“The balloon.” Jared took my hand and pulled me across the cemetery. I tried not to think of what was underneath my feet as we crossed the graveyard, but all I could envision were gruesome zombies popping out of the earth.
“Jared, I don’t want to be here,” I sniveled.
“It’ll be okay. You’re safe with me.” He smiled and looked out over the meadow of gravestones.
“But...” I looked around, scared out of my mind.
“I’m holding your hand. What do you want me to do? Change your diaper, too?” he said sarcastically, but I didn’t take it to heart.
“I’m not scared.” My voice sounded defensive. “It’s just…I don’t know.”
“Look at this place, Tate. It’s green and quiet.” Jared gazed around the grounds with a wistful look on his face, and I was jealous that he could see something here that I didn’t.
“There are flowers and statues of angels. Look at this marker.” He pointed. “‘Alfred McIntyre born in 1922 and died in 1942.’ He was only twenty. Remember Mrs. Sullivan said that World War II was between 1939 and 1945? Maybe he died in the war. All of these people had lives, Tate. They had families and dreams. They don’t want you to be afraid of them. They just want to be remembered.”
I shivered as he led me deeper into the cemetery. We came up on a shiny, black marker adorned with a pink balloon. I knew my dad came here to visit, but he always put flowers on the grave.
Who had left a balloon?
“I brought your mom the balloon yesterday,” Jared admitted as if reading my mind.
“Why?” My voice shook. It was nice of him to do something like that.
“Because chicks like pink stuff.” He shrugged his shoulders and made light of his gesture. He didn’t want attention. He never did.
“Jared,” I scolded, waiting for a real answer.
He smiled to himself. “Because she made you.” And he wrapped his skinny arm around my neck and yanked me into his side. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and I wanted to tell her ‘thank you.’”
I felt warm all over despite the April frost on the ground. Jared filled the emptiness and eased the hurt in a way my dad couldn’t. I needed him, and thought for a moment that I’d like him to kiss me. But the idea quickly disappeared. I’d never wanted a boy to kiss me before, and it probably shouldn’t be my best friend.
“Here, take this.” Jared pulled his gray sweatshirt over his head and tossed it to me. “You’re cold.”
I slipped it on, letting the remaining heat from his body cover me with a shield of warmth.
“Thank you,” I said, looking up at him.
He pulled my hair out from under the collar and let his fingers linger as he stared at me. My skin erupted in chills but not from the cold. What was going on in my stomach right now?
We both looked away quickly, a little embarrassed.
I sat up and wiped my nose with the sleeve of my jacket.
Despite everything, I could see the light in one thing. At least I’d given my virginity to someone I loved. Even though we were done, I had loved him when I gave myself to him. What he took from me was honest and pure even if he thought it was all a joke.
“Tate.” A shaky voice whispered behind me, and I stopped breathing. Without even turning around, I knew who it was, and I tore blades of grass from the ground as my fists clenched.
I refused to turn around. And I’d be damned if I listened to any more bullshit from him.
“Haven’t you won, Jared? Why won’t you just leave me alone?” My voice was calm, but my body screamed for violence. I wanted to lash out. Hit him. Do anything that could hurt him.
“Tate, this is all so f**ked up. I—” He started to spew his nonsense, but I cut him off.
“No! No more!” I whipped around to face him, unable to reason with myself. I said I wasn’t going to get into it with him, but I couldn’t help it. “Do you hear me? My life here is ruined. No one will let me live this down. You’ve won. Don’t you get it? You. Have. Won! Now leave me alone!”
His eyes widened, probably because I was screaming and madder than I’d ever been. When was it enough? Couldn’t he just be satisfied?
He gripped the hair on his head, looking like he stopped midway combing his hands through it. His chest rose and fell like he was nervous. “Just stop for a minute, okay?”
“I’ve listened to your stories. Your excuses.” And I walked away towards my truck, feeling my heart breaking. He was near, and my arms still hummed with the desire to hold him.
“I know,” he called out behind me. “My words aren’t good enough. I can’t explain any of this. I don’t know where that video came from!”
I knew he was following me, so I didn’t turn around. “It came from your phone, ass**le! No, never mind. I’ve stopped talking to you.” I kept walking, feeling as if my legs weighed two tons.
“I called your dad!” he blurted out, and I halted.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Of course you did,” I murmured, more to myself than him.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse. I thought that I’d have a few days to get my head straight before I had to deal with my dad. But the storm was going to descend sooner rather than later.
“Tate, I didn’t send that video to anyone. I didn’t even record a video of us.” He sounded desperate, but I still couldn’t turn to look at him.