Nothing is as visceral as holding a handful of human ash.
I resist the impulse to sift it between my fingers as I walk. Everyone, from the mourners to the pastor, are far away and yet too close.
Mom stays an inch behind me in case I stumble. Heels have never been my thing. Sunshine drifts along the cemetery paths, broken only by the shadows of our bodies as we proceed.
My eyes are dry.
I'm sure the fact that I haven't cried over his death just screams "guilty!" even if the interview with the cops three weeks ago cleared me of any wrongdoing.
His grave is simple. His parents can't afford a stone yet. The pit's raw newness that's too small for a coffin, the earth churned up on either side of his grandparents' stones, the grave blanket hastily thrown over it. The funeral home's canopy sits above that, a waiting hawk.
We come to a stop together. Wet eyes jerk to me, then back to the pastor as he begins to tell the group what a gift Noah's life was. All about his doting parents, his twin brother Sam who served in Afghanistan for two tours. How every person in school loved and looked up to him. Every detail is poured out.
Every detail but me. I've been retroactively erased from my boyfriend's life. Former boyfriend, now. Ex-life.
I don't know what I'm doing here. Noah's parents have asked the funeral director and everyone involved to look away as we spread his ashes. No urn for him. He didn't want to feel 'penned up' even when he was gone.
"Stay strong, Em." Mom's hand bites into my shoulder. I can't feel anything. No sadness, guilt, no shame.
I expected killing somebody to feel much different.
"It's an opportunity, Emily."
He only called me 'Emily' when he was serious. The first time, we'd held hands in the park at dusk and he told me he couldn't see himself with any other woman. The second time was when he'd grabbed me away from walking in front of a car.
Now, we were arguing.
"Is it?" I slapped a piece of bread down onto a paper plate and took a butter knife from the drawer. Clearing the countertop off had been too much of a chore when I had a final set of tests to study for. In two months, I would be out of college and looking for a teaching job. "You can apply for the art show again next year. Why is this year such a big frigging deal?"
"You know why." He inhaled like that whenever he was trying not to rise to my challenges. It brought out the intensity of the dark eyes set in his pale face. Eyes he never liked. "I won't do a self-portrait like all those other painters," he'd said to me once. To him, the eyes that were so different from his parents' and even Sam's were ugly. "They're not quite black, but they're not quite brown," he'd complained. "They're...voids."
I loved those voids.
I never told him that.
"Elaborate." I smudged something on his piece of bread and reached for the lunchmeat. "Or did you come here just to tell me our anniversary dinner's canceled because something better came along?"
"I — No. Em, please. I finally submitted a piece the judges liked enough to give me a spot. I'll make it up to you. We can go at the end of February."
The end of the month when our actual anniversary is at the beginning, I seethed to myself.
"Noah." I sighed through my nose and found a second piece of bread to top the sandwich off. "We both know you're going to find something else to do when the end of the month comes up. It's happened before. Why should now be any different?" I'd crossed the kitchenette to the couch to thrust the plate out at him. Noah glowered up at me but took the plate's opposite edge to pull it to him.
"Because I might be 'dense' — Sam's words, not mine — but I know missing your anniversary with your girl completely is crossing a line."
I took a second plate and went about making my own food. "Right, so why move the date later over that? It doesn't make sense."
I never got his answer.
I got a choke.
At first, I thought a piece of bread was caught in his throat. His cheeks were red balloons. No matter how I called out to him, he couldn't answer me.
I don't remember screaming. Kassie, my neighbor at our college apartments, told me that was what had brought her over. I didn't recall pounding on Noah's back or trying the Heimlich, though Kassie swears that happened too. She was the one that called for the ambulance.
What I do remember are the paramedics. Three of them loading him onto a stretcher while asking me questions. The air mask not fogging with his breath when they put it over his mouth and nose. Things happening too fast, then too slow.
"Does he have any allergies? Medicine, food?"
That question shredded my composure. My lips moved like a ventriloquist dummy's.
"Allergic. Oh my God."
It was next to the mayonnaise jar, still open.
I loved peanut butter, but of course, never had it around Noah. Until now.
I'd put it on a late-night snack while I was studying last night and never put it away.
I said as much to the paramedic. I'm sure I started rambling through gasps. The trio hustled out after that, saying something about injections and adrenaline. The ambulance's lights and sirens started to wail, splashing the streets and pavement with warring strobes of red and blue.
Then time surged ahead and Noah was gone. I was folded up on the sofa, not remembering how I got there.
Kassie was sitting next to me. The paleness in her cheeks made the freckles she hated so much stand out like breadcrumbs. "It's okay, he'll be okay. I — They'll call his parents. Do you want me to stay? I can stay with you until someone knows something. Okay?"
No. None of this was okay. But I must have told her to stay because she lingered next to me, reeling out one stupid question after another until she finally realized I didn't want to make small talk. The food sat out, forgotten. Then Kassie disappeared, and I blacked out in the silence she left behind.
The phone call the next morning from Mrs. Harmond — I never knew Noah's mother's first name — woke me up and vomited a new reality into my ears, spilling its poison down the front of my heart.
"Noah's dead," she whispered.
And just like that, with those two words, I became a monster.
A breeze catches Noah's pulverized body and leads it from my hand. I feel a shard of his bone press into the meat of my palm. I pause inches away from the earth's open wound.
"You should've been an artist too, Em." Paint was smeared on his left cheek and over the bridge of his nose. He was working on a sketch, legs crossed in the middle of his bedroom floor. His parents were having a date night. Noah had stayed home for college; he hadn't wanted to leave them after Sam deployed. "I think you'd be good at it."
"Really?" I watched a face start to take shape. "How do you know?" The truth was, I'd sketched sometimes. One of my art teachers in middle school said I could be good at it if I kept trying.
I didn't, even after Noah tried to show me how he did it once. Embarrassment had taken over and I'd stopped midway.
"Just the way you say and see things sometimes." Another thin line created a chin. To his credit, he hadn't made me pick up a pencil again since our last attempt.
Noah chuckled. "I had an art teacher tell me that doing art is like giving birth. You keep something inside of you until it's ready to come out. Get let go. However, you want to say it."
I snorted. "Did you tell her that giving birth might be a bad comparison for you?"
He shook his head. "Nooo. Not me. Mrs. T was a battle-axe, to put it nicely. I wasn't going to cross that."
Seeing him work that night, for the first time, I wanted to share in it somehow. But it was one of those things. Aside from modeling my hands for him sometimes, or twisting my body into whatever pose he wanted so he could get it down in that precise way of his, I could never be there with him.
Some small dark corner of my mind resented that. Other girls could brag about their always-present boyfriends and all the stuff they did together. Noah orbited a plane of his own and there was no getting him back down to Earth.
Now he's going in.
In, in, in.
Did I lead him in?
The edge of the bone is sharp. I let it slip between my thumb and forefinger.
Did I want him with me so much that some corner of my mind wanted this?
I dig my fingernail into its corners.
'Until it's ready to come out.'
Until the truth of what I did is ready? Or is grief clouding my mind?
Does a mistake make a murder? Does it matter, if the person isn't any less dead?
It takes another gentle urge from Mom to finally release the last of Noah. He falls to the soil with a soft thunk.
My reflection in the mirror is washed out.
I've applied more make-up to give myself some color, something I normally never do. The clothes that complemented me so well a few months ago are so loose that only the shoes fit.
I adjust my ponytail. "You shouldn't go," I tell my mirrored self. "You were supposed to be sharing the day with Noah."
But I do. Kassie had offered to go with me since she was the closest thing I had to a friend at school, but I'd decided it was something I needed to do alone.
The gallery is small and simple, tucked away in a place no one would think to look unless they plumbed the city's depths for all the weird out-of-the-way places. Walking stereotypes abound — people with neon hair and more piercings than I can count are crowding through the doors by the time my rideshare gets me to there. I pay the driver extra, feeling like an impostor.
I see the sculpture section first. While everyone else coos over whatever their hidden meanings are, I walk to the paintings section. Tons of names I don't recognize, odd lumps and pieces of people vying for attention with cubes and flowers.
Noah would have loved it.
I don't find his name until I reach the far end of the hall. Then it catches my eye. In Loving Memory of Noah Hamond. It's a laminated strip of paper under his framed pictures. I want to tear it from the wall and stuff it into my pocket. It takes a minute to focus on what his mom's submitted to the gallery in his name.
Some of them are paintings I know about. I watched him do them. Others must have been the ones he talked about but hadn't done to his satisfaction — bare bits of canvas show the beginnings of a still-life while another boasts a mostly-finished beagle that was probably the one he had as a kid.
The last one is the face I glimpsed that night on his bedroom floor. More fleshed out here, he added drips and drabs of color to the person's hair and cheeks. Familiar colors.
My stomach tightens. Breakfast creeps up the back of my tongue. The beast squirms to take up whatever space the food didn't. I back up. Maybe I'm not seeing it right. Maybe it's not me. It's a girl who resembles me, some stock photo he found online.
A whisper of clothing touches my back.
I spin around as if attacked. "God!"
"Oh, I'm s — Emily?"
His mother. He looked like her more than his dad. God, please, the last person I wanted to run into. Yet it makes sense she'd be here.
"Mrs. Hamond." I swallow. Should I offer my hand or find somewhere to slink off to?
"Emily." Her expression and tone suggest she's plucking deep into a dark well for the right words to string together. "How have you been?"
"I--." If I say 'fine,' will she snap? If I say 'crappy,' will she say I deserve it? She has to know what really happened. "I've been…trying."
She doesn't offer me a hook to keep the conversation going until a long pause has settled between us. "Me too." She touches the edge to that last painting's frame as if to adjust it straight on the wall. "Marshal and I have both been. Sam's…he's been coping."
Marshal has to be his dad. I want to say I'm sorry, but the words lodge up under my tongue. Mrs. Hamond shifts her weight in heels higher than anything I've ever worn and squares her shoulders. "We should talk."
We should. But I should leave before we can. "Mrs. Hamond, maybe another time. I have to--."
"I know you're busy. But…" Her long fingers creep up to the canvas itself. "Marshal and I talked about something Noah told us when he started working on this piece in particular." Her eyes find me without truly seeing me. "Noah said he was planning to leave it this way on purpose."
"He…was?" Noah, perfectionist Noah, leaving something like this half-done? I stand mute. Had he been planning to dump me? Had he seen what I was in some way that I couldn't?
"Yes. I asked him why and…" A deep breath in and out through her nose. "He said he wanted for you to finish it before the show."
"I — I couldn't. Can't. I can't draw. Did he tell you that too?"
"He hinted that he thought you could but you didn't want to. Something about this thing being 'a transformative couples' piece.' You know how he was." So, she's already moved to the past-tense. Better than I manage on some days.
"I couldn't. Please. It's something you should have. To remember him," I stutter. I want to melt through the floor.
"No." Her voice drops. "Please, just — try. It would mean more to his dad and me if you did." When she turns back, her eyes are shining too bright for refusal.
I have to ask Kassie to pick me up after all since she has her brother's hand-me-down truck. I dodge the flood of questions she pelts me with on the trip home and beg to be left alone as I get the framed painting up the stairs and to my kitchen table.
I spend an hour staring at it before I go to my bedroom. When I come back, I have the pencil and paint set Noah gave me for my last birthday, untouched until now.
I slice the plastic from the wooden case and get to work.
It's sunset by the time I start erasing his old lines. It's dark when I start redrawing what's going in their place.
Before I know it, my phone display tells me it's midnight, and I'm still rendering and trying to remember the shape of his nose, how wide his forehead was. I'm done when dawn starts making inroads past my curtains. Exhaustion makes me push my chair away. It's him.
Noah as I remember him, not the photographic perfection he strived for. But anyone looking at it will know.
By the time I slide under my sheets, a color palette is taking shape in my head. Not for the cream of his skin or the shadows around his nose. Not for his thatch of dark hair that he fought to brush.
No. I'll begin with what I loved most. Maybe I'll need more of one hue than the other. Maybe it will take me hours. Days. Months. But one day, it will come. And I'll know it when I see it.
That color that's not quite brown, but not quite black, but the color of my salvation.