The girl with the shimmery tights and fringed, calf-high boots is staring in my direction again. She looks like she’s been crying for days now. Exactly twelve, if I were to guess—because that’s the time that’s passed between now and the day Charlie went missing. It’s been twelve days since he took his parents’ Cessna for a joyride—ten since initial debris from the wreckage was found in the North Sea off the coast of Durham, where the Prices have an estate. No one knows why he took the plane out; he’d never done it before, and he didn’t have a license. But the bits of recovered debris have convinced police that the plane exploded. They think it happened in the air, before the plane went down—some sort of fuel leak. Now Charlie is presumed dead.
The girl’s eyes are a startling blue against the blotchy skin of her face; they stand out even from all the way across the room. She’s in the foyer, a few feet north of the entrance to the actual room where we’re supposed to pay our respects. She leans up against a faux wood table while I stand opposite, nearer to the building’s entrance. The table is the foldaway kind they use in cheap offices and cafeterias, and it looks like the girl needs it to support her frame. The table itself buckles a little under her weight, giving the impression that one of them—it or her—is about to collapse. Her black leather jacket has zippered sleeves, and her hair is the kind of blond that’s almost white. It’s long and wavy like a fairy’s or maybe an elf ’s, and it floats in a halo around her bloated red face. It’s difficult to look at her grief. Seeing it makes it harder to force back my own.
I’m chewing on some gum. It’s my worst habit when I’m anxious, and I’ve been feeling frayed for the past few months at least. I’m putting off the moment when I’ll have to walk inside the main room, where the service is being held. I can tell she’s doing the same. It’s in her body language: the way she pushes her heels against the floor and leans back. I wonder who she is and why she doesn’t look familiar. I think about how maybe she’s a cousin—maybe Kate, Charlie’s mom’s sister’s daughter. Kate had straight brown hair in the picture he showed me, but people go through changes; they do funny things with boxes of hair dye and curling irons and magenta lipstick. I look inside the room that contains Charlie’s empty casket, and the pit in my stomach deepens and twists.
My eyes dart back to the girl, and I have to make efforts not to stare too hard. I watch her resist as an older woman tugs at her wrist and pulls her in the direction of the larger room. Strains of tinny classical music emanating from overhead speakers surround me. My jaw opens and closes rhythmically around my wintergreen gum. It’s beginning to lose its flavor. The girl turns toward me again, staring hard. She meets my eyes, and in that brief second I realize: I could be looking into a mirror. My messy dark hair, cut short with bangs, is the opposite of the ethereal image she projects. I wince. I hate looking at my reflection. I haven’t been able to look at myself for months now without feeling sick inside. But I can tell without having to look that my eyes are puffy like hers; my shoulders droop in the same way; my guilt and grief are in evidence all over me, just like hers.
More people are filtering in. There are lots of official government-looking types, probably Charlie’s dad’s colleagues—he’s a British diplomat. Hundreds of people have come to Paris for the memorial. Even though his dad moved around every couple of years, they always kept a home here. Charlie said they considered it home base, since it’s where most of the extended family lives.
Someone must have turned up the sound system, because the music is suddenly drowning out everyone’s soft murmurs. I can’t explain why the girl’s gaze is making me uncomfortable, or why mine keeps returning to her face with magnetic force. I’m jet-lagged and my whole face feels heavy from crying. My boyfriend is presumed dead and I’m alone in Paris for the first time ever. I could be on another planet for how strange it all feels.
I slip into a group of people who look about my age—a guy in a blue blazer and a girl in a black shift dress who are entering with some older people, probably their parents—and follow them from the foyer into the main room. The room is bare despite all the fancy architectural finishes that I’m beginning to recognize are common in Paris: ornate moldings in the shape of flowers, swoops and swirls fashioned from plaster. Other than that, it’s a modestly decorated space with just a photo display set up in one corner, a bunch of folding chairs facing a podium, and a projector screen up front. Charlie’s casket is next to the podium. My heart accelerates at the sight of it, and I blink back the tears that threaten to obscure my vision.
I realize with a pang that I really don’t know any of Charlie’s friends, not personally. I met his old roommate Adam from his senior year in Mumbai, when I visited Charlie once in D.C.—but I don’t see Adam here now. I can’t tell whether I’m disappointed or relieved. Everyone else I only knew from pictures; Adam would have been someone to lean on during all of this. At least someone to know—to legitimize my presence here. When I first met Adam, it was a comfort to know that Charlie was friends with such a good guy. Knowing Adam was Charlie’s friend—when we didn’t have any friends in common who could vouch for him—had made me rest easy.
I didn’t even know about Charlie’s disappearance or the memorial service until three days ago. A week before that, I had noticed he wasn’t answering my texts. He always took a little time, sometimes forgot to get back; so it didn’t seem unusual for that first week. And then my texts and calls became more panicked, and he still didn’t reply. Charlie wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter. I didn’t have his parents’ numbers. Then I got the news blast in my email from the local paper in Oxford, something Charlie had suggested I sign up for. And there it was: “University Student Missing,” one of the first headlines on the list. The student in question was unnamed. After that, there was nothing I could do but Google him. I’d hoped to find some phone numbers, someone I could contact.
I found a more detailed article instead.
It still hurts, knowing that after a year, no one knew me well enough to reach out. It hurts that I found out the way I did. That I almost missed the service altogether. But why would I know any body? I only knew Adam. Charlie and I always met up at such random places, spots that were in between Chicago and Oxford and easy for both of us to reach. He paid for most of those trips, and I saved up for the rest with my babysitting money. My parents weren’t too happy about it. None of it ever seemed strange to me. But now, looking around and seeing all the people who knew Charlie—all the people I don’t know—I wonder how I didn’t see it before. He was meeting me in the middle, but also holding me at arm’s length.
I can feel the fairy-elf ’s eyes on my back as I pass the row of chairs where she sits. The