December, two years prior to the start of Crossing the Line
My best friend, Echo, doesn’t look good in black. It makes her natural pale skin appear whiter than normal, as if she’s been sucked of all her blood. Maybe she has been drained. Last night, in a moment of silence after we cried and remembered her brother, she told me that she thought that her heart had stopped beating—that she felt dead inside.
I feel dead inside. Echo’s older brother, a guy who treated me like his little sister, died in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan.
The small groups of people in milling in the large room of the funeral home alternate between uncomfortable small talk and glancing at Echo and the dysfunctional cast of characters that she claims as a family. At least the rest of the mourners have a group to hang out with. Me and Echo’s group of friends left hours ago, but I stayed. Echo and I have been best friends since birth. She needs me.
I sigh. By sitting in the corner it’s obvious, I don’t belong here. I’m not a friend of Echo’s all-business father. I’m not related to her crazy mother or her epically airheaded step-mother. I’m not a chosen friend of her brother’s. I’m Echo’s best friend. Aires’ “adopted” sister. An outsider. Yet, I stay.
“Help me,” Echo races to my side. Her curls bouncing near her shoulder.
I stand. This is the reason why I’m here. “Name it. I’ll do anything.”
Her bloodshot eyes match the color of her red hair. “I’ve got to get out of here.” She swats at the tears threatening to spill from the edges of her eyes. “Mom and Dad are fighting and Ashley keeps trying to talk to me and I just need a few seconds.”
“Okay.” I snatch my purse off the floor. “Where do you want to go? My house? For a drive? Are you hungry?”
She shakes her head. “No. I just need a few minutes—outside. But there’s a problem.”
Echo glances at the newest group of mourners to enter the room. “That’s Josh’s family.”
Josh, Josh, Josh. The name is familiar, but the bells aren’t ringing.
“Aires’ friend,” she says then chocks on a sob. “The one who…”
Died. The one who died alongside of Aires. To comfort her, I link my fingers with hers. “I thought they lived...” I have no idea. “Far away.”
“They do, but Josh’s mom got a hold of Ashley and the two of them talked and Josh was buried yesterday and they asked if they could come here today and Ashley wants me talk to Josh’s brother and he’s the same age as us and I can’t, Lila. I can’t.”
The tears escape from her eyes and the answering tears form in mine.
“What do I say to him?” she continues. “I don’t know how to make him feel better. I don’t know how to make me feel better. For hours people have told me how sorry they are and I have to listen to their stories and to their words and I’ve had to smile and I’m done smiling and I need a break.”
“Okay,” I say a bit too strongly and with a squeeze of her hand. Echo’s brief break from perfect caught her father’s attention and his accusing glare. Only she hasn’t noticed yet.
“Okay,” I say again. “You go outside and I’ll talk to Josh’s brother.”
Echo nods. “Thank you.”
“Whatever.” I wave away her gratitude. It’s not needed because this is what friends do. “Now go.”
She does and when Echo’s safely out of the room, I rub my hands against my black dress and head toward the casket. Echo’s parents talk to a couple about their age. And, I’m assuming, due to the same matching grief stricken dark circles under their eyes, the couple is Josh’s parents. About a foot behind them, stands a middle school aged looking girl and a boy about my age.
This is who Ashley must want Echo to talk to.
He’s cute. My height. Black hair. His face has a boyish charm. He stands with his hands shoved into his black pants and his head and shoulders slumped forward. My heart aches as I approach him. He lost his brother. What do you say to someone who has lost a part of their soul?
His sister spots me first and immediately turns her back to me. That’s okay. I take no offense. I’d want to ignore me too: a stranger pushing their way into a personal misery.
“Lila,” says Echo’s stepmother, Ashley, in her patented high voice. “Where’s Echo? I want her to meet Lincoln.”
Nope, sorry, not going to happen. I fake the smile that parents love. “I’ll introduce them.”
As I turn my head back toward Josh’s brother, I’m startled to see gorgeous dark blue eyes searching mine. I tilt my head, suddenly curious about the boy in front of me. “Hi. I’m Lila.”
He inhales deeply before answering, “I’m Lincoln.”
“Where were you when you found out?” Lincoln asks.
Lincoln and I sit on the dropped tailgate of my Dad’s Chevy S-10 in the back parking lot of the funeral home. When I saw Echo come back in, I asked him to go out. I only meant to distract him for a few minutes, but I’ve been surprisingly comforted by his presence.
“Home,” I say. I think about how I stared through the window at the bare trees swaying in the cold wind as I replayed the announcement over and over again. For possibly an hour, my eyes never left the trees and the words never seemed true: Aires was dead.
“Me too,” he says.
I shiver, imagining what it must have been like for Lincoln to hear of his brother’s death.
His head snaps in my direction. “Are you cold?”
“No.” Actually, I am, a little. I burrow myself further into my wool jacket. For December, the temperature’s not so bad, but it’s not exactly warm. What’s important is that for the first time since learning about Aires’ death, I’m not the one offering all the comfort. I belong. Lincoln is willingly grieving with me.
“Do you want to go back inside?” he asks.
No. “Do you?”
He shrugs. “I asked first.”
But I don’t want to answer first. “We can if you want too.”
“Lila…” Lincoln sighs heavily. “This is the first time in what seems like forever that I even feel slightly okay. So, unless you want to go in, no, I’m fine out here.”
Smiling feels wrong, yet it happens anyway. “Yeah, me too.”
He shifts to get comfortable and his knee bumps into mine for a moment. My heart stutters. Stop it, Lila. He’s grieving. You’re grieving. You’re both in a relationship.
Lincoln rests his hands on his thighs while his shoulders tense. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do it,” he says. “How am I supposed to go back to school? Or work? Or home? Or anything? How do I go back to my normal life without him?”
Lincoln chokes on the last word and quickly ducks his head so that I can’t see his eyes. As with Echo, my fingers automatically seek his. The moment we touch, he grabs onto me like a man about to drown at sea. “I’m so sorry, Lincoln.”
He squeezes my fingers as a response, but keeps his head averted.
I place my other hand over our combined fingers. “And I’m always here if you need me.” But I’m not. He lives faraway. “You can write me and, I swear, I’ll write you back.”
Lincoln nods and my heart shatters when he faces me. Tears fill his eyes. “I loved him, you know? I loved him.”
I nod as my own eyes become wet. “I know. I do. I swear I understand.”