At last, she leaves. Four days ago we would’ve battled over those car keys. I’ve only had my license for three weeks. Sam and I celebrated by going for ice cream—in Dad’s car, of course.
And now Sam is—
No. I won’t even think the word.
Car doors slam. Tires crunch against gravel. I refuse to picture the place where they’re going, imagine the things they’ll say, count the tears they’ll cry.
I haven’t cried once. Mom’s watched me with careful eyes for days, waiting for the flood, but my eyes remain dry. There’s no grief, no sadness—only a hollow feeling I carry everywhere, the sense that I’ve lost something vital, like my heart or my lungs or half of my existence.
I’ve lost the future I expected. The one everyone expected. I smile a little at the good memories—Mom and Liz, Sam’s mom, half-jokingly arguing over our theoretical future wedding colors. Sam and I grinning over the absurdity. We never dated, never even kissed except for those weird, experimental pecks on the cheek when we were five, but everyone expected us to get together someday. Everyone referred to us as a couple.
The memory fades. Bad ones try to take its place.
Mom took me to a doctor yesterday, worried about my reaction—or lack thereof—and he prescribed some pills. I find them in the medicine cabinet, avoiding my own gaze in the mirror. I don’t need to look to know that my outsides suit my insides—dark brown curls in wild tangles, hollowed-out green eyes, sickly pale skin.
The label on the pill bottle says to take one. I take two and go back to my room.
The picture on my desk stares at me. I close my eyes, but it’s etched into the insides of my eyelids. Sam and I on the porch swing. My feet rest in his lap. His blond hair a tousled mess because we just had a tickle-fight. Blue eyes closed, head thrown back in laughter.
I curl up on my bed and wait for comforting darkness to find me.
* * * * *
It takes ten days for Mom to freak out and drag me to a psychologist’s office.
“It’s not normal grief,” Mom says. “All this sleeping, refusing to talk…it’s not healthy.”
And then she leaves me alone with a stranger who she apparently thinks has some magical powers that will force words from my mouth.
So I sit in a chair in Dr. Brockowski’s office, which is decorated in soothing tones of blue and green that annoy me for some inexplicable reason. She switches on a white noise machine and laces her fingers across her stomach.
“So, you’ve suffered a loss.” Sympathetic expression, clinical tone. “Would you like to talk about it?”
I look away.
“Talking might help you process your feelings. I’m sure you’re in a lot of pain.”
I still stay nothing.
We go on like that for another ten minutes.
Finally, she takes a long, slow breath. “All right, let’s try another tack. For the next fifty minutes, I’m going to do paperwork. If you want to talk, feel free. But if you don’t, that’s fine too.”
The next fifty minutes are the shuffling of papers, her pen scratching across a form, the occasional rustling as one of us shifts in our chair.
Then she looks up and smiles. “I feel like we made a lot of progress, don’t you?”
We both know the answer to that question. I think she’s actually trying to trick me into talking.
She ushers me back to the waiting room where Mom sits in a mint green chair, tapping her foot.
“Ms. Abbott,” Dr. Brockowski says, “may I see you privately for a moment?”
Mom gives me that What did you do this time look, but then offers the doctor a sunny smile. They go into the office and shut the door.
Two other people wait here, both around my age—a girl with pale blonde hair that brushes against her chin, and a boy whose unruly brown curls would be better suited for a mad scientist than a teenager. The girl props Chuck Taylor-clad feet on the glass coffee table. The boy slouches.
There are only three chairs out here, and it seems weird to sit with them, so I go stand by the door.
“Hey,” the girl says, “what are you in for?” Her light blue eyes trap me.
I open my mouth to speak but nothing comes out. Couldn’t talk if I wanted to. And I don’t want to. I clamp my lips shut and stare at a painting of the ocean on the opposite wall.
“Okay,” Nosy Blonde Girl says, “well, you came out of Brockowski’s office, so probably grief counseling. She’s gonna recommend the festival of tears she runs. Probably talking your mom or whatever into it right now. You should go—the cookies alone are worth it.”
“Aura, leave the poor girl alone.” The boy’s expression tells me that this is their standard routine.
“I’m giving her advice. Unsolicited, yeah, but you don’t see her telling me to shut up. So why don’t you shut up, Micah?”
Micah sighs. “I hate to see anyone deny themselves the pure pleasure of telling you to shut up, but she just came out of a grief counselor’s office. Seriously.”
Mom comes out before Aura can unleash the retort perched on her pursed lips.
“Thank you, Doctor. We’ll see you soon.” Mom turns worried eyes on me. “Claire?”
I follow Mom outside, but not before tossing a curious look over my shoulder. Aura smirks at me while Micah turns his gaze toward the heavens, exasperated.
* * * * *
Aura was right. Mom drops me off at my first “Festival of Tears”—it’s actually called Grief and Loss Support for Young People—after dinner the next day. It’s in the basement of the Youth Center.
Sam and I went to a punk show here once. We danced until our feet ached, until we couldn’t catch our breath, until sweat drenched our clothes.
I stand on the basement stairs and consider running away for an hour and then texting Mom to pick me up. Someone comes in behind me, though, and it’s either go down those stairs or make an awkward exit.
I go down the stairs.
We sit in a circle, nine of us, including Micah and Aura. I sit across from them. Dr. Brockowski drones on about fragility and acceptance and the future. Then she invites everyone to speak. Terror clutches at my chest.
One by one, they talk about the people they’ve lost, the progress they have or haven’t made. Some cry. Some don’t. Then it’s my turn.
Dr. Brockowski looks at me like I’m a deer that might startle and run off at any second. “Claire, do you have anything to share?”
I stare at my hands.
“That’s fine. Maybe next time.”
Against my will, I raise my head to look at her. She offers a kind smile before moving on.
I don’t listen to the words anymore. I just let each person’s cadence, whether certain or halting or somewhere between, pull me along like an oarless boat on a slow current.
Then we get to Aura.
“I’m doing great.” Bright and confident, her smile begs us to believe. “I feel like…like it’s time to start living again.” Her gaze slips toward me before returning to Dr. Brockowski, who frowns as though expecting more.
I drift away again. Before I know it, everyone stands, awkward release passing between them. Most of them meander toward the table of cookies, coffee, and juice.
Aura comes to me, Micah trailing her with obvious reluctance.
“Come with us,” she says.
Her stern tone forces me to my feet before I realize I’m standing. They lead me up the stairs and to a corner of the event room, where Sam and I danced and sweated and loved life.
“All right, O Quiet One,” she says. “You can’t go the rest of your life without talking. You know that, right?”
I nod. Of course I have to talk sometime. I just…can’t.
“Then out with it. I sacrificed some damn good cookies to talk to you without Brockowski looming.”
A long, deep breath brings no words, and opening my mouth turns into a pointless exercise.
Aura sighs. “Look, I know you’re that chick whose boyfriend died. Something sudden, an accident or an overdose, maybe suicide, unless it was the heart or brain. Doesn’t really matter—dead is dead.”
Micah runs a hand over his face. “Jesus. I’d tell you she’s not always this blunt, but I’m a bad liar.”
“He wasn’t my boyfriend.” The words creak out, hoarse and uncertain. Eleven days since words have crossed these lips.
Aura’s grin lights her face. “That’s more like it.”
“He was…he was my best friend. Everyone thought we were dating, but we weren’t. Not yet. Eventually, maybe. Probably.” The words spill out and crash against each other.
Nodding, Aura takes my hand. I want to pull back, but her warm skin contrasts so sharply with the cold loneliness of the past few weeks.
“Look,” she says, “we’ve made more progress in a minute than Brockowski made in an hour. Are you ready for more? Wanna hang out?”
“Aura, seriously.” Micah gives her a worried look. “I think it’s too soon. Give her at least another week.”
But Aura’s invitation pushes at the loneliness, the silence, the hollowness of too much solitude and sleep.
“Yes.” The word flies out without my permission. “I mean, I want to. Hang out, that is.”
Criminy, did I forget how sentences work?
Aura doesn’t seem to notice, and even Micah wears a pleased smile.
Keeping hold of my hand, she pulls me along as though she’d never once considered another outcome, and we walk out into a world bathed pink and gold by a setting sun.
* * * * *
Aura’s car has seen better days before crashing into some worse days. Micah insists on giving me shotgun even though he’s a foot taller than me.
None of us speak for a while. I wait for someone to bring up anything of importance.
“So you and your not-boyfriend go to West End, right?” Aura asks. “Well, you go, he went.” I flinch, but she continues. “I think your basketball team pranked ours pretty good last year.”
My heart is a stone sinking into a bottomless lake. Sam masterminded that prank.
“Oh no,” she says, “no more of the silence. Come on, we’ll play a little game. What’s your favorite color?”
“Blue.” Okay, this isn’t so bad. I can handle this.
“Favorite genre of music?”
She cocks her head. “Not bad. Not great, but not bad. All right, let’s see…books or TV?”
“And what was the not-boyfriend’s name?”
“Sam.” The word hangs in the air, something I can never take back. It stabs me in the heart. It’s the first time I’ve said his name since the last time I said it. I push the memory away, but the echo of my despairing cry refuses to leave.
Silence in the car. They watch me closely, a sense of held breath hanging around us.
I lift my chin. “S-Sam Beckworth.”
We release our held breath in unison.
“There.” The soft satisfaction in Aura’s voice surprises me. She has this weird combination of perky and hard-edged going on, and her gentle smile doesn’t fit with either one.
My phone beeps. A text from Mom. I completely forgot to tell her that the meeting ended. Not that I’ve been texting, anyhow—too much like talking.
I reply: Hanging out w/ new friends from meeting. Home soon. I can only imagine her reaction.
Aura guides the car up a dirt road. “Okay, Claire, here comes the next level of the game.”
I don’t recognize this area. “Where are we even going?” Maybe I stumbled upon some teenage serial killers who target the grieving.
“There’s an abandoned hunting camp back here where we like to hang out.”
“But…it’s dark,” I say. Sunset has come and gone.
“No worries. Now, like I said, the game gets harder now. You have to answer all the questions I asked you, but from Sam’s perspective.”
We turn up a rutted driveway, overgrown brush and drooping branches crowding the car.
“I don’t think I can,” I say.
Aura’s laugh brings back the hard edges. “You can, and you will. Come on. It’s just words, man. What are you so scared of?”
I take a deep breath. I’ve never been great at rising above peer pressure. “Green, but it had to be right. ‘None of that mint green crap,’ he said once. Punk and hard rock. Books.”
A heavy weight sits on my chest. All these things remind me of that time he rolled his eyes at my mint-green t-shirt or forced me to listen to some new song or insisted that I read this awesome new book that I would love, he swore, and of course I always did.
The driveway curves and we rumble to a stop in front of a ramshackle cabin surrounded by short, crooked-limbed trees. Solar-powered twinkle lights wind their way up the trunks and around the branches, and spooky becomes charming, like something from a fairy tale.
Aura and Micah lead me to a circle of mossy logs around a firepit. We don’t build a fire or anything…we just sit. Micah keeps tossing concerned glances at Aura, like he expects a blowup or a breakdown.
I decide to turn Aura’s questioning back on her. “Your turn. Who’d you…lose?”
“Older brother. Noah.” Her factual tone implies that she’s beyond the pain keeping its iron grip on me.
Micah chimes in. “Mom.” The barest hint of a tremor in his voice tells me he’s still in the woods.
A wistful smile haunts Aura’s lips. “Orange—don’t even ask, I always thought it was weird too—country, blech—and TV.”
Micah stares at the ground. “Pink. Big band music…she was obsessed with the past. Books, unless some old movie was on.”
I sigh. “It’s funny, the little things that don’t seem so important until…”
“Until they are.” Aura’s fingers slide over the log she’s sitting on, like she’s trying to memorize the bumps and ridges.
“Right. I mean, Sam and I practically shared a crib.” His name is a little easier to say now. “Our moms argued about hypothetical baby names. I was going to go to whatever college he went to, and then we were going to get married—everyone assumed all that stuff would happen so I thought, hey, why not? It was nice having something be so…certain. I never felt like I could be sure about anything else.”
They don’t ask about the day that certainty shattered into a million pieces. If they had, my silence would have returned, maybe forever.
Aura gives me a penetrating look. “So why didn’t you two ever hook up, if everyone expected it?”
I shrug. “We talked about it. He always said there was a reason, and I’d figure it out eventually. But…”
“Ugh,” Micah says. “I hate that vague, mysterious crap. Why not just tell you?”
“Guess he wanted me to get there on my own.”
Aura pulls a baggie from her purse—cookies. She offers Micah and me our share with a grin.
“Okay,” she says, “so I didn’t sacrifice the cookies.”
We spend the next hour talking about the ghosts hovering at varying distances from our hearts. It’s almost like they’re here—Sam, Micah’s mom, Noah. Sitting nearby and smiling.
Micah talks about watching black-and-white films with his mom, and explains why he hated Roman Holiday (too slow) but loved Arsenic and Old Lace (Cary Grant, basically).
Aura tells us a story about her brother, a hunting expedition, and a mischievous squirrel that leaves me gasping for breath after I’m done laughing.
Micah doesn’t laugh, though, and even as I’m catching my breath he stands. “Better get going. I’m leaving early tomorrow.”
And so we pile back into the car. I watch the cabin and the twinkle lights recede in the sideview mirror, wishing I could bring Sam here. I imagine us sitting on the logs, joking and laughing and dreaming, and then I stop because it hurts too much.
We drop Micah off. He and I exchange numbers. Aura gets out to give him a long hug before he heads into the little blue house on a side street. I close my eyes and try to stifle the ache in my chest.
“Okay,” she says as we pull out of Micah’s driveway, “so Micah’s going away for two weeks. Vacation with his dad. Wanna be my substitute BFF? It’s not a very demanding job, I promise. He basically just tries to keep me from putting my foot in my mouth.”
“That actually sounds like a full-time job,” I say.
Her delight brightens the car. “A burn from the Queen of Silence? I’m honored.”
I consider her request. It would be nice to spend time with someone after so many days alone. All of my other friends either disappeared or tried to console me in various awkward ways, then disappeared. My silence scared them, I guess, or made them feel helpless.
And even though Aura and I are very different people, somehow she understands me, or at least understands who I am right now. I don’t even understand that.
“Yay!” She lifts both hands from the steering wheel and waves them in celebration.
With a shriek and a choked laugh, I grab the wheel. She bats my hands away and takes the wheel again.
I direct her to my house and we exchange numbers. “Text ya tomorrow,” she yells as she pulls away.
Climbing the porch steps, I find Mom waiting in the doorway, silhouetted by the warm lights of the living room.
“Hey,” I say.
She pulls me into a hug, shaking a little. Eleven days without talking, and the first word I say to her is hey. I roll my eyes and hug her back.
* * * * *
The next week is like that first deep gasp of air after being underwater for too long. Aura and I don’t talk about Sam or Noah unless they come up in a story. We don’t grieve, at least not together. We just have fun.
We have lunch in her backyard, giggling and joking between bites of sandwiches I brought. Her laugh never fails to make me laugh, and then she laughs harder, and we’re both wiping tears from our eyes.
We drive, no destination in mind, venturing onto random country roads outside of town and finding little moments of hilarity, like the cows that have escaped and blocked our path.
We lay on a blanket in my backyard and watch the Perseid meteor showers. Light pollution makes the smaller ones harder to spot, but the big ones streak across the sky, leaving ghostly trails behind them.
“They’ll be even stronger tomorrow,” I tell her.
She grabs my hand. “There’s one!” She’s incapable of making a quiet announcement.
“Shh! You’re going to wake up my parents.” Not that they don’t know we’re out here, but there’s something private about this night, a sense of kinship that I don’t want my parents intruding on with their gentle scolding.
So we develop a system: hands clasped, we squeeze whenever we spot a shooting star. When the temperature drops, I grab another blanket and we huddle together. At some point, she stops squeezing my hand, and I glance over to find her sleeping, her expression peaceful for once.
I don’t remember falling asleep myself. I wake up with the sunrise, curled up on my side with her arm tight around my waist. Every muscle in my body tenses; I don’t know how to feel about this.
Because I like it. It feels right. But I’m not supposed to feel that way. Never expected to feel that way.
My tension wakes up Aura. “Is this all right?” she whispers against my neck.
I swallow past the lump in my throat. “Yeah,” I tell her. “Yeah, it’s all right.”
And it hits me then, so hard that my chest is about to cave in and I can’t breathe for a minute—this was what Sam wanted me to figure out. This is why our friendship never went where everyone expected it to go.
This is why the future everyone saw for us would have been impossible.
* * * * *
The awkwardness I expect later that morning never makes an appearance—we joke around as always, eating breakfast with my parents. Dad joins in, but Mom is strangely quiet.
After Aura leaves, Mom calls me into the living room. I sit across from her.
“Listen, sweetie,” she says, “I think you need to take a break from your new friend. Just for a little while.”
Wariness creeps up on me. “Uh…why, exactly?”
She hesitates. “You…you can’t just replace Sam, Claire. He was a huge part of your life, and I know you’re struggling, but…I saw you this morning, out in the backyard. I know what you’re feeling, and that’s something we can address later if you want, but I don’t think you’ve processed everything yet. Maybe just a week away from Aura. Reconnect with some of your old friends, reminisce about Sam—”
I shoot to my feet. “No. They weren’t there for me. Aura has been. She understands.”
Rubbing her forehead, she sighs. “Have you even cried yet, Claire?”
Her brown eyes pierce through me, seeing things I wish they wouldn’t. Seeing the dam I’m desperately plugging with handfuls of mud and broken sticks.
“Because you haven’t started grieving. And that’s something you have to get through on your own. We’ll be here to support you, but you can’t glue yourself to someone’s side and expect that to solve everything.” Unshed tears shine in her eyes. “Dr. Brockowski warned me that we might need to have this talk if you stayed in denial.”
“What talk?” I’m standing on the edge, staring down into the abyss.
She takes a deep breath. “Sam’s not on vacation, sweetie. He’s not out of town, not visiting his grandparents. He’s—”
“No. No, no, no.” I shake my head so hard that something twinges in my neck. “Stop talking. Just…just stop.”
Her phone rings, and she glances at it. “Oh…it’s Liz. She told me she’d call when the headstone was placed. We’re going to lay flowers together.”
My legs turn to rubber and I sink to my knees. Headstone. The hole in my chest, the one I tried so hard to fill this past week, excavates itself all over again. I cross my arms over my stomach and lean forward as nausea wells up in my gut.
“Tomorrow afternoon? Of course we’ll be there.” The buzzing in my ears tries to drown out Mom’s voice. “I have to go, Liz. Claire’s…not taking it well.”
She ends the call and crouches next to me, an arm around my back. “Claire, can you talk to me please?” Her fear transmits itself to me, dark and worried.
I sit up and look at her, and it’s an eternity before I can shove the words from my mouth.
“I’m not going.”
* * * * *
My phone beeps with unread messages. I turn it off and climb into bed. I stay there and stare at my ceiling until the light dims and fades, then long afterward.
Finally, just before dawn, I can’t take it anymore. I grab my phone, slip on shoes, and sneak downstairs. Mom’s car keys hang on the hook in the entryway.
I leave her a note—this may be my first act of teenage rebellion, but I’m still me—and I hit the road. Where I’m going, I can’t be sure, but I can’t be in that house any longer.
It isn’t until I hit the stupidly long stoplight at Spring Street and Oak Drive that I glance at my phone. A message from Aura about our planned outing to the bookstore tomorrow and four messages from Micah from last night.
5:05 p.m.: How’s Aura doing?
6:30 p.m.: Hey, Claire, she’s not responding to my texts. Call if u can.
7:09 p.m.: K, she’s gonna hate me for this, but ur my replacement so…you need to ask her about Noah. The anniversary is coming up. I’m worried.
8:30 p.m.: Srsly, what’s going on?!
It’s early, but I call Aura anyhow. It goes to voicemail.
The light turns green while I deliberate. Finally, I do a U-turn and head toward her house.
We hung out in her room a few times, so I can easily find the window, but the light is off. I could do the cliché thing and throw pebbles at the window, but a nagging instinct pushes me through the gate to the backyard. She’s curled up in a sleeping bag on the patio. I shake her shoulder. Jolting awake, she cries out.
“Shh, it’s just me.” I take her hand.
She lets out a long breath. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry.” I glance upward. “Did you see many shooting stars?”
Nodding, she squeezes my hand. She’s still bleary-eyed with sleep, platinum hair kinked and tangled.
“So,” I say, “I need to go somewhere, and I need to go now, before I chicken out. Can you come with me?”
“Sure. Of course.” She stumbles to her feet.
Hand in hand, we walk to the car.
* * * * *
“Halsey Memorial Lawns” reads the wrought iron arch welcoming us to the cemetery where Sam sleeps.
No, I tell myself. He’s not sleeping—but I can’t get further than that.
We walk down row after row, hand in hand, both of us silent until we find it. A new plot, no grass growing, with a gleaming tombstone.
Samuel A. Beckworth
Beloved son, grandson, best friend
It’s the last that drives me to my knees, where I pound the hard-packed dirt with angry fists. Aura sits beside me, rubbing my back, saying nothing because what is there to say?
Finally, I sit up. Still no tears.
“I need you to tell me about Noah. About…about the day it happened.”
She looks stricken, then her eyes narrow. “Did Micah say something?”
“Please,” I say. “I’m sorry to ask this of you, but I need to hear it.”
Looking away, she bites her lip. “He…he wasn’t just my older brother. He was my twin. Born four minutes before me. And we were out hunting—yes, I went hunting—and one of his friends, this drunk asshole who shouldn’t have been allowed near a gun, he ‘accidentally’ shot my brother. It was…it was a year ago tomorrow.” A tear slides down her cheek.
I wipe it away.
“Okay.” She turns to me and takes both my hands. “Your turn.”
I glance at the headstone and let the words carve themselves into my heart. Best friend.
Yes. He was my best friend, the best I ever had or ever will have. And as my best friend, he’d want me to face what happened so I can live my life. I bow my head and relive that day for the first time.
“We were hiking out at the Seneca Valley Trail. He loved it there. He was just ahead of me and all of a sudden he clutched his head and let out…just this horrible, awful scream. He’d been having these headaches and his mom had made him an appointment, but…and he fell to the ground. Just crumpled. I ran to him, and I was yelling his name, but he was so…so still. I shook him and yelled at him—and then I blacked out. I guess some people found us and called nine-one-one, but…and he was the best person I ever knew and I loved him so much, and I just can’t believe that he’s not here. Why isn’t he here? How could he leave me to deal with this all alone?”
Hot tears roll down my face. Sobs wrack my body. Aura holds me tight, and she’s crying too.
She pulls away. “Claire, you’re not alone. You have me, Micah, your parents…we’ll help you. It hurts like hell, but you have to be willing to face the pain to get past it, you know? I’m still not past it, but I’m facing it. Sam would want you to do this.”
I nod and reach out to the headstone, running my fingers over the carved letters. Then I sink into her arms again.
Sam will never grin at me again, that secret smile overflowing with inside jokes and the ghost of old laughter.
Sam will never pull me into one of his epic bear hugs, lifting me off the ground, his cheek warm next to mine.
Sam will never know how smart and funny and strong he was, but I think he knew how much I loved him.
Reality is cold water splashed on my face, and it hurts, but a tendril of relief sneaks through the pain.
The sun rises over the hills across the valley, a new day, the day I start grieving.
The day I start to say goodbye to Sam.