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Excerpt

Excerpt

All the Forever Things

Chapter 1

Mom and Dad wheel the large oak casket up the narrow hallway. Dad pulls from the head (as always) and Mom pushes from the foot (as always). The bereaved stands in a worn, gray suit. His shoulders hunch forward, and he stares at the floor—typical posture of the brokenhearted.

Everything about this moment is familiar. The silent communication between Mom and Dad as they shift the casket into the best position for viewing. The bereaved’s sighs, me sliding the soft soles of my shoes over the carpet, and the overpowering smell of condolences that have arrived from companies with names like FLOWERS R US.

I lean on the doorframe between the viewing room and the lobby, waiting to be needed or to wave Mr. Nichols through the doorway to sit with his wife.

Mr. Nichols arrived early, which wouldn’t be a problem except that my brain is still fuzzy from lack of sleep—too much online back-and-forth with Bree last night.

The casket jolts as Dad sets the wheel locks. Mr. Nichols flinches beside me and clutches his old fedora-style hat.

A normal person would think it’s sweet that the family cared so much. A normal person might also blink a few times and shed a few tears over the family’s loss. If I did that, I’d dry out. I’ve learned that the only way to stay professional is to stay detached.

My toe traces another circle on the carpet, and I stare down at Dad’s old dress shoes from middle school. I stifle a groan. Bree will be here soon for the horrid group project that’s been looming over my head for the past week. My best friend being part of my group isn’t nearly enough to offset dealing with stupid Bryce Johnson.

“Gabriella?” Mom’s voice is a little too shrill for this to be the first time she’s said my name.

Her brows are raised nearly to her hairline.

“Gabriella?” she says again. “Would you please see if Mr. Nichols would like some coffee while we finish setting up?”

I step forward. This is Mom’s subtle hint that I need to get this man out of the viewing room so Dad can open the casket and make sure Mrs. Nichols hasn’t adjusted during her trip up from the basement.

Gesturing toward the front of the home, I put on my best work smile. “Mr. Nichols, if you’d follow me, we have snacks, tea, coffee…”

His gray eyes droop in sadness.

I clasp my hands together in full hostess mode, because without that, I start to feel all the weighted grief of the people who come through here, and I can’t experience that every day.

“Maybe coffee.”

The defeat in his voice tightens around my heart. I step back and take a few long breaths. Three breaths to be exact. I can always shove the sadness away in three.

The man slowly follows me through the large lobby to the table that my cousin and I set up with refreshments for the family viewing. The one that he’s two hours early for.

I pour a coffee for Mr. Nichols and stand with a smile until he’s dropped in a sugar. Mom gives me a quick thumbs-up from the doorway to the viewing room. I set a small coffee pot and more sugars on a tray in case he sits in there a while.

Pressing my lips together to make sure the red lipstick is still even, I start back across the lobby toward the viewing room, Mr. Nichols on my heels.

My phone vibrates in my dress pocket. It’ll be Bree, making sure I’m ready to leave on time. But seriously, this isn’t vintage shopping or doughnuts, so she shouldn’t mind being a few minutes late.

“Right this way, Mr. Nichols,” Dad says. I pause, letting Mr. Nichols walk ahead.

Mom passes me on her way to our closed-door messy family offices, dabbing at her eyes. “Be quick. He wants time alone with her.”

Crap. He got to Mom. If this man makes me tear up, I’ll have to redo my eyeliner. I take three more slow breaths before I walk back into the viewing room and set the coffee tray on a small table. Dad has the head part of the casket propped open now, and the woman looks asleep instead of dead. I’m feeling pretty proud of the job Bree and I did on her makeup.

“We were married sixty-five years,” the man says quietly.

“Wow.” Right now, the final month before the end of junior year feels like an eternity.

“There’s nothing like finding your soul mate.” He peers at me before his eyes go back to his wife.

“I’m sure.” But then you end up like the woman in the casket, or the man crying above her. Everything is temporary. My hip vibrates again. Bree must be here, pacing in the parking lot.

“Will you show my son in when he gets here?” the man asks, his voice cracking.

No, no, no.Cracking voices sometimes make my throat swell. After that come teary eyes, and cat-eye eyeliner is not easy to fix.

“Absolutely.” I take a couple steps back. “And I’m so sorry for your loss.”

He peers at me again, and a corner of his mouth twitches. I swear he knows those words tends to fly out of my mouth without a second thought.

My hip vibrates again—I’m for sure running late.

The moment I’m back in the lobby, I sprint to the door of the back offices and snatch the phone from my pocket.

We’re not going to be late, Bree texts. Tell me we’re not going to be late, G.

Mom blinks a few times through her tears, and I stop.

“I knew Mrs. Nichols,” Mom says as she dabs her eyes a few more times. “Hazard of a small community.” Mom should be dried out by now for sure.

“Sorry.” But I still need to go, and my body leans toward the door in anticipation.

Mom sniffs again. “What do you have going on?”

“US government, meeting for our project. You know, with it being a teacher workday and all…”

“When is this?”

“Like now.”

“Okay.” Mom sighs. “We’re fine. Angel’s at the front desk.”

As if summoned, Angel steps through the door with his typical larger-than-life smile.

Angel is a nice enough guy. His accent is hard for me to follow sometimes, but he seems to put people at ease. Angel is great with all the people who come through here—both the live and the dead ones. I’m fine with this, until he begins telling me about the conversations he has with the deceased.

“Hey, Angel,” I say. “I’m taking off.”

“Miss Osborn.”

I snatch a piece of gum from the package on Mom’s desk. “I’ll only be a couple hours. Promise.”

Mom looks me up and down. “Might wanna change first. You got taller again. Maybe we need to find some longer dresses.”

I glance at my simple black A-line dress with a white collar. Of all the times I need to wear my Wednesday Addams dress, it’s definitely when I’m sitting across the table from Bryce Johnson. My gut twitches with nerves at whatever asinine comment he’ll come up with today. I’m pretty sure the last time Bryce said a word to me, it had something to do with asking if I kept skulls in my bedroom or something equally stupid.

“I wear this all the time. And anyway, I’m already late.” I pick up my large patent leather purse from the coatrack, wondering how good a weapon it would make if I felt the urge to beat Bryce over the top of the library table.

My phone vibrates again.

You’re supposed to be waiting under the awning, Bree says.COME OUT NOW. We will not be the slackers in our group.

This is so like Bree. On time. Organized. Prepared. Especially because she knows I’ll need reinforcements today. Stupid Bryce Johnson.

I run for the door and hope I have everything in my phone that I need for our meeting.

Bree wears a smirk and a pastel miniskirt, her arms folded across her chest. “Did you forget what time it was?”

“No,” I say, giving her a more dramatic sigh than I intended. “The husband showed up early for the viewing, and then Mom and Dad took forever with the casket.”

“Nichols?” she asks as she opens her car door. Too bad Mom didn’t see Bree’s skirt, because it’s a solid two inches shorter than mine.

I nod.

“Well, then I’m glad I didn’t come in. Crying makes me crazy. How do you think we did on her makeup?”

“She looks fab,” I say, bumping Bree with my hip. “Of course.” Bree and I are a pretty unstoppable team when it comes to making dead people look alive.

“Okay. Let’s go.” She points to her small car. “I want you to be aware that I’d be making you drive if we weren’t already running late.”

I make a face. I hate driving, and she knows it. But I have to admit that if it weren’t for Bree, I probably still wouldn’t have my license. “You know Mom never gives me her car, so we’d have to take the old hearse if I drove.”

She laughs. “Yeah, there’s that.”

The second we’re in the car, Bree hits the gas. Her hair is in shiny, thick curls and teased in the back to add to her whole sixties vibe. “I see that you’re dressed appropriately to see Bryce.”

Shoving away the bits of uncertainty trying to weave their way into my resolve, I pull back my shoulders. “Of course.”

Bryce Johnson is the stereotypical spoiled California jock boy. He’s only a junior but walks the halls of our school like he owns it. His smirk is annoying. His hair is always perfect. And I hold him responsible for destroying any chance to date Davis, the only guy I ever put effort into dating.

“Can you even believe how long ago that Wednesday Addams thing was?” She laughs a little as she smooths her lips together. “Like, eighth grade?”

I stop breathing. “Yep.” Eighth grade. My little eighth-grade heart had flitted like a hummingbird as I’d tiptoed out of my house and into the dark cemetery. Davis lived in the direction of the beach, so we’d agreed to meet at the lower gate of the graveyard.

Davis and I had been friends since the seventh grade, but over the summer, I’d started to notice little things, like the way the left side of his mouth always turned up before the right, and how whenever Bree and I saw him at the park or the beach, he’d always say hi to me and stand closer than he needed to.

That night, I knew something was going to happen between us, and I was so ready. I stood outside in the dark and tried to remember all the things that Bree and I had read about boyfriends. About how to keep eye contact and ask him questions. Also, that I could always walk away if I changed my mind about him. We pored over online stories about first kisses, and I was determined that mine would be perfect—if it came to that. But really, I knew that kiss was coming. Knew it.

When Davis came through the lower gate, we sat against one of my favorite flowering trees. He said something about meeting Bryce for a sleepover that night, and the cemetery feeling so different in the dark, but then we laughed about being back at school for another year of middle school, and I remembered that I liked Davis not just because he was cute, but also because he was my friend. Our shoulders touched. Once in a while, his leg would touch mine. And then he asked to read my palm, but he didn’t read palms. I’d read Seventeen Magazine—he was looking for an excuse to touch me.

There was no way I was going to let that perfect moment of him tracing the lines on my hands pass me by without my first kiss, so I leaned in and kissed his cheek. Davis jerked in surprise, but his eyes were smiling when he moved toward me and pressed his dry lips against mine.

Perfection.

Until—

“Graveyard Gabby, Davis? You can’t be serious! She’s a Wednesday Addams, not someone you’d kiss!” Bryce yelled.

In less than a second, Davis was up and running for the gate where Bryce sat on his bike, arms folded and a scowl on his face. Davis paused when he picked up his bike, and we locked eyes for a moment. Hope crashed something sparkling, warm, and wonderful through my chest. Until Bryce slapped Davis’s back. “Come on! We were going to meet at the corner and you didn’t show, man.”

They took off, and that was the end of Davis speaking to me. But Bryce seeing my first kiss had much worse repercussions.

Bryce told the whole school that I went around kissing boys in the graveyard, and the slew of names began: Graveyard Gabby, Stone-Cold Gabe, Wednesday Addams…

Bree and I spent that week together watching The Addams Family movies since I had no clue who Wednesday Addams was. We plotted how to get Bryce to shut up. Clearly the Wednesday Addams and Graveyard Gabby talk wasn’t going to go away, so Bree said that maybe Bryce would stop making a huge deal of it if I just jumped into who he thought I was. And the thing is, after watching The Addams Family, I decided that Wednesday Addams was a kick-ass girl.

With Bree’s help, I fell in love with everything dark and vintage. I showed up at school in a simple black shift dress, Dad’s shoes, and dark liner on my eyes. That first day, the name-calling grew worse, but by day three of me sticking to the new version of myself, I’d become a boring and far-too-willing target.

Over the next few weeks, I spent every penny I’d saved on a new wardrobe, Bree and I started our blog, and we embraced being different. Together.

Now Bree and I wear what we want, listen to what we want, and do what we want, which makes high school less of a prison and more of a rite of passage. I can’t wait until it’s over, but at least we’re in it together.

“You’re quiet over there,” she says.

“Yes,” I agree. “How many times have you saved me?”

“Don’t you mean, how many times have we saved each other?”

I brush off my already-clean black dress. “Yeah.”

Bree blows me a kiss. “So many times.”

So many.

“Look both ways,” I say automatically when she reaches the four-way stop.

Bree’s mouth twitches. It always does. “You’re more of a parent than my parents.”

I snort but don’t say anything else. I’m never quite sure what to say when Bree brings up her disaster of a family.

When she pulls to a stop in front of our small public library, her phone sings “Thriller” and she groans before picking it up. “Hey, Grammy…No, I told you I had a project at the library, remember?” There’s a pause. “Grammy, it’s Friday…teacher workday…Yes…You had bingo last night, not last week…Grammy…” She glances at me and rolls her eyes. “Yes. Friday. Group project. And then I’m hanging with Gabriella for a bit.”

Unless I have to work.

Bree lets out a slow sigh. “Okay, Grammy…Yes, I fed the cats, just check the dishes…No, Friday…Today…”

Her grammy is a mess, but after her dad’s numerous affairs and her parents’ divorce, he and Bree’s mother both moved away. Living with her grammy is Bree’s only option if she wants to stay in Paradise Hill.

“What was that?” I ask as soon as she sets her phone down. “You were talking in circles.”

Bree slips her phone in her bag without looking at me. “She’s just old, I guess. Forgets what day it is sometimes. But she doesn’t have much of a schedule, so she gets confused. Mom’s no help, of course.”

Of course her mom’s not helpful. She’s in a craphole apartment in LA, living like a runaway teen.

I think about Matthew living with his grandma, my aunt Liza, and know how much work it can be for him. “Do you need any help?”

“Turn back time and tell my parents to not have their midlife crisis until after I graduate?” She exaggerates her smile and bats her lashes.

“Um…”

“Kidding.” Bree’s smile turns real. “You can keep being my friend, and help me with our website, and make sure your parents keep hiring me to do makeup.”

“I can do that.” I push the car door open, ignoring my weak legs as I steel myself by staring at the library doors. I hate that one person has so much power over me. Maybe wearing my most Wednesday Addams dress was a bad idea.

“You can face Bryce, Gabe. He’s just a guy.”

I know I can face Bryce, but I hate that I even need her reassurance right now.

“Besides”—she shrugs as she walks ahead—“he’s not that bad anymore.”

What?

All the Forever Things
by by Jolene Perry