Novel Published by Chapter. Full Book available on Amazon:
The Seventh Sister
For the Pleiades: Eva, Jen, Ronnie, Beth, Eileen, and Pat
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven; All good children go to heaven…
Summer days have a reputation for being uneventful. They run together, form a kind of hazy cloud that eventually becomes a memory of something you remember doing during your non-school interlude – someplace you spent time, like camp, or a beach. But the last day of August 2007 was more like a slow-motion film burned into my mind – unalterable, vivid, and utterly ruinous.
It started out like any other summer day. Sunny and hot in southern New Hampshire, the tree tops were still, and the only sound outside was the singing of birds and cicadas.
All of the windows were open in our old colonial house at 8:30 in the morning and already the day’s heat was sweltering. Despite the heat, the house had a kind of airy feeling. My father’s love of simplicity had translated into off-white walls throughout the house. The floors were all wood, except for the kitchen, which my father had tiled in marble as a gesture of thumbing his nose at contractors who had advised against it. The combination made for a kind of cool, clean effect overall that defied the day’s oppressive summer heat.
Still half asleep, I padded down the hall to see if I could catch my parents before they left for the day.
Our white marble kitchen floor was cold on my bare feet and the smell of fresh coffee filled the air. The kitchen was tidied and cleaned and the coffee pot was full of my mother’s thoughtfulness. But, together with a silence that hung in the air, a note on the table told me they had already gone to work. It read: “Rowan: Take the Audi to work today. Dad wants to check the temperature gauge on your car. Love you. M”
A car pulled into the driveway outside. 8:40. Eva was on time, as usual. I poured my coffee and pulled a second mug from the cabinet.
“Hello?” Eva called from the front door, letting herself in as was her custom. Eva worked every day at a nearby lake, where she was a lifeguard. Most mornings she came by the house for coffee and breakfast before work.
“Howdy!” Her cheerful voice preceded her into the kitchen, where I was popping toast into the toaster. Eva’s blonde hair was loose, hanging to her shoulders, and she came in wearing frosted pink lipstick and a red tank top that said GUARD in big capitals. She wore denim cutoff blue jeans that were snug enough to show off her young, generous figure. White canvas sneakers and a colorful woven anklet completed her cross-between-a-camp-counselor-and-lifeguard look.
“Good morning, sunshine.” I answered. “Coffee?”
“Mais, oui!” Eva seated herself at the kitchen table and I added her toast to the toaster before pouring our coffee and sitting down with her at the kitchen table. She had taken three years of French in high school and switched to common French expressions in conversation every so often. I wouldn’t have known a word of French, otherwise. For my part, I had taken two years of Spanish that amounted to less than five expressions I could use or remember. Our Spanish teacher, Mr. Anderson, was handsome but we speculated that he was stoned a good portion of class time. His eyes were usually bloodshot, and we watched him accidentally walk into the door to the classroom at least once, bumping his head. As if to confirm our growing suspicion that Mr. Anderson was really one of us, one of my classmates spotted him after school one day leaning between some lockers and kissing one of the other foreign language teachers.
“What’s on for today?” Eva asked, pulling out a compact to inspect her lipstick.
“The usual. I’m working from 12 to 5. You?”
“Rob and I are going to the movies tonight,” she said, rubbing at a bit of pink on her front tooth. “Do you want to call Marc and make it a double date?” She gave me a suggestive smile.
I considered. A movie and a date with Marc would give me something to look forward to. Summer days at my summer job were always very quiet. Some days I was lucky to have two customers all afternoon at the little privately owned bookstore. I spent the time perched behind the sales counter on a stool, reading historical fictions. The bookshop owner didn’t mind. In fact, he thought it was good for business. So it was the perfect job for a bookworm like me, though the shifts were long, especially after a whole summer of them.
“I’ll call him and see if he’s free. What are you going to see?”
“Creature from the Black Lagoon,” she said, grinning. “They’re doing a special feature at the Capital.”
We lived in the small town of Chester, New Hampshire, where not much went on. The neighboring town of Manchester had a small theater and some restaurants, including a little art theater that often ran old re-runs or Midnight shows of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Spreading orange marmalade on her toast, Eva said, “I bought some stuff for our dorm room. I found a really pretty lamp for one of the dressers and I bought us a little radio so that we can listen to music. It’s pink!” She exclaimed. Then, rummaging around in her bag she said, “And… voila!” Out came the new Madonna album.
“For you. A housewarming present! I saw you looking at it in the record store,” she said, handing it to me with an excited smile plastered on her face.
I turned over the cd. “True Blue.” She had a copy that I always asked to listen to when we were in her car. One day we’d been shopping and I’d picked it up, but I didn’t have the money to buy it.
“Eva! You don’t have the money for this!” I remonstrated. I hardly knew what else to say when she did things like this. Her generosity embarrassed me. I looked at her beaming face.
“Thank you!” I reached across the table and gave her a big hug. “I love it!”
“I know!” she said, her smile beaming. For months she’d been planning our new space, calling me her “roomie.” We were scheduled to attend a freshman orientation in three weeks at the University of New Hampshire, and we had been assigned a room together in the all-girl dormitory, Randall Hall. We were both very excited.
After breakfast we walked outside together. The cicadas were singing, the sun was already strong, and our stone walkway was warm under my bare feet. Her blue Honda Civic was parked in the driveway, a strawberry air freshener hanging from a cigarette lighter that didn’t work. I leaned in on the passenger side looking at it, noticing the smell. My stomach turned uncomfortably.
Eva started the car and fastened her seat belt, smiling her sunny, pink lipstick smile at me. “Have fun at the bookstore,” she said with some sarcasm as she engaged the clutch.
“Right, thanks,” I replied, and then on impulse, “Hey—Eva? I have a bad feeling…like something is about to happen…” My stomach was still turning. I had long since learned that whenever I got that feeling I needed to pay attention. I was known among close friends for my psychic premonitions. They were rare but seldom wrong. The queasy feeling could almost always be trusted. “Can I drive you to work today? I feel like you shouldn’t take your car,” I finished. Her Jesus figurine with the bobbing head was on her dashboard, vehemently nodding his agreement.
Her face darkened. “What do you mean you have a bad feeling?”
“I don’t know. I just have a bad feeling… my stomach is queasy. I’d just feel better if I drove you to work today…” My voice trailed off.
“You’re a worry wart,” she said. “I’m fine! I’ll call you when I get home from work.” Her tone was firm, even a little aggravated.
“Are you sure?” I tried again. “I’ve got my Mom’s Audi today.” I said, hoping I could tempt her.
“No thanks. Don’t worry. I’ll call you later, Rowan,” she said shortly.
“You seem upset, are you angry with me about something?” I asked, worried that I might have upset her. It wasn’t like Eva to be short-tempered.
“No, I’m not mad at you,” she said, sighing. “I had an argument with my mother this morning before I came over and I’m just feeling a little annoyed about it. I have some errands to run after work and I need my car. That’s all, no big deal.”
She hadn’t mentioned the argument with her mother earlier. “What about?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just something stupid and I don’t want to talk about it,” her tone was dismissive, aggravated. “I’ll see you later on, okay? I’ll call you when I get out of work.”
With that, she backed out of the driveway.
I never saw Eva alive again.
The funeral was on a cold rainy day in the first week of September. Not the sort of day that usually belongs to the end of summer, with its hot afternoons and choruses of crickets. I sat at a little dressing table that had been in my bedroom since I was four years old. Pink when we found it at a garage sale, my mother bought it, stripped it, and painted it white for me.
I heard my parents down the hall, talking in hushed voices.
The table had a little white skirt, complete with elastic and white push pins to hold it on, and a mirror that folded three ways. This my Mom had also painted white. It was cluttered with various cosmetics and hair accessories.
“Rowan?” Mom called through the door as she knocked softly. “Rowan, honey, it’s time to go.”
I sat there, looking in the mirror and crying. “Just a minute, Mom.”
My eyes were swollen and red and my cheeks were tear-streaked. The makeup I was trying to apply did not conceal any of that. I tried feebly, just the same, dabbing at my cheeks with a brush full of powder.
My chest was heavy. I glanced around the room plaintively, wishing I could go back to bed. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the house. I looked terrible and felt worse. My eyes were bloodshot, my honey brown hair was unruly with humidity, and exhaustion was palpable on my face. The black blouse and skirt I was wearing felt constricting and damp. I stayed seated at my table crying until Mom finally opened my bedroom door and sat down on my bed.
“Sweetie, we need to go now. It’s getting late.”
Some time later we were standing in the doorway of a Catholic Church where Eva’s funeral was about to take place. It was the first funeral I had ever attended and it was the funeral of my closest friend. We were both eighteen at that time.
I turned to see Maggie, a girl Eva and I went to school with. I tried to smile because I didn’t have the energy to speak and I didn’t have anything to say. But the smile sort of froze and broke, falling off of my face. Mom steered me into a pew.
The church was cold and damp, probably because the doors were open to the cold and the rain. The men at the door, dressed in black, were people I’d never seen before. Cavernous with stone floors and dark recessed walls, the church was a fitting setting for a funeral. I saw a little marble font filled with water to the left of the door as we entered. I wondered what that was. I wondered if Eva knew. She must have.
The ceilings were vaulted, and the altar seemed a mile away, positioned as it was at the very top of an aisle made of gray stone. Eva’s casket was there, flowers covering it, untouchable, unreachable. There were young men in black suits standing near the front of the church. I scanned each face, looking for someone I knew, but none were familiar.
We heard cars rushing by and the hard, cold sound of a constant rain on the roof and the sidewalk outside. Cold, cold, cold. A wet wind blew into the church through the open front doors behind us. There was no shelter that day.
Mom and I sat down, shivering.
I watched people walking up the aisle to my right, finding seats. Jen passed with her mother, Mrs. McCarthy, and, seeing us, chose the pew in front of us.
“Hey. You okay?” Jen whispered, looking directly at me with her big clear green eyes.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, not feeling okay.
She wore a black sweater, skirt, and heels. Her brown hair was pulled back in combs. Mrs. McCarthy looked sympathetic when she grasped my hand and turned to greet my mother in a hushed voice.
“It is difficult to understand at times why things happen as they do…” The priest’s awkward voice came from the front of the church, where he stood behind a podium. He was speaking into a microphone. I groaned involuntarily.
His gray hair was combed to the side, and his white and black collar seemed strange to me. We—Eva and I—had never gone to church together. It was hard for me to connect her with this man, this place, and its symbols.
He continued, “Eva died young. She was a conscientious student, a loving daughter, and a hard worker. She impressed everyone who knew her with her good sense and her love of life…”
Blah, blah, blah.
The priest’s cardboard eulogy fell flat on the stone floor at the front of the church.
“…and the joy she brought to those of us who knew her,” well, that, at least had some truth and value to it. I knew that he hadn’t known Eva in life. I wondered if he had actually spoken to her teachers and family.
He hadn’t spoken to me.
Perhaps his words were recycled from other eulogies. He didn’t mention what she wanted to study at the university, or her dream of becoming a nurse. He didn’t mention her phenomenal optimism, or her expansive Barbie doll collection.
“…but it seems to me that she would wish us to celebrate her life, her love of fun, her many interests and friends…” Someone at the front of the church coughed.
I marveled. He didn’t mention her fingernail polish fetish.
Basically, he didn’t mention any of the things that made Eva interesting and unique to the rest of us. And I wasn’t sure what he wanted us to celebrate. Eva hadn’t begun her life yet. She hadn’t set out on the career she dreamt of, she hadn’t gone off to college as she’d planned, and at eighteen years old, the end of her short life had already come. I brooded over these things, thinking of the rest of us, her classmates, going on with our lives. I agonized over the unfairness of it. I ignored the rest of his remarks.
The church was full. There were dozens—probably over a hundred—people I didn’t know. This surprised me because I had spent every day with Eva for so long that it did not seem possible she could have known so many other people. There were mountains of flowers on and surrounding her casket. Where had they come from?
Suddenly, a fierce possessiveness of her came over me as I looked at all of the unfamiliar people who had come to pay their respects. My mother and I stood there behind Jen and her Mom in a sea of people we neither knew or recognized. It was strange. I could not see her family, who were undoubtedly at the front of the church. I thought of Eva’s other close friends. Beth. Ronnie. I imagined they would be here with their mothers. I looked around, but I couldn’t see either of them in the crowd.
At that point I began to feel faint. I hadn’t been able to eat breakfast and it was nearly noon. I held onto the pew in front of me to steady myself. My knuckles were white as I clung to the dark, unmoving wood. I wanted to kneel down on the padded kneeling stool in front of me, but everyone else was standing. My cheeks were hot and my head was swimming.
Looking down, I stared at a tan line on my right hand. Until two days earlier, that spot was where I had worn a shell ring that Eva gave me.
Instantly it was the beginning of the summer, and I was at the beach with her, walking along the boardwalk of shops there.
“Hey, Rowan, look.” Eva grabbed my elbow and pushed me toward a little heap of pinkish shell rings in a basket with a sign that said they were seven dollars each.
She picked one up. “Try it.”
It didn’t fit, so she took it from me, put it back in the basket and selected another. “How about this one?”
This same sequence repeated itself until one fit.
She did the same herself, and satisfied we’d found the right two, she paid the woman behind the counter.
“Friendship rings!” she said, hugging me and releasing me with a happy smile.
The memory started me crying again. Trying to control myself only seemed to make it worse. My shoulders shook and my chest heaved with the effort of trying to stop the tears. A low moan escaped, and I swooned in embarrassment.
Sensing my horror, my mother put her arm around me and tried to comfort me. That may have been the only thing that kept me from falling over. I listened to the rain outside and tried to breath.
I would have fled the church if Eva’s body wasn’t up there in a cold, shiny, cream colored casket. But here in this enormous room filled with people, I felt she needed my company. I wondered if she was still wearing her ring. It had been on her hand at the wake.
Utterly unbelievable to me, the thought of her sunny blonde visage brought another choked sob up and out of my throat. None of these people knew her. How had this happened? Was she really dead? Maybe this was all a horrible mistake.
I wondered if she would sit up.
I imagined she would throw the top of the casket open, scattering the flowers, look around smiling, and say “C’mon you guys. Very funny joke. Somebody get me out of this thing.”
Or, indignant at that blue flowery polyester old-lady dress they had put on her, demand, “What’s going on? Where are my blue jeans and sneakers?”
I imagined these things, almost convincing myself she might in fact come to life at that moment, before us all.
But she didn’t.
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.
It should have been clear something was wrong when Eva didn’t call after her shift at the lake. I phoned her house, but there was no answer. I came to the natural conclusion that she was running late or got held up at the beach cleaning up after the Moms and kids who had inevitably left a mess. I got ready for our evening out. Marc came to the house to pick me up for the movie.
But there still was no call from Eva.
I tried again to phone her house. Mrs. Verdano answered the phone, sounding hoarse. Her voice cracked when I asked for Eva.
There was some crying and a rustling as the phone changed hands.
Her father’s voice came on. “Hi, Rowan.”
“Hi, Mr. Verdano. May I speak with Eva?”
He heaved a heavy sigh. “No, I’m sorry…” his tone did not carry his usual matter-of-factness, but was apologetic and tired sounding instead.
Then he said, “Eva isn’t here,” and paused for what seemed like an eternity.
“We… there’s been an accident…”
“Is she at the hospital?” I asked abruptly.
A silence hung on the line while I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t say anything else.
“Can I see her? What room is she in?” I was gesturing wildly at Marc for a pen and paper. My parents came into the kitchen, sensing bad news. Marc was opening and closing drawers, looking for something to write with.
“No…no. Rowan, you can’t visit her,” Mr. Verdano sounded distant, hard. “Rowan, Eva is dead.”
I leaned on the counter, trying to absorb what he was saying. The room shrank, the walls hit my face. I held the phone, which suddenly weighed a ton, against my ear. But I couldn’t hear. Everything went black. I struggled to breathe.
His words sounded forced. “I… I’m sorry.”
My father came across the room, put his arms on my shoulders to steady me. I felt myself falling.
What? My mind raced.
He was sorry?
Eva was his daughter. I was just a friend.
Just a friend.
“No,” was all I said, my breath coming in hard fast spurts.
He didn’t answer.
“She can’t be,” I felt hot, panicky, unstable. Tears sprang up into my eyes and throat. Marc gave up his search for a pen and came toward me. I wanted to drop the receiver. I wanted to run. But I couldn’t.
“Are you sure?”
I couldn’t believe it. It was not possible. There had to be a mistake or mix up.
“We’re sure. We had a call from the police late this morning and we’ve been to the hospital to identify her. We’re sure, Rowan.”
Dad held me up, hands on my shoulders. His steady grip kept me from toppling. I was having trouble holding onto the receiver. My muscles wanted to fail. My head was a hard block of pain and pressure.
Marc and Mom stood on either side of me and were exchanging looks of worry. I looked down at the floor to avoid the questions in their eyes. Taking deep breaths, I told myself this was all a mistake. This couldn’t possibly be right.
The exhaustion in Mr. Verdano’s voice was obvious, he didn’t want to talk or explain anymore. Had he already told many people? The question flew through my mind. He didn’t want to talk to me, but I had to know more.
Had to get to the bottom of this horrible mistake. “Which hospital is she in? What happened?”
The story he told me was too surreal. There had been a car accident shortly after she left our house to go to work. The front left wheel of her car had somehow come off, and a delivery truck that was following behind her crashed into her car, throwing it onto the side of the road. Eva had been killed in the collision. The police called Eva’s parents to come to the hospital. They’d seen her car beside the road, decimated, as they drove there. They’d arrived at the hospital and identified Eva. She was dead. That was all they knew.
“Give my best to your parents, Rowan,” Mr. Verdano said heavily. I thanked him and hung up.
Mom, Dad, and Marc stood there, waiting for me to repeat what I’d heard, explain what had happened to Eva. But the task was too much. It was too much to breathe. I stared dumbly at them.
My brother and sister came in, sensing something was happening, pulling up behind my parents and waiting with them. Five pairs of eyes waited, staring, expectantly.
“Eva…” I began, looking at them. Dad took a deep breath, his nostrils flaring, and looked at my mother. No one spoke, they waited there in a circle around me, still staring.
“She’s had an accident,” my face crumpled.
“They said she’s dead,” I said, still not believing it. “But she can’t be. She isn’t. There’s been a mistake,” I said, trying to make myself certain with my words.
It was the annihilation of my plans, the evaporation of our dreams together. UNH was going to be a fresh start for us. A place where we could become the people we wanted to be. She would study to become a nurse. I would write, study in the liberal arts field. We would be free of the watchful, protective constraints of our parents’ homes. Free to choose coursework. Free of our curfews. Free to make new friends, fashion the identities we wanted. This wasn’t, couldn’t be, happening.
It just couldn’t.
My sister, Kori, started to cry and wring her hands. I looked away, avoiding the sight of her tears. They were a testimony to what I couldn’t face. My younger sister was not emotive. Nor did she shrink from things. I had an instinctive respect for her reactions and responses because they had always been reliable and trustworthy. It hurt to see her crying because it meant something worth crying about was happening.
My brother Billy stood beside her, his posture stiff and exposed, his blue eyes welling up. He looked away and wiped at his nose with his sleeve. Emotional but not verbally expressive. He sat down quietly, his blue eyes awash in tears. Always so private with his feelings, his response to this news wouldn’t be an exception. Dad was somber, his blue-gray eyes turning cold, becoming distant.
Mom tried to move to me, tried to take me in her arms. But I didn’t want, couldn’t accept, comfort. I pushed her away, screaming, “No! This is a lie! We have to call the hospital!”
Frantically, I did just that.
Marc came and stood beside me silently. I could feel his breath close to me, but he didn’t touch me or speak. He just stood next to me, quietly, as I thumbed through the phone book looking for the number.
“I’m calling to find out if my friend has been admitted,” I began. The operator interrupted me to transfer my call. I felt my energy grow, move, constrained by the kitchen, the people in the kitchen. Needed more air.
There were some clicks and the phone rang again. Someone answered for Admitting.
I began again. “I’m calling to find out if my friend has been admitted,” I repeated.
The woman at the other end of the line answered coolly, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we do not give out patient information over the phone.”
“I’m not looking for information about her condition. I only want to know if she’s there.”
Her voice was more adamant this time, “I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t give that information out,” she said with a bored sigh.
“You can’t even tell me if you have her there?” I asked angrily.
Dad left the room.
“No, ma’am, I’m sorry. We do not disclose any information whatsoever about our patients.”
I thanked her, letting the phone drop to my side. Marc took it from me and replaced it on its cradle. I leaned back against the counter, my head in my hands, trying to think, trying to imagine an explanation for Eva’s absence.
Anything but this.
“There has to be a good explanation for this,” I said, determined.
“Honey, if Mr. Verdano has been to the hospital and identified Eva…” Mom said, “I think we have to believe what he said.” Her tone was worried.
I started to cry, defeated, unbelieving. It was more than I could understand. These things didn’t happen. I looked at Marc. His expression was watchful, fixed on me. “This can’t be, can it?” I pleaded.
He didn’t answer. Marc would never speak just for the sake of saying something. He had always been cautious with his words. His eyes often communicated for him. But I wanted to hear something reassuring. I wanted him to tell me of course these things never happen. We’ll go find her right now. But he didn’t speak, he just held me with his eyes. He might have known that I couldn’t bear to have my body held in that moment. I was too frantic to have arms close around me.
The doorbell rang. My mother looked at me, her expression a mix of annoyance and dismay at the interruption. She didn’t want to answer the door. Cautious by nature, and very overprotective of me, she would want to cocoon me.
“Will you get it or should I?” I demanded, thinking maybe it was Eva.
Mom rose, sighing her disapproval, and left the kitchen to answer the door. A moment later I heard Ronnie’s voice. “Hi, Mrs. Thomson. Is Rowan home?”
My mother made a quiet answer that I couldn’t hear.
“Please, Mrs. Thomson. I need to speak to Rowan,” was Ronnie’s reply. The door opened and we heard footsteps.
Ronnie came in with her boyfriend Mike. She came to me silently, her face long and distraught, and hugged me. Mike stood back, uncomfortable, positioning himself next to Marc against the counter. Both of them leaned awkwardly, watching us, unsure of how to be useful in the circumstances unfolding before them.
“It’s true, then?” she said with enough certainty to make me think it wasn’t really a question.
“I guess so,” I said, not sure.
There was silence.
And then, my mind jumped. Who would tell her boyfriend Rob? Or did he know? Who would tell our close friends? Something in me hoped perhaps she and Rob had run off, were hiding, or playing some practical joke. That there was some other explanation that hadn’t been revealed.
“We have to go to Rob’s house,” I said to everyone in the room. Someone would come with me.
“Of course. Whenever you want to go,” Marc said, his eyes reaching out to me.
I was frantic. I had to get up, leave the house, do something. “Now. Let’s go now,” I said.
Ronnie nodded. “Me, too,” she said, her tears finally coming in streams down her face.
We arrived at Rob’s house and went together to the front door. I rang the bell instead of knocking. His father answered the door, holding a wooden spoon. Apparently he was cooking dinner.
“Hi, Mr. Johnston. We were wondering if we can please speak with Rob?” I asked, feeling awkward that we had interrupted him during sacred family time. During dinner.
“Let me check to see if he’s here. He had a date tonight with Eva,” he said, looking dubious over our presence on his stoop.
“That’s sort of what we’re here to talk to him about, sir,” I said. Marc took my hand and squeezed it.
“Okay, I’ll see if I can find him. Please come in,” He said, motioning us in the front door with the spoon.
We walked into a living room that was to the right of the front door. The furniture was seventies style, and the walls were papered with bands of gold flowers. Rob came in.
“Hey, guys,” he said, his grin vanishing when he saw our expressions. “What’s going on?”
We all stood there mutely. I looked at Ronnie. Her big brown eyes mirrored mine, but she did not speak. “We have some news,” Mark offered, his voice low.
“Okay,” he said, alarm registering in his voice. He looked scared. “It’s Eva, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. My voice cracked. I wasn’t sure how to break the news to him. What words to say. I didn’t know how to tell him something I couldn’t believe myself. I had half expected to find her here when we arrived.
“We were supposed to go out tonight, but she hasn’t called or come by yet…” He paused. “I should’ve known something was wrong. She’s late so often, I just thought she got held up at the beach…” He broke off, looking at us.
“Rob, why don’t you sit down?” Marc said. It wasn’t really a question.
He did, sitting on a couch. Marc, Ronnie and I crammed into a loveseat opposite him.
“Eva’s had an accident,” I began, not sure I was telling the truth or, if I was, what I should say next. I sat between Marc and Ronnie, our hip bones all touching. I didn’t have to hold myself up. They did it for me.
My heart was racing in my chest, my throat was constricted, and I couldn’t control my voice. I took a deep breath, intending to try again.
Ronnie spoke then. “Rob, Eva’s been killed in a car accident,” she said quietly, resting her elbows in her lap, leaning forward and holding her hands out to him.
I wasn’t prepared for his reaction. He threw his head back, hitting the wall. I could see his Adam’s apple straining in this throat when he cried “Oh, God, no. Why does it always happen to the good ones?” And then he stayed there, head bent impossibly back against the wall, crying.
I sat there dumbly wondering who the good ones were. Had he lost friends already? Known any of the kids who had died in accidents or committed suicide over our four years at Pemberton? There had only been a very small handful. Quietly, I sat there thinking of the three classmates that I could bring to memory. Had there been others?
When he looked at us, his eyes were swimming. But he did not say anything else. Not a word. He just sat there, silent tears on his cheeks.
No one spoke. Too dumbfounded. Too incredible, this. Too impossible to understand.
Rob’s parents came in. Presumably they had overheard the conversation. They sat down with us, mirroring our silence. Ronnie, Marc, and I fidgeted, uncomfortable. We could all sense it was time for us to go, but we weren’t sure how to excuse ourselves. Rob wanted to be alone. He kept turning his body away from us, rocking toward the door, wanting to get up and leave the room. But our presence there prevented him.
Needing to leave as much as Rob needed privacy, I leaned toward him, put my hand over his, and told him to call if he needed anything. I tried to sound like I meant it, because I did. Hoping we had stayed long enough to convey our shared distress and support, I nodded to his parents.
And then we got up and left Rob with his parents and his grief.
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.
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.
“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.”
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?”
“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.”