If They Didn’t Miss Her
Kristen Nichols

You must first picture farm country in Northern Michigan. You must find yourself away from cities and inland from the Great Lakes, where grids of roads thread among the trees, and fields are cleared in neat rectangles that alternate corn in straight rows and alfalfa green and cut down in windrows. You must smell the warm dirt, fresh after rain, pine mixed with hardwood—maple, some oak, a few lone elms still rising tall in the fencerows here and there, the last ones holding out before Dutch Elm disease eventually brings them to the ground.

You must imagine abandoned barns on the edges of those fields, left to crumble slowly, some of them to stand until a small girl grows up, goes away and then comes back to visit only to see them finally collapsed in a pile of sticks like the others.

You must imagine the land dotted with still-living family farms and small properties near larger sections of woods and swamp spreading out from meandering cricks.

Turn your eyes to a white church, tall steeple, on the corner of 8 Mile and Prosper Road. Inside the pews face north. The organ sits to the right of the pulpit. Small doorways open to the east, the west and out to the exit behind the pipe room to the north. The light filters in through the windows, giving everything a slight green glow.

These are the years of flat red punch and crunchy cookies, the adult smell of Folgers coffee from the large silver pot with the spigot at the bottom, the decaf pot smaller but right next to it, and the old ladies gathered there clutching white styrofoam cups. These are the years of the children and tag under the tall trees between the church and the parsonage. The trees are goal; a girl can dart from one to the next trying not to get caught, and once she touches a tree she’s safe.

After service the grown ups are outside on the north end of church. They naturally form circles.

The girl’s mom is an organist and once tells the girl that the hardest part of playing for church is coming out the door afterward and facing all those closed circles. The girl runs with all of the kids, around and around, the sidewalk all the way around the church a continuous oval loop, slowing only to weave around the old people, carefully navigate the grown-ups, women in pretty dresses, hair permed in perfect coils close to the head, purses clutched in elbows, men in suits or at very least shirt and tie and dress shoes, the girl’s own grandpa in light blue dress slacks and spiffy white leather shoes, her grandma in a pastel polyester dress that would later be cut with all the others and quilted and first laid across the girl’s bed. Many years later she will lay it across her daughter’s.

The grandparents live in a white farm house a half mile north of the church on 8 Mile Road. She can walk there from church for Sunday dinner, and once in a while her parents let her, though it makes her a little nervous, the people flying in their cars at 55 miles per hour or more, the metal and the motion passing her only mere feet away, the whoosh of their heat always startling her no matter how much she braced for it. She walks there in the gravel next to the two-lane paved country road thinking of what would happen if they didn’t miss her, if she wasn’t far enough off the road, if she wasn’t trailing her hand in the high feathered reaches of the brome grass or pulling pods off the milkweeds or kneeling down on the edge of the bridge where a small tube ran under the road.

The seasons pass. The grasses brown and bend and are buried under ice and snow. One day in winter the girl’s babysitter is riding on that road in a car full of kids. The neighbor’s oldest brother is bringing them home from a 4-H sewing club meeting. They fly past her grandparents’ house. They pull up to the stop sign by the church, and he doesn’t look carefully enough before he pulls out to turn left.

Her name was Dawn.

She was a pretty, white-blond, blue-eyed Dutch dairy farmer’s daughter. Lithe and sweet and soft and wonderful to the girl.

Not long before the crash, Dawn stayed with the girl for an evening while her parents were out. She painted a watercolor picture—an orange sunset that faded into purple at the top of the page, a dark tree reaching its limbs over a fence line.

The girl had tried to copy Dawn’s picture, but her own just looked clumsy. Dawn left the picture for her. The girl taped them side-by-side on the refrigerator.

Dawn’s was the first lifeless face the girl would ever see and the first she would hold in her memory. People would always say to remember gone people in life not death. The girl would try to see Dawn’s face with the life in it, and all she will be able to call up is swelling, the cornsilk hair no longer soft but instead looking like worn out Barbie hair.

She had been there, Dawn, at church, floating somewhere in the age gap near the racing loops, the tag in the trees. The girl remembers her running. But she also remembers Dawn with the older girls, where they eased themselves out of the games and into the circles.

After the funeral the hearse carries Dawn to a cemetery south and west. The girl’s parents explain the family has others buried there.

The girl stands with everyone else at the cemetery outside the small, square, concrete building. The girl peers in the doorway to see shelves along the wall wide enough to hold a casket. Dawn will go in the vault until the earth is soft again.

The girl will remember her there, waiting for the warm sun, waiting for spring, waiting for the ground to give her rest. The girl will try to remember anything else, but all that comes back is the waiting and the people all huddled together—all the sad, cold people, their breath curling up to disappear in the sky.

Kristen Nichols was a judge for the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and is also a 2016 Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop. Her writing is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, has been published in several literary magazines, and was nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Project.