Afterwards

Daniel Sun Jr. sat in the front pew at St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church, wishing he had a cocktail and maybe a snack. The light from the church’s single stained glass window was starting to bother him, tickling his eyes like pollen. His funeral should have started half an hour ago.

He twisted his head to take a look at the faces of his mourners, spaced distantly throughout the pews, all of them more bored than grief-stricken. Carole’s face, framed by over-dyed hair. Milo’s face, shadowy under his stovepipe hat. Kunal’s face, slightly red in the heat. Mom’s face, slightly red with vodka. And Chet’s face, Chet’s ugly stupid beautiful face that Dan had never gotten to kiss.

“Is this a normal turnout?” he asked the angel next to him. “This is actually the first funeral I’ve been to.”

The Archangel Dennis shrugged the spiked shoulders of his leather jacket, chewed on the toothpick that peeked from his mouth. Dennis’ face, brown and roughly-hewn, was as emotionally expressive as a tree stump. Dennis was his social worker, and in the few weeks that Dan had known him, he had heard the angel speak maybe three sentences. This might have been because Dennis was a retiring type, gentle but firm, but it might also have been because Dennis’ voice caused 4.5 magnitude earthquakes.

Dennis was very different from his old social worker, Carole, and not just because he was an immortal celestial being. Carole sat two rows behind Dan, dabbing at her eye with a tissue. She wasn’t crying; she was fixing her mascara.

The priest, the thin-as-Bible-paper nonagenarian Father Slim, sniffled out of the vestry and assumed his place at the pulpit. His face was tortoise-like and pinched, obscured by the coke bottle glasses that would have gotten him shoved into lockers during divinity school. He had presided over two generations of Sun baptisms and confirmations, and frankly, thought Dan, he was probably the only priest who had been willing to do Dan The Lesser Sun’s funeral.

Father Slim raised a tremulous finger to beg silence, but the silence was already there. So he started. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of – ” (he checked his papers) “ – Daniel Sun Jr.” To everyone’s relief, the good Padre breezed through an abridged funerary rites. Then he opened the floor for comment.

Carole, out of duty to agency policy, was the first to step up to the pulpit. She swayed in heels that were meant for a much younger, much more athletic woman.

“Dan was… ” Carole paused, scanning the library catalogue of her mind for an appropriate euphemism. “A creative young man. He could perhaps have been a great artist, or a television producer. Instead, he was -”

“A fuckup,” said Dan, cupping his hands around his mouth in case his voice could fly in from the spirit dimension.

Carole would have agreed with him, but she finished tactfully: “-taken from us too soon.” Kunal began to clap, realized that this was inappropriate, and covered it up with a series of coughs. Carole stumbled back to her seat and Milo took her place.

6’4”, neckbearded Milo was a member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, a proud and ancient organization that had been established over an Olive Garden dinner in 1990. He wore full Lincoln regalia today, as he did on all formal occasions, and recited the Gettysburg address, as he did on all formal occasions.

“I haven’t talked to that guy since high school,” said Dan, leaning back in the pew.

“Dan was my best friend in high school,” said Milo, “And he was the only person who believed in me when I told him that Lincoln was my destiny.”

“I was drunk when he told me that.” Dan glanced over at Dennis, who was looking at his iPhone. “Actually, I was drunk for most of high school.” Dennis raised his eyebrows as if to say “I know.” Because he did know.

Next up was Kunal, who stood at the pulpit without speaking for three minutes.

Dan turned to Dennis with a half-smile. “Now, this guy was from my heroin support group.”

Kunal was trembling, his skin drum-taut, his eyes bulging like a rabbit’s.

“Not a great support group, to be honest.”

Kunal bleated, and Chet, ever-merciful, helped escort him back to his seat in the second pew.

Dan’s mom stood up, her eyes cold and dry from the booze.

“I will speak from here,” she said. “My son was dead to me before he died.”

And she sat down, straightening her Calvin Klein funeral ensemble over her bony knees. Dan’s hands were folded in his lap, tight. He said nothing.

To diffuse the situation, that flower of grace Chet bloomed from his seat and approached the pulpit.  As Chet passed Dan’s pew, Dan caught a whiff of Chet’s fresh laundry smell, that light aftershave, and the shampoo he used on his dumb haircut. And for the first time, Daniel realized that being dead meant never holding Chet’s hand and never going to the beach with him and never ordering pizza while watching their favorite show on Netflix. He began to cry.

Chet’s face became tear-blurred, twinkling in that obnoxious stained glass light. His words were drowned as the church faded into darkness, and a 4.5 magnitude earthquake told Dan that it was time to go. Yes, forever.

Sean 2

Aaron’s lawn has grown long in his absence. Weeds bloom like flowers through the cracks in his driveway, half as pretty and twice as sturdy. Stalks of ragweed shiver in the breeze, a breeze that had been pleasant at noon, but now, past midnight, seems redundant. The sky lisps drizzle as Sean settles into a ring of elm trees and begins the wait.

In his cavernous pockets, Sean carries three cigarettes, a vodka bottle filled with gasoline, a water bottle filled with vodka, a vodka bottle filled with vodka, two rags, a book of matches, and a Superman comic from 1997 that he just hasn’t gotten around to reading yet.

He pulls a cigarette from his front-most, right-most pocket and slides it into the front-most, right-most corner of his mouth. He withdraws the matchbook too, stamped “Come again!” with a smiley face that looks ill in the moonlight.

The crack of his match light glints from the other side of the building, around the woodshed. The flame has caught the eye of a fox. Her damp fur rolls like a river though the dark and she vanishes.

Sean begins to count seconds, not eagerly, but with a deliberate fervour that could better have been applied to meeting girls. He feels a low gurgle in his stomach, stopping his count at 11. He is trying to visualize what lunch was, maybe a boloney sandwich, when a mosquito buzzes in his ear. The whine grows startlingly, hellishly loud, a vampire maggot tickling his brain and burrowing into his skin. He wants to snatch it from the air and scream as he drives the full weight of his body into the ground again and again until there is no more noise. But he forces himself to stay still.

The whining stops, and Sean starts to count again. He gives it a second, two, three. Find a spot, two, three. A small prick, through his stubble, the left side of his jaw, opposite the cigarette. Sean’s forefinger and thumb tense, reach, careful not to brush the skin, and when he pinches he feels a crinkle, soft as milk.

When he pulls his hand away, his fingers are smeared with his own blood. He licks one fingertip, because he is trying to remember what a death tastes like.

Metal on his tongue (when he swallowed a marble, he was seven, he thought he was going to choke and die, die, die).

Metal on his tongue (when Aaron finally left, the train coughing to life and then going and going and going, and Sean watched from the platform until the sun set. He looked down to see where that left him. A puddle of oil on the tracks).

Metal on his tongue (in the hospital room, when the doctor pronounced her dead at 2:58 am, her white hand over the yellow blanket).

Metal on his tongue (now, as he checks his watch, a Christmas gift from Aaron, the only timepiece he owns, at) 2:55 am.

There is one house on Teddy Bear Lane, and that house belongs to Aaron. From the fire station, the drive takes ten minutes. A fire truck, blaring and braying and speeding down Vanzandt Hollow, could take as little as five. He must start now.

As he works, he hums a song to himself. The notes sound foreign, but he knows that he knows this tune. The words fall to his head with the drizzle, soaking through his hair into his scalp. And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown…

He’d heard this song on Ma’s record player. The sound was bad because Aaron had cracked the arm listening to the Misfits. Slightly distorted and too loud, like the sound of a mosquito drilling in his eardrums. And metal on his tongue (as Baby Molly slow-danced on the carpet, happy not so much for the music but for the attention.) So, I lit a fire. Isn’t it good –

Molly has her shift at McDonald’s until morning. She is bent over a grill now, her eyes double bagged, her cheeks lumpy and pink like raw hamburger. Sean heard her crying at the drive-in window tonight when he stopped to say hi. He reminds himself that he is doing this for her. He is doing this for the bruises he sees on her legs and the corn rows of cuts on her forearms. He is doing this for Ma, and he is doing this for stupid, mosquito Aaron. He is good man. He is doing this for them.

He lights the match at 2:58, and he is back at home by 3:03.

As he closes his front door, he hears the sirens down the road, growing startlingly, hellishly loud until there is no more noise.

 

Sean

My brother stood over me with a shotgun, his boots covered in snow and his face smeared with hatred. His lips – soft lips, girl’s lips, Ma’s lips – curled as he spat. I don’t know if he was aiming at me or the ground, but he hit the leg of my jeans.

“You’re trespassing,” said Sean with my mother’s mouth.

“I wanted to say goodbye.”

Sean looked like he was concentrating for a moment, trying to summon up another loogie.

I held up my hands. “I swear to God, Sean, I swear on her grave.”

Ma’s lips almost tugged into a smirk.

“Pathetic.”

But Sean let his gun onto the ground, and leaned back against an oak tree conversationally. “Strange you start to care now, city bitch. You didn’t come to her funeral.”

Snow was soaking through my pant leg, and for a moment I thought I’d peed. But I would have felt a warm spot then, and I noticed through the dampness that there was something else under me. The bouquet. I had driven it here from Cora’s, the best florist on the Lower West Side. I pulled it out from under my butt, and the crinkle of wrapping paper was the only thing that broke my silence. The tulips were trashed, the roses rumpled, and the carnations shredded halfway to hell. I held the thing up to him, the crumpled broken mess of stems and petals.

Sean barely looked at it, just took a Big Mac out of his pocket.

“You don’t even know what she liked, Aaron.” His voice, normally unnervingly even, trembled with disgust, and I felt like a roach being flicked out the window. “I bring one to her every Sunday, because I know that’s what she liked.”

My vision flickered and a rush of blood whirpooled somewhere around my stomach. The words came out before I could stop them, and they ripped through my throat like vomit. “Last time I checked, going to college isn’t the same thing as third degree arson.”

Sean’s face didn’t change, and I wanted to yank that gun and hit him with it.

“You know what happened on my first day of class, Sean? Someone had to come and get me and take me to the office, like I was in first grade. And they had to sit me down and tell me that my mother was dead and that my house was burned down.”

Sean tugged at his jacket collar, and for a second I thought maybe he had a knife and for a second I thought maybe he was ashamed, but he just put the Big Mac into his inside pocket. Ma’s mouth didn’t move. I couldn’t stop.

I swallowed with the little saliva I had left. “And you know what happened to me two months ago? I was cleaning a bathroom in Grand Central Station, my crappy job for my crappy life, and some guy in a suit comes up to me, and he tells me that my sister killed herself with my brother’s shotgun. Why didn’t I come back? Think about it, you psycho.

I had seen so much at that job. I had seen fathers embarrass the bejesus out of their sons, yelling at waiters and smacking hostesses’ butts. I had seen guys meet up with their mistresses and even their mistress’s husbands, and have a drink or two like nothing was up. I had seen brothers meet and hug and joke about their wives, swap fantasy football tips. Not one of them had a shotgun pointed at the other. Not one of them had a graveyard of relatives rattling through their dreams, howling for a goodbye. Not one of them had Sean as their one and only remaining family member. Not one.

“I never told the police it was you, Sean.” I looked up at his face – Ma’s mouth, Dad’s eyebrows, Molly’s freckles. This freak Frankenstein of all my losses. Our losses, I guess.

My one and only remaining family member crouched down to me, and he reached out his hand. His leather glove was warm when I took it, and he hoisted me up.

“I never told them you set the fire. I know why you were angry – are angry. Jesus, I’m angry too.” I heard my voice crack before I felt it crack, and the tear was frozen at the corner of my eye before I realized that the waterworks had turned on without my permission. I tried to fight through it.

“I just –”

Sean interrupted me, easy as a freight train plowing through cardboard. “You moved five hours to New York City to go to some college you can’t afford, and you’re still just as dumb as when you left.”

Molly’s freckles wrinkled with his nose.

“I set the fire so you would come back, asshole. I didn’t care if you hated me. You needed to be there for Molly, but you weren’t.” He paused a moment, Ma’s lips pressed together hard. “You came back too late.”

He turned away from me and started to trudge back through the trees.

I wished that he had shot me instead.

Jared

I asked Dale what the properties of mahogany were. He said hard, heavy. I couldn’t help it, but I thought of you. Not hard that way, you perv, but your stubborn bucket head and your red eyes and your bull chest. I guess I used to admire you for that. I asked Dale what else, but he was drunk. When Dale is drunk, he spends most of his time singing obnoxious songs from the eighties, puts on a boa and pretends he’s Olivia Newton John. I don’t know where he gets the boa from, probably carries it around with him when he knows he’s going out.

But then, you used to know Dale. Maybe you remember. Maybe you don’t.

Dale is who I talk to instead of you nowadays. I mean, I talk to him in person since you left. I talk to you in my head pretty much always.

You could have at least left a phone number.

An email.

We didn’t even need a mailing address, just some way to say hi. Hear your voice, see your words typed out, know you’re not fucking DEAD, Jared.

It’s not that hard, Jared. To let your sister know where to find you. It’s not that hard to say goodbye when you go into the woods pretending you’re off for a day of trapping, but then you go through the woods to the train station and we never see you again. You didn’t have to say bye like you were leaving forever. You could have just said bye like you’d see us at lunch. That would have hurt less. It’s not that hard to think of other people. Like, maybe once you could try that. See how it works.

You make Mom cry every night, Jared. You make me cry, too, but I pretend that’s because Dale broke my heart. I don’t care about Dale as much as I care about you, but you know what he did, right?

No, duh. You’ve been gone.

Dale’s been drinking more. Maybe it’s because I’m not around as much. I take long walks along the trail where you used to trap. I know it’s been a year but I still look for footprints, broken sticks, disturbed animals. Because I know that if even an animal saw you a year ago they’d remember. Like a natural disaster, the memory of you would be imprinted on their minds.

They’d see what you’d done to your face, the acid burns making your cheeks twist like a tie-dye shirt, and they’d remember. They’d remember the way you grunted when you walked because you couldn’t breathe through your smashed nose. They’d remember those steel-toed boots you wore even in the house, and how if there was something in your way you’d kick it until it either moved or broke. And then you’d keep walking.

But I can’t find you. Not a scrap of clothing torn by a tree, not a trap you might have broken by accident, not a birds nest you knocked out of a tree for whatever reason you do that for.

God, I don’t know Jared. Mom doesn’t know. Dale doesn’t know. The Bensons down the road, Dave and Shirl, they don’t know. They’d see you every day when you came for work and they’d pay you and you’d be in your way, but you never let them know you.

You never let us know you, Jared.

That makes it hard to imagine what you’re doing right now. Are you in a loft apartment in the city? Are you on the streets? Are you still here, in the forest somewhere? Maybe you’ve been biting off squirrels’ heads for the past year, squatting to shit and sleeping in a tree. I don’t know, Jared. We don’t know.

Sarcophagus

Like you, your home is no longer healthy or young or handsome. Shrivelled and choking, its arteries are clogged with plastic. Disease seeps like turpentine through its congested hallways. Your kitchen, a swamp of take-out containers and Oreo packages, smells of decay. You don’t remember the last time you could see through your bedroom window. Your curtains are heavy with shame; they have swallowed enough dust to turn from white to brown.

Hundreds of newspapers have fused with your carpet. The past fifteen years are spread across the floor in unreadable headlines, the stories shredded and urine-stained. Recessions, wars, mayoral scandals and UFO sightings. Just kitty litter now. But some areas the cats won’t even touch. There is a missing floorboard in the pantry where a cockroach metropolis seethes like the ocean. The half bathroom is also untouchable, every surface caked with an unholy and mysterious crust. The toilet stopped flushing in 2010, one year after your daughter made good on her promise and stopped calling you.

Your breakfast this morning is birthday cake. It wasn’t your birthday, but some kid’s at Chuck E. Cheese. You had been delivering boxes of corporate letterhead and felt you deserved a break. You might have sat down, but the animatronics frightened you. Here, you eat the cake cross legged on your bed, the only piece of furniture you can manage to keep clear. You have a middle piece that says “appy” in red frosting. It tastes like cardboard, but you expected nothing more. As you eat, a cat brushes behind you, mewing, before it jumps onto a stack of books you thought would have fallen over by now. You look at its gray stripes and tufted ears and wonder which of the originals bore this one. You lost track a very long time ago. You’ve lost track of a lot.

Last year, your sister came to visit on a mission for your soul, packing the heat of a blistery Jesus fever. Her chariot of fire blazed in your driveway with its left blinker still on. You tried to shut her out, but through the powers of Christ Almighty and a good lock pick, she got in. She didn’t stop crying until you lied to her that you would make a change. Her mistake was that she wanted to save you from hell, but she forgot where you already were.

By now the mailman knows not to knock, to leave your packages on the porch and to walk away quietly. Through the holes in the roof you watch the sun rise and set, the jewel sky so far away that you might as well be underground. When you were nine, your father threw a knife at you and laughed when you flinched. It’s not your fault for wanting to feel safe, for the double rows of books that fortify your cracked walls. Load-bearing clutter. You still feed the cats, even if you don’t know how many there are or where they’re pooping. Even if you have a graveyard beneath your rotting deck.

You’re too tired to hate yourself this much. Your social worker told you that you were ill, but this was before the state cut funding and you lost her too. Your last tie to normalcy is your truck driver brother because he is rarely here. He has never seen the inside of your house, preferring the anonymous embrace of the greasy B&B down the road. When he’s not across the country, you’ll take him out for coffee and you’ll pretend that nothing is wrong. He can’t tell that something is gnawing on you like a starving animal.

Your house is a sarcophagus. Sarcophagous, adjective (zoological) feeding on flesh, carnivorous. It ate your son, but your daughter escaped. And it will feed on you until there’s nothing left, of you or your cats or your fifteen years of junk that you can never throw away.

Meteor

I thought it was aliens. It might have been a meteor. The sky was dusted with star freckles, sprawling dark blue to bleach, and a thin quilt of clouds hugged the horizon.

It wasn’t aliens. I hoped it was aliens. I was scared it was aliens. But it wasn’t aliens. At least, that’s what Adam said. And I trust him. But I had to ask him first.

I asked him if maybe they had crashed, and that’s why they were in Fergus Falls North Dakota and not a real place like New York New York or Paris France. He told me he would have gone to Honolulu Hawaii if he was them, and that aliens don’t crash. Their technology is too good for that.

Adam was a good guy because he pretended to listen to me, but he didn’t encourage me.

I asked him if maybe they had to take a pit stop near the moon and along the way their navigator went to the bathroom off the ship and they left him behind by accident.

Adam said that wasn’t it.

So I said well maybe they live in meteors. It could have been both, a meteor and aliens, if the aliens were inside the meteor.

Aliens don’t live inside meteors, Adam said.

I trust Adam so I didn’t ask any more questions.

Adam told me that even if it was aliens they wouldn’t want anything to do with us. They might poke around a bit, see what kind of life there was here, and head home. They probably know a whole bunch about us anyway, if they’d come all the way over here to check us out.

I said he was probably right, metaphorically.

Hypothetically, said Adam, not metaphorically.

Oh, I said. I thought a metaphor was something that’s not real.

They’re kind of both things that aren’t real, said Adam. He didn’t say anything else because he was looking at the sky. So I looked at the sky too.

It’s a pretty sky, I said to Adam. I looked at his face but he didn’t look at me. Star freckles on his face. I wanted to say to him, you’re pretty, I love you. But I didn’t. Because Adam pretended to listen to me but he didn’t encourage me.