Always and forever, p.24
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       Always and Forever, p.24

           Lurlene McDaniel
 
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  “You’ve got to get serious about your life, Jory. You have so many things to do …” Melissa sounded almost pleading, ignoring Jory’s attempt at humor. “You’ve got to go do them. You’ve got to do everything.” Melissa realized that Michael was holding her hand and softened her grave expression. “Hi, Big Brother. You look like a doctor.”

  “No need to insult me, Sis.” He squeezed her fingers. “How are you feeling?”

  “Like a train ran over me. Do they know what’s wrong?”

  “Not yet. But you’ll probably shrug it off before they figure it out.”

  Jory added, “Yeah. After all, you’ve got all that good bone marrow now.”

  “I’m so tired,” Melissa said with a sigh that made Jory’s heart skip a beat.

  “Would you like us to leave so that you can sleep?” Michael asked.

  “Oh no, don’t leave. Please. I don’t want to be alone. I want you—all of you—with me. Where’s Mom?”

  “Probably tearing some unsuspecting doctor apart.” Michael stroked Melissa’s cheek. “I won’t leave you.”

  Melissa turned toward Jory. “I thought it would hurt, but it doesn’t.”

  Jory wondered what Melissa meant by it. She didn’t ask, but she didn’t like the way Melissa was talking. She sounded weary and resigned. “They’ll give you shots for pain if you hurt, won’t they?” Jory asked.

  “They give me shots. I’ve had a bunch of shots. But every time I wake up, it’s nice to have one of you with me. I like knowing I’m not by myself, and that I’m not facing this alone.”

  Jory exchanged quick glances with Michael. “Well, here we are,” she said brightly.

  “I’m acting like a baby, aren’t I?” Jory and Michael shook their heads in unison. “Yes, I am,” Melissa said. “I don’t know why I’m acting so weird. It’s just that I’m lonely and so tired. I think I could sleep for a month, but I’m sort of afraid too.”

  “How so?” Michael asked.

  “What if I don’t wake up?”

  A sudden chill shook Jory. Why was the air-conditioning on? Didn’t the hospital realize that Melissa’s room felt like a meat locker?

  “I’ll shake you until you do wake up,” Michael said.

  “You shouldn’t hold on so hard, Michael.”

  He dropped her hand. “Gosh, I’m sorry. Was I hurting your hand?”

  Melissa smiled in a strange way. “I didn’t mean my hand,” she said.

  Jory’s teeth began to chatter. She felt her breath growing short and wondered if she might be catching a cold. It wouldn’t do to be around Melissa if she was catching something. “Look, maybe I should be going.”

  Melissa glanced back at her. “I want you to take the journal,” she said.

  Jory’s mouth opened, then closed. She wanted to cry, “No!” Instead she asked, “Really? Right now? What if I lose it? What if I can’t think of anything to write? What if … ?”

  Melissa tapped Jory’s hand. “You promised.”

  “But I can bring it back just as soon as you’re feeling better, right?”

  “Sure.”

  Michael eyed her stonily as Jory reached into the bedside table drawer and removed the blue leather book. Jory hugged it to her chest, staring only at Melissa and trying desperately not to allow Michael’s hostile eyes into her line of vision. “I promised your mother that I wouldn’t stay long. I’ll track her down and tell her you want to see her. That way Michael won’t have to leave.”

  Melissa managed a half wave. “Come see me again soon, Jory, and don’t forget to keep up the journal.”

  Jory made it out of the room and into the corridor, where she leaned against a wall and struggled to catch her breath. She felt as if she’d run ten miles. She found Mrs. Austin and quickly left the hospital. In the parking lot, she sat in her car with the top down, resting her head on the seat and staring at the brilliant blue sky and white glowing sun until her eyes hurt. She wished the noonday sun would warm her.

  The party seemed endless. Franklin Cortez, the last of Mrs. Delaney’s prearranged dates for Jory, was trying hard to be charming, but Jory had no interest in him or in the party.

  Jory watched her parents dancing. Her father was tall and bronzed by the sun. His silver hair gave him a distinguished look. Her mother was elegant, almost regal-looking in a flowing chiffon gown. They were a perfect couple glowing with good looks and good health. Jory wished she were at the hospital with the Austins.

  “Melissa has meningitis” Jory would never forget the sound of Mrs. Austin’s words as long as she lived. The diagnosis had come four days before, striking like a hammer blow. Meningitis. The membranes surrounding Melissa’s brain and spinal cord were inflamed. She wasn’t responding to treatment and her heart was damaged and very weak.

  Jory hadn’t seen Melissa since the day her friend had insisted she take the journal. The book weighed on Jory’s conscience. She hadn’t touched it since she’d taken it home and hidden it away in a drawer in her room for safekeeping. It was Melissa’s and full of her private thoughts. For Jory to read it or write in it wouldn’t be right. It seemed like eavesdropping to her.

  Franklin interrupted her thoughts by saying he liked her dress. Jory thanked him. It was a beautiful dress, emerald green, strapless, with a flared skirt that came just above her knees. Jory’s mother had outdone herself in choosing it, for it complemented her auburn hair perfectly. But right now, Jory couldn’t have cared less. She felt an urge to escape. To escape Franklin and the party and an incredible sense of sadness.

  She excused herself, smiling gaily at Franklin and promising to be right back. Instead, she went to the front entrance and, without a second thought, left the club and drove off in her car. She wanted to be alone. She needed time to think.

  It was after one A.M. when she turned into her driveway. She was surprised to see all the lights still on. She groaned. That meant her mother was waiting for her, and Jory knew she’d be on the warpath. After all, Jory had simply walked out of the country club without telling her parents or Franklin Cortez that she was going. How could she explain herself? How could she make her mother understand that she couldn’t have stayed there one more minute without screaming? Jory sighed, squared her shoulders, and walked quickly into the house.

  “Where have you been?” Her mother stood alone in the living room, her arms crossed.

  “Driving.”

  “Since nine o’clock?”

  “Yes.” Jory put her keys in her purse, snapped it shut, and dropped it onto the cherry wood end table. “Listen, Mother, I know I shouldn’t have run off, but I was bored stiff. I know you’re mad, but I’m really wiped out. Could we have our fight about it in the morning?”

  “Jory, I need to tell you something.”

  Jory’s gaze flew to her mother’s face. She expected anger and fire. She saw wariness and … tears? Jory stiffened and said, “Not tonight, Mother. I’m exhausted. I’ll get up early and we can talk then.”

  Mrs. Delaney stepped in front of Jory as she started to leave. “Mrs. Austin called here about ten tonight, and Mrs. Garcia called us at the club.”

  Jory felt her heart pounding. “Tell me in the morning,” she said, trying to step around her mother.

  “Jory, you must listen to me.”

  “I don’t want to listen.” Jory fought a rising sense of panic. The walls seemed to be closing in. Why wouldn’t her mother get out of her way? Childlike, Jory clamped her hands over her ears. “I can’t hear you, Mother. I’m not going to listen.”

  Mrs. Delaney reached out, took Jory’s wrists, and tugged. “Melissa died tonight, honey. Her heart gave out.”

  Jory felt her throat constrict. She stared wide-eyed because the awful words confirmed what she’d known deep inside, all along. What she’d realized the moment Mrs. Austin had told her about Melissa’s meningitis. “I-I’ll go to bed now and get some sleep. I’ll … um … call Mrs. Austin tomorrow. She must be hurting. And Michael too. He wasn’t prepared for this
, you know. He wasn’t ready for it …”

  Mrs. Delaney gently shushed Jory’s senseless babbling, smoothing her palm over Jory’s hair and down her cheek. “I’m so sorry, baby. So sorry.”

  “Don’t leave me alone.”

  “I won’t, Jory. I’m right here. For as long as you want.”

  Without warning, a wail started deep within Jory’s soul and rose, until it ripped its way out her mouth. Her whole body began to tremble and she would have crumbled, except that her mother wrapped her arms around her and supported her. Mrs. Delaney stroked Jory’s hair and crooned nonsensical things, as a mother would to a child, rocking her, comforting her, while Jory wept for hours into the night.

  Chapter Seventeen

  Melissa Austin was buried on a glorious day in March that looked like a greeting card colored in bright crayons. The sky gleamed sapphire blue and the sun was a fiery yellow. The breeze smelled of flowers and new grass. Lincoln High School closed at noon and the senior class, and even some juniors and sophomores, came to bury their classmate, who, according to the student newspaper, had “died too young.”

  The cortege of automobiles wound its way through the streets of Tampa in a slow, steady crawl to the cemetery. Jory inched along in the snaking line, alone in her convertible. Her parents had driven too, and they were somewhere behind in traffic. It meant a lot to her that they had come. But she’d driven by herself because despite her mother’s kindness and understanding, today she could not share her grief with anyone.

  Jory surmised that grief had an anesthetic quality to it. She had functioned in a normal capacity during the few days following Melissa’s death, without remembering exactly how she’d made it through. She’d eaten and slept, and talked to her parents and made phone calls to friends. But she’d felt numb, detached, as if she were moving through mist in a dream.

  Now she had time to think, and the previous days came back in bits and pieces. She recalled weeping with Mrs. Austin in the kitchen, the friendly yellow kitchen she’d all but grown up in since fifth grade.

  “She doesn’t hurt anymore,” Mrs. Austin said. “In some ways, knowing that makes it easier for me.”

  Jory wanted to shout, “It’s a lousy price to pay to never hurt again,” but instead she plucked at a tissue in her fist and said, “Melissa was the bravest person I ever knew.”

  “It’s hard to believe she’ll never come through that door again.”

  “I know.”

  “That she’ll never call me up and ask, ‘Mom, what do you want me to start for supper?’ ”

  “I know,” Jory said, and she and Mrs. Austin held each other and cried.

  Later, Jory had gone to Melissa’s bedroom, but she lost her courage and shut the door quickly, staring at it so long that her knees locked. She had avoided Michael, who looked to have aged ten years. He wore dark glasses, even inside the house, and he never once spoke to her until the day of the viewing at the funeral home.

  Jory had been the first one there aside from the immediate family, but she couldn’t bring herself to walk over to the open casket. The notion of seeing Melissa’s body terrified her, yet she knew she couldn’t leave without telling her best friend goodbye.

  Struggling to keep her composure, Jory watched Michael approach the coffin and, as he knelt down her courage returned. Timidly she went forward and knelt next to him. Her hands were clammy and her throat ached with unshed tears, but she forced herself to look at Melissa who rested on a bed of white satin. “Crazy, isn’t it?” Michael said. “She had to die in order to be beautiful again.”

  Jory nodded, awestruck. Melissa was beautiful, dressed in white eyelet, her hair—the wig Jory had given her—framing her flawless face. She was no longer bloated, and the sores and lesions were smoothed away. Jory said, “Death gave her back what life took away. She looks like a princess.” Then she asked Michael, “Does your father know? Was there any way to let him know?”

  Michael’s eyes never strayed from his sister’s face. “He left years ago and if Mom has an address for him, she never told me. But I wouldn’t want him here. Why should he share her death, when he never shared her life?”

  Jory allowed herself one final lingering look at her friend, then she stepped aside and watched others file past. Ric came. She recognized his sharp features and shaggy brown hair immediately. He was with a girl Jory didn’t know. Michael’s friends came too. People she recognized from the balloon club, and the guy who’d asked Jory to drive Michael home on the night of the party in the woods.

  Kids from school came. Jory caught snatches of their conversations.

  “It’s awful, so awful.”

  “Poor Melissa. Why did this have to happen to her?”

  “She had everything to live for. It’s not fair.”

  “I thought she was getting better, then just after Christmas, bam! Back to the hospital.”

  “I’m glad I gave blood. It makes me feel I helped in some small way.”

  Many of the girls wept and for some reason it irritated Jory, for they hadn’t known Melissa half as well as she, and she was taking great pride in staying dry-eyed throughout the evening. She refused to cry in front of them. Melissa would have wanted her to keep it together, because Jory had a reputation for smiling, for always having a happy-go-lucky attitude. It was the least she could do for Melissa. The very least.

  Lyle came, of course. She saw him across the room, walking past the casket, tall and lean, his amber eyes downcast and serious. He was dressed in a dark brown suit and there were streaks of blond in his hair from being outdoors a lot.

  Lyle stepped away and glanced up. Jory tried to look down to avoid meeting his eyes, but she was too late. Lyle nodded, acknowledging her, and their estrangement reared between them like a wall. She had avoided him for weeks, ever since the night of the party when they’d fought. She turned quickly to scan the masses of funeral bouquets. Seeing him had suddenly made her throat tighten and tears threaten. Jory clenched her teeth, dug her nails into her palms. This is stupid, she told herself. How could she make it through this terrible evening without shedding a tear, then almost lose it because she’d looked into Lyle Vargas’s eyes? It made no sense.

  She had slipped away right after seeing Lyle and gone home. Now, as the endless line of cars filed through the gates of the cemetery, Jory remembered how confused she’d felt that night of the viewing. And she couldn’t call Melissa and ask, “What’s the matter with me? Why am I acting so dopey?”

  The graveside area was crowded with people overflowing from under a canvas canopy, where a minister waited and Melissa’s few relatives sat stiffly in chairs. Michael wore a black suit and dark glasses. His expression was stony and he held his mother’s hand without moving. Jory’s heart ached. The minister spoke of heaven and how Melissa was already there. Jory glanced away, toward the section of the cemetery where she’d brought Melissa last winter to see Rachael’s grave. She wondered if Melissa was playing with the little girl.

  The minister read some Bible verses. Jory tried to concentrate on the words but couldn’t. He said, “And I will turn your mourning into joy,” and the idea was so ludicrous to Jory that she almost laughed out loud. The minister’s voice seemed to be coming from far away and Jory felt a lightness in her head. Her vision blurred and the ground tilted.

  She felt an arm around her waist as she sagged. Her legs collapsed, beyond her control. A guy’s voice said, “Come with me. You’d better sit down.”

  She allowed him to lead her away from the service toward the line of parked cars. Her breath was coming in short gasps and she felt sick to her stomach, cold and clammy. A car door opened and hands guided her into the cool interior of a large gray automobile. “Lean back against the seat,” his voice said.

  Shakily, she obeyed, but her breathing was erratic. “W-why can’t … I catch … my … breath?”

  “You’re hyperventilating. Put your head between your knees. Your brain needs oxygen. Relax.” He dipped her head forward, all
the while holding her hand. “You almost fainted. You were as white as a sheet, but your color’s better already.”

  Jory did as she was told. In a few minutes, her head began to clear and her breathing slowed. She sat up and confronted her white knight. Lyle. Words of thanks died on her lips as Jory felt extreme embarrassment. “I think I’m all right now,” she mumbled. “I need to get back. I’m missing the service.”

  Lyle held her shoulder-gently, restraining her. “Not so fast, or it’ll happen all over again.”

  Jory felt woozy and realized he was right. She dropped back onto the car seat and closed her eyes. The car was cool and quiet, and she welcomed the relief from the sun. She kept her eyes closed, still embarrassed. Finally, she said, “Thanks for the rescue.”

  Lyle explained, “I happened to glance over and you looked so pale I thought, ‘Jory’s going down.’ So I moved next to you as fast as I could. I don’t think too many people noticed.”

  She hoped not. Jory felt utterly ridiculous and foolish. “I’ve never fainted in my life.”

  “You’ve been under a lot of stress. Sometimes it comes out in odd ways and at inconvenient times.”

  “You’ll make a great doctor, Lyle.” It came out sarcastically and she saw him flinch.

  He gazed out the car window. “The service is over.”

  An incredible sadness filled Jory. “I missed the minister’s final words.” Her tone was flat. “About how happy we’ll all be someday.”

  “Come on,” Lyle said. “I’ll take you to your car.”

  She let him help her out because her legs were still wobbly. She leaned on the car door. “I can make it,” she told him.

  “You shouldn’t drive.”

  “I can drive fine. Stop treating me like an invalid.”

  “Are you all right, Jory?” It was Michael.

  Instinctively, she leaned toward him. “I’m all right,” she said. Lyle’s eyes darted between Michael and Jory. He stepped aside.

  “Mom saw you almost faint and she was worried.”

  “Lyle rescued me.”

 
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