she cleaned them off and decided to use them. Pa grumbled and made a snide comment when he found out, but at least he didn’t get too angry. Everyone on the ranch had to tip-toe around Pa now because he got agitated at nothing. Emily was relieved that he decided to let her use the picture frames because she didn’t want to go buy new ones. The girl took the first picture of her parents at their wedding and placed it into a white frame. She did the same with the rest of the pictures, placing them in white, brown, black, and tan picture frames. She carried the finished products up to her room, disturbing Joe as she pushed herself off of the floor. The dog padded behind her as she climbed the stairs and shuffled into her room. Em looked around the space, realizing that there were no shelves to put her pictures on. The only flat surfaces were the end tables sitting next to her bed. She walked over to one of them and placed a picture of the two sisters next to an urn. Em’s old pair of boots were resting behind the plain urn.
Emily abruptly pulled on her new boots that Pa purchased once she returned, grabbed her hat, and snatched the urn off of the end table. She marched past Joe and ran down the stairs. She made her way to the barn and ripped a bridal from its hanger. Em stepped out into the pasture, stuck two fingers in her mouth, and whistled. At first everything was still, but then Gypsy came trotting around the corner. The horse came to a stop a foot away from the girl, reaching out her nose and touching the urn that was resting in Em’s arms. Em gently petted Gypsy’s tender nose and then slid the halter into her mouth and over her ears. She led the horse through the barn and out into an open space next to a stool. She stepped onto the stool and pulled herself onto Gypsy’s bare back. Em cradled the urn in her elbow as she gently nudged Gypsy with her heel. The horse started with a walk, but the girl quickly brought her to a canter. Emily had never cantered Gypsy before, but all she wanted was to run. She wanted to run away with her sister and never turn back. She wanted to feel the wind in her hair. She wanted to hear the horse’s hooves thump against the ground. Em didn’t want to focus on the terrible things that had happened in her life. Instead, she wanted to focus on the here and now. She wanted to feel the sun on her face. She wanted to hear the birds chirping in the sky. She wanted to feel Gypsy’s body move beneath hers. She wanted all of these things for herself, but also for her sister. Dana wasn’t going to experience any or those things, so Emily was going to experience them for her. Dana would have loved the ranch. She would have loved the open fields and the endless possibilities.
Emily pulled back on Gypsy’s reins as they neared the ranch border. The horse slowed down to a trot, and then a walk, and then she eventually stopped. The girl sat on her back, letting the wind whip through her hair. She sat in the stillness with her eyes closed and tried to envision her sister next to her. Her horse would’ve been tall and pitch black: strong. She’d have her hair braided and a cowgirl hat resting on her head. She would be wearing the boots that had belonged to their father. As Em painted the picture in her mind, a smile came to her face. Yes, she mourned her sister, but she knew that Dana would never leave her. She knew that her older sister would always be with her, every step of the way. Her faith reassured her of it and the people around her reminded her everyday. The girl opened her eyes and climbed off of Gypsy’s bare back. The two stood side by side and stared out at the horizon.
Pa stared at his face in the bathroom mirror. His old, tired eyes stared back at him. The creases on his face were starting to multiply. The pain in his chest got worse whenever he worked to hard. And his mind was starting to wonder; he could barely remember his granddaughter’s own name… The old man sighed, letting his shoulders droop. He reached out a weak hand and opened the bathroom cabinet. He snatched a couple medicine bottles from the shelf and poured out the required number of pills. His hands continued to shake as he filled a glass with water and swallowed the pills one at a time. He would place a pill on the tip of his tongue, drink some water, and then repeat the process. Pa returned the medicine bottles to their shelf and then closed the cabinet. He splashed some water on to his face – spilling most of it on the bathroom floor – and then gazed back at his relfection. Droplets of water dripped from his crooked nose as he slowly wiped all of the water away with a towel. His face still looked old, dirty, and worn even though he had just washed it. With a grumble of disappointment, Pa limped out of the bathroom. He clung to the wall as he made his way down the hallway. He glanced in to Emily’s bedroom as he passed it, but then stopped. The urn was missing from her bedside table. With a grunt, the old man continued down the hallway and went down the stairs one at a time. Dusty was curled up in front of a fan in the living room, and Joe was running somewhere outside. Pa had stopped worrying about the puppy’s location a long time ago. He stopped to stoke Dusty’s head, though, before he entered the kitchen. Jackson was returning the lemonade pitcher to the refrigerator as the old man limped in to the kitchen.
“Have you…um…seen…” Pa trailed off, stuggling to search for the correct name, “…Emily?”
Jackson shook his head no as he gulped down his glass of lemonade. “I did notice, though, that Gypsy’s not out in the field,” he added.
Pa mumbled something beneath his breath. He leaned against the counter, itching his chest. Jackson stared at him with concern, forgetting about his half drunken glass of lemonade. The old man was silent for a long time, his hands resting on his chest. He was staring at the floor, concentrating on something that was invisible to Jackson. The boy remained quiet, though, not wanting to disturb Pa. Eventually, the silence became unbearable. Jackson set down his glass of lemonade and cleared his throat, snapping Pa out of his daydream.
“Do you want me to go look for her, Pa?” Jackson offered kindly.
“Yeah…” the old man grumbled, turning away from the boy. “Yeah, why don’t you go look for her…”
Jackson patted Pa on the shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile before marching out of the house. He hated watching Pa’s brilliant mind waste away. He couldn’t even remember Emily’s name; his own granddaughter. It was getting harder for him to form sentences and think of solutions to problems. He rubbed his chest more, but never complained about his health. He spent more time in the bathroom than usual, always by himself. Brian would offer to help, but that just embarrassed Pa. Jackson hated watching him wither away. He hated that Emily had to watch it. He was her only relative left, and she had to spend their time watching him forget. Soon he probably wouldn’t even recognize her face.
Jackson called out to his horse and quickly saddled him up. Baker was excited, as always, to get ridden by Jackson. The boy led his horse out into the open and pulled himself onto his back. He didn’t know where to look for Em because the ranch was so big. He would just have to start walking the border and see if she showed up. If she wasn’t on the ranch – which was unlikely – then he wouldn’t know where to look. Baker wanted to run at his full speed, but Jackson held him back to a trot. He didn’t want to startle Em when he did find her.
Em was sitting in the grassy field with Gypsy. The horse was lying down on the ground, and the girl was leaning up against her. Em had the urn cradled in her arms. Her initial thought was that she would take Dana’s ashes out into the field and throw them into the wind. She wanted to free her sister and herself from everything that was still holding them back. But once she reached the field and thought about it, she couldn’t open the urn. As always, something was holding her back. Something in her gut wanted to always keep Dana close, but something in her heart was telling her that Dana was always close. It didn’t matter if she kept the ashes, or if she released them; Dana was always going to be with her. With that final thought in her mind, Em closed her eyes and smiled. She reached for the lid of the urn and prepared to turn it when she heard hoof-steps behind her. She opened her eyes and pushed herself off of the ground, peering over Gypsy. Baker and Jackson were approaching from a distance, which, for some reason, didn’t excite Em. She wanted to be alone with her sister, her thoughts, and her God.
Jackson stopped Baker before they reached Emily. The boy hopped off of his horse and then walked over to the girl. She didn’t seem pleased to see him, which was surprising. She was clutching Dana’s urn in her arms but kept her eyes on Jackson. She watched as he walked over to her and then sat down on the ground. Emily joined him after several seconds.
“Pa was worried about you,” the boy explained, pulling on a blade of grass. “That’s why I came out to find you.”
Jackson chuckled, “I figured.”
“I just needed time…alone…”
The breeze blew between them as they sat in silence. Emily didn’t have anything to say to Jackson, and the boy had already said everything he needed. Em continued to stare out at the horizon, rubbing her thumb along the urn’s rim. Jackson simply stared at the ground as he pulled on the grass. The silence between them was awkward at first, but then became peaceful. There was no need for words or movement. In the quiet – with the wind brushing through Em’s hair – she could actually hear Dana’s voice in her head.
“You know I care about you, right?”
“I know…” Em whispered, smiling at the sound of her sister’s voice.
Jackson looked over at Emily, noticing that she was talking to herself. Her eyes were closed and tears calmly slid down her cheeks. She didn’t seem in distress or anything, so he shifted his attention back to the ground. He didn’t want to disturb her thoughts, or the peace she was finally finding.
“And I’ll always love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Emily could almost see her sister smile…
“Promise you’ll be good and won’t do anything crazy?”
Em smirked, “I promise.”
“I’m sorry, Em…”
Emily reached up and wiped away the tears that were sliding down her cheeks. She rubbed her nose with her sleeve and pushed her windblown hair out of her face. She gripped the urn a little tighter, needing something to hold on to. Jackson was sitting next to her, but that wasn’t the type of comfort Em needed. Honestly, she didn’t know what kind of comfort she needed… The girl took a deep breath, trying to calm her thoughts and feelings. All of a sudden, Em pushed herself off of the ground and away from Gypsy; the horse adjusted herself as the girl began to walk away. Jackson called out to her, but Em didn’t answer. She kept her focus on the horizon as she walked across the field. Jackson abruptly stood up and focused on Emily’s movements. If she was going to do something crazy, he wanted to be prepared to stop her. He watched as she came to a stop several feet away from him. She just stood there, letting the wind brush through her hair. Jackson noticed that her strawberry blonde hair glowed under the bright sun. He also noticed that Em was standing unusually still. He began taking small steps towards her, again not wanting to disturb her.
Emily felt a warm presence behind her, and then strong comforting hands on her shoulders. Due to the same experience she had at the hospital, she figured it wasn’t Jackson. She took another deep breath and relaxed into the comfort the presence provided. The warm sun beat down on her face, and the breeze slightly burned as it became stronger. Em suddenly grinned, but didn’t open her eyes.
“Let her go,” a smooth voice said. “It’s time to let her go. She will always be with you, and so will I.”
Emily opened her eyes and took a couple more steps. She then reached for the lid of the urn and unscrewed it. She lifted it away from her body and flung the ashes into the air. Her sister’s ashes lifted out of the urn and got caught in the force of the wind. They flew around Em and then up into the sky to join the birds. Jackson watched from behind Emily, amazed that she released Dana’s ashes. It was honestly a beautiful sight. Emily was staring up at the sky, her hat resting on top of her head as her hair waved behind her. She wasn’t crying; she wasn’t even sad. Instead, she had a smile plastered to her face. She was finally at peace with everything that had happened.
Em put the lid back on the urn and shoved her hat further on her head. She then turned around and looked at Jackson. He was staring at her in amazement. The more she stared at him, though, a slight smile started to form on his face. He walked over to her and embraced her. She fell in to his strong body, resting her head against his chest. She could hear is heartbeat, and it reminded her that she was finally home. The people around her on the ranch might not be her family by blood (except for Pa) but they were her family none-the-less. They cared about her; they truly cared about her. Brain was the one who always picked her up – literally or figuratively – whenever she wasn’t strong enough to keep going. Johnny was quiet, but he always provided comforting words whenever she needed them. Jackson was the one who held her and whispered in her ear that everything was going to be alright in the end. And Pa was the guardian angel she had never had. He was always going to be there to make sure she was properly taken care of. He was going to make sure that she was never alone again. He was going to make sure she had a good life and that she was surrounded by people who loved her. Even though his health was failing, he would spend his last breath making sure his granddaughter was provided with a good life.
Jackson pulled away from Emily and held her face in his hands. Emily gripped his waist as he rested his forehead against hers.
“I love you,” he whispered.
Emily tilted her head upwards and kissed him. “I know.”
The two teenagers marched back to their horses, hand-in-hand. Emily pulled Gypsy off of the ground and Jackson helped her climb on to the horse’s back. Jackson climbed in to Baker’s saddle and then started back towards the ranch house. Em wasn’t very far behind them, and soon they were walking side-by-side. They didn’t really say anything on the way back. They simply enjoyed each other’s company and the cool breeze that saved them from the hot sun. They walked all the way back to the ranch, which took longer, but they were in no rush. Emily knew that Pa was going to be waiting for her. He would probably be sitting on the front porch with a cup of tea or coffee. Brian and Johnny would be working in the barn or in the field with the horses. Even with everything that had happened, everyone was in good spirits. Nobody was going to let the events of the past ruin the future, including Emily.
Sure enough, as Em and Jackson approached the house, Pa was sitting on the front porch on the glider. He smiled as his granddaughter dismounted her horse and handed the reins to Jackson. She climbed the stairs of the porch and then sat down next to her grandpa. She removed her hat and wiped her sweaty forehead with her shirt. Pa reached into his pocket and revealed a handkerchief, which he offered to Emily. She took it and wiped all of the sweat off of her face, and then placed her cowboy hat back on her head.
“Thank you,” she declared, handing the soiled handkerchief back to her grandpa.
Pa took it with a grumble and stuffed it back in his pocket. The screen door suddenly screeched open and Dusty limped onto the porch. The old dog padded over to Pa and laid down at his feet. Em reached down and brushed her fingers through the dog’s fur. Dusty was slowly fading, just like Pa. Em hated to think of the day when neither of them would be around. When she first came to the ranch, she was uncomfortable with the idea of living with dogs, but now she didn’t want to see them go. Emily finished petting Dusty and then sat back in the glider. She noticed Jackson walking out of the barn. He marched up the porch steps and prepared to open the screen door.
“Do you want anything to drink, Em?” he offered.
“Sure. Lemonade is fine.”
The boy pulled the screen door open and disappeared inside. Pa noisily sipped from his mug and then set it aside. He reached over and took Emily’s hand in his. His callused hand with its crooked fingers felt weird against Em’s smooth skin, but she didn’t let go. She didn’t say anything, but he eventually cleared his throat and spoke up.
“Emily,” the old man began confidently, “I want you to know that I’m…sorry…for everything…” Pa struggled to find the right words. “I know your time here has not been…what you thought…it would be.”
The old man held up his free hand. “I know it’s been hard…for you…to get used to life…here. With everything that’s…happened…I still don’t understand how…or why…you’ve stayed.”
“Because you’re all I have,” Em interrupted.
“I know,” Pa patted the girl’s hand. “I know…”
Pa suddenly lost his train of thought and let his gaze wonder. Emily looked at him with concern, noticing the lost look on his face. She wanted to wait for him to continue, but she didn’t know how long that would take. Instead, she gripped her grandfather’s hand tighter and looked him in the eyes.
“Thank you,” she declared. “Thank you for everything, Pa.”
Again, the old man patted Em’s hand. “You’re quite welcome.”
Emily thought she saw tears glistening in the old man’s eyes as she moved closer to her grandfather and rested her head on his thick shoulders. Pa stiffened at first, surprised by the girl’s movement. After several seconds, though, he relaxed and rested his head against hers. He knew that his memory was starting fade. He knew that someday he wouldn’t remember his granddaughter’s name. He figured that someday he probably wouldn’t even recognize her face. Therefore, he wanted to cherish every moment he had with her: Emily. The girl who came in to his life a month or so ago. They were complete strangers. They had never met or talked before. But through their time together, they had changed each other’s lives. Pa had opened Emily’s mind to the possibility of a good life and a positive future. And Em had filled the old man’s life with spirit. They had helped each other in ways that couldn’t be explained. They knew that no matter what happened, they would always have each other. Even if Pa’s mind dissolved in to nothing, Emily would always be able to go to him. He would always welcome her with open arms because that’s the kind of man that he was. He was kind and caring, even if he seemed grumpy on the outside. There was nothing that could change the way he felt about Emily. And there was nothing that could change the way Emily felt about Pa. They were connected by so much more than blood, and that meant they would always be there for each other. No matter what happened.