Every day a freshly cut batch of irises appeared on the sidewalk, just at the start of a picture-perfect, white picket fence. Every day she averted her eyes as she passed. She felt guilty for doing it but it gave her the creeps. Why couldn’t Mrs. Tenlove give it a rest already? It wasn’t like this town would ever forget what happened to Iris. Flowers on the sidewalk would never bring her daughter back.
Gretchen shuddered. She was tired of the memories, tired of having to walk past the house on her way to school every day, tired of nosy people, who always wanted to know what happened. Iris had been her friend and now she was gone. The night she died was horrible. Wasn’t that enough for people? Why did they need to know the details?
She pulled her hoodie tighter around her face and trudged onward. All she had to do was not make eye contact and keep her mouth shut all day, or maybe she would glare at anyone who approached her. Either way, she wasn’t going to talk about Iris.
“Gretchen!” Gretchen cringed and tried to pretend she didn’t hear, but Mrs. Tenlove was running to catch up with her. There was no way to avoid her. She turned towards Iris’mother, stopped and waited for her to catch up.
“Gretchen, I’m so glad I caught you. I left you a few messages.” Mrs. Tenlove looked thin and worn but she smiled at Gretchen with warmth and her eyes held great concern.
Still, Gretchen reddened a little under her hoodie. She had been sending Mrs. Tenlove straight to voicemail ever since the funeral. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. She had intended to say something about being busy but it died on her lips as Mrs. Tenlove scooped her into an unexpected embrace.
“Of course it’s ok, Darling. You were Iris’ best friend. You were there with her when… ” A small whispered sob escaped her but she powered through. She pulled back from Gretchen with her hands on her shoulders, looking her squarely in the eyes. “You stayed with her. You didn’t leave her alone. I can’t tell you how much comfort that gives me.”
Gretchen nodded but she couldn’t bring herself to speak. Iris’ death had left a big hole in her life. She had no other friends, no social life, no one to tell her secrets to or laugh with. She didn’t know who she was without Iris. She missed her so much.
Mrs. Tenlove seemed to understand all of her unspoken feelings. “Oh, Honey. I miss her so much too.” It was this moment of compassion that broke Gretchen’s stoicism. All of the tears she hadn’t been able to cry rose to the surface at once. The dam broke and Gretchen collapsed in the resulting flood. Mrs Tenlove caught her and held her as she cried. “Oh, you poor girl. You poor, poor girl, ” she cooed steadily as Gretchen sobbed and sobbed.
“It was all my fault. I was the one… I wanted… I wanted to run… I… I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Gretchen pulled away from Mrs. Tenlove’s embrace. “Didn’t you hear me? It was all my fault. Iris died because of me. I talked her into running with me.”
“No.” To Gretchen’s surprise, Mrs. Tenlove didn’t look at all shocked or angry. She just looked sad. “It wasn’t your fault. She had a defect in her heart. You couldn’t have known. No one knew.”
“She… She… What?”
“She had a heart problem. It wasn’t your fault. That’s why I’ve been trying to call you… Well, that and I wanted you to have some of her things. Gretchen… Hey. Look at me. It wasn’t your fault. Sometimes things just happen.” Tears were falling down her cheeks now but she didn’t bother to wipe them. Gretchen was glad because she was still crying too and couldn’t stop. But there was something else… something had changed. She wasn’t angry anymore. She was just sad.
“Come with me to the house. I have some things for you.”
“I’m supposed to go to school.”
“We’ll call your mother and I’ll give you a ride if she wants you to go but I have a feeling you could use a break from everyone.”
Gretchen nodded. She really could. She allowed Mrs. Tenlove to steer her toward the house where Iris had lived. Perhaps they could find some comfort in each other’s company today.