This is a short story by Shawn Pfister from her compilation My Vampire Prom Date and other stories. This is some good young adult fiction, you should pick it up, especially for someone in junior high or high school.
The Death of Eleanor
Nobody seems to remember anything about Eleanor’s death, but that never stopped the rumors from starting. I remember how and when they started. Nobody can state the facts. When asked they always start with, “Well, I heard…” In fact, the only consistency to the rumors is that it happened a few weeks before summer ended the year we graduated from high school.
I know what happened, but nobody ever asked me. I was Eleanor’s friend and most people didn’t want to upset me by bringing something like this up. The rest assumed that I had something to do with the murder and were afraid to ask for fear of their own lives. I could only assume that’s why nobody ever asked her family, either.
The rumors were plentiful. Each more elaborate and interesting than the one before it until eventually Eleanor became a legend in our small hub of a town. And of course, this being a small town rumors spread faster than Colleen Smith on prom night, but then, that’s a completely unrelated rumor.
Eleanor wasn’t all that pretty and she wasn’t popular and she didn’t wear trendy clothes and the boys—well, everybody really—didn’t even seem to know she existed. Eleanor didn’t have many friends, it was just Eleanor, Becky and me. Then Becky started to drift away until she wouldn’t even say hi to Eleanor in the hallway at school.
Eleanor’s family was very poor and everybody knew that she wouldn’t be going to college because she had to help support and take care of her three younger brothers and two younger sisters. Her dad was an alcoholic and couldn’t keep a job for more than a week to save his life and her mother couldn’t support the family on her own just working days at the local gas station. Eleanor had been working at the Piggly Wiggly since she turned fifteen and all of her money went towards putting food on the table.
But one Monday near the end of the summer Eleanor didn’t show up for work. This didn’t seem to bother old man Walker, the manager, even though she had never missed a day or called in sick in her life. But it was his assistant manager Carl Turner’s job to call missing employees. He called her house and spoke with her father who informed him that Eleanor never came home from work the Friday before, but he hadn’t called the police. His wife had told him why, but he forgot.
Colleen worked with Eleanor at the grocery store that summer and she overheard Carl’s end of the conversation and picked up enough information to start the rumors. They were small at first: Eleanor was sick, she had run away, she had been beaten by her father. Those rumors barely went past the checkout girls.
But, as the days turned into weeks with no sign of Eleanor, the rumors took a turn for the worse and people started to get interested in them. Eleanor was dead, she had been killed by her father in a drunken rage and then the rest of the family covered it up to save him from yet another court date.
The police even showed up at Eleanor’s house one day and had a long conversation with her mother over Kool Aid and Oreo cookies. The cops never investigated further, people started to suspect that they were involved, too. People started to avoid Eleanor’s family, speaking in a hushed whisper when they were around.
I went on to college a month after Eleanor disappeared and expected the rumors to die down after a short time, but when I came back for school breaks the rumors were still going. Apparently there wasn’t much going on to take over Eleanor’s spot on the gossip train. Mr. Johnson’s garage had burned down, but that was explained and even rebuilt pretty quickly and so people lost interest. The local Amoco had been broken into, but they found the two kids that did it.
Nothing was as interesting as Eleanor had become, especially since they still had yet to find a body.
Eleanor’s mother and I got together every once in a while to share the rumors that we had overheard. Nobody would speak to either of us directly because of our relationships with Eleanor and because some of the rumors placed the blame on us. Between the two of us we pieced together the rumors that we overheard when people didn’t know we were there or didn’t know who we were. And of course, after a year or two, everybody knew who we were.
The rumors varied. She had been hit by a car one or two counties over, depending on which version you heard, and left to bleed to death in a ditch and then get buried unidentified in an unmarked grave.
She had been kidnapped, raped and murdered by some drifter passing through town, sometimes by Mr. Walker even, because he was a forty something year old man that never married and never dated. Eleanor once told me, as she was on very sociable relations with Mr. Walker, that he had a partner who lived in the city that came by every once in a while. She had even met him once or twice.
She had hung herself on a tree in the woods, shot herself over by the duck pond and her body had fallen in, slit her wrists in the woods. Every time she killed herself it was somewhere where nobody would find the body easily or it would have been found.
My favorite rumor was the one that stemmed from Eleanor’s mother and me always being seen together in the coffee shop: Eleanor had caught the two of us having an affair and threatened to tell her father so we killed her and hid the body. That was one of the more outlandish rumors and wasn’t a very popular one, but we assumed it was why nobody would talk to us.
The most commonly accepted rumor though, is the one about her father killing her in a drunken rage. It made sense, she had been known to come to school sometimes with bruises and to some it was a logical conclusion that the abuse turned fatal. Nobody seemed to remember the autistic fifteen-year-old brother that was built like a linebacker and sometimes had to be tackled to the ground to prevent him from hurting one of the little kids.
The really funny thing is that the rumors never died. Even after I graduated college four years later they were still going strong, new ones even, some involving government conspiracies and aliens from outer space. In life nobody knew who Eleanor was, but in death she was a legend, a hero, a martyr. I guess what kept the rumors going for so long was that her body had never been found. Even after all these years nobody found it while hiking in the woods or swimming in the pond, both of which became much more popular activities after Eleanor disappeared. People just wanted to be the one to find the body so that they could be as popular as Eleanor.
What really happened to Eleanor was nowhere near as dramatic, complicated or painful as the rumors had built it up to be. Eleanor did what the rest of us could only dream about: she got out of this God-forsaken town. The rest of us either stayed after graduation or came back after college. It was only Eleanor that was gone and there was never any explanation as to why.
But I remember what happened that Friday night perfectly, although nobody ever asked me. I remember how Eleanor’s mother and I had picked her up from the Piggly Wiggly and she hugged Mr. Walker good-bye. I remember the bus stop where we waited for the Greyhound to come and take her and her one tattered suitcase away to the city.
People didn’t know this about Eleanor, mainly because none of them ever spoke to her, but she was smart and had won quite a few scholarships and what those couldn’t take care of, financial aid did. She wanted to leave a few weeks early so that she could find a job and settle into the room she was going to be renting from Mr. Walker’s partner.
We had told Eleanor’s dad about her going after we got back from dropping her off. He had been opposed to anyone in his family going to college, after all he had never gone and look how he turned out he’d always told Eleanor. Of course, he probably was drunk and didn’t remember, or had been drunk when Carl called from the grocery store, or both, because he couldn’t even remember that his daughter had left town three days after it happened.
Eleanor has still got a few more years left at school. She’s going to be a doctor, but she’s not sure if she’s going to come back here to practice or not. She still sends most of her paycheck home to help with her family. We still write to each other and I’ve even been to visit her once in awhile, but she doesn’t have the money to come back, even for vacations, she just stays and works. But she did come back once for her father’s funeral. Nobody recognized her and it was the only public appearance she had made since she died. Everyone just thought she was a cousin or something.
She knows about the rumors and thinks they’re funny. Whenever she calls she starts the conversation with a giggle and “How did I die this week?” I think a part of her likes that she’s so popular, because nobody had ever paid attention to her when she was alive.