WHEN I WAS TEN, I contemplated killing myself.
I never had the guts to follow through, but the thought was a molecule passing in and out of the membrane of my mind, sometimes present, sometimes not.
It was after my mom died that I really started thinking about it in a serious light. Who it would affect (nobody except my dad, sort of, but in more positive ways than negative), what it would be like (I pictured an eternal sheathe of black), how I would do it (guns were too scary, knives too gruesome). I felt dead, my insides shriveled and sunken, which led me to figure that I might as well let the rest of me reach an equilibrium with that feeling of deadness. I didn’t see any other viable solution.
I was a ghost drifting through the streets, unnoticed and unimportant. Back then, Aunt Colleen was a name I saw on Christmas cards each year and a face amongst a sea of many that I saw at my mom’s funeral. The thought of living with her wasn’t feasible.
The way I saw it, I was just a waste of space and money; a roadblock that got in the way. I lost my friends, I lost my mom, and I lost my youthful innocence. Every part of me was wilting away, right before my eyes, and all I could do was sit back and watch with a blank expression. I couldn’t even stand up without leaving dead flower petals in my wake.
My dad was oblivious to it all. He was so caught up in his business—if you could even call it that—that for the most part, he just sort of assumed things were all right. He had no parenting expertise; he had no idea what he was getting himself into when he finally caved to my mom’s pleas.
He didn’t feel like home at all, and half the time he felt more like a stranger taking me in under foster care than a father, but I guess in the grand scheme of things, he did what he could. There was always a supply of my favorite snacks sitting around the kitchen, he got me to and from school, and he occasionally gave me money to go shopping, which I never spent. The problem with him was that we had nothing in common, save for the fact that half of my genes are carbon copies of his, and the only trivial things about him other than his name and address that I knew for sure was that he was a big Steelers fan and that if people asked me what my dad did for a living, I was to tell them that he worked in accounting.
My dad never even went to college; that last one was a lie.
How, you may ask, did he scrounge up the income to not only sustain himself, but also his ten-year-old kid?
From the very beginning, even back when my mom was still alive and in the hospital, I knew something was off about my dad. Everything about him was so secretive, and he was always vague about where exactly he was going and what he was doing. It didn’t take a genius to realize he was hiding something.
I had a lot of suspicions, but I wasn’t exposed enough to the real world to suspect drug dealing. It wasn’t until one of his customers, shaking with withdrawal and very desperate for his next dosage of cocaine, came knocking at the door while I was watching TV one night demanding for more that I finally realized what was going on.
Later that night, my dad pinned me up against the wall and told me that if I wanted to stay out of foster care, I would keep my mouth shut about my accidental discovery.
I hated living with my dad, but I knew enough about foster care systems to know that I had the better end of the stick. I promised to keep my mouth shut, though I started finding any excuse I could to get out of the apartment. Every spare ounce of free time I could get was spent at the hospital, even though the atmosphere was depressing and things were looking more and more bleak for my mom each day. Somehow, despite the circumstances, I managed to put on a big smile and welcome her with all the enthusiasm of a perfectly happy kid.
I’d sit by her bedside and read her books, only some of which she would be awake to listen to. I watched as she slowly deteriorated right before my eyes, and I got more and more panicked about her dying and leaving me alone with my dad after each visit.
Four days before my tenth birthday, I resolved to finally come clean and confess to her that I hated living with my dad, whom she was still blindly convinced I had a close relationship with.
But that same night, instead of getting to tell her how I felt, I sat and watched as her heart monitor flat lined.
And then I had no other choice. I was stuck.
And not long after, the thoughts about how I should have died instead of her came trickling into my head like a stream of blood pouring out of a wound and saturating a T-shirt until the thought consumed me, and I slowly came to hate myself for it more and more every day.
Which, I guess, is why I am so scared of Jasper leaving. Because when he’s around, I almost feel like everything is okay. He’s my escape.
When he’s not around, my mind wanders into dangerous territory, and I can’t control it. The only reason I’ve gotten this far is because of Jasper Reynolds, otherwise there’s a very reasonable chance that I would have followed through on ending it by now.
When I’m with him, I’m part of something. An adventure, a bigger picture, a fairytale.
But when I’m by myself, I become nothing. It’s just the small ten-year-old kid cowering in her dad’s apartment with nowhere else to go and nothing to live for. A dead flower expected to somehow replenish itself in a vase of fresh water.
Seven years later and I’m even more pathetic now than I was back then. Constantly worrying, constantly overanalyzing every situation, constantly thinking about how I’m nothing more than a misplaced prop in someone else’s play. Self-pity is the biggest weakness one can indulge in, and I’m soaked in it up to my eyeballs.
I try to pinpoint the moment when Jasper transformed from friend I occasionally hang out with into best friend who I depend on with my life, and the first encounter that comes to mind is the first day of freshman year, after a summer of somewhat awkward hangouts.
It was lunchtime and I was trying to locate Jasper outside, since he had the same lunch as I did and Meredith had a different lunch. Not that I was sure she would even want me sitting with her, even if we did have the same lunch.
While I was looking, a couple of senior guys came up to me and the one strung his arm around my shoulders, which sent me into panic mode.
“Who’re you lookin’ for?” he queried nosily.
“Uh,” I fumbled, mouth going dry. “My friend.”
“Just one friend?” the senior teased. “A pretty girl like you; I’d expect a bunch of friends. Don’t tell me you’re single, too.”
“Um. Yeah . . .”
The first senior’s eyes met with the second senior’s, and they exchanged an expression that they assumed I wouldn’t be able to read.
They were wrong.
“I’m gonna go,” I mumbled, heart hammering in my chest and adrenaline pumping. I knew how this was going to work. One of them was going to pull me to the side of the school, most likely senior number one, thinking I was some naïve freshman, and then he would start feeling me up or forcing me to make out with him or something equally nausea-inducing because he assumed his new seniority gave him an irrepressible freedom. I knew that neither of those boys was actually interested in making friends with me.
And I knew that if I wanted to refrain from getting sick in front of everybody, I needed to hightail it out of there.
Forget Jasper, I’d just eat in the library or something.
As I turned to go, senior number two grabbed my arm.
“Hey. Listen, freshie. We’re both captains on the football team. We could make or break you this year. If you wanna be popular, you just gotta come with us.”
I wasn’t good. I was trembling. And they could see the fear in my eyes, too. They knew they could control me. What was I supposed to do—run? That would only create a scene, and being the center of attention was not something I sought after.
“Come on, we’re not gonna do anything,” senior number one complained. “Don’t you wanna hang with the cool people?”
“Hey, leave her alone,” a new voice barked.
I whirled around and relief washed over me as I caught sight of Jasper, Champ leading him straight toward me.
“Nice service dog. What’s wrong with you? You blind?” senior number two mocked, waving a hand in front of Jasper’s face.
“Try diabetic, douchebag,” Jasper threw back at him, roughly shoving the guy’s hand away from his face. “Leave her alone before this becomes a problem.”
Up until that point, I had never in my life seen or heard of him saying anything remotely threatening to anyone. And neither did anyone else who knew him, which was why the area around us started growing silent as more people became curious of what was setting the ever calm and collected Jasper Reynolds over the edge.
The seniors, well aware that they were gaining attention, used the opportunity to their advantage.
“Dude, she totally came onto me and asked if she could sit with us. I felt bad for her. You better keep your little freshie friends in line,” senior number one said, standing straight to show that he had at least four or five inches on Jasper.
“Keep telling yourself that, dick,” Jasper retaliated before grabbing my arm and pulling me away, finding an area away from everyone to sit, even though his friends from the soccer team kept motioning for him to come over to where all of them were sitting. Once we were seated and we both set our trays down, he rested a hand on my knee and looked at me carefully.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Awesome,” I murmured sardonically while brushing myself off, still embarrassed after nearly being taken advantage of by two scumbag seniors in front of everyone. Even strangers can see how weak and defenseless I am, I thought bitterly.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner; the lunch line was a mess. But don’t worry; if those guys try to mess with you again, they’re gonna have to go through me first. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“Um . . . I—thanks,” I fumbled.
“Don’t mention it.”
After that, we delved into a comfortable silence, picking at our food and trying not to think about how even after one day, it was apparent that high school clearly wasn’t meant for me, like a lot of other things in life, so it seemed.
Nobody knows this besides me, but under Jasper’s mattress is a series of letters he wrote but never gave to his fourth grade crush, Lacey Baxter. In them, he explained to her that he had developed this thing called type 1 diabetes, but that he would still be normal like everyone else so she needn’t worry about him.
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, this was a coping mechanism to help him deal with the initial shock that his lifestyle had to be altered if he wanted to stay alive. By talking about it to someone he trusted on paper, even though he never actually gave her the letters, it helped release some of his suppressed emotions until he eventually stopped writing them when he came to terms with the issue (and Lacey unexpectedly moved to Delaware the following year).
The reason why Jasper is so raw and real because he is a very expressive person, never holding back from his emotions. When he’s happy, you know. When he’s upset about something, you know.
Which is why, sitting down beside him at a picnic table in front of a food stand at the carnival, I can instantly tell something is wrong by the way he stays quiet and his eyes are glazed out of focus, resting on a fixed position in space.
“What’s wrong?” I finally ask after several consecutive minutes of his silent sulking.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, he glances over at me, as if only now realizing my presence.
“Huh? Oh, sorry.”
“Hate to break it to you, J, but you’re really easy to read. Spill it.”
Sighing, he squeezes his eyes shut and runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah . . .” He opens his eyes and looks at me with a guilty expression. “I screwed up, Lex.”
I remain passive, looking at him calmly. “Okay . . .”
He breaks eye contact and stares hard into the distance. “Last night Avery came over.”
“And?” I prompt, heart sinking in disappointment. Avery Matthews screwed Jasper over for weeks after they broke up, and her name has finally been washed out of his mouth for months. But now, all that progress seems to be lost, if his sudden demeanor is any indication.
“God, I don’t even know, Lexi. She just came crying because I guess John broke up with her and I felt bad and took her out to the boathouse because Mom was home and I didn’t want her getting into Avery’s business and she said she missed me and one thing led to another . . .”
He cuts himself off, looking considerably angry.
Jasper operates like a mood ring. All you have to do is take one look at him and the answers are all right there, as long as you know how to interpret them. When he’s happy, he’s all shades of sunny yellow, smiles lighting up his whole face and crinkles lining his eyes. When he’s sad, he’s as blue as the ocean at dusk, his bottom lip puffed out the slightest bit and eyes glossed over. And when he’s angry, he’s fiery red embers glowing with heat, eyebrows drawn together and jaw clenched.
Angry Jasper is a rarity, which is how I instantly know that this was no casual visit.
“What happened?” I ask gently.
“I am such an idiot,” he mutters bitterly. “I let her convince me that she missed me and then she started kissing me and I did nothing to stop her and then things got a little . . . messy . . .”
My heart flutters. “Tell me you guys didn’t . . .”
He looks up, horrified. “What? Oh God, no. I would never let it go that far. But I feel so guilty because it shouldn’t have even gotten as far as it did. Especially when she and her boyfriend literally just broke up. Does that make me a scumbag?”
I sigh, digesting this new information. There’s no denying that he could’ve handled the situation better than he did. But he is not the only one at fault here.
“Has she contacted you since?”
He stiffly shakes his head.
I frown. “You said you were over her.”
“I am!” he cries defensively. “I was just so taken off guard and I wanted to be a friend for her, you know? And then she started, um, kissing me, and saying all this crap about how she wishes I wasn’t moving because she misses me and I didn’t know how to react.”
“Are you planning on saying anything to her?”
He sighs, averting his gaze for a moment to scan the many people milling around the food stands surrounding us before directing his attention back at me. “I don’t know, should I? I don’t want to, but I don’t wanna be a dick, either. She was really upset.”
“She was using you,” I say. “You don’t owe her anything. Let’s not forget how you refused to leave your house for three weeks after she broke up with you last November.”
He slumps his shoulders. “I’m so stupid.”
“No you’re not,” I tell him, serious. “You made a mistake. Life goes on.”
He lets out a long sigh. “Why are you always so right?”
Rolling my eyes, I give him a kick under the table. “Because I’m smarter than you.”
He grins at me. “Hey now, let’s not forget that I was third grade spelling bee champion. That has to count for something.”
“Yeah,” I say, “third grade.” He loves bringing up his third grade spelling bee triumph. I wouldn’t be surprised if he uses it as his fun fact in those get-to-know-you-icebreakers people coordinate whenever an organized group of people in a new setting don’t know each other.
He smiles affectionately at me, like I’m a puppy. “I love you,” he randomly blurts.
I stiffen, glancing up at him through my lashes. “You know, you really shouldn’t throw that word around.”
He shrugs. “I know. But I really am glad I have you, and I want to tell you that in person as much as possible while I still can.”
Right. Because in a few weeks’ time, he won’t be here at all. He’ll evaporate into a pixelated screen with typed words and digitized faces, becoming a machine that responds whenever convenient for him, which, considering he’ll be going to bed when I’ll be waking up, may not always align with times that are convenient for me.
Although technically speaking it’ll still be Jasper, it’ll feel like I’m speaking to a computerized copy of Jasper, not the real thing. And that’s not the same; it never will be.
“Wanna walk around for a bit?” he asks, nudging my foot with his.
We stand up and my hair falls down my shoulders in wavy clumps, which I self-consciously pull at, wishing it was longer and generally prettier than it is. I glance down at my outfit, which is nothing more than a jean pair of shorts and loose tank top, and my eyes follow a pretty blonde several yards away whose hair is done up in some intricate-looking braid, her skinny body decorated with a floral skirt paired with a fitted V-neck and strappy sandals.
“Come on,” Jasper says, throwing an arm over my shoulders and guiding me in the direction opposite of the pretty blonde girl.
For a few minutes, we circle around the familiar sights of the carnival. Unsurprisingly, we don’t see many people we know. Considering the fact that everyone who lives in Abilene has been here a billion times and it’s a Sunday night, this isn’t exactly the hot place to be.
But Jasper and I like the atmosphere, and we don’t mind not running into our peers.
As the sun sinks further and further into the horizon, the sky becomes streaked with pink and blue tones that remind me of cotton candy. With each passing moment it seems to progressively get darker out, and all the rides and game booths begin to illuminate with flashing neon lights that add to the excitement factor of the place.
“Step right up for your chance to win your very own goldfish,” a man wearing a tall hat calls out into the public from beside a red and white striped booth with a bunch of fish bowls lined up in rows and columns on a table. The overhead lights inside the booth wash out the tank of live goldfish sitting in the back, and I try not to think about how over half of them will probably be dead come tomorrow morning.
A little ways down from the game booths is a brightly lit Merry-go-round, which saturates the air with chirpy instrumental music that makes me feel like we’re trapped in a music box. The grass is littered with food crumbs and forgotten ticket stubs, and there’s a soft breeze that cools the air, a gentle reminder that autumn is on the cusp of arriving and summer isn’t eternal, like a lot of other things in life.
“Hey,” Jasper says quietly, nudging my shoulder with his. “See that guy over there?”
Eyebrows furrowed together, my gaze follows his finger, and my eyes land on a middle aged man with an obvious toupee, accompanied by a young woman with an orangey tan clinging to his arm.
“Yeah . . .?” I look at him weirdly. “What about him?”
Jasper lowers his voice. “He works as a spy for the FBI. That woman doesn’t know it, but he’s going undercover to try to prove that her brother is disguising himself to hide the fact that he’s on the Most Wanted list.”
My face breaks out into a smile. This is a little game that Jasper and I play sometimes, when we get bored. We like to point out random strangers and make up stories about their life.
“See that old lady over there?” I ask, nodding in the direction of an elderly woman with hair the color of dusted snowflakes. She’s sitting at a bench in front of a thrilling ride called The Ring Of Fire, her hand latched securely onto the hand of a small child who looks no older than three or four.
Jasper nods somberly, compelling me to continue.
“Her first husband died in the Vietnam War, so she moved to a small town in Virginia and bought a house that she fixed up. She hung old bottles from a large sycamore tree out back in memory of her husband, who used to love surprising her with cheap wine bottles after work to enjoy together. After a while, her neighbor came over to complain about the racket the bottles made, but she refused to take them down, and eventually he decided to take the nice approach and invite her in for dinner. They got to talking, and eventually fell in love with each other and got married with three kids, and they still have the bottles hanging from the tree to honor her first husband all these years later.”
Jasper smiles happily at me. “You should be a writer.”
My nose crinkles in protest. “I wouldn’t have anything to write about.”
“Write about your life,” he says.
I scoff. “Like anyone would want to read that.”
“I would,” he volunteers with a sober expression.
My mouth closes. I try to imagine my life in word form, documented on the cream pages of books like the ones I spend so much time sifting through at The Book Nook. Letters and words and paragraphs and pages strung together, recounting every minor and major occurrence in my life, not holding back from the good, the bad, or the ugly, just like real books don’t.
The thought terrifies me.
The only parts I’d be okay sharing with others are the parts including Jasper, and I realize that I’d be better off writing a novel about him. Not a biography, because that sounds too technical. His life isn’t meant for history textbooks or research papers. It’s meant for adventure stories and fairytales, the kinds that set kids’ eyes alight with wonderment.
I peer over at him beside me, humming softly to himself amidst the hustle and bustle pooling around us. His viridescent eyes trail around from one ride to another, soaking in the sounds of laughing children and money-hungry prize booth operators. A warm red and orange glow illuminates his face from the many lights strung around the whole place, and a small smile plays at his lips.
If our lives were a written story, he’d be the main character and I’d be the best friend who shows up every now and then just to prove her existence but doesn’t play a significant enough role to contribute to the overall progression of the story.
Maybe if I learned to be normal and not always dwell on the uncertain, only then I might amount to someone worthy of having their own story being written.
Only people who do things get their own stories. You don’t win The Hunger Games by sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. You don’t fall in love with Juliet if you refuse to move on from Rosaline. You don’t get to say you did the right thing if you aren’t willing to go out of your comfort zone and defend a black man accused of a crime he didn’t commit to a racist all-white jury.
People who get their own stories are independent, and don’t rely on others to keep them sane. They don’t sit on the sidelines because they’re too afraid of getting injured in the game. They go, and they do, and they keep going and keep doing until something wonderful eventually comes out of it.
And the truth is, I’m just too unstable to do that on my own.
We continue walking around, idly pointing out strangers and making up stories about their lives because it’s fun to guess and they’re all the main characters of their own stories. Honestly, they are probably way more deserving of that fact than I am.
Eventually, we make our way toward where the Ferris wheel is located, lit up with glittering bulbs of yellow light and Technicolor seats whirring together in a dazzling blur of color, the spokes all joined together at the center reminding me of a giant wagon wheel, except this one is incapable of lugging its passengers to a new destination.
It’s a beautiful sight, but that doesn’t stop the panic of the prospect of being up so high off the ground from winning over any chance of me riding the contraption.
As I stare up at the creaky old Ferris wheel cycling around and around, I think about how everything that spins does so on an axis. And really, I guess that’s the best way to describe what Jasper is for me: he’s the axis that keeps me from spiraling out of control.
But what’ll happen when August runs out of days and I lose the only person who keeps me rotating in this life that I’ve been given?
Because really, he’s the only thing keeping me grounded. Without him, there is no gravity pulling me back in. I’ll just drift away right out of existence, and no one will care enough to notice.