Ashes to ashes, p.1
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       Ashes to Ashes, p.1
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           Jenny Han
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Ashes to Ashes

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  For Zareen Jaffery

  “Therein lives the defect of revenge: it’s all in the anticipation; the thing itself is a pain, not a pleasure; at least the pain is the biggest end of it.”

  —Mark Twain



  I’M HIGH UP IN THE rear balcony of Holy Lady of the Sea, and it is pure agony. There aren’t enough tears in the whole wide world. My sobs echo those of the congregation below me.

  There is a brass urn on the white marble altar. And a sea of flowers. Roses and mums and lilies and snapdragons, a cross made of white carnations, wreaths with pink ribbons hanging down the front. So many flowers, even though it’s snowing on the other side of the stained-glass windows.

  I don’t know when I got here. I don’t know what day it is. I don’t know the time.

  An old lady takes a seat at the organ behind me and begins a sad hymn. Everyone stands up, and the preacher walks somberly down the center aisle, followed by two altar boys holding big wooden crosses. It is a struggle for my mom to keep up. I see her through my tears. Black pencil skirt, black sweater. She can barely stand. Aunt Bette supports her on one side, my father on the other.

  I rub my eyes and look again. It’s not my mom. It’s Ms. Holtz. She’s got the same curly hair, same petite frame as Rennie. The two people flanking her I’ve never seen before.

  And the huge picture on an easel next to the urn is not one of me. It’s Rennie in a yellow sundress, her hair down and curly and tousled from the offshore breeze. She’s wearing an innocent expression, but she has mischief in her eyes. She looks about fifteen or sixteen. Younger than I remember her ever seeming.

  This isn’t my funeral. It’s Rennie’s.

  It’s so crowded that ushers have brought in extra folding chairs to put in the aisles and next to the confessionals. That’s where I see Kat. Her father stands behind her. Pat squeezes her hand. I can tell by the way Kat’s shoulders rise and fall that she’s sobbing.

  When Ms. Holtz passes the Cho family, she stops and reaches out with a shaky hand to touch Lillia’s shoulder. She wants Lillia to come sit with her in the front pew. Lillia looks nervous, but Mrs. Cho gives her daughter an encouraging nod.

  On her way to her new seat, Lillia passes Reeve and his family. His parents and his brothers and their girlfriends. They take up almost the whole row. Reeve’s just had a haircut; the skin on his neck is pink. He’s wearing the suit he wore to homecoming. Lillia doesn’t look at him, and he doesn’t look at her. Reeve starts flipping through a prayer book as she lowers her head and takes her seat.

  I scan the rafters, the eaves, and the statuary.

  Rennie? Are you here too?

  I keep looking around, waiting for Rennie to show up. Only she never does. She’s not here like I am.

  What did I do to deserve this? To be stuck on Jar Island for eternity? Was it because I killed myself? I know how stupid it was. I just wanted to make Reeve feel sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to take it back as soon as I jumped off the chair with the rope around my neck, only I couldn’t. It was too late. Can’t God understand that it wasn’t my fault? I never would have done it if it hadn’t been for Reeve. He should be the one punished, not me.

  The preacher asks us to bow our heads in prayer. I drop my chin and close my eyes. Please let me leave this place. Let me find a way to heaven. Let me rest in peace.

  When I open my eyes again, the church is empty. The lights are out; the flowers are gone.

  And I’m all alone.

  Chapter One


  IF IT WERE A NORMAL day, Nadia and I would be listening to the local morning radio show. She actually laughs at the corny jokes they tell, at the slide-whistle sound effects. I don’t think their banter is very funny, but I do like hearing the celebrity gossip. Sometimes, if they are doing a giveaway or contest, Nadia will call using both our cell phones at the same time to up her chances of winning.

  But not today. Not the first day back at school since Rennie died. Today as I drive us, the radio stays off. We ride in silence, except for the swish, swish, swish of the wipers as they push the tiny snowflakes off my windshield.

  Nadia tries to peel off her puffer jacket while keeping her seat belt buckled. “Can you turn the heat down? It’s boiling in here.”

  I glance at the dashboard. I’ve got the dial set to high, plus my heated seats are cranked. It’s because I can’t get warm. My body’s been cold since I heard the news. “Sorry,” I say.

  I pull into a parking spot and watch for a second as everyone slowly marches into school. It’s like a silent movie. No one is talking or joking or laughing. I wonder, will school ever feel normal again, without Rennie here?

  I’m sure not.

  Sometimes, when I was annoyed with her, I’d tell myself that Rennie wasn’t as big a force as she liked to think she was. That she didn’t hold so much sway, so much power over our school. But now that she’s gone, I know it was true. This place is dead without her.

  Nadia unclicks her seat belt. “Do you want me to walk in with you?”

  I shake my head. “I’ll be fine.” As Nadia reaches into the backseat for her book bag, I say, “You know, there are supposed to be grief counselors here today. If you feel like talking to anyone. I’ve heard Ms. Chirazo is nice.”

  Nadia nods, and she says in a timid voice, “You too, okay?”

  I nod and say, “Of course,” but I don’t feel like talking. Not to anybody. I begged my mom to let me stay home sick today. Begged and pleaded. I haven’t been sleeping well. At all, really. I lie in the dark for hours and hours, but I never fall asleep.

  I grab Nadi by the sleeve before she’s out of my car. “Hey. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” I know my voice sounds tired, weak, so I smile to compensate.

  The worst part is—I know people will be feeling sorry for me. If only they knew the truth, that Rennie hated me before she died. That I betrayed her worse than anyone else could have. When I close my eyes, I keep seeing flashes of what happened in those last moments together. Her showing Reeve the pictures she’d found of me drugging him at homecoming. Her slapping me across the face. Her sobbing, hating me for betraying her.

  And then there’s Mary.

  The thought of seeing her today makes me want to crawl into a hole. How am I going to tell her about Reeve? And what, exactly, am I going to say? That I made a mistake but it’s over now? I’ve practiced it in my head so many times, but I still don’t know the right words.

  As I walk through the parking lot, I keep my eye out for Kat’s car, but I don’t see it either. I owe her a million phone calls. I’m sure she’s pissed at me too.

  I keep waiting for this to turn out to be a bad dream. To wake up and have things be the way they were. I wouldn’t even care if Rennie hated me for the rest of her life for what happened on New Year’s with Reeve. Or if she never spoke to me again. All I want is for her to be alive.

  I see her everywhere. The first-floor trophy case, where we’d hang out freshman year when it got too cold to sit outside by the fountain. The janitor’s closet, where we’d hide notes for each other between classes. Her locker, sophomore year.

  I feel the tears come, but I don’t want to cry anymore.

  I’m at my locker when Ash comes running down the hallway, pushing her way past people to get to me. “Lil,”
she moans, and she throws her arms around me, sobbing hysterically. I have the uncharitable thought that it’s like she’s in a movie about a girl who died in a car accident. Other people in the hallway turn and look at us.

  I let her cry in my arms for a minute, and then I break away from her. “I’m gonna go get a juice at the vending machine,” I say. “Do you want anything?” I’m not trying to be cold, but I can’t deal with her right now. It’s just too much.

  She shakes her head. “I’ll come with you, though.”

  “No, stay here. I’ll be right back,” I say. I give her a peck on the cheek and dart away. I’m halfway down the hall, thinking maybe I’ll just keep walking, maybe I’ll walk right out of here and go back home, when someone grabs my arm from behind me.


  “Lil,” he says. “You hanging in there?”

  “Yes.” Just barely.

  Alex doesn’t look so good either. He has shadows under his eyes, stubble on his chin. He rubs his eyes and looks around and then says, “I keep expecting to see Rennie. It feels . . . really empty here without her. It’s like nobody knows what to do anymore without her here to tell us.”

  That’s exactly how it feels. Exactly. And it’s such a relief that someone gets it. I let out a breath that comes out more like a gasp, and Alex reaches for me and I let him hold me, and it feels like his arms are the only thing keeping me upright.

  I don’t know what, if anything, Alex knows about the things that went down between Reeve, Rennie, and me on New Year’s Eve, but I’m so thankful that he’s here right now. This is who he’s always been to me, the person who knows what I need, without me having to ask. Even when I don’t deserve it.

  Chapter Two


  I BLOW OFF FIRST AND second period, and Mr. Turnshek, the school safety officer, finally catches me during third. I’m smoking a cigarette underneath the stairs, where I found Mary ditching a test that one time. I was hoping she would be here. I came to school early this morning and waited for her at her locker. I wanted to hear her excuse for why she never called me or stopped by my house. By this time, she has to know that Rennie’s dead.

  But Mary never showed.

  Mr. Turnshek looks at me, aghast.

  “I know, I know,” I say, letting go of the smoke in my lungs before standing up. “Principal’s office.” I put the cigarette out on the wall. It leaves an ashy circle on the cinder block.

  I’ve been going through nearly two packs a day since Rennie died. I can’t even taste my food anymore, and the skin between my pointer and middle fingers is starting to turn yellow. I know it’s bad; I should quit before I really get addicted. I tell myself that anyway, right before each cig I light up.

  “You’d better believe it, DeBrassio,” Turnshek says, his arms folded.

  I guess part of me wanted to get caught. I don’t know. This whole day has annoyed me. Everyone mourning, crying over Rennie. Everyone with arms around each other. It’s like the whole school is propping each other up. Except no one’s doing that for me. Most of the underclassmen don’t even know that Rennie and I used to be best friends back in the day. They assume that I don’t care that she’s dead.

  Or worse, that I’m happy.

  I nearly lost it when I overheard one freshman cheerleader bitch mutter something under her breath when I passed her in the hall. I spun around and walked straight up to her, put my nose up to hers, and dared her to say whatever it was to my face. She practically crapped her designer jeans.

  I shouldn’t expect that dummy to understand what I’m going through. But Lillia and Mary—they know my history with Rennie. Just because we weren’t friends for the last few years of high school doesn’t mean that her death isn’t freaking ripping me apart. It doesn’t mean that I don’t need to talk shit out, have a good cry. After all, I was the last person to see Rennie alive. And at the end we were on good terms.

  Not like her and Lillia.

  I’ve texted Lil a bunch of times, but she hasn’t written back once. She’s probably been camped out at Rennie’s condo with the rest of that crew, drying each other’s tears. Either that or she feels guilty because I know that she left with Reeve that night. I’m trying not to think this way, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she quit talking to me. Actually, she should keep a low profile. People must be wondering why the hell Rennie left her own damn party in the first place. If they found out why, shit would surely hit the fan.

  I just hope Mary doesn’t know. But her knowing is the only reason I can come up with to explain the fact that Mary has basically gone MIA on me too. I was so desperate for someone to talk to, I even drove by her house a couple of times. I never stopped, though. As much as I wanted to, I wasn’t ready to answer questions about Reeve and Lillia. That’s on Lillia.

  Mr. Turnshek writes up a pink slip and sends me to the principal’s office. But instead of walking there, I go see Ms. Chirazo.

  The five guidance counselors are huddled around the coffeepot. They made an announcement over the loudspeaker today, inviting anyone who needed grief counseling to come down. But the office is empty.

  Ms. Chirazo spots me and steps away from the group. The rest of them give me dirty looks over their mugs. They know me as a troublemaker, I guess. But Ms. Chirazo never looks at me that way.

  “Kat. Is everything okay?”

  I hold up the pink slip. “I just got busted for smoking in the hallway.”

  “Oh, Kat. Why? I thought we were going to be on our best behavior, at least until we heard back from Oberlin.”

  I shrug my shoulders, because whatever. At this point I don’t care if I get expelled. What’s done is done. Picking at my nails, I say, “I used to be Rennie’s best friend. For, like, my whole life. Until high school started, anyway. And then we hated each other.” I realize that I’m gritting my teeth while I say it. Probably because I can’t make sense of the idea that Rennie Holtz, who was always larger than life, was reduced to a pile of ashes in a fucking tacky-ass vase.

  “I didn’t know that.”

  “So it’s like most people don’t care how I’m doing, you know? How I might be handling this. And the truth is, I don’t know how I’m supposed to act. I mean, should I be a hard-ass and pretend like it doesn’t bother me? Should I scream in their smug faces that I was way closer to Rennie than any of them ever were? It’s like a disgusting competition of who knew her best. And people think I’m last, when I should be in fucking first place.” I glance around, and my eyes land on a vase full of dried flowers on the corner of the secretary’s desk. I have the overwhelming urge to swat it off. I make a fist and bite down on it hard.

  Ms. Chirazo seems to notice. A second later her hand is on my back, and she’s pushing me into her office and closing the door.

  “Kat, forget what other people think. You don’t have anything to prove.” She points at her door. “There’s a reason why there are no students in this office today. People want to grieve with their friends, people who understand the connection, who don’t need to be brought up to speed. You should surround yourself with the friends who know you best.”

  “I’ve tried that. My friends both blew me off.”

  “Then try again,” she says matter-of-factly. “When you lost your mother, you were completely unreachable. It took time. It took people not giving up on you.”

  I move my eyes to the birds flying past her window. I wonder how long it will be until I feel normal again. When Mom died, I was depressed for an entire year.

  Ms. Chirazo stands up. “I’m going to go talk to Principal Tortola and see if I can’t get him to excuse your lapse in judgment in light of current circumstances. In the meantime, sit here for as long as you like. The secretary will write you a pass when you’re ready to go back to class.”

  I don’t wait long. Just enough to scribble a note for Mary.

  Yo. When you get this, find me.

  I miss you. Hope you’re okay.


  I’ve just slippe
d the note inside Mary’s locker when I notice that it’s missing its padlock.

  I open the door, hoping to see her jacket hanging inside, but the thing is freaking cleaned out. Not, like, the way some nerds do so they’re neat and organized at the beginning of a semester. It’s completely empty. Just my folded-up piece of notebook paper at the bottom.

  I can think of two possibilities. Either Mary switched lockers or she switched schools.

  No. There’s no way she left Jar Island without telling us. Even if she did find out about Reeve and Lillia, she wouldn’t dick out on me and not say good-bye. She knows I care about her. She knows I’m her friend.

  At least, I hope she does.

  Chapter Three


  PEOPLE HAVE BEEN LEAVING FLOWERS in Rennie’s locker, poking them through the vents. I’m careful when I open the door, so the flowers don’t fall onto the floor. The inside of her locker door has pictures of the cheerleading squad, her and Ash, her and Reeve. None of us. The one of us down by the beach is gone. It was the summer after ninth grade, and we were wearing sherbet-colored bikini tops and making silly faces into the camera. I wonder if she ripped it up or if she just threw it away. I haven’t gone through any of our photo albums yet. I can’t. It hurts too bad.

  Methodically I start separating her personal things from the textbooks I have to return to Mr. Randolph. I throw away a package of doughnuts, a spiral notebook with only one page of notes inside, half a pack of old gum, and a fuzzy black hair tie. I falter when I get to her favorite lip gloss and her black compact mirror—would Paige want to keep this stuff? Probably not, but maybe just in case? I put that stuff into the cardboard box Mr. Randolph gave me, along with a long cardigan, a scarf, and a few binders.

  “I was starting to think maybe you died too.”

  I turn around. It’s Kat, with her bag slung over her shoulder. Her hair is piled on her head in a greasy bun, and strands are coming out the back, and she has dark circles under her eyes. She looks terrible.

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