“You’re breaking Zach’s heart,” Miles said. “I know you know that. He needs you today.”
Jude swallowed hard. “I know. And I can’t do it. I can’t stand there. Did you see how they all looked at us at the funeral? All I could think was that I hated them all, with their healthy kids. I look at people who aren’t us and I hate them. And I look at Zach, and all I see is the emptiness beside him. He’s half a person, and we all know it … and sometimes I can’t help blaming him. If he hadn’t gotten drunk…” She drew in a sharp breath. “Or if I hadn’t let him go that night…”
“You can’t keep this up…”
“It’s been less than a week,” she snapped. “And if you tell me time will heal this, I swear to God, I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
Miles stared at her a long time and then pulled her into his arms. “I love you, Jude,” he whispered into her ear, and against her best intentions she started to cry.
She loved him, too. And she loved Zach. It was inside her somewhere. She just couldn’t reach it.
“I’ll tell her good-bye for you.”
She heard the car door click shut, and she was alone again. Thankfully. For a long while, she sat there in the darkness, listening to the rain on the roof, trying not to think about anything, but her daughter’s presence was everywhere, in every breath, every sigh, every blink of the eye. Finally, furtively, she reached into her small black purse and pulled out Mia’s cell phone. With a quick glance around, she flipped it open and listened to Mia’s outgoing message.
Hi! You’ve reached Mia. I’m way too busy to talk now, but if you’ll leave me a message, I’ll totally get back to you.
Jude listened to it over and over again, sometimes talking to her daughter, sometimes crying, sometimes just listening. She was so caught up in reaching Mia that she gasped when the door opened. She snapped the phone shut and shoved it in her purse as Zach climbed into the limousine. His eyes were red and swollen.
Jude slid over to him and took his hand. She hated the way he looked at her—surprised by her touch—and she wanted to offer words of comfort, but she had none.
She and Zach and Miles slumped together on the long ride home.
Her mother sat opposite them, her hands clasped in her lap, her beautiful eyes glistening with tears that never fell. Jude was surprised by that sign of emotion, of loss. Only a week ago the sight of her mother’s improbable tears would have amazed Jude, made her want to reach out. Now, she didn’t care. Her own pain crowded out everyone else’s. It was a pathetic, humiliating truth, but a truth nonetheless.
At the house, Jude got out of the car and walked to the front door alone. All she wanted to do now was sleep. She must have said it out loud because she heard her mother say, “That’s a good idea. Sleep will help.”
Jude seemed to awaken at that. “Will it, Mother? Really?”
Her mother patted Jude’s wrist. It was a light touch, barely there before it was gone. “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. You’re stronger than this, Judith.”
Anger blindsided Jude. It was one of her new emotions. She had never been angry before, not really, but it was always with her now, as much a part of her as the shape of her face and the color of her skin. It took tremendous effort not to show it all the time. She spun away from her mother before she said something she would regret and headed into the house.
In the entryway, she came to a halt. “Where’s Mia’s sweater?”
“What?” Zach said, coming up behind her.
“Mia’s green sweater. It was hanging right here.” Jude’s anger mutated into panic.
“It’s in the laundry,” her mother said. “I was going to wash it along with—”
Jude ran to the laundry room and pawed through the pile of dirty clothes until she found Mia’s sweater. Bringing it to her face, she pressed the soft wool to her nose, inhaling Mia’s scent. Her tears dampened the fabric, but she didn’t care. Ignoring her family’s stares, she stumbled into her bedroom and slammed the door shut behind her, collapsing on the bed.
Finally, after what felt like hours, she heard her bedroom door open.
“Hey,” Molly said from the doorway. She stood there, looking sad and uncertain in a chic black dress with a cinch belt, wringing her hands together. Her white hair was a mess, pulled back from her face in a thin headband; a black grow-out line spread along her forehead. “Can I come in?”
“Could I stop you?”
Jude crawled to a sit, leaned back against her silk upholstered headboard.
Molly got up onto the big bed and took Jude into her arms, holding her as if she were a child. Jude didn’t mean to cry again, but she couldn’t help it.
“I used to think I was strong,” Jude whispered.
“You are strong,” Molly said, tucking a damp strand of hair behind Jude’s ear.
“No,” she said, pulling back. “I have no idea who I am anymore.” It was true. All of this had shown her the truth of her soul: she was weak, fragile. Not the woman she’d imagined herself to be at all.
Or maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe she knew now what she hadn’t known before: she wasn’t kind and caring and compassionate and even-tempered. She was angry and weak and even a little vindictive. Most of all, she was a bad mother.
Everything lately pissed her off. Sunshine. Healthy children. Parents who complained about their kids. Lexi.
Jude suddenly didn’t want to be touched. She pulled out of Molly’s arms and slumped back against the headboard. “She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.” She said it quietly, afraid; it had only been a few days, and already Jude had learned that people didn’t want to hear about Mia. How was she supposed to stop talking about her daughter? But just the mention of her name could send people running for the door.
“Tell me,” Molly said, holding her hand, settling in beside her.
“Thanks,” Jude said. “No one wants to hear about her.”
“I’ll listen to anything you want to say.”
Jude turned to her. “She always wore her seatbelt.” She drew in a shaking breath and reached over into the nightstand for tissues.
A mistake; she saw that instantly.
Inside the drawer, she saw a small blue velvet ring box sitting beside a pair of Costco reading glasses. Knowing she shouldn’t touch it, she took it out, flipped it open.
“What’s that?” Molly asked.
“Mia’s graduation present.”
Molly was silent for a moment. “It’s beautiful.”
“I was going to take her shopping with me for the stone. A girls’ day. Maybe a mani-pedi when we were done.” On that, Jude’s resolve cracked, and she started to cry.
“Oh, Jude,” Molly said, hugging her again.
Jude should have felt enveloped by her friend’s love, but she couldn’t feel anything at all. Not then, as she stared down at this beautiful, unfinished ring with gaping, empty prongs …
The high school parking lot was full of cars on this sunny Saturday afternoon.
Lexi sat in the passenger seat of her aunt’s Ford Fairlane, staring through the grimy windshield at the crowd gathered around the flagpole.
“You belong here, Alexa,” her aunt said. “You’ve worked as hard for this day as anyone else.”
“I’m afraid,” she said quietly.
“I know,” her aunt said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Lexi took a deep breath and reached for the door handle. The old door creaked open, popping at the end of its arc.
She and Eva walked through the chattering crowd of family and friends who had come to see the class of 2004 graduate. Lexi kept her head down, not making eye contact with the reporters at the flagpole. As she passed them, she heard one of them say, “Two hundred and seventy-two seniors, Phil. It should have been two hundred and seventy-three.”
At the edge of the football field, Lexi paused.
“You better hurry,” Eva said. “We’re late.”
Lexi nodded, but as she looked at the rows of folding chairs set up on the green football field, she felt sick to her stomach.
“I’m proud of you, Alexa,” her aunt said. “You’re a good girl. And don’t you dare think otherwise.”
Eva gave her a bright smile and then disappeared into the crowd of proud parents streaming up into the bleachers.
Lexi saw the Farradays up there. Jude and Miles were seated in the second row, with Molly and Tim and Grandmother Caroline. Even from here, Lexi could see how pale and thin Jude looked. The black sunglasses she wore accentuated the pallor of her skin and the sharpness of her cheekbones. She had no lipstick on, and she was carrying Mia’s pink purse.
Lexi knew then she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t walk through this crowd and go into the gymnasium, where all her friends were dressed in caps and gowns, waiting to walk triumphantly to the seats on the field. She couldn’t see Zach, not on this day, when Mia’s absence would be so keenly felt.
She pulled off her cap and unzipped her gown, stuffing them both in her big patchwork purse. She was about to leave when the class of 2004 filed onto the field, a stream of royal blue and marigold yellow robes against a cloudless sky.
She moved into one of the empty aisles beneath the bleachers. On the field below, her classmates moved into their assigned seats.
Zach was walking alone. In sunglasses (probably to protect his burned eyes in this bright sunlight), with his shaved head and burned jawline, he hardly looked like himself. Like Jude, there was a new hollowness to his face, and he wasn’t smiling.
When the last of the seniors had taken their seats, the audience burst into applause.
Amid the noise, Principal Yates walked onto the stage and stood at the podium. He spoke eloquently about Pine Island and what it was like to grow up on land that was surrounded by water, how it strengthened the sense of community. At the end of his speech, he said, “This is a class that has been touched by a sudden, terrible tragedy, and these students who were on their way to adulthood have grown up in the past week. We hope as they move forward and are faced with choices in their lives, both big and small, they will remember what they learned about consequences in the year 2004.” He gave the class a sad, knowing smile. “And now, Amanda Martin is going to sing a song in memory of a very special girl, who should have been with us today.”
Lexi tried to steel herself, but when the music began, she felt a terrible ache in her chest. And then Amanda’s voice, pure and sweet, rang out: “I can show you the world … shining, shimmering, splendid…”
The song brought Mia bursting back to life, twirling on the dance floor, singing off-key. She’d loved the Disney movies so much. I’m Ariel, she used to say all the time. You’re Belle. No Snow White or Cinderella, not for us; we’re the new-school Disney girls … we go for what we want …
Lexi wasn’t the only one sobbing when Amanda finished her song. At least half of the senior class was crying.