It was a miracle, really, that only one of them was killed in the car crash. By the time the police finally arrived, they had each been pulled away from the wreckage once: first Dash, Lily, and then Clem. The cops found Dash and Lily shouldering Clem into place as he tried to rush the burning car that crackled like an October bonfire. The first cops on the scene pushed Dash and Lily away—bruised their shoulders, they would later discover—and grabbed hold of Clem, forced him into a crushing bearhug.
“Let it rest,” the cops said. “Let it rest.”
From there, it was a long night, the longest any of them had ever had.
After the entire Thistle police force arrived on-scene, an ambulance pulled up without its lights on. Orange barricades and red-hot flares went up, illuminating the people from the neighboring houses who were leaked onto the crash site. The cops closed the roads, with one of them diverting traffic onto a backroad that wasn’t littered with vehicle debris. Lily found it hard not to look at the cars being diverted. It gave her an uneasy feeling that they could see her, but she couldn’t see them through the headlights.
The cops asked if there was anyone they should call for them. Clem spoke up.
“All we have is each other,” he said.
Lily said, “Not now Clem,” so he dropped it.
After the paramedics arrived, they fussed over each of them as if they were the ones who were hurt instead of…
“Ebba Thorpe,” Lily told the cops. “She was my best friend.”
If they hadn’t almost just died, Dash would’ve pointed out that Lily and Ebba barely knew each other. But his arm was in a cautionary sling and he was a little high so he said, “She was my best friend, too.”
Clem was standing right next to Dash getting checked out by a paramedic and he said, “We were all close.”
Dash and Lily nodded. “Close” was the right word. Ebba was the climbing vines along the strong foundation of their relationship.
Details about the crash came out later. According to the police, Ebba wasn’t killed on impact. Instead, she suffered a concussion. The airbag malfunctioned and didn’t go off. It was a recall that she should’ve gotten checked out immediately, but it was one of those things that slipped, you know? The impact favored the driver’s side; the photo in the paper showed that the hood crumpled like discarded tinfoil. It would’ve been hard to get Ebba out even if she wasn’t dead weight, even if there wasn’t leaky gas, even if there wasn’t a loose joint that flew from Clem’s mouth upon impact.
The driver? Gone, no sign of the car when they woke up. The only evidence the police found were tire marks leading towards the town line and smashed pieces of car that didn’t belong to Ebba’s Toyota Corolla.
A week after the accident: it was a particularly difficult day because Lily caught Dash throwing out the travel-sized toiletries Ebba had brought with her. When Lily saw the tiny bottles in the trash, she let out a moan that scattered through the apartment like a loon’s call.
Clem and Dash clung to Lily, tried to calm her down, but nothing worked and finally Dash said, “Get up, we’re leaving. Get up.”
The three of them walked through town until Lily stopped outside the local coffee shop. Clem asked if she wanted to go inside. Before Lily could answer, Dash pushed them into the café. When they sat down at an open table, Dash noticed the local newspaper open to the obituaries. Morbid curiosity got the better of him.
“It’s hers,” said Dash.
“Read it aloud,” Clem said.
Dash cleared his throat as if he had something pivotal to say.
“‘Ebba Mayweather Thorpe was born in Thistle, Vermont on January 9, 1995,’” he read.
“Capricorn,” whispered Lily.
Dash read on to reveal the names of Ebba’s parents, who were listed as her survivors.
“‘Ebba passed away suddenly on August 18. She was in town visiting her parents and friends.’”
“Us,” said Lily.
Dash read on.
“‘She lived in San Francisco, California, chasing the sun, surf, and native marine life.’”
“She really liked seals,” Clem said. A smile touched his lips as if he, like Lily, was remembering the stuffed seal Ebba pulled out of her suitcase as soon as she got it off the baggage claim. It was a white plushy thing, with big black ink drop eyes. For you, she said, handing it to them.
“Funeral’s tomorrow,” Lily said. She was looking out the window as if the other two weren’t there, looking out at the parking lot. The angle showed the bruising along her neck from where the seat belt locked when the car hit them head on. Outside, it was raining. It hadn’t been when they got there. They would have to walk home in the rain. Lily liked that idea. It felt tragic and fitting.
“You going?” asked Clem. He scratched at the scabs on his face. They were healing, so they were itchy.
“Why wouldn’t we go?” asked Dash. Next to him, Lily nodded.
“We barely knew her.”
The door opened next to them, and they all broke apart, shut up, and sat back in their chairs, Lily went back to looking out the window. The customer passed, and they came in again, leaning over the coffee table.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Dash said. “We were there with her when she died.”
“I know,” Clem said. And then he shrugged.
Lily bit her lip and sat back in her chair hard enough to make the feet lift off the floor.
“It doesn’t matter that we were breaking up with her,” Lily said.
“Yes it does,” Clem said. “It’s not like I lost you or Dash.”
Dash reached out and grabbed Clem’s hands. He tensed. Public displays of affection always made him feel self-conscious, but no one was looking. He turned back to Dash and for the first time since the accident, Clem looked at Dash, really looked at him.
“The three of us need to stick together. Agree or disagree?”
“Agree,” said Clem.
“So, you’ll come?” Dash said.
“Fine,” said Clem.
“Thank you,” whispered Lily, looking out the window.
The rain was pouring harder now. It was running in rivers down the glass.
None of them knew what to expect at the funeral. Lily couldn’t sleep through the night. She had visions of Ebba’s parent’s dunking her in holy water, accusing her of murdering their daughter. Clem didn’t see what the big deal was. They would go there, say their peace, and leave.
“I like that idea,” said Dash. “Nice and short.”
They drove together. When they all settled into their seats and Dash turned on the car, each of them paused.
“Seatbelts buckled?” Dash asked.
Lily lunged forward, her seatbelt locked.
“Mine works,” she said.
“Let’s just get this over with,” said Clem.
Dash pulled out of the parking spot carefully, carefully.
The service that preceded the burial was at St. Augustine’s, one of the three Catholic churches in Thistle. The town took an untimely death like Ebba’s personally, since Ebba was considered a hometown girl and plenty of people who had laid their roots here remembered Ebba from growing up together. As they drove, Clem announced the businesses that were closed.
“Clark’s, the thrift store, Benji’s Pizza, Key Foods,” Clem said. “Everyone in Thistle is going to be there.”
“They didn’t even know her,” Lily whispered. “Not like we did.”
“We loved her,” Dash said.
Even though they’d never grown to love her, Lily nodded.
Clem was right, the whole town was there. The parking lot was packed, so they parked at the library and walked across the road and onto the only strip of sidewalk in town. Clem led them into the church. Dash stayed behind as Lily took her time working her way up the steps. She was wearing a black dress that swept past her shoes, so she had to hold a hank of fabric as she walked so that she wouldn’t trip.
“You look beautiful by the way,” Dash said.
Lily smiled and she recalled a number, 10 days, and brushed Dash’s belt buckle as she passed him and went into the church. Altar boys held out crystal bowls of holy water.
“No thanks,” Clem said. “That stuff will kill me.”
The line to see Ebba’s family was long, tedious. The three of them were sandwiched between Richard McGivney and Kristin Rivas. While they were standing in line, Richard drilled his finger into Clem’s side.
“How do you know the girl?” he asked.
“We were close,” said Lily.
“Were you the friends she was staying with while she was visiting her parents?”
“That’s none of your business, old man,” said Clem.
Lily mouthed an apology, but it was half-hearted. Clem was right, it wasn’t anybody’s business but theirs. Though she found herself wishing that more people knew about their connection to Ebba, what the four of them had shared in the short time she visited. It felt like fate to find her on the dating app. ‘Lives in San Francisco, California. From Thistle, Vermont,’ her profile read. Lily felt a tendril of connection build as she messaged Ebba. When she replied, she immediately told Dash and Clem. Maybe our fourth? she said, showing them Ebba’s picture.
Lily sniffed. Her nose was running, not because she was sad. The church was decorated with bright bursts of mums: maroon, orange, and dying yellow. There were so many flowers, they were making her allergies act up.
“Is this what she would’ve wanted, all the fuss?” Lily wondered aloud.
It took a minute for Dash to respond. “I don’t know,” he said.
They approached Ebba’s family. They’d seen the Thorpes in the single picture Ebba kept on her nightstand. Her mother knit, so twice during her trial run, Ebba came out wearing a sweater and announced that her mother had made it for her. But they’d never met them, not in person, since it was only two weeks, and it became apparent that Ebba’s stay would be short.
Mrs. Thorpe was a severe woman with dyed red hair, cut short, sprayed and curled into submission. She had thick jowls and nicotine-stained teeth that mimicked tombstones. Mr. Thorpe was a small, thin, lively man who looked like a spider in a suit. In unison, Dash, Lily and Clem stepped forward out of the line and stood in front of the Thorpes. Lily would later recall this moment as the Reckoning because she felt she was being judged by not only Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe, but also the crucifix and all the stained-glass angels.
But Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe just stood politely, waiting for one of them to speak.
“We’re so sorry about Ebba,” Dash said.
“So sorry,” Lily added.
Clem shifted his gaze to the mums on the altar.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Thorpe. He shook Dash and Lily’s hands vigorously, like a dog swinging a chew toy. “You were friends of hers?”
Silence. They don’t know. Lily recovered first.
“Yes,” said Lily. And she almost told Ebba’s parents who they were. The words were balancing on her lips, but they fell back into her mouth. Instead she said, “We were close.”
“What was the last thing you did with her?” Mr. Thorpe asked. He still had a hold of Clem’s hand.
“Dinner and a movie,” said Lily.
“Wonderful, wonderful,” Mr. Thorpe said. “Ebba loved her friends.”
“Thank you for coming,” Mrs. Thorpe said. “Please get home safe.”
Dash, Lily, and Clem parted to let Richard McGivney through.
“Tragic,” they heard Richard saying. “Just tragic.”
“Guess Ebba never did tell her parents about her ‘friends,” said Dash.
“I’m leaving,” Lily announced.
Clem and Dash followed her out the side-door of the church.
Back at the apartment, Dash paced around the living room. There was a meteor shower of mess—chip bags, clothing tags, shoes, lunch bags—scattered around the apartment because none of them felt like cleaning. Lily was on the sofa, slowly petting the stuffed baby seal that they had named Snowball. Clem had retreated to his bedroom.
“Maybe we should’ve told them,” Dash said.
“Ebba didn’t want anyone to know why she was here,” said Lily.
“I just feel—hurt, that’s all,” said Dash.
Clem’s door opened. Lily fell silent and Dash stopped pacing. Clem had changed from his suit into a pair of joggers and a sweatshirt Dash had given him last year for his birthday. Clem crashed on the couch next to Lily and put his arm around her. Lily half-resisted before sinking into him. She nuzzled into his shoulder.
“It shouldn’t bother you Dash,” said Clem. “It’s obvious. Ebba knew her parents wouldn’t approve of us.”
“She was trying to keep it private,” said Lily. “Everyone does at first.”
Clem looked at her so hard, she blushed.
“It’s different around here,” Lily said. But the truth was, Thistle was no different than anywhere else.
Dash sighed. He finally looked like he was giving up on the chase for an answer. Clem gestured to the armchair across from them, and Dash collapsed.
“I know you feel guilty,” Lily whispered to Dash. “I do, too.”
“It’s not our fault,” Clem said. “Even if we hadn’t told her we were breaking up with her, that car still would’ve hit us.”
“We could’ve at least waited until we got back to the apartment,” said Dash. “We made such of mess of it, how could we ever invite anyone in again?”
Lily left Clem and crawled on the floor to Dash. She put her head between his thighs, rested her forehead on the meat of his belly.
“Dash is right, Clem. She died crying.”
“We can’t change that,” said Clem. Lily and Dash both looked at him, worried that he might dip into anger, but he didn’t. He softened.
“Don’t cry,” said Lily.
She left Dash and went to Clem. Lily pushed open his thighs and wedged her body in between them.
“Not now,” said Clem.
“Come on,” Lily said. “It’s okay.”
She motioned for Dash to join them, and he sat next to Clem on the couch. Lily massaged Clem’s earlobes, and Dash took his hand. It occurred to each of them how much they had missed each other because they had slept in separate rooms since the accident, each of them retreating to stare down the ceiling on their own terms.
“It wasn’t our fault,” said Dash. “It wasn’t.”
He kissed Clem’s neck and whispered those words and as he did, they became hard in his throat, as resolute as stones. Lily began chanting along with him: It wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. Clem let them drag their hands over him, let them feel the blood stiffening him. They hollowed out their bodies, made room to be invaded and occupied. This was a rush like driving down a highway at a hundred miles an hour and not knowing the next turn.
All three came together like old times, like normal, and it felt so good, that sweet friction, the waves of it crawling up their bodies like flame, like smoke, like fire, and they all felt Ebba between them, moving just slightly out of rhythm, slightly out of touch the way she was the first time. The last time.
Gabrielle Esposito is a graduate of SUNY Geneseo’s Creative Writing program. Her work has been published in The Manhattanville Review, Gandy Dancer, 34TH Parallel, and others. For a steady paycheck, she works as a Librarian in Beacon, New York.