“Oh my God! Liz, are you okay?”
Lizzie turned and looked up, having to shield her eyes from the sun that the short woman only barely blocked. She had recognized the voice when she heard it calling out but even now, she wasn’t sure she could believe Jessica had been there. Though it did make sense as Jess was just as much one of Sarah’s friends.
”Here, let me help you up. Did you hit your head when you fell? I’m so sorry I haven’t been by to check in on you. Dennis and I were out of town, but we hurried back as soon as we heard. Why didn’t you call us to tell us? Patty was the one who called. I don’t even know how she heard.” Jessica said as she was pulling Lizzie up. Jessica was known for speaking like that. When she was excited, she would release a torrent of words that often had everyone around her struggling to keep up and no one could get a word in.
Not that Lizzie had anything she wanted to say. Her mind was still reeling from the gravestone. Had it really said to ‘beware the dead?’ Why would it say that? How could her uncle have known?
Lizzie looked at the three dead things that were gathered around her. Elisabeth and Sarah looked concerned, but Chuck was glaring again. She was to beware of them, why? What could they do? They were dead. They were annoying but they couldn’t touch her or anything else solid. Why did she need to beware?
“Hello? Earth to Lizzie? Did you hit your head? I can-“
“I’m fine. Did you talk to Sarah’s parents? How are they doing?”
“Well, not good. I really didn’t get a chance to talk to them much. I saw you walking off and wanted to catch up.”
“Yeah, no problem. Dennis stayed over there. Why didn’t you talk to them? They’re like your second family.”
“They blame me.”
“You’re kidding? Why?”
“Because she fucking got their daughter killed you dumbass.” Chuck screamed in her ear. Lizzie winched, not realizing he had rushed to catch up to them as they were walking back to Sarah’s grave. Jessica hadn’t noticed the brutally deformed man right next to her. Lizzie could barely keep from looking at him. It seemed the more he was there the angrier he became. He blamed her. She hadn’t caused his death, but that didn’t matter. He was there, and he had died when she had not.
“I lived,” Lizzie said, lowering her eyes so she didn’t have to look into the hatred that burned in his eyes as he continued to glare at her.
“Oh, girl,” and before Lizzie could protest, she was pulled into the shorter woman and had to fight to keep herself from falling farther forward into her. “It’s not your fault. You gotta know that don’t ya. It’s not your fault.”
“Oh no, you’re not getting away from me that easily. I’m not letting you go until you say it.”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“Come on, admit to it. You killed us.” Chuck whispered into her ear.
“Chuck!” Elisabeth yelled and Lizzie looked up to see that she was working with Sarah to pull him away from Jessica.
“Liz,” Jessica released her from the hug to hold her out at arms length, studying her. Lizzie was sure her friend could see the tears, both the ones that had fallen and the ones that were threatening on the horizon.
“Say it with me. Its…not…your…fault.” She waited each time, watching and making sure Lizzie repeated it back to her. “Good.”
It brought more tears, and somehow, even though the larger woman was shorter than her, Lizzie found herself burying her face into Jessica’s shoulder.
“It’s going to be okay.” Sarah was saying behind her.
“We’re here for you,” Now it was Elisabeth near her as well.
“You’re all pathetic.” She could hear the disdain in Chuck’s voice. She wasn’t sure if she preferred him not to be talking to her. The silence had been filled with his hatred but at least he had stayed quiet. She wasn’t sure if this new development was for the better.
“Come on, I don’t know who’s all still around, but Dennis will be waiting for us at the car. I know you probably don’t want to go back to the house, so…I don’t know. How have you been? You able to sleep? You know you could stay with us for awhile. It’d be like it used to be when we were roommates.”
It had only been four months since Jessica had moved in with Dennis, but she made this sound like it had been a time long ago and that staying with her would be some trip down nostalgia lane. It wasn’t that long ago, and they hadn’t stopped hanging out together. They had just gone shoe shopping two weeks ago and Lizzie had found herself some really nice flats that she’d been wearing. Jessica had talked about Dennis the whole time, and Sarah had kept trying to bring up Roland, knowing that Lizzie had just separated. Sarah was hungry for all the juicy details and was hoping Jess would help her get her friend to spill the beans.
They had laughed and talked and had spent the whole day together. Why couldn’t things just return to that? That one moment in time, possible the last one that she had been such completely lost in her friends and happiness. She hadn’t been worrying about school… Who cared if she changed majors again? If she did, it would be her third major in two years, and she hadn’t been worried about pleasing anyone else. She had just enjoyed being with people she cared about and was glad to be alive. She had been happy that her friends were alive and were there with her.
“I’m not sure. I don’t want to trouble you and Dennis.”
“Liz, it’s no trouble. You know that.”
“Do you really want to sleep in that apartment alone with what happened?”
She wouldn’t be alone. She had all her dead hanger-ons who didn’t go away. She would never be alone. She had Chuck to scream all night while Sarah and Elisabeth fought with him to shut up. Lizzie had her crying and of course, there was all the nightmares when she could get to sleep. The shadow man that followed her inside the dreamworld and then lingered into her waking life.
Lizzie was never alone. She would never be alone again. They would never allow it. She would always have someone there to make her life miserable. If she took a powder, Sarah or Elisabeth would be there with her. Chuck would be there, and he would torture her, watch her even when taking a shower. He had tried that morning, but Sarah prevented it. Eventually she’d get tired of stopping him.
“I’ll be fine.”
“No, you won’t. You can either sleep at our place or I’m staying there. You’re not getting rid of me.”
“I’m fine. I said I was fine.”
“Hey, I’m only trying to help and be here for you.”
“But you act like I need someone to save me, like I can’t handle this or do things on my own. You’re not my mother, Dennis isn’t my father, and I don’t need to be babied.”
They were getting closer to the cars and Lizzie could see Dennis was giving Sarah’s mom a hug before she got in their car. She didn’t know if they could hear them, but she feared the worse. As the car drove off and Dennis looked at them with a pained look, Lizzie was pretty sure she was right. They’d heard it. She didn’t know how much but they did.
Dennis walked toward them. He was Jessica’s matching set. They were both larger, but shorter and if you only looked at body dimensions, looked like they could be brother and sister. However, where Jessica had dark hair, his was a brilliant red. He kept a well manicured beard that somehow brought out his smile rather than hid it in the hair. As he approached, she saw the smile, but could tell it was for her benefit, while not genuine to how he felt. There was a deep sadness to his eyes as they wore lines at the corners.
Before saying anything, he stepped to Lizzie and wrapped his arms around her in a hug. “We’re here for you.”
As Lizzie pulled back from him, she couldn’t suppress the slight smile and the fresh wave of tears. “Thank you.”
“So, where we off to?” He looked at them both. He was trying so hard not to act upset, and it was odd, but Lizzie felt herself relaxing as he hid his own grief from them.
“What did she say?” Jessica asked, nodding to the car that was leaving the driveway at the edge of the cemetery.
“That she would be okay, she loves us, but that all of us may not be welcomed at their house for drinks. She’s worried it would cause undo drama.”
“That woman was like a second mother to Liz and now they’re blaming her like she killed her. That’s not right.”
“Yeah, it’s bullshit, but it’ll take awhile. They just need to deal with it in their own way.”
“Hey, I’m right here.” Lizzie said her voice tinged with the frustration of having them both talk about her as though she wasn’t there.
“Oh, there you are, thought we’d lost ya.” Dennis said with his smirk, his sarcasm heavy on his tongue. “So, whose up for lunch?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t really thought about food much the last couple of days.” Lizzie looked over her shoulder. The others followed, the disfigured trio that walked behind them. Lizzie had no way of telling them, her two living friends about the dead’s ones. How every time she tried to eat, they were there, and she found her appetite slip away.
“We don’t need food. We need Belts.” Jessica said with a giggle, pushing Lizzie softly towards their car.
“You just think ice cream is the solution to all.” Dennis laughed.
“And you agree. Remember when we took your dad there. I thought his eyes were going to explode out of his head when he saw the size of the cone. It was bigger than his head.”
Lizzie allowed herself to drift back as they started to tease each other. Her car wasn’t parked too far away, but she’d have to leave them soon to walk to it. She wasn’t sure she was ready to do that. Not yet.
She figured she’d follow them there. She didn’t like the idea of leaving her car in the cemetery and she knew where Belt’s Soft Serve was.
The last time she followed someone, they ended up dead. She saw the crash, watching as the truck plowed into the car, the sound of crushing metal and breaking glass shouting through her memories.
“So, you just going to follow us there?” Jessica asked “I mean you could ride with us, it’s up to you. Dennis has to move his trombone out from the passenger seat, don’t ask why he brought it, I’m not really sure and he just laughs when I ask him.”
The car. The crashing. The screeching metal.
“I can make it work. I don’t really want to drive myself right now.”
“Well, sure. Climb in.” Dennis said with a shrug.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t go somewhere with, you know,” Dennis playfully added, “actual food.”
They were along the highway and halfway to Belts but as Lizzie sat in the back seat, she was beginning to sense that while Jessica had suggested it, she wasn’t really in the mood for a massive ice cream cone.
“I’m fine with whatever. I’m not really all that hungry.”
She watched as they shared a glance back and forth. She knew they were talking in ways she couldn’t see. Part of it was probably eye contact, but they were also probably texting each other back and forth even while Dennis was driving. Lizzie noticed that his cell phone was not mounted on the vent magnetic holder where he normally kept it. They were talking, scheming and it had something to do with her.
“Hey, how’s this. We go back to our place and grill up some brats. Dennis can go to the meat market, and I can soak up some wood chips while he’s gone. It’ll give us a chance to girl talk, and he can do whatever he needs to do.”
Yep, they were planning something. They were manipulating her, but did it really matter? They were in a car, and there were no dead people in there with her. It was such a relief that the only other occupants of the back seat was a dinged up old trombone that Dennis played when he performed with his jazz band. It was heaven and she hadn’t thought about just how nice it would be to not have them there.
“It’ll be okay.” Dennis said, looking at her through the rearview. “We’re here for you.”
They’re there for her. Everyone was there for her, at least, that was what they said. She wanted to ask them, just how much they would be there for her if they knew she had been talking to the dead for the last week.
“Hey Dennis?” Dennis had turned back to watching the road but turned to look at her, nodding for her to continue. “You have a buddy who gives lessons in self defense right?”
“Kinda,” he turned back to watch the road as they neared a stop. He turned on the signal and she saw that they were taking a right turn. When they stopped he looked back at her. “Ben teaches Karate at a dojo over on Wildwood drive. It’s not really a self defense class, but, well…”
She nodded to him, and he made his turn.
“So, you want to learn Karate?” Jessica asked. She played with the word Karate, stretching it out, toying with each syllable making it sound like an eighty’s schoolgirl. Lizzie winced. She’d already been making fun of the idea to herself, let alone hearing it from her friend.
“I don’t know. It was just a thought.”
“Well, Ben’s a good guy. He doesn’t own or run the place, but the guy who does is supposed to be some world-renowned champion, I guess. I think the first class is free, so you can check it out.”
“Look, Liz, I shouldn’t kid. I know you’ve been through some shit.” Jessica said. Lizzie didn’t know what she looked like, but Jessica had stopped joking with her and now looked concerned. “If you want, I’ll take a class or two with you. Check it out.”
“I’ll be fine. It was just a thought.”
“Okay, well the offer stands.”