In June—the June before Meryl Lee Kowalski’s eighth-grade year—she watched the evening news reports from the Vietnam War. Twenty-three American soldiers in a CH-46A Sea Knight had helicoptered in to evacuate Marines not far from Khe Sanh, South Vietnam. Their helicopter was hit by enemy fire and went down. Half the men were killed.
No one who loved those Marines had a chance to say goodbye.
Meryl Lee watched the story with her hands up to her face.
In July, Meryl Lee watched the evening news report about the American Marines on Hill 689, who killed three hundred and fifty North Vietnamese soldiers. They weren’t going to leave the hill, they said, until every North Vietnamese soldier was dead.
And no one who loved those soldiers had a chance to say goodbye.
Meryl Lee watched that story, crying.
Then in August, Meryl Lee’s best friend—her very best friend who had once handed her a rose, who had danced with her at Danny Hupfer’s bar mitzvah, who had listened with her to the sound of a brand-new bottle of Coke when you pry the lid off and it starts to fizz—her very best friend was sitting in the back of his father’s Mustang on the way to a movie, a stupid movie, a stupid stupid movie, when they were rear-ended and Holling Hoodhood’s head snapped back.
Just like that.
Meryl Lee did not make it to Syosset Hospital in time to say goodbye.
For Meryl Lee Kowalski, everything in the world, absolutely everything in the world, became a Blank.
The service was at Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church. It was packed. Men in black suits, women in dark dresses. Everyone from Camillo Junior High—the principal, Mrs. Sidman; Holling’s teachers; his friends Danny Hupfer and Mai Thi. Cross-country runners from Bethpage and Farmingdale and Westbury and Wantagh, wearing their uniform shirts. Mr. Goldman from Goldman’s Best Bakery, sitting in the back, bawling. Mercutio Baker holding a new white perfect baseball he had wanted to throw with the kid, and Lieutenant Tybalt Baker in his dress uniform. The priest from Saint Adelbert’s. The rabbi from Temple Beth-El.
His seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, spoke the eulogy, holding a single chrysanthemum. She did fine until she got to the end: “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,” she said, “Nor the furious winter’s rages; / Thou thy worldly task hast done, / Home art gone and . . .” She could not finish. She tried, but she could not finish. She went back down to her seat. As she walked past the casket, she laid the chrysanthemum oh so gently upon it.
So the pallbearers came to take Holling, and his father stood—they all stood—and when Holling passed him, his father put his hands on the casket and began to howl. Horrible, horrible hollow howls that could not be stopped, because there was no comfort.
The pallbearers stood still. They waited a long time.
Even through the Blank, Meryl Lee heard the howls.
She thought she would hear them the rest of her life.
She thought they would echo in the place where her heart had been, forever.
She did not go to the graveside. She could not go to bear those last words, to bear that thud of earth, to see Holling . . .
She could not go.
Her parents drove her home.
In the next weeks, Danny Hupfer and Mai Thi came over, and Mrs. Baker, and some of the other teachers from Camillo Junior High, and even Mr. Goldman, but Meryl Lee did not leave the house much that whole month. Everything she saw was without Holling, and the howls echoed in her empty chest. She could not go onto his block, she could not pass that Woolworth’s and its lunch counter where they had had a Coke, she could not walk down Lee Avenue, and she could not could not could not go near Camillo Junior High. She could not.
Because if she did, then the Blank would change. It would become a hole, a dizzying white hole, and she would fall into it, and she would be the empty hole where the howling echoes rolled around, and she had already come close, very close, to falling in.
So in September, her parents made phone calls to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls. She would have a new start, her parents said. A whole new routine, her parents said. She would meet so many new friends. She would become so Accomplished. That’s what the headmistress had promised. Meryl Lee would become so Accomplished. And she had never before lived so close to the sea. The Maine ocean would be beautiful, they said.
And Meryl Lee knew that Holling Hoodhood had never been to the coast of Maine. He had never been there. And nothing familiar would be in Maine. Not Lee Avenue. Not Camillo Junior High. Not Goldman’s Best Bakery. Not . . . anything. Maybe that was where she should go.
Her mother packed her clothes for her.
Her father packed some books for her.
They bought her St. Elene’s regulation uniforms: six white shirts, three green and gold plaid skirts, two green and gold sweaters, and two green blazers with the gold St. Elene’s cross insignia. They packed them all carefully into her suitcase.
Then on the day, they packed her into the car.
On the ride up to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy, it rained all across New York. And the whole way through Connecticut. And every mile of Massachusetts. New Hampshire and southern Maine were nothing but gray drizzle.
They stopped at a hotel in Brunswick overnight, and it poured.
The next morning, Meryl Lee leaned her head against the hotel window and stared at the blurred world outside.
None of them spoke.