Traipsing through the well-kept grass, I only had to pass a few graves before coming to my mom’s. The shiny, black marble headstone featured three three-dimensional, hand-carved roses hugging the side of the marker. My dad and I had picked it out together, thinking that the three roses represented our family. Even eight years ago I’d loved black, and the flowers also reminded us of her. She loved bringing nature into the house.
I read the headstone.
Lillian Jane Brandt
February 1, 1972 - April 14, 2005
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow had not yet come.
We have only today. Let us begin.”
Yesterday is gone. My mom’s favorite quote. She would tell me that mistakes would be made in life. It was unavoidable. But I needed to take a deep breath, put my shoulders back and move forward.
Yesterday lasts forever. Jared’s tattoo came to mind, and I quickly shoved it away like a hot plate.
I didn’t want to think of him now. Or maybe ever.
I knelt down on the damp ground and tried to remember everything I could about my mom. Little pieces of the times we spent together sprouted up in my mind, but over the years, my memories had dwindled. Less and less of her remained, and I wanted to cry again.
Her hair. I concentrated on an image of her hair. It was light red and wavy. Her eyes were blue, and she had a small scar on her eyebrow from when she’d fell ice-skating as a kid. She loved chocolate peanut butter ice cream and playing tennis. Her favorite movie was The Quiet Man, and she made the best Hershey Kiss cookies.
I choked on a sob, remembering those cookies. The smell of our kitchen during Christmas baking hit me like sledgehammer, and I was suddenly in pain. I hugged my stomach and leaned forward, putting my forehead to the ground.
“Mom,” I whispered, my throat tight with sadness. “I miss you.”
Crumbling to the ground, I lay on my side and let the miserable tears fall to the earth. I stayed there a long time, being quiet, and tried not to think about what had happened to me today.
But it was impossible. The impact was too great.
I meant nothing to Jared. Once again, he’d tossed me out like trash and everything he’d said and done to lure me in—to get me to love him—was a lie.
How would I survive the vicious taunts day-in and day-out? How could I walk down the hallway at school or look my father in the eye when everyone had seen that video?
“Do you see it, Tate?”
“The balloon.” Jared took my hand and pulled me across the cemetery. I tried not to think of what was underneath my feet as we crossed the graveyard, but all I could envision were gruesome zombies popping out of the earth.
“Jared, I don’t want to be here,” I sniveled.
“It’ll be okay. You’re safe with me.” He smiled and looked out over the meadow of gravestones.
“But...” I looked around, scared out of my mind.
“I’m holding your hand. What do you want me to do? Change your diaper, too?” he said sarcastically, but I didn’t take it to heart.
“I’m not scared.” My voice sounded defensive. “It’s just…I don’t know.”
“Look at this place, Tate. It’s green and quiet.” Jared gazed around the grounds with a wistful look on his face, and I was jealous that he could see something here that I didn’t.
“There are flowers and statues of angels. Look at this marker.” He pointed. “‘Alfred McIntyre born in 1922 and died in 1942.’ He was only twenty. Remember Mrs. Sullivan said that World War II was between 1939 and 1945? Maybe he died in the war. All of these people had lives, Tate. They had families and dreams. They don’t want you to be afraid of them. They just want to be remembered.”
I shivered as he led me deeper into the cemetery. We came up on a shiny, black marker adorned with a pink balloon. I knew my dad came here to visit, but he always put flowers on the grave.
Who had left a balloon?
“I brought your mom the balloon yesterday,” Jared admitted as if reading my mind.
“Why?” My voice shook. It was nice of him to do something like that.
“Because chicks like pink stuff.” He shrugged his shoulders and made light of his gesture. He didn’t want attention. He never did.
“Jared,” I scolded, waiting for a real answer.
He smiled to himself. “Because she made you.” And he wrapped his skinny arm around my neck and yanked me into his side. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and I wanted to tell her ‘thank you.’”
I felt warm all over despite the April frost on the ground. Jared filled the emptiness and eased the hurt in a way my dad couldn’t. I needed him, and thought for a moment that I’d like him to kiss me. But the idea quickly disappeared. I’d never wanted a boy to kiss me before, and it probably shouldn’t be my best friend.
“Here, take this.” Jared pulled his gray sweatshirt over his head and tossed it to me. “You’re cold.”
I slipped it on, letting the remaining heat from his body cover me with a shield of warmth.
“Thank you,” I said, looking up at him.
He pulled my hair out from under the collar and let his fingers linger as he stared at me. My skin erupted in chills but not from the cold. What was going on in my stomach right now?
We both looked away quickly, a little embarrassed.
I sat up and wiped my nose with the sleeve of my jacket.
Despite everything, I could see the light in one thing. At least I’d given my virginity to someone I loved. Even though we were done, I had loved him when I gave myself to him. What he took from me was honest and pure even if he thought it was all a joke.
“Tate.” A shaky voice whispered behind me, and I stopped breathing. Without even turning around, I knew who it was, and I tore blades of grass from the ground as my fists clenched.
I refused to turn around. And I’d be damned if I listened to any more bullshit from him.
“Haven’t you won, Jared? Why won’t you just leave me alone?” My voice was calm, but my body screamed for violence. I wanted to lash out. Hit him. Do anything that could hurt him.
“Tate, this is all so f**ked up. I—” He started to spew his nonsense, but I cut him off.
“No! No more!” I whipped around to face him, unable to reason with myself. I said I wasn’t going to get into it with him, but I couldn’t help it. “Do you hear me? My life here is ruined. No one will let me live this down. You’ve won. Don’t you get it? You. Have. Won! Now leave me alone!”
His eyes widened, probably because I was screaming and madder than I’d ever been. When was it enough? Couldn’t he just be satisfied?
He gripped the hair on his head, looking like he stopped midway combing his hands through it. His chest rose and fell like he was nervous. “Just stop for a minute, okay?”
“I’ve listened to your stories. Your excuses.” And I walked away towards my truck, feeling my heart breaking. He was near, and my arms still hummed with the desire to hold him.
“I know,” he called out behind me. “My words aren’t good enough. I can’t explain any of this. I don’t know where that video came from!”
I knew he was following me, so I didn’t turn around. “It came from your phone, ass**le! No, never mind. I’ve stopped talking to you.” I kept walking, feeling as if my legs weighed two tons.
“I called your dad!” he blurted out, and I halted.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Of course you did,” I murmured, more to myself than him.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse. I thought that I’d have a few days to get my head straight before I had to deal with my dad. But the storm was going to descend sooner rather than later.
“Tate, I didn’t send that video to anyone. I didn’t even record a video of us.” He sounded desperate, but I still couldn’t turn to look at him.
He continued, “I haven’t seen my phone in two days. I left it upstairs at Tori’s party when we were listening to music. When I remembered later, I went back to get it, but it was gone. Don’t you remember?”
I recalled him saying something about misplacing his phone that night, but we were all dancing, and it was loud. I must’ve forgotten.
I sucked in my cheeks and shook my head. No. He wasn’t getting out of this. His phone was pointed at the bed that night, exactly the position it needed to be in to record a video.
“You’re a liar,” I retorted.
While I couldn’t see his face, I felt him approach, and I couldn’t move. Why couldn’t I just get out of here?
“I called your dad, because he was going to find out anyway. That goddamn, f**king video is out there, and I wanted him to hear it from me first. He’s coming home.”
My shoulders sunk. My dad would be home sometime tomorrow then. The thought both warmed and scared me. The fallout from this prank—I hated to even call it that, because it was so much more—would be embarrassing for my father.
But I needed him right now. No matter what, I knew he loved me.
“I love you more than myself, more than my own family, for Christ’s sake. I don’t want to take another step in this world without you next to me,” he said softly.
His sweet words washed over me, but they were like a hand that was just out of reach. I could see it. I wanted to take it. But I couldn’t.
“Tate.” The weight of his hand fell on my shoulder, and I whipped around, flinging him off. Constant tears, anger, and weariness burned my eyes as I scalded him with my stare.
He ran a hand through his hair again, and I could see the worry lines on his forehead. “You have every right not to trust me, Tate. I know that. My f**king heart is ripping open tight now. I can’t stand the way you’re looking at me. I could never hurt you again. Please…let’s try to fix this together.” His voice cracked, and his eyes were red.
I told myself a hundred times today that he couldn’t be trusted. He was a liar. A bully. But his words were getting to me. He looked upset. Either he was a really good actor, or…he was telling the truth.
“Fine. I’ll play along.” I took out my phone and turned it back on.
He blinked, probably confused about my sudden change of attitude. “What are you doing?”
“Calling your mom.” I didn’t elaborate and dialed Katherine.
“Why,” he drawled out, still confused.
“Because she installed a GPS tracking app on your Android when she bought it. You said you lost your phone? Let’s find it.”
I let out a sigh and shook my head as soon as I hung up with her.
School. Not somewhere I wanted to go. Ever again.
“So?” Jared inched closer.
“School. It’s at school,” I muttered, studying the ground.
“Son of a bitch. She’s smarter than I thought.” Jared sounded almost impressed with his mother.
What did this mean? Maybe he left his phone at school and was trying to cover his ass. Maybe Madoc or one his pals had it, and they were covering for him. Or maybe it really was stolen.
I’d rather cut off my hair than face those people today. Or any day in the next hundred years. Eating squid or slamming my finger in a car door all sounded more appealing than braving those hallways. A few hours wasn’t nearly enough time for everyone to move on to new gossip. I’d be the talk of the town for a long time. How could I even be considering stepping foot back on school grounds today?
“I see that look in your eye.” Jared looked down at me and spoke gently. “It’s the look you get when you want to bolt. The look you get right before you decide to stay and fight.”
“What am I fighting for?” I challenged, my voice hoarse.