In memory of Chris
“John’s dead, Maggie.” Ann stood in the doorway, her voice hollow and her cheeks streaked. In the two years that she’d been my roommate, I’d never seen her cry.
I dropped the handful of silverware I held.
“What?” It had to be a different John. Not my John.
“He died this morning.”
Our dinner grew cold as the clock on the wall ticked into the silence. Ann pulled me into a hug, her sobs pounding over and over as my heart tried to catch up with my brain.
John is dead. John is dead. John is dead.
I opened my mouth to ask—what? How he died? Yes.
“How—?” I choked. How does anyone die?
Ann backed away and shook her head, her eyes wild.
“He shot himself.”
I can still picture John Tucker Wilson’s dark hair and beard, tall build, and the ex-military muscle rippling along his arms as he strode toward me in the college library. If I try, I can hear his soft, firm voice too. He invited me, a brand-new freshman, out for pizza. And in front of David McConnell, no less, who turned another page in his book and pretended not to listen. I glanced at him sideways, wondering if he cared what I answered. We’d been friends since tenth grade, but he’d never had the courage to ask me for anything more than a spare pencil. So when John took the chance, his expression hopeful, a yes easily slid out, along with a smile that matched his.
At the end of a date filled with shy but comfortable conversation, John suggested we try the Chinese place next week. I opened my mouth to say no, to shake off the weird feeling crawling around my skin. I shouldn’t have wanted a stranger to kiss me after one date. But I did. And I nodded.
Two dates became three, then four, and I finally got that kiss. My first, and worth calling Mom about. When she asked why my voice quivered, the trickle of tears changed into a flood that lasted fifteen minutes. I couldn’t tell her that I longed to kiss him again, and it scared me.
The most awkward situation was when John moved in with David. They’d started working out after classes on weekdays and running together on weekends. When Tom Wells flaked out, John offered to split the rent. After that, wherever John was, David usually showed up. I avoided going to their apartment because I never knew how to act when both guys were in the same room. Was I supposed to pick sides? What if I chose the wrong one? Or lied to them—and myself?
I fled to my car as Ann crawled into bed, her body trembling with more emotion than mine. My headlights sliced through the darkness, but not brightly enough. The night was too deep, too overcast. I wasn’t angry or questioning the meaning of life. Not yet. Nothing reached my senses, not even the worn rubber of the steering wheel. Only the massive weight pressing in on the center of my chest. When I think of John now, the knot still twists my insides.
A drop glided down my face, leaving a wet splotch on my sleeve. Then another. And another. Until my vision swam with a kind of pain I hadn’t experienced before.
Tears are cruel. They can come on the heels of joy, or crush you underneath sorrow. I’d never known anyone who’d died. And this victim, this statistic on a chart somewhere, was someone I liked, maybe even loved.
I never thought of my relationship with John as dating, even though we went out for almost a year. I learned that before he joined the military, his life was a pit—drugs and parties, confusion, and lots of girls. I learned that his parents hated each other but refused to get divorced. I learned that he had a temper that often landed him in the dumps for weeks.
But each new piece of his soul that he trusted me with made me more reluctant to break up until I wasn’t sure I even wanted to. When he yelled or sulked, walking out or calling David was so tempting. But then my John would come back grinning, as if nothing had happened, and I’d push my doubts into the corner. I didn’t mind his past, because somehow his guilt made mine feel smaller.
Lots of people carry hell around in their hearts. Some find purpose, redemption, and stumble along the best they can. Others stay trapped. I thought John was fine, and he would’ve told me about every monster that raged in his head, if I’d let him. It wouldn’t have mattered. He gave me a more vivid glimpse of his personal hell than anyone else, and I still couldn’t save him.
I pulled into the McConnell’s driveway. David’s aunt, Mom’s best friend, would be waiting for me. She’d promised to look after me while I was at school. I stared at the glowing windows for a moment before climbing out. My body felt far away. Someone else must be opening the olive green front door. Not me.
A few people crowded the kitchen. Friends of David, I guessed. I didn’t recognize their faces. Where was David? When I crossed the threshold, everyone hushed. She’s John’s girl. They might as well have said it aloud. My skin itched, like I didn’t belong in it. I grabbed a chair, stood a minute later, and then sat again, floating from one spot to the next as conversation resumed. The sound of vomiting cut through, and I edged toward the tiny bathroom to the right. The door was cracked. A man leaned over the toilet.
He retched again, emptying his stomach until he lapsed into dry heaving. I’d always known that men could cry. But knowing and seeing are worlds apart.
The first time I cried in front of John was over the holidays, when I expressed interest in meeting his parents. They lived in town, but he’d never even mentioned their names. I should’ve backed off when his eyes clouded from brown to black and he clenched his fists at his sides. But I continued pestering him, confident that I could wear him down. When I muttered that David always catered to me, John punched a hole in the drywall of his apartment. His expression revealed that he regretted blowing up, but he still ordered me to leave. The next morning he called to give me his parents’ address, and I thought I’d won.
We had dinner with his mom, Trish, and his dad, Tim, on Friday. Their gilded bickering started the moment John introduced me, simmered through the soup and salad, and exploded over the steak and potatoes. I stabbed at the food on my plate, my cheeks burning with shame, whether at myself or his parents, I wasn’t sure.
When Trish asked how long we’d been together, I stuffed another forkful of meat into my mouth. Tim’s sarcastic retort kept both John and me from replying. John’s breathing quickened, and I prolonged my chewing. Where had they gotten the idea that I was “with” their son?
When I glanced up, misery was etched into every line of John’s forehead. He shoved his chair away from the table, and I followed him to his truck, where I started bawling like a baby. I hated the dysfunction he had to deal with, and I hated that I wished being with him was easier. I almost broke up with him right there, but when he handed me a stack of cheap brown napkins, my throat clogged up. He held my hand for the entire drive home.
I spent that weekend helping him patch and paint his wall. He never yelled at me again, I never mentioned David again, and we never visited his parents’ house again.
One by one, the guests drifted out to their cars. School, work, and family needed attention. Quiet settled over the McConnell’s house, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t go.
I unlocked my phone and scrolled through the hundreds of pictures of John. I’d been uncomfortable in the shots where he put his arms around my waist, or insisted on kissing my cheeks or lips, or claimed my hand. Now I tapped each one to pull it up closer, trying to remember his touch.
Long past midnight, Mrs. McConnell steered me and David to the kitchen table. She scooted two steaming mugs of hot chocolate and a plate of chocolate chip cookies toward us.
“Nan.” David folded his arms across the table like a wall against the offering of food.
“Drink,” Mrs. McConnell commanded, patting his uninjured wrist. He wore a brace on the other.
I lifted my cup to my lips, marveling at the sensation of the liquid scorching my tongue and throat. David stared at his mug, and I stared at him. Stitches and fresh scrapes crisscrossed the left side of his face, and bruises and large bandages mottled his legs.
He heard the question I hadn’t voiced. “I fell. I fell while running on Sunday.”
“John told me.” During our last phone call. I twisted the cup in my hands. “Are you okay?”
“We were trying a new route at Rawly’s Park. You remember it poured all of Saturday? The trail was slippery, and I lost my footing. I crashed through twenty feet of tree roots, rocks, and mud.” David wouldn’t make eye contact. He just kept talking. “John wouldn’t shut up. The whole time he was cracking up, filming me untangling myself from a thicket.” David gulped down a long swig of hot chocolate. “Brought me to the clinic, then home. That was—that was it. And today.”
I took another sip, the bitter tang of tears mixing with the drink that was far too sweet. I pushed my cup away. At that moment, I couldn’t bear to share John—not his life, not his death—with anyone, especially not David McConnell. I clutched my phone to my chest, my last selfie with John lighting up the screen.
He was mine.
But David was the last person to see him alive. And the first person to see him dead.
Sometimes I pretend John only laughed with me, that he never let loose in front of anyone else. He called one Saturday morning, begging for my help with yard work. He rarely asked me for anything, so of course I agreed. Their landlord had written lawn upkeep into their lease, and John always ended up mowing the grass and trimming the hedge.
As I hacked at overgrown branches, I grumbled that he should make his roommates pitch in. It was their yard, after all, not mine. But his refusal to confront their laziness irritated me. I swiped at the sweat on my forehead, waiting for his shoulders to hunch and his mouth to twist in annoyance. Instead, he shrugged and said he’d rather spend time with his girlfriend. I lost my grip on the clippers, which sank into the bush like the rock that suddenly appeared in my stomach.
John and I stood there for a minute like two idiots, looking everywhere but at each other. For some reason he started chuckling, deep and quiet at first, then louder, until his shoulders shook. Nothing about him calling me his girlfriend was funny, but I couldn’t keep a straight face for long. I loved his real laugh. It was his best feature.
After that, John laughed more, held my hand more, kissed me more, and I liked it.
I woke up on my couch and groped for my phone, nearly knocking it off the side table. The screen announced that it was Thursday, early afternoon. I rubbed my eyes and sat up. The rest of the week was a blank blur. I’d missed classes, but so what?
Ann spoke on the phone in the background. Her short spurts of words slid past my ears, my mind. My mouth tasted foul and my head ached. I shuffled toward the coffee pot, filled a mug to the brim, and mechanically swallowed the lukewarm, stale contents.
The click of heels approached. Ann raised one eyebrow. I ran a hand through my hair, and my fingers caught in a rat’s nest at the back. I probably had dark circles under my eyes too. “What?”
“Maggie, you have less than an hour to get ready.”
“Ready?” I blinked, noticing her short black dress, black tights, black heels, updo, and perfect application of makeup. “Why are you wearing that? You hate black.”
“The funeral, Maggie.” Ann pursed her lips. “I promised to take you.”
I slammed my mug on the counter and headed for the bathroom. I fiddled with the shower knob, first cold, then scalding hot, but the spray didn’t drown my tears. At least I was clean.
By the time we parked at the funeral home, my eyes were dry. Empty. I’d drained myself of emotion. Black-clad strangers shifted past me, some crying, others stiff and silent. The indistinct murmur and anguished glances of the crowd weighed on me. Two hours, probably less, and the ordeal would be over. John’s parents couldn’t contain themselves, his mother’s wails ripping through the carpeted room.
The coffin’s lid hung open. I shrank back, stepping out of the receiving line. I wanted to shut my eyes. Or rush outside.
But my gaze fixed on a waxy face that should have welcomed me with a sarcastic grin.
Him? It? Whatever lay in that lacquered wooden box, it wasn’t really John. Not my John.
Death has a look all its own, and it isn’t a damn thing like sleep.
Oh God, I can’t.
I stumbled across the room to the floor-to-ceiling windows and pressed my face against the cool glass. You’re a thief, John Wilson, stealing from all of us. From me. A scream rose in my throat—for how much he’d taken, how much he’d left behind, and how hard breathing was. Only a whimper came out.
David maneuvered around a cluster of people, removing a handkerchief from his pocket. The patterned cotton didn’t match his suit. I snorted. His suit wasn’t even black. I ducked my head and rubbed at the tear stains on my dress.
“Here,” David said. “Don’t cry. Please.”
“I’m fine.” I dragged my sleeve across my face.
David inched closer, still dangling the handkerchief. I ignored him until he pushed the cloth into my hand.
“Please go away.” My fingernails dug into my palm. I folded the handkerchief and thrust it at his chest. He shouldn’t be so nice to me. Especially not now. “I’m glad your suit isn’t black.”
I spun away and squeezed into the nearest pew.
Beautiful and elegant hymns twisted around me, but the lyrics didn’t reach my eardrums. After the minister invited us to the burial, I bolted out the front door. I leaned against the stair railing and closed my eyes, letting the sun bathe me with its warmth, waiting for today, and yesterday, and the days before that to fade. John’s face stayed with me.
“Maggie, are you ready?” Ann tapped her foot behind me.
“Go without me.”
She inhaled sharply.
Her hand brushed my arm, but I jerked away. “I just can’t.”
The sound of footsteps, engines starting, and gravel crunching washed over me and gradually subsided. But I sensed that I wasn’t alone.
Metal clinked. “Are you hungry?”
I opened my eyes. David swung his car keys in one hand while he rubbed his neck with the other, then adjusted his tie, until finally he stuffed the stray hand into his pocket.
“No.” I flung the word between us, hoping he’d give up.
My last date with John was at a coffee shop a week before he died. I can’t remember the weather, or my outfit, or what we talked about. He just handed me my mocha and stared at me as if I’d vanish any second.
I almost asked whether he was okay, like a girlfriend should. But when he was in one of his stormy moods, he hated invasive questions. If I ignored his gloominess, eventually he’d snap out of it. He always did. But that day I got tired of waiting.
“What are you staring at?” I hoped that his smile, or a sarcastic retort, would break through.
Instead, he said, “You. I love you.”
I gripped my coffee cup, angry that he thought his words made everything fine, angry that we couldn’t be normal, angry that I had no idea what I felt. The cardboard bent, spilling near-boiling liquid all over my hand and legs. John grabbed the cup, but not before I caught the hurt in his eyes. The moment was lost. Fear settled in my stomach. If I wasn’t sure whether I loved him, wouldn’t echoing his statement be a lie?
But my silence screamed at him.
And I never saw him again.
David’s car smelled like old pizza and his dog. He insisted upon treating me to coffee from my favorite shop, and even went through the drive-through, but I just shook my head again and again. We sat in the car and watched the horizon brighten as the sun descended. David sighed, turned the ignition, and pulled onto a main road. He was trying to ease my grief. But, for once, I didn’t want David, or easy.
I wanted John.
I woke my phone and studied my favorite picture of him. He’d been sitting across from me at our favorite pizza place, studying the menu, even though we always ordered the same toppings. I’d said his name, and he’d raised his head, giving me his you’re-taking-another-picture face.
I loved that face. I loved him.
My phone fell into my lap, and I grappled for it before it bounced onto the crumb-coated floor.
How could I love him and not realize it? How could love be so difficult, so exhausting, that I denied it until it was too late? I shrank down in my seat, covering my face with my hands, pressing on the hard edges of my phone until my fingers hurt.
John was gone.
I gagged and almost threw up, sucking in a deep breath, biting my tongue until I tasted blood. I rolled down the window and gulped in fresh air, but it didn’t help.
John. Please come back.
We drove away from downtown, from the life that continued on without asking my permission, mocking what I’d just found and just lost. Maybe, if we drove long enough, we could pause life. But it would never stop. And neither could I.
David cleared his throat. I refused to acknowledge him, staring straight ahead. When he entered the cemetery, I gasped.
I didn’t want to be here. I couldn’t be here.
“Stop”—my voice cracked—“stop the car.”
David listened, and I jumped out. I swayed for a moment, inhaling the heat, and the freshly mowed grass, and the asphalt. Then I started walking, following the road and the rows of stones, until I found John’s grave.
“I miss you.”
The heavy words surged out, and my foot twisted under me. I ended up half sitting, half sprawled on the damp ground in front of his tombstone. I yanked my dress over my knees and wrapped my arms around my legs. I must have been crying, because my lap was wet. I didn’t expect any answer to the whys rumbling around in my mind. God doesn’t always pull aside the veil, and that day was no different. Somehow I couldn’t say goodbye, couldn’t see John’s life and death etched in stone. Grief and guilt and regret dragged me so low that I doubted I could ever get up.
Was this how John felt?
Footsteps made me glance up.
“I found this in my desk.” David held out an envelope with my name written on it in black marker.
I hugged my knees tighter. I didn’t need to read a note that showed me how awful I’d been.
“Take it.” David sat down beside me.
I stiffened. But he didn’t say anything else—just turned his face away when I finally worked up the courage to open John’s letter. He didn’t explain himself or apologize for his action. All he’d chicken-scratched was a single line.
I KNOW YOU LOVE ME.
I stared at that paper until it became a faint white rectangle in the darkness. The truth is a funny thing. It cuts into your soul and leaves behind wretched clarity. I thought my love was too late, but it wasn’t. Loving John Wilson wouldn’t change anything, even if I’d had a second chance. He was dead, and I had to accept that.
But he knew.
Life would go on—the days and weeks and months rolling on like a road, never stopping, never easy—but when I was ready, it would be waiting for me.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.