The mud still caked to the bottom of his shoes was the first thing Drew noticed upon waking up at Sean’s apartment the night after getting very drunk with his new co-workers. At first, he was confused. He remembered getting very drunk, having a good time with Emma, Sean offering to let him stay the night...but nothing muddy. And then it came back to him, the other thing.
He saw Charlie last night.
The memories snapped back into his consciousness as he pushed himself into a sitting position on Sean’s couch. He had seen Charlie plenty of times as a kid, even occasionally in college. A kid would walk by that looked just like him or had the same voice and for a split second Drew’s brain would try to tell him that it really was his brother. But of course, it never was his little brother. He would look over at the random kid and see that it was, in fact, just a random kid. But this was different. This time, it really was him.
Drew sat there on the couch; resting his elbows on his knees, burying his face in his hands, and went over every single thing he could remember from the previous night. Charlie had taken him all around town and shown him the truth about how he was murdered. His stomach dropped at the recollection of Charlie telling him that Uncle Eric was somehow involved.
None of it made sense.
It had all felt so real, but it couldn’t have been real, Drew thought. Just a vivid dream, he told himself, it had to be. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen. He looked down at the mud on his shoes and shook his head. There had to be a reasonable explanation.
“Stepped in a mud puddle when Sean took me around back to the stairs,” Drew said to the empty apartment.
Drew went about the rest of his day trying to convince himself that the events of the previous night had been a dream. Nothing more than a drunken hallucination brought on by all of the memories that his return to Reynolds stirred up in his mind. After leaving the apartment, he walked down to the bar, thanked Sean, and retrieved his car from the Tribune parking lot. All the while he was sure that the memories of seeing Charlie would fade, just like any other dream.
But as Saturday stretched on as he helped his Grandma around the house, Drew took several long walks around town and tried to start writing the Next Great American Novel, that dream hadn’t yet faded. In his heart he knew this was, because it wasn’t really a dream, it had really happened, but his head told him otherwise. These sorts of things don’t happen, can’t happen. These are the sorts of things that years of therapy after moving away from Reynolds convinced him could not and would not happen. By the time Sunday rolled around, he started to repeat the words of so many different therapists aloud to himself.
“Just a visual manifestation of my grief.”
And yet, Drew still didn’t believe himself. Still, heart and head were at war with one another. Late Sunday night, Drew lay in bed so anxious that sleep was an impossibility. His first real day of work at the paper was tomorrow and he knew he wouldn’t be able to focus. His Friday night stroll around town with his dead little brother, Charlie, occupied his every waking moment and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. He was glad, at least, that he was the nephew of the boss; he’d probably be able to get away with zoning out for a while.
Drew’s thoughts then turned to his Uncle once again and he realized at last how to solve his problem. Charlie had told, even shown him, that his uncle was somehow involved in his kidnapping. According to the ghost of his brother, Uncle Eric had come to pick him up from school that day; an event that didn’t fit into the official timeline of Charlie’s death and something that Eric had never admitted to doing.
“That’s because it never happened,” Drew said to his bedroom ceiling. All he had to do, Drew suddenly realized, was ask his Uncle about Charlie’s death. Just say that he had a memory about the whole thing that didn’t make sense. A memory of him, going to pick Charlie up from school that day. Eric would of course laugh and say something about how memory is funny and that he wasn’t at school that day at all. Right, that it just didn’t happen like that. Drew knew he would be able to tell if Uncle Eric’s reaction was genuine or not, because his Uncle was a terrible liar. As a kid, Drew found out about countless birthday and Hanukkah gifts simply by asking his Uncle Eric what he was getting and the look on the man’s face would tell the whole story. For similar reasons, Uncle Eric was also terrible at cards.
And then, after getting confirmation from Uncle Eric, Drew would be able to file away his strange dream of seeing Charlie and never think about it again. Because if that one detail of Charlie’s story was wrong, then it all must have been wrong. And of course it was wrong, Eric thought, because it was all a dream. A crazy dream, manifested by his grief and guilt surrounding his brother’s death. Just old demons coming out of the woodwork.
The thought of resolving his strange experience (Just a dream, he said aloud) made the anxiety melt away and he began to fall asleep almost instantly. When Drew arrived at work the next day, he was feeling confident, happy even. He strode through the doors of the Reynolds Tribune, with a smile on his face, greeting everyone he saw with a loud hello. He would get the talk with his Uncle over with and then he could get the fresh start he came to Reynolds for in the first place. He could start that novel, maybe even ask out Emma.
Drew stopped dead in his tracks, literally, at the thought of asking out Emma. He shook his head, surprised at himself. The wounds from the breakup with Sara were still fresh, some of them still wide open even. He couldn't believe here he was already thinking about moving on with some other girl. Drew shook his head again and kept walking. Guess the little head does control the big head, he thought to himself. Screw the wounds then, he thought. Maybe the best way to heal was by just getting on with things. The world doesn’t stop to give people time to be sad; it was a phrase he remembered his Uncle saying often and one he learned to live by after Charlie’s death.
So maybe, he would ask Emma out. It was a thought that made Drew grin as he approached Eric’s office. But as soon as he walked up to the glass door and saw his Uncle’s face, that grin fell away. All at once, the images that his brother had shown him the night before, flashed through his mind of Eric and Charlie in the Greystone Academy parking lot of the two of them walking towards his red Corvette. Memories appeared of the two mystery men coming up behind Charlie and bashing him in the head. Then, the confusing fragments of memories that didn’t make sense, like, a bloody boy running towards him in Alcott Park, screaming and yelling while running as fast as he could.
It was Uncle Eric’s signature thundering voice that snapped him out of his thoughts.
“You okay, kiddo?” he said. “You look like you just shit your pants.”
Drew looked at his Uncle and stammered, trying to push out the words that just a few minutes ago would have come so easily. He took a deep breath and did as he rehearsed, putting a smile back on his face. He asked Eric about picking up Charlie that horrible day. With each word he spoke, Drew clamored for the relief that he craved; the relief that would let him get back on with his life.
But the relief did not come. Instead of the instant smile and low chuckle that Drew hoped for, Uncle Eric pursed his lips and took a deep breath.
“Nope, I wasn’t there,” Eric said, his words short and stiff with his eyes darting to the left. “I was here at the office,” and then he stared at Drew for what was only a split second, but felt a lot longer. After the long second, Eric dropped the sullen look (the Hanukkah gift question look, Drew thought), replaced it with a giant smile, patted Drew on the back, and practically pushed him out of his office as he wished him good luck on his official first day.
Drew slowly walked to his desk, feeling as if the world had slipped out from under his feet.