My eyes scanned the crowd when I arrived at the podium. A distant crow cawed, as if urging me to get it over with.
“Um, hi,” I said.
My hands flew to my ears when feedback from the microphone squealed. The funeral director let out a ‘whoo!’ jumped to action, adjusting this and that. The noise subsided.
My eyes lingered over familiar faces. High school teachers. Dr. Jones and his wife. I had to blink several times when I discovered that Tabitha had returned from New York for the funeral.In the front rows was the Nash family, my grandma, and Dillon. Trina and her mom, Billy, Leah, and Lauren were in the second rows. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. They flew open with renewed determination.
“Mmkay, s-sorry about that,” the funeral director said. He bowed. I returned his bow.
I love how awkward this guy is, I thought. His nervousness, for some reason, helped me to relax. I like weird people, for I am one of them. I felt guilty for making fun of his suit in my mind the day before. At least people can’t read my mind. I winked at the funeral director.
“It’s okay,” I assured him, patting his back.
“I didn’t write anything down,” I said into the microphone, to close lipped, expressionless crowd, “so just bare with me, here. So, most of you know that my parents were not in the PTA and didn’t have me in karate, piano, and ballet before the age of five.”
I saw a few eyes drop to the grass below. Okay Brie, you need to spin this somehow. Spin it for the good. Was there any good?
“But,” I continued, “this is not a day to focus on that. This is a day of reflection. A day of forgiveness. So that we might all walk away feeling appreciative of our ordinary, everyday blessings.”
I paused to gaze up at the sky. Pure clouds slipped past a orangey golden sun. The wind on my face brought a scent of clean, fresh earth and the trees behind me sounded like a ocean crashing into the the sand. I closed my eyes and thought of my parents. My mind cleared. I connected to the elements around me. The beauty among pain in that moment was the meaning of life. It all made sense.
“Through pain, addiction, broken dreams, and mental illness, my parents managed to keep me alive and well. Despite all of their shortcomings, they gave me life and then managed to feed me, change me, and keep me safe. No one saw the way I use to love Christmas. Despite empty pockets and unpaid bills, I always had things to open on Christmas and I always had a full belly. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure how they did it. All those dark, evil things destroyed them both. But not me.”
I felt a lump form in my throat. The crow in the distance cawed at me again. No matter how difficult if got. I knew I couldn’t leave her out of this. Everyone was thinking of it.
“So I ask you all, please…when you think of Dad and beautiful, sweet, innocent Jessica Fabian….don’t forget to think of me. When you see one of my mother’s low budget movies, think of me. When you hear my dad’s name in the whispers in the bar, think of me. When you hear about life stolen because of addiction, remember that rebirth is always possible. Healing is possible. Survival is in the clutches of your hands. Because against all odds, I was reborn, I healed, and I survived.”
I glanced at Nash, who looked like an everyday angel, sitting in a uncomfortable metal folding chair. He had a stoic expression. His eyes didn’t blink as he focused his attention onto my words. I saw him give me a gentle nod when he noticed my stare. My shoulders physically felt lighter. I remembered doing this funeral for others, and not me. But this purge was exactly what I needed to move on. I kept my eyes on him as I unlocked my heart and let it pour out like cream in a glass.
“Breath in lungs and a beating heart is a promise of a new day. Each moment of life is another chance, even when you’ve already had second, third, fourth and fifth chances. Out of ugliness and death, life emerges from the ashes. Even when the stars fall, and the world around your burns, there is always hope, there is always a chance, there is always beauty. And when you forget, just place your palm on your heart and then think of my mom. Think of my dad. And then, take a minute to think of me.”
My eyes swept the gathering of people. Not a single dry eye.
“Um, thank you.”
“Your speech was gorgeous. Kind of like listening to a symphony. Or something,” Mrs. Jones said. She stroked my arm with her tender hand. “I am so proud of you, Brie.”
I glanced next to me, and Dillon had the same scowl on that he had the entire day. It was as if it was part of his outfit. My grandmother, next to me, was chewing, slurping, and smacking her lips as she ate the overcooked tilapia at the after funeral luncheon.
I smirked when I nibbled on the rice pilaf. My stomach was still full from breakfast at the Nash’s. How I wished I could stab Dillon in the gut with that information.
“Brie,” Dr. Jones said, “please introduce me to this fine young lad at your side.”
“Brie forgets introductions, sir,” Dillon said rolling his eyes. He stood up and held out his hand for a shake. “Allow me. I am Dillon. Dillon McCloud. Brie’s boyfriend.”
Dr. Jones’s jaw dropped a bit. “Okay. I am Dr. Jones.” Dr. Jones shook Dillon’s hand.
“Ah, Brie’s doc, I assume?” Dillon asked, sitting down and putting his paper napkin back over his lap. I wondered if it were the first time Dillon had been to a restaurant without cloth napkins.
“I’m afraid that would violate some severely strict HIPA laws, kind sir.” Dr. Jones replied, his face growing more and more bewildered.
“I’ll ask you again after Brie and I are married,” Dillon said, straightening his back. “If things keep on track, it shouldn’t be too far off, we are entering that season of life. Right dear?”
Dillon leaned in and kissed my cheek. I felt like baby spiders hatched on the skin that Dillon’s lips had grazed. I forced a teeny smile, but refused to answer.
“You are moving right along, aren’t you, young man?” Dr. Jones said, stroking his chin.
“You truly are,” my grandma added, with raised eyebrows.
Dillon lifted his hand to his chest and tilted his head. “Am I? Brie, did you show them your promise ring?”
“No,” I said with a miniature shrug.
“Show them, dear.”
My heart fluttered when I remembered that Nash had took it off and dropped it on the closet floor at Stella’s. I had enough sense through the haze of floating hearts and fireworks to reach down and pick it up, and stuff it in my pocket. The problem was, it was still in my pocket, in the clothes I left in the Nash’s laundry room.
“I-I, um, forgot to wear it. Crazy morning.”
“Well, then,” Dillon said, eyes darting from Dr. Jones to my grandma. “Maybe you should have taken more time, hun. That ring was very expensive and means a lot to us. If you didn’t rush off with Grandma for breakfast at the crack of dawn…”
“What?” My grandma said, with a crinkled forehead. “We didn’t go to breakfast.”
My heart stopped, and I gently kicked my grandma’s ankle. She looked at me.
“Oh-I, um, I mean…” Grandma fumbled.
I didn’t even have to look at Dillon to know that it was too late. I felt his glare radiating on my skin.
“Brie,” Dr. Jones said leaning down and giving me a hug. “Please, let’s get together before you leave.”
“I’ll call you later, Dr. Jones.”
Dr. Jones and Mrs. Jones linked arms and walked away. Dr. Jones kept sneaking glances back. I felt my face grow hot.
“Brie,” Dillon said as he reached over and gripped my wrist. “I think we should go out to my rental and talk.”
“I can’t right now, Dillon,” I said glancing his way once, then quickly away, catching a glimpse of his powder blue eyes. “I need to be here in case any of the guests want to speak to me.”
“Oh Brie,” my grandma said narrowing her eyes, “you don’t need to go to his car at all.”
“Of course, of course,” Dillon said lifting up both of his palms, sending a puppy dog look to my grandma. She rolled her eyes.
“I need some fresh air,” I said, feeling like a pair of hands was clasped over my windpipes.
“I’ll come with,” Dillon said in a quiet voice, scootching back his chair.
“No-no,” I said holding out my palm. “Just me. I need to reflect for a moment. In silence and solitude.”
“Okay,” Dillon said, dropping his eyes. He folded his hands on his lap.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I felt guilt smack me in the chest. Dillon looked so miserable and even though my feelings floated away like a runaway balloon, he loved me. He was hurt and not just his pride and ego. If anyone could empathize with heartache, it was me.
This is fucking ridiculous, my thoughts screamed. I can’t just go to almost hating, to feeling pity, and noticing just how blue his Zac fucking Effron eyes are. Ridiculousness! Pure insanity. From baby spiders to the flaps of butterfly wings and back again. I can’t even.
I scurried out of the door and saw several eyes glance up. I took a gulp of chilly air when I got outside, and my body immediately relaxed to be away from Dillon. Billy was outside smoking. He nodded at me and I flashed a tight lipped smile.
Nope, not in the mood for you, buddy, I thought. Go away.
I turned my back to him and started off in the other direction, heading for no where in particular. Just away from Billy. I rubbed my hands together to get some warmth.
Dillon knows I was lying about my morning whereabouts, I thought. How the fuck do I play this one off?
“Brie?” Lauren called from behind me. “What’s up? Where are you going?”
Lauren spun me around. Her hazel eyes squinted as she studied my own. She buttoned up her black pea coat.
“Needed some air,” I said. “Dillon is…I mean…he’s being Dillon.”
Lauren scrunched her face. “What are you talking about?”
“Did you know he was like this? So overly mannered, so domineering, so quick to make things super serious?” I rubbed the goosebumps on my biceps and stared at Lauren’s jacket with envy.
“Dillon is a great catch,” Lauren said. “What are you getting at?”
“Did you know he was so intense when you set me up with him? Or is hearing this news to you?”
Well, that came out sharper than intended, I thought.
“I thought Dillon was the perfect match for my Mascot Girl trainee, if that’s what you are asking.”
“Before you even knew me?”
Lauren folded her arms. “Yes. Before I knew you…it didn’t matter who you are, any girl would benefit from dating a guy like him.”
“Then why didn’t you date him?” I asked, also folding my arms.
“I was with Bradley,” Lauren said, taking a step forward. “But if I wasn’t…I would have been with Dillon. Okay? Is that what you wanted to hear?”
I blinked hard. “Yes…I mean, no.”
“I went on several dates with Dillon when he was just a freshman and I was the brand new Mascot Girl. I tried to lure him in. All of the Thetas wanted that. And I wanted what they wanted. It was my job, it wasn’t about me. But he chose someone else. A freaking Kappa. She was a junior and they dated for what seemed like ever. I guess he dumped her when she graduated. Anyway, we were all devastated when he went with some Kappa slut. Especially me. Because I couldn’t do the first thing that Theta ever wanted of me.”
“Is that why you pushed so hard for me to be with Dillon? To compensate for what you thought was a shortcoming?”
“Yeah, kind of. Something like that. But I ended up getting close to him anyway. Dillon and I spent a lot of time together, I was always at the frat house. That’s why I was sweetheart. The truth, Brie? You don’t want it.”
“For the love of Christ, tell me. I deserve to know.”
“Well, fine. He drunkenly told me that he made a mistake when he chose someone else. But we knew we couldn’t betray Bradley. It would ruin both of our reputations.”
“Oh my God,” I gasped.
Good news, I’m not in a Rivertown love triangle after all. I’m in a love polygon!
“I found out you were staying with Leah. I guess she mentioned it to one of the girls. I told Dillon ask you out on Christmas. The newbie Mascot Girl. My mini me.”
“Lauren,” I said throwing my hands up. “How could you tell him that? I hadn’t even fully agreed to Mascot Girl.”
“I knew you would.”
“I’m seriously wondering if I should have.”
“Don’t you say that,” Lauren said, pointing her index finger at me.
“I am not a mini Lauren!”
“Well, that has become abundantly clear.”
“All this time I thought that Dillon had given me his number and then asked me out because he genuinely wanted to get to know me. I didn’t know that you were playing us both like your little marionette dolls. I feel sick, right now.”
“Look,” Lauren said, hugging her arms into her chest, ” Like I said, I do care about you. I never knew how difficult your upbringing was and never in a million years did I think my first visit to Kansas would be to support you when your father passed.”
“Which I do appreciate.”
“But you have to understand. Dillon was getting ready to date Krissy, that bimbo Kappa pledge. I had to intervene and convince him to date you, a Theta, instead.”
“Fine, but why behind my back? Why did you both have me believe he just, I don’t know, liked me?”
“He did end up liking you, Brie! Why does it matter how it all started?”
“It just does,” I said, walking past Lauren, and knocking into her shoulder.
Lauren reached out and grabbed my hand. “Stop, Brie, stop. Everything I did. Everything I am. It’s for the love of Theta.”
“Oh I know. And thank you for helping me, in your own way. I appreciate it. I just don’t need anything like that from you ever again. You are alumni now, Lauren. I’m the Mascot Girl. I’m cutting this off. Right now.”
“Brie, I am your friend. You can’t do that to me.”
Fuck you, I have enough friends, I thought as I stared at Lauren. There was always something off about her, no matter how much I grew to like her when she trained me.
“Just watch me,” I said, spinning around and walking back towards the restaurant.