I don’t think anyone meant to forget Emily during the game last week. She must’ve thought she was being clever, hiding where none of our pea-sized brains could fathom. Not after climbing up dusty attics or dragging aside boxes of wine, not after hollering for her to come out because we had given up even though we had not truly given up. A battle of wills: who would cave first. Except for Ken. Ken was smart. But Ken started complaining that he was hungry, and no one knew how to use anything beyond the microwave except me so we took a break: me, breaking apart squares of ramen noodles over bubbling water and them, inhaling the scent of MSG. We slurped the noodles with chopsticks that we could never crack straight down the center. Our brains were high on serotonin, too drowsy to consider any stragglers. We left for the day.
When we go back looking for her, Ken insists we haven’t searched everywhere even though I’m sure we did. He says Emily could’ve hidden in the coffin, but I don’t remember there being any coffin. Got herself locked in, Ken jokes. He knocks his fist on a wall. Knock knock knock bet she’s tired and hungry now, wants us to pry her out, Ken says. Even if a coffin exists, Emily wouldn’t ask for help so quickly. If she was hungry, she’d let her stomach growl and look away when heads turned. If she was ever tired, she’d still stand straight, like someone had slipped a steel rod down her spine. She’d rather die first, I think.
Because Ken insists, we go looking for the coffin. Emily hasn’t been reported as missing because her parents only show up at her home once or twice a month. They’re doing grown-up things, Emily had told us. Emily also skipped school regularly. She preferred to sit under the bridge you cross to get to the local drugstore. It’s right beside a lake that’s clean enough for ducks and geese to paddle around in. I’d seen her there when I accompanied my parents to the store, trying to persuade them to buy new flavors of Tic Tacs. Emily’s posture was always upright and tense, her body incapable of folding into the fluffiest patches of grass. Sometimes an older guy would accompany her, pulling her along whenever she fixated too long on the ducks or the quiet ripples in the turquoise waters—at the right angle of sunlight, the lake made a passable mirror. He was at least a head taller than her, but I couldn’t make out his age from the distance. I think he pushed Emily into the water once, but I turned my head before I could see her fall, ran into the drugstore before I could hear the splashes. I asked her who he was during gym class. Emily had a pass that got her out of changing so while we were all stripping off our shirts and trying to disguise our glances at who wore real bras and who wore built-in elastic camisole bras, she’d just stand around the locker room. He keeps me company, Emily said. Like Ziggy? I asked while adjusting my cami. Ziggy sat in a long cage in the back of the biology room, the class guinea pig we got to play with if we arrived early to class. No one ever arrived late to bio. Ziggy doesn’t do anything, Emily replied. An unnecessary slight to Ziggy; Ziggy just needed to be cute and fluffy for us to pet, I thought. He gives comfy touches, she continued. Oh, so you’re the one who’s like Ziggy? Emily shrugged. We didn’t see her for a few months after that. Later in health class when Ms. Rabbitt taught us about abstinence and how to use condoms, I heard whispers of “Emily” and “teen pregnancy”, which I ignored because Emily didn’t seem like that kind of girl. Whatever “that kind of girl” meant.
Where’s the coffin? I ask Ken. Buried, Ken says. I don’t question him because speaking up only causes problems. I’m used to not being able to follow Ken’s train of logic. He’s the best in Math Olympiad, so I assume he’s right, even if I don’t follow the mental jumps to get there.
We take two shovels and pairs of bright orange rubber gloves. The gloves are supposed to withstand dropping hammers on your hand, but my parents use them in the kitchen to prevent oil splatters from burning their skin. They don’t do any real manual labor. They hire the high school kids down the street to mow the lawn, shovel the snow, clean out the sewage when squirrels make homes there. No wonder they’re so out of touch with earth and stuff. I guess we’re out of touch with earth too. Maybe it’s just Emily who understands something none of us do, if she is somewhere under the ground, somewhere our shovels should hit as we hunch our backs and loosen more soil and fling it into the air.
Ken’s theory is that the latch snapped shut when Emily slipped in, the room left quiet like no one had ever been there. All I know is even through the gloves, my hands ache as I grip the shovel. The only calluses I have are from holding my pencil the “wrong” way, letting it rest on my middle finger for the extra support. Although it’s more like the pencil supports my hand, a directionless limb without clutching something. My hand spasms against my thigh whenever we’re asked to keep still during class shooter drills. The jitters, Ken calls it. I envy Emily who can sit, knees to her chest, crouched under a desk, numb like a fossil. I’d asked her how she did it and she told me she was used to it, although what “it” was, I didn’t know.
Ken’s shovel thuds against a board. The sound echoes briefly and we stare at each other. We work faster and shovel harder, conjuring energy from our morbid curiosity. Or at least, Ken’s morbid curiosity. I’m not sure what I feel, but I strain my arms and scrape the coffin surface with each stroke. Are we going to save her? I ask Ken. Ken ignores me. He tends to do that: ignore anything below his level of intellect, and I’m no longer certain if he’s pretending or if his brain is conditioned to filter out noise. She’d have suffocated by now, Ken says after a minute.
We kneel as we pry open the covering. There’s no knocking. I lift the head of the lid and Ken lifts the foot-side and we drag it off, letting it thunk to the ground. The coffin is empty. I glare at Ken, what was the whole point — of course Emily isn’t here. Ken points to the lid. The inner side of it is a light brown wood and upon closer inspection, I see scrape marks and brown stains streaking across the fibers, as though someone had clawed their fingernails against the grain, picking up splinters like easter eggs. I itch the space above my forehead. The kind of gesture people say you do when you’re lying, but it’s actually for comfort, self-pacification. Ken crouches down and stares. A stiff, red-brown stump sits in the corner of the container like it had just fallen off a baby’s belly button.