When I arrived home, things were calm. Dad, Mom, and Travis were together at the kitchen table when I came in dragging my bags. Each of them had a drink in front of them and there was a bowl of guacamole surrounded by corn chips in the center of the table.
Travis’ culinary specialty. There was nothing special in his recipe, but his guacamole was the best I’d ever had. He had a knack.
“Home for the weekend!” Travis boomed when I plopped my bags down next to the table and reached for a chip.
“Yup. Miss me?” I asked, taking the last empty chair.
“Oh, we’ve been talking about you all week. Your ears must’ve been burning,” Travis said, winking.
My parents’ mood was not so light. My father looked somber, my mother looked uncomfortable.
“So, did you find anything this week?” I asked Travis, but looked at my father.
He paused before saying, “I think so,” and then he looked at my father.
My mother interrupted.
“We had a call from the insurance company, and it seems they’re planning to settle this out of court if they can.”
“Mmm. Would that be the best thing? Would Mr. Verdano get money from the insurance company?” I asked, munching on guacamole and chips.
“Yes. Quite a bit,” my Dad answered. “Our homeowners policy, which is what he is after, is for $500,000. It’s likely he’ll get a good chunk of that.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Now, don’t bring him into this,” said Travis, his tone mildly rebuking.
Travis was a conservative guy, a staunch Christian, and not one to appreciate colorful language in young females.
“Right, sorry,” I said, looking at my parents. My Mom dropped her head to hide an involuntary smile.
“I don’t understand all of this,” I said. “Mr. Verdano is rich. He makes tons of money. He knows Eva was my best friend and that we loved her. Why would he do this?” I directed the question at my father.
He sighed, raising his hands up in a gesture that said “how would I know?” before answering. “Mr. Verdano and I don’t know each other. Despite the fact that Eva spent so much time here, I’ve never had a conversation with the man,” my father said. “And in truth I can’t for the life of me understand why he’s suing us… It’s true I did work on Eva’s car but I’m equally sure I didn’t leave the lug nuts loose on her wheels when I worked on her brakes. Your uncle saw me tighten them and he’s prepared to testify to that,” he finished, his expression intense.
Travis grunted. “That’ll only get us so far. But it’s important that you know in your own mind that this isn’t your doing,” he said. “I think I have a friend that can look at the treads on those screws to tell us how worn they were. It might help us understand why they came loose. And I’ve got my suspicions about a guy who’s so quick to cast blame in any direction so shortly after losing his baby in an accident,” he added, darkly. “Seems to me he should be busy grieving and supporting his wife and girls.”
No one responded. Travis’s words were a lot to consider. I could imagine why Mr. Verdano would look for a place to cast blame, given what he’d done to Eva. But I didn’t think he knew Eva had told anyone about his abuse, so presumably he was safer now than he’d been before she died. Why chase my father for a policy that was so little compared with Mr. Verdano’s personal fortune and holdings? It didn’t make sense to me.
“So, what are your plans for tonight?” Dad asked, changing the subject. “Going to hang out with us old folks? Your brother and sister both have plans to go out.”
“Oh, me, too. Marc’s coming back to get me. I think we’re just going out for a burger,” I said.
“So, this young man,” said Travis, “is your boyfriend?”
“Yes. He’s a good guy,” I said, not sure what Travis thought about boyfriends. My last heart to heart with Travis had taken place during a visit to their house two years earlier, before I’d had any boyfriends. The topic had never come up.
He gave a great sigh, raising one eyebrow and peering at my parents as if they could next expect to pick me up at the local police station.
“Well you just make sure that young man minds his p’s and q’s, young lady,” he said, apparently feeling he was within his rights in helping my parents shape my moral vista. A formidable task, that.
“I will. Don’t worry,” I said, meeting his eyes and trying to sound respectful and serious. I was sure my eyes were twinkling with mirth.
I got up, then.
“Good guacamole,” I said, smiling at Travis. Taking another chip, I loaded it up with one last bite of Travis’ guacamole and lifted my bags. “I’m going to go take a shower,” I said saluting them, and went down the hall to my room.
Marc picked me up a couple of hours later and we went out for a hamburger at a local restaurant. He brought me home afterward, and we sat parked in the driveway for a while, kissing.
“We’d better watch out,” I smiled, leaning back against the seat. “Travis’ll be out here with a flashlight and a shotgun faster than you can say ‘Good evening, sir!’”
He laughed. “All right, then. Should we go for a walk? I’m not through here, yet,” he said, slipping his hands into my blue jeans.
“I think we’d better. You’re taking your life in your hands,” I said, laughing.
We walked toward the end of the street holding hands. When we got there, we walked around the chain that had been strung between two posts to keep unwanted cars off the boat launch. The crickets were loud and it was dark, hard to see the ground under our feet. The pavement hadn’t been kept up, and there were big bumps, potholes, and splits in it. We stepped carefully.
“You were down here when you saw the ghost?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, remembering the apparition again with a jolt.
“Maybe we’ll see something tonight,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said. I wondered if Eva would appear again. His hand tightened on mine. I tripped on a bump in the pavement and recovered myself.
Finally, we emerged onto the landing and went over to the pier. We sat down together, looking out over the lake. He slipped his hand under my shirt and stroked my back for a moment before he pulled me against him.
“It would be nice to have a boat someday,” he said. “We could just sail anywhere we wanted to go. Tropical islands, Europe, whatever…” he said, leaning to kiss me. “Would you come with me, Rowan?” he asked, bringing my hand to his lips and kissing it.
I felt afraid. Dangerous ground, the future. “Yes, I’d come with you, Marc. Of course I’d come with you,” I said, wondering what the words meant.
Marc came back on Sunday afternoon to take me back to the university. I was sitting on our front steps when he arrived. “Ready to go?” he asked when he came to the door. I nodded, but I didn’t feel ready for anything. Mom kissed me goodbye and Marc picked up my bags for me. “We’ll see you later, Mrs. Thomson,” he said, leading me to his car. We drove out of town before Marc spoke.
“How’s your Dad doing?”
“He’s holding up okay, I think” I said. “No thanks to Mr. Verdano.”
“What’s happening with that?” he asked.
“They’re trying to settle out of court for the homeowner’s policy,” I said. “Mr. Verdano stands to be awarded quite a bit of money.”
“Hmm. Has Travis turned anything up?”
“Seems like someone might have loosened the lug nuts on her wheels,” I answered.
“Or your father might not have tightened them down?”
“That would be hard to believe,” I said, my tone defensive.
“Why? People make mistakes,” he said, a note of apology in his voice.
“Not those kinds of mistakes!” I answered, angry now.
“Why not? If it was a mistake, it was a mistake,” he said carefully. “It happens.”
We drove in silence for a while.
“Listen, I wasn’t accusing your Dad of anything,” Marc finally said. “It just seems to me that if he made a mistake, he made a mistake, and that’s all.”
“Okay, well, let’s not jump to the conclusion that this is my Dad’s fault, okay? We still don’t know what happened. Dad’s always done work on our cars. He’s never made a mistake like that. I find it hard to believe he would be careless with Eva’s car.” I glared at him, silently condemning him for faithlessness.
“Okay, Rowan. I’m sorry,” he said. “I was just trying to put things in perspective, that’s all.”
I didn’t answer. We drove the rest of the distance to school in silence. When we arrived at the university, Marc walked me to my room, carrying my bags. “I’ll see you later,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, looking at the floor.
We didn’t kiss goodbye.
That night the room was quiet. I got my homework together by the light of my desk lamp, listened to some music, and went to bed with a book. I hadn’t seen Gretchen since Marc dropped me off, and the halls of the dorm were strangely vacant.
I finally settled into my bed, trying to relax with some deep breaths, images of Eva’s ghost flittering in my mind’s eye. Eva smiling. Eva driving. Eva dancing. Eva playing lifeguard. Finally, I fell into a fitful sleep before Gretchen came home.
Sometime during the night, something woke me. I felt cold, and pulled my blanket up over me.
Still cold. Had I left the window open? I opened my eyes.
Eva was there.
She was standing beside my bed looking down at me.
I gasped, jerking back and away from her, toward the wall beside my bed. She lifted her finger to her lips, motioning me to be quiet.
I looked across the room to Gretchen’s bed, but she wasn’t in it. She must’ve stayed out. Pushing back farther against the wall, I looked up at her, fear rising in my chest. Nowhere to go. She was beside the bed.
She seemed tall, compelling in her gray, monochrome visage. Her expression sad, resting on my face.
The ghost stood there, looking at me for a few moments. Her eyes were dark, fathomless. I pulled my blanket and bedspread against me, against the chill that emanated from her. It was strange. Here she was, in our room.
But not as my roommate. She was here as a visitor.
She bent toward me, offering me something. I tore my eyes from her face and saw that she had a shell ring in her hand, and she was holding it out to me. She waited, arm extended, for me to take it.
It seemed like an eternity passed as I looked at her hand.
Finally, I reached out and took it. I was surprised to find it was solid. She smiled sadly then, saying in a whisper “Rowan, don’t forget …” and with that, she disappeared, leaving me holding the shell ring she had given me that past summer. The same ring I had left in her casket at her wake.