Janine Kishi stood in the shadows of the living room, watching as friends and neighbors greeted her family for the second (or third) time that day. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but already, she felt exhausted. It had been hard enough to sit through the burial service, and then the funeral; she wasn’t sure she could handle lingering around at the reception for very long.
She knew how rude it would’ve been to skip it, though. Every person who filed into the house that afternoon had known and loved Mimi. They all had nice memories to share, and a seemingly desperate need to share them, now that the heaviness and formality of the funeral had passed. The atmosphere that permeated the living room was light and relaxed and welcoming; people were smiling and laughing and chatting happily – with her parents, with her aunt and uncle, with each other.
Janine sank back into the corner. It all felt so strange to her, to stand there and listen as others reminisced about her grandmother – to see her mother smiling in the midst of her guests – to watch Russ and Peaches laugh at an old familiar story. She felt a stab of jealousy as she watched Claudia and her friends disappear into the den with a platter of food, closing the door behind themselves.
Everyone had someone to be with, it seemed – everyone but her.
She lurked and waited and watched, inching closer and closer to the entrance to the room. With one final, lingering glance, she escaped, moving purposefully through the foyer and nearly bursting out of the front door. She inhaled sharply as she descended the stairs, walking out into the yard and feeling the afternoon sun warm her shoulders. Her tension began to dissipate as she moved away from the house, away from the family and friends and neighbors who had crowded inside, eager to offer sympathy and support.
It was all too much for her.
She’d never felt more alone in her life.
She tucked her hands into the pockets of her blazer, pulling it closed around herself as she wandered around to the back of the house. It was hard for her not to feel guilty now, for feeling annoyed and afraid by the constant upheaval that Mimi had caused during the last few weeks of her life. Janine liked routine – thrived on it, in fact – but the last month had been more chaotic than sound. Those back and forth trips to the hospital – watching her grandmother writhe in pain – the worried looks her parents exchanged when they thought no one was looking – it all wore on her.
She didn’t like to see Mimi like this – like an old, frail, confused and dying woman. She didn’t want to see it, so she escaped, finding comfort and regularity in her world of logic and science. She couldn’t deal with it then, but she had to deal with it now.
Because now, Mimi was gone.
She was dead.
And now that Janine was free to remember her however she wished, all she could think about were those final few agonizing days.
The hesitant voice startled Janine from her thoughts. She turned swiftly, feeling her spine stiffen when she realized who had called out to her. Charlie Thomas stood a few steps away, looking at her uncertainly. Though others had changed between the funeral and the reception, he was still dressed in his dark suit and tie. Of course, she thought to herself as her eyes swept over him. He probably just stayed on this side of town.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly, closing the gap between them.
She turned away, crossing her arms tightly over her chest, chewing on her lower lip as she searched for a suitable answer to his question. They weren’t friends; she wasn’t sure that she felt comfortable sharing her feelings with him.
“Kristy told me about the BSC meeting,” he continued on after a moment. “About how you were there, too, because you didn’t want to be alone.” There was another pause. “I’ve been thinking about you ever since.”
Janine turned to face him once more, her eyes narrowing with curiosity. “You have?” she choked out, unable to hide the blatant surprise in her voice.
He nodded somberly. “I know what it’s like to abruptly lose someone you love,” he replied. “And I can’t imagine trying to deal with it all alone.” Tentatively, he reached for her, laying his arm lightly around her shoulders. “So if you want someone to talk to, I’m here for you, Janine.”
She nodded wordlessly, swallowing hard past the lump that had risen in the back of her throat. Her mind was still reeling over the idea that anyone would spare such concern for her, much less someone like Charlie Thomas. He was a popular, easy-going, well-liked jock, and his kind rarely mixed with hers. Of course, she considered, the reason he was so well-liked was because he was friendly to everyone, from the baddest badass to the lowliest outcast. She knew his offer to be sincere, based on that alone, but she couldn’t help the warmth that spread across her torso as she stood there with his arm draped across her shoulders. Perhaps a confidant was just what she needed right then, especially given her family’s tendency to push her away in times like these.
“Is it wrong to feel guilty?” she mused aloud, tightening the brace of her arms across her chest.
He considered her question thoughtfully. “How do you mean?” he queried, shifting his weight so that he could look at her.
She touched one of her earrings, toying with the diamond stud. “I was never close to her,” she confessed, “not like Claudia. Mimi attempted to engage me so many times – to show me how to make her special tea, to try to teach me how to knit – but I was never interested in those things. And then, when she became sick…” She averted her gaze, feeling tears prickling behind her eyes. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. I loved her, but I didn’t know how to help her.”
“That’s understandable, I think,” Charlie murmured, rubbing her shoulder in a soothing caress.
Tears trickled from the corners of Janine's eyes. “I couldn’t bear to see her so sick and frail,” she confessed softly, her breath hitching in her chest. “I was at home, the last time she collapsed – but I was avoiding her. She wandered down to Claudia’s art class for company, and – ” Her throat closed over a sob as she covered her face with both hands. “– I never got to say goodbye.”
Charlie folded her into his arms, resting her head against his shoulder, his embrace warm and secure. His gentle response only made her cry harder – who was she to be worthy of his compassion, especially when the guilt she felt was of her own making?
“It’s all my fault,” she said haltingly, between sobs. “If I hadn’t been so selfish – if I only had put her needs first – ”
“Janine,” he interrupted delicately, grasping her shoulders, “you’re a human being. You have flaws, believe it or not.” He offered a small smile. “Mimi knew that. She could understand your fear.”
“She didn’t understand much of anything, near the end,” Janine sniffled.
“She was never the same after the stroke she had last summer,” he reminded her. “But that doesn’t mean that she loved you any less, or thought that you loved her any less.”
Janine felt her sobs beginning to subside. “I never had the chance to say goodbye, or tell her what she meant to me,” she said softly. “She talked to Claudia the night before she died. She was always so proud of Claudia…”
Charlie hugged her close again. “She was proud of you, too, Janine,” he replied resolutely. “I’m sure, if she’d had her wish, she would’ve spoken to all of you, one last time.”
Janine simply nodded before resting her head on his shoulder again. After a moment of contemplation, she slowly circled her arms around his waist, bringing him close and hugging him back. She liked the way he felt against her, so warm and solid and strong – and she liked the way he made her feel: comfortable, safe, and secure.
“Feeling better?” he asked softly after a long moment.
She let him go. “Quite,” she murmured, reaching up to wipe away the tracks of her tears. A flush rose up the back of her neck; she couldn’t quite bring her gaze to meet his, so she looked at his shoulder instead. “I apologize for ruining your jacket,” she added after a moment.
He shrugged, brushing the damp fabric at his shoulder. “No big deal,” he assured her with a smile. “Just think of it this way – you’ll always have a shoulder to cry on, if you need it.”
She managed a small smile. “Thank you, Charlie,” she said, feeling a wave of warmth cascade over her.
He reached for her hand, giving it a light squeeze. “Any time, Janine,” he replied. “Any time.”