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I don't belong here anymore. The pews are filled with your family and neighbors, crowding in a mass of mourning humanity. I recognize Mrs. McClellan from when we walked to youth group together. She blows her nose, a honking-goose sound amid the kids screaming in the back. I walk over to your mom, close enough to see her fallen mascara and her brown eyes blinking back tears. She tries to hug me, but I break away, unable to see her frailty. I walk out of the church, bitter tears dripping down my face.
"Katelyn, dear, it's not your fault." She folds her crepe-paper hands on the desk, gazing at me with unadulterated pity in her bleached-blue eyes. As if that's going to help.
"If it's not my fault, whose is it?"
"He had a mental illness. It couldn't have been helped, really." I try to fall asleep. Why does the school pay for a counselor who wears hair extensions? Does she really think that her words are going to make me forget my pain, the sleepless nights of texting with you? Does she think that's going to make me forget your smile and the way you watched my debate competitions and laughed with me, your eyes shining?
Her words only bring me back. "You're not to blame," she harps. She doesn't know what I did. I fought with you, yelling at you, playing the bad guy until I won. I didn't talk to you for days before you died. A tear runs down my cheek. I wipe it away with a bitten-down fingernail. The woman looks up at me. I don't want her sympathy.
I roll my shoulders back. She can't make me a coward. I fold my hands uneasily. She reaches out to me, placing her fragile hand on top of mine. I stand up, knocking the chair back. Only when I get to the bathroom do I let myself cry.
I scrolled on my phone, checking for new messages. My screen lit up. I clicked on Zach’s text. My hands started trembling. He can’t be right. I called him. The dial tone sounded. I called again. I leave a message. He calls back, his voice shaky. “Kate, Jamie’s dead.” His heavy silence stuttered, his shallow breathing transmitted through the phone. I hung up, unable to listen to your best friend cry.
We walked down the beach several weeks ago, holding hands. You stopped to laugh at something I’d said. Your green eyes sparkled. “Did you hear about how Montgomery led the Battle of—“
I hushed you. I was tired of battle talk, always this war, that war. Life was nothing but combat for you. I drew closer to you, protecting myself against the overcast sky and jaded winds. I kissed you quickly, letting the moment linger between us.
You glanced at me, your tired eyes scanning my mood. “Let’s go.”
“In the water?”
You nodded. I took off my shoes quickly, and we walked together on the deserted beach barefoot. I linked my arm between yours, hugging you for warmth. You nodded again and we took off, circling the beach, arms spread wide, and dashing in, letting the frigid waves pull us under.
The next morning, the school president announced the news. “It is with deep regret that we inform you of a loss of one of our students, Jamie Holmes.” I sit in my seat, feeling numb. The math teacher doesn’t look at me. I bite my lip. The girls in the back whisper. So much for delicacy. I taste blood, pooling on my lips. It tastes like corroded metal, the shrill cry of an unspoken scream. Perfect.
I walk down the halls. Gossip cracks around me like eggshells as I walk by. I stop at the army-green locker, twisting the code I memorized by heart. 52, 39, 14. I pause only long enough to slip a note inside. Its words are thin, trembling. The first note you ever wrote to me. My eyes blur with tears until I can barely make out your careful script, as if it was a blank page and you’d never existed. I walk to history. Mascara runs down my cheeks. I hold my head high as hordes of students pass me, whispering. I have nowhere to hide.
I hold the tip carefully, letting the knife graze my skin. Words cascade through my thoughts, hard words, revered for their drunken power. I deserved every one of them.
I tried to fill the emptiness you left behind, to harden my heart. I’d test myself. I was addicted to danger, every new thrill leaving traces of the dull ache behind. I was never strong enough to forget, though. Every day brought memories fresh to my mind. I press against the hollow of my wrist, hurting. You’re not here anymore. I press harder, until I forget about my pain.
It’s been eleven weeks. It’s April seventeenth. You would have been eighteen. You always talked about enlisting in the army, got this big grin on your face. I’d miss that part of you. I’m a different girl now.
I stand up, my legs asleep, and get the car. Mom doesn’t yell at me anymore, not since the accident. I drive to the beach alone, the engine thrumming beneath me. Seaweed lies around the shore, scattered like ashes. Rain pelts my face. I kneel, briefly. My footprints, for a minute, are captured in the sand. I watch them disappear, the bitter waves washing them away. I whisper a word. “Jamie.” I soak in the ocean spray, my face tilted towards the winds threatening to be my demise. I drop a tear-stained letter on the sand, full of strike-outs and painstaking words bleeding through the page. I let my Dear John fragments die noble deaths among the seaweed. You would have liked it that way. I walk away, my bare feet making divots in the sand. Men on the battlefield aren’t the only real heroes. If only you’d lived long enough to realize that. The waves fragmenting on the beach whisper your name, but I don’t listen. I don’t belong here anymore.