Dad, Darby, and I stood rooted in place long after Mom’s funeral. The weight in my chest threatened to suffocate me if I looked at the lid of her gleaming casket any longer. I focused on the sky instead, at the black birds cutting across the wisps of clouds in a sharp V formation. The thump of my heart echoed the rhythm of their beating wings. They pressed on until the clouds took them from me.
A different flutter in the corner of my eye pulled me back to earth. The movement took a few seconds to penetrate my numb brain until I realized I was staring at a girl. She crept in and out of the crumbling headstones, her body thick with mud and grime. Torn scraps of what looked like a prom dress hung from her scrawny frame. Her mouth sagged open like she was about to scream.
A shudder chased across my shoulder blades. I shook my head, afraid I might be dreaming. Darby stood next to me, and I reached out to touch her. She was real. Her ache was real. I felt it in the quiver of her bony body. But beyond her and the heaviness pinching my lungs, I couldn’t be sure of anything.
Inky black footprints tracked behind the dangling hem of the girl’s dress like a trail of burnt breadcrumbs. She stopped beside a tree and leaned her back against it. More darkness pooled at her feet and crept up the trunk behind her.
Sweat trickled down the back of my dress. A sudden breeze brushed spring air over my arms and sent a faint smell of rotten hamburger past my nose. My stomach rolled, but the breeze and stink faded to nothing as quickly as it had come.
The girl turned her head and looked at us. Her open mouth held the same black gloom that fell at her feet. The whites of her eyes blazed behind the mud covering her face. A grimy tiara perched on the side of her head.
My muscles stiffened. I gasped as recognition hit me.
I knew the girl. Or knew of her. Her social circle was my social nightmare. Her name was Sarah, a popular cheerleader who committed suicide a week ago. Poor Sarah, everyone said. She couldn’t handle the pressure of popularity and performing kicks and splits in front of everyone anymore. She’d sliced her wrists open to release her from those horrible demands.
So how could she be here when she should be in the ground? I had to be hallucinating. My grief, the unbearable weight in my chest, was climbing up to press on my brain.
I glanced at Darby and Dad. Dad studied his shoes while tears slipped down his cheeks. Darby was somehow able to look at Mom’s casket while smothering her sniffles with a tissue.
But if Sarah really was standing over there by the tree, I couldn’t let Darby see her.