“They didn’t make it,” my mother said slowly.
This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. Something slimy and horrible began to rise in my throat.
“How? How did they die?” I managed to ask.
“The building collapsed,” my mother said calmly.
“It was an old building, Mara. You know that.”
I couldn’t speak. Of course I knew. When my father moved home to Rhode Island after law school, he’d represented the family of a boy who had been trapped inside the building. A boy who died. Daniel was forbidden from going there, not that my perfect older brother ever would. Not that I ever would.
But for some reason, I had. With Rachel, Claire, and Jude.
With Rachel. Rachel.
I had a sudden image of Rachel walking boldly into kindergarten, holding my hand. Of Rachel turning out the lights in her bedroom and telling me her secrets, after she had listened to mine. There was no time to even process the words “Claire and Jude, too,” because the word “Rachel” filled my mind. I felt a hot tear slide down my cheek.
“What if—what if she was just trapped, too?” I asked.
“Honey, no. They searched. They found—” My mother stopped.
“What?” I demanded, my voice shrill. “What did they find?”
She considered me. Studied me. She said nothing.
“Tell me,” I said, a knife’s edge in my voice. “I want to know.”
“They found…remains,” she said vaguely. “They’re gone, Mara. They didn’t make it.”
Remains. Pieces, she meant. A wave of nausea rocked my stomach. I wanted to gag. I stared hard at the yellow roses from Rachel’s mother instead, then squeezed my eyes shut and searched for a memory, any memory, of that night. Why we went. What we were doing there. What killed them.
“I want to know everything that happened.”
I recognized her placating tone and my fingers curled into fists around my sheets. She was trying to protect me but she was torturing me instead.
“You have to tell me,” I begged, my throat filled with ash.
My mother looked at me with glassy eyes and a heart-broken face. “I would if I could, Mara. But you’re the only one who knows.”
Laurelton Memorial Cemetery, Rhode Island
THE SUN REFLECTED OFF THE POLISHED mahogany of Rachel’s coffin, blinding me. I stared, letting the light sear my corneas, hoping the tears would come. I should cry. But I couldn’t.
Everyone else could, though, and did. People she never even spoke to, people she didn’t even like. Everyone from school was there, claiming a piece of her. Everyone except Claire and Jude. Their memorial service was that afternoon.
It was a gray and white day, a biting New England winter day. One of my last.
The wind blew, lashing my curls against my cheeks. A handful of mourners separated me from my parents, silhouettes of black against the colorless, unbroken sky. I hunched into my coat and wrapped it tighter around my body, shielding myself from my mother’s unblinking stare. She’d been watching my reactions since they released me from the hospital; she was the first to reach me that night when my screaming woke the neighbors, and she was the one who caught me crying in my closet the next day. But it was only after she found me two days later, dazed and blinking and clutching a shard of a broken mirror in my bloody hand, that she insisted on getting me help.
What I got was a diagnosis. Post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychologist said. Nightmares and visual hallucinations were my new normal, apparently, and something about my behavior in the psychologist’s office made him recommend a long-term care facility.
I couldn’t let that happen. I recommended moving instead.
I remembered the way my mother’s eyes narrowed when I brought it up a few days after the disastrous appointment. So wary. So cautious, like I was a bomb under her bed.
“I really think it will help,” I said, not believing that at all. But I had been nightmare-free for two nights, and the mirror episode I didn’t remember was apparently the only one. The psychologist was overreacting, just like my mother.
“Why do you think so?” My mother’s voice was casual and even, but her nails were still bitten down to the beds.
I tried to recall the mostly one-sided conversation I’d had with the psychologist.
“She was always in this house—I can’t look at anything without thinking about her. And if I go back to school, I’ll see her there, too. But I want to go back to school. I need to. I need to think about something else.”
“I’ll talk to your father about it,” she said, her eyes searching my face. I could see in every crease of her forehead, every tilt of her chin, that she didn’t understand how her daughter could have gotten here—how I could have snuck out of the house and ended up in the last place I should. She had asked me as much, but of course I had no answer.
I heard my brother’s voice out of nowhere. “I think it’s almost over,” Daniel said.
My heartbeat slowed as I looked up at my older brother. And as he predicted, the priest then asked us all to bow our heads and pray.
I shifted uncomfortably, the brittle grass crunching under my boots, and glanced at my mother. We weren’t religious and frankly, I wasn’t sure what to do. If there was some protocol for how to behave at your best friend’s funeral, I didn’t get the memo. But my mother tilted her head, her short black hair falling against her perfect skin as she appraised me, examined me, to see what I’d choose. I looked away.
After an eternity of seconds, heads lifted as if eager for it to be over, and the crowd dissolved. Daniel stood beside me while my classmates took turns telling me how sorry they were, promising to stay in touch after the move. I hadn’t been in school since the day of the accident, but some of them had come to visit me in the hospital. Probably just out of curiosity. No one asked me how it happened, and I was glad because I couldn’t tell them. I still didn’t know.
Squawking pierced the funeral’s hushed atmosphere as hundreds of black birds flew overhead in a rush of beating wings. They settled on a cluster of leafless trees that overlooked the parking lot. Even the trees were wearing black.
I faced my brother. “Didn’t you park under those crows?”
He nodded, and started walking to his car.
“Fabulous,” I said as I followed him. “Now we’re going to have to dodge crap from the whole flock.”