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On the day of Judith Dales funeral, the sky is as gray as soapstone. Mothers in town fix their children oatmeal for breakfast and insist that wool mittens and socks be retrieved from dresser drawers. The doors of the library squeak when theyre pushed open, the way they always do when the weather begins to change. Over on the comer of Elm Street and Main, the bakery must have loaves of the cinnamon bread theyre so famous for in the oven, because the scent is everywhere; its as if someone had tossed dough over the whole town. This is the sort of day best spent in bed, but March and Gwen are dressed and ready to go at eight-thirty when Susanna Justice, Marchs oldest friend, comes to fetch them in her red pickup truck, apologizing for the dog hair her Labrador retrievers have left on the seat, bemoaning the fact that March and Gwen will have to scrunch together in order to fit.

Listen, I dont know what Id do without you, March says, and she tells the saga of the rental car, which has already been towed back to town. You are a true friend. Im grateful.

The surprising thing is, March means it, and she never thought herself capable of such sentiments when she and Susie were girls. They were thrown together because their fathers were partners, but they hated each other all the same. For two years solid they refused to speak even the simplest phrases to each other, not even Pass the sweet potato pie at Thanksgiving dinner. Now, of course, neither can remember exactly why theyd constructed their wall of silence.

It was because you were an idiot, Susie says as she does her best to clear out the cab of her pickup. Aside from the dog hair, there are files and stray bits of paper and dozens of maps.

Actually it was because you were a know-it-all, March shoots back. And you still are.

They both have to laugh at this. Susanna is a reporter for the local newspaper, The Bugle, and in fact, she does know everything thats going on in town. She knows not only how much old Mr. Judson got for his land up at Olive Tree Lake, but also that he refused to sell to Hollis at an even better price, although he allowed Hollis to take him out to dinner in Boston and send him a crate of vintage Chablis. Not that she would ever mention this bit of business to March; nor the fact that half a dozen women in town are so crazy for Hollis they would walk out on their husbands or boyfriends and abandon their real lives if only they were asked.

Why, Susanna Justice has acquired more information than most people would have room for in their heads. She knows what the school committee budget will be next year, and that the animal control guy, Bud Horace, is too much of a softy to pick up stray dogs. In all of this jumble, there are plenty of facts she could have done without knowing. Who died last night at St. Bridgets Hospital, whose husband gets nasty when he has too much to drink at the Lyon Cafe, who was found in a parked car at the rest area on Route 22, with a gun between the seats and a suicide note taped to the glove compartment.

Honey, all you have to do is squeeze me and I give out worthless information, Susie always says.

She even knows when the sales take place at Laughtons Lingerie Shop (every January and July, second Saturday of the month) and how much the jelly doughnuts cost at the Bluebird Coffee Shop (fifty cents). Shes always learning something new, and it has recently come to her attention that Ed Milton, the chief of police, kisses with his eyes closed and looks like an angel when he sleeps. Some information, however, shes been aware of all her life; its old news. For example-that her old friend March Murray wouldnt know good luck if it came up and slapped her in the face.

You think youre so hot living out in Palo Alto. Well, for your information, Eileen Singleton is retiring on Tuesday after forty-three years of work at the library.

Oh, gosh, March says. Stop the presses. She winds her long hair into a knot, which is kept in place with a silver comb, one that she cast herself. She and Susie are wearing similar silver bracelets, among the first March ever dared to try. What started out as a hobby has become more and more rewarding, both financially and artistically.

Thats nothing, Susie says, brushing at the dog hair stuck to the one dress she owns thats sober enough to wear to a funeral. Susie has cropped blond hair and gray-blue eyes and black is definitely not her color, dog hair or no. You want real news? Mr. and Mrs. Morrisey are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Jane-remember that bitch?-to some guy they dont think much of whos got a job with the DPW in Gloucester and is really cute. I saw him at the engagement party and double wow. He probably will be a problem. Halfway through the party, he asked me for my phone number. Everyone has to invite me to everything, you know, if they want a mention in The Bugle.

Thats because youre a superior being, March says.

As are you, Susie says. Hence our friendship.

Gwen, whos been listening in and who now struggles to climb into the cab of the pickup in her extremely short skirt, cannot believe how ridiculous her mother and Susanna Justice are when they get together. Susie comes out to California once or twice a year, and theyre just as stupid on the West Coast as they are right here. You are both so mature, she says disdainfully.

Gwens tiny black dress isnt the only reason Susanna Justice and March shut up and stare. Gwen is wearing gloopy black mascara and has moussed her hair so that it spikes up in the front, like a little bed of nails. Wait till she tells her friend Minnie: There I was, trapped like a rat, with the two of them giving me fashion attitude. I couldnt get away, I was trapped, I tell you, trapped in a way no human being should ever be.

Youre letting her go like that? Susie asks March.

Letting her? People who havent had children have the oddest ideas.

Can we just go to the funeral and get this over with? Gwen says in her froggy voice. Before coming outside, she sneaked a cigarette in the bathroom, then doused herself with some Jean Nat'e she found in the medicine cabinet which she thinks has gotten rid of the scent of smoke.

Oh, yeah, definitely, Susie says, getting in behind the wheel. Lets not let Judiths funeral take up too much of your precious time.

Exactly, Gwen says. Shes flipped down the visor in order to get a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She wishes for two things: bigger eyes and a thinner face. She cant abide her own reflection, so how could anyone else? Maybe her mother and that stupid Susie arent so wrong when they judge her. Cutting her hair was certainly a mistake, she sees that now. Her look is so wrong its almost a joke. Shed like to be the human equivalent of an Afghan hound. Instead, what she sees is a beagle looking back at her.

Do you mind? March says.

Scrunched in next to Gwen, March has to struggle to push the visor back up so it wont jab either of them in the eye as they ride along the bumpy back road. This day is going to be awful. Its the sort of day you wouldnt mind losing completely, even if it meant your life would be twenty-four hours shorter.

I cant believe Judith is really dead, March says. She took care of everyone and never complained. I cant think of a single selfish thing she ever did. Not ever. She was the greatest.

She was something, all right, Susie concurs.

March might have called Susie on a statement like that, but the road has become so bumpy Susie is concentrating on navigating past the ruts. And anyway, Susie always took pride in being cryptic. What is that supposed to mean? March was always saying when they were younger and thrown together for the day, and Susie would always look at her as if March were crazy and any implications sprang from Marchs own unreliable imagination.

This is where my rental car died, March says as they approach the deepest of the ruts.

Then hold on, Susie says, and for old times sake she floors the gas pedal for a real roller-coaster ride.

You guys are nuts, Gwen shouts, but Susie and March, supposedly older and wiser, pay no attention to her. For a little while at least, as they shake and rattle over the bumps, they manage to forget todays destination. They forget how long its been since theyve walked down this road, arm in arm. They were fierce and fearless girls back then, in their jeans and boots and sweaters, and March, for one, was absolutely confident of what her future would bring: total happiness and true love, thats what she wanted. Nothing more or less would do, just as no other place would ever be home: nowhere but the hill would ever be as comfortable or as beautiful or as real.

Susanna Justice suddenly steps on the brakes, hard, so theyre all snapped back by the force of their seat belts.

Do you believe that goddamn thing? Susie says, as a rabbit runs right in front of them.

This landscape is definitely real, if nothing more. From the minute March woke this morning, in the old bed where shed slept for thousands of nights, she knew coming back had been a mistake. She opened her eyes, and already she was thinking of Hollis. When she saw the lattice of frost on the inside of her windowpanes it was exactly as if she never had left. Her room was always the chilliest in the house. Often, she would find that the tumbler of water shed left beside her bed had frozen solid. She remembers how she would hold the glass up and breathe on the ice until it melted into streams that spelled out Holliss name.

The first thing she did today, after she pulled on her navy-blue dress and a black sweater, was go downstairs in her bare feet and try to phone Richard. From where she stood, by the telephone table, she could see Gwen, asleep on the couch in the little sewing room. She could see through the oval window, past the garden and the trees. Her heart was racing, that was the silly thing. She had begun to make a bargain with herself, the kind that women who are in love with the wrong man always resort to: If Richard answered by the fifth ring, she would be all right. She would be perfectly safe, and safety, after all, was what she had opted for, even though she was back here looking out at the apple trees she used to climb. And then shed realized how early it was in California, only a little past three a.m., and shed hung up quickly, but shed been all right without talking to him; shed made tea in one of Judiths pretty ceramic pots and in no time she was fine.

Or so she had thought. Now that shes face-to-face with the pastures of Guardian Farm her skin feels cold. She wishes she had brought along gloves and a heavy woolen scarf. At this moment, shed prefer to be a million miles away.

Dont worry, Susie says. Shes noticed the distress on her friends face. He wont show up at the funeral. Take my word for it. Hes still refusing to do whatever it is he should.

March gives Susie a look which she hopes will silence her, but its too late.

Who are we talking about? Gwen asks.

Gwen always does that-listens when you dont want her to, ignores you whenever theres something you want her to hear.

No one, March tells her.

A figment of our imagination, Susie insists on adding. Or some of us, anyway.

Yeah, right, Gwen says tartly. Like I know what you mean.

She means shes a know-it-all, March says, but inside shes thinking, Lucky for me that you dont understand. Lucky for you.

Theyve left plenty of time to get to the service, and yet somehow theyve managed to be late. The parking lot is already crowded when they pull in, and why shouldnt it be? Judith Dale had a lot of friends, from the library, where shed been a member of the board for ages, and from the garden club, which did so much to beautify the town, and from St. Bridgets as well, where she volunteered in the childrens ward two nights a week, reading stories and playing games of Candyland.

March remembers wondering why it was that Mrs. Dale didnt have children of her own. Shed asked her once, when it was late at night and shed been sick with a fever and Mrs. Dale had been sitting up with her, spoon-feeding her rice pudding and endless cups of tea.

Thats not what was intended for me, Mrs. Dale had told her.

What Mrs. Dale had meant by that, March never quite understood. Was it God she was referring to, or the hand of fate, or the choices she herself had made, perhaps a long time ago? At any rate, there were sides of Mrs. Dale which were secret, and sides which were not. She liked rain, and children, and going off by herself on holidays from which she brought back small tokens as gifts: pretty matches, hair combs, mints with pink and green candy shells. She believed in home cooking and in the supreme beauty of yellow roses, six dozen of which March has ordered for this service. The scent of roses is sweet and ripe and sorrowful, making March dizzy as she goes to sit in the front row of the chapel, between Gwen and her fathers old law partner, Susies father, the Judge.

The Judge is tall, six foot four, and so imposing that some people say there are criminals who confess at the mere sight of him. But today, he seems a shakier version of himself; he will be seventy-two next month and his age shows, in his large hands, which tremble, in his pallor and his faded blue eyes. He keeps one hand on Marchs, but for whose comfort, even the Judge isnt certain.

Since theres not room in the pew for everyone, Louise Justice, the Judges wife, is sitting directly behind them. Every once in a while she leans forward and pats March or the Judge on the shoulder.

This is such a shock, she whispers, again and again.

Judith Dale left instructions for the service to be simple, just as the marker she chose for herself is to be a plain gray stone. Gwen had no idea how depressing such a service could be. She is sitting up straight, studying the closed coffin. She actually seems frozen in place, her skin white as ice. With her spiky hair and her excess of mascara, she looks fairly ghoulish. Several people who have come up to give March their condolences have avoided Gwen completely, or have shaken her cold hand without saying a word.

Now, while Harriet Laughton is giving the final address, on behalf of Judith Dales friends on the board of the library, Gwen leans close to her mother. For one brief moment, March thinks her daughter wants a hug.

Im going to be sick, Gwen whispers.

No, March says, even though the scent of roses and the heat inside the chapel are cloying. You wont be.

Im not kidding, Gwen insists. Its the smell of death thats getting to her. Its the very idea. Oh, boy, she says, sounding scared.

March and Gwen make their way out of the pew; then March circles an arm around her daughter and guides her into the aisle, toward the door. She can hear a murmur of concern: the voices of Judith Dales friends, kindhearted volunteers from the library and the hospital.

You just need fresh air, March tells Gwen.

Gwen nods and gulps, but she feels like she may not make it. She manages a dash for the door, and when she races past Hank-who is in the last row, along with Ken Helm, who considered Mrs. Dale one of his favorite customers, and Mimi Frank, who cut Mrs. Dales hair-he looks up in time to see Gwen slipping out of the chapel, quick as a shadow. Its not often you see someone you dont know in the village, and Hank has the sudden urge to get out of his pew and follow this girl. She looks so distressed, and shes beautiful besides, but Hank isnt the sort to storm out of a funeral service. He stays where he is, seated beside one of the vases of yellow roses March ordered from the Lucky Day Florist on Main Street. Hes wearing his one good white shirt, a pair of black jeans he hopes dont look too beat-up, and his boots, which he polished last night. He borrowed a tie from Hollis, who has a closetful of expensive clothes; he combed his hair twice.

All the same, Hank has a shivery feeling under his skin, in spite of how overheated the chapel has become, and when the service is over, hes one of the first to leave. This way, so quick to be out the door, hes more likely to get another look at the girl. And he does-shes over on the curb, so dizzy that she needs to keep one hand on the fender of the hearse, for balance. Three crows are flying above the parking lot, making a horrible racket. The sky is so flat and gray Gwen has the urge to put her arms over her head for protection, just in case stones should begin to fall from the clouds.

Six strong men-Ken Helm, the Judge, Dr. Henderson, Mr. Laughton, Sam Deveroux from the hardware store, and Jack Harvey, who installed an air conditioner for Mrs. Dale last summer-help to carry the coffin from the chapel. Just seeing them struggle with its weight brings tears to Gwens eyes. Here she is, with her short skirt and her hair all spiked up, looking like a perfect fool, completely unprepared for real life. Well, ready or not doesnt matter. Something is about to happen. Gwen can feel it. Time itself has changed; its become electrified, with every second standing on end.

Gwen can see her mother now, in the doorway of the chapel, a look of heartbreak on her face. Here comes the coffin, carried even closer. This is not the sort of thing that usually affects Gwen; she has a talent for blocking out bad news. All she has to do is shut her eyes and count to a hundred, but shes not closing her eyes now. Oh, how she wishes she had stayed at home. How easy it would have been to go on thinking about nothing, to ignore death and fate and the possibility that a life can easily be shaken to its core. That is how you know youve left childhood behind-when you wish for time to go backward. But its too late for that. Whether Gwen likes it or not, shes here, under this gray and mournful sky, and her eyes are open wide.

| Here On Earth | c