DRIFT AWAY If we hadn’t crashed on prom night, Chris and I would have graduated today. Instead, I stood in Wildwood Cemetery observing the preparations for a funeral. Silently I watched, from deep in the darkness of the sheltering maples surrounding the little church, as the glossy, black car backed up next to the rear door of the white clapboard building. It came as no surprise to me that I recognized both men when they stepped out of the vehicle; I not only knew their names but their families. The Harper boy had graduated just last year and the Newman twins shared many of the same classes as Chris and I. Mr. Harper, the silver-haired undertaker, propped the church doors open as his assistant, pulled the fully loaded gurney from the bowels of the hearse. Growing up it had always seemed to me to be a distinct disadvantage to live in such a small town, where everybody minded everyone else’s business, but now it was comforting to know the two men who were taking such gentle care of the body inside that box. They spoke very quietly together as they went about their duties; wheeling the cloth draped table through the double doors and going back repeatedly for the flower arrangements. While they transferred the mahogany box to the dais, I snuck inside and tucked myself into a far corner. There was a reason I was the first one to arrive at the church. I didn’t want anyone to see me, or talk to me. You see I was responsible for the death of the person in the casket. The car wreck was my fault. “Are Kassie and Kelly coming?” Mr. Harper asked as they finished up and flipped out the overhead lights of the chandelier. “No,” Mr. Newman answered. “Maureen and I thought it best if they stayed home.” He swept his arm indicating the funereal display. “This is going to be hard enough without… the girls went into hysterics when they heard. If Kelly hadn’t twisted her ankle before the prom, they all would have been in the same car. Their dates cancelled the limo and stayed home with the twins, because Kassie didn’t want to go without Kelly. They feel guilty because they were at the house watching movies and eating popcorn when the accident happened.” Mr. Harper roughly grabbed his shoulder, shaking him. “It’s not their fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.” Mr. Newman sighed heavily. “Yeah, I know. But try telling that to two teenage girls.” They locked and closed the doors, giving them a jiggle to make sure they latched and shortly the gate of the hearse slammed shut. The engine roared to life then slowly faded away and the silence was absolute. Quiet as a tomb. The meaning of that saying was never as clear to me as it was now. Not even my passion-pink high heels made a sound as I made my way to the front of the pews to face what I had done. I ran my hands along the wooden surface of the casket and bowed my head. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. How was I going to go on without Chris, the boy I had loved since childhood? Lightly I touched the brass handles and then wandered out the open front door and outside. The clanking sounds of shovels drew me to the cemetery in the back of the building and standing in the shadow of an angel monument, I watched as they dug the grave. I was close enough to hear them but the workmen never noticed me. “Gosh, Gus what a beautiful day,” said the younger of the two. Gus wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “There ain’t no beautiful day, when it comes to funerals, Mike. The lousier the weather, the easier it is for the family. It seems like the world is mourning with them. The warm, sunny days are harder, it seems like a slap in the face to their grief. It’s as if their loss doesn’t matter, especially if it’s a kid. When old folks die, it’s expected. We can only live so long right?” Mike nodded in agreement. “But,” Gus went on. “No one expects to bury their child. This will be a bad one.” Mike lowered his head and resumed digging quietly. “Don’t worry, kid. We’ll be gone by the time they get here.” True to his word, Gus and Mike were gone, when the mourners began arriving. I raised the hem of my prom dress and moved deeper into the angel’s shadow. Mr. and Mrs. Bradley approached the steps of the church and my heart clenched. Chris looked so much like his dad. They stood talking in hushed voices by the stairs railing. “The kids will start arriving soon,” Mr. Bradley said. “I don’t know what to say to them,” she answered. “Let’s just try to make it through the day today.” “They voted to cancel graduation. They all wanted to come.” Mrs. Bradley sobbed into the handkerchief her husband handed her. “It’s not our fault, honey,” he said, placing a comforting arm around her shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do to change any of it.” “I know,” she sighed. “It still doesn’t help much.” The approach of another vehicle pulled my attention away from the grieving couple. My parents were coming. I stepped behind the stone monument, not wanting them to see me. I couldn’t talk to them. The night of the wreck, I had tried and the scene remained etched in my memory. The screams, the accusations, I hadn’t returned home since. I closed my eyes and remembered. The most wonderful night of my life had just ended; my high school prom. Chris and I were driving aimlessly around with Mary and Todd in the back seat, all of us sharing the liquor I had lifted from my parents stash in the liquor cabinet. We were in Chris’s Mustang since the Newman twins had bailed out on the limo at the eleventh hour. Without the other four couples, we couldn’t afford the expense. “Hey, look out!” Todd yelled. Chris swerved just in time to avoid a blue Honda coming the other way on the narrow, country road. The startled driver laid on his horn, screeching at us as she went by. “Leave some room for me! You jerk!” “Whoa! Close one!” Chris laughed as he maneuvered the car back into his lane. I turned to send the bottle I was holding for another round of the car. “Uh-uh, I have had enough,” Mary said, pushing away the alcohol I tried to give her. “As a matter of fact I have had enough, period. Stop the car, Chris. I want to get out.” “Oh, you big baby!” Chris exclaimed as he pulled over to the soft shoulder of the road. I opened my door and Mary climbed cumbersomely out of the back seat, mashing my face into the dashboard as she stumbled and fell onto the back of my seat. “Well, God! Mary! Just punch me in the face next time. It would be easier if you wanted to break my nose!” I yelled at her before taking another swig out of the bottle I still held. “I am sorry, Rose Marie. I feel sick. I gotta get out. I need some fresh air.” Mary unsteadily made her way to the front of the car and sat on the bumper holding her head in her hands. Todd scooted across the brown, leather seat and crawled out behind her. Chris glancing in my direction and seeing Todd’s blond head go out the door called, “No man! Not you, too!” “Yeah, me too. I need to clear my head. Chris you are wasted. You should not be driving.” “Yes, mother,” Chris replied, as he took the bottle and raised it to his lips again. Chris and I got out of the car and met in the twin beams of light from the Mustang. “Come on guys,” Chris pleaded. “I’ll let Rose Marie drive for awhile,” he said, tossing me the keys. I caught them one-handed, without spilling any of the Vodka from the bottle I was holding. “No way!” Mary declared. “None of us should drive. We are all loaded. I am walking home.” She started weaving her way down the dark, lonely road while she continued talking. “If I am lucky, I will sober up before I get home and my parents will only ground me for thirty or so years. Are you coming, Todd?’ She tossed the question over her shoulder as she moved out of the light cast by Chris’s high beams and became one with the night. “Todd!” Chris implored. Todd shrugged the shoulders of his rumpled tuxedo. “What would you do if that was Rose Marie? I have to see my lady home, Chris. Catch you later, guys.” He straightened his coat with drunken dignity and trotted off into the darkness after Mary, giving a little wave before the blackness swallowed him whole. “Well, come on Mrs. Bradley, let’s go,” Chris said as he kissed my left hand. I smiled down at the engagement ring Chris had given me earlier that evening. The dance had been over and we were waiting outside for Todd and Mary to join us. Chris pulled me around the side of the school and pressed his lips to mine, kissing me so tenderly that it brought tears to my eyes. “This has been the best night of my life, Rose Marie and I don’t want it to end,” he whispered in my ear. “I don’t either,” I answered into the shoulder of his tux. “I love you so much, Chris.” We were going to attend the same college in the fall, but somehow this night seemed like an ending. “Then it won’t,” he responded. “Marry me, Rose Marie.” I gasped and pulled back to look into his eyes to see if he meant it and he presented me with the most beautiful heart shaped diamond ring. “It’s a promise ring, because I promise to love you for the rest of my life. That is… if you say yes.” I gulped and stared down at my pink high heels as my eyes filled with tears. Chris placed the ring box in my hands, before taking a step back. I stood still as a statue staring at the glittering diamond. Chris laughed nervously. “Rose Marie?“ His slim finger lifted my chin and he saw the tears streaming down my cheeks. Misunderstanding the reason I was crying he reached out to take the box back. “It’s okay, Rose Marie, even though the answer is no, I still love you.” He closed the jeweler’s case and tried to pull it from my hand and I clamped my fingers around it. He stared into my watery eyes and I nodded. “Yes,” he asked. “Yes,” I squeaked out. “Yes?” Chris crouched down a little to look me full in the face and then grabbed me around the waist. Twirling us in a circle, he let out a war hoop that had half of the senior class running around the corner to see what was wrong. “What’s the matter?” Someone asked. “Nothing.” Chris answered. “I asked Rose Marie to marry me and she said yes.” “She said, yes,” he repeated now, bringing me back to the little country road. “Hey!” I exclaimed. “Let’s go up Wildwood Mountain. I want to see it by moonlight. Maybe we could have our ceremony there.” “Sounds like a plan,” Chris agreed. We got back into the car and I headed it up the narrow, winding road. I was thinking about what our lives would be like, after we were married. How happy we would be, spending our lives together, raising our kids. “How many kids do you want? I want at least six.” When I turned to Chris to get his answer, I saw only terror in his eyes. His face was flooded with a bright light. Whipping my head around I saw a red Hummer bearing down on us, the Mustang had crossed the yellow line and we were on the wrong side of the road. Turn the wheel! Turn the wheel! I screamed in my head. My vocal cords locked and no sound emerged. Chris reached out and spun the wheel to the right, the Mustang’s tires squealed with the abrupt change of direction and I was thrown against Chris, knocking his hands from the steering wheel. Too little, too late, the Hummer hit us broadside, sending our car careening over the embankment. End over end, we flipped, as we plunged down the mountainside, out of control. I felt my left arm splinter as my head violently struck the steering wheel, and the windshield shattered into a million tiny pieces. Vodka bottles, chip bags and soda cans tumbled around the interior of the car, like clothes in a dryer. Over and over we rolled. Finally, we slammed into a giant oak tree and came to rest upside down. A black fog crept into my field of vision and everything went dark. The next thing I knew the paramedics were there, wiping the blood soaked hair out of my eyes. “The driver’s dead.” “This one’s still got a pulse. Help me get him out.” The black fog took over again and my next memory is of walking down the middle of my street. All the house’s were dark and buttoned up for the night, except one. Mine. When I reached the house where I lived, the cops were already there. They stood in the living room talking to my parents. My mom sat on the sofa staring at the pictures on the mantle. “We’re sorry, Mrs. Murphy, but those kids were drinking pretty heavily. We found quite a few liquor bottles at the scene.” Dad glanced at Mom’s unresponsive figure. “I think you should go now, Officers,” Dad showed them to the front door, where they spoke quietly together for a few moments. I slipped by the cops and sat down across from Mom, as Dad returned to the living room. He placed a hand on her shoulder but she jerked out from under it and began to cry and scream at me, holding her clenched fists up to the ceiling. “Rose Marie, if Chris was too drunk to drive, why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.” She began to pace back and forth over the carpet. “You had your cell phone, I know you did. This didn’t have to happen. No one had to die. Why didn’t you call?” Mom turned to Dad and collapsed against his chest. “What did we do wrong? Is this our fault somehow? Why were they drinking anyway?” She whispered into his robe. Gently, he held her close and kissed the top of her head before flipping off the light and going upstairs. They left me sitting alone in the darkened living room. “I was going to be Mrs. Christopher Bradley,” I murmured to myself in the churchyard. All of my tears seemed to have dried up, I couldn’t cry anymore. I straightened and moved behind the angel again; the service had ended and the mourners were preparing to visit the graveside. From my vantage point, I watched them lower the casket into the ground and everyone said his or her goodbyes. Dad laid his hand on Mom’s shoulder. “Jon and I will go get the cars, you girls wait here?” He glanced at Mrs. Bradley and she bobbed her head in agreement, taking hold of Mom’s arm. “Are you okay,” he asked Mom and she nodded. Dad signaled Mr. Bradley and they walked off together. Edging closer to the grave, I listened to friends of Chris and me talking to our mothers. I could only hear snatches of their condolences carried on the breeze. “It won’t be the same anymore.” “I’m sorry.” “I wish I could do more.” “I hope he wakes up soon.” “I should have taken the keys,” Todd said sadly. “If I had known what was gonna happen…” he hung his head. Mary put her arms around Todd and led him away, sobbing. Mom and Mrs. Bradley sent everyone on their way, with a touch and a thank-you-very-much for coming. With one last look back, Mrs. Bradley put her arm around Mom’s waist. “Come on. The boys will have the cars here by now.” They walked over the grassy knoll, arm in arm, not saying much. I trailed aimlessly behind them, my prom dress dragging in the grass. Mom stopped suddenly, digging in her purse. “Here, I wanted to give you this. I thought he might want it, when he wakes up. The funeral home gave it to me.” Mom passed something to Mrs. Bradley. Sighing, Mrs. Bradley stared down into her hand. “You know it took him three years to save for this. No one knew he was doing it. He started when he was fifteen. He told me, he loved her with all his heart, even then.” She held up a small bright object. I saw the sun sparkle off my engagement ring. “I’ll keep this for him,” she said, as she dropped it in the pocket of her suit. Stunned, I snatched up the hem of my prom dress and ran back toward the gravesite. My ring! How could Mom give it away! Where did she find it? Reaching the grave, I looked down at the tombstone they had just set into place.ROSE MARIE MURPHYBORN APRIL 14, 1994DIED MAY 29, 2012MAY HER SOUL BE FREE TO DRIFT AWAY Then I remembered what Mom had said about my ring. The funeral home had given it to her.
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