THEN – FEBRUARY 26th
My father used to say, “The center of the Universe is everywhere.” I never understood what he meant. Staring at the long silver coffin before me, maybe I never would.
Faces swam in the sea of black stretching across the large church; the church my father never attended. The church my father never believed in.
Six days ago he was my dad. But now that he was dead, he was my “father”. Like calling him that would make it hurt less. It didn’t.
An old woman pulled me close. She stunk of that old lady smell; of perfume and old skin. She breathed condolences in my ear. I didn’t hear her though; only felt the feathers of her hat scratch my face. Apparently nothing says mourning like a big feathered hat.
They were all wearing big hats in a way. Their best suits, their shiniest shoes, the good purse. All concerned about themselves; all there on the pretense of grief. But I knew the truth. They just wanted to be a part of something. A break from their monotone lives. To convince themselves that they felt something, lost something. But what they were really thinking was, I’m glad it’s not me.
They’d all be gone tomorrow.
The February chill seeped in through the stain glass windows of the church, mixing a toxic cocktail of cologne and that hundred-year-old wall smell. I hated churches. The cross shaped chandeliers, the arched wooden ceilings. Their beauty contradicted the ugliness of death. The ugliness of me.
I’d have screamed at it all, had I not lost my voice. I wasn’t speaking at the moment. Not in six days. Not since that night. Since I survived the crash——and he didn’t.
“I’m sorry for your loss, young lady,” a bearded man stood over me. He twisted the funeral program in his veiny hands before extending one to me.
I tried to disappear, but they still found me. Even tucked away in the corner of the church, away from my family, they found me. I offered my hand in auto pilot, in hopes he’d be satisfied and go away. He did.
I heard my twin brother, Eli, laughing. It wasn’t his usual laugh, it didn’t reach his eyes. But still. He was making small talk, making the guests feel comfortable. Making me want to puke. Our older brother Quinn and his best friend Cameron joined in, shaking hands with one of their friends. They all looked handsome in their suits. Too handsome. Like this church.
Cameron’s stupid security uniform stood out from the rest. It seemed fused to his skin lately. He wasn’t tall like Quinn, but then again, no one was. Quinn bent down, allowing an old prune clutching a handbag to lay a kiss on his cheek.
My mom was staring at me from across the room. She was always staring lately. She’d shaken hands with over fifty people already, hosting this – whatever this was. A cocktail party for the dead?
I shrunk inside my dress, hiding in the corner like a little girl spying on an adult world. Only I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I was seventeen, going on a thousand. But still, I stayed in my corner. For I was the Corner Keeper. Maybe I’d forever be the Corner Keeper, away from the world, like Gollum. Only instead of hiding a ring, I’d hide my heart.
The doors opened and closed. The guests heading toward the cake in the other room. After all, what would a funeral be without cake? And holding their porcelain plates and tiny forks, they’d eat the white cake with white frosting because “Chocolate’s too rich for a funeral,” my mom had said, before going home to their warm houses and full lives, while my family buried my dad. Father.
I should have been grateful for their sympathy. I should have even stood next to my mom and supported her breaking heart. I should have done anything other than stare at the boy leaning against the pillar. But that’s what I did.
I stared. I watched him, watching them. I watched the way he leaned, the casual air of his gestures, the arrogant curve of his lips. This wasn’t attraction. It was distraction. He didn’t wear black, except for his hair. He wore a blue hoodie instead, over a gray shirt. The hems of his jeans were cut. Not torn or frayed, but cut. And I wanted to know why.
There was nothing special about him. Well, maybe his eyes. They were dark, maybe blue or black or purple for all I cared, but they pulled me in. He stared at the coffin sometimes, his smirk fading. Because that’s what it was; a smirk. Like he knew something we didn’t.
He crossed his arms, relaxed. Too relaxed. He was comfortable, and I hated him for it. I itched at the lace of my dress, tugging at the fabric until a slight tear opened. I resisted the urge to rip it more, knowing the satisfaction I’d get seeing the whole thing lying defeated in a pile at my feet. Instead, I grabbed my necklace, tugging the white stone back and forth on the chain.
The boy never noticed me. Never sensed my eyes on him, never considered the Corner Keeper. No one ever does. But for some reason, I couldn’t turn away. So I watched. Like I was waiting for him to do something. Break out in dance, throw a grenade, cry uncontrollably. But he did nothing. He simply leaned. Watching. Waiting.
In the beginning, I sat in the pews beside Quinn, listening to the long Catholic service. I tried to pay attention to Father Thomas as he spoke the words of God, but I just couldn’t. His dry mouth kept smacking into the microphone, echoing through the speakers of the church. Near the end though, somebody read the obituary, the one from the newspaper. This, I remember. It was short. A single paragraph. It listed all the facts about my “father”. Where he lived, where he worked, where he died. No mention of the dad I knew.
Forty-three years in this world condensed to one. Single. Paragraph.
Everyone still swarmed the front like ants to a carcass. Yes, I just compared my father to a carcass.
He wasn’t my dad anymore. His body was too burnt. I should know, I watched him burn. But I couldn’t think about that. I couldn’t replay that night in my mind. A funeral was no place to cry. Besides, like their big hats, I wore my good glasses.
I closed my eyes, willing the tears away. The absence of sight only increased the noise of the hissing guests. I stared at the boy instead. His arms still crossed, he didn’t move. He was my age, maybe. Eighteen at the most, but he didn’t belong. I didn’t belong.
The heavy doors of the room burst opened, breaking my stare fest with the boy. A frantic woman forced her way into the crowd. She was weathered, her brown hair hanging like curtains around her face. She looked how I felt. The woman raced to the front, her red skirt dragging up the stairs. She headed straight for my father, knocking a vase to the ground. Everyone looked. She pounded on the coffin trying to get our attention. And it worked.
“Jonathan Stone was a great man!” she screamed. “There is purpose in his death!”
If this were a movie, the camera would have panned out to all the frightened faces in the crowd, some running for their lives from the crazy person. But this wasn’t a movie. This was Portland. And everyone just stared at her, some holding up their cell phones in case anything exciting happened. Someone should have told her she was at the wrong funeral. My dad’s name was Jonathan Voss.
The woman held out her hands, like she was holding invisible apples. “The Day of the Source is coming! And we will allbe freed! We will all be freed!” she screamed and in a flash, her hands lit on fire.
I mean actual fire. Just burst into flames. But she didn’t cry out. She — liked it?
Screams erupted in the crowd. Someone rushed to the front and then Cameron shot some Taser thing at the lady. And I’m not gonna lie, it was hilarious. She shook in the air then fell fast. Quinn dove on top of her. I lost sight of them in the mob.
A scuffle, more gasps, maybe a few screams later and it was over. Quinn and Cameron drug the woman through the crowd and out the doors, her body limp in their arms, her hands extinguished.
Was it wrong that I enjoyed that? Yes. But I mean, what a way to end a funeral. My dad would have been proud. But I was wrong. Because the funeral didn’t end. As soon as the double doors shut, as soon as the disruption was handled, the soft music resumed, and the chattering picked up.
Like. Nothing. Effing. Happened.
I sulked in my chair, tugging on the stone of my necklace. I glanced at the boy. Gone. Maybe it was too much to handle. Maybe he’d had enough entertainment for one day.
My mom made her way down the aisle toward the doors. Everyone followed her like the remora they were. You know, the sucker fish that live off the leftovers of a shark’s mouth. Mom’s dress was pretty. It wrapped her in all the right places, her blonde curls set in a soft twist. She was the belle of the ball. The rock star of this party. And they all wanted a piece of her. To say their words alone helped her through.
“He’s in a better place now.”
“It was just his time to go.”
Or my personal favorite, “God has a plan for him.”
God. What a joke. God had been on my shit list ever since I was eight and I begged Him to save my best friend Maddie from Leukemia. I guess “God” had a plan for her too.
Mom eyed me as she passed. I was to join her in the other room, help comfort the others. But she didn’t need me for that. She had Quinn, and Eli and Cameron and half the city of Portland. Besides, if I followed her, I’d steal the show. Because aside from their petty desire to “comfort” my family, they were all secretly hoping to get a glimpse of the only survivor. The one who walked away without a scratch. The one driving the car.
The one who killed her dad. Father.
I stayed in my corner instead. And waited. Waited for the whispers to fade, the high heels to clink away, the sniffles to file out. Waited.
Until finally, I was alone.
The room grew in their absence, the smell of death and roses invading my insides. Everything became more — real. While I hated the people, I hated the silence more. It echoed the screams of that night. Mine. And his.
The silver coffin taunted me from the altar. It was perfect and peaceful, wrapping my dad in a neat little gift box. Throw a bow on top and he’d look glorious under a Christmas tree.
I was doing it again. I needed a distraction.
Something moved near the front. A figure stood at the coffin. A blue hoodie with dark hair type of figure; the boy. Distraction granted. But where’d he come from?
He set his hand on top of the casket and bowed his head. Was he actually praying? A loud crack shot through the room like an old tomb being opened. Maybe because it was. The casket opened and even from the back of the room I could see the charred remains.
In an instant, I was standing. The boy reached behind his back and pulled out something shiny. He held the object over my father’s dead corpse, mumbling something. I couldn’t hear. He raised his hand then and I saw it-
He brought the blade down toward my father—
“Stop!” I yelled.
The boy wheeled around, the casket slamming shut behind him.
And then I just stood there, staring at him. No clue what to do next.
The boy watched me with a dumbfounded look on his face. Like he’d never seen a girl before. I narrowed my eyes, giving him my best bad guy face. Then, he moved.
He stepped to the right.
Still on edge, so did I.
He stepped left, getting ready to run. I mimicked his movements.
Until, to my own surprise, I ran first.
I ran up the center of the pews toward him. Why? I have no freaking idea. What would I do when I caught him? If I caught him?
I charged anyway, grateful I wore my purple converse over the heels my mom laid out. He darted to the other side of the room, hugging the perimeter, long rows of benches between us. We both stopped, watching the other. I stepped inside a row, trying to close the gap.
A lethal smile spread over his face.
He sprinted toward the doors while I raced into the middle, but it was too late. I was right on his heels, almost there, almost there. He flung open the doors and ran through. I caught the handle, charging after him and—
Crashed into a suited old man blowing his nose.
“Sorry, sorry,” I said, running past.
The hall was plagued with black suits and hats, dresses and loud chattering. I weaved in between, determined to find him; determined to know what the hell kind of freak tries to stab a dead man.
The further I moved into the crowd though, the slower my steps became, until I eventually stopped.
“Have you seen a boy, like this tall,” I asked a balding man and his wife, holding my hand above my head.
They shook their heads with that stupid sympathetic look I was coming to despise and patted me on the arm.
I asked the next faces, then the next. He was gone. Just gone.
“Skylar?” a voice said from behind.
I turned to see Quinn towering over me.
I slouched under the weight of my black dress. The sight of him brought me back to the day, to why we were there.
“We’re getting ready to go to the burial site. Eli’s getting Mom in the car now. You know I think we should all go together. Do this together.” Quinn paused, looking past me. “But I promised you earlier, and if you don’t want to come, Cameron said he’d give you a ride home.”
Now, I knew I should go. I knew this was the only time we would bury my dad, the only time to say goodbye. And maybe I’d regret it when I was thirty or fifty or for the rest of my life, but despite knowing all those things I looked up at my brother and answered, “I want to go home.”
I felt the air leave him. He was disappointed.
So was I.
. . .
The February sun assaulted my eyes.
Every day in February it rained. Every day from November to May it rained. But not that day. That day the sun bathed the church in glowing light, taunting the grief we bared. Mother Nature was a hormonal bitch.
A cop car sat at the curb of the church. Probably arresting the crazy lady with fire hands. But I didn’t see her with them. Instead, they hassled a homeless guy lying on the steps of the church. He flung his North Face jacket at them.
Cameron drove like I was an egg about to crack. Maybe I was; about to crack. He tried small talk, but when he realized I wasn’t listening, he stopped. There was a time when I would have given anything to be alone in a car with Cameron. I’d known him since I was nine and he was thirteen. He was my first crush. He wasn’t bad looking, for a red head, plus he was the first boy that was nice to me outside my brothers. But when I professed my love for him at the ripe age of ten, with what I remembered as the driest kiss in the history of kisses, he shot me down. Now he looked at me the way I had always wanted him to. I guess boobs will do that.
He pulled in the driveway and before I knew it, he was beside me opening the car door. He followed me to the house where I fumbled with the key and opened the door.
I turned. His eyes found mine. There was pity there, but unlike the others, something else. Understanding. Cameron’s pity came from his mother’s death, when he was fifteen. I looked away. His pity hurt more.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said.
I sighed and feigned a smile. “Wasn’t it?” and let the door close between us.
The silence of the empty house swirled around me. It was a loud silence. Filled with memories and regrets; torment. I climbed the stairs. I changed, peed, did all the normal human things my body still required. For a while I stared in the mirror. I didn’t see me though. I saw that night, I saw the funeral, I saw nothing but nothingness, the time ticking by, away, faster and slower. After a while, I did see my reflection. A ghost of a girl stared back. Pale skin, empty eyes, dark shadows. I was ugly, and I liked it. The only thing beautiful was the pink French twist fixed tight against my head. My mother’s doing. We look our best, even in death.
I wanted to shave the beauty from my scalp.
I settled on letting it fall to my back and found the way to my room. I headed to my closet. Like a deflated balloon I collapsed on the floor in the darkest corner I could find. I tried to disappear.
A symphony of my father’s screams found me in the dark. Always in the dark. Images flashed in front of me; the fire licking my flesh, the smoke-filled air, the terrifyingly beautiful lights hovering above his body.
A swollen tear escaped down my cheek. It was warm and almost comforting. Almost. More tears fell, not satisfied until they stole my breath completely.
Sleep. I just needed to sleep. Sleep and forget. Forever. But there was one thing I could never forget. One question I was too afraid to say out loud.
How the hell did my dad die in a car accident he was never even in?