March, 2010: 8 o’ clock a.m.

The alarm clock woke me, too early, on this Sunday morning. My favorite black dress picked out for this occasion was folded over the computer chair. Slamming my fist down on the Snooze button, I sat up, begrudgingly, and got ready even more resentfully. Today was the day that I had been dreading for the last week. It was the day of Brianna’s wake. It was open until nine o’ clock tonight, but Brianna’s parents had asked me to keep them company most of the day. I had known Brianna for a long time, since third grade, and though we were never the best of friends, it was too long a time to ignore. Her mother, Cheryl, had been my Girl Scout leader at one point.

Sage leaned her head into the room and gave me a reassuring smile. I would never dream of missing this wake, but I wasn’t looking forward to it, either. I smiled back, but it didn’t make me feel any better. “Honey, are you okay?

“I am perfect,” I reminded her sarcastically, annunciating each syllable slowly.

“Poppy’s at the door,” she said, ignoring my rude tone.

I crossed my arm, chilled by a sudden draft, “Thanks.”

I stood slowly, moving in a zombie-like state toward the door. It seemed heavier today than usual. I took a great deal of effort, but I forced it open. My remaining friends were sitting in the living room, waiting for me. Clark sat on the couch with his arm slung around Poppy, keeping her as close to him as he could, staring at Joel. Poppy sipped her coffee black from one of the funny coffee mugs of my mother’s; Don’t hate me cuz I’m fabulous was written in boldly blue script across the front. Joel sipped his coffee from a blank, white mug with his eyes closed; his hands shook worse than a leaf in a hurricane.

“You guys ready?” I mumbled.

Poppy downed her coffee in a single gulp, gasping obnoxiously when she was finished, whereas Joel placed his untouched drink back onto the coffee table and opened his bloodshot eyes. Clark and Poppy sprang to their feet, while Joel, being the lethargic, mournful mess he was, took longer. He followed slowly behind, shoving his hands in the pockets of his dress pants and staring straight forward at nothing in particular. Poppy intertwined the fingers of one hand with Clark’s and fidgeted with the hem of her pretty black dress.

I pulled myself, carefully, into the backseat of Clark’s SUV. Joel sat in the row behind me, hanging his head over the seat like he was about to be sick. I moved infinitesimally away from his head, leaning against the door. I felt bad about him losing his girlfriend, I really did, but if he puked on my dress, I was going to kill him, like really kill him.

The funeral home was a small, beautiful building out on the highway, surrounded by the best kept, green grass for miles. No one had arrived yet, giving Clark a great amount of room to park. Cheryl was sitting on the curb in a beige suit, knees spread, leaning forward; the picture of ill-health. Her strawberry-blonde hair was pulled up in a clip, and I could tell from here how pale her face was. I catapulted out the car door the second it became still.

“Cheryl!” I called too loudly.

Her head snapped up and searched for the person calling her name; it wasn’t difficult to spot me, sprinting through the parking lot in a short, black dress and stumbling in three inch heels. She carefully got to her feet, collecting herself enough to keep the tears at bay and crack a small smile. I wouldn’t have asked her for one. I didn’t smile, all I could think of was the dead look in Brianna’s eyes. The same look as Marshall’s eyes when I had found him dead on the couch. It was the look of fear that had carried over through their last moments and would have been forever etched into their faces, had the funeral directors not been so clever.

I hugged Cheryl, despite knowing I felt really uncomfortable doing so.

The day went by slowly, achingly slowly, during which time I sunk into despair. Cheryl was like a leech, draining me of any ability to float through this without feeling any more depressed and my tissues. She cried every time a new person came to greet her, and each time her husband glanced at me apologetically as she nearly tore my dress apart with her fingers. No matter how badly anyone at that wake was doing, though, Joel was so much worse. Unlike Cheryl, I didn’t have to see tears to know it.

He had been pacing the room all day and had already gone through a pack of cigarettes by noon. Everyone knew it; he was smoking them in the building. The ushers wouldn’t tell him a second time, though, when he seemed mentally incapable of following orders. My eyes had been following wearily all day, but he hadn’t spoken since he found out about Brianna’s death. He almost said something to me a few times, but every time I asked him what he wanted, he simply shook his head.

After the sun set, Joel took up residence in the doorway. The people arriving kept as much distance from him as they could without walking into the wall and some coughed loudly when they strode through the cloud of smoke he exhaled. My legs were exhausted and my stomach growled; none of us had moved from the building all day and Cheryl and I hadn’t sat down. To put it mildly, this was the third worst day of my life.

“Paige!” a voice rang out above the dull roar of conversation. The room went silent. It was Joel, holding another cigarette between his fingers; he was sweating. Keeping my eyes trained on the floor, I pushed through the soundless crowd, murmuring apologies as I pushed some people a little too forcefully. Joel escaped out the door before I could get there.

“Tell your friend there’s no smoking in here,” an usher growled quietly as I passed him.

Promptly ignoring him, I continued outside.

Joel was standing in the parking lot with his back to me. He had to have heard me, I slammed the door to make a point to the usher, but he said nothing. After a few minutes of stillness, I turned to go back inside. When he needed to speak, he would. My hand was on the door handle when he spoke.

“Paige?” he finally murmured after a long drag of his cigarette.

“Hmm?” I turned back to him.

“How did you…um…find her?” he stammered, flicking his cigarette to the ground and squishing it with the toe of his good shoes.

“Joel, you don’t want to know that,” I assured him, hoping he would drop the subject there, but he seemed quite insistent.

“Yes, I do. Maybe it will give me some kind of closure,” he pleaded, grasping for straws.

“No, it’ll just keep you up at night!”

“Paige!” he exclaimed, grabbing my shoulders. “Please?” he added, less fervent than before. There were tears in his voice.

I bit my lip, but eventually gave in.

“She left the house to find out what was making noise outside. I begged her not to go out, but she didn’t listen to me. I fell asleep on the couch, watching the movie she put in. I woke up an hour later and she still wasn’t back, so I went looking for her. She left her flip flops at the start of the trail in her backyard; I knew that that had to be where she went. I thought I saw someone following me, but I thought it was Brianna. The end of the trail led into a clearing with a big, bare, oak tree. Brianna was hanging from the lowest limb. She had been chopped up by a hatchet.…” I trailed off, knowing I was lying but feeling it was for the best.

“How do you know it was a hatchet?” he questioned.

“Because it was still…um…attached,” I fumbled for words, but that was the best I could think of.

He still had not released my shoulders. “Was it bad?”

What kind of a stupid question was that? Of course it was bad! I didn’t say that to the grieving boyfriend, though. All I said was. “It was bad.”

His arms slowly dropped to his sides and he looked away. His eyes followed the smoldering embers scattering from his shoe. “I miss her already,” he whimpered. “I still can’t believe she’s gone.”

“It’s okay, Joel. It’s okay to feel that way, I mean,” I clarified. “She was very important to you.”

“I feel like I’m falling apart. It hurts so much.”

“I know how you feel. I’m still trying to catch my breath from when Marshall died. If you love them, they stay with you. Sometimes that’s just not a good thing.”

“That’s it! That’s what I’m feeling. I can’t breathe.” Then he began to sob wildly. For the first minute I felt hopeless. I had no way of comforting him except to leave him alone. I knew nothing of how Joel grieved the loss a loved one. I could only go on my own wishes to be alone. I took a step away from him, but he wrapped his arms around my shoulders, hugging me as tightly as I could. The shock knocked the wind out of me.

My hand rubbed soothing circles into his back, but that was all I felt I could do. It also only made him bawl harder into the back of my shoulder. With each sob that wracked through his body, mine shook with just as much force. The crying went on for another minute or so before he started to loosen his grip around me. The howls of pain began to subside into whimpers and hiccups.

He pulled back to look me in the eye. He studied my face carefully, but didn’t seem to think before he pulled my face to his. His lips met mine frenziedly. His face was damp with the tears that had been falling. The sodden back of my shirt was evidence of the endless, liquid drops of angst.

I tried to tell myself that I was only kissing him because he was so upset, but I knew that wasn’t the real reason, or at least not the only reason. The truth was that when my lips met his and our tears mingled on the way to the ground, I knew again what peace could be. For at least a moment, I could feel something other than pain and fear. We both knew that he didn’t like me enough to feel attracted toward me, but we both understood that this was something needed. It was a strictly rehabilitative exercise.

He clung to me desperately, keeping his eyes sealed shut, and the tears continuing to surface and roll down his face. I didn’t bother to feel worried that someone would see our very unfriendly contact, as the shame kept itself at bay. I was, though, starting to feel uncomfortable; it was like kissing a family member, it was only skin to skin, there was nothing romantic about it. I felt loved though, even if he wasn’t in love with me. He placed another light kiss on my face, then another.

“Brianna,” he murmured breathlessly.

He opened his eyes, shattering the illusion. The slight smile that had been on his face was gone now, replaced by his gaping jaw. Collecting himself, he scrambled back a few steps to put distance between us. “I’m…I’m sorry, P…Paige,” he stammered with an obviously quivering lip, staring at the pavement. I felt the cold stab of pity, propelling me forward until my arms were wrapped around him, trying to comfort him but at a loss of how to do so.

“It’s okay, Joel,” I assured him. “It gets better, I promise.”

“But what if it doesn’t?” he gasped, on the verge of another fit.

“It will,” I repeated, rubbing circles into his back with my hand. His breaths started to even out from their staggering, shallow hysterics and I began to step back.

“Paige,” a voice whispered. “It’s all because of you. Remember, it’s all your fault!”

“Paige?” he whispered, probably wondering why I had frozen.

“Hmm? Oh, sorry, I was just…umm…thinking. Did you hear anything, just now?” I explained, sounding like a lunatic.

“Hear anything? No, we’re the only ones out here,” he replied, pulling away so that his hands were on my waist and mine were on his shoulders.

“Right, I just thought…” I trailed off, knowing that anything I said would probably just make it worse for myself.

“No, I know what you mean. I’ve been feeling a little nervous, kinda paranoid, lately. You know with all the stuff that little shit’s been doin’ to mess with our heads.”

“Exactly! I feel like he’s watching me,” I told him.

I heard a branch snap behind him.

“You have to have heard that,” I panicked.

“Heard what?” he countered.

Something struck the back of my hand, radiating red hot agony up my arm. Joel gasped, feeling pain as well. My eyes shifted from his face to catch a glimpse of the back of the grey sweatshirt worn by the departing Cody. The bastard had the nerve to look back at me, his soulless black eyes burning me, and smile. That smirk was evil.

The pain throbbing in the back of my hand, the one against Joel’s left shoulder, became too unbearable to ignore. Joel was falling, pulling me down with him; I resisted, but his dead weight dragged me to the pavement, landing on top of him, and plunging the offending weapon further through our skin. I screamed, Joel screamed, but it was lost over the blaring of a car horn as Cody darted out into the street. I was poised to run, but when my poor attempt at sprinting only led to falling on my face and dragging my bloodied hand and Joel’s body across the harsh pavement, I gave up, letting him disappear around the corner to continue with his raging rampage.

“Paige,” he moaned breathlessly, letting his head drop into the blood pooling around him, soaking through his black shirt until even I could see the tinge of red in its darkness.

“Joel? Joel! Are you okay?”

Turning him over on his side, I found that my hand had been impaled with something familiar. My free hand shook as it wrapped loosely around the handle and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. The pain resonated through my skin like fire and Joel moaned, keeping his eyes closed tight against the agony. Remembering from Health class a lesson on bleeding, I realized that I had to keep whatever impalement was connecting us because if it dislodged itself from Joel’s body, he would bleed to death. Studying the sharp object through my hand and screaming for help, I recognized the unique letter opener from inside to be the weapon that will most likely have killed Joel.

I followed Joel all the way to the emergency room, but in the time between our ride in the ambulance to our separation, he did not regain consciousness….