It was a clear day. Just as it had been every September 9th for the past fifteen years. I always noticed. The slightest hint of autumn scattered in the evening air. The kind of evening that always made me want to roll the windows down and turn up the radio. The windows were down, but there'd be no loud music tonight.
As I neared my old hometown, my mind began wandering back in time, remembering the past, and reliving that day I wish I'd never seen. Some memories seem to fade with time. Certain details are forgotten or changed. But the events of that day are still as vivid as they ever were.
It had been a Thursday. Homecoming week. Senior year. Sarah Hallmark was my best friend. We did everything and went everywhere together. Movies, homework, school dances, you name it. Everyone thought we should have dated, and we probably should have. But we never did...
We had ridden to school together since the day she turned sixteen, four days before me. That Thursday, she met me in the parking lot after school. It was raining. She told me she was going to stay and help finish up work on some homecoming decorations in the gym. And that she would find a ride home. I hurriedly gave her a half-hearted hug and told her bye.
I had to work at the grocery store at 5 that evening. It was still raining when I left. And raining harder when I saw the accident. The sirens. The fire.
The back parking lot of the high school empties onto a two-lane road. There's never much traffic on that road other than school mornings and afternoons. But what traffic there is usually flies.
It was a rather small high school. Ninety-one students in the senior class. When I saw the accident, I knew it would more than likely be someone I knew. I said a little prayer. But sometimes you just know. I already knew.
By the time I had pushed through the crowd, the fire had been put out. The car belonged to Billy Mayfield. His girlfriend, Marcy, was one of Sarah's best friends.
The truck had impacted on Sarah's side. The driver of the truck had been killed instantly. So had Sarah. At least that's what they told us. A couple of passersby had been able to pull Billy out of the wreckage. He was unconscious and had suffered severe burns. He didn't play football that year. And mentally, he never was the same. None of us were. But he... just wasn't there.
Seeing the charred remains of someone you love is something no one should ever have to go thru in life. To this day, there is never a single time when I close my eyes that I don't see her lying there.
At the visitation, Sarah's Mom gave me a chain that I had given Sarah for her 17th birthday. I gave it back and asked if Sarah could wear it. She just nodded.
At graduation, we left an empty chair for Sarah. And though I wasn't an officer or valedictorian or anything, I was asked to speak about her. I did surprisingly well. A few weeks later, I left that godforsaken town. There were too many reminders. Too much us.
I turn onto the two-lane road and approach the school. The football team is practicing. Windows still down, I can hear the sound of a whistle and a coach barking instructions. I pull off on the side of the road and leave the car running, just like I did on that day 16 years ago.
I take an orange rose, Sarah's favorite, from the passenger seat and carefully wrap my fingers around the stem. Walking to the spot where a small white cross stands, I kneel down, tears pouring down my cheeks. I speak to her but the words I say no one else will ever know. I kiss the rose and place it beneath the cross.
After a few minutes, I stand, wipe my eyes, and walk back to the car. As I'm getting in, a single raindrop touches my forehead. I look up. It's the first time in sixteen years it's rained on September 9th.
I hate rain. I hate Septembers. Most of all, I hate half-hearted hugs.
"She's still there in Oklahoma. And she's still seventeen. Living with her momma, working at the Dairy Queen. She's still standing on the front porch, red ribbon in her hair. The rest of us have scattered everywhere. But she's still there..."