Ember and Ash — Courtney Morrison
Jamie Dyer woke up to darkness and the smell of smoke. Unlike the darkness, which in his twelve years still shamefully sent a mist of panic over his skin, he had quickly grown accustomed to the smell of the smoke in the few weeks that it had visited nightly, wafting up to his bedroom window like the call of a star-crossed lover in the summer air. In most ways, it was.
The first night when it woke him, he’d scurried out of bed, running around his house in a mad search for fire. He’d stirred his mother and father who, after their own flustered investigation, went back to their room and told him to do the same. It was only later when the smell persisted that he peeked out his widow and saw Jade Pierce from next door, a red cherry flickering in front of her face.
The next night that same dry smell woke him, but supplied only a diluted flicker of the panic that had overcome him almost exactly 24 hours before. He crept downstairs and out the back, going to her in the small strip of grass between their houses.
“Jade!” He’d whispered loudly. “Jade, what are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing, Jamie?” She didn’t bother with whispering, and he flinched at her curt use of his first name; Jade always called him by both names unless she was angry with him. Jamie Dyer. Jamie Dyer. Jamie Dyer. It sounded like a four-syllable song when she said it.
“Jade, you really shouldn’t smoke.” He was firm in his decree, as firm as he’d ever been with her. It felt good to tell Jade Pierce what she should and shouldn’t do; Jade was always the one to say what was okay and what wasn’t, but the realization that he, too, could make decisions was satisfying.
“Because it’s bad for you!”
She rolled her eyes and took another long drag, damaging his new-found authority a great deal more than her own lungs. He harrumphed and took a seat next to her in the dry summer grass. After a few moments, the smoke made his chest tighten. He took out his inhaler and puffed on it once, but didn’t complain. Jade moved her cigarette to the other hand, making the smoke waft in the opposite direction, and he took that as an open invitation to sit with her whenever he liked.
Most nights he went down to be with her, where he would do the majority of the talking, sometimes having to monologue his short, sporadic thoughts in a long ramble if she refused to speak at all. He assumed she was listening. After she finished, usually three or four cigarettes spaced over an hour or so, she abandoned her spot against the house or sitting in the grass, and went back inside without so much as a goodnight glance.
But some nights he stayed in bed, peeking over his headboard to watch her looking up at the sky and seemingly seeing nothing, moving her hand to her face every thirty seconds or so as she brooded. He liked to look down from his bedroom window and watch the cherry breathe, come to life as Jade inhaled, then settle when she pulled it away from her mouth. Her lips gave life to fire. This was indisputable proof.
On those nights, she squinted up at his window before she went inside, and he knew she was wondering where he’d been.
Jade was his best friend; she always had been. They had been born two days apart, their parents were best friends, and they were neighbors. They shared everything. Because they were now on the cusp of eighth grade, there was a lot of talk about them being girlfriend and boyfriend. It wasn’t true, of course, but it made Jade really angry whenever someone teased her about it. On the other hand, everything made Jade really angry since what happened, but he didn’t let her mood swings and brutal speech sway his loyalties.
His mother always referred to it as what happened or named things in relation to since it happened. He had never thought of death as a happening but more of an unhappening. If someone once lived, and then no longer did, things stopped happening to them. But the happened that his mother referred to, in low whispers with heavy tears that never quite left her eyes, was never in relation to the dead, but the living.
Something happened to Jade when her mother killed herself, and he understood that even if she didn’t.
It didn’t start with the cigarettes. It started with the book. After Ms. Tori killed herself, Jade was withdrawn. She was tired. She never slept. She never ate. She didn’t talk to him, not even when she was at his house; Jade was there a lot after what happened because it happened to her father, also. He wasn’t managing very well, so he sometimes had to go away, or be away, or pretend that he was away, and Jade would have to go too. For her away was next door. They didn’t talk though. Mostly they sat on the couch and watched TV. She didn’t cry. Mostly she just yawned. Then stared at the ceiling until it was bedtime.
His mother said that Jade was grieving, and that she would be grieving for a long time, maybe her whole life. He looked up GRIEVING on Google, and learned a lot of things about helping loved ones grieve that sounded useful as he jotted them down in his notebook, but proved to be useless whenever he attempted to utilize them. Jade did not want to talk about it. Jade did not want to write down her feelings in the journal he bought for her. Jade did not want to start a new project with him. Jade did not want a shoulder to cry on. Jade did not cry. He never saw her cry. She yawned. And she stared at the ceiling.
This was all before the book. She never told him about it, but he’d overheard his mother telling Ms. Maggie from the next block about it one morning over coffee. He’d been eavesdropping; there was no pretending that he hadn’t been.
“Okay, so you know Tori was a writer.”
He heard Ms. Maggie’s “mmhmm” echo inside the walls of her ceramic mug.
“Well, Sam told me that she had written a book for Jade, lessons and stories and things that she wanted her to know. Something to remember her by. Sam gave it to Jade yesterday, and she tried to burn it in the oven.”
“Yep. He found her before she ruined it, but he said he’s going to hold on to it until she gets a little older. Until she can appreciate it.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Honestly? Why do you think, Maggie?” A surge of something fierce and indignant peaked in his mother’s voice and frightened him. Quietly, he tip-toed back upstairs before loudly making his way down again. Upon his official arrival, his mother was as composed as ever, serving more coffee to her guest and smiling brightly.
“Morning, munchkin. You want breakfast?”
He hugged her, gingerly, and took his cereal in the living room.
The next time he saw Jade, she was different. She was not the old Jade he had known to play with him outside and make blanket forts in their living rooms; that Jade had started dissolving even before Ms. Tori’s suicide. And she was not the Jade who only yawned and stared at the ceiling. She was not really the other Jade, either, the one who had started caring about what she wore and what the boys at school thought of her. She was a different Jade all together. Stern. Apathetic. Eye-rolling and angry. She’d cut the front of her hair in long, lopsided bangs that covered her face. She stopped making eye contact. And she started smoking cigarettes.
He didn’t say much about her smoking habits after the first night when he’d confronted her. Mostly he sat with her and watched, talking to her, assuming she was listening and hoping for a response. Usually if she did respond it was only to say something hurtful or shocking, but he’d read on Google that rebellion was normal for adolescents who have experienced a great trauma or grief, so he didn’t let it offend him, but rather he kept talking until she said something else or she left. One night in the middle of his rambles she pulled out her lighter and ran it around the edge of her tee-shirt. His eyes watch the flame eat away at the cotton. He tried to remain unfazed, but in his head, he saw Jade being swallowed up by the flames, having them eat her whole, and leaving nothing behind. In his vision she laughed, and finally he yelled at her to stop. His outburst had been so sudden that it startled her, and she dropped the lighter to the ground. That night, he had been the one to leave her outside without any farewell, and he hadn’t gone down to her since. Still, every night the smoke woke him, and every night he watched her from above. Faithfully, she glanced up at his window before she went inside; each time it reinforced that feeling of superiority that he’d tasted the first time he realized he had some say in their relationship. After a few nights of staying away and watching her look up for him, he ached to be with her again, but he refrained, denying himself so he could hoard that feeling of gratification as she sought him.
But since then days had gone by and then a week; he had grown tired of the small satisfaction of a short glance and wished for more. He slipped out of bed, pulling on some old tennis shoes, and, at the last moment for some reason he couldn’t fathom, traded out his Star Wars tee-shirt for a plain black one, before creeping out the back door.
She was already looking in his direction when he rounded the corner, which caused the strangest feeling in his stomach that he decided he would have to Google later. Acutely aware of his pace, he sat next to her in the grass, staring straight ahead. She said hi first, and he jutted his chin up in response before immediately chiding himself.
Take it down a notch.
She pulled out a fresh cigarette from the pack and lit it. He wondered where she was getting them from but decided not to ask because she would just tell him that it was none of his business. He had a feeling Danny Miller from two blocks down was giving them to her. Danny was only fifteen, but he’d been known to get things like wine coolers and Playboys from his older brother, Adam, and he’d always been nice to Jade. The thought of Jade meeting Danny somewhere privately and making some sort of exchange annoyed him, but he pushed the thought away and watched as she brought the end of the cigarette to her lips, curved her mouth around it, and pulled. He thought about how he’d like to be that cigarette, then he broke the thought down in his head word-by-word, decided that it didn’t make any sense, and chalked it up to exhaustion. She caught him staring, and he cleared his throat.
“Let me try.”
She looked at him doubtfully, letting the smoke in her mouth drift out lazily. She took another drag, never breaking eye contact.
“Come on, Jade. I want to try, too.” He regretted the whine in the base of his tone, and cleared his throat again, demanding seriousness by raising his eyebrows.
After another moment of contemplation, she handed the cigarette over to him. He fumbled with it, not knowing how hot the butt would be and even more concerned with burning the tips of his fingers on the little red end, which flickered only about an inch and a half from the amber filter. After successfully retrieving it, he struggled to wedge it between his index and middle fingers the way he’d seen Jade hold it; it was not as natural a position as he’d once imagined. But, at last, he held it firmly, and, after a deep breath of bravery, he brought it up to his lips.
The tightening in his chest was familiar and instantaneous. There was no panic, but only the passive feeling of annoyance as his hand reflexively dropped the cigarette he’d so carefully situated in his thick, short fingers and flew up to his throat. Digging into his trachea would do nothing for him, but still the pads of his fingers pressed deeper and deeper as he gasped for air.
There was a pressure behind his eyes, a pounding inside his skull as his body demanded the oxygen it was being deprived of, but still he managed to see Jade through the night and the red splotches creeping in and out of his vision, and he thought intensely, undisputedly, and for the first time ever: She’s so beautiful.
She tossed herself in front of him, trying to get as close as she could as quickly as possible. For the first time since she cut it, he didn’t mind that her soft brown waves were uneven. The collar of her shirt loosened around her as she bent over him, revealing a strong clavicle and soft curve over her shoulder to her ear.
Jamie Dyer! Jamie Dyer! Jamie Dyer!
It was not a song; it was a lamentation as she banged on his chest, both fists at once, too hard and too high.
“Goddamnit, Jamie!” She touched his face, all over and all at once. Her fingers on his brow, her palm on his cheek, her thumbs pushing open his lips. She ran her hands across him several times, quick and flustered, before she finally pinched his nose and opened his mouth, pushing down his chin, and planting herself in front of him. But then, he thought rather curiously, she hesitated for a second before closing the space between them. It was only a second, less than a second really, but it felt like a long time, it felt like he had experienced an eternity watching her, waiting for her to finish her botched CPR. He had a whole lifetime to think about her falter before she let her lips touch his, the flicker in her eyes that screamed: This is not how things were supposed to be! And if it wasn’t a lifetime in that second, as it surely was not, he would use a lifetime, years and years to come, just thinking to the point of eventual desperation: Which part do you mean, Jade? Things with me or things with her? Because that flicker screamed of need, but he didn’t know if she was reaching out to him or the woman who was already gone.
For a time after their lips met, he felt like he could breathe. He could feel his lungs expand, take in the sweet summer air, taste the water from the river two miles down, taste the ocean on the other side of the state. He could feel the ocean in his mouth, flooding it with a dense, salty flavor. But not drowning him. No, he could breathe. He could breathe under water, and if he didn’t fight it, he could breathe amongst the stars. Breathe in darkness and gas and plasma, and breathe out flames. He breathed fire. Cigarettes be damned: he was ember and everything else was ash.
But he couldn’t breathe at all. Her second of hesitation passed, and his moment of invincibility went with it. He had been bested by a cigarette, and he knew it. So, he reached into his pocket, pulled out his inhaler, and drew on it for a long time.
They were quiet as he settled himself, threw up in the grass, spit a few times, sucked on his inhaler some more. She didn’t say anything, offered no solace or assistance, but remained very quiet. Eventually, he looked over to her, huddled in the grass, knees to her chest, crying. Weeping. Sobbing. Silently. Her mouth opened as if to scream, her eyes tight as they pooled over, her body rocking back and forth with the reverberations of her emptiness.
He didn’t see Jade outside smoking for the rest of the summer. He didn’t see Jade at all. He went to her house a few times and knocked on the door. Sometimes Mr. Sam answered, and he would say that Jade wasn’t home, or was asleep, or was doing chores. Mostly, no one answered. The whole week before school started a moving truck was parked next door, and then there was nothing.
His mother told him that Mr. Sam needed a change, that he couldn’t be in the place where he’d most intimately known his greatest love and savagely lost it. She said it was good for Jade, too, that maybe she would get better if she had some space from the place where it happened. He didn’t believe it. Jade would never get better because Jade did not grieve.
When they no longer lived next to each other, and they no longer went to the same school, they were no longer friends. It was a slow, painful realization, but it was one he eventually came to on his own: he and Jade were not friends. He told himself over again that she was gone from him, and that she would not come back. He spelled the words out letter by letter in his mind with hopes that it would be burned there forever, and he would accept it. But each time he told himself, reminded himself that they were no longer together, his mouth flooded with the flavor of Jade’s panic, and he saw her eyes flicker.