Copyright © 2017 by John Wiber
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The Funeral Parlour is still as Susanna approaches the front. She stands over his coffin and softly whispers “You gave me this cross for my birthday, five years ago. I’ve worn it every day since.” She pauses then, clutching the tiny cross between her fingers. “I prayed on this cross every night, I prayed that you would make it home to me.”
She doesn’t notice the people standing around her, all within earshot. They were simply a backdrop, a silent canvas for which she had no interest in. A former classmate begins to cry as Susanna removes the cross from around her neck, bunching the tiny gold necklace between her trembling hands. “I’m going to give this back to you now,” she says, still utterly unaware of her surroundings. The world always stops when a mother buries her child. Everything else ceases to exist for those first few days of grief. Susanna’s opaque face hardens as she places the gold cross upon her son’s deflated chest. “I miss you so much already,” she says, “I’m so sorry the prayers didn’t work this time.”
She turns then, her chin falling to her chest as she makes her way back towards the entrance of the Funeral Parlor. Her friends and family do their best to hide their own tears, not that Susanna would have noticed them anyways. There were many who had come out to pay their respects to young Thomas, which was typical of a smaller community. It was taking every ounce of Susanna’s strength and energy to remain standing, to keep herself from collapsing in a heap on the floor and shrieking at the top of her lungs. She felt as if she were wearing a girdle; a girdle tied so tightly around her stomach that she could barely breathe.
Her husband, Jack, who had been trailing just behind his wife this entire time, joins her then, taking her hand in his and squeezing. She feels his warmth through his palm, and squeezes back to acknowledge. They hadn’t been talking all that much since the news, each of them dealing with the grief in their own way. Jack had grown up on a farm, and his death-shield was strong. There was no crying, no laughing, only a stony resolve. Susanna’s death-shield was not nearly as resilient. She lost her father only a few years ago, and had yet to fully recover from his absence. How will I go on? she thinks to herself, how do I keep on living when I’ve lost the most important thing in my life?
Outside, the blank sky stares down upon them, the sun shining overhead and illuminating the parking lot, making a mockery of the tragic scene below; completely ambivalent and unaffected. I hate you, Susanna thinks to herself, her neck craning up towards the sky. I hate you for what you’ve taken from me, and I will never forgive you. She wasn’t exactly sure who she was speaking too, but that seemed irrelevant at this point. It didn’t matter whether it was the sun or the moon or the sky, a bearded man sitting on a cloud, or some sort of eight-armed elephant, she hated them all, and if she could, she would kill them for what they did to her son.
Jack guides her slowly towards their car, and something about the red paint glistening in the sun causes her to stop. Seeing the car, the red on the car, strikes a nerve deep down inside her, and suddenly her legs give out. Jack catches her in his strong arms and holds Susanna as she weeps. The red on the car, her son’s blood, splattered upon the windshield of a maniac’s SUV. Phillip Parsons. The name rings inside her head like a shrill echo, Phillip Parsons. A drunken maniac behind the wheel of a death-machine; he stole her son from her.
Of course, Phillip Parsons came out of the horrific crash almost unscathed, which is almost always the case. The cruel irony of life made Susanna angry and resentful. She felt as if nothing made sense anymore, as if nothing seemed to really matter. What was the point? How could such an unfair circumstance be allowed to play out? There were no answers to her questions, and so she wept uncontrollably against her husband’s chest.
Jack’s death-shield lapses momentarily as he holds his sobbing wife, looking up into the sky and seeing nothing but a vast blue wall, he feels a lump in his throat building up from beneath his despair. Thomas had gone out West to find work, and had been doing very well up until the accident. Jack had been so proud of his son, so eager to talk with him about his new job and all the things he’d learned in the past year. Jack swallows the lump like a bitter pill, biting back his lip and continuing towards the car, his resolve strengthening as he spots another couple making their way towards the parking lot. ‘One must always preserve the impression of strength,’ he thinks to himself, reverting back to his days in the army. He had witnessed the deaths of many during his time in Afghanistan, and had learned then to conceal his emotions, for it was the only way he was able to survive. And like a clogged-up faucet, it was nearly impossible for him to release any emotional liquid, no matter how hard he turned the tap.
They make it to the car and Jack opens the passenger side door for Susanna, who falls into the seat heavily, letting her head loll down towards her chest. She was no longer crying, but she felt numb; like she was outside herself. It was as if she no longer had control of anything. She felt helpless and pathetic and wanted revenge for having to feel so. Looking over towards Jack as he climbs into the driver’s side, she wishes he would say something, anything that could prove she wasn’t going through this alone. But all Jack can offer is a subtle nod, a brief hand squeeze, and then they were driving.
Susanna rests her head against the window, watching the world on the outside pass by in a blur of green, red and blue. Before long, they are driving down Highway 21, passing by farm fields and giant barns, some more dilapidated than others, but all of them appear to be isolated through Susan’s eyes; a bulk of mass stranded in the middle of a wide-open field. Jack found solace in the fields and barnyards, and could not wait to return home to their own farm in order to continue on with the days chores, which had been interrupted by the Wake. He could picture the tractor sitting idly in the middle of the field with the chisel plow attached at the back, waiting patiently to continue on down the line. There was a sort of desperation to the image of the half-plowed field, the unturned soil looking so improper next to the plowed soil, it was enough to give Jack an uncomfortable shiver; he couldn’t stand things left undone.
Rusty, their golden retriever, bounds out from behind the house as they pull up the gravel driveway, a plume of dust trailing behind them. Jack pets Rusty on the head absently as he makes his way inside, looking back around his shoulder to make sure Susanna was in tow. She walks with stiff arms and a straight neck, doing her damndest to prove she was still capable of independence. Rusty approaches her and nudges her hand with his head, as if the dog could feel her sorrow and pain through the air. Susanna bends down and gives Rusty a hug around the neck, hearing him pant heavily into her ear.
“You’re all I’ve got left, Rusty,” she says.
Meanwhile, Jack is inside changing from his formal clothes into his jeans and plaid, doing so in a hurry and not bothering to look in the mirror. He didn’t really want to deal with his reflection right now. He passes Susanna at the front door and tries to think of something to say to her, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to say. What’s done is done, he thinks to himself.
Susanna busies herself in the kitchen. She tidies up some cleaned dishes and thinks about starting a pie. Fresh strawberry pie, that was Thomas’s favourite. She was going to make it for him when he got back at the end of the month. The fact that he was so close to coming home seemed the cruelest fate of all, for she had been so anxious to see him. Perhaps she should have known her anxiety was a sign, and suddenly she felt a stab of guilt penetrate her heart, knowing that she had failed to listen to her mother’s intuition. Maybe you could have prevented this…
Giving up on the pie, Susanna heads upstairs to change from her black dress, which she had forgotten she was still wearing. Before making it to her own bedroom, she stops at the half-closed door of what used to be Thomas’s room. ‘It’s still his room,’ she thinks to herself.
Pushing the door open with hesitant fingers, she pokes her head in and is immediately hit with a wave of remorse. Her heart begins to beat hard against her chest, sending a hot flash up her neck and into her cheeks. Hands trembling, she enters the room and survey’s the leftover life; a half-finished book that will never be turned to the final page; a perfectly made bed which will never be unfurled; and pictures of a boy on the wall, a boy who will never live outside the frame of those pictures again. ‘He’s trapped in their, he’s trapped forever inside those pictures,’ she thinks.
She leaves the room and shuts the door behind her, not wanting to deal with the memories and thoughts inside. After changing into some more comfortable clothes, she returns downstairs just as the phone begins to ring.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
“This is Phillip Parsons.”
It was Susanna’s turn to go silent, a lump of hatred swells within her throat.
“I wanted to call you to say… well, my lawyer told me I shouldn’t even be talking to you but, I needed to call you – to say sorry.”
Still, Susanna remains silent, clutching the phone so tightly that her knuckles begin to whiten.
“I can’t describe to you the guilt and shame that I’ve been feeling. If I could trade my own life for your son’s, I would do it in a heartbeat. Life has lost all it’s beauty…”
“At least you still have a life,” Susanna whispers into the phone.
“I’m sure you are angry, and you have every right to be,” Phillip pauses. “I’ve been praying a lot lately, which is strange since I’ve never been a very religious person. I’ve been pleading with God to give me another chance…”
“Don’t bother,” she says, “prayers don’t seem to do anything.”
“I suppose your right,” he sighs. “I just needed to call you.”
“I don’t really know what you’re expecting me to say,” Susanna says.
“I’m not expecting you to say anything,” Phillip pauses again. “Is there any chance that you can ever forgive me?”
“No,” Susanna says, “no I don’t think there is.”
There is a long pause over the phone. Susanna peers at the clock on the wall, and is not entirely surprised to see that it has stopped. She was frozen in time, trapped within an invisible cage while the world kept on spinning around her. What gave this man the right to call her and ask for forgiveness?
“In fact,” Susanna adds, “I hope you burn in Hell.”
“I’m sorry,” Phillip says, “I just… I just wanted to say sorry.”
And then the line goes dead.
Susanna hangs up the dead phone and stares out through the kitchen window. The sudden rush of adrenaline and anger fades as she watches her husband in the distance, a mere spec, moving slowly across the field on an orange tractor, looking much like a bird floating upon the surface of the ocean; completely content and oblivious. He was trapped inside his death-shield. Susanna reaches for the broken clock and pulls it down off the wall. She concentrates on the arms of the clock, willing them to move with all the scorn and vengefulness she possessed. Meanwhile, Phillip Parsons stares at his own reflection in the mirror, his hands trembling as he reaches for the razorblade.