I like cemeteries. They’re quiet, well-groomed, and overall possibly the safest place in the city. I can talk all I want, and the company doesn’t talk back. At least for now. Someday, as Joss often reminds me, the pathetic remains of my sanity will crack and she’ll find me conversing with crows while I try to convince her that the dead souls that inhabit the black-feathered bodies are real and are warning us of an impending apocalypse.
For kicks, I like to flutter my eyelashes and tell her it’s really the blue jays she needs to worry about.
I brush the dried leaves off the grave marker. It’s one of the cheaper ones, made of gray stone and buried flat against the ground. If it weren’t for people like me, these spots would be overwhelmed with grass, scattered brush and dust. They’d become, like me, forgotten.
“Do you think she wanted more?” I fall back onto my bottom and wrap my arms around my bare knees, as my jean cutoffs were “cut off” a little too short, thanks to Joss. She’s all about skin and believes everyone else should be, too.
The boy six spots down from me is still absorbed in the fairly new grave, his hands shoved into his pockets. He’s got to be roasting in his jeans and dark blue T-shirt. The September sun can be brutal to those who are unprepared. It’s how I found Lydia. Thanks to the towering tree, her stone has shade.
“I said, do you think she wanted more?” I repeat. It’s the third time he’s been here this past week. The tenth time in a month. That type of behavior signals serious grief issues, and that’s not healthy. And on the selfish side, he’s cramping my alone time. “Her name was Lydia. She was twenty-four when she died and she has a flat grave marker. Did she like understated or was this chosen for her?”
He’s sluggish turning his head. Sort of like he’s in one of those action flicks that thinks it’s emo and cool to slo-mo the flying bullets. “What?”
“I like Lydia’s grave. Actually, I just like Lydia. Year after year, dandelions pop up around her marker, even when they spray for weeds. I believe it means she was sweet.”
No response, but he’s still gaping at me. It could be because of my violet hair and not because he’s questioning his reality. There’s not a person on the planet who doesn’t look at another human in a cemetery and wonder for a split second: Is that a ghost?
I normally don’t talk to the newbies. They usually visit in the first two weeks after the burial and then drop off the face of the planet. The seriously grieving continue to visit once or twice a month, but they eventually also move on. Then you have men like Rick who visit daily, waiting until he can be buried alongside the woman he loves.
This kid is my age—high school, maybe lower college. It’s hard to tell with the curved-in lid of his baseball cap hiding a good portion of his face. The black Charger he drives says he’s bankrolled, so he’s either already on the way or is currently college material. Overall, too young to be mourning like Rick.
But then again, I shouldn’t judge. That is, after all, my pet peeve.
There’s a slight chance that this guy could be a freak like me who doesn’t know a person buried here and, if so, it’d be nice to finally have a kindred spirit. I get tired of being alone. “My grandma used to pick dandelions and rub them under my chin and if my skin turned yellow it meant I was nice.”
On the other side of the cemetery, an industrial mower springs to life and happily hums. I pick the largest dandelion of the bunch and hold it out to him. “Come here.”
I shrug. “Because if you don’t you’re going to go home and be ticked because you should have.”
It’s a clear day. Bright blue sky with an occasional fluffy cloud. He takes a particular interest in one that resembles a duck. Obviously he’s going to need more coaxing. “We’re surrounded by a couple hundred dead people. Think there’s someone here who left regret-free? Take a risk and come here. Or are you scared the dandelion will tell on you?”
“Tell what?” He angles himself in my direction now, and I like what I see of his sweet build. He readjusts his baseball cap to expose freshly cut light brown hair, and there’s a sharp ache in my chest when I meet his blue eyes.
I know him. Rather, I know his friends. I also know what he’s going to say about me at school tomorrow and that once he recognizes me he’ll be out of here like a hearse after a funeral.
But his eyes possess the same sadness as old man Rick’s and I have a choice: I can be like this kid and his friends or I can be better...I can be more. That decision is often why I’m here, and if Lydia’s taught me anything it’s that life can be short.
Inhaling deeply, I twirl the flower in my hand, knowing tomorrow I’ll regret this. “Come here and find out.”
The keys in my pocket dig into my skin as I grip them. I should go. Leave. I’ve got no business being here, but no matter how I try to continue forward I end up going backward and returning to this grave.
I glance down at James Cohen. Which is it, dude? Would you have gone home or would you have taken a chance and talked to the crazy girl?
“The dandelion is calling your name. Can’t you hear it?” She rests her wrists on her bent knees and flicks the yellow weed back and forth in her hand like a pendulum, then switches her tone. “Hey you, guy over there...come here.”
Her mock dandelion voice is seductive. “You know you want to.”
Because I have no idea how to say no to a talking flower, I walk over and drop to the ground next to her in the shade and I swear the temperature drops twenty degrees. “You look familiar.”
“No, I don’t.”
She has chin-length purple hair that curls in. A fake red rose barrette pulls up one side of her hair and something nags at me like a bad memory stuck in déjà vu mode. I’ve seen her before, only I can’t figure out where. “Yeah, I know you.”
“No, you don’t.” She moves her jaw, exposing her neck. “Put your chin up so I can see if you’re nice.”
“Are you saying we’ve never met?”
“I’m saying put your chin up. Do you make everything complicated or is it just with strangers in cemeteries?”
She’s a petite thing. Very feminine in a white tank and cut-off jeans, but she possesses a commanding presence, bordering on hypnotic. Why I’m doing this, I don’t know, yet I lift my jaw and jerk when she tickles my skin with the flower. She lowers it then pinches her lips.
“Well?” I ask.
“The dandelion says you’ll live a long life, your lucky number is seventeen, and the way to say cat in Chinese is mao.”
“Says all that, does it?”
“Dandelions never lie.” She wildly gestures to the area near her neck. “You should wash before you go anywhere. You’ve got yellow underneath. So, what do you think, is Lydia the understated type or did her husband run off with the money from the insurance policy?”
“What’s your name?”
“Not Lydia. Answer the question.”
Out of all those in the area we’re in, this is the simplest tombstone. Gray stone. Black lettering stating Lydia’s name, birthdate and the day she died. Nothing else. No loving mother, sister or friend. No angel wings or harps or flowers drawn in for effect.
Not-Lydia reaches over and tears out the grass encroaching on the marker. It’s not an irritated motion, but it’s done with enough care that it finally feels weird to be at the cemetery by the grave of someone I had no relationship with. This place should be for those who want to remember. Maybe now I’ll stop coming. “Who was Lydia to you?”
“Didn’t know her.”
My head whips in her direction. “What?”
“Didn’t. Know. Her.”
My insides completely bottom out. This girl had given me a reason to stay away and now it’s gone.
“Answer the question,” she prods.
James Cohen has the word beloved underneath his name and his marker is upright, standing easily two feet in the air. His picture is engraved on it and his image is nothing like the memory of him burned into my brain.
There’s a stark loneliness to Lydia’s stone that I wouldn’t have noticed before James Cohen. “It wasn’t her choice.”
“I agree,” she says in a small voice. “Lydia would have wanted more.”
We’re silent and the wind rustles through the leaves above us. School starts tomorrow. The first day of my senior year. I had plans for how this year was supposed to turn out, but the death of a complete stranger changed me and I don’t like it. I pray nightly that my life will return to exactly how it was before.
“Who did you lose?” She circles the conversation back to me.
This guy haunts me. To the point where I’m starting to believe that ghosts do exist. “Someone.” Someone I didn’t know.
She nods like I told her something deep. “Yeah. That sucks. You know, they wouldn’t want you to grieve like this. They’d want you to move on. Live and let live and all that.”
And all that. I chuckle and dip my head, yanking down the bill of my cap. I have no idea what James Cohen would have wanted. Not a clue. “Why are you CWall here?”
She twirls the flower. “I like dandelions.”
“For real. Who’d you lose?”
“No one here.” She meets my eyes and I’m drawn in. They’re gray—a color I’ve never seen before on a girl. This is crazy. I know her somehow and it’s like an itch in my brain that I can’t scratch because I can’t peg her. How could I forget someone so strikingly gorgeous?
A car honks and a woman slips out the driver’s side of the beat-up, multitoned, two-door piece of crap. She’s a thin bleached blonde about my older sister’s age, except this lady doesn’t scream stay-at-home mom with two kids.
“Stella!” she yells. “Let’s go, girl.”
Stella. This is Stella. How could I frigging forget Stella? “I do know you. We go to school together. In third grade, you sat beside me and Cooper Higgins and...”
Her spine visibly straightens. “You were saying?”
...and Cooper Higgins called her Trash Can Girl. I mumble a curse and wonder how I can somehow rewind the conversation. I meet the one person who’s been able to block the images of blood pumping out of an artery and I almost call her trash. Slick, moron. Real slick.
Stella stands and brushes off the dirt from her butt. “See you at school tomorrow, Jonah. Or maybe I won’t since I’m so memorable.”
She knew who I was the entire time. The black sludge inhabiting my veins forms fingers and grips my soul. I had this feeling a few times before in my life—before James Cohen.
One of them was when I spotted Stella crying underneath the slide on the playground in third grade. I told myself she wasn’t crying because Cooper had made fun of her clothes and because I had laughed at his joke, but deep down I knew I was wrong. And as I was back then, I’m paralyzed as to how to atone for it.
Stella eases into the passenger side of the car and I wait, hoping she’ll look once in my direction. The car vibrates as it turns right onto the narrow road, and Stella keeps staring straight ahead.
When am I ever going to learn? Or change? Or...I hate this. I snap off my baseball cap and cram my fingers into my hair. The ground beneath me feels unstable and I’m tired of walking on sinking sand. Why did everything have to change?
Careful to avoid the fifth step of the outdoor metal staircase, I hop onto the sixth step, and rust sprinkles to the blacktop below. Joss walks in front of me and she’s slow going up the steps because she’s doing that stupid hip sway to catch the eye of the guy who lives in the apartment below her. The sad part is, he’s watching, but I don’t think he’s the kind of guy she should aim for.
“He doesn’t have a job,” I tell her when she reaches the second-floor walk and stops the stupid butt roll.
“You don’t know that. He could be a superstar living off residual checks.” Joss slides the key into the lock of her apartment door, but it’s a meaningless gesture since the lock broke last month and the door will open with the slightest push. We both agreed to continue with the show of unlocking and locking for security reasons. “There are many the FHydoor wories as to why he’s always home.”
“Like he sells crack?” I mumble under my breath.
“Heard that,” she sings. Joss nudges the door open and struts into her one-bedroom apartment. “Anyway, he doesn’t have enough class for crack. I’m leaning toward meth.”
“My mistake. I get the dealer’s social classes mixed up.”
Joss laughs and begins to root through the cupboards, pulling out boxes of crackers and Pop-Tarts to assess expiration dates. “Hungry for dinner?”
It’s a tiny place that’s five code violations beyond being condemned. Last year, the stupid landlord painted the lone window shut, making our little ant trap a fire hazard. The living room slash kitchen is the same size as most walk-in closets and the only bedroom barely fits a twin-size bed. My knees hit the sink when I sit on the toilet, but unlike the other units, Joss keeps the space homey thanks to her fascination with carousels. She’s found several paintings of them at yard sales.
“I talked to that guy at the car dealership today,” says Joss. “He said if you can enter that co-op program at school that he’d get you on part-time during the day and then you can have a full-time job as soon as you graduate.”