Always and forever, p.25
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       Always and Forever, p.25

           Lurlene McDaniel
 
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  Lyle and Michael exchanged nods. Michael adjusted his dark glasses. “Mom wants you to come back to the house for the afternoon. Everybody on the block sent food and we have enough for all the relatives and their relatives too.”

  Jory agreed. She wanted to be with the Austins. It made Melissa seem closer, more tangible. “I’ll be there soon. Let me tell my parents.”

  Michael walked away and Lyle turned his attention to Jory. “If you ever want to talk, Jory, call me.”

  “I don’t want to talk. All I want to do is forget.”

  “Well, you take care. I’ll … uh … see you next week in school.”

  Jory looked at him, and a deep, dark despair welled inside her, making her throat ache. “Melissa would have been eighteen-years old next month. We were planning to go register to vote.”

  “Goodbye, Jory,” Lyle said.

  She watched him, unblinking, as he walked away. She gripped her arms tightly to her chest and allowed her gaze to drift to the canopy and to the coffin waiting to be lowered into the ground. Baskets of flowers and wreaths stood vigil around the pale blue casket and spilled over in lush abundance, reminding Jory more of a garden than of a funeral. Their colorful, velvet petals fluttered in the breeze—jonquils and daffodils, daisies and iris, pansies, black-eyed Susans, tulips, lilies, and exotic birds of paradise. “A thousand pretty petals,” Jory said under her breath. “With nothing to do but die.”

  Chapter Eighteen

  February 19

  Dear Jory,

  If you’re reading this, it means you finally picked up my journal and found this letter I stuck in the back for your eyes only. It also means that I have probably died, because that’s the only way you would have picked up the book in the first place. Sorry—just a bit of dark humor.

  It’s three o’clock in the morning here in the hospital and all I have is the beep from my monitor to keep me company. They say the transplant is working, but they still won’t let me out of here. If I regret anything, it’s that I had to spend my last days trapped in this place, when I’d rather have been at home. Anyway, I wanted to get this written while I’m lucid and sane (no smart aleck cracks, Jory!).

  I know they say I’m getting better, but I don’t think I believe them. I’m not giving up, but I’m not clinging to false hope either. You know, it’s not death that’s so hard—its getting there. Sort of like waiting in the dentist’s office, knowing some horrible torture waits, only to think once it’s over, “That wasn’t so bad.”

  If I am dead when you read this, I hope that you’re not all sad and weepy over me. Oh, I expect you to cry, but please don’t get carried away. There’s too much for you to see and do instead of crying over me. Go to the prom. Okay? And wear your cap and gown to graduation no matter how dorky you feel in it. I would have graduated, so make sure Mom gets my diploma and my tassel.

  Kids don’t make out wills, Jory. But I do have a few worldly possessions that I want you to have. Mom knows, because I’ve written her and Michael letters too. You get the program from the Springsteen concert. You got the autograph—and almost got trampled getting it—but you made me take the program. I want you to have it back. Also, keep the page from the coloring book little Rachael gave to me. I don’t know why I’ve grown so attached to it, but I have. Maybe I understand what Cinderella must have felt like when she was having such a good time at the ball and heard the clock strike. She wasn’t ready to leave, but knew she had to.

  Of course, if there’s any of my clothes you want, take them. And my barrette and combs collection. I haven’t worn any of them since I lost my hair, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. Oh, take that stupid vase I made in seventh grade crafts, the one I accidentally recorded my thumbprint on before it was fired in the kiln.

  Now to the serious stuff. Everyone’s going to say, “How sad that Melissa died so young.” I agree. There’s a thousand things I’ll never get to do. I’ll never graduate from college, have a career, get married, have a baby (back up! I forgot “have sex”), watch my kids grow up, sit on the Supreme Court bench, and grow old with my husband. I was really mad about all that for a long time. I wanted all those things, and it stinks—really stinks—that I have terminal cancer instead.

  But Jory, I’ve had lots of time to lie here and think this out. There were plenty of things I did get to do. I saw the sun rise and set over six thousand times, I petted fuzzy little kittens and puppies, tasted chocolate, smelled roses and gardenias, and heard the ocean in a seashell. I kissed Brad Kessing, and Ric kissed me and made me feel all gooey inside and at least invited me to go to bed with him—which I was real tempted to do. Sometimes I wish I had, but other times I’m glad I didn’t. This way, they can bury me in virginal white with a clear conscience. Sorry, Jory, that’s that black humor again. Keep remembering as you’re reading this, it’s three A.M. and Melissa is bored and ahne, and trying to cram everything that’s inside her into a few pages of a letter.

  I want to clear another thing up with you too. I’m not mad at God anymore, like I was that night on the beach. I’ve had some heart-to-heart talks with Him and I’ve come to believe that He loves me enough to want me with Him in heaven. And that once I’m in heaven, I’ll never have to die again. (Just think. I get to do something before you do, Jory Delaney!) We all didn’t come into the world at the same time, so it makes sense that we all won’t leave it at the same time.

  You once told me, “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever.” You’re absolutely right. I know I’ll see you and Mom and Michael again someday. I know I will. But knowing still doesn’t make leaving any easier. All of you will miss me. And you’ll feel sad and that makes me sad.

  Jory, I know you love Michael and have for years. I don’t know how it will work out between you, but I hope that whatever the outcome is, you’re happy. Don’t forget to go do something with your life, no matter what happens between you and Michael. I’ve never known anybody like you, Jory. You have a million, zillion things going for you. You light up a room just by walking through the door, and people like you, really like you. And no matter what, you’ve always been my very best friend.

  I guess I’m starting to ramble now and get mushy, so I’d better cut it off before my heart monitor sends out an alarm and the nurses come running. I think you know what I mean by all this stuff I’ve written.

  Also, you don’t really have to write anything in my journal, Jory. It’s mine and it should start and stop in my handwriting. But please make sure to give it to Mom. I’ve written down a lot of things about my illness and my feelings about my illness in the book. Maybe the doctors can use it to help some other girl my age who gets cancer. Who knows?

  Be good and have a wonderful life. Name one of your kids for me. And never forget me. Because as long as one person remembers you, you’re never really gone. (Doesn’t that sound deep?) One day, you’ll be happy again, and so will Mom and Michael. Always keep in touch with each other. I’ll be watching you! And when you least expect it, you’ll hear me call you in the wind. I promise.

  Love, your friend, your sister,

  Melissa

  Jory didn’t know how long it took her to read Melissa’s letter because tears kept filling her eyes. After she read it, she cried for a long time, then tucked it back inside the envelope and put it safely away in her drawer.

  Jory stood before Lyle’s front door, trying to muster the courage to ring the bell. “This is dumb,” she told herself. “Why did you come?” She could have seen Lyle at school, but instead she’d gotten up early on Saturday morning, looked up his address in the phone directory, and driven over to his house. She couldn’t even explain why.

  His neighborhood was nice, with large ranch-style homes and clipped, manicured lawns. From the porch, Jory saw a wheelbarrow full of mulch and a lawn mower in one corner of the yard. It amazed her that everything around her could appear so tidy and neat, while inside she was feeling such turmoil.

  “It’s now or never, Jory,” she muttere
d. She took a deep breath and pushed the bell. No one answered and she almost turned away when the door flew open. Lyle stood in the doorway wearing cutoffs and a tank top and a sweatband around his forehead. “Jory!”

  “Is this a bad time?”

  “No, it’s not a bad time at all. It’s a good time. I was just about to start on the lawn. Come in.”

  She followed him inside, glancing about rooms that were casual and homey, with a lived-in look of scattered pillows and a newspaper on the floor and a few coffee cups perched on end tables. He led her into a big, friendly kitchen painted yellow. Jory felt a sense of déjà vu.

  “Sit down,” Lyle said, pulling out a bar stool and shoving aside breakfast dishes on the counter. “Sorry the place is a mess, but Dad’s out playing a few rounds of golf and Mom took my sisters to ballet class.”

  “I didn’t know you had sisters.” Jory realized there was a lot she didn’t know about Lyle, and a lot she suddenly wanted to know about him.

  “Yeah, eleven-year-old twins.” He flashed a grin. “I call them Tweedledum and Tweedledee. It drives them crazy.”

  She looked around. The walls were covered with pictures and plaques and sprays of flowers. Papers, obviously schoolwork, were stuck to the refrigerator with tiny magnets. “Mom never throws anything away,” Lyle said. “If I didn’t hide my term papers, they’d be plastered all over the fridge too.”

  “I like it,” Jory told him. “It looks like real people live here.”

  “Yeah. Well, after Mom was diagnosed, our whole family began to rethink its priorities. At the bottom of her list was kitchen floors you could eat off of. We do more as a family now too. We learned the hard way about what’s really important, and the time we spend together tops the list.”

  An unexpected lump stuck in Jory’s throat. “Could I have a drink?”

  Lyle hit his forehead with his palm. “What’s the matter with me? Sure. How about some root beer?”

  “Sounds good.” She watched him find a glass in the cupboard, fill it with ice, and pour a frothy head of root beer.

  He set it in front of her and leaned forward on the counter, bracing himself on his elbows. “I’m really surprised to see you. I mean, you didn’t say you might drop by at school. But I’m glad you came.” Jory nodded, still unable to clear her throat enough to speak. “Uh … why did you come, Jory?”

  A hundred things raced through her brain, and nothing made sense. She wanted to run out the door and drive off. She wanted to throw herself on the kitchen floor, kicking and screaming. She wanted to crawl out of her skin because she hurt inside so bad. She gripped the glass until her knuckles hurt, almost pasted a silly smile on her face, and slid off the stool saying, “No reason. Just thought I’d stop by and visit. It’s been a while since I’ve visited friends, that’s all.”

  Jory’s face felt stiff and frozen, and she wanted to cry. “You said if I ever wanted to talk … ” Her voice was so low that Lyle had to stand directly in front of her to hear her. She fell silent.

  Lyle reached out and placed his hand on the nape of her neck and drew her gently to his chest. With her forehead on his chest, and his hand warm and soothing on her skin, she slowly relaxed and took a long, deep breath. He smelled of clean, fresh soap. She squeezed her eyes shut. “I … well, if you’re not too busy … maybe we could talk right now. I’ll understand if you’re too busy. I know I stopped by uninvited … ”

  “Hey, it’s okay. I’ve got time.” His fingers played with her hair. “Believe me, Jory, I’ve got all the time in the world for you.”

  Chapter Nineteen

  “Are you sure you’re awake?” Michael asked Jory.

  She stifled a yawn and wiggled into the corner of the cab of his truck. “I just forgot how early four o’clock in the morning comes. Want some coffee?”

  He nodded and Jory poured him some from a thermos, being careful not to spill any as the truck moved along the dark, empty highway. She handed him the cup and cranked down the window. A muggy breeze flooded the cab. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer,” Jory observed. “It’s only the middle of June and already I can feel the heat building for the day.”

  “You nervous?”

  “About my first balloon ride?” She offered a wide smile. “Scared to death. What if I throw up?” The words evoked the memory of Melissa. Jory wished Melissa could have been with them. “You never told me why you wanted to take me up.”

  Michael sipped from the Styrofoam cup. “Melissa asked me to in a letter she left for me. It’s just taken a while for me to get around to it. Do you mind?”

  Jory understood. Michael would have done anything for his sister. “It’s been a busy time for all of us. What with graduation and all.”

  “It was nice of you to stop by dressed in your cap and gown. It meant a lot to Mom. Oh, and thanks for getting Melissa’s diploma for us.”

  “No problem. She was a straight A student and made the dean’s list—even if it was posthumously. She would have been pleased about the National Merit Scholarship too. I know how much she wanted it.”

  A line formed on Michael’s mouth, as if the coffee had gone bitter. “I guess they gave it to someone else instead.”

  “A boy from Lincoln named Lyle Vargas. He’s the guy who helped me on the day of the funeral when I almost fainted—do you remember him? Lyle wants to be a doctor.” Jory smiled secretly. She’d been dating Lyle steadily since April. She remembered the night of the prom, when some of the gang had gone to the beach to watch the sun rise. Lyle had led her off alone. He’d rolled up the cuffs of his tuxedo, and they’d stood together in the moist sand with the cool water lapping over their bare feet, looking out over the dark, glassy sea. As dawn broke, Lyle had taken her in his arms, kissed her, and told her he loved her.

  “So what are you going to do in the fall, Jory?”

  She snapped back to reality. “Believe it or not, I’m going to college.”

  “I assumed you were,” Michael said, puzzled.

  “For a long time, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go. But after—you know—the funeral and all, well, I buckled down in school and suddenly I really wanted to work hard and go to college.” She fidgeted with her hands. “Of course, I got a late start and my grades were pretty sorry, but I’ve been accepted at USF on academic probation. If I do well as a freshman, my parents said I could transfer to wherever I want to go.”

  Michael glanced over at her. “Any ideas where that might be?”

  She thought of Lyle and how he’d been accepted at Duke. “Maybe someplace in North Carolina.”

  Michael turned the truck into a pasture and the ride turned bumpy. In the middle of the dark field, he stopped. Jory climbed out. A small group from the balloon club were already waiting, laying out their balloons and filling them with propane. “You want to help?” Michael asked.

  “If I remember how,” she said, scrambling to help him haul his balloon from the truck bed. They worked side by side without speaking. Jory stood back when the tank of propane was turned on for Michael’s balloon. The nylon filled and rose lazily. Overhead, stars still twinkled although the horizon was turning gray.

  When the balloon was filled and straining against its ropes, Michael offered Jory his hand. “Ready?”

  Her heart thudded as she remembered all the times she’d longed to climb into the basket with him and sail off into the heavens. “Let’s go,” she said, taking his hand.

  The basket rocked, and Jory gripped its edges as she found her footing. Michael adjusted the gas jets of the propane tank on board and called to the people holding the ropes, “Let her up!”

  The ropes slackened and the balloon wobbled as they drifted upward. Jory watched the ground fall away, her heart in her throat. As the people and vehicles grew smaller, she felt a delightful floating sensation. “Oh, Michael! This is fabulous!”

  She leaned out over the edge and Michael caught her arm. “Whoa! Not so far.”

  The balloon continued to rise, and Jory
peered up at the sphere looming above. She wondered if she could reach out and pluck a star from the sky. “How high will we go?”

  “Not too high. Things only get smaller the higher you go, and that’s not half as interesting as just going up about a thousand feet and watching the world drift by.”

  She spotted the chase vehicle on the road below and it looked like a toy. Michael released a valve, and the balloon dipped toward a clump of trees. “What are you doing?”

  “When we pass over the top of the trees, grab a leaf. It’s good luck if you can snag one right off the top.”

  The basket skimmed the uppermost part of the trees. “This must be how a bird feels,” she cried. How different a tree looked from the top. For the first time she was seeing the world from a unique perspective.

  The basket brushed the treetops again. “Grab one!” Michael yelled.

  Jory leaned out and the leaves fluttered, turning their soft undersides toward her. She felt as if they were clapping and she should take a bow. She snatched one from the very tip-top of the tallest tree and, laughing, clutched the fragile piece of green to her breast. “That was wonderful! Thank you, Michael.”

  He grinned boyishly, turned the jets higher, and the balloon once again soared upward. They floated, suspended between heaven and earth as the sky faded from indigo to gray-blue. “How long before the sun rises?”

  “It’s hard to say. You’ll be drifting along and then suddenly, it’s there. It’s best if you can actually watch it pop over the horizon. But that’s rare. Usually, it just turns from dawn into daylight.”

  Jory faced him across the compact basket, braced herself on the side of the gondola, and studied him. Wind ruffled his black hair and something stirred within her heart. When the blast from the gas died and only the soft hiss remained, she asked, “How have you been, Michael? How’s it been going for you?”

  He stared off to the horizon. “Some days are better than others. Sometimes I still can’t believe she’s really gone. It’s like she’s going to come through the door from school and throw her books on the table and yell at me for leaving the milk out or something.” He dipped his head. “God, I miss her.”

 
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