From the top of the mountain, the valley below was stunning. Everything was painted fire colors, the peak of autumn arriving as predicted in the second week of October. Stella felt a lump in her throat—how appropriate that they were here on Jaz’s birthday. Stella could still hear her throaty voice, every year, reminding them that the pinnacle of fall color always fell near her birthday.
Ash-spreading was a strange custom, Stella thought, glancing down at her portion of Jaz, nestled in plastic inside a tiny gift bag, purple of course. The gift bags in Jaz’s favorite color had been her mother’s idea. Jaz wouldn’t want to be dumped out of generic tin without fanfare. She would want a ceremonial good-bye, something sassy and beautiful. So, it was glittery plum bags with silver ribbons tying them shut.
Stella let her eyes fall out of focus as she waited for the others. Her mother Anna, her brother Alex, and a handful of friends and family members. The blazing reds and yellows and oranges melded together and her tears threatened. She had always known, somewhere in her soul, that Jaz wasn’t going to be around long. As a child, she told herself stories to block out those thoughts, but as an adult, she had never been successful at that.
The strangest part was that Jaz’s death had been so…terse. Stella had thought perhaps she’d go out in a blaze of glory, crashing the motorcycle she loved so much. Or going down in a fiery plane en route to one of her many adventures—Greece, Belize, Australia. As an adult, the reality of truths she’d always known were hard to ignore. Jaz was destined to die from something more sinister. Suicide, maybe? There had always been a darkness holding up the vibrancy she exuded. A loneliness, despite always being surrounded. Cirrhosis, eventually. A car accident—because drunk driving was just a thing that Jaz did.
But tripping and falling in her yard in such a way that her head struck a rock? And lying there, bleeding to death for over a day before someone had come up on this mountain and found her? That seemed beneath Jaz. It seemed like the wrong ending—falling victim to a stony terrain. Stella glanced over her shoulder at the others, wondering which of the rocks around the house had been the culprit. No one had pointed it out, and why would they? The ground and the recent rain had absorbed Jaz’s death, her life. It was morbid…almost as morbid as holding the ash-spreading in the same place. Stella stared at her mother and Alex, boring holes in their backs, willing them to stop talking and get on with it. But as usual, no one noticed her.
It had always been that way. Anna and Alex had dynamic personalities. They were charismatic, they were entertaining dinner guests, they were storytellers. Maybe that was why Stella and Jaz had been so close. Jaz had been Stella’s “Aunt Jaz” since before she could remember. Her mother’s best friend, she had taken a special liking to Stella, always pulling her out of herself to join the crowd. Jaz was just as vivacious as her mother, but she had an intuition about Stella that others seemed to lack. She always took the time to go up to Stella’s room and listen to her introduce each and every one of her stuffed animals; to play endless rounds of Go Fish. She gifted Stella with extravagant make-up sets, salon trips, tickets to plays and trips to New York City.
When Jaz slept over, she would always come into Stella’s room before bed. She would climb under the pink down comforter, and they would snuggle and giggle like schoolgirls until Anna would come in and exasperatedly ask Jaz to please go to sleep. Even at that age, Stella understood that Jaz sleeping over wasn’t some feel-good slumber party, but rather because she’d had three times as much wine as everyone else and couldn’t drive home. Still, Stella so dearly remembered those moments, snuggled under the covers in pink-hued darkness, melting in Jaz’s love and attention.
A point came, Stella didn’t know when—maybe she was twelve? —when Anna sat her and Alex down and had one of those scary adult conversations that started with hey guys, I need to talk to you about something serious. Somehow, Stella had known it was about Jaz. Just a few days before, at the annual fourth of July party her mother threw each year, Jaz had apparently reached the breaking point in her mother’s tolerance for drunken behavior. Stella hadn’t quite understood the level of ire. All the grown-ups drank. And, after all, Jaz was Anna’s best friend. Like best friend. They had both lost their husbands unexpectedly around the same time, solidifying an otherwise normal friendship with tight traumatic bonds.
But on that particular fourth of July, Jaz had apparently had gone overboard. Her behavior, Anna said in a grave tone, was inappropriate. It was unacceptable. Fifteen-year-old Alex agreed, citing the numerous inappropriate things she had said to his friends. The biggest problem, her mother stated, was that Jaz had snuck off and driven home, for the millionth time.
“I can’t condone it,” Anna sighed, wearily, sadly. She looked nearly as heartbroken as she had when the policemen rapped on the front door on the worst day ever, delivering the news that her husband had perished in an accident. “So, I’m taking a little break from Jaz.”
Stella, at the naïve age of twelve, had not understood what the issue was. Okay, so Jaz drove home. She made it didn’t she? She always made it. Stella tried to picture what “taking a break” meant. She envisioned her mother and Jaz not speaking for a while, maybe a week, and then eventually they would fall into each other again, because that’s the kind of friends they were. Sisters. Soulmates.
But the break meant a few years of no Jaz. When she finally started coming around again, she was different and so was Stella. Stella had morphed into a teenager, and Jaz was harder. Her carefree spirit remained, but there was an edge to it, as if someone had rubbed sandpaper all over the real Jaz. Her drinking was tabled now. Every time she poured a glass of wine after dinner, she would announce don’t worry, I’m just having one, as if she had to say it aloud to really believe it. And when she inevitably had more than one, she relented to Plan B, which was her Uber app.
“At least she isn’t driving anymore,” her mother confided in Stella, as if Stella was a grown-up instead of a teenage girl. But even at fifteen, Stella could feel the conflict brewing in Anna. She had missed Jaz tremendously, but the worry was still there. The irritation was still there.
Now, Stella went over to her mother. She put her hand on her arm, ready to whisper something insistent in order to get this show on the road. But when Anna turned to her, the anguish in her eyes was so profound that Stella said nothing. Anna gripped her hand gratefully, as if Stella had come over to offer moral support. Across the small crowd, silhouetted by blue skies and half naked trees, Alex was having a congenial conversation with one of Jaz’s brothers. They were laughing. Laughing!
Feeling insignificant as always, Stella wandered back to the edge of the yard, where the ground dropped beneath her at such a steep angle that Jaz had named it The Cliff. When Stella was little, they used to sit there, right up at the edge of The Cliff, legs swinging. Jaz would point out all the birds, the milk thistle poking out of the side of the earth, and whatever wild seasonal growth was blooming. She would let Stella use her expensive binoculars, heavy black things that made Stella feel important, even though she never learned to focus them properly.
“Do you see it?” Jaz would ask, with excitement over whatever they were watching, and Stella would always answer yes because it thrilled Jaz to be teaching her something, anything. She would feel the warmest and most loved she’d ever felt on the side of The Cliff with Jaz. It wasn’t lost on her in later years that Jaz always had a tumbler of wine next to her, but it just didn’t matter to Stella the way it seemed to matter to others.
Stella sank to the ground, relenting to accept that social hour was going to happen before the ash-spreading. She slid off her cardigan, letting the unseasonal balmy weather hit her bare arms. Jaz would have loved this—seventy degrees in October. She reveled in nature—in everything really. Stella couldn’t remember the number of texts she’d received from Jaz over the years, peppered with exclamation marks and emojis. About the moon. About the snowfall. About the crocuses pushing through the earth, a sure sign of spring. Telling her to get outside, because it was a beautiful day. Reminding her of the summer solstice, the winter solstice, any type of eclipse. Who was going to remind her of that now?
Everyone had been talking for days about Jaz’s demise. Shaking their heads in sadness laced with judgement. Saying things like its so sad when their faces said it was bound to happen. Even Alex—so cocky and full of prudence. Well, what did she expect, drinking the way she did? Alex, who Jaz taught to swim one summer when he was eight and still terrified of water and their mother had no patience? Alex, who gleefully unwrapped expensive Lego sets from Jaz every Christmas, the ones no one else would buy. Alex, who Jaz counseled through his first heartbreak at age thirteen, when his middle school girlfriend dumped him without fanfare. Stella wanted to punch her brother—as if he himself didn’t get plastered with his ‘bros’ at the bar after work? As if he was so perfect?
No one was talking about the best things about Jaz. About the selfless ways that she gave herself to everyone she loved. About the gifts she picked out with such thought and precision—there was nothing like opening a present from Jaz, knowing that no matter what it was, you were going to love it. About the light that followed her everywhere. The way she entered a room and bam, just like that, the day got better.
No, it was only Stella that seemed to remember the way she sparkled. Not even Anna, who supposedly loved Jaz more than anyone. Stella wasn’t thinking about the times that Jaz was so drunk she couldn’t even form words. She wasn’t thinking about the way the other adults in a crowd looked at her, rolling their eyes and sighing as Jaz stumbled about, slopping wine out of her cup. She was thinking about the other things, the things that had filled up her entire childhood, that had oozed through the spaces that no one else seemed to even notice.
She was thinking about how Jaz always came with them to get a Christmas tree, bouncing with joy at the prospect of trudging through the tree farm, when everyone else was complaining about the cold. How she let Stella borrow her real fur coat one Halloween, and how she wasn’t even mad when Stella got a blue lollipop stuck in the soft gray fur. She was thinking about how Jaz taught her how to make pressed cookies, and how to clip a dog’s nails without nicking them, and how to apply eyeliner so she didn’t look like a hooker.
Stella was thinking about her twenty-first birthday, when Jaz invited herself to tag along with Stella and her girlfriends. Her mother had rolled her eyes, but Jaz had only wanted to be the one to buy Stella’s first shot, and Stella didn’t understand what the problem was. Jaz met her at the bar, ordering two shots of apple whiskey.
“Happy birthday, my girl,” she’d said, and they’d clinked glasses and downed the warm, burning liquid. Jaz had hugged her and graciously exited, leaving Stella to her friends. Something in Stella’s gut told her it was supposed to be weird, maybe wrong? But instead, it felt just right. Jaz was part of everything in her life, why shouldn’t she be part of her twenty-first birthday as well?
Stella was especially thinking about the night when her mother had to go on some business trip or another, and she’d asked Jaz to stay with Stella, who was seventeen but not really comfortable alone overnight. Anna had made a point to insist that Jaz not drink, and—knowing she would anyhow—instructed Stella that if they went anywhere, Stella was to drive. Stella had rolled her eyes—her mother was worried but Stella was elated at the prospect of a whole night with just Jaz. She didn't care if she drank or not.
As expected, Jaz was tipsy by dinnertime, but Stella didn’t mind. The moon was full, and Jaz had insisted they go outside. Unlike Jaz’s mountain, Stella’s house was in a development, and the only way to get a full view of the sky was to lie at the end of the driveway. And so they did, wrapped in blankets and not minding what the neighbors might think. They stared at the moon, bathing in it’s light, and Jaz explained Mercury in retrograde. It reminded Stella of the old days when Jaz used to sleep over and snuggled into her bed.
“I love you so much, girly,” Jaz had slurred when they went back inside, Stella holding her elbow. “You know that right?”
“I love you too, Aunt Jaz,” Stella had said. She remembered feeling warm and cherished and almost giddy with contentment. The fact that Jaz was drunk was irrelevant to Stella.
Suddenly, Stella became aware of the crowd encroaching on her. She stood up quickly, annoyed that after all this waiting around things were now happening in fast-forward, just as she was lovingly pulling out all her best memories. Anna turned to face the crowd, backlit by the inferno of color and the sky, which was turning golden.
“There’s a lot I could say, but Jaz would say it better, so I won’t even try,” Anna said, blinking fast. “Suffice it to say, she was a force. Despite everything, we all loved her immensely.”
Why did you have to say that? Stella thought. Why did you have to say ‘despite everything’? Why couldn’t you just say we loved her? Why couldn’t you say more? She deserved more.
But with that, everyone started opening their bags, untying the ribbon and fumbling with the plastic. Jaz was instantly floating in the air, and instead of looking like sand falling, as Stella imagined, it was more like dust that faded into the lowering light of the sun. She stood there, stunned. This was really happening.
There was a hand on her back. Alex—she knew without looking. She shifted her gaze and caught his eye and was surprised to see it shining, the hint of a tear. He had a heart, after all. In that moment, Alex looked like the little boy she’d grown up with. Stripped of his arrogant maleness and reduced to who he really was without all the bravado. He offered her a benevolent smile, encouragement to return Jaz to the earth. She shook her head. She wasn’t ready.
One by one, the mourners retreated. Her mother stopped before her, questioning without words. But Stella only shook her head again, and when everyone else had gone back to the house, resuming the banal socializing, Stella sat down.
She dangled her legs over the edge of The Cliff, and let tears come. Jaz would have told her, screw them. Jaz would have said, mourn the way you need to, girlfriend. She stared at the blazing leaves in the last light of the day, once again blown away it was Jaz’s birthday and here they were, dumping her remains in the wind. She tried to push the illusory image of Jaz’s dead body lying motionless, but like everything else, it couldn’t be erased.
She stared over the valley and tried to think what Jaz would do. Jaz would never just chuck ashes into the sky without fanfare, purple glitter bags notwithstanding. But Stella couldn’t think of anything appropriate, and she only wished that Jaz was beside her, swinging her legs and smiling her glorious smile. Then she would know how to say good-bye.
After a long time of motionlessness, after the mourners had left and only her mother and brother remained—sitting on the back deck, waiting—only then did Stella untie her ribbon. Only then did she reach inside for the plastic bag, carefully opening it. She put it up to her face, taking the tiniest of breaths, a piece of Jaz to keep with her forever. She stared for another moment, knowing she could not prolong the inevitable.
A deep breath of bravery—that’s how Jaz would do it. Jaz would plunge into what was uncomfortable and say, bottoms up! Stella sucked in the balmy fall air, let the scent of fall invade her, let the presence of her mother and brother comfort her. She turned the bag upside down and exhaled. Just as she had breathed in a part of Jaz, she now breathed out an entire piece of her life. She stared into the dusky view, gray with only a hint of weak yellow light, and watched the last little bit of Jaz float into the dying day.