The Seventh Sister
For the Pleiades: Eva, Jen, Ronnie, Beth, Eileen, and Pat
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven; All good children go to heaven…
Summer days have a reputation for being uneventful. They run together, form a kind of hazy cloud that eventually becomes a memory of something you remember doing during your non-school interlude – someplace you spent time, like camp, or a beach. But the last day of August 2007 was more like a slow-motion film burned into my mind – unalterable, vivid, and utterly ruinous.
It started out like any other summer day. Sunny and hot in southern New Hampshire, the tree tops were still, and the only sound outside was the singing of birds and cicadas.
All of the windows were open in our old colonial house at 8:30 in the morning and already the day’s heat was sweltering. Despite the heat, the house had a kind of airy feeling. My father’s love of simplicity had translated into off-white walls throughout the house. The floors were all wood, except for the kitchen, which my father had tiled in marble as a gesture of thumbing his nose at contractors who had advised against it. The combination made for a kind of cool, clean effect overall that defied the day’s oppressive summer heat.
Still half asleep, I padded down the hall to see if I could catch my parents before they left for the day.
Our white marble kitchen floor was cold on my bare feet and the smell of fresh coffee filled the air. The kitchen was tidied and cleaned and the coffee pot was full of my mother’s thoughtfulness. But, together with a silence that hung in the air, a note on the table told me they had already gone to work. It read: “Rowan: Take the Audi to work today. Dad wants to check the temperature gauge on your car. Love you. M”
A car pulled into the driveway outside. 8:40. Eva was on time, as usual. I poured my coffee and pulled a second mug from the cabinet.
“Hello?” Eva called from the front door, letting herself in as was her custom. Eva worked every day at a nearby lake, where she was a lifeguard. Most mornings she came by the house for coffee and breakfast before work.
“Howdy!” Her cheerful voice preceded her into the kitchen, where I was popping toast into the toaster. Eva’s blonde hair was loose, hanging to her shoulders, and she came in wearing frosted pink lipstick and a red tank top that said GUARD in big capitals. She wore denim cutoff blue jeans that were snug enough to show off her young, generous figure. White canvas sneakers and a colorful woven anklet completed her cross-between-a-camp-counselor-and-lifeguard look.
“Good morning, sunshine.” I answered. “Coffee?”
“Mais, oui!” Eva seated herself at the kitchen table and I added her toast to the toaster before pouring our coffee and sitting down with her at the kitchen table. She had taken three years of French in high school and switched to common French expressions in conversation every so often. I wouldn’t have known a word of French, otherwise. For my part, I had taken two years of Spanish that amounted to less than five expressions I could use or remember. Our Spanish teacher, Mr. Anderson, was handsome but we speculated that he was stoned a good portion of class time. His eyes were usually bloodshot, and we watched him accidentally walk into the door to the classroom at least once, bumping his head. As if to confirm our growing suspicion that Mr. Anderson was really one of us, one of my classmates spotted him after school one day leaning between some lockers and kissing one of the other foreign language teachers.
“What’s on for today?” Eva asked, pulling out a compact to inspect her lipstick.
“The usual. I’m working from 12 to 5. You?”
“Rob and I are going to the movies tonight,” she said, rubbing at a bit of pink on her front tooth. “Do you want to call Marc and make it a double date?” She gave me a suggestive smile.
I considered. A movie and a date with Marc would give me something to look forward to. Summer days at my summer job were always very quiet. Some days I was lucky to have two customers all afternoon at the little privately owned bookstore. I spent the time perched behind the sales counter on a stool, reading historical fictions. The bookshop owner didn’t mind. In fact, he thought it was good for business. So it was the perfect job for a bookworm like me, though the shifts were long, especially after a whole summer of them.
“I’ll call him and see if he’s free. What are you going to see?”
“Creature from the Black Lagoon,” she said, grinning. “They’re doing a special feature at the Capital.”
We lived in the small town of Chester, New Hampshire, where not much went on. The neighboring town of Manchester had a small theater and some restaurants, including a little art theater that often ran old re-runs or Midnight shows of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Spreading orange marmalade on her toast, Eva said, “I bought some stuff for our dorm room. I found a really pretty lamp for one of the dressers and I bought us a little radio so that we can listen to music. It’s pink!” She exclaimed. Then, rummaging around in her bag she said, “And… voila!” Out came the new Madonna album.
“For you. A housewarming present! I saw you looking at it in the record store,” she said, handing it to me with an excited smile plastered on her face.
I turned over the cd. “True Blue.” She had a copy that I always asked to listen to when we were in her car. One day we’d been shopping and I’d picked it up, but I didn’t have the money to buy it.
“Eva! You don’t have the money for this!” I remonstrated. I hardly knew what else to say when she did things like this. Her generosity embarrassed me. I looked at her beaming face.
“Thank you!” I reached across the table and gave her a big hug. “I love it!”
“I know!” she said, her smile beaming. For months she’d been planning our new space, calling me her “roomie.” We were scheduled to attend a freshman orientation in three weeks at the University of New Hampshire, and we had been assigned a room together in the all-girl dormitory, Randall Hall. We were both very excited.
After breakfast we walked outside together. The cicadas were singing, the sun was already strong, and our stone walkway was warm under my bare feet. Her blue Honda Civic was parked in the driveway, a strawberry air freshener hanging from a cigarette lighter that didn’t work. I leaned in on the passenger side looking at it, noticing the smell. My stomach turned uncomfortably.
Eva started the car and fastened her seat belt, smiling her sunny, pink lipstick smile at me. “Have fun at the bookstore,” she said with some sarcasm as she engaged the clutch.
“Right, thanks,” I replied, and then on impulse, “Hey—Eva? I have a bad feeling…like something is about to happen…” My stomach was still turning. I had long since learned that whenever I got that feeling I needed to pay attention. I was known among close friends for my psychic premonitions. They were rare but seldom wrong. The queasy feeling could almost always be trusted. “Can I drive you to work today? I feel like you shouldn’t take your car,” I finished. Her Jesus figurine with the bobbing head was on her dashboard, vehemently nodding his agreement.
Her face darkened. “What do you mean you have a bad feeling?”
“I don’t know. I just have a bad feeling… my stomach is queasy. I’d just feel better if I drove you to work today…” My voice trailed off.
“You’re a worry wart,” she said. “I’m fine! I’ll call you when I get home from work.” Her tone was firm, even a little aggravated.
“Are you sure?” I tried again. “I’ve got my Mom’s Audi today.” I said, hoping I could tempt her.
“No thanks. Don’t worry. I’ll call you later, Rowan,” she said shortly.
“You seem upset, are you angry with me about something?” I asked, worried that I might have upset her. It wasn’t like Eva to be short-tempered.
“No, I’m not mad at you,” she said, sighing. “I had an argument with my mother this morning before I came over and I’m just feeling a little annoyed about it. I have some errands to run after work and I need my car. That’s all, no big deal.”
She hadn’t mentioned the argument with her mother earlier. “What about?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just something stupid and I don’t want to talk about it,” her tone was dismissive, aggravated. “I’ll see you later on, okay? I’ll call you when I get out of work.”
With that, she backed out of the driveway.
I never saw Eva alive again.
The funeral was on a cold rainy day in the first week of September. Not the sort of day that usually belongs to the end of summer, with its hot afternoons and choruses of crickets. I sat at a little dressing table that had been in my bedroom since I was four years old. Pink when we found it at a garage sale, my mother bought it, stripped it, and painted it white for me.
I heard my parents down the hall, talking in hushed voices.
The table had a little white skirt, complete with elastic and white push pins to hold it on, and a mirror that folded three ways. This my Mom had also painted white. It was cluttered with various cosmetics and hair accessories.
“Rowan?” Mom called through the door as she knocked softly. “Rowan, honey, it’s time to go.”
I sat there, looking in the mirror and crying. “Just a minute, Mom.”
My eyes were swollen and red and my cheeks were tear-streaked. The makeup I was trying to apply did not conceal any of that. I tried feebly, just the same, dabbing at my cheeks with a brush full of powder.
My chest was heavy. I glanced around the room plaintively, wishing I could go back to bed. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the house. I looked terrible and felt worse. My eyes were bloodshot, my honey brown hair was unruly with humidity, and exhaustion was palpable on my face. The black blouse and skirt I was wearing felt constricting and damp. I stayed seated at my table crying until Mom finally opened my bedroom door and sat down on my bed.
“Sweetie, we need to go now. It’s getting late.”
Some time later we were standing in the doorway of a Catholic Church where Eva’s funeral was about to take place. It was the first funeral I had ever attended and it was the funeral of my closest friend. We were both eighteen at that time.
I turned to see Maggie, a girl Eva and I went to school with. I tried to smile because I didn’t have the energy to speak and I didn’t have anything to say. But the smile sort of froze and broke, falling off of my face. Mom steered me into a pew.
The church was cold and damp, probably because the doors were open to the cold and the rain. The men at the door, dressed in black, were people I’d never seen before. Cavernous with stone floors and dark recessed walls, the church was a fitting setting for a funeral. I saw a little marble font filled with water to the left of the door as we entered. I wondered what that was. I wondered if Eva knew. She must have.
The ceilings were vaulted, and the altar seemed a mile away, positioned as it was at the very top of an aisle made of gray stone. Eva’s casket was there, flowers covering it, untouchable, unreachable. There were young men in black suits standing near the front of the church. I scanned each face, looking for someone I knew, but none were familiar.
We heard cars rushing by and the hard, cold sound of a constant rain on the roof and the sidewalk outside. Cold, cold, cold. A wet wind blew into the church through the open front doors behind us. There was no shelter that day.
Mom and I sat down, shivering.
I watched people walking up the aisle to my right, finding seats. Jen passed with her mother, Mrs. McCarthy, and, seeing us, chose the pew in front of us.
“Hey. You okay?” Jen whispered, looking directly at me with her big clear green eyes.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, not feeling okay.
She wore a black sweater, skirt, and heels. Her brown hair was pulled back in combs. Mrs. McCarthy looked sympathetic when she grasped my hand and turned to greet my mother in a hushed voice.
“It is difficult to understand at times why things happen as they do…” The priest’s awkward voice came from the front of the church, where he stood behind a podium. He was speaking into a microphone. I groaned involuntarily.
His gray hair was combed to the side, and his white and black collar seemed strange to me. We—Eva and I—had never gone to church together. It was hard for me to connect her with this man, this place, and its symbols.
He continued, “Eva died young. She was a conscientious student, a loving daughter, and a hard worker. She impressed everyone who knew her with her good sense and her love of life…”
Blah, blah, blah.
The priest’s cardboard eulogy fell flat on the stone floor at the front of the church.
“…and the joy she brought to those of us who knew her,” well, that, at least had some truth and value to it. I knew that he hadn’t known Eva in life. I wondered if he had actually spoken to her teachers and family.
He hadn’t spoken to me.
Perhaps his words were recycled from other eulogies. He didn’t mention what she wanted to study at the university, or her dream of becoming a nurse. He didn’t mention her phenomenal optimism, or her expansive Barbie doll collection.
“…but it seems to me that she would wish us to celebrate her life, her love of fun, her many interests and friends…” Someone at the front of the church coughed.
I marveled. He didn’t mention her fingernail polish fetish.
Basically, he didn’t mention any of the things that made Eva interesting and unique to the rest of us. And I wasn’t sure what he wanted us to celebrate. Eva hadn’t begun her life yet. She hadn’t set out on the career she dreamt of, she hadn’t gone off to college as she’d planned, and at eighteen years old, the end of her short life had already come. I brooded over these things, thinking of the rest of us, her classmates, going on with our lives. I agonized over the unfairness of it. I ignored the rest of his remarks.
The church was full. There were dozens—probably over a hundred—people I didn’t know. This surprised me because I had spent every day with Eva for so long that it did not seem possible she could have known so many other people. There were mountains of flowers on and surrounding her casket. Where had they come from?
Suddenly, a fierce possessiveness of her came over me as I looked at all of the unfamiliar people who had come to pay their respects. My mother and I stood there behind Jen and her Mom in a sea of people we neither knew or recognized. It was strange. I could not see her family, who were undoubtedly at the front of the church. I thought of Eva’s other close friends. Beth. Ronnie. I imagined they would be here with their mothers. I looked around, but I couldn’t see either of them in the crowd.
At that point I began to feel faint. I hadn’t been able to eat breakfast and it was nearly noon. I held onto the pew in front of me to steady myself. My knuckles were white as I clung to the dark, unmoving wood. I wanted to kneel down on the padded kneeling stool in front of me, but everyone else was standing. My cheeks were hot and my head was swimming.
Looking down, I stared at a tan line on my right hand. Until two days earlier, that spot was where I had worn a shell ring that Eva gave me.
Instantly it was the beginning of the summer, and I was at the beach with her, walking along the boardwalk of shops there.
“Hey, Rowan, look.” Eva grabbed my elbow and pushed me toward a little heap of pinkish shell rings in a basket with a sign that said they were seven dollars each.
She picked one up. “Try it.”
It didn’t fit, so she took it from me, put it back in the basket and selected another. “How about this one?”
This same sequence repeated itself until one fit.
She did the same herself, and satisfied we’d found the right two, she paid the woman behind the counter.
“Friendship rings!” she said, hugging me and releasing me with a happy smile.
The memory started me crying again. Trying to control myself only seemed to make it worse. My shoulders shook and my chest heaved with the effort of trying to stop the tears. A low moan escaped, and I swooned in embarrassment.
Sensing my horror, my mother put her arm around me and tried to comfort me. That may have been the only thing that kept me from falling over. I listened to the rain outside and tried to breath.
I would have fled the church if Eva’s body wasn’t up there in a cold, shiny, cream colored casket. But here in this enormous room filled with people, I felt she needed my company. I wondered if she was still wearing her ring. It had been on her hand at the wake.
Utterly unbelievable to me, the thought of her sunny blonde visage brought another choked sob up and out of my throat. None of these people knew her. How had this happened? Was she really dead? Maybe this was all a horrible mistake.
I wondered if she would sit up.
I imagined she would throw the top of the casket open, scattering the flowers, look around smiling, and say “C’mon you guys. Very funny joke. Somebody get me out of this thing.”
Or, indignant at that blue flowery polyester old-lady dress they had put on her, demand, “What’s going on? Where are my blue jeans and sneakers?”
I imagined these things, almost convincing myself she might in fact come to life at that moment, before us all.
But she didn’t.