We drove from California to Alabama with everything we owned in our cars. The trip took an entire two days even with the rotation of drivers. My dad was determined not to stay in California a second longer. For him, California was a representation of an extraordinary life he provided for his family but also an incredible stressor for him. When the economy dropped in '08, he struggled to keep things afloat and it messed with his mental and physical health. My parents waited two years for me to finish high school, then they left soon after Zander and I had found an apartment.
My parents rented two trucks with one pulling my brother's car and the other pulling my car. Zander rode with our dad and I rode with our mom. My body felt like it had lost its equilibrium the further we drove away from the only home we knew to a foreign land in the deep South. Of course, we had visited Alabama because our dad was from there but it was a very new situation to live there. The butterflies in my stomach only increased with each mile and state line we crossed.
More than once my mom told me how awful she felt for taking us away from our friends. Her face was always crestfallen when the topic was presented, her lips in a stern line. She also told me Jax looked like he was about to cry when we left. I didn’t see his face at the time and I’m glad I didn’t because I would've cried, too. We left too fast. There weren’t enough hours in the day or extra classes for me to take to prolong our stay.
Alabama was depressing. Zander and I stood out like sore thumbs inside and outside of our family. Our cousins thought we were too city-like while others believed we were unicorns for moving here or too good for them because of where we came from. We weren’t fitting in and keeping contact with our old friends was more painful than we envisioned. I wasn't prepared for the emotional turmoil I would have to endure. I deleted all of my social media to avoid seeing my friends or anything related to California while Zander buried himself in a new job that he hated.
That winter Zander and I, separately, went back to California. It had been six long months since we'd been back and instantly it felt familiar. The cities, the freeways, and even the air felt like it was part of me. The sunshine was still bright even in the winter, unlike Alabama where it was rainy and cold. The incessant longing I'd felt scraping against my soul for all that time finally quelled and found rest.
I stayed with my best friend Aria while Zander broke the code and stayed with Jax’s older sister and their mom because they were “dating”. Jax was royally pissed about the relationship and wanted to begin one with me, but I wouldn’t let it happen because I knew my brother would look at me differently. When Jax confronted Zander about it, Zander believed it wasn’t his fault Jax’s sister was so willing. It was hypocritical of Zander to start something with Jax's sister when it was forbidden if the shoe were on the other foot.
That was when the first cracks of the rift between them started to show. Zander didn't try to see Jax, and Jax didn't go near his mother's house while Zander was in town. I'd hoped they would eventually get over it and let each other back in their lives. Throughout the duration of Zander’s relationship with Jax’s sister tensions grew. Jax called me to talk about his frustrations with my brother and when I talked to Zander about it, he didn’t seem to care or had another excuse. Our group was steadily coming apart at the seams one stitch at a time.
Living across the country, there was only so much I could do for the two friends who were practically brothers. I couldn’t stop the late-night calls that lasted literal hours or endless text messages.
After that winter visit, I went back to California the following year once more on my own. It was the summer, a time in California that was one of my favorites. Though I had somewhat adjusted to Alabama, my soul found complete balance again when I mingled closely with the people of my home. Zander and Jax had little to almost no contact with each other at this time and my words were beginning to fall on deaf ears. I never told them how much it hurt my heart to see it all crumble so easily. I didn't know our bond was that fragile, and that our ship was now sailing without a direction or an anchor.
Aria dropped me off at Jax's job at the auto shop. Prior to moving, we used to stop by his job regularly to watch him work on cars in the back of the dealership. Even his coworkers remembered me when I naturally made my way to the back. Upon seeing him again after all the damage that had been done, it was refreshing to see him happy. It was so good to just see him. We could talk in person, hug each other. My heart pumped rapdily in nervous excitement. I was thrilled to see him, yet part of me was afraid he felt otherwise.
My doubts were squashed when he came to me and we met in a tight embrace. I remembered his face turning bright red once he noticed me, his smile threatened to spread out more than he could bare. Of course, in classic Jax fashion he was not shy to tell me how good I looked. We exchanged goofy laughs and smiles, catching each other up on what life had been like since our departure. I was sure to tell him things were not greener on the other side despite what he thought or saw. I could feel my eyes sting with emotion and my heart swell because I was back home in California with my best friend.
Jax had grown since we'd been gone. He was turning into a bright young man with a great future ahead of him. He was also going to school for business in the hopes of starting his own one day. He didn't know what sort of industry yet, probably cars, but it was a goal of his and I was proud of the man he was becoming. It was hard not to mention Zander at moments because the two of them were on similar pathways. I was still hoping those paths would eventually intersect.
Jax must have known I could no longer stop what was going on with Zander no more than he could stop his sister. After that visit, our contact with each other slowly came undone and I didn't hear from him as much even when I reached out first. Many times Jax grew short with me or he wasn't in the mood to converse. When Zander unexpectedly broke things off with Jax's sister, it was almost as if Jax didn't care about Zander by then. A thick line divided the brothers, preventing them from seeing each other clearly from the other side. It was obvious they missed each other, though they were not going out of their way to reconcile. I wanted them to because it was only right, it was how things were supposed to get back to normal.
I went back to California the following summer one last time after that visit. I didn't tell Jax I was in town, but he found out through social media. He called me like nothing had changed, and the literal and figurative space between us was nonexistent. He wanted me to come to a party with him in Long Beach. I didn't go because I didn't have a way to the party, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be part of it even if it turned out to be lame. I wanted to see him again.
Jax and I spoke briefly while I went on hanging out with my old college friends. When I returned to Alabama, things went back to the way they had been before with a little contact here and there from Jax. It was an odd experience not speaking regularly when once upon a time that was all we did. Over and over, I told myself it would all work itself out because we would all realize this was not right and we needed to be on speaking terms again. I figured the brothers would come to understand the error of their ways and our group would be restored.
The next time I heard any major news about Jax he was suddenly dying.
Jax’s sister called Zander in a panic the same night my mom’s car broke down in the rain as we were driving back from Montgomery to visit family. We were an hour away from home and it was another crushing piece of news that was brutal to the core. She was rushing as she spoke almost incoherently, but I could clearly hear broken spine, internal bleeding, brain hemorrhage…
I was trying to listen as my heart pounded and my blood rushed like thunder in my veins. I remained calm on the outside, but my insides were screaming 911! Zander couldn’t calm her and he didn’t try. Immediately, I prayed for his life because it was valuable, he was a person, he was only twenty-two he wasn’t supposed to be dying. Yet, his sister was crying in terror as her brother’s mortality stared all of us in the face.
Sometime in the last few months, Jax had acquired a motorcycle against his family’s wishes. He was learning to get better at it and he thoroughly enjoyed it despite the dangers that came with riding one. On his way home from class, a high schooler in a truck hit Jax, nearly killing him on impact, and out of fear of what he’d done, he left Jax for dead. If it weren’t for the generous man at the Home Depot across the street, Jax would have died there on the street.
We had Jax for two more weeks after the accident. A series of incidents occurred while he was hospitalized starting with the coma he slipped into and never woke from. His lungs collapsed, and the doctors finally found a way to get him to breathe on his own in spite of his paralysis only to learn his brain had much more trauma than was initially analyzed. Jax was in a vegetative state and his body was reliant on the machine he was hooked into. It wasn’t a way of living and I knew it wasn’t. We all did.
Selfishly, I wanted him to live even if it meant he would be paralyzed or that his mind wouldn't be the same. I was praying and still holding hope that he’d one day get better because there were miracle stories about such things all the time. But that wasn’t the case for us. Jax went into the hospital alive and never left. He died and as my world crashed all around me, a sick numbness filled my body that lasted well after he was gone. It was hard to celebrate my birthday as it was only three days prior to his death. I’d outlived my best friend and I was only twenty-six. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen.
In my own grief, I tried to comfort his sister while trying to comfort Zander. He held an immense amount of guilt and pain in his heart for his fallen brother. I'm sure he thought like the rest of us that there was time to mend the broken wounds and heal the transgressions. We were ready to throw all of our savings away to attend his funeral because we loved him. He had to know it even if we had grown apart and time had passed. We were the squad. He wasn't allowed to break that up. But God had other plans for us.
In the end, Zander and I remained in Alabama because we wanted to keep our memories of him as they were. Zander didn’t want to be a pallbearer at Jax’s funeral, unlike poor Blaze who now buried his brother and best friend. It was a tragic accident that reiterated how important life is no matter the age. If that was the lesson I was meant to learn, why did it have to be at the cost of Jax’s life? I would replay our times in my head like a loop, getting lost in the film that was our life. Had I known I’d lose him so soon, there’s so much more I would’ve done with and for him. I was so desperate for him to live I vowed I’d give him my heart, soul, and body forever no matter what Zander said if he’d just live. Instead, he passed a month before his twenty-third birthday and I spent his birthday wallowing in grief over who he was.
To commemorate the crazy, asshole who gave us joy at every turn, his sister and I got tattoos in his memory of things that held him close to us. She had her cousin put his final heartbeat on her chest near her heart while I got an arrow on my middle finger that read ugly. His life was precious and God held that life for as long as He needed it to be here. I am thankful for the time He allowed me to have with Jax because he was a gift. When I think of him, I think of the life we shared through years of friendship. Until the end of time, it will always be the squad: Jax, Zander, Sicily, and Blaze.