Angel on my Shoulder

Angel On My Shoulder

I had to stare at the long, white lacquered coffin for a while. There was only one thought running through my head, over and over again like a mantra or something. And it had been playing over and over since the night that it happened. It should have been me. It should have been me. I couldn't feel. I couldn't cry. I could barely breathe, and it was difficult for me to comprehend how my heart could go on beating when hers had stopped. It should have been me.

I was the dangerous one. I was the one who always got us into trouble. I was the devil on her shoulder; she was the angel on mine. She was my conscience, because evidently God had forgotten to build one into me when he put me together. How was I going to live without my conscience? How was I going to be able to make decisions without her little voice in my ear, gently manipulating my will away from my crazy emotions? I hated that box that narrow white satin box that was taking her away from me. They wouldn't let me see her, after it happened. They said that she'd want me to remember her the way she was in life, not in death. What they meant was that she was so beat up that I wouldn't have recognized her anyway they were trying to spare me that. I didn't deserve to be spared. Every pain, every scratch, every drop of blood that left her body belonged to me. They should have been mine, not hers. It should have been me.

The day I met her, I knew that she would change my life. She was ten years old, tiny and fragile and pale and utterly beautiful. It was in the summer, and me and a bunch of friends were hanging out at the pool when in walks this pixie girl. I can still remember the swimsuit she was wearing; it was this simple white halter-tank that made her fair skin seem a little darker than it really was. Being the insecure twelve-year-old tomboy that I was, I instantly wanted to despise her. Anything that tiny and pretty spelled trouble, I was sure of it. I watched her for a long time that day, I remember she swam like a fish, like she was a creature of the water herself. A mermaid or something. I was in a particularly abrasive mood, and so when she pulled herself out of the pool and walked past me, dripping a little onto my towel, I looked up and yelled at her.

"Why don't you watch what you're doing?"

She looked down at me with those incredible silver-blue eyes, and for a minute I felt like I was drowning. And then she gave me her own towel one of those really nice big soft ones. It was so white that I knew it had to be brand new. She handed it to me and said, "I'm sorry. Herelet's trade." And she picked up my old nubby black one, that still bore the stains from mopping up my dad's beer spill the night before, and she sat down right next to me. She started to dry her hair with my dirty old towel.

"I'm Melody," she said to me. I pretended to ignore her, and left her perfect little terry-cloth towel in a heap in front of me, laying back on the grass. I did my best not to look over at her, because there was something almost hypnotic about the way she moved. I felt like one of those hapless princesses in the fairy tales the ones who are so enchanted by some magical fairy that they can be coerced into doing the dumbest things. So I concentrated really hard on getting a tan, on the way the heat of the sun fell on my body like waves, making my skin tingle. But the pixie girl didn't seem to mind if I ignored her or not.

"We just moved here in June," she said to me conversationally, as if I had answered her the first time. "I'm going to be in sixth grade over at Camden Middle School." That was where I went. As a matter of fact, I was also going into the sixth grade; I was repeating it because my teachers didn't think I 'showed enough progress' the first time around. That was just a nice way of saying that I was dumb. I didn't say any of this to her, though. But I did sneak a peek in her direction from behind my sunglasses. That was one of the things I liked about wearing my super reflective glasses; the lenses were like mirrors and they wrapped around the sides of my face so that no one could tell where I was looking, or at whom. Pixie girl was spreading my towel out on the ground now, and from the looks of things she was preparing to settle down right next to me.

"I don't remember asking you to sit here," I said to her, kind of mean because I was annoyed at how fascinated I was by her. That was a mistake, because she gave me that look again, and I forgot how to breathe for a minute as those silvery eyes surrounded me. But she didn't frown or fuss or anything.

"What's your name?" she asked me. I was so lost in those eyes that I had answered before I remembered I was trying to ignore her.


"It's nice to meet you." She smiled at me and then rose to her feet, and picked up my old black towel. She folded it, in half and then in thirds, and set it down next to me. "Maybe we'll talk again later," she said, and started to walk off.

I gazed numbly after her for a minute, and then remembered to call out "Hey, what about your towel?" She turned towards me, only slightly, and winked.

"Keep it," she said, and then she left. I picked up the towel. It smelled like baby powder. It's funny, but even though this was like, seven years ago, I still have that powder-scented white towel in my closet at home. Standing there in the front pew, I couldn't smell her powder-scent. How was I supposed to believe that Melly was really in that coffin, if I couldn't smell her? There was never a time that I could remember that she wasn't wearing that baby powder of hers. It was as much a part of her as that silver hair or those silver eyes had been. I asked her about it once. We were in seventh grade, I think it was, and I asked her why it was that she always smelled like that. I can still hear that tinkling little giggle of hers as she replied.

"Silly. Why do you always smell like cigarettes?"

"I smoke two packs a day, that's why."

"Well." That was all she said. Well. As if that explained it. Melly never gave me a straight answer about anything. It's kind of weird, now that I think about it, that I always seemed to be able to understand her anyway. They started playing 'Amazing Grace' as Melly's parents entered the sanctuary. Mrs. Spencer didn't even look at me when she sat down across the aisle and I didn't expect her to. I watched her for a minute as she patted the pins in her perfect hair to make sure that her veil wasn't loose, and then straightened her black French lace dress. I knew it was French lace because I heard my ma talking about it this morning. ("You know that Spencer woman whose kid just died? She had a French lace mourning gown imported from Europe just for the funeral!") I wasn't surprised Mrs. Spencer has more clothes than anyone I've ever met. I think she buys a new outfit every day, and sometimes several if it's a special occasion. I guess in her mind, Melly's funeral was a special occasion. Mr. Spencer sat down next to her. He did look over at me, with that same disgusted glare he always wears whenever I'm around. That I-know-what-you-are-and-it's-revolting stare that always managed to piss me off. Normally I just give him one of my own glowering I-don't-give-a-rip-what-you-think looks right back. But not today. Today, I deserved it, and I wasn't even going to attempt to fight back. I looked again at that sleek white coffin, focusing on the ornately twisted little silver handles. Silver and white Melly's two favorite colors. She'd like that. Once again there was that heavy stone in my stomach. It should have been me.

"What's your dream?"

"My dream?" It was summer again, and I was fifteen. Melly and I were hanging out in the park, preferring the heat outside to the much more unpleasant heat at home. She was laying on the top of the picnic table, ignoring the little tiny splinters in the wood, and her hair was spread out all around her head like a big silver halo. She moved to prop herself up on one elbow, and smiled at me.

"Yes, your dream. What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Alive." I absent-mindedly pulled a cigarette from the pack in my jeans pocket, then remembered that Melly was allergic to the smoke and settled for rolling it in my fingers instead. I looked up at her, knowing what she wanted me to ask her, and I had to grin. I'd come to recognize Melly's little signals the ones that told me when she was expecting something or when she had something to say. She was kind of funny like that. She always had lots to say but she wanted to be asked first. The kids at school used to swear that the two of us had some kind of psychic connection, because we could practically read one another's minds. So I gave Melly what she wanted, and asked her. "How about you?"

She closed her eyes and sighed, with this little melancholic, sweet smile that's difficult to describe, but if you knew Melly you'd never be able to picture her without it. "My dream is to be real. A real person." Not a prized possession. She didn't have to say that last part, I knew what she meant. Her folks treated her like a showhorse or something, dressing her up in these fancy clothes and parading her around at their big parties and stuff. I felt sorry for her. It's not like things were all hunky-dory at my place or anything, but at least in my family I was an annoyance. My presence counted, even if it was just because I was inconvenient. Where Melly's family was concerned, she might as well be a gemstone in a display case for all they cared. She didn't even have the satisfaction of being a burden on her parents.

"Well, you're real to me," I said to her, and then I poured my ice-cold soda down the back of her shirt. She squealed really loud and I laughed at her. "See? That felt real, didn't it?"

She started to giggle too, and I leaned over to wipe some of the Coke out of her shimmering hair. One of the jerks from school chose that moment to screech past us in his flashy Porche 911, one of those fire engine red jobs with the streaking white spoilers. I would have admired the car if the guy in it hadn't hollered out the window at me. "Freakin' dyke!" He laughed raucously to himself like he'd just said something terribly clever. But the funny thing was, that when he looked over at us again to see what effect his comment had, his expression got real surprised for a second and then he grinned and waved and floored the gas, taking off down the street. I was totally amazed because I hadn't even gotten to deliver one of my smart little replies, reserved for moments such as this. I turned to look at Melly, and then I knew why that kid had been so shocked; perfect, prim little Melody Spencer was holding up her hand towards the receding car, the sun glinting off the perfect polish of her middle finger. She met my eyes, and winked at me. I had to shake my head in disbelief; the girl would never cease to amaze me. I will carry that image of Melly flipping that boy off with me to my grave.

They were lighting candles now. The lady next to me leaned over to light the one in my hand, and the pastor or whoever was making some speech about how Melly's memory would be an eternal light through the darkness of our sorrow or something like that. I stared at the candle I was holding, and some of the hot wax dripped down the side of it. I put my finger up and coated it with the wax, feeling that familiar old burning sensation and then a numbness as the white stuff cooled into a thin, hard shell around my fingertip. Melly and I would play with candles for hours she was as fascinated by fire as I was, though she was also a little squeamish about it. She'd watch me drop the wax onto my hands in all sorts of shapes, leaving these little red patterned burns that lasted for a couple of weeks. But she never touched the wax herself. She said her mother would be furious if she came home with marks on her skin and she was probably right, but I knew that it wasn't fear of her mother that kept her from joining in, it was her fear of pain.

Melly hated pain. It terrified her so much that she actually had a phobia of bees and red ants, and would always run screaming in the opposite direction whenever we came across any of them. Me? I was her complete opposite. I enjoy pain. Call me masochistic or whatever, but there's something really empowering about feeling the cold, bitter shock in your nerves as it travels up through your body and finally into your head, screaming at you that you're alive and it hurts! Melly used to be sort of entranced by the way I would inflict tiny little pains on myself for amusement. Once, she had this embroidery project that her mother had decided she should learn, and she brought it to school with her. I took the needle and started sewing little patterns into my fingertips since there's two layers of skin there, you just push the needle through the top layer and draw the thread through. I wanted to embroider a nice four-letter word onto the pads of my fingers in four different colors, to see what reaction I'd get from the teachers the next time I raised my hand in class. But Melly wouldn't stand for that.

"My needle, my thread," she'd said to me decisively. So I settled for stitching her name, all in black: M-E-L-L-Y . Five fingers, five letters. It worked out nicely for a couple of days until the skin dried and tore through, and the thread came out. And then there was the time that I filched that little pocket knife from the gas station, and used it to scratch a happy face into my forearm. Melly watched me do it, but she was not impressed, and made me take the knife back and apologize to the manager for stealing it. She used to get this funny little expression on her face when I was doing stuff like that; all scrunched up and wide-eyed at the same time, as though she was feeling the pain I was inflicting on myself. I thought about her, the way she must have felt trapped under that car for hours before she died, broken arm and crushed lungs and all, and I felt like I was going to be sick. Melly shouldn't have been the one to endure that she was never built for pain. It should have been me. That was my realm of expertise.

I kept on staring at the candle in my hand. The room was really quiet now, because the pastor guy had asked that we observe ten minutes of silence for Melly's memory. I dipped my other three fingers and my thumb into the wax now, and thought that Melly was probably going nuts in all this quiet. She despised silence. Everything around her was always well, like her name. A melody. She never went anywhere without her little Walkman. I used to tease her and say that one day they were going to have to surgically remove it from her ears, she wore it so much. Melly had music with her everywhere she went, and if ever there was a moment of awkward silence where no one was speaking, you could always rest assured that Melly would break the silence and start singing Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' at the top of her lungs. Melly adored Michael Jackson. She had a poster of him in her locker all seven years that I went to school with her, and every morning without fail she opened her locker door and winked at his picture.

I asked her once how come she didn't kiss the picture, since I'd heard that lots of other girls did that with celebrities they liked. Melly just stared at me in horror. "Kiss Michael? Are you serious? I'm not worthy to kiss Michael Jackson." Sometimes she really perplexed me, that girl.

"Show them how funky, strong is your fight, it doesn't matter who's wrong or right, just beat it." I stiffened as I suddenly received an elbow in the side. I realized that I was singing Melly's song out loud now, interrupting their ten minutes of silence, and the entire room full of mourners was staring at me in horror. I shut up, but not before I caught another furious glare from Mr. Spencer. That was when I realized that none of the people in that room had ever really known Melly if they had, they would have understood right away. Melly would have understood. I half expected her to pop out of that white box and start singing with me but of course she didn't. I looked around at all the somber, serious faces around me, and I wanted to laugh. Here they were, trying to remember Melly, and they were doing it wrong! Melly had wanted everyone around her to express themselves. She didn't care if it was anger, sadness, spite, whatever, as long as they were making some noise. She called it 'being real'. Being real was important to her. I think that's because she was never treated like a real person, except by me. Melly would have despised all this silence and reverence. I suddenly pictured her, all dressed in white with big wings this see-through ghost hovering near the ceiling of the sanctuary, looking down on all the silent, stuffy people. She'd be strumming her golden harp and trilling out 'Beat It' for all she was worth, probably with a host of heavenly angels for backup vocals. This idea instantly made me feel much better.

Just when I was ready to start singing again in order to drive the maddening silence away, the pastor got up to begin the ceremony. He started off talking about what a good daughter Melly had been, and what a good student, and how much she would be missed by her family and friends. I had to shake my head at this. Yeah, sure, like her family was going to miss her at all. I snuck another peek across the aisle, where Mrs. Spencer pulled a little tiny mirror from her purse to check her makeup, and Mr. Spencer was inspecting his perfectly manicured fingernails. He's, like, one of the only men I know who actually goes and has a manicure regularly. Melly told me that since her father was a doctor, he thought his patients expected him to have nice-looking hands. All I know is, if my doctor was wearing fingernail polish (clear or otherwise), it would seem more fruity to me than anything else. Not that I have a problem with fruity, of course, but Mr. Spencer sure did. I mean, that's why he never liked me much anyway. I think I was tarnishing Melly's pristine reputation. I wasn't good enough to associate with her. My ma's a mechanic, and Dad, who makes pretense of being a freelance photographer, has been unemployed (and perpetually drunk) for years. So you could say that my family is kind of like the cement sidewalk beneath the social ladder. Not exactly the caliber of friend that Melly's parents would choose for her.

Of course, it wasn't just that, though. There was also the small matter of my own reputation. I came out real early, like in eighth grade, because I knew even then that boys just weren't for me. I think Mr. Spencer thought I was gonna try something with Melly, because as soon as he found out he tried to keep her away from me. He tried reasoning with her, pleading with her, threatening her, grounding her and it didn't work. I mean, we were best friends, and I think Melly knew I probably wouldn't be able to survive without her. She used to sneak out of the house to hang out with me, and she'd tell me all the stuff her dad had to say about me and my 'abominable choices.' We'd both have a really good laugh about it.

Mr. Spencer even tried to bribe me to stay away from Melly once! It's true he offered me five hundred bucks if I would leave Melly alone. I told him, in no uncertain terms, where he could stick his five hundred dollars. Now, don't get me wrong, I have a deep appreciation for money and all, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't consider his offer. But the fact of the matter is, that I need Melly more than any kind of money. I need her gentle smile, her laugh. I need to feel her little hand on my shoulder when I'm lonely. I need her mysterious, wise advice and her judgement to make my decisions. I need Melly and she's gone.

I stared at the coffin again, and tried to feel angry. Maybe, if I was angry with her, the pain would go away. Maybe, if I could make myself furious enough, it could somehow fill up this great big vacant space in my chest. Maybe, if I was mad, I could feel something other than this numbness in my head. So I tried, for a minute or two, to blame all of this on her. I mean, it wasn't such a ridiculous idea, that all of this was her fault. Shewas the one who speeding, right? Sure, she was late for the game, and yes, I did yell at her the last time she missed one of my basketball tournaments, but hey, no one asked her to go eighty miles an hour. She did that on her own. She just should have left the house earlier except that, well, okay, so she was trying to finish editing that paper I'd written for Western Philosophy and email it to me before she left. So I'm a bad student. She didn't have to offer to help me, did she? That was her fault, wasn't it? But the more I tried, the harder it was to get mad at her. It just wasn't going to work. I had to grin a little at the long flower-draped box. See? Even when you're dead, Melly, I can't get angry with you. It had always been that way. How could I get angry with someone who knew what I was thinking and feeling, even before I did? I sighed again. Melly deserved better than this. She deserved a decent death more than that, she deserved a longer life. I was the one who didn't deserve to go on living, especially not when someone like Melly was the one who'd died. It wasn't right. You messed up, God. You took the wrong one. It should have been me. After everything I'd done, it really should have been me.

"What on earth were you thinking?" Melly said to me, her light little voice full of reproach as she held my head. I couldn't answer her because I was too busy retching into the toilet. Melly shook her head, and pushed the flusher, then helped me lean up against the wall. "Remind me never to come to a party with you again," she said teasingly. "I told you not to drink that stuff. And you didn't listen. Bet you feel pretty stupid, huh?"

I gasped for breath, feeling the drool and sweat rolling from my face, adding new stains to my already well-spotted T-shirt. "Actually, I feel pretty sick," I said. "Stupid comes in as a close second, though." Melly giggled at me. Man, I loved to hear her laugh even if I was drunk and hungover, somehow hearing that laugh made everything feel all right. Some guy opened the bathroom door. He took one look at me, said "Whoa, dude. Wicked party," and left again, shutting the door. Melly looked at me again with those enormous eyes.

"Well, Randy-doll, I hope you're going to learn your lesson." I did my best to glare at her, though it wasn't easy with the jackhammer going off between my ears.

"I told you not to call me-" I was cut off by my own nauseated choking, and Melly giggled again as she helped me back over the toilet. When my insides were finished extricating themselves from my body, I leaned back again and sighed, running the back of my hand over my mouth to wipe away the excess. "I'm not a doll, Melly."

"Sure you are. You're my doll." She smiled at me again and brushed my shaggy dark hair out of my eyes. "Don't worry about it. I'm looking out for you."

Not anymore, I thought to myself as the pastor droned on. I could hear sniffling behind me, and the lady next to me was blowing her nose. Mrs. Spencer was letting her perfect mascara streak her cheeks, and her husband had one arm around her, looking rather misty-eyed himself. I turned to look around behind me, and it seemed like everyone in the sanctuary had tears running down their faces. For a minute, there was a flash of guilt. I was certain that none of the other people here had cared about Melly the way I did; it was impossible for any of them to understand just how much she meant to me. But all of them were crying, and me my eyes were totally dry. I couldn't cry. I didn't feel anything at all just empty. Like I was floating in this big dark bubble, listening to everyone and everything from a great distance away. It was surreal, and I realized that there was a part of me that didn't really believe any of this was happening. I guess, that deep inside, I was still hoping I was going to wake up and have all of this turn out to be a nightmare or something. That I'd get out of bed, look out my window and see Melly waiting for me outside the front gate like always; and I'd throw on some jeans and a T-shirt and run out there, and as we walked to school we'd both have a good laugh about my dumb old dream.

But it wasn't going to happen. For the first time, I looked around me at all the sniffling, tear streaked faces and I realized that I was alone. I'd never needed a friend other than Melly. And now, I didn't have anyone. She'd gone away and left me all alone, and when I got home this afternoon she wasn't going to be there for me to explain all this to and then cheer me up by offering to take both of us out for ice cream. Melly was never going to be there again. She was gone. Her voice was gone. Her face was gone. Those little hands, that little head that only came to my chest, that sweet, musical giggle it was all gone. And I didn't get to say goodbye. I didn't get to tell her I didn't get to say the things I'd wanted to say but never had the guts to. And it wasn't like she hadn't given me the opportunity, either.

"Randy-doll." Melly cocked her head as she gazed at me. Her delicate features were shadowed in the dim light, making them seem almost ethereal. It was, like, two AM in the morning and she'd come to sleep over at my house, something her father had forbidden her to do. She'd ignored him.

"Hmm?" I was picking at the carpet in front of me, creating a little collection of popcorn seeds and beer nuts and other leftover junk in the palm of one hand. My ma never vaccuums. Melly was quiet for a minute, and I realized that she was waiting for me to look up at her. That meant that she was going to say something serious. So I looked up.

"Randy, how come you never tried to kiss me?"

I forgot all about the little stuff in my hand, and gaped at her. "What?" I mean, Melly knew I was gay. She was actually the first person I'd come out to, and the only one who hadn't made like a huge fuss over it. The kids at school had freaked out, and my parents had decided that it was some phase I was going to eventually grow out of, and Melly's father well, I've already been through that. Nobody took me seriously or understood it, except for Melly. But no matter what her father thought, the idea of coming on to Melly was almost absurd to me. "Melly, what on earth are you talking about?"

She started fidgeting with one of her long silvery braids. Melly always braided her hair before she went to sleep. "Well, I'm just wondering I mean, you like girls and all. So how come you're not interested in me? Am I not pretty enough or something?"

I think it took me about a full minute to process this. I tried to think of a decent answer, but all the words that flitted through my head were the wrong ones. If I told her that she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen in my life, it would sound like a come-on. If I asked her if she wanted me to kiss her, it would sound like a come-on. If I told her that kissing her would be like sacrilege, it would sound just plain ridiculous. I found myself wondering, briefly, if Melly could possibly be interested in me and dismissed that thought almost immediately. I mean, Melly as a lesbian would be like my dad getting elected president of AA. Just not possible. "No, no, Melly, it's not anything like that," I said to her, trying to make my voice sound as casual as possible. "It's just that you're not" I blushed a little. "And I'm" I could feel my face getting even warmer and I was grateful for the darkness of the living room. It soon became clear that the casual stuff wasn't going to work. I ran a hand through my short, choppy, black-dyed hair in a gesture of frustration.

Melly giggled then, that light, tinkling little sound that never failed to make me smile. She reached out and took my hand. "You always do that messing-up-your-hair thing when you're nervous, Randy-doll," she said with another giggle. "I wasn't trying to fluster you, you know. I'm just curious." She ran her own fingers through my hair then, straightening out the rumples I'd made. "I guess I already know the answer, really. I mean, you've got a lot of respect for people, Randy-doll, and I know you wouldn't try anything with me when you know I'm not into that sort of thing." She tapped my nose with her index finger, and I blinked. "I love you. Not that way, you know, but I love you. You know that, right?" I looked into those silvery-blue eyes, drowning again, and nodded numbly. I knew there was something she wanted to hear and this was the first time, in all the years I'd known her, that I couldn't say that something to her. It was just too close to home. Melly looked at me for a second, and then nodded slowly. Her lips curved into a little smile, and she gave me a little peck on the cheek. "It's all right, Randy-doll. I know."

The emptiness inside me was throbbing again as those words echoed through my head. It hadn't occurred to me at the time to wonder at their significance; but now as I looked back I found myself wondering exactly what she'd meant. What had she known? That her sentiments were returned? Or that mine ran deeper than I was willing to say? I couldn't have told her how I felt, even if I'd wanted to, because the truth is, I wasn't certain myself of what my own feelings were. Melly wasn't just another girl to me. I couldn't look at her that way it would be like defiling a goddess. She was my world. My foundation. My angel. And she was those things to a lot of people, not just me.

Again I was struck with the unfairness of the whole thing. If I'd been the one to die, at least Melly wouldn't have been alone like this. Melly always had lots of friends. There was just something magnetic about her, and everyone at school loved her, despite the fact that she was always hanging out with me. If I was the one lying there in that box, Melly would be standing right where I was now, surrounded by other kids from school who would be comforting her. She would never be left alone, although I was pretty sure she would have missed me. It should have been me. I tried to picture it what it would have been like if it had been me in that accident. Melly would probably wear white to the funeral. She always did stuff like that. She'd be standing right where I was now, holding her little white candle and looking like a glorious silver angel amidst a sea of black-clad demons. And she wouldn't be crying either. I wondered for a second why I was so sure, and that was when I remembered.

I found Melly sitting on my front porch. She hadn't even knocked or anything, and who knew how long she'd been sitting there, but she was just sort of hunched over on the steps, leaning against the rickety rails. I knew something was wrong right away, and I sat down next to her.

"What's up, Melly?" She didn't look at me she was staring up into the sky as if at any moment she was going to transform herself into a bird and just fly away. I knew that look, and right away I understood and my blood started to boil. I stood up. "That jerk!" I said, my hands making fists. I was picturing what his face would look like when I finished mauling it. "When I get my hands on him"

"Sit down, Randy-doll." Her voice that soft, musical, sad little voice made me turn to look at her. Those silvery eyes met mine, swallowing me up and drawing me inside until I had forgotten to be angry. "It's not Trevor's fault. You can't control who you fall in love with, Randy, and Trevor just isn't in love with me."

I shook my head, but did as she asked and sat back down. "He should have told you before, then," I said stubbornly.

"He wasn't sure of it before. I think he wanted to love me but he just can't. Sometimes that's the way life is." Melly returned her gaze to the cloudless skies. "I'm sixteen years old, Randy. It's not like I can't find someone else." But I could hear the uncertainty in her voice, and I still felt really ticked off with the guy. She'd been seeing him for, like, six months, and even though it got annoying to hear her constantly chattering about Trevor I was happy that she was so happy. I knew that her heart must be broken at the moment, and I felt frustrated because I didn't know what to do about it. I could always go find Trevor and deck him a few times that would make me feel better but I had the sneaking suspicion that it wouldn't help Melly very much.

"You loved him," I said. "It's not right." Melly didn't answer, just laid her little head on my shoulder. Her soft, shimmery hair tickled my face, and she hugged me. She was so tiny. Even when we were standing up her head barely came to my chest. Feeling rather protective at the moment, I put my arms around her fragile, trembling form. "You can cry," I said generously. "It's all right."

Melly tightened her grip around my waist, and her voice was the saddest thing I'd ever heard. "Sometimes, Randy-doll, it just hurts too much to cry."

Hurts too much to cry that's what she said. I thought I understood what she meant, but I didn't. Not until today. As I stared for the billionth time at that despicable shiny white coffin, I felt the heaviness in my chest expanding, getting bigger and bigger until I was sure that I was going to explode from the inside out with the pressure of it. I hoped that I would explode. If Melly wasn't here, then I didn't want to be here either. I thought about how I could do it, if the exploding didn't work. I had to rule out my preferred method, the razor blades and the bathtub, because I'd promised Melly the last time that I wouldn't do that again. I looked down at my wrist, and with my other hand I traced the lacy white scars there. I had wanted to die so bad, I remember my folks were fighting again and my dad was drunk, as usual, and throwing furniture and stuff at Ma, and she was brandishing her iron at him and I just wanted to die. But Melly got to me before I could do both wrists, and she took me to the hospital and they stitched me up and then put me in this stupid counseling program for disturbed children. I quit going after the first week because they started trying to convince me that it was my 'confusion about sexuality' that had brought the suicide attempt on. Melly let me quit when I told her that, but she made me swear I'd never do that again. I think that was the only time she ever got really mad at me. She said I was being selfish if I thought that dying was going to solve anything, and that if I ever tried it again, she'd have to kill me herself. I'm not sure she was kidding.

So no razor blades, then. A good strong rope and the bar in my closet would work, except that I was never very good at tying knots. I could always drive my car off the Maritime Pass or just run into the highway during rush hour, but dying by car would just be too much like what happened to Melly and I wasn't sure I could go through with it. There was that bottle of sleeping pills my ma keeps in the medicine cabinet. And of course there was Dad's revolver, in his nightstand drawer. But no, if I did it that way both of them would blame themselves and each other and probably end up killing one another over it. Melly told me once that there are like, fifteen hundred different ways to kill yourself with ordinary household items. So I'm sure I could find one that would work for me but without Melly's advice, how would I be able to decide which one? I could feel the despair creeping up around the edges of my emptiness now. I was helpless without her, really. Without her, I couldn't even commit suicide decently.

The pastor had finished giving his little eulogy, and the choir was singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." That was what I needed. A heavenly chariot that would just suddenly appear in the sky and whisk me away to be with Melly. But knowing Melly, she'd probably just send me back. "It's not your turn, Randy-doll," she'd say to me. "You're supposed to be real first. Go be real." But Melly, it wasn't supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be me. I didn't care anymore what anybody else thought. The choir kept on singing, and I stood up and walked over to the coffin I'd been staring at for the past two hours. I set my hand on it, trying to see if somehow I could sense Melly underneath so I could be certain, once and for all, that this was not a dream. But she wasn't there. I couldn't feel her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mr. Spencer rise to his feet. I think he was going to come over and stop me, but Mrs. Spencer wouldn't let him cause a scene. I ran my hand along the smooth, polished lacquer. It seemed like a foreign object, cold and slick and empty. Melly wasn't in there.

And that was when I smelled the baby powder. Not coming from the coffin, or from the black-clad mourners, or even from the flowers piled all over the altar; no, it wasn't coming from anywhere. It was just there. It was everywhere, all around me. The whole world suddenly became powder-scented, and I could hear Melly's voice again. My dream is to be real. A real person. Of course she wasn't in the blank coffin in front of me. Because she'd finally gotten her dream. She wasn't the perfect little display item anymore no one had bragging rights to her now. Melly was real, because she was in me. Because of all the people in that room, I was the one who loved her the most.

And the pain disappeared. It melted away, like ice in the sun, and formed warm, salty drops that cascaded down my cheeks, splashing onto the perfect whiteness of the coffin. I stood there, in the front of that sanctuary, and cried; and I knew then that Melly was still looking out for me, wherever she was now. She'd always be the angel on my shoulder and everything was going to be all right.