Excerpt from

A Safe Distance, novel in progress

Chapter 1: December 4, 1978

                I don’t know if my sister Lisa killed herself or not, but I do know she acted like she didn’t want to live. Her funeral was on Monday morning at the Rockingham United Church on Flamingo Drive. It was freezing inside. My fingers were cold. I felt trapped in the front pew between my mother, whose thigh was tight against mine as the tears leaked down her cheeks, and my grandmother, all prim in her black gloves and veiled hat, hands folded in her lap. Up front was the shiny coffin, a huge bunch of white flowers on top. Lisa was in there. I felt like my stomach had been gouged out.

                My mother’s shoulder shook gently against mine. More tears trickling down her face. My grandmother passed her a handkerchief with a blue violet embroidered on the corner. Sweet strong lily-of-the-valley smell hit me. My mother blew her nose. I sat, bewildered. Soft organ music. Whispering and shuffling behind me. I turned. My best friend Alana and her family were in the row behind us. Her dad smiled a sad smile and touched my shoulder. Behind them were other kids from the high school, boys awkward in blazers, some of the girls crying. My mother’s boss Dr. Garneau, some of the other secretaries from St. Mary’s, and some people from my father’s office too. “Janet,” my grandmother whispered sternly. I turned to face front again. She kept her hands in her lap. I took a breath, trying to calm my rising panic. I couldn’t look at the coffin. I looked up beyond it to the turquoise windows, up to the top of the A-frame. This was not our church. We didn’t go to church. Our neighbor was the minister. He had come over the night after Lisa died and offered to take care of the service.

                “What about that quaint little Anglican church you took us to?” Grandma had said when my father told her. “All tucked into the woods?”

                My father cleared his throat. He looked at the floor. “Michael offered,” he said. There was a moment.

                “Well,” Grandma said. “That certainly was very kind of him.” Then she went back into my parents’ bedroom where my mother lay staring at the ceiling. I sat on the couch and my father stared out the window, and my grandfather came in from the kitchen and cleared his throat.

                “Would anyone like a little refreshment?” he said in his deep Southern voice. We didn’t answer him. We stared into space. I was still feeling numb then, just two days after the police officer had come to the door to tell Dad about Lisa. The panic hadn’t set in till the morning of the funeral. This was when the gaping hole that was Lisa’s absence would become real. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t sad. I was terrified. I would be alone now with my drunken, staring-into-space, awkward mother, my practical, absent-minded father. Lisa’s rages and noisy dramas would no longer protect me. There was no one to distract my parents from all my comings and goings, the hours and hours I spent drawing in my sketch book, trying to imagine a future life for myself.

                The organ music ended. Jeffrey MacIver stepped up to the microphone and picked out the opening to “Turn! Turn! Turn!” on his electric guitar. A guy I didn’t know with bangs covering his eyes, tapped on the rim of his snare drum. The Halifax West High School choir started to sing. Jeffrey looked at the minister as he played. He looked like he thought he was a rock star. beard. The drums were louder than the guitar or the singing.

                The words were printed in the program. I’d heard the song a thousand times on the radio. The snare drum was too loud. The drummer kept shaking his bangs out of his eyes. I felt like I was going to throw up. The song went on and on. I glanced at the door that led to the hallway where the washroom was. I’d have to climb over my grandparents and the minister’s wife to get there. Everyone would see.

                Tap, tap, tap went the drummer. Each tap was jarring. Jeffrey MacIver was singing into the microphone. He thought he was a rock star. I couldn’t look at him or I would throw up. I couldn’t look at the drummer and his hair. Or the coffin. Or my stiff grandmother, my shaking mother. I looked at my own lap. I still had Lisa’s long purple wool coat on. My dress was clinging to my pantyhose and it was all bunched up in the front.

                The song went on and on. How many verses were there? Something about stones. I thought of skipping rocks. Lisa’s best friend Patricia had taught me to skip rocks when I was younger. It seemed like a long time ago. When the song was over I would turn around and look for her. She must’ve come. I hadn’t seen her around much lately since she had started university. But she would know what to say.

                The song ended –finally—with a light crash of a cymbal. The minister stood up. I turned to sneak a look at the crowd. I looked for as long as I dared, but I didn’t see Patricia. Just a sea of faces. I felt my grandmother’s impatience. The minister cleared his throat. My stomach settled. I didn’t listen. I thought of Patricia, her rough sense of humor, her blue pick-up truck. I didn’t think of how she would be feeling about Lisa’s death—only about how she could comfort me.

                The minister was saying things that made no sense to me. That Lisa was a hard worker, and that she loved animals. “Lisa was such a beautiful, beautiful child,” he said. Then he stopped.

                Girls behind us were sniffling. I didn’t look at my parents. They didn’t move. My grandmother winced. The minister was crying. I thought ministers weren’t supposed to cry. Plus, he hardly knew Lisa. He sniffled. “So beautiful,” he said again. He cleared his throat and opened his Bible. He read something about the Lord is my Shepherd, he leadeth me something something something. Then he stopped talking. He nodded at the choir director. Jeffrey MacIver strummed his guitar. The drummer joined in, tapping his rim. The choir sang “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” People sang along and clapped to the beat. Two guys in suits turned the coffin and wheeled it down the aisle towards the door. I felt like I didn't have anything to hang onto. I looked down at my bunched up dress and pulled on it.

                I followed my parents and grandparents numbly downstairs to the reception hall where there was food. The choir members in their black pants and white shirts were filing past the table putting cookies and little sandwiches on tiny paper plates. The principal from the high school was stirring coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Lisa’s modern dance teacher, Tamara, was standing in the crowd with two girls I recognized from her class. She came towards me and hugged me. Her flowy black dress felt soft against my cheek, and I could feel the sharp bones of her shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She put her hand briefly on each of my parents’ shoulders, then threaded her way through the crowd to the door. I watched her put her coat on, covering up the long braid that hung down her back. I still didn’t see Lisa’s friend Patricia. I wanted her to hug me, to make me feel like a grown up. I wanted someone who wouldn’t feel sorry for me, who would just be normal.

                I stood in the doorway watching people for a long time. Then my mother came towards me.

                “Baby,” she said, putting her arms around me. My body went stiff. She’d never called me Baby. I felt like she didn’t know who she was talking to. Like she turned into a different person in front of Grandma and Grandpa.

                “Baby,” she said again. She wouldn’t let go. People were trying not to stare. My grandparents were sitting on chairs against the far wall, stiff and unsmiling. My father was talking to the high school principal over by the food. One of the girls in the choir put her hand under her hair at the back of her neck to flip it to the outside of her coat. The drummer’s sticks were jammed into his back pocket. He was talking to Jeffrey. My best friend Alana was hugging a guy I didn’t know.

                My body started shaking, but I realized it was because my mother was sobbing on me. She pulled back and tried to kiss me on the lips. I turned my face and she slobbered on my cheek. I hadn’t seen her drinking before we came, but she smelled like her cocktails.

                “Emmy, pull yourself together, honey,” my grandmother said softly but sternly.

                She didn’t pull herself together. She held me tighter. I stood stiffly, looking over her shoulder at my best friend’s father handing a paper cup of coffee to a teacher. My father shook the high school principal’s hand. He turned towards us, but he didn’t move. His eyes were blank. My mother’s arms pushed down on my shoulders. She didn’t stop sobbing and shaking me and shaking me, and she didn’t let go.