WHEN FOREVER ENDS
by Allyson B. Vaughan
Nellie peddled faster, squinting against the mist of rain that bit her skin as she rode her bike down Main Street. She liked the way her heart beat against her ribcage when she rode too fast. The street was quiet except for the sound of the rain and her breathing. It was just past six a.m. and the shops wouldn't open for another two hours. She was peddling against the wind, and the cold numbed the tips of her fingers. Nellie gripped the handlebars tighter, willing her hands to feel again. She rode past Ellen's bakery, where she'd worked last summer as a waitress, but didn't wave when Ellen stepped out and waved a hand to her. Nellie didn't feel like smiling any more than the sun felt like shining. The grey sky seemed to be a comfort to her, because she felt that it was nice that the universe seemed to understand the fact that Hazel was gone.
Nellie turned down the street to Hazel's house and slowed. She hadn't been down this street since the funeral four months ago. Everything looked the same and different at once. A voice in her head sang, “Go, and get out of here.” Nellie stopped her bike and pushed backwards, ready to turn around. She couldn't look at that house, not without thinking of the police cars and the ambulance that had shrieked almost as loud as Mrs. Laurent's scream when they brought her daughter out. Nellie had watched with everyone else and she could still feel the way the warmth had drained from her when Mr. Laurent had seen her and shook his head before turning to wrap his wife in his arms. They'd climbed into the back of the ambulance and disappeared, leaving Nellie with the murmurs. She could still hear them. She had a lot of behavioral issues. I heard she was pregnant and couldn't bear for them to find out. She just seemed so happy. Nellie had thrown up on somebody's shoes.
Nellie was wheeling her bike around when the front door opened and Jason came out. It was too late to pretend she hadn't seen him, so she stopped and waited while he jogged down the steps. Nellie remembered the way he'd cried at the funeral. Silent, but louder than everyone else.
“Hey," he said, eyeing the front wheel of her bike turned away from the house. “Thanks for coming. I'm sorry I called so early.".
Nellie nodded and looked down at his feet. He wore faded sneakers, almost worn to nothing. “It’s fine, I couldn't sleep anyway," she said. They didn't say anything, but avoided each other's eyes. Nellie didn't know why he couldn't look at her, but she knew why she couldn't look at him. He and Hazel had the same eyes, and she didn't want to cry. He might take it personally if she broke down from looking at his face.
"Do you want to come inside? I can make coffee." He scratched the blonde whiskers sprouting on the tanned skin of his cheek. Hazel and Jason had the same coloring too. They could've been twins if they weren't three years apart.
"Won't it wake up your parents?" Nellie said. She didn't want to go inside, but she didn't want to keep being cold either. The mist was lightening up, but the cold seeped through her jacket.
""They're out of town. They're looking for a new house." Jason squinted against the sky, and Nellie wondered if he was trying just as hard as she was not to think about why.
“Okay, sure," Nellie said, and followed him up to the house. Half way up the driveway, Jason took the handle bars from her and pushed the bike up the steep hill. They left it leaning against a rain gutter.
The inside of the house was warm and Nellie pushed her hood back. Jason had already started towards the kitchen and was fiddling with the coffee maker when she walked into the room. The kitchen was a soft cream and dimly lit. It made her feel safe and tired. She remembered making cookies with Hazel and her mom once, and the room had gotten so warm with the heat of the stove they'd fallen asleep at the table. The cookies were burnt when they woke up, and they'd fed them to Russell, their golden retriever. Nellie wanted to see Russell, but felt strange asking for him.
Nellie said yes and sat down in the chair closest to the door. They were so silent that Nellie felt she was disappearing in plain sight. Jason would forget she was there and wonder why he held two coffee cups in his hands. He didn't though, and he sat the mug in front of her and sat across from her at the table. They stared into their cups and let the steam rise. Nellie felt her body tighten and she picked up the mug and, tipping it back, took a giant swig of coffee. It burned and she was glad to feel some other kind of pain. She swallowed and coughed as it went down. Jason looked up and he glanced at the cup, then her reddening face. He frowned and ran his thumb down the handle of his own.
His silence was beginning to make her angry. Nellie crossed her arms and leaned back, waiting for him to say something. When he didn't move or speak, she sighed and held the coffee cup tight in her hand, letting the heat warm her hand.
“Why did you call me?" she asked. Her voice felt small and she cleared her throat. Jason looked up at her through his eyelashes and then back into his coffee. Nellie wanted to smack the table and make him look.
"I don't know." He let go of his mug and leaned back. Nellie looked down at the long table at him.
"Me neither. That's why I asked," Nellie said. The coffee maker clicked and she focused on the blinking, green light. "You make terrible coffee, by the way."
Jason almost laughed, but Nellie only twitched. “I know, I don't normally drink coffee," he said. He got up and dumped his coffee down the sink and motioned to take hers, but she didn't want to let go of the warmth it gave her. “Suit yourself."
Nellie wanted to ask if Hazel taught him, because she'd made terrible coffee too. “I saw that you got your book published, that's great," Nellie said. She'd almost forgotten he was a writer. “I bought a copy."
Thanks," he said.
“I saw that you dedicated it to Hazel." Nellie's mouth felt strange as she formed her name, and realized she hadn't said it in a long time. She regretted mentioning it when Jason's jaw went rigid with the mention of her name. “Sorry," she said.
He shook his head and leaned against the counter. “No, it's fine. Yeah, I had it changed after everything. My publisher didn’t mind. I guess that's why I called you. I just, I thought you might know..." His eyes began to water and he squeezed them shut. Nellie didn't look away, because she couldn't. “Sorry. I just wondered if she ever, you know, said anything to you," he said.
“About why?" Nellie looked at the scar on her knuckle, the one she'd gotten punching Johnny Ackley in the fourth grade for making fun of Hazel for spilling milk on her pants and shouting that Hazel had wet herself. When Johnny had seen the blood and the tooth she'd knocked out, he’d fled from the playground and they'd hidden from their teacher in the plastic tunnel that led to the slide. She blinked away the memory and shook her head. "No, she didn't. I mean, she acted weird sometimes, but then she seemed fine. Then, all of a sudden she was gone."
Jason closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. Nellie waited and took a few of her own. "Okay." He turned around and looked out the window over the sink. He began moving dishes around, turning the faucet on to rinse day old plates. Nellie blinked and sat with her hands in her lap. She waited for him to say something, but when he didn't she got up and walked out of the kitchen. She couldn't take it anymore. Being in that house, not looking at Jason, the boxes they'd begun to pack sitting around. She was sure Hazel's room was the only one without anything packed, and that made her want to scream. She couldn't take Jason's weird silence or his terrible coffee.
Nellie flipped her hood up and opened the front door. She stopped with her hand on the doorknob when her eyes fell on a beam of the front porch. There were initials carved into them, N.O and H. L. Nellie O'Neil and Hazel Laurent. They'd carved it the night before they'd begun their senior year, just six months ago. Nellie remembered Hazel insisting they do it. They were sitting on the front porch drinking lemonade and talking about what they hoped would happen their senior year. Nellie wanted to make honor roll one last time and finally get up the nerve to ask Andrew Riley out. Hazel didn't know what, but she's said she wanted something big to happen.
Hazel had rolled her head back and laughed. “Because, I want to and so everyone will always know I was here."
Nellie had laughed and said, "Where do you plan on going?"
Hazel frowned and reached into her bag, pulling out a pocket knife and flipping out a sharp, thin blade. She'd crawled on her knees, dirtying the white sundress she'd been wearing, and begun to carve her initials. Nellie watched and wondered about her friend. She tried to remember what song was playing on Hazel’s IPod that night, because it suddenly felt important, but she couldn't remember. All she could remember was the way Hazel had looked when she finished carving her initials and how she'd run her fingertips over the letters. She was lost in the music of her mind and not even Nellie could get her to come out of it. Hazel always got lost in thought and Nellie sometimes feared she'd never find her way back. Finally, Hazel turned around and handed her the blade. “Here, you do it too."
Nellie had taken the pocket knife from Hazel and carved her initials and then she handed it back to her. Hazel smiled at their marks and flipped the blade back in place. Now, Nellie wished she'd never let Hazel find a way to leave a part of herself behind.
Jason had come out of the kitchen and Nellie could feel him standing behind her. "She carried it around with her, that pocket knife, you know. She used to bring it out when she got angry and play with it at the dinner table," he said, and Nellie closed her eyes. She didn't want to start crying because she didn't know if she could stop.
She wiped her nose on her sleeve and let go of the door handle. Jason reached from behind her and closed the door. Nellie moved away from him and went to sit on the couch. It was soft and worn, and Nellie liked to think that it was because people who'd sat there had felt too happy to move. “She used to fiddle with it under her desk at school. I tried to throw it away once, but she found it. I don't know why I did that, but I didn't like her having that thing." Nellie used to think it was some kind of comfort blanket, but it made her stomach hurt to think that Hazel was comforted by the sharpness of the blade.
Jason sat down in a sofa chair and leaned forward on his elbows. “Yeah, I tried too. You know, I wasn't done talking in there," he said.
“I was." Nellie didn't bother to push back her hood. “Why am I even here?" she asked.
“I asked you to come. You didn't have to." Jason's voice was hard. Nellie crossed her arms and wondered why she had. She'd been lying in bed, trying to squeeze all of the memories that kept coming back out of her mind. Why couldn't someone just take all of them away? It hurt to remember, but she couldn't let go of the sweet sadness the memories brought either. They shifted like a slide show of photographs in her mind and she couldn't focus on one for too long. Nellie could see all of their lives in front of her at once and where Hazel's stopped. On a cold December evening with a silent plea to the universe that it would be quick. Quick for Hazel, forever for the rest of them.
"I know I didn't. I just felt like I had to," Nellie said. Jason looked at her and she could see the broken part of him screaming for someone to understand. She gazed around the living room. The wall-to-wall box shelves were bare and all the photos had been wrapped and hidden in the cardboard boxes. It wasn't the same living room she'd sat in countless times at sleepovers. The fireplace held only the cold ashes of a once burning fire, and the blinds had been shut to keep the world out. It was a skeleton of a home and everything in it was ashes and bone. She thought about how quiet it must be with Hazel's parents gone all the time and how Jason was the only thing with a heartbeat in it. Nellie understood what it was like being alone with nothing to think about but Hazel, and she knew why he'd really called her. “I haven't talked about her with anyone since it happened."
Jason's shoulders went slack and he finally collapsed against the back of the chair. "Me neither. I tried to talk to mom and dad about it, but they're trying to...I don't know, forget, I guess," he said. He took a look around the room and grimaced. “I just can't do that anymore. I need to know what happened to her, Nellie. That's why I called you. I need you to tell me about my sister."
Nellie stared at him and shook her head. “I think you knew her better than I did. She hid stuff from me all the time. She never said what she meant, I realize that now. I always thought you two were close," she said. It had taken Nellie two months to realize Hazel had kept herself from her. She would always do these dramatic things, like showing up on her doorstep at two in the morning and dragging her outside to look for comets or taking her to museums on a whim. She would go to the art displays on her own before she ever took Nellie to them. When she'd bring her, she'd sit her in front of a painting and try to get her to guess how it made Hazel feel.
Nellie remembered her showing her a painting of a little girl with an umbrella at her side, staring up into the rain. Hazel had gripped her arm tight and stared at her with an eagerness that had annoyed Nellie. “Look at it Nell, it's beautiful," she'd said. “Don’t you get it?"
Nellie had tried to see whatever it was Hazel had found so enlightening. All she could think was that the girl had an umbrella and she wasn't using it. “No, not really," Nellie said, and Hazel had let go of her arm and gone to look at another painting. Nellie wished she'd tried harder to get it. Maybe if she had, Hazel wouldn't have felt that no one did.
“Hazel stayed locked in her room when she wasn't with you. I figured she wasn't like that with you." Jason reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a photograph, folded into fours and soft from handling. He extended it and Nellie took it. It was a photograph of Hazel standing by a river and frowning at the camera. “I think she took that herself with her tripod. Look at the date on the photograph," Jason said.
Nellie looked and saw that it was a week before she'd done it, before she'd taken that pocket knife and waited for someone to find her in the bathroom. Nellie shivered and set the photo on the coffee table, sliding it away from her. She felt the acid of the coffee rising back up her throat. She'd done so well too, at not thinking about it. “Why?" she asked, pinching the skin on her arm to keep from crying.
Jason blew air out of his nose, and she could see a flash of anger in his eyes. “Who knows why Hazel did anything. She left this on her bed for someone to find. I thought it was for me, because she took me there a couple of months before and wanted me to jump off a rock, into the river with her." Jason stared at the photograph but didn't make a move to pick it back up. “I didn't know what she wanted, but it wasn't for me to jump in with her. I wish she'd said what she meant, but she didn't. Then she went around talking about what she was going to do when she graduated and I just never thought..." he trailed off and began to cry. Nellie closed her eyes to fight back her own tears. If she couldn't see how different everything was, then it was almost like nothing had changed.
She didn't know who stopped first, but eventually they were staring at each other with puffy eyes and stuffed noses. Jason rubbed his eyes and tossed a box of tissues to her. When she'd dried her eyes, Nellie curled up into a ball in the corner of the couch. “She took me to the river too. She asked me to jump, and I did," Nellie said.
Thanks," he said.Jason frowned at her, "She did? When?"
“A few days before," Nellie said. “It was the last time we hung out."
Hazel had led Nellie through the woods. On the way, she'd asked Nellie what she did to feel alive. “Do you ever just feel like you've got to do something crazy to feel anything?" she'd asked.
“I like to roll the windows down while my mom drives, close my eyes, and just breathe. It makes me feel calm. Is that what you mean?" Nellie had to race to keep up with Hazel, because she moved faster than anyone she knew. Hazel shook her head.
“No, I mean something big," Hazel said.
“Like, jumping off the rocks into the river," she said, grinning.
Nellie knew Hazel well enough to know what was coming. They were close enough to the river now that Nellie could hear the rush of the water, and she imagined a great, black abyss ready to swallow them up. “No, no, no. I'm not doing that. I can't do that."
Hazel groaned and grabbed her hand. "But you have to. Come on, I’ve already done it once. It's safe, I promise. Please, Please, Please. I just want you to know what it feels like," she said. Hazel argued that it was too cold. “Oh, but that makes it so much better. It hurts, but it'll feel good after a minute."
Hazel dragged Nellie by the hand to the base of the rocks and looked up. They weren't too high, and dark as the water was, it didn't seem to have an overwhelming current. Nellie didn't know why she finally agreed to do it. Maybe it was the way Hazel was looking at the water, the way she went up to it like an old friend and dipped her hand through the surface. Maybe Nellie wanted to finally understand what Hazel was trying to tell her, and afterwards she thought that she did. She had been so wrong. Nellie said that she would do it and Hazel had hugged her.
They'd scaled the rocks, scraping their knees on the way up. From the top, they could look down at the water's surface. The sun came out from behind a cloud, and sunlight collected on the surface in tiny gems that bobbed with the movement of the water. Nellie felt the sun on her neck, and the world was quiet except for the breathing of the river. Nellie felt lighter and laughed, but Hazel looked at her with a strange expression of sadness mixed with relief. "I told you so," she said.
Nellie nodded. “It’s beautiful."
“I know. On the count of three?” Hazel said. Nellie grabbed her hand and they bent their knees. Nellie took a deep breath and gave a short scream. On the count of three they jumped. Nellie felt life soaring through her as they hovered above the water, and she was sure that was what Hazel wanted her to understand. They hit the water and when Nellie resurfaced she looked around for Hazel. When Hazel didn't come up, Nellie began to panic.
"Hazel?" Nellie circled around, but the water's surface was still except for the ripples she made. She felt her stomach sink and she cried out again and again for Hazel, but got nothing but the sound of the water. Nellie was about to dive back under when Hazel's head popped up a few feet from hers. Nellie swam to her friend and punched her shoulder. “What is the matter with you? I thought you were dead. Don't do that again," she said, and Hazel just blinked at her.
"Okay, sorry. I'm right here,” Hazel said. She swam to the shore and Nellie followed, still recovering from the halting fear she'd felt when Hazel hadn't come back up. Nellie never saw her again.
Nellie told Jason how it felt to jump. “I thought she wanted me to understand how she was feeling, but I was wrong. I think we felt different things. I felt alive and I think she felt like it wasn't enough to feel it only then," Nellie said.
“I wish I had jumped with her. I didn't even try to understand."
"Jason, I don't know if she wanted us to. Not really," she said
Outside the rain had begun to pick up again and Nellie pulled out her phone. It was almost eight o’clock and her mom and dad would be worried. She'd left a note, but she knew they were worried about her. They were keeping their eyes peeled for any signs that she might try what Hazel did, like suicide was contagious or something. Nellie wanted to tell them that she couldn't leave behind what Hazel did, but that would require her to think about what Hazel had left. Jason saw her look at her phone. "If you have to leave that's okay."
"I can stay,” Nellie said, but she felt the weight of the house's ghost's bearing down on her and she didn't know how much more she could take. Jason waved a hand at her.
"No, it's fine.”
Nellie got up to leave. Jason followed her out onto the front porch and they stared at the rain coming down for a minute. "If you ever need me…” Nellie looked back at Jason. He was trying not to cry.
“Yeah sure,” he said, and reached out to give her a hug.
Once out of the house, she went to her bike. Steering it down the driveway, she jumped on and peddled. She wondered if it ever stopped hurting and if Hazel thought their pain would be as quick as hers was. Hazel used to insist that nothing ever really ended, and that life and despair and love went on endlessly. Love did, sure, but pain? Nellie didn't know if she wanted to believe that that this pain would always be with her.
She peddled faster.