Sitting Under Starry Skies

Claire Doll

Winter, Jonathan Agee

The parking lot of my old high school looked the same, even in the dark of winter. It was haunting to see the building lit up only by streetlights, to watch the December winds toss forgotten autumn leaves on the gravel, to be the only parked car in the lot. Lacey had the heat blasting in her ancient Honda Accord, and the faint melody of a Christmas song played in the background. It sounded old—“Blue Christmas,” perhaps. As we listened to Elvis Presley’s deep voice, Lacey and I sat in our black dresses and black sweaters and breathed in the cold. 

We didn’t really know why we ended up here, of all places. It was Christmastime, after all, and our hometown had the same charming little atmosphere that it did a year ago when we lived here—ribbons on lampposts, string lights dangling at storefronts, mini-Christmas-trees at every street corner. But there was something different about it all, something that could be explained by the empty sorrow resting in our souls, the black clothing painting us like darkness. Sitting in our laps was the funeral program of Renee Newburg, a girl in our graduating class, a girl who was nineteen, only nineteen, who killed herself just last week.

They say she took too many painkillers. It was a Tuesday night, apparently. She committed suicide, the bottle of pills sitting empty in her lifeless hand, her skin pale, body cold to the touch: the image of death so clearly framed in the shell of a teenager, on show for her parents to see as they returned from daily evening mass. At the funeral, which was overflowing with people from our very small town, people like us who barely even knew her, several family members talked, the pain transparent in their voices. “She was such a beautiful soul,” they said. “Renee wasn’t like this—we didn’t know.” “She just died so young.” 

Lacey shifted in her seat, and the noise pulled me back to the present. “Would you like to get out of the car?”

I nodded. It was cold, freezing cold, but I couldn’t stand the heat any longer.

Our high school had a set of steps leading to the main door. In silence, we sat next to each other on the concrete. We felt our souls grow younger while watching the scattered stars glisten. We wondered about worlds near and far away, worlds where things like this were unimaginable, worlds where the gnawing pain of a strange and distant sorrow didn’t exist. 

“I remember seeing Renee in the hallway,” I said, keeping my voice soft although no one was there to listen. “She seemed nice.”

“Always wearing that pink cardigan, you know the one? It was too big for her,” said Lacey.

“Yeah,” I said, and then realized this was shallow, the way we talked about her clothes as if they were her, the way we never knew Renee as a real person, and we never had the responsibility to, but still, it felt wrong. “What do you think she was like?” I asked.

Lacey stayed quiet for a bit, pondering the question. “I don’t really know. She was in my chemistry class sophomore year. She was smart, always answering the questions. That’s really all.”

A small silence stretched in between us before I decided to talk. “Renee once sat with me at lunch. This was senior year, just last year. We spoke for a little, mainly because we had known each other since elementary school, but this was the first time we ever really talked. She said she wanted to be a teacher. Teach language arts or history or something to middle school.” It was true— Renee was one of those girls who I would nod to in the hallway, who I always assumed was fine. Didn’t I assume everyone was fine? A strange pain tugged at my heart, and I couldn’t figure out if it was grief or guilt.

“I can’t believe she killed herself. Do you think her parents knew she was struggling?” asked Lacey.

I shrugged. “I-I don’t know. I couldn’t ever imagine feeling that way. Or knowing someone who felt that way.”

“Maybe they didn’t know.”

More silence. And then I felt the sting of my tears, one single drop spilling down my cheeks before I was quietly sobbing. My breaths grew unsteady, the cold air feeling like a stiff pressure against my skin. 

“Anna, what’s wrong?” Lacey asked.

I didn’t know. I couldn’t explain it. I did not know this girl at all, only saw her in passing, never went past small talk. She had grown up in this same small town as us, lived only a couple streets over in a white and black single-family home. When we all went off to our separate universities, Renee stayed here, went to community college and worked full-time at the bagel shop. And then we came home and she killed herself and the funeral was held a week before Christmas Eve mass. And we barely even knew her. 

“Lacey,” I began, “do you ever wonder why things like this happen?”

She shook her head. “No. I don’t think anyone does. They just do. The most we can do is offer support and whatnot. Like going to the funeral.”

I nodded. Then I stopped. “It’s all just so weird. I feel strange, almost, like I was meant to know Renee, as if I should feel guilty for going off to college and coming back and simply hearing the news that she died. It’s so…unexplainable.”

“I understand,” said Lacey. She turned to face the empty high school parking lot, the backdrop of the main road glowing in the dark of night. “Remember when this felt like our whole world?”


“That’s because it was, at one point.” Lacey pulled her jacket closer to her body. “It’s weird, knowing that pieces of our world are taken out like that, so suddenly. We don’t expect every little thing to be meaningful, until it is, and we are just too late to see that.”

I drew in a long breath and sighed. “Yeah. You’re right.” Then I pictured Renee: tall, brunette, with delicate sky-blue eyes; her smile, soft and shy, but beautiful; the way she wrapped that cardigan around her body when we passed her in the hallway; the way she would have made an amazing teacher; the way she probably drowned in her own struggles and thoughts, suffering alone in the isolation of her mind. Every thought and experience she ever had was gone, along with each pain she felt and dream she dreamt. All of her was gone. 

“It’s cold,” said Lacey. “I’ll drop you off at your house?”

“That sounds fine,” I said.

So we got back into the small Honda, the Christmas music still playing—this time it was Mariah Carey—and Lacey pulled out of the parking lot and drove off, heading towards the same backroad leading to my childhood home. Still, I wasn’t sure why we ended up at our old high school tonight. Maybe it was the product of our unrecognized grief, the longing in our heart to go somewhere familiar, someplace where we could fall back on memories of innocence. As I stared out the car window blankly, I watched images of ribbons on lampposts and dangling string lights pass slowly before me, and my tears remained welling in my eyes, never even falling.

About the Author

Claire Doll · Mount St. Mary’s University

Claire Doll attends Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and studies English and secondary education. She edits her college’s literary magazine, Lighted Corners, and has her work published in several journals. In her free time, she enjoys reading and drinking coffee. These pieces first appeared in Lighted Corners.

About the Artist

Jonathan Agee · Georgia Institute of Technology

Jonathan Agee enjoys making simple compositions using natural light and shooting with primes, due to the thought process they foster in the user. In his work he uses various 35mm SLRs, a 35mm Rangefinder, and a Nikon DSLR. This image first appeared in Georgia Tech’s literary journal, Erato. This piece was first featured in plain china in 2018.

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