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A Mind in Mourning by Allison Kallemeyn

artwork by Grace Hendrickson


“You aren’t listening to me—he can’t know.”

“He has a right, Beth. It's his life and his brother.”

“No. I am telling you right now I can’t lose another son. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him.”

Quiet voices mumbled on the other side of the kitchen door that Joel currently had his ear pressed tightly against. His parents hadn’t gotten along, not for a while, not since Xander. But that didn't matter. Joel only cared about getting through another day. Some small part of him wanted to know what his mother so sternly didn’t want to tell him. But the bigger part told him it didn't matter. Most things didn’t matter.

Joel stepped away from the door, swung his ratty backpack over his shoulder, and went to leave. If he’d stayed and listened any longer he’d be late for first period. And Mrs. Wimble wasn’t allowing any more “dead brother passes” this year.

The autumn wind bashed at Joel's face and blew tangles into his already curly mop of hair. Frigid air turned his cheeks and nose bright red, but it didn’t phase him. His journal occupied his mind. Each day it was the same thing. Walking to school, gray hood up, stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk, watching every boring tree blend together, and writing. Every day it's the same line to start, “It's Tuesday, October 15th and it's been 37 days without Xander…” Only the numbers changed. It even feels the same each day. Empty. Cold. The same. Plenty of words could describe it but none of them felt strong enough.

Joel's classes went by in a blur of teachers' voices snapping at him to pay attention, numbers, equations that meant nothing to him that he’d already forgotten, and a short nap during reading time. During the last class of his day, things got interesting. Not that this problem hadn't happened before. It had many times and Joel had to deal with it. But today it changed. In the last ten minutes of biology during the teacher's notes presentation, the slight ringing started in his ears. Then the beating of his temples started. Next, the low pains shot through his skull. And finally, the blinding, brain-squeezing, head-imploding type of pain hit him. Joel's hands gripped his head which made a few students stare at him in a funny way. His eyes squeezed shut, not that he could see anyway. He couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn’t focus on anything except getting the pain to go away.

Joel got out of his seat abruptly and tried reaching the door. The pain and the ringing disoriented him so much he couldn’t explain that he needed to leave. He needed to go somewhere where he couldn’t be seen or looked at like a total mental patient. Or where no one would try to take him to a doctor. Joel's family has visited enough doctors and hospitals recently.

The teacher, Mr. Fray, started to yell things. Telling him to go back to his seat or he’d get another detention. But Joel had already made it to the door and stumbled down the hallway before Mr. Fray could stop him. The white brick walls felt cold and refreshing against Joel's hands as he leaned against it pushing himself towards the men's restroom. But before he made it around the bend to the south hallway he bumped into something. Not something, someone.

Joel could feel this person grab his hands. His vision came in and out of focus. For a moment he caught a glimpse of a girl. No one he’d seen before because he would have remembered her. Her almost luminescent blonde hair and striking green eyes were not easily forgettable.

Her voice cut through the ringing for just a second, “Are you alright? What's going on? Do you need me to get someone?” her face had a look of concern but she didn’t seem panicked.

Joel could only shake his head. At this point, the pain had gotten so bad he thought he’d pass out. Just slump to the floor and not wake up. Joel’s back slid down the wall that he leaned against and the girl followed him to the ground. Crouching in front of him, she waited. She waited with him until the pain slowly eased and dissipated. His head became clear again and his vision came back. A slight ache still lingered in his temples. His only sign that it actually happened.

“Are you alright?” the girl's soft voice broke the silence.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.”

“That seemed really bad.” The blonde girl scanned Joel's face, looking him over like he might die right there in front of her. Exactly why he didn’t want people to see him like that.

“Um, yeah it uh, happens sometimes. Look I’m perfectly fine though so I’ve got to go.” Joel said hurriedly with shifting eyes. He couldn't handle the awkwardness or stand the fact that she looked like she’d seen a ghost just now. He got up off the floor breaking the grip she’d had on his hands. Just then the loud bell rang through the halls and students came flooding out of the classrooms.

Joel started down the hallway trying to get lost and blend with the masses of high school students. He didn't even turn back as he yelled, “Thanks again, bye!”

After making his way through the halls and out the door as quickly as possible Joel went to take out his journal, but before he could a familiar voice came from behind him, “I don’t think you should walk home alone, you were just in a lot of pain.”

He turned even though he already knew who he’d see standing there. Behind him waiting, stood the blonde girl.

“I can walk with you.” she said and stepped up beside him, “I don't mind, honestly, your house is on my way.”

Joel considered it a bit strange she knew where he lived. Maybe she’d seen him walk home before or maybe she knew because everyone knew everything about the kid with the dead brother. Either way, he really didn't want company on the way home, but he had a gut feeling she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

So instead of completely ignoring her or telling her to leave him alone he opted for, “Yeah, fine.”

They walked in silence for a while listening to the crunch of leaves under their feet and the wind in the trees. But after a few minutes, the girl started to talk, she told him her name, Leighton Bardot. It rang a bell in the back of Joel's mind, he knew he’d heard it before but just couldn’t place it. Then she started asking him questions. Lots and lots of questions. Questions like: when did your migraines start? Why haven’t you seen a doctor? How often do they happen? Your last name is Whitlock, right? What are you always writing in that journal? Do you have any siblings?

The last question stopped Joel in his tracks. He froze, unable to speak. Joel had just been thrown from a cliff and free-fell into a pit of memories and sadness and grief.

Leighton stopped too and looked as if she realized she had just hit a nerve and said something she definitely shouldn’t have. Joel simply replied, “No,” and began to walk again, only faster now. He wanted this conversation to end. He didn’t want any more questions or any more thoughts, just silence.

But of course, she didn’t stop, “I’m sorry, I didn't mean to say anything to upset you, I was just making small talk. Really, I am sorry if I said something wrong.” Leighton seemed earnest with her apology and Joel could see that. He shrugged it off and let her keep talking as they went. They walked until they had almost reached Joel's house when Leighton exclaimed something and started jogging towards a break in the forest. The woods around their hometown were vast and thick and very few people ventured through them. Joel knew this and he knew he never really liked the woods.

But Leighton yelled to him to follow her, “Come on Joel! I have something to show you!” Joel watched as her blonde swaying hair and light blue sweater disappeared behind a grouping of trees. He could leave and walk home alone like he’d planned. This seemed like the much more appealing option. But as he almost turned to leave she peeked her head around a tree and yelled to him again, “It's great I promise! And I’m not going to take no for an answer.” She smiled at him with bright eyes. Joel caved and sighed loudly enough for her to hear his exaggerated annoyance.

Painting and out of breath, slowly but surely Joel caught up to her. He watched as Leighton ducked under branches and confidently tracked her way through the trees and foliage. She explained to him that she had done this plenty of times and had a really beautiful spot to show him. But even as she told him how well she knew the woods and that they’d be fine, this terrible idea settled in his stomach and twisted it into nauseating knots.

Everything in him said to go back and not follow a strange girl he’d just met into the woods. And yet he followed her through the array of green, yellow, red, and orange trees. It felt like an eternity had gone by. They had tramped through trees, bushes, and thorny plants that all started to look the same. Joel couldn’t tell up, down, right, or left apart at this point. He wanted to quit, turn around, or just lie down and accept his fate. But then he finally saw it, the spot she had told him about. A large, open plain of grass spanned out in front of them. An almost perfect circle of lush green pasture with little white flowers sprinkled throughout.

Leighton and Joel sauntered to the middle of the field together.

“You never answered any of my questions, “Leighton started.

“Yeah well, I didn’t feel like sharing.”

“You’re migraines though, do they happen often?” She asked again.

“I really don’t want to talk about it,” Joel responded, clearly becoming more and more annoyed with this girl. He still couldn’t figure out why he’d followed her in the first place.

“Well, mine started two years ago,” Leighton stated and Joel's eyes widened. He wondered if he had heard her correctly. She couldn’t possibly be talking about the same kind of headaches he has, he thought.

When Joel stayed quiet she continued “Yep, I got them too, don’t worry they go away. You just have to learn to control them first. I’m really surprised no one has explained it to you yet. After all, you are the son of a Whitlock. I mean seriously your brother had known since he was able to walk.”

The whites of Joel's eyes showed even more now and his mind blanked. “What? What do you know about my brother?” Pain ached in his chest as he said those words aloud.

“Joel, I know a lot more than you think. Do you even know how powerful your family is? How powerful Xander was? Do you know how many years my family has spent resenting yours? I’m going to guess you didn’t know our meeting today wasn't exactly by accident either.”

None of this made sense to Joel. All of these questions piling up in his mind made him dizzy. Hearing someone talk about Xander made a lump grow in his throat and tears prick at the backs of his eyes.

“I don’t understand what you are talking about!” He shouted at her, trying to make it stop, make all the questions and talking just stop.

“Oh come on! Is this still not ringing any bells? How about this one, how do you think your big brother got in a car accident with no other cars involved?”

Joel thought for a second about his brother's accident. It happened a little over a month ago. Xander had gotten hit at a four-way stop coming home from football practice one night. The accident completely crushed the driver's side. By the time emergency responders arrived they hadn't found any other cars. “It–it was a hit and run, that's what the police said,” stuttered Joel.

Leighton laughed, “Nope, wrong! Guess again!”

Joel could not believe she just laughed. This unbelievable, crazy, psycho girl just laughed at his brother's death.

Thunder began to roll in right before the rain began. Cold drops started to fall pelting Joel, blurring his vision, making it harder for him to see Leighton standing only a few feet away. He racked his brain for anything he could think of about the crash. What was she getting at? Why does she know all of this? Who is she?

“Time's up! Me, it was me,” she said matter-of-factly. Which sent an electrifying jolt to his core making his heart race and pound out of his chest. This couldn’t be true.

Joel's voice shouted over the rhythm of the water hitting the treetops, “It doesn’t make sense, “Why? Why would you have caused his crash? We don’t even know each other.” His brain felt fuzzy like he'd awoken from a decade-long nap and couldn’t seem to clear the cobwebs away. The lightheaded feeling wouldn't subside because he couldn’t make sense of it all. Leighton turned to face him, her shoes squelching in the fresh mud. Her face didn’t show a glimpse of remorse as she said to him, “Because this is the way it's meant to end Joel. Me and you. Whitlock versus Bardot. Two powerful families, one town. Not enough magic to go around. Get it?”

“No, not at all, you are deranged!” he yelled and turned to run. To get as far away from her as possible. But as he did his body froze. Just froze. He couldn’t move his arms, or legs, or neck. Joel could only blink. Leighton sauntered towards him with glowing eyes. An odd blue hue shined brightly from her irises. Joel started to sweat and panic as he struggled trying to unstick himself from whatever held him there. Leighton watched him, tilting her head to the side, and told him he was wasting his energy. She then went on to tell him a story about two families at war one hundred years ago. They had crazy magical powers that they could control with their minds. Leighton told Joel that they all had powers. Him, her, and Xander. Joel's head spun in circles because it couldn’t be true, not possible, real, or even imaginable. She spewed nonsense and stories and made up crap he thought to himself. There had to be a real logical reason for his body to be petrified.

“Listen, Joel, he had to die, he was going to protect you from all of this, and I had to do right by my family. Meaning, that you both have to die. Surprisingly, he wasn’t the strong brother though. He was nothing. Well, I turned Xander into nothing.”

Leighton said this with malice in her voice and a disgusted look. Joel's blood boiled. His face burned red hot and he couldn't breathe. Adrenaline rushed his body and he began shaking. He couldn’t stand to listen to her say his name again. She didn’t deserve to. She didn’t deserve anything after what she’d done. Joel's temples started to pound and an odd zapping sensation started in his veins, up his legs and through his arms. Leighton’s eyebrows pinched in confusion and then turned to shock as Joel's eyes began to glow a yellow color. His eyes looked like bright stars beaming through the night and through the thick rain.

“You killed him! You killed my brother!” Joel exclaimed. Hot tears mixed with rainwater rushed down his cheeks. Without lifting a finger or moving at all something started lifting Leighton off her feet. Joel didn’t realize what he was doing. He felt a burning, white-hot, rage flowing through him. Some phantom hand, invisible to the naked eye, held Leighton around the neck, lifting her feet off the ground until she couldn't breathe. Her hands flailed, gripping at her throat. Joel thought to himself that her magic couldn't save her now. Nothing could and nothing would stop him. She deserved this because Xander didn’t. She didn’t care, so neither would he. Long minutes passed while Joel's ghostly hand crushed her airway.

Despair glimmered in her eyes along with watery tears. Her cheeks were red but turned into a terrible purple color. The lack of oxygen to her brain started to make her body limp and her struggle weakened. The blue glow of Leighton's eyes flickered out. Her body fell to the wet ground limply. The feeling zapping through Joel's body left. He just stood there, finally able to breathe again, to think again. Then he blinked and saw the girl's lifeless body in front of him. What had he just done?

He slowly moved toward her. Then dropped to his knees by her side. “She wasn't really dead, was she?” he thought. She couldn't possibly be. He couldn’t be as bad as her. As evil as her. A tear slid slowly down his cheek. What would Xander think of what he’d just done? Joel sat next to her and curled his knees into his body, pulling them to his chest. He stared at the ground for a while letting the thoughts whirl around in his head. The heavy rain formed a puddle around him and her body and he studied his reflection in it. His eyes still glowed a dim yellow and he couldn’t bear to look at them. He shut his eyes and thought to himself that tomorrow he’d write something different in his journal. He would write, “It's Thursday, November 21st and it's been 1 day without Leighton…”

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