Eva found Rowan with Ronnie, drifting into the family room where the girls sat talking, relieved to be inside, out of the dark. She sat down with them, listening to them talk.
Romance and boyfriends wasn’t a topic she’d talked much about with Rowan or Ronnie, because she couldn’t relate to their starry, excited ideas about making out or … sex. There were no romantic mysteries left for Eva, except the mystery of how it might feel to be giddy in love, curious and excited about a first encounter. This she had been robbed of, and the thought of pretending was out of the question.
“Hey Rowan, something terrible has happened. Rowan?” Eva had so much to tell her friends. The accident was terrible, so much blood, and the car gone. She watched her friends as they sat quietly talking about her as if she weren’t there. “Rowan!” Eva reached over to touch her friend. Rowan shivered, pulling a blanket tightly around her.
Maybe Rowan was upset she’d missed the movie and hadn’t called. “Rowan. I’m sorry I missed the movie. Please don’t be angry. It wasn’t my fault. I was in an accident…” her voice trailed off. It had been such a long walk home from the accident site. Rowan’s warmly lit house had looked so welcoming.
But Rowan didn’t respond.
“Rowan, you can be angry but this isn’t funny. My car is totaled. I walked all the way here.” She picked up a frame that sat on a table next to the sofa, causing it to move a few inches. A picture of herself and Rowan from the summer before.
But the girls hadn’t noticed the frame move, they couldn’t feel Eva or hear or see Eva, although she sat there next to them speaking to them.
Like the moment you open your mouth to scream and no sound comes out, Eva realized that she was dreaming. That this was a nightmare that would end when she woke, in time to visit Rowan for coffee in the morning, in time to work her shift at the beach. This was all just a bad dream.
Two days later there was a wake. When we arrived it was hard to find parking, and there was a line that extended around the block to enter. There was a cold light rain falling. Mom, always prepared, had two umbrellas. I shared one with her and Kori and Billy shared the other. We stood there uncomfortably in our dress clothes. A million black umbrellas jostled on the sidewalk waiting to be admitted to the funeral home. While we waited, I saw several faces peeking out from under their umbrellas that I recognized from school. I tried to avoid them, turning my back so that they wouldn’t see me. But there was no hiding. They approached when they saw me to offer condolences or to talk about what a tragedy, what a loss it was. Maybe to pass the time while we waited. I felt uncomfortable and didn’t have anything to say.
“I know just how you’re feeling,” said Molly, a girl I barely knew.
I was angry at the presumption that she or any of my classmates, whose friendships with Eva had been casual, had any idea how I was feeling. Our plans to start fresh at school, everything I’d hoped for and dreamt of, had been tied up with Eva. It had all evaporated. In one single moment. How could they possibly understand that? As close to Eva, or perhaps even closer in their own ways, were Beth and Ronnie. And it was clear we were each in our own private little spaces of hell. None of us really understood or connected to the others’ grief, and not one of us claimed to understand how the others were feeling.
Ridiculous to imagine any of us could.
Kori, Billy, Mom, and I finally made our way into the reception hall of the funeral home. Beige walls, low lights. Next to some potted palms there was a sign, a chrome placard with a black plastic inset. It had white letters popped into it, as if announcing a function or lecture in a hotel. It read “Eva Marie Verdano =>=>.” The arrows pointed to a room on the right.
It was too surreal.
My breath came suddenly, sharply, as if someone had hit me in the stomach. I turned to look into the room, beyond the door. The beige room was brightly lit, filled with people, all dressed in black. Their hair wet with rain, their voices hushed. I could see Ronnie, Mike, and Rob sitting in a row against the far wall.
We made our way in. Eva’s family was at the end of the room near the casket, standing together in their grief. Her mother, Marissa Verdano, seemed completely wrung out. She stood with her arms wrapped around her small frame, her blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, her usually very pretty face gaunt and worn. Mrs. Verdano knew everyone in town. An active member of the school board, she seemed to have her hand in every community charity drive that ever occurred. She owned her own flower shop in Manchester, and seemed to be always on the go, always engaged in something worthwhile. Not surprisingly, she and Mr. Verdano were surrounded.
Mr. Verdano was handsome as always, tall and dark. But his expansive energy was subdued. He was quiet, withdrawn, watchful. The Verdanos stood with their surviving daughters, Venus and Celeste, receiving people who had come to pay their respects, saying over and over that they appreciated everyone’s condolences, nodding appreciatively.
I approached them, my mother, sister, and brother staying behind to speak with some of our neighbors who were also friends of the Verdanos.
“Hi, Mrs. Verdano,” I said, reaching to shake her hand.
She ignored my hand and came toward me to give me a hug.
“Oh, Rowan, honey. How are you doing?” she asked, releasing me and stepping back to stand beside Mr. Verdano again.
“Oh, I’m managing,” I said, trying to sound steady and in control.
I looked up at Mr. Verdano, whose dark eyes were resting attentively on my face. His eyes slipped down, taking me in, appraising me. It made my cheeks color. “Hi, Mr. Verdano,” I said, noticing something, the dark outline, perhaps, of his eyes. They were brown, but together with generous dark lashes something else added to their darkness; he seemed to be coolly assessing the people around him, taking their measure. And when he turned his gaze to me it was as if he held me motionless with his eyes.
“Hi, Rowan. It’s good to see you.” He nodded when he said this, his eyes remaining steadily fixed on mine. “How are you and your family holding up?”
“We’re okay. It’s quiet around the house without her morning visits,” I said, forcing myself to keep moving toward Eva’s sisters, my heart beating loudly in my chest. The intense watchfulness in his eyes was unsettling and made me feel awkward. With some effort, I broke away from him, moving toward his daughters. His eyes followed me until the next people presented themselves to him and his wife with their condolences.
Venus and Celeste looked beautiful. Venus’s red hair was pulled back in a headband and Celeste wore her straight dark brown hair down. Both were pale and looked tired, but their appearances had not suffered as a result. Celeste in particular looked fragile, but lovely still.
“Hi,” I said, taking Celeste’s hands.
She looked down, tears streaming down her face, and squeezed my hands. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she said.
“I don’t think any of us can,” I said, looking at Venus. She was stony, her expression almost vacant. She was somewhere else, didn’t look toward me or acknowledge me there. I imagined she was in shock.
“Well, I guess I should go see her,” I said, a heavy sigh coming with the words. Celeste nodded, releasing my hands.
“I’ll talk to you later on,” I said.
“Okay,” Celeste said.
The casket was open, and Eva lay there looking intact. More than intact, she looked like she was sleeping. It made the notion of her accident that much more unbelievable.
I knelt down next to the casket at the railing and looked at her. Her skin was powdered, her hair was brushed. She wore an ugly blue polyester dress that I would have expected to see on my grandmother. It had big flowers all over it. Why couldn’t they dress her in her own clothes? I wondered silently. She wore her shell ring on her right hand, which was laid on her belly. She must’ve had it on at the time of the accident. Silently, I removed my own and placed it in the casket next to her. She was taking our friendship with her to the grave, leaving me with a broken heart. I did not want to keep the ring. I wanted her to have it so that she would remember me, wherever she went to.
My mother knelt down next to me, looking at the ring I’d placed next to Eva. She bowed her head briefly, saying a prayer, and waited for me to stand. I was watching Eva. Waiting for her to get up. She looked peaceful. I couldn’t move, could only wait. But she didn’t get up and other people were waiting behind me to pay their respects.
“Rowan, I think we should go now,” Mom whispered. She took my arm, lifting me away from the railing and steering me toward the wall where my brother and sister stood waiting for us.
I looked around the room, my vision blurred with tears that wouldn’t fall. Inevitably, my eyes returned to the casket Eva was lying in. I had a horrible ache in my body. I wanted to talk to Eva.
I hadn’t spoken with Ronnie yet and I hadn’t seen Beth or Jen.
I looked around and saw Ronnie still sitting with Rob and Mike, all three silent, alone with their thoughts, in the same place they’d been when we came in. “Mom, I’m going to go speak with Ronnie,” I said, breaking away. She looked at me reluctantly, not sure I would be all right.
It didn’t matter. I swam across the room.
Ronnie looked up at me with big brown eyes and a deep frown that barely kept her tears in check.
I sat down with them.
No one spoke. We all looked at the casket.
Some time passed.
Ronnie sniffled. Some more time passed. I looked at our four sets of knees lined up against each other. Mine and Ronnie’s in black stockings. Mike and Rob’s in black pants. Arranged neatly in a row.
“I’m going to go,” I said, standing. Three sets of knees now.
“Yeah, me too,” said Rob. Two?
But Ronnie and Mike stood. One.
We all looked at Rob, who sat unmoving in his seat, staring at the casket. He seemed oblivious. Unaware of the rest of the people in the room. Fixated on Eva.
His parents stood nearby, watching their son. Mrs. Johnston held a handkerchief in her hands, which she was wringing nervously. His father seemed basically unmoved, stolidly going about the business of holding up his wife and watching over his son as they grieved.
Finally Rob stood, sighing, and moved toward Eva. He seemed drawn to the casket. I looked at Ronnie.
“You go. We’ll stay with him,” she said.
Still no Jen or Beth, and there wasn’t anyone else to look for. But I was reluctant to leave Eva. I worried that she was only asleep and might sit up. I didn’t want to miss that moment. I had to be here for her if she came around and didn’t know where she was, if she awoke in shock. Contemplating that, I thought fearfully that they might bury her alive. Panic seized my heart as I thought about what that would be like for her. To awaken in a dark box with little or no air. I looked anxiously at my friend, willing her to sit up before it was too late.
But she didn’t move. I waited, my feet hurting from the senseless pumps and stockings I had on. Pain started to shoot up into my legs. On impulse, I went past her family again and knelt in front of Eva. I touched her arm. Soft and powdery. Cool. A single tear slipped over my cheek, my throat constricting with the wall of tears waiting there to come down.
“Eva … please. Wake up,” I whispered.
I peered at her. Her powdered eyelashes and relaxed lips. She didn’t move. “Please, Eva?” I whispered. Still nothing. I felt angry at her for leaving me. Angry at her for not sitting up. I tore my eyes away, walking unsteadily toward my family.
“Okay, Mom. I don’t want to talk to anyone else,” I said.
Some of my classmates were looking in my direction. I didn’t want them to approach me. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I wanted to leave before anyone cornered me, threw a net of words over me.
As we walked toward the exit, I stole one last look at the Verdanos across the room.
Mr. Verdano stood quietly, his eyes resting proprietarily on Celeste and Venus, who were sitting nearby, surrounded by family and friends I didn’t recognize. He seemed in control, somehow larger than life there amid his grieving family. Like Mr. Johnston, he had the air of someone performing a duty, or a matter of necessary business.
Mrs. Verdano was talking with two other women, her hands extended to hold theirs in the way that women sometimes comfort each other. Hands wrapped into each other’s hands. I could see the tendons in her neck as she leaned into them, receiving their condolences.
We left, my mother saying goodbye to the people we recognized on our way out, my brother, sister, and I slipping out and away as quickly and quietly as we could.