Mom was always telling her little sister to grow up and settle down, but I thought Stel was perfect just the way she was. Calling her own shots, saying the heck what other people think. She's the one who told me I didn't have to do everything my parents did just because they decided it was right for them. Find yourself, she said. That's the only way.
Last summer she was on a beach in the south of France when she noticed two little kids being swept out to sea. As a teenager, she'd lifeguarded at our town water park, and she dove right in after them. She brought one back to safety before going in after the other. She got him close enough to shore that he could make it on his own, and that's when the riptide pulled her back again.
They never recovered her body.
That's the thing about lost. It doesn't always mean found. The worst losses are those things we never truly get over, no matter how good we are at locating misplaced car keys. Sometimes it feels like they take over completely, leaving a hole where your heart used to be.
The grief counselor told me to hold on to the memories, that's how I keep Stel alive forever. But there are some days I'd like to pack my memories up in a suitcase, put them on a plane, and let them fly around at thirty thousand feet until I'm ready to collect them again, which, to be honest, might be never.
My job helps, though, it really does. Last summer it was the one thing I kept doing, a place I could go when everything else seemed bleak and pointless. Red treats me like an adult, and he's never judged me for anything, unlike Mom and Dad. And if I cry when I'm back here, which I did pretty much every day after we got the call about Stel, there's no one around to see me. Along with getting regular paychecks, what more can you ask for in a job?
Well, there's another thing. At her memorial service, Aunt Stella's favorite yoga instructor called her a connector. That means someone who makes the world feel more welcoming and whole, who makes people feel better together in it. I keep thinking that if I can be more like Stel, if I can bring people and things together, maybe I won't have lost her entirely after all.
I like to imagine that Stella survived and is living on an island somewhere, free and beautiful and drinking from her mason jar. Of
course, that's highly unlikely, but who knows, maybe somewhere, someone is finding the things that are important to me. Being in the store makes me think about possibility, about how we only know our side of the story. Maybe there's another side to things you haven't even thought of yet.
I drop the mic. These suitcases aren't going to unpack themselves.
Ashton and I say good-bye in my driveway, in front of my parents, who are waiting in the car, all packed and ready to go and politely trying not to look. My little brother, Jack, has no such honor code; his face is pressed against the glass, eyes bulging and trained on us. Mom has given me ten—OK, fifteen!—minutes Alabama from our town in the Chicago suburbs will take at least ten hours, and we need to get on the road. As it is, with eating and bathroom breaks and everything else, it's probably going to take two days.
But it isn't just about time. The truth is, my mom doesn't get it. You and Ashton have been attached at the hip since school let out for the summer last week. What could you possibly still have to say to each other? she asked. She doesn't understand that love isn't a matter of having to say things to each other. We're past that, Ashton and me. When I tried to explain, she reminded me that we could email and text all the time, as if that's anywhere near the same. She's never liked him much, anyway: Don't get too serious; first relationships are just for practice, she told me when we started dating. You'll see. My mom is a scientist; everything has to be perfect. Me, I just want to be loved, and in love.
I grab Ashton's hand and pull him toward the corner of the yard, where there's a row of still spindly trees growing at different
heights. I brought each of them home from school on Arbor Day—a tree for every year we lived here, fifth grade through sophomore year—and Dad helped me dig a hole and plant them, one after the other. The oldest are taller than I am now. I've heard the Arbor Day program is being discontinued. Just like my life as I know it.
"I'm really going to miss you," Ashton says, looking into my eyes, and I once again try to memorize how his smile spreads across his entire face when something is funny; the flutter of his insanely long eyelashes; his hands, strong and calloused from sports, but soft, too.
"I'll miss you more," I say, and I know it's true. Ashton gets to stay right where I want to be, surrounded by all of our friends here at home, having the summer we'd been planning before my mom doled out her "exciting news" that was going to be "so good for us." Now, I'm en route to a place where the only people I know are my immediate family members, and at the moment, I don't even like any of them very much.