Chapter 1: Before
“Frankie Epps! You stop that!” Mary swatted his arm. She was careful to keep her voice low.
'What d’you mean, Mary? Stop what?” Frankie laughed. He poked her cheek.
“That, Frankie! You stop that cute pokin’ and proddin’!”
The two teenagers were standing behind Frankie’s father’s bookstore. The front was a quaint red-brick building with white wooden trim and big golden letters on the window saying Epps’ Book Emporium. The back was not as sunny, with a little stoop of four steps leading off of the door, which is where Mary Phagan was standing- on the second highest of the four steps. With her lack of height and Frankie going through a growth spurt that left him gangly in areas, she was only slightly taller than him right now.
“So I’m cute, now, am I?”
“Now you’re twistin’ my words!”
“So I’m not cute.” Frankie faked hurt.
“I didn’t say that neither!” She is so cute when she’s frustrated, Frankie thought. Her cheeks get a little red an’ her blue eyes look like a ragin’ storm. An’ she always purses her lips like her Momma does when she catches me with her baby girl.
“Then what d’you really mean, Sunshine?” She smiled at his nickname for her. Her smile was like a glass of lemonade.
“I mean, you’re more than just cute t’me, Frankie,” She said, twirling a tendril of his molasses brown hair. The boys’d say she’s got me wrapped ‘round that cute little finger, but I don’t care. The boys call her ‘Mary-don’t-go-there-Phagan’, but I don’t care. The first one’s ‘cause I’ve always loved Mary, an’ that last one’s ‘cause her Momma won’t let her go with anybody ‘til she turns sixteen, an’ no boy in Marietta wants t’be on the wrong side o’ Mrs. Phagan. “You’re clever an’ smart, an’ charmin’. You’re gonna be handsome someday, an’ I wanna be there t’see it.”
“What you sayin’, Sunshine?” He very well knew what she was saying, but he wanted to hear her say it.
“I want t’be yours, Frankie Joseph Epps. Forever an’ ever an’ ever.”
That was exactly what he wanted to hear, so with that remark, he pulled her close and kissed her, one arm wrapped all the way around her waist, the other tangled in her curly brown hair.
He could feel her lips pulling into a smile and he picked her up and spun her off the step. The silence that surrounded them as they simply stared at each other lasted a long time before it was broken.
“Mary Evangeline Phagan? Where are you at this ungodly time of night?” It was ten o’clock, but by no means did Frankie think it was ‘ungodly’ an hour. But the voice made him scared.
“Momma…” Mary whispered. “Go! She’ll skin you if she finds you wi’ me.”
“I’m not goin’,” Frankie whispered back. He just got Mary- he wasn’t going to let her go. She kissed him long and hard, making Frankie severely dazed.
“Now go!” He ran off into the dark night, past a couple of seventeen-year-olds in an alley. He rounded the corner of the building and hid behind a garbage can.
“Mary?” Her momma’s voice was shrill, like a penny whistle.
“Over here, Ma!”
“Why in God’s name are you out here by Epp’s bookstore? You should be at the library right now!” Frankie smiled in the dark. ‘Cause, ma’am, your daughter’d rather spend time with me. He chuckled to himself as he raced off into the dark.
Chapter 2: During
Contained to "Picture Show" and "There Is A Fountain/It Don't Make Sense".
Mary’s streetcar came into the square at a quarter of one. The parade was going to start at one-thirty, which gave Frankie ample time to worry himself senseless.
“Sunshine!” he called when he saw her get off.
“Sunshine? Looks like rain t’me,” she replied, poking his cheek.
He almost kissed her there. But every person was milling around the square- he couldn’t risk it. “Not ‘round here it don’t,” he whispered in her ear.
“Frankie Epps! You stop that!” She said, but she was smiling.
“See you at the picture show tonight?” Frankie asked.
'Yeah. With Betty Jean. But I s’pose I could make sure to find you,” she said. They always did. She hopped back on the streetcar.
“Where ya goin’, Sunshine?” he asked. They were going to watch the parade together.
“I’ll be back, Frankie. I gotta go to the factory. I didn’t get my pay this week.”
“Seeya ‘round, Sunshine.”
And that was the last time he ever saw her. She was so carefree as she flounced on and off the streetcar, hugging him and flirting up a storm. That was what he really missed- the part of her that was truly, genuinely, entirely, his.
“There is a fountain filled with blood, loose from Emmanuel’s veins…”
The chilling harmonies floated up to the pinnacle of the church’s ceiling, and Frankie tried not to cry. Everything he wanted, everything he could be, was lying murdered in that coffin. He had to fight Myra Paine for a spot as a pallbearer, and she looked a little put out.
But Frankie didn’t care. He had to say goodbye. Say goodbye to his Mary, the girl who lived in his dreams and who was perfect. She was perfect and she wanted him. But now he could never have her. It would be so easy to grab one of the metal poles holding a cross or a candle and punch it right through his… but he couldn’t.
“God forgive me what I think,” he whispered, hoping someone would come in the church and shoot him where he stood. “God forgive me what I wish right now.” She was gone. All he could see were her pale limbs crossed on her chest and her peaceful eyes. He could see the abrasions on her neck from her murder, but he ignored them.
That reporter came over to him just as Frankie was going to the preaching stand- he had fought for that too, persuading his friends to let him be the one to talk about Mary.
“You must have known Mary pretty well,” the reporter said, and Frankie fought off saying, “Of course I knew her! I loved her!”
But he didn’t say that. He just walked up to the pulpit and started talking. His friends wanted him to write down what he was going to say, ‘cause they thought he would forget when he saw her dead body, but Frankie knew that when he saw her he would have the right words.
“Did you ever hear her laugh?” He asked the group of people shabbily organized in the pews. “When she laughed, you swore you’d never cry again.” Frankie could hear the gasps and sobs in the crowd, but he went on. “Did you ever see her smile? Her smile was like a glass of lemonade. And she said funny things, and she wore pretty dresses, and she liked to see the pictures at the VFW Hall.” Betty Jean next to the casket cried, with salty tears on her rosy cheeks. “And she loved ridin' swings, and she liked cotton candy, but I think she liked the pictures best of all.”
Everyone was crying by this point. Not even this many people had cried at Mrs. Phagan’s speech. Frankie prided himself, smiled to himself, at the fact that he knew Mary better, and could make people cry remembering her.
“No, it don't make sense to me that she won't be around. No, it don't make sense to me to put her in the cold and lonely ground. And no, it don't make sense the way the world can let you fall--- I swear it don't make sense to me at all.”
Frankie stepped down from the podium, and walked down the aisle. He pushed open the church’s doors and was hit with the Southern August heat. It wrapped him in a heavy blanket. Frankie couldn’t stand to be in a place so full of sadness for Mary. He looked around him- the streets were deserted, with everyone in the church or gone.
Not thinking, Frankie looked up at the street corner, the one that took her on the streetcar to work and home. For a flicker of a second, Frankie could see her smiling face and sausage curls, rosy cheeks bright in the southern sun with not a care in the world.
“Mary!” Frankie screamed, but Mary just waved a little and vanished.
Chapter 3: After
“Franklin Joseph Epps, what is wrong with you?” His mother was shrill and terrifying. “You don’t wanna own the bookstore; you don’t wanna go to the college in town; what d’you wanna do with your life?”
He knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. The problem was, he wanted to give it up for Mary. He would shoot himself right now if it meant being with Mary forever after.
It had been three years since her death. Three years since the trial, three years since the entire town went up in smoke.
Lots of families left after Mary, some just going the other town over. Mary’s mother moved to Alabama to live with her sister after the trial was over. The Mitchells moved to Connecticut, and Frankie was forced to say goodbye to Lisa and Andy Mitchell, who had been his best friends since childhood, aside from Mary.
Everything he did nowadays had Mary involved. And Frankie always wanted it to be that way, but Frankie didn’t want this town to always be part of the equation. He had to get away. He was moving to Chicago, and was going to go to the Academy there to become a detective. He wasn’t going to let what happened to him and Mary ever happen again.
“I’m goin’ to Chicago, Ma,” Frankie said confidently. “I’m gonna become a detective, Ma, an’ save lotsa other folks from what happened in this town.”
Frankie walked up the narrow staircase before she could answer, clutching the banister tightly. He grabbed his trunk and bag, and returned down the stairs, trunk thumping with every step.
He turned the corner and walked into Epps’ Bookstore, his home for sixteen years, and saw his mother standing behind the cash register.
Mrs. Delilah Epps was standing framed by the rounded archway from fiction to the back room. Her curly chestnut hair was large and somewhat bushy due to the Georgia humidity, even though it was August and Frankie’s world should have been cooling down. Her cheeks and eyes were red, and she was holding her handkerchief to her face.
“My baby,” she said, reaching out to touch Frankie. “Why’re you leavin’ me?”
“Ma, I gotta go to Chicago. I gotta kick the dirt o’ this town off m’feet. I can’t stay in this town an’ look at all these nice folks every day if all I’m gonna think about is how they killed Mary. I gotta go.”
His mother broke down in sobs. He hugged her tightly, and slipped a folded piece of paper into her hand.
“Here’s where I’ll be when I get t’Chicago. I’m stayin’ with some other trainees.”
Frankie kissed his mother’s cheek once, hugged her tight, and left Epps’ Bookstore without looking back.
“Man, you’ve got the straightest shot in the entire Academy,” Danny Rodgers said to Frankie. They were testing today, and Frankie’s hands had been shaking non-stop. As soon as it was his turn though, Mary appeared next to the target.
“Come on, Frankie, you can do it. I know you can,” she had said.
“Thanks Mary. I’m doing this for you,” he replied, and then realized that he had spoken out loud, and his best friend at the Academy, Danny, was looking at him strangely.
After he had topped his class in weapons accuracy, Danny and Frankie were walking through the park nearby.
'Frankie, who’s Mary?” Danny asked, and Frankie knew he had to tell him.
“Back home in Georgia, there was this girl Mary,” Frankie started. He’d never had to tell anyone the story. Anyone he talked about Mary with had experienced the event firsthand. “And she was the brightest star in the sky. In my sky, in anyone’s sky really. But then-”
“-Some bastard killed her,” Danny finished.
“Yeah. How’d you figure?”
“Well, you said you were doing this for her, and if my girl was killed I’d have chased down and shot the guy myself. So keeping that from happening to anyone else’s girl seemed like a logical leap.”
“Yeah. And, the same thing happened to my kid brother. Bad bar fight.”
“You okay about it now?”
“Yeah, he was a good kid. Now he’s like my little wingman; always watching out for me.”
“Same with Mary. I feel like she’s gonna always be there.”
“Who is it?” Frankie asked.
“Papa, it’s me. Jeremy,” the young boy said. He was only fourteen, but his enormous blue eyes shone with wisdom and his brown hair stuck up in all directions, curly to a fault. Just like Frankie’s.
“Jeremy, is that you?” Frankie could barely tell. He had lived far older his expectations, and now sat in a nursing home in the suburbs. His curly dark brown hair was now white, but his green eyes never faded from their bright hue.
“Yeah, Papa. It is. It’s Tuesday, remember?” Of course he remembered. His grandson Jeremy visited him every Tuesday. Michael only visited when he could.
“Of course, Jeremy. How are you?” Frankie’s voice had become rougher in past years, due to a bad bout of laryngitis, which, though usually without its lasting marks, had hurt his voice.
“Oh, I’m fine. Mom and Dad are too. Dad said he might visit you next week if his schedule stays free. Mom sends her love. Mary too.” That name still sent a pang into his chest like an arrow. So much time had passed, but he still felt the pain of losing his Mary. “But I wanted to ask you something, Papa.”
“Anything,” Frankie replied. Jeremy was so dear to him, he would grant the boy anything.
“I was talking to Dad the other day about our heritage for this school project, and he said he didn’t know. That you were half English and quarters German and Irish, but when I asked about Grandma, he said you weren’t the same as me. He said he was adopted, and that you were never married. Why did you do that?”
Frankie knew one day Jeremy would ask that. He just hoped it would have been longer.
“Once, when I was younger in Marietta, Georgia—“
“Your hometown, right, Papa?”
“Yes, my hometown. When I was younger, I met an extraordinary girl named Mary Phagan. And she was the love of my life.”
“Is she who Mary is named after?”
“Well, what happened to this Mary Phagan? And why didn’t you marry her?”
“She died when I was fifteen. Murdered.” He could barely talk about this without tearing up.
'Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to…”
“Don’t you worry. Mary was the light of my life. So when she died, I couldn’t’ stay in Marietta. I moved to Chicago and trained to become a police officer with your Great Uncle Danny. I met your father when I was training new officers much later. Here was this young, eighteen year old boy with no family at all. He said his name was Michael, and I took care of him. When he quit the force to become a businessman I was the one who bought him his new desk nameplate. And when he told me he was going to marry a girl named Annette, I was the first one to congratulate him. And when he said he and Annette were going to have a baby boy named Jeremy, I was the first one to hold you.”
“So you really are my Papa, even though you weren’t Dad’s father.”
“Exactly.” Frankie was so glad this bit of information did not alienate him from his grandson.
“So does that make Mary my grandmother?”
Frankie laughed. It was such a light-hearted question, but it hit him deeply.
“Yes. I know she is.”
After Jeremy left that day, Frankie was in his room thinking about Mary. This would happen often—him spending hours thinking over every single “what if?” he could fathom. But he always was focused on what he could have done before she died. Today, though, he thought about if Mary were here.
He would have married her. He knew in the core of his heart that he would have. And if she were still alive, he knew that she would be sitting beside him in this silly nursing home, eyes twinkling as they told each other jokes and held hands.
I miss you, Mary, he thought hard, thinking of Mary up in the clouds. Every day I miss you more. But I will see you soon. I know that. And we will go to a heavenly picture show. I’m sure of it.