Somebody somewhere decided that every five years, tragedies must be made extra important again.
For the first celebration of life, the Marley Bricket Memorial Committee printed Marley's freshman year photo onto one of those durable foam boards designed for real estate agents to stick in lawns. At every subsequent event, the committee would prop foam Marley up on a tripod next to the food. The dust that coated her told the truth of the dank storage room where they tucked her away for 364 days of rest and irrelevance. Her glossy, level eyes said there was a better place for her to be, but she'd been forced into this. If she could smile through it, so could I.
Each July 11, long before the townspeople wandered out of their houses and over to City Hall for the annual memorial, I woke up drowning in Marley. I let myself drift to the bottom, then waited until I was buoyed up by the profound responsibility of everyone else's belief that I was fine. Mom and Dad and my older sister, Aidy, were always sitting in the kitchen with a full breakfast spread on the table and apprehensive smiles plastered on their faces.
Reading any room became like looking at the weather forecast. Other people wanted me to be solemn but accessible. Sad but not unreachable.
Other people wanted me to be okay.
After Marley died, she showed me how pliable the truth could be. How it molded itself to serve the situation at hand. My family, my classmates, even the people paid to help me cope—they all tried to trick me into thinking her death didn't affect me because it happened before I'd worn a bra or gotten my period. "It's a good thing you were just a kid," they would say sometimes, like my resiliency was all but guaranteed thanks to my age. I would also hear, "She was just a kid," whispered in serious tones, meant to serve as the perfect excuse for any unseemly behavior from me. As these truths bent, so did I, until I was nothing more than a contortionist, squeezing myself into the box of a life Marley left behind.
I spent hours getting ready for each memorial. Washing my hair and letting it air-dry, covering my head in every product I could find until every brown strand glistened like sugar being caramelized. Pale pink blush tinged my cheeks, and a careful sweep of eyeliner widened my tired eyes. Moisturizer slicked my pale skin, scenting me like cotton candy. I smiled at myself in the mirror until my face hurt, then drove with my family over to City Hall, ready to drink from the punch bowl and eat the sweets left over from the Fourth of July.
To the other residents of Cadence, California, Marley was nothing but an event. A flower to drop outside Mr. Bricket's front door. An extra thank-you to give to God once a year. A lesson.
To me, she was everything.
I always showed up to the memorial wearing one of her old baby-doll dresses, waving like a pageant queen at the same collection of faces I saw every year, greeting them with exuberant hellos and tight-squeezing hugs. It was incredible how much they all started to like me when I learned to do this for them. They loved knowing that the dress I wore was Marley's, and how honored I was to have it. I would always say some variation of: "Wow, I know, I can't believe I'm almost as old as Marley was," which would make them pat me on the cheek with a tender hand. Adults were always obsessed with my age, my growth, my transition into womanhood. With every passing year, I'd get to change how I phrased my signature line, until finally, year five, I was preparing to say things like, "I can't believe I'm older than Marley was," which should've made them sad, but would only make them amazed, I knew. It was as if all of us didn't age in the year that passed. Only me. And that finally growing older than my dead friend was something worth smiling about. For good measure, I'd planned to throw in a "Yes, I do hope Nick Cline turns his life around, you know, to pay respect to Marley. He's lucky he was just a kid."