Jackson is a pretty small town. Everyone knows pretty much everyone else. Our high school has less than 400 kids in total, so news doesn't even have to be big or juicy for it to spread around. Our teachers who went to bigger schools always tell us stories about how they had graduated having never met most of the kids in their class, and that we're lucky to have such a tight knit community, and even tighter knit Jackson High. Unfortunately- for me, anyways- nearly everyone knows the smallest details about everyone else.
And everyone knows me as 'The Girl Whose Boyfriend Died'.
One year ago today, my boyfriend, Alexander Willis, was hit by a car when trying to return my AP History book to me after his younger, autistic brother, Max, had a meltdown. He was held on life support for 15 days following the accident, before his mother, Mel, had no choice but to pull the plug- he probably wouldn’t have woken up anyways. Not too long after, he was buried in the local cemetery, with a beautiful ceremony financed by my incredibly wealthy parents. Only a few short weeks later, I went to visit Mel and Max, but they had vanished, without a goodbye. They both blamed me, and not only did everyone else know this, but I knew it, too.
But, I suppose every situation has a silver lining. Sure, the only boy I had ever found remotely interesting died, but he did teach me a lot about life. So, even though he died before making any actual friends, the kids that we sat with on the first day of school still welcomed me into their group, which is something that has never happened to me. I hadn't ever had any friends but Michael and Alexander.
A petite and fiery red-head named Abigail has since become my best friend. I had hardly even spoken to her that dreadful day because she had been so engrossed in her own boyfriend, Peter, at lunch. I later learned that this is because he had been away in Australia for the entirety of the summer, and she hadn't seen him in three months. In fact, it's her, and our two other best friends, Piper and Avalon, who sit beside me in the local bakery on the day before school begins.
"Are you doing anything today, Aaryn?" Piper asks me, using her book to fan her tan skin, instead of actually reading it, like the rest of us are. Of course, we all know that she's asking if I'll be commemorating Alexander in any sort of way.
"Shh," Abigail warns, her eyes never moving from Fahrenheit 451, which I can clearly tell she's put off reading until today. She often puts Piper on tight restrictions of what she is and is not allowed to say. Out of the bunch of us, Piper is by far the most open. She not only spares no details from Avalon, who is pretty much her sister, but from basically the entire world. She's also the only one of us who doesn't really have a filter. Mix that with her default unimpressed mode, and she can seem uncaring at times.
"Abi, I just was ask-"
I watch the battle happen between the two, taking a sip of my iced coffee, a summer must have, in my opinion. I never really drank coffee until after Alexander's death, but I had many rough nights and days that I found almost a solace in coming to Moira's Bakery and trying all of their coffee flavors. Plus, tea now gives me the undesirable urge to throw up. Today’s flavor is a mixture of hazelnut and vanilla. Never any sugar or creamer.
I decide to speak up in defense of Piper. "I'm not doing anything. Just sitting here reading with you guys." In all reality, I hadn't been to visit Alexander's grave for a long time. At first, I had a really hard time getting over him. It seemed so unfair to me that he had been taken from me- just like that, he was gone. Then I stopped being sad and began being angry. When the anger subsided, guilt set in. Nearly any time that I was having a good time, I would stop and think about how much Alexander would love whatever it was that I was doing, and then my mood would be gone.
"I think we should go visit," Piper continued. "It might give us some peace of mind before the start of the school year." I watch both Avalon and Abi's heads take sharp turns toward her. While I'm sure that Avalon and Piper have some sort of idea that I haven't been visiting Alexander's grave, Abi is the only person that I've actually told. And I don't want my parents to think that I'm having a hard time grieving, so they think that I've been going to his grave quite often. My therapist told me that it's a healthy way to grieve, but not the only way, so at the very least, my therapist doesn't think it's necessary.
Fortunately, I'm saved from watching an all-out war happen right before my eyes because I spot Peter and Liam walk into the bakery. "Hey, girls," Peter waves, as he and Liam jog toward us. When they get here, Peter bends down and kisses Abi's cheek.
She squeals slightly as his dark stubble scratches her face. "Eww, Peter. Shave your face."
I turn my attention toward Liam, who sort of stands around uncomfortably. He and Avalon had spent pretty much the last year in an on-off relationship. Where, truthfully, they're never fully on or off. They've never officially been a couple, but even when they're off, one of us other girls will catch her texting him or Peter will mention it to Abi. "Where's Max?" I ask, noting the lack of the scrawny blonde in our presence.
"Oh, he's showing his cousin around. His mom died not too long ago, I guess. Max's family is his closest family left, so he moved here for his senior year," Liam explains, clearly glad to have something other than Avalon to look at. But, almost immediately, he goes back into a longing trance. Apparently, she had been the one to break off their romance most recently. I rack my brain and remember Max briefly mentioning that his Aunt had died in some freak accident, but couldn't recall him mentioning a cousin.
"He'll be in AP Lit with us," Avalon mentions, speaking for the first time since we sat down, her eyes never showing any hint of leaving the book. Of the group, she's the one who puts the pro- in procrastinating. While nearly all of us do this, she's the only one who is actually any bit decent. Mostly, we just copy her work. It was actually while I was doing this one night that Avalon became the person who told me to move on. While Abi had told her that she was being harsh, Avalon did have a point. I had known Alexander for only four months, and at the time, he had been dead for eight.
"Oh, so he's a nerd," Liam teases, earning him a smack on the arm from Abi.
"Well, we better get used to him," Piper says. "Hopefully he's cool. We've been needing another member to the crew."
Suddenly, everyone gets really quiet. Pages stop turning, Liam stops laughing, and when I look up from my book, everyone is staring at me, giving me the pity look, except for Abi, who is giving out glares that could kill to everyone else. Piper hadn't actually meant anything by this, and I know that, but this is something that people have been doing to me for a year. Any time the subject of death or love or friends, or simply just someone has not seen me in a while, they treat me like I'm a fragile piece of glass, which could break at any second.
For the first two months, most people avoided talking to me. Honestly, I preferred that to the endless amounts of "I'm sorry's" and "How are you's" and the worst thing of all, the look of pity that I've gotten ever since people stopped avoiding me.
Normally when people bring up Alexander, I find myself not feeling anything. A numb sensation washes over me, and I find myself incapable of feeling anything. But, all of a sudden, my chest gets tight and I find that my breaths are getting shorter and it's becoming increasingly hard to breathe. "Shit," I hear Abi mutter. "Out of the way, Liam," she commands, pushing him lightly so that she can slide out of the booth and come around to the side I'm sitting at. "Come on, Aaryn. Stand up." Blindly, with Avalon helping to push me out, I follow her instructions as she begins to move me toward the door. I feel the hot tears begin to fall onto my cheeks, and I begin to choke on saliva, and Abi is pulling back my blonde hair to relieve some of the heat I'm feeling.
I briefly hear Max's voice, asking, "What's wrong with Aaryn?" as Abi pushes me through the door that he was entering, but all he is told is to grab a paper bag for me, immediately.
I slide down the wall, head dizzy, eyes blurry, and beginning to have a full on breakdown in the middle of the street. "Not here," Abi says. "Please let me get you into the car."
Violently, I shake my head no. I haven't been in any sort of vehicle since Alexander's accident. I've gained a phobia of transportation vehicles. Instead, I opt to walk everywhere. "Shit," she mutters again, sliding down beside me, and placing her gangly arm around my shoulders. "You'll be okay." We sit for only a few seconds before Max is outside, a paper bag in hand, and sitting down beside me. He holds the bag to my mouth and I finally begin to breathe more evenly, the nauseated sensation passing. My chest is light again, and I finally come back to my senses.
I see a tall boy with a mop of curly blonde hair standing above us, watching with a concerned look on his face. "Oh, uh, this is my cousin, Noah," Max says, awkwardly. "Noah, this is Abi and Aaryn."