Pretend She's Here(2)

“Want to come with us?” Chloe asked.

I almost said no, that I’d discovered the essence of Lizzie was nowhere near the cemetery, that she was right here with me as I walked along talking to her. But Chloe’s face had turned so pale, her lips nearly blue, that I actually thought she might pass out. I got it—grief was not for the faint of heart. It was as physical as a stab wound.

“Sure,” I said. “Where are your parents?”

“Over there,” Chloe said, pointing at a white minivan parked up the street. Why did that give me such a pang? Maybe because it was yet another thing that Lizzie would never know about: that her family’s old navy-blue van—the one she’d started learning to drive in—was long gone. The blue-and-white Connecticut plates had been replaced with white-red-and-blue ones from Massachusetts.

“I thought you moved to Maine,” I said.

“Oh, we did,” Chloe said. “But then we … uh …”

“Moved again?” I supplied, because she still looked so wobbly.

“Yeah.” She swallowed hard. Then she gave out a laugh that sounded like a bark. “Sorry for being weird. It’s just, the cemetery freaks me out. I hate going.”

“I get it,” I said.

We headed toward the minivan. There were her parents, sitting in the front seats. They gazed at me with such warmth, such familiar friendliness, that I choked up and wasn’t sure my voice would work. The Porters had been my second family. It wasn’t till that very instant, being in their presence for the first time in so long, that I realized how badly I missed not only Lizzie, but all of them.

Something crossed my mind, made me feel ashamed: In August, I had seen Mrs. Porter from a distance. I’d been walking my dog, Seamus, through the marsh. I’d glanced across the pond and I saw Mrs. Porter sitting on a driftwood log. I froze.

I hadn’t seen Lizzie’s mom since the funeral. Her grief at the gravesite had been so extreme. She had keened, a high, thin wail I didn’t think a human could make, one that pierced my heart and made my bones feel ice cold. She had collapsed against Mr. Porter, and he and Chloe practically had to carry her to their car. As often as I’d thought of writing or calling her, just to say I was thinking of her, I was afraid that hearing from me would remind her too much of Lizzie and cause her more pain.

So that August day, instead of circling around the pond toward her, I’d gone the opposite way, toward the woods. At the last minute, I saw her notice me. She waved, called my name. I pretended not to hear and spent the rest of the afternoon feeling guilty. It made sense that she would have returned to Black Hall to visit Lizzie’s grave, but I’d wondered why she was in the marsh—it was my favorite place to walk, but Lizzie hadn’t liked the mud or the smell of low tide. She had preferred walks through town, past the church and the shops and galleries, up Library Lane.

Now, reaching the Porters’ minivan, I felt tense, worried that Mrs. Porter would feel hurt that I’d avoided her that summer day.

Chloe slid open the back door. “Hop in,” she said, and I did.

And all my fears were gone: Mrs. Porter turned in her seat, reaching to grab my hand. I hugged her from behind, leaning over to kiss Mr. Porter’s cheek.

“Oh, my goodness, here you are!” Mrs. Porter said, still clutching my hand. I gazed into her eyes—the exact same green as Lizzie’s and Chloe’s—and noticed that her dark hair had much more silver in it than before, as if sorrow had bleached the life from it. Lizzie had inherited her mother’s sharp cheekbones and wry smile.

“I’m so happy to see you!” I said, scouring her face to see if she was mad or hurt about what had happened in August.

“It’s as if no time has gone by at all,” she said. “No time at all.”

“It’s true,” I said.

Mr. Porter was oddly quiet. He cleared his throat, as if he had a cold.

I stared at the back of his head—he had thick, curly brown hair, the same color Chloe’s used to be. I remembered when we were really little, third grade or so, Lizzie would hug him, giggles spilling out, saying his hair smelled like spaghetti, as if that was the funniest thing in the world.

The minivan was already running, and Mr. Porter pulled away from the curb. He did a U-turn, and we headed down Main Street, past the big white church, along the narrow road lined with sea captains’ houses and hundred-year-old trees.

“I brought juice packs!” Mrs. Porter said. “Chloe, in the cooler.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m not thirsty.”

“Oh, but, sweetie—I always brought juice when I picked you up from school.”

It jostled me to be called “sweetie”—that’s what she’d always called Lizzie. But my heart was aching for Mrs. Porter. It must have been intense to be talking to me—the first time since Lizzie’s funeral. And the juice part was true. Mrs. Porter and my mom vied for the title “Queen of Snacks.” They never drove us anywhere without lots of juice and trail mix. My mom prided herself on making her own mixture of nuts and dried cranberries, but I wouldn’t ever have told her that I preferred Mrs. Porter’s because her concoction always included Lizzie’s favorite—M&M’s.

“Have some,” Chloe said, handing me an ice-cold pack of orange-mango juice.

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