“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
Faith Gilmore watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark earth. A part of her still could not believe what she was seeing. She glanced over at the two other women standing beside her. Monique Hardings and Shannon Carmichael were in the same daze of disbelief as she was. It was like they were all stuck in some sort of weird dream.
Tomorrow they would wake up from it, and Cely would take them all to task when they told her about their strange nightmare. Me commit suicide? No way. There isn’t that much depression in the world. I am the most levelheaded, laid-back, not-a-care-in-the-world person you know. There’s no way I would ever get in a funk so blue that it would trigger me to take my own life.
Yet she had done exactly that, and this was no dream.
“This ends the memorial service for Cecilia Graham,” the minister was saying. “You may all return to your cars.”
Faith blinked. Return to their cars and do what? Mourn some more? Leave? Ask themselves for the thousandth time how could this have happened? Why this happened? Especially to Cely, who had always been the strongest of the four of them.
She felt someone touch her hand, glanced up to see Monique and Shannon standing right in front of her. Faith looked at them mutely, noting that their eyes were as red as hers, their cheeks just as tear-streaked.
“It’s time to go,” Monique said softly, and Faith could hear her fighting to hold back more tears.
“Yes,” Shannon chimed in, her voice just as tight. “I need to get away from this place. Quick. I need a thick slice of pizza, a strong drink, and to get laid. Hell, I need something, anything, to make me forget everything I’ve gone through today. This week.”
Faith almost rolled her eyes. Shannon had always been the one they all thought had the weakest disposition. Cely had always worried about how Shannon went about dealing with stress. “How about if we go back to my hotel room, drink some wine, and chill. I’m really not in the mood to go to the repast,” Faith suggested.
Monique understood. “Neither am I. I’m sure Cely’s family will understand if we wait and visit tomorrow before we leave.”
“Yes, I’m sure they will,” Shannon agreed. “They know Cely was more than a friend to us. She was like our sister.”
Faith nodded. That was true—ever since the four of them had met so many summers ago as teens on Hilton Head Island, they were sisters. Cely’s grandparents had operated a hot dog stand on the beach, and she had been their little helper. Like Faith’s parents, Monique’s and Shannon’s families had owned time-share condos and made the trip each summer to the island, where the four girls had become the best of friends for life.
But now one of their lives had ended. The circle they had formed more than twenty years ago was broken, and somehow they had to repair it and move on. “All right, let’s go. But first let’s say good-bye to Mrs. Graham. I don’t want her to think we’re deserting her.”
A couple of hours later, Faith, Monique, and Shannon had replaced their dark mourning dress suits with slacks and blouses, and they were sprawled on the bed in Faith’s hotel room. They were remembering the good times they’d shared all those summers long ago, from the time they were thirteen.
“Do you remember the summer when we began noticing boys for the first time?” Shannon asked, laughing between sips of her wine. “Cely was acting so shy that day when that hunk from FAMU tried to come on to her. That was the first time any of us had been noticed by a college guy.”
Faith chuckled. “Yes, I remember! We were sixteen, and the guy thought we were naive enough to fall for his game.”
Monique nodded, grinning. “Yeah, he wasn’t very smart.”
“But he sure was a looker,” Shannon couldn’t help but add, her eyes twinkling in mischief. “I think he really did like Cely, though.”
“Yes,” Faith said, “and I think she really liked him, too, which is why she did sneak off to see him that night.”
The room got quiet for a moment. Then Faith finally asked the question she’d been dreading: “Have either of you read the letter Cely left for you?”
Monique shook her head. “I couldn’t make myself do it. I can’t imagine how depressed she must have been to do what she did. And to know even then she had been thinking about us, our friendship.”
Shannon placed her wineglass aside, inhaling sharply. “I haven’t read mine either, although a part of me is very curious. Maybe it will explain why she did it.”
Faith nodded. “I think we should read them now. Here. Together. There must be something she wanted to tell us—otherwise she wouldn’t have written them.”
Monique took a sip of her drink. “I’m not sure I want to know what she was thinking that day. Cely was the most fun-loving of all of us. I remember how things were for me after Paul’s death. When things seemed to fall apart, she was there to help me keep things together. I can’t imagine anything getting her so down, she thought she couldn’t share it with us or wouldn’t know we were there for her, no matter what. Nothing could have been that hopeless when she had everything going on. The last time I talked with her—a few weeks ago—she was doing great. She had met this neat guy, she had finally made the decision to have her mother move in with her instead of go to a nursing home, and she was up for a promotion on her job. I can’t imagine what would make her do what she did.”
“Then let’s read our letters and find out,” Faith repeated, not really wanting to do so but feeling that they must.
The other two women nodded. As always, they would share everything. They each left the bed and walked to where they’d set their purses. They had been given Cely’s letters that morning from a kind police officer who had arrived before the start of the funeral. Fifty-something and bald, he had introduced himself as Lt. Upshaw.
Shannon pulled the letter out of her purse and glanced at it thoughtfully before turning to the others. Tears clouded her eyes. “It doesn’t seem fair. Cely was the one we called when we needed to be told to get our shit together.”
Faith walked over to a chair and flopped down with the copy of her letter in her hand. “Yeah, she was the first person I contacted when I found out Virgil was one of those down-low brothers. She talked me out of getting a gun and blowing his balls off. Now she’s gone and we have to move on, keep going, the way she would have wanted. Come on, let’s read our letters.”
They each took a turn and read their letters aloud. Moments later they glanced up at each other with more tears in their eyes. Monique took a deep breath. “Even in what she thought was her darkest hour, she was thinking of us.”
“Yeah,” Shannon said, wiping her eyes. “But the letter doesn’t explain why she did what she did.”
“In a way it does,” Faith said in a quiet tone. “There was something going on her in life that made her think she didn’t have an out. And she doesn’t want that from us. She’s pleading for us to live each day to the fullest and do whatever we want to do to enjoy life and not live up to others’ expectations and standards.”
Monique nodded. “Cely was always trying to please everyone. Maybe she got tired of trying.”
“But to the point where she would commit suicide?” Shannon snapped, clearly frustrated and hurt. “I can’t imagine her ever getting that low. I bet it has something to do with a man.”
Faith rolled her eyes. “Why are you so quick to blame the opposite sex?”
“Because they’re usually the ones who deserved to be blamed. And you said she had met this great guy, Monique. She never mentioned him to me. Who is he? I wonder if the police checked her cell phone to see if he called her right before it happened. I wouldn’t put it past him, whoever he is, to be the one who pushed her over the edge. Maybe we need to do a little investigating of our own.”
Faith and Monique exchanged glances. Nothing had changed over the years. Shannon still harbored ill feelings for most men because of what her father was doing to her mom, but then Shannon’s mom’s behavior wasn’t too much better.
“Well, I personally think it wasn’t just a man but probably a mixture of things,” Faith decided to say. “But we’ll never really know, because she didn’t tell us in her letters. And forget about doing our own investigating. There was a suicide note—four of them—so as far as the police is concerned, the case is closed. Even if Mr. X isn’t blameless, the police won’t arrest a man for ‘pushing someone over the edge,’ if that’s what he did.”
“Faith is right,” Monique said softly. “In her letters Cely is asking us not to dwell on the reason she did what she did. She wants us to make changes in our own lives. So what are we going to do?”
The room got quiet, and then moments later Faith spoke up. “I have an idea. Remember we all said that one of these summers we would get together and spend it on the island like we used to do? I say let’s do it. Let’s have one more summer in Cely’s memory. Let’s get together on Hilton Head Island and do just what she’s suggested, like we used to do all those summers when we didn’t have a care in the world. Let’s plan to take time off our jobs—a month to six weeks—and take on new adventures and broaden our horizons. In Cely’s honor let’s do as she’s asked. Live each day to the fullest and do whatever we want and not worry about anyone’s expectations.”
“I don’t worry about anyone’s expectations now,” Shannon said curtly, taking another sip of her wine.
Copyright © 2007 by Brenda Streater Jackson. All rights reserved.