Authors: Jennifer Shaw Wolf
For my dad, Dale Shaw, for always believing in me,
and for my mom, Linda Shaw, the one person I know who
always does the right thing
Rachel didn’t wear shoes. She had that kind of sexy, “small town girl” style that works with bare feet. Long dark hair, thin but with all the right curves, and delicate, pretty little feet. I can’t pull off bare feet. I have huge feet and clunky, square toes, and anyway, Dad would never let me go without shoes. But for as long as I can remember, summertime meant Rachel went barefoot.
She wasn’t wearing shoes when we went to the old house at the edge of the woods last summer. That’s why she cut her foot on a piece of broken glass. It bled like crazy and left a long pink scar on the bottom of her foot and another narrow white one, like a little ring around her middle toe.
Standing in the sweltering chapel, three people from Rachel’s mom, all I can think about are those scars, and whether Rachel is wearing shoes now.
But I can’t see her feet.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be feeling, but I’m pretty
sure right now isn’t the time to be obsessing about whether Rachel is wearing shoes or not. Dad says I’m in shock. Rachel was my best friend from grade school through about six months ago, but I haven’t cried at all. Not even when Dad picked me up at Claire’s house and told me what had happened. He didn’t come until almost nine o’clock Saturday morning, but I know Rachel died before three. One hour after Skyler kissed me for the first time. Thirty-five minutes after she sent me her last text.
I step back behind the man in front of me and wrap my fingers hard around my phone. It’s attached to my wrist by a little beaded cord. I forgot until just this minute that Rachel made it for me. It reminds me of what’s on my phone: the text from Rachel, maybe her last words. She was asking for help, but I didn’t answer her. And now she’s gone.
The man hanging on a cross at the front of the church accuses me. I was taught better. A good friend, a good Christian, would have answered the text immediately. A good girl would have gone to the police.
Even though she told me not to.
Dad nudges me from behind. I look up and realize that the only thing between me and the casket is an empty space, kind of like the emptiness in my chest. I hesitate, but he half directs, half pushes me forward.
As soon as she sees me, Rachel’s mom, Araceli, gasps and pulls me against her so hard that I can barely breathe. She smooths my hair and whispers,
“Mija, mija, mija,”
and other words in Spanish that I don’t understand. Her voice and her
chest heave against me, thick with pain. Over her shoulder I try not to look at Rachel’s face, but I can’t help it. She looks like a wax doll. Her eyelashes lie on powdered pink cheeks, paler than her usual golden tan, and even her satiny black hair looks fake. I’ve never seen a dead person before. Dad told me that she would look like she was sleeping, but to me she looks dead.
Her dress is all wrong. It’s too formal, white satin with buttons that go all the way up to her chin, choking her. I’ve never seen Rachel in a dress before. Skirts sometimes, long and flowery, like the one her mom is wearing, but never a dress. Usually she wore cutoff shorts, tanks, and T-shirts.
Maybe the collar on the dress is so high to hide the hole in her chest where the bullet went through.
The silver ring through her pencil-thin eyebrows and the streaks bleached red in her hair, both added after we stopped being friends, look wrong too. They don’t belong to the Rachel I knew. They belong to the stranger she became.
Whispers follow me to my seat.
“Friends for years.”
“Something like this, here?”
“Do you think she knows anything about …”
And then, “Shh, of course not.”
I glance up, but I can’t tell who was talking. People’s eyes lower as I raise mine. The air is heavy with something more than the scent of wilted flowers and the above-average June temperatures. The looks that I feel as I walk down the
aisle aren’t from people who are grieving. Most of the people here knew Rachel her whole life, but lately just by reputation. A mix of curiosity and fear is written in their faces—curiosity, because it always accompanies anything tragic in a small town, and fear, because Rachel’s death represents a crack in the shell of their security. Something that only happens in L.A. or New York, or even Seattle, has happened here.
This time it feels closer, more personal. The first time it was an outsider, a gangbanger hiding out in our small town, but Rachel was born in Lake Ridge; no matter what they all thought of her by the end of her life, she was one of us.
I catch furtive, suspicious glances aimed at the knot of Mexicans in the back. In spite of myself, in spite of everything I’ve been taught about charity and about God loving everyone the same, in spite of all the time I spent with Rachel and Araceli, I feel it too. It’s like everyone is looking for a reason, something that makes Rachel different, something that will keep what happened to her from happening to the rest of us.
I glance back at them. Some of the kids I recognize from school, but as small as Lake Ridge High is, I only know a few of their names. They stick to their own group, and I guess, so do we.
Taylor slides over to make room on the bench for me. I sit between her and Claire, like we were good friends again, the way we were in grade school before they decided Rachel was too different or maybe just too pretty to hang out with them anymore.
Claire nudges me with her elbow and nods toward the door of the church. Skyler is there, standing by himself. I wonder if he’s here for Rachel or if he’s here for me. A heavy weight of guilt presses down on me, and I turn away before he sees me.
“You should see if he wants to sit by us,” Taylor hisses. Her voice carries over the solemn organ music and muted whispers.
I shake my head and glance toward my dad, but I don’t think he heard. He’s still standing with Rachel’s mom, his hand on her arm, almost like they were a couple. When Rachel and I were little, she used to talk about what it would be like if my dad and her mom got married. How then we’d really be sisters. I didn’t tell her I didn’t want that to happen, not because I didn’t love Araceli, but because it would mean my parents would never get back together.
I don’t know if Taylor motioned him over or if he decided on his own, but when I look up, Skyler is standing at the end of the bench. “Can I sit here?” he asks.
It’s the same question he asked two weeks ago, just before school got out. I was sitting on my usual lunchtime perch outside the library, hunched over a book, pretending I didn’t care that I was alone. I said yes then, but I can’t make my voice work now. Taylor intervenes, scooting to one side to make room for Skyler between me and her.
He sits down, and I get a whiff of sweat and too much cologne, just like at the party that night. It feels like someone poured all possible emotions into my stomach and put it on
the spin cycle. Sitting by Skyler brings back all the guilt, fear, anger, and elation that I felt at the party, and all the pain, regret, and pitch-black horribleness from the morning after, when Dad told me that Rachel was gone.
I knew it was my fault.
I wasn’t supposed to be with Skyler. I wasn’t supposed to be at the party at all. It was the kind of party Dad has warned me to stay away from. But I was stuck at Claire’s house for the night, and she and Taylor were going. Staying behind would have destroyed my nearly nonexistent social footing. After being there for about ten minutes, I was done. I was looking for a way to leave, even contemplating calling Dad, disrupting his business trip, and begging him to come pick me up, even if it meant confessing that we had lied to Mrs. Rallstrom and snuck out.
Then I realized my phone was gone. My “only because I think you’re responsible enough now” and “so you can get ahold of me if something happens” phone.
I was frantically searching for it. Peyton Harris, too drunk to even stand up straight, tried to convince me that he had taken my phone and I had to reach down the front of his jeans to get it back. Skyler rescued me. He told Peyton to leave me alone and helped me find my phone in the laundry room, behind a pile of dirty clothes where someone had hidden it.
Then he offered to take me home.
People file toward their seats, the organ plays, and I can feel Skyler breathing beside me. His hand is inches from
mine, but I can’t look at him. I wonder what he thinks about all of this. If he realizes the phone calls I silenced were from Rachel. If he knows I let her die. I wonder what he thinks about me now.
I’d never thought of Skyler Cross as a “potential boyfriend candidate” as Claire would put it. He’s quiet, and nice, but kind of all alone. I was too busy being my own kind of quiet and all alone to pay attention to him, until he started sitting by me during lunch. Until then, he was just Evan Cross’s younger brother.
Thinking about Evan pours jealousy into the churning concoction of pain inside my stomach. In a stupid, horrible way, Evan is responsible for the six-month silence between Rachel and me. Correction: I was stupid and I was horrible, and it was my fault.
I remember the sheer joy in Claire’s voice when she made a point to find me at church so she could tell me, “Rachel and Evan Cross on New Year’s Eve! All night long, can you believe it?”
And I remember the venom in Rachel’s voice after I confronted her with the disloyalty: “You don’t know anything about anything, Jaycee. You live life in your own little bubble, so when Claire tells you something, you believe her without even asking for my side of the story. Maybe there’s a good reason I was with Evan. Maybe you should trust me for once.”
I had answered her back with at least as much venom, because she had admitted to being with him and she wasn’t even sorry. “Don’t talk to me about trust. You’re barely around
anymore. You’re always with your other friends. You don’t have time for me, but you still want me to keep your secrets. You told me to keep my mouth shut about what happened at that old house—you won’t even let me talk to you about it—and then you go behind my back with Evan?” I choked on stupid tears as I said his name. “You know how I feel about him.”
Her face was pale with anger, and something else, fear, because I had dared to go there. “Grow up, Jaycee. There are more important things going on here than your stupid crush on Evan Cross. If you can’t get that, then maybe you should just stay out of my life.”
I look up at the white casket and Rachel, racking my brain for a follow-up conversation, wondering if those were really the last words we ever said to each other. I think they were.
I wonder what we would have said to each other if I had answered the phone the night she died. The groove on the side of my phone digs into my hand as I think about the text, the only words from Rachel I have left:
We’re in trouble. Meet me at my house NOW. Don’t tell your dad. Don’t call the police. Don’t tell anyone what you saw
I wonder what I’m supposed to do now.
The floorboards creak under my feet as I follow Rachel’s footprints across the dusty floor. I know I have to find her because something bad is going to happen, but I don’t know what it is. I stop, afraid to follow the trail up the stairs. I call her name, but no one answers. I lift my foot to go upstairs and step in something wet. The stairs are covered with blood.