What am I doing here?
It happened twenty years ago. I didn't even cry then. Everybody who found out about it told me to be grateful.
So many things to be grateful for, at least as far as they were concerned. "At least he went quick."
"He never felt a thing."
"If he'd lived, he'd be a cripple. For him, that would be worse."
I didn't feel grateful. I felt--nothing. Enraged? No. Bawling? No.
I was living out of state at the time, and Dad didn't bother to tell me until two weeks after the funeral. I suppose I should have been angry about that. But I wasn't. I just got up the next day and went to school. Every five seconds my brain screamed, He's Dead! He's Dead! And on the outside, I placidly continued flunking Geometry.
I started to think about the barn, how we played hide-and-seek there when we were kids. Then I stopped myself. Time to eat lunch. The gang's waiting at our table.
He moved into teenager-hood before me, charging around on his moped with a pretty girl behind him. Different one every time. It made me mad, couldn't say why. I gotta get to history class. Think about this later.
I started to notice him in a different way. Mom said he wasn't handsome, exactly, but he had a way about him... The truth was, he liked everything. Liked people, liked to talk, liked to laugh. Total opposite of me, and I knew it. Study hall. Time to work on Geometry, before I get expelled for sheer incompetence.
I started sitting in the woods where he couldn't see me, but I could hear his voice. I would listen to him joking and laughing, bouncing the basketball around. I wished I could laugh and talk like that, but I didn't eventhink of joining in. Why would I would embarass him like that? I was ugly and ratty-looking, not like the girls who usually hung out at his house. Three o'clock, time to go home. The gang's calling me over. Should I tell them? Lisa's mad at Jon again. Stick's hoping they'll break up so she can date him. Lisa'syelling at me for telling her she could date him. Well, I told her Jon was a jerk when I broke up with him.
I came here from that place, got myself some decent clothes and a professional haircut. I don't know why I let Mom cut my hair all those years. Fashions have changed since I was born. I got contact lenses and I neverput glasses on my nose again.
I went back for spring break, hoping maybe he'd see me. He did. Oh yeah, he did. He stared at me like he'd never seen me before. I acted like I didn't notice. 'Oh, you're in college now? What's that like?' And he kept chatting too. 'Yeah, he was working his way through, it was tough.' Our eyes kept meeting. Really meeting. But then I had to leave, and the next day I was coming back here. Well, I'd be back to see him when I went to Dad's for summer visitation, and we'd talk more, and maybe we'd go out, maybe... I got a phone call from Dad a week later. "He's been around here, asking just where you were. Wanted to know when you were coming back. He wasn't too pleased when I told him June."
And then three weeks later I get the call. The other one.
I'm thinking about all this, finally, twenty years on, pulling into that small-town cemetery. I never saw his grave. I couldn't. Things got kind of crazy there for awhile. I didn't have time for that kind of thing.
I still don't, really. But I've got to find the tombstone. I don't know why. I know he's dead. I don't need to see a chunk of rock to prove it. The cell phone rings.
It's my husband. "Baby, you all right? You gonna head back soon?"
"Yeah. Just need to stop off somewhere, then I'm on my way back." I don't need to go into detail. He suspects, but he's not saying.
"All right. You be careful."
I pull into the funeral home parking lot. They'll know where to find him. Hopefully they're still open. It's getting late in the day.
A little old lady is sitting at the desk. "I'm looking for a grave," I introduce myself.
I tell her.
"Oh, yes." She doesn't even have to look it up. It's nice to know he's still popular. She draws up a little map for me. "Just go to this section. He's right in front there. You'll see him."
Doing what? I want to ask, but I don't. Maybe working in a cemetery does this to you. She doesn't ask any questions, and I'm glad. I don't want anybody to know I'm back in town andwalking through the cemetery. Nobody needs to know that I'm not over it, that I'm a middle-aged married woman still stuck somehow at sixteen. Somewhere deep inside I'm still that kid with purple 80's hair; again I'm picking up the phone, listening to the Bangles on the radio, watching my presto-chango lipstick changing color and saying "Oh, hi Dad. What's up?"
It's getting dark. I suppose I should be nervous. But it's not that kind of a cemetery. Just flat stones with names and dates on them. Where is he? I look at the different stones. So many, so many.
Here. He's here in front of me, only three feet away. Now I realize I didn't want to see, after all. His name is embossed on a big bronze plaque, with a few lines of poetry. This plaque is huge, much nicer than the other headstones. His parents must have been out of their minds with grief. What must they have suffered that night?
He's not here, not really. But I kneel down anyway. I don't need to touch the plaque. I can see the name and the date. Killed twenty years ago, and born 19 years before that. 19 years. Was that all he got?
I lay my hand on his name. The bronze is still warm from the fading sun.
His parents put his graduation photo on the plaque. One of the bolts is gone; the mower must have been by and knocked the picture upside down. I put it straight.
He seems to look at me like he did that last night I saw him. Big beautiful dark eyes, dark curly hair, big daffy grin, silly turned-up nose, freckles all over his face.
I start crying. How stupid. Twenty years he's been gone. People have been born and graduated from high school in that space of time. I should be over it. If it was me under the grass, he wouldn't be here. He'd be with his family and living his life, where he belongs.
I can't stop crying. He should have finished college, gotten a wife and kids and a house. He should be clipping coupons in the Sunday paper, mowing the yard, glaring at his kids' report cards and telling them to straighten up. He's got no business here, not in this place.
"Aw, Scott." He can't hear me. The sun is vanishing beneath the trees. I don't want to leave him. But he would tell me to go. Go back to my life, my husband, my home. Because like it or not, the sun rises and sets, the years keep coming, and we have stuff to do. I needed to see him this last time, but there's a long drive ahead.
He is in safe hands. For that, I am indeed grateful.
© Copyright 2016 Helena Parris. All rights reserved.
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