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1. The Funeral Crasher
I’d never been to a funeral without a casket
Then again, I’d never known a missing person
This trip was full of firsts.
The funeral home had managed to fit about eighty
folding chairs into their cramped, stuffy parlor, and they were all full of
mourners and well-wishers. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the funeral
director’s promise of having the air conditioning fixed in twenty minutes had
actually been true. The mid-summer heat had transformed the room into a
pressure cooker that smelled heavily of sweat and flowers. I couldn’t leave. I
wanted to, if only for a minute so I could clear my head, but I couldn’t
because I had to be there for my mother, and she had to be there for the dead
Where a casket would have been stood a large
yearbook picture of a pretty blonde girl wearing a nice, not-too-fancy dress.
Her smile was gorgeous and hopeful, unaware that less than a year after the
picture was taken it would be blown up and surrounded by more flowers and teddy
bears than you could count.
We were friends, once. Not close friends, not even
good friends—when we were both six, we’d liked each other well enough, and,
since my mother was best friends in college with her mother, we got used to
playing together during my mother’s infrequent trips to Prospero. It didn’t
last long, as we each soon entered the age where playing with the opposite sex
was considered gross, but we were nice enough to smile and say hello and spend
a few polite minutes together whenever our mothers would force us to.
I wasn’t that
choked up about her death (disappearance),
but there was still something surreal about actually knowing the person whose
funeral you’re attending.
The program said that the services were set to
begin in ten minutes. Some of Haley’s friends and my mother would deliver
eulogies about how lovely and special a girl she was, about how she had
brightened all of their lives, and how the world would be a much worse place for
not having her in it. Standard stuff. The kind of stuff that would break any
audience into a chorus of tears and moans of grief.
Any normal audience at least. This audience’s
behavior was anything but normal.
Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of sadness to
go around. About half the audience, mostly high school-aged, probably Haley’s
friends, were emotional and, if not already crying, were on the verge of tears.
The older members of the audience, on the other hand, the parents, the select
representatives of the Town Council who had decided to attend… their reactions
were a bit off. While most of them put their best sad faces on, more than
anything else there seemed to be an air of fear, even frustration as they
occasionally whispered amongst themselves. Even stranger, I could swear that a
few of the older people looked happy,
as if this were a day of celebration instead of mourning.
This is why I never really looked forward to Mom’s
trips to Prospero; it’s just oozing with small town strange. Big city strange I
can deal with. I expect it. In all the noise and anonymity, I can avoid it.
Small town strange is another beast entirely, that
kind of strange where you know, you just know
that everybody’s watching you and judging your every move… I don’t know how
anyone could handle that for long without going completely insane. Top it off
with Prospero’s tourist-friendly reputation for the bizarre….
I needed some air. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve.
She looked at me, daubing her puffy eyes with a
tissue, “Yes, Ben?”
“Can I go get some water?”
She smiled, faintly, looking to the woman wrapped
in her arms, “Sure. Could you get a cup for me and your Aunt Christine as
“Sure,” I said as I got up and walked down the
center aisle. Late arrivals milled around the back. Among them was a
gawky-looking girl in a long-sleeved black dress that might have belonged to
her grandmother, who looked like she had only been told how dresses worked just
in time for this memorial service. Her curly red hair hung haphazardly around
her face, a striking contrast against her pale skin. A pair of thick,
black-framed glasses made her eyes look enormous.
I couldn’t be sure, but she seemed to be staring
intently at me as I walked into the next room. I’d have been unsettled even if the
town itself hadn’t already put me on edge.
In the next parlor over, a buffet table had been
set out with a selection of hors d’oeuvres and bottles of water in ice. I
grabbed a few, cracked one open, and took a long, grateful sip.
When I turned to head back to the service, the
red-haired girl was standing in my way. I was startled, almost dropping my
bottle to the floor. Up close, I could see that she stood barely five feet
tall, and if it hadn’t been for the intensity of her gaze, I could almost have tripped
over her before noticing she was there. She didn’t move.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” she replied. An awkward silence followed.
Though I could already tell she was hardly the world’s greatest
conversationalist, given the day, I wanted to be polite.
“I’m Ben,” I said, holding out my hand.
She didn’t take it. She only said, “I know.”
Again, that unsettled feeling was grabbing my
stomach, but being too polite for my own good, I couldn’t act on it. “Well,
then you’ve got me at a disadvantage?”
“Mina. Mina Todd,” she said quickly, her eyes
leaving me for a moment as if worried someone might overhear her. Satisfied
that she was clear, she smiled briefly. As odd-looking as she was, she had a
“Did you… did you know Haley well?” I asked.
Though this could have been a minefield, it did seem like the safest
“Better than she knew me,” Mina said, shrugging.
She did not elaborate.
This was getting a little too weird for my tastes.
I could have doubled back into the parlor easily, but considering the stifling
heat, I decided on a different approach. I reached for my pocket, pulled out my
phone, and forced a surprised look on my face.
“My phone’s vibrating, I’ll be right back.”
“No it isn’t,” she said simply.
“It’s very quiet,” I explained, starting to turn
away from her to make my escape.
“No it isn’t,” she repeated. She looked at me,
worried, clearly wanting to say more. She was weird, I understood that, but
something really had her on edge.
I quickened my pace. Thankfully, she didn’t
It was nice outside. Hot, but nice. A faint breeze
brought in the scent of the redwood trees that surrounded Prospero. I realized
then that, Prospero’s strangeness aside, I could probably deal with summer in
Northern California, better than a lot of the places we’d lived at least.
Better than Virginia and Texas, and those three weeks we spent in Phoenix. That
quick escape was one of the few times I was glad my mom liked to move around so
I sighed, took another sip of water. This trip was
another excuse. I knew it. Mom wasn’t happy with her job and she hated our
landlord. When she said we were coming up here to offer comfort to Aunt
Christine and she didn’t know how long we’d stay, I knew, I just knew that it would be her way of
quitting her job. Something would happen, she’d decide to stay longer, and
then, the way she had at least once every two years since Dad died, she’d say
it was time for a change.
If it had been funny, I’d have laughed. Instead, I
kicked a stone across the funeral home’s parking lot. It bounced harmlessly off
the tire of a Jeep parked near the exit. I watched it skip out into the street,
wondering how far it would go.
Then I saw her.
There was a girl walking down the middle of the
street, dirty and barefoot, wrapped in a tattered old Army blanket. She looked
like a zombie, unmindful of the cuts on her feet, how little the blanket
covered up her probably naked form, and the car that was barreling down the
road toward her.
It was going too fast, and the driver wouldn’t see
her in time around the blind corner.
I didn’t think; I just ran.
The car rounded the corner.
The squealing of brakes filled the air.
I collided with the girl, knocking her off her
feet. We fell into a ditch full of dry pine needles by the side of the road.
The car swerved, missed us by inches and ran into a lamp post in front of the
funeral home. Its hood crunched inward and glass scattered everywhere. I don’t
know what was louder; the unending blare of its horn after the impact, or the
sound of the lamppost falling down and crunching another car in the parking
I looked down at the girl, rolling off her when I
realized, shamefacedly, that she had broken my fall.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I meant to do that better.
Are you all right?”
She was coming out of her trance. The vacant gaze
was soon replaced by the look of a person coming out of a deep slumber.
Sitting up, I repeated, “Are you all ri—”
Then I saw her face. She’d lost some weight,
needed a shower and some shampoo, and was a little bloody, but there was no
denying it was her.
“Haley?” I asked.
Her eyes focused on me, shocked and fearful.
Letting out an animalistic scream of grief and fear, she wrapped her arms
powerfully around me and wept. Comforting crying girls had never been one of my
strong suits, let alone beautiful girls who’d been missing for two months and
declared legally dead and then showed up naked outside their own memorial
services. I like to think I did my best as she hung on to me.
People from the service had started filing outside,
checking out the accident. Some were already calling 911, which gave me one
less thing to do, thankfully.
“Can you walk?” I asked, getting only loud sobs in
response. I took that as a no.
Carefully, I cradled Haley in my arms and picked
her up, making sure the blanket covered her. She was so light. Too light. As
quickly as I could, I made my way to the accident site and the crowd that had
gathered around it.
“We need help here!” I called.
With a car accident to look at, they noticed us
slowly, but when they did, we were swarmed. There were all the reactions you’d
expect on an occasion like this. Shock. Excitement. Elation. I set her down,
and though she regained her footing for a moment, she soon sat down on the
curb, holding the blanket around her protectively as people hugged her,
questioned her, or just stood around crying. People called for her mother, and
soon she came running out with my mom in tow.
Aunt Christine screamed in surprise, tears of joy
running down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around Haley and me. She
babbled incoherently as she kissed first Haley, then me on the cheek, and
though I was soon pulled aside by the crowd for congratulations from a couple
dozen strangers, I did catch her saying the words “Thank you” and “hero.”
Within minutes there was a police car parked in
front of the funeral home and, five minutes after that, an ambulance to take
Haley and the driver to the nearby medical center. By then I’d had my hand
shaken and my back pounded so many times I was thinking of asking for a ride
over there with them.
It was right around the time they started to load
Haley into the back of the ambulance that I felt the insistent poking on the
back of my shoulder. I turned around, expecting another well-wisher or
Instead, I got Mina Todd. She looked at me, almost
frantic, as she wrote furiously on her funeral program with a marker and thrust
it into my hands.
“We can’t talk here. It’s not safe. Just… call me,
Before I could ask what she meant, she darted off
into the crowd and disappeared. I looked back to Haley as she was loaded into
the ambulance. She smiled at me, grateful, and for a moment, it almost looked
like she said “Thank you.”
I was a hero. A hero. I gotta say, it felt pretty good. They wouldn’t call me a
hero for much longer, not the guy who just saw her wandering in the street and
decided to help, but I was going to enjoy it while they did.
It was almost an afterthought when I finally
looked at the message Mina had scrawled on the back of her funeral program.
Beneath her phone number, in large block letters, she had printed three simple
THAT ISN’T HALEY