He’s my art professor.
I’m his student.
With an electric connection and undeniable chemistry, I know it won’t be long until one of us cracks.
When the opportunity arises to pose naked for the entire art class, I can’t help the thrill of knowing he’ll be watching me.
While they all look past me with their eyes narrowed and concentrated, drawing only the lines and angles of my body, he sees right through me down to my vulnerability.
He sees more than just the physical aspects—he sees me.
That’s when I see the struggle in his features as he tries to stay in control.
How do we keep our distance when everything seems to be pulling us together?
What feels so right can only go wrong if we keep pushing the limits.
I step inside the doorway, immediately hit with the mixed aroma of mildew and lavender from all the flower arrangements. I narrow my eyes, trying to adjust to the dim lighting. It’s eerily quiet, the service not due to begin for another hour.
My mother was hysterical all night long, crying in her room. I heard her through the bedroom door, but I didn’t go to her. I couldn’t.
I know she blames me.
Mom hadn’t said a word to me all morning, so I asked my older brother, Aaron, to take me early. I want to see Ariel before everyone else starts arriving. See her one last time.
I walk down the short hallway and into the room her service is being held in. Chairs are all lined up perfectly, row by row. The room will probably fill up quickly of family and friends, all coming to give their condolences.
I swallow as I step closer, her casket already open. I notice faint music playing overhead through the speakers. It’s meant to sound soft and soothing, but I don’t know how anything can soothe away the ache burning in my chest.
I glance around and notice the walls look as if they were painted a hundred years ago. The faded beige carpet is almost nonexistent. Flowers surround her on one side and a table of vanilla scented candles on the other. Nothing in this whole room represents her except the collage board of pictures she had hanging in our room. She made it two summers ago and had been adding pictures of her friends and us ever since. It captures every part of her personality.
We lived on farmland with only fields surrounding us. No neighbors or friends to play with meant we’d learned to entertain ourselves. I remember the day she got a new camera for Christmas and immediately started taking pictures—of everything. We’d giggle and snap pictures of each other, torment Aaron and take his picture when his girlfriend was over, and take about a hundred pictures of our pets. I smile at the memories but at the same time feel like crying because now there won’t be anymore. The memories we’ve made the last fourteen years are all I have left of her.
When Pastor Jay asked us to bring in our favorite pictures of her, I knew immediately she’d want these. I step closer and examine them, even though I’ve looked at it every single day for the past two years. Somehow today, it looks different.
There’s the one of us standing in front of the middle school on our first day of seventh grade. We were assigned different homerooms and weren’t happy about being apart. Another one shows us with our dog, Fudge, the first day we brought him home from the shelter. We’ve only had him for six months now. He was a rescue and she said she knew he was the perfect fit for our family.
After tracing the lines of each picture, I slowly walk to her casket. I pleaded with my mom to let her wear her favorite purple dress, but she refused. She said it was an ‘occasion’ dress, AKA—a happy occasion. Instead, she picked out a dark, navy blue dress that she absolutely loathed wearing. My lip curls up on one side thinking how much she’d hate wearing this dress right now. She hated wearing dresses in general, but now, oh she’d be so pissed. Part of me wants to laugh at the irony and the other part wants to rip it off her and sneak the purple dress on.
I glance down at her, curling my fingers tightly around the edge of her casket. She looks flawless, almost like she’s just sleeping. Even looking at her right now, seeing that she isn’t breathing anymore, it hasn’t all sunk in.
For the first time in days, I let myself cry. I cry harder than I ever have, I’ve held the tears in, trying to remain strong for Mom, but I can’t do it anymore. I release all the pain I’ve kept inside and apologize to her over and over.
“I’m so sorry, Ari. God, I’m so, so sorry.” I blink, wiping my cheeks off. “You hated that nickname,” I say, letting out a short laugh. I exhale a deep sigh. “I’m going to miss you so much,” I whisper, reaching for her hand. “I’m going to miss you sneaking in my bed and sleeping with me every time a storm hit. I’m going to miss staying up late on weekends, gossiping about Brady Carmichael and all the guys on the basketball team. Or the girls who think purple lipstick is in.” I chuckle softly to myself. “I’m even going to miss arguing with you over who gets to use the shower first. It was like our little tradition, I guess.” My lips soften, curling up on both sides at the happy memories. “Truthfully, I’m going to miss everything about you.” I lean down and kiss the top of her forehead. “I love you.”
I hear footsteps in the hall and take that as my cue to start heading out. People will be arriving soon, and I’m not quite sure I’m strong enough to deal with everyone. Half feel sorry for me and the other half blame me.
I’m not sure which one is worse.
“Aspen…” I hear my dad’s deep voice. I turn and face him, his lips set in a firm line, his eyes as empty as I feel right now. “Your mother wants to talk to you.”
I swallow at his tense features, but nod and follow him out of the room. He’s barely speaks or looks at me now. I’m only a constant reminder of what happened—of who he’s lost—of how our lives are forever changed.
He leads me to a small room on the other side of the hall where she’s sitting with her nose buried in a handkerchief.
I stand in front of her and wait. I’m not sure what to say to my mom right now—or anyone for that matter. I’m not sure there’s anything I can say.
“I need to hear the story one more time,” she chokes out. “I need to hear why my baby girl is dead.”
Her head is low and she refuses to look at me. I’ve told her and the police the story several times already, but every day since the incident she’s demanded to hear it again.
“Mom…” I begin, my eyes filling up again. “I can’t. Not again.”
“Tell me!” She raises her voice, finally tilting her head to look up at me. Her face contorted in a mixture of grief and disgust.
I do as she says. I repeat the story the same exact way I did the first dozen times. No matter how much it hurts to talk about, I explain what happened.
“How could you let that happen?” she mumbles. “How could you be so careless? I just don’t understand!”
“Mom, it’s not Aspen’s fault…” Aaron interrupts, stepping next to me.
“Mama, I’m sorry,” I burst out through a new wave of tears. I’ve apologized to her and Daddy over and over. But I know they’ll never forgive me.
I’ll never forgive me.
Aaron wraps an arm around my shoulders and cradles me to his chest. I hear my mom huff in disapproval. I push against his chest, wiping the tears off my cheeks as I storm off.
I’ll never forget the way her eyes widened in fear as she fell to her death. The way her body lay on the ground, motionless. The way her voice begged for my help as she screamed on the way down.
I’ll never forget.
I don’t tell Mom and Dad those things though. The images already haunt me in my sleep. The sound of her screaming has woken me up the past two nights. Every time I attempt to fall asleep, her dead eyes appear in my mind. It’s no use, I tell myself. There’s barely a difference between existing and sleeping now.
Life without her is pointless.
People start arriving, so Mom, Dad, Aaron, and I all stand in the front near her casket. I swallow my emotions down and refuse to cry. I shut down. I shut everything down. I let them hug me and say how sorry they are for our loss. I let them cradle my head as they press me against their chests. I let them squeeze my hands as they tell me how much she will be missed. I let them do whatever they need to express their feelings. But I don’t cry. I quietly thank them and look down at my feet.
When the service is over, we gather at the cemetery to bury her. A large bouquet of white lilies rests on her closed casket. I step forward and pull one out for myself before they lower her in the ground. Mom and Dad do the same, but they don’t look at me. Dad wraps his arm around her shoulders, holding her close as she cries.
I grip the obituary program tightly in my hand and stare down at her picture displayed on the cover. Mom used her most recent school photo from this past year, although it hadn’t been her favorite. I don’t know why though, she looked stunning as usual—bright smile, sparkling green eyes, and flowing golden blonde hair.
Underneath it reads, Loving Daughter and Sister. Gone too soon, but never forgotten. 4-10-1995 to 4–10-2009.
She died on our birthday.
I swallow as I take it all in. April tenth was our favorite day. We’d wake up early to Mom making us our favorite breakfast—the only day of the year she’d make it—Belgian waffles with melted cream cheese frosting drizzled on top and then slathered in homemade maple syrup. She used fresh blueberries—instead of frozen—on top. She called it our special birthday breakfast and every year we looked forward to it.
After breakfast, we’d rip our presents open from our parents and later on exchange the ones we made for each other. For the last few years, we’d talk Mom into letting us skip school for the day. She wouldn’t even bother arguing with us, knowing she’d eventually cave anyway. So when we woke up on our birthday five days ago, we’d done everything the exact same.
We laughed all through breakfast. Mom was going on and on about how she couldn’t believe how grown up her baby girls were getting and how old that made her feel. Aaron was three years older than us, but apparently he was born out of wedlock and didn’t count in her aging process.
After we finished eating, Mom handed us each a card and watched as we ripped them open. We both squealed when we saw the hundred-dollar bill tucked inside.
As we wrapped our arms around her, she lectured us. “Don’t spend it all in one place, girls!” We then begged her to take us to the mall so we could of course spend it on clothes and makeup.
“You’ll have to wait until your father gets back,” she said, piling the dishes into the sink. We ran upstairs and got dressed, setting our money down on the dresser and running back outside. It was warm for April, just a slight breeze in the air.
It was perfect.
I smile at the memory of our birthday traditions. It was something we’ve always shared. Should have shared forever.
She’d always tease me about how she was older, granted it was only by three minutes, but now the day would be pointless.
A painful reminder of what happened.
Of what I lost.
Brooke Cumberland is a USA Today Bestselling author who's a stay-at-home mom and writes full-time. She lives in the frozen tundra of Packer Nation with her husband, 4 year old wild child, and two teenage stepsons. When she's not writing, you can find her reading love stories, listening to music that inspires her, and laughing with her family. Brooke is addicted to Starbucks coffee, leggings, and anything sweet. She found her passion for telling stories during winter break one year in grad school and she hasn't stopped since.