chapter 21 || kai
I stare at the paper in front of me, tears burning my eyes. Tears for Emma and for Ryder.
Tears for me.
I blink fast, attempting to push them back where they belong. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry and I don’t intend on breaking that promise.
I look around the circle where everyone is holding their own piece of notebook paper. My eyes drift over to Ryder, who’s staring daggers into his paper. I watch as he drags a finger across the page, mouthing silent words.
I turn my attention back to Jayden, who stands up. One by one, the rest of us follow suit when they notice that we’re moving. He wordlessly leads us through the woods to a small ring of big stones surrounded by benches. He grabs a few logs and places them in the middle in a crisscross shape, throwing a small piece of cotton in the middle. Pulling out a small matchbox, he lights the cotton in the middle and backs away, admiring his handiwork.
I watch the wood go up into flames; dancing around in the air. I look up from the fire, making eye contact with Ryder who is conveniently across from me. His gaze travels to my left hand, which is holding Hayden’s and back to the fire, his eyes hardening.
“Who wants to share first?” Jayden says, muting the noise of the fire crackling. I turn to look at Jayden, ignoring Ryder once again with a pang in my chest.
“I’ll go,” Zach says softly. Clearing his throat, he repeats, “I’ll go.”
He shifts his weight back and forth, re-reading his paper. He closes his eyes and audibly gulps before opening them again and staring at his paper.
“Dear Uncle John. It’s been 4 months since you died and everyday it hurts a bit less. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt at all. If I could take it all back, I would. I would’ve come with you to the damn store. I wouldn’t have picked up the phone to call you. I would’ve begged you to stay. If things had gone differently that night, everything would’ve been different. You were my best friend and now you’re gone,” he says in his usual timid voice.
Zach looks up at the sky while crumpling the letter into his fist.
“You can throw it in, Zach.” Jayden walks over to him, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. Zach walks forward, closer to the pit. Hovering his hand over the dancing flames, he whispers something and drops the paper in. His eyes stay trained as the fire crackles, releasing his words into the air.
“Dear Mom and Dad,” Callie starts immediately, her voice shaky. “My whole life, I’ve never had parents. The older I grew, the less hope I had for being adopted. But you guys took in a 12 year old with no hope or happiness. You put up with me and all of my problems and you adopted me. So when I lost you, I lost the only parents I ever had.”
She takes a step forward and throws her letter in, wiping at her face. The rest of us look away, letting her silent tears come and go in peace. Hayden, Ryder, and I all stay silent, none of us wanting to go next.
Hayden gives my hand a slight squeeze before letting go and pulling his letter out of his pocket. He glances over at me and gives me a tight lipped smile.
“Hey Syd. How you doing? It’s still hard to wrap my head around the fact that you aren’t here anymore. Whenever something happens, I pick up my phone and go to facetime you, but then I remember that you won’t pick up and that you’re gone and my entire world collapses again. I get angry; angry that the world took you away from me, angry that I won’t get to see mini you’s running around during thanksgiving. Without you, I’m literally missing half of myself.”
Hayden takes in a shaky breath before throwing his letter into the fire. He steps back and takes my hand in his again.
I’m tempted to look up at Ryder again, wondering if he’s going to talk or if he’s waiting for me to say something. I want him to go first, but at the same time, I want to get it over with. I’m sick of thinking about Emma without Ryder keeping me balanced. He’s always been the one who reminds me that I’m still alive.
“I can go next,” a soft whisper escapes my lips before I know it. I gulp, pushing down all my anxieties. I scan over the words I decided to read, but when I open my mouth to start, I’m met by my own silence.
It’s nothing I haven’t said before, so why am I having such a hard time trying to speak?
I grip the paper tighter in my hands and try to read the words, but one word smears into the other, making everything illegible. I tilt my head up at the sky, squeezing my eyes shut. Looking past the fire, I catch Ryder’s eye. His eyes mold into a state of concern before slowly melting into a comforting gaze. He nods his head ever so slightly, letting me know it’s okay; that I’m okay.
I shake my head and take a deep breath before looking at the paper again, the words no longer blurry. “Dear Emma. If I could go back to that day, I would’ve held you a little longer. I would’ve texted you more during the day. I would’ve done a lot of things differently. Sometimes I wonder if you dying so young was your fate all along; like if it wasn’t suicide, then it would’ve been something else. But what if it wasn’t? I don’t know, I never believed in it before. Grief does crazy things to you I guess.”
I fold the paper in half, tearing it down the middle. Holding the pieces in my hand, I take a step toward the fire. “Gone, but not forgotten,” I whisper to myself before letting the papers go.
“You okay?” Hayden says quietly near my ear when I stand beside him again. I grab his hand and give it a squeeze, not trusting myself to say a word without breaking down. I look back at Ryder, except this time instead of the hard glare I was used to, his eyes look… sad.
He averts his gaze, turning his focus to his paper. “Dear Emma. You broke my heart. You promised me you wouldn’t break it. You promised. But what’d you go and do? You took your own life, Emma. You took it away. And you forgot the most important thing. It’s not just your life. It’s never just been your life. It was mine. It was Kai’s. It was our families and your classmates and your teachers because you were loved by everyone. So screw you. Screw you for taking away a part of my life.”
Without another word, he drops the paper into the fire. I watch as he moves back to his spot. He stares into the fire, letting a tear fall from his eyes before quickly wiping it away.
For some reason, it hurts more to see Ryder sad when I’m not with him than when he’s mad and hurting with me around him.
We all stand around the fire in silence, none of us knowing what to say to each other after the bomb we just dropped. Today’s emotions were high. Maybe because we were almost speaking to the dead directly, just within our little group.
“How do you guys feel?” Jayden asks, breaking the silence.
“Light,” Zach starts. “Like something’s been lifted off of my shoulders.”
“Yeah, me too,” Callie agrees.
“Well that’s good. See, the point of writing out what you want and the process of throwing it into the fire symbolizes your process of letting go.” He pauses and looks around the circle. “Would anyone like to share their thoughts?”
“How do we know that we’ve moved on?” Ryder mumbles quietly.
“The thing is, you never really move on. They’ll always be a part of you that misses them and that won’t ever leave. It’ll just stop hurting so much and you learn to live your life without them in it,” Jayden explains.
“Okay then.” Jayden claps his hands together once we fall back into an uncomfortable silence. “We’re going kayaking after lunch, so meet at the lake with swimsuits on around 3.”
We shuffle around the fire, coming within arms length of one another and grab each others hands. We don’t need anything to prompt us into doing what we’ve come to crave. When Jayden first mentioned the squeeze at the end of each session, I already hated it. But now? It’s something I need; something that reminds me that I can trust these people. That I can trust my friends.
One by one, we let go of each other’s hands and the others start to walk back towards the rest of the camp. I kick at dirt as I start walking.
“Kai, wait,” Hayden says, catching my wrist before I got too far.
“Is everything okay with you and Ryder?”
I take a step backwards. “Why?”
“I just- I noticed you guys don’t talk anymore, like at all. And I saw the look he gave you and I saw how you looked at him.”
“What look?” I ask hesitantly.
“You looked…” he trails off. “Sad. You looked sad when you looked at him. You both looked at each other as if it was only the two of you and the rest of the world had disappeared.”
“Are- are you jealous?”
“What? No!” He looks at me like I’ve said that horses could fly. “It was just, I guess I’m just concerned. I can be concerned about my girlfriend, right?”
“Yeah, yeah of course.” I rock back and forth on my feet, my hands tucked into my pockets.
“So? What’s wrong?” Hayden asks.
I sigh, taking a step forward and taking his hand in mine. “We just got into a fight, okay? It’s nothing for you to worry about. It’ll work out.” I stand on my tiptoes and loop my arms around his neck. His arms snake around to my waist.
“You sure?” He whispers softly, pulling me in closer.
“I’m sure,” I whisper back. I reach up to kiss him; my hands making their way into his hair. Remembering the last time a little kid interrupted us, I pull away first. He rests his forehead on mine, keeping his eyes closed.
“You can trust me, you know.”
“I know, Hayden. I know.”
Hand in hand, we walk back to camp in silence. I may be confused over everything with Ryder and Emma and everything else in my life, but I know one thing for sure.
I need Ryder in my life.