It should have been clear something was wrong when Eva didn’t call after her shift at the lake. I phoned her house, but there was no answer. I came to the natural conclusion that she was running late or got held up at the beach cleaning up after the Moms and kids who had inevitably left a mess. I got ready for our evening out. Marc came to the house to pick me up for the movie.
But there still was no call from Eva.
I tried again to phone her house. Mrs. Verdano answered the phone, sounding hoarse. Her voice cracked when I asked for Eva.
There was some crying and a rustling as the phone changed hands.
Her father’s voice came on. “Hi, Rowan.”
“Hi, Mr. Verdano. May I speak with Eva?”
He heaved a heavy sigh. “No, I’m sorry…” his tone did not carry his usual matter-of-factness, but was apologetic and tired sounding instead.
Then he said, “Eva isn’t here,” and paused for what seemed like an eternity.
“We… there’s been an accident…”
“Is she at the hospital?” I asked abruptly.
A silence hung on the line while I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t say anything else.
“Can I see her? What room is she in?” I was gesturing wildly at Marc for a pen and paper. My parents came into the kitchen, sensing bad news. Marc was opening and closing drawers, looking for something to write with.
“No…no. Rowan, you can’t visit her,” Mr. Verdano sounded distant, hard. “Rowan, Eva is dead.”
I leaned on the counter, trying to absorb what he was saying. The room shrank, the walls hit my face. I held the phone, which suddenly weighed a ton, against my ear. But I couldn’t hear. Everything went black. I struggled to breathe.
His words sounded forced. “I… I’m sorry.”
My father came across the room, put his arms on my shoulders to steady me. I felt myself falling.
What? My mind raced.
He was sorry?
Eva was his daughter. I was just a friend.
Just a friend.
“No,” was all I said, my breath coming in hard fast spurts.
He didn’t answer.
“She can’t be,” I felt hot, panicky, unstable. Tears sprang up into my eyes and throat. Marc gave up his search for a pen and came toward me. I wanted to drop the receiver. I wanted to run. But I couldn’t.
“Are you sure?”
I couldn’t believe it. It was not possible. There had to be a mistake or mix up.
“We’re sure. We had a call from the police late this morning and we’ve been to the hospital to identify her. We’re sure, Rowan.”
Dad held me up, hands on my shoulders. His steady grip kept me from toppling. I was having trouble holding onto the receiver. My muscles wanted to fail. My head was a hard block of pain and pressure.
Marc and Mom stood on either side of me and were exchanging looks of worry. I looked down at the floor to avoid the questions in their eyes. Taking deep breaths, I told myself this was all a mistake. This couldn’t possibly be right.
The exhaustion in Mr. Verdano’s voice was obvious, he didn’t want to talk or explain anymore. Had he already told many people? The question flew through my mind. He didn’t want to talk to me, but I had to know more.
Had to get to the bottom of this horrible mistake. “Which hospital is she in? What happened?”
The story he told me was too surreal. There had been a car accident shortly after she left our house to go to work. The front left wheel of her car had somehow come off, and a delivery truck that was following behind her crashed into her car, throwing it onto the side of the road. Eva had been killed in the collision. The police called Eva’s parents to come to the hospital. They’d seen her car beside the road, decimated, as they drove there. They’d arrived at the hospital and identified Eva. She was dead. That was all they knew.
“Give my best to your parents, Rowan,” Mr. Verdano said heavily. I thanked him and hung up.
Mom, Dad, and Marc stood there, waiting for me to repeat what I’d heard, explain what had happened to Eva. But the task was too much. It was too much to breathe. I stared dumbly at them.
My brother and sister came in, sensing something was happening, pulling up behind my parents and waiting with them. Five pairs of eyes waited, staring, expectantly.
“Eva…” I began, looking at them. Dad took a deep breath, his nostrils flaring, and looked at my mother. No one spoke, they waited there in a circle around me, still staring.
“She’s had an accident,” my face crumpled.
“They said she’s dead,” I said, still not believing it. “But she can’t be. She isn’t. There’s been a mistake,” I said, trying to make myself certain with my words.
It was the annihilation of my plans, the evaporation of our dreams together. UNH was going to be a fresh start for us. A place where we could become the people we wanted to be. She would study to become a nurse. I would write, study in the liberal arts field. We would be free of the watchful, protective constraints of our parents’ homes. Free to choose coursework. Free of our curfews. Free to make new friends, fashion the identities we wanted. This wasn’t, couldn’t be, happening.
It just couldn’t.
My sister, Kori, started to cry and wring her hands. I looked away, avoiding the sight of her tears. They were a testimony to what I couldn’t face. My younger sister was not emotive. Nor did she shrink from things. I had an instinctive respect for her reactions and responses because they had always been reliable and trustworthy. It hurt to see her crying because it meant something worth crying about was happening.
My brother Billy stood beside her, his posture stiff and exposed, his blue eyes welling up. He looked away and wiped at his nose with his sleeve. Emotional but not verbally expressive. He sat down quietly, his blue eyes awash in tears. Always so private with his feelings, his response to this news wouldn’t be an exception. Dad was somber, his blue-gray eyes turning cold, becoming distant.
Mom tried to move to me, tried to take me in her arms. But I didn’t want, couldn’t accept, comfort. I pushed her away, screaming, “No! This is a lie! We have to call the hospital!”
Frantically, I did just that.
Marc came and stood beside me silently. I could feel his breath close to me, but he didn’t touch me or speak. He just stood next to me, quietly, as I thumbed through the phone book looking for the number.
“I’m calling to find out if my friend has been admitted,” I began. The operator interrupted me to transfer my call. I felt my energy grow, move, constrained by the kitchen, the people in the kitchen. Needed more air.
There were some clicks and the phone rang again. Someone answered for Admitting.
I began again. “I’m calling to find out if my friend has been admitted,” I repeated.
The woman at the other end of the line answered coolly, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we do not give out patient information over the phone.”
“I’m not looking for information about her condition. I only want to know if she’s there.”
Her voice was more adamant this time, “I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t give that information out,” she said with a bored sigh.
“You can’t even tell me if you have her there?” I asked angrily.
Dad left the room.
“No, ma’am, I’m sorry. We do not disclose any information whatsoever about our patients.”
I thanked her, letting the phone drop to my side. Marc took it from me and replaced it on its cradle. I leaned back against the counter, my head in my hands, trying to think, trying to imagine an explanation for Eva’s absence.
Anything but this.
“There has to be a good explanation for this,” I said, determined.
“Honey, if Mr. Verdano has been to the hospital and identified Eva…” Mom said, “I think we have to believe what he said.” Her tone was worried.
I started to cry, defeated, unbelieving. It was more than I could understand. These things didn’t happen. I looked at Marc. His expression was watchful, fixed on me. “This can’t be, can it?” I pleaded.
He didn’t answer. Marc would never speak just for the sake of saying something. He had always been cautious with his words. His eyes often communicated for him. But I wanted to hear something reassuring. I wanted him to tell me of course these things never happen. We’ll go find her right now. But he didn’t speak, he just held me with his eyes. He might have known that I couldn’t bear to have my body held in that moment. I was too frantic to have arms close around me.
The doorbell rang. My mother looked at me, her expression a mix of annoyance and dismay at the interruption. She didn’t want to answer the door. Cautious by nature, and very overprotective of me, she would want to cocoon me.
“Will you get it or should I?” I demanded, thinking maybe it was Eva.
Mom rose, sighing her disapproval, and left the kitchen to answer the door. A moment later I heard Ronnie’s voice. “Hi, Mrs. Thomson. Is Rowan home?”
My mother made a quiet answer that I couldn’t hear.
“Please, Mrs. Thomson. I need to speak to Rowan,” was Ronnie’s reply. The door opened and we heard footsteps.
Ronnie came in with her boyfriend Mike. She came to me silently, her face long and distraught, and hugged me. Mike stood back, uncomfortable, positioning himself next to Marc against the counter. Both of them leaned awkwardly, watching us, unsure of how to be useful in the circumstances unfolding before them.
“It’s true, then?” she said with enough certainty to make me think it wasn’t really a question.
“I guess so,” I said, not sure.
There was silence.
And then, my mind jumped. Who would tell her boyfriend Rob? Or did he know? Who would tell our close friends? Something in me hoped perhaps she and Rob had run off, were hiding, or playing some practical joke. That there was some other explanation that hadn’t been revealed.
“We have to go to Rob’s house,” I said to everyone in the room. Someone would come with me.
“Of course. Whenever you want to go,” Marc said, his eyes reaching out to me.
I was frantic. I had to get up, leave the house, do something. “Now. Let’s go now,” I said.
Ronnie nodded. “Me, too,” she said, her tears finally coming in streams down her face.
We arrived at Rob’s house and went together to the front door. I rang the bell instead of knocking. His father answered the door, holding a wooden spoon. Apparently he was cooking dinner.
“Hi, Mr. Johnston. We were wondering if we can please speak with Rob?” I asked, feeling awkward that we had interrupted him during sacred family time. During dinner.
“Let me check to see if he’s here. He had a date tonight with Eva,” he said, looking dubious over our presence on his stoop.
“That’s sort of what we’re here to talk to him about, sir,” I said. Marc took my hand and squeezed it.
“Okay, I’ll see if I can find him. Please come in,” He said, motioning us in the front door with the spoon.
We walked into a living room that was to the right of the front door. The furniture was seventies style, and the walls were papered with bands of gold flowers. Rob came in.
“Hey, guys,” he said, his grin vanishing when he saw our expressions. “What’s going on?”
We all stood there mutely. I looked at Ronnie. Her big brown eyes mirrored mine, but she did not speak. “We have some news,” Mark offered, his voice low.
“Okay,” he said, alarm registering in his voice. He looked scared. “It’s Eva, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. My voice cracked. I wasn’t sure how to break the news to him. What words to say. I didn’t know how to tell him something I couldn’t believe myself. I had half expected to find her here when we arrived.
“We were supposed to go out tonight, but she hasn’t called or come by yet…” He paused. “I should’ve known something was wrong. She’s late so often, I just thought she got held up at the beach…” He broke off, looking at us.
“Rob, why don’t you sit down?” Marc said. It wasn’t really a question.
He did, sitting on a couch. Marc, Ronnie and I crammed into a loveseat opposite him.
“Eva’s had an accident,” I began, not sure I was telling the truth or, if I was, what I should say next. I sat between Marc and Ronnie, our hip bones all touching. I didn’t have to hold myself up. They did it for me.
My heart was racing in my chest, my throat was constricted, and I couldn’t control my voice. I took a deep breath, intending to try again.
Ronnie spoke then. “Rob, Eva’s been killed in a car accident,” she said quietly, resting her elbows in her lap, leaning forward and holding her hands out to him.
I wasn’t prepared for his reaction. He threw his head back, hitting the wall. I could see his Adam’s apple straining in this throat when he cried “Oh, God, no. Why does it always happen to the good ones?” And then he stayed there, head bent impossibly back against the wall, crying.
I sat there dumbly wondering who the good ones were. Had he lost friends already? Known any of the kids who had died in accidents or committed suicide over our four years at Pemberton? There had only been a very small handful. Quietly, I sat there thinking of the three classmates that I could bring to memory. Had there been others?
When he looked at us, his eyes were swimming. But he did not say anything else. Not a word. He just sat there, silent tears on his cheeks.
No one spoke. Too dumbfounded. Too incredible, this. Too impossible to understand.
Rob’s parents came in. Presumably they had overheard the conversation. They sat down with us, mirroring our silence. Ronnie, Marc, and I fidgeted, uncomfortable. We could all sense it was time for us to go, but we weren’t sure how to excuse ourselves. Rob wanted to be alone. He kept turning his body away from us, rocking toward the door, wanting to get up and leave the room. But our presence there prevented him.
Needing to leave as much as Rob needed privacy, I leaned toward him, put my hand over his, and told him to call if he needed anything. I tried to sound like I meant it, because I did. Hoping we had stayed long enough to convey our shared distress and support, I nodded to his parents.
And then we got up and left Rob with his parents and his grief.