Sondra never got a chance to talk to Howie about the trip.
After school on Monday, she rode with him, in Aunt Irene’s car, to the store. They talked about the University of Colorado the whole way there and once at Apple’s Uncle Simon sent her to the children’s department and Howie to shoes. The rest of the week, Howie was preoccupied and rather irritable. Sondra hoped it was because of trouble with Patty, but suspected that it was on account of a term paper that was overdue. Maybe they’d be able to take a lunch break together Saturday.
The house was surprisingly quiet as Sondra made her way down the stairs early Saturday morning. There was no radio, no water running, no sound of boiled milk being poured into glass galleon jars. It was still dark out, but as Sondra walked through the living room, she was able to see her parents sitting at the kitchen table doing nothing. They looked at her as she entered the room and then gave each other a long look. Helga’s eyes were swollen and she silently nodded at her husband.
“Sit down, sweetie,” Julius ordered.
Sondra did as she was told, her heart beating rapidly.
Her father took her hands in his. “There was a bad accident late last night. Four kids were killed. One of them was Howie.”
“I don’t understand,” Sondra’s lower lip began to tremble as if her teeth were chattering but she was not cold. “Howie had to get up early to go to the store. He wouldn’t have stayed out late.”
“Well, he did,” Helga didn’t mean to snap.
Sondra studied her parents, trying to make some sense out of what they were telling her. She tried to keep her lip from shaking, but it would not stop. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“He was already gone,” Julius shook his head.
“He died instantly,” Helga added gently. “He didn’t suffer.”
Julius kept his daughter's hands in his and the three sat in silence.
“Who were the others?” Sondra finally asked.
Again her parents shared long looks.
Helga sighed and wrung her hands. “Patty, Charlie Carson…”
“And Joy,” Sondra said resignedly.
“I’m sorry,” Helga put her arms around her daughter. Sondra let her mother embrace her, but she did not cry. The tears were stuck in her throat and it ached horribly, but she could not cry.
Julius finally let go of Sondra's hands and stood up. "Your Oma should be awake now. I told Herbert I would break the news to her.
"I'll come with you," Helga stood up, also.
"You're going to leave me here by myself?" Sondra knew she sounded like a five-year-old, but she was afraid to be alone.
"Get dressed quickly," Helga answered. "You can come with us."
Later, when Sondra looked back on the day it was a blur of different memories with no beginning or end.
The front page of the morning paper would haunt her for years. Charlie’s red Jaguar was a mangled mess, hit by a Santa Fe locomotive. Rescue workers were gathered around the scene. The midnight sky was dark and cloudy. It looked like something from a nightmare.
It had been a shock to see her Aunt Irene in her nightgown and robe without make-up or her hair brushed. Sondra wondered if her elegant aunt would ever care about her appearance again. Would her Uncle Herbert ever laugh again? Her Oma seemed to have aged ten years from the time her father had told her the news.
Sondra had finally been able to cry with Lisa. The two cousins had sat together on Lisa's bed and tried to make sense of the accident. Recalling all the times she had prayed that Howie would not marry Patty, Sondra had worried if this might have been G-d's answer to her prayers.
By midmorning, almost all of the family had gathered at Irene and Herbert's home. Everyone had something to say and there were countless calls to be made. Finding the phone always busy, numerous friends and acquaintances stopped by. The doorbell did not stop ringing. Conversations were going on in every corner of the house. Sondra's head was pounding and her eyes hurt. So when Jane came to the door to offer her sympathy and ask Sondra if she wanted to go for a walk, Sondra gratefully agreed.
Although, it seemed light years earlier, it had been just a little over a week ago that she had told Brian all Jane wanted to talk about was Jesus. Sondra had spent most of the fall avoiding conversations with her old friend, but now she appreciated Jane's company. Silently and companionably, they headed for the university campus. There was no problem finding a vacant bench. The cold, dreary weather kept most of the students indoors, but it was perfect for Sondra's mood.
"Joy's funeral is going to be Monday afternoon," Jane broke the silence as they settled under a naked oak tree.
"Are you going to come?"
"I don't know." Sondra dug her hands deeper into her coat pocket.
"I talked to Christine. She's coming in. She wants to see you. If you're not up to going, maybe we should get together afterwards, just the three of us."
"And talk about Joy." Sondra nodded. "That might be nice." She sighed and tried to imagine sitting with her friends and having a nice time.
"When is Howie's funeral?"
"Tomorrow at one. His grandparents and some other relatives are flying into Wichita in the morning. I think my father and Oscar are going to pick them up."
"You know, when I heard the news I called your house and no one answered, so I got dressed and went to Apple's. Someone told me that none of the family came to work today."
"I forgot all about the store," Sondra answered diffidently. "It sure doesn't seem important right now."
There was another silence as Sondra watched two squirrels scamper between the trees.
"Sondra," Jane spoke earnestly. "I feel so terrible about Howie. If only he had accepted Jesus as his savior he would be in Heaven now, instead of burning in Hell. But it's not too late for you."
"Don't do this." Sondra shook her head. "Don't take advantage of my grief. G-d made me Jewish for a reason."
"I just want to help you because I care about you."
"No, Jane," Sondra moaned. "If you stop now we can still be friends. If you try and convert me now, there will be nothing left of our friendship."
"Have it your way," Jane raised her hands in submission and smiled graciously. Her eyes did not smile, though, and Sondra knew, even though they talked quietly on the way back to Howie's house, that their friendship was finished. Of course, everything she knew of her life in Lincoln High School was finished.
Even though the temperature was predicted to be only thirty-five degrees, the sun was shining the next day and that made it bearable at the cemetery. While there had been only a handful of people at both Opa's and Uncle Eli's funerals, there were so many people at Howie's that the crowd overflowed into the pasture. Since she was part of the family, Sondra was up close, next to the open grave, but she still saw many faces of her and Howie's classmates in the crowd.
Everyone seemed to be in a state of shock, and suddenly Sondra realized that it was not only the Apfelbaum family that had been struck a blow but also the Carsons, the Jenkinses, and the Charleses. And anyone who was connected to any of the four families would have a share in the grief. That meant about everyone in school, and probably most of the town, would be grieving. She knew that when she went back to school, she would be the center of attention, just as she had shared Howie's spotlight four years earlier when the write-up of his bar mitzvah had been in the Sunday paper. She did not know how she was going to face it.
Sondra did not go back to school right away. Following the funeral, as they all sat eating the dairy mourners' meal, Uncle Herbert announced that he was going to observe a full week of shiva for his son.
"Who is going to feed the cattle?" Berta asked.
"Mac can handle things for the week. If there are any problems he can call me. I'll be here." Herbert wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.
Sondra remembered that the family had sat shiva when Opa had died. But that had been eruv Pesach, and they had only sat for an hour. Then they had gotten up and showered and begun the Seder. What a subdued Seder that had been. Sondra knew from her reading that the only ones who were supposed to sit shiva were Howie's parents and sister. As only a cousin, she was not even considered a mourner, but she certainly felt like a mourner. Her grandmother wasn't a mourner either, but Sondra was sure Oma would be at her son's house for the week. So would Aunt Irene's parents. Most likely Helga would spend most of the week there, too, helping out with the cooking and laundry. Sondra was certain that she did not belong in school the coming week. She should be at Howie's helping her mother. Right now Lisa and Rachel were inseparable, but Rachel was going back to Kansas City that evening and Lisa would need her. So would Oma, for that matter. Later, after the house was cleaned up and kaddish recited at the evening service, Sondra told her parents what she wanted to do. To her surprise, they did not hesitate for even a moment to give her permission to stay out of school for the week.
Although there had been hundreds at Howie's funeral, few came to his home to pay condolence call. Most people felt it was a Jewish custom and that they did not belong. But a few teachers, some of his teammates and the neighbors stopped by in the evenings. Dr. Cohen made sure to bring some Jewish students every evening for the services so that Herbert could say kaddish.
The mornings turned out to be family time. Sitting in the living room they looked at old pictures and shared stories about Howie. Sondra reminded them about the first time Howie had worked in the store and had gotten the price on the dress pants wrong and he had sold fifteen pairs of pants in two hours and Uncle Simon had lost money on every one of them. They laughed so hard at that story that they had tears in their eyes and then they cried.
"I wish it could have been me instead of Howie," Uncle Simon said sorrowfully. "I've had eighty-nine good years. He only had sixteen."
"That's not what G-D wanted," Irene answered gently.
Sondra noticed that her aunt was wearing her make-up and jewelry again. Next week, she would be going back to her volunteer work at the hospital. On the outside, it looked as if all was normal, but Sondra couldn't help but wonder if her aunt would ever be the same on the inside.
Lisa was very grateful for her cousin's company. They spent a lot of time in Lisa's room talking together, just the two of them. On Thursday, Lisa brought up the subject of G-d and questioned why He had let the accident happen.
"Remember how I told you I was jealous of Howie?" Lisa asked
"Yes." Sondra nodded her head.
"Do you think G-D is punishing me for being jealous?"
"No!" Sondra cried. She put her arm around her younger cousin. "All brothers and sisters are jealous of each other sometimes."
"I'll never be able to be jealous of him again." Lisa spoke mournfully.
"No," Sondra agreed. "And now we don't have to worry about him marrying Patty."
"Do you think that's why the accident happened?" Lisa asked.
"I don't know," Sondra answered miserably. "I used to pray every night that he wouldn't marry her, but this isn't the way I wanted G-d to answer me."
"Maybe G-D punished Howie for dating a non-Jew," Lisa stated. "What do you think?"
"I don't know," Sondra answered helplessly. All the wonderful Shabbats she had experienced had not prepared her for philosophical discussions about death. As she was searching for a comforting answer there was a knock on the door.
"Sondra," Helga called. "You have a visitor."
Tucking her blouse in, Sondra followed her mother into the living room and was surprised to see Mr. Marcus talking compassionately with her aunt and uncle and the others.