The Perfectionists – Sara Shepard

ON A SUNNY THURSDAY MORNING , Parker Duvall fought her way through the crowded halls of Beacon Heights High, a school that handed out MacBooks like they were, well, apples, and boasted the highest average SAT scores in all of Washington State. Overhead, a maroon-and-white banner read CONGRATULATIONS, BEACON HIGH! VOTED BEST HIGH SCHOOL IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST FOR THE FIFTH YEAR IN A ROW BY U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT! GO SWORDFISH! Get over yourselves, Parker wanted to shout—though she didn’t, because that would seem crazy, even for her. She looked around the corridor. A gaggle of girls in their tennis skirts congregated around a locker mirror, diligently applying lip gloss to their already impeccably made-up faces. A few feet away, a guy in a button-down shirt handed out flyers for the student government elections, his smile blindingly white. Two girls came out of the auditorium and brushed past Parker, one of them saying, “I really hope you get the part if I don’t. You’re just so talented!” Parker rolled her eyes. Don’t you realize none of this matters? Everyone was striving for something or clawing their way to the top . and for what? A better chance at the perfect scholarship? A better opportunity to score that perfect internship? Perfect, perfect, perfect, brag, brag, brag. Of course, Parker used to be like that. Not long ago, Parker had been popular, smart, and driven.

She had a zillion friends on Facebook and Instagram. She made up complicated polls that everyone participated in, and if she showed up at a party, she made the event. She was invited to everything, asked to be part of every club. Guys would escort her to class and beg her for dates. But then It happened, and the Parker who rose from the ashes a year ago wore the same hoodie every day to hide the scars that marred her once beautiful face. She never went to parties. She hadn’t looked at Facebook in months, couldn’t imagine dating, had no interest in clubs. Not a single soul glanced at her as she stomped down the hall. If she did get a look, it was one of apprehension and caution. Don’t talk to her. She’s damaged. She’s what could happen if you aren’t perfect.

She was about to walk into the film studies classroom when someone caught her arm. “Parker. Did you forget?” Her best—and only—friend, Julie Redding, stood behind her. She looked perfectly polished in a crisp white blouse, her reddish-brown hair gleaming and her eyes round with worry. “Forget what?” Parker grumbled, pulling her hoodie tighter over her face. “The assembly today. It’s mandatory.” Parker stared at her friend. Like she cared about mandatory anything. “Come on.

” Julie led her down the hall, and Parker reluctantly followed. “So where have you been, anyway?” Julie whispered. “I’ve been texting you for two days. Were you sick?” Parker scoffed. “Sick of life.” She’d bagged class for most of this week. She simply hadn’t felt like going. What she’d done with her time, she couldn’t quite recall—her short-term memory was a tricky thing these days. “It’s contagious, so you might want to keep your distance.” Julie wrinkled her nose.

“And were you smoking again? You smell disgusting.” Parker rolled her eyes. Her friend was in what Parker had always called Mama Bear Mode, fierce and protective. Parker had to keep remembering that it was endearing, especially because no one else cared whether she lived or died. Julie was the only remaining vestige of Parker’s old life, and now that Parker was shrouded in shadow, Julie was Beacon’s new It Girl. Not that Parker begrudged her the title. Julie had her own demons to battle; she just wore her scars on the inside. They swept down the hall, passing by Randy, the hippie janitor, who was working his hardest to keep the school squeaky-clean at all times. The auditorium was ahead, and Julie pushed open the heavy wooden door. The large room was filled with kids, yet it felt eerily quiet.

A lot of people were sniffling. More shook their heads. A knot of girls hugged. As soon as Parker saw the big picture of Nolan on the stage, her blood pressure dropped. The letters RIP were spelled out in flowers beneath his photo. She looked at Julie, feeling tricked. She’d hoped the Nolan memorial had already happened on one of the days she’d ditched. “I’m outta here,” she whispered, backing up. Julie grabbed her arm. “Please,” she insisted.

“If you don’t stay . well, you know. It might look strange.” Parker bit her lip. It was true. After what happened at Nolan’s party, they couldn’t afford to call attention to themselves. She gazed out into the seats. Mackenzie Wright and Caitlin Martell-Lewis sat a few rows ahead. Ava Jalali was on the other side of the aisle, sitting stiffly next to her boyfriend. They looked over and exchanged looks with Julie and Parker.

Although they were all trying to hold it together, everyone looked spooked. It was strange. Parker still barely knew them, yet she felt connected to them for life. How would you do it? If you were going to kill him, I mean? Parker flinched. Ava’s words from that day in film studies floated up so naturally in her mind that it was as if Ava were right beside her, whispering in her ear. She looked at the stage again. Mr. Obata, the principal, was flipping through some slides for the presentation he was about to give. Some were pictures of Nolan through the years—winning the lacrosse state championship, being crowned homecoming king, holding court in the cafeteria. Parker was even in a few of them, from back when she and Nolan had been friends.

Other slides were generic images of prescription pills. So this was also going to have an antidrug message, since all the rumors said he’d accidentally overdosed on OxyContin, his drug of choice. And then came the kicker: the image of Nolan that Mackenzie had posted online shortly after the party, the one with the writing on his face. The picture was mostly blurred out, but the comments below—a long paragraph telling the world how horrible Nolan was—were not. So it was going to be a bullying assembly, too. Irony of ironies, considering Nolan had been the biggest bully of all. Parker’s memory began to spin with thoughts of Nolan. Climbing in the car with him. Laughing at his dirty jokes. Driving fast along the coastal road to chase away the fear.

The shiny feeling from drinking almost a whole bottle of vodka between the two of them. And then, that last night, when he slipped OxyContin into her drink without telling her. Afterward he’d said, Isn’t it amazing? No charge. My gift to you. They’d been friends for years, but after that night, he never spoke to her again. He pretended as if she didn’t exist. And meanwhile, it was all his fault. If he hadn’t given her those pills, things would be different now. She would be her old self. Undamaged.

Beautiful, full of life. Present. Perfect. He deserves it, she remembered saying mere days ago. Everyone hates him. They’re all just too scared to admit it. We’d be heroes. All at once, the world swirled unsteadily. A white-hot spike of pain shot through Parker’s forehead, streaking like lightning across her vision. When she tried to move, her muscles cramped.

Her eyes fluttered shut. Julie nudged her forward. “Come on,” she whispered. “We have to sit down. We have to act normal.” Another wave of pain hit Parker’s head. Her knees buckled. She’d gotten enough migraines after her accident that she knew this was the start of another. But she couldn’t have it here. Not in the auditorium in front of all these people.

A weak groan emerged from her lips. Through blurred vision, she could just make out the sudden concern in Julie’s face. “Oh my god,” Julie said, immediately seeming to recognize what was going on. “I didn’t realize. Come on.” Julie pulled her up and led her out of the auditorium and to the box office alcove above. The air smelled like lemon cleaner, and dust motes swirled in the air. Posters for upcoming events papered the ticketing window—a flyer for Guys and Dolls, another for the upcoming Honors Orchestra Fall Concert. There was even an old playbill with Parker on it, from when she played Juliet sophomore year. Julie sat Parker down.

“Breathe,” she said softly. “It’s a bad one, isn’t it?” “I’m fine,” Parker managed to say, her fists clenched in her blond hair. She blinked a few times, her vision clearing. The pain subsided to a dull ache, but her mind felt scattered. “Are you sure?” Julie asked, kneeling next to her. “Do you want me to get the nurse?” “No,” Parker croaked. She took a shuddering breath. “I’m okay. It’s just a headache.” Julie set her jaw, reached into her purse, and pulled out the bottle of aspirin she carried around for just this occasion.

She handed two pills to Parker, and Parker swallowed them dry, feeling the rough tablets grate against the sides of her throat. Julie waited until Parker had choked down the pills, then breathed in. “Have you thought more about . talking to a therapist?” Parker recoiled. “Not this again.” “I’m serious.” Julie’s eyes were pleading. “Parker, your headaches are getting worse, and the stress doesn’t help. And with this Nolan thing . well, I’m just worried about you.

” “No therapist.” Parker crossed her arms over her chest. She pictured baring her soul to a complete stranger while he stared at her and asked, “Well, how do you feel about that?” As if he really cared. “I spoke to someone recently . about my mom.” Julie lowered her eyes. Parker whipped her head up. “What? When?” “Last week. I was going to mention it, but then everything happened, and . ” She trailed off.

Parker held her best friend’s gaze. Julie looked so hopeful. Parker knew this was hard on her best friend, that she was different now in the After part of her life than she’d been Before. And Julie was all she had left. She didn’t want to let her down. “Fine,” she grumbled. “But don’t be upset if I bail after ten minutes.” “Deal.” Julie’s shoulders visibly relaxed. She gave Parker an earnest, grateful smile.

“But you won’t. I think he could really help you.” Parker stood up, nodded good-bye to Julie, and headed for the exit door. She suddenly, desperately, needed a cigarette. She walked across the parking lot to a place she called the Grove, a copse of trees she and Nolan had discovered sophomore year and made their smoking hangout. It always smelled like fresh rain and sap. Here, Parker could be herself under the cover of the leaves—angry Parker, crazy Parker, or tormented and damaged Parker. It didn’t matter. No one ever came here. She dug for a smoke and lit up eagerly.

As the nicotine hit her bloodstream, another memory of Nolan hit her. Just when he was getting woozy that night at his party, he’d looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time since her accident. And all he’d said was, I always knew you were a crazy bitch. Parker forced her eyes back open. No, she told herself. She would not fall down that hole. She would not relive last week. She would move forward and forget everything. “Hey there.” She looked up.

Her film studies teacher, Mr. Granger, stood at the edge of the trees. Granger was one of those cool, good-looking, young teachers who always knew about current music, looked the other way when kids texted in class, and talked about his semester abroad in Paris, when he’d drunk absinthe and made out with a burlesque dancer. He’d started a photography club, where kids developed black-and-white photos the old-fashioned way, and nearly the entire female student population had signed up. Anger pricked Parker’s skin. He wasn’t supposed to know about this place. And she was angry at him for other reasons, too. He’d been the one who made them watch that damned film. He’d been the one to sort them into groups after. He’d been the one to ask, Is murder justified so long as the person really, truly deserved it? Now Granger came closer, pulling a cigarette out of his pocket himself, which surprised her.

“I didn’t take you for a smoker,” he said quietly, lighting up. Parker took a drag. She didn’t know whether he was kidding—she looked exactly like a smoker. “I have to go,” she said gruffly, throwing the butt onto the grass and twisting it out with her shoe. Even the Grove was ruined today. And when she walked back into school, she felt yet another stabbing migraine coming on. Maybe, she suddenly thought, going to a therapist would be helpful after all. Maybe he would help her block out all those memories. Maybe he’d do some sort of hypnosis thing until she no longer had any feelings at all. Maybe he could fix her.

Or maybe, a small voice in the back of her head said, what she did to Nolan proved that she really was broken beyond repair. CHAPTER TWO CAITLIN MARTELL-LEWIS SHIFTED FROM FOOT to foot on the Beacon Heights soccer field. The manicured lawn looked vivid green against the woolly gray afternoon clouds that hung low in the sky. It felt as if the gentle autumn warmth had been sucked out of the air overnight, leaving a moist chill that cut through her warm-up pants. Caitlin breathed in the scent of freshly cut grass and impending rain. The smells of soccer. “All right—we’re going to have to go heavy on the offense.” Caitlin rubbed her hands together as her teammates listened. “Megan and Gina, you two take the midfield. Shannon, Sujatha, Katie, and Dora, you’re defense.

You guys are going to have to stay on your toes. The rest of us are on forward.” “We’re going to crush those boys.” Katie O’Malley glared at the opposing team: Beacon’s varsity boys’ soccer squad. Today was the annual girls-boys play-off. The boys’ coach, Coach Marcus, and the girls’ coach, Coach Leah—who were, incidentally, married to each other—paced the sidelines in identical maroon-and-white soccer anoraks. Caitlin glanced at her coach briefly, then looked back at her team. “Viking, you’ve got our goal, right? Don’t let those bastards score.” “I’ve got this,” Vanessa Larson said. At almost six foot two and stunningly beautiful with her long red hair and chiseled cheekbones, Vanessa the Viking was also Caitlin’s best friend on the team.

Then Ursula Winters, who normally played center mid but had taken over as striker when Caitlin was injured, looked at Caitlin harshly. “Are you sure your ankle’s healed? You don’t want to hurt it more by coming back too early.” Caitlin frowned. “I’m fine,” she insisted. Of course Ursula didn’t want Caitlin to play—she wanted to take her place. But Caitlin was fine . mostly. She had a high ankle sprain, but she’d powered through it with physical therapy and the occasional hit of OxyContin—the same drug, actually, that Nolan allegedly OD’d on. And now here she was, back on the field after just three weeks. She had to prove to the coach that she was ready for the big play-off game in two weeks.

Winning that was her ticket to an athletic scholarship at the University of Washington, something she’d been working toward her whole life. Suddenly, Caitlin felt two strong arms wrap around her shoulders. “Gotcha,” her boyfriend, Josh Friday, murmured in her ear. “Get off me,” Caitlin mumbled good-naturedly, elbowing him. “I’m trying to focus.” Josh snickered. “You’re cute when you’re in game mode.” He bumped fists with two of his buddies, Guy Kenwood and Timothy Burgess, who’d also wandered over. “Ha-ha,” Caitlin said with a laugh, trying not to be irritated that Josh wasn’t taking this game seriously. “It’ll be less cute when we kick your butts.

” She and Josh had been together forever. Their parents had been best friends since college—they’d been in each other’s weddings and had moved to Beacon Heights at the same time. Sibyl and Mary Ann, Caitlin’s two moms, had adopted Caitlin from Korea the same year Michelle Friday gave birth to Josh—and then when they went back to Seoul a few years later to adopt Caitlin’s brother, Taylor, they left Caitlin with the Friday family for two months. There were framed photos in both houses of Caitlin and Josh holding hands on a playground, or red-faced and crying in a mall Santa’s lap. There’d been a few of them sharing a bathtub as toddlers, too, but those had been banned by both Josh and Caitlin on the grounds that they were weird and creepy. Over the years, the Martell-Lewises and the Fridays did joint vacations and holidays, held weekly board game nights, had standing Saturday-night barbecues, and were always on the sidelines at Caitlin’s and Josh’s games. And now Caitlin and Josh were both being courted by UDub’s respective soccer coaches . which meant the Martell-Lewis/Friday lovefest could continue into college. And then, if everything went according to plan, they would graduate, get married, and have Martell-Lewis-Friday babies. And that plan was more important than ever now.

Josh and soccer were her only two constants, the only things holding her together when it felt like her world was falling apart. With Taylor gone, her whole family had shifted. She was suddenly an only child, and the family her parents had worked so hard to create was crumbling. Her moms kept it together in front of her, but she often heard Sibyl crying quietly in their room. Mary Ann stared out the window as she did the dishes, as though if she looked long enough, she would finally see Taylor coming in for dessert. The only times her moms seemed like themselves were at dinner with the Fridays or cheering for Caitlin on the soccer field. Shannon, who played left defense, cleared her throat, breaking Caitlin from her thoughts. “So how weird was that memorial today?” she asked in a low voice, looking at the girls’ team and all the boys who’d wandered over. “I guess I haven’t been to too many things for people our own age.” Then she paled and looked at Caitlin.

“I’m sorry, Caitlin. I didn’t mean—” Caitlin looked down. She wasn’t about to have a conversation about her brother right now. Sujatha, a lean Indian girl who ran faster than anyone on the team, placed her hands on her thin hips. “Do you really think he committed suicide?” “No way,” Asher Collins, the boys’ goalie, interjected. “That guy was too vain to kill himself.” Marnie Wilson, who had an on-again, off-again thing with Asher, glared at him. “It’s not nice to talk like that about someone who’s dead.” “Not if he’s an asshole,” Ursula piped up. Then she stared straight at Caitlin.

“Right?” Caitlin’s cheeks reddened. She’d heard something about Nolan jilting Ursula last year—then again, he’d jilted everyone. But it wasn’t a rumor how much Caitlin hated Nolan. She cleared her throat, looking to Josh for help, but he was busy mock-wrestling Timothy. “I wonder what it’s like to take that much Oxy,” Ursula went on. Shannon frowned. “How much did he take, anyway?” “Enough to kill him, I guess,” Ursula said, still staring at Caitlin. Suddenly, Caitlin heard a voice—her voice—from that day in film studies a few weeks before. You know how I’d do it? Oxy. Everyone knows it’s his drug of choice.

She blinked the memory away. Ursula shrugged. “Do you think they’re doing an autopsy? Have you ever seen those shows on TV where they do that? They’re so gross. The coroner, like, cracks open the ribs with pliers and weighs the heart on a fruit scale.” “Enough!” Caitlin said loudly. “Can we please focus?” Everyone fell silent. No one knew what went down between her and Nolan the night he died, but they all knew perfectly well that her brother had an autopsy performed on him only six months before—and that her brother was dead because of Nolan Hotchkiss. Josh coughed uncomfortably, then grabbed Asher’s arm and guided him away. “Let’s talk strategy. See you, guys.

” The whistle blew. Caitlin faced her team, looking at all of them except Ursula. “Take your places,” she roared, her voice still a little shaky. “Let’s kick some balls, ladies.” They broke and moved into formation across from the boys. Caitlin felt anxious and unfocused, her body full of pent-up anger. When Coach Marcus blew the whistle for kickoff, she shot forward, her speed surprising even herself. The world beyond the field became a blur. Caitlin charged forward to take the ball, her cleats tearing into the field as she passed to Gina Pedalino. The boys on the other side looked momentarily dazed—Gabe Martinez, the boys’ best forward, hadn’t even moved by the time the ball was halfway to the goal.

Caitlin smirked. That’s right, idiots, she thought. Girls can play better than you think. She raced up the field. The ball flew between her teammates’ feet, passing back and forth through the defenders. For a split second, Rocky Davidson intercepted her, but Gina flew past him, stealing the ball right back. Fat raindrops were starting to fall, their rhythm slow at first and then picking up speed. Caitlin felt her blood singing in her veins, pumping with excitement and the thrill of the game. Suddenly, the ball was hers, and she took off along the sideline, pounding straight toward the boys’ goal. Behind her she could hear grunts of exertion as her teammates kept the defense off her tail.

Her heart soared. But then a blur of maroon and white shot in front of her. Ursula. She stole the ball from Caitlin and ran toward the goal. “What the hell are you doing?” Caitlin screeched. “We’re on the same team!” But Ursula just jostled her with her shoulder. Anger boiled in Caitlin’s chest. It was bad enough when someone stole a ball, let alone someone from her own team. A scream spewed out of Caitlin from somewhere deep and frustrated, and she stuck out her foot to trip her teammate. “Oof!” Ursula shrieked, going down hard on the turf, her limbs flailing.

The whistle tweeted. “Caitlin!” Coach Leah roared behind her. Her husband ran up as well. “Yellow card!” he bellowed, standing over Ursula. “Are you all right?” Ursula was breathing heavily and dusting grass off her knees. “That hurt,” she whined. Coach Leah narrowed her eyes at Caitlin. “What’s going on with you? This is just a practice. I understand your need to be competitive, but there’s no excuse for hurting someone. Hit the showers.

” “What?” Caitlin cried, her jaw dropping open. “Did you not see her steal the ball?” “I mean it.” Coach pointed at the school. “Go.” Everyone was gawking. A couple of guys nudged each other. Josh looked at her questioningly. Caitlin exhaled loudly. “Whatever,” she said, waving a hand and stomping off the field. Behind her, the whistle blew again.

Ursula, perfectly recovered, took Caitlin’s place as striker. Caitlin stormed along the edge of the school, glaring at her reflection in the long windows that faced the fields; inside was the computer center, a massive space filled with state-of-the-art machinery. The place where her brother used to hang out all the time. Unbidden, an image of him streaked through her mind. Taylor, short and scrawny even for a freshman, his glasses too big for his face, the hems of his too-long pants dragging on the ground. He’d been a happy kid—always crouched over his Nintendo DS or reading some enormous fantasy novel. But then he’d gotten to high school. It was one thing for Caitlin, a cute, athletic girl, to have two adoptive moms. But it was entirely another thing for her dorky brother, a skinny Korean kid with no interest in sports or booze or popularity—the social currency of Beacon High. Nolan and his friends had eaten Taylor alive.

“Babe?” She turned around. Josh had jogged after her, his short dark hair slick from the rain. “Hey,” he said cautiously, as if she were a potentially dangerous animal. “Are you okay? What happened back there?” Caitlin just shrugged. “I’m fine.” She hiked her gear bag higher and pulled her keys out of a small pocket in the front. “I shouldn’t let Ursula get to me.” She waved him toward the field. “You should go back. Keep playing.

Every practice is an important stepping-stone to UDub, you know?” But Josh kept pace. “You heading home?” Caitlin licked her lips. “I’m going to the cemetery,” she said, deciding it in that very moment. “I want to see Taylor.” She couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed as if Josh’s face fell for the briefest second. But then he stepped forward, like the good boyfriend he was. “I’ll drive you.” Twenty minutes later, Josh and Caitlin parked in the lot at the McAllister Cemetery. As final resting places went, it wasn’t a bad one, with a view of the lake; a lot of old, beautiful trees; and quaint little garden paths. But as Caitlin undid her seat belt and climbed out of the car, Josh stared at his phone.

“Shit. I think the UDub recruiter is calling me.” Caitlin frowned. “Your phone’s not ringing.” Josh was holding his phone in a way that she couldn’t see the screen. “I have it on silent. I gotta take this. You go.” He put the phone to his ear and said hello. Caitlin watched him for a moment, not sure if he’d actually received a call or not.

But would Josh really fake a phone call to get out of going to the cemetery with her? He did hate it, though. He’d come only once since Taylor died. Anytime after that, he said he was busy . or that the flowers aggravated his allergies . or that it was too rainy . or any other excuse he could think of. Caitlin thought again of the brief flash of—what was that, annoyance?—that had passed across Josh’s face at the soccer field when she mentioned Taylor’s name. He had that reaction a lot, if Caitlin was honest with herself. But she couldn’t figure out how to ask him what he was feeling—they didn’t have that sort of relationship. Before Taylor died, they hadn’t needed to.

But now she wished she could talk to him about it. Even just a little. Josh said a few more things into the phone, and finally, Caitlin slapped her arms to her sides and crossed the parking lot without him. She could do the walk to her brother’s grave blindfolded: twenty paces from the car, left for thirty-three paces, and then down a little aisle next to a gravestone with a statue of a German shepherd on top of it. Tommy Maroney, who died at an appropriate age of eightyfive, had raised German shepherd champions. And there it was: TAYLOR ANTHONY MARTELL-LEWIS. He died two days after his fifteenth birthday. “Hey,” she said softly, pausing to kick off a few dried leaves from the grave. “Sorry it’s been a couple weeks. I’ve been busy. And this crazy ankle kept me off my feet.” She held up her leg for him to see. A gust of wind kicked up, blowing her hair into her face. Caitlin took a breath. “So I guess you heard?” she said softly. “I mean, who knows? Maybe you’ve . seen Nolan, wherever you are now. Although I seriously hope not.” She stared at her fingers. “Look, I don’t know what you can see up there, wherever you are, and maybe you saw me . with him . that night. But I did it for you. He couldn’t get away with it.” She paused, just like she always did, pretending that Taylor, who was always so thoughtful and introspective, was taking a moment to let this sink in. Then she cleared her throat again. “I don’t feel bad for what happened, though. And I don’t agree with what Mom said. It wasn’t enough for Nolan to live with what happened. He needed to pay.” If he could still speak, Caitlin was sure Taylor would second her opinion that what happened to Nolan was karma. When she came home from practice one day to find a suicide note on Taylor’s bedroom door, she’d been blindsided. Later that same night, Caitlin had gone into his room, which still smelled like him, and found a journal sitting in plain view on the bed: Reasons Death Is Better Than School, it was called. She’d opened to the first page. September 17: Someone put a bag of dog poop in my locker. Have a feeling it was N. September 30: N and his buddies stole my clothes during gym and stuf ed them in the toilet. I smelled like bleach all afternoon. October 8: Girls laughing at me in bio today. Turns out someone wrote a letter to Casey Ryan, the hottest girl in my class, and signed my name on it. The worst part of it was that Caitlin hadn’t even seen it happening . and they went to the same school. She’d been too busy with soccer and Josh to worry. Taylor never came to her, either. He never complained during family dinners or on weekends. He just . endured it, until he broke. Hot tears pricked her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she choked out, staring at her brother’s grave, the guilt washing over her anew. “I wish I’d known. I wish I hadn’t been so selfish.” “Cate?” Caitlin jumped and looked over. A tall guy in rumpled skinny jeans and a gray T-shirt was walking toward her. For a moment, she thought he was Josh, but then she realized he was Jeremy Friday—Josh’s younger brother. “H-hey,” she said. “W-what are you doing here?” Jeremy gave her a sad smile. “Probably the same thing you are.” Caitlin blinked. Right. Jeremy and Taylor had been friends. Whenever the families had dinner together, they’d disappear and play video games for hours. Jeremy crouched down next to Taylor’s headstone and positioned a tiny figurine on the top. “There you go, buddy,” he said softly. He moved to the back of the headstone and plucked several more figures from the ground. Though they were faded and muddy, he propped them back up next to the new one. Caitlin had always wondered who brought those figurines. “Is that a character from Dragon Ball Z?” she said. Jeremy glanced at her. “How did you know that?” She felt her cheeks redden. “I might have watched an episode or fifty with Taylor. Just to keep him company or whatever.” “Not because you actually liked it,” Jeremy joked, a smile on his face. “You know, it’s okay to say you like anime. The stories are amazing. Way better than American cartoons.” “Agreed,” Caitlin admitted, remembering how much she used to enjoy watching the episodes with her brother. They’d settled on the couch together, sharing a bowl of Parmesan-and-pepper-covered popcorn and discussing what crazy machine they’d have the inventor character Bulma build for them. “Do you still watch it?” she asked. “Sure, though it’s only available online or on DVD these days,” Jeremy said. He peeked at her. “If you’re ever in the mood, I’m game.” Caitlin’s face reddened again. “Oh, no. That’s okay.” Jeremy looked at her evenly. “I get it. It’s not really Josh’s thing.” Caitlin lowered her head. She wanted to tell him she didn’t do everything with Josh, but that wasn’t really true. She looked at Jeremy again. His features looked a lot like Josh’s—they both had the same honeybrown eyes, the same high cheekbones, but Jeremy’s face was sharper, his chin and nose more pointed. The two of them were so different, Josh sporty and Mr. Popular, Jeremy a lot like Taylor— quiet, introspective, more into books than sports. Whenever she was at the Fridays’, he would sit at the end of the dinner table reading while Josh and his buddies played Madden. It was strange. When they’d been kids, Caitlin and Jeremy had shared a tent on camping vacations and spent hours together in the back of the car playing I Spy. Now they were almost strangers. She cleared her throat and looked at the action figures, then at Jeremy. “You come here a lot, huh?” Jeremy nodded. “I try to come every week.” Caitlin felt more tears rush to her eyes. “You do?” “Of course I do,” Jeremy said, pushing his hands in his pockets. “I miss him.” Then he cocked his head at her. “Aren’t you supposed to be at soccer right now?” Caitlin lowered her shoulders. “I pissed off the coach.” She looked at her brother’s grave again. “And then I just needed to talk to him.” “I know the feeling,” Jeremy said softly. She swallowed hard. “Sometimes I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it, you know.” Jeremy squinted. “Maybe you don’t have to. And maybe that’s okay.” It was the most perfect thing he could have said to her. It was what she always wanted Josh to say. “Thank you,” she said softly. Jeremy looked surprised. “For what?” Caitlin shrugged. “For coming here. For saying hi to Taylor. For understanding.” “Well. You’re welcome.” Jeremy stood up and brushed off his pants. “I should probably go.” Caitlin nodded, and before she could overthink it, she threw her arms around Jeremy and hugged him. After a moment, he hugged her back. And as she stood there, warm in his embrace, she realized that it was the first time since her brother died that she didn’t feel so terribly alone.

.

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