Snow is beautiful.
It’s soft, like sparkling whispers. Your gloves are off, and you watch tiny flakes fall in your hand, and even though it’s so cold out, you’re not shaking for once. Jake is holding your other hand, and you can see his huge smile. He’s happy because you’re happy.
You scuff your boots in the snow, then look back at the prints your wheelchair has made in the powder. Dave is a ways away, making a snow angel. You smile softly, sticking your tongue and letting little pieces fall into your taste, melting immediately.
Because of the cold, you’re stuck in the wheelchair for most of this trip, but it’s still nice. Dave forced you to bring the oxygen tank along, but you were stubborn for most of it. Kind of like a pre-teen not wanting to wear snow-pants because they don’t want to look uncool anymore.
But you brought it. And you’re wearing it.
One snowflake falls on your fingertip, and you bring it close because your vision has been getting pretty bad. There’s so many complex details. The tiniest thing could make it break apart, and you feel for that snowflake. Because you and that little piece of nature both are very small and fragile, and you’re just trying to make do with the time you have.
“You like it?” Jake asks.
“It’s beautiful,” you reply, voice a bit rasped. “Dave seems to like it a lot, too.”
Jake chuckles, looking at Dave who’s getting out of the snow and shaking his body free of the white powder. “I’d throw a snowball at you, kid, but it might turn you into an ice cube,” your brother says to you.
“It’s sad how true that is,” you reply with a soft laugh.
“How you feeling? Getting too cold?”
“I’m fine,” you assure him.
You and Jake eventually find a little café to stay at while Dave heads back to the hotel to get you some warmer clothes. Jake keeps you warm until then, and you both huddle up in a back booth, whispering cheesy things to each other and stealing kisses.
When Dave gets back, you realize there’s a hole in his glove. He rolls his eyes and says it’s Harley’s fault. Harley is Jake’s new puppy that you got him, and he decided to name the little rascal after his passed grandmother. He said that if his grandma was reincarnated into anything, it’d definitely be a puppy that chews on everything.
You’re put into an extra jacket, and even an extra hat. When the sun goes down, Jake holds your hand while Dave pushes your wheelchair, and little Harley bounds along beside you guys with her leash wrapped to the chair.
Suddenly you see lights in the distance, and it’s an entire park that’s been set up with thousands and thousands of Christmas lights. There are scenes set up, tiny painted schools on boards, bright archways made out to be toy soldiers. There are entire set ups of little villages, and giant candy canes that are just rolling with blinking lights of red and white.
Even though your vision is failing, you can still see all of this beauty. Every twinkling bulb. You smile as little Harley starts leaping at snowflakes and chasing snowballs that Jake throws, Dave cracking jokes the whole time. On your way back to the hotel, you rest your head back, feeling a shiver run down your spine as cold wind swipes over you nose. You breathe in the icy air, letting it shock your lungs, and you memorize the sensation.
When you all reach the hotel again, Dave takes you upstairs while Jake stays out a while longer to make sure Harley has “drained all her systems” before coming up to the room.
In the room, Dave gets to work on helping you out of your layers of clothes. You’re exhausted, and it hurts to move, and your lips feel so chapped. When your first jacket comes off you mutter, “Thanks for taking care of me.”
“Thought we already did all the thanking on Christmas,” he says.
“Dying guy can’t get deep with his brother?”
Dave pauses. He kneels down in front of your chair, then cups your jaw with both hands. “Those references were okay when the deadline wasn’t so close. But nowadays… please just don’t remind me, kid.”
Everything is sore. You choke on a breath, holding onto Dave’s wrist, and you feel your eyes sting. Then you whisper, “I don’t want to die.”
“Yeah… I don’t want you to either,” he replies softly.
You squeeze his wrist, and the waterworks come. You’ve finally come to terms with it. You’ve been hiding from your outcome all your life, and it’s finally hit you. You’re short on time. This perfect life you’ve always dreamed about has come true, and you’re going to lose it soon.
Dave pulls you into his chest, and you’re okay with that. You clutch onto his ironic dog sweater and start sobbing, and you know it’s a special case to show emotions. He holds you close, and you just cry, because you don’t want to die, and you’re scared shitless. Because you’re fucking in love, and because you have a real family. And you’re so fucking happy with them.
And fuck, it’s going to disappear. It’s all going to disappear.
Jake stays with you every moment, practically moving out of his apartment and into Dave’s to stay with you until it’s all over.
You open your eyes in the darkness of your room, liking how warm it is here compared to the northern states. Before you, Jake may or may not be sleeping. He’s breathing softly, and his arm is still securely around your waist. Little Harley is sleeping by your feet.
“Jake…” you breathe.
“Hm,” is all you get.
He slips one of his arms under you neck, able to gently caress your scalp and move his fingers as if there’s hair there. “I know,” he whispers.
“Don’t leave me.”
“Tell me… you love me,” you quietly rasp.
He pulls you closer, kissing your forehead and then at your cracked lips. “I love you,” he breathes against your skin. “I love you so much. You’re the best thing to ever happen to me. I love you, Dirk.”
That calms all your nerves. At least for the night.
The morning is a daze of fuzzy memories. You remember voices, you remember being picked up, and then there’s the familiar feeling of your wheelchair. The car engine. Jake’s voice. Dave’s voice.
Then there’s that old beeping sound, and you slowly come to you senses. You must have been completely out of it this morning, enough to scare your brother enough into taking you back to the hospital. You don’t want to be here, because it reminds you of your future, and you want to cry all over again.
Jake is there, and you smile to see Harley asleep in the corner. He probably snuck her in the room inside his jacket. Jake notices you’re awake, and he says your name to make sure you’re actually aware and conscious this time.
“I’m here,” you say.
He scoots his chair over to the bedside and gently caresses your cheek. “Hey. You gave us a scare this morning. Do you remember anything?”
“Not much. Just snippets of the ride over.”
“Yeah. You wouldn’t wake or reply. Just kind of made noises and rolled around.”
You make a tiny hum that’s supposed to be your version of a reply. You don’t like Jake looking so scared and concerned like that, so you tug the collar of his shirt, and he leans down into you to kiss your lips once, and then twice. He pauses, then adds a third one.
“I’m all right,” you assure him.
“Good,” he murmurs, then kisses your cheek instead.
There’s a slight knock on the door, and you smile to see your brother. He gives you a nod and greets, “Hey, little guy. Feeling all right?”
Dave’s uncovered eyes switch to look at Jake instead. “English, come out here in the hall for a moment.”
Jake gives you another kiss, seeming a bit addicted to them, and then gets up to join Dave in the hallway. Once they both disappear, someone else comes in, someone you’ve only recognized from pictures. He looks a bit older now, but there’s life in his cheeks, and a glint in his eyes that keeps him alive.
“You must be the little Strider,” he says, groaning lightly as he sits back in the chair by your bed. He pulls at the bowtie around his neck to loosen it, then sets his old fedora aside on the nightstand. “Heard a lot about you.”
“And the same with you, uh, Mr. Crocker,” you say feebly.
“Psh! Just call me Poppop. Or Pops. Or as the women call me… stud.” He laughs merrily at himself, patting your arm a bit. “No, I’m kidding… they call me stud muffin.”
He laughs that same way again, and you can’t help but crack a smile and grin at the old man. He keeps a hand on your arm, and he seems very caring and careful with the way he touches you. Then he says, “Dave has told me much about you. Should have heard him last week during your vacation when I called. ‘Should have seen Dirk’s face!’ he said. ‘He was smiling so much!’”
“Dave said that about me?”
“He says a lot of things about you, my boy. He adores you like kin, the same way I once took care of him. But sometimes kids grow up, and then a guardian has to learn to let them go and just trust that they did a good job with what time they had.”
“But I’m not growing up,” you say with a small frown.
“I think we all grow up. Even if we’re not… making it. Being with your family and friends here, don’t you think you’ve grown up a bit?” he proposes.
“Do you admit that you’re at least a little more prepared for what’s to come? Even if you’re still scared?”
“Yes,” you confess. “But… I know I’m supposed to be a badass Strider and all… but I’m fucking terrified, sir. Excuse the language, heh.”
“It’s fine. I know you’re scared. Why wouldn’t you be? It’s got to be horrifying.” He leans closer, and his blue eyes are holding a twinkle in them, even if they’re darkening with the seriousness of his expression. “But I can promise you, kid… that it’s not going to hurt, okay?”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m old. And I’m dying every day. And every night when I sleep, I fear I may not wake up in the morning. For someone like me, falling asleep with that fear is almost like a goodbye death to the world. Never hurts. It’s nice, and you look forward to the dreams.”
“What if I’m alone in those dreams?” you whisper.
His voice replies to you just as quietly, “We never dream alone. Every night when I feel like I’m gone during my sleep, we may meet. You can guide us, even if we might not see you on our plane. But we’ll sense you.”
“I don’t want to be alone when I go.”
“You won’t. You’ll be enclosed in the arms of those who love you, and that sensation will stay with you to the next life. I promise.”
Your eyes are stinging like the day they did when you cried in Dave’s arms. You swallow hard, and you nod, holding his gaze, liking the warmth in his eyes. “Thank you,” you whisper.
He smiles and cups your cheek, thumb caressing. “Anything and always, my boy.”
One night, while everyone is sleeping, you wake up while the moon is high and the world is silent. Jake is on your hospital bed with you, and you can’t move. Your mind is awake, but your body is numb and paralyzed.
All you can really do is wheeze for breath, not even the tubes in your nose helping. Your fingers twitch. Then you see Jake’s eyes open in the dark, and he whispers your name in fear. You’ve had this kind of episode before, so he grabs your arm and pulls it up between you two, gripping your hand tightly, and the movement allows the rest of your body to wake up.
After you calm your breathing, you murmur a thank you. Jake only makes a soft hum, kissing your nose. It seems he can never get enough kisses, as if each one might be his last, and he wants to leave as many as he can. You don’t mind. Each one calms you.
“You okay?” he says.
You nod a bit.
“I love you,” he whispers against your lips.
“I love you,” you reply, letting the air of those words just sit and mingle between you two.
“Would you marry me?” he breathes.
Would. Not will.
“Yes,” you answer.
“Good… We’d have kids.”
“And go on more dates.”
“And fall asleep together every night.”
“I would make you breakfast every morning.”
“And we will fall in love over and over and over again…” his voice fades off, and you notice how he’s changed from “would” to “will.”
You both close your eyes, but you both also nuzzle your faces close together, even if your bodies are already pressed close. Neither of you can sleep for a while. There’s about twenty minutes of silence and short shared kisses until Jake tucks his head down under your chin and starts shaking. And starts crying.
You can’t cry, although you want to. There’s something dull in your chest, something slow and huddled. You stare at the dark wall through dimmed eyes, and your rub Jake’s back even though your fingers are numb now.
After a while, Jake stops crying, and he goes back to leaving kisses on your face. You want to tell him how much you cherish them, but your voice has fallen mute on you. Everything feels faded.
Then you know.
It’s hard, but you attempt to turn around, and Jake helps you since he knows you’re too weak. You lick your chapped lips, and you find your voice.
Jake comes up very close behind you, arms comforting and precious. He kisses the back of your neck and nuzzles his nose to your scalp. He whispers he loves you, again and again.
You reach out, your hand cold. Dave is sleeping in the chair by the bed. You touch his face, and his eyes blink tiredly. When he meets your eyes, you just give him a nod. He gulps hard, eyes already watering, and he laces your fingers together to hold your hand tight enough to where you can actually feel it.
He leans his upper half on the bed, hand moving against your forehead as if he’s pushing your hair back again and again. “It’s okay,” he says softly.
“Thank you,” you rasp out.
“Anything for you, little brother. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
You manage a weak smile. Jake keeps holding you, his face pressed into your neck, humming against your skin and sending subtle and loving vibrations through you. Your eyes close, and Dave keeps caressing a hand on your head, your own hand still held tight in his. Jake tells you he loves you again, and you feel him press his lips to yours for a last kiss. Dave’s own lips leave a lingering kiss on your forehead.
His hands are warm. Jake’s body is warm. His breath is warm, and his face is warm, and his lips are warm. Even his voice his warm, and Dave’s heartbeat is warm, and you have the warmest family ever. And as you fall asleep, you’re not cold anymore…
It was actually a short night. It was so depressing, I thought it’d be long and drawn out. But it was really short. And when morning came around, Dirk was cold except in the places we were still holding him.
I remember Jake didn’t say anything when he woke up. Just held on tight to the one he loved. He nodded to the questions I asked, which mean he wasn’t delusional. He just wanted to hold him. I didn’t want Jake to break down, so I kissed my lil’ bro’s face a few times before holding back completely not ironic tears and leaving the room. I had planned on telling someone what had happened. That the little dude was gone. Old Poppop was on his way up to visit us though, and I knew he could tell what had happened.
I think I held my ol’ Pops for and hour in the hallway there.
I don’t do speeches. Couldn’t speak at the funeral. Didn’t cry there. Only when I was alone in the car. I took a month off from work, which gave Jake the same amount. I couldn’t clean out Dirk’s room, but I took that creepy as fuck puppet out of there and slept with it at night.
The family didn’t go skyrocketing into depression like some lame Twlight thing. Yes, I grieved badly. I couldn’t even begin to describe how many gallons of apple juice I put myself through. But one day I put on some clean clothes, and I took a deep breath, and I told myself this was for him, and I went to work and… well, worked. And Jake was there, and even though he looked tired, he smiled. And he handed me my coffee, just like he had done a million times before. Eventually, time was forced to move on.
We worked, and we made jokes by quoting Dirk’s frequently used lines, and those moments of remembering him didn’t hurt as much. Little Harley grew up, and that dog grew into a huge monster, and had a thing for chewing only on metal, and was addicting to drinking only orange products. Sometimes I think Dirk is in that damned dog.
Six months wasn’t enough. I wish I had waited when I was ten. Just waited one more year to know the little guy existed. Then I could have left with him. Or I even could have stayed, and we could have taken care of each other. But then I wouldn’t have met ol’ Pops. Dirk wouldn’t have met Jake, and we wouldn’t have had that Christmas together, or that Thanksgiving, or that celebration of all our birthdays.
I feel like I should say something cheesy about how it was enough to love the kid. About how he healed me and made me feel what a real family is like. It’s all true, he did do that, but I don’t think Dirk would want me ending his book in a cheesy paragraph like that. Because he’s not really gone. Every dialogue in this book that he’s spoken is what my alive little brother has said, and each of those quoted sentences have brought him back to life. That’s what books do.
I made do with what I had. It was better than nothing.
I can’t end a book. My endings are as shitty as my movie endings. So, like any Strider would, I’ll just bullshit it, and fuck, Dirk is going to hate me for ruining his book like this.
Dave Strider signing off, motherfuckers.
(You can haunt me for that later, lil’ man.)
The Fucking End.