Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #Young Adult, #Adult, #Contemporary
“Smoke this.” She smiled and gave me a funny salute she’d copied from Ginger Rogers. Then she dove into the water.
I watched her swim toward the landing. I thought of the seventy-million-year-old fish looking up toward the light and seeing the sleek graceful dolphin streaming just above it. I would have to row home by myself. Exercise was good for me if I wanted to look like Margaret. I needed to rest a while first. Sunspots ticked the back of my eyelids.
I sat up and looked for Margaret. Usually, she lay on the dock, sunning herself and waiting to help me tie up the boat. Maybe she’d gotten a phone call. Something made me shiver, as if I’d floated over a cold spot.
I rowed in as fast as I could and, panting, dragged the boat onto the bank. Our mother was still practicing that spooky Chopin waltz. I couldn’t find Margaret anywhere. Still a little breathless, I kept on calling her name.
I had to walk around in front of our mother and wave both arms until she noticed and stopped playing.
I said, “Have you seen Margaret?”
“No,” she said.
“I can’t find her,” I said.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” she said. “Why wouldn’t she be?”
“I can’t find her anywhere.” The jagged edge in my voice tore away the cobwebby trance she’d been in.
Mom stood up from the piano bench. She said, “Where
she, Nico? Go
ONE OF US KNEW
O ONE KNEW
HAT WAS WHAT EVERYONE
kept saying. First we didn’t know what had happened, then we didn’t know
it happened, and then we still couldn’t understand why, why Margaret, why our family, though it wasn’t
to say, “Why us?” What did it mean to be
? What did
mean without Margaret?
They searched for Margaret, they dragged the lake. Parked beside the water, the police car kept flashing its beacon. It wasn’t night, it wasn’t dark, they weren’t speeding to a crime scene. Maybe the spinning light was meant to reassure us. Help was on the way.
All the time the divers were working, my parents didn’t let me go outside. We sat on the porch, listening to the men shout from boat to shore and watching a trick of the light that made the red beacon seem to revolve on the white porch ceiling. My parents each held one of my hands with a steady pressure: half comfort, half restraint. They were afraid I’d see something that might scar me for life. But I was already scarred for life, and I couldn’t look at the lake. I couldn’t imagine letting my skin touch its filthy water. I’d been planning to go to the town’s algae-problem meeting and show off what I’d learned on the Internet. Let the phytoplankton bloom. Let the fish strangle and die.
We watched the beacon until my father said the light was driving him nuts and went to ask the cops to turn it off. Even after the light blinked out, a red shadow stained the ceiling. Some time later my father came in, and we took one look at him and knew that they had found her.
Still, every breath I took was a prayer. Let my sister be alive. I would devote my life to saving the lake if it didn’t kill her.
I kept hoping it was all a mistake, that she’d gone into town to meet Aaron. But I knew that hadn’t happened. Mom had suggested we phone him. Just like that, she’d said, “We should probably call Aaron.” What had all that play-acting been about, those sisterly trips to the movies? That my parents had known all along made me furious, for a second. A second was all we could afford. We had to be good to each other.
“I’ll call him,” I’d said. I didn’t want him hearing that Margaret was lost from someone who thought he had a screw loose.
“Wait a minute,” Aaron’s mother said when I’d asked if he was there. She’d shouted his name, as if across a distance. It took him a while to come to the phone.
I said, “Have you seen Margaret?”
“No, I haven’t. What’s up?”
“You haven’t seen her anywhere?”
He heard the pleading in my voice.
He said, “Should I come over?”
The truth was, I would have liked him to. But I said, “Better not.”
Almost as soon as they found her, the doorbell started ringing. The neighbors who brought over food had the grim, determined expressions of people seeing loved ones off on a journey. There were platters of sandwiches, casseroles of mac and cheese, bowls of tempting salads and fruit, but we weren’t tempted. Dad cooked, it helped him, just as it helped my parents to focus on me, just as it helped me that I had them. They were careful of me, they protected me. I never once heard the word
though I was pretty sure it happened.
My mother and father expanded into larger versions of themselves. The decisions they made, the small things they did, made me glad that they were my parents. They never even considered the corny funeral limo. My father would drive us in his Jeep, just the three of us without some stranger in black eyeballing us in the mirror. The only bad move they almost made was: Dad wanted to play a tape of Margaret singing “Amazing Grace.” It was part of her application portfolio for a college that seemed to want students who could smoke beloved hymns into smoldering torch songs.
Mom said, “Are you out of your mind? They’ll have to wheel us out on gurneys.” I was relieved when my dad backed down. I couldn’t have stood hearing my sister sing about how she was lost, but now she was found.
I was surprised when my mother told me I didn’t have to go. She said, “Nico, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to say good-bye to your sister that way.” I was still bursting into tears when anyone said the word
. And when someone said
, I wanted that person dead. I didn’t want to go, but what would I do? Stay home? Go to the movies and wait for someone to pick me up?
The day of the funeral was windy and cold. I imagined Margaret stage-managing the scene for maximum tragic drama. I wondered if the newly dead were allowed to control the weather as a consolation for never again feeling it on their faces.
All day, my parents and I clung together. We’d been hugging more than we had in our whole lives until then. Not hugging so much as leaning. We were so physically
. I kept wanting to tell Margaret how goofy Mom and Dad were acting, until I’d remember why.
My clearest memory of the day is of my father’s scratchy jacket. I burrowed into it so hard that the wool left welts on my face. The graveside ceremony was conducted by the minister from the Unitarian Church, to which my parents went a few times and then quit because Mom liked to sleep in on Sundays. I kept my eyes shut the whole time and blocked out the service by chanting nonsense inside my head. I tried to imagine a beautiful place. Margaret had taught me to do that when I went to the dentist. But nothing worked, there was nowhere to go. Not the lake, not the rowboat, not Times Square, not Paris.
Everyone said, “I’m sorry.” Everyone hugged me and wept. My best friends, Samantha and Violet, were practically sobbing their eyes out. I wanted to tell them to quit it. They couldn’t have known that their tears were contagious. The minute I stopped crying, I’d look at them and start. Mom told me that all I had to say was, “Thank you for coming.” I repeated it like a tourist who knows one phrase of a foreign language.
We were heading toward our car when our path was blocked by a tall, good-looking, blond kid wearing a tan suit. His face was blotchy, his eyes were the rubbed raw pink of pencil erasers.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Thank you for coming,” I said.
Only then did Aaron emerge from his smeary disguise. As he turned to shake my father’s hand, I was afraid that my parents would be as mean to him as they were when Margaret was alive. I was less concerned about Aaron than about what
might do. Aren’t you
? I’d have to ask. Don’t you wish you could have back your little problem of not liking Margaret’s boyfriend?
My mother threw her arms around Aaron, Dad thumped his shoulder, and I had to walk away because it was so much worse than what I’d imagined. I leaned against the car and focused on a bottle cap glinting in the wet parking lot gravel. Who’d drunk that Diet Coke? A mourner? A cemetery worker? Cheating couples? Goth nerds who haunted the graveyard for fun? That was Margaret’s new social life, the people she got to hang out with.
Someone distracted Mom and Dad, and Aaron came over to me. Without my parents around to complicate things, I was simply glad to see him. He hugged me for a second, then backed off and patted my arm as if it were a puppy that might bite.
He said, “I promise not to ask how you are if you don’t ask me.”
“Deal,” I said.
Now, it seemed,
tears were contagious. I looked down at the bottle cap. When I looked up, Aaron was leaning on the Jeep. At the same moment, we noticed our backs were soaking wet. We tried to stand on our own, but we were both too tired, and we slumped against the car and let the water seep through.
I said, “I heard you torched your paintings. I thought that was totally cool.”
My mom’s friend Sally told her that after they found Margaret, Aaron stacked all his paintings of Mirror Lake in his backyard and squirted them with charcoal lighter.
“Thanks,” he said. “I couldn’t look at them. It was like living with the portrait of the serial killer who murdered your whole family. I mean,
I said, “I understand. It was genius.”
He said, “I wish you’d say that to my parents. They’re trying to make me see a shrink.”
“I heard that, too,” I said.
.” Aaron sneered. “Some asshole who never met Margaret.”
I wished he hadn’t said “grief.” Or “Margaret.” I looked over at my parents, embracing another stranger.
Aaron said, “I went once. Just to shut them up. There’s a guy here in Emersonville. The dude was wearing a lab coat. He looked like a
. He asked if I wanted to talk about my feelings. I said no. We sat there with the clock ticking, and then he said we had to wait until I was
to talk. He’d see me in a week. In your dreams, I thought. But here’s the crazy part. As I was leaving, the guy said, ‘I feel I have to tell you, I heard your friend sing at the Senior Show. My daughter is in your class.’ ”
“Who’s his daughter?” I asked.
“Who cares?” Aaron said. “Are you getting this, Nico? The guy said he’d never heard anything like the way Margaret sang ‘My Funny Valentine’ at the Senior Show. He said it moved him to tears. He told me he’d actually sobbed out loud.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Tears? The
? They sent you to see the pervert dad who cried at the Senior Show?”
Aaron nodded. “You got it. I
out of the guy’s office. I couldn’t wait to tell Margaret about the insane coincidence of their sending me to see the slob who’d blubbered during her song. I imagined her saying maybe he wasn’t a slob, maybe he’d been really moved. Maybe it was the power of art, maybe he would have cried if he’d heard Billie Holiday. I was halfway to my car when I remembered why I couldn’t tell her.”
I said, “You imagined her saying all that?”
“Word for word. But of course it wasn’t her. So where was it coming from? Me? Or
she talking to me?”
I said, “Stuff like that happens to me all the time.”
Aaron said, “The worst part is, there’s no one I can tell.”
I said, “You just told
“That I did,” he said.
We saw my parents approaching. Aaron started talking faster. “Listen. One day this summer, let’s go for a ride. Hang out.”
That would be nice, I would have said, if I could have spoken. That was what the staircase spirit told me I should have said. The spirit whispered, “By summer, he won’t recognize you on the street.”
I nodded like a bobble-head doll as Aaron backed away. Then my parents scooped me up, and we got into the car.
Aaron faded into the rainy background, speckled with the blossomlike faces of kids from Margaret’s school. I despised them for being alive when my sister was dead. A winnowing had taken place, like picking teams for a game. Everyone else had wound up on the team of the living, leaving Margaret behind, chosen last, to play on the larger but more unpopular loser team of the dead.
“Poor kid.” My mother meant Aaron.
“Poor everybody,” said Dad.
DIDN’T HAVE TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL
. My parents worked it out so I could skip final exams and get the A’s I would have gotten anyway.
Samantha and Violet called to tell me again how sorry they were. I knew they meant it, they cared about me. I hated the sound of their voices. Every time the phone rang, I still thought it might be Margaret.
They were the ones who told me that Margaret’s graduation had featured a blown-up portrait of her onstage, an angel beaming at everyone who came up to get a diploma. Her friends and teachers and Aaron all gave tearful speeches, and they showed the video of her performing “My Funny Valentine” at the Senior Show. It seemed like an odd song to sing at your own memorial service.
The principal had called to invite us and ask if we wanted to speak. Everyone said they understood why we didn’t go, we needed to heal our own way. Some people probably thought we were weak. But I was glad not to have to sit there, trying not to turn and stare at everyone trying not to turn and stare at us.
The summer yawned before me, a pit of boredom and pain. A dull pressure knuckled inside my chest, and I began to wonder if heart problems ran in our family. Sometimes at night I woke to a hammering inside my chest, as if my heart were trying all the exit routes from my body. I pictured my parents coming in to find I’d died in my sleep. I was glad the idea of a heart attack frightened me so badly. As much as I missed Margaret, I didn’t want to join her.
My father cooked our favorite meals. He’d always been a good cook, but now the less we ate, the harder he worked. He made chicken pot pies with buttery crusts, lamb with flageolet beans, swordfish pounded thin and fried with bread crumbs, capers, and lemon. He never complained when the food went back to the kitchen untouched. Everything tasted like Styrofoam, and we had to sit perfectly still if we didn’t want to catch sight of Margaret’s place at the table. There was always too much food and not enough air in the room. Our efforts at conversation were punctuated by sighs that were partly sadness and partly just trying to breathe.
One night at dinner, Mom said, “Nico, darling, why do you keep touching your chest?”
“My heart hurts,” I said, and everything stopped, as if I’d dropped a heavy plate, still rattling, on the table.
“Everyone’s heart hurts, honey,” said Dad.
Mom silenced him with a look.
“Your heart?” she said. “Your actual
“Right here,” I said. “I think so.”
“We’ll get it checked out,” she said. “I’ll ask Dawson to recommend a specialist.” Dawson was the doctor in Albany who’d diagnosed Mom’s arthritis. “I need to talk to him, anyway. I think my hands are getting worse.”
She held up her hands and rotated them: palms out, palms back. Her knuckles were swollen, but they didn’t seem worse than before.
“Give it a few weeks,” Dad said. “This may not be the best time to tell about your hands.”