If I hadn't been on my way to my thirteen-year-old nephew's wake, I might have seen some irony in the car-struck dog lying dead on the side street by the funeral home.
As it was, however, I wasn't seeing much of anything. Coping with death has that effect on people.
It was a cloudy day, deeply overcast, and a storm was brewing. You could feel it in the air—the atmosphere was electric. I was aware of it, but I didn't pay it any mind. All my attention was focused elsewhere.
I walked along the concrete sidewalk to the funeral home's entrance, followed by my fiancée, Melissa. I don't know what I'd do without her. She'd held me together the last few days, ever since the night we heard about Drew's death, when I nearly fell apart. She's been my anchor. So far this day she'd kept a respectful distance and hadn't said much, letting me handle events in my own way. She always knows what to say, when things need to be said, and she always knows when it's best just to keep silent. Would that I had her wisdom...
I stepped inside the building. The air was different inside. The outdoors was cooler, with a breeze, and electric. In here, the air—if it was anyplace else, I'd feel comfortable in describing it as dead. Stagnant, stale, suffocating.
With one step inside, I felt the weight settle on my shoulders. It had a heaviness that couldn't be ignored. My first thought was that it was just my imagination, but when I glanced briefly at Melissa I saw the same feeling of discomfort reflected on her face. Clearly it was real, because she was reacting to it too. I trust the fact that she feels it more than I trust the fact that I feel it. I just wish I knew what exactly "it" was.
I started toward The Room—god only knows what it's formally called, I'm sure I don't, but whatever it's called, it's still The Room—but Melissa put a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw her indicate the book to sign in. I nodded and took a moment to sign it, noting as I did that it referred to the services for "Andrew." That just looked weird. Everyone just called him Drew, not Andrew, and never Andy. I finished signing my name, handed the pen to Melissa, and then, with a grimace, turned and entered The Room.
My eyes were naturally drawn to the casket. It was surrounded by flowers, hundreds of flowers, maybe thousands. The arrangement was certainly nice enough, but I've never really been sure of the point of it. Are all the bright colors supposed to make me feel better or forget there's a corpse in a box at the front of the room?
At least the casket was closed. I remember Drew running around the tree-lined yard where he lived, I remember him cajoling the family into a game of wiffle ball, I remember him showing the early signs of developing what would have been a wicked sense of humor. I remember him as a kid full of life, as kids are supposed to be. To see him lying there... I honestly don't think I could have handled it.
Is there anything more terrible in the world than the coffin of a child?
I come to a stop front and center, looking at the casket in the middle of all the flowers, and I tried to find the words for a short prayer, but all I could find was rage. I was furious Drew was gone. There was no justice in it, nothing right about it.
It's part of human nature, in times of tragedy, to look for someone to blame. We need someone to be responsible, someone to point a finger at, so we can punish them and then rest easy in the knowledge that justice has been done. We do this even in the absence of facts, just to make ourselves feel better.
I wanted to blame someone. I wanted someone to pay for Drew's death. And I knew exactly who that person was. But I couldn't do a damn thing about it. The person who's responsible is... protected.
It's not hard to figure out who to blame when a kid dies of manslaughter.
This is accomplishing nothing.
I turned away, toward the rest of the room, and took it in for the first time. There was row after row of chairs, still in neat rows where empty, but out of alignment where people had clustered to talk. I saw people I recognized, family members I've known for years, and neighbors of Drew and his family who I had met during my visits. There were a lot of kids I didn't recognize—probably his classmates, I assumed—and their parents. Some groups were talking quietly. Some looked utterly lost. One kid was crying softly to himself in a corner, and an adult was kneeling next to him, not saying anything, just holding him and providing comfort.
That thought brought Melissa back to mind. I turned back and saw her, head lowered, eyes closed. Her lips were moving silently, and then she crossed herself, raised her head, took a deep breath, and looked back at me. She managed a sad smile, which I returned.
I looked out at the clusters of people and spotted Ben, my brother, Drew's father. Ben was with his wife Susan. Their daughter Mallory was, unsurprisingly, nowhere to be seen. Sitting with Ben and Susan were Aunt Lisa and Aunt Linda and Uncle David, who is not technically my uncle but that's what everyone calls him anyway. I considered going over and joining them, but I still had absolutely no idea what to say to my brother. I couldn't even look him in the eye yet, so I wandered off in some other direction.
Twenty years ago, when I was just ten, I ran away from home. I got all of a mile away before I stopped at the playground to rest for a while on a bench, which is where Ben caught up with me. It was just getting dark, and I'd been on the run for nearly thirty minutes.
"Hiya, Bro," he said casually, sitting down next to me as if it was most natural thing in the world for us to be there. He'd come up behind me and I'd had no idea he was there until he spoke, so his comment scared the hell out of me. I nearly leaped out of my skin, but recovered quickly.
"Ben!" I blurted out. "How did you find me?"
"C'mon, Phil," my older brother said, not quite smirking. "Give me some credit. I know you pretty well."
"No, I mean... How did you even know to look for me?"
Ben sighed. "Mom and Dad noticed a little while ago. They had planned to take us out to see a movie."
I got petulant again. "I don't want to see a movie. I just wanted to go visit Jeremy."
"Yeah, well..." He trailed off, then sighed again. "We may both be meeting with the police instead."
Ben shrugged. "When we found out you were gone, I volunteered to go looking for you. Mom and dad, though, they told me to stay put while dad looked. The moment mom's back was turned, I sneaked out. Mom'll be apoplectic when she find me missing too."
I considered this in silence, then offered, "She'll probably tear up your learner's permit."
Ben chuckled. "Yeah, I probably won't be driving until I'm thirty." Then he sighed. That thought clearly bothered him more than he wanted to admit.
"I just wanted to visit Jeremy. It's only two blocks. It's not that big a deal."
"Running away is kind of an overreaction, isn't it?" he asked reasonably.
"I was allowed last year," I continued, in no mood to be reasonable. "I should be allowed to go this year. It's not fair. It's just not fair."
"No, I suppose it isn't," he agreed hollowly.
"It's just two blocks!" I repeated, a slight whining tone that I didn't like creeping into my voice. I fought it down and continued, "What's the worst that could happen?"
Ben drew a sharp breath. It caught my attention.
"Ben? What's the problem?"
"Oh, Phil," my brother muttered, and rubbed his eyes briefly. "Okay. I'll tell you. I shouldn't, but I'll tell you. But you've got to promise never to tell anyone else."
"Okay, I promise," I agreed.
Ben looked at me. He gripped my shoulder with one hand, and there was an intensity in his eyes I'd never seen before, and have never seen since. "I mean it, Phil. This isn't some phony baloney bullshit promise like when one of us breaks a lamp and the other promises not to tell mom and dad. This is serious. You can't tell anyone else, ever. Especially mom or dad, because they don't want me telling you. This never, ever goes any further than the two of us."
I stared at him, amazed at how seriously he was taking this, and then I nodded solemnly. "Yeah, okay, Ben. I promise."
He looked intently at me for a moment, then nodded slightly, apparently satisfied that I really understood the gravity of the situation and truly meant my promise. "Okay." He paused, looked uncomfortable, groped for words for a moment, then started explaining.
"You remember late last summer?"
At first I didn't know what he meant, but it clicked pretty fast. "You mean all the stuff with the police that no one would explain." It wasn't a question.
"Exactly," Ben nodded. "It was last summer, about two weeks before school began. I'd been visiting Steve up on Ford Street. I left a bit before dinner and I came home by Park Road, and then I decided to cut across to Williams Street by taking the road through the wooded area of Memorial Park."
He paused. I nodded. He continued.
"So I'm in Memorial Park, and as I round the curve after the bridge over Solomon Creek, I see a car by the side of the road. It was an old blue Dodge, in pretty bad shape. The driver was a big guy, buzz cut, wearing some vaguely military-looking garb, all olive green. He was staring at something he had spread open on the hood of the car. As I passed I tried to see what it was without looking obvious about it. Right about the time I realized it was a road map, he turned around and looked at me.
"He seemed like a pleasant enough guy. Had some trouble making or maintaining eye contact, but I figured he was just embarrassed to have to ask for help from a kid like me. He explained that he'd been traveling and went off the main roads for some variety and a change of scenery, and had gotten himself totally lost. He just wanted to get back to the highway, and he asked if I could help him.
"Well, why not? I looked at the map, but it was for the Palmerton area, like twenty miles south of here, and the map didn't extend this far north. I tried to explain the directions to the highway, but he wasn't quite getting them. I'd think he had them, but then he'd repeat them back to me and they wouldn't be quite right. It was pretty clear how this guy had gotten lost.
"Eventually I had an idea. If you follow the road we live on about six miles north you do get to the highway. It's out of the way, definitely a long route, but it's a lot easier to remember. I explained it to him and he seemed to get it. He even offered to drop me off at home, since I had told him it was on the way and he said he felt bad to take up my time. Didn't want me getting in trouble for being late for being a good samaritan, which I was getting worried about myself, so I agreed.
"He folded up the map and I was going around to the passenger side of the car when someone came out of the woods at us. It was Mr. Cooper."
"That creepy old guy?" I blurted out. "He's a lunatic! Everyone knows he's got mental problems. That's why he keeps—"
"Phil," interrupted Ben, "will you please shut the fuck up?"
I blinked, shocked.
Ben twitched slightly, then continued. "So Cooper comes out of the woods at us, and I admit I got a bit scared. I've heard all the same stories you've heard about him, about the dead cats and what happened to his parents and so on. And he looked pissed. And scared, though I didn't realize it until later."
I was going to ask about Old Man Cooper being scared, but Ben's "shut the fuck up" was still fresh in my mind, so I kept silent.
"Cooper demanded to know what was going on, and I stammered something out about giving directions and getting a ride home, and the next thing I know Cooper's pulled a gun."
My mouth literally fell open.
"Now remember, the car is facing the direction I came from, and Cooper approached from the left, so I'm out in the open, while the other guy had the car for cover. He starts cursing at Cooper, telling him to mind his own business, and Cooper looks me right in the eye and tells me to run home. I was frozen for a moment, but he shouted 'NOW!' which broke me out of it, and I bolted down the road as fast as I could, scared to death.
"Next thing I hear is car tires squealing. I slowed up enough to turn my head and saw the car tearing off down the road in the other direction, and Cooper took a couple of shots at it as it disappeared."
All I could manage was an awed "Wow." I'd always thought Old Man Cooper was nuts, but I never pictured him actually trying to shoot someone.
Ben chuckled. "I tell ya, Phil, I don't think I've ever moved faster in my life. I sprinted all the way home—and that's a hell of a long way to sprint, let me tell you—and I burst through the front door shrieking that Cooper had pulled a gun on me. Mom and dad got me calmed down and called the police, who told us to come right down to the station. We got there and the police asked all sorts of questions, trying to get as full a picture as possible."
Ben hesitated. It was strange to see my older brother so unsure of himself. Strange, and a bit disconcerting. "What I eventually learned was that Cooper had recognized the car and the driver. He had been down in Palmerton two or three weeks earlier for some reason, I dunno why, and he had seen the guy get into the car with some kid with bright red hair and a limp, real distinctive-looking kid, hard to forget, and they drove off. Later he heard there had been a disappearance in Palmerton, a kid with bright red hair and a birth defect where one leg was slightly longer than the other, a kid who's still missing to this day, and he realized what he had seen happen, right in front of him."
I felt a chill start down my spine, and it had nothing to do with the temperature.
Ben was sounding more distant with each sentence. "So that day last summer, he'd gone for a walk through the woods there, and he saw the car and the driver, and he recognized them, so he went back to his house and called the police, then grabbed his gun, just in case, and he got back right as the guy offered me a ride home..."
He turned and rubbed his eyes, and I realized my older brother was trying not to cry. "Timing. It's all in the timing. If Mr. Cooper had been thirty seconds slower... If I'd gotten into that car..." He trailed off. He couldn't say any more.
He didn't need to say any more.
We sat there for a while in silence, and the sky grew darker, and the street light came on and lit up the streets around the playground, and still we sat there, not saying anything, simply thinking, and feeling safe with each other.
I don't know how long passed before Ben finally spoke up. "The guy's still out there somewhere. Mom and dad are scared. They want to keep you safe, but they don't want you afraid to walk out to the mailbox." He stood up. "We should be getting home. Remember: Not a word."
"Not a word," I echoed solemnly, standing up.
And we didn't say another word for the rest of the walk home, and we never spoke of it again.
I turned toward the source of the voice and saw Aunt Heather looking up from a group of people, waving her arm in a "come here" gesture. I mentally shrugged and wandered over to join them, grateful for the opportunity to escape my own thoughts.
Aunt Heather rose to give me a quick hug. "How're you holding up?" she asked.
"I've been better," I offered enigmatically. I sat down, joining the group, and noticed that I was facing straight toward the coffin. The other people in the group didn't want to look at it either, so consciously or un-, they sat facing other directions, leaving me with the grand view. Lucky me.
Aunt Heather isn't really my aunt. She's my cousin's aunt, or my aunt's aunt, or some damn thing. I can never keep it all straight. She's sitting next to her husband, Uncle David, who is not really my uncle, and who also is not the other Uncle David, currently talking with my brother, who is not really my uncle either. Also sitting with us were two of Heather and David's kids, tragically named Hubert and Esther, which is why I arbitrarily started calling them Scott and Mary one day for no readily apparent reason. They're high school age, I think. Beside Mary (who, again, is named Esther) was Joseph, who's in his thirties and is either Aunt Linda's son or Aunt Lisa's son, or maybe Aunt Laura's son, I can't remember, because the three of them, all sisters, cleverly conspired to name their kids Joseph, Jacob, John, Jeffrey, Jason, Jane, Julie, Jenny, Jessica, and Jerry, and who the hell can be expected to keep all of that straight? Especially since Joseph married a woman named Julie, which is also his sister's name, which I have to think must have been very awkward for a while. They recently had a child who they named Joseph junior, or, as he has been affectionately nicknamed, god help him, JoJu. Next to Joseph was Erica, who I think is Aunt Lisa's cousin Nora's half-sister, though I also think there's something more than meets the eye involved somewhere along the line, because I can never get a straight answer about it, and if it was just a simple case of a half-sister, someone would just say so. Her mother's name also begins with a J. I think it's Jasmine, but she's been dead for longer than I've been alive, so it doesn't come up often enough for me to be sure, Last in this group was Katrine, who's a very distant relative who I'm surprised to see here. Last time I tried to puzzle it out, I estimated that she is my mother's father's step-sister's son's daughter's half-brother's daughter, which theoretically would put her in the generation born after mine, though she's older than I am. She also married a guy named Joseph. One of the reasons I stopped attending family gatherings is that I'd reached the point where I could never remember who the fuck anyone was anymore.
"Hi, everyone," I offered.
There were some polite hellos for me in turn.
"This is Phil," Aunt Heather said, introducing me. "He's Ben's younger brother."
"Oh!" said Katrine, who was apparently no better at keeping track of who was related to who than I was. "I'm so sorry, Phil."
I don't understand this at all, even though I've seen it all my life. Why the hell should Katrine apologize to me? Normally I let things like this slide, especially around people I don't really know, but this time I decided to ask.
"Are you sorry that I'm Ben's brother?"
Katrine blinked, confused. "What?"
"Aunt Heather told you that I'm Ben's younger brother and you apologized. Ben and I get along great. Never even tried to hurt each other growing up, if you can believe that, though of course we had our childhood arguments and the occasional fight. I've never regretted having him as a brother, so there's really no need for you to apologize for that."
Katrine had this panicked look on her face, like she was horrified to think she may have unintentionally offended me somehow. "No, no," she said quickly, "that's not what I meant at all. I was apologizing about Andrew."
I gave her a carefully puzzled frown. "'Apologizing about Andrew'? Are you saying you were somehow responsible?"
Katrine's worry started to turn into visible anger, presumably feeling she was being played with and not appreciating it. "No, that's not what I meant either," she said stiffly and sharply, drawing stares. "I was simply offering my condolences for your loss!"
"Oh," I said, and pretended to consider for a moment. Then I looked her straight in the eye and said neutrally, "That's very kind of you. Thank you."
There was a very long, very awkward silence.
"So," said Uncle David carefully, tactfully changing the subject, "Erica was saying about the house?"
"Right," said Erica, thrilled to move the conversation along. "So anyway, my husband Jared is in real estate, and he knew that this land was for sale at only about half its market value, so of course I told him to go for it. We'd dreamt of buying land to build our dream house, and this land was just too good an opportunity to pass up."
I had already been forgotten. Katrine, after holding her glare on me for a few more seconds, had joined everyone else in paying rapt attention to Erica's story about real estate. No one bothered to call me on what I'd said to Katrine. Even Aunt Heather, who ordinarily would never allow something like that to slide, chose not to say anything. Maybe I got some extra leeway for being the uncle of the deceased. Maybe there's some sort of unofficial system where the more closely you're related to the person who died, the further you're allowed to wander into the realm of typically unacceptable behavior. Like, the closer the blood ties, the deeper the permissible grief.
What a stupid concept.
What an insipid conversation, too. Here's everyone at a wake and they're discussing building a dream home. I would have found it disrespectful if I hadn't realized that there was just no way to honestly and openly discuss the one thing on everyone's mind—it was just too terrible to dwell on. Plus it would have been hypocritical of me, considering my disrespectful reaction to Katrine's well-meaning comment.
Erica was somewhere in the middle of explaining how she and Jared committed fraud against a contractor to get a prohibitively-expensive job down into their price range when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and looked up.
"Excuse me, everyone," Ben said. "Mind if I borrow my brother for a while?"
One or two people murmured something to the effect that they had no problem with that. As I stood I noticed none of them looked Ben in the eye. Or me, for that matter. I think they were just glad to see me go. The feeling was mutual.
As we walked along, gazes on the floor, Ben said, "Glad to see you could make it."
I shrugged. "Couldn't miss it. I would never forgive myself."
"I wasn't sure you'd be able to be here," he continued. "I was pretty sure this was the weekend you and Melissa scheduled your vacation for..."
"Ben," I said simply, "we're here."
Ben trailed off, then smiled weakly. "Thank you."
"Yeah," I managed.
He put an arm around my shoulder. "The pastor is going to say a few words in about half an hour," he told me, "and after that we're going to invite people to say a few words about Drew, just say a little something or share a memory of him or something." He stopped walking, and I turned to face him.
"Phil," he continued, "it's all strictly voluntary, of course, but it would mean a lot to me if you would say a few words."
"Oh, for god's sake, Ben," I muttered, embarrassed. "You know I'm no orator. I hate speaking to crowds."
"I know, I know," Ben said quickly. "That's why I wanted to give you some advance warning."
"I suck at this, Ben," I continued, trying to worm my way out of it. "You'll get a hello and three minutes of 'Ah, um, er.' It'll bore everyone."
"You'll do great. C'mon, Phil, no one in the room is a professional speaker—"
"Except Edward," I pointed out.
Ben nodded. "Okay, except Edward. But no one else—"
"Also Melissa," I added.
This time Ben didn't say anything. He just gave me that "older brother" look he had perfected over long years of practice. He didn't get to use it very often anymore, but in this case it fit perfectly well.
I threw my hands in the air. "All right, all right, it's your funeral," I said, and immediately regretted it. Continuing quickly to cover the faux pas, I added, "It won't be anything that'll be remembered forever or anything profound or anything. But I'll see what I can come up with."
Ben smiled at me. "Attaboy, Phil!" He gave me a pat on the shoulder and continued, "Thank you. Um, look, there's a few more people I need to say hello to before we get to that..."
I noticed him kind of look briefly to one side. I casually glanced in that direction and saw Jack and Betty, who had just arrived, politely waiting for their turn to talk to him.
I nodded. "Sure, Ben."
Ben gave me one last smile, this one slightly apologetic, then walked over to Jack and Betty. I hung around long enough to hear Betty tell my brother, "Ben, I am so sorry," and then I turned and walked away.
"How's life been treating you, Bro?" Ben asked me gleefully.
I ignored the question and gave my brother a big hug, right there on his front porch. He returned it with equal enthusiasm. It was great to see him again.
"Have any trouble finding the place?"
I let go and stepped back. "No, the directions were clear as day."
"Good, good," he said. "Need some help bringing your stuff in? I can show you to your room."
"Oh, the hell with my stuff," I decided. "It can wait."
Ben gave a big, boisterous laugh. "Did you at least bring your glove?"
Instead of answering verbally, I jumped off the front porch to the sidewalk, completely skipping the four steps, and ran to the driveway. Reaching in the passenger side window of the car, I picked my baseball glove up off the seat and held it up for Ben to see. He laughed again and gestured to the side of the house. I ran along that side to the backyard and settled on a spot as Ben came out the backdoor, having cut through the house to get his baseball glove. He casually threw a baseball to me. I caught it waist-high and waited for him to choose a spot on the other side of the yard. We were already falling into old routines.
"So how's the world of home ownership treating you?" I asked, throwing the ball back to him.
He caught the ball over his head and pointed out, "It's not really my house. I'm just renting it."
"Ahhhh. Details," I said dismissively. "You're the only one who lives here. It's yours."
Ben shrugged. "That's certainly one perspective, I suppose." We continued throwing the baseball as we talked. "So how's life back home?"
I had been about to throw the ball back, but as I thought about this, I hesitated. "It's a lot different without you there," I admitted. "Even when you were at college, your room was still yours. Now that you've moved all your stuff out, it's kind of a junk room for stuff that doesn't really belong anywhere." I paused. "Fitting, actually."
"Change is part of life," Ben offered.
"Oh, thank you ever so much, Clichéd Aphorism Boy. Wanna add that absence makes the heart grow fonder?"
He tossed the ball back to me with a bit of extra zip on it.
"Touchy touchy," I said.
"Feely feely," he answered. I responded by tossing the ball back, intentionally bouncing it in front of him and to his right. He reached across his body and neatly snagged it in the glove's webbing, to my annoyance.
"So how'd finals go?" he asked, pointedly ignoring his smooth catch just to annoy me.
I made a face. "Dude, summer vacation began less than a week ago. The last thing I want to do is talk about school."
"Not at all?" he asked.
"Absolutely positively not at all," I said firmly. "Okay?"
"Okay," he said agreeably.
"Thank you," I said curtly.
"I hated the chem teacher," I told him. "Everything you told me about her is true."
"Of course it was," he said mildly.
"Hey, get a load of this. A bunch of us in the two chemistry classes, the Honors and the AP, were complaining about her teaching methods, the way she handled her classes, and so on. Mike and his father had a meeting with her and the principal one day, and she told Mike's father, 'Your son has learned a lot in my class,' and Mike's father shot back, 'The only thing my son has learned in your class is that he should have taken zoology!'"
Ben started laughing.
"And after the parent-teacher conference day," I continued, "she decided to address the class on the subject for a little while."
Ben's jaw dropped, and he actually missed the ball when I tossed it back to him. He walked after the ball, looking back at me. "She actually spent time in class not talking about chemistry?!" he asked incredulously.
"Yes, she did. You should hear the story she told, too. I forget the exact names, but she told the story of how, back in ancient Rome, or Greece, I forget which, there was a philosopher or some such thing—"
"Sounds like the story had quite an impact on you, what with all the details you're remembering," Ben interrupted innocently.
"Ben, I haven't gotten to the important part yet, okay? So one of the guy's students was an artist, and he painted various pictures, and one day he painted on that he felt was amazing, just a brilliant work of art. And he would sit and stare at the painting for hours, day after day. He didn't even paint anymore. Didn't feel he could top it. Just wanted to admire this work of art.
"This went on for a while, and then one day he went into the room with the painting and discovered that his teacher had destroyed it. Shredded the picture. And he explained to his student that he did it because he—the student—had a great deal left to learn, but wrongly felt ever since he created the portrait that he had achieved perfection, and as long as it existed he would stop learning."
Ben closed his eyes and shook his head, seeing exactly where this was going. "Whoa, wait a minute, you're saying that she responded to complaints from students and their parents about her teaching methods by telling an allegory where the students thought they were perfect and the wizened old philosopher teacher had to give them a dose of humility?"
I shrugged. "Something like that. Also she resolved the situation by going at 'perfection' with a blade."
Ben considered this for a few moments. "I don't know everything that went on, obviously, but from her perspective it probably made perfect sense. I know she brings a lot of this on herself, but I'm sure your class wasn't blameless in all this."
With anyone else I would have refuted this, but with Ben I could always be honest, at least briefly. "No," I admitted heavily, "but dammit, she failed twenty out of twenty-three students on the Honors midterm. She nailed me with minus twenty-one points on one question on an eight-question test where I got the correct answer! She talked down to people like they were idiots for daring to ask questions. And then she stands in front of the class and tells this righteous story where she's the one who's utterly blameless. How can people create so many problems all around themselves with what they say and do and then announce that they're blameless? And actually believe it, no less!"
Instead of agreeing with me, Ben just laughed. "Get used to that! You'll see it a lot."
"Thanks a ton," I responded dourly.
He spread his arms in an I've-got-nothing-to-hide manner. "Hey, I'm not saying she's right. I'm saying that now that you're able to recognize that sort of horseshit, you'll see it everywhere you look from now on. I understand where you're coming from, but if you spend the rest of your life dealing with it by getting pissed off, it'll just hurt you, not them. There's better ways to handle it."
"Just throw me the damn ball, Ben."
"Or you could just be petulant and ignore it. That works, too." And with that, Ben threw the ball back to me and let the subject drop.
From there, the conversation moved on to his new job, to sports, to small talk about the family, and various other topics which have long since been forgotten. We continued to talk and play catch until:
"You two look like you're having fun."
Ben paused in mid-windup and smiled toward the source of the voice.
"Susan," he said. "You're back."
Susan was standing on the patio, dressed casually, grinning like she'd just seen a Normal Rockwell moment. She gave Ben a big smile that I can only describe as syrupy. He returned it.
"Hey," I called out, before I started to gag. "That's a balk, you know."
"Oh, hush up, Bro," Ben said. He stepped up on the patio, the baseball already forgotten, and gave Susan a kiss, and just that fast I suddenly felt very much like an intruder.
They eventually broke the kiss. Susan gave a knowing smile and said simply, "I got it. Want to go try it out?"
That sounded vaguely perverted to me, but Ben just nodded and said, "Right away. Phil! Want to go for a ride?"
I frowned. "A ride where?"
"It's a surprise," Susan said, waggling her eyebrows in a manner that I suppose was intended to be comical but instead was somewhere between creepy and stupid, more toward the latter.
A few minutes later, we were on the road, me in the backseat of Ben's car. They didn't say much of consequence, just made small talk as Ben drove, and I spent most of the ride silently taking in the scenery.
The houses grew more infrequent and the traffic thinner as we drove into a wooded area. We were about ten minutes on the road when Ben turned off the main road and down a dirt trail. A pair of tire ruts separated by tall grass stretched along the ground, and the bushes and greenery scraped the sides of the car as we crept slowly past. I was growing a bit concerned. This wasn't at all what I had been expecting.
The trail eventually opened to what I can only describe as an illegal trash dump, though that would be overstating it somehow. The area was dirt and broken rocks, ringed by trees. Further across the clearing, there was some broken glass, and a few dirt piles, and lots of old tires, and old torn plastic bags full of various other trash I couldn't make out and didn't want to, and some old appliances, and the rusted out shell of what had once been a car of some sort, and a lot of other crap that defied description or categorization, except that it was all trash.
Ben brought the car to a stop and hopped out. Susan exited too, and they both went back to the trunk. I stepped slowly out of the car, far less enthusiastic about the way things were shaping up. Just as I got to the trunk to see what was going on, one of them closed it, and they walked down the other side of the car. I rolled my eyes slightly, feeling vaguely like the straight man in a bad comedy routine, and circled the car after them.
They were kneeling down a few feet in front of the car. Some sort of gym bag sat between them. Susan reached into it and pulled something out. It took me a few moments before I realized it was a gun.
I froze in place. In all honesty I can't really say why. It's not like I thought they were going to shoot me, or anything like that. I guess I was just stunned. There were any number of directions I had envisioned my first day at my brother's house going in, but this definitely wasn't one of them.
I stood there as Susan, gun in hand, sized up a rusted refrigerator. She squared toward her target, both hands on her gun, and fired off a couple of shots. The side of the fridge was just barely in the shade, the afternoon sun having just barely passed behind it, so even though I couldn't see the holes I could see the burst of smoke or dirt or whatever it was that was kicked out by the impact from the bullets.
"Niiiiiiice," Susan said admiringly. She turned to Ben. "Wanna give it a try?"
"Hell yeah!" Ben said eagerly. He took the gun in his right hand and hefted it a few times, I suppose to get a feel for it, then aimed at the refrigerator. Unlike Susan, he only had one hand on the gun, and he stood sideways to the target. Ben fired some shots of his own, squeezing them off faster, but not placing them as close together. He lowered the gun and exhaled heavily.
"Problem?" Susan asked innocently.
"No, no," Ben said dismissively. He raised the gun again and squeezed off four more shots, just as fast as before. The grouping was not appreciably better. He gave the gun a suspicious look, as if it was toying with him somehow.
"You're shooting too fast," Susan commented.
Ben shook his head. "That's not it."
Susan continued, "I'm always telling you you shoot too fast."
"I do not!" Ben retorted indignantly.
"'Slow down,' I say. 'Take you time,' I say. 'You'll enjoy it more,' I say." Susan was really warming up to the topic. "But nooOOOooo, you always have to get right to it. Ready, BANG!, done."
"You know, no one takes any pride in their work anymore. It's a damn shame."
Ben's voice was low and urgent. "Susan, could we please not talk about this?" He glanced nervously at me, as if he hoped I wouldn't understand despite knowing better. I didn't quite roll my eyes. It didn't seem necessary.
Susan gestured vaguely in the general direction of the appliances. "I'll go set some stuff up," she offered.
"Fine," Ben said simply. As Susan wandered off, Ben knelt down, reached into the bag, and pulled out two more guns. I wondered why they owned three guns when there was only two of them. Ben also removed a few boxes of ammo and sat them next to the bag, then, after a moment's consideration, moved them to the other side of the bag, into the shadow it cast. Then he zipped the bag back up.
Working silently, he quickly and efficiently loaded each gun with ammunition and placed it on top of the bag. There was a quiet intensity in his eyes as he worked. I think he had forgotten I was even there.
"Ready," Susan said, walking up to us. Ben finished up what he was working on and then looked across the clearing. An oven and a dryer, about thirty feet from each other, now had some old spray cans, pieces of wood, and other flotsam lined up along one edge.
"Give me the new gun," Susan added. "You shoot like a sissypants."
Ben scowled, not at all upset, and handed the new gun, the one they'd been using to this point, to Susan. Susan took careful aim and fired one shot, and put a neat little hole through an old paint can. From where I was standing I could see the sunlight straight through the can where the bullet had exited the far side. Ben responded by quickly firing off a shot of his own. A small hole appeared in the side of the oven, several inches below a spray can.
"Dammit," he muttered.
Susan carefully aimed and fired a shot that missed everything and disappeared somewhere in the distance. Her second shot clipped the can, causing it to spin and wobble slightly, but not actually knocking it down. Ben then fired a shot which sent the can pinwheeling spastically off the back of the oven. Ben smiled slightly and glanced over at me.
"Hey, Phil, want to give it a shot?" he asked suddenly, and held the gun out for me. Susan turned to watch as I took the gun, more out of reflex than any actual desire to hold the damned thing.
It was a hell of a lot heavier than I would have expected.
"The safety's on right now." Ben offered, "so it won't go off accidentally. See it there on the side?" I looked, saw the small switch and the red mark on the gun, and nodded. "Okay then, you're ready. Just turn the safety off, aim, and fire."
I glanced over at the line of objects set up for target practice, and then back down at the gun.
Susan continued to stare at me, waiting.
The gun was heavy, and cold, very cold on a hot summer day.
I felt my skin start to crawl right up my arm.
"No thanks," I said, handing the gun back to Ben.
He shrugged, accepting my decision, and glanced at Susan, who was still staring at me, quietly judgmental. I met her gaze for several seconds, and for no rational reason I've ever been able to identify, I felt myself start to grow seriously pissed off at her.
"Susan," Ben prompted.
Susan blinked and looked away. "Yeah. Sorry. Mind wandered." She turned back to her impromptu shooting gallery, and she and Ben continued to practice their marksmanship, trading off the new gun, setting up new targets. We spent nearly an hour there, me carefully making sure that I damn well stayed behind them and their targets, before they decided they'd had enough and packed up to leave.
We didn't mention it again for the rest of my visit, even when Susan wasn't around, but I felt its shadow hanging over me the rest of the week.
I didn't look over as Melissa sat down beside me. After Ben had asked me to speak, I wandered back into the main room and quickly rejected rejoining the group I had been with before. While I was looking around, Susan and I made eye contact across the room, and she gave me a small nod. I returned it, decided not to join her group either, and ended up sitting on my own in a seat near the front corner of the room. Then I'd gotten completely lost in thought until Melissa arrived. I suppose this situation was somewhat awkward for her. It hadn't occurred to me previously, but other than Ben and Susan, I was the only person in this room she had ever met before.
"How're you holding up?" she asked gently. I could tell she was getting a little worried about me, but I just shrugged in response. I didn't really want to think about that. I was too busy brooding.
From the corner of my eye I saw her shifting slightly in her seat. Then she reached across my line of sight, holding a coin in her hand.
"Penny for your thoughts?" she asked innocently.
I actually smiled at that.
"There," said Melissa, "that's better. C'mon, open up. It'll make you feel better."
I considered. "Are you sure you want to know what I'm thinking?"
"Absolutely," she stated firmly.
I cocked my head slightly to one side and took the penny from her hand. "Actually, I'm thinking back to when I was in college."
Melissa straightened slightly and asked, "Really?" She clearly hadn't been expecting that.
"Yeah. My first semester at college, I had a bunch of different classes, I was still adjusting to life there, the people, trying not to get thrown up on, all the normal college things. I hadn't really settled in fully yet, but I was getting the hang of things, finding my routine, you know. I was on my way to getting settled in.
"Then one day I'm in a programming class, in a computer lab, trying to get some damn program formatted properly so I could stop getting compiler errors and start getting output errors, when word started to filter in that someone had gotten shot on campus.
"I didn't think much about it at the time, because rumors are just rumors, and I was still getting more lines of compiler errors than there were lines in the program, which I still don't understand. But of course it was a big deal, national news and all. Some nutcase had set up behind some bushes along a large clearing on campus, and took out a rifle, and started shooting people. A couple people were injured, and one was killed. There was a sort of media frenzy, of course, and things were a bit surreal for a while, but a few weeks passed, the immediacy faded, and the media found more freshly spilled blood to fill their headlines, and things began to settle down.
"Then someone in the dorm next to mine committed suicide. Kicked out a window in a stairwell seven or eight stories up and slipped through it and leaped to his death. I remember standing there, staring up and the piece of plywood they put over the window until they could get the glass replaced, and just completely not understanding the rationale or motivation that must have been going on in that guy's head—I've always wondered, once they commit themselves, if they have second thoughts on the way down. There was a smaller media frenzy this time. Suicide's not as glamorous as murder, I guess. But the mood on campus was a bit off for quite a while, as you can imagine. There were a lot of efforts to educate people about warning signs of these sorts of things, ways to tell when people may be slipping into these mindsets, and how you could get involved, help out, make a difference, all that stuff. No one wanted to see anything else happen, and a lot of work went into seeing that no one else died."
Melissa stared at me. "You never mentioned any of this before."
"It never seemed pertinent before," I responded. "It's not really a casual conversation topic."
She nodded and acceded, "This is true." After a moment's consideration, she added, "Did it work?"
"Did anyone else die?"
I shook my head. "Nah. Well, a few years later a student got hit by a car crossing a street and died, and later some guy got drunk, fell over backwards, fractured his skull on the sidewalk, and died, and some dipshit self-proclaimed friend commented, 'One death in forty thousand students? Those aren't bad odds.' Quite the friend. But there were no more murders or anything like that. Whether the after-the-fact educational efforts made the difference or if that was all just Monday Morning Quarterbacking is a subject of debate, I suppose. But I know which my money's on."
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. "Some months later I was in my dorm room channel surfing, and I reached this talk show where they were talking about Marilyn Manson, who was at the height of his popularity. These two people, these parents, their son had gone Goth screwball. Dressed in black, white make-up, all that shit. One Christmas the only thing he asked his parents for was a copy of Manson's CD AntiChrist Superstar. They said they found that title horrifying, they couldn't believe he'd ask for something like that, it was such a terrible title for a CD, they were so worried about their son... So they bought it for him.
"And with the whole stereotypical Goth obsession with death, valid or not, the kid eventually committed suicide, and that's when the parents finally decided to listen to the CD, and once they did they promptly decided that Marilyn Manson was responsible for their son's death, and went on the talk show circuit to denounce Manson, crusade against him. Because they were responsible parent types, you understand. Never mind that a fraction of that responsible effort some years earlier could have saved their son's life. Never mind that they were the ones who gave him the damn CD without listening to it in the first place. It was all someone else's fault.
"You know... People seem to love responsibility as a third-person concept, but no one can be bothered to demonstrate it themselves..."
"Excuse me, everyone," a voice interrupted. "Can I have your attention for a moment?"
I looked up at the source of the voice, toward the front of the room. I recognized the speaker. He was the pastor of the church my brother attended. I could never remember his name for some reason. The room hadn't exactly been loud before, but whatever free-floating conversation there had been quickly trailed off as everyone turned their attention to him. Ben stood next to him.
"Just wanted to let everyone know now, in about fifteen minutes we're going to have a short service and say a prayer, and then Benjamin has a request to make." Pastor What's-His-Face stepped back as Ben began to talk. He quickly explained how he wanted people to voluntarily share stories or memories of Drew. In the middle of it he glanced at me and gave me a quick smile. I tried to return it. It probably looked like a cross between a rictus and a sneer, but he didn't seem to mind.
Melissa nudged me. "You knew about this?"
I looked at her, confused. "How could you tell?"
"You had this look on your face."
"Yeah, I guess. Ben mentioned it to me before I came in here. I was trying to figure out what I was going to say."
Melissa shook her head in disbelief. "You mean to say your brother asked you to say a few words about Drew and you were thinking about all that stuff you just told me? Murder and suicide at college?"
I nodded. "Actually, yes. Death is foremost on my mind at the moment, especially the deaths of people too young." I hesitated, then admitted, "But when you say it that way it sounds stupid." I sighed again. "The body of my 13-year-old nephew is in a box at the front of this room, and in a few minutes my brother expects me to stand in front of that backdrop and say a few words that will make everyone feel better about it."
Rather than answer directly, Melissa edged her chair closer to mine and leaned against me, resting her head on my shoulder. "It'll be all right, Phil," she said softly.
I shook my head. "It'll never be all right again."
After that, we each retreated into our own thoughts.
"Uncle Phil, look what I got!"
I put down the Terry Pratchett book I was reading and looked up. "Well, let's see," I said. "What exactly is that, Drew?"
"I got a book too," Drew said, flopping down on the couch next to me. "See?"
He held the book out for me to take, so I did. I smiled. "Hey! Daniel Pinkwater! Cool!"
"You know him?" Drew asked.
I shrugged. "Not personally."
I shook my head. "Never mind. Daniel Pinkwater: Four Novels. Is this the one with Alan Mendelsohn in it?"
Drew's face screwed in concentration. "Um, no, that's the other one." Then his face brightened. "I'll get it!" And with that, he leaped up from the couch and was gone as quickly as he arrived.
"It's not like I'm going to read it now!" I called after him, but he was already gone.
I looked across the room at Ben, who was sitting in his favorite chair, watching in amusement. "Remember when we had that much energy?" he asked me.
I shook my head firmly. "We never had that much energy."
"The kid needs Prozac," said Susan, who had appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.
I turned and looked at her, and got the distinct impression that she wasn't joking. She and I had never hit it off. Every time we met, she would say or do something that would annoy me. Plus I always flashed back to that first day I met her, and she just stared at me as I held the gun, silently judging me. I tried to keep it civil around her anyway, especially when I was in her home.
Then again, her little snipe a couple hours earlier about how the car I drive isn't good enough for her was still fresh in my mind.
"Yes, Susan," I said carefully. "Why bother to accept your children for who they are when you can give them drugs to alter their brain chemistry and force them into the persona you prefer them to have?"
There was a tense silence.
"Ben," Susan said coldly, carefully ignoring me, "I've got everything ready for the grill."
"Ah, good." Ben stood up. "Be right there." Susan turned and disappeared back into the kitchen. Ben started to follow, but paused as he passed me.
"Was that really necessary?" he asked me softly.
"Depends," I countered. "Was she really serious?"
Ben was silent, a look on his face I couldn't read, then followed Susan into the kitchen.
I know it's tough on him sometimes, the tension that always exists between Susan and I. She and I have both said and done things we shouldn't have over the years, and I'm not sure either of us has the moral high ground anymore, assuming either of us ever did. Ben does sometimes back me up, and sometimes he sides with her, which is only fair, and rational, and frankly that's how it should be. He plays arbiter, whether he wants to or not.
I notice, however, that while he'll contradict me if he feels it's warranted, he never flat-out disagrees with her when she's in the room. That still ticks me off, when I think about it.
I didn't want to think about it at all, so I looked around for things to distract me. I was struck again by how the room was decorated. The sofa I was on had the same print as the recliners that sat at either end of the sofa, separated by identical endtables, all of them facing the entertainment system. Large high-definition television, VCR, DVD player, eight-CD changer, seven speaker sound system, and a programmable remote that I had discovered the hard way was not programmed correctly. A small endtable with a doily on it say in front of a window, topped by a snake plant in a small clay pot. A series of wood grain stands along one wall held the various music and movies the family owned. The other end table had some pads of paper along with pencils and crayons for the kids. It's all nice enough, but it's inescapably sterile. I've known my brother my entire life and there wasn't a single thing in the room that reminded me of him or spoke of the personality of anyone in the family. There was no warmth or character to any of it. Hell, Ben and Susan sit in chairs separated by two endtables and a sofa. Maybe I read too much into that, but it bothered me nonetheless. It was as if their house was just for show.
Drew's arrival thankfully drew my attention away from the décor. I watched him as he ran up to me. Twelve years old, almost the age Ben once described to me as "Old enough to know better, young enough not to care" back when I was thirteen. I knew Drew wasn't a kid anymore, not a little kid anyway, but that side of him seemed to come out when I visited. Ben always seemed amused by it, choosing to enjoy it, perhaps sensing that all too soon Drew would become too self-conscious, too wrapped up in what other people thought of him, to act so childishly. No, not childishly. Freely. Unconcerned about other's perceptions.
Why the concept of becoming an adult entails changing who you are to fit what others expect of you is beyond me, as if being independent is somehow undignified, unworthy of an adult. As Drew approached me, I felt saddened just for a moment by the thought of watching life drive that spirit out of him. I hoped he never lost that spark completely.
"Here, Uncle Phil," Drew said, handing me the book as he sat down next to me.
"Thanks, Drew," I smiled, flipping it over so I could see the back cover, where the various stories inside were listed. "Slaves of Spiegel never did much for me," I admitted, "but you have to love a story called The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death."
"Hey, I like Slaves of Spiegel," Mallory said. "It's a good story."
I did a quick double-take. I hadn't even realized Drew's younger sister was back inside. Maybe she slipped in when Ben and Susan went out to the grill. Or maybe I just wasn't paying half as much attention as I thought I was. Dwell on the furniture but don't notice the people. Way to go, Phil, I scolded myself.
I patted the sofa cushion on my left, and Mallory sat down. "I never said it was a bad story," I pointed out. "I just said it wasn't my favorite. But the whole bit about the building exploding is classic."
"I liked Ed, Ted, Ned, and Fred more," Drew said.
"I don't get Young Adult Novel," said Mallory.
I frowned. "I don't recall that one real well," I admitted.
Drew sniffed at the air. "Smells like they got the grill going."
Mallory slid off the couch and walked to the window overlooking the patio. "Yep," she confirmed. "Also, mom's smoking again."
"I thought Ben said she quit smoking," I said.
"She had," Mallory said.
"She quite smoking every week," Drew told me. "It's her little ritual."
I blinked and gave him an odd look. He looked at me with such a carefully innocent expression that I had to laugh.
Mallory looked at me. "What's so funny?" she asked, the voice of one who hates to be left out of anything.
"You know," I said slowly, an idea slowly occurring to me—a sure sign that I was about to get into trouble. "We should probably help her quit smoking. For the sake of her health and all, right? Right?"
"What do you mean?" the kids asked me, almost in synch.
Rather than answer, I stood up and walked through the kitchen and down a hall until I reached the door to the garage. Slipping through it into the stale heat of the garage, I glanced around until I spotted what I was looking for. It was hanging above a work bench. I took it off the wall and held it firmly in both hands. It was a lot heavier than I'd expected. When I turned back to the garage door, Drew and Mallory were both standing there watching me. I motioned for them to enter the garage.
"Tell me, kids," I said, mock heroic, "what's the best way to fight fire?"
"Fight fire with fire," Drew promptly answered, closing the door behind him as he and Mallory entered.
"Hush up, boy. I'm not setting your mother on fire."
"That would be bad," Mallory said solemnly, and Drew nodded assent. I had to fight a smile.
"The best way to fight fire," I announced, "is with a fire extinguisher." I hefted the one in my hands to eye level for emphasis. "David Letterman does this all the time. It's especially effective against Richard Simmons in a chicken costume when combined with a liberal dosage of screamed obscenities."
"What?" Drew asked.
"Before your time. Don't worry about it. What we need to worry about is the mission's name."
"Mission's name?" echoed Mallory.
"Sure. Every good mission has a name."
Mallory considered this. "Operation Fire Extinguisher?" she offered.
I nodded. "That's good, gets right to the point, but it's kind of obvious. A good mission name is a code name that has little or nothing to do with the actual mission."
Drew's eyes lit with inspiration. "Operation Taco Bagel!"
I laughed out loud at that. "Yes! That's a great one! Operation Taco Bagel. I shoulda thoughta that."
"Operation Taco Bagel?" Mallory asked. "I don't get it."
"Neither will they. That's the point," Drew explained.
"Oh, okay then," said Mallory, though she still looked a bit confused. Probably trying to puzzle out who the nebulous "they" might be.
"Okay, then, here's the plan. I'll take point. You two follow quietly behind me. Silence is critical to the success of Operation Taco Bagel. We'll advance through the kitchen to the window next to the back door, through which we will visually acquire our target"—I considered briefly—"Smokey The Bear."
The kids giggled. Then Drew asked, "What are our names?"
"Our names," Drew repeated. "The mission has a code name, the target has a code name, so we should have code names."
I considered this for a moment as I sat the fire extinguisher down. Damn, that thing was heavy. "Good idea, Drew. Any suggestions?"
Mallory suggested, "My brother could use the code name Andrew."
Drew scowled. "That's stupid! That's not a code name!"
"But nobody ever calls you that, so maybe people will get confused," Mallory said smartly.
Drew shook his head. "Mal, I don't think you're grasping the concept of 'code names.' A good code name would be something like Eagle One."
Mallory smiled and clapped her hands together once. "Eagle One! I get to be Eagle One!"
"Hey! I came up with it!"
"So I get to be Eagle One!"
Mallory opened her mouth to argue the point, but I stepped in. "We'll all be Eagle One," I declared.
They both looked at me like I was crazy. "All of us?" Drew asked dubiously.
"Absolutely. It'll be great."
"All of us?" he repeated.
"Work with me here, Eagle One. No time to argue. Operation Taco Weasel is already behind schedule."
"Operation Taco Bagel," he corrected.
"Right, Operation Taco Bagel. Why, what'd I say?"
"You said Taco Weasel," Mallory told me.
"Did I say that? I can't imagine why. Taco Weasel makes no sense. C'mon, let's move. Remember, stay quiet." With that, I picked up the extinguisher with both hands, stifling a grunt of exertion that I didn't think would be fitting, and advanced to the door back into the house. Looking at Mallory, I whispered, "Eagle One, slowly open the door, all sneaky sneaky. Then, Eagle One," I continued, now glancing at Drew, "you peek out and make certain the coast is clear. And I want you to know that if either of you are caught in the performance of this mission, I will disavow any knowledge of the situation and blame the whole thing on you."
"That's not fair!" Mallory protested, quite rightly I might add.
"Command prerogative. I'm going to have enough trouble explaining the fire extinguisher, okay?" I paused, then decided against advising them I would self destruct in five seconds. "Let's get the door open."
Mallory carefully opened the door, allowing Drew to poke his head out. He glanced both ways, then looked back at us. "Coast's clear," he whispered, then made some mock hand gestures like a military commander in a movie silently deploying forces. He did it with such conviction, too. I had to stifle another laugh. God, I love these kids.
He slipped out the door, and Mallory followed. I exited the garage and pulled the door shut behind me. Drew stopped at the end of the hall and pushed himself flat against the wall, then peered around the corner as he had when he left the garage. Following his lead, Mallory pressed herself up against the wall opposite Drew, where she would be clearly visible to anyone in the kitchen. She was a bit young for this, but oh well.
Drew looked at me and nodded, then cocked his head in a clear "Come on" gesture. Keeping my head low, I darted out of the hall and cut right, into the kitchen. The hunched-over position and the weight of the extinguisher were a bit much for me, and I stumbled midway through the kitchen. I managed to shift my center of gravity back as I staggered forward, saving myself from falling forward and smashing the extinguisher into the linoleum floor. Instead, I fell to my knees and went into an awkward slide, the extinguisher clutched tight to my chest, my back arching and my view shooting up to the ceiling, until my left knee slammed into the baseboard heater. I stifled a curse and sat the extinguisher down a bit roughly so that I could grab my knee with both hands and rock back and forth a bit, for all the good that would do.
Drew and Mallory came up behind me. Mallory was giggling; Drew was merely smirking.
"Smooth, Uncle Phil," Drew said.
"That's Uncle Eagle One to you, kid," I shot back. "Argh... That really hurts. Okay. Ow. Nuts. Right then, stay down while I reconnoiter the area for our target."
"Smokey The Bear," Mallory reminded me.
"Exactly." I peeked through the window and saw Ben and Susan at the grill, talking. Susan made some emphatic gestures and nearly clobbered Ben with the tongs she had apparently forgotten she was holding. She was probably complaining about me. I ducked down again.
"Bad news, Eagles One," I told them. "We may have to abort the mission. Smokey ain't smokin'."
"She's not?" Drew asked, sounding quite disappointed.
"No, she's not. She's wielding some mean tongs, though."
Mallory asked me, "Do we have a tongs extinguisher?"
"'Fraid not, kiddo. If she's not smoking, there's no mission."
"Maybe she'll start again," Drew suggested.
I shrugged. "She might. I'll keep looking. If she does, we can proceed, but if either of them comes toward the house, I'll signal and we'll have to retreat back to the garage, okay?"
"What will the signal be?" asked Mallory.
"'Run,'" I told them, then turned to look out the window again. Ben had the tongs now, which was probably safer for him, and he was in front of the grill. Susan was walking toward us, and I was about the signal for a hasty retreat when she stopped to grab something off the patio table. I squinted, trying to make it out. It wasn't easy. Didn't these people ever wash their windows? Jeez.
Susan pulled something out of the object and put it to her mouth. It was a cigarette, and she was lighting up. She tossed the pack of cigarettes back to the patio table and walked toward Ben.
"She's lit another cigarette, Eagles One. Are we ready?"
"Good. I'm going to walk out there and come to a stop about, um..." I glanced at the instructions tag on the extinguisher. "...about ten feet from Smokey The Bear's base. One of you stand on each side of me while I make my heart-moving Emmy-worthy dramatic speech and then put out the cigarette with a sustained blast from Mr. Happy here."
"Got it," Mallory nodded.
Drew asked, "When we come to a stop, should we put our hands on our hips, to look more dramatic?"
I chuckled. "That's great! Both of you do that. That was a great idea, Eagle One. Just for that, I'm promoting you to Eagle, um... Zero."
Drew considered this, then decided, "That doesn't really sound like an improvement."
"No time to discuss. Now's the time for action. Let's act."
I opened the door and strode overdramatically to a point about ten feet from Susan, who looked profoundly baffled, her cigarette hanging forgotten from her lip. Ben looked similarly baffled, but with a brotherly touch of "Now what the hell is he up to?" mixed in.
Drew and Mallory by my side, I looked Susan in the eye, my voice unnaturally low to sound more dramatic, and intoned, "Captain Eagle One of the S. S. Weasel Bagel has advised that the 'No Smoking' sign be observed at all times," raised the extinguisher, and let loose with a nice long blast.
I knew that Susan wasn't going to be happy about this, but I felt that she wouldn't mind too much. It was silly, it was in good fun, it was for a good cause, and I had no problem with paying to have the extinguisher recharged, No harm, no foul, right?
Somehow, with all the visions of Letterman's show in my head, it never occurred to me that it might be a foam extinguisher.
My grip on the nozzle loosened and the extinguisher fell from my hands, already forgotten. There was a stunned silence as we all stared at Susan, who was covered from the waist up with a thick layer of foam. She reached up and smeared the foam out of her eyes so she could see, then just stood there, mouth open, looking down at herself as if her brain hadn't quite registered what her eyes were telling it, arms held away from her as if she was afraid to touch anything with foam on it, including herself. She was breathing heavily through her mouth, shock having not yet given way to fury, and with one exhale a blob of foam fell to the ground, taking the well-extinguished cigarette with it.
"Oh, shit!" I finally managed to get out. I afforded my brother a glance, and he gave me a look that made it clear that wherever the line is, I had just blasted past it in a 767, and I had damn well better be able to explain myself. "I didn't realize it would shoot foam!" I told him. That seemed a bit weak, but all I could think to add was, "Letterman does it all the time."
"Letterman," Ben managed tonelessly, angry and disbelieving and—dare I hope?—just a touch amused.
I turned back to Susan, who was still frozen in place, covered in foam, arms out, and she looked up at me and made eye contact, and I felt, deep in my throat, horribly, a laugh trying to escape.
"Susan," I started, then cleared my throat to mask a slight giggle. "I'm sorry," I added, then had to clench my jaw. Don't smile, don't smile, oh for the love of god don't smile.
Susan continued to glare at me.
"If I had known it would shoot foam I never would have done this," I said quickly, then looked down and to the side because I couldn't conceal the smile anymore. I took a deep breath and continued, "I really am sorry..." A chuckle slipped out, so I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, splattering the foam slightly, and continued, "...and I realize that the fact I can barely keep from laughing..." Take a deep breath, steady, steady. "...seriously detracts from the perceived sincerity of my apology..."
This time a full snort escaped, and when I looked away I realized that I was laughing silently to myself. I coughed a few times, looked at her again, blurted out as fast as I could, "I really am sorry," and then completely lost it. I was literally doubled over with laughter that simply wouldn't be denied. I backed away from Susan, who was well past "shocked" and now deep into "utterly pissed," and tried to sit on one of the chairs that went with the patio table, but somehow I missed the chair and fell to the ground, which made me laugh even harder.
When my laughter subsided enough that I could look up, Ben was standing right over me, looking deathly serious. When he spoke, however, he seemed to be at a bit of a loss—what had happened was so ridiculously unacceptable that it was hard to figure out how to discuss it.
"Phil," my brother began, "what the hell was that?"
I repeated, "I'm sorry. I had no idea this would..." I turned to Susan. "I am so sorry," I told her again. I had no idea what else to say.
Susan didn't say a word. She just gave me an "If looks could kill" glare and waddled awkwardly inside, arms still held away from her body, presumably to take a shower.
"Dad?" Mallory began, sounding really worried. "I'm sorry too. Are we in trouble?"
"No," I said firmly, before Ben could respond. I expected he would have said the same thing, but emotions were running a bit high at the moment and I didn't want to take the chance. "This was all my idea. I screwed up, not you. Here..." I stood up and grabbed a ball off the patio. The kids had been trying to get me to join them in a game of ball tag all weekend. "Here. Start the game. I may be along later." I tossed the ball off the patio, making sure it landed where Mallory would have a shorter run to it than Drew. She was young enough to immediately forget the trouble I was in and run for the ball, and Drew was young enough that his competitive spirit made him race her for it, and just like that they were preoccupied and elsewhere, and it was just my brother and me.
Ben was still looking at me disapprovingly. I took a deep breath and ventured, "So I'm thinking the whole 'smoothing things over between me and Susan' effort isn't going to work out like we had hoped, hunh?"
Ben sat in another chair and buried his face in his hands. "Phil, what am I going to do with you?"
I sat in the chair opposite him, the one I missed on the first try, and shrugged helplessly. "Maybe I'm the one who needs Prozac?" I suggested.
"Stop it, Phil," he snapped, then glanced around to see where the kids were before continuing. They were out in the yard, playing ball tag, too far away to overhear us, but Ben lowered his voice anyway. "This is not the time for jokes," he hissed.
"Sorry," I said yet again.
My brother held up a hand. "Stop apologizing. Just listen, okay?"
I held out my hands in a sort of "Point Taken" gesture and nodded slightly.
He continued, his voice slightly gentler. "Look, Phil, you're my brother and I love you, and you know I wish for only the best for you, right?" He paused and I nodded in acknowledgement, not especially liking the way this was starting. He continued, "You're doing okay for yourself, have a decent job, you've been dating Melissa for three years now and it sounds like it's getting pretty serious... You turn thirty in a few months, right?"
"Yeah, two months today, actually."
Ben nodded, then looked me right in the eye. "Seriously, Phil, don't you think it's about time you grew up?"
I straightened in my chair. "Now wait just a minute," I began angrily.
"No, dammit, you agreed to listen. Remember? So shut up and listen.
"As long as I can remember, you've always had this lighthearted way about you, a playful way of dealing with everyday life, the humorous way of handling bad situations that left most people smiling, and I've always enjoyed the slightly off-kilter way you view the world. I truly do appreciate that about you.
"And though you may not believe it, I'm really not that angry about what you just did to Susan. I'm not happy about it, mind you, and I'm sure you'll agree that it really shouldn't have happened, but I'm not angry about it. I'm more angry about the general trend in your behavior, the way you keep handling things this way. The fact is that neither one of us likes her smoking, and you decided to do something about it in your characteristically unorthodox manner.
"The problem with that is that your characteristically unorthodox manner isn't always appropriate, and you still don't seem to grasp the difference between situations you can get away with that and situations you can't, and the result is problems like this. You don't know where to draw the line. And I'm not just saying that because of the end result.
"Growing up, it was us and our parents. You were always the youngest, which generally meant that you were, no offense intended here, the least mature. We all kind of expected you to behave a bit differently, a bit more childishly, because you were the youngest.
"But you're not the youngest anymore. Andrew and Mallory both think the world of you, and they look up to you, the way you looked up to me and dad, the way I looked up to dad and Uncle David. You're a role model now, like it or not, and that's a responsibility you can't just ignore. It's yours whether you want it or not.
"For you to handle that responsibility by using a fire extinguisher as a prank is completely unacceptable. There are some things in this house that we've made quite clear aren't toys, and the object that we use in an emergency to try to prevent the house from burning down is definitely on that list. My kids are twelve and seven and they know damn well that you don't play with the fire extinguisher. So why don't you know it?"
I opened my mouth to respond, then closed it again without saying a word.
"Exactly," Ben said. He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Look, you're always welcome in my house. I'm never going to turn my back on you, but the point where this behavior stopped being funny passed years ago. Just promise me you'll work on it, okay?"
I could only nod. I wanted to say more, but I really didn't have anything to add.
"Well then," Ben said as he stood up, effectively ending the conversation, "I need to go in and try to smooth things over a bit with my wife, and in the meantime, you need to keep our dinner from turning into charcoal."
My head snapped around toward the grill I'd completely forgotten about during the conversation (oh, let's be honest here—the lecture). Black smoke was rising from it. "Oh, shit," I said, leaping to my feet and taking four quick steps to the grill, where it was clear I was far too late to save the first round of food. I looked around a bit frantically for the tongs and eventually spotted them on the ground to my right, where Ben had obviously dropped them when Operation Taco Bagel came to its rather ill-conceived climax. I used them to alternately pull, pry, and scrape the charred hamburgers off the grill, since no suitable utensil was anywhere in sight. I guess if the food hadn't burned, the tongs would have been enough.
It quickly became clear that the tongs weren't going to get the job done. I looked around for a spatula, but didn't see one, so Plan B was out. I considered throwing the next burgers onto the grill over what was left old the old ones. I rejected that thought pretty quickly.
Time to get the right tool for the right job. I left the grill and walked toward the back door, intending to get a spatula from the kitchen, assuming I could find one. I had no idea how the kitchen here was set up.
Just as I pulled the door open, Drew shot past me at a full sprint, disappearing into the house. I actually jumped back a half step, startled. Before the door could swing shut, the ball they were using shot past me and followed Drew into the house.
"No fair! No fair!" yelled Mallory, running after Drew. "The house is out of bounds!"
From somewhere inside came Drew's voice. He said simply, "Prove it."
As Mallory reached the door, I said to her, "I sure hope he doesn't grow up to be a lawyer."
I followed Mallory in. Drew was in the living room, hunched over, hands on knees, catching his breath. When he saw Mallory, he straightened. Mallory spotted the ball and picked it up.
"Hey, not in the house," I told them, dropping the tongs in the sink. Having picked them up off the ground, I figured they should be cleaned before I used them on food we were actually planning to eat.
"Yeah, not in the house, monkey face," crowed Drew, putting his thumbs in his ears and waggling his fingers at his sister. Then he stuck out his tongue for good measure. Mallory threw the ball at him in response. He ducked, and the ball hit the wall behind him and bounced right back to Mallory. Drew bolted down the hall, and Mallory followed,
"Hey!" I called after them, then grimaced and walked after them. I wanted to get to them before something happened that shouldn't.
Maybe I should have run. I'd barely entered the hall when I heard a crash from the far end, probably from Ben and Susan's room. I broke into a jog.
Sure enough, Drew and Mallory were in their parents' room. They were both staring at the floor on Ben's side of the bed. He had a small table with a lamp on it that was usually piled high with all sorts of clutter. At the moment, however, all that clutter was on the floor, along with the lamp, which had shattered on impact. Sitting a few feet away was the ball.
"For cryin' out loud," I muttered to myself, walking to the ball and picking it up. I turned to the kids, who were still staring, though Drew, who had a better idea of how much trouble he was in and why, was also looking a bit nervous.
"What the hell is going on in here?"
Ben stood in the doorway, looking around, taking in all of us, taking in the damage. Then he saw me holding the ball. His face clouded. "Dammit, Phil!" he began.
I held my hands up a bit defensively. "This wasn't me," I told him.
Ben turned to his kids. "Out, now. Both of you."
Drew left as fast as he could without running, slipping past his father without meeting his gaze. Mallory started after him, but paused and ventured, "Can we have the ball back?"
"No!" Ben and I said together. Mallory seemed to shrink into herself a bit and left the room without another word.
Ben glared at me. "What the hell did we just talk about outside?" Ben demanded.
"This wasn't me," I repeated firmly. "I wasn't even playing, remember? I came inside to get a spatula for the grill, and I came back here to chase them back outside. They know their game should stay there."
"And where might they have gotten the idea that they can get away with things that are against the rules?"
I bristled slightly. "Hey, I admit that Operation Taco Bagel was out of line..."
"Wait, what the hell is Operation Taco Bagel?" Ben interrupted, mystified.
"Never mind that—Look, I admitted the fire extinguisher thing shouldn't have happened, but that doesn't give you free reign to blame me for everything your kids do that you don't like, okay?"
Ben glared at me like he was considering arguing the point, but decided against it. "Fine," he said simply, then walked to a dresser and opened a drawer. "I was about to get Susan a change of clothes when I heard the crash. She just went straight to the shower when she came in."
I almost said "I don't blame her," but decided I'd be better off not saying anything. Instead, I knelt down and started picking Ben's clutter up off the floor so the carpet could be vacuumed. There were all sorts of papers, and a few books, and...
"What the hell?" I blurted out.
Ben came over to me, a full change of clothes for his wife in his hands. "What is it?" he asked.
I held up the object I'd found in the pile. "You keep a loaded gun on top of your end table?"
He looked at me as though he couldn't understand why I'd consider that a big deal. "You know I've always had guns."
"On your end table?"
"What difference does it make where I keep it?"
"You have kids in the house!" I shouted.
"And they know not to touch it, " he countered. "They understand that this room is off limits—usually."
It was hard to miss the implication. "This is not my fault," I insisted.
"Phil, I teach my kids about things, including guns. I don't hide it from them. Drew knows how to handle a gun, and Mallory knows full well not to even touch a gun, not until I decide she's old enough, and I trust them to respect that and to follow the rules Susan and I set down for them."
I realized all at once that he had decided I was still primarily responsible for this because of my antics with the extinguisher, that he genuinely saw absolutely nothing wrong with keeping the gun out, and that emotions were running too high for us to have a reasonable discussion about this. Great. Never mind the fact that my credibility with him had probably never been lower. It was absolutely the wrong time to press the issue. Still...
"Ben, your house, your rules, to be sure, but when I'm here, I want this locked in the cabinet with the other guns, okay?"
He gave me a quick thoughtful look, then a second look that was clearly the equivalent of a mental shrug. "Whatever makes you happy," he said, sounding perfectly reasonable about it. He sat Susan's change of clothes on the corner of the bed and accepted the gun from me, then took it to the gun cabinet in the far corner. "Dare I ask how the grill is coming along?"
I returned to cleaning up the floor as I answered, "What was already on was charcoaled. I came in to get a spatula to scrape the grill off before putting the next burgers on. Where do you keep the spatulas, anyway?"
"Top drawer, second to the right of the sink," he answered, unlocking the cabinet and placing the gun inside. As he relocked it, he said, "Just do your best getting the char off. The grill needs to be cleaned anyway." He returned to the bed and grabbed up the pile of clothes. "Don't worry about the lamp, Bro, just pull the door shut. Dinner's already late and we can clean the floor up later."
I nodded in acknowledgement, stood, and followed him out the room, dutifully pulling the door shut behind me. He disappeared into the bathroom to deliver the clothes, and I returned to the kitchen, where I found the spatula in the drawer I'd been told it was in. I went outside and saw the kids far across the yard, playing something, I couldn't tell what exactly. I returned to the grill, and though the gun still bothered me, in the interested of smoothing things over and not making any more waves (and a nagging concern that Ben may have had a point about me being the kids inspiration to push the limits), I decided not to bring up the subject again.
That was eleven months ago.
Drew is dead.
I blinked, Melissa's voice jolting me out of my reverie.
"You okay?" she whispered.
I must've really zoned out for her to ask me a question like that under these circumstances. "Yeah," I answered, also keeping my voice low. "Just a million miles away."
Melissa nodded but didn't say anything else.
At the front of the room, the speeches had started. I'd tried to pay attention to a few, but my mind wouldn't focus. A kid was speaking at the moment. I didn't catch his name, but he was one of Drew's classmates from school, and he was telling what seemed to be an intricately detailed recounting of a science test they had taken at school that was leading to absolutely no point whatsoever. I assumed he'd been emotionally blackmailed into it, just as Ben had done to me.
He eventually wrapped up his well-meaning but dreadful soliloquy to a smattering of polite applause and went back to his seat.
An older woman I didn't recognize walked to the front of the room. She looked to be about fifty. Judging by the lack of nervousness in her demeanor as she faced all of us, I figured she was used to speaking to groups of people. This was quickly confirmed.
"Um, hi. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Sue O'Driscoll. I've had Drew in my social studies class two of the last three years. I wanted to share a memory of Drew that always stuck with my, one I always think of as quintessential Drew.
"Last St. Patrick's Day he was helping me out with decorations. I wanted to cover the story behind the holiday. The room was mostly decorated with leprechauns, clovers, pots of gold... Someone had even drawn up and colored a mug of beer. Everything was green, everywhere. The decorations, green streamers along the walls... Some people really went overboard to avoid doing real work, I think. And when it was all set up, he was the last person in the room with me, helping box up the supplies we used, and I asked him what he thought of the décor. I figured he'd give some generic positive answer, like just about everyone would do. But when I asked, he paused and looked around the room, then shook his head, looked right at me, and he had this glint in his eye like he knew he was telling a joke that wasn't really a joke, and he said to me, 'This room is now a temple for every bad Irish stereotype ever.'"
A ripple of laughter ran through the room. I didn't actually laugh, but I did get this big smile on my face. I could hear Drew in my head saying that, and I could even see the look on his face as he said it, clear as day.
"When he said that to me, I did a double-take and I must have given him a look that made him feel he needed to lighten the mood somehow, because he quickly reached into the supply box. We'd used all the green streamer, but there was old red streamers in there, unrolled somehow, and he grabbed that red streamer with both hands and held it on top of his head, all piled together randomly, broken ends of streamer sticking out all over the place, and he announced, 'Look! I'm Sideshow Bob!'"
"That's how I reacted too. I laughed, and I told him that I'd take care of the rest of the cleanup so he could get back to homeroom before the school day ended, because I didn't want him to get in trouble for being late because he was helping me out. As he was leaving, I said, 'See you tomorrow, Drew,' and he replied, 'See you tomorrow, too,' then paused, glanced back at me, and added, 'Unless I keep my eyes closed all day.' He thought about that for a moment, then continued, 'That would make it really hard to take my science test, though. Derek would have to read me all the questions.'
"I stared at him, then said, 'Good night, Drew,' and he just smiled and walked out."
Sue O'Driscoll paused, and took a few deep breaths, and smiled. "That was Drew, in a nutshell. Always an entertaining or interesting or thought-provoking comment, always taking things seriously but not too seriously, and helping other people to do the same, and always making people glad to be around him. One minute at the end of the school day that could have been just another day coming to an end, that instead I'll remember forever, because of him."
She smiled again, and nodded, then returned to her seat to some rather more enthusiastic applause than the last person had gotten. It died down and I was waiting to see who would be next when Melissa gave me a gentle nudge.
"Ben's looking at you," she whispered.
I glanced back at Ben, who was sitting on the other side of the room, about three rows back of me. He was looking at me expectantly, clearly wanting me to speak now.
I gently shook my head no. I still had no idea what to say, and no interest in making any speech.
He gave me a firm look and cocked his head toward the front of the room.
I turned away from him, back toward the front of the room, and stayed firmly in my seat.
A moment passed, and I started to think he had taken the hint. Then I heard him announce to the room. "I believe my brother Phil was going to say a few words?"
I buried my face in my hands and groaned slightly. When I looked back at Ben I saw that everyone in the room was staring at me. So much for getting out of this gracefully.
Slowly, slowly, I stood up and made my way to the front of the room. The room receded and each step was a small marathon. I felt kind of like I was Drew's age again, being called in front of my parents for some trouble I was in for something we all knew I had done, the walk of a condemned man who knows what's coming and is powerless to avoid it.
I came to a stop front and center, turned toward the rest of the room, my back toward the coffin, and I felt my mouth go dry. I swallowed a few times, took a few deep breaths, tried desperately to gather my thoughts into something I could say out loud without sounding incoherent or unintentionally disrespectful to the memory of my nephew, and then I gave A Eulogy For Andrew.
My name is Phil. I'm Drew's uncle, Ben's brother. I'm still not entirely sure what I'm going to say. I'm not the most eloquent speaker who ever lived, but I'll give it my best shot here.
I'm engaged, but I don't have any kids of my own yet, so Drew, even though he is... was... my nephew, he's the closest thing I've ever had to a son of my own. And though he never knew it, he provided me with an epiphany of a sort.
It was the first time that I was alone with him. He was, I dunno, not quite a year old, I think, and I was watching after him while Ben and Susan were finally getting some time to themselves on their anniversary. I'd cared for Drew before, but I'd always had his parents around as a safety net. This was my first time flying solo.
I remember being overwhelmed by the responsibility. Not overwhelmed as in unable to handle it, but overwhelmed as in simply being in awe of it. Parenthood is the condition of complete responsibility for another person's life. At that age, a child depends on others for absolutely everything. With his parents out, he was depending on me, and I'd never been that responsible for anyone's life before, including my own.
I remember I went up to Drew's room, and he was asleep in his crib. There was a chair in the room, and I sat in it, and I just watched him sleep for, I couldn't say how long exactly, it could've been as long as an hour. And all that time I'm thinking that whatever he needs is my responsibility. I had every intention of taking it seriously, and all at once there was this feeling, I can't really describe it, but I realized that at that moment he was more important to me that I was.
If you haven't experienced that, I don't know that you can possibly appreciate what a big deal that is, what a profound experience it is, how much that changes you. It changes you because all throughout your life, you're the most important person in your world. And that's not as horrible as it sounds. Growing up, parents care for you, relatives fawn over you, decisions are based on what you need. Everything revolves around you, and you live in that mindset, and even if bad things happen to the people around you, you're still there, and deep down that's what matters most.
My parents, mine and Ben's, they died not long before Drew was born. Their car went off the road on a long straightaway, on a beautiful day, under perfect conditions, and the car rolled, and they were both killed. No one was ever able to figure out why it happened. There was absolutely no reason for the crash. The investigation showed no mechanical failure. Were they just watching scenery and forgot about the road, or did one of those wasps they were both allergic to get into the car and distract them, or did another driver run them off the road somehow? I don't know. I don't know why my parents died. I'll never know. No one ever will. The decades they had left to them, gone. Just like that. They died too young. I used to wonder about that, not knowing why someone died too young, or knowing exactly why they died too young. I wondered why they were dead, and I wondered which would be worse.
Now I know.
At their funeral, Ben and I, we both tried to be stoic, tried to be "mature" about it. We tried to be what everyone expected us to be and react how they expected us to react. This went on for a while, and people complimented us on how we were taking it so well.
Eventually, I couldn't stand it anymore. I wasn't taking it well. I didn't want to smile and say the right things and play the role to the satisfaction of others. I was furious, and I was hurting, and I didn't want to bottle it up. I remember grabbing Ben and taking him outside where we could speak in private, and I told him how I felt, and I told him that it was okay to be ourselves. It was okay to be honest with ourselves and with each other. And most of all, it was okay to be angry.
It was okay to be angry, because it wasn't right. It was okay to be angry, because death isn't fair. It was okay to be angry, because death is capricious, and it is arbitrary, and there isn't a shred of justice in it. It was okay to be angry, because if we couldn't be angry about this, we could never be angry about anything. It was okay to be angry, because anger was the natural response to the circumstances fate had dealt us. It was okay to be angry, because without being angry we could never deal with our loss, and we'd never be able to move on with our lives.
It was some years before he told me he appreciated the honesty of that, and the truth in it. He said it did help him. I know it helped me. We'll never know why our parents died, but we're not stuck on it, obsessed with it, consumed by it. The loss is always there, but we're not defined by it. It's okay to be angry.
And yet... That's not all there is to it, either. Yes, fine, anger is okay, but it's still an "It's all about me" approach. How do I deal with this, how do I move on? People I care about are gone, but I'm still here, and that's the important thing.
That mindset ended that day, watching Drew sleep. My life wasn't all about me anymore. It's not some grandiose life-changing insight, but once you have it, you never completely go back to the way you were before. The impact echoes on, long after the moment of realization has passed. Honestly, I was changed more just watching Drew sleep than I was by my own parents' deaths. Deep down, I always expected I would outlive my parents. I think most people do.
I never dreamed I would outlive Drew.
When I heard that Drew was dead, I didn't know how to react. I was devastated, angry, but I knew I needed more than "It's okay to be angry" this time. I'd grown, the situation was different, and solace would have to come from somewhere else, if it was to come at all. Drew was the first person to matter more to me than I did, and simply getting mad at the universe didn't cut it.
One night, last night in fact, technically early this morning, I couldn't sleep, and around 4 AM I found myself downstairs, going through the bookshelves, looking for something to occupy my mind until I could fall asleep, some light reading, so I really can't explain how I ended up sitting in my favorite easy chair with just the one lamp on next to me to light the entire room, at four in the morning, curled up in a blanket, reading the Bible, but that's what happened.
I leafed through it for a bit and eventually went right to the start, Genesis 1:1, and started from the beginning. So god created the world on page one, we get right to Adam and Eve on page two, they get kicked out of Eden on page three, the first fratricide occurs on page four, and by page five things are so screwed up that god ends the beta test, floods the world, and has Noah save what's needed for Earth version 2.0.
I admit I got to wondering how things got that screwed up. How could god of all people let his creation fall so far that he had to eradicate it and start over? God is all-knowing, so shouldn't he have seen this coming?
Some have suggested that if god is all-knowing, he should know the future as well. I can't accept that, because it eliminates every conceivable purpose for life to exist in the first place, and simply saying that god moves in mysterious ways doesn't cut it. God knows all that is known, but not all that will ever be known. People ask "What would Jesus do," but I think it's safe to say Jesus never had an opinion on things like nuclear proliferation of digital copyright protection. When new things are created, god watches them unfold along with the rest of us. To believe otherwise is to believe that our lives have already been determined before we were born, that everything that happens is out of our hands, and that all of creation accomplishes absolutely nothing that god didn't know from the start, which begs the question of why he bothered in the first place.
So no, god didn't know what was coming. He created, and then he learned from experience, just like the rest of us. Right from the start things started happening that he didn't expect. Adam and Eve were the chosen two, though not necessarily the first two, since there apparently was already a tribe in the land of Nod. Adam and Eve, though, they were blessed with residence in the Garden of Eden, and they went out and screwed that up remarkably fast.
It's not like god was unclear about the tree of knowledge. He stated right up front with his very first words to man that if they ate from it, they would die, starting an unfortunate pattern of religious figures discouraging behavior through outright lies, a pattern which continues to this day.
Still, god could have put the tree on top of a mountain or inside a moat. He could have placed the cherubim and the flaming sword in front of the tree right at the start if he felt so strongly about it. But no, he put the tree right where they could reach it, and they ate from it, and got kicked out of Eden. Now, you and I, we all know that when you tell someone "Don't do something," they're instantly going to become consumed with figuring out how to do just that. Every parent, every babysitter, every teacher, everyone who's ever dealt with children knows this by heart. So why didn't god know? Because it had never happened before, so no one knew it yet. Parenthood, responsibility for those not yet capable of self-sufficiency, was a brand new concept, uncharted waters, and no one knew what would happen. God learned fast, though. Promptly there was a guard with a flaming sword to keep watch and protect the forbidden, and god stopped leaving things lying about where anyone could access them at will.
But that's reality. Life unfolds, events come unforeseen, and we deal with them, learn from them, and move on to the next events, wiser and better-prepared than we were before. I know I'm far more capable of caring for a child now than I was that first day, watching Drew sleep, and I know there was no reason for me to be as nervous about it as I was. Live and learn, I guess. For most of us, anyway.
Reality isn't easy. Death and life aren't easy. But there are a few fundamental truths about them that have become self-evident to those who look, truths that have held from the times of Adam and Eve straight through to the present day, truths that we disregard at our own peril.
The truth that life is precious, and should be cherished at all times.
The truth that life is too short, and that we should appreciate our time together while we can, because we never know if that time is the last time we'll ever have together until it's too late.
The truth that life is fragile, and can end in so many ways, some completely out of the blue, some evident with the benefit of hindsight, and some clear as day long before they come to pass.
And the truth that life we're responsible for, life not yet capable of self-sufficiency, requires special consideration, the acceptance that behavior can be erratic or unpredictable, the dedication to act with this in mind with all our words and deeds, the willingness to forever alter our lives as we have known them to fulfill that responsibility by placing the wants and needs of those others above our own at all times without fail, and the understanding that this responsibility does not end once instructions are given, because even god didn't know what his children were going to do once his back was turned.
I finished speaking, the echo of my words still reverberating in my head, in stark contrast to the silence of the room. I slowly turned around and gave the coffin a long sorrowful look, silently saying my goodbye, then slowly returned to Melissa and sat down next to her.
The room was absolutely silent. No polite applause as the others had gotten, no whispers between people, not even the sounds of people shifting nervously in their seats. Just the deafening silence of absolutely nothing at all.
Several more moments passed. Apparently no one wanted to volunteer to follow me. I can't say I entirely blame them.
Eventually someone did stand and walk to the front of the room. It was Erica, and just as before when Katrine and I had our little exchange, Erica pretended that nothing had happened, nothing was wrong, and obstinately plowed forward as if everything was perfectly normal.
She went on for some time about how god has a purpose for each of us and that Drew's time was up and that he had been called home and was in a better place now—all the standard bullshit. All the while, her gaze swept around the room, but never fell on Melissa or I. She studiously avoided looking at us as she spoke. Her speech eventually ended to far more applause than it deserved, from people thrilled to have something safe and obvious to respond to, something completely detached from any acknowledgment of what had really happened.
From there, the speeches returned to normal. I sat, as silent for those who followed me as they had been for my speech. Nothing vindictive about it—they just weren't saying anything worthy of a positive response.
The only sound I made came about ten minutes after I sat back down. Melissa leaned in close to me and whispered that Ben was glaring daggers at me. I offered a soft "Mm-hmm" in acknowledgment, but didn't so much as twitch. Didn't look at her, didn't look at Ben, didn't even look at the people speaking. I just stared right past them, to the front of the room, to the coffin. Melissa settled back in her seat and didn't say anything else, letting me handle this in my own way, at my own pace.
I knew not everyone would be so understanding.
"You son of a bitch!"
I turned to the source of the voice, having barely even stood up since the pastor wrapped up the presentations with a brief prayer, and mildly scolded, "Don't talk about mom like that."
Ben stormed toward me, fury in his eyes the likes of which I had never seen before. I quickly shifted gears and decided to keep my voice and expression as bland as I could, my posture as neutral as possible. This level of utter rage was something I hadn't counted on, not to this extent, and as everyone in the room turned toward us, not even pretending to pay attention to anything else, I realized I was going to have to tread very carefully here.
"You son of a BITCH!" he repeated, stomping his foot on the floor for emphasis, slamming to a halt less than a step away from me. Susan was behind him, also looking angry, but letting Ben handle the situation. Ben didn't seem to notice her. I'm not sure he remembered there was anyone else in the room besides me. "What the hell do you call that?"
"My speech?" I shrugged. "A eulogy for innocence."
"You were supposed to tell a story about Drew's life!"
"I did tell a story about Drew's life. I also told one about our parents' deaths, and one about Biblical parable."
I felt an odd calm settle over me, the first calm I'd felt since I'd heard about my nephew's death. Oh, there was still anger and grief and loss, but it was bearable now. There was a reason I hadn't unburdened myself on Melissa. The release had to be done right.
Timing. It's all in the timing.
The calmer I got, the angrier Ben became. I knew meeting his anger with anger would be disastrous. His face was actually turning red. I'd never seen that before. I'd thought it was just an expression.
"You," he hissed, "were supposed to say something positive, something heartfelt."
"I had no idea what I was going to say until I started speaking, completely extemporaneously. Every word came straight from my heart."
"It was supposed to be something that would make people feel better! Something to..." He trailed off, looking for the right words.
"Something to pretend he's not dead, that everything's a-okay, peachy-keen, hunky-dory? I couldn't do that, Ben. I'm not going to lie. I gave a speech and I gave everyone in this room honesty."
"'Honesty'?" he echoed disbelievingly.
"Yes, honesty. You want some more honesty, Ben? FDR was wrong. We have more to fear than fear itself. We also have to fear all the stupid shit scared people do to try to make themselves feel safe."
Ben leaned forward, so close to me our noses almost touched. In no uncertain terms, as if declaring a fundamental truth of the universe, he declared, "I am not scared."
I didn't even blink. "Bullshit. It's been twenty years, but you still firmly believe that every stranger out there drives a blue Dodge."
He actually gasped aloud and took a full step back at that, and the anger on his face instantly gave way to shock and astonishment. In all the time since he'd told me about that day, neither of us had spoken of it, had ever even so much as hinted at it. If the look on Susan's face was any sign, neither of us had breathed a word about it to another living soul in all that time. Strange that, the way we all hide from the moments that define us.
Distantly, I realize that all of this is one for me. Drew was dead, I gave a eulogy, and things would never be the same. Should Melissa and I ever have kids, I wonder if, years from now, I'll be able to tell them about the cousin they never had the opportunity to know, or if they'll never hear of him because and acknowledgment of Drew's life would require the acknowledgment of his death, and I'll have buried this day deep down where I never have to acknowledge that any of it ever happened. How terrible must it be to not even be buried yet and already have your life being forgotten by your family just so they can avoid the pain of dealing with your death?
Ben looked at me, the shock quickly yielding back to rage. "You know damn well why I survived the blue Dodge, Phil," he said, evenly, urgently.
"You survived the blue Dodge," I responded, "because a good neighbor saw a bad situation and got involved.
Ben practically sneered at me. "That man was not scared off by Mr. Cooper."
"That man would have been scared off by anyone presenting the slightest resistance, Ben. A man like that is an utter coward who avoids confrontation or challenge, only preys on people he knows can't beat him. He would have been scared off if Cooper had been wielding an umbrella."
"So says the little brother who didn't even know it happened until a year after the fact. I was there, Phil, and I saw when the guy got scared, and it sure as hell wasn't the moment when he saw Cooper shuffle over the hill."
I shook my head, disbelieving what I was about to ask but knowing it was true anyway. "So that's what it all comes down to?" I asked hollowly. "We're here today because you're still impressed that a two-decades-gone coward felt threatened and ran."
Ben's eye twitched. "It kept me safe, it's the reason I'm still here, and I bought my own so I could keep my family safe."
"Yeah, that worked out real well, didn't it?"
I never even saw him throw the punch. All I knew was that all at once there was a loud ringing in my head and a commotion, yelling and shouting around me, and I was squinting, trying to focus on what was in front of me, and just for a moment, before I realized I was sprawled out on the floor, I honestly wondered why there was furniture sticking out sideways from the wall.
Then Melissa was over me, kneeling down, asking if I was okay, genuinely worried, and I saw the pastor and Uncle David, one of the Uncle Davids anyway, interposed between me and my brother, forcing him back, away from me, and Susan was nowhere to be seen, and then I heard a few of the chairs in the room topple and clatter to the floor, and there was more yelling, and a child was crying somewhere, more noise from every direction until I couldn't tell at all what was going on around me anymore.
"Hey, Phil, talk to me. How're you holding up?"
I touched the left side of my mouth again, winced, then looked at my fingers. There was only a faint smear of red on them. The bleeding from Ben's punch had just about stopped. I exhaled heavily and glanced over at Melissa. "I've had better days," I said simply.
We were sitting alone outside the funeral home, where Melissa had opted to retreat to until things settled down a bit and emotions stopped riding so high. What we were on wasn't a bench so much as it was a slab of white stone. It was even more uncomfortable than it sounds, and the chill in the early evening air as the clouds continued to deepen and the wind picked up wasn't helping matters.
Melissa let the silence stretch for a bit, then asked, "What's all that about Cooper and a blue Dodge?"
For just a moment I considered answering, but I had promised Ben that I would never tell anyone else what he had told me. Bringing up the topic to Ben in the presence of others I could chalk up to loophole, but I found I wasn't willing to outright break the promise I'd made even after what had just happened, so I didn't respond to the question, choosing instead to stare silently into space.
Changing gears, Melissa asked, "Did your eulogy make you feel any better?"
I closed my eyes and buried my face in my hands for just a moment. I considered keeping quiet again, but quickly decided that giving her the silent treatment was both inappropriate and unfair.
"I didn't imply anything that at least half the people in that room weren't already thinking," I said defensively.
Melissa nodded. "Perhaps not." She paused. "But that's not what I asked."
"Hell yes it made me feel better!" I snapped. "I said what needed to be said, what no one else was willing to say, and I put the blame right where it belongs!"
Melissa didn't appear at all bothered by my anger. She knew I wasn't angry at her and probably thought that it was good for me to vent some rage rather than trying to internalize it all. She was probably right about that.
"I don't believe the traditional purpose of a wake is to assign blame," she said simply, not unsympathetically, but not exactly approving either.
Rather than respond directly, I chose to sidestep that one, too. "You know, everyone extended sympathy to Ben, everyone told him how terrible the situation was, how bad they felt for him. Everyone is supporting him. I don't get it. If he'd lost a child because he left drain cleaner out, people wouldn't sympathize with him. If he'd lost a child because he'd left him unattended by an in-ground pool, there would be people who say he doesn't even belong here today. If he'd lost a child because he left a propane torch in the living room, he'd probably already be in jail.
"But apparently when reckless irresponsibility costs you a child this way, it's perfectly acceptable! Drew's dead, and Mallory is going to see it happen every time she closes her eyes for the rest of her life, two children's lives destroyed in the same instant... and everyone feels bad for Ben! Why the hell does everyone act like he's the damn victim here?" I looked at my fiancée, trying not to cry and failing miserably. "God, Melissa, he's my brother and I love him, but he could have prevented this so, so easily! How can I look at him and not think of that? How can I forgive him for this?"
Melissa met my gaze, and it looked like her heart was breaking too, and she said to me, not quite a question, "He's not really the one you have to forgive, is he?"
Well, that was it right there, wasn't it?
I opened my mouth to respond to that, to admit to it, or to deny it outright, or to feign ignorance, but instead of answering verbally, I came completely unglued, just fell apart at the seams, emotions I'd bottled up or even denied existed pouring out uncontrollably. I wrapped my arms tightly around Melissa, head over her shoulder, a drowning man clinging desperately to a life preserver, and simply bawled, letting it all out. She held me, rocking slightly with me, supporting me, and didn't make a sound.
This only lasted at most a minute before I pulled myself together. Melissa let me go as I turned back to the sitting position I'd been in before, only this time instead of sitting sullenly, darkly, storm clouds swirling around me, I was sitting slumped forward, head lowered, at a total loss, despairing.
"So what now?" I asked softly, wiping my eyes dry with my sleeve.
Melissa closed her mouth and exhaled heavily, then shook her head and admitted, "I have no idea."
I wiped my lip again. There was no blood this time. "I don't think he's going to forgive me for this one." I confessed. "He never hit me before, ever, not like that."
After a moment's consideration, she answered, "I think he's in the same boat you are, as far as forgiveness goes. He's in denial toward himself, so he gets mad at you."
"I don't know how long it'll take before I can visit Mallory, assuming Ben and Susan would even let me. I think they're going to block me out."
"There's no need to assume the worst."
"I know my brother," I told her. "I've known him forever, in any sense of the word that has any meaning to me, and now... He's never been angrier at me, and me and Susan have never gotten along, so no one's going up to bat for me there... I'm related to a lot of the people in there, but since my parents died Ben is the only family I've got left.... And now I've lost him too."
I stared into space, miserable beyond words, a man whose life as he had known it gone forever, or fading fast.
And then Melissa reached across my body and took my left hand in hers, our engagement rings clicking together softly, which I intuitively knew was not an accident. I turned and looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time today, probably for the first time since I'd heard about Drew's death.
She smiled slightly, sympathetic and supportive, and said softly, "There's the family we're born with, and then there's the family we choose as our own."
I considered this, and my first genuine smile in days spread across my face. I wrapped my right arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
"Thank you," I whispered. "For being here, for putting up with me... For everything."
Matching my tone, she whispered, "What are families for?"
After that, there was nothing more to say.
There's no telling how long we would have sat there like that had the doors to the funeral home not opened with a bang, drawing our attention.
Aunt Lisa and Aunt Linda exited the building, looking about as shaken as you would imagine anyone leaving a wake to look. They both seemed a bit lost. That lasted until they noticed me. Then their expressions turned to anger. Aunt Lisa, always the most outspoken of the three sisters, made a beeline for me, with Aunt Linda following on her heels.
"Aw, hell," I whispered to Melissa, "here we go."
Aunt Lisa started before she'd even reached me. "I hope you're happy. I hope you're happy!"
"Yeah, I love wakes," I mumbled. I already knew more or less how this was going to go and didn't feel any particular need to play it nice. Aunt Lisa was going to say what she wanted to say no matter what I did, so why even try?
"Show some respect for the dead," she continued. "That man lost a son, you heartless bastard. How dare you"—she realized she couldn't say it—"do what you just did?"
"I dare because—"
"Shut up! I'm not through yet!"
I glanced over at Melissa and rolled my eyes slightly. That seemed to piss Aunt Lisa off even more.
"This isn't some game, some big joke—"
"Am I laughing?"
"This is a solemn occasion, a time to show respect, to display dignity. But you, always the punk, you reduce a wake to a fistfight!"
"Ben threw the punch."
"It was your fault! You said those things! You created the trouble! You were supposed to celebrate Drew's life with your speech, but there was no celebration in what you said. We're hurting too, but no one else used this as their own personal soapbox."
I glanced over at Aunt Linda, who didn't appear thrilled with her sister's handling of this situation, but didn't appear to disagree with what she was saying either. Fighting to keep my expression level, I managed, "Tell you what. Next time a kid I know dies, I'll grant a free pass to the people responsible because 'They're hurting, too,' and then you'll be happy and everything will be fine."
Aunt Lisa shifted back a step and glowered down at me. "You don't care about anyone's pain but your own, about anyone but yourself."
"If I didn't care about anyone but myself, I never would have been able to give that eulogy."
"You're seriously telling me that you pissed off everyone in that room because you care?"
I exhaled wearily, feeling years older than I had that morning, tired beyond words at the entire situation. I looked her right in the eye. "So I'm not allowed to express what I feel civilly, but you're allowed to come out here and curse at me? My brother's loss places him above criticism, but my loss makes me fair game? Lady, I said what we all know is true, even if it's too horrible for some of us to acknowledge, and I have no regrets about doing so, and I make no excuses for it. I was right, dammit, and anyone who has a problem with that can go to hell for all I care."
Aunt Lisa sneered at me. "You're contemptible," she declared.
"So shoot me," I fired back.
She stared at me in horrified disbelief for a moment, then reared back and spat right in my face.
I recoiled a bit, eyes closed, and wiped at my face with my right hand. I heard Aunt Linda saying something, and by the time I'd dried off my face and opened my eyes, she was leading her sister away, trying to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.
"Yes, that was certainly very respectful," I called after Aunt Lisa. My face still felt filthy, so I ran the inside of my elbow over my face, trying to wipe the spit off with my sleeve. That felt a little better.
"You've shown me the error of my ways!" I shouted at their retreating backs. I glanced down at my hand, still wet with spit, and rubbed it on the slab I was sitting on. That was a lousy idea. The stone didn't absorb any of it, naturally, but it did scrape my hand raw.
"We must do this again sometime!" I yelled after my aunts as they reached the main sidewalk along the street and turned to the left, uphill toward the parking lot. I stood and walked to the nearest patch of grass and rubbed my hand through it, hard. When I held my hand up again, it had dirt and some green smears on it, but it was dry.
"Withered old bitch," I muttered.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Melissa's. "You certainly have a way with your family," she observed.
I smiled wanly and told her, "They're not the family I chose."
She smiled faintly in return, then did a double-take as a drop of rain hit her. We glanced around, looking for a dark backdrop to spot the rain against. I saw that it wasn't falling hard yet, but the drops were enormous. I heard one actually thud against the sidewalk.
"Do you want to go back inside?" Melissa asked.
I actually snorted. "I think that would be a phenomenally bad idea," I told her. I allowed myself one last mournful look at the doors to the funeral home, somewhere behind which lay the nephew I would never see again. "No, let's go. We can mourn in our own way."
Melissa helped me stand up. It really wasn't necessary, but after the shot to the head I had taken she wasn't taking any chances. The rain picked up a little, huge dark spots appearing on the sidewalk as we started toward the parking lot, following after my aunts. I hoped they walked fast. I didn't want to end up in a position to talk to them again.
I heard it just before Melissa did. I turned and saw the wall of rainfall across the street, moving rapidly toward us. This wasn't just rain, this was a downpour bordering on underwater. Melissa took a quick step forward as if to make a quick dash to the car, but I never broke stride. "It's only water," I told her. She gave the storm, seconds away from us, a dubious glance, but fell in beside me. And just like that the storm was upon us.
It took less than ten steps for me to decide I should have followed Melissa's lead. Already I could feel the water squishing between my toes inside my dress shoes with every step. I raised a hand to shield my eyes when a gust of wind came, so strong that Melissa was blown into me. I caught her and held on until she regained her balance, then shared a look with her.
"'It's only water'?" she echoed, amused.
I shrugged. "I was definitely correct about that, but probably not right," I told her, then picked up my pace for all the good it would do me at this point. The rain was still pounding down, dancing wildly on the sidewalk, even dancing on the grass. The clouds had obscured the evening sun so thoroughly that streetlights were coming on. The one in front of us was rocking back and forth in the wind, illuminating sheets of rain crashing past it. We reached the main sidewalk, under the streetlight, and had just started up the hill when I heard a soft clinking sound from the streetlight. I paused turned toward it, and quickly realized that the sound was caused by hail mixing in with the rain. Nothing huge, pea-sized maybe, but enough to sting when it started hitting me.
Intent on getting to the car, I looked down from the light to the street, but only took one step before I froze at the sight of something sliding down the street. A veritable river of water ran down both sides of the street, so much water that it splashed past a storm grate and continued past it down the street, sweeping along leaves and bits of wood, a few pieces of litter and lots of hailstones floating on top, and caught up in the torrent, swept along by the water, was the car-struck dog I'd seen on the way in. It tumbled in the flow, twisting in the eddies until a leg caught on the curb, briefly halting its progress. The water quickly built up behind it, flipping it over and twisting it free. It continued down the hill, tumbling along again, past the streetlight, disappearing into the darkness beyond.
I stared after it, far longer than I should have, and felt something building up inside me. Not quite grief, not quite desperation, not quite despair, but containing a bit of each. I twitched slightly, and took a step forward, a second, stepped off the sidewalk into the water, another step, another, another, and until I heard Melissa calling after me I didn't realize that I was at a dead run.
I raced up the road and cut to the right, into the parking lot. It wasn't large, maybe forty spaces at best, packed in as tight as possible. I had just entered the light when two bright beams of light swung across the parking lot and pointed at me. Aunt Lisa was leaving, and her car's headlights sliced through the gloom, illuminating sheets of rain and hail the likes of which Noah must have seen as he prepared the ark. Despite the light, the pavement was still obscured in the haze from the falling rain and the splash of droplets bouncing back into the air. I could hear the hail tearing through leaves on trees, striking the cars, clacking off the pavement and crunching under my feet.
The car clammed to a halt. I must have caught them by surprise. I'm sure I made quite a sight. I didn't even break stride as I ran toward their car, just kept running full tilt straight at them, and when I reached them I jumped right up on the hood, pushing hard with my next step to leap over the windshield and the wipers sweeping back and forth so I landed on the roof, where I slipped in the water and hail. I tried to catch myself and ended up tumbling awkwardly down the back window and across the trunk to the ground.
As I tumbled, as Aunt Lisa honked the car's horn at me for all the good that would do, something in the back of my mind about the car clicked. It was coincidence, didn't mean a thing, but Aunt Lisa's car was a blue Dodge.
I sprung to my feet as soon as I touched the asphalt and was back into a full sprint that fast. Coming up fast was the far end of the parking lot, then a small strip of grass. The fence behind that consisted of thick wooden logs, nearly a foot in diameter, four or five feet tall, with holes through them supporting three lines of corded metal wire, and after the fence, nothing but rolling fields.
I reached the fence and leaped for one of the posts, planting both hands on top and using that leverage to pull my right foot up. Once my foot was planted on top, I was able to push myself over the fence, and from there nothing stood in my path.
Somewhere behind me, I could hear Melissa calling my name, her voice falling further back, eventually becoming lost in the sounds of the storm.
And I ran.
I sprinted up the gentle slope toward the hilltop, rain blowing into my face, hail stinging me as it struck my head. The grass was tall and uncut, weighed down by the rain, whipping in the breeze, tangling around my feet as I ran. With one step my right foot caught in the tangled grass, but I managed to maintain my balance. I planted my left foot and tried to pull my other foot free, but the left foot slid in the mud, causing me to stumble downhill slightly, freeing my trapped foot, and I was off and running again.
I crested the hill and started down the other side, tearing through the grass easier with gravity on my side. The ground splashed under my feet as I entered just enough of a gully for the water to stream. My feet sank into the mud, the ground sucking at my shoes with each step. I reached the low point before the next rise, where the water was pooled several inches deep, and was shockingly cold, with hailstones floating on top. My foot sank again in the mud, and when I took the next step my shoe stayed behind in the sludge.
I kept running, now with a slight limp to compensate for the missing shoe. The rain continued unabated and the wind still whipped the water sideways past me as it fell, though the hail was letting up. My feet and shins were hurting from tearing through so much grass, and my breath was burning in my throat as I panted for breath. I pushed forward up the hill, fatigue slowly deteriorating my sprint into a trudge.
I slogged up the hill in my best sprint, such as it was at this point, soaked to the bone, weighed down by my completely saturated clothing, trying to reach the next summit. Atop the hill, silhouetted against the sky, was a large tree. I pushed toward it, through the rain, through the wind, through the grass and mud, not knowing why I wanted so badly to get there, but convinced that once I reached it I would finally rest. I had just started to believe I would make it when my right foot went out from under me in the mud. I stumbled forward, falling to my knees, catching myself with my left hand, the other way out to my side for balance so I didn't smack my face solidly into the muck, and the moment I was off my feet I felt my strength draining away.
Gasping for breath, feeling my legs starting to cramp up, I lifted my hand out of the mud and looked toward the goal I wasn't going to reach. And then the lightning bolt shot through the air, a sword splitting the sky, striking the tallest object at the highest point in the area, and just for an instant the tree was lit like the sun itself. I could feel the thunderclap pass through me, and when I looked again a few orange embers were burning along the side of the tree.
Slowly my left arm continued to rise from the mud, mirroring the right, up and out to the side, a sense of inevitability settling over me at last, rain upon the earth around me, and I took a deep breath, and I closed my eyes, and then I let go.
Water, sweet water, sustainer of all life, rain over me, purify me, cleanse me of my sins, wash the pain away.