By Jean Rover
Spring had come to the campus of Riley Institute, a small Lutheran college tucked safely in the blue foothills of the Pacific Northwest. Cream-colored spikes covered the huge chestnut trees that lined the sidewalk to the commons area and the gigantic rhododendron by the library was again ablaze in bright peach-colored blooms. The staid little campus bustled with the sounds of singing birds, humming insects, student chatter, and campaign speeches. Awkward election signs spouted alongside purple lilacs and white, fluffy trees; together they swayed in the fragrant air.
Mary, a junior, rehearsed a speech that she hoped would get her elected student body president. She’d taken a public speaking class her sophomore year and had gotten that part in a play last semester. After that, she headed a campus food drive, which set a collection record. These accomplishments surprised even her. Who’d of ever thought a quiet, small town girl, once so afraid to talk in class, could not only stand up before a group, but could also move it to action.
Once Mary learned the power of words and tasted success in the limelight, she could not step back into the shadows. Winning the presidential election, could open all kinds of doors. She saw herself working on some local politician’s campaign or maybe heading off to Washington D.C.
Mary’s right hand jabbed the air as she practiced her speech in front of her dorm room mirror. She turned to the stuffed animals piled on the end of her bed and emphatically convinced them that she favored open meetings with the college president, an online class evaluation system, and a student-run bistro.
A little on the chunky side, with brown eyes, straight brown hair and dark-rimmed glasses, Mary was never considered pretty, but she was smart and reliable. She’d been valedictorian of her class of eighty-nine in her small, rural high school.
The daughter of a wheat farmer, she was the first child in the family to go away to college, even if it was just Riley and her being there meant repair of a leaky roof and new fencing had to wait.
During the summer, she helped with expenses by waiting tables at Wayne’s Place, the town’s only restaurant, which was adjacent to Wayne’s Gas and Garage. Wayne usually didn’t hire young girls, but her pastor highly recommended her. A grateful Mary never missed a day of work, never mixed up an order and became a favorite with the regulars.
At Riley, spring semester was an odd blur of endings and beginnings. While students looked forward to summer vacation, they worried about finals and next year’s class schedules. Seniors tried on caps and gowns and fretted about finding jobs or the right graduate school. In the midst of the flurry, they heard the awful news—a former student had died in the Iraq war—someone named Paul, whose vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Mary hadn’t known him, but vaguely remembered his head of curly, brown hair and that he graduated two years ago.
Caitlin, a pretty blonde from California with big plans and Mary’s major opponent for student body president, marched into the President’s Office and suggested that the school hold a vigil. Tall and willowy Caitlin planned to attend law school once she graduated from Riley. At least that’s what she said. Mary hoped to teach the second grade, unless winning the student body election led to more exciting things.
The vigil took placed on a chilly May evening on the front steps of the library. Students huddled close, held candles and sang songs. The chaplain, suffering from a cold and still a bit hoarse, gave a speech during which he talked mostly about peace. After a bad coughing spell, he opened the mike and invited others to speak. Caitlin immediately stepped up, but unlike the chaplain, she’d done her homework. Paul, she said, was a history major. He was an only child and had worked in the library reference room.
“He was quiet, studious, and always helpful … very helpful to so many of us, and we didn’t even notice.” She paused to clear her throat; her voice quivered. “Paul made the supreme sacrifice … for us. He was a hero. That’s why I took action and thought we should have this vigil.”
The crowd applauded. No one from Riley had ever gone as far away as Iraq, let alone died a hero. The breeze caught Caitlin’s blonde hair and her blue eyes gleamed. She looked directly at Mary and flashed a big grin as if to say, “Take that.”
“She’ll make a great student body president,” someone whispered.
What could Mary do? She couldn’t just stand there and let Caitlin have the last word. When the crowd quieted down, she made her way toward the mike, nervously adjusting it to accommodate her shorter stature. She looked into the crowd and into those lighted candles that seemed like footlights. It was as if she were back on stage in that play and this was just another audience. She cleared her throat. She spoke slowly at first, searching for the right words. Suddenly, her voice took on an emotional pitch.
“I know how it feels,” she heard herself say. “It’ so very sad how someone could have so much promise one minute and be gone the next. I know. I know because I also lost someone very dear to me in war.” She paused and swallowed as if it was difficult to go on. “You know, I miss him every day of my life. After he died, it felt like a part of me had died, too.” Her hand automatically touched her heart.
“Death seems so wrong in a season of new beginnings.” She gestured toward the peachy blossoms on the rhododendron bush softly glowing in the candlelight. Then she removed her dark-rimmed glasses and let the tears come.
“I can see his parents sitting in their living room … just like we did … in that small living room, holding his picture, remembering the curly-haired child they loved and protected, asking why … why did it have to be our Paul.”
The students cried, too, and they applauded hard and long. When it grew quiet again, Mary asked them to join hands and sing Amazing Grace. After that, Mary knew. She knew her speech was better than Caitlin’s.
The next morning on her way to the cafeteria for an early breakfast, she picked up a copy of the Clarion, the student newspaper. As she nibbled on scrambled eggs and toast, she saw a teary-eyed picture of herself on the front page, her glasses in hand, and this caption: Candidate for student body president remembers.
The election was held that Friday and Mary won by nine votes. A real squeaker the Clarion said. In a large photo, Mary smiled in front of a huge banner while a long-faced Caitlin, in a tiny shot, thanked supporters.
“It was that speech for Paul that swayed me,” Martin, a sophomore biology major said in a quote. “I thought Mary really understood how we feel about that war—especially since she lost someone in it herself.”
Amy, a freshman, said: “She’s so compassionate. We could use a lot more of that around here. I hope she comes to terms with her own grief.”
Mary smiled to herself. She took a deep breath. It was so easy, like running a hot knife through butter, as her mother would say. She folded the newspaper carefully and put it into her backpack. It would make a perfect attachment to a resume some day.
She never expected the questions.
Who was this dear person Mary had lost? Where in Iraq did it happen? Was he army or air force? Was it recently? What was this poor chap’s name?
Mary stammered. “Fred,” she said. “His name was Fred, and it was the army. But I don’t know that much about the service, you know. It’s kind of a guy thing. He, uh … was a cousin.” Mary looked down at the floor; she could feel the color rising from her neck to the roots of her hair. She hadn’t meant to lie. In fact, she believed that she really hadn’t. She had lost a relative in war. She thought maybe it was Korea or it could have been Viet Nam. Well, it was something her father had said at dinner one time … a distant cousin’s son or something. She never said it was Iraq.
Mary didn’t realize a lie needed all those details. And, she had forgotten about Angela the girl from her home town who also attended Riley. Caitlin had pressed Angela, the plain, big-boned daughter of a mill worker, for more information. Angela, Caitlin announced in the lunch line as she filled her plate with salad, could not remember hearing anything about a cousin of Mary’s who died in Iraq.
“You’d think it would have been in the Herald if it had happened,” Angela had said, happy to be getting attention from someone as important as Caitlin. “Everything in our town gets in the Herald, but there wasn’t anything in it that I know about.”
Mary welcomed finals week. She hid out in the back of the library for hours, just waiting for the cousin incident to fade into the background. She’d gotten a call from a Clarion reporter, whom she suspected was one of Caitlin’s friends, but didn’t return the call. Thankfully, the paper’s final edition was Thursday.
At last, the semester ended. In her dorm room, a tired but happy Mary cleared away half-eaten pizza and a mug of stale coffee from the night before. She was glad to be alone and grateful that her roommate had already gone home. She looked forward to summer, hoping to put even more distance between herself and the cousin story. Fall would bring a new year filled with exciting challenges. She took a deep breath and instantly felt better. President Mary. She liked the sound of that. She pictured herself addressing the student body and leading meetings, until she heard a loud knock on her door.
Caitlin stood there with that chilly smile of hers. She handed Mary a small, blue note-sized envelope.
“What’s this?” Mary asked.
“Have a great summer,” Caitlin said. She stared at her with those cold, blue eyes and a smile so wide Mary could see her fillings. “I gotta run.”
Alone again, Mary slowly opened the note. It was handwritten and from Miss Bramrose, the Dean of Women. It said she wished to speak with Mary before she left the campus. Please call my office.
Mary felt her shoulders tighten as a chill made its way of up her spine. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Dean Bramrose wanted to talk about next year and student body affairs. On the other hand, maybe she knew. Of course, that was it. The note offered no congratulations, and why would Caitlin be the one to deliver such a message? She imagined Caitlin marching into the Dean’s office insisting she look into this thing. She saw Miss Bramrose crossing her thick legs, the stern gray eyes looking at her through those rimless glasses that always rested on the end of her nose. “Now tell me more about this cousin of yours,” she’d say.
Any time now, Mary’s father would arrive in his battered, dark green pickup to take her home. She always wished he’d park that truck blocks away from the dorm, but now yearned to see it pull up right outside. Together, they would drive back to the farm. Her mother would be in the kitchen with a pitcher of cold milk and a freshly baked yellow cake covered with swirls of chocolate frosting. She always baked that cake to welcome Mary home for the summer. Her younger sister also would be there—anxious to hear all about life at college, fueling her own dreams.
Then there would be Angela.
She, too, would be in Mary’s summer. Angela would ask her mother about the cousin story, and her mother would call Mary’s mother just to inquire and to offer condolences.
Then there would be talk.
There was always talk in her small town and sometime whispers. Whispers that would float on the air and probably find their way into Wayne’s Place.
Mary picked up her dictionary, the one her co-workers at Wayne’s had given her at the end of that first summer. “Here’s to a great future,” it said in blue ink on the inside cover. Everyone, including the garage mechanic, had signed it. She tossed it into the box she packed and swallowed hard, as if she already had a hunk of that yellow cake stuck in her throat. She looked at her open suitcase sitting on the bare mattress, the empty walls and bookcases; the room stripped bare waiting for another occupant. From her window, she could see the library and the gently fading peach blossoms ebbing away on the rhododendron bush. She remembered that night and how in just an instant everything had changed. How was she, a dean’s list student, going to explain this—to everyone? Why did the chaplain have to lose his voice? This was all just a misunderstanding wasn’t it? She never said it was Iraq. Her stomach felt like she had swallowed a handful of fencing nails.
She read the note from Miss Bramrose again. Her eyes locked on that final sentence. Please call my office. She had to decide. She could meet with Miss Bramrose. Try to explain. No, Confess. Face the music.
And then what? Eventually, there would be a front-page story in the Clarion and maybe even the local daily. Oh, God.
She saw President Caitlin’s smirk and the disapproving faces of all her fellow students. They shook their heads and whispered. Pointed and whispered. Mary looked out her window. The dark green pickup had arrived. She could see her father waiting inside the cab. Please call my office. Those words echoed and bounced off the empty walls. Blinking away tears, Mary crumpled the note hard and tossed it into the wastebasket. As soon as it made a soft thud in the empty can, she knew. She would not return to Riley in the fall.
Jean Rover is a Salem, Oregon writer with an extensive background in corporate and marketing communications. She now writes fiction, poetry and personal essays. More recently, her work has appeared in Rose Red Review, Gold Man Review, Work Literary Magazine, Rose Red Review, the This I Believe project and various periodicals. Her novel, Touch the Sky, is looking for a publisher. Jean is a member of Willamette Writers, Oregon Writers Colony and two critique groups. She is an award-winning business communicator.