I buried my father the day after my seventeenth birthday.
Even the sun was cruel that morning, an obscenely bright but cold January day. The snow that smothered the cemetery glared harshly white, blinding those mourners who couldn’t squeeze under the tent that covered Dad’s open grave. And the tent itself gleamed crisply, relentlessly white, so it hurt a little to look at that, too.
Hurt a lot, actually.
Against this inappropriately immaculate backdrop, splashes of black stood in stark relief, like spatters of ink on fresh paper: the polished hearse that glittered at the head of the procession, the minister’s perfectly ironed shirt, and the sober coats worn by my father’s many friends and colleagues, who came up one by one after the service to offer Mom and me their condolences.
Maybe I saw it all in terms of color because I’m an artist. Or maybe I was just too overwhelmed to deal with anything but extremes. Maybe my grief was so raw that the whole world seemed severe and discordant and clashing.
I don’t remember a word the minister said, but he seemed to talk forever. And as the gathering began to break up, I, yesterday’s birthday girl, stood there under that tent fidgeting in my own uncomfortable, new black dress and heavy wool coat, on stage like some perverse debutante at the world’s worst coming-out party.
I looked to my mother for support, for help, but her eyes seemed to yawn as vacant as Dad’s waiting grave. I swear, meeting Mom’s gaze was almost as painful as looking at the snow, or the casket, or watching the endless news reports about my father’s murder. Mom was disappearing, too . . .
Feeling something close to panic, I searched the crowd.
Who would help me now?
I wasn’t ready to be an adult . . .
Was I really . . . alone?
Even my only friend, Becca Wright, had begged off from the funeral, protesting that she had a big civics test, which she’d already rescheduled twice because of travel for cheerleading. And, more to the point, she just "couldn’t handle" seeing my poor, murdered father actually shoved in the ground.
I looked around for my chemistry teacher, Mr. Messerschmidt, whom I’d seen earlier lingering on the fringes of the mourners, looking nervous and out of place, but I couldn’t find him, and I assumed that he’d returned to school, without a word to me.
I was alone.
Or maybe I was worse than alone, because just when I thought things couldn’t get more awful, my classmate Darcy Gray emerged from the crowd, strode up, and thrust her chilly hand into mine, air-kissing my cheek. And even this gesture, which I knew Darcy offered more out of obligation than compassion, came across like the victor’s condescending acknowledgment of the vanquished. When Darcy said, "So sorry for your loss, Jill," I swore it was almost like she was congratulating herself for still having parents. Like she’d bested me once more, as she had time and again since kindergarten.
"Thanks," I said stupidly, like I genuinely appreciated being worthy of pity.
"Call me if you need anything," Darcy offered. Yet I noticed that she didn’t jot down her cell number. Didn’t even reach into her purse and feign looking for a pen.
"Thanks," I said again.
Why was I always acting grateful for nothing?
"Sure," Darcy said, already looking around for an escape route.
As she walked away, I watched her blond hair gleaming like a golden trophy in that too-brilliant sun, and the loneliness and despair that had been building in me rose to a crescendo that was so powerful I wasn’t quite sure how I managed to keep my knees from buckling. Not one real friend there for me . . .
That’s when I noticed Tristen Hyde standing at the edge of the tent. He wore a very adult, tailored overcoat, unbuttoned, and I could see that he had donned a tie, too, for this occasion. He had his hands buried in his pockets, a gesture that I first took as signaling discomfort, unease. I mean, what teenage guy wouldn’t be uncomfortable at a funeral? And I hardly knew Tristen. It wasn’t like we were friends. He’d certainly never met my father.
Yet there he was, when almost nobody else had shown up for me.
Why? Why had he come?
When Tristen saw that I’d noticed him, he pulled his hands from his pockets, and I realized that he wasn’t uneasy at all. In fact, as he walked toward me, I got the impression that he’d just been waiting, patiently, for his turn. For the right time to approach me.
And what a time he picked. It couldn’t have been more dead on.
"It’s going to be okay," he promised as he came up to me, reaching out to take my arm, like he realized that I was folding up inside, on the verge of breaking down.
I looked up at him, mutely shaking my head in the negative.
No, it was not going to be okay.
He could not promise that.
Nobody could. Certainly not some kid from my high school, even a tall one dressed convincingly like a full-fledged man.
I shook my head more vehemently, tears welling in my eyes.
"Trust me," he said softly, his British accent soothing. He squeezed my arm harder. "I know what I’m talking about."
I didn’t know at the time that Tristen had vast experience with this "grief" thing. All I knew was that I let him, a boy I barely knew, wrap his arms around me and pull me to his chest. And suddenly, as he smoothed my hair, I really started weeping. Letting out all the tears that I’d bottled up, from the moment that the police officer had knocked on the door of our house to say that my father had been found butchered in a parking lot outside the lab where he worked, and all through planning the funeral, as my mother fell to pieces, forcing me to do absurd, impossible things like select a coffin and write insanely large checks to the undertaker. Suddenly I was burying myself under Tristen’s overcoat, nearly knocking off my eyeglasses as I pressed against him, and sobbing so hard that I must have soaked his shirt and tie.
When I was done, drained of tears, I pulled away from him, adjusting my glasses and wiping my eyes, sort of embarrassed. But Tristen didn’t seem bothered by my show of emotion.
"It does get better, hurt less," he assured me, repeating, "Trust me, Jill."
Such an innocuous little comment at the time, but one that would become central to my very existence in the months to come.
Trust me, Jill . . .
"I’ll see you at school," Tristen added, pressing my arm again. Then he bent down, and in a gesture I found incredibly mature, kissed my cheek. Only I shifted a little, caught off-guard, not used to being that near to a guy, and the corners of our lips brushed.
"Sorry," I murmured, even more embarrassed—and kind of appalled with myself. I’d never even come close to kissing a guy on the lips under any circumstances, let alone on such a terrible day. Not that I’d really felt anything, of course, and yet . . . It just seemed wrong to even consider anything but death at that moment. How could I even think about how some guy felt, how he smelled, how it had been just to give up and be held by somebody stronger than me? My father was DEAD. "Sorry," I muttered again, and I think I was kind of apologizing to Dad, too.
"It’s okay," Tristen reassured me, smiling a little. He was the first person who’d dared to smile at me since the murder. I didn’t know what to make of that, either. When should people smile again? "See you, okay?" he said, releasing my arm.
I hugged mys...