Camilla Horton, aged nine, carefully closed the mouth of her dull safety scissors around the obituary of Jacques Otis Webb, USAF, Ret. The scrap of thin paper fell into her lap. “So glad you can join us, Mr. Webb.” She held the obituary up to her eye-level. Cocking her head to one side, as if making polite conversation at a grown-up party, she added, “Or is it Captain?”
Mr. Webb, who in fact had not achieved the rank of captain, died Saturday due to complications following treatment for colon cancer. Camilla, unfamiliar with this type of cancer, looked to her bookshelves for help. She didn’t care for reading, and the computer made her anxious, so she preferred the brief and relatively contained information of compendiums. The outdated, partial set of Encyclopedia Britannica sat between matching teddy bear bookends. Br - Cy was missing.
“Breakfast!” her mother, Bea, yelled from downstairs. Camilla folded the life of Jacques Webb into a triangle—the familiar yet elusive pattern the other girls used to pass notes in class. She pulled a white shoebox out from under her unmade bed. Pokémon stickers covered the lid. She had no interest in the cartoon, but she had accepted the stickers without comment when her mother, who thought the stickers would help her fit in at school, handed them to her. Instead, the stickers adorned a box that held the obituaries of 53 people who had passed away in the last year. Missing from among them was the two-year-old scrap describing Camilla’s father as “a loving husband and dedicated surgeon.” Bea had that one in a frame on her dresser.
“Who can help with my spelling test?” Camilla asked. Recruiting these ghostly friends had become a reassuring routine. She carefully searched until she found Mrs. Corrine Aldo Everson, 70, retired librarian, occasional poet. Mourned by hundreds of former Newbury Elementary students. She placed Mrs. Everson in the deep breast pocket of her oversized shirt. The first time she’d clipped a minor history from the paper, she was supposed to be checking birth announcements for a cousin’s arrival, but was drawn to the obituaries. The babies had nothing but pounds and ounces; those who had passed away had accomplishments, like her father.
Camilla joined Bea at the kitchen table; breakfast together had become a requirement, even though Camilla used to just eat her Pop-Tarts on the bus. Bea reminded her to drink all of her milk. Camilla did, although she worried that she would grow to be too tall unless she could get her classmate Matthew to trade his coffee—with its growth-stunting properties concealed within a Star Wars thermos—for her cookies at lunchtime. He was the only non-adult she’d ever seen drink coffee. He was what the adults called antsy; Camilla felt antsy, too, but remembered to take deep breaths like the counselor told her, and be still.
Without complaint Camilla placed her dishes in the sink. This was part of her plan to behave responsibly. She didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up, but she figured being “a good kid” was the right start. As she went out to meet the school bus, she imagined that Bea bragged to her coworkers about how well behaved her daughter was, charming them with tales of mother-child bonding.
Camilla’s stop was the first on the route. She climbed on, holding her backpack up under her arm, and sat on the driver’s side, three seats from the front. This was the best seat for seeing the driver’s eyes as he glanced in the mirror to observe what stretched out behind him. Little by little the bus filled up, heavy with laughter and shouts in the back, with the quiet children pushing up against the windows at the front. At the last stop, less than a mile from school, Sally Perkins got on. She was supposed to walk, but Mrs. Perkins had visited the principal every morning until the bus stopped for Sally, too. She wore a yellow sundress with a matching purse.
“Today is my birthday,” Sally said to the bus driver, without making eye contact. She walked slowly down the aisle, smiling from side to side. Birthdays in Mrs. Bradley’s class meant ice cream and ten minutes of “fun time.” Camilla thought of Amy Ella Meikeson, 18, tragically lost in a car accident, survived by her family and hundreds of friends. Amy Ella had been a cheerleader, known for her generous volunteerism and congenial attitude.
It took Sally as long to walk to her seat as it would have taken to walk to the school. The driver’s eyes followed her progress and he tapped his thumbs impatiently on the steering wheel. Camilla knew that he’d been a guard at the prison at the outskirts of town. Sometimes he mumbled incomplete stories of what the men there had done to girls their age. He felt protective of the kids, but, hands on the wheel, there was only so much he could do. He took his eyes off the mirror and accelerated the bus with a jerk, throwing Sally off balance and into the nearest seat.
Mrs. Bradley had announced her fondness of order to her students on the first day of class. Young and shy, she dyed her hair dark brown and wore pale lipstick. The result was an appearance stark enough to fool the children (who she found ferocious) and inspire old-fashioned fear into the fourth graders. The desks remained in straight lines, pencil shavings were promptly deposited in the trash, and no one ever asked to use the bathroom in the middle of a lesson.
Earlier in the year the class had inherited a guinea pig after the third graders were found to be incompetent. Mrs. Bradley’s class voted to name him Jaws. The students took turns staying after school to clean and feed the extremely good-natured pet. On her afternoon, Camilla sat in front of the cage watching the little nose twitch and the whiskers shake. Unnerved by the blank eyes, she took out Dr. Frederick Liebe, 59, heart attack. Won best of breed with his beloved Dalmatian, Hans Dieter, in 1984.
“Go on Camilla,” Mrs. Bradley had said. “Get to work.”
After carefully smoothing out the crinkled piece of newspaper brought just for this reason, Camilla took a deep breath. The esteemed Dr. Liebe (master of domestic creatures, perfectionist, award winner) would not have lost his composure, and neither would she. She opened the cage door and removed the plastic water bottle. While she turned away, Jaws carried Dr. Liebe into his nest and began nibbling away at the “in lieu of flowers” request. Returning from the sink, Camilla dropped the water bottle, the metal spout broke off, and Camilla let out a cry that interrupted Mrs. Bradley’s grading. The mess was small, but the failure felt huge. On that bleak afternoon, Camilla had let Mrs. Bradley draw the conclusion that Jaws had become too much like his namesake and bitten her. The class never saw Jaws again, and when the goldfish arrived they christened him Goldie (Sally’s suggestion) a name Camilla voted against. Camilla’s name had been kept on the schedule within the usual rotation, as if nothing had gone wrong. Camilla felt this must be an error, if not a mean joke—it didn’t seem right that she got a second chance.
Sally’s birthday glow brought that feeling back. Remembering the Jaws incident, Camilla sat with her head down, her left ear pressed against the cool plastic of the desk, watching Goldie stick his face in the corner of the small aquarium. “Goldie Fish, drowned at home, will be missed by the fourth grade,” she whispered into the angle of her elbow. “Most of the fourth grade.” The morning bell rang. The class quieted down abruptly just as the words “training bra” stammered from Sally’s lips. A twitter of laughter swelled up from the class, particularly the boys. Sally blushed brightly.
“Sally Perkins, aged ten. Died of embarrassment on her birthday. Poor thing.” Camilla hardly realized she’d spoken out loud until Sally glared at her. The sharp tap of a ruler on the blackboard instructed the class to quiet down and quickly prepare for the spelling quiz.
“For extra credit, transubstantiation.”
Camilla pulled Mrs. Everson from her pocket and set her on the corner of her desk. Transubstantiation, Mrs. Everson? Not getting an answer, she quickly scribbled down transsupstation. Camilla passed her paper forward. Mrs. Everson lost her balance and drifted to the floor.
“Camilla, please pick that up and come to the front,” Mrs. Bradley ordered. “We all know the rules.”
Camilla picked Mrs. Everson up and held a sharp corner to her lips as she walked forward to face the class. The rule: Share. For better or worse, there was to be complete transparency in Mrs. Bradley’s classroom, from cupcakes to unfinished homework.
“Class, was she about to disrupt our learning environment?”
Twenty-four greedy pairs of eyes ate up the sight of the weakest among them facing this trial.
“She was passing a note,” they called out.
“She was cheating on the quiz!”
They leaned forward in their seats to learn which it was. Mrs. Bradley hushed them. “Please read your note to the class.”
Camilla held Mrs. Everson in her hand. The ink from the paper, drawn out by the sweat of her palms, stained her skin. Directly in front of her, Matthew put his hands to his face to hide a smile. His fingernails shone with a special nail polish his mother had applied to stop him from sucking his thumb. He noticed Camilla staring at his fingers, so, using one hand to hide his actions from the teacher, he mined a small booger from his nose and flicked it. The aim was true, but the projectile fell short and landed near Camilla’s shoe. Wide-eyed, Camilla looked to Mrs. Bradley. She knew that Mrs. Bradley would report this to her mom. Last month Bea had discovered the obituary collection, which she deemed morbid, and made her daughter promise to throw it out. “I never should have let her go to the funeral,” she had said into the phone as Camilla listened from the stairs. “She was just seven. Maybe she was too young.” Since then, Camilla had been careful not to give her mom any reason to worry.
“Go on,” Mrs. Bradley said. “Don’t make us wait all day.” It had been over a week since anyone had been caught passing a note, and her disciplinary monotone barely concealed her excitement.
Camilla cradled Mrs. Everson in her palm. She shut her eyes and pictured the tiny American flag next to Mr. Webb’s name. Extreme bravery in the face of adversity. Camilla looked out at her peers and spoke quickly. “Dear Virginia, thank you for the offer, but I can’t run away today. I have studied too hard for the quiz. Good luck. Yours, Cammie.” She gave the paper one quick extra fold and popped it into the dry cavern of her mouth. Newspaper ink smeared across her lips.
“Is that what they’re publishing in the classifieds these days?” Mrs. Bradley said. “Very ‘Mission Impossible’, especially since there isn’t a Virginia in the entire grade. Return to your seat please.”
Camilla sat down at her desk. As odd as it had been, her obligation had been fulfilled. Her hands shook. As discreetly as possible, she puffed the tiny paper out of her mouth and returned Mrs. Everson to her pocket.
“It’s common for losers with no real friends to invent imaginary ones,” Sally informed those around her.
Just before lunchtime, Camilla asked to be excused to the bathroom. She rubbed at the ink around her mouth. The smudge lightened, but spread into a shadow over the lower half of her face. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Everson.” She unfolded the paper on the edge of the sink. “You were there to help me and I got us into trouble. You aren’t mad, are you?” A few drops of water soaked into the paper, replacing the old librarian’s picture with a translucent ad for reduced finance rates on new cars. “No, wait,” Camilla begged. She snatched up the paper and shook it in an attempt to restore it. “Please don’t leave. I said I’m sorry.”
A hole formed in the damp center of the paper. Camilla rubbed her face with her dirty fingers. The ink mixed with her tears and left smudges around her eyes. “I’m sorry.” There was nothing left to do but say goodbye. She ripped the obituary into unredeemable pieces and dropped them into the sink.
During the afternoon lesson on long division, Camilla refused to raise her head from the cool relief of her desk, not even to take notes. She thought of her father, rarely home, and his promises of all the things they would do tomorrow, or at Christmas, or after the next report card, if it was good.
Mrs. Bradly made her rounds. “Sally, if I hear that gum snap one more time you’ll be wearing it in your ponytail,” Mrs. Bradley said. “Camilla, wake up.” Camilla raised her head slightly. Mrs. Bradley stepped away from the chalkboard to get a better look. “You look horrible. Why don’t you run to the nurse? Be sure to come back and get your homework before you go home.”
The nurse’s office was actually a large custodial closet with a cot and a telephone added, and the “nurse” was a secretary who kept a large file on which students had permission to take Tylenol and which were allergic to peanuts. As the secretary led the way from the front office to the nurse’s closet, Camilla imagined that she was first in line behind Amy Ella’s funeral procession, and that the secretary’s large swaying rear end was the hearse, rocking side to side from all the sadness within. Camilla rocked from side to side when she was sad, and she imagined that the amount of grief at Amy Ella’s funeral had been enough to move that big car all over the road.
The secretary dialed and handed the phone to Camilla.
“Accounts payable, this is Bea.”
“Oh, Camilla. Are you sick again?”
“Mrs. Bradley told me to call you—”
“Fine. I’ll be there in twenty minutes, but don’t make me come in and get you this time; we have to hurry so I can get back for a meeting. Are you throwing up?”
“Not this time.” Camilla shook her head at the receiver and hung up. The secretary let her go back to the classroom by herself.
In the classroom, Mrs. Bradley pulled a small cooler from beneath her desk. “Sally, why don’t you start passing these out to everyone?”
“I thought the party was at the end of the day.” Sally moved cautiously forward. Camilla watched from the doorway as Sally slammed the soggy ice cream bars roughly onto each desk, rolling her eyes.
“We’ll do it while everyone is still here. You don’t want Camilla to miss out on your special day, do you?” Mrs. Bradley crossed her arms over her stomach. “Invite her in to your party, don’t make her wait out there. Camilla, it’s rude not to pass along best wishes to someone on their birthday.” She shooed away a boy seeking help with his ice cream wrapper. She turned the radio on to the oldies station. “Get dancing, kids. Matthew, ask Camilla to dance.”
Camilla took small steps into the center of the room. She whispered “Happy Birthday” as Matthew approached her. She held the ice cream bar up under her chin like a shield. Matthew looked down at his feet and the class fell silent. Mrs. Bradley tapped a beat on the desk to Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.”
Ice cream dripped down Camilla’s wrists and arms; the long rivulets clung to her skin and refused to drop to the floor. She handed the melting bar to David and began to dance. Slowly at first, bobbing her head and shifting her weight around over her feet, then, as her classmates hesitated between laughter and awe, she broke into a wild, polka-like dance, independent of the music and immune to Sally’s gum-snapping.
She thought of her shoebox—Amy Ella, Mrs. Ruth Piper, Joe Santos, Jr., and all the others. None of them had been where she was, who she had to be, at this moment. None of them knew what it meant to be Camilla, here, whose dad had died, who sometimes threw up at school, who tried so hard to be good.
“My mom said that some kids go crazy,” Sally said, “if they don’t have stability.”
Mrs. Bradley turned off the radio, but Camilla kept moving. Eyes closed, she spun around, hitting her knuckles on the desks. She collapsed to a crouched position and opened her eyes to see her mother’s feet.
“Let’s go,” Bea said. She held out her hand.
Camilla got up and wiped her sticky fingers on the front of her shirt. She grabbed her mother’s warm hand and held it tightly, needing it so much she’d make a new mess to get it, holding it tighter as they walked down the hallway, past the trophy case, past the bathroom doors scratched up with graffiti tags and symbols, past this evidence of ghosts. She wished she would never have to come back, but she always had to come back, so as she walked she whispered, “I’m surviving you, surviving you, surviving you.”