Authors: Abby McDonald
Her father was dead, and all Grace could think about was pie.
Sure, it wasn’t just any old pie — the box an early mourner had delivered was crisp and white, boasting the logo from the best patisserie in San Francisco — but even as she wondered what kind of filling was hidden inside (blueberry, maybe, or a fluffy lemon meringue), Grace was hit with a crushing sense of shame. Meditating on baked goods during her father’s funeral made her a Truly Terrible Person.
“John was taken from us too soon,” the priest murmured up front. Grace’s older sister, Hallie, let out a wretched sob. For once, her hysterics weren’t an overreaction — no, this time, Grace was the inappropriate one. She sank even lower in the hard wooden pew, as if everyone could see the visions of pastries dancing in her head.
She didn’t even like pie! She hadn’t had a sweet tooth since fourth grade, when her overzealous dentist warned her that sugar would make her teeth fall out. Grace had barely opened her mouth for two weeks, until her father noticed her trying to slurp mashed potato through tight lips and gently explained that her molars weren’t about to scatter on the floor that very moment.
But that had been when he was around to explain things. When he’d been around at all.
“. . . and it’s this zest for life that he’ll be remembered for —”
The priest was cut short by a piercing wail. In the front pew, baby Dash began to scream, red faced and shaking with rage. Her brother. Half brother, Hallie was always quick to snap, but Grace always thought that sounded even more useless. Like their father had only half left them, or half married someone else.
“Shh!” Grace’s stepmother, Portia, bounced him, her black veil quivering, but Dash only screamed louder, his cries echoing in the cavernous church.
Behind her, someone tutted softly. “Poor thing, he’ll never know his daddy.”
Grace felt Hallie stiffen. “He’s lucky,” Hallie whispered. “He won’t miss him at all! We’re the ones they should be sorry for.”
Grace said nothing. Dash screamed on, until finally, Portia thrust his flailing body at the waiting nanny. The poor Swedish girl fled with him down the aisle; Dash’s wails receding until the main church doors closed behind them and there was quiet again.
Grace wished it could be so easy for her: the escape route, and the tears. She still hadn’t cried yet, there hadn’t been the time. Her mother had collapsed into bed when she heard, refusing to eat or drink anything until Grace called in their family physician to prescribe her something to sleep. Hallie had sobbed for days in such a fit that, in the end, Grace had crushed up a pill in her food as well, so that they might all get some peace. Then, she’d sat alone in the formal living room — the one they rarely used since her father left — with a stack of her mother’s old address books, and made the calls. Third cousins, and old neighbors, and distant friends from college. The calls Portia wouldn’t know to make, if she even cared to at all.
The priest cleared his throat. “Let’s take a moment to share some of our happy thoughts and memories of dear John.”
This was Grace’s cue. She rose from the pew, her fingers curled around the poem she’d chosen, but before she was even two steps down the aisle, Portia slipped out of her pew and glided up the stairs to the lectern. She carefully lifted her veil, folding it back over her elegant chignon. “John and I were soul mates,” Portia began, gazing out across the church with a wounded look.
Beside Grace, Hallie hissed with a sharp intake of breath. “She didn’t!”
But she did. And she was.
Grace slid back into her seat as Portia clasped a lace-gloved hand to her chest. “I knew from the moment we met that we were meant to be together,” she continued. “He was my destiny.”
A destiny that was already married with children at the time, but now, as then, Portia seemed unconcerned with such trivial details. Grace looked anxiously to her mother, but her face was blank, as if she couldn’t hear a word.
“He was the best man I’d ever known. Kind. Honorable. Loyal.”
Hallie shot to her feet. Grace yanked her back down.
“Are you going to sit here and listen to this?” Hallie demanded. Her face, which had for days been drained and ashy, was now bright with outrage; eyes lit up with a fury Grace knew all too well signaled trouble. Very public kind of trouble.
“Please,” Grace whispered, looking nervously around. “Just let it go.”
“Let what go?” Hallie hissed. “The fact she stole him away, or that she’s standing up there acting like we never existed?”
“All of it. Hallie, come on,” Grace pleaded. There wasn’t just the funeral to get through, but a reception after, too: hours of politely accepting condolences from people they’d never met. “She’s allowed to be sad too, you know. He was her family.”
It was the wrong thing to say.
were his family!” Hallie wrenched her arm free and clambered out of the pew, trampling on Grace’s toes.
“Hallie!” Grace whispered desperately, but it was too late.
“. . . said that he was happier than he’d ever been —” Portia stopped midsentence as she saw Hallie standing in the aisle. Their eyes met, and for a terrible moment, Grace waited for the explosion. But none came. Hallie shuddered and gave a desperate sob, then she turned and fled.
Grace exhaled with relief. She waited a moment for Portia to continue, then murmured in her mother’s ear, “I’ll go.”
There was no response; her mom was still staring numbly ahead with the same vacant expression she’d had all week. Grace edged out of her row and scurried for the back door, head down to avoid the stares she was so sure followed her out.
Grace found her sister wandering the graveyard, dark hair tangling in the wind. Hallie had forgotten her coat, and her long black skirt billowed out around her, like a silhouette from a gothic novel. Grace sighed, trudging through the muddy grass toward her. Trust Hallie to pick pneumonia for the sake of a dramatic scene — she wouldn’t be the one delivering cough syrup up two flights of stairs for the rest of the week.
“Look at this place.” Hallie gestured wildly, her arms wide. “We shouldn’t be here.
shouldn’t be here!”
Grace wasn’t sure if Hallie meant any graveyard, or just this one. The crumbling mausoleums and gleaming granite headstones marched around them in stiff rows marked with huge displays of roses and wilting lilies. Her father had always joked about cremation — that he wanted his remains scattered in the dugout at the Giants’ stadium — but when Grace had tried to bring that up with Portia, she’d looked at Grace in horror. Of course John would be buried, and since her family plot was all the way back East in Connecticut, then only the best, most prestigious church in San Francisco would do.
Perhaps it was better this way. He hadn’t taken Grace to a game in years, and at least here, she’d have a place to visit him.
“Come on, Hallie, let’s go back inside.”
“No! Leave me alone.” Hallie turned away from her. She was shivering now, so Grace shrugged off her coat and put it around Hallie’s shoulders. It draped, too big around her slight frame. People who didn’t know them often thought that Grace was older. She’d caught up with Hallie height-wise two years ago, and then kept right on growing. This year, Grace’s figure had filled out too, so at sixteen she was left feeling like a stranger in her own body: off balance from the inconvenient curves that made her already-poor gym class performance just plain embarrassing, and caused her pimply lab partners to stutter and stare.
“Mom will be worried,” Grace tried reasoning. “We don’t even have to sit through the rest of the service, we can just wait in the lobby until it’s over.”
“I don’t understand you!” Hallie pressed her palms against her face, wiping the lonely streak of mascara on each cheek. “How can you even look at her and not want to rip her prissy head off? And him! All this bullshit about what a great guy he was. I would kill him again if he weren’t already dead!” She collapsed into sobs again.
“You don’t mean that.” Grace patted her shoulder in what she hoped was a soothing fashion.
“I do! I hate him!” Hallie sniffled. “He ruined everything, and now he’s not even around to blame anymore.”
Grace stood, patiently waiting for the sobs to subside. Hallie’s outbursts came like a tempest — flaring up at the slightest provocation, whether glee of landing the lead in the spring play, or desolate sobs over the season finale of her favorite TV medical drama — but she always wore herself out soon enough.
At last, Hallie seemed to calm, and Grace steered her back toward the church, glad she’d worn her thickest black tights under her stiff formal dress. It was May, but in San Francisco that only meant the slight possibility of sunshine escaping the thick, gray clouds above.
“Let’s just get through today, OK?” she said, a pleading note in her voice. “Then Portia and everybody will be gone, and we can try to get back to normal.”
“Normal?” Hallie gave her a scathing look. “How can you even say that? It’s like you never loved him at all.”
Grace froze. Hallie grabbed her hands. “I’m sorry! That was awful. I take it back!”
Grace tried to pull away, but Hallie held on tight. “I didn’t mean it, Grace. I’m, like, the worst sister in the world! Forgive me. Please?”