The Truth About Keeping Secrets(2)

But now they were all here, staring me in the face, and any one of them could have done it.

Olivia and I were best friends mostly because we were supposed to be. We had barely anything in common besides the fact that fate had dictated we were to live on the same cul-de-sac, her at three o’clock and me at twelve, but she let me talk about movies and I let her talk about everyone and everything else. She was the high school’s chief theatre tech, a social butterfly, had other friends. Me, not so much. Either way, we’d made an unspoken agreement to see out the rest of our formal education careers together; I don’t think either of us had anticipated that the agreement would include funeral attendance, but she was here, and although I wouldn’t tell her, I was grateful.

‘Oh, God,’ she said when she noticed I was staring. She looked pretty; her dark hair hung in unnatural curls and her cheekbones shimmered even in the dull light. She had single eyelids, and the glittery purple liner she wore kind of looked like it was part of the anatomy of her eye, swirling upwards and narrowing to a point. The shape reminded me of a robin. Pretty. Not really funeral pretty. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have come like this. I wanted to get ready first thing this morning so, you know, I could stay as long as you needed, without having to rush back, or anything, but Miles’s mom wanted us to be ready for pictures at four. Which is so early, right? That’s early. And I tried to say that it was too early, but they already made the dinner reservations, and I realize that seems not important compared to –’

‘Hey.’ I envisioned us standing there until we began to decompose, Olivia still talking while chunks of flesh fell from her skull. I patted her on the cheek. ‘Don’t worry about it. Deep breaths.’

Olivia squished her mouth into an O and sucked, backwards whistle, and it looked stupid as hell, so I laughed, but someone I didn’t know shot me a glance and I folded in on myself. Lowered my voice. ‘I don’t want to meet and greet any more.’ Mom was talking to someone, which meant I could make my escape. ‘Let’s go hide.’

We managed to sneak away to an inconspicuous hallway near the entrance. I slumped against the wallpaper as Olivia wrung her wrist in her other hand, searching for something to say – unusual for her. ‘Do you want to, like, talk?’ she asked. ‘I read that it’s good to talk. You’re supposed to express yourself because if you don’t, you’ll end up spontaneously combusting. Not really, but, you know. Metaphorically. With emotions.’

‘I appreciate the fact that you did research, but, no. Not right now.’ I shut my eyes, rested the back of my head against the wall, wished to be anywhere else. ‘Regular programming. Just … talk.’

‘All right. Oh! We missed you last night.’

It took me a second to remember: the game. Right. It was the homecoming game, and a Very Big Deal, and she’d invited me along, but to be completely honest, school spirit was at the very bottom of my priorities list, besides eating food and behaving like a normal human being. ‘How was it?’ I asked, even though I wasn’t particularly interested. Anything to keep her talking.

‘Yeah, good. We won, obviously. Hooray, go Panthers, go football, so on, so forth. But honestly, it was probably for the best you didn’t go, because it was freezing, firstly, and it went on forever. Like, overtime. I thought I was gonna have to get some toes amputated. Oh, and they did the homecoming court stuff. Heath Alderman and June Copeland won king and queen, obviously.’ Olivia had a tendency to insist upon the obviousness of non-obvious things, but she wasn’t exaggerating this time; Heath Alderman and June Copeland might have actually been bred to be homecoming royalty, like some sort of champion line of miniature schnauzers. ‘I have no idea how June did it,’ Olivia continued, ‘but she was standing out in the field in this beautiful dress which had no sleeves. Zero sleeve. The wind chill was, like, minus three, but she didn’t even have a single freaking goosebump. Oh, so, speaking of homecoming things, are you sure you’re OK with me going tonight? For real. I don’t have to. Miles will get over it. We can just stay in –’ she nudged me with her elbow – ‘watch a movie or something. Even one of your weird ones.’

Honestly, I didn’t want her to go. It was nice to have access to sound, some sort of stimulation, but I would have felt guilty asking her to stay. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘Bring me back, uh, a fish cupcake, or something. That’s the theme, right?’

‘Oh, all right, let me tell you about the theme.’ Apparently, it was a whole thing that student council was split between Roaring Twenties (event coordinator extraordinaire Olivia’s idea) and Under the Sea (not Olivia’s idea; also, apparently, a horrible idea), and they ended up going with Under the Sea, and Olivia went on an admittedly well-constructed tirade about how democracy doesn’t work because most people are too stupid to pick the right answer. Fine. Maybe we did have something in common.

Eventually, Rick called out from the main room that the ceremony was starting. Olivia went back to her parents plural and I sat with Mom in the front row, which was reserved for us. Phew. I was worried we’d be stuck in the cheap seats. I said this to Mom, who told me under her breath to stop it.

‘Er, hello, everyone, thank you for coming,’ Rick began, standing at the podium, clearing his throat in between words. The casket was closed now, so I had to find something else to think about: the way the saliva in Rick’s mouth went stringy as he talked would do. ‘My name is Rick Crawford, I’m a civil celebrant, and it’s truly a privilege to welcome you all to this celebration of Benjamin Whitaker’s forty-six years of life. He was, er, first and foremost, a husband to Rebecca and a father to Sydney.’ He gestured to Mom and me. I felt like I should wave. ‘But he was also a hero to many in our community, and it is with great sadness that we see him off here today.’ He was a nice-enough guy, but as he went on for a bit about the fragility of life and the human experience, it was obvious every other poor wretch had been given the same non-specific speech. It was canned. An ad lib. Insert cause of death, familial relations and religious affiliations here.

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