By Jennifer Gomoll
Justin was glad that no one could hear him when he was supposed to pray because he had nothing to say to God about his dead grandfather. He kneeled on the cushiony thing next to his mom and dad and looked down at the old man in the brown suit and orange makeup and thought: Nothing.
Bless us O Lord occurred to him, then disappeared just as quickly. Then Justin closed his eyes and imagined Grandpa in a cloudy heaven, wearing a long white robe and sitting in front of a heavenly T.V. drinking a can of beer and not speaking to anyone. You’d like that, Justin thought, and felt relieved when his parents got up and he could get up too. The cushion un-squished as if he’d never knelt there.
Justin sat with his parents in a row of seats among rows of seats, all facing that shiny wooden box with his grandfather in it. But aside from coming up to pray at it, nobody really looked at it again. Now his parents were talking to somebody they were related to about all the snow, and scraping it off the car and driving in it, and how cold it was. The voices were quiet but otherwise normal. His father even laughed, a little.
“You remember your cousins Lily and Dylan, don’t you, Justin?” Some lady in a black jacket with a huge glittering pin on her shoulder was speaking to him.
“Why don’t you go say hello?” his mother prodded.
“Okay.” Justin stood up. The cousins were looking at him as if he was the kind of kid whose head they'd like to stick in a toilet bowl. He tried edging past his dad but his dad grabbed his arm.
“Best Behavior, now,” he warned.
Justin nodded. He wondered what would happen if he just started screaming right there. Everyone would look. Maybe even Grandpa would turn his head and look. It wouldn’t be Best Behavior. It would be Embarrassing Everyone. Someday at his own funeral, everyone would remember how he’d done it, but they wouldn’t talk about it. Just like nobody talked about the time Grandpa called Aunt Heloise a cocksucker at Thanksgiving, like ten times. Cocksucker, cocksucker, cocksucker, until it lost its dirty meaning and was just sounds.
“I was about to get some more coffee,” Lily said to Justin when he’d gotten up to her. “Let’s go.”
Justin didn’t see why Lily, at twelve, would drink coffee except to look like a grownup. That’s how she was, even though she looked little, with stringy brown hair covering her head, most of her face and everything, except her ears, which stuck out like elf ears. The last time Justin saw her was at Fourth of July in Great-Uncle Somebody’s back yard and Lily was really skinny with purple under her eyes and shorts that said “Hottie” on the bottom. Some big guy with gray hair and a huge stomach kept pinching the “e” in “Hottie” and even Justin knew that wasn’t right but Lily just giggled and giggled.
“Do you drink coffee too?” Justin asked his other cousin, Dylan, who was tagging along after them.
“Mom says not ‘til he’s eleven,” Lily said.
“I can talk for myself!” Dylan made a face that seemed to draw all 500 million of his freckles toward the end of his nose.
“Bully for you,” Lily said. They reached a sort of kitchen with a refrigerator and coffee machine. Lily punched some buttons on the machine and it gave her a cup of coffee. “It makes hot cider too if you’re not allowed to drink coffee yet.”
“Me too.” Dylan jumped up and down.
Lily hit the hot cider button. Justin watched the cup fall into a square hole near the bottom and fill up.
“Like piss,” Dylan said.
“Watch it.” Lily smacked him.
“Bitch, don’t hit me!”
Justin winced. This was not Best Behavior. This was going to get him into trouble even though he had nothing to do with it.
There were a couple of small tables and Justin decided to sit down at one—close to Lily and Dylan, so they’d think he was still with them, but not so close that anyone else could say “You kids blah, blah, blah” and it would include him.
He had to think. That’s what Grandpa liked to do. Gimme a minute, I gotta sit down an' think. Then he’d sit down and wouldn’t get up for a good long while, so if you wanted something out of him you’d better just forget about it. He certainly would.
Then this kid Liam came in with his mom. He said “Hey,” and stood a couple feet away from Justin while his mom punched up a cup of coffee for herself.
Justin didn’t know Liam very well. He was the son of somebody of somebody married to somebody. He was the kind of kid that everybody’s mom and dad made a fuss over because he always got A’s and trophies for science fairs and spelling bees. He had a sister named Elizabeth who was thirteen and lit bottle rockets last Fourth of July while Justin watched. Justin remembered her black hair and blue eyes. He wanted to ask if she was here somewhere tonight but didn’t. Liam’s mom wandered off.
Justin took a cookie Liam offered. It was from a table that had someone’s last name on it. “Who’s that?”
“Dunno.” Liam shrugged.
Dylan brought Justin his forgotten cider. “It’s kind of cold.”
“That’s ok.” He drank it in one swallow. Yuck. Gasoline. Like the bottle Grandpa kept at hand always. He got in trouble for pouring Justin some once and Justin always felt bad about it. He'd never seen an adult get in trouble before.
“You idiots, those are for the people at the other wake.” Lily rolled her eyes.
The boys just stared at her. She sighed.
“Didn’t you see in the other room there’s another wake?” Lily sipped her coffee and pointed a finger at a doorway down the hall. A doorway wider than Grandpa’s. Groups of people there, sipping their coffees, shuffling in their black shoes.
“Theirs is a kid, like sixteen,” Lily continued in her know-it-all whisper.
“Nuh-uh,” Dylan grunted, craning his neck anyway.
“What did you do, go in there?” Liam scoffed. “Did you go up to somebody and ask what happened?”
“No. I heard someone say. God. You guys are creeps. So where’s your sister, anyways?”
Justin’s heart beat a little faster.
“She’s not here.” Liam yawned.
“Duh, she isn’t. Where is she?”
“At the Home for Unwed Mothers,” Liam smirked. The others stared at him blankly. “That’s a joke.”
“Your jokes ain’t funny.”
“They sure aren’t!” Lily looked proud of herself.
Justin gave up hope that Elizabeth would just show up out of nowhere. Didn’t matter anyway. Grandpa said women were the devil.
“Hey,” Lily said, “I dare one of you to go in there.”
“What, the other funeral?” Dylan looked shocked.
“Wake, dumbass. Yeah. You, Justin. Why don’t you do it. I dare you to find out what happened to that guy. I already overheard so I’ll tell you if you got it right or not.”
Justin was about to say “hell no,” but then he looked at Lily’s face with its big front two rabbit teeth and felt like walking off into that crowd of other black-clothes people and not coming back.
He shrugged. “Okay.” He started walking. Though he didn’t look back he could hear them giggling.
There were a lot of people in the sixteen-year-old’s room. Some old ladies smiled at him but no one else really noticed. He figured if he got caught he could pretend to be lost.
At the front of the room was a box like Grandpa’s, except white. And closed. On top there were flowers hanging down, and a big school photo of the guy inside, probably. He smiled even though he had braces. Just a normal guy, like all the guys sitting there, some talking and some not and some looking like they had been crying and some not. And weren't they all looking at him, Justin, as he stood there alone, off to the side?
Justin suddenly didn’t want to be there, like the time he came home from school and his mom was yelling and Grandpa was banging his fist on the kitchen table. One of them wanted something to do with a Home and the other didn't and all of a sudden Justin was there and knew he shouldn't have been because it got quiet, too quiet.
There was a way out of the room with the wake with the school-photo guy, past the box and down a darkish corridor. Justin made for it without glancing at the box again. The hall went around to that kitchen-lounge part again, but also to another room. The door was a little open but dark inside.
Justin stepped in, to catch his breath, to think. His eyes adjusted and it was another room for a wake, but not today. There were rows of chairs, and the candle holders with the red glass cups, unlit, on either side of where the box would be. He moved toward the front room, arm out to keep himself from bumping into anything, found a seat and sat down.
Justin let his mind drift. He remembered last Fourth of July, when he had a box of snakes. They were these hard black pellets that you put on the sidewalk and burn with a lighter so the black stuff rises up in a column like a snake until the lighter gets too hot and you have to stop. If you try to pick up the snake, it falls apart, just ash. And then some lady yells at you for getting black marks on the sidewalk in front of her house so you can’t do any more.
He remembered looking up. All day he looked up at the windows because once, Grandpa looked out. But he didn’t again. He didn’t come down at all and nobody said anything. Then it got dark. Lily and Elizabeth had sparklers and wrote their names in the air with the white hot light that lasted no time at all. Justin had closed his eyes and saw the name Liz there, inside his eyes. It didn’t exist anywhere else anymore.
Justin felt his stomach drop. He turned to see a tall figure in the narrow doorway. The figure moved in.
“Well, this ain’t the can, is it? Might as well hold it in a while anyway. You’re Ruby’s kid, ain’t you?”
Justin suddenly couldn’t remember whose kid he was. “Uh,” he said.
“Daryl liked you, kid. I remember what he said.” The man sat next to Justin in the near darkness. His breath smelled like Grandpa’s during an afternoon with the bottle. It reminded Justin of when he played a card game—War—with him. A stupid game, requiring no skill at all. Just dumb luck, over and over and over. Sometimes Grandpa got bored and said things like,ace ‘a ducks, that beats your two hobgoblins. And next round Justin would say eight of kings, beats your queen with a spade. On and on until dinner.
“He said he liked you, Daryl did. You ever notice, a young guy like that, everybody comes out and says he was a great so-and-so son of a bitch—’scuse me—he was so young and wonderful and full of life? Well, I don’t. Daryl was a prick bastard half the time. I’ll be honest, he was my nephew and all, but yeah, he could be a little prick sometimes.”
The man fell silent. He and Justin sat looking ahead in the dark, the brass of the unlit candle holders gleaming faintly in the dim security lights.
“No,” Justin finally said. “They don’t say the truth, do they? Like when someone gets old and dies. They talk about how sick he was for a while, and that’s it. Sick like his bad leg or his lungs or whatever, I mean. Not like how...I don’t know.”
“Oh, well, nobody likes to think about getting old and getting sick and dying. That’s all. Nobody likes to think about being a teenager and getting smashed up in a car either, but most of ‘em aren’t kids anymore. They say ‘look what he could have had.’ Potential, you see.”
“I guess so.” The whole time the man was talking, Justin pictured himself an old man, looking out the window and watching everybody light firecrackers and eat hot dogs, waiting to die. Then he imagined himself sixteen, with braces, driving Elizabeth around in a car until he smashes it up. Elizabeth would survive, of course, and cry. She’d get on with it, but at Fourth of July after that she’d write his name in sparklers until they burned out.
“I said, some people, this place creeps ‘em out.” The man coughed.
“It’s okay if you don’t like it here, son, none of us do. But you can’t just sit in the dark here all evening. There’s people to talk to, like it or not.”
Justin thought about it. “We’re talking,” he pointed out.
“Sure, sure we are, kid. But you know what I’m saying.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Justin wished a little bit that the guy would go and leave him be but that wasn’t going to happen. He got up and moved toward the bright red EXIT sign. He glanced back and saw the shape of the man following him.
The corridor was bright compared to the empty room. Justin blinked against it, then started walking. He somehow took a turn and ended up back in the kitchen-lounge. Lily and Liam and Dylan were there, talking.
Dylan noticed him first, waving him over as the others grew quiet.
“Well?” Lily smirked.
“Food poisoning.” Justin shrugged, taking a seat at their table.
Lily rolled her eyes. “I knew you wouldn’t find anything out,” she said.
Jennifer Gomoll's fiction and poetry most recently appeared or are upcoming in Madison Review, Sycamore Review, Verse Libre Quarterly, Ink Pot, and Highlights For Children.
Top photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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