Grey May 10, 2012
“Then over there is where the girls and I will be waiting before the ceremony starts,” I said, pointing to the all-seasons tent just off to the side. “I think the coordinator said she’d get us in there when the photographer is taking pictures of Ben and the boys on the other side house, so he won’t see me.”
I glanced to my mom and soon-to-be mother-in-law talking about the gazebo behind me, and what it would look like with the greenery and flowers, and I smiled to myself. They’d been going back and forth on whether we should keep the gazebo as it was or decorate it ever since Ben and I had decided on The Lake House as our wedding and reception site. And from the few words I was hearing now, they were still undecided. I honestly didn’t care how it was decorated. I wanted to be married to Ben, and in three days, I would be.
“Grey, this place is freaking gorgeous. I can’t believe you were able to get it on such short notice,” my maid-of-honor and best friend, Janie, said in awe.
“I know, but it’s perfect, right?”
I grabbed her hand and rested my head on her shoulder as I stared at the part of the property where the reception would be. Ben and I had promised our families that we wouldn’t get married until we’d graduated from college, but that had been a much harder promise to keep than we’d thought it would be. School let out for summer a few days ago, and we wanted to move off campus for our junior year … together. That hadn’t exactly gone over well with my parents. They didn’t want us living together until we were married. I think in my dad’s mind it helped him continue to believe I was his innocent little girl.
I’d been dating Ben since I was thirteen years old; the innocent part flew out the window over three years ago. Not that he needed to know that. After a long talk with both our parents, they agreed to let us get married now instead of two years from now.
That was seven weeks ago. Even though Ben had asked me to marry him last Christmas, we’d officially gotten engaged once we’d received the okay from our parents, and had started planning our wedding immediately. Seven weeks of being engaged. Seven years of being together. And in three days I would finally be Mrs. Benjamin Craft.
With how the last few weeks had dragged by, it felt like our day would never get here.
My phone rang and I pulled it out of my pocket. My lips tilted up when I saw Jagger’s name and face on the screen, but I ignored the call. Putting my phone back in my pocket, I kept my other hand firmly wrapped around Janie’s and walked over to where the rest of the bridesmaids were. My aunts and grandma had gathered around the gazebo-debating duo, and were helping them with the pros and cons.
“So what are we going to do tonight?” I asked, hoping to get some kind of information about the bachelorette party.
“Nice try.” Janie snorted. She started saying something else, but my phone rang again.
Glancing down and seeing Jagger again, I thought about answering it for a few seconds before huffing out a soft laugh and ignoring the call a second time. I knew why he was calling. He was bored out of his mind and wanted me to save him from the golf day Ben and all the guys were having before the bachelor party. Normally I would have saved him from the torture of golfing, but today was about Ben. If he wanted to go golfing with all his guys, then Jagger just had to suck it up for his best friend.
Almost immediately after ignoring the call, I got a text from him.
Jagger: Answer the goddamn phone Grey!
My head jerked back when the phone in my hand began ringing just as soon as I’d read the message, and all I could do was stare at it for a few seconds. A feeling of dread and unease formed in my chest, quickly unfurling and spreading through my arms and stomach.
Some part of my mind registered two other ringtones, but I couldn’t focus on them, or make myself look away from Jagger’s lopsided smile on my screen. With a shaky finger, I pressed on the green button, and brought the phone up to my ear.
Before I could say anything, his panicked voice filled the phone.
“Grey? Grey! Are you there? Fuck, Grey, say something so I know you’re there!”
There was a siren and yelling in the background, and the feeling that had spread through my body now felt like it was choking me. I didn’t know what was happening, but somehow … somehow I knew my entire world was about to change. My legs started shaking and my breaths came out in hard rushes.
“I—what’s happ—” I cut off quickly and turned to look at my mom and Ben’s. Both had phones to their ears. Ben’s mom was screaming with tears falling down her cheeks; my mom looked like the ground had just been ripped out from underneath her.
Jagger was talking, I knew his voice was loud and frantic, but I was having trouble focusing on the words. It sounded like he was yelling at me from miles away.
“What?” I whispered.
Everyone around me was freaking out, trying to figure out what was going on. One of my friends was asking who I was talking to, but I couldn’t even turn to look at her, or be sure who it was that had asked. I couldn’t take my eyes off the only other women currently talking on a phone.
“Grey! Tell me where you are, I’m coming to get you!”
I blinked a few times and looked down at my lap. I was sitting on the ground. When had I sat down?
Janie squatted in front of me and grabbed my shoulders to shake me before grabbing my cheeks so I would look at her instead of where my mom and Ben’s were clinging to each other.
“What?” I repeated, my voice barely audible.
Just before Janie took the phone from me, I heard a noise that sounded weighted and pained. A choking sound I’d never heard from Jagger in the eleven years we’d been friends. The grief in it was enough to force a sharp cry from my own chest, and I didn’t even struggle against Janie when she took the phone from me.
I didn’t understand anything that was happening around me, but somehow I knew everything. A part of me had heard Jagger’s words. A part of me understood what the horrified cries meant that quickly spread throughout every one of my friends. My family. Ben’s family. A part of me acknowledged the sense of loss that had added to the dread, unease, and grief—and knew why it was there.
A part of me knew the wedding I’d just been envisioning would never happen.
Two years later…
Grey May 10, 2014
I dressed in a fog and sat down on the side of my bed when I was done. Grabbing the hard top of the graduation cap, I looked down at it in my hands until the tears filling my eyes made it impossible to see anything other than blurred shapes. I knew I had to leave, but at that moment I didn’t care.
I didn’t care that I’d done my make up for the first time in two years and I was ruining it. I didn’t care that I was graduating from college. I didn’t care that I had already been running twenty minutes late before I’d sat down.
I just didn’t care.
Falling to my side, I grabbed the necklace that hadn’t left my neck once in the last couple years, and pulled it out from under my shirt until I was gripping the wedding band I’d bought for Ben. The one he should be wearing, but I hadn’t been able to part with—almost like I’d needed to keep some part of him with me.
The last year had been easier to get through than the one before it. I hadn’t needed my friends constantly trying to get me to do my schoolwork. I hadn’t needed Janie pulling me out of bed every morning, forcing me to shower and dress for the day. I’d even taken off my engagement ring and put it away a few months ago. But exactly two years ago today, I’d been showing off the place where I was going to marry Ben. Completely oblivious to anything bad in the world. And Ben had died.
At twenty years old, his heart had failed and he’d died before he’d even dropped to the ground on the golf course. He’d always seemed so active and healthy; nothing had ever picked up on the rare heart condition that had taken him too early. Doctors said it wasn’t something they could test for. I didn’t believe them then, and even though I’d read news articles of similar deaths in young people, I wasn’t sure if I did now. All I knew was that he was gone.
Heavy footsteps echoed through the hall of my apartment seconds before Jagger was standing in the doorway of my bedroom, a somber look on his face.
“How did I know you wouldn’t have made it out of here?” One corner of his mouth twitched up before falling again.
“I can’t do it,” I choked out, and tightened my hold on the ring. “How am I supposed to celebrate anything on a day that brought so much pain?”
Jagger took in a deep breath through his nose before releasing it and pushing away from the doorframe. Taking the few steps over to the bed, he sat down by my feet and stared straight ahead as silence filled the room.
“I honestly don’t know, Grey,” he finally said with a small shrug. “The only way I made it to my car and your apartment was because I knew Ben wanted this, and would still want it for us.”
“He was supposed to be here,” I mumbled.
“Our two-year anniversary would have been in a few days.”
There was a long pause before Jagger breathed, “I know.”
I stopped myself before I could go on. Nothing I would say right now would help either of us, not when all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball on the bed that was supposed to be our bed, and give into the grief. I had to remember that today wasn’t hard for only me. I hadn’t been the only one to lose him. Ben and Jagger had grown up together; they’d been best friends since they were six. And two years ago they’d been in the middle of a conversation when Jagger had looked over at Ben because he hadn’t answered, and watched as he fell.
“Jag?” I whispered.
“How do we do it?”
The bed shifted as he leaned forward to rest his forearms on his legs, turning his head so he could look at me. “Do what?”
“Keep moving on. I thought this year was easier, I thought I was doing better until this last week. And then today…” I drifted off, letting the words hang in the air for a few seconds before saying, “It’s like no time has passed. It’s like I’m right back where I was when you picked me up and took me to the hospital. I feel like my world has ended all over again. There are still some days where I don’t want to get out of bed, but not like this.”
“There isn’t an answer to that. Even if there were, it would be different for you, for me, for anyone else who’d ever been in this situation. I get up and keep going because I know I have something to live for, and I know it’s what he would want. I can’t think about how I’ll deal with the next day, I just take each day as it comes. There will always be hard days, Grey, always. We just need to take them with the good days, and keep living.”
“I feel like it’s cruel to his memory to move on,” I admitted softly a few minutes later.
“No one ever said we had to move on, we just need to keep moving.”
I met his gaze and held it as he stood up and turned, holding a hand out to me.
“You ready to move?” he asked, and the meaning in his question was clear.
“No,” I replied, but still held my hand out. Slipping my hand into his, I let him pull me off the bed, and wrapped my arms around his waist, dropping my head onto his chest.
Jagger folded his arms around me, and brought his head down near mine to speak softly in my ear. “Don’t think about next week, or tomorrow, or even tonight. Just focus on your right now. Right now we have to go to our graduation. Right now Ben would be flipping out because you would be making both of you late.”
I choked out a laugh, and a deep laugh rumbled in his chest.
“And you would tell him?” His question drifted off, waiting for my response.
“To get over it and bet him twenty bucks that we would still beat you there.”
This time his laugh was fuller, and he rubbed his hands over my back before stepping away from me. “Exactly. Then he would put an extra twenty on it, saying I would show up with fresh charcoal on my hands.”
“And face,” I added.
Jagger rolled his eyes. “That was one time.”
“It was to your mom’s wedding.”
“I didn’t like the guy anyway.” I smiled and his eyes darted over my face before he held his hands up. “No fresh charcoal, and we’ll show up at the same time. So no one wins today.”
I took a deep breath in and out, and nodded my head. “I think I’m ready to move now.”
“All right.” He bent forward and grabbed my cap and gown off the bed before turning to leave the room.
I followed him down the hall and into the living room, pausing in the entryway only long enough to look in the mirror and wipe away the streaked make up. Once we were in his car, I touched his forearm and waited for him to look over at me.
“Thanks, Jagger. For coming for me, for talking to me—just … thank you.” He had no idea how thankful I was for him, and I wouldn’t have known how to explain it if I tried. He was just always there to make things better, always there to help me … always there to be everything I needed.
He shook his head slowly once, and his green eyes stayed locked on mine. “Sometimes I need motivation to keep moving too. You don’t need to thank me, just let me know when you have to talk about him, okay?”
“Yeah.” Letting go of his arm, I sat back in the seat and grabbed the long chain holding Ben’s wedding band on it. Taking comfort in the feel of it in my palm, and the knowledge that he would be proud of Jagger and me right now.
I made it through the graduation without crying again, but I never felt like I was happy that it was happening. Even though Jagger had gotten me to a point where I’d been smiling and laughing, the second he’d left my side when we’d arrived, I’d fallen back into a state where I was constantly on the verge of crumbling from the grief of what today was. Only to be made worse when Janie had hugged me longer than normal, and then I’d seen my parents and older brother, and none of them had been able to force anything more than a strained smile and “congratulations.”
Lunch afterward didn’t prove to be much easier for anyone. One of my uncles mentioned the date and asked how I was dealing with it, and it had turned into some awkward hush-fest where everyone started kicking the other under the table, and giving them meaningful looks as if to say: shut the fuck up! For the next forty-five minutes, no one said a word. Not even a thank you to the waitress when she’d brought the food.
As much as I hated it, and as much as I loved my family, I was relieved when we’d said our goodbyes and my brother had driven me back to my apartment.
“You doing okay, kid?” he asked when he pulled into a parking space.
“But not today.” It wasn’t a question, he knew.
“Yeah … not today,” I said softly.
“Do you want me to come up? I can hang out, crash here for the night, and head back tomorrow.”
“No, it’s fine. I didn’t really sleep last night, so I’ll probably go to bed when I get in there.”
“Grey, it’s four in the afternoon.” He looked at me with either pity or sympathy, neither I wanted to see.
“Today was kind of rough, it felt like three smashed into one, and like I said, I didn’t really sleep last night. I’m tired.”
He was silent for a minute before he twisted in his seat to face me. “I’m worried about you.”
I gritted my teeth and took calming breaths before saying, “You shouldn’t be. It’s been two years, I’m getting better.”
“Are you?” he asked on a laugh, but there was no humor in his tone. “I knew today would be hard for you, there’s no way for it not to be. But, shit, how much do you weigh?”
I jerked my head back. “What? I don’t know.”
“Do you look at yourself in the mirror? Do you see how you look in your clothes? You look like you’re wearing someone else’s clothes, and they’re a size or two too big.”
Glancing down at my shirt and skirt, I shook my head. “No they—well, I’m eating! You saw me at lunch, I ate half that burger.”
“No, Grey. I ate half your burger. You picked it up and put it down at least a dozen times before cutting it in half, and then picking up one of the halves only to put it back down. I watched you. You ate two fries. Nothing else.”
I tried to think back to the restaurant, but I couldn’t even remember ordering the burger, let alone cutting it. I just remembered half of it was gone when the waitress asked if I wanted a box. I’d said no. As for the clothes, today was the first time I’d actually done my hair or make-up in years. I usually just put on clothes and left, not caring to see how I looked.
“Well, what do you want me to say, Graham? I’m trying. You have no idea how hard it is to lose someone who has been a huge part of your world for over half your life. Who has owned your heart for most of that. Who you were supposed to marry days before they passed! You don’t understand what I’ve been through,” I seethed, and wiped at my wet cheeks. “I finished school, I’m living, what more do you want?”
“I want you to live, Grey.”
“I just said—”
“You’re existing,” he barked, cutting me off. “You’re existing, not living. You’re going through the motions you’re supposed to without realizing that you’re doing them, or why.”
“That’s not true!” I screamed. “You can’t judge me based on what you’ve seen of half a day. A day that is a horrible reminder of what happened.”
He grabbed my hand and squeezed, and when he spoke again, his voice was calm. “Kid, I’m not saying any of this only based off of what I’ve seen today. Janie’s worried about you—”
“Janie? Janie?! You’re having my friends keep tabs on me, Graham?”
“How often do they check in with you? Huh? Do they only see me now so they can tell you how I’m doing? Because I don’t see them very much, but, then again, who the hell would want to be around someone who is just existing.”
“Grey!” he snapped when I opened the passenger door and jumped out of his truck.
“Screw you and your existing bullshit, Graham! I’m fine! I’m dealing the only way I know how, and I. Am. Fine.”
I didn’t care that I had tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t care that I was overreacting. I was overreacting because I was terrified he was right, and I didn’t want him to be. I was tired of everyone looking at me with sympathy or pity. I was tired of rooms getting quiet when I walked into them … still. I was tired of the way everyone seemed to walk on eggshells around me. And I was tired of feeling like I was giving them a reason to.
I took off for my building, ignoring Graham’s voice as he followed me from his truck. Grabbing my keys from my purse as I ran toward my apartment, I fumbled to find the right key so I could get in there before he could catch up with me. The keys slipped from my hand, and I reached out for them at the same time I tripped out of my sandals and hit the concrete on my hands and knees.
Ignoring the spilled contents of my purse, I rocked back so I was sitting on my heels, and let my head hang as hard sobs worked their way through my body.
Two large hands grabbed at my upper arms to help me up, and I swatted at him. “Leave me alone, Graham!” I cried.
“Shh. It’s okay,” a deep voice crooned. I lifted my head enough to see Jagger before letting him pull me into his arms. “It’s okay.”
I pressed my forehead into his chest, and shook my head back and forth. “It’s not. This day won’t end, and the way everyone is looking at me or talking to me is making me feel like I’m failing.”
“Failing?” he asked and tipped my head back, a soft smirk playing at his lips. “Hardly, Grey. I told you, you just gotta keep moving, and you are. You have been. You’re strong, not everyone sees that because they’re waiting for you to break. Just because they’re expecting you to not be handling this doesn’t mean you’re failing.”
“But they won’t talk about him, they won’t talk about what happened. Graham said I’m not eating, and I’m losing weight. He said Janie’s telling him that she’s worried about me. He said I’m just existing and going through the motions.”
“Fuck Graham. He’s wrong. He’s not with you every day to see how you’re improving.” Jagger’s green eyes bore into mine. “Your family hasn’t seen you much this year while you’ve been getting better, so they don’t know how to handle the situation—especially because of what today is and the fact that you are upset. He’s your brother, he’s going to be worried about you; but, Grey, don’t let him make you feel like you’re not doing better than you should be. Today is an exception. And he just happened to see you on an exception, all right?” His arms tightened around me, and he leaned back until he was pressed up against the wall. “You’re doing fine, I promise.”
He held me until I stopped crying, and released me when I pulled back.
Today was making me question everything; I didn’t think I could agree with him on that. “What are you even doing here?”
“I thought you could use some company since it’s an exception day, but I’m gonna go so you can spend time with your brother,” he said, jerking his head at something behind me.
I looked over my shoulder to see Graham standing against the wall opposite us, his arms crossed over his chest, a strange look on his face. “How long has he been there?” I whispered to Jagger when I turned to face him again.
“The whole time.”
“So he heard you…” I had the sudden urge to stand up for Jagger. Graham had hated him ever since we’d become friends when we were nine. But, then again, he hadn’t really ever liked Ben until right before the wedding was supposed to happen, so it could have been an overprotective big brother thing.
“Yeah, but he knows I’m right.” Jagger’s eyes moved to look behind me, and one eyebrow rose in silent challenge, but Graham never said anything. “Go hang out with—”
“I don’t want to,” I said quickly, cutting him off. “I need to either be alone, or be with someone who knows what it’s like to force yourself to keep moving.”
He looked down at me for a few seconds before nodding. “Okay, let’s go.”
“We’re not staying here?” I asked when he bent down and started shoving things back into my purse.
“No. You want to keep moving, Grey. We can’t do that if we sit in that apartment all night.”
I took my purse from his hand, and turned to follow him out of the breezeway, Graham behind us the whole time. Jagger opened the passenger door of his car and shut it behind me after I’d slid in, and I met Graham’s stare from where he stood a few feet from the front of the car.
Graham’s hand shot out, gripping Jagger’s arm as he went to pass him, and I opened the door—ready for who knows what. It’s not like I could stop them if they went at it.
“Make sure she’s okay,” Graham demanded, his gaze hardening when Jagger ripped his arm free.
“What do you think I’ve been doing for the past two years?” he hissed. “She is okay, she’s better than okay. Today sucks for her, but you can’t treat her like she’s made of porcelain because it’s a bad fucking day. She needs to talk about him; she needs to talk about what happened. She doesn’t need the way you all stood there at the graduation staring at her like you had no idea who she was.”
“Do you see her?” Graham asked, getting closer. “Do you see how thin she is?”
“Yeah, I see her. I see her every day. She lost a lot of weight; she’s also put on weight in the last few months. Give her some fucking credit, Graham. Don’t just take Janie’s word for it—Janie isn’t around enough to give you updates on her. You want to know how your sister is doing, ask her yourself. Don’t tell her how she is.” Jagger didn’t wait for him to say anything else; he stalked around the hood of the car and slid in to the driver’s seat.
Graham looked like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to stop me from leaving with Jagger, or if he was relieved I was leaving. When I shut my door, he put a hand over his chest in our silent I love you, and kept his eyes trained on mine until I put my hand over my chest as well; nodding once as Jagger backed out of the spot.
Jagger May 10, 2014
I let my phone fall to the table, and sighed loudly as I rubbed my hands over my face. After driving around with the music blasting and windows down for a few hours, we’d come to one of the places we used to always go to before Ben died. They had live music on the weekends, and the best diner food in the area.
“Graham?” Grey guessed, and I grunted in confirmation.
“He just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“You haven’t,” she began, but paused for a few seconds. “Have you been giving him updates too?”
“Seriously, Grey? Your brother hates me; I didn’t even know he had my number until a few minutes ago. Besides, if I had, he probably wouldn’t have said all that shit to you, and your family wouldn’t have acted like statues at the graduation.”
“I heard you say something about that to him before we left. So you noticed it too, huh?”
“Wasn’t hard to. My sister wanted to see you, but after we found you and saw the way they were all just staring at you, she was afraid to say anything.”
“Charlie was there? Were your mom and brother there, too?”
I stopped myself from rolling my eyes, and just shook my head instead. “No. Mom was probably busy with her new boyfriend or husband.”
Grey rolled her eyes at the mention of my mom’s boyfriends, and her lips tilted up in a soft smile. “I doubt that was the reason she didn’t show. But I wish Charlie had said something. I’ll have to call her this summer, or something. I haven’t seen her in forever.” Her mouth fell into a frown for a second before she turned to look at the stage when everyone clapped.
I hadn’t set foot in here in two years, and it felt strange, but good, to be in here again. Almost like I could see Ben sitting on the opposite side of the booth, right next to Grey. But just as soon as the memory hit me, it was gone. “Do you ever feel like he’s disappearing?” I asked suddenly.
Grey’s head shot up, her eyes wide as she took in my words. “What?”
“Ben. Do you feel like his memory is disappearing? Everywhere, all around us.”
“All the time,” she murmured and nodded absentmindedly for a few moments. “I forced myself to stop buying his cologne, and there are times I don’t remember what he smelled like. When I realize that, I panic. I’m afraid I’ll forget forever, and I want to go buy another bottle. But I know I can’t, I know it’ll just make it harder to move on. I don’t—” She cut off on a quiet sob, and covered her mouth with her hand as tears filled her eyes. “I don’t remember what his laugh sounded like. I don’t remember the way it felt when he held me. I’m afraid to go back to Thatch, Jag.”
“I don’t want to see his parents’ house and know that Ben’s been completely erased from it.”
I sagged into the booth and blew out a heavy breath. “Yeah, I’d forgotten about that.”
Six months after Ben died, his parents had moved. Not just to another house, not just out of town. They’d moved across the country to get away. They hadn’t been able to handle all the memories of Ben when their only child was now gone. And in a town the size of Thatch, there were memories everywhere.
I’d felt the same, but now I was in the same spot as Grey. I was terrified of forgetting him, and now I wondered if his parents regretted leaving.
“So what are you going to do?”
She blinked a few times, like I’d just pulled her from somewhere else, and after a few seconds she shrugged. “I’m still going back. The apartment here isn’t much better. He’s the one who picked it out, and all I ever think about when I’m in there is that he’s supposed to be in there too. It’ll be hard at first, but I need to go home. What about you?” Grey’s lips curved up in a rare smile, and I felt myself smiling back at her until she spoke. “I always pictured you just taking off. No one has ever been able to hold onto you, and I feel like towns and cities are no different. I don’t see you ever finding a place where you’ll want to settle down forever.”
Of course you don’t. My eyebrows pinched together, and I looked down so she wouldn’t see anything she wasn’t supposed to. There was truth to her words, and at the same time, she was so wrong. No one had ever been able to keep me because I’d only ever belonged to her. I’d dated a handful of girls in the first two years after leaving Thatch … if you could call it “dating”, and had only ever had one girlfriend back home—and that had been in hopes that it would get a reaction out of Grey as much as it had been a distraction for me from the constant in-my-face relationship of Ben and Grey. If Ben hadn’t died, and if they’d gotten married, leaving is exactly what I would’ve done. It was one thing to stay back, not saying anything to her, hoping one day she would see in me what I’ve seen in her since we were kids. It was another when I had to finally acknowledge she would never be mine.
But even though I wasn’t sure she would ever get to a point in her life where she was ready to move on, there was no way I could leave her now. She wasn’t mine, but she needed me. And I would be there for her as long as she did.
“So where do you think you’ll go?” she asked, and I looked back up at her.
“Thatch,” I said, my voice low and gravelly. “I belong in Thatch.”