The Truth About Keeping Secrets(3)

And then it was me at the microphone. Felt like I’d just been plucked out of the ether, like this was someone else’s funeral I’d accidentally stumbled into, but they were looking at me all dumb and brow-furrowed so I had to say something. ‘My –’

The microphone wailed. I stepped back while the collective face of the audience curled into a wince. Apologized. ‘Uh, Dad is – well, was. Was.’ They stared. Mom ground her teeth. I apologized again. This was awful. ‘Um, so … Dad really cared about people. About everyone, really. His whole job was listening and empathizing, and that’s, you know. That’s something.’

Mercifully, a few heads nodded, as if I had said something very important. I knew I hadn’t. I had nothing to say. But that wasn’t true. I did – just not to these people. If it’d just been me talking into a void, oh, I would’ve had all kinds of things to say. I would have told the void the one where I’m six, and Dad and I are hiking at the River Styx, the place where I learned to love the world just as much as he did, and we’re on the secluded path that runs parallel to the stream, and I go to explore by the swampy pools along the riverbank – looking for tadpoles, or something – and my feet have already disappeared up to my ankles by the time I realize I’m sinking. But Dad hauls me out by my arms, the mud sucking and popping beneath me like I’m a loose tooth. We wash our feet in the stream, watch the mud get swept away with the current, and Dad says he didn’t think that anyone has ever been so calm in quicksand. I could have told the one where I’m eight and he lets me watch episodes of The Twilight Zone with him after Mom goes to sleep; where I’m eleven and we ride the bumper cars at the county carnival over and over even though he has a bad back; where I’m fourteen and he holds me after the girl breaks my heart; where I’m seventeen and he’s sitting in a box to my right and everyone is expecting something of me, and I can’t stand it, I really can’t, because he shouldn’t be dead.

He shouldn’t be dead.

I fiddled with the microphone stand, my fingers slipping. ‘But why doesn’t anybody know what happened? The … the car people. The coroner. Whatever. This sort of thing can’t just happen.’

At this point, the audience were still on my side – besides Mom, whose spine had got noticeably straighter. They were waiting for me to throw in the twist, the but, to share some glorious epiphany about how that was just the way the world is, that sometimes we don’t have all the answers, that life is unfair.

‘Dad did care about people. But, I don’t know. Maybe people didn’t extend that same care to him.’

Mom mouthed my name.

‘He was told people’s most personal stuff on a daily basis. Secrets upon secrets. Dark stuff. And maybe …’

At first, I thought maybe I’d been in a highly suggestive state and was experiencing grief-induced hallucinations, because I could have sworn that, near the back of the room, was the homecoming queen.

June Copeland stood with the posture of someone trying not to be noticed, but hunched shoulders don’t hide much when you stand six feet in heels and look like her. She had these curls that cascaded down her back and round her shoulders, a foamy waterfall of ringlets so dark that the darkness seemed to fold in on itself like a black hole. In some places, the spirals were uniform, but round the top they burst forth like a halo, cumulus, cotton candy.

Sorry. Got carried away.

She met my gaze and gave me the saddest little smile I’d ever seen. Her cheeks rose as she did; they were a warm brown, the colour of clay, like every terracotta pot in the world had got together and discussed all the reds and the browns until they arrived at the most harmonious combination, then bathed her in the result. But the smile disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived, and I didn’t know what to do besides stare.

Mom’s hand on my bicep drew me away. ‘Come on, sweetie.’ I wasn’t sure how long I’d been standing there. Maybe a second. Maybe an eternity. I let her drag me off the platform, watched my feet as I stepped down, but when I looked back towards the entrance there was only the black hem of June’s dress swaying through the closing door.

I sat. Folded my hands. Collected myself.

As the moment dissolved I became increasingly aware of the eyes aimed at the back of my skull, like worms boring through the marrow. I didn’t dare turn to meet them. I felt ridiculous. Thoroughly embarrassed. What had I just done? What had I even been trying to say? If I had been watching myself from where June was standing, I decided, I would have thought I was insane.

Clearly everyone else agreed, because they took Dad to the cemetery without any requests for further autopsies or an impromptu search for clues. They had the decency to wait for me, at least; I opted to travel via bike instead of car behind the procession. And while they lowered him down with the awful creaking straps, I imagined him waking up inside the coffin, clawing at the polished mahogany until his fingernails wore away, and I wanted desperately for them to open it, just to check, just to see. The website had said Pleasant Hills Cemetery was eighteen rolling acres and I had no idea where these walls were coming from, closing in, crushing, crushing, and I sucked air into my throat like it might be for the last time.

But that was it. They dropped him in, and that was it.

We lingered for a while longer. Olivia was noticeably gentler with me as she said goodbye, and Mom talked to people who thought I couldn’t hear them. Hushed: Sydney seems like she’s taking it badly. Oblivious: I think Sydney should see a therapist. Of course. There would be books in Dad’s office that accused me of projection, of being so averse to the reality of the situation that I had made up some fanciful hypotheses about all the things that could have happened that didn’t include the word ‘accident’.

Savannah Brown's Books