Family, everybody has one. Some people may have a small, close-knit family. Others may not even know theirs. Mine was large enough to run a circus. See, my mom was one of five sisters, and her mother was one of nine siblings. Yes, nine. Despite two of her brothers dying in WWII, the remaining six had between two to four children each. Including my mom and aunts, the grand total came to a whopping twenty-four. And they had children giving me a total cousin count of eighty-seven, a number that seems to grow by the year. And that’s just my mom’s side of the family. There are so many of us we have to have a family reunion every year just so we won’t forget whom everyone is.
Now, not all of them come to the reunion, but the crowd that does show up is still enough to start our own civilization, and certainly large enough to make my Great-Uncle John’s farm feel like the size of a tennis court. The event felt more like a festival than a family gathering. In fact, there have been a few occasions where people have crashed our reunion thinking it was some sort of town party. Of course, no one noticed until they spit out Great-Aunt Gigi’s apple pie. No one spits out Great-Aunt Gigi’s apple pie. No one.
The farm was a good three hour drive from where I lived. We weren’t the only ones who had scattered from the nest. Many of the other cousins and siblings drove to the farm as well. It was a good half-way point between most of us. The drive I had to endure would be maddening to anyone else. During the first hour, my parents would have a lively debate on politics, and after half an hour of not speaking to each other, the following hour consisted of my mom sporadically breaking into show tunes. My dad even joined in on some of the songs, but most of the time he just smiled and politely tapped his thumb on the steering wheel. Any remaining time was spent listening to my mom try to explain the family tree to my dad for the umpteenth time. I’ll be honest. I don’t even know the names of most of my family. Facial features were usually enough for me to at least figure out who they were closely related to, but with most of them I was lucky to even get a last name right.
I have to admit, I was excited about the reunion. I had looked forward to it every year since my cousin Daven moved away when he was thirteen. His mom and my mom were closest in age and had a tendency to follow each other. That’s how Daven and I ended up living near one another for the majority of our lives. Being both only children, he and I were forced together at a young age, but neither one of us ever had a problem with it.
He was there at my birth; although, I’m sure he doesn’t remember it, being only two at the time. He was there when I broke my first bone, mainly because it was his fault, and when I chipped my tooth on a statue of Andrew Jackson. That one was my fault, but he still held my hand at the dentist. Basically, we were little hellions. Can’t say much has changed.
Several years ago at Uncle Allister’s funeral, we sat in the back and made a game out of seeing who could get the most paper airplanes stuck in the flower arrangements. Last year at the reunion we painted the town red. Quite literally. We managed to escape the family banter long enough to meet up with some of his friends. Armed with a can of red spray paint, we made a bet as to who could tag the most buildings in the sleepy mountain town before they got caught. Daven and I won, but the joke was on us. We ended up having to use the money his friends bet us to bail them out of jail. Needless to say, Daven was the brother I never had.
He was eighteen now, ready to start college in the spring. I couldn’t wait to catch up on the glories of his senior year and hear what he was excited about for the new chapter in his life. I couldn’t wait to see him.
We arrived at the farm just before noon. I jumped out of the car and stretched. I could smell the potluck from the driveway. I pulled my jacket tighter around me and made a beeline for the buffet, hoping to avoid the It’s-been-so-long-since-I’ve-seen-you’s, You’ve-grown-so-much’s , and How-old-are-you-now?-Twelve?-You-look-twelve’s. On the way, I managed to skirt around my Uncle Monty who did some time for drug dealing after his wife died. Somehow he had spawned my genius cousin, Michael who was about to start residency at Duke. I also purposely went the long way around to pass by my Great-Uncle Ray. He had always creeped me out. When I was younger he would ask how old I was. And when I told him a half year, he would count on his hand and hold up a half finger he was way too proud of. He learned the hard way how sharp a lawnmower’s blades were.
I arrived at the food, but so did my mom’s oldest sister, Aunt Darcy.
“Oh, Nissa! It’s so good to see you!” she stated, opening her arms out wide.
She hugged me, forcing me to get a face full of her blond hair. She was the only one of the five sisters that managed to escape the familial brunette and pepper hair that was passed down to me as well.
“Hi,” I said back, staring at a plate of finger sandwiches behind her.
“You should go find Casey and Darian when you’re done eating. They would love to see you again!”
My cousins, Miss Priss One and Miss Priss Two, were the two most obnoxious brats to ever exist. Aunt Darcy was a gold digger, marrying a doctor nearly twenty years older than her. Her two kids never wanted for anything. They couldn’t. They had everything.
“I might have to do that,” I said politely, my stomach gurgling from the smell of the smoked sausages.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked me.
I shrugged and pointed towards a crowd of people across the field.
“Well, I do hope that you enjoy yourself today,” she stated, looking at me sadly. She put a hand on my shoulder like she was consoling me for having to spend three hours in the car with my parents. “Really, Casey and Darian would love to visit with you.”
She gave me another perfume filled hug and sashayed off to follow my overly vague directions to my mother. I zoned in on the creamed corn and mashed potatoes. My plate was full before my eyes had even scanned the whole table. I popped an Auntie Annie’s famous bacon biscuit bite into my mouth and decided I would relive that moment several times if I could. The delicious crispiness of the perfectly cooked bacon and the buttery cooked dough with a slight greasy flavor melted in my mouth like it was chocolate. This was living.
Between bites I pulled my phone out to check my messages. No one had said a word to me, but that didn't give me a surprise. I deftly finagled my thumb to type a quick message to Daven asking him where he was. Hitting “send”, I sat my phone down on the buffet and turned back to my delectable plate of ambrosia. Normally he would have texted me by now, but he had probably found himself in a trap much like I had avoided.
When I had consumed half of the contents of my plate, I surveyed my surroundings. Dozens of my family members politely talked to each other as if they really cared about what the other had been up to in the past year. Several older men took delight in chasing around screaming children while their mothers paid little or no attention to them. I spotted my father beneath a brilliantly colored oak tree where several of the other men who weren't related by blood gathered to make small talk with each other until the event was over. I wouldn't have been surprised if they didn't even know each other's names.
I finished my food and tossed the plate into the already full trash can just in time to see my mother meandering towards me with Aunt Cathy, but not in time to escape their notice. Everyone has a “Chatty Cathy” in their family, but I literally had one. The phrase was probably made because of her. She was the second oldest of my mom's siblings, and she knew it all. Aunt Cathy wasn't afraid to tell anybody anything. She just wouldn't shut up.
“Narissa!” she exclaimed, spotting me excitedly. She hugged me tightly then turned back to my mother. “She has just grown up into such a fine young woman! And look at that hair! Did you cut it recently, dear? Oh, it looks great!”
I smiled and passed a glance to my mom who returned the glance back to me like a cry for help.
“Ginger, she looks just like you when you were that age! Now don't even start with me, you were that beautiful once,” she said.
Ouch! I thought and looked at my mom apologetically.
She rolled her eyes and started to say something only to be interrupted.
“Oh, honey,” my aunt stated, putting a hand on my face. “I do hope you try to enjoy yourself today. It's such a beautiful day, and your cousins would love to see you! Don't be a stranger to Marty and Clint. Mary would be happy to spend some time with you as well.”
She continued telling me how much her children would love to hang out with me and what they had been up to for the past year. Apparently, Mary made straight A's and Marty got accepted into veterinary school. Good for them. I couldn't care any less.
I looked at my mom who mouthed the words, “Save me.” I ignored her request, and aimlessly, I looked passed the sisters and scanned the horizon for an excuse to get away. I found the perfect one. Across the slow growing autumn grass of the field stood Daven waving his arms excitedly to get my attention.
“Excuse me,” I said without hesitation and found my way around the adults to finally find some freedom.
He waited for me against the planks of the split rail fence that kept the cattle in. I hurried to his side gratefully.
“Thank you so much!” I exclaimed, relieved to be away from all potential traps.
He smiled, perfect teeth gleaming brightly in the noon sun. “I thought you might need some relief.”
“Couldn't have come soon enough,” I mumbled.
He pushed himself off the post he had been leaning on and began walking the length of the fence. I followed like I always did. A chill in the air hit me suddenly, and I crossed my arms to try to fight the fall weather.
“Is it just me or has it gotten colder,” I asked. Daven was oddly quiet, and I felt the need to make small talk.
He shrugged, his broad shoulders rising and falling heavily. “Maybe,” he replied, sticking something in his mouth then spitting it out a moment later.
His silence was explained. Food always shut me up too. “What are you eating?”
He nodded towards a large yellow flower that grew just on the other side of the fence. Its large head drooped gloomily, weighed down by its heavy load. “Get some. They are best fresh off the flower.”
I smiled and dug into the center of the sunflower, raking out a hand-full of seeds for myself to enjoy.
“So, college... Are you excited?” I asked, popping some shells into my mouth.
“I've been excited about college since middle school. You know this,” Daven replied, putting a hand to his forehead and rubbing his eyes.
“Are you okay?” I asked, concerned.
“I've had an awful headache for a couple of days now. Can't say medicine has helped either,” he said then looked down at me and smiled. “What do you say we get out of here?”
“I was waiting for you to ask. What did you have in mind?” I was eager to hear his plans.
“Well, I went exploring the other day, and I found something you might want to see.” He looked at me with his big blue eyes waiting for my reaction.
“Tell me,” I demanded.
“No,” he replied.
“No, you have to come with me.”
“Fine, I'll come with you on one condition.”
He raised an eyebrow behind the shaggy bangs of his dark brown hair, waiting for me to elaborate on my own scheme.
“You have to hook me up with a college guy,” I said.
Daven knew immediately that I was joking. He laughed heartily, a deep belly laugh that reminded me of the time Grammy's teeth mysteriously disappeared and were found later clamped around a half eaten pickle in the fridge.
“I will scope each and every one of them out for you. I'll get names, majors, birth dates, phone numbers, and credit scores. You'll have a whole list to pick from next time I see you,” he stated, shoving his hands in his pockets.
“And hotness ratings. Can't forget that.”
“Oh, no, of course not. That's the most important.” He winked at me and shook his head.
It was clear now that we were headed straight for the woods at the edge of the farm. In the summer they must have been thick with green leaves and brambles, but now they were slowly dying, displaying their colors one last time before they went into hibernation.
Neither of us said anything until we reached the border of the forest. Daven headed straight in, but I hesitated at the treeline.
He looked back at me curiously. “Are you coming?”
“Yeah, as long as you know where you're going,” I replied, nervously following him into the crunch of the leaves.
“I've been there once,” he said with a grin. “Of course, I know where I'm going!”
“So, are you and Sara still together?” I asked, wondering if his mind was elsewhere.
“No,” he said flat-out, no emotion filled his voice. “We broke up a couple of months ago.”
“Good. I never liked her anyway,” I stated. His ex-girlfriend was a complete and total snob. I don't think I can honestly say I had ever met a snob until I met her. All she wanted was this and that, the newest and greatest of everything. She even forced herself on a trip with him to my house last spring because she didn't want him to spend too much time with anyone but her. Let's just say she left with fewer clothes than she came with, and the stray cats got some new bedding for their box under our porch.
“She broke up with me,” he replied.
“I feel no pity for you. You're better off without her.” I stood by my opinion wholeheartedly.
“Agreed. Too bad I didn't listen to you a while back. Now I'm broke and have no one to constantly shower gifts on.” He held a branch back for me to walk through then got back in front of me and kept winding his way through the labyrinth of trees.
“Well, if you ever feel the need, you are more than welcome to send some gift rain towards me.”
He just looked back and grinned. “So, I've learned a few interesting local legends since the last time we talked.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said, egging him to continued with his thoughts.
“Mhmm,” he confirmed. “The most recent one I learned about is the one that you should be most concerned with today.”
“Concerned with? What are you doing? Leading me into the Headless Horseman's lair?” I was beginning to get excited. Daven knew just how much I enjoyed ghost stories. Maybe a little too much.
“Something like that,” he said with a smile that reminded me of the time he and an ex-boyfriend of mine... Actually, I think I'll keep that story between Daven and me. “Supposedly, in these very woods is the angry spirit of a man murdered by a playwright. Legend goes he was denied a production of the masterpiece he had been working on for ten years of his life only to return to the local theater years later to find his play stolen and produced with no credit to him.
“He stormed onto the stage and punched the lead actor right in the face. When the director confronted him, the playwright cursed him and beat him to death with a stage prop. He broke into the box office and stole the money they had made, but what he didn't know was the director's brother was in the audience that night and had seen it all.
“The brother was a madman, a raving lunatic, some called him. He ran after the playwright to avenge his brother's death. They ran right into these woods, eventually ending the chase at what became known as Lunatic's Landing. The brother cornered the man at the top of the one-hundred foot drop-off of the forest floor, but the playwright was smart. When the madman charged to push him to his death, the playwright jumped out of the way to safety, and the lunatic plummeted to his doom on the rocky landing below.
“It is said the lunatic haunts these woods confronting anyone who gets near the ledge and shoving them to their death in hopes that both his brother's and his death might finally be avenged.”
I was silent for a moment, making sure he was done with his story. When he looked back with a devious gleam in his eye, I clapped.
“Bravo!” I exclaimed.
He bowed and grinned.
We arrived at a small clearing in the woods. A fence that looked fairly new had been placed at the edge of the steep ledge. A sign read, “WARNING: HAZARDOUS CLIFF.” There was a loose piece of yellow caution tape that fluttered in the updraft of the precipice. For some reason the scene reminded me of a picture of a hilarious cat I had taken for Daven.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” I said, reaching towards my pocket. “Shoot, I have something to show you on my phone, but I think I left it back in on the farm. I'll be right back!”
I turned and dove back into the woods before he could say otherwise. I guess I was rash like that. But at the same time, I didn't have my phone with me, and that made me feel naked. I was pretty sure I could remember the way back, but I broke a few branches along the way as landmarks just in case.
I knew exactly where I had left my phone, and I headed straight for the buffet table. By now, most of the food had been picked over by hungry family members. Even the desserts, most of which had just been put out, were almost gone. I searched the table, eventually finding my phone between an empty bowl of mashed potatoes and a small stack of buttery corncobs.
Accidentally, I had sneaked up behind my mom who was having a serious conversation with my Aunt June, Daven's mother.
“I am so sorry about what happened. We haven't told Nissa yet. Thought it would be better to wait until after the reunion so she could enjoy it a little,” I heard her say. My ears perked up at the mention of my name.
“Told me what?” I asked out of reaction.
My mom jumped back like I had given her a heart attack.
“Oh, Nissa! I didn't know you were there!” She put her hand to her mouth as if covering it would make me unhear what she had just said.
My aunt looked at me sadly. “I think we'd better tell her,” she said to my mother softly.
I felt the prickles in the back of my neck like I was about to receive some really bad news. My heart jumped into my throat making swallowing hard.
Aunt June took a deep breath. She bit her lip and looked at her feet like she didn't quite know how to say what she wanted to say. “Nissa...” she started then looked me directly in the eye. “Daven was in an accident a few days ago. He was hurt badly. They told me he probably died instantly.”
My mouth dropped open. What kind of a sick joke were they trying to play on me? I furrowed my brow and pursed my lips.
“You guys are sick! Why would you tell me something like that?” I nearly yelled at them.
I shoved my phone into my pocket and stormed off before they could tell me another lie. I wasn't even thinking about finding my way back to the cliff. Hurriedly, I shoved my way through the tangle of trees eagerly waiting to lay eyes on my cousin once more.
When I came into the clearing Daven was leaning over the chicken wire fence looking down at the abyss.
“Oh, my gosh, Daven! You will not believe what your mom just tried to tell me!” I started to say.
He ignored my statement and motioned me over towards him. “Come here! I want to show you something!”
His smile washed away all anger from me. He wasn't dead. He was right in front of me. My best friend. I sighed and wandered up to where he was standing.
“Look,” he said, nodding towards the cliff's edge.
“I can't see anything from here, just the tops of some of the trees,” I said, being careful not to lean too far over the fence.
“Just step out on the edge. I did it the other day. It's sturdy,” he said.
“You're crazy. They put a fence here for a reason.” I looked at him sternly.
“You're just chicken. Just climb over and look. You can hold onto the fence if you want. It's a really neat view.”
“I am not chicken. I am smart,” I replied.
“Bahgwak!” he clucked at me.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine,” I replied.
I put my hands on the one of the posts that held the flimsy fence together and hurdled my way over the wire. Sticking my fingers through the holes in the fence, I held on tightly and took a step forward to the edge of the bluff. The drop was even steeper than I imagined. Near the bottom of the drop were a few outcroppings of the rock, and below that were jagged boulders the size of a small car.
“What do you see?” he asked me.
“Probably the same thing you saw when you came the other day,” I stated. Something caught my eye on one of the outcroppings. A small pile of flowers lay next to a puddle of dark mud. “What's that dark spot down there?”
“That's where they found me,” he said.
“What?” I said, completely taken aback by his reply. I turned around to face him and stumbled backwards at what I saw, unconsciously letting go of the fence. When I regained my balance I took a long hard look at my cousin.
He looked like he had been run over by a car. His clothing was covered in dirt and grime. Two large maroon stains discolored his shirt at the collar and ribs. One arm hung at an odd angle by his side, and his head was tilted unnaturally towards his shoulder. One side of his hair was completely flattened by caked on blood, revealing a wound that was sunken in too deep to be a mere scrape.
“They found me there,” Daven repeated, his eyes blood shot and skin pale.
“Daven, this is not funny,” I said, in complete shock. I tried to get back over the fence, but he moved closer, causing me to back away.
“I want to go back to the farm,” I said, tears hot in my eyes. I didn't know what I was looking at.
“But you promised,” he said, the muscles in his dead arm twitching violently.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” I replied, trying to look for another way to escape. I was trapped.
“You promised me a long time ago that you would go anywhere with me,” my cousin said, looking at me with lifeless eyes.
My lip trembled as the truth caught in my throat. “But, Daven, you're dead,” I stated in a mousey voice that held back my fear.
“Come with me,” he said a bit more forcefully. “You promised!”
“No!” I yelled, trembling in utter terror. How could I have been so stupid? I knew something wasn't right from the moment I saw him.
“Don't make me push you, Nissa,” he said, gritting broken and dirty teeth together.
“Daven, stop it, you're scaring me.” My heart beat as fast as the cliff was high.
“Just one step,” my cousin urged, the look in his eyes destroying any strength I had left.
I shook my head vigorously in response.
“I promise it won't hurt,” he said, taking a step straight through the fence as if his body didn't exist. “You won't feel a thing.”
The act frightened me, and I stepped back suddenly, losing my balance at the ledge. I stumbled to regain my footing, but in doing so, my shoe slipped on the edge causing me to hurdle to my doom below. I flailed, grasping at air as I went down, only to find myself holding the entirety of my weight by one hand at the edge of Lunatic's Landing.
My face hit the side of the rock hard, and I could only imagine the black eye I would wake up to the next morning. If I survived that long.
“Help!” I yelled, looking up. I knew it was useless. The emotion in my throat made my voice too frail to scream, and quite frankly, the fall had taken the wind out of my lungs.
“You promised.” Daven's dead face appeared over the ledge, staring at me with bloodthirsty eyes.
“Come to me,” he stated, putting a cold hand on top of mine. He put his thumb beneath my palm and pried my hand off of the cliff, tossing it effortlessly into open air.**
The few seconds I was free-falling to certain death felt like hours. But suddenly, my body caught, slamming into the rock wall once more. I felt a hand around my wrist, a cold one. Looking up,an arm hung over the cliff, gripping my forearm firmly. I had a short amount of time to catch my breath, then I was hauled upwards back onto the overhang.
In all honesty, I was scared to look up, but something felt different. My eyes watered with both relief and fear, and my body shook, not from the breeze but from the near death experience. Terrified, I allowed my eyes to wander upwards. On the other side of the fence stood my cousin. He looked at me with sad eyes, his skin the color of fresh snow. But otherwise perfectly intact. He smiled, but the sad look refused to leave his face.
I scrambled over the rickety fence as fast as my body let me. My trembling hand went straight to my face as I looked at Daven.
“So it's true?” my wavering voice squeaked.
He nodded slowly as if he was just as reluctant to give me the news as my aunt had been.
“What happened?” I asked, morbidly curious.
He pointed to his foot and kicked it out, pretending to fall backwards.
“You slipped,” I interpreted for myself.
He nodded again.
“Why were you near the cliff?” I couldn't imagine that he was so careless.
He pointed to the ledge behind me. Turning to look, my eyes fell upon a splash of color on the rocky landscape. At the very edge were a few clumps of small flowers. They were purple, my favorite color, and had five tiny petals each. I looked back at Daven, trying to understand.
My cousin made a motion like he was picking the flowers and weaving them together. He put his hands in a circle and placed them gently on the top of his head then pointed to me.
The clump of flowers at the bottom of the cliff suddenly popped into my head. They were in a perfect circle, woven tightly together with only a few loose sprigs of green and purple.
“You made a flower crown for me?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
He smiled and nodded.
I frowned deeply. He had died thinking of me. Sobbing terribly, I broke down, falling to my knees on the floor of the rocky clearing. Daven was dead. And he saved me.
It was a thought that could not be easily comprehended. Instead, I let emotion overwhelm me until I was completely devoid of any and all energy. The whole time, Daven stood in front of me, smiling down on me sadly. Finally, I looked up at him, wiping the last tears from my face.
“Thank you,” I said quietly.
He held a small purple flower in his hand. Walking up next to me, he gently wove the flower into my hair. Cold lips kissed my forehead. One last sob escaped my lips as I stood up to face my worst nightmare.
I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to run to him. I wanted him to hold me, but for some reason, I knew it didn't work like that.
The smile that I knew and loved crossed his face. It was true. When you are falling to certain death, your life does pass before your eyes. Mine was filled with memories of our lives together, growing up, sharing secrets, fighting through the bad times, and learning to appreciate the good times. He was my cousin. He was my best friend. He was my protector.
I felt our time growing to a close, and as I looked up one last time at his fading imagine, he mouthed to me in silence the words that would forevermore replay in my mind.
“I love you.”
When my parents asked me if I wanted to stick around to attend his funeral, I told them there was no need. I had already said my goodbyes, and wanted to remember him as he was, not just some pile of bones in a coffin. I still have that flower. I put it in a book to let it dry. Sometimes I take it out and just hold it, remembering all of our crazy times together.
To this day, I don't know who I followed into those woods, but it certainly wasn't my cousin. I tried to forget the broken face of the demon that tried to kill me, but the nightmare still haunted me. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, feeling as if I was falling. But then, a cool breeze would brush my face, and suddenly everything was okay. In the morning, the flower would mysteriously appear on my bedside table, and I would silently thank my protector for everything he had given me.
I love you, Daven.