There are things you know you shouldn’t do. Like standing on the tracks when the train is getting close. Or holding your hand over an open flame—?I can wave it across fast and be fine, but something inside makes me hold it there a second longer, then another, and another. Train tracks and mothers are much the same as flames: too close, too long, risk pain.
If I sat and made a list of all the things I shouldn’t do and put them in order, starting with the worst, being here today would be near the top. But I’m drawn to things I shouldn’t do. Is it just to see what happens, who it will hurt? Maybe.
So, no matter how much that inner voice of caution, of reason, said stay away; no matter how I tried to convince myself or lose my bus ticket and deliberately didn’t wear anything even vaguely acceptable, I was never going to be anywhere else, was I?
I’m shivering under leafless trees on a hill above the crematorium, my coat a splash of red in a colorless dark day. Considering my options.
It starts to rain, and I’m glad. She hated the rain. Not just how most people grumble if they’re caught in a shower or their garden party is ruined—?she properly hated it. Almost like she was made of something that would wash away, not sinew, muscle, and bone.
Maybe she was afraid rain would wash away her mask—?the one she’s wearing in the newspapers, smiling, with a man I’ve never seen before. Smiling? I wonder if she smiles in her coffin, if they arranged her features into a pleasant lie for the afterlife. If they hoped it’d persuade whoever’s in charge to open the pearly gates, instead of giving that final push for the long slide down. Or maybe there wasn’t enough left of her face.
Cars start winding up the road. The first is long and black, a coffin in the back. When it pulls in front of the crematorium, it seems right that the rain goes from steady to more. It thunders down in sheets, and lightning splits the sky.
Even as I hang back and think about the things I should and shouldn’t do, about how close to get to the flame, it’s almost like the storm has made the decision for me. It says, Quinn, you must step forward. You must seek shelter.
But that’s just the excuse. The truth is that I’m here to make sure she’s really dead.
The wind howls, rips the umbrella inside out as soon as I step out of the car. Cold raindrops pelt my face, my hands. In seconds, the wind whips my carefully arranged hair to a wild mess. Hard and furious drops sting my skin, and I focus on that pain, to avoid all the others.
Another umbrella is rushed over both of us as Dad emerges, but all I can think about is how the rain must pound on her coffin lid. Does it echo inside? Will she bang in protest, yell, Oi, make it stop? She who lived for sunny days shouldn’t have her last outing like this.
The pallbearers take short, measured steps despite the freezing onslaught, and I want to yell, to shriek at them to hurry, to get her out of the rain. Dad’s cold hand seeks mine, and I grip it a little too tight. Dad and I follow the coffin—?follow her, follow Mum—?inside.
One of Dad’s aunts clucks and smooths my hair, and I’m pulled toward the row at the front, but like the rest of this, it doesn’t really register.
I try the words on again inside my head. My mother is dead. My world is different; everything is different. I know it, but I don’t know it in my guts. The coffin has been placed to one side at the front—?dry now. Did somebody dry it? She’s inside it, but it’s not really her: just what is left.
Knowing all these things didn’t prepare me for any of this. Something is shaking deep inside me; panic is building.
I want to scream, Stop this, it isn’t real! Stop pretending that it is!
It can’t be.
Focus on breathing: in, out, in, out.
They all think it’s real. It’s in their eyes—?those that meet mine, those that shy away.
Breathe, Piper: in, out, in, out. I can’t lose it. Not here, not now.
Focus on something else.
I turn and search the faces behind us, skipping over most of them. Dad’s family, his work colleagues, his and Mum’s mutual friends. Not many. No one from Mum’s family. No one from her past, from before I was born seventeen years ago.
There is a good-size contingent of friends from my school. Apart from but near to them is Zak. His steady gaze echoes his words last night: I’m here for you. Anything I can do, anything, just ask and I’ll do it. No matter what. And the touch of his eyes soothes me now, as it did then. The panic eases, just a little. But it’s enough.
The service is about to begin when the doors at the back open, and the rent-a-vicar pauses to wait. A latecomer? I hear a disapproving tch under the breath from one of Dad’s aunts behind us. I hazard a glance backwards. A slight figure, a girl in a red coat and muddy boots. She’s moving toward the empty row at the back. A rainbow scarf covers her head, pulled low over her face.
Who could it be? Could it . . .
No. No way. Not here, not now. My pulse quickens.