All we know of heaven, p.1
National Bestselling Author
All We Know of Heaven
for melanie donovan
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
The First Valentine’s Day
County Highway G, December 23 7 P.M
Early Next Morning
What Child is This?
A Slow Turning
A Slow Storm Turning
Beginning with the End
Joy in the Morning
Far and Away
A Place for Us
About the Author
About the Publisher
bridget and maureen
the first valentine’s day
Once she understood that she was dead, her first thought was that heaven was overrated.
Perhaps she wasn’t in heaven but in purgatory, sort of heaven’s mudroom. Either way, everything her grandmother and Father Genovese had taught her was a lie.
There were no streets of gold or a cappella singing, no elderly ancestors like little apple dolls gathered to welcome her, no mountain sunsets—not even Disney World without lines.
But it took such a long time to think of this that it made her wonder if she was alive—or if maybe being dead took getting used to, like cold water or the dentist.
At first she could only think of the place where she was as PUH.
And even for that she had to sort of scale her way up her thoughts, as if thinking was a climbing rope in the gym.
NO! Nononono. NO. START OVER.
It took her many times, as long as a carpet unrolling forever, to think of the word for…purgatory. Trying to wiggle into her own mind wore her out. She couldn’t even find the door.
And being an angel was supposed to be easy compared with life. But did angels think? Maybe she wasn’t an angel.
Maybe what she’d done with Danny had disqualified her.
Maybe only ghosts had these kinds of issues.
How was it possible that she could think of words such as “disqualified” and “issues” but not ordinary words—and she knew that there were words—for the “lights” and “darks”? How could she remember Danny but not, half the time, her own name?
Her mind was like her grandmother’s refrigerator: a jumble of little things, some moldy beyond recognition but still frugally saved—two brown coins of banana, a few spoonfuls of rice—all in little plastic-wrapped squares. And she couldn’t open the stuck-together little squares. She couldn’t get them unstuck any more than she could open her eyes. She couldn’t get her eyes to open, not even for a second.
She wasn’t sad.
You weren’t supposed to be sad at your death.
But she wasn’t joyous either.
Where was the bliss?
When they were tiny, adults called them the Pigtail Pals, as if they were a brand of doll. When they were bigger, they called them the Dyno Mites, as if they were a stomp team. Always together—two elfin blond things, tiny but shockingly strong (Bridget could walk up thirteen stairs on her hands by the time she was eight). They took Tumbleweeds together at the Y and after that headed off to cheerleading classes and camp, even though at their school it was the pom girls who had been revered as sex goddesses and the cheerleaders treated basically like scum. But now that they were sophomores there were cheerleading movies (and no pom-pom movies!); plus, the cheerleaders had the best bodies of anyone, thighs with strips of long, lean muscle that amazed even the girls themselves when they stood in front of a mirror in underpants.
Sometimes it seemed worth it.
As they had grown older—at least according to Maureen’s older brother Jack—they resembled each other even more. Sometimes they bought the same clothes in different colors, if Maureen could afford them. If Maureen couldn’t, sometimes Bridget bought the clothes for both of them. On sale, but still.
They loved being seen as a pair.
Bridget and Maureen took pride in the marks on the Flannery garage door that showed, year after year, that they were exactly the same height—not one half inch taller or shorter. They had the same huge, almond-slanted gold-flecked green eyes; and they could charm anyone—usually out of anything. Well, Bridget was the one who did the charming, which was what Maureen both loved and feared about her.
“My older sister was a Girl Scout,” Bridget once told the lady who sold Girl Scout cookies outside the Shop-and-Save. “She’s in the…in an insane hospital now, and she can’t be a Girl Scout anymore. She still wears her outfit and her badges and pretends she is. She used to sell cookies.”
Bridget didn’t even have an older sister.
But her earnest sweetness as she lied was always good for a free box of Thin Mints. Somehow the lady at the Shop-and-Save never compared notes with the ladies at the Bigelow Bank or the Coffee Clutch.
“Where did you get all those cookies?” Maureen’s mother had asked, when Maureen came home with a box stuffed nonchalantly inside her hoodie.
“Ladies gave us boxes of them,” Maury had told her honestly.
“You’re not supposed to take things from strangers!” her mother snapped, examining the boxes as if they might contain razor blades or arsenic.
“They weren’t strangers,” Maury said. “It was Mrs. Hotchkiss and the lunch lady at Henry’s school, Miss Bliss. They were sitting inside the bank.”
“Why’d they give them to you for free?”
“They like us,” Maury said.
That was a fact.
It was only one of the privileges of being Bridget’s friend, as Bridget explained solemnly. By the time she was six she had understood the meaning of “privilege.” She knew it was good to be her. She understood her own charisma.
You didn’t dare to say no to Bridget—not if you wanted to stay friends with her.
And you did want to stay her friend.
She picked up friendships the way tape picked up lint from a sweater—effortlessly, easily, and with about as much passion. Friends were a delight to Bridget but—with the exception of Maury—readily interchangeable. Maureen was proud to be the first friend Bridget collected when she came to Bigelow and the one she had kept. Aside from Maury, Bridget took you as a BFF for two weeks, gave you the whole Bridget treatment—the pool, gymnastics on the huge tramp, b-ball and tennis on the sport courts—but most of her best friends didn’t last a semester, let alone forever.
But then people at school were always recycling friendships and stealing boyfriends, putting nasty things into one another’s backpacks and then telling the principal so that the innocent p
Maury treated Bridget’s house like an addition built onto her own. She didn’t even have to knock to go in.
Maury couldn’t imagine how she would live without Bridget.
Even when Bridget had fallen in love, if she was with Danny on a date, Bridget came to Maureen’s to sleep over afterward or Maureen would be waiting at Bridget’s for her when she got home.
The O’Malleys, with their many children, had lived in Bigelow forever. There was a trophy case where Bill O’Malley’s wrestling trophy (second in state, 1974) was still displayed. He had carved his name in a heart with the name of Jeannie Forbes on the workbench in shop class—two years before she became Jean Marie O’Malley.
But Bridget’s family came to Bigelow the summer that Maureen was five.
Mr. and Mrs. Flannery opened a business called Occasions that planned weddings and graduations, anniversaries and card parties. People only had to make one call, and Bridget’s parents would handle everything from the food to the flowers to the tent to the deejay. The slogan was “Flannery’s Occasions: We Bring Everything Except the Memories.” Everyone said a business like that would last in Bigelow about as long as a French hairstylist, or a French restaurant. People were pretty set in their ways there.
Bigelow summers were short and brutally hot. People got married in the Lutheran church—even if they were Catholics—because the Lutherans had central air. Kids spent summer vacation underwater in Slipper Lake; they didn’t mind pulling the leeches off their legs or having everything they touched smell permanently of bug repellant. Unless they were wacko-committed backpackers or runners, adults spent most days and nights inside with the air on after about the first two weeks of June. If they could bear the heat, they sat on screened porches because the mosquitoes got as big and hairy as Shih Tzus.
Winters lasted nine months, and the same rule held true: stay inside.
“Bigelow,” Bridget said. “The town where living human beings are sighted only during the month of October.”
Privately, she thought people in Minnesota were wimps. She only dimly remembered her life in Chicago, but there you were out no matter what the weather.
The Flannerys’ business didn’t fail (and neither did Euro-Cuts, which opened two years later).
Bridget was like her parents. She believed absolutely that there was nothing truly impossible for her. The bike jump at the end of the cul-de-sac was sort of for the boys; but Bridget, in her silver helmet, routinely sailed off it, and landed safely.
“I’m self-relying,” she told Maureen when they were nine or ten. “My parents let me stay home alone since I was seven. With the baby.”
The Flannerys bought the Stoddard house, on the same block as the O’Malleys but, for practical purposes, on another planet. Wynn Stoddard had owned four banks before his death from a stroke, after which Annika Stoddard just couldn’t keep the place up. Although none of the O’Malley kids had ever really seen the inside of the Stoddard house, they imagined it was like a house where movie stars lived. The room Bridget’s parents would sleep in was as big as the whole downstairs at the O’Malleys’. There was a pool with a slide behind black iron gates in the back. In the tile at the bottom of the pool was a mosaic of a dolphin.
Naturally, everybody expected the Flannerys to be stuck up.
They weren’t at all. They were friendly and thoughtful and had big block parties.
Stuck up or not, Maury saw early on that Bridget would always get away with murder. She took money from the family’s Christmas charity jar and bought twenty kids soft-serve from the Big Dipper truck. She climbed so high into the poplar tree in her yard that when a storm approached, her mother had to call the fire department to rescue her while the tree swayed back and forth and Bridget, unafraid, waved to the other kids on the block—whose parents kept yelling at them to come inside.
The tree incident had happened the summer that the Flannerys moved to Bigelow. Maureen was only one of the crowd of kids from Bigelow Court who watched in awe. She didn’t know Bridget to speak to, only to admire.
But on the first day of kindergarten, Bridget asked Maureen, “Do you want to be my friend?”
When Bridget asked her if she wanted to be friends, Maury didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have friends yet; she only played with her mother and her brothers and her cousins.
“Don’t you want to be my friend?” Bridget asked again, stepping a pace closer.
Maureen shrugged, unsure of what to say. The new girl’s pigtails looked exactly like her own pigtails, her greenish eyes duplicates of hers. But Bridget wore Top Shelf jean shorts and a shirt that spelled out ANGEL DOLL in rhinestones. Maureen wore a terry cloth top with a kitty on the shoulder that her mother bought at Koberly’s for seven dollars and ninety-nine cents. All the O’Malley kids only had clothes that “went” with all their other clothes.
“If you want to be my friend,” Bridget went on, “you have to do what I tell you.”
This was the test. What Bridget told Maury to do was to help lock the door and push all the little desks against it when Teacher left the room to get her new attendance book. Terrified, Maury found herself shoving desks over to the door as they listened to the teacher’s outraged pounding. She did pee her pants a little and start to cry. But she did what Bridget told her.
“Don’t be a baby!” Bridget told her sharply. “If you’re a scaredy-baby, we can’t have any fun.”
A maintenance guy ended up having to climb in the window and let Miss Hoskins back into her own room.
This set the pattern for Bridget’s and Maureen’s life for the next eleven years.
When six girls went to RollerAmerica with Mrs. Flannery for Bridget’s ninth birthday, Bridget told Maureen that only babies held on at the top of the roller coaster. It wasn’t until the second time around that Maureen noticed that she and Bridget were the only ones with their hands up.
The dares never stopped.
They stole glitter eye shadow from the sale bins at Koberly’s. Maureen—who probably looked as helplessly guilty as if she’d stolen diamonds instead of a tiny plastic case containing a cake of blue and a cake of gold—was the one who got caught.
But Bridget stuck by her.
“It was all my idea!” Bridget insisted to the mean lady store detective who saw this only as evidence of Bridget’s virtue. Bridget was relieved, but horrified that Maury had to take the punch.
“You’re lucky to have a friend who tries to protect you!” the mean lady lectured Maureen. And as a punishment, she made Maureen put on all kinds of makeup and then called her parents so they could see her looking that way.
Mrs. O’Malley grounded Maureen for three weeks; but Bridget, who was truly sorry, rigged a basket-and-string system outside Maureen’s window so that she could send up more stolen makeup and a box of gourmet brownies left over from an “Occasion.”
She gave Maureen things that her own family would never be able to afford—and for keeps, no take backs: fuzzy sweaters, stuffed animals, bubble bath, an MP3 player with FLANNERY’S OCCASIONS etched into the case. When they both had a crush on Brandon Hillier, they called him from pay phones so he’d never be able to trace their number. After he started going out with Becca Donahue, they scraped the filling out of Oreos and replaced it with toothpaste, leaving the cookies in a red bag covered with hearts and tied with a bow outside Brandon’s locker, signing it with a forgery of Becca’s big, babyish scrawl.
Bridget loved Maureen. Even after she fell in love forever with Danny Carmody, Bridget pledged to see Danny only on Saturday nights—both so that she wouldn’t get the reputation of being a “wifey girl” and so that Maureen, who didn’t have a guy, wouldn’t feel left out.
Maureen managed to keep Bridget’s sweet sixteen party from her for six weeks—even though Bridget’s parents and half of the class were in on it.
Nothing fazed Bridget.
But when she complained about having to help her siblings take down the tent in the giant heated display shed that cold night, only to have three hundred colored lanterns burst to life and a hundred kids yell “Surprise!” Bridget melted into tears. Maury was as happy as if Bridget had given her a sweet sixteen party back last spring. She had given Maureen a locket, real gold, with the pictures they’d had taken together at the mall, the black-and-white ones when they wore men’s hats and black slip dresses. And that was really special.
Bridget’s birthday was December 10.
Winter break started December 23, but Maury and Bridget had practice because there was a cheering competition on Christmas Eve. (“It’s sacrilege!” Mrs. O’Malley insisted.)
Maureen didn’t mind—but then she pulled a groin muscle and knew she would have to stuff herself with ibuprofen and wrap her thigh in the morning and even then she might not be in any shape to compete.
“Like we care about this competition! There are like four schools in it! It’s not even a real regional,” said Bridget. “You want me to drive, Maury, so you can rest your leg?”
“That would be great, Bug.”
And they slapped palms and threw their gym bags into the back of Maureen’s Toyota.
county highway g, december 23 7 p.m.
From a branch of one of the trees hung a little letter jacket. From another hung a sock. One of them pointed that out right away. They could see the jacket, the sock, and the glittery little megaphone that hung from the zipper—like grotesque ornaments on a Christmas tree—despite the sheltering wing of pine bough draped in heavy snow.