“That would be great.”
“I got to get home,” he said. “You okay to try and sleep now?”
“Yes. Thanks for talking to me.”
Beneath my ribs, my heart stuttered. “’Night, John.”
I brought two bunches of flowers with me. John brought a six-pack of beer. Both seemed apt in their own way.
We wandered through the cemetery, moonlight shining off of burial stones and winged statues of angels. Never would I have had the guts to do this in the dark by myself. The whole place made me nervous. He’d had work after school, so we couldn’t go until later in the evening. This worked for me, because I didn’t have to mention anything to Mom about the Drop Stop or why I felt the need to go visiting dead people. Both would have worried her and I was sick of being the cause of Mom’s high stress levels.
Luckily, John knew the way, leading me through the graveyard without any hesitation. He smelled different tonight. Spicy, like he’d put on aftershave. And God forgive me for noticing such details in a place like this. I was headed straight for hell’s barbecue, and that was the truth.
“Where do you work?” I asked, watching the ground so I didn’t trip over anything.
“Landscaping business my uncle owns,” he said. “Just started a few weeks back. I’ve gone from selling grass to cutting it. Ironic, huh?”
“Ha.” I grinned, even though he had his back to me. “I have to get a job. That’s next on the list.”
“You don’t get an allowance or something?”
“Not anymore with my behavioral problems.”
“Yes, it will be. My very first job. Does that make me sound like a spoiled, bitchy private school girl?”
“Nuh. You’re not mean enough.”
“I could be,” I said, looking down my nose at him with my very best judgy glare. “Though really, who has the energy?”
He stopped. “Here we are.”
A mixture of fresh and fading flowers covered the ground in front of a dark gravestone. I tried to remember the boy behind the counter, the clerk. The details of his face and the startled look he’d given me when I put my basket full of junk food on the counter. Details of that night were either scarily pristine, ingrained on my memory, or hazy and on the verge of being lost. Any moment now they might fade off into the recesses of my mind, gone for good.
“I can’t remember his face,” I said, adding my flowers to the rest. “Why can’t I remember his face?”
John placed a beer by the headstone, then passed me an open bottle before taking one for himself. “He’d worked there a while, didn’t mind me dealing there. Used to buy from me sometimes. Always seemed nice enough.”
I gulped down the cold liquid, ignoring the taste of the yeast and hops. Beer would never be my thing. Especially now that it was linked to that night, sitting on the floor bleeding, listening to John trying to keep Chris from losing it completely and killing us all. But I wouldn’t let bad memories stop me, not even in this case.
“He was a student working night shift at a crappy job and he died for no good reason.” I blinked, fighting back the threat of tears. Useless things, they never helped.
“Fucking Chris.” Hate burned bright in my heart. I’d never wanted anyone to die a fiery death to the extent that I wished it for him. It weighed on my mind heavy and dark, and churned deep in my belly. Forgiveness didn’t even exist.
John took a long pull of his beer. “Come on, Isaac’s just over here.”
I stumbled along behind him, the beer hanging forgotten from my hand. Flowers and burnt-out candles covered Isaac’s grave. Here too, John left one of the beers. I lay down my remaining flowers, staring sightlessly at the petals and thorns, the white sympathy cards so bright in the dark. Death was a stone, dragging me deep. Life had been so much simpler and easier before all of this. I’d been immortal, but tomorrow didn’t exist. It was all now, here, today. Until Chris and his gun destroyed everything.
“He died because of me,” I said, swaying on my feet. Some facts weighed heavy. “If you guys hadn’t tried to help me, he might—”
“Stop it. Don’t take that on yourself.” Shadows covered his face. But he reached out, the rough palm of his hand cupping my cheek. The movement, the connection, totally unexpected. “We made our own choices, Edie. Chris would have turned on us next. He wouldn’t have even hesitated.”
With him touching me, I could barely breathe, let alone speak.
“Do you understand?”
I managed a slight nod and his hand fell back to his side. The loss stung.
My head filled with chaos, a multitude of questions, ifs, and buts. Answers about life and death didn’t come so easy. I tried not to think about what remained of the body buried below. About what his family must be going through. Fate was a bitch and luck was no better. Yet we were always searching for meaning, for some hidden truth. What bullshit.
“It’s not your fault,” repeated John. “If it’s anyone’s, it’s mine. I pushed him into charging at Chris—it was my idea.”
The raw pain in his words hurt my heart. I breathed out heavily. “No. You’re right; Chris would have turned on you two next.”
He said nothing.
“And I’d have been dead too. He wasn’t going to stop, and no way were the cops giving him what he wanted. The whole situation was fucked. We just got caught up in it.” I shook my head, drank more of the crappy beer. Not that it helped.
“It’s not on either of us.” Sadly, he didn’t sound any more convinced. He took another mouthful of beer, stared up at the stars. “It was all Chris, the fucking meth-head.”
Before I could think to censor myself, I blurted the words out. “Sometimes I wish there’d been ammunition in that gun. I know the two of us were basically out of trouble by that stage. The police were there. But . . .”
John’s laughter was hollow, unhappy. “Yeah. Sometimes I wish you’d shot him too.”
It both was and wasn’t funny. Maybe I should be ashamed. Or maybe my sense of humor had taken a turn toward the dark and morbid, and that was okay. I don’t know.