“Listen carefully,” he said. “This won’t be easy for you to hear. But Julie is still alive. She’s working as a Safeway checker over in Capitola.”
“Oh Ben, just stop.” Jillian sighed. “There is no possible way Julie can still be alive. We all loved her and we all miss her terribly, but you’ve got to stop imagining that you see her wherever you go. It’s been six years.”
“You never saw her body,” Ben replied. He took a sip of his capuccino and stared back at her in triumph.
“Nobody saw any bodies,” Jillian said, meeting his eyes. “Because her plane went down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean halfway to Japan. Julie was a confirmed passenger on that flight. There were no survivors, and you know it.” Jillian took an angry swallow of her cooling latte and scowled into the white china mug, her shining dark hair framing her honey-tanned face.
“So you won’t go to Capitola to investigate? I’m telling you, she recognized me.”
“No.” Jillian slapped the table in frustration. “I’m tired of your fantasies, Ben and I’m not going to indulge you, anymore. If Julie were still alive, she’d have found a way to let me, Mom and Dad know. I know my own sister—she wouldn’t have let us grieve all this time without sending word. If she were living and working in Capitola, she would have come to see us long ago and kept in touch. I don’t know who you saw there last week, but I’m positive it wasn’t her.”
“So why do you still talk about Julie in the present tense?”
Jillian cursed herself for the momentary slip of saying know rather than knew. “I meant knew. Ben, no matter how much you loved her, Julie’s gone and she’ll never be back. Your insisting you see her everywhere between Santa Cruz and Monterey is giving me the creeps. Mom and Dad and I have accepted we’ll never see her again, and that’s been hard enough. Why do you keep refusing to face reality?”
Jillian pushed her chair back and stood, wanting to just be away from Ben. He was no relation of hers—and she was relieved that Julie would never marry him. He was thin-skinned and self-centered and hadn’t worn well. He was such a black hole of emotional need, even her twin’s patience and compassion would have been worn out if she’d lived long enough to go through with the marriage. Her parents had refused to see or speak to Ben for the past year, and it was time she severed the tie as well.
“Julie’s dead, Ben. Stop tormenting me if you won’t stop tormenting yourself. I don’t want any more of these false alarms, understand? I know my sister is dead. You need to accept it, too. At first I thought it was touching that you were so devoted to her. Now you just seem self-delusional.”
He stared up at her like a reproachful basset hound. “So you’re just going to forget she ever lived?”
Jillian took a deep breath, remembering they were in a public place and spoke in a temperate voice rather than screaming at him as she felt like doing. “Of course we’re not going to forget Julie, or pretend she never lived. But there’s a big difference between remembering her with love and living in total denial the way you are. Good bye, Ben. Don’t call me, anymore.”
Jillian took the Capitola exit off southbound Highway 1on Monday evening after work, cursing herself. Damn Ben, and his stupid obsession, but she had to go to that Safeway and satisfy the tiny, nagging curiosity and hope he had planted in her mind. She had to quell that restlessness had kept her from sleeping for the past two nights. She hated doing anything that would give Ben this satisfaction if he could know about it especially after the way she’d parted from him on Saturday afternoon. Even as she’d walked out on him, she’d known she would eventually go look. Usually, she could hold out for a week.
Jillian wasn’t sure what was driving her, this time. It wasn’t as if she believed Julie was still alive. Planes downed in the ocean with no survivors were notably final. She had got used to living alone with Julie’s cat, Mephisto, for company, although there were a few articles of Julie’s clothing and jewelry she’d kept and wore out of pure sentiment. She sat in her car for a few minutes, breathing deeply the engine off, but the keys still in the ignition, her fingers ready to start it right back up. With a deep breath, she pulled the key out of the ignition, and stepped out, her purse clutched firmly against her side and locked the car with care.
As Safeway stores went, this one looked pretty sorry for itself. There was hardly a new, undented or undinged car in the poorly lit parking lot. Safewa the red neon sign announced, the y being dark. One of the soft drink machines had a crooked, hand-lettered Out of Order sign taped to its front. Jillian wrestled a cart out of the rank by the door and went in, noting the scuffed, unswept linoleum floor and the sparse, crooked display of Cheerio boxes set up at the end of the nearest aisle. Julie would hardly have picked up emergency supplies of cat litter or flour here, let alone stocked their refrigerator with the food. The thought of her working here was absurd. Not in a store where it was clear too few employees gave a damn. Setting her lips in a grim line, Jillian headed for the paper supply aisle. It should be safe enough to buy toilet paper and non-perishables, here. She wasn’t about to trust the dairy case. The end of the packaged food aisle led her to the produce section and a small floral island. On pure impulse, Jillian grabbed a bouquet of red roses that were passably fresh—Julie had loved them more than any other flower.
A glance at the quality of the produce convinced her she wanted none of it, so, with her heart pounding, Jillian headed for the cash registers. Two were open, and she wheeled past the first staffed with a yawning, pimply young man, and turned in at the second and stopped short.
“Ju—“ she mouthed.
Like a young Joan Baez in a Safeway apron, her own and her twin’s doppelganger was checking out an older man’s grocery order as if her mother had given up a third daughter. Jillian gave up all pretense and stared while as she placed her sparse items on the rubber belt. For once, she understood Ben. This girl looked exactly like Julie; and sounded so like Julie that Jillian even doubted the six year-old truth she’d coped with. The checker had Julie and Jillian’s own glossy but wispy coffee brown hair falling just past her shoulders in a layered cut; the same sparkling, dark brown eyes set in her tanned face like tilted almonds, the strong cheekbones and chin and aquiline nose. It wasn’t hard to imagine this woman plunging into the Santa Cruz surf in a wet suit with a surf board under her arm. This girl was even flirting with her customer as Julie would have, making a shy, lonely man feel flattered and happy if only for as long as it took to ring up his grocery order.
“Bye, Mr. Taylor, see you next week!” she caroled to her customer who was now shuffling out with a pair of laden plastic grocery bags in his hands.
“Bye, Angie!” He smiled and gave her a three finger wave, as if he were still some young surfing god.
The illusion of Julie was broken the next moment when Angie turned to face Jillian and her sweet, flirty manner changed to a deadpan indifference.
“Hi” she muttered as she began ringing up Jillian’s order. If she’d even noticed the remarkable resemblance between herself and Jillian, her manner suggested she wasn’t interested enough to actually mention the matter.
“Hi.” Jillian paid for her order and murmured her thanks before she gratefully returned to her car.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid! There was no need to go in there,” Jillian muttered, setting the roses on the passenger seat before climbing in and slamming the driver’s door shut. “There was never a possibility it was Julie. Why do I let him set me up this way?”
Back in Santa Cruz, she did not return to her apartment, right away. Instead, she drove out on West Cliff Drive and parked in the lot she and Julie always used on their surfing Saturdays. For someone who had loved beaches and the ocean as Julie had, Jillian had always taken what comfort she could at the thought of her sister’s final resting place being in the ocean. She took the red roses with her, as she veered off the asphalt bicycle path and down a hard-packed sand trail that would take her closer to the cliff edges and the surf. It was just past sunset, and the tide was low, the surf reduced to calm swells, although there was enough of a breeze to tug at Jillian’s hair. Jillian folded back the cellophane wrapper around the roses and one by one, she tossed them over the cliff edge down into the ocean, watching in the dimness as the small dark flower heads drifted further and further from land on the receding tide.