Do you miss him?
It was a ridiculous question. Of course Claire missed him. In every second, every thought, he was there. Every fleeting glimpse in a school hallway. Every time she turned a corner, he was there. Haunting her.
But she knew she couldn’t say that. She couldn’t say she missed him. She couldn’t miss the person who’d fly into a rage at any offhand remark. She couldn’t miss the person who she’d argue with constantly, so much so that it became a daily ritual.
Their last argument replayed in her mind.
How did you fail that test?
I don’t know. I guess it was a bad day.
It was an open note test. Those are impossible to fail.
Then I didn’t take very good notes! What’s it to you? Why do you care so much?
Do you need me to help you study? Or take notes?
God, you are so condescending! I’m fine! My grades are fine!
Jamie, I just want to help--
Well, you’re not. You’re only making things worse. You’ve blown such a tiny test out of proportion. Why do you always do this?
I’m trying to help! Look. Do you want me to give you my notes for English? You could copy them. I know you have a test coming up. I could even help you study! Like a tutor.
Claire, I’m not that stupid. I’m not failing every test I take. I don’t need your notes, and I don’t need you to tutor me. I don’t think I need you in general. Keep your notes. I’ll manage myself.
He had stomped out. Gotten into his car. Turned the ignition.
Then he had driven away, his car tires squealing against the road.
And he had later crashed straight into a tree, the impact killing him onsite.
No, she couldn’t miss him. It had been too long since the incident. Everyone else had moved on. Claire couldn’t bear admitting she hadn’t yet.
So instead, she turned to her mother. Managed the slightest smile, letting the lie fall from her lips and tumble to the ground. “No. I don’t.”
She turned on her heel, grabbed her bag, and marched out the house as fast as she could. She needed to get out before she broke again.
School had forgotten after a while, as they did. A mournful announcement the day later, tossed in with a few half-hearted PSAs about safe driving. After a few weeks, everyone had forgotten and continued to go about their normal lives.
For Claire, it couldn’t have been any different.
Toward the end of English class, she was packing up her books, preparing for the imminent bell, when someone tapped her shoulder. She looked up. A girl stood in front of her, looking a little confident and nervous at the same time.
Claire frowned. “Who are you?”
“Alice.” She spoke loud enough so that Claire could understand her, but wasn’t screaming, either. “I’m in your English class now. I’m new. Came here a few days ago.”
“Okay. What about it?”
“I don’t know too much about what we’re doing. If I could borrow your notes, I could just catch up…”
“I’m not a tutor.”
Alice half smiled at that. “I know you aren’t. I don’t need one. I just need to catch up, that’s all.”
“So why did you come to me?”
“I don’t know anyone in this classroom.” Alice glanced around. “But out of all of them, you looked approachable. I thought you’d be willing to lend a hand.”
Claire sighed. “You’re not the only one with problems. I’m busy right now, too.”
“It’s not that big of a favor to ask.” Alice frowned. “Is it?”
The bell rang.
Claire swung her bag onto her shoulder. “Well,” she called to Alice, “good luck with your notes.”
Claire stepped into her house and shut the door behind her.
“Claire,” her mom called from the kitchen as soon as the door closed.
“What?” she yelled.
“We’re going to the beach. Hurry up, get your things.”
Claire appeared in the kitchen. “Which one? And why now, out of all times?”
Claire froze. That was where she and Jamie had always gone.
“Why?” she snapped. “That’s an hour away! There’s a closer one only half an hour away. Why don’t we go there?”
Her mother shot her a look. “This is non negotiable. Get your things now, or you’re leaving with nothing.”
“Is it because of Jamie?”
Her mom didn’t respond.
“Tell me.” Claire took a step closer. “Why are you taking us there? Is it because of him?”
Her mom sighed. “Get your things, Claire.”
“Answer me first!”
“Jamie isn’t here anymore.”
“So what are you saying? He doesn’t matter? He never mattered? Is that it?” Claire screamed. “Did you ever even care about him? Not even when he died? What, did you miss him?”
Her mom glared at her. “Don’t ask me that question.”
“But did you miss him?”
Her mom whirled around. “Did I?” she roared. “Of course I did! Is that even a question? Should I be happy about his death? Should I have cheered and clapped? Held a party at his funeral, perhaps? Brought streamers and hats and colorful banners?”
After a long silence, her mom let out a breath. “Claire, go get your things. Last time I’m asking.”
This time, Claire listened.
For a while, Claire had refused to think of the place. Every time it crossed her mind, she’d banish it to the depths again. It was too close to Jamie.
Stepping out onto the sand now, Claire didn’t know what to think.
It looked the same as it always had. The sand gleamed a golden color, the same color the beach got its name from. Peaceful waves lapped at the shore. People were scattered around the beach, reading and lounging around on towels. Families built sandcastles together. Kids ran wildly around in the water, splashing each other and laughing.
But one giant hole was slashed into the picture, leaving the scene incomplete, and that was Jamie’s absence. For Claire, at least. For everyone else, the beach was the same. It hadn’t changed. Why should it have changed only for the death of one guest? Plenty of other people still came here. Plenty of other people still had to live their lives. The world couldn’t stop all for one person.
“Is it alright if I leave you alone for a little bit?” Claire’s mother murmured beside her.
“I’ll always be in eyesight. Call for me if you ever need me.” With that, her mother headed off, leaving Claire alone.
Claire paced down the beach. She and Jamie had always hung out at the edge of the waves, seeing how close they could get to the water before it pulled them in. It had been something of a competition between the two. Something Claire had looked forward to every time they came.
But she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not this time. Because Jamie was dead.
Claire walked to the edge of the water. The waves rushed forward, but didn’t quite reach her feet.
Do you ever think a wave could just wash someone away, forever?
She had asked that question once. To Jamie.
He had snorted in reply. Yeah, sure, if they were a baby. If you’re strong, you could swim back to the world. You wouldn’t let the water keep drowning you forever.
But if the current was just as strong, maybe even stronger than you…
Then I would find a way to push back. Maybe I would stay in the waves for longer, but I would always find a way to come back. I wouldn’t let one thing keep me away from the rest of the world.
A way to come back…
Claire took a few steps forward. The waves rippled around her feet, and her toes sank into the sand, fighting for purchase.
Let her be washed away.
But let her come back.
“I miss you,” she murmured into the waves. “But I know you’re not coming back. And I can’t keep hanging on like this. You would hate me for that. You’d call me clingy.” Claire took a deep breath, then let it out. “So I’ll let you go. You’re just one person. I can’t let you keep me away from the rest of the world.”
The waves retreated in response. Claire stepped back, turned around, and walked away.
The next day at school, Claire walked into her English classroom. Instead of heading toward her own desk, she stepped toward a girl who was pulling out a pencil from her bag. “Alice?”
Alice looked up. “What?”
Claire handed her a few pieces of paper. “These are copies of my English notes. You can do whatever you want with them. They’re yours to keep. If you have any questions, I wrote my phone number on the first page. You can text me anytime.”
Alice frowned. “I thought you said you were busy. That you had problems.”
She let out a sigh. “Yeah, I guess I did. I was in some pretty rough waters. But I got out of them, and I can move forward now. I’m sorry for how rude I was yesterday.”
Alice smiled. “Don’t worry about that. I get it. We all have rough times. We just have to be strong enough to make it through them.”