Category Archives: The Seventh Sister

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What happens when someone dies but doesn’t go away? Negotiating loss when the dead can’t rest…

Chapter 14.

14.

That night after dinner I went back to the pier. I needed to get out of the house to clear my head. Mom was sitting in the living room when I left, sipping a glass of wine and knitting a scarf. Dad was in his workshop in the garage making a racket. I closed the front door and stepped out into the dusk light. The sun was setting in the west, brilliant shades of orange and pink. It would be beautiful over the lake. I walked briskly.

I sat and watched the sun set, taking in the colors as they changed and shifted. They reflected on the water with almost the brilliance they had in the sky. The soft sound of the water lapping against the boat launch was relaxing, dreamy.

I stayed, listening and watching until dark fell.

A million memories went flitting through my head, coming and going before I could grab onto any particular one and hold it. Eva at graduation, so happy and proud of her grade point average, her mother snapping pictures of everything and everybody. Her extended family, a gaggle of black-clad Italian uncles and aunts, had been in attendance, and there had been a big party at the Verdano house to celebrate their youngest daughter’s graduation that afternoon. My thoughts moved to after graduation; a shopping trip at the beginning of last summer came up, in which we had tried on and modeled dozens of bikinis for each other, at close to as many stores. She’d chosen a turquoise suit with yellow and white flowers that had little ties on each hip. Going back in time, Eva and Rob at the junior prom, both of them quiet and smiling. Her blue eye makeup and the zigzag hem of the dress she had chosen. And in our last year of high school, our morning drives with Beth every day, sharing bagels and drinking coffee in the cafeteria until the homeroom bell rang. Then, her happy triumph when she finally had the money to buy the secondhand car she had been saving for.

My mind settled on the car.

The Civic. The car she’d been killed in. The antenna was broken and we couldn’t listen to the radio, just cds. An old, two-door standard shift with over 120,000 miles on it. We called it her buggy. Her parents always let her drive their cars, but she wanted her own. And she wanted to pay for it herself. So she’d saved the money she made as a lifeguard during the summer and the money she earned during the school year tutoring math for students who were having trouble, and bought herself the Civic.

I let myself drift back to those many mornings she’d driven me to school. She’d leave her house early enough to pick me up. During the winter, the car was just warming up when she reached my house. We’d speed through the back roads of Chester and Manchester, no doubt too fast, talking, listening to music, the window down, even in the winter. The days had passed as quickly as those rides did.

I sighed, looking up at the stars. Millions of them in an endless sea. Extending forever into space. Was she there? Did she see me sitting here alone by this launch? Did she know I was thinking of her? I wished with everything in me that she would just walk up, say my name, plop down beside me, and tell me everything was going to be fine.

I sat there and waited for that to happen for a while, waited for her to make an appearance.

A great, yawning emptiness overcame me, my hips and lower belly ached. My heart contracted. I sat there letting tears fall for a while, until it started to feel cold and mosquitoes started to appear, attracted by my breath.

I rose to leave, giving up on the notion that she might appear.

But as I turned to go I froze, terrified and stunned to see Eva standing at the water’s edge, where the woods met the lake. I broke a cold sweat, panic seizing me as I backed toward the launch exit.

“Rowan.”

She was standing just at the edge of the water, her gaze fixed on me intensely. Her eyes penetrated me, seeing through me. She looked angry. Sad. Both. Otherworldly.

No. I was imagining this.

Backing away, my teeth chattering, the sight of my dead friend, the lake shining behind and through her, burned itself into my mind. I tried to keep moving backwards, tried to get away. But I couldn’t turn my back on her.

“Rowan. Don’t leave. Please.”

I shook my head, tried to clear my vision, my ringing ears, everything. “Rowan,” again. Was her voice in my head?

Though she stood still, she was not solid. She was gray from head to toe, a clear form but with a quality of transparency that made it obvious she wasn’t solid. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t get my breath. Was this real?

She wore the GUARD T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts I had last seen her in, but all of her was the same colorless gray, her features and form distinguishable by variation in shade, or depth, perhaps. Or something else. Something more subtle. I stopped backing up, shifting my weight from one foot to the other and back again, watching her, trying to keep myself from falling down.

“Eva…?” my voice came out in a squeak.

“Rowan, my friend…” She held her arm out to me.

I did not think I saw her lips move to speak. My heart was in my throat, and there was a train in my head.

“Look what he did!” she whispered, her voice distressed, hollow.

“Who?” I asked.

Her brow furrowed in frustration as she continued to look at me, claiming my mind with her image. She shook her head sadly back and forth, her hair seeming to float around her with the movement. A gray haze seemed to be spreading across the boat launch, enveloping the ground, moving toward me

The hairs on my neck stood up, the cold night air seeming to wrap itself around me, fold me into it.

“It’s not over…” her gaze direct and unflinching, shaking her head sadly, her outstretched arms retreating to cross over her heart. Then heaving a great sigh, holding me in her eyes for one last moment, she disappeared, taking the gray haze with her, but leaving the chill air behind.

I stood there in a mix of terror and uncertainty, looking for her, scanning the water’s edge, the launch. Gone.

She was gone again.

I left the launch walking backwards, unable to turn my back on the spot I’d seen her in. I looked around me at the darkness, wondering if she could still see me, and why she had come. But there were no answers there.

When I reached the road, I turned and ran home.

The house was warmly lit when I arrived, glowing invitingly. Marc’s car was in the driveway. He was sitting with my parents at the kitchen table when I walked in, the cold night air still hanging on me.

My mother pulled the cotton scarf she was wearing around her shoulders up to cover her neck, shivering.

I felt very disconnected, as if I were floating in a dream. As if Eva were still with me, or I with her. Still trembling, I tugged a chair away from the table to sit down.

“Rowan, are you okay? What’s happening?” my mother was the first to speak, leaning toward me to put her hand on my arm. “You’re cold.”

“And you’re shaking,” she said.

“I’m okay. Just chilled. I’m fine,” I said, trying my voice, which came out in a squeak. I struggled to sound convincing. But my jaw was stiff and nobody was buying it. They exchanged looks, clearly not sure what to make of my entrance.

To disguise my shaking, I got up and went to the refrigerator for a soda.

Sitting down again as gingerly as I could, I popped it open and drank some. Determined not to share what I had seen with my parents, I cleared my throat and tried to smile, tried to shake off the apparition. But the curious feeling stayed.

“Just thinking of Eva, that’s all.”

They exchanged looks again, this time a little less worriedly. Billy came in, hair spiked and dyed white, black leather biker’s jacket on. He wore a leather bracelet with chrome studs sticking out every which way. He was in a punk phase.

“Oh, hey. What’s going on in here?” he asked, looking around the room. “Where’s Kori?”

“Kori’s at the movies,” Mom said. “In fact, I need to go pick her up in a few minutes.”

“Who’d she go with?” he asked, sounding a little hurt he hadn’t been invited.

“One of the girls from her soccer team. Rhonda, I think,” Mom said.

“Travis arrives tonight,” Dad said, looking at me. Apparently oblivious to his son’s attire. “He’ll start his investigation in the morning.”

Billy went to the refrigerator. “Travis is coming tonight?” he asked, surveying the refrigerator contents.

“Yes,” Dad answered, looking at him. “Tomorrow we’re going over to the impound yard to see Eva’s car. Want to come?”

Billy took a soda off the shelf, shut the refrigerator door, and finding no empty chairs at the table, stood. “Sure,” he said, looking at the floor, his ambivalence obvious. It would be painful to look at the car and imagine Eva in it. He himself had hitched many rides to school with her in that car.

Not a joyful errand.

“Jen called for you,” Mom said to me, the weight in her voice adding significance to the message. “She wants to see you before you leave for school.”

I nodded and looked at Marc. “Do you want to go for a ride? I could use a change of scenery and Billy needs a seat.” My parents exchanged a look that suggested they had expected me to stay for a talk.

“Nope. I’m fine. No interest in hanging around here with you guys,” said Billy, leaving the kitchen. “I’m going out. I’ll see you later,” he called over his shoulder.

There was a brief silence at the table. Dad looked at my mother.

“Where is he going?”

Mom shrugged.

“I’ll have her home at a reasonable hour, sir,” Marc said, lowering his voice to sound like a military officer. The joke lightened the mood at the table and my parents smiled.

“Okay,” Dad said, his blue eyes leveling on Marc’s meaningfully. “Be sure you do, young man.”

Why, I wondered, did my parents always need to know my whereabouts when my younger brother could cavalierly announce he was leaving with no further explanation? And get away with it? Unfair, I thought, annoyed. I was fuming when we left. Marc held the door for me on the way out and tried to take my hand as we walked toward the car but I didn’t want to hold hands.

“What was all of that? Why are you here?” I asked, taking out my aggravation with my parents on him.

“Because you start school in a week and I’m supposed to help convince you to wait a semester,” he took a breath. “Your parents are concerned that you’ll have trouble adjusting at the university.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, feeling exasperated at my mother’s interference.

“The housing office phoned today to say that they have assigned you another roommate who was waitl-isted for a double room,” he said. “I think your Mom is nervous.”

“Oh.”

My exasperation and annoyance evaporated, leaving me deflated.

“Rowan, I want you to be there with me, but I also want what’s best for you,” he said as he opened the door of his mother’s Audi and held it open for me.

Another roommate. I hadn’t even begun to think about that. Of course, if Eva wasn’t going to attend they would fill her dormitory space. My chest started to feel heavy again. Marc started the car. I felt hot tears coming again and my breath was harder as I tried to stifle them.

But they came. Hot and in a rush, they came.

Marc was silent. He drove toward our favorite parking spot, a place in the woods near his house, while I struggled to stop crying. I took a deep breath to clear my head and shake off my feelings, and with some effort the crying finally subsided. Marc rolled the little car onto the logging path we’d driven a half dozen times. Then he turned left into a clearing, tree branches snapping against the sides of the car as we lurched and bumped into position.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said, suddenly feeling that maybe my Mom was right.

“That’s what your parents are thinking.”

He cut the engine.

We sat in silence, the car dark, the clock on the dash reminding us that time was passing. Always passing.

The moonlight on the trees around us bathed the clearing we were parked in with a silvery light. Looking out, I felt surprised at how bright the night was.

We sat silently with our thoughts.

After a while, a deer appeared at the edge of the clearing. Sensing something or someone, it looked in our direction. We both watched it, neither of us speaking. Tentatively, it stepped into the open, and foraged around in the grass for a few moments before disappearing again into the trees.

Marc rolled his window down to let some cool air in, and leaned back in his seat to face me. We listened to the crickets for a few minutes.

“Rowan, summer’s over. I’m not going to give you any advice either way. This has been sudden, and I feel like you’re shutting down. You’re not the only one, you know. Poor Rob is a shadow of himself. I went to see him this week and he couldn’t even talk about Eva, the wake, or the funeral. Nothing.”

I hadn’t thought about Rob since the wake, when he’d moved as if in a trance toward Eva in the casket. What had he been thinking? About making love to Eva? About her smile? About their last conversation?

“You haven’t really been able to talk about how you’re feeling,” Marc said, clearly trying to steer the conversation somewhere.

I interrupted him: “I saw her tonight.”

Startled, he stared.

“Who?”

“Eva.”

“You saw her? Where?” He studied my face, obviously wondering if I was going crackers on him.

“At the lake. I was at the boat landing. She was there, and she spoke to me,” I started to shake again.

I tried to control it, clenching my jaw.

His mouth open, he stared at me. His expression demonstrating he didn’t believe me. But he didn’t say that.

Isn’t there some bit of folk wisdom that you never wake a sleep walker? That must’ve been his logic.

“I’m not losing my mind. It’s a ghost. Eva’s ghost. I’m sure I saw her tonight. She spoke to me,” I said, wanting to convince him that I hadn’t imagined it. That it was real. That I was not cuckoo or dreaming.

He looked doubtful.

As he considered what I had said I could see some concern start to creep into his expression through the darkness in the car. Of course he would wonder if I was all right. Seeing ghosts was unusual, to say the least. And seeing the ghost of a recently departed friend might have seemed wishful, the product of an overactive imagination, or perhaps of a mind that wasn’t coping well.

But I was not going crazy.

Over the years I had glimpsed things like this occasionally. Heard voices, had hunches, even seen at least one ghost. I hadn’t told him about the ghost, but he knew about the hunches, had seen enough that he had even come to trust them. Why was this so different, so unbelievable? Hundreds, thousands, millions of people had claimed to see ghosts. Why was I the only crazy one?

More silence as we sat looking out the front window.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay, you saw Eva. What did she—it—say?”

“She said ‘Look what he did.’”

I paused here to let the weight of the words register. Not just for his benefit, but for my own, as well. I had been contemplating the phrase since she’d uttered it, trying to understand what she meant.

He looked at me helplessly.

“I can only guess she meant that someone is responsible for the accident. But that introduces the horrible question of ‘who?’ And I have no idea who it could be…” I broke off, feeling lost and tired.

Bad enough to be without Eva, facing my freshman year of college with the wrong roommate. Worse still to be wondering if I was alienating Marc. And what did her words, “Look what he did,” mean? The problem of my father working on her car was on my mind, but I didn’t say that.

“You’re thinking of your father.”

I was stunned. “You know about that?”

He nodded. “He told me tonight before you came in.”

“Oh,” I said, nonplussed.

“He also told me about Mr. Verdano’s suit against your family,” Marc said.

I looked up at him. His expression was serious, his eyes penetrating. Sometimes it was like he could look right into me. It made me nervous.

“Rowan, everything is going to be fine. I promise.”  

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Chapters 12 and 13

12.

Marc dropped me off a few hours later, disheveled but none the worse for wear. Mom was waiting up for me. I smoothed my hair back and wiped at my mouth, hoping my lipstick wasn’t smudged around my lips. My dress was at least arranged properly. I entered the kitchen.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she sat at the table with a note card and pen. Her blonde hair was cut in a bob that reached halfway down her neck and was hooked behind her ears. She wore small gold hoop earrings and a silk bathrobe embroidered with an Asian motif. Mom was a retired Pan Am stewardess, and had all the grace and beauty that went with that image. Always socially graceful and collected. I was envious of how easy she made everything look. But tonight, she looked tired.

“Still up?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

She looked at me appraisingly and smiled. “Have a good time tonight? How’s Marc?” She indicated my necklace, which was wrapped around my neck the wrong way, hanging down my back.

“Uh, he’s fine,” I fiddled with the chain, trying to pull the charm around my neck. My hair was moist with sweat and humidity. I had taken it out of a hair tie earlier and now the necklace was wound in it. “He’s good,” I amended, and sat down.

She put her note card and pen aside.

“I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to talk to you. How are you handling things?” She waited, looking carefully at my face. I didn’t answer right away.

“I heard you cry out in your sleep last night,” she said.

“Oh… yeah,” I said, but I hadn’t realized I had done that.

“It was just a dream. I saw Eva. But it’s okay…I’m okay, I guess. Just worrying about school,” I said, avoiding her eyes.

I did not want to have this conversation with her right now.

“That’s exactly what’s on my mind. I was thinking perhaps you should consider postponing things. You could start in the spring,” she added, pausing to wait for a response from me. When I didn’t give one, she continued, “You know it wouldn’t be the end of the world and it would give you a chance to recover a little.”

I sat down across from her.

Mom had perfect hands. Her fingernails were tastefully French manicured, and she wore a beautiful ring of channel set diamonds on her right hand to complement her engagement ring and wedding band. “This has all been pretty traumatic,” she continued, “and going without Eva…” She stopped there and regarded me. “Rowan, I’m concerned. I’d feel better if you waited a semester to start school.”

I wasn’t biting. Most of my friends would be taking off in a couple of weeks, including Marc. Ronnie would be busy running her parents’ restaurant full time. Beth was starting school in Florida. Jen was going to Rhode Island. I didn’t want to be left alone in my hometown with my parents.

“No, Mom. I want to go. Everyone will be gone. I need to be around my friends.”

“And Marc?” she asked.

“Yes, and Marc.” I answered.

“Well, think it over. I’m sure the university would hold your place for the spring, given the circumstances.” She got up and bent to kiss me goodnight before leaving me there to think about the coming semester and a dorm room without Eva.

I went down the hall and into my bedroom. A poster of Duran Duran that Eva had given me hung on the wall. I still had some of her clothes there, too. A T-shirt I’d borrowed one day as a cover-up at the beach. A pair of flip flops she’d forgotten at the house one day. A skirt she’d loaned me for a date with Marc. I’d neatly folded and stacked them to give to her, but I’d forgotten them there until after the accident.

I went to the window, opened it, and looked out and up, through the trees. There was a beautiful triple birch tree just outside my bedroom window, which looked out over the front yard. It was glowing a silvery white in the moonlight. Beautiful sentinels reaching up from the earth into the sky, gracing the dark. And the sky was filled with a million stars. I listened to the frogs singing, noticed the smell of the night air. The tops of the trees rustling softly in the night breeze.

Nice night for a walk.

I closed the door silently behind me and turned left toward the cul-de-sac at the end of our street. Lake Shore Drive ended in a circle and there was a little boat launch onto a lake there. I walked toward the end of the street, listening to the crickets. They stopped singing as I passed by them, and then resumed when I was a safe distance away. Their awareness was amusing and interesting. Cricket mind. As if by pausing their song I might not notice them. Or maybe they stopped, curious, to watch a strange interloper on their world pass by. No doubt human visitors were few at this time of night. How, I wondered, does a person look to a cricket?

I looked up at the moon and wondered if Eva could see the moon from wherever she was. Or hear crickets. I wondered if she was aware of my dream, or if she was nearby. I thought about her cream colored casket and the gravestone her family had selected for her. It was heart-shaped and bore only her name and dates. That was all. No epitaph. I wondered if some part of her—the part of her that made her uniquely Eva, perhaps, was aware of her gravestone, had seen it.

I wondered if she would like it.

When I reached the lake I sat down on the little pier next to the launch. The moon hung low over the lake, and the water reflected a beautiful wash of moonlight toward the pier. I smiled, remembering a night here a few weeks earlier with Marc.

We’d come here for a walk on a night when the moon was darker. The sound of the frogs and the crickets had been like a song, and the dark moon seemed to conceal us from everyone, everything. There was a breeze, and the trees rustled in a conspiratorial way. We sat together on the pier just listening to the trees and the soft lap of the water against the wood beneath us. I leaned against him, feeling his chest rising and falling rhythmically beneath me.

“Rowan, I love you.”

His breath was warm against my ear. I turned to look at him, my heart skipping a beat. The blue of his eyes was mesmerizing. He was smiling nervously.

He’d never said that before, and he was waiting for my response to it. Instead, I kissed him. I didn’t trust myself to say anything.

He kissed me back, slowly, falling into a rhythm as he slipped his arm around my waist.

“Rowan,” he said, lightly running his tongue along my lower lip. It made me tingle.

I closed my eyes, breathing in his scent. Warm and a little spicy.

“Rowan,” he kissed me again.

He tasted good, his lips firm and full against mine.

“Rowan Thomson,” he was smiling now, while he kissed me. “Baby, say something.”

“Something.” I smiled back, reaching to unbutton his shirt.

His skin was hot and damp, and his breathing was coming harder. I drew a line from his chest to the lowest part of his belly with my finger, playing with the soft hairs there.

“Something.” I kissed him again.

“Mmmm, anything,” he said, his eyes closing. I turned to look at him, beautiful there in the moonlight. His lips were parted, so inviting.

I sat there remembering, letting the memory of it wash over me. It seemed a lifetime ago, now. Or even like a different life.

Marc was my first love. I fell for him at first sight one night at a ski lodge, where our school ski club went every Friday for night skiing. Somehow, he had escaped my attention during the many weeks of taking a school bus packed with other Pemberton Academy students and their ski equipment to the mountain. My friends and I horsed around week after week, smuggling stolen bottles of rum onto the mountain in hair spray or coke bottles, despite the best efforts of the teachers who chaperoned us to prevent it. We were a motley bunch, loud and raucous as a habit, and completely without consideration for the mountain’s other patrons.

One very cold night we came into the lodge looking for our hidden drinks, having frozen ourselves solid in the mountain’s cold night air. Rummaging through our bags, I found an Aqua Net pump spray bottle. Jen’s stash of Canadian Whiskey, stolen from her father’s bar. I took it and poured some into my paper cup of soda before sliding it across the table to her. Seating myself to relax, I unclipped my ski boots and looked up.

Marc was there, leaning against the wall opposite our stowed bags. He was with his own friends, all of them a year older than my friends and me. I was completely dumbstruck. His beautiful eyes and smile dazzled me completely. I’d never seen anyone like him.

My heart raced as I watched him talking with his friends just a few feet from us. A girl I did not recognize came in and sat down next to him. My heart sank. He had a girlfriend.

“Hey, Rowan!”

“Yoo hoo!” Jen was waving her hand in front of my face trying to get my attention.

“We’re going to get some hot chocolate. Want anything?”

I shook my head no, still gazing at Marc.

“Fries? Coke? Nothing? You sure?”

“Jen, do you know his name?” I asked, my voice low.

“Which one?”

“The handsome one.”

“Ah, yes. That would be Mr. Marc Stanton. Good skier. His sister Beth is in our class,” she looked at me, one eyebrow raised in the air to indicate her thoughts.

“You think he’s cute?”

“You have two eyes in your head, don’t you?” I shot back. “Beth, as in Beth Stanton?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes, your buddy and mine, Beth Stanton,” she said, turning to look at him. “I guess so, yeah, I never really looked at him.” She pulled her wallet out of her ski bag.

“I guess maybe he’s your type, now that you mention it. Looks like he’s with that girl. Sure you don’t want any hot chocolate?” she asked, getting up.

I shook my head no, still watching Marc.

“I’ll leave you here to stare. Don’t go blind.”

And she did leave me there to stare, clomping off toward the concession stand in our friend Bill’s ski boots. They were three sizes too big for her.

When she came back I was still staring at Marc. I hadn’t moved.

“Rowan, come on!” Jen said, exasperated. “I’m doing the next run on Bill’s skis. Want to come watch me break my neck?” she asked, only half joking.

“I guess so,” I sighed.

She looked at Marc and back at me. “Listen, come with me and I’ll see if that’s his girlfriend. I’ll ask Beth when I see her next week. Okay?”

“Promise?”

“Yeah. Now put your hat on.”

Incredible that Beth, the girl I’d had freshman English with, was his sister. Class after class, Beth and I had argued over our interpretations of the dialogue Shakespeare wrote for MuchAdo about Nothing. Though perhaps not his most complex work, Shakespeare was nevertheless a revelation for our young minds. We were the most vocal students in our class, causing our poor English teacher, Mr. Waterman, more than one headache. We’d become friends because of our heated discussions, surprisingly. Beth appreciated a good debate.

Fortunately, aside from an expression of some distaste at the news that I thought her brother was a dreamboat, Beth did not seem concerned with the matter of our relationship. Somehow Marc and I met shortly after that night at the ski lodge, and began to date. I never saw the girl he was with at the ski lodge again, so one night I asked him who she was.

“Which one?” he asked.

Interesting question.

“The one with the brown hair, dark eyes. Medium height. At the ski lodge,” I prompted, not sure whether to be relieved, annoyed, or astonished at his amnesia.

“Oh, Renee,” he said. “She lived in another town, went to a different school. Salem, I think.” Something in his tone suggested there had been several possible candidates for who I’d seen him with. I probed.

“Renee. Right. Pretty girl,” I looked at him. “Were you dating more than one girl at that time…?”

He smiled, looked down at his lap. So that was it. “A harem of hopeful young ladies?” I asked, half joking, half jealous.

“No. Just three. Not a harem,” he replied, smiling.

Why did boys always get away with this sort of thing? It wasn’t fair. Still, I wanted him, despite my annoyance. “And so, what? Who broke it off? Who were the other two?” It wasn’t any of my business. My questions were in poor taste. But I couldn’t help asking.

“Rowan, it doesn’t matter now, does it? I broke things off. We are together, now.” That had been the end of the conversation.

That night, though, sitting alone on the pier with my memories of Marc, I felt afraid of my feelings for him. I tried to imagine him leaving my life as Eva had. Meeting another girl, perhaps. Or having an accident. A flash of panic gripped me, and then numbness. Some part of me was dying. The part that trusted things to turn out okay was collapsing, violated by Eva’s sudden death, by the seeming meaninglessness of it. By my helplessness to stop it.

Threatened by everything else that could collapse in an instant, I felt nothing but numb fear. I was free falling. Anything could go wrong, no matter how inconceivable. Justice was a notion disproved by life, it seemed.

And in that moment sitting alone on the pier, I had no idea how I was going to get on without any faith.

13.

I walked through the last few days of summer like a ghost. Going to work, coming home, not eating. I didn’t call or see my friends. I began to lose weight. My father told me I was starting to look gaunt.

I didn’t care. My mind turned constantly on the last morning of Eva’s life. The time she’d spent in our kitchen, the words she’d spoken just before she drove away. She’d had an argument with her mother. Over something stupid. Something she didn’t want to talk about.

What?

The answer was presumably lost. Just as Eva’s life was lost, the answers to so many questions, hopes for so many things, were lost. I tried to digest that fact. I tried to accept the fact that everything we had planned would never happen. That I had to move on.

But it was too hard.

Mom was carrying on, fussing over what I would pack for my first semester at UNH. Making lists and shopping for first aid supplies, extra socks, detergent, small appliances, whatever she imagined I would need. She was building on a pile that Eva and I had started at the beginning of the summer. It ran the length of one wall of my bedroom and was two feet tall. I paid little attention, walking around it without stopping to notice what she bought, or thinking about what I would need or want in my dorm room. I knew she needed to keep busy and I felt grateful for her attention.

Kori didn’t say much. She kept busy with her animals and sports and Billy was mostly at camp or tinkering with a computer. They stayed away, which I only noticed when when they didn’t.

Meanwhile, my father was quiet. A tall man with dark hair, he’d always been slender, but he was looking thinner than usual. He started to come home late from work, where he was the vice president of operations for a technical division. Tetra Corp designed and produced robotics for the computer industry. My father had worked there for over twenty years.

Since Mom had retired from the airline, we’d always had dinner together. And often, Eva ate with us. Her parents were often so busy with work or volunteer activities that she and her sisters were left to conjure dinner for themselves, so she had taken to joining us for dinner whenever she was around. She was like part of our family, here so often that my parents had become accustomed to her constant appearances and often made extra food in case she would be joining us for meals. But now, Mom, Kori, Billy, and I ate alone because Dad was working late. We were decreased from six to four at the table.

Dad would come home well after dinner time most nights and have a drink. He said little before retiring for the night. He looked a little grayer since Eva had gone. I noticed this, but had no way of reaching through my own grief to ask him what was happening. I was too absorbed with my own loss. We grieved together, but separately, each of us carrying on with work and the daily business of living. The house was quiet.

Then one evening the phone rang after dinner. It was my father’s friend Travis. He was coming from Texas for a visit.

“Aren’t Brian and Gina starting school soon?” I inquired, assuming Travis would bring his family.

“I’m sure they are,” my father replied, “But Travis is coming alone.”

I was silent as I absorbed this. It was unprecedented. Dad and Travis had known each other for years. They had met when both of them were young, newly married, and before we, the children, had been born. Every couple of years one family would make a kind of pilgrimage to visit the other family. We had been doing this for as long as I could remember. But no one had ever made the trip alone, as far as I knew.

“Why?” I finally asked.

My father’s jaw started to work, the bottom grinding back and forth against the top as he considered his answer. He was staring at a glass of beer he had on the table in front of him. Finally, he looked at me, his icy blue eyes resting on mine.

“Because I need his help.”

I just stared, unable to speak, my heart in my throat. Travis was a state police officer. Was this what my father meant? I dared not ask.

Dad got up and left the table with his beer, going out onto the patio alone. I looked at Mom. She heaved a deep sigh, the beginnings of dark rings starting to form beneath her eyes. Not a good sign.

“There’s been a lawsuit brought against us, honey,” she said, giving me a weary look and pausing, perhaps trying to decide whether or not to continue.

She did.

“. . . for wrongful death. And your father called Travis because we need him to come up and see what he can do to help us.”

“A lawsuit…?”

Mom nodded, pursing her lips nervously.

“We received a letter this week from Eva’s parents’ lawyer, Rowan. John Verdano is suing your father for wrongful death.”

I blinked, silently repeating what she said. Wrongful death. A mix of disbelief and anger started to rise as I tried to understand what she was saying. John Verdano, Eva’s father, was suing Dad. Was that what she had said?

The act of staying upright in the chair was an effort as my head swam with this news. Tears sprang into my eyes, followed immediately by a kind of confused rage. This was senseless. Was this why Dad had been so withdrawn? I tried to clear my head, catch my breath, recover my vision. “What the hell are you talking about?” I finally managed to choke out, my anger dominating.

Mom recoiled at my language. Her green eyes were sad and filled with tears. I was making this harder for her, I knew. She was concerned about me; I had been hard to talk to, withdrawing into myself since the funeral.

“Maybe you should talk to your father about this.”

I pushed myself away from the maple table that had been in our kitchen forever, hitting the chair rail behind me and making a mark in the cream colored paint. Mom saw the damage, but didn’t react. Rather, she got up silently and went into the cellar, which meant she was going to retrieve a bottle of wine.

When I opened the slider onto our patio Dad was there, looking out into the woods. He had worked hard the year before creating the patio—leveling the ground and setting the stones into it until the patio measured twelve foot square. Marc had helped him finish it with a stone edge that became a wall where they had added earth to level the patio. It had taken most of last summer to complete. My father’s hand was shaking. He didn’t turn to look at me.

“Dad.”

He took a drink of his beer. Standing still and looking into the woods. “Dad,” I repeated. He sighed, turned to face me. I had my mother’s green eyes and I leveled them on him carefully. He met my gaze.

“Rowan, your mother and I didn’t want to trouble you with this just before your semester was due to begin.” He paused, his jaw working as he thought about what he wanted to say before continuing. “But it’s become apparent that you will be required to give a deposition at some point, and rather than keep something from you that is bound to come out, we decided you should know,” he finished, sounding steady and confident. But I still did not understand why we were being sued.

“Dad, why is Mr. Verdano suing us? What do we have to do with Eva’s accident?”

He took a seat at the patio table and motioned for me to join him. He looked tired. His jaw was grinding again. “It would seem that Mr. Verdano thinks I had something to do with the failure of Eva’s car. Specifically the wheel that came off while she was driving.”

“But that’s crazy…” I looked at Mom’s potted geraniums, which were sitting at the edge of the patio. Red and brilliant, their presence seemed to suggest that everything was all right. But it wasn’t. Nothing was all right.

“Her Civic was here a lot. And I changed her oil and checked her brakes for her a few days before the accident, remember?”

“Yes. But what has that got to do with anything?”

“Mr. Verdano seems to think it has everything to do with Eva’s accident. He has charged me with negligence and wrongful death. In other words, he thinks I made a mistake while I was working on her car and he wants me to pay for it.”

“Did you touch the wheels?” I asked.

“Yes. When I changed her brakes,” he spun his drink carefully on the table.

“But I remember the work I did and I feel certain that everything was tightly refastened when I was finished,” he said.

“I’m sure we can prove I’m innocent of his charges if this goes to court. But I want Travis to come up and look at the car, ask some questions, and see if he can’t shed some light on this mess for us.” He sat looking at his beer, seeming to forget for a moment that I was there.

And then, looking up suddenly, he finished, “Okay, honey?”

“Okay, Dad.”

His confidence was reassuring, but the weight of the implications was heavy. Dad had always done all of the maintenance work on our family’s cars. There had never been a problem. He had offered to do Eva’s oil change and brakes because I was in the car so often, and he wanted to ensure our safety.

I felt a burning anger at Mr. Verdano. I had known him for years, spent countless hours in their home with Eva. I pictured him and his wife, Eva’s mother. They were a very handsome couple, my best friend’s parents. Popular and well-respected in the community. I tried to fit this new development, this new piece of the puzzle, into my picture of John Verdano. When I thought about how well I knew Mr. Verdano, I realized that many years of friendship with Eva had amounted to very little time in her father’s presence. I could probably count the number of hours I’d spent in his company on one hand. He was usually not around, and when he was at home he was polite, but never casual. He always maintained an air of formality around his daughter’s friends, excusing himself and disappearing to work in his office—a room I’d never entered—whenever we were around. Still, he’d never made me feel unwelcome in his home and I’d visited there often enough, sometimes sitting with Eva and her sisters in the family room to watch movies or paint our nails.

John Verdano might not have been a close friend but he was a member of our community, and someone I felt was at least a friendly acquaintance by virtue of his relationship to Eva.

How could he accuse my father of such a thing?  

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chapter 11

11.

The week passed, one long stretch of hazy days and nights that ran together. On his second night home from Florida, Marc took me out for dinner.

He was sympathetic sitting across the table from me. The restaurant was full and there was a din all around us that made it easy to talk without being overheard.

“She said things weren’t really all right. She was wearing the ring,” I paused, recalling the image from my dream.

I made a deep frown, struggling to control my voice. Recounting the dream from the week before, it was strange that no part of it had faded, as dreams so often do. But this had been more like a visit than a dream.

I was so sure she had been there with me.

He reached across the white tablecloth covered table, took my hand, and sighed. He’d known Eva, had a passing friendliness for and with her. But they weren’t close and he hadn’t lost any close friends to death. It was hard for him to understand what was happening to me. He really didn’t. He couldn’t.

I realized that I didn’t really want to talk to him about it because I didn’t have language to express the breadth and depth of my sadness and disbelief. He couldn’t understand being awash in an endless of ocean of grief with no paddle, no boat. Endless blue in every direction, whether it was sky or ocean there was no comfort in the landscape. Drowning. Marc always had at least two paddles and a compass. He always had North. Or at least he seemed like he did, and if he didn’t, he put on a good show.

“Rowan, I’m so sorry. I know this is horrible. Do you think the dream meant something?”

He gazed at me, waiting. The low, smooth sound of his voice had the effect of calming me. He was dressed in a shirt and tie and his dark hair was combed back from his face, cut short over his ears. He had come to pick me up after leaving his office, and taken me to the nicest little restaurant in the area, Chez Louis. Marc had a summer internship that paid for our dates and beer money for the school year. It was also decent experience. He was in his second year at UNH, majoring in mechanical engineering.

“I don’t know.” My eyes welled up again and I willfully stifled the tears that were threatening to ruin our dinner.

“It’s okay,” he took a handkerchief from his pocket. “Here.”

“Thank you,” I said, sniffling and dabbing at my eyes. “She seemed so real, so present.”

“You miss her,” he said gently.

I nodded. “Yes, but it’s more than that. It didn’t feel the same as other dreams feel, you know, disjointed…” I thought about her face, letting myself slip into a little reverie with the memory.

The candle at the table flickered.

Marc waited, leaning forward on his arms, watching me.

“Oh, forget it. Let’s drop it,” I said, feeling exposed and vulnerable. He was aware that I had a habit of responding to feelings before thinking things through. Impulsive. I didn’t want him to see me that way now. I wanted to be in control. I refolded my napkin for the seventieth time and smoothed it in my lap.

“Rowan, you’ve always had strong psychic impressions. You aren’t feeling guilty about not stopping her, are you?”

At that moment it seemed Marc was the one with the strong psychic impressions. I had been beating myself over the head since the night of the accident over that point. A failure.

“No. I tried. I couldn’t force her to let me drive. You know how Eva was. She was much too independent to let the likes of a bad gut feeling deter her from her plans.” I paused, thinking about that, how Eva was.

“I wish things had turned out differently,” I added, tears threatening again. “I wish she was here.” I meant that with all my heart. I ached to see her again. For a moment I humored myself, clearing my throat and looking around the room, as if she might appear. But I saw only strangers.

My eyes resettled on Marc who was still watching me intently. I wished we were alone and that I was leaning against him, his arms around me.

“I want to have dinner without breaking down to cry. Let’s talk about something else, okay?”

“Okay. How about we go park somewhere after dinner and fuck like a couple of rabbits? Would that be an appropriate distraction?” He leaned toward me, his eyes crinkling in a smile.

“More like an inappropriate distraction.” My cheeks flushed red and hot at the suggestion.

“Inappropriate, then. Whatever it takes.”  

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chapter 10

10.

I am alone in our school library late one night. The walls are lined with books, and shadowed portraits of middle-aged men hang on columns between the shelves. The ceilings are vaulted. There is a large window high in the wall at the opposite end of the room, from which moonlight is streaming in.

The big room is eerily still and silent. I am sitting at the end of a long wooden table with hooded green lamps on it. They shine onto the table beneath them, forming circles of light. Aside from the moonlight, all else is dark.

I look down at a book, open to the first page, before me. I can’t make sense of it. Every time I begin to read a sentence, the words scramble and resettle on the page, frustrating me. I am absorbed with the effort of catching a sentence before it changes when a door at the other end of the room opens and closes. I look up, waiting for the person who has entered to emerge from the dark of the room. Eventually I can see a form. Eva coming toward me.

A rush of relief and happiness comes over me. I watch and wait as she glides silently along the table.

Her hair is loose, almost floating in the air, and she has a faint foggy glow hanging about her. At first I cannot make out her expression, but as she approaches I see that she seems serious; her gaze is dark, and rests very intensely on me.

“Eva, I’m so happy to see you. Where have you been?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer. Instead, she comes to a stop silently in front of me, looking down into my upturned face. She heaves a great sigh, her lips parting delicately, her eyes dark, shadowed. Her hair is feather light, seeming to glisten like gossamer around her face. She smiles sadly, her manner, the details of her face, just as they’d been in life. I notice she is wearing her shell ring on her right hand, which is resting at her side.

“What’s wrong? You look sad. Is everything okay?” I ask.

“No, not really okay.” she says. I wait for her to say more. But she is silent, smiling sadly and looking down into my face.

I shift my gaze to her ring. She lifts her hand and gestures to it, smiling sadly, and holds it out to me to look at. I smile and show her that I am wearing mine, too.

“Thank you for coming back,” I say.

Eva touches my cheek, her expression sad, shaking her head no. “I have to go now,” she says resolutely, turning and gliding away into the darkness silently.

Leaving again.

I try to scream “Don’t go!” But nothing will come out. I try again, frustrated, anguished. Again, nothing.

I look down at the book whose words won’t stay still. They scramble again.

Jerking awake and up off my pillow I look around, realize I’m home in bed. My mother’s grandfather clock is chiming downstairs in the living room. My heart is pounding in my chest, my pulse a roar in my ears.

Only a dream.

Eva is gone. It was only a dream.

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Chapter 9

9.

Dad was waiting for us when we got home. He was sitting at the kitchen table with a beer when we came in. He looked tired.

“How was it?” he asked, his expression somber, twirling the glass of beer in his hand.

“Horrible,” I said, thinking it couldn’t have been anything other than horrible, after all. The cold drizzle outside had worked its way into my bones. My eyes were burning, felt hollow. But perhaps worst of all, I still couldn’t believe she was gone. I couldn’t accept what I’d seen, and it made me angry. Angry at the impossibility and misery of it.

Mom laid her purse on the entryway credenza and entered the kitchen. She slipped into a chair next to my father and laid her hand over his arm. He hadn’t been able to leave work to attend the wake because of an afternoon meeting that could not be cancelled. I wondered, though, if his absence had more to do with his habitual boycott of all religious and social rituals and services. He never attended anything of that sort: Sunday church services, weddings, funerals, holiday church services. He always had something pressing happening at work whenever those events took place, leaving Mom to act as a kind of ambassador on his behalf. The only things he’d ever made appearances at were sports and musical events his children were participating in.

Kori and Billy sat down with them. Billy folded his arms on the table and laid his head on them, giving an exhausted sigh.

“Here,” Kori said, taking a photograph out of her purse and holding it out to me. “I took it at the beach in June. Thought you might like to have it,” she said sniffling.

I took the photo, my face puffy from crying. “Thanks,” I said, starting to cry again at the sight of Eva’s face there.

Kori pulled a little roll of tissues out of her pocket, handed me one, peeled one out for herself, and tucked them back into her pocket. I imagined she would be a good mother. She was always prepared with helpful little items. Extra Kleenex, bottles of water, snacks, blankets, whatever. One of those people who thought of things like that. I bent to hug Kori, said goodnight to everyone, and went down the hall to my bedroom.

Taking Kori’s picture to bed with me, I put my head on the pillow and propped the photo up next to me on my lamp. It was of Eva and me together earlier that summer at the beach. Blonde, standing with her left arm draped over me, a happy smile on her face, Eva looked so vital and permanent. So real.

I started to cry again, my mind reeling at her absence. Had she been real? Was any of this real? Rolling everything over again and again in my mind, I tried to breathe. An accident with the car, her wheel coming off, and a large delivery truck hitting her Civic. I couldn’t get my head around it. Perhaps because I hadn’t seen the car. Maybe because I’d had to take Mr. Verdano’s word for it. It didn’t seem possible. With school just two weeks away, this couldn’t have happened. I told myself it was all just a bad dream. That I would wake in the morning and Eva would come for breakfast.

Like always.

I held that in my mind, repeating it like a mantra. This is all just a bad dream. Eventually I fell asleep, the photo beside me.

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Chapters 7 and 8

7.

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.  

8.

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.

“Hi.”

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.

“Okay.”

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.

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Prologue

Prologue

The crunch of metal was nothing to the explosion of pain Eva felt when her head hit the windshield. Neglecting her seatbelt might have been unwise, but fastening it wouldn’t have saved her. The car was squashed, the driver’s compartment pressed nearly flat, glass shattered everywhere, fallen onto Eva in a shower of jagged crystals.

For what seemed an eternity she sat pinned in excruciating pain, waves of nausea sweeping over her, her bare, bloodied, beautiful young legs crushed, pinned beneath the collapsed steering column. Blood obscured her vision as she struggled to free herself, jagged breaths full of fear and disbelief came in gasps until finally, sweet quiet and darkness overtook her.

Suddenly she stood beside the car.  Why wasn’t anyone coming to help her? Why was she all alone?

The car she’d saved all year to buy had become a squashed, ruined cage of metal around her motionless body. Inside, her blonde hair was a cascade on the carseat, blood flowed from her forehead. She tried to open the car door but it wouldn’t budge. Some distance in front of the car, an enormous truck had gone off the highway, skidding into the roadside ditch and coming to rest against trees.  She could see the driver still in the cab.

Then there were sirens, and firemen, emergency medical technicians, pulling up and rushing toward the car, radios blaring, someone shouting the driver was trapped, running through and past Eva as she stood watching. Watching them pull her from the car, watching their attempts to rescue her.

Eva watched as they administered CPR, watched them bring in the jaws of life. She watched them fail to save her, watched, as they gently lifted her from what was left of her sawed-open car. And in disbelief, she watched the uniformed men remove her body and carry it to the ambulance, load her car onto a tow truck, and drive away.

Left by the road, looking around, Eva was lost, not sure what to do next, or how to return home.  There were police officers standing by the truck, speaking with the driver.  She looked at her hands.  She wore a friendship ring made of polished sea shell.  Seeing this, she began to walk toward the exit ramp she’d used to enter the highway.  She had to find Rowan.

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Chapters 5 and 6

5.

Marc drove us back to my house after we left Rob, intending to leave us for the evening. Ronnie went inside straight away, leaving us alone for the last time before Marc’s departure. He’d had these plans all summer, and would be visiting his father for a week.

“Are you going to be okay, Rowan? I could probably put the trip off,” Marc said, leaning close to me and slipping my hair back behind my ear to kiss me.

I wrapped my arms around him, holding onto him for dear life. “I’ll be fine. You won’t be gone long and you need to see your Dad,” I answered, not feeling fine, and not feeling like he would be gone a short time. But I was desperate not to interrupt his plans. He had been looking forward to seeing his father. And I couldn’t have told him how I felt, anyway. It would have been a kind of blasphemy to tell him I wanted him to stay.

I felt him agree, though he didn’t nod. “I’ll call you as soon as I get back,” he promised as we got out of the car to walk to the front door. We passed by the house. A curtain moved in my brother’s window. Marc reached for my hand. We walked in the warm air, listening to the early evening crickets.

“Rowan, I love you,” he said, sounding anxious. “I feel bad about leaving you now, this way,” he said. But time was unfolding, and so were events. We were walking in rhythm, and his voice was smooth and low. Like summer.

I looked up into his eyes. He met my gaze, his eyes full of awareness and depth. I was in love with him, wanted him deeply as I looked up at him.

We stopped on the walk before we reached the door and my parents’ eyes. I leaned up to kiss him. “I love you, too,” I said, the words making me want to cry. He returned my kiss, first tentatively and then more deeply.

I had to pull away, my head was swimming. Swimming with desire for him, grief for Eva, grief for my lost plans, anxiety at his leaving, the warm summer air. Swimming at the breakneck speed of events. At everything.

When we separated I stood on the walk and watched him get into his car and drive away. Leaving me to whatever was to come next.

6.

Ronnie and I sat quietly together in our family room staring at the cold fireplace. We were both on the couch, our legs pulled up in front of us, beyond exhaustion and full of grief. Mom had left us snacks, drinks, blankets, and pillows. Classical music played upstairs, an echo of my father’s music reaching us downstairs in the family room.

She sniffed.

“You know Mike liked her.” This she related flatly. In high school, liking someone meant wanting to date them.

Surprised, I looked at her. “Your Mike?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, still staring at the fireplace blankly, voice almost toneless. “He wanted to date her, asked her out. But she didn’t want to. So, she set us up instead.”

She shrugged.

Her voice was completely without emotion recounting the story. I realized she was too tired to cry or even speak with inflection, and I had a sense that her fatigue stretched back to events that had taken place long before Eva had so abruptly abandoned us.

She continued, “Senior skip day. She told him I liked him. Told him he should ask me to spend the day with him.” She looked at me then, the faintest smile seeming to want to visit the corners of her mouth. It didn’t quite happen. The would-be smile disappeared. “Funny, huh?”

“Yeah, funny.”

Was it?

Perhaps.

“Had you told her you liked him?” I asked, awe creeping into my voice. I’d never heard this story before. Eva as matchmaker. She’d never told me about Ronnie and Mike.

“No. I thought he was cute, that was all. She did it all on her own. I don’t know why,” she said, looking again at the fireplace.

“Wow,” I said, meaning it. Eva had been right. Ronnie and Mike had fallen in love, stayed together. How had she known?

“Yeah,” she said, reaching for one of Mom’s butter cookies. “Sort of like a gift, or a replacement. Now that she’s gone, I have someone else. I feel like she gave me someone to replace her before she left.” Ronnie fixed her great brown eyes on me. The miracle of Ronnie’s eyes was that their color, almost black, was like a mirror. When you looked into them, you saw yourself.

Mom came into the family room with another blanket. “Are you girls all set? We’re going to bed now.”

“We are,” I nodded. “Thanks, Mom.”

She leaned to kiss my forehead. “Goodnight, girls,” she said, and shut the hall light when she left.

We sat quietly for a few minutes, two girls brought together by a friend each of us loved. Brought together by her loss. I thought about Ronnie’s story, wondering how it had escaped my notice that my best friend had played matchmaker for two other close friends. Wondering at this whole other side of Eva that I hadn’t experienced or been aware of, at events so seemingly close to me and yet unknown to me.

“She was full of surprises, wasn’t she?” I asked, my voice flat to match Ronnie’s.

Wistfully, with a trace of finality, she said, “Mmm hmm. Mysterious.”

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chapter 4

4.

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.

“Rowan …”

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.

“Yes.”

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.”

Breathe.

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.”

“Oh, God…”

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.

Rob waited.

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.

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chapter 3

3.

Saturday nights were a nightmare. Eva’s mother had bookclub at 7pm and she was alone in the house with her father. Every week. And there was no hiding from him. Starting at Eva’s 12th birthday, he’d begun to come for her. At first just to touch her, to gently spread her legs, to speak softly to her about how beautiful she was.

“Eva, your skin is so soft,” he’d said, caressing her cheek with the back of his hand. And then down her back to her legs, stroking the skin on the inside of her thigh. And inevitably, authoritatively, he reached up under her skirt.

“Does this feel good?” he’d asked softly, smiling and staring into her face as if he could see through her. Absorbing her fear and confusion like it was a cocktail.

“Here, how about this?” slipping his fingertips into the soft folds of skin.

Her cheeks burning, she was paralyzed. Unable to respond, to move, to protect herself. Week after week like a routine he’d lead her to her room. He never bothered to contrive an excuse. And she never bothered to resist.

The one night she’d tried had been disastrous. Jamming himself into her mouth he’d said “I’ll show you who is in control.” And he held her head steady for an eternity, her jaw aching as if it would break. The thought to bite down hadn’t even come to her.

But this week was the first time he’d come into her. He’d had a bad week, some investments had gone south, and he took it out on Eva, pounding at her from behind until she cried.

When he was finished he zipped his pants, which he hadn’t bothered to take off. And leaving her face down on her twin-sized bed, the one her mother had dressed in a flowered quilt, he left.

“I’ll be in my office if you need anything, baby,” he’d said, walking out. His tone so casual and cool. As if nothing had happened. That was his game. None of this was real, nothing was going on. And for all Eva knew, that was true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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