I squirm in my seat for the thousandth time.
Mom looks at me sharply from her peripheral view, Dad on her right side, stopping any further intervention. There is no room for my movement on the church bench. The church is brimming with people, brimming with cries, and brimming with memories. It’s suffocating.
I don’t want to be here.
Jackson doesn’t want to be here, either. The usual smile on his face is missing and I’m sure the twinkle in his eyes isn’t there, but I can’t be sure because his eyes have been closed. His eyes were his tell; whenever he would lie, he would blink like sand got blown into them. His cheeks have formed canyons and the satin lining of the casket swallows him in his all-black suit.
It looks similar to the one he wore at prom. His eyes were alive that night and his gaze was only for Susie, his girlfriend at the time. I always joked they would go on to be the next power couple: the next Obama and Michelle or Will and Jada.
But then they broke up and Jackson never told me why. I guess he wanted to take the reason to his grave.
Mr. and Mrs. Gordon take the stage next. The organ behind them fills the church with a familiar melancholy monody as they try to read what they have written. Their voices are barely a whisper, even as they almost swallow the microphone, but for me, their words ricochet off the centuries-old paintings and echo through my body.
They talk about how he’d always try to share his food with them when he ate, even as a baby. How he took two weeks to learn to ride a bike because he was scared of falling. How he taught his younger sister to blow a bubble with gum. How he loved to help. How he cared.
That’s what I thought, too.
They are still at huddled over the podium when their voices begin to distort. I scan the room and faces start to meld into each other. It’s happening. I clasp my hands together, rocking back and forth in my seat, trying to hide my gasps. Mom places her hand gently over my locked ones and points outside.
I can hardly contain my gasps as we get outside. They start at once: each of them fighting to be released first and one beginning before another has passed. They leave me a hacking mess, with stares coming from all directions. Mom tries to get me to focus on her and I’m trying, but my chest is still tight and I can’t force out any words to her.
Then, just as it builds it fades away, but the feeling of not getting a breath in never does. I nod at her, she nods back. Dad has joined us now. He looks at me with cautious eyes and pulls me into his arms.
I hate this. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to miss him because he should be here just like I am.
He needs to be here to explain what he did.
I am the only person in this row not actively crying. I’ve checked. I almost feel like a fraud. Almost.
My mom’s face is streaked and she’s gone through half of her tissue pack. I get it. My mom knew Jackson, but I knew him better, which is why I'm not crying.
According to my mom, I’ve known Jackson since before I was born. His mom and my mom were longtime friends and got pregnant at the same time so we were raised as brothers. It felt like we were, too sometimes. He’s the only one who knew about my ‘accident’ at that farm in sixth grade. (That school trip was a nightmare and that horse did not like me.) He was the one who carried me after I almost fainted during the marathon in seventh grade. Then, in eighth grade when I spent the entire year pining over a boy who didn’t want me and laughed in my face when I asked him to be my date to the dance, Jackson was there too. I was a mess back then—and Carlos still didn’t deserve me.
Jackson was always trying to play the hero. He was two weeks older than me, which clearly meant something to him. But honestly, out of the two of us, I was the brave one which is how my ‘accident’ happened in the first place.
When ninth grade rolled around, I noticed the cords of our fourteen-year friendship starting to fray. My mom noticed it, too, but I never told her the true reason behind it. Jackson had all these see-through excuses of why he didn’t want to hang out anymore. He was a crap liar, but I didn’t want to force anyone to be friends with me. Not even someone I considered a brother until I didn’t.
Did you hear? He slept with Ms. Quill. I heard it was Mr. Olivera. Maybe it was both of them. I heard he has a thing for horses. I heard his mother is a prostitute. That would explain why he sleeps with teachers for grades. I heard he gives out ‘favours’ in the bathroom for $10.
There are probably more that I haven’t even heard of. The vultures never stopped; they were just as rabid as when they began. I had never had many friends in the first place so I found most of their teasing entertaining to say the least. Maybe they’d send me to the moon next or turn me into a merman. I had the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, sort of attitude, until I realized who had joined them. He wasn’t just a member of the club, either; he was the president.
My mom suddenly jolts me back to the present. Jackson’s parents are on the pulpit lying and they don’t even know it. Helpful? Caring? Trustworthy? I’d put all my trust in bungee-jumping before I trusted him again. (There is nothing brave above free-falling to your almost death.)
There is nothing honourable about betraying someone you once called your brother, either, despite how Susie has tried to spin the story. Especially not for the leeches sitting upfront with his family. I don’t know what Jackson allowed them to do to him but he was unrecognizable the last I had spoken to him two years ago in eleventh grade.
So for that, he gets none of my tears.
I couldn’t bring myself to enter the church. There’s too much of him in there. Bouquets of blue border the stage and the podium. The pews are filled with people who knew his story—or half of it. They were playing his song, too. I’d recognize it anywhere. He loved to get lost in his art, playing morose melodies over forlorn chords on his keyboard, eyes shut tightly, willing the notes to whisk him away to a new world.
I stand where I have been for the past hour, under the shade of a large fig tree, Amrie, my older sister’s arm clasped around me. The wind whispers to me where I stand and if I close my eyes for a minute, just like he would do, I'm with him and all is right again. I never understood why he would always do that. I’m reminded when I see Mason half-run out of the church with his parents.
He’s having another one. That might be my fault.
The Fords are in their own bubble like I am, everyone else preoccupied with their own sorrow. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him. But he deserved to know. So did Royce.
“Why do you like me?” The question would come frequently out of nowhere.
“Because you're cute and I’m cute so we go together,” I’d reply, laughing and he would laugh too, until one time only my laughter rang out.
“No, really. Why?” I had looked at him confused, searching his eyes for the source of his doubt. They had been clouded over by something. Guilt.
“Because you’re thoughtful and funny and kind.”
He recited the words to himself and laughed emptily. “Okay.” He never further explained and I never asked.
And so I thought it was fine until he dumped me on prom night. The night was great, too. We were both cute and matching in burgundy. We danced to every song: sometimes with Mason, who didn’t have a date, and who Jackson was protective over, and then just us on the gym floor. The entire night I caught him sneaking glances at me, sometimes just full-on staring. I know why now.
“We need to talk.”
“Ugh. That’s a gross way to end the night.” I was still dancing to imaginary music, though my heels with my heels on were on fire.
He grabbed his neck and held me stable. “I don’t think we should date anymore.”
My smile fell to the ground. “Stop. Rewind. Where were you tonight?” I motioned to the school gym doing some version of the robot.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” he continued anyway. “You should be with someone better than me. Someone with more integrity.”
He had waited for me to say something. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
“I’ve been a horrible friend to some people—one person actually. He’ll never forgive me for it.”
It was after his death that I learned he had been the conspirator behind all of the rumors going around about Royce. I didn’t really know him except for all I had heard. Even though I heard it from Jackson himself, I couldn’t believe it. And neither could Mason.
Jackson had made himself a separate clique just for that. What kind of person does that, I had first thought, replaying all our interactions in my mind. Then I wondered what kind of person was I to have liked such a person. And what kind of person I still am to cry for him.
So I tried to make it right for Jackson by clearing it up with Royce who just shunned me. Understandably. Those rumors have been going on since his freshman year. I swear I saw him today in one of those pews somewhere so maybe he’s changed his mind.
I don’t know if I have yet—or if I will.