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One foot in the grave, p.18

One Foot in the Grave, page 18


One Foot in the Grave

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  “Not because you like him or anything?” Kelsey says with a look that says “duh.”

  “I like him enough to not let him get suspended for drugs.” I don’t mention I’m meeting him tomorrow. She’ll have a cow when she hears that. And she’ll read more into it than there is. Or maybe there is more to it, and I’m lying to myself. Whatever it is, I’ll deal with it later.

  A piece of wadded paper flies by my face. Two guys in the front of the class are dancing. I swear, sometimes I feel so much older than my peers.

  “Okay. Why don’t we meet him and Dex by his truck after school?” Kelsey says.

  I nod, unable to look away from the two guys dirty dancing. Then I look at Kelsey. “What if he doesn’t believe me?”

  “Why wouldn’t he believe you?”

  “I don’t know,” I say and I know I’ll worry about this until it’s said and done. “Are we still on for tonight?” I ask.

  “Yeah.” She frowns. “Mom’s going out with Charles. Third date. So she probably won’t be home. She goes by the three-date rule before she gives it up.”

  I hear the discontent in her tone. I kind of remember feeling that way when Dad started dating. “You don’t like him?”

  “I don’t feel anything. It’s her business who she wants to screw. I just hate it because I know he’ll probably be moving in with us in two months.”

  I hurt for her. At least Dad never had anyone live with us. “Do you want to stay the night with me?” I ask, because I sense she wants me to ask.

  “Do you mind?”

  “No,” I say. And I don’t, but if Hayden shows up, I might regret it.

  • • •

  “Speak of the devil,” Dex says when he looks up from talking to Jacob and sees Kelsey and me walking toward them. The parking lot is alive with a Friday’s-here buzz. I remember feeling that when I was dating Carl—the excitement of being free from school and exploring what it meant to be young and alive. Not that I explored all that much. No weed, like Jami and Candace. But Carl and I would almost always go have sex on the weekends. And I can’t even say I regret it.

  Jacob gives Dex an elbow while smiling right at me and I blush, because I’m thinking of sex. Jeepers, I’m really exhausted.

  Dex flinches. “Uh, Jacob was just telling me you are meeting him tomorrow to work on the transmission.”

  “Yeah,” I say and hope Kelsey missed that.

  She doesn’t miss shit. She gives me a you-didn’t-tell-me look. Great. Now I’m going to be in trouble.

  It gets quiet and I realize I need to start talking. “Uh,” I look at Jacob. “I . . . kinda overheard something and I thought you should know.”

  “What?” Jacob asks, smiling at me as if pleased I walked up.

  I skip the part about Jami coming on to Dex and go straight to the whole weed plan.

  Jacob’s smile slips off his lips and a look of shock replaces it. “She . . . she wouldn’t do that.”

  Dex exhales. “Yes, she would. She was coming on to me today. She’s out to hurt you, man.”

  “What the hell did I do to her?” Jacob spits out.

  “You broke up with her,” Kelsey says the obvious.

  “It’s not like she likes me,” Dex continues, as if worried he’d overspoken. “She’s just out to make you jealous. I walked away, man.”

  Jacob’s jaw tightens. “Flirting is one thing, but setting me up to get caught with weed . . . That could . . . That bitch,” he fumes. He looks at me. “Sorry. It’s just . . .”

  “I know,” I say.

  He kicks at some gravel at his feet. His frustration tightens his stance. “Thanks for telling me.” He starts walking away.

  “Where are you going?” Kelsey blurts out. Jacob turns around. “Don’t tell anyone Riley told you. She’s already taken a punch for me and I’d have to defend her this time.”

  Jacob’s soft brown eyes meet mine. “I’m not. I wouldn’t. I’m going to talk to the counselor. If Jami does this shit, I want her to pay.” He hesitates. “Thanks again. And I won’t get you involved in this. I promise.”

  I nod and watch him leave. I’m glad I told him. He really is a nice guy.

  “So you two are going to the car show tonight?” Dex asks, his gaze on Kelsey.

  “Yeah,” she says, glancing at me a little surprised that Dex knows.

  “You into cars too?” he asks her, and he sticks one hand in his pocket and shrugs his shoulders as if uncomfortable.

  “I know a cool one when I see one,” she says.

  “So no,” he says and grins, still looking right at her. “So what are you into?”

  “Nothing.” She actually takes a step back as if she realizes she’s actually speaking to Dex and he seems interested. Her brows tighten and her mouth thins. I swear I see fear. She’s afraid to care about him. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what she sees on my face when I think about Jacob. I’m afraid to care about him, too.

  “She reads the same kinds of books you do. You know, fantasy stuff.” I know because I saw Dex’s books in auto tech and recognized some of the same titles from Kelsey’s room.

  “Really?” he asks.

  “Yeah.” She cuts me a tight-lipped frown. “We should go.”

  We’re not halfway to the car, when Kelsey starts in, “Why did you tell him that?”

  “Why wouldn’t I tell him?” I ask, playing innocent.

  “Don’t,” she says.

  “Don’t what?”

  “You know.” She shoots me another pissy glare and then says, “So you and Jacob, huh?”

  “Don’t,” I toss back at her using her same tone.

  “It’s not the same with Dex and me,” she says.

  “Yes, it is,” I say.

  “Pretend like it’s not,” she mutters.

  I give up, or partly do. “I only agreed to come work on the car tomorrow. It’s school. It’s not like a date or anything.”

  She studies me. “You know your voice gets all floaty and soft-like when you lie, don’t you?”

  “Does not,” I say, and damn if I don’t hear the softness whisper across my words.

  She cuts me her signature “duh” look. “I can’t believe my best friend is a liar.” She smiles a little. I smile back.

  When I get in the car, I start it, but then glance at her. “You’re afraid.”

  “Of what?”

  “Of caring for someone.”

  “Bullshit,” she snaps.

  “Not bullshit. I know because I’m the same way. But we need to get past that.”

  She exhales and looks down at her lap. “Maybe I just don’t want to be like my mom. She cares so easily, they use her, and then they leave her in pieces. And I have to help her pick up those pieces. I hate that.”

  I hear her pain. I feel her pain. “Maybe I’m just too much like my dad, who refuses to care about anyone because . . . because he lost someone he loves. But either way, we’re wrong.”

  She leans back in the seat and moans. “It’s Friday. Didn’t you get the memo? Psychoanalyzing crap is not permitted on Fridays.”

  • • •

  We stop by Kelsey’s house to grab her stuff and then she comes straight home with me. Dad never really said when we’d leave. But he’s home when we get there. He’s in a chipper mood, which seems as real as tattooed eyebrows.

  It’s a little chilly, so I grab an extra hoodie and we make a thermos of hot chocolate to take with us. Something about the smell of it reminds me of my mom. I take in a deep breath of it. The scent curls up inside me and somehow feels like love. Did my mother used to fix it for me?

  A few minutes later, we’re about to leave when I realize I’ve forgotten to bring the letters. That’s how exhausted I am.

  While Dad and Kelsey are putting chairs in the trunk of my car, I say, “Gonna go to the bathroom before we hit the road.”

  Taking the steps two at a time up to my bedroom, I shoot over to my desk. Remembering I can’t touch them, I grab one of t
he plastic gloves from my drawer, and drop them, and the glove, into my purse before heading back downstairs.

  Right before I close the front door of the house to leave, I smell the spicy boy scent. My breath catches. I look over and see Kelsey and Dad now waiting for me, standing by my car.

  “One minute,” I yell and scurry back inside. The sound of the door clicking shut sounds like an omen. The omen of an end. The end of what?

  “Hayden?” I say his name, and the sound seems to echo in the empty house. Then it crawls back into my empty heart. A heart I’ve vowed is going to give Jacob a chance. A heart that’s not sure that’s the right thing.

  I draw in another deep gulp of oxygen. Blended with the lingering scent of hot chocolate is Hayden’s scent. His aroma is there, but he isn’t. Dad’s calling my name and I reach for the doorknob.

  “Please come see me later,” I say and rush out.

  • • •

  We’ve been at the show for a good twenty minutes. The temperature is dropping. I zip up my gray hoodie, glad I changed into a sweater for tonight. Darkness is crawling up on us, creeping into the sky and turning it shades of orange and pink. As night falls, the lights overhead are hissing as the voltage increases.

  The silky-smooth taste of hot chocolate rests on my tongue. I two-hand the warm cup and pull it to my lips, inhaling the cocoa scent and trying to recall any memory of Mom.

  People amble around, stopping and admiring the cars. In the distance, I hear conversations on transmissions, water hoses, and horsepower. Dad and Kelsey are talking about Dallas. My mind shifts from one thing to the next and inevitably gets stuck on something darker, deeper. On murder. Abby’s murder.

  This might be my chance. I set my cup down, and pop up. “Bathroom break.”

  I don’t wait to give Kelsey a chance to say she’ll join me. Purse over my shoulder, letters and glove tucked inside, I hotfoot it away.

  I walk toward the bathrooms, stop, and look around to get my bearings. I see where we pulled in and know the name of the street. Pulling out my phone, I confirm the directions to the UPS store, then set out.

  Realizing Kelsey might come looking for me, I pause and text her. Need ice cream to go with hot chocolate. Gonna grab us some. Be back soon.

  I almost hit send when I hear my name. Crap! Turning around, I spot Kelsey hurrying over.

  “Where are you going?” she asks. “Bathrooms are over there.”

  “Yeah, I . . . I was texting you.” I hold up my phone. “I wanted some ice cream and someone said there was a great parlor right up the road.” I worry she can hear in my voice that I’m lying again.

  For some much-needed evidence, I hit send on my phone. “See,” I say when her text dings.

  She pulls out her phone and reads it.

  “If you’ll let my dad know, I’ll be--”

  “Just text him,” she says. “I’ll go with you.”

  Friggin’ great! I have no choice but to start walking.

  She falls in step beside me. I feel her studying me. She knows. She knows I’m lying.

  “How far is it?” Her words hang in the cold air, sounding like an accusation.

  Guilty, I pull myself deeper into my hoodie. “The lady I asked didn’t say.” I work at sounding normal. “Said it was up the road on the right.”

  We walk the half block. Even with the sun almost set, I see the UPS store and the blue mailbox out front. I keep walking, moving closer to the edge of the sidewalk. I need to do this. I don’t know when I’ll get another chance to drive out of town. Even if Kelsey’s here, I’ve gotta do it. Even if she starts asking questions.

  My insides shake. How the hell am I going to accomplish this?

  Suddenly I don’t care how. It’s going to get done.

  “Look, a mailbox,” I say. Rushing to take the last steps to the blue structure, I twist so my purse is hidden out of sight from Kelsey. I reach into my purse, feel for the glove, and use it to pull out the two letters. Quickly, I push the envelopes through the slot and shove the glove back into my purse. I take a deep breath.

  “What are you . . . ?” She moves in and stares at me.

  “Mailing a letter,” I say through the frog-sized lump in my throat and do one quick glance down to make sure the glove is all the way in my purse.

  It’s not. It’s lying at my feet. Shit!

  I glance up quickly, hoping she didn’t see. Her gaze is on my face, not the glove at my feet. My hands are shaking and in spite of the cold, my palms are sweating.

  What if Kelsey starts connecting the dots? Connects the letter I put in her mailbox to the letters I just mailed? Fear that she will flutters inside me. Mostly though, I’m just relieved I did it. I finally did something to help Abby.

  Now I just have to pray the letters are taken seriously. And pray that Kelsey isn’t on to me.

  She continues watching me with suspicion in her eyes.

  I look away from her and glance up and down the street, finding something that gives me a huge-ass sigh of relief. “There’s a yogurt shop. I’ll bet that’s the place the lady told me about. Is yogurt okay?” I meet her eyes, begging her to take the bait, begging her not to ask questions.

  “Yeah.” Her voice is noncommittal, as if she’s placating me. But that’s okay. Placate the hell out of me. I don’t care. I had to help Abby. Just like I helped Bessie. But I don’t want to lose the only friend I have right now.

  We walk into the shop. It smells sweet and pink, like cotton candy. I’m staring at the list of flavors, but my mind wanders to the letters. When will they be delivered? Did I word it right? Should I have written more? Not as much?

  “You’re quiet,” Kelsey says.

  “What do you want?” I ask as if nothing strange has happened.

  “Isn’t it too cold for ice cream?” she asks as if the idea of ice cream is bothering her. Is that the only thing she’s questioning?

  “It’s never too cold for ice cream,” I say.

  We both order and I get one for Dad, too.

  As we head out, Kelsey’s quiet as if still thinking. We walk, occasionally dipping spoons of cold frozen yogurt into our mouths. She finally speaks up. “You are beginning to freak me out.”

  “Why?” I ask, because I can’t come up with anything else.

  “Because you, Riley Smith, are one odd duck.”

  “Says one odd duck to the other.” I lick my spoon and try not to shiver.

  She’s right. It’s too cold for ice cream.

  She’s right. I’m an odd duck.

  She’s right to be freaked because I am a freak.

  I see, talk to, and help dead people.

  I’m the mortician’s daughter.

  Chapter Twenty-two

  The next day around eleven a.m., I slip on my auto tech coveralls over my jeans and top, trying to come up with an excuse for leaving early. I could go with the truth. I’m tired. Kelsey and I stayed up until one in the morning talking and laughing.

  We’d discussed old crushes, first periods, and college dreams. We’re both considering a business major. But I confessed to her, if I thought my dad wouldn’t shit a brick, I’d do an art degree. I mentioned it once in tenth grade, and he almost got angry, telling me he wouldn’t pay for a degree where I’d end up asking people if they wanted fries with their burger for the rest of my life.

  Neither of us have made a decision on where we’ll go. She’s still not sure how she’s going to pay for it. I’d encouraged her to look into school loans. It’s what I plan to do.

  Even after Kelsey went to sleep, I’d stayed awake hoping Hayden would show up. He didn’t. It hurt.

  Then, staring at the ceiling last night, I remember thinking that Hayden could be gone. That he crossed over. He told me he’d try to say goodbye, but maybe he wasn’t able to.

  Damn that hurt. I spent the rest of the night hugging my pillow and telling myself I needed to be happy for him. I need to find a way to be happy for me, too.

  I zip up my coverall

  “Good morning!”

  I jump out of my skin when Jacob’s words brush against the back of my neck. Swinging around, I face him.

  He’s smiling. His eyes are so warm and welcome. He’s standing close. So close I can smell his toothpaste. I notice the soft curve of his bottom lip. I recall the quick kiss he gave me in the hall that I haven’t called him on.

  I take an automatic step back, but then regret it. “Morning.” The cute-boy flutters stir in my stomach.

  “Where’s Mr. Ash?” he asks.

  “He’s pulling his car around.”

  “Oh.” He reaches for a coverall, then he pulls his jacket off. I stand there watching. The muscles in his chest bunch up as he pulls his arms out. Suddenly it feels too intimate. I don’t know what’s so intimate about watching someone pull his coat off, but I feel it and react to it.

  My face heats up.

  I look away, then remember overhearing Candace and Jami yesterday. I turn around.

  “What happened? Did you tell the counselor about . . . what Jami and Candace said?”

  “Yeah.” His smile weakens. “She said she doesn’t think they would carry through with it, but if they do, she’ll react accordingly.” He hangs his coat on a hook beside mine. “I didn’t mention your name, by the way.”

  I smile. “Thanks.”

  “No. Thank you. You could have kept it to yourself.” He exhales. “I can’t believe I fell for Jami. I mean, what the hell was I thinking?”

  “She’s pretty. She’s a cheerleader.” She probably unbuttoned the second button on her top. Because, you know, she has amazing boobs. Just ask Candace. “That’s what you were thinking.” I bite into my lip, wishing I hadn’t said that.

  He sighs. “Yeah, I won’t make that mistake again. I’m learning that not all pretty girls are bitches.” He motions to me as if I’m being held up as an example.

  When I don’t say anything, he asks, “How was the car show?” He steps into the coveralls and zips them up.


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