To herself, about the fact that her brother abandoned her.
To her grandmother, when she says “everything’s fine.”
To the world when she pretends her mother is at home or working late. When she doesn’t tell them her mother is dead.
She doesn’t even question the wisdom of living in a world built on lies anymore—until she meets Brandon. Unlike Marissa, Brandon faces his grief head-on. As their relationship sweetens, Marissa realizes the value of letting someone in and not letting her grief destroy her. But when her past filled with denial catches up with her, Marissa is forced to tell Brandon her darkest secrets, or risk losing him.
The only thing harder than lying about her life? Facing it.
I held my breath as I ran past the cemetery. Stupid, I know. Regardless, it’s one of those idiotic things that stick with you from your childhood. Like fragments of your being that imprint themselves on your chemical makeup. It was my older brother, Marc, who had told me that once when we were in the backseat of Mom’s old hatchback and were driving past the Sacred Path Cemetery.
Marc poked me in my side. “Quick, hold your breath,” he said before taking in a puff of air and holding it in.
“What? Why?” I looked around from side to side.
He didn’t answer me. Instead he just kept motioning with his hands, pointing out the window, putting his hands around his neck like he was choking or something. Finally, when we turned left onto Harper Street he let out a big exhale.
“Oh man, now you’re toast.” He pointed at me and laughed. That maniacal laugh only older brothers know how to do. I was seven at the time, and Marc was ten. “You probably have a ghost inside you now.” He grinned like a devious villain.
“A ghost?” I said.
“You didn’t hold your breath while we drove past the cemetery. Again I state — you’re toast.” He began drumming on his lap with his hands.
I didn’t comprehend what he was telling me, but I knew I didn’t like it. Tears started forming in my eyes, and I knew I had to rely on my failsafe. “Mooommm,” I cried out, and immediately I felt Marc’s sweaty hand over my mouth.
“Yes, Marissa?” Mom’s sweet voice carried from the front of the car to the backseat.
“She’s fine, Mom. I got it.” Marc’s tone was of the dutiful son. He unclamped his hand from my face. “Listen,” he began, talking kind of slow. “You’ve got to remember this. I’m going to give you a life lesson here. Are you ready?”
His green eyes were sparkling, and I nodded my head in agreement.
“Okay.” He crouched down a bit so he was eye-level with me. “You must always, and I mean always, hold your breath when you drive past a cemetery. And if you’re walking past one, you must run — run and hold your breath until you’re clear. Otherwise, the spirits of the undead could invade your body. And you don’t want that to happen. Do you?” I almost couldn’t tell if the last part was a question or a statement.
“But I didn’t hold my breath back there, and all the times before. What if one’s in me right now?” I began pawing at my body.
Marc threw his head back and laughed. “Nah, you’re fine. Just be careful. Now that you know you have to do it, always do it. Understand?”
Again I shook my head. Marc gave me a thumbs-up, and I begged Mom to take Chester Street instead of Maple because I knew there was a big cemetery on Maple. Luckily she agreed.
So now, here I was ten years later, holding my breath as I ran past Sacred Path Cemetery. While I ran, my new sneakers — the ones I had to work double shifts on Saturdays for three weeks to get — started rubbing the back of my left heel, and I knew I’d have a blister the size of a quarter later on. It’s hard to keep your pace when you’re holding your breath. Luckily Sacred Path Cemetery isn’t that big. Just big enough. It’s just big enough. That’s what my grandmother said anyway. I was almost halfway through when I heard the clicking of the tips of my shoelace on the ground. My thoughts concentrated on what those tip things were called, anything to get my mind off the cemetery. Aglets, I remembered! My aglets were hitting the pavement, and I knew if I didn’t stop and retie that lace, then I would land flat on my face. Grace has never been a character trait of mine. My mother, yes, but not me. Marissa No-Grace McDonald should have been my legal name. How my mother came up with Scranton for my middle name I’ll never know.
The last thing I wanted to happen was to fall face first in front of the cemetery. Complete body invasion for sure then. I couldn’t hold my breath that long. So I did what I had to do. I stopped, turned my face the opposite direction of the cemetery, and took one big breath in and held it. Next, I bent down and furiously retied that lace. Why is it that whenever you try doing something in a rush it never comes out right? Somehow I tied my finger into the knot. Then, I couldn’t get the loops to line up right. Just as I was finally conquering the over-under shoelace tying technique that Marc had taught me when I was five, I heard muffled sounds coming from inside the cemetery. I searched for the source of the sounds. As I looked near the line of big oak trees that lined the right-hand side of the cemetery, I saw the profiles of a family. What I assumed was a family, anyway. There was a woman, about my mom’s age, a guy about my age, and a younger boy, maybe six or seven. The little boy was holding a metallic balloon, which was red and in the shape of a heart. Bright sun caught the corner of it, creating a glare that momentarily impaired my vision. When my eyes refocused, I was suddenly aware of my body and extremely aware of the fact that I was watching this family’s private moment, in the cemetery, in this cemetery. My heart beat frantically, and I became aware that my forehead was covered in perspiration. I stood up, held my breath again, and ran the next half a block without stopping, my aglets clicking against the pavement all the way.
When I crossed over onto Brenton Street, I finally slowed down. I felt like I could breathe again. My pace was back to a more conservative speed, and after one more break to retie that shoelace-triple-knot, I was able to refocus. The spring air felt good on my skin. As the sun poured down on me, my face embraced its warmth. Lilacs were in full bloom everywhere, and I made a special detour down Hazel Street to run past the six lilac bushes Mr. Brockwell planted a few years ago. He said it was just because he wanted to add some color to his front yard, but I knew better. I knew they were for my mom.
Turning down Hazel Street, I inhaled the heavy floral scent of the freshly-bloomed lilac bushes, and I could picture my mom smiling. As I ran past the last bush, the little blue house finally came into view. I saw Mr. Brockwell picking up his newspaper from his front step. In that moment I wished I had magical powers to turn myself invisible.
“Marissa? Hey Marissa!” he shouted while making his way over to the fence.
Oh great. “Oh, hey, Mr. Brockwell.” I slowed down and began jogging in place, hoping the gesture would let him know I couldn’t stay to chat.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve run this route, hasn’t it?” He cinched his blue terrycloth robe a little tighter.
Trying to remain active, I kept jogging in place. “Yeah, I guess. I wanted to run past the lilacs.” I wasn’t sure if it was the sun or my nerves, but I felt like my body was going into heat shock or something.
Mr. Brockwell stared at me, and then I saw his eyes get glassy. He began to speak but then ran his hand over his mouth like he was muffling down what he wanted to say. His hands fumbled with his paper, and he cleared his throat.
“It’s good to see—” he paused; it was like the words were getting caught in his throat like tuna inside a fisherman’s net.
I realized I was standing still. My legs began to spasm. He caught my eye one more time, but just for a moment before he had to look away. I knew why. It was the reason I never ran past his house anymore. The reason why we couldn’t have a conversation anymore. Everyone used to tell me I was so lucky to look so much like my mom. She was gorgeous. High cheekbones, perfect heart-shaped mouth, sparkling blue eyes that sat perfectly on her oval face. Besides her hair being a stunning ash blond and mine being mouse brown, we did look quite similar. Except that while her features seemed to make her look like Grace Kelly, mine seemed to make me look like, well, not Grace Kelly.
But it was moments like this — Mr. Brockwell unable to look at me for more than a minute without having to look away — that I wished I looked less like her. I felt like my face was betraying him. Like my cheekbones and lips were baiting him with memories of him and my mom together. Although now, each memory was served with a side of sorrow instead of a side of joy.
I’ll never forget when I saw him two days after the funeral. We bumped into each other at Have Another Cup Coffee Shop on Main Street. First he hugged me and asked how I was doing; then he had to look away, and he told me why.
“It hurts to look at you, Marissa. You look so much like her.” I knew how much he loved my mom, and Marc and I enjoyed having him around, but after that moment I made sure to keep my distance. So he went from being Hank to back to being Mr. Brockwell.
Now, I stood there — uncomfortable from sweat that covered me head to toe — wondering how much longer I needed to stand there while he avoided my face. “So, I gotta go or my pace is gonna be all messed up.”
Hank, I mean, Mr. Brockwell took one final look at me. “Sure, sure.” He started to walk backward then stopped. “Marissa, just so you know. Any time you want to see the lilacs you can.”
The lump in my throat held back any words I could have gotten out, so I just waved and made a beeline for the next street so I could start my way back home. Seeing Mr. Brockwell had put me into a fog. My brain wasn’t able to concentrate on my pace or on my footing, and I began to get a shin splint pain on my left-hand side. Unfortunately, this was the same side as the blister. My run was only six miles, but my body was starting to feel like I was at mile thirteen. I couldn’t relax my breathing, and the back of my throat felt like it was on fire every time I inhaled. In my fog, I didn’t realize I forgot to cross Parker Street, and now the only way to get back was to take Fletcher Street again. And run past Sacred Path Cemetery, again. Now, I ran past that cemetery every day on my jog, but only once. Once was all I needed to let me get it out of my system. And it’s not like my mom’s grave is right where I run past. She’s way on the other side, the Cranville Street side. I never run that side. But now, in all the confusion, I have to go past it again. My hand scratched an itch at the back of my neck as the street sign came into view. Like always, I stopped for a moment, took a few deep breaths in and out, then grabbed one big breath of air and held it as I started my way past the cemetery.
My focus was way up ahead to the stop sign at the other end. I kept my eyes on that sign and kept my feet stepping under me, quick and steady. I wasn’t even halfway across when I caught sight of some sort of string frantically whipping in the wind, and I was running straight toward it. My gaze moved to follow the line of the string, trying to see what it was attached to, and that’s when I saw it, caught in the big tree right by the fence. The red, heart-shaped metallic balloon, and my heart hit the ground.
Susan received her MA in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University, and will be pursuing teaching soon. When she isn't writing Susan spends her time reading, experimenting with photography, planning her next Disney World vacation and chasing after her kids.
Susan loves to read YA fiction. Maybe it's because her inner sixteen-year-old still wants to be prom queen.
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