My first semester in college, the weekend before classes began new students were invited on a hiking trip at a local state park. It was to be a three-day excursion, a good opportunity to get to know our future classmates. I didn’t go. But it was all anyone talked about during the first few days of school, not because of the good time they'd had but because one of the hikers, a girl my age, had fallen to her death on the trip.
One day during that first week, I overheard a conversation about the incident from someone who was there. I was sitting at an empty table in a far corner of the cafeteria looking through an Intro. to Sculpture textbook when two students sat down at the next table. Their voices were low, but as there was hardly anyone in the cafeteria, I could hear every word they said.
“What was she like?” asked the girl, squirting mustard out of a packet onto her corndog.
“I don’t know, really,” said the guy, unfolding a paper napkin. “I mean, I’d only met her a couple of days before. But she seemed cool, I guess. She didn’t talk much. But you could tell she was nice, you know?”
“I gotcha,” the girl answered. “How'd it happen anyway? Was she playing around or something?”
“She was off the trail, but I don’t think she was doing anything dangerous or whatever. I don’t know what she was doing. It was like, one minute she was there, right by where we all were, and the next minute she was gone.” He looked up. “She screamed all the way down.”
“Man,” the girl breathed.
“You know what? It sounded like . . . surprise. She sounded surprised.”
On my way out of the cafeteria, I stopped in the lobby of the student center to look at a memorial they'd put up for her. The biographical information said she was from the city of Lenore, not far from Selby, where I was from. Her name was Summer. She'd planned to major in environmental studies, loved the outdoors. A picture showed her smiling, not a big toothy grin like precedes a laugh, just a frank, pleasant smile. She had on a blue top. The picture looked like a school photograph, probably taken when she was still in high school and had everything to look forward to. Before she took that wrong step.
That night I dreamed of Summer falling. I awoke with her surprised scream in my own throat. After that when I passed the memorial in the student center I turned my head away from Summer's smile, her blithe optimism about the future.
A couple of weeks later we studied Frida Kahlo’s paintings in my Visual Thinking class. There was only one of them in the textbook, but since our professor was a fan of her work, she showed us several other paintings on her laptop, even photos of herself at the Casa Azul museum in Mexico City. One painting in particular interested me. Titled The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, it featured a beautiful woman—a New York socialite who'd been jilted by her lover, according to Dr. Lane—in the process of committing suicide. In the middle of the painting stands a tall white skyscraper, before which fall three versions of Dorothy Hale. One is distant, upright: she’s just jumped from the window. The second one is closer, upside down; her body, bigger now, is partially covered by the clouds that swirl around the building. In the third image, Dorothy Hale lies supine in the foreground, her eyes on the viewer. The first version is too far away to make out Dorothy Hale's face, but in the latter two she looks penetratingly out of the painting with an expression of calm control. Nowhere is the violence of her death minimized: the ground beneath her is soaked with her blood. It leaks from one ear and spatters the arm on which her face rests. Scarlet words in cursive script across the bottom of the painting overflow luridly out onto the wooden frame. But notwithstanding the blood, in the last version, Dorothy Hale doesn’t look dead. She appears completely conscious, and as if she’s done just what she meant to do. According to Dr. Lane, the real Dorothy Hale threw herself a going-away party on the night of her suicide. She, at least, wasn’t surprised by death.
The next morning I snuck into the student center not long after it opened, a bleary-eyed time of darkened kiosks and silence so total I could hear the hum of the fluorescent lights. After a quick look around, I slid a finger- and thumbnail under each of the staples that held Summer's picture to the memorial and pulled gently until, one by one, I worked them loose. Then I took it. As tenderly as if it were a pressed flower from a long-lost love, I carried the photograph back to my dorm in the flat square of my woven Peruvian bag, the contents of which had been emptied out all over my desk the night before.
Then I began to paint. I painted Summer just after she fell, near the top of the mountain, still upright, too small and faint to see clearly. I painted her midway down, upside down, legs slightly askew (with khaki shorts of my own invention), arms open, luminous bits of cloud swirling around her sky-blue top. And I painted her flat on her back--bloodless in my version, her flesh as smooth and white as an incorrupt saint--her head turned to look outward with the same frank smile as in the photograph.
The painting still hangs above my bed to this day, a talisman for good sleep and a reminder to say my prayers.
A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a B.A. in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. April's work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing Slate, Windhover, Cleaver, The New Plains Review, Ghost Town, The Fieldstone Review, and others.