It was late October on the verge of November and the sky had lost all of its brightness, taking on the stark, ink-black tone of night. On and on it stretched, broken only by occasional clusters of stars. It was cold, too. A cold that seeped all the way to the bone, turned exposed skin to marble. Overhead, the stars, unaffected by the cold, winked down at you, and you could almost hear their laughter.
The car came to a gentle stop, and my father turned and looked at me. Bracing myself, I leaped into the cold and dashed to the front of the school. The light inside was a beacon, calling me to its warmth. I pulled open the doors and hurried through them. In the center of the atrium stood a woman. She spotted me, her face spreading into a wide grin. Her layered auburn hair stretched just beyond her shoulders, framing her face and jade-green eyes. Her shirt hung in folds around her and read Hayden Co-op. She wore frayed jeans. “Hi,” she greeted me, “I’m Maggie. Are you here for GT?”
“Great! I think we’re waiting on just a couple people now,” Maggie told me. She waved me over and ushered me into the gymnasium, where metal chairs were arranged in a circle right in front of the stage. Some were filled, the others empty. Everyone there went to my school. We weren’t all in the same grade, but I had seen most of them around. “All right, here we go... You just sit down, get settled in, OK?” Maggie said. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.” She hurried back out.
I smiled and said hi as I looked around for an empty chair. I took a seat beside a girl who was in my grade. Keeper. I didn’t know her well. We hung out with different people, didn’t have classes together, that sort of thing. Keeper looked about as glad to be there as I did: lips pursed into a thin white line, widened eyes, and fingers wrapped tightly around the edge of the chair. Her recently washed hair was damp. There were many small braids starting at the scalp and continuing to the back of her head, held in place with clips. She wore a gray shirt under a sweater and a vibrant red skirt with tights. Her feet, in Converse, moved up and down, nervously. Her face and eyes were blotchy, as if she had rubbed them after crying. She was like a mouse, with her shoulders hunched up to her ears, cowering against her chair.
Soon, Maggie came back in with a couple more kids, who reluctantly edged their way toward the chairs, and the meeting began. “Welcome,” Maggie said from the stage, “to Grieving Together, or GT.” She wrote the words out at the top of a large piece of paper clipped to an easel. “I know,” she continued, “that you have lost a loved one. A loss, no matter the size, hurts. It’s natural to be feeling this, but none of us want to go through that alone. In this group, you can talk about your experiences with others, and my hope is that this will help lessen your pain.
“Every meeting, we will have a focus word. Today, that word is ‘who.’ Who are you missing? You are going to team up with a partner, and when I say go, person one, you are going to tell person two anything and everything about who you’re missing. Don’t leave out any detail, big or small. Got that? Ready! Person one, go!”
Keeper and I were together. Right away, I began talking about my Aunt Kay. How her house was my second home, how she would call just to hear the sound of my voice, how she did such nice things nobody else thought to do, and how she smelled of fresh-baked bread. Then I grabbed a piece of paper and sketched a drawing of her. I was putting on the finishing touches just as Maggie called, “Time! Person two, you’re up!”
I handed the paper to Keeper, sat back, and looked at her, ready. But Keeper just stared at the ground, and swallowed. Then she whispered, “Be right back,” and slipped out of her chair. I watched as she went up and spoke with Maggie. Maggie put her arm around Keeper and said something in her ear. Keeper nodded. I thought she would come back and tell me about who she was missing, but she didn’t. Keeper stayed with Maggie for the rest of the evening.
Afterwards, when I was waiting for my dad to pick me up, I pressed my face up against the cold glass of the front doors of the school, watching. I saw Keeper and her father pulling away. And, not for the first time that night, I wondered who Keeper was missing.
The weeks came and went, and at each meeting, we covered a new word—“when,” “how,” along those lines, sharing more about who we were grieving for each time. But still, Keeper had yet to open up. Even so, I came to look forward to GT. I got to know some of the other kids, and I felt it was helping me.
Our fifth meeting was near the end of November. We were just starting our session on the word “reaction,” and Keeper seemed to be having a particularly hard time. She kept sniffing and swallowing. Her eyes welled with tears frequently, and each time she blinked them away, they reappeared. I was trying to think of what I should do when all at once the lights went out. There were some cries and yells as the gym plunged into darkness. “Stay calm!” Maggie’s voice broke through the noise. “I’m going to find the switch. It must have been bumped.”
We all listened to her shuffle her way across the room and feel the walls for it. She found it, and flicked it. Nothing. “Power failure,” Maggie pronounced, trying to keep her voice level. “It’s all right, everyone. Just join hands with the person next to you. We’re going to go to the office. They’re bound to have some flashlights.” We did, and together the chain made its way out of the gym, slowly, and stumbled up the stairs and through the halls. Once there, Maggie found a box of flashlights. She took one and turned it on. “Let me count you,” she said to us. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…” She broke off, and her face paled.
“What is it?” she was quickly asked.
“I’m one short.” Her voice shook. “I’ve lost someone in this dark school.”
She counted again. “Eleven!” She was nearly sobbing now. “I have eleven! How? Oh, how did this happen? Who are we missing?”
I scanned the line. As it dawned on me, my throat tightened. “It’s Keeper.”
Keeper was missing. It weighed down on me and pressed against my lungs, making it hard to breathe. Why hadn’t I noticed she didn’t clasp my hand? I was responsible. She had been sitting next to me. I should have watched out for her. I had to make up for it. “I’ll look for her,” I volunteered and dashed out the door, not waiting for an answer.
I ran up and down the dark hallways. I tried every classroom. I checked offices and bathrooms. Everything. I looked in every hiding place I could think of, circling each floor. I came back to the main doors, at the opposite end of the hall from the office. “Keeper!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “If you’re in here, please come out!” Nothing. Just shadows and silence.
I thought I heard my Aunt Kay’s voice saying, “Honey, you’ve done all you can for your friend. She’ll be OK. Everything will be OK.”
“No,” I cried. “You don’t understand, I have to find her!” I fled toward the doors and burst outside, pausing to catch my breath. It was snowing. A wet, heavy snow. The snow was a thick blanket over the school and everything around it. The power lines sagged under the weight of the snow. That’s why the power was out. “Keeper!” I called, hurrying into the schoolyard. “Keeper!” My voice was hoarse. I felt the tears coming on. “Keeper, where are you?” I shouted. My voice echoed.
And in that moment, all I wanted was a place to hide. From my failures, and from my entire life right now. Across the schoolyard, up into the prairie garden I ran. Behind one of the trees, right against the fence, the ground wasn’t even. It sunk down. I collapsed there, pulled my knees up to my chin, and cried. I heard something and looked up. There she was. Tears ran down Keeper’s face, too. I scooted up next to her, put my arm around her, and our sobs became one.
Gulping for air, Keeper pulled something from her pocket. It was the paper from the first meeting with my drawing of Aunt Kay on it. On the other side, Keeper had drawn her own picture. I had never been in art class with Keeper, so I was unprepared for how good of an artist she was. She’d drawn a laughing woman with short hair that came to just below her ears. She had a necklace on her long, slender neck and wore a flowing top. And what I saw at the top of the paper broke my heart. Keeper had written, “I miss my momma.” And then she told me everything. How her mother was deaf, how she loved laughing and had been an artist, and how she had died in a car accident. Keeper told me how she missed her hugs and smile, and how she no longer had someone to sign to who understood. “I really do miss my momma,” she cried, her voice ragged. I squeezed her hand. “I know. I know,” I murmured. And we cried together a bit longer. At last, we quieted and I helped her to her feet. It was then that we felt the cold and we headed for the school, running.
As we reached the school, Keeper’s father and the police cars were just pulling up. Her father slammed on the brakes and jumped from his car. “Keeper? Oh my goodness!” She told him and the police everything. I stood to the side, shivering, as it all got sorted out. A few minutes later, she came over. “I have to go,” she said. “But first, I wanted to show you... something.” I watched as she made a gesture with her hand. “F,” she said. She made another. “R.” One more. “I.” And three last ones. “E. N. D. That’s how you say friend in sign language,” she said. Keeper embraced me and ran to her car. With a wave, they drove off.
The next day, during lunch, I was sitting at a table with my friends. My gaze drifted across the cafeteria and I saw Keeper. She was sitting alone, her head drooped. Without a second thought, I strode across the room and took her hand. I led Keeper over to our lunch table. “This,” I said to everyone, “is my friend Keeper.” Keeper looked stunned and then happy, very happy. I pulled her and she sat down. Underneath the table she made several quick motions with her hands. “That,” she whispered to me, “is how you say thank you in sign language.”