There’s something about death. Graveyards, headstones, caskets – they’ve always attracted and at the same time, repulsed me. Frightened me. It’s the same thing with ghosts; On the one hand, it’s comforting to think that some part of ourselves carries on. At the same time, it’s terrifying when we encounter actual proof. How would you react if someone you knew reached out from beyond the veil?
The color of the day was black. The mourners sitting in folding chairs wore black. The priest wore black. The coffin hung suspended above a hole next to a pile of black dirt. Mostly though, it was the mood. A black mood that cast its withering shadow over the small gathering. Black umbrellas hovered like small, leaking roofs over the attendees. The misty rain drizzled through the spaces between to soak jacketed shoulders and laps.
The little crowd sat with heads bowed as the priest droned his final words, invoking the blessing of Christ Jesus, assuring that the young soul found heaven and sat at the feet of the Savior.
No one in attendance really believed it, however. How could they? She’d been taken so young. So early. So suddenly.
A woman sat in the front row. Her lipstick, a shade too heavy. Her smudged eyeliner filled the hollows of her eyes. Tears dripped down her face to join the puddles at her feet.
A hum sounded from the clutch she held clasped on her lap.
She felt the vibration, but didn’t mark the intrusion.
With a trembling hand, she raised a wadded tissue to her face and dabbed her eye, then she sniffled. The man next to her placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. His name was Dan. He was her husband. She shrugged it away.
Today, Cassie McConnell faced a scene every parent dreads. A nightmare. The kind that would make any mother jump upright from her bed, gasping for air, desperate to find it was just a dream.
All the wishing and denying couldn’t make it so. This was real. As cold as the icy water soaking up through her shoes from the sodden grass. As solid as the cedar box laying before her.
The priest nodded his head. A switch was thrown, and a winch lowered the casket slowly into the black pit below.
It touched the bottom; the straps were uncoupled, and he began his ashes to ashes intonation.
He grasped a handful of dirt from the mount and cast it in. It thumped hollowly on the cedar lid.
A button was pushed on a small boom box. Ave Maria drifted out from the tiny speakers, as if sung through a cup on the end of a taut string.
Dan grasped Cassie gently by the shoulders and coaxed her to her feet. Gently, he led her to the mound of earth. She stood, shaking. Her breath came in gasps.
He squatted down, scooped a bit of mud and held it out for her. She ignored, or didn’t notice, his outstretched hand, so he discarded it himself and watched it fall to the casket where it splattered on the rain-soaked wood.
He smeared his hand on his long coat, then grabbed Cassie’s hand, and intertwining her arm in his, led her away from their daughter’s grave.
She stumbled along as if she were in a trance, apparently unaware of where she walked. She made one unfortunate step and sank ankle-deep into the sodden ground. Apparently absent of her right mind, she simply stepped out of her shoe, leaving it behind, buried in the muck of the cemetery.
They made it to the limo. The driver held the door open, sheltering them with his umbrella. Dan guided her in, then entered after.
“You’ve lost your shoe.” He said, noticing her grimy feet, his eyebrows drawn close in concern.
Cassie answered as if in a daze. “Did I?” Her tone was soft, flat, unconcerned as she stared unseeing out the window.
“Mrs. Porthouse left early to receive guests,” he said. “Just this last bit – the wake- then it’s over.”
But it wasn’t going to be over. It would never be over. Death’s like that. That’s the difference between life and death. Death’s always there, waiting. The period at the end of our lives.
“The minister poured it on a little thick,” she said. Her lips moved, but the look on her face was as monotone as her voice.
“Get on with our lives. Love her. Miss her. But realize she’s in a better place. That’s what she’d have wanted,’ he said. How does he know what Amy would’ve wanted? Maybe she needs us to stop and not run on to the next thing. Maybe she needs us to take a minute and reflect on how she’s gone. Maybe there isn’t anything more pressing than that.”
Dan didn’t reply. What could he say? He was relieved to have the service over with. Cassie’s overwhelming grief made it easier to deal with his own feelings. Or rather, it made it easier to push them aside so he could deal with hers. Maybe it was less painful dealing with Cassie’s loss than his own. Unbidden, an image appeared in his mind from six years ago, on Amy’s tenth birthday, surrounded by her friends. They crowded around her, wearing ridiculous paper hats, and their annoying noise makers, as she took a deep breath and blew out her candles.
His throat caught. He took a deep breath and swallowed the lump. He didn’t have the time for his own feelings. Maybe tonight, after everyone left and Cassie was asleep.
“It was a beautiful service, that’s what they’ll say,” Cassie spoke again.
“It rained. The field turned to mud. The minister checked his notes before saying her name every time, and…”
Her clutch vibrated.
She rolled her eyes. “…and someone tried to call me in the middle of the service. Who’d do that? Everyone knows we were burying our daughter today. Why would they call, text, whatever?”
“Maybe it was the cable company.” It was supposed to be a joke – just a lame joke, not meant to be funny. Just something to lighten the mood. Cassie seemed to not hear it.
Dan watched the trees pass as they drove down the windy road that led from the graveyard. He’d been oblivious that they’d begun to move. He chided himself for his inattention. “Cut yourself some slack,” he murmured softly.
“Talking to myself.” He murmured.
Cassie’s phone whirred again. “Oh, God.”
“Turn the damned thing off. Here.” Dan ripped the purse from her. He flipped the catch and reached inside. He looked at the screen and froze.
The screen’s image was of the three of them on a sunny day, dressed in bathing suits. Amy in front, her smile huge, and the wind blowing her hair back. Her arm was extended out of the picture, as she’d held the phone for the group selfie. Behind was blue sky and green sea. It was from the vacation they’d taken a little over a year ago. San Diego. They’d visited the college and took an extra day at the Hotel Del Coronado.
Amy was much better at selfies than the two of them. It wasn’t the image that hit him, though. It was the grey squares obscuring part of it, and the words they held:
Are you there?
Dan stared at the device. At first, seeing but not comprehending. There was the first urge to text back, then there was disbelief, then hope, then anger.
He shook his head, “Fuck.” He turned the phone back over.
Cassie knit her brow. “What?” She repeated.
“It’s nothing.” He didn’t know what to tell her. An unbelievably cruel trick.
She snatched the phone from him.
She stared at the screen as he had. He hadn’t the strength to watch her reaction. The rumble of the tires roared in his ears as her silence filled the cabin.
“Oh, God!” She threw it down on the floor. Her shivering hands cupped her face. She wailed, her words unintelligible. She fell to her knees, her hands balled into fists, struck the driver’s seat in front of her. Screaming, she spit her voice out into the tight space.
Dan joined her on the floor. He grabbed her fists, then tried to pull her to him. It just gave her a new target. She wrenched her hands free and beat at him. Striking out wildly, she screeched like a wounded animal. Eyes squeezed tight as fresh tears streamed off her face.
He held up his hands to try to ward off the blows, but he couldn’t shield himself from the manic screams.
Cassie gave voice to her rage and grief and impotence. Her blows flew wildly, but one tagged him with an audible crack. Dan doubled over, one hand held against his damaged face. The other arm bent over his head to protect him from further harm.
Cassie felt his nose break. It snapped her back to herself. She froze. “Oh, Dan. I’m so…” That punch wrenched her back into the here and now.
She enfolded her arms around him and rested her cheek on his head. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Slowly, his arm slid down from over his head. Now both hands cupped his face, trying to staunch the flow of blood. It ran freely between his fingers, running down his wrist, to stain the small bit of white sleeve peeking out from under his coat.
“Oh Dan. Dan, I…”
The phone vibrated again. She let go of him and picked it up. Its screen was webbed with spidery cracks. The messages remained, distorted by the ruined glass.
Are you there?
She dropped it on the seat and snatched her purse back from her husband’s grip. She pulled out her pocket tissues, and delivered it with uneasy fingers to his face, still turned toward the black-carpeted floor. She touched it to the hand dripping blood. “Here. Sweetie, here.”
He lowered his arm, accepted it, and placed it gingerly to his nostril. She handed him two more. “Those kids.” Shaking her head. “So damned cruel.”
Dan’s voice issued from below. “They’re nice girls, her friends. I don’t think they’d do that. Ow!” He exclaimed as the car bounced, jarring his hand into his wounded feature.
“Then who?” She flicked out the last tissue and wiped her face again. It came away with the last of her eye makeup. She wiped her own nose.
Dan flipped himself over and laid down on his back, keeping pressure on his nose to staunch the flow. The tissue’d filled up however, and now the blood dripped down the side of his face, to pool in his ear.
“I’m sorry.” Cassie searched through her purse for another tissue or handkerchief. She came up empty. She sighed and stroked his head. “How’re we going to get through this?”
He was quiet. “Maybe it was her friends.”
She was quiet.
“Someone must have stolen it.” He said. His voice tentative, as if he expressed his thoughts as they occurred to him.
“Her phone. It’s the only way her name would’ve appeared in the text. Maybe she left it at a friend’s house.”
Cassie went rigid. Her eyes wide, as if a shot of electricity jolted her to the core. Finally, she reached for the phone.
Through the cracks, she again read the cruel words. ‘Mom?’ ‘Are you there?’
Outside, the countryside gave way to house as they entered their own neighborhood. Familiar streets passed unnoticed as she read the words over and over again.
The car stopped, and the motor shut down. Dan looked over at his wife, lost in the device. Her eyes darting around the screen frantically, as if she searched for something unseen.
She thumbed the device to life and punched something quickly with her thumbs, tears again cascading down her face, Her hands shook. She paused for a brief second, then punched one last button, and dropped her hands to her lap. In the silence of the car, the electronic whoosh declared she’d sent a text. She gasped at the sound.
“Told them off, did you?”
She dropped her hands to her lap, but didn’t look up from the device, her body wracked by massive sobs. Dan jammed the soaked tissue up his nose, and rose to embrace her. She pushed him away.
“What is it?” He asked.
She fought for breath. “Th-the phone.” She choked out through her sobs.
Her body wouldn’t let her respond, so heavy was the weight of her sorrow. She beat at her breast, trying to fight her way back. “Her phone, she was always—I-I had it with me yesterday. I…” she seemed to run out of wind.
“Did you leave it somewhere?”
“I-didn’t want her to… I thought it would be nice—”
“Take your time, hon.”
She took several breaths, “At the viewing. In the—She looked so alone, I wanted to give her something. I-I tucked it into… It’s with her, under her pillow.”
The phone vibrated again.
She looked down and read the message. As if it weighed a thousand pounds, she lifted it off her lap and showed it to her husband.
Dan took it in his sticky fingers and read through the cracks.
I love you, Sweetheart.
I love you too.