It was here. The day I had been dreading for weeks. I leaned my head back against the backseat of Dad’s black convertible, my mind numb and empty as I fingered the paint splattered silk of my funeral tie.
“I just thought I’d do some shopping,” my mom said by way of greeting as she walked into our kitchen, her arms full of shopping bags. I was sitting at the kitchen counter on my laptop, and Alice was busy on the couch with her sketchbook and a pencil. Music was playing from the speakers in the corner, and I reached over and switched off my iPod as my mom entered the house.
“Calvin Klein was having a sale, and I thought it was time to get you out of those little clip-on ties and into the real thing,” Mom said, addressing me. “You’re a big boy now, Vi, you never know when you’ll need these.”
She struggled to lift a heavily burdened arm and show me the bag.
I sighed, sliding off my stool, and helped her with the bags. Alice, hearing the sigh, looked up from her sketchbook, a twinkle of mirth in her big blue eyes. We both knew my mom had only bought these because she couldn't fit any more clothes in her closet, so now she had to start expanding into mine until some space was cleared up.
“Can I see, Mrs. P?” Alice asked politely, getting up from the couch.
Mom, having passed her burdens on to me, floated to the counter and proudly tipped the bag, spilling its contents everywhere. Ties of all colors came tumbling out and lay in a mountain of shining silk. I rolled my eyes as I set down the rest of her loot in the corner.
“Mom, when will I need any of these?” I complained, walking to them. “There’s no pattern or anything interesting about them. I won’t wanna wear them even if I have to.”
Alice looked up at me and smirked, silently mocking me and my tie dilemma. I glared back down at her. She shook her head, choking back laughter, and turned to my mom.
“Hey, Mrs. P, do you mind if I borrow some of these?” she asked, reaching out to finger the gray silk of a particularly somber-looking artifact.
“Go right ahead, Alice, honey.” Mom smiled, then made her way to the corner to gather up the rest of her spoils.
The next day Alice rode her bike to my house before school, just like she did every other day. She handed me a brown bag and smiled.
I took it from her and reached inside, my fingers closing around smooth silk. When I pulled out the tie, I saw that it was covered with tiny birds, all swooping and dancing around each other. I felt the smooth material, then reached in to pull out another. The blue silk was covered with stars, so it looked like the night sky. I looked up at Alice and grinned as I pulled out yet another tie. This one was dark gray, almost black. It looked like she had dipped the bottom half in a bucket of black paint, and then splattered black the rest of the way up the material.
“That one could be for a funeral or something,” she said. “I thought you should have a funeral tie. You know, just in case something horrible happens.”
“They’re perfect. I love them.” I smiled at her.
She smiled back.
She was perfect, too.
The tires crunched as we turned on to gravel drive, headed toward the back of the cemetery. She would’ve hated being buried in such a big place, the gravestones the same, all the rows in perfect and undefined symmetry. No color, no art. I swallowed hard. Now she would be stuck here, just another gravestone in a place full of gravestones.
“I’m kinda scared.”
I looked down at Alice. She certainly didn't look scared.
“Why? You’re gonna be the most popular girl in this place by next week, you watch.”
“But that’s what I’m scared of,” she said, turning to me. She was wearing a short, pale blue dress with spaghetti straps, and heavy silver earrings that looked like they would probably pull her ears off. A pencil was stuck behind her right ear.
“I don't want to become just like everyone else, you know? Completely undefined, other people’s versions of who I should be. That kind of thing.” Her skin sparkled, and her hair shone different shades of red and orange in the California sun.
I sighed. Not even high school could destroy the masterpiece standing in front of me.
“Listen,” I said, “this place can only change you if you let it. And if I know you, you won’t let it. I promise you, Alice, you’ll always be unique, no matter what ninth grade does to us. Or any of the other grades, for that matter.”
She looked up from her paint-splattered sandals into my eyes.
“Promise?” she breathed.
“I promise.” I held up my left pinky. Alice lifted her left arm and linked her pinky with mine, just like we had done when we were five years old.
“Okay,” she said, taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders. “Let’s go.”
She took a step forward, then turned back, her arm reaching out and snatching my hand. She gripped it tightly as we made our way up the brick path to the front doors.
I would have done anything to have her never let go.
I felt our car slowing to a stop as Dad parked behind a black BMW. We sat there, listening to the purr of the engine and watching the many people in black clothing emerge out of their cars and start the climb up the hill toward the where she would be buried. I saw Dad reach over and take Mom’s hand as he turned off the engine. I swallowed.
“Hey,” I said, opening the back door and admitting a shivering Alice. “What are you doing here? It’s eleven o’clock and pouring rain, are you completely crazy? Did you ride your bike in this weather?”
Alice turned to me. Her shirt was soaked all the way through, and her hair hung in limp, wet, clumps. I looked closer. Had she been crying?
“What happened?” I asked more gently, opening my arms. She leaned into me and I wrapped my arms around her shivering frame.
“My stepdad decided to show up again,” Alice said, her voice muffled by my chest. “I don’t understand why my mother lets him back into our lives every time.”
She shuddered, and sniffled.
I felt the urge to punch something.
“What did he do?” I asked her, gently pulling her away from me so that I that I could get a better look at her face. My heart skipped a beat. Her blue eyes were haunted, and a purply-blue bruise was spreading across her cheek. I must have missed it in the dim light, but now that she was up close I could see it as plain as day.
“Did he do this to you?” I asked.
“It’s not important,” she muttered, leaning back into me. “I just can’t go back there, Levi. Ben’s at a sleepover, so I don’t have to worry about keeping him safe from all the bullshit. Can I please stay here tonight?”
“Of course you can, don’t worry. Mom and Dad are away for work, but it’s totally fine. It’ll be just like we’re little again. Okay?”
“Thank you.” She pulled away from me and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“Come on,” I said, taking her gently by the shoulders and steering her up the steps to my room. She was still shivering, and all her clothes were wet.
“Stay here,” I told her. “I’m gonna go get you a pair of Mom’s sweatpants, okay?”
She looked up at me through heavy, wet eyelashes and smiled gratefully. Her teeth chattered and her lips were blue. I went to the closet and got out an old baseball sweatshirt and handed it to her.
“T-t-thanks, V-V-Vi,” she chattered, shrugging out of her soaked hoodie, and then standing up to unbutton her shorts. She stopped, mid-task, and looked at me expectantly. I turned, embarrassed, realizing that I had been staring.
When I came back in my room, sweatpants in hand, she was curled up on my bed in my big gray sweatshirt. It was so huge on her that it nearly touched her knees, and her delicate hands were lost in the long sleeves. She didn’t so much as stir as I pulled my blanket up to cover her. For a second, I considered curling up right next to her, to keep her safe, keep her warm. Just be with her, be near her, as close as possible. But I couldn’t. I couldn't because although I was whole and she was shattered, she would never see that I was the glue that could put her back together. She was wild and untamable, and I was a pathetic little rich kid. I was nothing next to her, and she would never love me the way I loved her.
I slammed the car door behind me and straightened my back. My mind registered the sounds of my family disembarking on the other side of the tiny vehicle, and I numbly began the slow march up the hill.
I knew that voice. I hated that voice.
I whirled, facing him, the man who had hurt her so many times, and still thought he had the right to be here.
“Levi!” Alice’s screech pulled my focus from geometry homework to her dancing figure.
She was running toward me, her ponytail bouncing and her bag bobbing up and down by her side. She held her small black camera close to her body as she ran.
“Oh my gosh, Levi, Levi, Leviii!!”
“Alice, what the hell is wrong with you?” I asked, shutting the geometry book and pushing my glasses back onto my nose as she approached.
“Okay okay okay,” she gasped as she came to an abrupt halt and plopped down next to me.
“So you know how I told you about how I’ve been getting those really great shots lately?” She gasped, pulling out a lighter and setting a cigarette between her perfectly shaped red lips.
I nodded, coughing as she blew out her first stream of smoke. I hated it when she smoked in front of me, and she knew it. We both she only did it to try and get a rise out of her distant other.
“So Ms. Ellis saw them, and she loved them! So she sent three shots to a friend of hers who’s a professor at UCLA. And he said that if I can get a portfolio together, he’d love to interview me and see if I would be a good fit for their school!”
I stared at her blankly.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She rolled her big blue eyes and took another drag on her cigarette.
“For someone who’s got early admission to Cal Tech all lined up, you can be awfully dumb.”
I made a face at her, and she giggled.
“It means that I could get out of here, Vi,” she whispered, leaning toward me with a conspiratorial smile. “They’re willing to offer me a full scholarship! I could leave!”
I studied her round face, a smile beginning to tug at my cheeks. “That’s awesome, Al. Good for you. I told you that you would be a famous artist someday.”
Alice giggled, stretching out her long legs in the warm California sun.
Her eyes were shining with something I hadn't seen there for a long while: hope.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I snapped, walking up to him. I could feel the blood rushing to my face, and my hands trembled. “You have no right to be here,” I growled.
He sneered up at me. “Of course I do,” he wheezed. “I’m the only one who was willing to out up with that brat and her pathetic family for so long. I loved her, Levi.”
That was the biggest lie I had ever heard.
And we both knew it.
“Don’t you get it, Levi?” Alice asked, turning to me. “I’m broken. I’m shattered. No one can fix me. I don’t even know how to fix me. How can anyone want something like me? I mean look at me! How can anyone want me?” Her words were slurred, and her breath smelled like alcohol. She was smiling like an idiot, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“Dad was the only one who loved me.” She sighed.
“But he’s dead.”
I tried to shake my head, but I was so drunk that I almost fell over sideways instead.
“Al, you’re a moron. Everyone loves you,” I said, doing my best to regain my balance. And some of my dignity.
“No they don’t. I’m a failure. All my smiles are fake, all my dreams are broken, and the more I pretend that it doesn't hurt, the more it does. I’m shattered, Levi. People know that. They can see it. And they hate me for it.”
I reached out and took the bottle from her.
“That’s not true, and you know it,” I slurred, taking a sip. “You’re perfect.”
She smiled, and took the bottle back from me.
“No one’s perfect,” she told me. “Especially not me.”
“You are perfect,” I told her, giving up the fight against gravity and falling back onto the sand.
She laughed. Even when I was drunk, her laughing was the cutest thing I had ever seen.
“I’m not, Vi, but that’s really sweet,” she giggled.
The mirth did not reach her eyes.
She turned the bottle upside down, emptying out the very last sip, then tottered to her feet, wound up, and chucked the bottle a good thirty feet into the ocean. It was really quite impressive, especially for someone so drunk.
But I guess that was what came with having the star quarterback as your boyfriend.
She collapsed back down onto the sand next to me and leaned her head onto my shoulder. My heart sped up a little.
“It still hurts, you know,” she murmured.
“What still hurts?” I asked drowsily.
“Why does it still hurt?” I asked. It was a stupid question, but I was too drunk to think of anything better to say to her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I want it to stop. I’m so drunk right now, Vi, I can’t even remember my own address! But for some reason, I can still remember the pain. Why won’t it leave?”
I didn't know how to answer. She was a broken puzzle, with her pieces scattered all over the floor. And no one, not even Alice, knew how to put them back together.
So instead of saying anything, I wrapped my arms around her narrow shoulders and pulled her against me, and buried my face in her flaming red curls.
Her small body relaxed, and she leaned into me, her cheek resting on my bare arm.
I felt the muscles in her face relax as she finally dropped her fake smile.
She gave up the fight long enough to let a single, salty tear squeeze past all the barriers she kept up, trickle down her cheek, and fall onto my skin.
“I’m tired of fighting, Vi ,” she whispered. “Just for once it would be so nice to finally have someone fight for me.”
I squeezed her tight.
“I’ll fight for you, Al,” I murmured. “I’d be happy to fight for you.”
I felt her cheek swell with a slight smile.
“Thanks Levi,” she said. “I love you too.”
And then she was asleep, passed out in a drunken stupor.
She probably wouldn't even remember everything that had happened that night in the morning. So I made the best of the moment, and fell asleep with the girl I would always fight for curled up safely in my arms.
I don’t remember what happened after he said that.
But I do remember that I was yelling.
“Hey,” I said, picking up the phone. “What’s up?”
“Can I come over?” Alice asked, her voice shaking.
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing. Well I’m not sure, exactly.” I heard her take a quivering breath through the line.
“Alice? Be honest, what’s bothering you?”
“Alice? You’re scaring me, what’s wrong.”
Then, so quietly that I could barely hear, “Dave’s back. And Mom was doing so good.”
I felt the numbness start, spreading from my fingers, up my arms, to my shoulders, then branching out through the rest of me.
“What do you mean, he’s back?” I asked.
“He wont let me go, Vi,” Alice whispered. “He found out about UCLA, but he won’t let me go interview. I’ll never get out of here.” Her voice was frantic.
I had never felt so helpless.
“He came home the other day. Just shows up out of the blue and goes ‘Hey everyone, I’m home!’ Of course Mom’s so happy to have him back to take care of her, she won’t do anything. She doesn't even care about what he does to me and Ben when he thinks she's not looking.”
I curled my hand into a fist and violently punched my pillow. I pulled my arm back again, ready to swing another punch, but the sound of something crashing in the background of Alice’s end of the line stopped me.
“Oh s***. Vi, I gotta go.” She breathed. “I have to get Ben out of here. His playdate was supposed to be here and hour ago, so I guess I’ll have to drive him. But I’ll be at your house soon as possible.” There was a long pause, and I was about to hang up when Alice’s musical voice came dancing through the line one last time.
“I love you so much, Levi. So, so much. Okay? Just remember that.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but she was gone.
“Leave.” I shouted. “GO!”
He didn't move.
I remembered the promise I had made to her, so long ago. I would always fight for her.
So I punched him.
Red lights flashed as we approached the place of the crash. I leaped out of the car before it was even parked and ran past the yellow caution tape to Alice’s limp body, ignoring the shouts of well-meaning police officers.
Her leg was bent at an awkward angle, and her arm looked like it had been pulled out of its socket. Blood covered the left side of her face, pouring from a wound on her temple.
Her body was as broken as her heart.
But I still loved her.
Nearby, her cigarette lay on the ground. It was still burning.
But Alice had burned out.
She was gone.
I watched his back as it slowly shrank into the distance, then turned, walking past my shocked parents and up the hill to where her casket waited.
It was already surrounded by people clad in black suits and stiff black dresses. I looked around, searching for his little round face. I found it, hiding behind his aunt’s black skirt.
“Hey buddy,” I said, walking up to her little brother and kneeling before him. “Are you okay?”
He looked at me through his curly orange bangs.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Why can’t I go home with Mommy today?” he inquired. “Aunt Alice says that I have to come live with her now. What’s my sister gonna do if I’m living with Aunt Alice? Where will she go?”
I cleared my throat, choking back tears. “Well, Ben, your sister has gone to a-a, a better place, and I don’t think she’ll be coming back for a really long time. But I’ll always be here, okay? And she’ll still always be there for you. Even if you can’t see her.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding his small red head. He had her blue eyes and heart-shaped face.
I turned away.
The long black cars had all pulled away.
I was the only one left standing by her grave.
My mind was still numb. My heart was having a hard time beating as I stared at the gravestone marked with her name.
A throat cleared behind me. I turned and stood face to face with her mother.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“It’s, well…it’s her camera.”
I shook my head. “What?”
“Alice’s camera,” her mother said. “I thought you should have it.” She extended a long, lily-white arm and handed me the small black contraption. Alice’s prized possession.
I took it, not even bothering to thank her, and switched it on.
She had saved for months to buy this camera.
I clicked the display button and peered through the eyepiece.
My heart froze.
It was me.
I went to the next picture.
It was me again. I was laughing. My eyes were lit up, and I had the goofiest smile on my face.
I kept switching through the camera roll. Some of the pictures were of Ben, or Jean.
But most of them were of me.
I finally reached the end of the camera roll, and I squinted at the very last photo. It was a picture of a piece of paper. On the paper written in Alice’s big, block handwriting were the words “I love you.”
I felt my heart speed up in my chest, pushing a surge of emotion through my body. A single tear, the first I had shed since that horrible day three weeks ago, crept its way down my cheek as I switched off the camera.
“I love you too.” I whispered.