fiction

Three Weeks

It was a row house, attached on either side.  White with green shutters on the three windows she could see from the street.  A pretty, quiet street, similar to her mother’s home fifteen minutes away.

Her mother does not know she’s here.  Her mother would not understand.

She sits in the car out front for a few minutes, waiting until the clock reads 10:59 a.m.  She then turns off the car, takes a deep breath, and opens the door.

“You must be Holly.”

She blinks, her eyes adjusting to the sunlight, and focuses in on a middle-aged woman with short gray hair, just long enough to be tucked behind large ears.  The woman is wearing simple clothing – an oversized white T-shirt and yoga pants.  Behind her Holly notes two cars – a silver minivan like the one her brother drives and a two-door Honda Civic.  Holly nods at the woman, still standing at the driver’s side of her car with the door wide open.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the woman, who Holly knows must be Marjorie, says as she gives Holly a half-wave.  “Take your time.  Just come in front when you’re ready.  We’ll be in the kitchen.”  She turns and walks toward the green-and-white house.

Holly’s eyes flick down to her phone.  At this point, she must go inside, or seem crazy – she knows that.  But, this whole thing is crazy.  Her brain begins to imagine getting back in the car, setting her things on the passenger seat, starting the car and peeling out quickly before Marjorie notices.

There’s a text from her mother on her phone in a little green bubble.

Will be at Sacred Heart until late.  Leftover lasagna in the fridge for you and Lee.  

Holly closes the car door and shoves her phone into her back pocket.  Then she takes it out and type Okay love you! before walking down the front lane and into the door of Marjorie’s house.

The entryway is simple and unadorned, and lead straight to the kitchen, where Marjorie sits.  She has several decks of cards on the kitchen table, and she is wearing simple stud earrings.  These are the things Holly notices as she thinks what she is going to say.

“So, Holly – ” Marjorie asks, warmth in her tone.  “What brings you here today?”

Holly’s eyes fill with tears so quickly that she chokes out her reply.

“My dad died.”

*****

They make a follow-up appointment for the next week, and Holly allows Marjorie to give her a brief hug before she walks back out the front door.  Everyone wants to hug her recently.  More for themselves than for Holly, she thinks.

She walks toward her car and is aware of a young man walking down the street toward her.  It’s Staten Island, so people mostly drive everywhere.  He has shiny, smooth hair pulled back in a low ponytail, and he smiles at Holly before turning up the walk to Marjorie’s house.  I know him, Holly realizes, smiling back, aware that he will not remember her.  It’s Holly’s curse to have an excellent memory for names and faces, a fact that often causes resentment when others lack this skill.

The young man is Elliot – a fellow student at Holly’s high school, St. Joe’s, and she did not know him well.  He was kind and smart and played baseball.  She had homeroom with his twin sister and was in the National Honor Society with Elliot.  If she remembers correctly, he was in the band.  And during the summer before their senior year, his twin sister was hit by a car and killed.

It was his smile that reminded her of his identity so quickly.  She’d barely noticed him before his sister’s death – Elaine was her name.  After the accident, Elliot was one of the most beloved and popular students in the school.  He had always been well-liked, but his loss gave him an air of mystique.  He was crushed on by lowerclassmen and was voted Homecoming King.  He had a great season with the baseball team senior year; Holy remembered working on the yearbook spread, with a giant photo of Elliot slapping hands with a teammate.  There was a one-page dedication in the back of the book for Elaine, with her senior portrait, her holding a white rose and wearing a black shawl to cover her clothes.

He’s already entered Marjorie’s house, and Holly gets into her car and quickly pulls away from the curb.

*****

When Holly was little, she learned about death from movies.  Bambi.  Beaches.  The Lion King.  But, like most little kids, she didn’t process it very much until she was a little older.  She started to grasp the concept after her grandmother died when she was seven.  Then, when she was in sixth grade, her math teacher announced during study hall that Nicky LaGrier’s mother had passed away and that the honors program students and staff would be making a condolence card for Nicky.  Cancer, Holly heard the teachers discussing while the students drew and wrote and colored.  She found out that Nicky had been absent that week because his mom had been getting worse and worse and then died.

Holly had felt empty when she thought about Nicky.  She reacted strongly to his loss.  She cried herself to sleep in her mother’s arms several nights in a row.  Her mother said it was because Holly was a feeler and a helper.  Her dad didn’t say very much, but as they were driving home from soccer practice, he suggested they stop for an Italian ice and he held Holly in front of him, his arms snugly around her torso, while they waited.  He drove her to and from soccer practice three nights a week and to two games every weekend.  She was on two soccer teams, a local rec team and a travel team.  Her dad – Ned – coached the local rec team.

They spent many hours in the car together, Holly and Ned.  Her travel team practiced 90 minutes away twice a week, and she remembered bringing homework in the car with her and asking her dad things she couldn’t ask around her mom.

“I don’t know what to get her for her birthday,” Holly had complained once.  “I never know. What are you getting her?”

“A peach sweater,” Ned said easily.  “Your mother looks really good in peach.”

*****

For her second visit with Marjorie, Holly remembers to bring eighty dollars; her Yelp profile had not indicated that customers had to pay in cash, but Marjorie had been very sweet and calm about it and simply asked Holly to pay her double the next time.

She knocks on the front door and hears Marjorie call her inside.  She opens the door and walks in, over to the kitchen table and sits beside Marjorie, who smiles at her.  Today she is dressed comfortably again in stretchy jeans and a navy blue Penn State hoodie.  Her casual dress continues to fascinate Holly, who expected dangly jewelry and long flowing skirts.

“How you doin’, Holly?  Do you want some coffee?  I’m glad you’re back.”

Her accent, too, is startling to Holly, who dropped her New York accent quickly after moving out of state.  Marjorie drops letters – the ends of gerunds, most of her r’s – and certain words, coffee and you’re, echo in Holly’s brain.  Her parents don’t have strong accents – it usually emerges with words like walk and talk.  Holly grimaces when she considers appropriate tense.  My mother does not have a strong accent.  My father did not have a strong accent.  

Marjorie begins to lay out cards in front of her on the table, quickly, confidently.  She lays out about half the deck and then closes her eyes, putting her left hand on the table just centimeters from Holly’s crossed arms and her right hand on the far side of the table, with one of her fingers barely touching an outer card.  Holly wonders if that’s important – if that means something.

“I see a woman,” Marjorie says softly.  “I think maybe your mother?  She’s young.  Blue eyes.”

Holly is careful not to react.  It could be her mother or Lee.  Of course, Marjorie knows most of the cast of characters in her story already, from the week before.  She knows about Holly’s mother, Maggie, and about her two older siblings, Lee and James.  And she knows that Ned died.

“And three young people – not that young,” Marjories continues.  “But young.  Too young.  It”s all very sudden.”

Holly’s ears prick up, and she silently wills them to be cool and indifferent.  She wants to know that all of this is for real.  Marjorie’s eyes are closed now.  They closed last week, too, just before she heard Holly’s father.  If she actually heard Holly’s father.

“This family is in pain.”  Marjorie’s eyes are still closed.  “He’s worried.  They’re not – connected.”

When the thirty minutes is up, Holly gives Marjorie the money and thanks her.  She doesn’t mean it.  She feels angry and sad, and she almost forgets about Elliot until she sees him, six feet away from her and about to turn up Marjorie’s walkway.

“Hi,” she says as they pass each other.  Elliot smiles kindly, but keeps walking.  Holly turns and watches him unabashedly as he walks into the house, his bookbag slung over his shoulder.  She tries to figure out if he had sadness in his eyes, and if he had sadness in his eyes those first days of senior year when they all returned to school.  He’d sat in front of her during NHS, and she remembered him turning around to pass the sign-in sheet back to her.  Was he sad then?  Is he sad now?

*****

Her mother is arranging flowers when Holly returns home.  Lee is nowhere to be seen – probably trying to get some work done – and James has been back at his apartment since right after the funeral.  The flowers mean that her mother was going to the cemetery.  And Holly, for sure, did not want to go.

The guilt is instantaneous.  The moment she had the thought, it overwhelmed her.  Maggie knew that Holly didn’t want to go.  She wouldn’t invite her.  But still – the guilt came.

Maggie squints at the arrangement.  Their kitchen is cozy and messy.  There have been family and friends coming in and out of this kitchen, bringing food and taking dirty dishes and struggling to find some small gesture to show how much they care and how much they miss Holly’s dad.  The result is that the kitchen is spotless – way more spotless than when the family was left to their own devices.

Holly sat down at the table beside her mother, resting her head on Maggie’s shoulder.  Maggie softens at the gesture and puts her arm around Holly.  “You doing okay, sweetie?”

The question is meaningless, and Holly doesn’t feel obligated to answer.

“I’m going to leave in a few minutes, but there’s food in the fridge if you need anything.  The Jeffersons dropped it off.  Chinese food, I think.”  Maggie stands, stretches, then carries the flower arrangement over toward the front door.

Holly can feel her fists tightening.   Her mother’s tone is pleading.  She wants Holly to come.  But Holly can’t go to the cemetery.  Holly doesn’t want to go to the cemetery.  She feels like pounding her fists on the floor and crying out like a toddler.  She feels like kicking someone really hard.  “Mom?”

Maggie turns and looks at Holly.  “What?”

“It’ll be okay if you want to date someone else again someday.”

Holly doesn’t know where the words are coming from.  She hadn’t planned them out.  When she wrote copious notes in her journal all night, she hadn’t written these words.  When she was driving home from Marjorie’s house, these words were not on her mind.  But she suddenly wants her mother to know – that Ned loved her and wanted her to be happy.  If she could hear her dad’s voice, surely this is what he’d say?

Maggie shakes her head, slowly.  Her eyes are dry.  “I’m going to go, Holly, okay?”  That gentle lilt in her words.  They were all being so careful around each other and it made Holly nervous and angry.  Maggie walks toward Holly and rumples her hair a little.  “I’ll be home in an hour.  We can talk.”

As soon as the front door closes, Holly’s head crashes into her arms and she begins to sob.  Ned has been dead for six weeks.

*****

When she was little, her dad worked from home, writing a novel.  He got phone calls periodically, from his agents and from publishers, and she’d answer the phone politely: “This is Holly, may I ask who’s calling?”  If Ned was busy or out, she’d write down messages in her third grader print.  When Ned returned the calls, he’d said, “Yup, that was my daughter who took the message,” and he’d laugh when the callers said how grown-up she sounded.  Holly could hear his pride.

If he wasn’t working on a book, Ned would be a little lost.  During the summer Holly lived at home and took temp jobs in the city, she’d often come home to find Ned laying on the couch watching the news.  And she’d feel profoundly, overwhelmingly sad, and worried that her dad wanted a job and couldn’t get it.  She didn’t even know if her dad is actually sad.  But, she is sad, thinking that he might be.  And she’s not brave enough to ask him about it.

On nights like this, Holy would sometimes invent an errand she needed to run.  “Dad,” she’d ask, “do you think you could take me to the mall?  I need wrapping paper.”  Ned would initially seem too exhausted to rise.  But he ultimately would, never pointing out that Holly was a young adult and fully capable of running errands independently.  Once they were in the car, Holly felt they each could relax.  She could ask her dad questions about his childhood, about sports, about what things had been like when she, James, and Lee were little.  Ned had dark, so-brown-it-looked-black hair that curled up at the ends when he let it get too long.  Holly has his hair and his eyes.

*****

Each time Holly leaves Marjorie’s house, she sees Elliot.  In fact, she thinks that part of the reason why she’s still coming to see Marjorie is because Elliot is going to see her, too.

There has to be something.

Today Marjorie shuffles the cards and reveals three to Holly, one of which was the death card.  Holly feels irritated looking at the card, mostly because she knows she got beat.  She was beaten by Marjorie before they even began, with her admission of her dad’s death – but how was she supposed to hold that in?  “The death card doesn’t always mean death or loss,” Marjorie says distractedly as she peers over the rest of the cards.  Holly smiles at her tightly.  Resentfully.

During this session, their third session, Marjorie hears Ned talking.  She hears him assuring Holly that everything’s going to be all right, and that he wants her to take care of her mother.

Holly almost rolled her eyes at Marjorie.  She would have if she didn’t feel so foolish, having given this woman some of her hard-earned money.

“He wants you to go back,” she hears Marjorie say.

This freezes Holly.  “What?” she asks, trying not to seem too interested.

Marjorie’s eyes are open. She is peering at her cards, and then up to the ceiling.  There is a fan above the table.  Holly wonders, if they turn it on, would dust and dead bugs fly everywhere?  “I don’t know,” Marjorie says.  “He is saying that he wants you to go back.”

Holly thinks.  She is away.  She has been home for the six weeks since Ned dropped dead in the home office.  Her town, her apartment, her girlfriend – they’re all hundreds of miles away.  When she’d left town, she’d told her girlfriend – a fairly new relationship – that she might not ever come back.

How could she?  Her dad was dead.  Her mother – she could’t leave her alone.  Her head spins as she considers this.  There was no way Ned would want Holly to go home.

Holly stands up abruptly, pushing her chair back.  “We can end here.”

She expects Marjorie to protest.  The older woman pushes up the sleeves of her sweatshirt and keeps her eyes down on the cards.  Holly looks at her for a moment before grabbing her car keys and her phone and heads for the door.

*****

It’s sunny outside when Holly emerges.  This time, she doesn’t walk to her car.  She sits down on the front porch.  Waiting.  It takes a while; her appointment ended early.

She spots him when he’s half a block away, and she thinks back to the first day of school senior year.  It was like a traffic accident.  Throughout that day, whenever she spotted Elliot, she saw a dozen faces behind him gazing at him.  He seemed uneasy with his new visibility – or was she just projecting?  Was she just thinking about herself, and what she’d feel like if she’d had a twin sister that was smashed and ended while running across a busy street, giggling and feeling utterly invincible?

She thinks about all the mundane and absurd conversations she’s had recently with complete strangers about her loss.  Calling the GRE office to cancel her exam, which was scheduled for the day of Ned’s funeral.  Seeing her old soccer teammate at the gym – she remembered Ned and gave Holly a temporary membership, whispering just don’t tell my boss as she slipped the card across the counter.  The phone calls – not from family and friends – but from telemarketers, asking to speak with her dad.  Breaking the news to them.  Becoming comfortable with the words I’m sorry, but Ned Flynn is deceased tripping from her tongue.

What the hell do you do, she thinks, when the one who died is your twin sister?  How do you answer the simplest of questions?  “Do you have any brother or sisters?”  She can’t remember if Elliot and Elaine had other siblings.  Do you omit that major fact – I once shared a uterus, a bed, my life with someone – a kind of bond that no one but a twin understands – and then she just fucking died?

Elliot is surprised to see her sitting out front.  “Hey,” he says.  He doesn’t seem nervous, or shy.  He doesn’t seem broken.

“Is it helping you?”

He looks confused, for a moment.

Holly shakes her head.  She has forgotten that this guy, like many of her fellow St. Joe’s graduates, has no idea who she is.  “I’m Holly.  We graduated the same year.”

To her surprise, she sees a light of recognition flash in his eyes.  “Holly Flynn?  You played soccer?”

She nods a little too eagerly.  And it feels like a sign.  And before she can stop herself, she erupts.

“I like talking to Marjorie, but it’s not helping me.  I woke up this morning and I forgot.  I was so happy, for this one second, because I forgot and it all was like a bad dream , faded away, to the back of my consciousness, and I forgot.  And it was like one moment of relief.”  Holly chokes back tears.  He lost his twin sister when they were sixteen.  She lost her dad, who she didn’t even live with anymore.

Big picture, Holly.  Reign it in.

She can’t.  “But then I woke up and I remembered, and it was so awful.  But it needs to get better, right?  But I thought – maybe if I could talk to him, it would get better.  And I thought Marjorie could help.  But maybe she’s a fucking quack, and maybe there is no heaven.  But then – what?  And if you’ve been coming here for five years, then it can’t be helping you.  But is it?  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry, Elliott.”

She catches her breath and waits a beat.  He’ll hug her.

But he doesn’t.  She stares up at him.  Elliot has blue eyes, which she hadn’t realized before this moment.  She never notices eye color.  Her dad has hazel eyes, she knows that, but only because she knows that she has her dad’s eyes.  And his hair and his olive skin.  Now it’s just her and three blue-eyed freckled Irishmen in the family.

“Hold on for a second,” he says.  “Let me tell Marjorie I’m running late.”  He steps around her and enters the house after a brief knock, the kind Holly uses on Lee’s bedroom door.

When he comes back outside, he pulls the door gently shut.  His backpack is gone.  He sits down on the steps beside Holly, but not too close.  “I’m sorry to hear about your dad, he says quietly.

Holly rubs at her eyes fiercely, determinedly.  She does not look at Elliot.

“Holly, Marjorie has a son.”

It’s said with a sort of finality, as if he is revealing the answer to a mystery.  Holly suddenly feels exhausted – heavy and empty and dry but drowned.

“He’s 15.  He’s studying for the PSAT.”

It seems like gibberish to Holly’s sleep-deprived, addled mind, but synapses are slowly starting to fire.  A connection clicks, and she can feel her face growing red and hot.  She peeks over at Elliot.  “You’re not seeing her – the psychic?  You’re tutoring her kid?”

Elliot nods, apologetically.

It had not occurred to Holly, not even for one second, that Marjorie might have kids.  She felt as naive as she had in kindergarten, when Mrs. O’Hara had introduced Holly to “my daughter Olivia” and Holly had asked, But where does she sleep?  It was as inconceivable for Marjorie to have kids as it was for Mrs. O’Hara to have a house rather than just a cot in the supply closet where they kept the finger paints.

She’d thought – what had she thought?  That Elliot was doing the same thing she was doing.  Trying to hear the voice of someone he loved.  Trying to talk to someone he loved.  She starts to dig her nails into her thighs and her breathing gets that choked, breathless quality that is associated with hyperventilating.

She feels an arm go around her shoulders, and she is grateful.

“I did come to see Marjorie, as a – well, you know,” Elliot says quietly.  “Right after Elaine died.  I googled ‘psychics Staten Island’ and she was the first to pop up.”

Holly slides away from him and looks up.  “You did?” she asks.

“Yup.”

“But you don’t anymore?”

Elliot shakes his head.  “I got to know her a little, and she found out I was looking for a part-time job.  She suggested tutoring.  Her son’s fantastic, but he’s always struggled in school.  I’ve helped him keep his grades up.”  He smiles fleetingly.  “He’s gotten to be like a little brother, of sorts.”

Holly scratches her fingernails along her legs, squeezing ever so often, and wishing she’d walked straight from Marjorie’s kitchen table to her car.

“I thought it was kind of silly,” he continues, “talking to Marjorie.  Trying to talk to Elaine.  And it was.  But everyone does it.  We just want to know that they’re okay.”

Holly’s eyes fill with tears again.  She balls up her fist and presses them against her eyes quickly, briefly, and then lets go.  “Are you okay?” she asks.  “I mean – does it get better?”  She takes a deep breath.  “I just need to know that it gets better.”

Elliot isn’t looking at her.  She takes the opportunity to examine him – his tanned face, his wavy hair.  She wishes she could take his brain and put it inside her own head.  She wishes she could know.

He stands up and brushes off his jeans reflexively, though there’s no dirt or dust to speak of.  “I should go in,” he says.

Holly jumps up, too.  She feels for her keys and nods vigorously.

“You can get my number from Marjorie, maybe,”  Elliot says quietly.  “Or – ”

“I can write mine down,” Holly says quickly.  She finds her journal and tears out a page, scribbling her number.  “Just send me a text later today.  I’ll be in town for a while.  But – I may go home after a little bit.  I mean, back to where I live.”

Elliot takes the paper and smiles at her again.  “I’m sorry again, Holly,” he says.  Then he turns and enters Marjorie’s house.

Holly walks over to her car and sits in the driver’s seat.  Her phone buzzes twice before she can start the ignition.

There are two texts from her sister.

Stop talking to Mom about dating dudes.  It’s been six weeks.  Give it a month.

Holly lets out the kind of laugh that might be called a guffaw – sharp, loud, involuntary.  Had she actually done that?  It seemed impossible.  Every day seemed like an eternity.

Just kidding.  And Mom’s fine.  But want to talk later?

Yes, Holly types immediately.  She takes a breath and pretends to be blowing out 21 birthday candles.  She hopes sincerely that no one from Marjorie’s house is looking out the window.

The second text is an unknown number.

It doesn’t ever get better.  You just get used to it.  Sorry again Holly.  Hope you’re okay.

Holly stares at her phone, curious, calm, and confused.  She glances at Marjorie’s house and sees no sign of movement.  She starts her car and pulls carefully away from the curb.

“Hi, Dad,” she whispers carefully, gently.  “It’s me.”

fiction

Grace

Grace

The rumor around the Island was that Our Lady Grace High School was cursed.

It started when Molly Mariposa died in a car accident three weeks before her graduation day.  She was a basketball player, tall and thin and gorgeous.  Her mom was driving, and her two sisters were in the car, too.  They were hit by a drunk driver, and Molly died – just her, thank the Lord, everyone would say, though I doubt anyone in the Mariposa family was thanking the Lord that night.

The day after Molly died was one of the craziest days I ever experienced at Grace.  Everything was off.  Teachers were sobbing and walking out of class.  My friend Kali and I wondered why they didn’t just close school.  Not in a mean way, you understand.  We weren’t annoyed.  We were upset, too.  And it didn’t seem like sitting in AP Latin while Sister Mary Therese cried like a baby was helping anyone at all.

They called the printers so they could edit the school yearbook and put a beautiful beauty shot of Molly on the final page.  There were at least a thousand people at her funeral, and Kali and I talked about how the older you get the fewer people will be at your funeral, for sure.

Six months later, Lise Petrone was dead.  She was an athlete, too – in fact, she and Molly had played soccer together, though Molly’s main sport was basketball and Lise’s was softball.  She was two years older than me, but I didn’t really know her.  Kali knew her, a little; they had two classes together and Kali played JV softball.  She sat with the softball team at the funeral, and they all wore their jerseys; I could find Kali easily in the crowded whenever I wanted by spotting the all caps KEENAN on the back of her shirt.  Lise was wearing her jersey, too; it was open casket, which some people find eerie but it’s what we’re all used to.

Lise’s death was a little different.  She’d been drinking with friends – not with her teammates, Mrs. Keenan told my mom, and I wasn’t sure why.  Would Lise not have choked to death on her vomit if she’d been drinking with her teammates?  Were the mothers speculating that softball players didn’t drink?  Because Kali and I knew that this was not true.  However, maybe her teammates, seasoned partyers, would have had the good sense to turn Lise on her stomach when she passed out, and everything might have been okay.

It wasn’t until junior year, when Olivia Batista was killed, that all the talk of curses started.

 

Grace was a Catholic school, so we weren’t supposed to believe in curses.  There were nuns everywhere, walking the mint green hallways, assuring us that there was no such thing as curses.  The boys would jostle each other and tease Sister Mary Therese: “Kind spooky, isn’t it, ma’am?”  It was easier for them, to laugh and make jokes.

But they had to wonder, too, looking at the simple facts of the situation.  Molly would have graduated from Grace in 2014.  Lise would have graduated in 2015.  Olivia would have graduated in 2016. A girl a year, for three years running.  And Kali and I, by enrolling at Grace in 2013, had sealed our fates as future graduates of the class of 2017.

My name is Amelia Bryant, and there’s a good chance that me or someone I know is going to die by next June.

“There’s no such thing as curses,” my mother tells me gently, stroking my hair, one Sunday evening at home.  It’s just the two of us, laying on the comfortable sky blue sofa we’ve had my whole life.  “You have to stop talking about this stuff in front of your brother.”

I roll my eyes, annoyed, but I don’t get up.  I love the feeling of being nestled beside my mother, her stroking my hair.  It makes me feel like I’m a little kid again, when I thought my parents could fix anything and everything that was wrong with life.  “Peter does not listen to a word I say, Mom,” I say confidently.

Mom smiles.  “You’re wrong about that,” she says.  “He listens to everything you say.”

“Yeah, like when I’m on the phone talking about my own business,” I say, a little snappily.  I feel guilty immediately.  Mom doesn’t need that.

She checks the clock.  “I have to leave in a few minutes for work, okay?”

“I really don’t think you can call a Sunday night happy hour work, Mom.”

She laughs.  I try to make her laugh at least once a day if I can.  My heart is pounding a little, but I am careful not to let it show in my voice.  “What time will you be home?”

“No later than eleven.”  She ruffles my hair and then nudges me.  I sit up, and I look at her.  We look a lot alike.  Brown hair, skin that’s pale in winter but browns nicely in the summer, and we’re both exactly 5’6″ tall.  I have my dad’s eyes, though.  So does Peter.  I’m in my pajamas currently, though, and Mom is wearing black pants and a pretty white ruffled top.  “Don’t let Peter give you a hard time.”

“Pretty sure he’s going to fall asleep in the middle of playing a video game in twenty minutes, Mom.”  Her face falls, and I regret my words.  I know she worries that she lets him play video games too much.  I wish she wouldn’t worry so much about that.  My guy friends are all into video games, and two of them got early admission to Harvard.  “It’s okay, Mom.  I have your cell.  Have fun.”

 

I know I shouldn’t watch the news, but I turn it on anyway, as soon as my mom is out the door.  She teaches at the local public middle school, and she’s constantly attending retirement parties, holiday dinners, celebrations of her co-workers’ lives.  She and Mrs. Keenan work together, so they were riding there together.  I’d thought about asking Kali to come over and keep me company.  I wish I had done that.

Hey you there?

The local news plays quietly.  I flip to CNN, then back to local news.  My plan is to study journalism when I go away to college next year – if I go away.  I think I’d be good at reporting the news on TV.  And then I’d know everything that was happening in the world.  Which would be comforting.

Hi!  You okay?

My phone buzzes and I look down, grateful to see Kali’s little white bubble.  I didn’t need her to come over – I was being ridiculous.  Just the text was enough.

Yeah just going to watch TV and chill.  

NOT THE NEWS.

I almost laugh out loud, but I remember my ten-year-old brother asleep upstairs and choke it back.

No news.  Just reruns of 30 Rock.

Okay text if you need me ❤ ❤ ❤

I’d already checked on Peter twice, but I tiptoe upstairs to peek in his room again.  He was right where I left him, his little freckled face smushed into the pillow in that adorable way that only Peter sleeps.  He drives me crazy, but I love him and I usually check on him every fifteen minutes when we’re home alone together.  It makes it hard to get really invested in a TV show, but it’s worth it because then I know he’s okay.  I wait until I see his chest rise and fall once, and then I tiptoe back downstairs to the sofa.

I go over to Netflix and throw on an episode on 30 Rock so I’m not lying to Kali, and I check the time; it’s nine thirty.  I lay back on the sofa, wishing my mom was still home.  I squeeze my eyes shut.

The problem, really, is the way Olivia Batista died.

It was terrible, all the girls dying.  I mean, death itself sucks, which I know better than most girls my age.  But Olivia’s death was not a horrible accident, and it wasn’t a dumb irresponsible teenage mistake.

I didn’t know any of these girls well.  Grace is a pretty big school – the highest enrollment of any Catholic high school on Staten Island.  It’s coed, so that’s part of it.  And the athletics there are well-known.  Kali and I chose it for the soccer team; they were state champs three times in the last ten years.

After Olivia died, I saved the newspaper with the news article and her obituary.  I cut out the picture of her – it was her senior portrait.  Which is funny, because she was just barely a senior when she died, but we take our senior portraits in the spring of junior year.  I glued the newspaper cutout of her face on the last page of my journal.  Then I looked up the obits for Molly and Lise, and I printed them out on our computer when Mom and Peter weren’t home.  I cut them out and glued them on the same page as Olivia.

I knew this was strange when I did it, but I couldn’t not do it.  It’s not like I looked at it every day, just every once in a while.

Olivia died of a blood clot, and to me that meant the next girl to die would die by murder.

 

My eyes pop open, and I sit up, startled.  An episode of 30 Rock is still playing, and the time on the cable box flashes 10:30 p.m.

I feel like I have goosebumps as I reach for the remote – like I know what’s going to happen next.  I flip the TV to the local news.

It doesn’t surprise me at all, the words: SUSPECT AT LARGE.  The closeness of it does.  There’s been a shooting at a gas station, less than thirty minutes from my house.

There’s a lamp beside the couch, and I switch it off, then immediately back on.  The hairs on my arms are standing up, and I can feel my breath quickening.  Is it better to have the lights off, so the murderer thinks no one is home?  Or is it better to have them on, so they think we’re inside waiting with baseball bats or a gun if my mother was the type of woman to own a gun?

SUSPECT AT LARGE.

My phone is in my hand.  It usually is.  I type a brief and breezy text to Kali.

You okay?  I’m still watching TV.  So bored LOL.

I wait anxiously, staring at the TV, willing Kali to text back.

She does.

Yup!  Going to take a shower.  Need to look hot tomorrow LOL.

I desperately want to send a different kind of text, to Kali and to my mom, the same text: Please come here right now.  

However, I know that my mother does not need this right now.  I close my eyes, feeling my phone in my hands, and try like mad to slow my pulse.  Is that a thing?  Is it possible for me to slow my pulse, just by sheer will?

After I had glued the photos of Molly, Lise, and Olivia in my journal, there was a blank space on the page, just big enough for one more newspaper head shot to fit.  I had not thought of this before I started my creepy art project.  If I had thought of it, I would have shifted the photos, so that they were artfully crooked and took up more room on the page.  It wouldn’t ease my worries, but the vision of that blank space wouldn’t be as haunting.

Everyone knows that the curse is real.  I overheard Sister Mary Therese talking to the principal about and her voice trembled.  My mother says it’s not real because it’s her job to say that, just like it’s my job not to bother her with frantic texts every time I have a panic attack.

SUSPECT AT LARGE.  They’re talking about it on the news right now; I turn the volume up, only slightly, not wanting to wake Peter.

“Police are searching for an armed man after a shooting at a Shell gas station on Hylan Boulevard,” the reporter is saying, her voice even and calm.  She probably has a police scanner nearby, to get updates.  “The suspect allegedly shot the man working behind the counter and two other individuals, both female, before fleeing the scene in a black vehicle headed in the direction of the South Shore.  All three victims are expected to survive.”

Of course they are.

I run up to check on Peter again, to see the rise and fall of his body.  I want to crawl in bed beside him, but that would be ridiculous, and I’d rather he not see me like this.  He has enough going on, too.

My phone is still in my hand.  I walk back through the living room, muting the TV as I pass, and head into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water.

Mom actually had to deliver the news about Olivia to me.  Mrs. Keenan heard and called her, and Mom sat me down at the kitchen table to tell me that one of the girls at school, on the first day of field hockey practice for the season, has collapsed and died during a team jog.

She looked at me carefully as she told me, as if I’d fall apart.  I tried my best to keep my facial features composed as she spoke.  She explained that the doctors were reasonably certain that Olivia had died due to a blood clot that had traveled to her lungs, and I remember thinking that the coaches would be relieved to hear that, because if I were her coach I would have worried that I’d pushed the team too hard, but a blood clot was in no way the coach’s fault.  Still, that kind of death – that kind of shock – my eyes started to well up.

“Amelia, don’t do that.” my mom said gently, reaching for my hands.  I have a habit of balling up my fists and rubbing at my eyes when I start to cry, almost as if I’m trying to push the tears back inside my head.

I nodded at her and said, “I’m fine, Mom.  I didn’t really know her.”

Now I’m sitting at the same kitchen table, and I’m methodically reviewing the facts I know to be true.

The top three causes of death for adolescents between 15 and 19 are accidents, homicides, and suicides.

Molly Mariposa, Class of 2014, basketball player, died in a car accident during her senior year at Grace.  Lise Petrone, Class of 2015, softball player, died in an alcohol-related incident during her senior year at Grace.  Olivia Batista, Class of 2016, field hockey player, died of a pulmonary embolism during her senior year at Grace.

I decided that the next death would be murder because the accidents had already happened, and I found it highly unlikely that either Kali or I would commit suicide.

Because the next dead girl was definitely going to be one of us.

 

It’s 11:10 now, which is okay because Mom texted and told me she was dropping of Mrs. Keenan and should be home by 11:45.  I am still seated at the kitchen table, feeling like I need to jump out of my skin.  My entire body is pulsating, and I’m sweating.  I can’t hear the TV from the kitchen, but I checked my phone and the suspect is still at large.

I hear a noise, and I freeze.  This is it, I tell myself.  It will be done soon.  

There are footsteps padding toward me, and I turn to see Peter, his hair rumpled and an imprint on the side of his face from the pillow.  “Is Mom home yet?” he says grumpily, yawning.

“No,” I say.  I can’t wipe at my forehead, because then he’ll know I’m sweating.  I can’t hug him, either, which is what I want to do most.  But my heart is racing, and I can’t take the chance that he’ll feel it.

“Okay.  Love you, ‘Melia.”  He turns and walks back to his bedroom.

His brief presence distracts me, and I breathe a little more easily now.

I have told no one – not Peter, not Mom, not Kali – of my certainty that a murderer will end either mine or Kali’s life by next June.  But I’m right.  I know I’m right.

The dead Grace girls are all athletes.  Grace is known for four big sports, on the girls side – basketball, softball, field hockey, and soccer.  So it makes sense that the next dead girl will be on our soccer team.  And Kali and I are the only two seniors on the Our Lady of Grace 2016/2017 Girls’ Soccer Team.

Class of 2017.  Hip, hip hooray.

I want to text Kali again, but she’s probably busy and if she doesn’t text back right away I’ll freak out.

It’s been about six weeks since I figured it all out.  I haven’t been able to sleep at all since then.  I pretend; I go to bed when Mom goes to bed.  And I drink a lot of coffee in the morning, and steadily throughout the day, to keep myself functional.

I’ve always written in a journal, and I’ve had to do so even more recently, what with not being able to tell anyone what’s happening and what’s going to happen.  I’m with Kali all day at school and after school, and then with Mom and Peter all night.  I don’t know if the journaling helps me, though.  Because it all just gets clearer and clearer when I write it out.  I sketch out the three pictures, and then I draw four bold lines, a square, in the blank space.  And I stare at it, not allowing myself to imagine or wonder, and yet imagining and wondering the entire time.

Mom watches the news every evening.  She’s usually cutting out materials for school while she watches, so I don’t think she’s noticed that I’ve been paying closer attention than usual.  She probably thinks I’m just being a little clingy, wanting to spend more time with her, wanting to know that she is okay.  She doesn’t know that I am on the lookout for danger or for bad news at every moment.

If I told Kali about this, she would laugh at me.  She would pretend to understand, and she might even hug me, but she would also laugh and poke holes in my theory.  If I told Mom about it, she would sign me up for therapy so quick that we’d already be late for the intake appointment before I finished outlining my theory, my reasoning, my fear.  I think I might like to go to therapy, except that if Mom knows I need it, she’ll worry, and I can’t have Mom worrying.

 

Olivia died last August, at the end of the month, two days into her senior year.  She wore her senior sweater, the status symbol of all Grace students, for two days.  Two months before that, in mid-June, I remember seeing her in the hallway on my way out of school.  Kali and I were walking out to Mrs. Keenan’s car and Olivia looked effortlessly cool. dangling car keys from her fingers and laughing with her friends.  She had long black hair, shiny and straight, and almond-shaped eyes.

I remember pretty much everything about that day in June.  There was no soccer, and Mrs. Keenan sometimes picked us up as a treat so we wouldn’t have to take the bus home.  Kali and I were catching up on the day’s events – we only had one class together all day long, a fact we bemoaned constantly – and I remember that Kali teased me because I’d forgotten about a math test and bombed it.  “Who forgets about a test?” she’d said, and Mrs. Keenan chided her, and I felt sensitive about her teasing but tried not to show it.

We pulled up to my house, and there was one car in the driveway.  Mom was still at work.  I waved good-bye to Kali, thanked Mrs. Keenan, and headed inside the house.

“Dad?”  I dropped my book bag in the foyer, and I went into the kitchen.  I’m always ravenous after school, because lunch is at ten-oh-four, which is pretty much breakfast.  I found a banana and peeled it.  I began to walk toward my parents’ room.

My dad works as an electrician, and he was off today.  Still, I was surprised to see his car in the driveway, because he’d told me over breakfast that he had a side job to do in Jersey today.  He had told Peter all the details, but I tuned them out because it’s hard for me to feign interest in construction, whereas all Peter has ever wanted is to be exactly like my dad someday.

My dad and my mom have a relationship that is so sweet it’s a little embarrassing.  My mom is quieter and calmer, and my dad balances her out with a big sense of humor and an extroverted personality.  He’s constantly trying to embarrass me in front of my teammates, but it doesn’t work because they all think he’s fantastic and end up envying me, because not everyone’s dad is so warm and friendly.

When I was walking out the door that morning, my dad called me back inside, and I got a little frustrated with him because the bus stop is a mile away.  “What’s up, Dad?” I had said.

Dad heard the annoyance in my voice, and he smiled at me anyway.  “Next weekend, do you want to go see NYU together?”

My annoyance melted away, as he knew it would.  “Really?”  I squealed.  I ran back to him – he was at the kitchen table, sipping his coffee – and hugged him.  “I thought it was too expensive?”

Dad nodded.  He’s pretty honest with me.  “It might be, Amelia,” he’d said, seriously.  “But we’ll look, and we’ll talk, and we’ll see.  Okay?”

We hugged again, and I left for school, and all of this flashed through my mind in the moment before I opened my parents’ bedroom door and saw him, my dad, Dean Andrew Bryant, face-down on the floor, his chest not rising and falling at all.

 

SUSPECT AT LARGE.

I have CNN open on my phone, and I don’t see anything about this situation, which makes sense because it’s not national news.  No one even died.  There’s an updated on the TV that says the victims are all injured but not critical, which seems like a miracle.

My journal is open on my lap to the last page – to the girls.  Their deaths were not national news, either.  Funny how something that is so huge, so devastating, only reaches so far.  There were a thousand people at Molly’s funeral.  Maybe more at Lise’s.  Olivia’s was private – just family.  Dad’s was smaller than Molly’s, but still pretty big.  He was 45 years old.

I was incredibly calm and in control that day.  I immediately called 911 and then my mother, and the ambulance was there in minutes, and we raced to the hospital, but it all meant nothing because Dad was dead and I knew it the moment I opened the door.  He’d been dead for hours.

I was calm and in control for the next three days.  I comforted Peter and I made decisions with Mom.  I slept in her bed every night.  I held her up as we walked behind Dad’s coffin out of the Catholic church where Peter and I were baptized, where Peter would be confirmed next year, where someday, maybe, I’d be married.  I kept my face composed at the burial site, and I hugged Peter in front of me and looked at Mrs. Keenan whenever I needed to calm down; she would look back at me, steadily, as if she knew what I needed without me having to say it.  I avoided looking at Kali, who wept continuously through the wake, funeral, and burial, though she tried to choke back her tears whenever she was by my side.

After the funeral, people came back to the house.  There were probably seven hundred people at the church – then a hundred or so at the burial – and then fifty at the house for coffee and cake.  I didn’t exactly do a head count, but sort of; approximating the number in attendance was how I kept from shaking.

When the coffee was served, when Peter was occupied by our cousins, when Kali and her parents were passing around pastries and fruit, when Mom was sitting in between her two sisters, I hugged Mom from behind – she was sitting at the kitchen table – and asked her if I could watch some TV in her bedroom.

She’d looked surprised, but also not.  She nodded and kissed my hands before releasing them and returning to her sisters.

I quietly walked down the long hallway to their room – Mom’s room, now.  I lay on the floor, in the exact spot where Dad had died.  I turned on the TV and found an episode of Sex And The City.  It was a rerun, one I’d watched at least three times before.  I watched and I lay very still.  Mom found me there, asleep, two hours later, and covered me with a blanket and let me lay there all night long.  When I woke in the morning, she was sleeping beside me.

 

I hear Mom’s car pull in the driveway at the same exact moment my phone buzzes.

Going to sleep love you see you in the morning Kali xoxo

She texts me most nights, just to say good night.  I think she knows I need to be checked in on even though I haven’t said so.

I’m not scared anymore by this point, anyway.  The panic has subsided.  I made it through another day.

There’s Mom’s key in the lock, and then she’s inside.  “Hi, honey,” she says, yawning and tossing her purse on the chair.  She blinks, seeming to digest the scene before her.  “You doing okay?  Want to go to bed?”

I look at Mom.  She is sleepy, and so am I.  Dad was always the chatty one, and Peter is just like him.  They could talk and talk and charm a room.  Mom and I are different – more introverted, quieter, more careful.  But sometimes, and I could never tell Mom this, it felt like Mom belonged to Peter and Dad belonged to me.  Mom has the calm stillness that Peter needs, and Dad could convince me to talk about something without me even realizing his goal.  I am probably the only senior at Grace who came home to gossip with her father, not her mother, about boys.

They each talked at the funerals – the dads.  Mr. Mariposa, Mr. Petrone, and Mr. Batista.  When I got home from Molly’s and Lise’s funerals, I’d told Dad about it, and I’d watched his eyes well up with tears and I knew he was thinking about me.  I didn’t get to see Mr. Batista speak, and I’ve wondered what he said.  How did he process the fact that something in his daughter’s strong, healthy body just broke, with no rhyme or reason, until she fell to the floor and simply ceased to exist?

Mom’s eyes have zeroed in on something, and I follow her gaze.  My skin begins to tingle again – my cheeks get hot.  It’s my journal – open to the last page.  And in that empty space, I’ve scrawled “KALI?  OR ME?”

Mom looks at it for a long moment – it feels like a really, really long moment.  She sits on the couch beside me.  “Amelia, do you -”

The words are out before I can filter, before I can worry, before I can stop.  “Maybe you can stay home with me next time, Mom?”

My mother – my tired, widowed mother – looks at me with the exact same look she gave me on the day we buried Dad.  Surprised, but not.  Understanding, but not.  She wraps me in a hug and pulls me into her lap.

“I need some help, Mom,” I whisper.

“Me, too,” she says immediately.

And the tears finally come.