Authors: Mari Carr & Jayne Rylon
To our very first heroes, our dads, Roger and Glenn. They taught us the true meaning of strength, commitment and unconditional love.
Jade Compton pulled her scarf tighter around her neck and ignored the biting cold as she picked her way slowly through the cemetery. Streetlamps illuminated her trip to the church, but the lack of moonlight—thanks to a cloudy sky—became apparent the second she stepped off the sidewalk and into the graveyard.
She was a fool for making this pilgrimage alone in the middle of the night, but the need to come here had tugged at her consciousness all day until she finally gave in to it.
It was her sixteenth birthday. She should be thrilled. This was the year so many things changed for her. She’d get her driver’s license. Her dad would allow her to go out on car dates with boys. Her parents would let her take the part-time job at the movie theater that was perfect for her—free movies and popcorn! Her life was moving forward. Finally, she could walk away from childish things and take her first steps toward adulthood.
But she was unable to fully enjoy the moment without remembering that George couldn’t. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her phone and fired up the flashlight app. It was that or risk breaking her neck, tripping over a headstone. She knew the way to George’s grave by heart in the daytime, but in the dark, the cemetery seemed foreign.
Using the bright beam to guide her, she followed the narrow footpath around the Harrison family’s section. Then she passed the crying angel that marked where three generations of Arnolds had been laid to rest. Vivi told her Anne Arnold had bought the statue of a life-sized weeping angel with her arms extended toward Heaven after the death of her son, Bruce, during the Vietnam War, over sixty years earlier. She’d had it erected next to Bruce’s grave.
The concrete sculpture had scared Jade when she was a child. The large angel was overwhelming with her wings tucked close to her body, her face distorted with pain. Now the figure didn’t seem so forbidding. With age and awareness, Jade could relate to the sheer desolation and loss captured in the stone. She didn’t bother to shine her light on the angel tonight. It would feel too much like dragging her own pain out of the shadows. Some things were better left in the dark.
Turning, she found the lane that led her to George. Leaning closer, she used the phone’s light to read the two names etched into the headstones that stood side by side. The cold granite was as familiar to her as the smell of Vivi’s chocolate chip cookies or the softness of her mother’s hair on her cheek when she hugged Jade goodnight or the loud, boisterous sound of her father’s laughter.
She briefly touched her Grandma Hollister’s gravestone before moving on to George’s. He was the one she’d come to see tonight.
Jade sank down to her knees in the damp grass, trying not to shiver as the chill assaulted her, creeping through her body. Only a fool came to a graveyard in the middle of January. If her father discovered she’d snuck out, she would begin her sixteenth year grounded until the cows came home.
“Hey, George.” The greeting came out as a whisper. For some reason, the night demanded a sort of reverent silence she didn’t feel obliged to observe during the daytime. She’d come to visit her twin brother’s grave before, but usually she was with her mother as they replaced the flowers in the permanent vases that stood on the granite slabs. She’d never come alone, never had the opportunity to speak aloud all the things she wanted to say to him.
“Happy sixteenth birthday, Georgie. You missed a great night. We went out to dinner at O’Doyle’s Restaurant. I know you’ve never been there, but it’s my favorite place to eat in town. I had the fried chicken plate with mashed potatoes and gravy. You would have loved the chicken. It was crispy and greasy and so good. All the aunts and uncles and cousins came. Vivi was there too. I told Mom I wanted something small with just the family. Stupid me. Nothing’s ever small with our family. We filled the whole restaurant. Even so, it was fun.”
The knees of her jeans were getting wet, the cool moisture from the grass touching her skin. Luckily she was always hell on her clothes, so her mom wouldn’t think much of the stains when she threw this pair of pants in the laundry bin.
“I didn’t want a big party like that swanky thing Hope had back in May where we all had to dress up.”
Jade shuddered when she recalled the fancy dress she’d had to wear. She’d felt ridiculous and uncomfortable the whole night.
“Sienna suggested we have a sleepover, like we did on her birthday, but I didn’t want that either. I really just wanted to spend tonight with you.”
Jade swallowed heavily, trying to dislodge the lump forming there. “I miss you, George. Sometimes I pretend you didn’t die, that you’ve been with me all these years. I don’t think you would have just been my brother. You would have been my best friend too. I’m sure of it. I wonder how different my life would have been with you here. I’ve lived the past sixteen years feeling like part of me was missing, like there’s this big hole inside me that’s empty, that’s never gonna fill up. I hate it. It pisses me off.”
She closed her eyes, beating back the same fury that surfaced whenever she thought of the injustice of her brother’s death.
A twig snapped nearby. Jade jerked, standing quickly to flash her light toward the sound.
“Who’s there?” She cursed the tremor in her voice. She was so stupid to venture to the cemetery alone. Her parents didn’t even know she was out of the house.
“I’m sorry,” came a deep voice from the shadows. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be here.”
She waved her phone around until she found the speaker. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the bright light. Compton Pass wasn’t so large that she didn’t know most people, if not by name, then at least by face. Unfortunately, she couldn’t see his because it was hidden.
She moved the light until the brunt of the beam shone on his chest and he lowered his hand. “Hey, I know you. You’re Liam Harrison. Your parents own the farm next to my family’s ranch.” His family was famous for their rodeo livestock, contracting to some of the biggest rodeos in the state.
Liam nodded. “You’re one of the Compass girls, right?”
She grinned. She and her cousins, Sienna, Hope and Sterling, had worn that nickname since the day they started kindergarten. Apparently, four rowdy Compton cousins all entering school together had made an impression on the teacher. Where one of them was, the other three were never far away, so Miss Lacey had lumped them together and called them her Compass girls.
Of course, Jade figured turnabout was fair play. She and her cousins had done the same thing with the Mothers, their playful moniker for Jade’s mom, Leah, and her aunts Jody, Cindi and Lucy.
“I’m Jade Compton.”
Liam frowned. “The sheriff’s daughter?”
“He know you’re out here alone?”
Damn. Jade tried to decide how to play this. It was a pain in the ass being the
daughter of the
lawman in town. While her dad, Sawyer, had a reputation as being a strict but fair sheriff, his overprotectiveness when it came to his little girl was fairly well known.
Liam chuckled. He walked closer, and she noticed the bouquet of red roses in his hand. Mercifully, the moon had burst through a break in the clouds, allowing her to flip off her flashlight. While she didn’t know Liam personally, she’d seen him around town. He’d been the captain of the football team his senior year, though Jade had been five years behind him, too young to know him from school.
But she knew him well enough to realize he wasn’t a threat to her. Unless he told her father about catching her in the cemetery in the middle of the night.
He leaned down to read her brother’s name in the granite. “George Compton?”
Jade nodded slowly. “My twin brother.”
Liam glanced at her. She braced herself for the pity she expected and was surprised when instead she found understanding. “Happy birthday.”
She smiled. “Thanks.” Touched by his kindness, she pushed her luck and confessed, “My dad doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Yeah. I didn’t think so.”
Something about his tone told her Liam wouldn’t sell her out.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d—”
“I’m not going to tell on you, Jade.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks. Again.”
Liam pointed at the grave. “You come here by yourself often?”
She shook her head. “No. I always come with my mom. Tonight I just had some things I wanted to say to George alone. That probably sounds dumb to you.”
“Not at all.”
“He died in childbirth.” It was an inane thing to say. That much was clear from the inscription on the grave. “It was a rough delivery. My mom started hemorrhaging. The doctor was able to save me, but George didn’t…”
Her words drifted away. Vivi was the only adult in her life who’d been willing to tell Jade about the night she was born. Jade had asked her grandmother point-blank a couple of years earlier and instead of receiving the standard “some things went wrong” response she’d always gotten from her parents and aunts and uncles, Vivi sat her down and declared her old enough to know the truth. She’d explained about the uterine rupture and her mother’s hemorrhaging. In order to stop the bleeding, the doctor had been forced to perform a C-section, then a hysterectomy. George hadn’t made it.
Liam disrupted her thoughts. “I’m surprised George is buried here. Don’t the Comptons have a burial plot on the ranch?”
Jade nodded. “Yeah, but my family lives in town, so Dad can be close to the station. Vivi said my mom took my brother’s death really hard. My granddaddy JD died just before my mom got pregnant, then her mom—my Grandma Hollister—had a massive heart attack four months before George and I were born. In the course of one year, my mom lost three people she loved.”
“Damn,” Liam whispered. “I can’t imagine.”
“I know. Me either. Vivi told me Mom sort of fell apart in the hospital, begged my dad not to take her baby so far away.” Jade closed her eyes and imagined her mother’s desolation, then she recalled the concrete angel. The statue stopped being scary the day Vivi explained why George was buried in the church cemetery instead of on Compass Ranch. Since then, whenever Jade looked at the figure, she saw her mother’s face, felt her pain. “They buried George here next to Grandma Hollister. Seemed fitting, considering he was named after her.”
Liam looked at the headstone next to George’s. “Georgia Hollister.”
Jade grinned. “After Mom and Dad found out they were having twins, they decided to name us after the parents they’d lost. My dad has a bit of a twisted sense of humor, so they named George after my grandma and me after Granddaddy Compton.”
Liam smiled. “Jade is for JD? That’s nice. I only know of your grandfather through reputation, but something tells me he would have loved having you as his namesake. Here.” Liam pulled a rose from his bouquet. “A birthday present for your brother.” He handed her the flower.
She appreciated the gesture. Turning, she placed it on top of her brother’s grave.
“And one for your grandma.” Liam plucked another flower from the bunch and placed it on Grandma Hollister’s headstone.