Family is not specific places, specific people or specific memories. Family is when a group of people cross all boundaries in an effort to love and understand each other better than anyone else ever did or will.
Chapter One- Hannah
"Can I answer my phone real quick?" I shout down the hall to Sarah.
She looks at her watch and slides the straightener down another section of Jordan's hair. "Make it quick, I'm almost done with her and she's the last."
I nod and flick my phone open. "Hello?"
"This is her speaking."
"Your family was just admitted to Emory Eastside Hospital because they were in a car accident. You might want to sit down."
I drop to the floor. "Are they okay?"
"That's what I was calling about. I regret to inform you that they died approximately ten minutes ago."
It sounds like wind is blowing directly into my ears and I drop the phone, barely hearing the crack of the battery popping out. I hold myself as I sit against the lockers, in completely shock. No, no, that's not fair. They weren't done living. Hope is my twin sister, I need her. And Mom and Dad, I need them too! The tears break through and I try not to sob, but I fail. The whole winter guard turns to me, crying on the cold floor and holding myself. Sarah pushes through them.
"Honey what's wrong?"
I can't talk, I can't breathe. I point at the phone and bury my face in my hands. She gently lays a hand on my back.
"Breathe honey. What was the call about?"
"They're dead!" I wail and collapse in sobs.
"Who is everyone?" She tries not to snap, but I'm not being helpful and she has a short temper on competition days. She has to manage 'Glorious' her and John's independent guard, Cottenwood, their other high school guard and us, Holbrooke.
"Mom and Dad and Hope." I choke out. "They got in a car accident and now they're-" I dissolve again.
Jordan scoots onto the floor next to me and wraps me in her arms. I cry into her shoulder. No one else on the guard knows what to do.
Sarah glances at John as he rushes up the stairs from a visit with Cottonwood. "She just lost her family."
"But she's got a solo." She glares at him. "But she doesn't have to perform."
I wipe my nose, shake my head and push myself to my feet, still red and blinded by tears. "I'll perform- for them."
Sarah gives me a sad smile. "It'll be okay. I promise."
As soon as I finish performing I dissolve again. Jordan holds me in her arms and strokes my hair while I cry into her. Sarah and John look torn. They've never been the best on comfort, but they do love us. Yet now they need to rush off to Glorious so they can watch practice. I nod at them over Jordan's shoulder and they bolt. The rest of the guard does too. None of them know what to do and it seems that I've got somebody.
"Let's just go get something to eat." My somebody, Jordan, suggests.
I shake my head. I don't want to go anywhere or do anything. I just want to cry and be held and pretend that this is a dream.
"Do you want to go look at the little PBC flags?" There are small flags made out of plumbing pipe that they're selling and they look really fun, but I shake my head. "The button guy has new merchandise since last time." I bought three last time- extremely fun to show off since no one but other guard girls understood the catch phrases.
"I-I don't want to do anything. Can I just stay here?" I gesture to my bag on the floor, packed with a warm hoodie and a ladybug pillow pet. Winter guard girls know to bring sleep items- sometimes it's a LONG time till retreat.
"I'll go get a hotdog and come back."
I nod and continue to cry into my pillow pet. My family is gone. Passing guards give weird looks to the girl sobbing on the floor, but I ignore them. Until my eyes literally cannot cry anymore, I cry. My eyes feel extremely dry, red and raw. Jordan comes back, tossing away the aluminum wrapping from her hotdog, obviously completely polished off.
"Here, I got you a grilled cheese and a Sprite." She hands them to me gently, then takes a seat and wraps an arm around my shoulders.
Silently, I give her back the price she utters and mumble a thank you. She takes her iPod from her bag and we listen to Coldplay, Shinedown, Maroon 5, Reba McEntire, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. I nibble at the sandwich, sip at the soda and just sit like a statue. Any passerby's would think we were concentrating on the music of our show. Several whisper the customary good luck and Jordan gives them a smile and a thank you in return. John comes back and gives me a sad smile with a gentle pat on the shoulder.
As if he knows my lips won't move, he talks to Jordan. "How is she?"
"Completely cried dry." She gestures to the half wrapped in tinfoil sandwich and the almost full bottle of soda. "And obviously on a grieving fast."
"Keep her alive, okay?" In any other sense, that would've been funny, but Jordan knows to take it seriously.
"Good." He pats my shoulder again, grabs his Glorious backpack and goes back to wherever they're practicing.
She makes idle talk to me through the music. Some of the show names and themes, the ugliest, coolest or prettiest costumes. What time we have to pull that guard's floor, what time we have to help this guard. She re-iterates the entire itinerary to me about retreat, but the way she says it she knows I won't be there. She expects me to sit on this floor, hugging my pillow pet and listening to Coldplay's 'Paradise' over and over again.
"Hey hon." Sarah throws a sad, hopeful smile at me and sits on my other side, pushing my duffle bag out of the way. "We need to talk."
I look at her and something like fear bubbles on the surface of her face. I imagine my eyes at this moment and can see why she'd be afraid. My blue eyes a ghostly sad shade with pupils that don't even focus or care. Kind of like the eyes of a person who has given up on life- someone with cancer who is just waiting to die.
"Jordan, you wanna go throw this away?" She hands her a ball of tinfoil, probably from a hamburger or something. Taking the hint, she tosses it into a garbage can and makes a big show of walking around the corner to the bathrooms. My eyes water and it hurts- my tear dukes have barely made enough to tears to moisten my eyes again. "How are you feeling?" She lays a hand on my knee.
I shrug and roll my head away. I don't want to talk to her.
"Honey, look at me." It is a gentle command, but she's Sarah and can suck my soul out of my eyes if she wants to, so I obey. "I know you're grieving. This is the biggest loss you'll ever have to deal with. But the guard needs you. John and I need you. Crying your eyes out and refusing to eat," She glances at the barely touched food and drink, "That's not what your family would want."
I get angry. "How do you know? You never bothered getting to know them."
She gets equally defensive. "I knew them. Your sister and I talked a lot about you while you were in the bathroom at the band camp dance. She talked about how proud she was of you, how much she loved you. When your dad came to pick you up, we'd talk. He believed you could do anything- throw sabre as a freshman especially. If you wanted to do it, he saw it as already done. And whenever I spoke to your mom after practice, all she could talk about was how much you loved guard, how you planned to stay in it all four years. I knew them."
The tears stack up again and I blink hard in order to get the moisture into my eyes instead of spill out. They sting with dryness. "I want them back."
She gives me another sad, yet hopeful smile. "I know honey. I wish you still had them too. But they were Christians, weren't they?" I nod. "Then imagine how happy they are in Heaven."
I close my eyes and picture Hope dancing around with a white robe and golden wings. Singing and playing her flute for God. I can see Mom hugging Grandpa and Dad shaking Uncle Dave's hand. The tears leak out slightly, stinging slightly because my eyes want to keep the moisture.
I open my eyes and blink. "But- I need them."
"Of course you do. But don't forget everyone else you have. The winter and color guards. The marching band. John and me. The directors. All your teachers and friends. They're still here and still love you."
I nod and rest my head lightly on her shoulder. Generally we're not even this intimate. Maybe just a hug after a good competition. But now that I'm alone and I really think about it, she's the closest person to a mother that I have. John is the closest to a father.
"What am I supposed to do?"
She takes my freezing hands between her warm ones. "You keep going. You survive it day by day. You spend every second willing the next day to come sooner. You live."
"Where will I go? All I have is an uncle in North Carolina and grandparents in Florida. I don't think any of them have enough money to take me."
She wraps an arm around my shoulders, encouraging me to lay my head on her shoulder again. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Today, let's just remember how many people love you. Make a list in your head."
"I can count you and John on that list, right?"
"Can I put you at the top?"
"You can rank us wherever you want."
Jordan drags me around for a while. We watch several indoor drumline's and winter guards. I make comments like a zombie. To give John peace of mind I eat the grilled cheese and finish the Sprite. But I will not go as far as eating a fried Oreo and laughing at a table full of guard girls. Even when several girls offer me a piece of their treats- gummy worms or bears, M&M's, Skittles, Starbursts- I decline politely and continue to stare at the performance floor, be it empty during a break or halfway through a performance.
Retreat comes at ten o'clock. My guard stands together in the stands, our two captains on the floor. Until championships, we won't have full retreat, so we wait in the stands. It's the first competition of the year and out of fifteen guards we don't expect to place that high. But God, in an effort to cheer me up, rewards us with 5th place. But I'm still like a zombie, hugging the other girls and Sarah and John as if it were a required reaction. They can tell, but pretend they don't.
On the ride back I simply stare out the window. My favorite songs come on, but when 'Stronger' by Kelly Clarkson comes on, I start softly crying in the back seat. Yet even in the front they hear me and turn it to another radio station, where rock is blared too loud to understand. I glance towards them in a thank you and they nod into the rearview mirror. I have no idea what I'm going to do tonight or where I'm going to stay. Yet Jordan's mom, who's driving, seems to sense this and when she's dropped every other girl off, she turns to me.
"Do you want to stay over at our house tonight? We'll swing by your house so you can get your stuff and then we'll go."
I smile gratefully. "Thank you."
Like everyone else, she gives me a sad smile. "It's the least we can do."
I sleep fitfully and Jordan constantly wakes me up, reporting that I'm calling to my family in my sleep and crying loudly. Repeatedly I apologize and she's says it's nothing to worry about, she doesn't mind. But at four in the morning she suggests Benadryl. I take it gratefully, thinking of drug dependence until I actually fall asleep.
I don't go to church the next day. In fact, I sleep late and long and when I wake up Jordan's mom offers me chocolate chip pancakes. I get sad smiles from the whole family, but ignore them. Once I'm done we briefly discuss what I'm supposed to do. I don't know what to do. I don't have anyone anymore.
But then Sarah's words float through my mind. You live. And so I fake that I'm okay. I hang out with Jordan, playing computer games and trying to hack our friends Twitter's. I never smile or laugh, but I pretend I'm having a good time. We have a Once Upon A Time marathon because she too watches the show and bought the first season on DVD. I eat lunch and dinner with them, but I can hear her parents discussing what to do with me. My ears pick her up on the phone, making arrangements for me at other guard girl's houses. Once I even think I hear her talking to Sarah, but I know I won't be staying with her. John and her share an apartment that probably doesn't have room for me. They probably don't have enough money either.
"Hannah, how would you like to stay with us for the week? We can go by your house in a couple minutes to get all your stuff and then you'll stay here for the week. Next Saturday we'll drop you off at another guard girl's house and then you'll stay with them for a week. Does that sound like a good plan?" Her eyes are begging me to accept this.
I don't smile. I never want to smile again, to be honest. "That-that sounds good. But what happens when social services or foster care or whatever sets in?"
"We'll talk to them."
"Who exactly is 'we'?"
"Everyone who's agreed to take you. We're all your parents now. And Sarah and John too. They consider themselves your family as well."
I nod. "That sounds pretty good. Livable."
She tries not to beam with pride. "I'm glad you think so."
Weeks pass in a blur. I try not to cry at school when I remember how Hope was in my biology class with me. But when I'm explaining to our teacher, I break down. She hugs me and tells me I can step into the hallway. My friends hear through the grapevine and do their best to shield and help me. I live like a robot. School, homework, dinner, shower, homework, bed. Weekends are torture, but I fill them with guard competitions and church. Two months pass this way- me living one week with one family and then moving. The doctor gives me sleeping pills to help with the nightmares that cause me to wake up in the middle of the night screaming for them to not get in the car. I try therapy, but I have so much homework it doesn't work out. So after two months, my foster worker Angie calls a meeting with all the parents who have kept me, along with Sarah and John.
She starts the meeting smiling. "I appreciate all you've done for Hannah. I'm sure she's very grateful." She glances at me, sitting silently at the table. My eyes barely meet hers- sad, tired eyes. She swallows. "But I don't think it's very good for her. She can't go to therapy because of the school schedule here and because of so many guard competitions. She has an uncle in North Carolina that's agreed to take her."
My head snaps up. "What?"
She glances at me. "Honey, I told you that we were moving you to a better place."
"North Carolina isn't better! This is my home. Georgia. With my family!" I sweep my arm across the people sitting at the table. They smile at the last sentence, but appear grim that I'm leaving. "I'm not going." I cross my arms and hold my head high in defiance.
Sarah jumps up and comes to put an arm around my shoulder, gently pushing me down and into my seat. "Honey, just listen to them. This might be the best decision for you."
"Their decision, not mine. It's my life!"
She gives me a look. "Come with me." She drags me from the room and down the hall, since we're at Holbrooke High. Once in the bathroom she turns me towards the mirror. "Look at yourself."
I take a look at the amount of me captured in the mirror. She pulls me back so I can see from my thighs up. I've lost an extreme amount of weight. My hair is thinning and my eyes are a little sunken into my face, a permanently sad look stuck in them. I've grown paler too.
"I look horrible."
"No, you look like you've given up on life. You walk around like a zombie, barely eat anything and can't even smile. You have to stop it."
I turn on her sharply. "You told me to live and this is the only way I know how! I've lost everything Sarah."
"No you have not. Your friends-"
"Don't know how to talk to me anymore. They don't want to joke or smile. Eventually they got sick of my doomsdayness and left."
"All those parents-"
"Are sick of me ruining their lives for a week!"
"Me." Her eyes dare me to challenge her love for me. "What about me and John?"
The anger leaves me and I simply stare at her. "You want me back."
She gives me a smile. It's not a sad smile, like the ones everyone else gives me. It's the first one that says 'I am actually happy and I will be happy around you.' "Yes, I do. John and I both want you back. Now come on." We walk slowly back to the meeting room, her warm hand holding my bony cold one. She deposits me at my chair and stands behind me, her hands on my shoulders. "Does she have to live with her uncle?"
Angie is obviously very annoyed by first her taking me and now her asking about her decision. "We believe it's the best place for her."
"I'm signed up for adoption."
She's very skeptical. "You're not married."
"It's a stable environment with two people she loves."
"Two people?" Her eyebrows perk.
"John and I are talking about marriage right now."
"I don't know-"
"Yes!" I jump up out of the chair and throw my arms around her neck. "Yes!"
Angie still obviously does not like the idea. "Sarah, I understand your connection-"
"They're the closet things to parents I have now!" I practically scream at her. "And I'm not moving to North Carolina."
Finally, she understands that the war is already lost. The other parents whisper, probably agreeing that Sarah and John aren't the best option. But John is smiling too and soon he joins Sarah behind me.
"I couldn't think of a better solution myself." He agrees.
Angie scrambles for ground. "I'll have to get you paperwork, but even before that we'll have to talk to her uncle and then we'll have to go through the full adoption process. But until then you'll have to be cleared as a foster mother, so she'll need to stay at Holbrooke's Girls Home."
Then my brain functions and I remember telling my parents to add Sarah and John as legal back up guardians. In case something happened at guard practice and I had to go to the hospital, they could sign off on the paperwork. Just in case my parents were too far away. Reluctantly, they'd promised to consider it. I never found out if they'd actually listened.
"My parent's will!" I shoot up. "It hasn't been read yet, has it?"
"No." Angie says, utterly confused.
"We need it. Sarah and John, my parents might have listed them as legal guardians." The whole room looks at me in surprise. But only Angie has the sense to ask why. "In case something happened and paperwork had to be signed and my parents weren't there. Like a guard accident or something."
"I'll make the arrangements for their will to be read. Until then," Angie glances at my 'guardians' behind me. "I guess you can stay with them."
I beam at them and they smile too. "Let's get your stuff."
I obtain my two suitcases, pillow and sleeping bag from the last family I stayed with. The ride to their apartment is quiet. We're still in awe of everything that happened and I also realize that this is the first time we've been together like this. This has nothing to do with guard or band. I suddenly fear that this is going to be awkward.
We arrive and Sarah points out the rooms. My bedroom, their bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, and laundry room- everything within arm's pointing reach. John starts making dinner and Sarah helps me carry my stuff into the guest bedroom, now mine.
"Yes?" She neatly arranges my pillow on the green bedspread. The walls are yellow and the furniture white. Perfect if they had any age of visitor or any gender. Smart.
"What if you are listed as a guardian?"
"Well then we'll take you. What else would we do?"
"I have nightmares about the car wreck. Sometimes the sleeping pills don't work." She nods, as if this is no surprise. "Are you going to make me go to therapy?"
"Once summer starts, yes. Insurance is paying by doctor's orders."
"I don't want to tell a complete stranger stuff. I don't want to lie on some couch like those crazy people in the movies. I want to. . ." I don't know what I want. I just don't want that. A life of sleeping pills and therapy sessions.
"What do you want honey?" She's so gentle, so sweet in the way she asks me such a vital question.
"I want to lie to myself. I want to believe that nothing wrong and I'm completely okay."
"You want to live in a fantasy? And you want me to play along by cancelling your therapy?"
I nod slightly. She doesn't even bother mentioning that this could have serious psychological consequences. Ones that could affect absolutely everything about me. But I've decided that it's the only way I can live.
"Sarah, there's no other way around it. If I want to recover, I need to lead a life without therapists who are constantly guiding me. I need to develop by myself."
"You're keeping those pills young lady."
I nod. "I knew you'd demand that much."