“Jurors will have sympathy for you. Trust me to take care of you. Okay?”
“How much do you cost?” Aunt Eva asked.
“I’m a one-man shop, Eva. I can’t afford to take this case pro bono, and I won’t lie to you. It’ll be expensive. But I’ll save you money wherever I can.”
Lexi felt sick at that. Her aunt already worked fifty hours a week to pay the ordinary bills. How was she going to pay for this, too?
“I have some savings,” Eva said. “My husband’s life insurance.”
“No,” Lexi said. “That’s your retirement.”
“Don’t argue with me, Alexa,” Eva said. “It’s my money; I’ll spend it my way.”
Scot reached for a couple of business cards and handed them across the desk. “If the police or the prosecuting attorney’s office or another attorney contact you, say nothing and give them my number. Nothing. I can’t stress that enough. I will tell them that I’m representing you and find out what I can. If we’re lucky, they’ll decide not to charge you. If we’re not…” He shrugged.
Eva stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Jacobs.”
“Call me Scot. Please. And don’t you worry, Lexi. We’ll keep you out of prison.”
* * *
“Are you sure about going today?” Eva said.
Lexi stood at the window, staring outside. “How can I not go to my best friend’s funeral?”
“It won’t be easy.”
“I killed her,” Lexi said quietly. “I don’t expect it to be easy.” She didn’t think anything would ever be easy again. But she had to do this. She had to stand there, ashamed, and let her friends see what came from drinking and driving. And she had to see Zach one more time—and his parents—and tell them how sorry she was.
She went into the bathroom and sat on the beige fiberglass rim of the bathtub. She closed her eyes and felt Mia beside her. Do you want to come to my house after school? I’ll meet you at the flagpole … she just came right up to me, Madre, and asked if she could sit down … move over, Zach Attack, you’re hogging my best friend …
Lexi cried until there was nothing left inside of her. Then, drawing in a deep breath, she exhaled slowly and got to her feet.
Feeling hollow and shaky, she dressed in a pair of plain black pants, black flats, and a short-sleeved blue angora sweater that Mia had bought for her.
In the living room, she found Eva standing by the kitchen table, dressed all in black, looking worried. She was gulping coffee—it was what she did when she was nervous; that was one of the things Lexi knew about Eva now. Whenever Eva missed smoking, she drank black coffee until the craving passed. “This is a bad idea. What if there are reporters there?”
“I have to face them sooner or later.”
Eva gave her one last worried look, started to say something, and changed her mind. Lips thinned by those unspoken words, she walked out of the double-wide and led the way to the old Ford Fairlane.
They drove onto the island in silence.
As they passed the high school, Lexi noticed the reader board. Now it read: Mia Farraday Memorial. Grace Church. 4:00 P.M. today / GRAD SATURDAY @ 1:00.
The parking lot in front of the church was full.
Lexi let out her breath.
Eva pulled into an empty spot and parked.
Lexi got out of the car. As she moved forward, her broken arm started to ache and nerves fluttered in the pit of her stomach.
“You can do it,” Eva said, taking hold of Lexi’s good arm.
Inside, the church was full of teenagers and parents and teachers. Up by the altar was a poster of Mia in her costume from Once upon a Mattress. In the beaded blue bodice, with stage makeup emphasizing her green eyes, she looked radiant and beautiful, a young woman with a bright future.
Lexi stumbled; Eva kept her going.
Lexi heard people whisper as she passed.
“… Lexi Baill … surprise…”
“… if she’d been a better friend…”
“… poor thing…”
“… some nerve…”
“Hey, Lexi, you want to sit here? Lexi.”
She turned slowly, saw Zach’s ex-girlfriend, Amanda Martin, sitting in the pew to her right.
Amanda scooted sideways, made her mom and dad scrunch together to make room.
Lexi sat down by Amanda. She looked into the girl’s sad eyes, and suddenly they were both crying. They hadn’t been friends in high school, but it didn’t matter now; all that stuff just fell away. “It totally wasn’t your fault,” Amanda said. “I don’t care what people say.”
Lexi was surprised by how much that meant to her. “Thanks.”
Before Amanda could say anything else, the service began.
The priest said Mia’s name, and every high school girl in the church burst into tears, and more than a few boys joined in. The priest’s words painted a picture of a happy eighteen-year-old girl who was almost Mia and yet not quite. He didn’t say that she snored when she lay on her back or that she moved her lips when she read or that she liked to hold her best friend’s hand while they walked through the mall.
His words she could withstand. It was the slideshow of Mia’s life that devastated her. Mia in a pink tutu, her arms circled above her head … Mia holding a Captain Hook action figure, grinning … holding Zach’s hand as they stood in the cold ocean water, grimacing. The last picture was of Mia alone, wearing a crazy tie-dyed T-shirt and cutoffs, smiling for the camera, giving the world a thumbs-up.
Lexi closed her eyes, sobbing now. Music began to play: it was not the right music. Mia wouldn’t have liked the droning, solemn chords. And somehow that hurt most of all. Whoever had picked the music hadn’t thought of Mia. It should have been a Disney song, something that would have gotten Mia on her feet and made her sing along with her hairbrush as a microphone …
Sing with me, Lexster. We could be in a band … and Zach, laughing, saying, no more, Mia, dogs are starting to howl …
Lexi wanted to clamp her hands over her ears, but the words came from inside of her, memories blooming up and spilling over.
“Time to go, Lexi,” Amanda said gently.
Lexi opened her eyes. “Thanks, for letting me sit with you.”
“You coming to graduation?”
Lexi shrugged. Had it only been six days ago she and Mia and Zach had been together in the gym, practicing for graduation? “I don’t know…”
People moved into the aisle, streamed toward the double doors. Lexi felt their gazes on her. Faces frowned in recognition as they passed her. Parents looked judgmental; kids looked sad and sympathetic.
Finally she saw the family. They sat in the front pew, still and stiff and dressed in black. People paused to offer condolences as they passed.
Lexi moved toward them, unable to stop herself. She was going against the flow; mourners stared at her, frowned, moved out of her way.
In the front row, the Farradays rose in unison and turned.
Neither Jude nor Zach acknowledged her. They just stared, dull-eyed, their faces streaked with tears.
Lexi had practiced what she would say to them a hundred times, but now, faced with the magnitude of their loss and her guilt, she couldn’t even open her mouth. The whole family turned away from her and walked to the church’s side door.
Lexi felt Eva come up beside her. She sagged into her aunt, giving up the strength it had taken to come here.
“No one blames him,” Eva said bitterly. “It’s not right.”
“He wasn’t driving.”
“He should have been,” Eva said. “What good is it to make a promise and then ignore it? He should be blamed, too.”
Lexi remembered how he’d looked at her in the hospital; the green eyes she loved so much had been darkened by more than grief. She’d seen guilt there, too, as deep as her own. “He blames himself.”
“That’s not enough,” Eva said firmly. “Let’s go.”
She took Lexi by the arm and led her out of the church. Lexi could hear people whispering about her, blaming her. If she’d been less culpable, she might have agreed with Eva, maybe been pissed at Zach, but any other blame was less than hers. That was all there was. Zach had failed to live up to a promise. She’d made the deadly decision herself. Guilt and remorse filled her to the brim; there was no room for anger, too. Zach had screwed up; Lexi had done far, far worse.
“Someone should have told me it was a bad idea to go to the funeral,” Lexi said as they drove out of the parking lot.
“If someone had,” Eva said, “I’m sure you would have listened.”
Lexi wiped her eyes. “Of course.”
* * *
Jude sat huddled in the limousine’s dark interior. Outside, it began to rain; drops landed on the roof like infant heartbeats.
She was so deep in grief that when the car door opened, letting in a blast of gray and yellow light, it stung her tear-burned eyes and she looked around, disoriented.
“We’re here,” the driver said, standing by the open door. He was a slash of more black in the rain, a slanted shadow beneath an umbrella. Behind him, Molly and Tim stood huddled with their grown children.
“Come along, Zachary,” her mother said, herding him out of the limousine.
Miles slid past Jude and got out of the car. Then he held out his hand for her. “Jude.”
“Go on,” she said, glad that he couldn’t see her eyes behind the dark sunglasses she wore.
“I’ll catch up with you,” Miles said to Caroline, who no doubt nodded and walked briskly away, making sure Zach stood up straight and didn’t cry. That was what Jude remembered about her father’s funeral: not crying. No one had cried for him. Her mother simply hadn’t allowed it. She’d treated grief like a malignancy of some kind—a few snips, a few stitches, and you were good as new.
“You can’t not go,” Miles said, squatting beside the car. Rain pelted his face, straightened his hair.
“Jude.” He sighed.
It was their family sound now; before it had been laughter. Now it was the sigh. “Don’t you think I want to be strong enough for this?” she said. “I’m ashamed of myself, and I want to be there. I just … can’t. I’m not ready to watch them lower her into the ground. And I’m sure as hell not ready to stand next to you while you let go of pink balloons.” Her voice broke on that. “Like she’s up in some heaven waiting to catch them.”
“Jude,” he said tiredly, and she understood.
He wanted her to believe that Mia was in a better place, but Jude couldn’t do it.
She knew what it was costing her, this inability of hers to be strong, but she couldn’t do it. There was simply nothing of her left. Try as hard as she might (and honestly, it exhausted her to even try), she couldn’t seem to be present, not even as a mother.
Zach knew she wasn’t herself anymore. He treated her as if she were made of spun sugar. He approached her warily, making sure never to say anything about Mia. But sometimes, when she said good night to him, she saw the need in his eyes, the nak*d pain, and it hurt her to her bones. She’d reach for him in those moments, but he wasn’t fooled. He knew it wasn’t her touch, that somehow she wasn’t there, and when she walked away, she saw that he looked more broken after she’d soothed him than before.