Lizzie sat in a pew with her cousin. It was a long time since she sat inside St. Mary’s. Probably not since another funeral… or wedding. She was once a devout Catholic… but not since she left Coldbrook and went to college. She scanned the crowd for Ben before the mass started, but was able to push him out of her mind when she resolved he wouldn’t be there. That the important part of the morning was to support Sara and her family.
“Hey, so how was Christmas?” Jack whispered as the crowd moved slowly towards the back of the church to share condolences with Sara’s family.
“It was…” Lizzie looked up and saw Ben further down the line. “It was fun. It would have been more fun if you and Jen were there. How was Jen’s family?”
“I bet you missed us,” Lizzie tried not to make her observation of Ben obvious.
“Of course I did. I missed the food. What did you make this year?”
“Something healthy. I missed the guitar playing at the end of the night,” Lizzie laughed. “Hey – when is the next gig, Jack?”
“We have some shows coming up in the spring. I hope you’ll come to one or two.”
“I’ve been known to do such things on occasion,” Lizzie felt someone’s eyes on her. She turned from Jack and met Ben’s gray green eyes. He paused for a second and looked away.
“Hey – is that Ben Cottingham?”
Lizzie hoped the blush wasn’t too obvious in her cheeks. Fortunately, it was cold and the indoor heat had already made her a little ruddy. “It was.”
“Do you think he still has a thing for Sara?”
“Was he at the reunion?”
“I’m surprised. I mean… I always thought he would be the sort to leave this town and never look back.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. He was smart. I bet he made a small fortune.”
“He went to MIT. And he has his own computer company.”
“Really?” Jack looked curiously.
“At least that’s what he says on Facebook.”
“Oh yeah…” Jack nodded.
“Sara,” Lizzie said abruptly, realizing the line had already reached the greeting family. “I am so sorry.”
“It was such a surprise,” Sara clung to her embrace. “He was so alive at Christmas.”
Lizzie stepped back and offered a friendly smile. “I will always have happy memories of him,” she kissed Sara’s cheek and looked to Jack.
“Jack,” Sara leaned into his embrace.
“Jen sends her sympathies,” Jack explained his wife’s absence as Lizzie moved through the line of Sara’s siblings and mother. It was always weird trying to say the right thing, when nothing was ever right to say… especially when she was really impatient to go outside and see if Ben was still there.
She opened the door of the church and saw him standing on the bottom step. “Hi Lizzie,” he said in a tone that dashed her hope to the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t just sobriety that reflected the occasion. It was the sobriety that proved the reason he hadn’t called her back. The reason he didn’t say goodbye the morning after.
“Hi Ben,” she forced a small smile.
“Good to see you,” he didn’t meet her eyes as Jack followed through the door.
“Ben!” Jack nodded his greeting. “So there’s no cemetery because he’s cremated, right?”
“Yeah,” Lizzie nodded, still looking at Ben. She recognized the contours of his muscle, even under his winter coat. He had strong shoulders.
“Are we going back to the house? Lizzie, what about you?”
“Yeah, for a little bit,” Lizzie didn’t move her eyes from Ben to look at Jack.
“I’ve got to head back to Boston. Good to see you,” he repeated and disappeared into the mass of cars. Lizzie heaved a great sigh, glad the sad occasion didn’t make her disappointment look obvious.
“I thought you worked on Saturdays,” Jack finished his plate from the buffet of casseroles and sandwiches.
“I took the day off,” Lizzie glanced over the crowd of heads in the living room, hoping to catch Sara’s eye.
“Don’t you get sick of giving the same tour every week?”
“I only do it twice a month,” Lizzie looked back at Jack. “I like it. I work with one of my best friends… and the house is kind of creepy at this time of year.”
“Ever see any ghosts?”
“I wouldn’t call them ghosts,” Lizzie softened her voice, uncertain if the topic of ghosts was appropriate at a funeral reception. “Just some odd energy… if you believe that sort of thing.”
“Are you sure you aren’t drinking on the job, Lizzie?”
“I’m pretty sure,” Lizzie shook her head at him. “Most of the time anyway.”
“One of these days I’ll come check it out. Jen wants to see it. She likes old houses.”
“Well, you live in one,” Lizzie took a bite from her plate as a book on the shelf by her side caught her eye. “Oh my goodness! Is that our yearbook?”
“I have a copy of that somewhere,” Jack said with half interest as Lizzie pulled it off the shelf. She flipped through the first pages coated with signatures and sentimental messages and stopped at the aerial class photo.
“It’s difficult to tell who anyone is from that perspective.”
“It’s about getting everyone in the photo, Jack,” Lizzie looked for herself at the bottom of the crowd. Jack was behind her, wearing his infamous leather jacket. Sara was on top of Ben’s shoulders. Lizzie couldn’t have sat on anyone’s shoulders. It was long before marathon days.
Jack turned the pages with more interest than his initial response to her discovery. He stopped at a candid of a science lab. “Wow, Lizzie you look good. I mean now. I know this is probably going to be tacky – because I’m your cousin… and a bit of an idiot. But, geez, I think half these girls would kill to improve so much since high school the way you did.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Lizzie was used to the awkward uncertain compliments.
“But I did think you were pretty then, too.”
Lizzie couldn’t restrain the laugh. “It’s okay, cuz. I understand what you are trying to say.”
“And there’s Sara and Ben,” Jack looked at the opposite page. “He left pretty fast today. Surprised he didn’t stop in for a little ambrosia.”
“He’s kind of a health freak.”
“Was that on his Facebook, too?”
Lizzie looked up at Jack. “No, something he said at the reunion.”
“I saw him checking you out, Lizzie. I think you scared him away.”
“Stop,” Lizzie looked down at the photo of him with Sara. She recognized the same muscular contours she discovered that night. How was she so oblivious 15 years ago?
“I forgot I left that here,” Sara’s voice caused Lizzie to look back up. “I brought it with me during the reunion so I could look people up if I met someone I couldn’t remember.”
Lizzie offered a moderate smile. “How are you doing?”
“I just want to have this baby,” Sara took the seat that Jack offered. “I don’t feel like I can grieve until I give birth.” Sara took the book out of Lizzie’s relaxed palms. “Oh my God! Look at the hair in this picture. Why did we ever think spiral perms were a good idea? Ben looks the same. Well his hair isn’t as long. But he still looks 25. Ben didn’t come back, did he?”
“No, he said he had to go back to Boston,” Jack offered.
“It was nice of him to come,” Sara sighed and looked some more at the yearbook. “Oh, look at you, Jack. Whatever happened to your leather jacket?”
“I still have it,” he smiled proudly.
“No way,” Sara gleamed. “Does Jen let you wear it?”
“I’m not that skinny, Sara,” he shook his head. “Not anymore.”
“You wore that thing to the prom,” Sara laughed and skipped ahead a couple pages. “Did you see those pictures? See, look, there you are in your leather jacket.”
Jack took the book back and looked at the picture. “You look stylin in your mermaid dress, Sara,” he retorted. “What did you wear, Lizzie?”
“I didn’t go to the prom,” she shook her head.
“She protested, remember?” Sara rolled her eyes.
“I just didn’t have someone special to take me,” Lizzie sighed. She actually didn’t miss having that memory. Especially when she spent half of her working day planning parties like the prom to raise money for health care.
“Really? I could have sworn you were in my limo,” Jack gave the book back to Sara.
“No, that was Melissa Benson,” Sara said softly.
“Oh,” Jack nodded and then remembered. “Oh yeah…”
“She went as Kyle Granger’s date, don’t you remember?”
“Why was I in a limo with Kyle Granger?”
“I don’t know,” Sara shrugged. “Probably because the Bensons were your neighbors.”
“Oh… yeah. He was dating Melissa … but she was a year older than us, wasn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Lizzie sighed, wondering if she should bring up Melissa’s fate at a funeral. It didn’t seem appropriate, when Melissa never had one.
“They never found a body,” Sara said what Lizzie wouldn’t. “I can’t imagine facing that as a parent.”
“Or as a teenager,” Lizzie muttered. She remembered a conversation she overheard when someone described Melissa as a thinner version of Elizabeth Watson. Lizzie wasn’t ever sure if that was what the person actually said, but it did creep her out sixteen years ago.
“She was in my astronomy class,” Jack took a cracker from Lizzie’s plate. “You were, too, Lizzie. Do you remember her?”
“She was the best in that class,” Lizzie answered absently. “Sort of a teacher’s pet.”
“So were you,” Jack tried to smile.
“Hey,” Sara sat up quickly. “She’s kicking.”
Lizzie turned to look at Sara with a genuine smile. Sara grabbed Lizzie’s hand and placed it on her stomach. Lizzie felt the foot press against her palm. “Wow,” she beamed.
“I’ve decided to name her Josie – short for Josephine. After Dad,” Sara sighed.
“He’d like that,” Lizzie remembered why they were there in that room, in Sara’s company. She removed the yearbook from Sara’s lap and put it aside, deciding the visits to Springs nostalgia were no longer necessary.
“Thanks, Lizzie,” Jen smiled as she came back into the living room.
“We read two books,” Lizzie picked up the beer she left on the side table when she brought three year old Isabel up to bed.
“I bet she wanted two more,” Jen grinned.
Lizzie sat uneasily on the edge of the sofa as Jen shifted back to the conversation between Jack and his bandmates. Lizzie was glad she accepted their offer for dinner, but felt awkward in the group of Jack’s friends. Especially when the drummer, Mike, kept looking at her. She knew it was because she went with him to his car one night after a gig. Now he had a girlfriend.
“Hey Lizzie, didn’t a friend of yours play at a place in Central Square?” Jack brought her focus back to the conversation.
“Yeah,” she muttered not sure how Will still qualified as her friend.
“Maybe his band could play with ours.”
“You’re not really going to start doing gigs in Cambridge,” Jen shook her head with a glance at the bass player’s wife.
“Because it’s a lot of work and a lot more time you won’t be here,” Jen explained lightly, but Lizzie knew her intention was not very light-hearted. Lizzie took the final swallow of beer and decided to leave the room to get another.
Instead of returning to her uncomfortable seat, she went through the dining room onto the back deck. The January air was cool, but clean. There was a half foot of snow blanketing their backyard, chopped up with children’s footprints. The air was quiet, the eerie calm of Coldbrook that always startled her at first, but eventually calmed her.
“Hey,” Mike slid the door shut.
“Hey,” Lizzie was conscious of her smile. She wasn’t going to try to be inviting. Not that he wasn’t attractive. He was. She always thought so. Even in high school. But she was wary of musicians. And… she had to remind herself… he had a girlfriend.
“Couples,” he leaned on the railing beside her.
“I’m sure Amy would agree with Jen,” Lizzie put the name out to remind him.
“She’s not here,” there was a knowing look as he took a sip of beer.
Lizzie turned away to look at the snowy backyard. “Hey, didn’t you used to hang out with Oliver Cottingham?” Lizzie asked suddenly as the memory entered her mind.
“Kinda,” Mike shrugged with disinterest. “Why?”
“His brother was at the funeral today.”
“Yeah, he was part of your little group. I remember that. It was because of Ben that I found out about Jack’s band,” Mike turned his lean around, bringing himself closer to Lizzie’s side. She appreciated the warmth, but not the intimacy.
“Do you keep in touch with him?”
“With Oliver?” he laughed over another swallow. “Naw, he moved to California or something. We just hung out on occasion. Once the band started, we didn’t have much in common. It’s nice Ben showed up. He had a thing for your friend, didn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Lizzie’s heart sank. Why was she having a conversation about the Cottinghams? Not like Mike the drummer would know anything about Ben now. Or why he had to leave to go back to Boston. Or why he would actually want to talk to Lizzie after their night together.
Mike wanted to talk to her. Maybe not talk. She felt his hand touch her lower back. He wasn’t put off by the awkwardness of seeing her again after a hasty fuck in the back seat of his Mazda. She didn’t want to think about Ben anymore. She didn’t want to think about stupid guitar players who married someone else. She peered through the glass doors into the dark dining room. The living room wasn’t visible from that angle. She looked back at Mike and decided to forget about Amy. Screw it. She let him kiss her and slide his hand over her breast. She grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the back wall of the house. She kept kissing him as she reached for the button of his jeans. He reached under her skirt and pulled her tights towards her knees.
She drank the rest of her beer after he went back in the house. She took in the cold air, knowing its reaction against her skin would qualify the blood in her cheeks. She shut her eyes and let the sting of guilt creep in as her pulse returned to normal. She preferred the guilt hovering in her brain over the disappointment that Ben walked away and didn’t want to see her.