The flowers by Betty's grave are in shadow. I look up, and there's a young girl standing over me. She's wearing a bellyshirt, tight shorts, and a pair of battered flip flops that have seen better days. I think about ignoring her for a moment, but then reconsider. I've never seen her before, so perhaps she's just lost.
"Yes?" I ask, picking a point just over her left shoulder to frown at.
My eyes betray me, and shift to hers for a second. Brown eyes ... She's been crying.
I sigh, put down my trowel, and stand.
"I'm Dr. Tobin," I admit.
Her reaction is odd. She glances nervously towards the cemetery gate, steps back on to the gravel path which winds its way in-between the graves and their markers, and actually seems on the verge of running away.
"Your wife ... She said..." Her eyes flick to Betty's headstone, and then jerk quickly away. "She said you could help me."
"Help you?" I stare at her, at a loss for words. My placid uneventful Sunday evening is gone, and this child is the thief. Why on Earth would Betty have encouraged this strange girl to come to me for help, and, more importantly, why is she here now, when Betty is gone? I feel like saying something scathing; a cutting remark that will complete the half finished job of scaring her off, but I'm too well-trained in my role as small town family doctor. Besides, she's given me a gift of sorts without realizing it.
"You go to Saul Creek High School?" I ask quietly.
"Yes." Her eyes touch mine, but then she quickly looks away as though embarrassed by this admission.
"When was the last time you spoke with Betty?" I'm careful not to raise my voice, or give any indication that her answer is important to me.
"I dunno," she shuffles her feet in the gravel, "maybe like a day before she left?"
It's the answer I want, entrée to a world I had thought closed off to me forever, and I'm glad I didn't give into my first impulse to chase her away. She must've been one of the very last students Betty met with.
"She loved you guys," I say softly.
Reaching out, I touch her right shoulder, and when her startled eyes jump to mine, I nod at a bench a little ways down the path. She hesitates, looking again towards the cemetery gate in the distance as though wondering whether escape is still possible. I abandon the flat of flowers and my trowel, turn away from her, and walk to the bench. As I sit, and stretch my legs out in front of me, she mumbles something I can't hear.
She whirls to face me, fists clenched at her sides.
"Stupid," she spits. "I'm stupid, okay?"
I nod agreeably. My gentle coaxing has failed.
"Probably, but you've come this far." I tap the bench's wooden seat beside me. "Why not tell me the rest?"
"Why should I?" she sneers, walking towards me. "It's not like you really give a shit."
The anger she's finally set free has plainly gotten the best of her. All of her former self-deprecation has vanished, and I admire the result. The too small shirt and skin-tight shorts make her look more ridiculous in my eyes than anything else, but at least she's not scampering around like a hunted mouse anymore. And, despite her words, she's not running away either.
"Because," I explain patiently, "the one person we both trusted thought it was a good idea." She throws herself down on the far end of the bench, and I stare at her until she reluctantly meets my eyes. "You did trust her, right?"
"Of course I did." She sighs. "She was the only one who even pretended to listen."
"She wasn't just pretending." I offer her my hand. "What's your name?"
"Susan," she says, and gives my hand a quick shake. "Look, I'm sorry. I know I've screwed up your evening, and I had no right to yell at you just now."
Her eyes are missing again, and I wonder just how hard it had been for Betty to earn her trust.
"You're wife was a wonderful lady, but..."
I raise my right hand palm outward, and she stops.
"You've been trying to talk yourself out of telling me what's wrong ever since you got here." I keep my voice low, and as unaccusing as possible. "Now, I'd be the first to admit that I'm nowhere near as good a listener as Betty was, but I'm willing to try." Susan stirs, and I raise my hand again. "Hold on just a second. Am I right that whatever's going on scares you shitless?"
For the first time since I've met her, Susan almost smiles.
"Yeah," she agrees, "that's pretty accurate."
"You aren't going around killing people or robbing banks, are you?"
"No." Her smile is unmistakable now.
"Good," I smile back at her. "So, here's the deal. You tell me your problem, and I'll help if I can. Whether or not I can help though, what's said in the graveyard stays in the graveyard." I offer my hand again. "Deal?"
She gives my proffered hand a doubtful look, and I think for a moment she'll refuse. Confiding in someone is always difficult, and I'm beginning to suspect that, whatever she's up against, it involves a betrayal of her trust. Why else would she be so skittish?
Finally, she nods, rests her hand in mine briefly, and then takes it back. She's far from happy, but talking with me is what she came here to do after all. Turning away so she doesn't have to look at me, Susan folds her hands in her lap, and stares off into the distance.
"The first time I talked to Mrs. Tobin--she said I should call her Betty--we had just moved here from Michigan. It was August, school had just started, and I was miserable. I didn't want to talk with her, or with anyone really, but Betty said she always had a chat with incoming students who were new. It didn't sound like I had much of a choice, and I figured, how bad could it be?"
Susan pauses after the introduction to her story, and I nod encouragingly, before remembering that she can't see me.
She clears her throat and continues, "More than anything else, I was mad at my parents. I mean, it was my junior year in high school for fuck sake." She flinches, glancing over her shoulder at me, and says, "Sorry."
I smile, and make a throw away gesture with one hand.
"I've heard the word before."
"So anyway, she pulled me out of fourth period like the second day I was in school, we went to her office, and suddenly I was telling her everything. How it felt to be all alone; how everyone kept looking at me like I had the plague or something; all that stuff. She listened to me for a little while, and then asked me about my old school. Not like a teacher would ask, the classes I took, the subjects I liked, but stuff like who my friends were, and where we hung out. Talking to her wasn't like talking to a teacher at all, but..." Susan gestures helplessly, turning back towards me.
"Kind of like making a friend?" I suggest.
She nods excitedly, "Yes, exactly like that! It was weird because I hadn't really ever felt that way with someone who was as old as she was before."
"We seem that ancient to you?" I ask with some amusement.
"Uh," she blushes a little, "yeah, sometimes."
I shrug, and wait for her to continue.
"I don't know how long we talked, but it had to have been more than an hour, because when we did stop it was halfway through my lunch period already. I remember feeling kind of sad when she said I should hurry or I wouldn't get anything to eat, and thinking that I'd rather just skip lunch and keep talking to her. I picked up my backpack, and was walking out of her office when she stopped me." Susan swallows, and her eyes are suddenly moist. "She said, 'Don't worry about being lonely. Anyone who talks to you is going to want you for a friend.' And, I believed her."
"That was Betty's talent," I agree. "No matter who it was, she knew how to engage them in conversation, and make them comfortable at the same time."
We sit quietly without speaking for a while, until the evening's silence is broken by a revving engine somewhere.
She shifts her position beside me, and I ask, "Did you see Betty very often after that?"