I told Mom I was going to bike up and down Howell’s Bridge Road, stopping at the houses to look for space heaters. If I found any, I’d figure out some way of dragging them home.
“You can’t go by yourself,” Mom said. “It’s too dangerous.”
Sometimes I’m so stupid I amaze even myself. “I went all through Shirley Court by myself,” I said.
“When did you do that?” Mom asked.
Then I won the Olympic Gold Medal in stupid. “On Saturday,” I said. “That’s where I found all my stuff.”
“I thought you all went looking together,” Mom said.
“We started out together,” I said. “But we split up right away.”
“You mean you lied to me?” Mom asked.
Somehow I knew that “you” was directed right at me. Matt didn’t lie. Jon didn’t lie. Only Miranda lied.
“We didn’t exactly lie,” I said. “Besides, it was Matt’s idea.”
“I don’t care whose idea it was,” Mom yelled. “It was unsafe and you knew it and that’s why you lied to me.”
“I don’t believe this,” I said. “Matt and Jon can go anywhere they want. We don’t even know if we’ll ever see them again, and you’re mad at me for going to Shirley Court because I didn’t ask permission?”
It’s been months since Mom and I had a real screaming battle, and I guess we were overdue. She screamed, “Insensitive! Uncaring!” and I screamed, “Overbearing! Playing favorites!”
Right after I screamed, “I never want to see you again!” I ran out, got my bike, and began pedaling as fast as I could. I didn’t care where I ended up or even that I’d been too angry to put on my coat and it was too cold to be outside without one. I just wanted to escape, the way Matt and Jon had.
I started by going down Howell’s Bridge Road, because downhill was natural and faster, but I knew I didn’t want to end up in town. So about two miles down, I turned onto Bainbridge Avenue, and then I turned again and again and again. The only thing I watched out for were streets I knew, because every street I knew had a memory, and I didn’t dare face my memories.
I must have biked for an hour before I acknowledged I had no idea where I was and very little sense of how to get back home.
I was out in the country by then, not that it mattered, since there’s no one else alive anymore, so I couldn’t just knock on someone’s door and use their phone to Mom and tell her to figure out where I was and come get me, even if there were any houses with doors to knock on.
I thought, Of all the stupid things I’ve ever done, this is the stupidest, because I could die out here, ten miles from home, and no one will ever know what became of me.
That was when I totally lost it. It’s been hard to cry in the sunroom, the past few months, because we’re all in there all the time, and tears are better if you shed them alone. But I’ve never been as alone as I was, sweating and shivering and hungry. First one tear trickled down, and then another, and then I sobbed six months worth of sorrow and anger and loss.
I think I could have kept crying forever, except I didn’t have any tissues on me, and the only thing I had to blow my nose into was my sweatshirt. Which made me sweating and shivering and hungry and really disgusting. The thought of which made me start laughing, so for a while I was laughing and crying, and then I just laughed, and then I just shook. After a few minutes of that, I thought I’d be okay, but before I knew it I was sobbing again.
I told myself Mom wasn’t shedding any tears over me, but I knew she was. It was like that scene in The Wizard Of Oz, where Dorothy looks in the crystal ball and sees Auntie Em crying out for her. I knew Mom was crying. She was crying because she’s worried sick about Matt and Jon and now she was worried about me. Only that made me cry even harder, because I was worried about Matt and Jon too, and I was a lot more worried about me than Mom was. Mom thought I was just breaking into houses on Howell’s Bridge Road, like a sane disobedient daughter. I knew I was crazy and lost and cold and scared.
I knew I couldn’t stay there forever, so once I’d stopped shaking from the hysteria and resumed shaking from the cold, I got back on my bike and let my legs direct me. I favored right turns and downhill, but for the longest time I was in countryside, with just a handful of unoccupied farms around me.
Then, because right turns weren’t doing much for me, I made a left. I biked maybe a half a mile down the road and in the distance I could see a mound of some sort.
At least it was something to look at. I biked towards it, and since I was still favoring downhill, it was below me enough so that I could look down on it.
Once I was close enough that the dust in the air didn’t block my view I could tell. It was a hill of bodies.
I got off my bike in time to throw up. Part of me said to get back on and ride in the opposite direction, but I kept looking anyway.
The pile was about six bodies high, and it was kind of pyramid shaped, a lot more bodies on the bottom than the top. It wasn’t a neatly formed mound though, and there was more snow on some places than others, so it looked kind of lumpy. The cold had preserved things though, and I could see hands and feet towards the bottom of the pile, and heads with hair higher up.
People have been dying around here since the summer, but until the ground froze, they’d been buried. At least that’s what we’d been told. There were cremations too, although maybe they were just funeral pyres. You don’t ask about things like that. Not unless you absolutely have to.
But the colder the weather got, the more people who died. Starvation, sickness, suicide. And no place to put the bodies.
I thought, what if Mrs. Nesbitt is in the pile? I’ve known so many people who have died, but she was the only one I thought of then. Just that Mrs. Nesbitt could be in a pile of unidentified bodies in a field somewhere near town and if Mom ever found out, it would kill her.
I told myself not to look, but of course I did. It was hard to make out faces, between the snow and the distance, since the top of the pile was taller than me. And I didn’t see Mrs. Nesbitt, who most likely was cremated, which was what she had wanted. But I did see Mrs. Sanchez, my high school principal, and Michelle Webster, who I’d known since fifth grade, and I thought I recognized Henry, who Matt worked with at the post office. But I didn’t know Henry all that well, and it could have been some other guy, his age and bald.
I thought I should say a prayer over these people, show them respect for the lives they led, the people they were. I don’t know a lot of prayers, and the only phrase that came right to me was Deliver us from evil, which didn’t seem appropriate. So I just said, “I’m sorry,” out loud, and then I said, “I’m sorry,” again.
It could have been us. It should have been us. We have no more right to be alive on May 11 than any of them. Why should I be alive and Michelle Webster dead? She did better in school than me. She had more friends. Yet there I was standing by her dead body.
Deliver us from evil. Deliver us to evil is more like it.
I got back on my bike, turned around, and rode for the longest time before I saw a sign for the hospital. I followed the arrows and eventually made my way back to town, back to Howell’s Bridge Road, back to my home, back to the sunroom.
Mom had to open the door for me. I thought she’d be loving and comforting when I got in, but she wasn’t.
“You came back,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
“I had no where else to go,” I said, walking towards the fire, desperately needing its warmth to heal me.
“The others,” she said. “Will they be coming back?”
“How can they?” I asked. “They’re dead. Everybody’s dead.”
Mom turned white and for a moment I thought she was going to collapse. “Matt and Jon are dead?” she screamed.
“No!” I cried. “Not Matt and Jon!” I pictured them on the mound, all of us on the mound, and I made a sound I can’t even describe. It came from deep within me, the place where I hide all my rage and grief, a sound no one should ever have to hear.
“Miranda,” Mom said, and she grabbed me and was shaking me. “Miranda, how did you hear about them? Did someone tell you about them?”
“I saw them,” I cried. “Oh Mom, it was so horrible. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Where?” she said. “Can you take me to them? Now, we have to go now.”
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “I was lost and I found them. But you don’t have to go there, Mom. I’m sure Mrs. Nesbitt wasn’t there.”
“Mrs. Nesbitt?” Mom said. “Why would she be at the river?”
“I didn’t go to the river,” I said. “Is that where Matt and Jon…” I couldn’t even finish the sentence.
Mom took a deep breath. “Matt and Jon,” she said. “Are they coming back?”
“How can they come back?” I asked. “You just said they…” I still couldn’t say it.
“I didn’t,” Mom said. “I thought you did.”
“Did what?” I asked. “Said what? I came in here, and you said Matt and Jon weren’t coming back, and I assumed. You mean they’re all right?”
“Tell me,” Mom said. “Slowly and carefully, everything you know about Matt and Jon.”
“They left on Tuesday,” I said. “To the Delaware River to catch shad. They were supposed to come back on Saturday. That’s all I know. What do you know?”
“Exactly the same thing,” Mom said. “Oh, Miranda. You gave me the scare of my life.”
I stared at her and we both burst out laughing. It’s funny. Horton slept through all the hysterics, but as soon as he heard us laughing (and I have to admit, our laughter was pretty hysterical also), he got up and walked out of the room. Which made us laugh even more.
“What about Mrs. Nesbitt?” Mom asked. “What were you talking about, Miranda?”
I thought about Mom, how terrified she must have been that she might never see any of us again. I thought about all the people she’s lost this past year.
“Nothing,” I said. “I saw a field with unmarked graves. I was biking all over the place, so I don’t know where it is. But I figured Mrs. Nesbitt probably wasn’t there. I hope not anyway.”
Mom nodded. “There must be graves like that all over,” she said. “All over the world. Come on, Miranda. Change into something warmer, and I’ll make you some soup.”
I did as she said. I even ate the soup. But I saw what I saw, and I know, with a cold cruel certainty, that someday, somewhere, we’ll be part of a mountain of bodies, reaching up towards the heavens.