The April Tree

The April Tree

Judith Arnold

May 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-289-7

Learning that life goes on is the hardest lesson of all.

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Reach out, hold tight, stand up, move forward.

Learning that life goes on is the hardest lesson of all.

One life destroyed. Four others irrevocably shattered. Overcoming the shock and grief of death is an all-too-familiar rite of young adulthood.

Walking home from a tennis game on a bright spring day, April Walden’s three closest friends watch in horror as she is struck by a car and killed. The senseless accident plunges all three young women—and the car’s driver—into a devastating and often misguided search for comfort, purpose, and inspiration.

Becky wraps herself in a protective cloak of obsessions, performing anxious rituals at the base of the red maple tree under which April died. Elyse dives into a high-risk party life, trying to honor April by experiencing everything April missed but mistaking self-destructive indulgence for courage. Florie turns to fundamentalist Christianity, not as spiritual guidance, but as a wall that might shield her from reality. Mark, the driver, spirals downward into substance abuse and self-loathing, until April’s three friends reach out to save him.

How do you make it through the night when you’ve stopped believing that tomorrow always comes?



"…a good read, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a story with a fascinating set of protagonists and a storyline that does the unexpected." -- April Thorwardson, Ink Spots and Tea



Chapter One

IT WAS NOT his fault.

He willed himself to unclench his fingers, which were curled so tightly around the steering wheel they’d practically fused with the plastic. He imagined that if he ever let go, his hands would leave behind a shadow imprint, like the shadows left on the sidewalks where people had been standing in Hiroshima when the bomb fell. He’d heard about that somewhere, he didn’t know where, that people were incinerated where they stood, dissolved into fire, and when the fire died their shadows remained on the sidewalks like photographs of their souls.

He’d heard lots of things, and he didn’t believe any of them.

For instance, he didn’t believe that this wasn’t his fault. He knew it wasn’t. But knowing was different from believing.

Remember everything. Remember it so you’ll be able to believe it someday. Remember because this is your life, from this point forward. Nothing else counts. This is it.

Sunlight spilled across the windshield, silver and liquid. Through the glaze he saw trees, the foliage a dozen shades of green except for one rust-colored red maple, the trunks gray. Why did little kids always use brown crayons to draw tree trunks? Like lime lollipops with brown sticks. He used to draw trees that way, too.

But it wasn’t true. Tree trunks were gray.

Remember this, he ordered himself.

The road wasn’t gray or black. It was an inky blue, and the double-stripe running down the center was school-bus yellow. The tennis ball was the nauseating green of anti-freeze. If only he’d seen it sooner—but he couldn’t have, because he’d been on the other side of the hill.

Remember that, too. You were on the other side of the hill. You couldn’t see anything until it was too late. This isn’t your fault.

The girls were a muddle of bare shoulders and slender, golden legs. They were wearing shorts, unnaturally white sneakers, and sleeveless white tops. He counted three of them standing, but they seemed bound together, moving as one six-legged creature with three heads. He couldn’t see the fourth girl, which was probably just as well.

Not your fault, he told himself. Not your fault. You came up over the hill, and she was running, she ran right into you, you swerved, but it wasn’t enough. She ran into you, and there was that noise, that horrible thunk of metal that resonated in your chest like your heart imploding. It wasn’t your fault.

He was a long way from believing.

ELYSE BLAMED her mother.

Her mother, who couldn’t keep a promise if she locked it in a safe deposit box. Whose life was just so fucking important that her own daughter and her daughter’s friends could slip her mind. Who’d said she would pick them up at four o’clock at the tennis court and never showed up, because her promises were worth shit.

They’d waited. A fucking half hour. Elyse had phoned her mother’s cell twice, but her mother hadn’t answered. Elyse should have known better than to think her mother would actually do what she’d said she was going to do. She had one priority, one mission, one goal: pleasing herself. Doing whatever the hell she wanted. Getting whatever the hell she needed. Taking care of herself and tossing off promises that were as substantial as specks of dust in a shaft of sunlight. One tiny breath would blow them away.

"You have to pick us up at four,” Elyse had told her mother, "because April’s parents are going out at five, and April has to babysit for her brothers, and the only way she can play tennis with us is if she can get home by five. Florie’s mom can drive us there if you can pick us up.”

"No problem,” Elyse’s mother had said.

No problem? Jesus fucking Christ. Because Elyse’s mother never showed up, they’d had to walk home, and because they’d had to walk home, April was now lying by the side of the road under a tree, not moving. No problem?

She blamed her mother for this, the way she blamed her mother for shutting down in the middle of conversations and walking away when Elyse was trying to talk to her, and treating Elyse’s father as if he was just a fixture in the house, a faucet you could twist when you wanted water. She blamed her mother for borrowing her clothes without asking, and for sending out for Chinese because she’d forgotten to cook dinner. She blamed her mother for everything.

She blamed herself even more, because she’d been stupid enough to trust her mother.

FLORIE WOULD never forgive herself. She hated the fact that her hands and feet were too large, her body too long, her voice too shrill. She hated that her hair had waves in the wrong places, like a wrinkled sheet of paper, and that when she was concentrating she would tuck the tip of her tongue beneath her upper lip without realizing it, and it made her look like a chimpanzee. She hated that no matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, she would never be graceful. She would never fit in.

She wouldn’t have even been here if it weren’t for April. Oh, God, April. Lying on the side of the road, so still and pale, with the men from the ambulance doing things to her. Lord knew what things they were doing, but Florie prayed they were the right things, the magical things that would cause April to sit up and smile and say, "Whoa, that was weird.”

April was kind. She had always been the one to include Florie in plans with Becky and Elyse. They were blessed with grace—April, Becky, and Elyse. They’d known each other forever, and it was only because April had insisted on being nice to the new girl who’d moved into the split-ranch down the street, the clumsy oaf, the chimp, the dimwit who wanted only one thing in life and that was for people to think she wasn’t a dimwit and an oaf and all the rest.

April liked her, or at least pretended she did. Or tried to like her. She’d phoned and said, "We’re going to the town tennis court on Baker’s Hill Road. If you come, we can play doubles. Okay?”

Becky might have invited Florie if they’d needed a fourth. Elyse would probably rather have played with three. In fact, Elyse would have rather not played at all than to include Florie. But Elyse wouldn’t have gotten her way, because April was the soul of the group. She was the sweet one, the generous one. She was the one who’d found room in her heart for Florie the loser.

And now, look what Florie had done. She’d dropped the ball—literally. She’d been bouncing it up and down on the webbed netting of her racquet, and it had ricocheted as she walked along the shoulder—there was no sidewalk on Baker’s Hill Road because Wheatley, Massachusetts seemed to think forcing pedestrians to walk along the shoulders of twisting, hilly, tree-lined country roads helped to maintain the rural flavor of the town. So they’d been walking two by two along the shoulder, Elyse and Becky in front and Florie and April behind them, and Florie had decided to bounce the ball up and down on her racquet as they walked, to show April her hand-eye coordination wasn’t a total disaster, to prove she was adept at something.

The ball had bounced wild into the street just as Elyse and Becky were cresting the hill. It had started to roll.

Florie didn’t know why April chased it. Instinct, maybe—but more likely it was her innate kindness. She would have been thinking that Florie shouldn’t lose her tennis ball, and April would have chased it with no thought for her own safety. There was a selflessness about April, a consideration for everyone else. She liked to rescue people and errant tennis balls. Naturally, she’d dart into the street to retrieve the ball for Florie.

Florie would never forgive herself for letting that ball bounce away.

It was all her fault, Becky thought, staring at the tree. She ought to be staring at April, but for once in her life she’d decided to do the easier thing, and it was easier to look at the tree than at her dead friend.

She knew April was dead, knew it the way she knew the smell of air and the taste of water. The EMTs were acting as if there were still a chance. They slid a board under April’s limp body, braced her neck, and strapped her on securely, then lifted her with abundant caution onto a gurney and wheeled it to the ambulance. It was all a show, a bit of staging that was supposed to reassure Becky and Florie and Elyse, to leave them with a shred of hope.

As if Florie and Elyse were even noticing. Florie’s face had crumpled, sinking in on itself like a deflated balloon, her eyes located in the most scrunched-up part. Tears gushed from them, rivers of tears, oceans.

Elyse’s eyes were closed and her cheeks were shiny, but at least her face wasn’t scrunched. Even in pain, Elyse looked beautiful.

They were probably both thinking that it was all Becky’s fault. She’d been the one to say they ought to walk, because April’s parents needed her home by five and Elyse’s mother, who was supposed to pick them up, was obviously running late.

The tree was a red maple. Its leaves hadn’t fully opened yet. They budded along the branches, tiny tufts of reddish-brown, the color of fresh scabs. Red maples were strange trees. Their leaves were always the color of fall. They never had a chance to be green, to look like summer.

The last thing April had seen would have been that tree, those budding blood-red leaves. Well, perhaps not—perhaps the last thing she’d seen was Florie’s stupid green tennis ball, or the pavement, or the car. Maybe she’d even seen the driver.

Becky risked a glance toward the car. It was a metallic gray Volvo station wagon, a suburban-mom car. She didn’t think a suburban mom was driving, though. She’d heard one of the police officers use the pronoun "he” in reference to the driver. But she couldn’t see him. Sunlight washed across the windshield, turning it opaque.

Had the sun glared into his eyes when he’d come over the hill? Had he been momentarily blinded?

It didn’t matter. He hadn’t hit April. April had hit him. She’d been running so fast, chasing the ball as if it were something precious, something worth losing your life over.

She was dead. Becky knew it. She stared at the tree and knew it was all her fault.



Chapter Two

BECKY’S PARENTS didn’t handle crises very well. They were bright—brilliant, actually—and they had the best of intentions. But Becky considered them strange creatures, refugees from a rarefied universe, out of place and out of step. Like foreigners, they couldn’t hear their own accents. They smiled when they were happy, when they were bewildered, when they were communicating with each other in their own alien language. Their smiles were their secret sign, their way of connecting with each other, distinguishing and detaching them from everyone else.

They looked alike. Becky wondered whether they’d looked alike when they first met—had that been the attraction?—or gradually evolved to resemble each other because they’d been together for so long. She looked a little like them both, but not a lot like either of them. Fifteen years old, she still hadn’t mastered the secret smile.

For them, a tragedy was to have a student drop out of one of their classes or see a colleague denied tenure. Tragedy was a wrong-headed editorial in the New York Times or a violent upheaval in one of those "-stan” countries—Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.

What had happened today wasn’t tragedy. It was reality. And when reality rained on them, they lacked the common sense to open an umbrella.

Becky knew they were upset, mostly for her, but a bit for themselves, too. April had been in their home a million times. Before she and Becky got their own cell phones, April had regularly tied up Becky’s parents’ phone line, whining to Becky about their biology homework, analyzing the dynamics of various social pairings at school, or describing some obnoxious thing her younger brothers had done. April had slept in Becky’s parents’ house, eaten their whole-wheat pretzels, played Chopsticks on their piano, ridden in their car, and sat hunched on their porch steps, moaning that her fingernails were uneven and Tommy Crawford was the perfect guy for her except that she might as well be invisible, for all he noticed. She and Becky had littered the kitchen table with orange pine needles and twigs in the construction of a three-dimensional Civil War display for sixth-grade social studies—Becky’s job had been to cut limbs off the plastic toy soldiers they’d purchased, while April landscaped a miniature Shiloh on a sheet of particleboard. Then they’d scattered the amputee soldiers around the battlefield and dribbled red paint on their stumps.

Becky wondered where their battlefield had wound up. In April’s basement, maybe. Becky wanted it. She wanted to sleep with it on the floor beside her bed, to see it first thing in the morning when she opened her eyes. If she couldn’t have April, she wanted to have Shiloh and all that blood and pain.

Ever since she’d gotten home, she had wanted to sit by herself in her bedroom, but her parents wouldn’t let her. They were afraid to leave her alone. She had no idea what they expected would happen if they allowed her out of their sight. They had to know she wouldn’t drown in her tears. Crying did nothing for her, other than give her a sore throat and cramps. She always felt as bad after unrestrained weeping as she did before. It wasn’t worth the effort.

She wanted to get away from her parents, though—and she couldn’t think of a tactful way to do that. They meant well. That could be their epitaphs, she thought: Here Lie Aaron Zinn and Helen Lundquist. They Meant Well.

She sank deeper into the easy chair, her legs tucked under her as if she could fold in on herself. Human origami, she thought. She wished she could crease herself into a crane and fly away. Weren’t cranes supposed to carry dead people to heaven? Maybe April was with cranes now. Becky didn’t believe in heaven, but she liked the idea of April surrounded by beautiful white birds, flying.

The Zinn living room was not a place for cranes. It was dim and murky, the ceiling low, the floor sloping slightly. Such flaws were typical of two-hundred-year-old houses. The window glass rippled, the floor planks lay dull and scuffed, and the air held the aroma of smoke even in late May, months after the family had last had a blaze going in the fireplace. Her parents were too eccentric to care about home decor, but they did try to maintain the historical integrity of the house, which meant the lamps all looked like gas lamps and the living room was always gloomy.

It didn’t need much light, given the radioactive glow of her parents’ smiles. Their presence crowded her. Their soft, solicitous words irritated her. Three hours had passed since the accident, and all they seemed able to do, in their intelligent, affectionate way, was drive her crazy.

Mixed with the leftover scent of last winter’s fires was the aroma of the dinner Becky hadn’t eaten. Her mother was a lazy cook, but on Saturday evenings she exerted herself to serve the kind of meal other families ate on a regular basis. Tonight it had been a roast turkey breast. The fragrance of hot butter and garlic haunted Becky.

Ordinarily, she loved turkey. Ordinarily, she was starving by dinnertime. Ordinarily, she did not arrive home in a police cruiser after witnessing the death of her best friend.

"Would you like to watch some television?” her father asked, swooping down on her with the newspaper’s TV listings page. Becky’s parents generally scorned television. The family owned one nineteen-inch set, no VCR or DVD player, no cable. That her father would actually recommend TV to Becky proved that he was desperate to fix things for her.

"Maybe you’d like to take a bath and put on some fresh clothes,” her mother said. Becky was still wearing her tennis shorts and tank top. She could see whitish hairs fuzzing her legs. She should have shaved them that morning. Just because the hair was pale blond didn’t mean it was invisible. She looked like a skinny albino gorilla from the waist down.

She suffered a pang of shame for fretting about the state of her legs. Such vanity, when April was dead.

A shudder tore at her from the inside. She felt her organs fraying, her soul unraveling.


What would the world be like without April in it? How was it possible that the planet continued to spin, the last of the dusk light fading through the windows, the shadows stretching across the rugs to climb the walls, the hair on Becky’s legs growing, her parents peering down at her with their odd, anxious smiles, fussing, hovering—and April was gone. How was such a thing possible?

"Would you like a little brandy?” her father asked.

If life were normal, she would have flinched. Her parents were as open-minded and left-wing as one would expect of professors at an elite liberal-arts New England college, but other than a small glass of wine at their annual mixed-marriage pseudo-Seder, they never permitted Becky to drink liquor. She was a high school sophomore, after all, an age when her parents were supposed to obsess about keeping her away from demon alcohol.

She’d never tasted brandy, but having some sounded like a fine idea. Only she couldn’t bear the thought of drinking it in front of her parents. Any benefit the booze might bring would be nullified by their moonbeam grins.

She wanted to say, "No, thank you, may I be excused now?” like a good little girl bored by the company of tedious adults. Instead, she sank deeper into the chair, her thighs pressed hard into her chest, her chin resting on her knees, and her arms wrapped around her shins. Becky Origami: the shape of grief.

The knocker clicked against the front door. Becky had repeatedly asked her parents to install a doorbell, but they wouldn’t, because it would undermine the historical integrity of the house. Visitors had to announce their arrival by using the brass knocker, which was audible on the first floor but not upstairs. Becky closed her eyes and turned her head so her cheek rested on her knees and she faced away from the door. If it was that cop, Officer Romano, she didn’t want to talk to him anymore. If it was more neighbors dropping by to exchange concerned whispers with her mother—"Is Becky all right? The poor thing, is there anything I can do?”—she didn’t want to have to acknowledge them.

All she wanted was to be away from here, away from people, someplace where solitude might allow her the chance to figure out how she was going to survive the rest of her life in a world stupid enough to have let April die. All she wanted was to go back in time about three hours and grab April before she bolted into the road after Florie’s tennis ball.

Her father straightened up and crossed to the door. Its hinges creaked with antique authenticity as he opened it. "Stuart,” he said.

Becky winked one eye open.

"I’m sorry to barge in on you like this,” Stuart Fabiano said.

Becky opened her other eye and weighed the possibility of shifting her head so she could see if he had Elyse with him.

"But Elyse was, well... And I just... ”

Elyse’s father often had difficulty completing sentences. According to Elyse, he had difficulty completing thoughts. Becky wondered whether he’d started to think he ought to bring Elyse over here, and then forgot to finish the thought. He could have left her behind. He could be standing on the Zinn porch because Elyse was, well...

Then she heard Elyse’s voice gliding through the open door: "Becky?” She sounded choked, as if the muscles in her throat were spasming.

Becky unfolded herself and stood. "Let’s go upstairs,” she said. Her parents wouldn’t stop her now. If she went to her bedroom with Elyse, they wouldn’t have to worry about her being all alone.

"I hope you don’t mind,” Elyse’s father was saying. "But it was just... the thing is... ”

"Can she sleep over?” Becky asked her mother, whose smile changed slightly. It was still large and lunatic, but she’d turned down the wattage, perhaps in an effort not to blind Mr. Fabiano.

"She didn’t bring anything with her,” he said. "Pajamas, or a toothbrush—”

"It doesn’t matter,” Becky insisted. "She can use my stuff. Please, Mom?” I need this, she implored silently.

"Of course she can sleep over,” Becky’s mother conceded. "It isn’t a problem, Stuart, is it?”

Becky didn’t stick around to listen to Elyse’s father try to string together enough words to form an answer. She made a break for the stairs, content to hear Elyse’s footsteps behind her. Not until they were safely inside Becky’s bedroom, with the door shut and locked, did Becky turn to look at her friend.

Elyse had been crying. She was still crying. She wore a V-neck T-shirt and jeans, her dark hair resplendent, her hands adorned with several silver rings apiece, and wept. Just wept, without sound or movement.

Becky opened her arms. Elyse stepped into them. They hugged each other, clung, and Becky felt Elyse’s tears on her cheek and neck. Since she couldn’t seem to cry on her own, she accepted Elyse’s tears as a gift. Elyse had enough for both of them.

"I can’t stand it,” Elyse groaned. "I can’t stop crying, and I want to kill my mother, and I just couldn’t stay home anymore. You don’t mind, do you? I just couldn’t be with them.”

"Are you kidding? You’ve saved my life,” Becky said automatically, then realized that under the circumstances that was a horrible thing to say. A bitter taste coated her tongue and pain pinched the bridge of her nose. "Let me get you some Kleenex.”

She eased out of Elyse’s embrace and dove across her bed to the box on the night table. It was just a box, unlike the pink crocheted tissue-box cover April had in her bedroom. April’s entire room was pink. Too pink, April had believed, and Becky had pretty much agreed, but still, at least there was a theme to April’s room, a unifying hue. Becky’s room was thrown together—everything neat, because she liked order, but nothing matching. Her mother had insisted it was a "look,” although she wasn’t sure what look it was. The Goodwill Look, Becky thought. The Homeless Shelter Look, minus the stench.

"I couldn’t stay home another minute. My mother and I... ” Elyse plucked a tissue from the box and wiped her face with it, then sank onto the edge of Becky’s bed and stared at the tissue, as if amazed that it could be so wet. "She’s such a bitch. I hate her. Shit. If April was here—” she blew her nose, then yanked another tissue from the box "—she’d tell me not to say mean things about my mother. Without April, I might just kill my mother or something.”

"No.” Becky sank onto the bed and put an arm around Elyse. "You won’t kill your mother.”

"I might,” Elyse addressed the sodden wad of tissues in her hand.

"In April’s honor, you won’t.”

Elyse mulled that over and nodded. "I miss April. I can’t believe this happened. It just seems so unreal.”

"I know.” Becky thought about how many times that afternoon she’d started to call April to complain about being depressed. How many times Becky had reached for the phone. How many times she’d heard April saying: "Don’t be bummed, Becky. Life sucks, but, you know, it could be worse.”

That was the thing: it couldn’t be worse. Nothing could be worse than this.

"I’m glad I came here,” Elyse murmured, dabbing at her nose with her tissue. "I can’t stop crying.” As if to prove the point, she burst into fresh tears. "How do you keep from crying?”

Becky shrugged. She envied Elyse’s ability to cry so easily. Everything was locked tight inside her, unable to drain. "I must be blocked or something.”

"What are we going to do?”

"I don’t know.”

"You know everything, Becky. Think of something we can do to make this better.”

"Nothing will make it better.”

"Think of something anyway. Please.” The final word dissolved into a sob.

Becky thought. A few ideas presented themselves. She decided to introduce the toughest one first. "I think we should call Florie and tell her to come over.”

"No.” Elyse protested. "I don’t want her here.”

Becky sympathized. She didn’t want Florie there, either—but, then, Becky didn’t want any of this.

Florie had become a part of their little group because of April. She hadn’t liked Florie any better than Elyse and Becky did, but April had felt sorry for Florie. Becky felt sorry for Florie, too, but April was the sort of person who would actually take steps to help someone she felt sorry for. "We should let Florie join us sometimes,” April used to say. "I feel so bad for her. She doesn’t have any friends here.”

"You want us to include her out of pity?” Elyse had asked, her nostrils pinching as if the word pity smelled foul.

"Well, yeah,” April had said. "I mean, we’ve got so much. We’ve got each other. What does she have? We ought to be nice to her.”

It was April who was nice, April who thought about other people’s feelings and was generous, openhearted, so considerate that just thinking about her engulfed Becky in white-hot anger. It was the first anger she’d felt since the accident. Not at the driver whose car had struck April, not at Florie for dropping her stupid tennis ball, not even at herself for having suggested that they walk home when Elyse’s mother failed to pick them up. She was angry at the universe, at fate, at the inexplicable injustice of it all. The planet was teeming with assholes. Why had April been killed? Why one of the good people? The world had so few good people to begin with; it couldn’t afford to lose one.

"Florie was with us this afternoon,” Becky explained. "She’s a part of this.”

"I don’t want her to be a part of this.” Elyse’s words wobbled, as if stumbling over an obstruction in her throat. "She’s such a dork.”

"She was there.” Becky got up to fetch the garbage pail for Elyse, who by now had four or five soggy tissues clutched in her hand. Becky also got up so she could be standing. She thought a height advantage would force Elyse to listen. "Florie feels as horrible as we do.”

"Sheshould feel horrible. If she didn’t feel horrible—”

"And April would want her here.”

Elyse peered up. Even when she was crying, her eyes were pretty. Her eyelashes looked like wet black feathers. She let out a long, resigned breath. "Okay, fuck it. Call Florie.”

Becky didn’t feel triumphant. She didn’t really want Florie with her and Elyse tonight—but she didn’t feel right without Florie. Florie belonged here. They were all in this together.

Becky circled her bed to the night table, lifted her cell, and punched in Florie’s home number. After two rings, Florie’s mother answered. "Hello?” She sounded as if she had strips of felt stuffed up her nose.

"Is Florie there?” Becky asked.

"She can’t come to the phone right now.” Florie’s mother pronounced it cahn’t. Becky didn’t know why Mrs. Closter sounded so affected. The family had moved to Wheatley from New York City, but she sounded as if she’d taken years of elocution lessons to remove all traces of New York from her speech. The lessons hadn’t entirely succeeded. She now sounded like a New Yorker trying not to sound like a New Yorker.

"This is Becky Zinn.”

"Oh. Oh, Becky.” A tremor of tenderness vibrated in Mrs. Closter’s voice, which dropped to a near whisper. She sighed deeply, then said, "Of course you can talk to Florie. I’ll go get her.”

Ten minutes later, Florie was in Becky’s bedroom. Unlike Elyse, Florie had come prepared, bringing with her a sleeping bag, a pillow with eyelet trim on the linen pillowcase, and a zippered tote bag crammed to capacity. Becky didn’t know what could possibly be inside the bag, and she didn’t ask. As ambivalent as she felt about Florie, Becky’s room seemed more complete now that all three of them were here.

The room seemed smaller, too. Florie was big. Not fat, but tall and solid. Her legs were as dense as Tootsie Rolls, thick and chewy looking. Her hair was big, too, heavy and shapeless.

Florie took up space. Becky always felt crowded by Florie, but Becky envied Florie’s mass, too. There wasn’t enough of Becky. There was too much of Florie. Elyse was exactly the right size. April had been the mortar holding three different-shaped bricks together. She’d expanded to seal all the cracks.

It didn’t seem right to Becky that the bricks should come apart just because they’d lost their mortar. Her gaze traveled from Florie, seated on the floor with her long legs protruding into the middle of the room, to Elyse, who was still on the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I’ve got something,” Becky said, resorting to one of the other ideas she’d had when Elyse had ordered Becky to come up with some. A better idea than inviting Florie over, although Becky knew in her heart that that had been the right thing to do.

She opened her closet door, rose on tiptoe, and hauled down a shoe box from the top shelf. She lifted an unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s from it and showed it to Florie and Elyse.

Elyse’s eyes stopped overflowing. "Where’d you get that?” she whispered.

Becky shoved the shoe box back up onto the shelf. "My cousin Gary gave it to me,” she said. "Actually, he asked if I would hide it for him, since he wasn’t supposed to have it, either. I don’t know where he got it, but I’ve been hiding it since December.” She gave the top a sharp twist, tearing the seal.

"I don’t think we should drink that,” Florie said warily.

"Then don’t drink it,” Elyse snapped. "I want some.”

Becky took the first sip and exerted herself not to gag at its sour, fiery taste. She bet brandy would have tasted better—but it would have tasted wretched if she’d had to drink it with her father beaming at her.

Elyse took a delicate sip. She did everything delicately. Even her wince when she swallowed was delicate.

Florie looked uncertainly at the bottle. Elyse wiggled it in front of Florie’s eyes, taunting. Florie took it.

"Sip it,” Becky warned, to keep Florie from doing something Florie-esque, like taking a huge slug and then spitting it up.

She sipped slowly. Her throat fluttered as she choked on it, but she got it down. "That’s disgusting!” she sputtered.

"Shh. Don’t let my parents hear.” Becky took the bottle from Florie, drank a bit more, and settled into her desk chair.

"Do you think April would be drinking that if she was here?” Florie asked.

Elyse said yes the same instant Becky said no.

"I keep trying to picture her in heaven,” Florie said. "My mother said God loved April so much he decided he wanted her in heaven with him.”

"If your mother’s right, God is a selfish fuckhead,” Elyse retorted. "Big deal, he wanted her with him. He could have waited. What kind of turd would kill someone because he wanted her with him?”

"Well, I’m just saying.” Florie shrugged helplessly. Becky could see Florie sucking herself in. As far as Becky was concerned, Florie’s biggest problem was that she was too eager for people’s approval. She would never fight for what she believed, unless she thought fighting for it would make people like her.

"What bothers me,” Elyse continued, reaching for the bottle, "is that April never even got to kiss Tommy Crawford.” Her eyes erupted with a new spate of tears. She handed the bottle back to Becky and reached for the tissues. Becky passed the bottle to Florie, who obediently took another sip. "I mean,” Elyse elaborated, her voice breaking, "she died a virgin. I can’t think of anything worse.”

"I can,” Becky said. She was sure there were lots of worse things, none of which were relevant right now, but she’d spoken mostly so Florie would see that it was all right to disagree with Elyse sometimes.

"Well, I’m going to say it right now. I swear I will not die a virgin.”

"What if you died tomorrow?” Florie asked.

Elyse gave Florie a withering look. "I’m not going to die tomorrow,” she promised.

"You think you’re going to lose your virginity tomorrow?” Becky asked.

Instead of looking contemptuous, Elyse smiled, even though she was still weeping. "Maybe I should. Let’s figure out who with.”

"Not Tommy Crawford,” Becky said.

"He’s cute,” Elyse said, "but he’s not as cute as Matt diNucci.”

"Yuck.” Becky had never understood Elyse’s fixation with Matt. Matt had nice hair, but his eyes always seemed to be searching for a mirror, and his smile had a smirky edge to it.

"I bet he’d be willing to help me out,” Elyse said.

"I bet the whole school would be willing to help you out. That’s beside the point.”

"Well, who would you do it with?”

Becky thought a few boys were kind of interesting, but she didn’t want to lose her virginity yet. It just didn’t seem like something she wanted to complicate her life with right now. "I’d take Tommy over Matt, any day. Not that I’d ever even look at Tommy.”

"I don’t know,” Elyse said. "Do you think it would be like dancing on April’s grave?”

"April isn’t having a grave,” Florie piped up. "My mother said they’re harvesting her organs for transplant, and then she’s going to be cremated.”

"Jesus!” Elyse snapped. Becky couldn’t blame her. Florie was as inept in conversation as she was in action. Why did she have to say that? Why couldn’t they have stuck with the safe subject of boys?

It wasn’t as if Becky was squeamish. She thought funerals were grotesque and organ donors were noble. She liked to imagine other people getting to live full lives thanks to April. Becky also liked to think of flowers growing out of April’s ashes, more life emerging out of her death.

But Becky couldn’t bear to think of April as only a body a surgeon might pick through like an auto mechanic, looking for salvageable parts. She was April, not a collection of organs.

It was too late for Florie to take back what she’d said. She bravely, tactlessly went on. "My mother told me they’re planning a memorial service at April’s church next week.”

"Shut up,” Elyse said.

"No, that’s okay,” Becky jumped in. She didn’t want Florie and Elyse at each other’s throats. "If there’s a memorial service, that’s... I don’t know. A good thing, maybe?”

"What’s good about it?” Elyse lamented. "April’s dead!”

"Well, nothing we do is going to make her come back to life,” Becky pointed out.

Florie and Elyse both started crying.

Becky drank some bourbon. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she cry? She was bleeding inside, pain oozing through a gaping hole in her heart. It hurt worse than anything she’d ever known. But she couldn’t cry.

"I was thinking,” she said, wondering if Elyse and Florie could hear through their sobs. "Maybe we could have our own memorial.”

"What?” Elyse sniffled and jammed a tissue to her nose.

"I keep thinking about the tree.”

"What tree?” Florie asked.

Becky sighed. What she wanted to say seemed elusive to her, scurrying in all directions when she tried to lasso the notion. But if Elyse and Florie were going to cry, Becky ought to be allowed to ramble and grope. "The tree April died under.”

"She wasn’t dead out there,” Elyse insisted. "You saw the medics. They were working on her, doing all that stuff to her. They were trying to save her life.”

"She was already dead,” Becky said bluntly.

"You don’t know that.”

"I do.” She couldn’t explain how she knew, or why. She just knew it was the truth. "April died under that tree. I was watching.”

"You’re crazy,” Elyse said.

"No, she’s not.” Florie apparently saw an ally in Becky.

Becky sighed again. "I am crazy,” she said, hoping to prevent an argument between Elyse and Florie. "But I do remember the tree. It was a beautiful tree. Tall and healthy.”

"What’s your point?” Elyse asked impatiently.

"Well... I mean, Florie’s mother is handing out this bull about how God loved April so much he wanted her with him, and April’s parents are planning something at First Parish. None of that is what April would have done.”

They were both staring at her. Neither was crying.

"I don’t understand,” Elyse said. "You’re saying April would have done something for her own memorial?”

Becky’s brain ached from the effort of trying to sort itself out. She was smart; she was logical. She excelled at fathoming things, making sense of them, arranging them so they fell into place. Math was her forte. She was soaring through pre-calc, and she was only a sophomore.

Wheatley High School didn’t offer a course in death and memorials, though. If it did, maybe she would ace it. Maybe she would flunk it. Maybe death wasn’t supposed to be logical and mathematical.

She took another drink, then passed the bottle around. The back of her mouth felt warm and slightly numb when she swallowed. So did her chest. "All I’m saying is, if I died, I wouldn’t want a memorial in a church.”

"Of course not. You’re Jewish—half, anyway,” Elyse said.

"I’d want something alive. Like flowers growing out of my ashes. Don’t you think April would want that?”

"Who said anything about flowers growing out of her ashes?” Elyse asked.

Florie added, "My mother said she was going to be cremated. She didn’t say she was going to be put in a flower pot.”

"All right, all right.” Becky waited until the bottle had orbited back to her and took another drink. "Forget about the flowers. I’m thinking about the tree. That’s where our memorial ought to be.”

"The beautiful, tall, healthy tree,” Elyse said dubiously.

"It was a red maple. Think about it. It was the last real place April ever was, the last thing she knew.” Becky wondered if she sounded drunk. Could three or four sips of bourbon intoxicate her? Was she making any sense at all? "I don’t consider the ambulance real,” she explained. "Under that tree was the last place where she was actually April. A red maple with budding leaves. You see what I’m saying?”

"You think she stopped being April when she was in the ambulance?” Florie asked. Becky couldn’t decide whether Florie sounded retarded, or Florie was asking stupid questions because she thought Becky sounded retarded.

It didn’t matter. Fortified by bourbon, Becky knew the truth. "April was alive under that tree, and then she died. That was where it happened. That was where we lost her.” She took one more sip, then stood the bottle on her desk and smiled. "That’s where we have to do something,” she said. "That’s where April is.”



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