I couldn't believe it. Not until I was standing there along with the rest of the town in the cemetery did it really hit me.
She was dead.
It'd been a drunk-driving accident and she'd been the one drinking while driving her dad's Lexus. The ironic part was her mother headed the town's MADD program. No one seemed to think the irony of it was too awfully funny, though.
Her best friend, Jill, wasn't there. She was laid up in the hospital thirty miles away with a broken hipbone and other injuries. She'd been in the passenger's seat. But pretty much everyone else had shown. Even the Wallaces made an appearance, and they were the couple who'd sideswiped her when she'd run the stop sign and pulled out in front of them.
They'd managed to come through the accident with only minor bumps and bruises. Mrs. Wallace held her arm in a sling and her husband, the town's dentist, sported a black eye.
I couldn't look at the closed casket with its mountain of flowers piled on top. So I stared down the street to where the school sat only a block away. From where I stood, I could see the massive brick walls rising above house and tree.
The path from Fitz's Funeral Home to the cemetery went directly past the school. As I stared, I could remember when I was younger and a funeral line would pass by during recess.
All the children, me included, would line the edge of the playground and count the number of cars in the procession. If 8
the number was too few, we'd shrug and say, "Guess no one liked Old Man Roper much, did they?" or something to that effect. Then we'd go back to playing tag or jumping rope.
When I was in second grade, my Grandfather Burke died. I was still too young to think much of death back then—or understand it—but I remember looking at my friends from the back seat of my parents' Suburban and wishing the kids at recess would count the biggest number of cars yet.
Standing at Grandpa's graveside service, I could hear my friends at recess. The squeak of swing sets and the laughter of children playing echoed down the street. I tried to be still in my scratchy black wool dress but was incredibly bored. I watched Grandpa's face and wondered why he wasn't snoring like he usually did when he napped. I didn't want to be there in that dreadful dress, in those tight shoes and watch him sleep. I wanted to be down the block, playing at recess. When I grew impatient enough to ask Mom if Grandpa was going to wake up soon so I could go back to school, she clutched my fingers hard and hushed me.
"Stop it, Carrie. You're embarrassing me," she'd said. Then she dipped her hand into her pocket, pulled out a tissue, and began to cry.
But this time, I didn't ask if anyone would wake. Instead, I stared at the school building and blocked out what was being said up front. I couldn't hear the squeal of children because school had closed for the occasion. The rest of the student body stood with me, crammed into the cemetery like sardines, huddling close to their families because one of our own was being put into the earth this time.
I stood between my parents and knew this funeral motorcade had been the biggest yet.
The ground under me felt soft. Even though it was December, the earth definitely wasn't frozen yet because I sank down every time I switched weight from foot to foot.
And every time I descended another inch, I had this fleeting sensation I was plummeting into the ground with my dead classmate.
The school's choir lit into "Amazing Grace." At the second verse, one girl stepped forward and sang a solo. And as I listened to Brenda Newell's clear, solid voice, I remembered the first time I realized everything around me was changing.
The wind whipped up, fluttering my skirt around my legs, and I lifted the collar of my coat over my chin. I hugged myself tight just like I had that night. It might've been only weeks before. But standing in the cemetery between my parents, it seemed like a century ago.
It'd been a cool October night, and rain the day before had made the game slippery and sloppy with mud. Football Homecoming showered down on my school with fortune and victory.
The Math Club had worked the concession stand. The cheerleaders had finished their celebration dance, flipping and twirling across the sidelines. The band was hyped from their full-throated rendition of "Peter Gunn." And I, editor of the school's journal, was cursed with the assignment of interviewing coach and quarterback after their conquest.
Popcorn and cups littered the still-lit, deserted stadium.
The field was torn to shreds. One big puddle completely wiped out the fifty-yard line.
I leaned against the frosty brick wall of the gym and tried to shield myself from the October chill. But the cold sneaked in with every breath I took. It froze my lungs to my ribs and had me sucking in air through chattering teeth.