They were there to scatter her ashes at the same pond where she had committed canoeicide—deliberately taking the aluminum Grumman out during a thunderstorm and letting fate decide. Deb thought that was asking a lot, forcing friends and family to participate in a gesture of closure at the scene of the crime.
“Classic Becky,” Kerri said. “Just go with the flow, Deb.”
They were waiting on porch swing of Becky’s mountain cabin where they’d spent every summer of their childhood and teenage years. A bottle of white wine, Kerri’s idea, chilled in an ice-filled tin pail by their toes.
Half the bottle was in two oversized wine-glasses with delicate blue stems. It wasn’t even 11:00 am yet, but Kerri insisted all rules were off at funerals and weddings. The challenge was balancing the wine level in the glass against the motion of the swing, making sure it didn’t slosh on the all-white outfits Becky’s mom had instructed them to wear, claiming she and Becky had decided years ago that white was the proper color to wear at a funeral because it represented rebirth and light. Becky’s mom was all about focusing on the positive.
“It feels creepy,” Deb said, “Being right here where she did it.” She looked toward the pond, took a cold swallow of wine. “What if lightning hadn’t struck? What was her plan B?”
Kerri stopped the swing with her toes and bent to pour more wine into her glass. The ice in the bucket clanked, melting quickly in the heat. “How can we know?” she said. “It’s not worth wondering.”
By noon they were all assembled. Kerri, Deb, Art and Eli represented the hometown friends. Candice, Becky’s roommate from UNC, was there. Becky’s mom, Sharon, looked brittle as always: doctor’s-wife thin, perfectly coiffed, lipstick festooning a face surgically arranged into a rictus of youth. The hardest part was seeing Becky’s grandmother, Nana, who through all of their childhoods was the dispenser of a thousand hugs, juice-boxes, and warnings to put on sunscreen. She looked forlorn in an ill-fitting white eyelet dress that was probably something Becky had brought her from a study abroad semester in Mexico. Becky’s dad, Lars, helped Nana from the car and up the stone steps. He hovered near her elbow, knees slightly bent as if he were ready to catch her at any moment. Becky’s oldest brother, Dan the Douche, came; her second-oldest brother Peter was in Europe in a Fulbright. Deb bet it had taken Peter all of two minutes to decide not to come home for Becky’s memorial service. He was the best of all at resisting Becky’s charms and demands.
When they were kids Peter was the one who always told Deb not to let Becky boss her around, to not take it personally when Becky was in one of her moods. All through middle and high school Deb had a huge crush on Peter. It wasn’t just that he was her best friend’s cute older brother—he talked to her like she had opinions worth discussing. She wasn’t surprised at all when his ambitions took him first to Vanderbilt and then overseas. Sometimes, after a late- night conversation with Peter right here on the porch of his family’s summer house, Deb honestly believed she could leave home and go as far as her wits and skill would take her— down to Florida or over to Nashville, or even as far away as California. In the years since Peter left, Deb had come to realize that what Peter never noticed about her was her special gift for taking it—from Becky, from her mom, from her boyfriend of the month. By now, Deb had a master’s degree in Sticking Around, a Ph.D. in Hard Cases.
At one-o’clock the group of white-clad mourners made their way to the dock. A blue dragonfly alighted on an Adirondack chair that no one had thought to move. “Blue dragonflies are good luck,” Art said automatically, the habit of a hundred fishing trips. No one corrected him. Thick, rubbery lily-pads leaves covered three-quarters of the pond’s surface. The coroner’s report said they contributed to the delay in discovery. Becky’s seared body was wrapped in lily pad stems that kept her trapped below the surface. Some day-hikers who braved the muddy trail on the far bank after a week of storms noticed the drifting canoe and called it in. Deb couldn’t help herself; she knelt at the end of the dock and pulled on a perfectly oval leaf. The underside was coated with a layer of slime, the stem similarly encased. Deb shuddered and dropped the leaf back into the water.
The Lutheran Pastor from the church Becky hadn’t attended since sixth grade led them in a prayer, a song, and a scripture reading. After his carefully neutral remarks, he opened the dock’s slatted floor for words of remembrance from friends and family. For a moment there was no sound except the buzzing of bugs across the water’s still surface, the slap of a hand on neck where someone smacked a deerfly. Then Kerri stepped forward.
“Becky was my best friend. I know of at least three, if not four other people here who will say the same thing. Becky had a way of making you feel like you and she had a secret, like she ‘got’ you in a way that no one else could. All of us,” Kerri waved her hand to include Art and Eli and Deb, “were best friends since the first day of kindergarten when Art punched me in the stomach to make me get off his swing. Becky came to the rescue and somehow made it all better for not just me, but Art too. That was Classic Becky.” Kerri smiled and there were a few chuckles from the assembly. Then she said, “Becky was there for me my whole life. I don’t even know how to be without her.”
Kerri tried to go on, but tears choked her throat closed. Deb stepped forward and squeezed Kerri’s hand, who squeezed back, hard. Deb said, “We miss you Becky. We love you. You were the good guys.” Then she pulled Kerri back into the crowd and they stood hand-in- hand for the rest of the short ceremony as other friends and relatives said their words of goodbye. Deb wondered if everyone was looking out at the water like she was, seeing the sky darken, the canoe fighting the waves, Becky soaked and desperate, daring the sky to do its worst. The minister said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and each member of the family stepped forward and dug a little silver spoon into a cardboard box of ashes and tipped them into the water, where they mostly landed on the densely clustered lily pad leaves. When Dan stepped up for his turn with the spoon, Eli whispered in her ear, “Douche,” and Deb shook with hysterical, repressed laughter all through “Amazing Grace.” She’d never been so glad for anything to be over.
Back in the house for the catered luncheon, Kerri and Deb stuck close together, embracing Becky’s parents when it was their turn, balancing plates of mini-sandwiches on their knees in chairs across from Nana, who called them, “My girls,” and wanted to know what they’d been up to, then asked them the same questions all over again.
When they were able to escape with the excuse of getting rid of their empty plates, they made their way to the screened porch that faced down the slope away from the pond. “Thank god we drank before the service,”
Kerri said, “but after poor Nana I need another.” Deb agreed, although privately she was regretting the headache she could feel lurking inside her skull, waiting for a reason to emerge full force. If Becky were here she’d have rolled her eyes and handed Deb another drink, saying “You just have to drink past all that. Don’t be a such a wuss.” Kerri stopped at the drinks table to pour herself a fresh glass of wine, Deb discreetly took an iced tea. Suddenly, Dan the Douche was at her elbow.
“Thanks for coming.”
Well duh, Deb wanted to say, but instead she told him, “No problem.” “So, how are things with you?”
“Ok, I guess. Aside from all this,” Deb indicated the crowded room, the pond, the unseen and unspoken canoe, the wrongness of having a conversation with Dan without Becky standing behind him making faces.
“Are you still living in town?”
“Yeah. With my mom.”
“Oh, right.” Dan selected a soda from the ice-filled tub. Cherry Seven-up. What was he, twelve? “And remind me again where you work?”
“Dondero’s Diner,” Deb said without flinching. “Pretty much all my dreams have come true. What about yours?”
The shrill voice of Becky’s mom cut through their conversation from across the room. “Not there, Lars! In the center! And be careful!”
Lars slid the urn he’d placed on the fireplace mantle a few inches to the right.
“What is that?” Deb asked Dan.
“Becky’s ashes,” he said.
“What? You scattered them on the pond. In the pond,” Deb corrected herself. She tried to block the image of gray dust heaped on lily pad leaves and replace it with what Sharon had probably had in mind—cinematic fistfuls of glitter tossed into sparkling waves.
“Not all of them,” Dan said. “Mom said she couldn’t part with all of Becky just yet. They’re going to decide what to do with the rest.” He looked over at his mom who was perched on the arm of a wicker chair, chatting up a neighbor like this was any other social event. “I think she’s waiting for Peter to get home.”
“When is he coming?” Deb asked.
Dan frowned. “When he’s damn good and ready. He doesn’t like it when he’s not the center of attention, and today he definitely wouldn’t have been.”
Deb looked at Dan in surprise. He’d never spoken so openly to her before. Actually, he’d barely ever said anything much to her beyond things like, “Get out of here, we’re watching T.V.” when they were kids. She didn’t even remember what incident had gotten them started calling him “Dan the Douche.” Whatever attitude had triggered their scorn the years had leeched away. Today he seemed like a tired, sad thirty-five-year-old guy who was beginning to lose his hair.
“Hey, Deb!” Art called from the sunroom. “Come here a minute!”
“Sorry,” Deb said, and gave Dan a genuine smile. “Duty calls.”
When Deb joined Art he patted the cushion beside him on the loveseat. “Come get to know Candice,” he said, “She’s great.” Becky’s old roommate laughed. Deb noticed she gripped her bottle of Rolling Rock tightly. She felt a twinge of sympathy for Candice. It couldn’t be easy, trying to connect with this crew, whose friendship ecosystem was all shared history and in-jokes. Not to mention dealing with Becky’s parents. The more chipper Sharon got the more grief-pickled Lars seemed, as though every emotion Sharon was repressing behind her game- face was seeping through Lars’ pores. While Deb talked and laughed with the rest of them, she couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness created by seeing an urn with half of Becky inside. Becky, the girl who could never sit still, stuck inside her mom’s house. Becky as decoration.
After desert was put out and they’d all gotten one more drink, Deb again choosing iced tea and enduring Kerri’s ridicule for it, Becky’s dad poked his head through the doorway to the porch, saw them, and approached with a determined look on his face. They quieted, set their forks down. Lars said, “I hope you kids won’t be strangers, even without . . . ” He cleared his throat, then tried again. “I hope you kids know you’re always welcome up here. Drop by any time. I mean it. It wouldn’t feel like a summer without y’all spending time at the cabin.”
“We will,” they promised, although Deb knew from the looks on Eli, Art, and Kerri’s faces, and from the leaden feeling in her own guts, that none of them could imagine coming up the mountain without Becky. Becky was the one who bossed them around about when it was time to hike, to swim, to raid Lars’ liquor supply, to ride bikes two-a-person at dangerous speeds down the fire road shortcut to the gas station on the highway and then bum a ride back up the hill from some random good-old-boy with a pickup truck, although that particular trick worked best if the girls went by themselves and left Eli and Art to fish in the pond.
When Deb saw Art leaving, she set her glass on an end table and followed. They said their goodbyes to Nana, Sharon, Dan the Douche and Lars, waved at Kerri and Eli and got in their respective cars. Deb followed Art’s Camry down the winding mountain road. When he pulled in at the unmarked cutout that was the back way to reach the waterfall trail, she followed. They had fast, mostly silent sex in Art’s back seat, and were back on the road fifteen minutes later after a hug and a “see you around.” It was just a thing they’d been doing lately, no big deal. They were both in-between relationships. It had been this start-stop thing ever since Deb had left college early to come back and take care of her mom. She suspected Art had initiated it back then purely in an attempt to cheer her up. She’d thought they were in a relationship until he started dating Ainsley Ashmore and had actually moved in with her two months later. Art and Ainsley lasted about three years during which Deb had plenty of time to readjust her expectations. Now it was just physical, and friendly, and so much easier than actually making an effort with someone she didn’t’t know. Becky was the only one that knew. Deb had never told Kerri or Eli. She was pretty sure Art wasn’t talking either.
When she got home she knocked on the door of her mother’s room and entered at the whispered, “Come in.” Her mother lay under just the sheet, blankets pushed into a messy heap that had spilled off the bed and onto the magazine-littered floor. A washcloth that had once been damp but had now dried stiff lay across her forehead. Deb sat gently on the bed, lifted the cloth.
“Geeze, mom, it’s like a hundred and two degrees in here. Why didn’t you turn on the AC?”
“Couldn’t get up,” Mom said.
“Do you want dinner? I can warm up that spaghetti.”
“No, I’m all right. Just get me a fresh glass of water, would you?”
Deb picked her way across the floor and refilled mom’s water glass from the tap in the tiny bathroom. She dumped two pills out of the newest bottle that sat uncapped next to the sink. She picked the cap up, then hesitated and lay it back down.
“Here mom. Sit up a minute.”
She helped mom prop herself up long enough to take a sip of water and wash down the medicine. Then she helped her lie back, straightened the sheets, pulled the blankets off the floor, and turned the window AC to medium-low. If she could get mom to come into the living room tomorrow for a bit, Deb could get in here and straighten up, run a vacuum over the littered carpet. She’d have to try.
On Sunday night, they met up at Tre Fratelli’s before Eli caught the late flight back to Raleigh. They got their normal booth and Eli gave the server their regular order. Deb felt weirdly nervous, despite the familiarness of everything, down to the green checkered curtains in the windows that hadn’t changed since they were in high school when came here every Friday night without fail. Eli was looking around the space too, checking out the unchanged wallpaper, all the same salad bar offerings—cherry tomatoes and ranch dressing, the untouched three-bean salad. He said, “Man, how long has it been since the last time we were all here?”
“Christmas break, the last year of college?” Art ventured.
“Oh my god, Art,” Kerri said, “That was like, four years ago. It hasn’t been that long.”
“Laurie’s wedding the summer before last?” Eli asked. Laurie was his sister. They’d all been invited.
“That’s closer,” Kerri said, “but remember Becky couldn’t make it because she was on that Appalachian Trail thing?”
They all remembered. They all remembered Becky would never make it again.
“It was a year ago, November, when my mom was in the hospital,” Deb said in a flat tone, ending the debate. Behind her back, her mom had plotted her escape from the constant migraine that trapped her in the airless bedroom and trapped Deb in her hometown, in her childhood house, into never getting to leave for longer than overnight, never getting a break. She’d hoarded her pain pills. Deb couldn’t imagine how much that had cost her, to go without relief for days, and taken them all at once when Deb left for her shift at the restaurant. If Deb hadn’t forgotten her work keys that day and driven back to the house, cursing herself the whole way, and stormed back inside, rummaging through stacks of mail, in pockets of discarded jeans on her bedroom floor, and finally, as a last resort, gone into her mom’s room to see if she’d left her keys there, she wouldn’t have found mom in time for them to be able to bring her back.
Becky had been the first person Deb called after she got to the hospital, and Becky had called in reinforcements. Deb wanted to wait and see, but Becky gathered the troops. They’d come to Tre Fratelli’s the day mom moved from intensive care to a regular room. Pepperoni and mushroom had never tasted so good.
The server came over and passed around their drinks. Even though they were all seasoned drinkers now, they never ordered alcohol here, sticking to the high school staples of Mountain Dew and Diet Coke. She set down the plate of sliced olives on the side that Eli had asked for. It was part of their standing order: An extra large traditional crust pizza—all pepperoni and extra cheese, half plus sausage, a quarter plus green pepper, and onions, and a quarter mushroom, with a plate of sliced olives on the side. The four of them stared at the plate of olives.
“Everything OK?” their server asked.
Eli glanced around the table, then said, “I guess we won’t need the olives after all. Sorry. Ordered out of habit. Can you take them away, please?”
“Are you sure? I have to charge you anyway. We can’t use them after they’ve left the kitchen.”
“I understand,” Eli said. “Just take them.”
No one spoke while they watched the server carry the plate across the dining room and back through the swinging kitchen door. Then Art let out a long sigh.
“Remember how she said eating warm olives was like eating sliced eyeballs?” Art asked.
Deb laughed mid-straw-sip of Mountain Dew and spewed some out her nose. That set the whole table off, and suddenly the awkwardness was broken and it was just like old times– talking over each other, running jokes established then abandoned, arguing about who had said or done what the last time they were together. It was like Becky was in the restroom and had got caught up a texting exchange with her latest crush and would join them again any second. .
Afterwards, they went to the pier at the old marina and jumped across broken slabs of concrete to get out to the end. It was that time just after sunset but before dark when it was hard to see the jagged pieces of rebar jutting out of upturned blocks just waiting to catch an unsuspecting ankle. When they got to the end and sat, dangling their feet over the waves, Kerri pulled a bottle of wine from her bag .
“Where’d you get that?” Art asked. “That’s better stuff than your usual swill.”
“From Sharon’s cupboard.” Kerri felt around the bottom of her bag until she pulled out a corkscrew.
“You stole wine from a funeral?” Eli asked.
“There weren’t that many people drinking. They had a lot of wine.” Kerri said. She prised the cork loose and passed the bottle to Deb, who took a long drink. It was fruity and burned all the way down. Probably not a good mix with Mountain Dew and pepperoni, but, hey, they were young and wild and free right? Or at least alive. Alive was good.
Deb passed the bottle to Eli, who sniffed skeptically and took a sip. “I don’t know how you guys can drink that shit,” he said, and passed the bottle to Art. He produced a flask out of his back pocket, unscrewed it, and held it under Deb’s nose. She smelled the earthy, soil and dirt smell of Scotch. “This is a real drink.”
“You were holding out on us!” Kerri said.
“Relax, it was in the glove box. A Boy Scout is always prepared.” Eli said, “One for me,” took a drink, and said, “and one for my homie. Love you, Becky.” He reached out and poured a little into the waves slapping against the pier.
“Why does everyone think Becky’s in the water?” Deb asked. The wine had made its way back to her and she took another long drink.
“Becky is everywhere.” Kerri said, “She’s all around us. She’s in the water, the earth and the sky. She’s in our hearts.”
“She’s in a goddamned urn on Sharon’s mantle,” Deb said. Alcohol either made her sleepy or it made her mad. There was a limited range of fun involved.
“What?” Art and Eli said. Kerri just stared at her.
“Dan told me,” Deb said. “Sharon didn’t want to scatter all of Becky’s ashes until Peter got home. She only let them put half in the pond today, and the rest are in this crappy-looking urn in the living room.”
“That’s messed up.”
“Oh my god.”
“Becky would haaaaaaaaaaaaate that,” Kerri said, and chugged the last of the wine. She threw the bottle off the pier. They couldn’t hear the splash when it entered the water, the routine slap of the waves was too loud.
“Gimme,” Kerri said and held out her hand for Eli’s flask.
“Damn, girl. Admitting you’re powerless over alcohol is the first step.”
“Admitting you better pass me a drink or I’ll break your face is your first step,” Kerri said. Eli passed her the flask.
“We should get her,” Art said.
“We should get Becky. Set her free. This is where she’d want to be.” “You’re nuts,” Eli said.
“What, we just go up to Lars and Sharon and say, ‘Hey, we know you lost your daughter, but we knew her better than you ever did so give her to us?’” Kerri said, her voice slurry and sarcastic.
“No,” said Art, his stubbornness kicking in. “We just go get her.”
“Like break in?” Kerri asked.
“It wouldn’t be that hard,” Deb said. “They used to keep an extra key on a hook under the screen porch. It might still be there.”
“Oh right, Deb,” Eli said. “I can just see you–Little Miss Follow the Rules–busting in through the back door and swiping Becky’s urn. They’re gonna notice it’s missing.”
“Not swiping,” Deb said. “Switching. Take out Becky’s ashes, put in some, I don’t know, fireplace ashes or something. How are they gonna know the difference? Ashes are ashes, right?”
“Dust is dust,” drunk Kerri said.
“It’s win-win,” said Art. “It’s winner winner chicken dinner.”
Eli stood up. “If ashes are ashes, then why bother? What’s the difference? No one is going to do any breaking and entering tonight. Let’s go. I’ve got to catch a flight, remember? Which one of you losers is sober enough to drive?”
Although she pretended to herself she never planned it, Deb started taking trips up the mountain to visit Becky. She did it the first time on a Sunday off, when mom was having a bad day and she knew she wouldn’t be able to get her out of bed at all. It didn’t really take that long to get up there, in just thirty-five minutes she could be lying face-down on the dock over Becky’s pond, watching transparent fish suspended in the water below. Deb wondered if any of the fish had accidentally swallowed one of Becky’s ashes, mistaking it for a morsel of protein, or if a fish had breathed a speck of Becky in through a pulsing gill, passing it through its body and expelling it again for the next fish to circulate. When she went back to her car parked on the gravel in front of the house, Deb sat for a minute thinking about the part of Becky still trapped inside her mother’s urn before she put the key in the ignition and drove back down the mountain.
Pretty soon, in addition to weekends, Deb started sneaking in a couple weekday visits. She’d tell her mom she had to work late and tack on an extra two or three hours to account for her missing time. On one of these weekday excursions, Deb laid on her back on the dock, looking up at the clouds scudding through the circle of treetops marking the water’s edge, their branches defining pond-shaped sky. She knew Becky had lain right here hundreds of times, having the same thoughts as her: cloud, sunlight, bored, airplane, bored, hungry, cloud. When had the word “end” entered the litany? Despite Becky being the one of them who traveled farthest—Mexico, hiking the southern part of the Appalachian trail for two months with some girls she met in Chapel Hill—she was the one who stayed in closest touch with them all. In the geometry of friendship, all points touched Becky. Now that Becky was gone, Deb still talked to Kerri almost every day, but she could rarely get her to drive the twenty-five miles back to their hometown to hang out. Kerri was usually buzzed by 7:00 p.m., so if Deb couldn’t convince her to drive over before then, it was too late. Art lived in town, but he was busy running one of his dad’s stores. Deb thought he was probably dating someone new.
She hadn’t gotten a “What’s up?” text from him in a while, which was his highly romantic way of letting her know he was bored and horny and wondering if she was free right then. She didn’t talk to Eli at all, although once in awhile he’d “like” something she posted online. She and Eli didn’t intersect on their own. They needed a third element to bring them into a common plane.
Her cell phone buzzed and she pulled it out of her back pocket. Mom. “Where are you?”
“I called the restaurant and they said you’d left two hours ago.”
“Mom, you don’t have to call the restaurant. Just call me—on my cell. If I can’t take the call right then I’ll call you back in five minutes. You know that.”
“Dr. Meyer’s office called. They had a cancellation and I can see him today if I can be there at 3:00.”
Deb checked her watch. 2:25. Shit! Shit. Shit.
“Ok, mom, call them back and say you’ll take it. You might be a few minutes late. I’m on my way.”
“Where are you?”
“Will you call them? Tell me you’ll call them.”
“I’ll call them.”
“Ok. Just hang tight. I’ll be there.”
“Where are you?” mom’s voice asked again, fretfully, but Deb was already sprinting to her car, cramming the phone into her back pocket as she ran.
Summer cooled into fall and fall chilled into winter. Deb felt suspended in her own life; taking her mom to doctor’s appointments, refilling prescriptions, working through the late afternoons and evenings at Dondero’s. It was as if there was a plastic film between her and other people. She could hear them talking, but everything was muffled, slightly unfocused. People had to repeat their orders to her; she’s step away from table five and immediately forget who needed a refill on what. She still went up the mountain at least once a week to sit on the dock. None of Becky’s family was ever around.
That was the only place the film seemed to lift so she could see things as they really were: the bright yellow of dead leaves competing with the rusty green of lily pads floating on the water’s surface, the bare fingers of tree branches rimming the sky interspersed with smudges of evergreens. Stretched out on the dock, Deb could feel again. Sometimes she was angry. She spent a whole afternoon chucking parking lot gravel into the water, pretending she was aiming for Becky’s head, to jolt her out of betrayal. Why did you leave us? Deb asked with each splash. What the hell were you hoping to accomplish?
In an attempt to wake herself up, just to do something out of her ordinary, Deb started attending the Community Church near the highway on-ramp, the one with the billboards of smiling people looking relaxed and multicultural, with non-threatening messages in Bradley Hand Italic that said “Here 4U” and “No Perfect People Allowed.” When she filled out the little visitor card with her name and address, for some reason she checked the “yes” box next to “would like minister to call.” Since then, she’d met with Pastor Steve twice.
She’d already told him about her mom, about Becky’s death. They discussed suicide at length, covering Christianity’s historical stance on suicide and concluding that Heaven wouldn’t turn away a suicide completer who suffered from mental illness any more than God would turn away a person who’d died of diabetes, or a thousand days of a jackhammer-like headache that never quit. Today, when Deb walked into Pastor Steve’s study and sat down in the comfy chair underneath the window she blurted out, “I have a friend with benefits.”
“OK,” Pastor Steve said, “What would you like me to know about that?”
“Do you think that’s a sin?”
“Let’s ask some more useful questions,” Pastor Steve said. “Does the relationship you have with your friend help you or hurt you? If it never becomes any different than the way it is right now, is that good enough?”
After the session, when her tears had cleared enough so she could actually see to drive, Deb went up the mountain instead of back to mom’s house. When she pulled around the last curve of the winding drive, she saw another car was already parked in front of Becky’s cabin. She felt tears threaten again . . . It wasn’t fair! She really needed this time today! While she was hesitating between parking or just pulling through the circle drive and heading back home, the front door opened and Dan the Douche stepped out in his stocking feet and raised a hand. She put the car in park and got out.
“Deborah! Great to see you.”
They stood awkwardly for a moment. Deb opened her mouth to explain, but Dan said, “Why don’t you come on in?” and held the door wide, so she went up the steps.
Dan waved her to the living room couch. “Have a seat. I was just getting some firewood, let me close the back door quick.” He disappeared through the swinging, restaurant- style door that separated the living room from the kitchen. Deb saw Becky’s urn was still right where Lars had put it the day of the memorial. There was a thick layer of dust on its lid and all the other decorations on the mantle: an antique wooden duck decoy, a mini-canoe paddle painted with a mountain scene.
Dan reappeared with an armful of logs which he set on the hearth. “I’ll just make this fire quick, if you don’t mind. Take the chill off the house. Do you want something to drink?”
“Oh no, I’m fine.”
Dan laid a few of the logs in the grate, added some pieces of kindling, some twists of newspaper, and then a Duraflame fire starter. He glanced over his shoulder at Deb and smiled. “Cheating, I know! But this is the way we do it now.”
“It is easier,” Deb said. “I won’t tell the Boy Scouts.”
Dan stood and brushed off his knees, then joined Deb on the couch. She couldn’t stand it anymore so she jumped in.
“So I bet you’re surprised to see me up here.”
Dan shrugged. “Not really. You guys were always around. And I know dad told you you were welcome to visit any time.”
“I just come up once in awhile to sit on the dock. It helps me clear my head or something, to feel closer to her for a little bit, you know?”
“I can imagine,” Dan said. They sat watching the flames consume the newspapers, the smaller kindling. “I know you think I wasn’t, like, close to Becky, and we weren’t buddies necessarily or anything, but when you grow up with someone there’s that bond whether you realize it or not. I guess I kept waiting for her to grow up enough to really be a friend, but when she got older she wasn’t around–always traveling, always with friends. It’s like I was waiting for the right moment, and now the right moment will never come.” He glanced over at Deb who was staring wide-eyed into the fire so her eyes wouldn’t overflow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make it all about me. How are you doing?”
Now her eyes did overflow. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Deb kept repeating.
“Hang on, there’s some tissue in the bathroom.” Dan got up and came back with a box of Kleenex. Deb took a fistful and jammed them against her stupid eyes. After she’s gotten herself back in control she said, “I guess the answer to your question is, ‘not so hot’.”
Dan patted her on the back, tentatively. “It’s okay, Deb. You’ll be okay.”
“I know. It’s just . . . there’s a lot going on. My mom is getting worse and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to take care of her by myself. I never see any of the old gang . . .”
“Not even Art? Doesn’t he live in town still?”
“Yeah, but he’s got work, plus I think he’s dating someone. At this age, there’s not a lot of hanging out with your opposite sex platonic friend, right? Everyone’s busy trying to hook up.”
“I just miss, Becky, you know?” Deb said, and tears started again, but this time they were just tears, flowing down her cheeks, not provoking debilitating sobbing, which was fortunate.
Dan stopped his awkward patting and pulled her in for a genuine hug. “It’s okay, Deb. It’s okay.”
Later, when he walked her to her car, he said, “I know you guys used to call me Dan the Douche.“
Deb couldn’t meet his eyes, “I don’t remember how that started.”
“I do. I was being a douche to you annoying little kids. I was a pretty cool teenaged dude, you know.”
Now Deb could play along. “Not as cool as Peter!”
“No one’s as cool as Peter. Peter’s not even as cool as Peter.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ll never think of you as Dan the Douche again.” “I’m glad.”
Deb surprised herself by giving Dan a hug and a kiss on the cheek before sliding into her car seat. He stood at the bottom of the steps and watched her drive away, waving when she did before she rounded the curve that hid the house from view.
Mom hadn’t moved from the bed for five days. Deb changed the sheets twice, rolling her from one side to the next to get the old sheets out from under her and the new ones on, before breaking down and calling Dr. Meyers. The home health nurse had just arrived for the afternoon when Art’s text buzzed in her back pocket,
Deb looked at the text. She looked at the bedpan. She looked at the nurse. She called in to Dondero’s and said she was sorry but there was a crisis with her mom and she wasn’t going to make it in tonight. Amy had told her earlier this week when things started to go south with mom that she would cover for her if needed, so Deb didn’t feel too terrible. She texted Art back, “Nothing” and waited for him to say when and where.
“Waterfall” he texted back, and she knew he was on the other side of the mountain at his dad’s second store and they’d meet in the middle.
“I’m headed to work, mom,” Deb said, and leaned over to kiss her mom’s warm forehead. “Be back soon.”
She smiled at the nurse, trying not to look guilty, and felt a sweet feeling of relief blossoming in her chest the second she strapped the seatbelt across it.
When she parked behind Art at the pullout she could tell this wasn’t going to be their usual thing. He was outside his car, pacing back and forth in a black fleece jacket wearing one of those hipster wool hats that looked too small for his head. Deb took her time getting out of the car, wondering what she was going to have to deal with now. She was the one who needed some freaking stress relief.
“Hey” she said, after she climbed out of the car.
“Hey,” Art said, and rubbed his hands together like they were cold, but it really wasn’t that bad, even up here.
“I want to walk. Do you want to walk? Let’s walk.”
“Fine.” Deb said. “We’ll walk.”
They started up the trail to the waterfall. The ground was frozen, but the sun was making an effort through the bare limbs of the hardwoods.
“What’s up?” Deb tried, but Art just said, “In a minute,” and picked up the pace.
She thought he would stop at the scenic overlook by the falls, but he just kept going. He led her all the way to end of the loop, then veered off the trail and started to climb. Now Deb knew what he was up to. “Art! Stop!”
He waited for her to catch up to him. She was out of breath. “What are you doing?”
“Today’s the day, Deb.” He rubbed his hands together again, like Mr. Smithers on the Simpsons.
“The day we get Becky. Becky’s ashes. Look, I brought a swap.” He pulled a plastic baggie out of his pocket and held it up so Deb could see the grey flakey substance inside.
“What is that?”
“Well, it’s mostly a long story, is what it is.”
“Well if we’re walking all the way to Becky’s cabin from here, then we’ve got the time.” “I don’t know if you knew that I was, um, seeing Candace.”
“I figured you were seeing someone,” Deb said. It surprised her how much it hurt to hear him say it out loud.
“Yeah, well, we got along at the memorial thing you know, and then I called her and we’ve been seeing each other a lot. Like, it was getting pretty serious pretty fast, you know?
“I can imagine.”
“Well, anyway, it was going great until yesterday, when I backed out of her driveway and ran over her kid’s tricycle. Did you know she had a kid?” Deb shook her head. “Yeah, neither did I until we were six dates in, which I now realize is typical. Anyway, we got in this huge fight and then it came out that she was still banging her kid’s dad the whole time and I made myself a nice bonfire when I got home out of the cards she gave me, and her kid’s drawings that were on my fridge, and the gloves she gave me for Christmas. I mean, am I the kind of guy you can see with little kid’s drawings on my fridge?
“I can’t quite picture it,” Deb said. She felt out of breath all over again.
“So this morning when I saw the cold ashes in the backyard I just thought, “It’s time” and scooped them up and texted you. I mean, why not now, right? You were the only one who seemed into it when we talked about it at the pier.”
“I wouldn’t say I was into it,” Deb said. “I could just see how it made sense.” “Whatever,” Art said. “I knew you’d understand.”
When they got to the cabin they could see no cars in the gravel parking area. Not a surprise.
“I can’t believe it’s been six months since we’ve been up here,” Art said.
“I’ve been up here,”
Art looked at her with surprise, “Really?”
Deb hesitated. She hadn’t intended to tell him, but there it was. “Yeah. I come by sometimes, just to sit on the dock and be close to her. It helps me think.”
“Do you talk to her?”
“Not really. Sometimes. One time I yelled at her and threw a bunch of rocks in the water.”
Art nodded. “I get that. Sometimes I talk to her in the car. Usually after some D-bag cuts me off and I’m pissed. She’s, like, my patron saint of road rage now, or something.”
“I thought I was weird, but that’s messed up, Art.”
“Ha! Well. It’s easy to be a mess, right? If this kind of thing doesn’t mess a person up, I don’t know what does.”
“Something like that,” Deb agreed.
“So where do you remember where they keep that key?” “Around back.”
They went around to the screen porch and checked behind the posts that elevated it off the ground enough to create a storage place for kayaks and canoes and inner tubes. They found it on the third post, hanging discretely on a screwed-in brass hook.
“Seems pretty stupid to leave a key in such an obvious spot,” Art said.
“I don’t know. Any trespasser who goes to the trouble to look for a key is probably going to be careful not to leave any traces, in which case, fine, use the house if you got caught in a storm or had to go pee or something. If someone wants to rob you, they’re going to get in anyway. Might as well save a broken window.”
“So in your scenario are we robbers or trespassers?” “I guess technically we’re grave robbers.”
“That’s gross. No we’re not. We’re liberators.” “Freedom fighters.”
“Viva la resistance!”
Deb had that déjà vu feeling wash over her again, like she and Art had just hiked ahead of the others and they’d all be there soon, Becky included.
“Well,” Deb said and handed Art the key. “This was your idea. You do the honors.”
Art went up the back steps and turned the key in the lock. The door opened easily. “Come on,” he said, and disappeared inside.
Deb followed Art through the porch, the kitchen and into the living room. The Japanese-style urn still sat on the center of the mantle, its blue and white design out of place with the rest of the room.
“Christ, that’s ugly,” Art said.
“I know, right? I can’t believe they left her sitting here all alone.” They were whispering, tempering their voices to the stillness of the empty house. Art pulled the baggie out of his pocket.
“So how do you want to do this?”
Deb frowned, considering. “It’s probably going to make a mess. Do you want to take her to the kitchen table and we can put down some newspapers or plastic bags or something?”
“I guess. Ok, take it.”
“What? You take it.”
“No, you take it. This was your big idea.” “You agreed!”
“I feel weird about touching it.”
“Oh my god. It’s only going to get worse. This is just the outside of the urn. We’re going to transfer her actual ashes. Did you bring anything to transfer her ashes into?”
Art patted his jacket pockets, looking panicked. “Oh, god, no! I kind of forgot that part.”
“Geeze Louise, Art. That’s kind of a major thing to forget.”
Deb could tell Art was on the verge of abandoning ship, but now that they were there, having already committed the crimes of trespassing, breaking and entering, and on the verge of some sort of larceny, Deb didn’t want to quit. Art was right earlier. It was time. They deserved to reclaim what was left of Becky, to let her bring them all together again.
“Fine,” Deb said, “I’ll do it. Check the bottom drawer to the left of the sink. That’s where they used to keep plastic bags.” Art ducked into the kitchen and Deb lifted the urn off the mantle. It was lighter than she expected, but she carried it carefully with two hands into the kitchen and set it on the table where Art had spread an unused kitchen garbage bag.
“Do you think we need a scoop or something?” Art asked.
“We can probably just dump it carefully,” Deb answered. She started pulling open kitchen drawers and closing them until she found what she wanted—an empty sixteen-ounce cottage cheese container with a lid. Like all wealthy people, Becky’s parents had their idiosyncrasies and not wasting money purchasing fancy plasticware sets when you could store leftovers in recycled containers was one of theirs.
“Cottage cheese?” Art asked.
“It’s better than a plastic bag. Here, hold it around the bottom so I don’t knock it over while I’m doing this.” Deb uncapped the urn, the cheap lid pulling right off without any resistance. “You know what this reminds me of? Those vases you get at the grocery store florist, the ones that are so cheap you can’t even get people to pay a dollar for them at a yard sale afterwards. I wonder why Sharon didn’t take a little more pride in getting a better urn?”
“Will you please shut up and just do this?” Art said. “I’m so nervous.”
“Ok, here goes,” Deb said, and tilted the urn over the cottage cheese container. What they weren’t expecting was everything to slide out of the urn at once and ploof! in a cloud that left them coughing from breathing in Becky.
“Shit oh shit! Sorry! Sorry, Art! Sorry, Becky!” Deb said, swatting at the air uselessly, trying keep the dust from settling in her hair.
Art had jumped back from the table, but now he leaned over and prodded the plastic bag of ashes he’d brought. “This is never gonna work. They’ll know. These ashes are way bigger.”
He opened the bag so Deb could see what looked like regular, flakey campfire ashes inside.
“What if we chop them up more and maybe mix in some flour to make them more powdery?”
Art’s uselessness was becoming beyond annoying. “I don’t know, Art. There are a shitload of cupboards in this kitchen. Why don’t you try looking for a food processor or something?”
Art started opening cupboard doors while Deb took one last look at the powdery and gritty pile that was the last she’d see of Becky, and snapped the cottage cheese container lid on.
“Here’s a blender,” Art said.
“Ok. Plug it in.”
They tried the “chop” setting. Art took off the lid and peered inside. “They don’t look much different.”
“Try puree,” Deb suggested.
He let the blender whir, its shrill whine intruding on the house’s silence.
“Ok, that’s better. Did you want to add some flour to make the color match better?”
Deb hesitated. “Why don’t we just add back a spoonful of Becky? Then Peter still has something real to do, you know?”
“You always did have a thing for Peter.”
“Yeah. Kind of. Should we?”
Deb found a tablespoon and handed it to Art, who unsnapped the cottage cheese container lid, his earlier squeamishness forgotten, and carefully took a heaping scoop and put it into the blender. He let it whirr for a couple more seconds.
“It looks better.”
Art transferred the ashes into the urn and handed it to Deb. “You put this back and I’ll start cleaning up in here.”
Deb took the urn and backed through the swinging kitchen door. She turned around to head for the fireplace mantle and bumped into a very large, very male body that had not been standing right in front of the kitchen door twenty minutes ago. “Oof!” Deb said, softly, more startled than terrified.
“Deb!” the man whispered, and covered her hands wrapped tightly around the urn with his own where she was pressing it against his stomach. “What the hell are you doing!”
It was Dan the Douche.
“Dan! What are you doing here? How did you . . . ?”
“I was asleep upstairs and I heard noise in the kitchen. I thought Peter came back early, but then I heard voices and I didn’t know what was going on.”
“Peter came back?” Deb asked, stupidly. She wanted to take a step back but Dan’s hands were still trapping hers, fixing her in place pressed up against him.
“Yeah. We met up at the airport. I just got back from a consulting trip and I’m hella jetlagged, so Peter dropped me off to get some sleep and went to get groceries and stuff before mom and dad get here.”
Deb heard water running in the kitchen. Art must be washing out the blender. She hoped he was using dish soap.
Dan’s hands squeezed tighter on hers, “So what are you doing, Deb?”
“Art and I—that’s Art in the kitchen—we . . . Oh hell, Dan, there’s no good way to say this. We broke into your house to get Becky’s ashes.”
“Aren’t they in the urn?” he asked, looked down at their joined hands.
“No. These are bonfire ashes. And a few of Becky’s ashes too, that we mixed back in, so we wouldn’t be total A-holes.”
“You are total A-holes.”
Art called, “Hey Deb!” and came through the swinging door. “Oh shit!”
“Hey Art,” Dan said.
“Dan! What the hell?”
Dan let go of Deb and said, “Let’s all sit down a minute and you guys can tell me exactly what’s going on.”
They moved over to the plaid couches. Art and Deb sat next to each other, Dan sat across from them, the accused and the executioner. Deb set the urn on the coffee table between them.
“Start at the beginning,” Dan suggested.
“Where’s your car?” Art asked.
“Peter dropped me off and went to get groceries.”
“Oh for Cripe’s sake, Art, just tell him!” Deb said.
“Well, we hiked over the hill from the waterfall. You know that back trail?” Art asked. Dan nodded. “So, yeah. And Deb knew where the spare key was.”
“Oh nice, Art. Throw me under the bus.”
“I’m not throwing you under the bus. I’m stating the facts!”
Dan said, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re both under the bus. Go on.”
Art continued, “Yeah, so, we let ourselves in and Deb, I mean we, got the urn and then switched out the ashes. We didn’t want to make a mess so we did it in the kitchen. Then we were gonna put the urn back and leave everything as we found it and just go, I swear.”
Dan rubbed his hands across his face, a tired man trying to coax himself back to alertness. “What I don’t get is ‘Why?’ Why would you take Becky’s ashes?”
Deb and Art looked at each other. Who was going to explain?
“It just seemed wrong,” Art tried, and fell silent.
“It seemed wrong that she was up here all alone in this empty house,” Deb said. “Becky hated being alone. That’s why she had the four of us. So she could count on at least one of us to be there for her all the time.”
“We just wanted her back,” Art said.
“You know she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. And borderline personality disorder, and God knows what else,” Dan said. “She gave mom and dad fits. They never knew what to do with her.”
“I don’t care,” Deb said. “She was just herself. She was our best friend.” “She was fucking incandescent,” Art said.
“Where are her ashes now?” Dan asked.
“In the kitchen. In a cottage cheese container.”
“It was all we could find in the cupboard,” Deb said defensively.
Dan let out a bark of laughter. “That’s perfect!” He rubbed his hand across his face again, then shook his head, straightening up. “Fine, take her.”
“Take her,” Dan said. “You’re right. You were the ones who got the good part of Becky, and the family got left with the shit part. This is more fitting. This is perfect somehow.”
“You’re not going to tell Sharon and Lars? You’re not going to call the cops?”
“No,” Dan said. “I’m gonna make a cup of mom’s shitty instant coffee while we wait for Peter to get back, and then I’m gonna drive you guys back to your car.”
“One thing” Dan said as they rattled over the back road toward Art’s car.
“What are you going to do with her?” He nodded toward the cottage cheese carton resting on Deb’s lap. She was squeezed between Dan and Art on the bench seat of Dan’s Ford Ranger pickup. Their thighs touched with every bump.
“We haven’t planned anything out officially,” Art said. “Probably we’ll scatter them at the pier. That was kind of our spot.”
“We have to check with Eli and Kerri,” Deb said.
“Will you do me a favor?” Dan asked. “Will you let me know, when you do it? Will you invite me?”
“Of course,” they both said together.
Becky’s family scattered the rest of the mostly not-Becky’s ashes in the ice-edged pond on Christmas Eve. Deb, Art, Eli, and Kerri plus Dan scattered Becky’s ashes at the pier in the spring. Kerri had quit drinking because she was four months pregnant. Her baby-daddy was a mechanic at Tires Plus. “I’m keeping it because I’m too lazy to have an abortion” was her standard line. Deb thought she was secretly pleased at how things were turning out. Eli’s company was transferring him to Miami. Deb’s mom was on hospice. Art was dating Sherri Finger who they all made fun of in high school but who had lost 70 pounds through Nutri- Systems and was featured on billboards in before and after photos looking energetic and sexy in her workout gear.
When the hospice nurse told her it would be soon, Deb picked up the phone. She hovered over Kerri’s number, but then pressed Dan’s instead. He was there in twenty minutes, and stayed all through the night, until mom slipped away at 4:47 am. He helped her pack up mom’s sickroom, helped Deb make decisions about what furniture and household things to keep and what to donate, spent hours watching HGTV with her and then hours at Home Depot, and hours helping Deb re-paint and re-do, reclaiming the house as her own.
By December, he’d moved in. By June they were married in a small ceremony up on the mountain with the reception at the cabin. They honeymooned in California. By the next June, D.J. was born.
“No, I found it, it’s mine!”
Deb fought the pleasant inertia of the sunshine, the breeze, the peace of being on vacation at the cabin and finally having one moment to herself, and joined the boys at the pond’s edge. Cade’s belly poked over his swim trunks just like Dan’s was starting to do. He was clutching a muddy something with both hands. D.J.’s hands were muddy too, evidence he’d been trying to wrest the thing from his younger brother’s grasp.
“Cade, give it to Mommy.”
“Caden James! Give it to Mommy now.”
Cade let her pry the muddy object out of his hands. It was smooth, rectangular. Deb swished it in the shallow water at the pond’s edge and as the mud dissolved away she knew exactly what she was holding. Becky’s cell phone. She was instantly transported back to their booth at Tre Fratelli’s when they’d all made fun of Becky for selecting a pink girly phone and she’d slid out of the booth to go make a call, but not before shooting their table a full double bird with both black-nail polished, silver-ring bedecked middle fingers. Now, holding Becky’s phone in her hands at the water’s edge, (Unearthed? Unwatered?) she re-imagined it all.
Becky taking the canoe out on a sunny afternoon, drunk or stoned or both, Becky, always ADHD, never able to do one thing for long, taking out her phone to what? Play a game? Take a photo? Swat a deerfly? The phone slipping out of Becky’s hand and sliding between the lily pads, down into coffee-colored water. Becky leaning over the side, grasping, leaning too far, tipping out, following her phone down along the tangle of ensnaring slimy stems toward a fate she hadn’t intended. Lightning was nature’s afterthought. Standing there, at the water’s edge with Becky’s phone in her hands, her two boys hugging her knees, Deb saw how it had been. She’d never intended it, yet set off a chain reaction that ricocheted through the years, hogging all the attention as usual. Classic Becky.
Heidi Espenscheid Nibbelink is Midwestern by birth, Western by heart, and Southern by circumstance. Her short stories have appeared online at Drunk Monkeys, New Pop Lit, Shark Reef, The Broken City, The Nude Bruce Review, The Higgs Weldon, and Flagpole Magazine. She is an MFA student at the Sewanee School of Letters, University of the South, Sewanee, TN. Find her online at heidinibbelink.com or on Twitter @AnnoyedOboist.