- Published: 16 April 2018
- ISBN: 9780857502155
- Imprint: Bantam
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $19.99
I Know a Secret
(Rizzoli & Isles 12)
When I was seven years old, I learned how important it is to cry at funerals. On that particular summer day, the man lying in the coffin was my great uncle Orson, who was most memorable for his foul-smelling cigars and his stinky breath and his unabashed farting. While he was alive, he pretty much ignored me, the way I’d ignored him, so I was not in the least bit grief-stricken by his death. I did not see why I should have to attend his funeral, but that is not a choice seven-year-olds are allowed to make. And so that day I found myself squirming on a church pew, bored and sweating in a black dress, wondering why I couldn’t have stayed home with Daddy, who had flat-out refused to come. Daddy said he’d be a hypocrite if he pretended to grieve for a man he despised. I didn’t know what that word, hypocrite, meant, but I knew I didn’t want to be one either. Yet there I was, wedged between my mother and Aunt Sylvia, forced to listen to an endless parade of people offering insipid praise for the unremarkable Uncle Orson. A proudly independent man! He was passionate about his hobbies! How he loved his stamp collection!
No one mentioned his bad breath.
I amused myself through the endless memorial service by studying the heads of the people in the pew in front of us. I noticed that Aunt Donna’s hat was dusted with white dandruff, that Uncle Charlie had dozed off and his toupee had slipped askew. It looked like a brown rat trying to crawl down the side of his head. I did what any normal seven-year-old girl would do.
I burst out laughing.
The reaction was immediate. People turned and frowned at me. My mortified mother sank five sharp fingernails into my arm and hissed, “Stop it!”
“But his hair’s fallen off! It looks like a rat!”
Her fingernails dug deeper. “We will discuss this later, Holly.”
At home, there was no discussion. Instead, there was shouting and a slap on the face, and that’s how I learned what constituted appropriate funeral behavior. I learned that one must be somber and silent and that, sometimes, tears are expected.
Four years later, at my mother’s funeral, I made a point of noisily shedding copious tears because that was what everyone expected of me.
But today, at the funeral of Sarah Basterash, I’m not certain whether anyone expects me to cry. It’s been more than a decade since I last saw the girl I knew in school as Sarah Byrne. We were never close, so I can’t really say that I mourn her passing. In truth, I’ve come to her funeral in Newport only out of curiosity. I want to know how she died. I need to know how she died. Such a terrible tragedy is what everyone in the church is murmuring around me. Her husband was out of town, Sarah had a few drinks, and she fell asleep with a candle burning on her nightstand. The fire that killed her was merely an accident. That, at least, is what everyone says.
It’s what I want to believe.
The little church in Newport is packed to capacity, filled with all the friends that Sarah made in her short life, most of whom I’ve never met. Nor have I met her husband, Kevin, who under happier circumstances would be quite an attractive man, someone I might make a play for, but today he looks genuinely broken. Is this what grief does to you?
I turn to survey the church, and I spot an old high school classmate named Kathy sitting behind me, her face blotchy, her mascara smeared from crying. Almost all the women and many of the men are crying, because a soprano is singing that old Quaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” and that always seems to bring on the tears. For an instant, Kathy and I lock gazes, hers brimming and wet, mine cool and dry-eyed. I’ve changed so much since high school that I can’t imagine she recognizes me, yet her gaze is transfixed and she keeps staring at me as if she’s spotted a ghost.
I turn and face forward again.
By the time “Simple Gifts” is over, I too have managed to produce tears, just like everyone else.
I join the long line of mourners to pay my last respects, and as I file past the closed coffin, I study Sarah’s photograph, which is displayed on an easel. She was only twenty-six, four years younger than I am, and in the photo she is dewy and pink-cheeked and smiling, the same pretty blonde I remember from our school days, when I was the girl no one noticed, the phantom who lurked in the periphery. Now here I am, my skin still flush with life, while Sarah, pretty little Sarah, is nothing but charred bones in a box. I’m sure that’s what everyone thinks as they look at the image of Sarah Before the Fire; they see the smiling face in the photo and imagine scorched flesh and blackened skull.
The line moves forward, and I offer my condolences to Kevin. He murmurs, “Thank you for coming.” He has no idea who I am or how I knew Sarah, but he sees that my cheeks are tearstained, and he grasps my hand in gratitude. I have wept for his dead wife, and that is all it takes to pass muster.
I slip out of the church into the cold November wind and walk away at a brisk pace, because I don’t want to be waylaid by Kathy or any other childhood acquaintances. Over the years, I’ve managed to avoid them all.
Or perhaps they were avoiding me.
It is only two o’clock, and although my boss at Booksmart Media has given me the whole day off, I consider going back to the office to catch up on emails and phone calls. I am the publicist for a dozen authors and I need to schedule media appearances, mail out galleys, and write pitch letters. But before I head back to Boston, there is one more stop I have to make.
I drive to Sarah’s house—or what used to be her house. Now there are only blackened remains, charred timbers, and a pile of soot-stained bricks. A white picket fence that once enclosed the front garden lies smashed and flattened, wrecked by the fire crew when they dragged their hoses and ladders from the street. By the time the fire trucks arrived, the house must already have been an inferno.
I get out of my car and approach the ruins. The air is still foul with the stench of smoke. Standing there on the sidewalk, I can make out the faint glint of a stainless-steel refrigerator buried in that blackened mess. Just a glance at this Newport neighborhood tells me this would have been an expensive house, and I wonder what sort of business Sarah’s husband is in, or if there’s money in his family. An advantage I certainly never had.
The wind gusts and dead leaves rattle across my shoes, a brittle sound that brings back another autumn day, twenty years ago, when I was ten years old and crunching across dead leaves in the woods. That day still casts its shadow across my life, and it’s the reason I am standing here today.
I look down at the makeshift memorial that’s materialized in Sarah’s honor. People have left bouquets of flowers, and I see a mound of wilted roses and lilies and carnations, floral tributes to a young woman who was clearly loved. Suddenly I focus on a bit of greenery that is not part of any bouquet but has been draped across the other flowers, like an afterthought.
It is a palm leaf. Symbol of the martyr.
A chill scrabbles up my spine and I back away. Through the thudding of my heart, I hear the sound of an approaching car, and I turn to see a Newport police cruiser slow down to a crawl. The windows are rolled up and I cannot make out the officer’s face, but I know he’s giving me a long and careful look as he passes by. I turn away and duck back into my car.
There I sit for a moment, waiting for my heartbeat to slow down and my hands to stop trembling. I look again at the ruins of the house, and I once again picture Sarah at six years old. Pretty little Sarah Byrne, bouncing on the school-bus seat in front of me. Five of us rode the school bus that afternoon.
Now there are only four of us left.
“Goodbye, Sarah,” I murmur. Then I start the car and drive back to Boston.