Do you ever wonder if the universe is sending you a message?

That’s how I felt returning to the scene of the crime. I was at ease, for once, the first time I felt that way in North Carolina since Jon died. Boone was no longer a place like Death Valley. Keeping my footing was  sign that what I’ve done over these eight years since Jon died has strengthened me. On the plane Randy does the math, trying to calculate the last time I was there. “I think,” he says, “it was either 2013 or ’14.”

I’m not sure about my reply in the moment, but I do remember the timing. It was the year I sat barrel-to-barrel with the sheriff. Rominger was armed with her facts. I was using questions as weapons. No point in reminiscing about that, although I came away with answers.

We arrived at the Charlotte airport, all four of us. I chatted with the boys as we made our way to baggage claim, telling them about the activities I’ve planned. “Tomorrow we’re going zip-lining and then four-wheeling at Doe Park Mountain the next day.”

They seemed excited. Planning fun things to do has always made my vacations enjoyable, but having activities for our visit to Boone was different. This town was full of Jon memories and I knew I’d need distractions. Otherwise, I’d find myself living in the past.

When we reach the foothills, the temperature drops. Keaton rolls down his window and breathes in the fresh air. A few mile markers later I see the crop of Christmas trees, still there, all sectioned off and planted in cute little rows.

Randy nods, but he’s more impressed with the new Toyota dealership. He talks excitedly, telling us all about it. I think he’s strange, because after all of these years I know no one else who cares about dealerships as much as he does.

Soon after, we’re in town noticing other changes. The favorite burger shop gone, but there’s a new Publix grocery store, and the college housing has doubled in size. Then we drive by our old house with its long-range views and wrap-around porch. “The cedar-shake siding needs a fresh coat of stain,” I say. We still own the house, but it’s been leased to same person since before Jon’s death.

On the other side of town, closer to our dealership, and farther from the house where Jon died, we’ve rented a cabin. We pick up the key and drive past the road leading to that house. Like on all other visits, I keep my distance from the Dragonfly where he partied on that night, the road Jon lived on, and the pub where he read his poems. They are a mix of places where he was happy, the places that told me Jon was liked, comfortable, creative. Everyone was casual in those places, too. That was the Jon I knew.

My pace of planned activity started to grind on my boys. “Mom, we just wanna hang,” Keaton said. “I love spending time with you, but I want to be with my friends.” I was going to have to hang with my memories, those unwelcome thoughts, the sharp feelings.

Lance would hang out with his friend, too. I didn’t learn right away his friend was acquainted with Brett’s wife. That was an unexpected connection, a chain of evidence that could upset my balancing act. I learned about the links in the chain when Lance told me about them.

He didn’t have to share any of that. It was his business, his history with his brother and the people who were at the scene of Jon’s death. Lance came to me with the story of his visit, though. I was asleep at midnight when he called out to me. The master bedroom was on the cabin’s second floor. He must’ve walked halfway up the stairs, because I could see his shadow.

He said, “I met Brett’s wife.”

What are the chances something like that would happen? It’s the universe at work. We’d been around town for a couple of days and the only friends I’d seen were those I’ve made a point to see. I threw off my covers and rushed down the stairs after him.

Lance smirked. “I knew that you’d get up.”

Anxious to know what the news meant, I say, “Spill it.” So, here’s the skinny: Brett has gotten married to a girl Lance has dated once. She knows few of the details about what happened on the night Jon died. “Brett never talks about it,” Lance says, relaying her story, “and he has lots of anxiety,”

“I’m sure he does,” I gently reply. Brett’s in pain, too.

Lance says someone then suggested inviting Brett over. But Lance refused. Lance explained to the wife that he holds nothing against Brett, but her husband did lie.

Lance and I talked for a while about the gun, blame and responsibility. We share different opinions. Lance believes everyone was at fault the night Jon died. While I think everyone played a role, it was Brett’s responsibility to holster safety. It was his house, and more important—it was his gun.

Still, Lance’s refusal to see Brett again surprised me. He’s always stood up for the people in that room. We forgive Brett, though, so he can go on and live his life. What was the message the universe was showing me? To follow forgiveness, to show that I’ve changed—or both, maybe. The thing about messages from the universe is you don’t get to reply. I received the gift of Lance’s loyalty to Jon on that night. It was wrapped in that message he shared with me, as he told a gun owner’s wife we forgive him for what happened to Jon.

What are your thoughts on the responsibility of gun owners?