by Chelsie Bryant
Grandma Owens didn’t often invoke the Lord’s name in vain, but when the news hit that another child had been murdered, she let loose a quiet “Lordy.” It was nearly silent, the lament, and Morgan hadn’t been sure she had heard it at all until another, louder “Lord, have mercy” followed.
Morgan did not understand Grandma Owens’s obsession with Court TV. At sixteen, she didn’t have a stomach for violence. She closed her eyes at the mere suggestion of it on television and in movies. She’d grown up in a close, peaceful family; she took care of Grandma Owens every day after school, and her mother and father were a city councilwoman and a social worker.
That’s why when Grandma Owens, sitting in front of the TV as she did every day, casually remarked that she’d like to wring that murderer’s neck, Morgan was startled to realize she’d like to see Grandma Owens do just that.
“They haven’t buried her yet,” Grandma Owens said from the armchair by the window. Another day, another news cycle: one more little blue-eyed girl gone too soon. Violently. A national scandal. It would be all Grandma Owens would focus on for weeks until another case came to her attention, and then she would get riled again. “Got her in the morgue like they did your friend,” she said softly.
Sarah, Morgan thought, breath caught in her throat. She stood immobile a few feet from Grandma Owens, unsure if she should sit on the chair’s arm or go to the couch.
“Got to wait ’til the thaw now, too,” Grandma Owens said, and Morgan thought the soil must be so cold it ached. Cold, like Morgan felt a year ago when Sarah Tarkins died, when she had been too frozen to accept what happened and the ground had been too frozen to accept Sarah’s body.
She moved toward the armchair and was about to lean against it when Grandma Owens added, “You took the school bus?”
“Yes,” Morgan said, stepping back and looking down. “I didn’t let anyone drive me.”
“Good.” Grandma Owens cracked her knuckles and stood. “Don’t want to have to wring any kid’s neck, too.”
It was just after their ninth-grade Spring Break, around six months before her death, that Sarah became convinced her house was haunted. Inexplicable incidents had occurred: a dead mouse in the foyer when they had no pets; a lightbulb flickering only when Sarah entered the room; the microwave suddenly starting with zero prompting. Morgan thought Sarah liked scary movies too much, but, before she knew it, they were huddled in Sarah’s closet with a sleeping bag beneath them and an afghan around their shoulders, conducting a séance. Later, when Dan, Sarah’s brother, told them they were doing the devil’s work, they’d been surprised. Later, Morgan would wonder if that had been a warning.
“Okay,” Sarah said, a candy wrapper crinkling where she sat, “do you have the candles?” Morgan pulled a couple tealights out of her sweatshirt pocket and a Yankee from her bag.
“Set them on the floor.”
Morgan put the candles between them, and Sarah pulled some matches from her pocket.
“These smell like strawberries,” Morgan said, picking up a match with one hand and fingering a wick with the other.
“Smells like cherries to me,” Sarah said, holding a candle to her nose.
“Hold it away from your mouth and tilt yourself toward it.”
“Here,” Morgan said. She struck the match, the sound a violent hiss. “Give it to me quick.”
Either Sarah didn’t hear or she was slow because the flame came down the stick before she held out the candle.
“Crap,” Morgan said, as the spark touched her fingertip. She dropped the match.
“Shit,” Sarah said. Neither moved for a second. Then, they both acted at the same time, Sarah just a little faster. Her palm hit the flame first and Morgan’s Sarah’s knuckles.
“Ouch. Shit,” Morgan said, imagining Sarah’s burn. “Did we get it?” She lifted her hand off her friend’s. She lifted Sarah’s off the match. And there it was—a burnt black stick, the skid mark stark against the clean white carpet where the impact of their hands had dragged the ash in a crescent-shaped streak. “Not so bad,” Morgan said.
But she had not yet glanced up from the floor. If she had, she wouldn’t have said that because when she did, she saw Sarah’s hand trembling. Angry, that’s how Morgan would have described Sarah’s skin. Red and blistery.
“Oh my God,” Morgan said. There was a quick intake of breath, Morgan looking up to realize it had been a gasp coming from herself, but the tears in her line of sight had been Sarah’s, a gathering of water at the base of hazel eyes. One tear erupting. Then another.
They did not attempt to reach the ghost again.
Grandma Owens was known for her flowers, or so she liked to say. She kept tulips in the spring, black-eyed Susans in July, mums at Thanksgiving. Her garden had been voted “Most Beautiful Flowers in Northwest Ohio” in six out of the last twenty years.
It was mid-November, and Morgan found herself on her knees, fisting a spade and stabbing the dirt out back of Grandma Owens’s house. They’d been between frosts for a couple weeks, but Morgan wasn’t holding her breath on it being gone for good. She was inhaling to complain just as Grandma Owens leaned over her shoulder and said, “You plant a pansy. Don’t be one. Dig harder.”
“I am basically murdering the ground,” Morgan said as she punched the dirt with the sharp edge of the spade again and again. Dents like smiles scarred the soil. “It’s not working.” She wheeled her arm back and put her shoulder into it. They’d been at it for over an hour, and Grandma Owens hadn’t lifted a finger, though she wasn’t shy about insisting that Morgan could use the work.
“You’re thinking too hard. Just dig,” Grandma Owens said, but she didn’t wait for Morgan to try again; she grabbed the spade, balanced its tip against the ground like a football, and stomped on it. “Use your weight,” she said, with a flourished kick, “like this.”
Morgan huffed, breath white against the impending dark. She took off her mittens, convinced it would give her a better grip, and pressed her palms to the ground for balance as she slowly unlocked her knees to stand.
Grandma Owens eyeballed the beginnings of the hole she’d started and tapped her foot impatiently. “We have three more dahlias to go before the sun goes down. At this rate, they’ll be dead before they’re planted.” She handed Morgan the spade.
“My back hurts,” Morgan said, mimicking what Grandma Owens had done, surprised when the soil tilled easier. Why hadn’t Grandma Owens said anything about doing it this way earlier? “You should get an electric shovel.” She stomped the spade. “Do they even make those?”
“They use frost teeth in the cemeteries when it’s cold but not frozen solid,” Grandma Owens said. She had her arms across her chest, was hunched over, but she didn’t shiver. “They slap it on the backhoe and dig in.”
Frost teeth? Morgan imagined saber fangs, the jaws of a backhoe yawning into the earth.
“But burying a body is different than planting a flower,” Grandma Owens said, pushing down on Morgan’s shoulders, as if the added pressure would make the process faster. “It’s a deeper hole, a bigger one. It’s easier to wait for spring. The timing’s got to be right.”
“That’s what most people would say about flowers,” Morgan muttered as the dirt began to give. Dahlias were supposedly hardy and could survive harsh conditions, but Morgan knew that “could” and “would” had vastly different meanings. Just because something was supposed to survive didn’t mean it would or even that it could.
“I like to keep things pretty,” Grandma Owens said. She settled into the wicker chair they’d dragged to the garden from the patio. “Dead yards aren’t pretty.”
Morgan fingered the birdhouse pole near her hip, bending to brush the hard dirt at the base to form a volcano. Grandma Owens had birdfeeders in the bare trees, birdfeeders nailed to the ground, birdfeeders attached to the house. Where there weren’t flowers, there were bird baths, a little koi pond in the corner. Dry weeds in between.
“Does it matter if it’s pretty?” Morgan asked. Did it matter if the flowers were all going to die? She picked up a planter and carefully pushed the plastic bottom inside out to remove the dahlias. She had dirt under her nails and on her face. “They won’t last long anyway.” They’d been down this road just the month before when the mums they’d planted then were lost to the frost.
“When you’re dead, it’s not about you,” Grandma Owens said. She smoothed out her coat, blew fog into the air. The fading light triangulated the shadow on her nose. “It’s about anyone that cared, anyone bothered to remember.” She patted her chest. “If you’re lucky, that’s someone.”
If Morgan died young, she hoped it would be quick. She didn’t want to know it was happening, didn’t want to be scared the way she believed Sarah must have been.
No one had seen it coming; that’s what everybody said. Dan hadn’t displayed any signs of violence—no animal torture, no violent videogames—and he seemed to love his sister. The local news stations showed a picture of the two of them as kids: a taller boy with his arm around Sarah’s neck, her tongue sticking out, his nose wrinkled.
Their parents did not release a statement other than to ask for privacy.
After all, they’d lost both children at once. Dan had used their father’s hunting rifle first on his sister and then on himself. No one knew why. It had been near midnight on a Sunday. Both parents asleep. There wasn’t a note, nothing on his computer, no diary or notebook. The police suspected she’d walked in on him committing suicide. Her body had been at the entrance to the kitchen, his sprawled by the sink.
And Morgan didn’t know until the next day’s homeroom, when Mr. Vincent, hands in his jacket pockets, had muttered, “As many of you know, Sarah Tarkins passed away last night.” It felt like a kick to the chest. No, Morgan hadn’t known. Grandma Owens only watched Court TV, and Morgan didn’t have cable or access to the local news. She didn’t really know, couldn’t even think about it, until third period—when she heard the whispering, after she processed the word “many” and how she was in the few, when Katie Jenkins sniffled once, twice, four times behind her and asked for a Kleenex.
Morgan did not have one.
The last time Sarah came over, they’d gone down to the basement where the big screen TV was, where it was colder and the sunlight came in diluted from a fogged square window near the ceiling.
Morgan settled on the couch and Sarah on the other side. Sarah took the remote from the coffee table. She knew which buttons to hit, where they’d left off in their show, had it going before Morgan could even offer her something to drink.
“Oh my God,” Sarah said. “It’s the one where that bitch is cheating with her best friend’s husband again.”
“I don’t want to watch that one. We’ve seen it a million times.”
“But the next episode’s when they confront each other and Denise strokes Lucinda’s face, and we find out that she’s been in love with her all along.”
“She was using him to make her jealous or whatever,” Morgan said, squeezing a pillow.
“You never want to watch that one.”
“It’s the best one.”
“Only because she takes him back.” Morgan sighed, resigned. “Fine. Put it on.”
Sarah grinned and hit the remote.
It was not fine, but Morgan didn’t want to argue or admit the real reason she didn’t like this episode: she’d watched it too many times in private, knew exactly when Denise would stroke the other woman’s cheek, how Lucinda’s face would turn sympathetic, how she would turn away. It made Morgan’s skin heat, her body tremble, so she watched Sarah instead. It was always at this moment in the episode, she’d noticed, that Sarah would begin to smile. It would start with a deepening dimple and end with her lip curling to the side, Sarah rocking back and forth, reaching out and whacking Morgan’s shoulder. “Did you see that?” she’d say. “They’re so in love.” Morgan would nod like she always did.
They usually talked over the TV. What was going on at school, what had happened at practice, if they thought so-and-so liked so-and-so, if a teacher had done something stupid. This time, they’d been quiet, Sarah mouthing along to the lines of the show, an occasional, accidental whistle escaping her lips. She had goosebumps travelling up her arm.
“Do you want a blanket?” Morgan asked.
“Shh,” Sarah said. The scene had started with Lucinda entering the room.
Morgan pulled the throw from behind their heads and draped it across herself and Sarah.
“How could you?” Sarah said, her words just slightly ahead of Lucinda’s. “Do you love him?”
“I love you,” Morgan said, and her words fell on the same beat as Denise’s. “I’ve always loved you.”
“So you slept with Ben?” Sarah yelled. Her eyes did not stray from the screen.
“I don’t know,” Morgan said. She watched Sarah. “I just—I didn’t mean to.”
“What do you mean you didn’t mean to?”
“He was there. He came on to me,” Morgan whispered. Then she broke character. “I mean, it’s kind of true. He’s the one married to her.”
Sarah glanced at Morgan and rolled her eyes. “Shh,” she said. Then she modulated her voice, said, “We were friends! Friends don’t do that to friends!”
Denise backed away from Lucinda, curled an arm over her chest, smeared her mascara with the other. “I hate this part,” Morgan said, just as Lucinda slapped Denise.
“That’s not how you show love,” Sarah whispered, Lucinda yelled, and the scene ended with a close-up of Denise walking away.
“So melodramatic,” Morgan said.
“I think it’s romantic.”
“They stay friends, I mean, but they don’t end up together in the end.”
“But they were never really supposed to be anyway.”
“Are you for real?” Morgan said. She set the pillow she was holding between them. “She stops loving her for no reason.”
Sarah only shrugged. “It’s not supposed to be believable,” she said. “Next episode?” She didn’t wait for Morgan’s response before hitting the button.
Typical, Morgan thought. She wasn’t mad, though. Not even annoyed. Sarah was like that: she did what was natural to her without thinking. Morgan had not grown used to it. She’d never had to grow used to it in the first place because it was just a natural facet of their friendship. Sarah would eat from her plate, change the station in her car, invite herself over, and Morgan wouldn’t register that she’d done it without asking, or thinking to ask. Sarah was simply comfortable with herself, comfortable with Morgan, and Morgan was by extension simply comfortable with her.
That was changing. It had been changing for the past month after Morgan started to notice the way her skin prickled whenever Sarah would lean against her as they watched their show, and Morgan couldn’t stop looking at her. At first, it seemed like Sarah was just being Sarah. Acting without thought. Then, Morgan began noticing other things about Sarah, how her friend wasn’t only warm but also someone whose presence against hers was nice. She liked when Sarah smiled.
So as they watched the next episode, which then turned into another, she inched her hand beneath the blanket. It hadn’t been intentional, not at first. As she relaxed, her arm became loose and her fingers slid across the leather seat slowly enough that she did not realize her hand was moving until the tip of her fingernail brushed against something soft and stiff. When she realized it was a hand, Sarah’s knuckle, her shoulder jerked in a shiver.
A year later, after Sarah’s death, on the cusp of senior year with fewer friends than she had started high school with, she would not remember how calloused Sarah’s hand felt beneath hers or how cold the basement smelled. She’d remember how short the moment had been. How Sarah had allowed one gentle sweep of fingertip against knuckle before she pulled back without bothering to look at Morgan.
“Sorry,” Sarah said.
With Grandma Owens living alone, Morgan sometimes worried she’d walk in to find her dead. It happened again the day she found out the dahlias were being eaten, when she opened the door to silence. It was dreary outside and dreary in the house.
It’s too quiet, Morgan thought, as she flipped the light switch in the hall. What would she do if she found Grandma Owens fallen in the shower? Passed away in her sleep?
She peeked around the corner toward the living room. Grandma Owens was in her chair, bottom slumped forward, chin to chest.
“Grandma?” Morgan said, approaching slowly. When she did not answer, Morgan reached out and gently shook her arm. “Grandma?”
Grandma Owens did not move.
Morgan hovered her palm beneath Grandma Owens’s nose to see if she could feel her breath. No breath.
She looked at Grandma Owens’s chest to see if it was moving. There, was that an inhale? Quick as a snake bite, Morgan poked Grandma Owens’s belly, and, with a gasp, Grandma Owens came to.
Morgan tripped back into the coffee table.
Grandma Owens scooted herself upright and licked her lips. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Morgan said. “Just thought you were dead.”
“Well,” Grandma Owens said, as she struggled to get up. “I’m only 76. Still got some years in me.”
“Hopefully.” Morgan gave her a hand. In the near year she’d been coming over to Grandma Owens’s house for refuge from her parents’ worried stares after school, Morgan had noticed that getting up was becoming increasingly difficult for Grandma Owens. “And you’re 78, not 76.”
“No one likes a smart ass.” She batted Morgan away.
Morgan rolled her eyes. Grandma Owens could be so progressive sometimes, Morgan thought. She didn’t believe the death penalty should be legal. She thought that fellow, Obama, was spectacular. But she also thought remarrying would be cheating on her husband even though he’d been dead twenty years and that Morgan ought to do something more with her hair. “I think I’ll be okay,” Morgan said.
“I know, but no one likes a smart ass,” she said, pulling up her pants and wandering toward the window to her garden. “They’re dying,” she said while watching a bird peck at the buds on her dahlias. “All that work, dying so the animals eating them can live.”
“It’s getting too cold for flowers anyway.”
Grandma Owens scoffed. “No,” she said. “It’ll be warm again before you know it.” She moved toward the door, squeezing Morgan’s arm while passing her by.
“Don’t forget your coat,” Morgan said, pulling it from the back of the chair by the entrance. They were going to a vigil for a girl who was killed in a car accident in the town over. Morgan did not know her, but Grandma Owens felt it was important they pay their respects. “It’s freezing out.” It was December. They had the whole winter to go before spring.
“I’ll be fine.”
“It’s right here, so you may as well wear it.”
Grandma Owens sighed and allowed Morgan to lift her arm, slide it into the coat’s sleeve.
“You’re going to need gloves, too,” Morgan said.
“I have pockets.”
“Your hands will crack.”
“Not if I keep them in my pockets.”
“How are you going to hold your candle?” There were always candles at these things. Morgan took the gloves from the side table. “Just wear them.” She picked up Grandma Owens’s hand and carefully began sheathing each limp finger until it was protected from the cold. As soon as she finished, Grandma Owens turned toward the door and stepped outside.
It was just before noon, so the sun was not yet at its peak. There was a breeze, which was typical considering the acres of flat farmland abundant in Liberty Ridge, Ohio. Grandma Owens had lived there all her life, claiming to love the open space. Morgan found the emptiness suffocating.
“Wait,” she called to Grandma Owens, who was already to the car. She caught the ends of Grandma Owens’s coat as they flapped open. “You need to zip up.” She snapped each button to Grandma Owens’s neck and did not say anything when she noticed they’d forgotten the scarf.
“It’s not lost on me,” Grandma Owens said, opening the car door and sliding each leg in one at a time, “how once upon a time I used to buckle you in. Take you to soccer practice.”
“I remember,” Morgan said.
“Those were good times,” Grandma Owens said, holding Morgan still. “Those were the best times.”
Morgan remembered them as her unaware times. Back when Grandma Owens took care of her, and she only worried about doing her homework. Back when Grandma Owens’s main concern was making sure Morgan came home from school on time, and she didn’t worry about her not coming home at all. It was before Morgan was aware of what she had and what she didn’t.
“How come you didn’t tell me?” Morgan said, but what she meant was,“How come you didn’t tell me that life only ever got harder?”
Grandma Owens pulled a tissue out of her pocket, a mote of white fibers streaking its journey from coat to nose. She dabbed at her face. “What?”
“Nothing,” Morgan said. The wind knocked the door against her hip, but at least she blocked Grandma Owens from the worst of it. “Nothing,” she said because at least one of them was tucked away from the elements. “Sorry,” she said, not sure about what. Sorry they couldn’t go back to when things were easier? Sorry it felt like each breath was more difficult than the last?
The safety assembly was held during last period like it was every winter. The town’s whole police department and some firefighters would come in, one to each classroom, to talk about how kids could protect themselves. One year, it had been on drugs. Another, on drunk driving.
Morgan was in health class when Sheriff Bill arrived. She recognized him from the news coverage on the Tarkins, remembered how he described Sarah’s death as a “tragic occurence,” as if it was just an accident, as if no one had to pick up a gun or have the thought to shoot.
“Domestic violence,” he said, dragging his gaze across the room. He stood in the middle, thumbs in his belt loops. “We get a lot of calls—a lot of calls—from girls who’ve been hit. From wives looking to leave their husbands. Sisters claiming their brothers threatened them. Hell, we even got a call from a man the other day.”
He looked each student in the eye as if he could see each of their wrongs.
“Now some of you are in relationships,” Bill said. “I get it. I was young once.” A couple of the boys across from Morgan snorted. Their teacher, Mrs. Javier, did not look up from the papers she was grading. Pacing across the room, Bill said, “You kids think you’re invincible. You think you’re going to live forever. Nothing bad could happen to you. How could it? You’ve got your parents’ protection. You’ve got your teachers. You’ve got your metabolisms, your youth, and you think you know everything.”
He stalked toward the whiteboard behind Mrs. Javier. “Domestic violence,” he said. “How to tell when you’re in that kind of relationship.” He paused, drawing his gaze across each row of desks. “No one will know unless you tell them.”
That time Morgan met Dan over Thanksgiving, he had been quiet, but he hadn’t been mean. Sarah had never said he was mean. She talked about him like Morgan imagined anyone with a brother would—he was annoying, kind of gross. Once, Sarah said that her brother was a loser. That he spent all his time with his fraternity, was barely passing college, had somehow gotten into grad school for philosophy. He was seven years older, so Morgan had only met him the once, hadn’t thought too much of him other than what Sarah sometimes told her.
“How can the police help you if you won’t help yourself? 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner. 94% of those victims are female.” Bill placed his hand on Mrs. Javier’s shoulder, and she straightened, eyes out in front of her, pen poised. The class was quiet except for the rustle of someone’s jeans. “I’ve got news for you. You’re not going to live forever. You all know it. Happened to one of your friends. Happens all the time.”
Morgan sat up. None of these people had been Sarah’s friend. Not like she was.
“I want you to tell someone, anyone, if this is happening to you,” Bill said. “Don’t worry about what will happen to them. We can’t help you if you don’t help you.”
Sarah hadn’t said anything. Had she? Morgan couldn’t remember if there had been any hints. Any inexplicable bruises. Morgan could remember the feel of Sarah’s arm when they accidentally touched. She could remember Sarah’s second toe being longer than the first, how when she laughed, the dip of her lip was crooked. But she couldn’t remember any of the signs of abuse people talked about. What if there was one? What if there were none?
When Sarah died, Morgan had looked up what would happen to her body when it was embalmed, if it would be like an unwrapped mummy, mud-colored and shriveled. She’d spent hours researching, but she couldn’t remember what she’d found when she googled, “How do they make a dead body look alive?” Only what she’d learned about what morticians did to the lips. “When you die, they’ve got to keep your mouth shut with a wire. They shoot a staple gun between your lips and your gum. Stuff cotton balls in your mouth,” she’d told Grandma Owens on the way to Sarah’s memorial service, and her mother had gasped Morgan’s name from the front seat, told her to hush. Her father’s eyes in the rearview mirror, concern deepening his wrinkles.
“Don’t become a statistic,” Sheriff Bill said, moving to the wall behind Mrs. Javier, who was scanning each of her students. Her eyes came to settle on Morgan’s. She had dark irises that blended with her pupils. Morgan did not want to see the pity resting there. “Don’t become a victim.”
Victim. That was what Morgan’s old therapist would call A Trigger. It had been said in the days and weeks following Sarah’s death. It had become Sarah’s name. The Victim, according to the local news. His Victim. The freshmen at school who hadn’t known Sarah called her that. That guy Dan, they said—because somehow his name endured—the one who killed himself and his sister. Court TV hadn’t bothered covering any of it. Sarah had been a Too Typical Victim, Grandma Owens said. Victim of Circumstance. Residual Victim, how Morgan’s dad had described Morgan to Grandma Owens when she’d told him about Morgan’s crying even months after Sarah died. If only Sarah had said something, everyone said, then maybe she could have been saved. If anyone had just done anything.
In Morgan’s chest, there was a tightness spreading. She was cold all over, but between her breasts she was burning. The Sheriff Bills and Mrs. Javiers of the world wanted them to be safe—to report threatening behavior, to not drink, drive recklessly, have sex, do drugs, sell drugs, have drugs, to not hurt one another, to not hurt themselves, but they didn’t teach them how during these assemblies; they just told them not to, and Morgan found herself wondering, more often than not, about that how. They talked about once—how it only took one time having sex, one time drinking, one time not looking both ways. It seemed for every precautious step she took, something walked her back three.
Sarah had been at home when she was killed. Being safe hadn’t saved her.
Morgan stood up, shoulders slumped, trembling fingers fiddling with the string of her hoodie. Bill paused with his arms crossed. Mrs. Javier, looking almost fearful, placed her fingertips on her desktop, as if she would stand, too. “How?” Morgan said through the lump in her throat.
A boy a few rows down giggled awkwardly.
When no one answered, she tried again, “What are we supposed to do?”
Mrs. Javier looked to Bill, who said, “You tell us. When you’re being hurt, you tell us, and we help you.”
“But what if you don’t?”
“But what if you can’t?”
“You keep saying that,” Morgan said, crossing her arms over her middle. “Every year, you guys come in here and tell us to be safe, but people keep getting hurt anyway.”
Bill spread his legs out in a triangle, crossed his arms. “We are doing the best we can.” Like that explained everything.
“That’s not good enough.”
“Morgan,” Mrs. Javier said, standing then. “Please.”
“Now, calm down,” Bill said. He held up his palms, but his mouth was straight, his tone sharp. “No need to get emotional.”
Morgan shook her head, could feel her words piling up like they did in the car on the way to Sarah’s memorial. She could feel the lightness in her head, stark against the heaviness in her shoulders. She could feel herself sinking, always sinking, but fighting to breathe.
“Bill,” Mrs. Javier said.
“Sit down, sweetheart.”
Sarah’s lips had been stapled shut, cotton balls shoved inside, and he wanted Morgan to sit down. Be still. Watch her mouth. Sarah hated silence. Even more, she hated empty promises.
Morgan locked her knees.
“Don’t,” she said looking from Bill to Mrs. Javier. It came out evenly despite what she felt. The most unwavering thing she’d said in the year since Sarah’s death. “Fuck you and your promises.” She looked from Bill to Mrs. Javier to the blank whiteboard. Fuck everything, she thought. The clearest thought she’d had.
Sarah is still dead.
The garden was officially dead. It was the beginning of December now, and when the days got colder, Morgan and Grandma Owens would have to wait until the spring before they began anew. Summer was always the best time for the garden, Grandma Owens said, but her favorite time was now when the work was at its hardest and, Morgan thought, the most fruitless.
They were out back of Grandma Owens’s house again, and Grandma Owens did not care so much that the dahlias were dead. She was worried for her Christmas roses.
“Now, you’ll need to plant them in spots with full shade,” Grandma Owens said. She’d positioned herself in a lawn chair, cocooned in a throw.
“Nowhere that floods, I know,” Morgan said. They were late planting the roses this year because of the unusual bouts of cold. “You’ve seen the news today, right? That little girl that died? Her mom was found guilty.”
“They’ll execute her,” Grandma Owens said. Morgan looked up, mid-dig. Grandma Owens was watching a wren. “Young and pretty thing like that? They’ll make an example out of her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“They will. You watch.” Grandma Owens was smiling.
For a moment, Morgan stared. When Grandma Owens didn’t look back, Morgan picked up a rose, pushed the plastic bottom of the planter gently inside-out, and placed the plant in the hole. All around them were the crisp brown stalks of the last flowers, remains marking what once was. They’d be lucky if these lasted even a week, let alone through a snow.
“You got suspended, I heard,” Grandma Owens said. This time, when Morgan glanced over, she was looking at her. “Heard you said some bad words at school, started a little rebellion during an assembly.”
Morgan rolled her eyes. “He had it coming.”
“Oh dear,” Grandma Owens said, blotting her nose. “Don’t all men?”
Morgan laughed. “Yeah, they do.”
The sun was inching its way out of a cloud. Nearby, a squirrel snickered. It was the warmest day they’d had in a long while. Morgan pushed her sleeves up to bare her wrists for the warmth. The muscles in her back began to loosen. The edges of her lips curling up. The last time she’d felt relaxed had been before Sarah died. The last time she remembered feeling happy—deliriously and fearfully so—had been the day she and Sarah had gone to the pool. The last day of the last summer of Sarah’s life.
They went in the evening. Sarah was sunburnt from the day before. Not many people were there. There was a boy and a girl kissing on the pool steps. A middle-aged group of friends, drinking tequila under an umbrella. Morgan and Sarah had the deep end to themselves. Under the sunset, they rested their forearms on the side, talking about their show until Sarah abruptly changed subjects. She said, “Do you ever wonder what it’s like to kiss?”
Morgan blushed. Truthfully, she’d thought about it a lot. Whose lips went on top? Which way did they tilt their faces? How would she know when someone wanted her to kiss them? She shook her head.
“I have,” Sarah said. She swished her legs behind her, causing gentle ripples.
Morgan imagined it would be like Legos. One piece would insert itself perfectly into another.
“Do you think,” Sarah said, “we could make a pact?”
“Like we will marry each other if we’re still single at forty?”
Sarah let out an abrupt laugh, the kind Morgan had never heard come from her before. She looked so serious with her mouth like that in a line. She said, “No. If we graduate, and we don’t have boyfriends by then, let’s kiss, so we can say we’ve done it before college. Okay?”
Morgan was sure her cheeks were sunburnt on the inside-out. She opened her mouth to speak, but she saw the couple on the steps, the boy looming over the girl, their lips attached, a hook in a fish. She heard one of the middle-aged women say, “Do you remember when we were like that?” and another say, “Paul and I were so in love. I thought we’d get married.” And Morgan looked at Sarah; her friend was staring at the wrinkles on her hands. Morgan felt her own vibrating against the cement side of the pool, the roots of her hair drying. She held her breath. Allowed herself to sink below the surface, where she opened her eyes and stared at the blur of Sarah’s backside, how the tie on her bottoms extended like a finger, waving gently up and down in hello. What would she tell Sarah? she wondered, closing her eyes as she was drawn upward by the water, but it was a fleeting thought, one usurped by unknown possibility, a terrible weightlessness in her body, a block of bricks in her head. She knew what she wanted, but when she resurfaced, she found Sarah no longer propped against the side. Sarah was behind her, floating on her back with her eyes closed as if in sleep. “Look at me,” Sarah said then, “basking in the moonlight.” How would Morgan ever forget?
She wouldn’t. Not over a year later. Not twenty in the future. Morgan pushed the thought away with a stick of the spade in the ground, but the blade caught on something hard.
“Mom brought up the doctor again,” Grandma Owens said.
Morgan grimaced. Therapy after Sarah’s death had not worked. It would never work when the doctor, who claimed to understand, would never understand, not when Morgan couldn’t. She pulled off the gardening gloves, scratched her forehead. “No,” she said and would have said more, but she lost her train of thought when she felt the gentle glide of chilled fingertips across the back of her neck. One sweep of a middle finger, the slight brush of a thumb along her spine.
“I know,” Grandma Owens said. Her back was hunched like a cupped hand over an ear. She said, “Babydoll, I know you don’t want to,” with another smooth of her thumb. No one had softer skin than Grandma Owens. “It’s hard,” Grandma Owens said, placing her other palm against Morgan’s cheek, “growing up. Being the one that lives. But someday—it may not seem like it right now—but someday, you’ll feel less scared and less alone.” She slid her fingers beneath Morgan’s chin and stepped away.
There was that suffocating pressure in Morgan’s lungs again, a monster pecking at her like the birds had been pecking at Grandma Owens’s dahlias. “When?” Morgan asked. It came out strangled, throat bone-dry and closing.
Grandma Owens lowered herself to the ground beside her, placing a cold fist over Morgan’s. “Mercy,” she said. “Lord have mercy. What have I told you? You’ve got to put your hip into it.”
With a firm yet tender grip, Grandma Owens held Morgan’s hand as she forced the spade into the earth. They worked in unbroken silence for several minutes until a gust of breath broke loose from Morgan’s mouth. They did not acknowledge it. They simply dug a place for the rose. The place where it would live. The place where it would one day die. And there was no moonlight, hardly any sunlight, but Morgan was there, in the garden. On her knees.
Demanding the ground give.
Chelsie Bryant is an Ohio native currently living in Portland, Maine. In her spare time, she enjoys photographing her cat, har, who spells his name in lowercase because he makes the rules; he doesn’t follow them. Her work has been featured in Willow Springs, Michigan Quarterly Review, Yemassee, Passages North, Word Riot, and in other places. She can be found on Instagram @chelsie_bryant and Twitter @chelsbry.