One Life

By: A.J. Pine

Chapter One

Polka dots are perfect for any occasion. I’ve been saving this dress for a special one, and I guess today is . . . special.

I thought I’d need help with the zipper, but turns out the unexpected weight loss has its perks. My arm reaches it easily at the small of my back, pulling it up almost to the top, no problem. I look down at my breasts, mouth pursed in a pout. Amazing what can happen in a week.

“Come on, girls. Why is it you always shrink at the first sign of a skipped meal?”

They don’t answer. At least my mother won’t be able to complain about seeing my piercings through my clothing, as they will be well camouflaged by the loose fabric of the dress. Mom has her coping mechanisms, and I have mine.

I reach over my shoulder to pull the zipper the rest of the way and allow myself a small smile when I see the white polka dots on the cuffs of the three-quarter sleeves. I remind myself the notched collar sports the same design, white polka dots on black cotton, the rest of the dress a fitted bodice with an A-line skirt skimming my legs just above the knee. I see the dress in my mind’s eye the way it looked when I tried it on in the overpriced secondhand boutique in Chicago. It was only last month I went to sign the lease on the apartment I’ll be sharing with a stranger, only last month when I had no reason to forget to eat. Except now I’m the girl with the incredible shrinking tits, not that I let my eyes drift to the mirror to take in the evidence.

The dress is on, and I can argue its appropriateness by virtue of color. If Wyatt saw it, I know what he’d say. Bitchin’ dress, sis. I guess eighteen-year-olds can still get away with that word. Wyatt could, without affecting a surfer-dude accent and without any hint of irony. His bitchins were sincere.

“What about the hair?” I ask aloud, as if he can hear me. I shrug. People talk out loud to the dead all the time, right? Not like Jess is out there with her ear pressed to the door. So I continue. “I mean, is Mom going to freak about the dress more or the hair? I’m hoping the hair will cancel out the dress and vice versa. Then she won’t freak about either.” I chuckle and roll my eyes. “Or she’ll go off on both.”

I run my fingers through the longest part of my hair, my overgrown bangs, and assume it looks as it always does—only slightly more noticeable. The box of hair bleach and dye, a handy little kit, sits on the corner of my dresser, the remains of how I spent my night before the memorial. I read the directions again, reminding myself to wait one more day before washing to let the color set, then drop the box in the trash. Even though the color is permanent, the first wash is always an experience. The one part of this trip home that makes me laugh is turning my childhood shower into what looks like a Smurf crime scene when I wash the residual blue dye out of my hair tomorrow morning.

Well, guess it’s time to test the reaction of a much-harder-to-shock crowd. When I open my door, my roommate, Jess, and her boyfriend, Adam, sit waiting on the bar stools at the kitchen counter. Jess swivels back and forth, her nervous energy balanced only by Adam’s calm. When she sees me, she stands, and Adam does the same. They look at me expectantly, like I’m supposed to say something first. I glance back and forth between the two of them, Adam in a charcoal button-down, black pants, and a royal blue tie. Not that I ever aim to blend in, but Jess’s simple black dress and cardigan will be great fodder for Mom’s crusade to “get Zoe to tone it down a bit.” Note to self: Don’t stand too close to Jess at my parents’ house.

I blow my bangs out of my face and nod in Adam’s direction.

“Like the tie, Carson. Maybe you should be my date instead.”

He doesn’t answer, only glances at Jess, who then turns to me, those wide eyes of hers searching for what she thinks I’m trying to hide.

“Geez,” I say. “Who died?”

My breath catches with that last word, but I don’t falter. I won’t falter.

“Zoe.” Jess’s voice is a gentle plea as she strides toward me, hesitating before lifting her arms to pull me into a hug.

I let her because this is my job today, letting those who want to grieve with me think they’re comforting me. Because really, that’s what comforts them. But when I rest my head on my friend’s shoulder—when I wrap my arms around her and reciprocate the gesture, for one small moment I let it all unravel, the thread inside me that’s pulled so taut, the one keeping me from collapsing into the grief I know is there. But I pull away before letting it find me. Today I have to stay one step ahead, a pace beyond its grasp.

“Too soon?” I ask, clearing my throat and slipping back into my role.

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