Jan. 14, 10:48 a.m.
I just saw you yesterday.
There’s no way this is real. It can’t be.
I keep waiting for you to call.
Tavia may not be on Hangouts right now. She’ll see your messages later.
Sent: Jan. 16, 5:17 p.m.
I stared at my phone through most of your funeral.
I could have said goodbye to you in my room with some vanilla-scented candles, a few of your favorite songs, violets, and a can of orange soda. But instead we had to do this public ritual where we all stood around, watching each other cry. When I woke up, I already knew today would be the worst day of my life.
When we get to the church, your brother walks straight to the front and kisses the top of the casket, but I can’t go up there. So I just head to the second row of pews and sit down at the very end. I look at my phone, at the infinite stream of pictures of you, and I try not to look anywhere else. For the first time ever, I feel grateful for how many selfies you took, and I feel bad that I always teased you about being conceited. If I didn’t have hundreds of digital squares with you in them, I’m not sure how I’d remember to breathe. After a while, when I do look up, I use different squares--ones of tinted sunshine spilling through the stained-glass windows--to mark time as they move across the room.
I’m sitting with your family. Your mom is squeezing rosary beads in her hand, weeping in a way that doesn’t make any noise. Your dad’s staring straight ahead, but not really looking at anything. Dante sits down beside me after he kisses your casket, and I can feel that he’s crying by the way his shoulder moves against mine.
Part of me wants to shift away from him, but I’m frozen.
My family’s sitting a few rows behind me. My mother’s dress is impeccable, but her blue eyes are sad, and my dad has had his head bent the whole time, like a world without you is one he doesn’t want to see. Between their blond heads is Willow’s angled black bob, and you’d love this haircut on her if you were here. Sometime between winter break ending and yesterday, she bleached the bluntly cut ends and dyed them hot pink. She looks like a K-Pop star despite her puffy, red eyes. When she flew in from college yesterday, she crawled into bed with me the minute she got home and rubbed small circles on my back.
Willow sees me looking at her, so she squeezes out of their pew and comes up to mine. You know I don’t really look like my sister, even on a good day. But with her hair the way it is now--so full and sharp and pink (and mine the way that it always is: too long and fine and flat)--we could be strangers. I look like the “before” scene in the Korean dramas we watched together, where the girls miraculously turn pretty.
But when Willow reaches me, she touches my flat black hair, like it’s silk. She holds my hand, as if it’s made of glass, and looks at me a little too closely. I squeeze her fingers before letting them go to look back down at my phone, and she steps back and stays quiet. She doesn’t try to make me talk, which is a miracle, because I thought she was going to be pushy--you know how my sister can get. But she was perfect. People forget how much silence can help at times like these.
No one in my family has said anything, but I can tell how they feel by the way my sister reaches for my hand. The way my mother stares at me. How differently my dad says my name. They’re so happy I wasn’t with you that night that they can’t keep their hands, eyes, and voices away from me. But every time I think about the fact that I wasn’t, I feel like I’m drowning.
When you went to Alexa’s party without me, I was upset that you didn’t beg me to come out with you; that you went, even though I didn’t want to go. It’s stupid, but it hurt, and Margo and Faye were there too, so there wasn’t even anyone for me to text and complain. I was just going to eat ice cream, read a book, and go to bed early.
Then Dante called.
I went to your house to hang out with him--to have some fun without you because you were doing things without me.
And now I have to live with this: I was flirting with him when I could have been stopping you.
For some reason, the priest asks everyone to stand. I wasn’t paying attention, so when Dante pulls me up and into his side, I don’t realize right away that it’s time to pray. His touch takes me away from the world inside my phone, where you’re still grinning and singing and alive. And for a second, I just collapse against your brother.
I can’t stand on my own in a world where you don’t exist.
Dante reads the weight of my body as an invitation. He tucks my head under his chin, and I feel a few of his tears hit my scalp where my hair’s parted.
It’s so complicated--the way I feel about him, but I can’t think about that now, when I can barely stay on my feet. So I hook my hand around his hip and hold on tight. And when the sounds around me return and I hear the priest praying, I look at the photo of you that sits at the front of the church in a wreath of violets instead of closing my eyes.
After a few minutes of standing here anchored to Dante, I start to feel a little less like I’m sinking. Or at least like if I’m going down, he won’t let me hit the bottom alone.
At the cemetery, Willow holds my hand again like a good big sister, and I lean into her like I did with Dante at the church. She cries and cries while the priest sprinkles holy water over the grave, and I just stare at the dirty hem of the priest’s robe. He says your full name the way your grandmother says it, at the same time as I read it in the obituary I’m somehow still holding.
“Oak-TAH-bia Bi-oh-LEH-tah SO-toe.”
Octavia Violeta Soto.
And my whole body goes cold.
I’m supposed to drop a handful of dirt into your grave like everyone else a few minutes later, but after your dad starts crying, I just can’t. By the time it’s my turn it’s raining, and most of the soil has turned to mud anyway. So instead, I shove the damp obituary into my pocket. I pull petals from a yellow rose, one at a time, and let them fall--bright against the dark earth all around them--right before the casket sinks into the ground.
I don’t try to figure out if anyone loves me as I yank away each velvety petal, the way you used to (He loves me? He loves me not? Autumn, he loves me!). I just tell the rose how much I’m going to miss you. How much I already do.
I miss you.
I miss you.
I miss you.
There’s never an I miss you not.
And there aren’t enough petals on the flower. There aren’t enough petals in the world.
In the limo, Dante has to pull the thorny stem out of my trembling hand because I’m still gripping it, even though the naked and ugly bud is the only thing left.
Hours after our friends and your extended family and my family leave your house, I stay. I help Dante inventory all the frozen casseroles and stews and empanadas that people leave behind on your kitchen counters.
When we finish, I pull out my phone again and get lost in it. But Dante starts pacing around your living room, very much in the here and now.
He kicks the leg of your dining room table. He punches a wall and says it’s all bullshit. I don’t want to be here to witness Dante explode, but it’s been almost impossible for me to leave your house since you died. I still can’t make myself go.
Dante opens and closes his hand after he hits the wall. It settles into a tight fist, like he’s holding one of his drumsticks. He aims his angular dark eyes at me, and says, “You think it’s bullshit too, don’t you?”
He’s talking about the comments on your photos. They’ve been rolling in nonstop all week.
I stay quiet. I look down at my phone and read a few of the newest ones.
I don’t have a right to say anything. I’ve been looking through your photos since the accident, just like everyone else. I’ve been clicking on every single picture you ever posted, reading over your captions and hashtags, like they’re prayers. I’ve been ignoring the “Rest in peace,” “We’ll miss you,” and “Only the good die young” messages people who barely even spoke to you have been leaving beneath your selfies. There are more broken heart emojis in the comments than there are kids at our school.
But Dante’s right. They are all bullshit. So I look back up at him and nod.
With my approval, Dante turns to look at the other side of the room. I don’t know what he’s going to say next until he says it.
“We need to get it deleted.”
I’d forgotten your father was in the room, but that’s who Dante’s talking to now, probably because your dad has always been the kind of dad who gets things done. Like that time he argued with our teacher for giving us detention for passing notes, when really I was giving you a Tylenol in an origami box because you had cramps. Or the time he volunteered to coach our girls’ soccer team when we were in middle school after the paid coach got let go. But ever since your accident, he just kind of sits there, like nothing matters. Or maybe like everything does, but he doesn’t know where to start.
Dante can’t delete your accounts. Your mom already cut off your cell phone. I only know that because I was calling your number over and over again on speakerphone while I sat in the school parking lot yesterday, just so your voice could fill the air like it used to.
I wanted to memorize the way you sounded. Where your tone changed and how I could hear a song playing softly in the background. Now I can’t get your voice out of my head.
Hey! You’ve reached Tavia’s phone. It’s probably in my pocket or in my purse or on my bed, and I’m sure I really want to talk to you. So leave me something lovely because I love you.
The last time I called, I got an automated message instead. And it was so shocking, to go from hearing you to hearing We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you’ve received this message in error, please check the number and try again.
I didn’t need to check the number, but I did try again.
I don’t look at your dad or Dante as I find your name, press down to call you, and put my phone on speaker. And when that recorded robot voice tells us your number’s been disconnected, your dad looks at me from across the room. He shakes his head, like he can’t deal; mutters something in Spanish; and stands up to leave. A minute later, I hear the front door slam.
I look at Dante, and everything about him softens. The hard angles of his face become curves. The onyx of his eyes melts into molasses.
“Did you know,” I ask, “that her number was already dead?” I flush a little after I hear myself say that word. He shakes his head.
I wish I’d taken screenshots of every photo you ever sent me, every selfie with filters that made your eyes sparkle or gave you the ears and nose of some adorable animal, because those were private, meant only for me, and the ones Dante wants to delete are public, for everyone to see. But the private stuff only lasted a few seconds, and now those are gone forever, just like you. With your phone turned off too, I need to preserve every piece of you that hasn’t disappeared.
So while he seems gentler, I ask Dante not to get rid of your accounts.
“With her phone gone, these pictures are some of the last things we have left that are purely her.”
He still looks like he wants to punch something, but he just keeps watching me, quietly.
Even though I know there isn’t, I say, “I’ll see if there’s a way to disable the comments.”
He frowns, but then he nods.
“And I’ll post something asking people to stop,” I add.
I don’t say that I know all your passwords and that I could erase every trace of you in a few seconds.
I don’t say that I still send you instant messages and emails or that during every free moment I have I watch the long-ago-posted videos of you singing and playing the piano. I don’t tell Dante that as soon as I walk out of his house, I’ll put my earbuds in and dial my own voice mail because you left me a funny message six months ago that I’m so grateful I never got around to deleting.
I haven’t cried, but I don’t say that, either. My hands shake every time I think about your name, and Dante can’t know that.
He has enough on his mind.
From the look on his face I can tell he’s thinking about how we found out about the crash. Some idiot from our high school took a picture of your upside-down car and posted it to his story with a black-and-white filter and the caption SHIIIIIT. Just saw the worst accident. Perry, of all people, texted a screenshot of the picture to me with a message:
Holy shit. This isn’t Tavia’s car, is it?
It was. The Unraveling Lovely bumper sticker, the one we designed for the band’s tour last summer, was a dead giveaway.
I knew you were on your way to see Perry, but he had no idea. I didn’t even message him back.
I can feel Dante looking at me. He probably knows I’m remembering that night too.
“You okay?” he asks.
Copyright © 2018 by Ashley Woodfolk. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.