Chapter 1:

the end of a life

Just Once More

Alex quietly walked up to the casket. The funeral home was empty now. Friends and family had cleared out long ago. Even his parents had gone home to rest.Bookmark here

It was just him. Him and his sister. Like it always was. Like how it should have been.Bookmark here

Rain. Muffled, but clearly audible in the silent room. And somewhere, Alex could hear a drip. Water, coming in through a leak elsewhere in the funeral home.Bookmark here

But that didn't matter.Bookmark here

"Mei..." He mumbled her name as he looked at her.Bookmark here

She was the same. His cute baby sister looked like she was just sleeping. Like she would jump up anytime to say it was just a prank. That he was silly for worrying so much.Bookmark here

But she wouldn't.Bookmark here

He knew that more than anyone else.Bookmark here

"..."Bookmark here

He wanted to ask her why she did it. He wanted to know why she never told him. He wanted to hold her by her shoulders and demand to know why she didn't say anything sooner. He wanted her to tell him why she didn't rely on her older brother like she did in the past.Bookmark here

Yes. That was what he wanted.Bookmark here

...But he already knew why.Bookmark here

Because his sister... Mei was just like that. Trying her best to cheer everyone else up. Smiling... always smiling. A bright and radiant expression that lit up the room.Bookmark here

And one that he would never see again.Bookmark here

Alex couldn't say anything. His mouth opened and he wanted to say it all. How he was stupid and should have been there. How he would give everything up if he could see her again. How he didn't care about graduating with honors or that damned Ivy League acceptance letter. How he just wanted her to be happy and not worry anymore.Bookmark here

But he couldn't say it. And what was the point in saying it?Bookmark here

Mei was gone. No matter what he said now, what he did from this point on... she wouldn't be there to experience it.Bookmark here

Rain. The sound of water, dropping against the floor.Bookmark here

But this time, it wasn't due to a leak.Bookmark here

"Dammit...!"Bookmark here

Alex brushed away his tears and kept looking at her.Bookmark here

This was the last time. After this, he wouldn't be able to see her again. The moment that morning came, she would be in the ground. Cold. Alone in the dark. Bookmark here

...What she hated the most and her worst fear.Bookmark here

But he couldn't do anything now. He couldn't get a blanket for her or turn on the radiator. He couldn't turn on a nightlight or sit with her in the dark until she fell asleep.Bookmark here

"!"Bookmark here

Mei. His baby sister. The one who looked up to him her entire life. Who relied on him and trusted him to keep her safe. Who wanted him to be happy and didn't make a fuss even when their parents had to work overseas.Bookmark here

The one who he took for granted and didn't see drowning while he was on a ship to success. Who he didn't see suffering even while he drove them to and from school for an entire year.Bookmark here

Alex's knees gave out and he knelt in front of Mei's casket. "Mei, I...!"Bookmark here

The words didn't come. The countless emotions, regrets, sorrows... All that Alex could do was sit there in silence. Bookmark here

She was so close. Mei was right there. But no matter what he did, his words wouldn't reach her. Bookmark here

That...Bookmark here

"So someone's still here, huh?"Bookmark here

An aged male voice. Raspy and grating.Bookmark here

Alex immediately stood up and looked towards the speaker. Bookmark here

Like he sounded, it was an old man. Frizzy white hair and countless wrinkles on his face. A slouched posture and a gnarled walking stick to keep support him.Bookmark here

"...Who are you?"Bookmark here

He looked vaguely familiar. And from the old man's suit, he seemed to be here to pay respects. But Alex didn't recognize him.Bookmark here

The old man ignored Alex's question and walked over to Mei's casket, looking down at her. "So young... You must regret it a lot."Bookmark here

Alex winced, feeling a sudden pang of guilt and regret. But he quickly schooled his expression.Bookmark here

The old man shook his head. "No need to hide it, young man." He looked up at Alex and said, "Youth is the time to wear your heart on your sleeve. It gets a lot harder when you get older, you know?"Bookmark here

"...Thank you, Grandpa."Bookmark here

A bare minimum level of respect. Alex didn't know him, but the old man was probably an older relative of the family. Not only that, but the old man was giving advice and trying to console him.Bookmark here

"Grandpa, huh?" The old man chuckled. "I suppose I'm that old now." He placed his hand on his back and pressed it, straightening his posture with a few cracks. But after that he didn't say anything else, only quietly staring at Mei.Bookmark here

Seeing that, Alex ignored him and focused his attention back on his sister.Bookmark here

...They did a good job. Her dark bangs were neatly brushed. Just enough makeup was applied to give her skin color and hide how pale it was when he found her. And she was even wearing her favorite outfit. That frilly dress she made to go to the Anime convention.Bookmark here

...The one that she never wore because he was too busy to take her.Bookmark here

Alex felt another pang of guilt.Bookmark here

Just how many things did he miss? Just how many requests did he turn down with the excuse that he was too busy?Bookmark here

That...Bookmark here

"You regret it that much, huh?"Bookmark here

Alex blinked and realized that the old man was looking at him.Bookmark here

Alex laughed and said, "Regret? No. I'm just..."Bookmark here

The old man shook his head and then looked down at Alex's hands.Bookmark here

Alex was confused why until he followed the man's gaze.Bookmark here

Blood, dripping down on the floor.Bookmark here

...Right. He had forgotten to clip his nails since he found Mei. He barely remembered to clean up in time to see her off.Bookmark here

So because of that, when he subconsciously clenched his fists to contain his emotions...Bookmark here

"Little Mei wouldn't want to see her big brother like this, would she?"Bookmark here

"...No. She wouldn't."Bookmark here

Alex let out a deep sigh and slowly unclenched his hands, staring at them.Bookmark here

His pale skin was stained red. Not only that, but bloody crescent moons were pierced into his palm.Bookmark here

"Here." The old man reached into his suit and pulled out a few napkins. "Picked them up on the way here. Figured I might need them, but it looks like you need them more."Bookmark here

"...Thanks." Bookmark here

Alex took the napkins and held them against his palms, waiting for the bleeding to stop.Bookmark here

The old man turned back to look at Mei. "It's a tragedy. Dying so young after being forced to the edge. Something that could have been prevented, if only someone knew. If only she reached out."Bookmark here

Alex flinched.Bookmark here

The old man looked at Alex and said, "It must be worse for you. After all... you were the one who saw her every day, weren't you?"Bookmark here

"...Shut up."Bookmark here

The old man held up his hands. "Fine. This old man will shut his mouth. But before then..." He turned to Alex and said, "Do you mind answering a question?"Bookmark here

Alex paused. "...What is it?"Bookmark here

"If you could save her, would you do it?"Bookmark here

*throb*Bookmark here

Alex's heart skipped a beat.Bookmark here

That...Bookmark here

"...What?"Bookmark here

F.C Fondness
Pierce Holmquist
❄️ WinterTimeCrime
Robin Paharya
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