In the coming weeks, Jason and I became one another's rocks. He gave me the strength to venture into Sam's room, pack up her stuff and divvy it up according to what would be donated, what her parents wanted, and a few things I wanted to keep. The shirt she'd been wearing that night — the one with the red hourglass — had been absolutely destroyed, but her jacket had survived pretty well, and so I kept that. Suddenly, it didn't look so hideous anymore.
I'd been right that Jason had had a crush on Sam, and he confessed that to me about a fortnight later, at Sam's funeral. We were there, supporting one another as though we'd know each other for years, but really, we'd only been the barest of acquaintances. It's amazing what death can do to people.
"I wish I'd told her that night." Jason said in a low voice, as we watched the coffin parade past us. There was a wreath of yellow roses on it. Her favourites. Just the sight of them made me want to cry. I'd managed to remain relatively dry-eyed so far, but no doubt something would set me off at some point. I wasn't much of a crier in general. Sam had always been the one to bawl and sob at sad movies — or happy ones. I stood there in stoic silence until I physically couldn't hold them back anymore.
"If I'd told her," Jason continued, "She might've... I might've..." He broke off and sniffed deeply, blinking a few times. I knew what he was trying to say; he would have been there when she'd had that heart attack, he could have gotten her to the hospital in time. I'd been so quick to blame people before; her parents, the doctors, Laurel Jackson. But I found no blame when I looked at Jason. I found no anger. All my anger had been vented, and aside from my grief, I was hollow inside. There was nothing left but my grief.
I gave his hand a comforting squeeze. There were so many words in that; it wasn't your fault. You couldn't have done anything. It's okay to cry. I don't blame you. I'm here for you. He squeezed my hand back and raised his free hand to roughly wipe at his eyes. This made my eyes tear up, this was what tipped me over the edge, and my vision blurred as I watched the coffin lowered into the ground.
"I love you." I whispered, but she couldn't hear me.
I always wore flats to funerals, but now I realised I was doubly glad for it. At 5'10", Jason was only an inch taller than me, and he spent a good ten minutes — as did I — crying silently into my shoulder on the short journey from the service to where the wake was being held. Any taller and it would have been awkward. Afterwards, we just waited, and my head rested on his shoulder, his cheek on my head, tears trailing down our cheeks and crumpled tissues in our hands. In that moment, I was so infinitely grateful to have him there with me. I was certain I could not have survived this alone.
The wake was like every other one I'd been to. The atmosphere was considerably more light-hearted, and I managed to smile and chat and eat almost normally. For Sam's sake, I had to carry on. I had to be strong for her. My black dress was one I'd never worn before; bought especially for this occasion. The older one — the one I'd worn to my grandma's funeral — had still fit, but Sam had deserved a new one. She deserved that small piece of... well, respect. Sam's mother commented on this as we talked, though she kept giving small little sniffs that I could tell were holding back tears.
"Samantha was so lucky to have a friend like you, Charlotte." Mrs Burke told me, giving my hand a squeeze. Mrs Burke had become like a second mother to me since I'd met Sam. I'd never really found the courage to refer to her as anything other than Mrs Burke, even though she'd told me countless times to just call her Annie. I managed a watery smile and bit down on the slight annoyance at her calling me Charlotte. Now was not the time. Instead, I conjured up a suitable reply.
"She kept telling me how much she loved you guys." I said to Mrs Burke and her husband, a severe man with the stiff upper lip of a Brit. In fact, he was a Brit, and one that had never lost his accent. As a result, Sam had always had a slight and peculiar twang to her voice; something not quite American and not quite English. I realised with a jolt that I'd never hear it again, and tears filled by eyes. "She... she loved you both very much." I managed, my lip trembling, and it was at that moment that me and Mrs Burke fell into one another's arms, crying, as Mr Burke held us both close, impassive save for the tears trailing down his own cheek.
I found Jason after sharing another bucket of tears with Sam's parents, sitting at a table with a few other students who'd come along to pay their respects. All of them were very solemn and sombre, and no one was talking — there were few attempts at conversation, and they all petered out fairly quickly. No one really felt like talking. I sat down in the empty seat beside Jason, and rested my head on his shoulder. I'd done it so often over the past fortnight that it had begun to feel natural, but three weeks ago I couldn't have even told you his birthday. May 9th.
"D'you wanna go?" I asked him in a soft voice.
"Do you?" He replied, his voice quavering. I nodded against his shoulder, and we stood up, said our goodbyes, and headed out to the car. There'd been a limo for close friends and family; Sam's parents, her single remaining grandparent (Gramma Edith, Sam had always called her), myself and Sam's older brother, Thomas. He was thirty-two, and his partner Daniel had been the sixth addition to the party. Sam had told me a lot about Daniel; how he'd been part of her life since she'd been fourteen, like the brother she'd always wanted. She'd always joked about how Thomas was nothing short of awful, but I knew they both loved each other really.
It made my heart hurt to think of Thomas, now. An only child. But he had Daniel, and Daniel was great. He'd get Thomas through this. Like Jason was helping me. By my own request, I'd ridden in Jason's car from the service to the wake. Now, we drove back to campus, the silence heavy. We had to pass the cemetery where Sam had been buried, and by chance, her grave had been within eyeshot of the fence. I could make out the rectangle of freshly laid dirt, and I could still feel it, gritty and damp, between my fingers as I threw it down into that hole, my body heaving with wracking sobs. I could remember the words, carved into my mind like they were carved into the stone; permanent and never-fading.
1985 - 2006
Beloved sister and daughter, cherished friend. Always loved, never forgotten.
My apartment building looked lonely and unforgiving as we approached it, and I found myself reluctant to get out of the car. I hesitated, and played with my hands in my lap. I wasn't sure of what to do, what to say, but I know I didn't want to go back up to the apartment. Where what was left of Sam's stuff now resided in boxes to be sorted through by her parents; keep, charity, discard. Where her room was empty, wiped clean of her life. It was a lot more final now, because I'd seen her in that coffin, watched them close the door and put her in the ground. She was never coming back, and her ghost haunted our home.
"I..." I faltered, still unsure of what to say, "Do you..." I faltered again, hardly daring to ask, but I needed to, because I knew I couldn't be alone, not tonight, not after today. "Do you want to come upstairs? For... for a coffee or something?"
Jason stared at the steering wheel, both his hands still on it. There was a long pause. Longer than normal, and I felt my face burn. He was trying to think of a way to be polite about saying no, but I got the message, and I didn't want to intrude. I turned slightly to pull the door-release, to get out of the car, but one of his hands came away to cup mine. "Wait." He said, his voice soft, a whisper on the breeze. "Yes." He then said, a little louder, a lot surer. "Yes, I... I'd like that."
He parked his car on the sidewalk and we walked up to my apartment, once more holding hands like children in a fairytale. It was nothing new, but it felt new. Probably because now it was final. The funeral was the full-stop on the last sentence of Sam's life. It was definitive, and for that, the whole dynamic had shifted slightly. In the past few weeks, me and Jason had spent any number of nights curled up together under covered and in clothing too thick and woolen for the time of year, but for the life of us, we couldn't stay warm. At the same time, I hadn't been able to bring myself to sleep anywhere else but in my apartment, as though sleeping elsewhere would abandon Sam's ghost forever, and I would lose that last small part of her.
Jason's hand was warm and familiar in my own as I turned the key and entered our — my — apartment. There was a stillness to it, one I didn't want to disturb, but I forced my hand to flip on the light, revealing the boxes of things that her parents would collect when they felt brave enough to. In my room were the handful of things I'd chosen to keep. Her leather jacket, the bracelet she'd loved, and a photo album from a few years ago, when we'd spent our entire summer vacation touring Europe.
It was full of pictures of the two of us, and I had an album with all the same pictures, but Sam had made hers into a scrapbook, writing little anecdotes around each photo, adding decorative doodles and stickers. It wasn't just a plain photo album, like mine was. It was a whole memory in itself. And, since it had been of our summer vacation, I had managed to coerce her parents into letting me keep it. It rested underneath the folded leather jacket, the breast-pocket of which held her bracelet.
But as for the main room, the boxes were full of useless things. A whole life just packed up and categorised and labelled, ready for clearing away. A whole person, reduced to a few cardboard boxes and a leather jacket. It made tears sting my eyes anew.
"Are you okay?" Jason asked, his voice still low. It was a question we'd asked each other any number of times over the past few weeks. A game we were playing, really. Are you okay? Yeah. But I couldn't bring myself to play that game anymore, I just couldn't, so I turned to him and said, unwittingly in the smallest and most tearful voice I'd ever heard.
There was a beat of silence, and in that moment, I became acutely aware of how close to me Jason was standing. He was only an inch taller than me, but when he was so close, it seemed like a massive difference. His hair was brown like mine, but it was lighter and redder, the colour of cinnamon and cropped short. His eyes had used to sparkle, I knew. I didn't know how I knew, because I'd barely talked to him, but I knew. Now they didn't, they were darker and muted, but they were still a startling shade of green. He had a slight tan, and I only realised by standing this close that he had a smattering of tiny freckles across his nose, almost invisible. That jolted me; I hadn't known he had freckles. He was still practically a stranger to me. But I trusted him and I needed him because of what had happened. By some awful and confusing chain of events, this boy I barely knew had become my staunchest ally. My closest friend.
Closest friend. Sam's loss hit me again, out of the blue, and I almost physically flinched when it did. It seared my heart like a knife lodged there, and every time I thought of her I just couldn't help but feel like it was being twisted. I needed to stop thinking, I needed to shut off my brain. It hurt too much to think, I needed a distraction, I needed———
"Kiss me." I said in a small voice. "Please."
He did, and any doubt that he didn't need this as much as I did died when his lips touched mine. It was hot and desperate, and underneath the taste of his mouth, I tasted salt from our mingling tears. His hands went to my waist and held me tight against him, mine went to his back, clawing at his shoulder blade and tangling in his hair. We pulled tight against one another, as if enough pressure, enough heat, would provide a distraction, some brief moment of peace. Burn the sorrow away. A light so fierce that this clinging darkness would retreat, if only for an instant.
Somehow, I don't really know how, we ended up in my bedroom. He walked me backwards into my bed, my knees caught on the end and I was sent sprawling, dragging him down with me because I still hadn't released my vice-like grip on him. I helped him pull off his jacket, take off his tie, and ripped open his shirt. I pushed myself up slightly so his hands could go to my back, and he fumbled for a moment, trying to find the tiny zipper to remove my dress. Had I been able to think, I probably would have considered he wasn't just fumbling because it was hard to find, but because I, in turn, was pulling at his belt.
Before I could really make sense of anything acute, we were both in our underwear, still kissing furiously, hungrily, desperately. We both needed this, needed something to take our minds off the horror and the sorrow and the crushing emptiness. It didn't matter that we'd barely known one another a month ago, because we'd been there for each other through all of this hell. I trusted Jason, wanted him.
"Wait, wait, wait." He stopped me with a look, "Are... are you sure about this? Are you okay?" I had never been more, frankly. I needed this, I needed the release and the distraction, and so did he. We both knew it, but it was standard etiquette being paid heed. I could see it in his green eyes. If I wanted to back out right now, to call it quits, then I could. I could see that he wanted this, too. He was scared and anguished. He needed it just as badly. I looked him deep in the eyes and, for the first time in a long time, I didn't have to play the game, and I didn't have to lie, when I answered