There was a patch of wildflowers growing outside the funeral home, and they were just perfect. A ray of morning sun filtered down through the trees and lit them like a spotlight, their delicate purple blossoms a sharp contrast against the deep green of the grass.
Eight-year-old Jacob broke away from the crowd that was milling about out front to inspect them more closely. They were all beautiful, but one in particular stood out from the rest, its petals lush and vibrant. Jacob plucked it carefully and held it gently by the stem as he looked out at the sea of black-garbed mourners waiting to be let inside.
He spotted her at the far end of the lawn. She was with her family, entertaining her baby sister while her parents stood nearby, engrossed in grown-up conversation with another group of adults. Her coppery hair swooped down the back of her brand-new black dress in a long braided ponytail, and her green eyes sparkled in the sun as she made funny faces for her clapping sister in the stroller. And she was laughing. Jacob could hear her laughing all the way across the lawn, bright and silvery. It made his chest ache.
His grandpa walked up beside him, wearing his funny old suit that smelled like mothballs, and put a hand on Jacob’s shoulder.
“I was in love once, too,” his grandpa said. “With Ms. DeWitt, if you can believe it.”
Jacob had never met Ms. DeWitt, only knew her as the old lady who lived in the big house on the hill. But it seemed like she had been popular; practically the entire town had shown up for her funeral.
“I wasn’t much older than you are now,” his grandpa continued. “She was just Millie then. We were in band class together. She played the flute and I played the trumpet, and we sat across that big band room from each other all year. She looked so pretty when she played, like an angel. I'd get distracted watching her. And every now and then, I’d catch her staring at me from across the room. When she saw me looking, she’d cross her eyes and stick out her tongue to make me laugh."
"Once, just once, I got to play a solo, and when I’d finished she stood up and clapped like I’d been performing at Carnegie Hall. But she was popular and rich, and just about everyone in school had a crush on her. Don’t think I ever said a single word to her.”
His grandpa trailed off, a faraway look in his eyes, until movement in the crowd snapped him out of his reverie. “Looks like they’re letting folks in, kiddo,” he said. “Let’s go get in line.”
Jacob followed his grandfather, still cradling the flower he had picked, and they joined the line of people queuing up to get inside. He craned his neck, looking up and down the line for a flash of coppery red, but he’d lost sight of her as they all trudged slowly around the border of the lawn.
An old woman in line behind him was speaking to her friend in a low voice. Jacob tried not to eavesdrop, but he couldn’t help overhearing.
“It was the time period,” the woman said. “Otherwise I might’ve said something.”
“There was a party one night at Dan Stanton’s house, a bunch of us teenagers doing what teenagers do and playing seven minutes in heaven. It was high school, so I hadn’t figured it out just yet, but somehow I think Millie knew. We were all in a big circle, drawing names out of a hat to see who went in next. I was almost in tears; the thought of walking into that cramped closet with a strange boy and being expected to know what to do was terrifying. I tried to hide it, but Millie saw. I could see it in her eyes. She was beautiful, of course, but she had such kind eyes. I thought she felt bad for me."
"When my name was called I went numb all over. I walked into the closet and sat there, trembling, hoping it would be over soon. But when the door opened, it wasn’t some unfamiliar boy - it was Millie. She sat on the floor with me and held me as I cried, running her fingers through my hair and whispering to me that it was OK, that it would all be OK. She smelled like lavender and honey. When I calmed down, she took my face in her hands and kissed me, once, softly. Then she got up and walked out. I went home shortly after, and we never mentioned it again.”
The old woman dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Sometimes I still wonder.”
Jacob followed his grandpa up the front steps and through the doorway. It was dark and cool as they found their seats, pre-recorded organ music playing over somber murmurs of conversation. Up on the dais, surrounded by bouquets of flowers, lay the casket.
Jacob had never seen a dead body before. He could only see a bit of Ms. DeWitt’s face from where he sat, but she looked like any other old lady to him. She might've been napping.
He set the small purple flower in his lap, careful not to bend any of its petals. Every seat was taken, and now the last few stragglers were making their way in to stand against the back wall. Jacob searched for any sign of red hair and green eyes, but there were too many people.
Just across the aisle from him, old Mr. Keller sat with his head bowed. He was a big man, loud and funny, and Jacob knew he was important because everyone always talked about how many companies he owned. But today Mr. Keller looked tired, and Jacob could hear him as he spoke quietly down at his hands, clasped tightly in his lap.
“She told me, told me the baby was mine, begged me to stay. But I couldn’t, Lord. I was young and scared and I wanted what I wanted, so I left. And when I finally came back, it had been too long. I couldn’t face her. Couldn’t bear to. And now it’s too late. I think she gave the baby up, but I don’t know, Lord. I just don’t know.” Jacob looked away, feeling like he’d heard something he shouldn’t.
The music changed and the crowd went silent as the pastor entered and addressed them from the podium. Everyone stood up and sang, then sat down and prayed. The pastor said some nice words about Ms. DeWitt, how she was always kind and generous, beautiful inside and out. How she was a pillar of the community, and how sad it was that she had lived by herself for so many years in that great big house, but also how it was OK because she was with God now.
Jacob sat and listened. And as he did, he saw Mr. Keller crying quietly, tears running down his big red face and onto his lap. He saw the woman from the line blowing her nose into her handkerchief. And he saw his grandpa staring at nothing with that same faraway look in his eyes.
Jacob waited until everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer, then slid out of his seat and walked quietly towards the dais. He wasn't afraid. And as he walked up the carpeted steps, he could see her clearly now.
Millie DeWitt lay peacefully in the casket, her hands resting on her stomach. Even though she was old, Jacob thought she looked very pretty. And a little sad.
Gently, he laid his purple flower down on her chest. The color of it matched the flowers on her dress.
Then he turned and walked down the steps, down the aisle, and out the door. Everyone was looking at him, but he didn’t care. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he caught a glimpse of red hair and green eyes watching him go, but he kept walking.
She would see him outside. He’d be waiting for her.
But first, he had another flower to pick.