© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo
By Christopher Opyr
Sequentiality dissolved. Time had no order – no model, only a tangled knot of moments intertwined beyond separation, infinitely looping back upon themselves. Kyle’s mind reeled with the onslaught as memory after memory burst like fireworks clouding out the present.
“Mr. Ingham, Mrs. Ingham. Please take a seat.”
The morgue attendant motioned to two simple chairs set before a normal office table. The room held no coldness, no metallic sterility, just the stale unoriginality of a run-of-the-mill office with slightly less decor. No nick-knacks graced the shelves and the walls were adorned with only the simplest and most pastel of images. Everything had been designed to offer no offense.
In all of the room, the only thing out-of-place was a simple photograph placed face down at the center of the table. Yet that photograph cut Kyle deeper than any faux-pas of decor ever could. He had been told what to expect, but confronted with that photograph waiting to be turned, waiting for his acknowledgement, he felt dizzy.
He stumbled grabbing at the back of nearest chair. The attendant stepped forward offering his hand in support, but Kyle waved him off. He sucked in a deep breath and prepared himself for the inevitable.
His heart exploded, his chest pounding and his head throbbing. His breathing came rapid and panicked. No time to stop. He had to keep going. He had to.
His shoulder jerked back on impact. He barely felt it as he ran straight into a large man wearing a John Deere cap. The diaper bag slid from Kyle’s shoulder and fell into the puddle at his feet. He paid it no mind.
“Hey mister, your bag?” The man lifted it brushing off some of the muck and holding it out.
Kyle kept going, ever forward. No time. His head snapped from side-to-side – looking every which way – but never finding her, never locking on his daughter.
Strangers began to turn, pitiful glances locking on the stuffed pig in his hand and noticing his desperation. Parents knew that panic when they saw it.
“Charlotte,” he shouted again. “CHARLOTTE!”
Charlotte curled against Kyle’s chest, the two lying on the living room couch. She snuggled close, her hair slick with sweat and her words muffled by the pacifier in her mouth. Her fingers pulled idly at the hair upon his wrist.
“Yes, sweetie?” Kyle ran his hand comfortingly through Charlotte’s hair, easing her head against his shoulder and attempting to calm her back into her afternoon nap.
“Bee-bee?” Her vocabulary had exploded recently, but Charlotte had always had her own names for things and those did not fade easily. Bee-bee was her term for blanket.
“Here you go.” Kyle gently pulled up a cast-aside throw covering the two of them to Charlotte’s shoulders.
“I’m fine,” Kyle said, being anything but.
Officer Hansen patted him on the shoulder and eased into the bar-stool beside him. They sat in the kitchen, Jill pouring glasses of iced tea, focusing on anything but the horror show playing out before her. Kyle sat slouched before the island bar, Officer Hansen now beside him. Another officer, detective (Kyle couldn’t remember which), stood at the end of the bar speaking and turning from Jill to Kyle and back as he went on. His words came out calm and compassionate, but they rang hollow, as if forced with an undercurrent of restraint and constant self-checking undermining any warmth intended.
Kyle couldn’t focus on the specifics, not the particular words, but he made out enough. A body had been discovered. In Sycamore Creek within Umstead Park. A young girl. Possibly Charlotte. Charlotte. Most likely Charlotte.
Kyle blocked it out. He and Jill had known for some time. They had tried to hold out hope, but contrary to the immortal words of Alexander Pope, hope does not spring eternal. It hadn’t for them at any rate.
“… if you’d like to speak with someone, there are groups, bereavement groups that we can put you in contact with.”
“Where is she?” Kyle couldn’t care less about counseling. He needed his daughter.
The officer, detective, mystery man with forced compassion, started to respond, then stutter-stopped. He took a breath and made a second attempt.
“She’s with our chief medical examiner. We can drive you there, if you’d like.”
“I don’t want to distress you any further,” Officer Compassion continued. “I realize how hard this must be on you – but we do need you to identify her. So when we go down an attendant will be showing you a photograph. I’m telling you this so that you will be prepared. You won’t see her, not directly, not unless you want to. Understood?
Kyle nodded again.
“Good. You can still ask to see her, but for your own sake, I recommend against it.”
“Stop.” Jill. She’d had enough. She set down the pitcher of tea and took a seat herself. They sat in quiet for a moment, the emptiness of the house inescapable. At last Kyle spoke.
“Can we go?” Kyle asked.
“Of course. But you don’t have to both come, not if you don’t want to. We only need one of you for a positive ID.”
Positive ID. What a load of shit. Positive had died the moment his daughter disappeared. Their daughter? Had he and Jill already begun to fracture even then?
The vase shattered, a hail of glass and dead flowers raining down upon Kyle.
“Out, out, out!” Jill screamed. “I want them all out.”
Kyle flinched as another vase shattered, this one bursting against the wall off to his right. He felt the glass pepper against his skin and wondered absently if he’d been cut. He didn’t see any blood, but how many shards of glass were catching against his arm, caught in the thick hair that his daughter had once plucked as she drifted off to sleep?
“Are you listening?” Jill shouted. “I told you to take these out. I can’t look at them anymore.”
She stood beside an assortment of flowers and other care packages that had been delivered to them following the funeral. Before the funeral? Hell, they had been arriving since Charlotte disappeared. Now most of the flowers had wilted in waterless vases and the care packages all remained unopened. Breaking those seals would have meant accepting the truth of what had happened, the reason for their delivery.
“Damn it, Kyle! I need you to wake up!”
A third vase shattered behind him, this one just barely missing his face on its way to the wall. He felt the glass burst and sprinkle against his back. He couldn’t look his wife in the face, not if it meant confronting her grief and her anger, and he couldn’t make himself discard the flowers either. That act purported a finality for which he was not ready. Kyle averted his gaze and instead focused on the miniscule slivers of glass now bespeckling his arm. He reached down to brush them aside, tugging at one that would not be removed. As he did, his fingers pinched at his arm hairs.
Kyle plucked them idly just above his wrist – a nervous habit. His daughter used to pull at those same hairs, tugging softly just so with her little fingers as she drifted off to sleep. At the time that rhythmic picking had driven him insane. Kyle had touch issues. Always had.
Now he would have given anything for his daughter to be there fidgeting as she fell asleep, her nighttime sweaty head soaking into the shoulder of his shirt. He missed the smell of her silky baby hair and her lavender body wash all around him, as she lay there on top of his chest. Most of all he simply missed her.
Kyle pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds, slapping the pack against his palm a few times, then peeled back the plastic wrap. He pulled out the first cigarette from the top left. That was the order of things – top to bottom, left to right, everything in its proper sequence. Order held importance, it held a sway over Kyle, and it acted as his guide. Without it, he was adrift.
“Before you look,” the attendant continued, “you need to know what you’re going to see. The photo is close-up on the right side of her face. Not much will be visible, but we’re confident it will be enough to identify your daughter.”
Kyle sat mute, his head still spinning.
Jill spoke up filling the vacuum that he left in his silence.
“The officer said there was… was head trauma?”
“It won’t be visible. Not in this photo. Not much. If you see anything it will be in her hairline. Everyone reacts differently, and you can look as long as you would like, but from previous experience I suggest a quick look. Just enough to ID her is usually best.”
“Thank you.” Jill looked to Kyle.
He nodded back and reached for the photo.
His hands met with the soft, shoveled earth, slipping inside it, the dirt encasing them. His fists clenched and unclenched within as he rocked on his knees sending tiny avalanches pebbling down the surface.
“You shouldn’t have seen that. Her. I’m sorry.” Anita stood above him now, reaching down for him. In her other hand she held the sealed bag containing Charlotte’s remains. Kyle shrank back scrambling towards the grave’s edge, putting any and all distance that he could between himself and this moment. Anita understood, nodded at him, and walked into the circle, setting the bag with Charlotte at the center of the pentagram.
“We don’t have much time,” she said, “but I can finish the preparations.”
Kyle pressed his face into his dirt-encrusted hands, then pushed evenly on both sides as if to pop his… skull. He could still see it, Charlotte’s shattered skull peeking out of Anita’s bag. He closed his eyes, pushed into their sockets with his palms, but the image could not be erased.
He fumbled about the ground searching for his cigarettes, finding them a moment later, the pack discarded in the grass. He lifted the pack with shaking hands and flipped it open. The cigarettes shook within as his hands continued their unstoppable tremor. The rows shifted and mixed, the middle row falling into the absence of the top, the bottom angling into the newly formed void, and everything jostling to form a new order: a wrong order. He tried to stop it, to fix it, but as he struggled to right it, the box slipped and the cigarettes spilled out upon the earth.
It was all wrong. All completely wrong.
“When I finish, however,” Anita continued as if no time had passed (and had it, had it really?), “I’ll need you to help with the ceremony.”
Kyle looked up from the spilled cigarettes. Anita pulled some salts from the squirming leather bag, then walked out from the center of the pentagram towards the unfinished circle. As she did, Kyle focused upon her feet, unable to look her in the eye. Forgiveness… How could she forgive him? How could anyone forgive him? How dare they? He stared at her shoes, her simple, worn sneakers, and watched as they stepped over the lines of salt and ash forming the pentagram, past the physician’s bag and its manic, writhing form, and past the urn waiting to be filled.
“It shouldn’t take long to finalize the paperwork,” the funeral director said. “You brought everything we spoke about over the phone, yes?”
“Yes.” Kyle stared past the director to a set of urns on display amongst the numerous coffins, part of the most horrid sales floor he could possibly imagine.
“From our previous conversations I gathered we would be going with a casket, correct, Mr. Ingham? Or are you and your wife considering cremation?”
Kyle turned to the director, a balding man with a salesman’s paunch.
“No,” he said. He lifted a bag carried at his side. In it the director could make a tiny polka-dotted dress. “She loved this dress. She should be wearing it.”
“Of course. Absolutely.”
Absolutely, Kyle thought. Why? There would be no viewing. No open casket. What had been done could not be undone.
“It’s beautiful,” the director continued. “Lovely, really.” His words sounded nothing more than useless prattle, white noise, like raindrops on a tin roof pelting the metal. Hard and constant.
A consistent knocking. It came from the front door. Kyle and Jill had dreaded that knock for weeks. Each sat apart, only lifting their gazes as that rapping disturbed the brutal silence between them. Once the interruption sounded, however, they could no longer hide.
For a moment they looked at one another eye to eye, their locked gazes piercing the solemnity of the room and hinting at the intimacy that once existed within those walls. That moment passed quickly. Jill averted her eyes and Kyle rose beginning the long journey to that door, through the labyrinth of flowers and care packages. Every footfall slowed. Every moment sharpened. Even half grounded in that graveyard in that present that he denied, he could still hear the grandfather clock ticking away the seconds from the foyer.
The wood flooring had felt rough beneath his feet, covered in grit and litter. He hadn’t been able to remember when last they had swept it. Perhaps two weeks prior? Three weeks? His mother had been down then, but she’d been gone for at least two weeks now. Tragedy can bring a family together, but waiting, waiting rips it apart. As the days passed the inevitable had grown too much to bear. Soon Jill and Kyle had lived alone in the house.
At last Kyle arrived. The knocking sounded again, and he could see the silhouette of the man outside filtered through the kaleidoscopic oval of glass at the center of the door. He reached out and opened the door.
“Charlotte,” Kyle screamed again! He tucked the diaper bag tight to his shoulder and stepped away from the concerned vendor at the food cart. “Charlotte, you come here right now!”
No response. He turned back casting a questioning glance at the vendor.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see,” the man said.
“But I have to see. I have to see her,” Kyle insisted. The attendant paced. “I can’t stop you, Mr. Ingham, but I do want to reiterate that I don’t recommend this. Your daughter’s wounds, her skull was severely fractured. Most parents, this is not the final memory that they want of their child. I know it isn’t proper, but I beg you both to reconsider.”
Jill shook her head. “Not me. I’m staying here. I’ve seen enough. We both have, haven’t we Kyle?”
Kyle set the photo back face down.
“No. One last time. I have to hold her one last time.”
“It’s never enough, is it,” Elsie said more than asked. She and Kyle leaned against the brick wall outside a medium’s place of business in Zebulon, Elsie chain-smoking and Kyle puffing lightly on the last cigarette in his pack: the proper one from the bottom right. They had just left from a group session with Miss Ava where Elsie had “spoken” with her dead husband, Edward. Charlotte had not been in attendance.
“Never,” Kyle agreed.
Elsie gestured with a flask at Kyle.
“Fine.” She took a swig. “Skeptic bitch is here, again.”
“The skeptic. Have you not seen her before? I thought you were a regular.”
“I guess I missed her. If she doesn’t believe, why does she come see Miss Ava?”
“Oh, it’s not just Miss Ava. She’s everywhere, everywhere except in session. Old bitch wants us nutters to see God or find inner harmony or some bullshit. Can’t accept that there might be more to life than quilting and spreading the word, or so I hear. See, there she is.”
Elsie pointed at a stooped old lady across the street, a shawl draped around her neck, and a few wispy hairs blowing in the breeze accentuating her bald pate. She waited there watching the door to Miss Ava’s, Kyle and Elsie directly in her line of sight.
“Yeah, I’m pointing at you, you old bitch,” Elsie shouted, flicking the woman off to mark her point. “Get your own damn life and let us be, you fucking Bible thumper!”
Elsie continued to harass the lady as Kyle finished his cigarette. He didn’t like Elsie much (drunks usually got under his skin), but she was part of his new family, a family of mourners seeking answers. Still, as Elsie shouted profanities, Kyle felt a hint of admiration for the old woman standing across the way in the breeze, unflappable. She stood statuesque, despite her noticeable hunch, never registering the slightest emotion as Elsie unleashed on her. She simply waited, but for what Kyle did not know.
No matter how much he wanted to, Kyle couldn’t look away. He stared at the photo of his daughter. He’d been staring at it for nearly ten minutes. Her last photo.
The shot was dark and closely-framed. It held tightly to the right side of Charlotte’s face, where her hair had been brushed into bangs covering her forehead, something which was not normal for her. Her skin had purpled and her face seemed more full, bloated, but it was her. The longer he stared, the more Kyle felt himself drawn to her hairline and to those misplaced bangs. They just weren’t right somehow. Without looking away, he finally addressed the attendant.
“Yes, that’s… that’s her,” Kyle said, his voice broken and soft. “It’s Charlotte.”
His daughter was dead and Kyle had hit bottom. He was alone, broke, and angry… so angry. At everyone and everything. That anger had consumed him even quicker than the cancer. He’d been stumbling out of a shithole with a neon Psychic sign, and she’d been watching from across the street – the skeptic. He’d cursed and sweared and yelled at her, but she’d just stood there. So he had marched over full of hate and ready to unleash on someone, anyone. When he’d finally reached her, however, she weathered every curse and every foul utterance. At last, Kyle had collapsed, and Anita had caught him.
As he had sobbed against her shoulder, she leaned in close and whispered in his ear.
“You have to let her go.”
He knew that she was right. In that moment he felt it and knew that it was time to move on. It was time to let Charlotte go.
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t turn away.
Her tiny body lay on a metal slab in the morgue covered up to her neck, but leaving revealed the worst of it. Her head was the pain point.
Looking on her right side he saw the daughter he had known: his puddle-splashing angel with the boundless energy. Even through the bloat, of which the attendant had warned, and through the discoloration, he could see that fearless, wonderful little girl. Looking at her left side, however, Charlotte became unrecognizable. Her skull had collapsed inward like a crater. Her hair collapsed with it and her brow had been totally shattered, the depression seemingly elongating her eye socket. Even her cheek had caved in. Severe trauma to the face they had said. Severe put it lightly. Severe was a joke.
He inched forward. He had come to hold his daughter one last time, yet every footfall carrying him towards her diminished her. Charlotte became more and more the body the closer he came to her. At last he stopped.
“I can’t,” he said.
“It’s okay,” the attendant replied, and as he did he pulled the cover back over Charlotte’s face.
Kyle had come to say goodbye, but instead he had cracked in the face of death.
“Now, Kyle. It’s time.”
Kyle looked up. The broken remnants of his cigarettes fell between his fingers, shredded and ripped. He must have been tearing at them, but everything since catching a glimpse of his daughter’s skull had blanked, overwritten by a wash of jumbled memory.
“Stay with me now,” Anita said.
Kyle looked to her and to the pentagram in which she stood. The circles had been completed, with even more ash and salt runes etched in the void between the two circles. At each point of the star a candle burned, the red one flickering closest to the grave. The bag of bones (Charlotte, the body) rested dead center, Anita standing behind it over the urn. To her right sat her physician’s bag, still squirming and writhing. She plunged her hand inside and pulled out a small, panicked rabbit.
“I need you within the circle, Kyle. Now. And do not disturb it in any way. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said, as he crawled forward then rose to his feet. With every step closer he kept his gaze unwavering, focused on Anita and that rabbit.
“Yes,” he repeated though he really didn’t understand at all. He knew that there was a cost to this ritual. He knew that there was sacrifice required, but this was not what he had expected. This was miniscule. Nothing.
The cancer had come to claim him and he had come to deny it that right. Life requires death, or so he had learned from Anita. No one could be returned without that barter to balance the scales. So he had come this night to pay his due and see his daughter returned. That was sacrifice. That was the cost that needed be paid.
He toed over the salt lines and entered the pentagram, still puzzling over the rabbit. His bewilderment did not go unnoticed.
“Merely an appetizer,” Anita said, as she slipped a knife from her belt and handed both the rabbit and the blade to Kyle. “The price must still be paid in full.”
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