Mike kept waiting for Jodi to dump him. As much as they tried to ignore, deny, and dismiss the Ghost of Will, he always seemed to be hovering around them even if they never mentioned his name.
When Thanksgiving arrived, Mike mentioned how Will would probably be playing in his final rival Greenville-Hillsboro Thanksgiving football game. Instead, the family left town and visited his maternal grandparents' in New Hampshire.
As Christmas season approached, Mike told Jodi how his mother still bought presents for Will.
"Dad donates them to charity after the holiday," he explained.
"Your Mom is still Will's Mom," Jodi said.
"She is," Mike agreed. "She's just whacked when it comes to dealing with a dead son."
And yet not once did Mike hear Jodi make a negative comment or rude observation about his mother, despite her idiosyncrasies.
"Whatever happened to the two boys who were in the canoe with him that day?" Jodi asked one evening over another pizza at the Pizza House.
"They pretty much dropped out of the picture after it happened," Mike said. "Ron was a couple of years older and went to the Tech School. Ben went to the Catholic School and moved away a few years later. My mother really had a hard time even looking at them at the funeral service. It was best that they kept a low profile."
"I guess," Jodi agreed.
"I was full of resentment and anger toward them," Mike admitted. "Why did they get to live and Will didn't?"
"That's a natural reaction to have," Jodi said with understanding.
"Lillian was angry all the time," Mike remembered. "She was only nine so she didn't know how to process the grief and she became a moody little brat for quite a while, taking it out on my parents which drove me crazy because I could see how miserable and broken they were but I really couldn't fault Lillian for being so confused and upset all the time."
"You guys seem to be doing better now, from what I can see," Jodi said.
"Except for The Shrine, I guess," Mike observed.
The New Year came and Mike said his family always made positive resolutions, hoping to move on in some small way, to do something good and healthy and hopeful, to feel better about themselves while not forgetting about Will.
"My mother has this irrational fear that if we don't remember Will in weird ways we'll forget about him in normal ones," Mike explained.
Mike was surprised that Jodi was still putting up with him and his weird strange mourning grieving family after four months of being together. Their bond had strengthened and although Mike wasn't the most romantically expressive guy he valued Jodi's presence, her company, her companionship and her understanding.
One weekend in late January, Mike's parents and Lillian went skiing for the weekend. Mike had no interest in such adventures mostly because he knew Will would have been the King of the Slopes at any age and he didn't want to have to compete with that. Plus, he hadn't been on a pair of skis since Will died.
Jodi came over – it was the first time they had been alone as a couple and Mike was feeling nervous and apprehensive even though he was thrilled to have her to himself.
"What do you think your mother would do if we updated Will's room?" Jodi wondered as they sat on the couch watching a movie on the television.
"She'd stroke out," Mike said knowingly. "Nobody touches The Shrine."
"Oh yeah?" Jodi teased, leaping from the couch and running up the stairs. "Maybe that's the kind of therapy this family needs!" She threatened. "A bomb drop."
Mike ran after her and caught up to her a she opened the door to The Shrine.
"Don't touch anything," he warned. "It really would send my mother over the edge."
"I know," Jodi sighed, catching her breath as she leaned against the opened door to the bedroom. "Your mother will have to make the decision when it's right for her."
"Sometimes I'm just not sure if this is right for the rest of us," Mike said sorrowfully. "The way it is now."
"I understand," Jodi said with sensitivity.
"You know, I never told anybody this, but me and Will had a fight that morning," Mike revealed as he stared blankly into The Shrine Room.
"A fight?" Jodi asked.
"I wanted to go with him," Mike sighed. "To the river. But he said there wasn't enough room in the canoe. I told him I'd watch from the shore but he told me to get lost. I got pissed and called him some names. I never saw him again."
Jodi burst into tears and suddenly she was sobbing uncontrollably, gut-releasing wails similar to those of Aunt Alice when she found out in front of Mike that Will was dead. Mike took Jodi by the arm and led her to the bed.
"What's going on?" He asked with concern, aware that it wasn't just his story that reopened her grief.
"He told me he'd give me my dollar back if I met him at Johnny C's the next morning," Jodi revealed, clutching her stomach with her arms and leaning over as if she was going to vomit. "But I had to go to church with my parents so I turned him down."
"It's okay," Mike said.
"No it's not!" Jodi cried. "Don't you see? If I had met him at the diner he'd still be alive!"
"You don't know that," Mike said with sympathy.
"Weren't you about to tell me that he'd still be alive if you had gone to the river with him?"
"Who knows what would have happened?" Mike shrugged. "I might have watched him drown from the shore which would have been even worse."
Jodi was crying so hard that she was nearly hyperventilating. Mike wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to him.
"Shh," he said softly. "Don't do this to yourself. The one thing the grief counselor told us that made sense was that we were not in control of the situation."
"I never told anybody either," Jodi said, having trouble getting the words out between her sobs and gasps. "I've felt so horrible for so long."
Mike leaned in and kissed her on the mouth. It was their first kiss.
Mike had been waiting for her to make the first move since she was the more experienced one but she hadn't shown any motivation and he wondered if was just the pizza after all.
Now she returned the kiss, despite her spit and snot and tears as she struggled to regain control of her emotions.
"Is this why you wanted to get rid of The Shrine?" Mike asked.
"One of the reasons," She admitted. "But you're right - it's not our decision to make."
"My mother is still in so much quiet pain," Mike sighed sadly. "It makes it hard for all of us but if she needs a way to keep him alive who are we to interfere?"
"It's all just so sad and tragic," Jodi sobbed, resting her head against his shoulder.
"And you've been one of us all along," Mike said with amazement. "You just never said anything."
"What could I possibly say?" Jodi cried.
"He really did bring us together, didn't he?" Mike realized with amazement.
"When he died, all logic and rationality went down the river with him," Jodi said with broken defeat.
Mike kissed her again. "It's going to be okay," he told her.
She lifted her head up and desperately looked into his eyes. "Please," She whispered. "Take away the pain."
He stood there dumbfounded as she methodically removed her clothes and slipped naked under the covers of Will's Shrine bed.
Later, lying naked under the sheets of Will's childhood bed, Mike clung tightly to Jodi who had her arms wrapped around his torso, pressing her bare breasts against his ribs.
"I stopped believing in God that day," she told him. "I went through the motions and kept going to church with my parents but I didn't believe because I couldn't understand why God would let something so terrible happen. I lost all Faith."
"It can be hard sometimes," Mike admitted.
"But when you gave me that dollar at school that day, I took that as a message from God," Jodi said.
Mike kissed her on the forehead. "And now The Shrine doesn't feel quite so sad and lonely anymore."
"Faith restores hope," Jodi agreed. She glanced into his eyes. "What do you think Wil would think of all this?"
"He'd be impressed I finally found love with an older woman," He smirked. "But he'd be pissed we did it in his room!"
Jodi laughed. "We had to get him back somehow for dying on us."
She started to cry again and Mike held her close.