The day after her mother died, Evie did not go to school. Tenth grade had just begun, and Evie had spent the last three weeks trying to decide who she would be this year, and now, here, just as suddenly, tenth grade seemed far away from her mind. It was a Monday, and her mother’s obituary was going to be in the paper that day. Her mother was an editor at the newspaper, the same paper she’d worked at since she graduated from college. Her teachers would have read the paper that morning, and, in their small North Carolina city, everyone would have known.
She lay in bed in the morning trying to remember if her mother was really dead or if she had just woken up from a long, terrible dream. She turned her head on the pillow to see the red numbers of her bedside clock: 8:44. She turned her head back so that she was staring straight up. She thought about the day before, and how this day more than any other day, she would like to find some way to time travel, to rewind, just one day, to bring back her mother.
She did not want to go to school, but she did not want to be at home, either, in the home where three of them had lived. She knew how these things worked, had seen it before with her dad’s mother, with her great-grandmother. All day, people would come in and go out. People would visit, just stopping by. The phone would ring. The fridge would fill with casseroles. People would cry and sniffle and leave balled up Kleenex by their chairs when they left. They would pat her back, her arm. They would want to hug her. There would somehow be too many people and not enough people in the house. They would want her to say words she did not know how to say. She would try to say words and sentences they would want to hear, words and sentences she might not mean or even understand.
She climbed out of bed and got dressed. When she looked in the mirror, she saw that her eyes were swollen with dried tears. Everyone would know that she’d been crying, and that felt somehow invasive and embarrassing.
Evie opened the door to her room and walked down the carpeted hallway. Her father was in the living room on the phone, and her grandparents were in the kitchen drinking coffee and washing breakfast dishes. They were talking in low voices to each other. Any other day, Evie would try to hear what they were saying, if they were talking about her or some other adult thing. Today, she did not want to know what they were saying. She knew she wouldn’t want to hear it.
“I’m going out,” she said, standing in the hallway. “To ride my bike.” She did not wait to see if anyone had heard her.
She went to the garage at the side of the house and unlocked the door, twisting the shiny silver handle. She tugged up on the bar, releasing the brown door upward. Her mom’s red Mustang, a college graduation present from her parents in 1973, sat in the garage. Seeing the Mustang surprised her: she’d forgotten this was what she’d see when she opened the door. She tried not to think about all the times she’d ridden in the Mustang. She tried not to think about the cracked leather seats and the way the heat of the sun made the car smell of lemon-scented soap. She tried not to think about the fact that her mother would never drive the Mustang again.
She reached for the handlebar and rubber grip of her pink 21-speed bike. She forced the silver kickstand up with the rubber edge of her black Chuck Taylors, the rubber no longer white because of the inside jokes and names of boys they liked and pictures she and her friends drew on all the rubber edges of their Chucks.
She rolled the bike out of the garage and leaned it against the front fender of her grandparents’ gold Lincoln, shiny and long. She yanked the garage door back down and climbed on her bike.
She rode down the driveway, not even checking to see if cars were coming. She’d once almost gotten hit by a car that way, a couple of years ago, which had frightened her. The driveway was a hill that sloped down to the street, and the momentum she got from starting at the top of the hill always seemed more appealing than the safety of walking beside the bike to the bottom of the driveway. Especially today.
She rode her bike over the black asphalt hills of her neighborhood. The September sun shone on her head, warming her as if she had a fever. The wind moved through her brown shoulder-length hair, and she wished she could see what it would look like, trailing behind her in the wind. She wished that her hair were longer, that it looked better parted in the middle, that she didn’t have bangs. She wished her hair were blonder and straighter, that it were curlier. She wished that her hair were purple or pink or green, or some other color that would shock her parents. Not her parents. Her parent. She forgot, and it hurt, like skin being pinched between a thumb and index finger, remembering the singular. She wondered how many times she would forget and remember, if it would hurt just as much every time.
It was early in the day, and there was not much traffic in her neighborhood. Yet Evie did not pay attention to whether there were cars or not. She felt completely invincible, as if she would never die. At the same time, she felt completely vulnerable, as if she could die any second, as if she probably would die any second.
She rode down a side road, emerging from a canopy of tall trees. There was a clearing where the high-voltage power lines bisected the neighborhood. The rubber bike wheels gripped the pavement, making a rhythmic sound as she moved quickly downhill. She looked up at the power lines, and their dark silhouettes, metal arms outstretched, flat and black against the blue sky, made her think of hang gliders, which she’d seen for the first time when she was just six or seven, when she and her parents had walked across the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain. She’d been terrified at the way the bridge actually did sway, the way she could feel the suspension bridge moving in the wind. When she had looked down, a cushion of trees stood below the bridge, like broccoli crowns, and she imagined falling into them, their leaves soft as cotton balls, as clouds. Pointing to a cliff opposite the bridge, her parents had shown her the hang gliders, humans both so close and so far from being the birds they wanted to be. She thought how exhilarating and how terrifying it must have been to take that leap, to trust only the wind and the metal and fabric of the glider. She remembered the catch in her throat when she saw one of the hang gliders jump.
A flock of birds—starlings, which she knew because her dad knew all the names of birds and quizzed her on them regularly—flew out of a tree and through the power lines. She thought about the movie Forrest Gump, the last movie she’d seen with her parents in the movie theater. It would be, she realized, the last movie she ever saw with both her parents, with her mom and dad sitting on either side of her to keep her warm in the cool theater. She thought about the character Jenny praying for God to make her a bird, a bird that would fly far, far away.
Rolling down the hill on her bike, she wished for all of these things: for pink hair, for a hang glider to take her away on the wind, for God to make her a bird. She stretched out her arms, testing her balance. She closed her eyes but was scared, and she opened them again. She put her hands back on the handles, feeling the sun-warmed rubber. She turned right on her street, toward home.
When she coasted up the driveway, a white truck and a green sedan were in the driveway. She put her bike back in the garage, impressed that even when her mom had just died, she remembered to be responsible. She turned the front doorknob and inhaled, wondering what it would be like inside. Would everyone be angry that she had left? They might be crying. She hoped they might not notice her arrival, that she might be able to sneak in unnoticed. She pushed the door in with her weight and breathed in the saccharine scent of a bouquet of lilies on the table in the entryway, placed there since she’d been gone. Voices echoed down the hall, and before she even got to the living room, she heard her dad say, “Evie? Is that you?”
When she came to the living room doorway, she identified the minister and her dad’s boss as the new additions. Everyone in the room—her Grandma and Grandpa, her Papa, her dad, her minister, her dad’s boss—all looked at her. She thought then, for the first time in hours, how she must look: uncombed, wind-blown hair; eyes puffy and swollen from crying all night; torn jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt that had been crumpled on her bedroom floor. She thought then, too, that the only thing in their eyes was pity, that they all pitied her.
“Evie,” she heard several voices say. “Hey, kiddo,” said the minister. Evie remembered the day before, when she had cried in the minister’s arms, and she felt embarrassed recalling such a display.
“Hi,” she said. Then no one said anything.
“Let’s get you some breakfast,” Grandma said, leading her into the kitchen. She was not hungry but followed her grandmother anyway just to get out of the living room doorway.
The funeral was Wednesday, and the house was filled even more: Evie’s Aunt Cindy and Uncle Bob, her older cousins Rob and Shauna. Her mom’s college roommate Sharon, and her husband Pat. The night before the funeral, Meredith, Evie’s best friend, stayed over, and they stayed in Evie’s room, looking at picture albums and listening to her parents’ old records and teaching themselves to play the guitar, singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs. She and Meredith had known each other for so long that Evie didn’t mind crying in front of her, and they alternated between giggling and crying under the covers. When Evie was laughing, she felt guilty for laughing when her mom was dead. When she was crying, she felt tired of herself, of her sadness and her tears, and she wanted them to go away.
Thursday, the day after the funeral, Evie went back to school. It was probably too soon, and most other kids would have stayed home as long as they could, but Evie could not bear another day in the house, family all around, the walls closing in on her, the absence of her mother the biggest presence.
Evie wished Meredith, who went to a different high school, were there. Her friends at school were certainly kind to her. Her classmates told her they were sorry, and the cutest boy in tenth grade, Matt Richardson, gave her a hug. Everyone in her English class had signed a card for her. And yet Evie still felt distanced from them. It could have been a self-imposed distance, or it could have been an external distancing; her classmates, after all, were still fifteen years old, like she was. Either way, Evie was glad that no one was asking her to examine every part of what she was feeling the way everyone seemed to want to do at home.
At lunch, sitting on the green lawn between the cafeteria and the gymnasium, her friend Julia, who was her age, fifteen, but somehow seemed older—at least seventeen—gave her a clear marble the color of the ocean, a perfect blue-green color. Julia, who wore purple eyeliner around her brown eyes and had her nose pierced, was, to Evie, artistic and confident and mysterious—the opposite of Evie herself, who would never be any of those things. Julia seemed to know things about the world, things that Evie thought she’d never know. “Put your secrets and your worries in the marble,” Julia told her, cupping her hands over Evie’s. “It’ll help, I promise.”
Evie imagined holding the marble to her lips and whispering to it every single awful and terrifying thing she had felt: how scared she felt, how much she missed her mother. She imagined telling the marble about how she wished that her mom would come back. She imagined telling the marble something so terrible that she could not even tell it to herself: that she would trade someone else’s mom to have her own mom back.
She imagined putting the marble to her lips, the way she wished that Jeremy, a senior in her art class, might touch his lips to hers. She imagined putting the marble in her mouth, feeling the glass scrape against the enamel of her teeth. She imagined swallowing the marble, the cool, smooth sphere pressing and stretching her esophagus as it went down.
The bell rang, and Evie stood up and tucked the marble in the coin pocket of her Levi’s. She walked to fifth period. In art class, Evie tried painting a watercolor with only the black paint as a statement of her grief and sadness, but when she smeared the brush across the white paper, the black was not vivid, merely a smudgy gray, ashen, unsatisfying.
In the hallway after the final bell rang, surrounded by her classmates and teachers yelling out their classroom doors about not running, Evie had the distinct feeling of being completely alone.
Her grandparents were waiting to pick her up in front of the school. Though she normally rode the bus home, their presence this week meant a treat, a relief from the brown vinyl seats, the half-hour ride home. Evie felt angry at herself for thinking of a car ride home, this week of all weeks, as a treat, as if there could be anything good that came because her mother was dead.
“How was school?” her grandmother asked when Evie climbed in the back of the long Lincoln.
“Fine,” Evie said.
“Do you have a lot of homework?”
“Will you have a lot of work to do to catch up? Were your friends glad to see you?”
“I guess,” Evie said. She had never been a teenager with an attitude; she was able to easily converse with adults, with her parents and grandparents. Somehow, though, today, she had lost her words, or maybe not her words but her desire to use words.
“Well, I’m sure your teachers will be understanding right now,” Grandma said, turning to smile at Evie. Her eyes were watery. “They just have to be.”
When her grandmother said that, Evie felt, all of a sudden, so sad for her grandmother, whose only daughter had just died. She wanted to tell her grandmother that everything would be all right, in the same way that she wanted her own mother to tell her everything would be all right. But Evie couldn’t tell her grandmother that, and her mother couldn’t tell her that, and she understood, very clearly, that everything wouldn’t be all right.
“I know, Grandma,” Evie said. “I’ve gotten extensions on all my work. I think my teachers will be understanding.”
At home, she went in her room to start some homework, but she couldn’t concentrate on The Odyssey or on the Greek alphabet. She could not concentrate on sines and cosines or on mitosis. She lay on her bed, which her grandmother had made up, on top of the pink and green comforter covering her bed. She stared up at the ceiling. She found the marble in her coin pocket and held it in her palm, feeling its heat warming her. She held the marble up to her face and studied it, the clarity of it. The color was, she imagined, the color of the Strait of Messina. She moved her arm back to her side. She pictured the marble dividing, as a cell, in her hand, expanding, growing, never ceasing. She closed her hand around the marble to keep its warmth close.
On Friday, Evie ate lunch with Julia and Danielle in the math teacher’s room. Evie listened while they talked. They were going to a party that night, and they tried to get Evie to come along. They told her it would be good for her. They told her that Jeremy, the senior from her art class, would be there. For a moment, Evie thought about going to the party. Even though she rarely drank at parties, she thought about the way it might make her feel to drink one beer after another, the warm, watery beer sliding down her throat.
“My dad is driving us,” Danielle said. “We can pick you up. And you can even spend the night if you want.”
In an instant, though, somehow, the idea of going to parties or seeing movies or going to the mall made her feel nauseated, the idea of doing the things she’d always done as if nothing had changed, of everyone around doing the things they’d always done, when everything so very clearly had changed.
She dreaded being at home all weekend though, dreaded Sunday, all day Sunday, when it would be a week since her mom had died, when she’d become a week further away from being a person with a mother. She could see only the endless days in front of her, days when she would be a person missing something. She suspected, though she did not know, that this label would grow to define her until that’s all she was.
She told Julia and Danielle that she’d think about it.
At home after school, her grandparents sat in the den working crossword puzzles and watching CNN. Visitors still came. The fridge continued to fill with casseroles, as if there was an unlimited supply of Pyrex dishes in the world.
“I’m going out,” Evie said. “to ride my bike.”
“Have fun,” said Papa.
“Come back if it starts raining,” said Grandma. “Watch for cars.”
She took her bike out of the garage and rode it down the driveway. Today, she was more careful, and she slowed at the bottom of the driveway to look briefly for cars. The sky was the color of chalk and the air summer-humid, though the first day of fall had been the week before. As Evie rode down the street, she could feel the wind push her from side to side. She thought she would ride up a hill only to feel the wind push her as she rode down it again.
At the top of the hill, she felt a raindrop on her outstretched arm. She felt a drop on her forehead, on her shoulder. She did not mind getting rained on, but she also knew that her grandparents would drive around the neighborhood if she didn’t come home soon. They’d be looking out the window, paying attention to what the sky was doing. It was mostly downhill to her house from here, though, and she would get there quickly.
She rode down the hill, going so fast, flying, really, that she could have sworn she actually was dodging raindrops. Rain ran down her face and into her eyes, down the sides of her nose. Rain ran down her shirt and coated her arms, her wrists shiny with water. She clicked the gears with her index fingers and pedaled faster, feeling her thigh muscles flame and burn.
As she approached her house, she prepared her body for the left turn into the driveway. She pulled the hand brakes for the turn in. She turned too widely and too quickly, though, and instead of staying in the driveway, her bicycle’s front tire pointed straight for the wooden retaining wall to the right of the driveway. Her front tire hit the retaining wall, propelling her forward, like a human cannonball. She closed her eyes in a brief second of exhilaration followed by panic. When she opened them, she was lying, twisted, on an azalea bush, its branches stabbing her back and legs. She wondered if anything was broken, or if she was bleeding. If she was bleeding, she wondered how she could tell the difference between blood and rain. It had begun raining harder now, and Evie thought about her parents singing to her when she was small: “It’s raining, it’s pouring.” The rain filled the corners of her eyes and soaked her hair, her clothes, her skin.
Last Thanksgiving, Papa had told her that unless farmers put their turkeys under a shelter when it rained, they would look up at the sky to see what was hitting their heads, beaks open, and they would drown, the rain shooting down their throats until their lungs had filled and they could no longer breathe.
She didn’t know if it was true, because Papa liked to joke around, but it’s what she thought about, lying on the azalea bush, a branch digging into her ribs. She realized now, though she hadn’t then, that it had been the last Thanksgiving she would ever have with her mom.
Evie opened her mouth to taste the rain. She felt it hit her tongue. She wondered if it was acid rain, if it would kill her. She felt the water roll to the back of her mouth and hit her throat. She wondered if she would drown.