"We can't leave her, brother," Walter said.
"We aren't leaving her, Walt. I am." I put the car in reverse and backed down the drive. Each inch I traveled down that drive took me farther from the two people I loved most in the world. I knew distance was the only way I was ever going to find peace, the only way Walter and Isabella could find happiness, but my soul screamed that I would not survive the separation.
Isabella was, quite literally, the girl next door. We'd grown up together and had been best friends our entire lives. I could still remember the first time I'd seen her. Her sunny blonde hair surrounded her beautiful face in a wild, wind-blown array. Her green eyes had been bright with questions. Who was I? Where had I come from? How long would I stay?
"You know," she'd said, "The last family only lived there for three months. I think the house is cursed."
"Cursed? Why would it be cursed?"
"You don't know the story?" She'd come to sit on the curb with me. I had been watching the moving crew carry our lives, disguised as boxes, from the truck to the new house. My father had taken a new job and moved me and my mother across the country to this little town in Pennsylvania. I already missed the sun and California. I looked at Isabella again and thought how much she reminded me of the sun and wind on the beach in Malibu. She was bright and vibrant and just a little wild. I was already in love with her.
"What's the story?" I asked.
"There was this guy about a hundred years ago," she said. "He killed his whole family and then torched his house. Your house was built on the foundation of that house."
"I don't believe that," I said. Twelve was such a skeptical age.
Isabella shrugged. "It's your funeral. Want to shoot hoops at my house until these guys are done lugging your stuff?"
And that was how it had begun. I'd asked her name and told her mine. We'd played basketball until the sun dipped into the horizon and my mother called for me to come home.
It wasn't until school started for the year that I realized how many others with whom I would have to compete for Isabella's time. She was the brightest star in the dark night of middle school. I was the small, slightly awkward brain who tagged along in her wake. Isabella always made room for me at lunch, always made sure I was included in the conversation and I loved her more and more. I basked in her reflected glow and never saw the instrument of my demise coming.
Walter joined us when we started high school. He'd moved from another town and was everything I wished I could be. He was tall, broad-shouldered, strong, and handsome. He played junior varsity football and later was, of course, the quarterback of the state champion varsity team our senior year. If I had fallen for Isabella the moment I saw her, she had fallen for Walter just as quickly.
If I could have hated Walter, maybe things would have been different. The problem was, I didn't hate him. He was, after Isabella, my best friend. Where many of the other boys in our school were intimidated by Walter when he arrived, I'd reached out to him, tried to make him feel welcome. He never forgot that.
"You were the only one who talked to me that first day," Walter told me once. "Even Isabella was afraid of me. But not you, Brody. You walked right up to me, stuck out your hand and said, 'I'm Brody McLeod. Who are you?' I remember laughing until I nearly spit milk at you."
"You looked lonely."
"I was lonely, but you were the only one who cared. You always care."
And that was the problem. I had always cared more for those I love than I did for myself. When Walter told me he wanted to take Isabella to the prom, I pushed him to do it and canceled my tuxedo rental. When Isabella told me she was marrying Walter and they wanted me to stand with them both, I stamped down my own broken heart and kissed her cheek, assuring her I would be happy to do it. I watched them through their newlywed years and through the birth of their son. I watched Walter betray Isabella and when she came to me, tears pouring down her cheeks, I'd let her into my house and my heart.