I was staring from Mom to the blackened, charred face of my eighth grade teacher, Kelly Williams. She had been reported missing four days ago. I rubbed the back of my head and crushed a mosquito caught in the long mane of my hair, sensing that others would rush to take its place, but I didn't move. I was thunderstruck by the image before me. The fog of mosquitoes melded with the early-evening darkness that was creeping into the ravine and softening the greens of the forest on both sides of the steep drop-off. I was thankful that I'd worn a long-sleeved shirt and jeans.
I could see tall cattails directly behind Mrs. Williams' burned-out 1978 red Chevy Malibu. The broken branches of large pines, caused by the fall of the car, had made a sort of path downward. My mother was pointing it out to Uncle Gordon, the Chief of Police in Vesey and my dad's sister's husband. My glance flickered to three or four small yellow birds, flitting in and out of the shadows, feeding on the mosquitoes-it was still too early, too light, for bats.
Mrs. Williams had been a strict teacher, but nice as well-I'd liked her, and she'd liked me. I'm what they call brainy, a know-it-all, a brownie, a bookworm, a she-nerd-I think I've heard them all, many of them said to my face. I don't have many friends, except for my younger sister and her friends. Mrs. Williams told my mom once that I was the nearest thing she'd ever seen to a perfect student. So, imagine: to my classmates, I might as well have been bacteria-but I must say, I didn't really care.
I slapped at a mosquito that was trying to fly into my ear. Mrs. Williams sat in the driver's seat all alone. The car was partly crushed, and pretty smashed-up too-indented here and there. I had an urge to step up to it and touch her. She smelled awful, and had lost all her hair due to the fire. Her mouth was stretched open as if to scream, and I couldn't really recognize her, but I wanted to whisper in her ear that she'd been my favorite teacher.
She was pretty barbequed, just like in the movies, but it didn't gross me out, or anything like that. Some fourteen-year-old girls might even faint in situations like that, but I had what's referred to as a cast-iron stomach. I'll tell you why. Mom is a state coroner in Minnesota, and she has dragged me all over St. Louis County over the years. I have seen lots of dead bodies-burned, frozen, drowned, crushed, severed, or otherwise disposed of. A bloody mess is nothing to me. I don't know what happens to the soul when you die. I don't know whether Mom, Dad, or Mom's mom, Jessie, are right about this-they all have different views-but when someone's dead, the idea of dignity appears a bit stupid to me.
Jessie would say the same thing. Jessie and I thought alike. Everybody said so, and it was true, but I always denied it. Nobody in my family really liked Jessie, and they were afraid I'd become like her. Lying about my feelings for Jessie was camouflage, and I'd been doing it since I was ten years old.
Without warning, I sneezed. "Sorry," I said in a low, apologetic voice, not really loud enough for anyone to hear. The number one rule on a death-outing with mom was: Don't bring attention to yourself! Just watch! I'd learned this long ago; breaking the rule meant hours, if not days, of verbal torture.
Ingrid, my eleven-year-old sister, refused to come out for this reason. She had been tortured once too often-her words.
It's true. Mom could go on and on in a shrill voice about how Ingrid and I had all the advantages, and how we were spoiled ingrates who couldn't follow the simplest rules, and so forth. Plus, there's the fact that Ingrid didn't like dead bodies. Who does? However, the point is, when mom did obstetrics, I saw her aid in several live deliveries. That didn't gross me out either, but if I had my choice I'd have taken dead bodies over that-at least until the baby's cleaned up and quiet. Babies were the most beautiful creatures, no matter what Jessie said, but they came into the world covered in slime and blood. One thing was for sure, all the women I'd seen giving birth screamed in pain, and their babies wailed to return back inside their mom. At least the ravine was quiet, except for the buzz of the mosquitoes.