After it happened, no one in school would talk to me.
No one. Not even my best friend, Lauren Hopkins, who has hair to her waist, and who let me dress like her until I figured out how to dress for myself.
She had said, “You know what, London? You homeschool types never look like the rest of the world. Even when you wear the right clothes.”
(I had on blue jeans and a Billy Talent T-shirt and Vans, too. It must have been my face. It must have. A look. I’ve seen it myself in pictures. Wide-eyed, surprised. Happy.
But that’s gone. That look is long gone.)
“So teach me what to wear,” I had said, shrugging. Like I didn’t care, you know? But I did. I cared a lot.
And while I didn’t buy anything different from normal, she did show me how to use kohl eyeliner.
And that should be enough to keep you tight, right?
The whole thing.
Me sitting there, like I’m minding my own business. Eating a cheese sandwich from home. Just the right amount of mayonnaise. Swallowing, yes. But having a hard time with it. Like there’s a fist blocking my throat.
The five chairs around me are empty because no one sits with me now. (Including Lauren Hopkins.) Maybe they’re used to me being alone? Maybe they’re afraid my tragedy will rub off on them? Maybe it’s because I can’t quite talk still? Whatever, they leave me on my own.
Lunchroom noises . . . Popping sounds of sodas being opened. Trays dropped on the table. Forks scraping on plates. Lunch bags being smushed closed.
The clichéd part is me on the inside.
I am ready to bust wide open. I feel it. I feel it coming up from the pit of my stomach, like a fast-growing foam. Like vinegar added to baking soda (and there’s Zach pouring the liquid and saying, “People of Vesuvius, run for
your lives.” And I’m laughing hard and so is Mom.). Like the feeling wants to burst out of me.
I’m the volcano.
For a moment I think, Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t. Do. It.
That’s how strong the urge to scream is.
The words I didn’t KNOW! echoing in my head, the o sound going on, screeching toward the ceiling. Higher higher.
Will they look then? Will they even hear me? Talk to me?
Sit next to me again? Leave me alone?
I hold it in, hold the scream back with both hands on my throat, tight, tighter, and it hurts. It all hurts. From the inside out. Tighter and tightest. Black in front of my eyes, no breathing for me.
The next clichéd part?
This new guy walks into the lunchroom and I gasp in air.
So I don’t see him.
I don’t see him.
I don’t see him.
Second half of the day just about over. I walk the halls alone. Check out the bathroom, make sure no one’s there. Lock myself in a stall. Take off my shirt, bundle it in a ball, and scream right into an armpit.
Then when I come into English class late (even this is clichéd—I used to read. I know.), I see him, right there, sitting in the row closest to the windows. His long legs spread out in the aisle. He’s grinning at what? Me? Can’t be. I’m just here. Late and all, with a wrinkled shirt now that’s wet from my scream and tears.
If my face would move, I’d smile. I’d laugh! Like before.
I would throw back my head and let the laughter burst from me.
But I just step over his feet, notice his dark brown eyes, dark hair, and head to the last chair in the row next to his.
“London,” Mrs. Pray says, “I’d appreciate you getting to class on time.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, not looking at her. Because I know what her face is. Full of sorrow for me. And after a screaming-into-my-shirt session, I cannot hold up under a look of sorrow. No way. That’s too much.
Somebody snickers (about me?) and I stumble. Why do I have to care what everyone thinks? Why do I have to care that I’m alone?
At home, all life has stopped, even though it’s been a while. You think things get going again. And they do.
Here’s how it works—
You become a shell. Fragmented. Soul seeping through the bigger cracks.
You walk. Move. Arms into sleeves. Zip zippers. Run your fingers through your hair. Swish mouthwash around your mouth. Avoid flossing.
Nod when someone asks, “London, how are you?”
Look away when someone says, “I heard about your loss.”
Want to tear skin with your teeth when someone says,
“Oh, he’s in a better place.”
You pass the closed door when you walk down the hall.
Wish things were different so we could sell. Move from this house. Get away from here. Run.
Dad at work all day. More than all day. Sleeping under his desk sometimes.
Drinking so much coffee that I can smell him from across the room.
And Mom. On her knees. On her knees. Weeping into her pillow.
Looking the other way when I’m near.
I look up from a stack of newspapers I haven’t even read. Don’t even know the name of the top one. I look only for stories of death. And nothing touches it.
“You’re London, right?”
My eyes don’t focus at first. How did she recognize me out of school? What was I doing? Nothing? Just sitting here? I nod.
She sits next to me. “Can I sit with you?”
She’s in the chair. Why does she ask? I want to say that, be my old sarcastic self. Instead, I think shallow sarcastic thoughts that are only half feelings, really, and nod again.
“My name is Lili.” She holds her hand out for me to shake. I don’t. She drops her hand. “I just moved here with my family. And I heard about you so I thought I’d sit here. Do you care?”
I nod a third time, then shake my head no. Meaning yes.
I want this warm body next to me till she finds out and leaves. Like everyone else.
Everyone’s the same, you know?
Even when they say they’re different, they aren’t.
I scare them.
No one wants what happened to me to happen to them.
And I can’t blame them at all.
“Oh good. It’s hard to be in a new place. Especially this close to the end of the school year. I’m from Utah. It was cold when we left. And look at the weather here.”
She holds her hands out like I’ll see a sample of the weather—Utah, Florida—on each palm.
I glance out the library window. The sun’s bright today, I squint. I hadn’t even noticed. And I’m sitting in a rectangle of light so hot that all the sudden my neck starts to itch and I feel all sweaty under one arm.
Look at this. See it.
There are dead people everywhere. Not like in that movie. I mean, everywhere.
In real life. On the news. In the papers. In history books.
In my life.
I cannot wait to get away from this.
So how do I? Get away, I mean?
Cause that much more grief.
Tear a hole open in the universe and just get the hell out of here?
Mom wouldn’t like it that I swear. She hates it when we do. I mean, when I do.
Or maybe not.
God expects more, is the whisper in the back of my head.
Well, the truth is, so do I.
A missionary’s kid can’t kill herself. It’s against all the rules. It’s against God’s law.
But would He stop me?
Would Jesus come here, right here in this library, if I was getting ready to off myself, and stop me?
I didn’t think so.
So I just have to stick around. No matter how I struggle to breathe. Be part of the plan. Part of the deal. Why?
Because accidents happen.
My whole family is aware of that.
Lili is settled all around me. She has on shorts and a long-sleeve T-shirt with SONS OF HELAMAN MOMMA’S BOYS written across the front of it (huh?), and I don’t even see her coat.
“It’s February,” I say. It’s hard to get the words out, but I do. Like that’s enough. But she seems to understand and smiles.
“Isn’t that great? Back home there’s snow everywhere!” Her library books slide all over my newspapers, pushing one to the floor. I ignore it. She puts her laptop on the table. “I’m writing a book,” she says, and I think of Daddy with his nonfiction, talking about our family Before and the travels and the people we met and missionary work. I think how he used to read every section out loud to all of us.
I look at Lili. She’s talking, but I don’t really hear her. Her teeth are so white, and when she smiles she seems happy. I wonder if Zach would have liked her.
Would you have liked Lili, Zach?
Here’s how I know God doesn’t hear me:
Daddy, my daddy the missionary, traveling us all around the country, all around the world, serving others.
Oh, what I have seen, what I have seen. Earthquakes, murders, orphans, flooding, people lying dead by the side of the road—the list goes on and on. And all that happening with us praying together, as a family, whole. All in a circle, holding hands, my daddy’s voice piercing the ceiling and headed straight to heaven.
And not one thing changed.
“You’re changing,” Daddy said. “Maybe God isn’t sweeping the world clean of injustice, but, London, you’re changing. You’re getting stronger. Learning more. Loving God with a fierceness no one would expect.”
And Zach just nodded, wide-eyed.
He believed. More than me. Always more than me.
He held on to his faith, even through his sad times, his hard times.
“It’s gonna be okay, London,” Zachy said. “It’s never what we think.”
I remember it was a hot November night. Our first
Thanksgiving in the South and here was this freak weather.
“It should be,” I had said.
Zach slipped his arm around my shoulder and we sat there, quiet between us, for the longest time. Then he said, “I know.”
Zach was right.
Daddy doesn’t know. Mom doesn’t know. But on those trips, I think I started wondering about a god that would let all this bad stuff happen. All of it so awful. I was changing. Stretching from my old religious skin. Feeling itchy with the worrying and the cracking free.
And just know this. You don’t have to be the daughter of a missionary to know what’s going on. Watch the news.
Read the paper. Check online.
I told you so.
So when I was little, Daddy said, “God answers prayers through Jesus Christ.” And I believed. One day, believing, I wrote this note to Jesus. It was like, Are you there? Check one box, yes or no. And I folded the note up small and set it on the bar in the kitchen. I spied around for a while, watching, to see. Left. Came back.
“What are you doing?” Zach said.
“Waiting,” I said.
I couldn’t say, “For Jesus.” Or maybe, with Zach then, I could have. But I didn’t. That’s all I’m saying now.
Now with this company I don’t look for a quiet moment. In fact, there’s nothing quiet about Lili. She runs her mouth and never takes a breath, I don’t think.
She’s here, that strange Lili. Sitting up close, hands folded, ponytail falling forward, leaning at me as she chatters.
Utah this and that, she says.
Grammy and Grampy this and that, she says.
And what about Disney World, it’s waaaay better than Disneyland, right?
I look at her and stay quiet. I let out a sigh.
She can talk. Wow.
This talker saves me from having to speak.
This talker is better than being alone.
How did Lili happen upon me here at the library? I shift in the sun, glance at the clock. Forty-five more minutes before Daddy will pick me up.
“Tell me about your family,” Lili says. “Do you have any brothers or sisters, London?”
Just like that. Like she has a right to know.
I swallow, swallow, look at her side-eyed, back at the clock. In the sun her dark hair has a red tint. She’s thin, looks like an athlete. I catch my breath and there’s time for my words because she’s stopped talking. She waits. Quiet.
After the account of the long drive from Utah, after Provo High, after being the middle of five kids (four boys and her) and being an aunt when she was twelve, after how her father is the new football coach at the local university, after how her mother can’t get bread to rise in the Florida humidity, she looks me right in the eye and waits for my answer.
That’s an ugly question sitting on the books between us.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
My body takes over.
I’m up, going, headed toward the door. Leaving everything behind.
I look back once, flip her the bird. Her mouth drops open.
How the hell did she find me, anyway? All tucked away in the back like that?
For a moment I imagined her as a friend. A good friend.
I could have lived with all the talking, turned my ears off, nodded when I needed to, if I had a friend again.
But she is, I see, just like everyone else—wanting to know the end.
Daddy beeps as he passes, makes a U-turn. Pulls up alongside me. I climb in the car.
“London, you didn’t wait for me.”
My mouth is dry as a sock and I’m cold. I want to say something, answer him, tell him what just happened, but my voice is trapped in a box.
Lili and her stupid T-shirt and shorts.
“Honey, I told you I’d pick you up. You’ve been walking a long while. You’re halfway home.” He sort of looks at me.
We pass a huge orange grove. This is why we live here now. After Daddy retired and decided to settle down in one place. We came here for the oranges and avocados and hot, steamy weather.
“Are you okay, London?”
I glance at my father. My eyes are dried out too. Now
I’m hot all over, though my fingers remind me of ice chips. And I can’t stop trembling.
“Let me get you home,” Daddy says.
I open my mouth to speak, to say anything, but Lili seems to have used up all the words I might have said today.
She has four brothers.
Count them. One, two, three, four.
And my one is none.
When almost all the shivering has stopped, Daddy says, “Honey, your mom’s resting again today.”
I look at my hands, empty of everything. Not one library book, not even a magazine, though I’d thought of putting together a stack on the table, if I hadn’t been so tired, and checking them out.
I stare at what might be the lifeline on my palm.
The truth is, books used to connect us.
They’re something we always had, even in Africa, though not like what’s here in this house.
I can do without the books this weekend—I haven’t read anything I wasn’t forced to in months. What I need is to share the air with what’s left of my family. Take small steps. Sleep on the edge of life.
“I’m going back to the church to look over photographs for this next book. I’ll work in my office some more.”
Sunnyside Baptist Church opened its arms to us when we arrived, because Daddy is a well-known missionary. They wanted him here. Gave him an office to work from. He’s even spoken from the pulpit several times over the past three years.
I mean, Before.
Not as much now.
He needs time.
When I glance at Daddy, I see he doesn’t look in my direction. He grips the steering wheel. Holds tight. Stares ahead. Just stares ahead, hanging on to the steering wheel. Looks at the road like it’s his best friend.
I bet it is. I bet the road is his best friend, because he has always loved to travel.
“Right,” I say. I’m surprised I found my voice, like all along it was hiding in the backseat or near my lifeline or something. “Thank you for picking me up.”
“Sure thing, honey.”
We drive down our street, so green. Trees hunch over the road, cold sunlight splashing through, houses set far apart, wide spaces between, and a breeze moving American flags like a gentle wave, like they’re saying good-bye to an almost-friend. A talkative almost-friend.
“I’ll be home by dinner.”
We pull in the driveway. The house seems all closed up, the windows dark-eyed. The sidewalk even feels like it might roll up and pull the welcome sign off the tole painting Mom did so long ago.
“Check on your mom for me, huh, London?”
When I touch the car door handle, a shiver runs up my arm, makes me look Daddy in the eye.
For a moment we stare at each other.
Who would think someone could get old in just a few short months? But it’s happened to my father. His hair graying like it is at the temples. Wrinkles that make him look sad, even if he smiles. He just seems brittle somehow. We all are, I know.
Then I see it. Past the age. Past the gray and sadness. I see him—
Zach, my older brother,
hidden in my
“London, come with me.”
That long-ago night, my eyes popped open. Zach stood over me, in his pajamas. His hair was all messed up from being asleep. He was right in my face, so close I clapped a hand over my nose to keep from smelling his breath.
He laid a finger on my hand like he was silencing me. “Come on. You have to be quiet.”
I got out of bed, clutching Mandy, my little one-eyed doll.
The wooden floor was cold.
“Guess what I found?”
“What?” My voice came out low and full of gravel.
“You’re going to like this. You will.” He took my hand in his.
We went down the hall to Mom and Daddy’s room. The door was open just a bit.
Everything was gray. Even Zach. But the hall night-light was a yellow blob with shadows spreading away. It scared me, seeing it like that, but I didn’t tell Zach.
“They’re sleeping in there. So really shush now.”
He pushed the door open. I could see our parents in
bed. He pulled me to the closet. Their big walk-in closet. Opened that door. Led me in. Closed the door. I could smell the leather of Daddy’s shoes and Mom’s perfume.
He flicked on the flashlight.
“Look.” The beam of light circled the tippy-top of the closet. Christmas presents. Wrapped already. Way up there. “Santa’s been here.” He lighted the presents again.
“How do you know it was Santa?” My voice was a growl.
“Right there. See?”
I saw. FROM SANTA in black marker.
Zach flipped off the light. We stood in the dark closet.
The space smelling of our parents. I felt disappointed. I had thought, well, that Santa did work at the North Pole.
That he brought things from there on Christmas Eve.
Not that he stored presents in my parents’ closet.
I felt Zachy’s hand. He tugged me out into the bedroom, out the door, back down the hall. He tucked me into bed.
“We won’t tell them we know,” he said.
And we never did.
Mom is in her room. I knew she would be when I stood on the front porch and watched Daddy leave. I open her door, which is closed almost all the way, remembering that Santa night even though we lived in a different house then.
She moves in bed. I can see she’s lying on top of the covers. She’s fully dressed, so that means she’s been out.
But she doesn’t answer.
“Daddy wanted me to look in on you. Is there anything I can get for you?”
She hasn’t spoken to me in months. Not when it’s just the two of us. Not when Daddy is home. Not at all, not at all, not at all.
“He’s put dinner on,” I say.
Has she plugged her ears?
Does she hear me?
Do my words make their way to her?
I see her roll over, turn her back to me.
A part of me wants to run in there. Run in and shake Mom. Scream in her face. Make her SEE me. I touch my throat, squeeze my eyes shut. Turn around and pull the door to, leaving it cracked open just a bit.
I finish making dinner—glass pitcher of iced tea cooling in the fridge, brown-and-serve rolls ready to bake as soon as Daddy gets home, a Sara Lee pie pulled out of the freezer to thaw.
It’s quiet here. Like I live all alone. The house breathes opposite me, breathing in when I breathe out. Presses its memories on me. If walls could talk, what would these walls say? Would they close their eyes to memories, like I want to?
When I can’t stand it, I turn on some music, classical, so soft it can’t be heard down the hall.
Sometimes, when it’s late, really late, I’ll pull out some of Zach’s music. I hid his iPod when Daddy searched my brother’s room for answers. I don’t listen often. But on a night like this, maybe someone else’s wailing will help me
I dream he’s alive.
He wakes me with a low, “London.” I cover my face, hide my nose from his breath that is cold as frost. “I’m okay,” he says. “I promise. Come with me.”
“You’re taller,” I say.
He nods. “Maybe,” he says. “Anything is possible here.”
“Where?” I say. And I’m up, following him. “Where?”
I open my eyes when my feet touch the floor.
Zachy was so good-looking, even grown women did a double take when they saw him.
His hair was blond (mine is sandy-colored with a highlight of auburn)
his eyes so blue they made you think fake and he was way taller than me, more than six three. He might have kept growing forever if he’d stayed alive.
But the best part of my brother was when he was happy, and he was, mostly—though there were times— how he would throw back his head and laugh.
No one had a laugh like that.
Daddy misses dinner. Again.
(This never happened Before.)
Mom eats in her room with a bottle of wine I didn’t even know we had.
looking at three empty chairs and wondering.
“Why do I even bother to eat?” I ask Zach’s chair. “I can hardly do it.”
And that’s true.
It takes real effort to lift the fork open my mouth chew swallow breathe lift the fork open my mouth chew swallow breathe lift the fork . . . you get the picture.
And if there isn’t anyone to help by just being there, well, what’s the use?
So in the end I just eat a huge slice of Sara Lee pie.
“Before you get it, Zach,” I say. My voice is a whisper, but I can imagine him reaching for that pie, eating it from the tin, and Mom laughing. “Before you hog it all.”
I’m doing my homework at Zach’s desk when the phone rings.
(Right after, there were a lot of people who called.
And then they found out more and the calls stopped coming. People didn’t know what to say. At church they wouldn’t look any of us in the eye.)
It’s weird hearing the phone ring.
I stand, step into the hall, and I hear Mom answer,
Her voice is soft as warm air. I can almost see her in my head, in her room in the dark, sitting on the edge of her bed, hair a bit messy from lying down.
“Yes, she lives here.”
“Yes, I’ll get her.”
I stop walking.
She’ll get me? She’ll get me? That means, that means, she’ll have to call for me. I don’t move. Can’t move.
I can hear sounds coming from her room, but I don’t volunteer anything. Just wait. Wait. Wait.
She says nothing.
I hear her settle on her bed.
My stomach is thin as paper.
After a while the phone starts that loud beeping sound, and I turn and go back to Zach’s room, where I crawl under the desk and sit where his feet used to be.
“Jesus,” our pastor says, “is the answer.”
He says it to a room full of people. We sit in the front, just me and Daddy, almost alone . . . except for the Smiths at the far end of our pew. (People are afraid. Don’t look and it won’t happen to you.)
Taylor Curtis sits in the choir seats opposite me here in the congregation. Mom’s not here. She quit church months ago. Anyway, he’s seventeen and has blond hair and this big smile and eyes such a pale green that in black-and-white pictures he looks crazy.
No one knows this except Zach—I mean he knew it— but I think I loved Taylor before he decided he wanted to be with Heather Nelson.
“I’ll beat the crap out of him if you want me to,” Zach said. “Look at this.” He showed me his muscles. Flexed. Tried to make me laugh. “Long skinny muscles can pack a punch. Want me to bust his butt?” They were friends, my brother and Taylor. Good friends. On the football team together.
“WWJD?” I had said.
“Probably send Taylor’s soul into a herd of pigs that would leap off a cliff and drown in the sea below.” I had laughed then, though I’d been crying before.
Now Taylor looks at me and he lifts his eyebrows, something he did when we made out, like he’s asking if I want to meet him again.
Even though kissing right now might make me feel better. For sure would make me feel less lonely.
“He’s right,” Daddy says in a whisper, his hands folded in his lap like he might be praying when he isn’t talking, and for a minute I think he means Taylor was right to like Heather (it didn’t last long). “Jesus is the answer.”
“He is the answer.” And to hear him say it, why, I know, I know, he believes, even if he carries the whole Castle family belief on his own back.
Every day is the same
is like the other
they run into one another
I can’t tell a Monday from a Thursday
only the sadness links me to them.
In school, in English, that beautiful guy is back.
I get there early to watch for him. Hurry so I can see him walk into class. And when he strides into the room, his jeans hitched a little low, that shirt open so anyone can see his throat, I know why vampires want to bite necks. My face colors at this stupid thought.
He’s opposite of what I’m used to—of light-haired Taylor.
He’s dark-eyed, with nut-colored hair that’s trimmed short. He’s lean, not football hardened.
I can’t stop looking at him.
It’s Lauren Hopkins. She’s run in after him, linked her arm with his, and now she slides down the aisle with him. He glances right at me, just for a moment. Shows a bit of his teeth in an almost-smile. Then looks down at her.
“Hey,” he says, and I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or to her, and I say, “Hey,” back, but my voice is lost in the room of kids.
“You and I are on for tonight, right?” Lauren says. She’s so pretty. Dressed up, like she’s off for a job interview or something.
He shrugs. “Sure,” he says, and he’s glancing in my direction, but I look away before I can see if he sees me.
When Mrs. Pray starts teaching, I close my eyes and I think about Jesse walking into the room and in my mind it’s me following, holding on to him, and setting up the date.
Taylor waits for me after English, another week gone.
Like he did those few months before a weekend changed his mind. He’s standing there in the hall, leaning on the lockers, waiting.
I stop so fast that someone runs into me and then gives me a shove, saying, “Jesus,” at the same time. I stumble forward and Taylor steps to greet me. He says hello by lifting his chin and eyebrows, then he cuts through the crowded hallway and when I start walking away, he’s there, walking in time with me.
“What?” I say. And I wonder where that Jesse is.
“I thought,” Taylor says, then he stops me by grabbing hold of my elbow. “I thought I could pick you up tonight.
And we could do something.”
His hair’s combed forward and he smells good, clean. I can only watch his teeth when he speaks. They’re white.
He flosses, I know it.
I just look at his mouth and the whole time I’m thinking,
Kissing might help me, but I don’t say anything more and so he says, “Me and Heather. We’re over.”
I shrug. I know that. It didn’t last even a month. It just
came at the wrong time, the leaving. I start walking again.
Jesse’s in my head, so pretty, and Zach’s there saying,
“Long skinny muscles can pack a punch.”
“We had fun,” Taylor says.
“You and Heather?” There are too many people in the hall.
“You know I mean you and me.”
I nod. “Sure we did,” I say. “Until my brother died.”
Someone slams his locker closed and I jump a little. It’s cold here in the hall, even with all these people.
Taylor’s all quiet and then he says, “It’s been a while now,” all sad.
I stop moving, but Taylor walks a step or two farther.
Then he comes back and stands there in front of me.
He’s not as tall as Jesse. And he’s not dark-haired.
Something moves in my chest.
I think of Mom and Daddy and my brother gone and Jesse who doesn’t know me so what does it matter and Lauren Hopkins and me alone, and I touch Taylor’s lips with one finger and his eyes close and I say, “Sure. Why not?”
The phone’s ringing when I get home.
I answer it this time. Mom’s car is gone anyway. Maybe she’s with Daddy, helping him look through photos. Ha!
“May I speak to London.” It’s a girl and I almost recognize her voice.
“This is she.” I walk to my room, holding the house phone between my shoulder and cheek. Taylor will be here just in time for me to not eat dinner alone so I want to change my clothes.
“Well, this is Lili Fulton and I wanted to call and apologize if I hurt your feelings in the library. I didn’t know about your brother. I just heard you were homeschooled and so were we for two years until my mother was ready to pull her hair out and ours, too, and I’m always saying stupid things. That’s what my brothers say. But, London. I’m so, so sorry.”
I take a deep breath for her. She didn’t know about Zach? Maybe people aren’t talking still. Someone said something, though, because NOW she knows. Whatever. And then I say it. “Whatever.” It sounds really mean coming out of my mouth, but the word is there and I can’t scoop it back up so I don’t even try. WWJD?
What would Zach do?
“Do you forgive me, then?”
I choose a shirt from my closet. “Sure,” I say. “Yes.” My face has gone bloodred because of my rudeness. I can see it in the mirror on the door. I look away. “Sure, you’re forgiven.”
Lili lets out this little squeal. “Homeschoolers are the best. I know it’s weird, but I’ve always been best friends with homeschoolers. You should come over. And we can talk. Or cook something great, but not anything like cinnamon rolls, because my mom still hasn’t figured out the humidity. Can you?”
I slip off my jeans one handed and pull on leggings.
They’re black. Would Mom notice? And if she did, would she stop me from leaving the house? Would she actually talk to me? I check out my butt in the mirror. I avoid my face because this is me looking at my body in tight clothes in case a boy might want to see my butt too.
The whole thing is sick.
The whole thing is not me.
Why am I doing it?
“I can’t tonight.”
“Sure,” I say again. And I don’t let myself think anything about the answer because I’ll cancel right then and there if I do.
“Tomorrow night,” she says, and as Lili says something else, I hang up.
When Zach had sex the first time with Rachel, he told me three days later.
He said, “London, I can’t believe it. I can’t. She was so soft.”
I screamed and covered my ears and he laughed, red-faced. Then he said,
“I love her, London.” And I could tell he loved Rachel as much as Daddy loves Jesus, when he said those words.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what brother would tell his little sister he had sex?
You travel all over the world where there are just the two of you, and you become best friends.
Taylor picks me up as the sun dips away from the sky. Daddy is still at his office.
Mom still hasn’t come home.
When I walk outside, Taylor looks at me all green-eyed and smiling. The color of the early evening sky reminds me there is a God. It’s just that beautiful. The color of a crayon before you swipe it across paper.
There is a God. There is a God. There is a God.
I believe that. I do.
But does He believe in me?
“So what do you want to do?” Taylor asks.
He looks so warm and good I can hardly stand it.
I climb into the car, fasten my seat belt, and wait for him to slide next to me in the driver’s seat. It smells like aftershave in here. I squeeze my eyes shut to the memory.
“I like your hair.”
I can’t answer.
“You okay, London?”
I shake my head.
Taylor was my brother’s best friend.
Not including me.
Not including Rachel.
Something is lodged in my throat. Aftershave maybe?
“Should we go back inside?” he says after a long minute.
“Do you want me to go home?”
Yes. No. Yes. No. Yesnoyesnoyesnoyes.
“I can always come back.”
“Okay.” My voice isn’t a whisper. It’s less than that.
He’s out of the car because now I can’t move right.
He comes around the front, slouched over a bit, hands shoved in his pockets.
What’s wrong with me?
Who am I now?
How can one person leaving change you so much?
Taylor opens my door, unfastens my seat belt, takes my hand. He almost has to make me walk. I wonder for a second if I’ve forgotten how to live.
When we get up on the porch, Taylor puts his arms around me. He pulls me so close I can feel the thread count of his shirt on my cheekbone. “It’ll get better,” he says, then he opens the front door for me, and I go back inside.
It will get better.
People always say that.
Like it really will.
I lean against the door, eyes closed, that aftershave smell in my mouth.
Maybe he meant we will get better.
Me and him.
Not Mom and me.
Or just plain ol’ me.
But Taylor and me.
Weekends kill me.
No pun intended.
They are sad. Lonely. Heartbreaking.
Three of us left and still we’re all alone.
And what about this?
How did I end up responsible?
I choose not to go to Lili’s house, and when she calls I ignore her.
What if my mother started to care again right this second?
Would I care if she cared?
Would I forgive her?
I’m weak and needy.
I need my mom.
I want my brother.
I don’t have either.
We need each other to be whole.
How can one person take so much with him?
It is not fair.
Monday morning, when I walk outside for Daddy to take me to school, I see Taylor. Fog sits close to the ground and Taylor stands next to his car, right there in front of my house, like Before. Like this is normal and we’ve never stopped seeing each other. It’s like my eyes are going bad, the way he kind of fades from view a bit as the fog thickens.
Daddy sees Taylor too, and I see Daddy pause, take a step, pause, take a step, and then he walks right over to Taylor and throws his arms around him. They’re the same height.
“How are you?” Daddy says, and Taylor says, “I’m okay.
Doing better.” Daddy claps Taylor on the back and they stand there a second and Taylor says, “I was going to take London to school. If you want. If that’s okay with you.” And Daddy says, “I’d love for you to. I’ve been so busy down at the church,” and Taylor nods and says, “We’ve heard the first book is doing pretty well. My mom told me to tell you we pray for your family every day.” Then Daddy nods too and says, “Thank you. London? Are you okay with Taylor helping me out?”
I stand in the doorway, half in, half out, feeling like a burden to my father, like the fog holds me back, books
tucked to my chest, the loneliness and safety of my house just a step behind me. “Okay.” But, really, I’m not sure.
The grass is wet with dew and the tops of my shoes cool as I walk to the side of the road.
You can do this, I think.
What if the car has my brother’s smell still? As I head toward Taylor, I know it does. Taylor and Zach were like brothers.
And when Taylor opens the car door for me, I smell I am right.
The drive’s quiet.
Taylor taps the steering wheel, glancing at me every once in a while.
I look forward, breathing through my mouth.
“Sorry about the aftershave,” he says.
I sort of nod.
“It makes me feel better.”
When I glance at Taylor, I see he’s hurting too.
Zach’s circle was a big one—it touched lots of people. I know that with my brain, but my heart hasn’t let me see past me too far.
All of us are missing something, I realize as I sit there, the Florida morning sweeping past my window. Like, lots of people. Lots. Everyone knew Zach. Everyone loved him.
“How?” My voice feels unused and sounds that way too.
I don’t look at Taylor.
The sun is bright. Cold. I can’t wait for warmer weather.
“It reminds me of him.” Taylor taps at the steering wheel again. Pulls the car to a halt at the stop sign. “We bought this stuff together.”
“I didn’t know that.”
I hear him swallow. “He told me you’d like it.”
Now I do look at Taylor. The road to school is busy.
We’re only a few blocks away.
“I do like it,” I say. “But it reminds me too much of him.”
We look at each other. The space between us feels so huge. Someone beeps and Taylor, he doesn’t move. Just sits there. Then reaches across the distance to touch my face with his fingertips.
He walks me to study hall. Drops me off at the door.
Waits for me to look him in the eyes. But I can’t. I give him a one-armed hug and feel his lips in my hair, feel one hand on my hip bone.
“I don’t need a ride home,” I say. Then I hurry into class, stumbling on a bit of sand, maybe, as I go through the door.
No one talks to me.
They don’t even look my way.
There’s a death bubble around me and I know it. It’s a thin film, one that only I can see through, and I have proof no one can see me, because they never look in my direction
and I refuse to look in theirs.
As soon as I sit down, I wish I were with Taylor again, riding to school or to the beach or to Tallahassee even, my eyes closed, smelling my brother all around me.
It’s that afternoon, in English class when Jesse walks past with Lauren on his arm, looking so fine I want to slug Lauren right in the face, it’s that afternoon that I start talking to Zach.
Just in my head.
Maybe my lips move.
But no one talks to me.
Except maybe Lili if I would let her.
And Taylor, with his Zach smell.
“Zach? Zach? How are you? Are you there?”
He doesn’t answer, and for a moment, sitting in that hard desk chair, watching Lauren kiss Jesse full on the mouth until Mrs. Pray tells her to stop or else, I miss my brother so much that I think I feel my heart is still split wide open.
I remember how Daddy said, “Jesus died of a broken heart.”
And I think I know how that feels.
Right after he was gone, when we knew he was really gone, and we all stood with Zach as he died a second time, I thought I’d crawl right out of my skin with grief.
(Mom was done talking to me by then, had already screamed at me there in the hospital until a nurse asked her to quiet down.)
At home, I’d run to my room and cried out to Jesus.
There would be no Lazarus miracle here. I knew that.
there was a pause in my grief
as I felt my brother edge his way into my room
like he had so many times before
and come up close to me.
afraid to move
like I might chase him away if I turned.
I could smell his aftershave, and I knew he was there to
let me know he was okay.
That visit? It was real. I swear it.
But that visit wasn’t enough.
I want more.
I want him back.
Why does death have to be so final?
I want to scream my question
pound at God’s door
demand an answer
ask Him to forgive me
if I’ve done something wrong
and then give my brother another chance.
Taylor tries three times to take me home that afternoon, but I cannot do it.
“I’ll walk,” I say.
“It’s too far, London.”
We’re in the parking lot. Cars are everywhere. Driving away. Beeping at one another. The cool air smells of exhaust.
The noise makes me nervous, shaky. Maybe Mom’s silence has made me more sensitive.
Taylor puts his hand on my arm, and some kid leans out a window and hollers, “Just say yes!”
I panic. Want to run. Want to get away. And so I do. I rush right past Taylor, right in front of a car that almost hits me.
“Stupid bitch!” The passenger screams the words, but I don’t stop moving until I’m stopped by the crowd of students leaving C wing.
“London?” Taylor is close behind. I can hear him. He grabs the sleeve of my jacket. “Please.”
I see Lili then. She’s coming out of the double doors just
down from where we are. She waves, her face breaking into a tentative smile.
I’d smile back if I could.
“She’s taking me home,” I tell Taylor. “I can’t ride with you.” I don’t even look at him. I start toward Lili, whose smile grows a bit bigger, though she looks behind herself
Taylor grabs my arm. Turns me toward him. “What did I do, London? What?”
I feel a hand on my throat and realize with a start it’s my own. I glance up at him. “You smell too much like my brother.” Then I walk away, even when he says, “I can change that.”
“That guy is hot,” Lili says. “And he’s still watching you.”
I shrug. “I told him you’d take me home,” I say. “Just nod like you agree.”
“We can so do that,” Lili says, sweeping her dark hair over her shoulder with one hand then giving Taylor a thumbs-up sign. “Where do you live?”
“You don’t have to really,” I say. Someone bumps into me, knocking the notebooks from my hands. I don’t even have the energy to pick them up. I’m not even sure I can squat to gather these spilled things. I’m lucky that the crowd has thinned or I’d get trampled. Why am I so tired? All-the-time tired. Lili helps, grabs stuff up, hands it all to me. She’s the only girl in the whole school dressed in summer clothes. What will she wear when it warms up around here? Nothing?
“Let’s go.” She’s got on one big smile. Her face is so happy. I feel guilty about this, too, for ignoring her. How can she even forgive me when my mother can’t?
“No, I just . . .”
“You just nothing,” she says. “You just need a ride. Come with us.”
I’m too tired to argue. And I need a ride. This once.
Next time I’ll walk. Or ride with Taylor. Or maybe call my mom. Ha!
We head down the sidewalk, passing Taylor, who watches me, and to the sidewalk.
“Gosh, he’s hot,” Lili says, like it’s an apology. We cross the parking lot, to the far corner where an old van sits.
“The Beast,” Lili says. And then, “Once we were at the mall in Utah and we stopped in the parking lot and this old lady climbed up inside our van like we were a bus or something.” Lili laughs, and I nod, because what else should I do?
She slides the side door open. “Gross!” she says, and she’s so disgusted I’m scared there must be some monster in the back. “I’m telling Mom if you don’t get your mackdown sessions under control.” Lili looks at me and rolls her eyes. “We’re taking London home.”
So I’m all about clichéd crap, right? And yet I don’t see this coming. Jesse, moving from the backseat, wiping lip gloss from his mouth. Lauren, coming up to the
front, Jesse letting her hang on to the back of his shirt, then grabbing her hand and helping her to sit in the passenger seat.
Of freaking course.
All the way to my house, Lili chatters.
I don’t have to give directions, because Lauren knows the way. We were friends for a long time. I liked her.
I really did. Lots of people do. Guys, too. She reaches across the open space between her and Jesse, running her hands through his hair every once in a while, pointing the way to go, resting her hand on his thigh.
“Stop touching my brother in public,” Lili says, and I can tell she is not happy. “He may not care, but I do. And so does my family.”
She looks at me and mouths, “I can’t stand that girl.” I almost smile.
The truth is, I still like Lauren. I would like her better if she cared. But Lili doesn’t need to know that.
“Your brother’s a big boy,” Lauren says. “We’re just having fun.”
Jesse grins at Lili.
“I live here,” I say as Lauren shouts, “Stop!”
The van screeches to a halt, and I open the door, taking
the huge step to the ground. My house seems lonely sitting there, like its insides have spilled out. Can everyone tell?
“Thanks.” When I look up, Jesse stares at me and so does his sister. They’re practically twins. I can see that they are related, though I have no idea how I didn’t notice this before. “Thanks,” I say again.
Lili leaps out of the van, hitting the ground with a thump in the gravel. “Now that I know where you live, we can hang out,” she says. “We don’t live so far from here. Want us to pick you up on the way to school in the morning?”
I don’t say anything. Think how I should ride with Taylor because that’s the right thing but know that I won’t. Not now. Not right now.
“Taylor’s back, isn’t he?” Lauren says. “You know he dropped Heather.” When I look at her, the sun seems to have picked her out and shines there, making her hair fiery. “She cried for days.” No one says anything, and she speaks again. “That’s what I heard.”
I swallow. My skin tingles. “I’m not going with him. I mean, I did this morning, to save my dad the trip, but . . .” My voice dwindles away.
“You back to talking?” Lauren says.
I just look at her, and she shrugs.
“Oh, that hot guy’s named Taylor?” Lili says, and she breaks out in a smile brighter than the sunbeam Lauren sits in.
“So we’ll take you home and pick you up in the a.m. Is that good?” She turns to her brother. A cool breeze picks up and I can smell the ocean. “You okay with that, Jesse?”
“Sure.” He looks me right in the eye, and all the sudden I want to kiss him. Is Lauren’s lip gloss still on his lips? I want to find out. I almost take a step forward, there’s that kind of draw. It’s almost spiritual. Does he feel it too? He looks at me like he does. Then, without warning, Lili hugs me, and for a moment the places where her skin touches mine burn like ice.
“This is going to be so fun. We’ll pick you up about seven tomorrow morning.” She releases me.
I open my mouth to say okay but can only nod.
It’s been a long time. My mouth, it only sometimes works.
I don’t have that much to say
didn’t have anything to say when it all happened and now
with Lauren and Taylor and the others, maybe I’m used to being silent.
But this Jesse, this Lili, they’re new and they don’t have one bit of a clue what my life was.
What it is now.
So maybe I can start over a little on the inside.
I’m all alone.
When I step in the house, I feel the emptiness, feel me the only person breathing in here.
For a moment I think of my mother being here every day by herself
thinking of her dead son and the daughter she hates and doesn’t want to have anything to do with.
I walk into the foyer, which is dark as an artificial night, and know I wouldn’t want to sit around here either. I’d leave too.
There’s a mirror by the front door. I force myself to look at my reflection.
Am I so bad that my mother has to hate me?
Would I quit talking to me?
Was any of this my fault?
There’s not one answer on my face, only sadness.
I have to look away.
I flip on the light and start through the house, turning on switches and opening curtains and blinds.
The mother who hates me can close them all later. If she comes home.
She loved him best.
We all knew that.
I even heard Daddy telling her to love me better and she just laughed—saying she loved us both, but especially Zach.
I didn’t blame her.
I loved him best too.
People who saw the three or four of us together knew.
It was obvious to everyone he was the favorite.
And sometimes my brother used that to his advantage.
But mostly he didn’t. Because, except for a few small little itty-bitty tiny things, my brother was all right.
It was Lauren. Of course. Lauren told Lili everything. At least what she knew, which I’m sure isn’t accurate. That’s
how gossip is. Bits of truth sprinkled in with lots of crap.
And Jesse, too, I bet.
I bet he knows.
I bet she told him first.
They both know by now.
A weight settles on my shoulders. I can’t even stand up under it.
I have to go to bed.
So I do.
In bed I wonder.
Does she tell Jesse that she wanted my brother bad?
Does she confess he never was that interested in her?
That once he found Rachel, he never looked back at Lauren?
Does she tell them that one time, when she spent the night with me, my dad caught her sneaking into Zach’s room, late?
Does she tell them how we laughed together?
Does she tell them that she was an expert at teaching someone how to put on makeup?
Does she say that we were best friends. Best. Before?
Does she say how I called her after he died?
Does she whisper how neither of us could talk?
Does she tell them that Zach loved Rachel?
And that Rachel.
That Rachel was something else.
At first, I was like Lili. Jealous when Zach found Rachel.
But he so totally fell for her, and she didn’t mind sharing their time with me, too, so I totally fell for her. I mean, if
you could have seen Zach with her.
My Taylor (he was my Taylor then) was like, “Okay. Wow.
That girl is smoking, London.”
I punched him a good one for that. “How’d your brother manage to catch her?”
Mom and Daddy hated that she didn’t believe in the same God we did.
But Zach? He just grinned.
Took her hand at the table, kissed her once full on the mouth, right in front of Daddy, who looked away and would have crossed himself if he’d been Catholic.
Who could know everything then? Besides God?
Lying in bed all dressed and on top of the covers, I hear Mom come home. She’s moving around, muttering, mad, closing the blinds. Closing the curtains. Snapping off lights too, I expect.
She has to know I’m here.
She has to know I’m the only one who would go against her wishes and let the light in.
Well, there’s light when she drives, isn’t there? Can she block the sun out, with her sunglasses?
She has to know I’m here. She has to see my book bag on the table. She has to know I’m in my room. Where else would I be?
I know she knows. I know it.
But she doesn’t come looking. Just mutters and closes curtains and blinds.
How long would I be dead before she found me?
She’s not coming in my room.
I know she’s not going to look in here.
What’s so different about today?
Light in the house?
Still, I wait for her. And when she doesn’t come to tell me hello after twenty minutes, I turn away from the door and pretend to sleep for no one.
Here’s what I remember best about Mom. My old mom.
My Before mom.
Afternoon snacks when we came home from school.
Dancing in the living room with my girlfriends and me.
Teaching me the hard parts of speech, all that grammar I didn’t think was important.
She would do anything for anyone. She turned the car around to give homeless people money. She combed lice out of little kids’ hair. She helped mothers hang mosquito netting. She made people dinner when someone they loved died.
But when Zach died,
Mom didn’t accept one meal,
not one visitor,
not even me.
She hasn’t come in my room, not once, since my brother passed. Not even to peek in to see if I’m still breathing.
I check on her, though.
I only go to school because they make me. Mom is so done with homeschooling.
When Daddy comes home, late, late, Mom is already in bed.
I’ve gotten up. Done my homework. Made a sandwich.
Watched a little TV. Talked to myself in the shower.
Picked out what I’m wearing to school. Whispered words to Zach.
“You see how you left me? You see how you left me, big brother?”
My eyes burn, but I don’t cry.
Some late-night show is on and I should have been in bed long ago, but I want to hear someone’s real voice.
The voice of someone who loves me (is there anyone?).
Not just Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon.
“Want some hot chocolate, Daddy?” I ask him as soon as he comes in the house.
I can see the tired all around his eyes.
I can see him looking for Mom but acting like he’s not.
I can see that he’s sadder than he was yesterday. There’s pain in his voice.
Is he missing my brother a little more tonight?
Or my mother?
“Do you, Daddy?” I ask.
The room is dark around us, just a soft light that falls from the family room, where I sat watching TV.
Daddy hesitates, then nods and says, “Yes, London. I love it when you make me hot chocolate.”
“We used to do that a lot together, remember?” I say this as I head for the kitchen. I pull out milk and cream and a Hershey’s chocolate bar and vanilla and sugar.
Mom taught me this recipe, I think, warming the cream and milk and breaking the chocolate bar into bits. I remember me standing close by her side. Her letting me use the whisk to stir the drink. Her laughing at my brother as he tried to steal chocolate. All of us sitting together. How old were we? How long ago was that? It seems ages and ages.
I pile marshmallows into two cups.
I can hear my father speaking to Mom. His voice is low and hers is soft, chocolaty. I almost stop moving. Will she drink with us? I open the cabinet, just in case. Reach for another cup. My fingers tremble.