The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried(5)

Waiting to make her big debut on gurney number two lies July Cooper. Death by surprise aneurism at the age of seventeen. According to the medical examiner’s report, July’s death would have happened eventually. The artery in her brain that failed had been weak since birth, and it was a miracle she’d lived as long as she did. But life probably doesn’t feel like a miracle to the dead, and it sure as hell doesn’t feel like one to those of us left behind.

What am I doing?

I pull July’s gurney out of the freezer and wheel it to one of the prep stations. Her body is covered with a sheet that I fold down to her shoulders. Dee must’ve already started preparing the body—putting on makeup and brushing her hair—except she made July’s lips too dark and the shade of her skin a little too light. I don’t know why I care. Even now, colonies of natural bacteria in her body are spreading, eating her muscles and fat, breaking her down. The only way to arrest that process is to embalm her. To scoop out her guts and paint on her face and stick a candle in her to imitate life. Like a jack-o’-lantern. Thankfully, the Coopers requested a chemical-free burial.

Rationally, I know that the meat defrosting on the table used to be the girl I told my secrets to. The girl who cried in my arms when her parents got divorced, the girl who made my coming out about her, the girl I watched movies with and fought with and made up with. My brain is telling me that this is the girl who used to dip her french fries in mayonnaise and who refused to shave her armpits and legs throughout eighth grade to spite Mr. Fowler for telling her it was unladylike to do otherwise, and who went with me to the fair every year, even though she hated it, so that I didn’t have to ride the rides alone.

But my heart keeps saying this can’t be her. That she’s on the other side of Palm Shores, in her bedroom watching Hairspray for the millionth time, cooking up some new scheme to humiliate me, and that I’ll see her at Publix one day or in school for our senior year in August.

My heart won’t believe this is July because that means the last words I said to her were “Good luck” and she died thinking I hated her.

I don’t know if I hated her before, and I’ve lost the chance to find out for certain, but I know that I hate her now.

“I hate you for dying, July. I hate that stupid weak artery in your brain and the paramedics for not getting to you quickly enough and the doctors in the ER for not saving you.” My voice is barely a whisper, but it’s not like it matters. I could shred my throat shouting at her and July wouldn’t hear me.

I grab Delilah’s makeup kit from the cabinet and dig through it for a foundation that matches July’s skin tone better. I think her dad had some Greek in his background that gave her a bronzy complexion. No matter the time of year, she looked like she’d recently returned from a week soaking up the sun on a private island.

I pop my earbuds in and queue up some music on my phone. The first song starts, and it’s angsty screeching, which, while appropriate, isn’t what I’m in the mood for, so I search through my playlists until I find the one July and I made for our first day of high school. It’s nonstop electronic pop and bubblegum boy bands, and it’s embarrassingly bad, but I crank the volume and get to work making July presentable.

The trick to putting makeup on a dead body without getting skeeved out is to forget that it’s a body. To focus on drawing the lines of the lips just right or on smoothing out the blemishes on the forehead, and to absolutely ignore the stitches at the edge of the hairline where the skull was sawed through for the autopsy or the puckered lines at her shoulders that disappear under the sheet. Most of the time we work from a photograph—and most of the time the photograph is of the person twenty years ago because every family member wants the body to look their best, which, whatever; we do makeup, not time travel—but I know July’s face better than any picture. I lose myself in the work. As much as I hate admitting that Mom’s right, I am good at this. It’s not what I see myself doing for the rest of my life, but it’s what I’m doing for now.

My pocket buzzes and I jump. I nearly fumble my phone getting it out and am disappointed when it’s only a text from Rafi.

Rafi’s inability to capitalize or punctuate his sentences in texts drives me mad. When we started dating, he constantly pointed out that I sounded angry when I ended sentences with periods, so now I sprinkle random emojis throughout to help him understand my emotional state.

RAFI: how you doing

RAFI: not like that

RAFI: in general

ME: Fine.

RAFI: think youre coming to the party

RAFI: i bought those little wieners you like

RAFI: please no wiener jokes

ME: I hadn’t planned on it. That applies to the party AND the jokes.

RAFI: boooo

RAFI: i miss you

ME: You just saw me.

RAFI: still miss u though

ME: I’ll think about it.

I mute the conversation. He means well, I get that, and I should appreciate that I have a boyfriend who cares so much about me—and I do. But it’s complicated. Rafi’s part of the reason July and I stopped being friends. I think. Kind of. Like I said: complicated. Either way, being around Rafi while I’m trying to sort out my feelings for July would only confuse me more. It’s best to keep him at a distance until after the funeral tomorrow.

I return my attention to July and check out my work. The differences are subtle, but now she looks like the July Cooper I remember. Her round cheeks making her look perpetually like she’s on the verge of smiling, her wavy auburn hair, her bright blue eyes—

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