Emily had been dead for a long time, maybe three or more years, by the time I saw her again. I was at the train depot, waiting to go into the city; there was an art exhibit I wanted to see. I don’t know why, but it had been longer than three years since I had taken the train to do anything in the city. I had been kind of dead myself, I guess you could say. So, there I was under the depot’s narrow awning, trying to shelter myself from a drizzling rain, when she suddenly appeared: Emily, walking along the railroad tracks, wearing some sort of peasant blouse and jeans, her dark hair tumbled and unkempt, head down, oblivious to the sound of the train whistle or the rumble of the iron rails as the train approached from the west.
I stared at her. I couldn’t quite believe she was there. And why would she be? It wasn’t a special day; it wasn’t the anniversary of her death. I had thought it was an ordinary day; but there she was. As the train approached, I grew anxious for her. “Get off the tracks, Emily!” I almost yelled aloud. She looked up for a brief moment as the train loomed into view, saw me and smiled. She waved her hand in greeting, then she was gone.
Emily and I had grown up together, although we weren’t always the closest of friends. When we were little, I thought she was kind of mean. She used to snap rubber bands at the back of my legs when Mrs. Arden wasn’t looking. But then, she snapped rubber bands at other kids too. She finally got caught when one went astray and struck Mandy Brouder on the cheek and made her cry. Mrs. Arden took Emily’s stash of rubber bands away and put them in the top drawer of her large oak teacher’s desk at the front of the room. Emily had to find other ways to torment us after that.
She glued a dime onto the tile floor just outside the door to our classroom, then hid behind the door to peek out and laugh at all the kids gullible enough to bend down and try to pick it up. On St. Patrick’s day she brought a squirt gun filled with green food coloring to spray onto anyone she came across who had forgotten to wear green clothing that day. On the playground she made up a rule that if you missed the ball while playing four-square or it went out of bounds, that she could hit your arm, hard, as punishment for being a klutz. It’s funny to think back now that none of us ever tattled on her and none of the teachers ever called her out for bullying. But we did start to ignore her and refuse to play with her. By spring, she was eating lunch alone.
The next year I was disappointed to see we were in the same class again. But Emily had changed. Miraculously, it seemed, over the summer she had become a nicer person. She chose a desk next to mine and told me that this year we were going to be best friends. I don’t know why I went along with it, I guess I didn’t really have any other friends. I was always a sucker for the stronger, outgoing type of friend who would organize our play and decide what we were going to do. Emily was very good at that, and she wasn’t trying to hurt me anymore.
She had a wild imagination and so our games were clever and fun to play. We were often lost orphans stranded in a deep dark wood filled with every conceivable lurking danger: witches, ghosts, wolves, trolls, bear, evil fairies. We were changed into animals nearly every day and had to seek for special cures to get us out of the spell to become children again. Emily decided which leaves or twigs or pebbles were the appropriate cure. We got in trouble once for barking at our teacher, Mr. Murphy, when we hadn’t found the cure by the time recess was over. So we had to make a rule that we were cured by the recess bell if we hadn’t found another cure before then.
On the weekends, we had sleep-overs at her house and our games went on as long as we had the interest in playing them. Sometimes her mother joined in, playing an evil witch who made us do chores like sweeping the porch or raking leaves in the backyard. But then she’d help us make gingerbread cookies that we could decorate any way we liked. They always had a drawer full of colored sugars, red hots, chocolate sprinkles, and silver beads. Being at Emily’s was a different experience than my home. She and her mother lived alone, because her daddy had moved away the summer before. Emily said she was glad he was gone. I couldn’t imagine my daddy being gone and liking it; I would miss him too much.
Emily and I were inseparable for five years, growing from our imaginary games to practicing our ballet and jazz dance moves and having crushes on certain young movie stars and the boys at school with curly hair and impossibly long eyelashes. We talked on the phone every day after school about absolutely nothing, and spent our weekends together wandering through town, browsing through the record shop, and taking long walks to the cemetery to read the gravestones and lay flowers on those of the littlest children. We wondered how they had died, and why. It seemed so unfair for babies and young children to die without having had a chance to experience their fair share of life.
The cemetery was a beautiful place, very much like a large garden or park. It was surrounded by wild lilac bushes, and when they bloomed in early spring the cemetery smelled like the time we accidentally spilled a whole bottle of Emily’s mother’s strong, sweet perfume. The smell never did wash out of her bedspread. The cemetery grass was always green and close-cropped. The trees were large spreading maples and oaks, green in spring, shady in the summer, golden, red and rust-orange in autumn, naked and eerie in the winter unless they were covered in snow. I enjoyed the cemetery for the beauty, being out of doors, and for the imagined stories of the people buried there. Emily, I think, had a more morbid sense of the place. She often talked about death - about what it would be like to die and how it would affect those who loved her, and those who did not. She wondered aloud at the reaction her father would have when he found out she was gone - “poof! into the darkness”, she would say, dramatic as ever in her adolescent fantasies. I listened, but did not encourage her; I soon grew bored with talk of dying and darkness and the possible fear and dread and longing that might come with death. I would wander away to pick new flowers or read another tombstone and Emily would eventually shed her dreariness and be her cheerful self again.
Later, that fifth summer, Emily’s mother remarried and I was invited to the wedding. Emily’s new step-dad was a tall, handsome man with long blond hair that swept across his forehead and over one eye. He spoke in a silky smooth baritone and touched my cheek with the full palm of his hand when we were introduced. He told me it was so nice to finally meet me and he hoped I would keep coming to the house as always. I didn’t see why his moving in would change anything, but I smiled and shook his hand and told him “congratulations” like my mother had instructed me to do. I was tempted to label him “dreamy”, but Emily wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t like him, she said. Though she couldn’t put her finger on it, there was something wrong with him, she just knew it.
After the wedding I went to Emily’s house only one more time. We planned a sleep-over on a Saturday night after Emily’s mom and step-dad returned from their honeymoon in Hawaii. Emily had been sent to stay with an aunt in Michigan for the two weeks and I had missed her terribly, having nothing else to do during the summer. We had made chocolate chip cookies, then changed into our nightgowns, and were dancing in the living room to the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, when Emily’s new step-dad swung open the front door and stumbled into the room. He laughed, at nothing in particular, I don’t think he had even seen us yet, and the stale scent of cigarettes and alcohol wafted across the room. I had never seen an adult like this. I stepped backwards and crossed my arms over my chest. I had never felt awkward wearing my nightgown and dancing in Emily’s living room before, but now I did. Emily stood in front of me in a protective stance, as her step-dad turned and recognized us. He grinned widely, and I saw not charm, but what Emily had said - there was something wrong. He approached us, swaying slightly. “What pretty nightgowns,” he crooned.
“Go on, Ted,” Emily snarled, “go get some coffee and leave us alone.” I felt a swell of pride for my best friend; she knew how to stand up for us, even if her stance was made somewhat ineffectual by the bare feet and vulnerable nightgown.
“Aw, come on, Em,” he said, moving closer and reaching out his hand, “let me have a look at you.”
“Mom!” Emily yelled, took me by the hand and led me at a run toward the kitchen.
Her mother peeked around the doorjamb just in time to see Ted fall back into an easy chair. He kicked his shoes off and hefted his feet onto the hassock, leaning back and giving a kind of growl under his breath.
“You girls get dressed,” her mother told us, “I’m going to drive you over to Marie’s for the night.”
While we dressed, she called my parents. I was not allowed to go over there anymore. My parents started encouraging me to make new friends.
Still, we saw each other at school, and talked on the phone, and Emily could come to my house sometimes. We started writing alternating chapters of a novel about two orphans who endure all sorts of terrible ordeals, but finally find friendship and a comfortable life with each other in the end. Writing the book together kept us close even when we couldn’t be together. Then, Ted got a new job in Washington, D.C. and Emily had to move away.
For about a year, we wrote to each other nearly every day. Emily’s letters were cheery and clever. I thought maybe she was okay, that maybe D.C. was a good place for her family to live. She wrote that she still hated Ted, but she hardly ever mentioned him more than to say that. I was miserable for most of eighth grade, until I was recruited to write for the school newspaper and finally began to make some other friends, though none of them took the place of Emily in my heart. Our letter-writing frequency dropped over the next two years, though we still kept in touch. Then, when we were fifteen, Emily wrote me that she was going to run away. Could she come stay with me?
My parents said no, that Emily should stay with her mom and tell her she needed help, if she did. It wasn’t our place to interfere with another family. I wrote Emily to tell her this, but I don’t think she ever received the letter, because two days later we got the news that Emily was dead. She had been walking along the railroad tracks, in our town, heading east, toward where I lived. Witnesses said she acted like she didn’t hear the train coming, and no one was able to get to her, nor was the train able to stop, in time.
I cried for a long time, every night. I felt sick to my stomach and missed several days of school. I would never see Emily again.
Until that day, waiting for the train in the drizzling rain, hearing the rumble of the metal wheels on the tracks and the growing hum and roar of the approaching train. She looked the same, had the same straight-backed resilience, but it was tinged with a distant, abstract look in her eyes, one that had been growing in the last year we were together, but that hadn’t been fully formed yet. And I realized, it hadn’t been the train’s fault it hadn’t had time to stop. Emily was probably playing out one of her morbid fantasies; she had probably even thought she wanted to die. She had probably thought about how it would affect her mother: that she would cry and be sorry she hadn’t protected her little girl better. For sure, she had thought about how it would affect Ted; she had hoped that he was sorry now for ever having tried to touch her; maybe he would even be shamed enough to stop drinking and lusting after young girls. She hadn’t had time to think there might be another way out, that she should step off the tracks and let the train go by. And she hadn’t thought of me - of what it might do to me - at all.
The train pulled in to the station and ground to a shuddering halt. Steam rose off the front of the engine, cold, wet air meeting hot metal. Doors opened, people stepped out, looked up at the sky, covered their heads from the rain, ran for cover under the depot’s awning or the shelter of their cars in the lot behind. People I’d been waiting with advanced toward the open doors, hopped up the steps, reached behind to help elderly relatives or children up and inside. The depot cleared of people, except for me. A man’s face leaned out from the nearest train door and queried me; I shook my head, I was not getting on.
In fact, I felt I could not move. I watched the train slowly pick up speed and pull away, continue on its journey to the place I had planned to go. When the last car turned the curve in the distance and disappeared from sight, I felt cold and alone. I tugged my fleece hat down around my ears and pulled the collar of my pea coat closer round my neck. It was senseless to stay at the depot now, so I turned to walk home.
But as I took my first step in that direction, Emily appeared again, walking slowly along the tracks ahead of me. I began to follow her and she looked back and smiled encouragement. She began walking backwards and I hurried a bit to catch up to her. When I was closer by she hopped up on one rail and started balancing one foot in front of the other, tightrope style. I stepped onto the opposite rail and we moved in tandem, reminiscent of earlier days.
Emily was wearing plain old white gym shoes without any socks; how like her to run away without the appropriate footgear. She carried nothing with her, but whether she had lost her backpack in the accident or not I did not know. She seemed more cheerful now; when she glanced over at me I saw a sparkle in her deep brown eyes. My heart was heavy, but curious too. Emily seemed free and easy, light as a bird.
She gave a little nod in the northern direction and stepped easily off the rail. I followed her across the tracks and we walked out into an open field of knee-high grasses. Here and there yellow buttercups dotted the surface, leaning crazily on long thin stalks seeking the sunshine above their competitors, the grass. I recognized the field instantly as Emily’s and my old stomping grounds. We had often traipsed through the acreage on our long ambling walks or to take a short-cut to the lake. I hadn’t been out here in a long time; anymore, when I had somewhere to go, I took the sidewalks, or I rode the bus to junior college classes.
Even so, my journeys lacked purpose. I was in my final semester of the first two years of college, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to study. I used to think I wanted to pursue journalism, but it seemed to involve interacting with too many people. I had always considered myself shy, a kind of a social misfit. Emily had been my only real friend, and after she died, I lost my ability to make connections with anyone else. I had some acquaintances, people I knew from classes, but I’d never had a boyfriend or any other meaningful, lasting relationship. My parents were encouraging me to go on to a four-year school, to apply my talents to something. I had been considering taking a year off to do some thinking, maybe travel a bit, finally try to breathe.
A psychologist might say I was in shock, that I had never learned to accept the death of my best and only friend, that in order to recover, I would have to learn to let go and move on. I had read about these things. But I don’t know if that is an accurate description of the way I felt. I saw myself as someone who lived a more rewarding inner life than that I muddled through in the real world. Emily’s and my fantasy play had often seemed more real than the life we led at school or with family at home. I continued to feel this way at nineteen.
The field abutted a small lake, good for taking a small rowboat out on in the summer and good for ice skating on in the winter when it froze. Emily and I had done both, and sometimes we had come here just to dangle our bare feet in the cooling water, whiling away lazy days. We stood side by side and looked out at the lake. The raindrops hit the water and spread into concentric circles all across the blue-grey surface. We watched them grow fewer and fewer as the rain let up. Gradually the sun shone between some clouds and I felt its warming rays on my face and hands. I let my collar down, took off my hat and shook my hair out; it had been cut just beneath my chin several months ago and was now a bit ragged at the ends. I thought we must look quite the pair, both of us with our hair damp and bedraggled. Then I wondered if anyone else could see her, or if it was only me. I realized she hadn’t yet spoken, and I wondered if she would.
“Can you talk to me?” I asked. “I’d like to know some things.”
She looked at me, tilted her head to one side, and gave me a wan smile. Then she continued walking north and I recognized where we were going.
We came to the crossroads and took the fork toward the cemetery. The trees became tall and stately, the damp grass was freshly mown, the gravestones shone steely-grey after being washed by the rain. Tiny flags and bouquets of flowers looked bedraggled like our hair, darkened and dripping. I followed Emily to the old section of the grounds where we used to read the markings and wonder at the lives these long-gone people lived. I was near the graves of three children from the same family, baby, toddler, and school-aged boy, who had all died within the same week of each other. This, we used to conjecture, was due to contagious illness, like the flu or scarlet fever. A lone child’s grave meant more likely that he had been too weak at birth to live for very long at a time before modern medical assistance, or had succumbed to a genetic disease, consumption, or an accident on the farm.
Emily began to dance between the grassy mounds and hopped over one or two marble humps. Her lightness was palpable; I felt the stone lifting from inside my chest - my heart was in an instant airy and bright. Emily spread her arms to her sides and twirled and twirled. We used to do that as girls, dancing in joy, our nightgowns billowing out from our knees as we spun round and round. I joined her, spread my arms and raised my face to the sky. I twirled and spun, dancing circles round tree trunks, leaping split-legged over the graves of lives long past. I danced ‘til I was dizzy and lay down on the wet ground, laughing out loud.
“It’s so good to see you again,” I managed to expel between broken gasps.
There was no answer, of course.
I sat up, unbuttoning my coat and fanning my flushed face with my fleece hat crushed in one hand.
“Em?” I asked.
I looked around, but couldn’t see her. I stood up and walked over to the nearest large oak tree, but she wasn’t hiding behind.
“Where are you, Em?” I asked one more time.
There was no answer that I could hear. But a sudden gust of wind blew the hair back from my face, also parting the clouds in the sky. The sun felt warm and hopeful on my skin, too long hidden from the light. I closed my eyes and took a long, deep breath.
© Kimberly Kublank2006 Focus Fine Arts & Ironworks Publishing ®
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