It was a cool April morning when Maggie and her parents pulled up to the airport terminal in Fiumicino, Italy, just outside of Rome. Spring break had flown by and it would be two months before she could come back to see her parents. Maggie had spent her whole life moving around Europe; her father was a sought after global economics professor and taught at various universities. She and her mother joked that he couldn’t stand to be at one university for more than two years and then he had to move on. He was quick to point out that the next offer was usually more lucrative. Either way, Maggie was homeschooled. When she reached the age for high school, all three decided she needed stability and the opportunity to develop lasting friendships with kids her own age. After some research and a few entrance exams, she had earned a full, four-year scholarship to Easton Academy in Virginia. They knew this first year would be the hardest. Maggie was mature for her age, but she was still a fifteen-year-old girl.
As her father unloaded the car, Maggie leaned down to hug her mother. Valeria Murano Curran stood only five-foot-one compared to Maggie at fivefoot-six. She could smell the vanilla in her mother’s shampoo as she buried her face in her hair. It was a smell she would try to remember often between visits.
She squeezed her tight and whispered, “Te amo, Mami.”
Valeria tearfully responded, “Te amo, mi hija.”
William Curran set Maggie’s luggage on the curb and reached for his hug. Maggie reached up and William scooped her up in his arms. She could feel the prickle of his beard against her chin and smiled.
“I love you, Daddy,” Maggie said with tears in her eyes.
“I love you more,” William replied with a twinkle in his.
When she was a little girl, after her studies and music lessons, she and her mother would go over to the University and Valeria would work with music students there and let Maggie play in her dad’s office. Maggie loved the smell of her father’s attaché. It always smelled of his pipe. Her mother used to tease him that he looked like an old man smoking one, but he thought it would make him look more like a professor. He had black hair with premature gray and always wore a beard to cover his baby face. Wherever he went, his female students swooned. But William only had eyes for one woman, Maggie’s mother. She was the woman who gave up everything, including her family, to marry him and go on this adventure.
At thirty-eight, Valeria was still a beauty. She was full-blooded Castilian with shiny black hair and the greenest eyes. With the exception of height, Maggie looked exactly like her mother. She even had her mother’s beautiful voice. It had always been the three of them against the world; that was their family motto.
The family’s heartfelt goodbyes were cut short by impatient honking behind them. It was a busy airport, even this early in the morning. Maggie gave the strongest smile she could muster, waved goodbye, and walked toward the entrance as her parents quickly got in their car to move out of the unloading zone.
She turned back for one more look as the car drove away and felt an uneasy feeling wash over her. She chalked it up to the homesickness already setting in. As she boarded the plane, she had no way of knowing her life was about to change forever.
It had been a long trip back to Virginia. Maggie was exhausted and looking forward to falling into bed. It may have only been 7:30 EST but her body was still on Italian time. As her taxi pulled up to Easton, she noticed a police car in front of the Admin building, along with a black Lincoln Town Car. It seemed odd to her but she was so tired she didn’t pay too much attention. Once in front of her dorm, however, the crowd of students made it a little hard to ignore that something was wrong. As soon as she stepped out of the taxi, Graham Ashford, her best friend, stepped forward. He paid the driver and started giving orders to the students hovering around.
“Lana, you and Ashley take Maggie’s bags to her room, okay?” He looked at them as if it was a rhetorical question. They nodded blankly in reply.
“Maggie, where are your room keys?” Graham was looking at her intently and she was completely in a fog.
After having to think for a moment, she replied, “In the front pocket of my backpack.”
Graham nodded at the girls and then took Maggie by the arm and started walking swiftly to the Administration building. Maggie still couldn’t imagine why all the lights were on inside. It was only Saturday. School didn’t start until Monday and, even so, the Admin building closed by 5:00. She stopped short and Graham nearly tripped.
“Graham, am I in trouble? Am I being expelled or something?” Maggie asked, starting to panic.
“No, it’s nothing like that. You didn’t do anything wrong. Please, let’s just go. Mrs. Branson is waiting.”
Mrs. Branson was the dean of the school, and Maggie knew Mrs. Branson was fond of her. She wracked her brain as they walked and could not imagine what she could have done that the dean had to see her immediately upon her return from spring break. Graham was sweating bullets and looked like he was going to throw up. It wasn’t like him to be this uptight with her. She didn’t have much longer to think about it because they were standing in front of the building. Mrs. Branson was in the doorway waiting.
“Thank you, Graham, that will be all.” She smiled calmly.
“If it’s okay with you, Mrs. Branson, I’d like to wait a little while,” Graham said, holding back tears. She nodded and motioned to the sofa in the lobby.
“Maggie, let’s go to my office upstairs. There are a couple of people here who need to talk to you.” Mrs. Branson took Maggie by the hand and led her up the stairs. Maggie looked at Graham with a lost expression on her face. As soon as she was out of view, Graham broke down sobbing. He ran into the bathroom so she wouldn’t hear him.
When Maggie stepped into Mrs. Branson’s office, she saw a state trooper and a dark-haired man who was dressed in an expensive suit. Mrs. Branson motioned for Maggie to sit. Instead of sitting behind her desk, Mrs. Branson pulled another chair beside Maggie and held her hand. Maggie started to break out in a cold sweat. “Officer Garrett with the Virginia State Police, and Signor Vittolo, the Italian ambassador here in the U.S.” Mrs. Branson gestured at the gentlemen sitting across from Maggie.
Maggie’s face was white as ash.
Signor Vittolo spoke first. He used her full name. “Magdalena, I am very sorry to inform you this morning in Rome your parents were involved in an automobile accident. They did not survive.” He made the sign of the cross as he delivered this crushing information.
She heard screaming. It was so loud, she couldn’t tell where it was coming from. She felt Mrs. Branson’s arms around her, trying to soothe her. It was then she realized that it was her; she was screaming. Maggie felt her world disintegrate around her in a single moment. She screamed as she watched her life fly away. Downstairs, Graham heard Maggie scream. He fell to his knees and punched the sofa cushions and cried and yelled. How could this happen to her? How could she lose both her parents at once, so tragically? He knew she had no other family, not another soul in the world. When all the rage had left his body, he lay on the sofa and cried for his best friend. He cried for the girl he loved.
Upstairs, Maggie had stopped screaming and had grown disturbingly quiet. Signor Vittolo took this opportunity to ask a question he hated to ask but had to.
“Magdalena, we would like to follow your wishes regarding your parents’ remains. Please let us know what family member we should contact to take care of this for you.”
She looked at him with green eyes overflowing with tears. Her voice was barely audible. “I don’t have any family. It was just me and my parents.”
The enormity of the statement sent another tidal wave of grief washing over Maggie. It took a few moments before she could speak again.
“They both wanted to be cremated. Could you please put them in the same urn? They would want to be together. Please engrave it with Juntos en la vida, en el amor, y en la muerte.” Maggie choked back tears as she explained. “It means: Together in life, in love, and in death.”
She took another deep breath and said she would arrange a funeral mass here once she received the remains.
Signor Vittolo made some brief notes and softly said, “Of course. Please know your father’s friends from the University have offered to pack up your home and send you their belongings, all on the University’s account.” Signor Vittolo fought back his own tears as Maggie nodded her thanks and tears streamed down her face.
Officer Garrett, a solid brick of a man who remained emotionless through the meeting, decided to exert his presence.
“Ms. Curran, if I understood you correctly, you have no other family?” Maggie nodded. “Well then, we are going to need to get Social Services involved and get you into a foster home.” Officer Garrett seemed to smirk as he made notes in his notebook.
Maggie was furious. So was Mrs. Branson.
“Officer Garrett, this is neither the time nor the place for this discussion. If you had asked me about this earlier, I would have advised you and provided documentation that she is an emancipated minor. Therefore, no Social Services and no foster home are necessary.” Mrs. Branson practically spat the words in Garrett’s face.
“No problem; saves me the headache,” he coolly responded. “Ms. Curran, there is just one more thing I need from you.”
Officer Garrett pulled out a folder, opened it, and shoved it in front of Maggie before Signor Vittolo or Mrs. Branson realized what he was doing.
“As their only surviving relative, I need you to positively identify Valeria Murano Curran and William James Curran.”
Maggie stared at the pictures in front of her. It was the first picture of her parents after the accident. Their heads were distorted from the impact; there was blood covering their faces and clothes. She ran her hands over their faces, where she had kissed them goodbye that morning. The smell of vanilla. The feel of her father’s beard. It was her parents in this picture but it couldn’t be. Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe. She started gasping for air. Her heart was beating so fast, it felt like it would leap from her chest. She was oblivious to the yelling going on around her. Mrs. Branson and Signor Vittolo were in a screaming match with Garrett for showing the pictures to Maggie. The bodies had already been identified by a family friend in Italy. It was pure cruelty.
Maggie could no longer bear to sit in the small, stifling office. She stood up and ran out into the hallway. She frantically searched for somewhere she could go and hide. She just needed to breathe. She finally settled on the far end of the hallway, hidden halfway behind the ficus tree. She tried closing her eyes but all she could see was the horrible picture of her parents. She opened her eyes. She was crying hysterically, which made it even harder for her to breathe.
Mrs. Branson cleared the gentlemen out of her office and ran to find Maggie. Graham heard Mrs. Branson calling her name and he ran upstairs. While the dean was checking the ladies’ room, Graham spotted Maggie at the end of the hall. He ran to her, yelling her name. She made no acknowledgment. Maggie’s breathing was ragged and rapid. Graham picked her up off the ground and helped her over to the sofa. Mrs. Branson hurried over. As she looked at Maggie, she realized she was in a full-blown panic attack. Mrs. Branson made the decision to call the school doctor. He was closer than the nearest hospital. While waiting for the doctor to arrive, Graham held her in his arms.
Graham held Maggie’s face in his hands and said, “Breathe in, hold it, breathe out.” Graham repeated this phrase over and over and she obeyed, never breaking eye contact with him. It took an endless fifteen minutes for Dr. Cooper to arrive, but Maggie’s breathing had slowed by the time he reached her. The three of them were able to get her back to her room and Graham volunteered to stay with her through the night. Dr. Cooper gave her a sedative that would allow her to sleep. He promised to have a top-notch psychiatrist he knew in Charlottesville visit the school the next day. Maggie would need intense therapy to work through her loss. Dr. Cooper also left a prescription for Xanax to help her with the panic attacks in the meantime.
Maggie’s roommate had failed out after the first semester, so Graham made up the extra bed in her room. Mrs. Branson bent the rules and let him stay. She knew they were best friends and, should Maggie wake up during the night, Graham could calm her better than she or anyone else could.
Maggie slept restlessly until Graham went and lay beside her. Once he held her, she fell into a deep sleep. This began a pattern that would last the rest of the year. Graham would sneak into Maggie’s room every night after lights out. It was the only way she could keep the nightmares at bay