Caroline Taylor currently attends Truman State University as a Creative Writing and Communication major. She serves as Assistant Poetry Editor of Windfall, Truman State's literary magazine. Her work has previously been featured in Windfall and Fiction Fogey.
THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE ELEMENTS
The first to mention it was a friend of a friend. Lucy was skeptical, to say the least. Truly, it sounded almost shameful, almost sordid. She must have grimaced, for the friend of a friend added quickly,
“I know how strange it sounds. But I’ve heard that their…” She handpicked her words carefully. “System is one of the healthiest for the bereaved. And, I mean, you know, you have to do what works for you.”
“Right, right.” Lucy nodded, but slunk away feeling nauseous.
Two weeks later, the company’s ad materialized at the edge of her computer screen, the text bold and unmistakable against swaths of pastel blue and yellow. The following week, the op-ed in her favorite magazine was authored by a proud user of the service. At last, unable to resist the pull of fate, or luck, or desperation, Lucy hunted out the website. Like the ads, the website was a patchwork of softened shades, comfort colors, as if the platform ought, really, to belong to a greeting card company or publisher of Christian fiction. But no— “Ross & Co. Living Memorials” marched across the top of the page, the text black as a mourning ribbon. She would return to the website dozens of times over the next few days, meticulously clicking through the pages. The success stories riveted her. Those families, those parents and spouses and siblings, smiling stiffly for the camera, riveted her. She recognized the numbness, the dullness in their eyes. But, then too, she saw an unfamiliar kind of hope or, at the very least, unexpected relief. And she lusted after that relief.
She brought it up at dinner.
“Stephen,” she began, her voice barely audible over the hiss of forks against their plates. They never raised their voices now, as if afraid to break the silence, their last defense. Stephen looked up from his plate. “Have you… heard about these new, um, living memorials?”
“Uh, yeah.” His eyes dropped back to his meal. “I’ve heard a little.”
“And? What do you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what do you think.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“What good would it do?” His voice was hollow.
“I… I don’t know. I was just thinking about it. I just feel like we need to try something, you know?” Stephen shrugged.
“I think it just takes time.”
“That’s what everyone says,” she countered.
“How much time?”
“I don’t know, Lucy.” Stephen let his fork clatter, then rest, against his plate. He raked his fingers through the coarse hair at his temples. Lucy nodded, though he was no longer looking at her. She took a bite of potato, tasting nothing. Stephen cleared his throat. “Anyway,” he added, picking up his fork again, “I wouldn’t feel right letting some stranger… well, that would make me sick.” He shook his head, hating even to think of such a horrific intrusion.
“I’m sure it’s not the way you’re imagining,” Lucy said softly.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either. I just know— well, I don’t know anything.” Bracing her palms against the edge of the table, Lucy pushed herself to her feet. She moved into the kitchen. Without turning on the light, she piled her uneaten food in the same shallow Tupperware container she’d retrieved it from an hour ago. She still wasn’t used to cooking for two.
Even Stephen could not be sure of the turning point. Perhaps it was the silent, crushing passage of the four-month mark. Perhaps it was the afternoon his school pictures came in. Laura— she had never disappeared, even after the breakup— dropped them off at the house, her cheeks shining with tears. Perhaps, like Lucy, it was the incessant echo of his own grief in the cathedral of his chest. In any case, he slipped into bed beside Lucy one night with a new feeling of determination or, if not quite that, then resignation. They are not, in the end, dissimilar. He looked over at his wife in the soft lamplight.
“I think you’re right,” he said simply, “I think we should try. Ross & Co.”
“You’re sure. You know how much it costs and— “
“I know. I checked the website. We should try.”
“Okay.” Lucy squeezed the familiar shape of his hand under the quilt.
They sat down together the next afternoon, Lucy’s laptop between them on the kitchen counter, and completed the initial form. It was long— longer than they had anticipated— but they waded through it dutifully, weighing each question. They uploaded a photo— his school picture.
“He took a good one this year,” Stephen noted, his voice catching in the back of his throat.
“Yes. Yes.” Lucy swept tears from her eyes. No one will be able to get the smile right, she thought. She gripped the sides of the bar stool to keep her hands from shaking. Stephen brushed her whitening knuckles with his, then wordlessly sent off the form. Lucy received the email that evening, including a confirmation of their registration and deposit, along with a PDF instruction packet. They were to write a script and choose a template outfit for their audition.
“Oh, Jesus,” Stephen groaned, rubbing his eyes.
“We won’t do this tonight,” Lucy assured, easing her laptop shut. Stephen nodded.
“Do we have anything to eat?”
“Shit. No,” Lucy sighed. They ate cereal. Lucy let hers fade to mush in the bowl, all the while silently loathing the horrible crunch, crunch as Stephen ate. It reminded her only of cracking dishes or bones.
In the morning, Lucy slept until long after Stephen left for work. In the quiet of the house, she carried her coffee up to Jay’s room. She had work to do, of course, but it would wait. Cupping her mug between her palms, she eased herself down to sit on the carpet in the exact place the sunlight would have pooled had she opened the heavy curtains. She was intuitively familiar with this room. She understood the ways in which each object occupied space. She caught his smell, present but fading. She knew almost by heart which books stood in formation along the shelves, and which towered in vaguely ordered stacks near the bed. These were reminiscent, she had always thought, of a kind of fortress. We find protection where we can. Lucy gazed around the room, bewildered and unutterably alone. She closed her eyes for a moment against everything, then pushed herself off the floor. She slipped across the worn carpet to his desk. It was chaos— they hadn’t touched it. Papers, books, pens lay scattered across the desk, mysterious markers of his trains of thought. How could they write a script? How could they give him a voice again? She was out of practice; he hadn’t needed her to speak for him in years, not since he had finally forced himself to order his own meals at restaurants. That threshold hurdled, he had proved unalterably independent. As she had always told him, he was a Force all his own. She wasn’t sure exactly what she meant by that, nor exactly how she had dreamed up the phrase. Its origins could be traced back to the depths of his Star Wars obsession, she guessed. Regardless of clarity or origin, the phrase remained one of the few truths she clung to. He was a Force all his own. Perhaps it would be best to use some of his own writing— a poem, a story, an essay, even. That would mean rifling through his notebooks, of course. The notebooks he protected with such ferocity. But she could not think of another honest way.
When Stephen returned home, she proposed her idea.
“He didn’t share his writing enough,” she insisted. “And he was just such an artist! You know?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Stephen agreed, rubbing absentmindedly at the beginnings of his beard. “That sounds good.”
“Okay. Do you want to go look now?” Lucy gestured up towards the room.
“No— let’s wait a bit.” Stephen fell back into the couch, pulled down as if by a physical weight. Lucy’s fingers drummed against her knee. She was tempted to feed him cereal again, just for this, just for forcing her to wait. But, instead, she heated up a can of soup and split it between them. Stephen added nearly-stale crackers to his bowl— again, the obscene crunch, crunch, crunch.
They slipped up to Jay’s room after their makeshift dinner. Lucy wordlessly moved toward the desk. Stephen hesitated in the doorway, his hands gripping the frame. Unlike Lucy, he had avoided this room. Sometimes, ghosts take the forms of empty beds, desk chairs, closed doors. Lucy glanced over her shoulder, then nodded in the direction of the closet.
“Do you want to start on the outfit?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Stephen choked out. He cleared his throat, then crept timidly to the closed closet. Lucy returned her attention to the desk. On the far corner stood a short stack of notebooks, leather bound. He had collected them over years of birthdays, holidays, garage sales. Lucy let her fingertips graze the parallel spines. Those near the top were worn, discolored, even cracking at the edges. Those buried at the bottom were pristine. Untouched. She blinked back tears before gently scooping up the well-used notebooks from the peak. She cradled them against her chest. The mingling sweet and sharp scents of leather, paper, ink would always belong to him, she was sure. Lucy lowered herself to the carpet, balancing the books in her lap. The first opened easily— practically burst open at her touch. She had almost forgotten how beautiful his handwriting was, the way is danced and writhed across the page, too lovely to be fully legible. She traced the path of the letters with her fingertip, mapping where his pen had wandered down the page. The lines were rarely straight. Instead, they flowed, up and down, back and forth, ubiquitous as water, as memory.
“Lucy?” Stephen interrupted quietly. Lucy turned her head. He held a pair of dark jeans in one hand, an old Nirvana t-shirt, the logo fading and wrinkled, in the other. He held the clothes so gently— fearful or reverent. Lucy bit her lip.
“The jeans are fine. But he stopped wearing that shirt a while ago.”
“Oh.” Stephen laid the jeans on the unmade— always unmade— bed, then returned to the closet.
“Look near the front,” Lucy suggested, “On the shelf.” A minute later, Stephen emerged with the soft gray t-shirt, a spattering of flowers or perhaps stars (even Jay had never quite decided which) across one shoulder.
“He wore this one all the time,” Stephen noted, half defensive, half tender. His voice was rough with emotion. Even touching the fabric, he felt that Jay must be close— at school, in the next room, even. Lucy swallowed hard.
“Yes.” She nodded gently. Stephen laid the shirt across the jeans and moved over to Lucy. She tapped the space on the carpet beside her. Stephen gripped her shoulder for support and jolted down to the ground with effort. The last few months had aged him in a way neither of them had expected. Lucy and Stephen flipped through the notebooks, occasionally pointing out a passage or a line. Both were shocked, even hurt; so much of it was dark, colored by the loneliness and anger they had only glimpsed while he was alive. Sometimes, teenaged angst is not teenaged angst, but a kind of addiction— to loneliness, to fear, to the unknown. Sometimes. Lucy’s entire body trembled. Stephen laid a hand on her arm.
“Should we take a break?” he whispered. Lucy shook her head, steadied herself against Stephen’s shoulder.
“I won’t be able to come back if I walk away now,” she said.
It was Stephen who finally found the poem, nestled in the center of a full book.
“Lucy, look at this one.” His face glowed with a kind of pride, of awe. Lucy read through it once, twice.
“It’s perfect,” she breathed, “It’s perfect, Stephen.”
“Yeah? I think so, too.”
“Alright— so we’re ready,” Lucy said quietly, dabbing at the corners of her eyes. They carried the clothes and notebook downstairs, left them, lovingly arranged, in the center of the kitchen table. Lucy called the next morning to schedule the audition.
The first audition, Lucy was sure, almost broke them, almost ended everything. The boy was too young, too thin. His lips moved clumsily around Jay’s words— it was so like blasphemy. Stephen felt a similar sense of horror. His gaze swiveled back and forth between the actor and their facilitator, introduced simply as Linda, as if he would identify the traitor.
The boy finished, bobbed his head in acknowledgement, and slipped out of the room like smoke.
“So,” Linda turned towards them, eagerness carefully masked by a practiced, professional gravity, “Thoughts? Critiques?” Lucy and Stephen looked at one another, helpless.
“He just didn’t have the right… energy,” Lucy fumbled.
“Jay was so passionate. He really— really filled a room,” Stephen added. “I hope that’s helpful.”
“Yes, yes. Thank you for your feedback.” Linda scratched out a few notes. “Next, please,” she called toward the closed door. Lucy and Stephen endured the next four auditions in near silence. Stephen leaned back into the couch cushions, rigid and still. This was a mistake, he thought. I was right the first time, to say no. Lucy has to know, now. Lucy was restless, always shifting the position of her legs, adjusting her clothes, as if in physical discomfort. And all the while, her hands shook. She wanted to reach for Stephen, to steady herself against the curve of his ribcage. But she knew that look, that set of his jaw. She dug her fingers into the arm of the couch and waited quietly.
“Nearing the end, now,” Linda intoned. “Just a few more. Next, please.” He entered with a stride more like a swagger. Lucy met his eye, and her breath caught in her throat. Beside her, she felt Stephen stir, lean forward. Yes, he saw it, too. It was in the eyes, the almost fragile slope of the jaw. The actor looked down at them with a smile they could easily forget was constructed, rehearsed. He cleared his throat before turning his attention to the script in his hand. Neither Lucy nor Stephen had thought it possible. They were overwhelmed by it— the simplicity and perfection of it. Both sat riveted, feeling each word and gesture. Stephen’s jaw trembled, softened. He hadn’t thought it possible. Lucy’s hands lay nestled, perfectly still, in her lap. She hadn’t thought it possible.
He reached the end of the script too soon— they could have listened for hours, unconsciously imagining the voice belonged to Jay— and, with another smile, strode out.
“So?” Linda queried. Stephen glanced at Lucy.
“The eyes…” he murmured, gesturing vaguely at his own.
“Yes, yes. And so much passion,” Lucy added, her voice soft and serious. “It was… it was wonderful.”
“Yes, he is one of our most promising additions.” Linda smiled, almost as relieved as Lucy and Stephen. “So, would you like to see more, or do you feel like… he’s the one?”
“I think…” Lucy began. She glanced at Stephen. His eyes were crystalline with tears.
“I think this is it. I think we have to do it,” he finished, nodding.
“Yes, it’s best to be decisive about these things,” Linda agreed. “It’s just a feeling. So, should I go ahead and draw up a contract and payment plan?”
“Yes, please,” Lucy urged, her chest tight with the excitement and fear of the thing.
“Perfect! Our premium package is a bi-monthly payment of $3,600. That package includes complete control over wardrobe and scripting, along with the allotted 75 hours of face-to-face interaction per month. Those details will be handled entirely through our online system— I’m sure you’ll find it simple enough, once you get the hang of it.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucy jumped in, “But I thought I read about a different— uh, package on your website. Something… simpler.” She was hesitant to say cheaper.
“We don’t necessarily need to be in charge of scripting and all that,” Stephen added. Just constructing the audition script had left he and Lucy battered and drained, like two survivors of the same shipwreck.
“Ah, that must have been our standard package,” Linda responded calmly. “I really don’t recommend it to any of my clients. To be perfectly honest, we’ll likely phase out the standard option in the coming months. Our premium just allows the families so much more autonomy, as well as more one-on-one time. We find the premium far more conducive to real healing.” She appeared to have given this speech before. “And I should mention that scripting can be delegated to our staff, if you so choose. We’re proud to have top- notch writers available 24/7. With the premium package, you’ll have the option to proofread and edit all scripts and preparatory notes. I think you’ll find the whole process quite straightforward. You’ll complete edits at the beginning of every month, along with your normal scheduling.” Linda looked at them brightly, expectantly. Lucy glanced over at Stephen again.
“Yes, alright,” she said uncertainly. “That sounds good to me.” Stephen nodded, almost grimly, in agreement.
“I know it can be overwhelming.” Linda deftly rearranged her papers. “But, believe me, my staff and I will be with you every step of the way. You can expect an email within the next day or two.” She rose smoothly to her feet. Extending her hand to Stephen, then Lucy, she added, “I’m so glad to be working with you. Thank you for including Ross & Co. in your healing process.” Evidently, grieving was excluded from the corporate vocabulary. Too grim, perhaps.
“Thank you for your time. I’ll show you out,” Stephen offered. The two exited, and Lucy collapsed onto the couch. The room was soft with afternoon light. It had been days since the sun had shown itself— or perhaps just days since she had noticed it. She tended to miss such things these days. Grief, after all, is not the loss of one thing, but the temporary loss of all things. Grief is empathy for the dead themselves— or for the nonexistent, for the never, for the nothing.
“Lucy?” Stephen stood in the doorway, observing her now familiar expression. He knew that, tonight, she would crawl into bed early, but would not fall asleep until the first morning hours. Lucy looked up, startled.
“I’m so glad,” she assured him, gesturing to the place the actor had stood.
“Yes, I am, too.” Stephen moved across the room to sit beside her. “I think this is the best thing for us.” Lucy nodded, her eyes soft.
“I think it’s the only thing for us.”
“Yes. You’re probably right.” At the very least, there would be something to interrupt the quiet. Anything would be better than this silent, sunlit house.
As Stephen had predicted, Lucy slept poorly. She was restless, too, the following morning. Once alone in the house, she wandered from room to room like one of the phantoms in the stories she and Jay used to pass back and forth across the table, under the armor of his quilt. That, of course, was when he was young. When Lucy could still be his shelter. Before he had ghosts of his own.
She decided, as she moved from room to room, that the house could stand a thorough cleaning. Maybe she would enlist Stephen’s help this weekend. Maybe. But, probably, she wouldn’t mention it— and neither would he. Both had proven adept at living with and within discomfort, indignity, petty miseries. Grief, after all, is not the loss of one thing, but the temporary loss of all things.
At ten-thirty, she found herself curled up in one corner of the couch. She balanced her laptop on the plump arm, honestly intending to work. Instead, she composed a mass email. Her family would have to be told, one way or another, and the occasion warranted the heft and finality of an email.
“If anyone wishes to schedule a visit, we’d be more than happy to have you,” she concluded. “Love, Lucy.” She included a link to the Ross & Co. website, then sent it off. She sent the same email to Laura— though she wasn’t sure Laura would actually check her email. The moment she closed her laptop, her phone chirped. She glanced at it hesitantly, the way one would watch the gut-wrenching progress of a snake across the yard. Beth had started a group text, and, characteristically, included every member of the family she could recall— some of whom Lucy didn’t even have in her contacts.
“This is a big step, Lucy,” Beth’s message read. A flock of messages soon joined hers.
“Jesus, Beth,” Lucy muttered. She flipped her phone to silent and tossed it to the other end of the couch. Now, at least, its buzzing was faint, sporadic. Feeling safe— or simply invisible— Lucy turned her face toward the soft, slightly musty fabric of the couch cushion. She was asleep in minutes.
According to the schedule they’d arranged, he would begin on July 1. Lucy and Stephen sat up together the night before, obsessively scrolling through the script.
“Seems straightforward enough,” Stephen noted, more to reassure himself than anything else. “He’s got some guiding notes, some key lines. We just say… whatever— and he just runs with it.”
“Looks like it,” Lucy agreed, clutching the sides of the laptop with the desperation of the newly dead.
“What clothes did we give them, again?” Stephen asked. That seemed, to Lucy, irrelevant. But he always chattered when he was nervous. He had done so just before the funeral, too, droning endlessly about the weather and the flowers.
“We boxed up almost everything, remember? We decided to just let their wardrobe people handle everything.”
“Right, right. They just needed a template to go off of, I guess. We get the clothes back,” Stephen mumbled, vaguely trailing his own thoughts. He had read, once, the story of Russian monks fleeing their ancient monasteries, crazed with their fear of Napoleon’s approaching forces. They had piled their beloved relics into donkey carts, as they had seen farmers pile vegetables, still dark with soil. Stephen imagined that his pain, sending off his son’s clothes, could not have been dissimilar from that of the Russian monks. He knew what it meant to perform sacrilege for the sake of a greater devotion.
“You’re right,” Lucy said, her eyes still on the laptop screen.
“Hmm. Should we get some sleep?”
“Uh… I’m just going to read through the script one more time. But, yeah, you should sleep.” Lucy flipped off the light. Stephen rolled every so slightly away from her, pulling the quilt taught across her lap. Lucy maintained her grip on the laptop. Her thin fingers looked almost ghostly in the brittle light of the screen.
The next afternoon, Stephen left work early. It was not as if the machinery of the run-of-the-mill insurance company would crumble without him. Even more than that, Stephen’s boss proved malleable— or, more correctly, helpless— in the face of Stephen’s overwhelming loss. He granted Stephen any reckless kindness he could. Consequently, Stephen slipped out of the office almost two hours early. He came home to find Lucy in a fragile state of near-panic. She stood in the kitchen, decisively pulling the various components of that night’s dinner from the cabinets and fridge. Boxes and jars slowly collected on the spotless countertop.
“Woah, Lucy,” Stephen interjected gently, “Aren’t we just doing spaghetti?”
“Yep,” she said, her eyes relentlessly scanning the kitchen. She refused to forget the smallest detail. She had cleaned every visible surface twice— even scrubbed down the interior of the fridge, nearly wild with disuse. “You know,” she added, “We should un-set the table. I would never set the table this early.” She was slowly, painstakingly recalling how to fulfill her role, how to inhabit the shell of her life. Lucy and Stephen moved to the kitchen table, stacked the plates and forks, and returned them to their nests in the drawers. “Yes. Better,” Lucy said, her face stiff with concentration.
“You look nice,” Stephen slipped in, noticing for the first time the jeans and purple sweater he hadn’t seen in months.
“Thank you.” Lucy jerked her hair back into a low knot, as she would have done— no, as she did— when cooking.
“What time is he coming?”
“Jay gets home at four,” Lucy tested tentatively, wondering if the words would hold the weight of all their hope and hopelessness. “So, I was thinking an early dinner— around five— then maybe a movie.”
“Sounds good to me. I’m gonna change.” Stephen slipped out of the room. Lucy completed a second inventory of her ingredients, then her cooking utensils. As with any miracle, the presence and placement of the elements is quintessential. A minute later, Stephen returned, softened by a t-shirt and loose jeans. He paused in the doorway, gazed around the room, mystified.
“What should I be doing?” he said, as if to himself. Lucy understood instantly.
“Well, you were usually in your study…” Stephen looked up at her, his eyes steely. He intuitively understood the accusation.
“I didn’t spend that much time in my study, Lucy. Besides, I want to be here to see him.” He turned, scanning the living room, too. “Family time,” he added vaguely.
“Sit on the couch, then,” Lucy suggested. “Grab a book.” She turned away, searching for her own task. Her eyes slid to the sink. Dishes. She could envision herself washing dishes, could imagine the precise and sure movements of her hands as she dressed and undressed dishes with sheets of downy suds. Yes, dishes.
As the hands of the clock slunk towards four o’ clock, Lucy and Stephen arranged themselves in their chosen positions. Stephen stumbled over the choice of book. He, too, felt the necessity of arranging the elements mindfully. Lucy pulled clean dishes from her shelves and stacked them carefully beside the sink to wash again. She would have plenty to occupy her hands. They heard the scrape of the newly-made key in the lock at the same moment. Two hearts tripped, then beat with fresh ferocity. Stephen, impossibly rigid, jerked open his hardback novel. Lucy plunged a plate beneath the ribbon of water. She felt truly sick with fear and longing. The front door opened, closed. She imagined she could hear each measured step in the front hall. She heard him, first, in the living room.
“Hey, Dad. Was work okay?” Tears rushed to her eyes.
“Hey. Yeah… work was good,” Stephen’s voice was rough, raw. “How was school?”
“Fine.” Lucy blinked back her tears and quickly cleared her throat. “Hey, Mom.” She whirled around. He stood in the doorway, smiling like they had an infinity of private jokes between them.
“Hi,” Lucy quavered. He glanced at the counter, raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve been busy,” he teased gently. “Is there a banquet or food bank I should know about?” Lucy coughed out a laugh. That did truly sound like him.
“We’re… we’re having pasta,” was all she could think to say.
“Nice. Can I make the sauce?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Yours is the best.” That was true, too. All of it, in a way, was true. He slipped around the counter, carefully pulled out the ingredients he needed.
“Can I use this pot, Mom?”
“Yep. Sure.” Stephen wandered into the kitchen, looking a little stunned.
“Uh… anything I can do to help?” he offered.
“Um, yeah. Could you grab the basil?” Stephen nodded. He fumbled through the spice drawer for a moment, then slid the little bottle of basil across the counter. “Thanks, Dad.”
“No problem.” Stephen glanced around for another job. Finding none, he hung awkwardly at the far end of the counter. Lucy remained rooted in place, the small of her back against the sink. Stephen and Lucy studied Jay— what else were they to call him? — mesmerized. Lucy watched the way he sliced vegetables, gently, tenderly, as if a blade had never been used for anything but this art form. Stephen caught her eye and shook his head almost imperceptibly, warning her. Yes, don’t get greedy, she thought. She forced herself to turn back to the dishes.
“Should I set the table?” Stephen asked, still eager for something to occupy his hands.
“Sure,” Lucy answered. “We’ll use the blue and white plates.”
They sat down to dinner a little later than Lucy had anticipated, with steaming plates of spaghetti.
“So, tell us about school,” Lucy prompted, spinning her fork slowly through the thick strands of pasta.
“It was good. Laura is trying to organize this student literary event thing. She wants a few of us to read something of our own. I think I’ll do it.”
“That sounds great!” Stephen chimed in, his voice unnaturally loud. He ground his teeth, almost angry with himself.
“Really, it does,” Lucy agreed, forcing a smile, “I think it’s so important that you share your writing. You’re very talented.” He shrugged.
“Thanks, Mom. We’ll see.” That was so like him, too, desperate for the spotlight until he had it. Lucy fought to remember the other talking points from the script. Stephen jumped in first, asking,
“So, do you still like that global affairs class?”
“Oh, yeah. Best class by far. We’re talking about the war in Iraq right now.”
“Heavy stuff,” Stephen commented. Jay nodded.
“Hegemony, am I right?” He hid a half-smile behind a bite of spaghetti.
“Well, now,” Stephen began, unable to hold back, even now.
“Stephen,” Lucy warned gently. He looked across the table at her, nodded, and swallowed his commentary.
“Sorry, Dad,” Jay offered. Lucy and Stephen started; neither had ever heard those two words side by side.
“You don’t have to apologize,” Stephen assured him, his face suddenly so deeply earnest he appeared scared. Lucy wanted to reach for his hand but resisted for reasons she didn’t fully understand.
“Are you thinking you’ll try out for basketball next season?” she asked, more as an act of generosity toward Stephen than anything else. He had been heartbroken to the point of ferocity when Jay quit the team.
“You should really consider it,” Stephen pushed in. “Senior year and all.” He knew he was still stiff, still unsure. But he could also feel the pull of the words, the rhythm of the day-to-day. Lucy let Stephen and Jay jabber back and forth about basketball. She gazed down at her nearly untouched plate. The sauce, she realized, was just barely short of complete. What was it? Oregano. Jay always used oregano. She bit down on her bottom lip.
“Yes?” she said, looking up quickly. “Sorry.”
“You’re fine. I just asked how work was going.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I’m just doing a basic re-design for this baby food company’s website. It’s really… really atrocious.” She forced a short laugh. Jay and Stephen smiled. The absence of oregano, she reflected, was such a small price to pay. To weigh one absence against the other left no question.
They gradually lost themselves in the rhythm. Lucy and Stephen allowed their lives to be reshaped, remolded, around Jay’s arrivals and furtive departures. (He was generous; he always slipped out just after they had settled into bed. He was quiet, too— so quiet that Lucy could almost persuade herself that he hadn’t left at all. (No, she didn’t hear the gentle groan of the front door. No, she didn’t hear the car pull away.) During his absences— sometimes a day, sometimes a handful of days— Stephen and Lucy lived like imposters in their own home. Without thinking of it, they passed the days in near silence, as if hoping to omit the empty days completely. Lucy found herself reluctant to cook, to clean, to disturb the stillness of the house in any way. Stephen was the same. He would elect to wear the slightly oversized or undersized clothes that hadn’t crossed his mind in years rather than rouse the washing machine. Had they paused to reflect, both would have recognized their neurosis— or, at the very least, the neurosis of the other. But they didn’t think, let alone speak, of these omissions, these petty humiliations.
It was on one such day that Lucy received Laura’s text. Even the chirp of her phone was jarring.
“Stephen,” Lucy said, her voice unnecessarily low. Stephen looked up, bewildered to hear his wife’s voice. “Laura wants to have dinner with us and Jay.”
“Oh.” Stephen nodded slowly. He had all but forgotten that the life they’d constructed could be in any way touched by the outside world. “I don’t see why not. Check the calendar.” Lucy clicked through her email, scrolled through the scrupulously neat September schedule. The thought of sharing their allotted hours sent a bolt of panic through Lucy’s chest. But, she reminded herself, this was Laura. Jay’s Laura. Laura, whose flesh, in the weeks following the death, had melted from her bones, as if her grief were physically crushing her. Laura, who was only now beginning to gain back the weight she had lost.
“Jay and I can make stir fry,” Lucy offered. The arrangement of the elements…
“Nice. It’s been a while.”
The following Thursday, as promised, Jay and Lucy hunted out the broad pan and cooked stir fry over an ecstatic flame. They hovered, side by side, marveling together at the harmony of colors and textures.
“It looks fantastic, Mom,” Jay said through a smile.
“Smells good, too.” Lucy wiped her hands on a towel, squeezing the rough cloth tightly. She hoped she was hiding her nerves well. The doorbell chimed.
“Want me to get it?” Jay offered.
“I got it,” Stephen called from the living room. “Don’t want to distract the master chefs.” He carefully arranged his smile as he moved to the front door. “Hey, Laura.”
“Hi. How are you?” Laura managed. She stepped into the hall. She was sure that her terror was written across her face— eyes wide, jaw tight.
“Good,” Stephen said gently. “You?” He touched the rigid peak of her shoulder lightly, unsure how to calm her.
“I’m fine.” Stephen nodded, then turned and led the way to the kitchen. He stepped ever so slightly to one side— and Laura caught sight of Jay behind a silk curtain of steam. Her breath tangled in the back of her throat, burst out of her mouth in audible gusts.
“Hey, Laur,” Jay greeted her, his smile steady.
“Have a seat,” he waved his arm in the direction of the table. Laura stumbled to the closest chair. She turned her head away from Jay, unspeakably afraid to look too closely or too long. The eyes…
“We’re having stir fry,” Lucy announced with a gusto foreign to her. She carried a full and steaming plate across the room and laid it in front of Laura. The girl’s cheek was the ashy white of clouded glass. Lucy gripped Laura’s shoulder briefly, but with surprising strength. Neither could decide if the gesture was one of comfort or of warning. Stephen and Jay, too, made their way to the table. Jay slipped into the chair on Laura’s right.
“Would you say grace, Lucy?” Stephen invited, bowing his head. From under his eyebrows, Stephen studied the other three faces around the table. Laura’s face appeared somehow unsteady, fractured— like a building just before it crumbles.
“Lord, thank you for allowing us to enjoy this meal together tonight,” Lucy began. Her voice shook slightly. Give me strength, Laura pleaded. She wondered what the boy on her right prayed for, if he prayed at all. She used to wonder the same about Jay. Well— despite all the things that had pulled them together— she’d never gotten an answer. “Amen,” Lucy finished. A pause. Jay, then Stephen, began on their mounds of stir fry.
“We did good, Mom,” Jay offered.
“Really good,” Stephen echoed faintly. Laura nodded half-heartedly. She prodded unconvincingly at her plate, focusing instead on Jay’s face, his every word and gesture. Similarly, Lucy studied Laura. She could reconstruct only a flimsy silhouette of the compassion that had previously moved her. She understood now: it was too soon, even for Laura. Their world was too young, too pliable, too breakable, even for Laura. “So,” Stephen continued determinedly, “Jay, have you thought any more about basketball?”
“Uh, yeah. I think I’ll go for it.” Jay’s eyes roved about the table, his expression impressively placid.
“Yeah? That’s great!”
“Proud of you already,” Lucy added, forcing a smile.
“I don’t…” Laura began, horrified that the words slipped off her tongue. Jay met her eyes. Laura’s hand flew to her mouth, as if to physically crush her protest. Jay had hated basketball. She couldn’t count the number of times he’d cursed, with illogical vehemence, the team, the coach, the whole sport. She had her own theories about the true roots of his malice— but, regardless, Jay had hated basketball.
“What’s up, Laur?” Jay prodded. Laura shook her head faintly. She even closed her eyes, for a moment, against the madness around her. Watching her, Lucy felt a flutter of panic in her stomach.
“So, Laura,” she interjected with almost violent cheerfulness, “We heard about your student reading. How did it go?” Laura blinked rapidly, pulled herself back to the present.
“Um… sorry,” she breathed. “It was good. Good.”
“Well, good,” Lucy said. “Jay, did you read something? I don’t remember.” Jay nodded.
“Hm-mm. It was a really great experience.”
“Sound like it,” Stephen added, his voice still tight. “Young people need those chances for self-expression, you know? I think it’s one of the best things you can do to challenge yourself, improve yourself.” He and Lucy glanced at one another. Lucy smiled, soothed by the rhythm of seemingly safe conversation.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Jay agreed. There was a pause. Stephen forged ahead,
“So, prom is coming up. You two still going together?” He meant it as an appeasement for Laura. A gift, as it were, to soften the harshness of this new reality. But, when he turned to her, Laura’s eyes sparkled with tears. She bit down on her lip.
“That’s the plan,” Jay responded calmly, not yet looking at Laura. “I mean, I think I asked her to prom in like eighth grade! You remember that, Laur?” Laura’s fork struck the side of her plate with a harsh crack. This was the twist of the knife— unpredictable, impossibly treacherous. Her eyes darted between Lucy and Stephen.
“You told him that story…” Her voice was soft, colorless. Her arms intertwined over her chest as if she were ready to collapse into herself.
“Laura…” Lucy said.
“How?” Laura demanded, her face contorting. “How could you do that?”
“Laura!” Lucy’s voice sharpened. Under the table, her hands shook like scraps of paper in the wind.
“No, no!” Laura pushed back from the table and pulled herself out of the chair. “How could you do that? How can you do this? This…”
“Laura, please.” It was Jay this time, his eyes wide. For the first time, he seemed uncertain. He reached out towards her. Laura reeled back.
“Don’t touch me, you son of a bitch!”
“Laura, get out!” Lucy commanded. What else could she do? Laura’s grief, clearly, could not exist in tandem with their serenity. “I will not allow— just go.” This, this was self-defense.
“Laura, please. I can walk you out,” Stephen said, his voice mournful, but carefully measured. “I’m sorry this happened.” He rose clumsily from the table.
“No!” Laura repeated. “No! Jay would hate this. He would hate this.” Her arms were raised as if she were expecting an assault. Her heart pounded with the thrill of either the traitor or the truthteller. She could not tell which. “Jay…” She let her voice die, then, helpless, she turned and darted out. As the front door slammed, Jay leapt to his feet.
“Jay, don’t,” Lucy pleaded, tears rushing to her eyes, now. “Let her go.”
“I’ll be right back,” he promised before pursuing her. Stephen fell back into his chair, wanting nothing more than to sleep.
“She will never come back here,” Lucy swore in a trembling voice. She gripped the edge of the kitchen table. Stephen nodded.
“I’m sorry this happened,” he repeated. Lucy shrugged.
“My own fault.” Stephen nodded once more. Then the two sat in silence, listening for Jay.
Neither Stephen nor Lucy ever learned what passed between Jay and Laura. Still, they blamed Laura for the new sense of disquiet. There was a new, intangible distance between them and Jay. Lucy noticed it in small things— his tendency to pause in doorways, to glance around the room as if unsure what or who to expect, his lengthening silences at the dinner table, his awkward stiffness after even short absences. She was numb with a quiet terror. Near the end, Jay, too, had been moody, quiet. But she hadn’t recognized such things for what they were, hadn’t fully seen. Now, she saw— and understood— everything.
Between her and Stephen, too, there was an incommunicable sense of fragility. Or, more correctly, she supposed, there grew an increasingly precarious mountain of things they did not talk about, of silences and omissions. When the first late payment notice appeared among their otherwise benign mail, for example, Stephen let it pass without comment. Lucy was shocked; under normal circumstances, such a violation of his doxological frugality would have sparked an argument. But, throughout September and October, as bills collected on the kitchen counter like dead and dying leaves, he said nothing. Almost nothing. When the bills arrived from Ross & Co., he would say simply,
“We’d better pay this.” An observation heavy with the desperation of the psalmist. Lucy would nod, reach for her checkbook.
Still, Lucy had faith in this one thing: life revolves around rhythm. Not Jay’s frigidity, not her and Stephen’s silences, could interrupt the rhythm of their three harmonizing griefs and healings. They could still lose themselves in repetition, float in it, as one does in water. This, certainly, was something akin to love. Something akin to joy.
Beth called on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. The clanging of the phone was horrible against the deliberate and holistic silence of the house.
“Hello,” Lucy answered, not even realizing she was whispering.
“Hello? Lucy?” Beth squawked on the other end of the line.
“Hi, Beth,” Lucy said, raising her voice.
“Hey, hon. How are you?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Good, good. We’re doing good. So… did you get my text about Thanksgiving?” Lucy gritted her teeth. What an idiotic way to ask, Why are you ignoring me? But it was just like Beth to choose those words.
“Yeah,” Lucy sighed. “I just don’t know, Beth. I’m not sure we’re up for traveling this year.”
“I think it’s really important that you be with your family this year,” Beth pushed.
“I just— we really want to be with Jay and— “ Lucy bit down on her tongue in her haste to cut short her sentence. Beth sighed heavily.
“Oh, hon, I know. I’m sure the house holds a lot of memories for you two.” Of course she would misunderstand, overcomplicate. There was a beat of silence. “Hey, why don’t we drive down and stay with you? I’ll bring a bunch of food, you can spend some time with the kids— it’ll be great!” Beth’s voice shone with an eagerness that, by now, felt foreign to Lucy.
“I don’t know, Beth,” she jumped in, her heart pounding viciously. She would not let their delicate world be breached this time. Not again. “I’m just… worn out.”
“Right. I’m sure. You know I wish I could make this easier for you.”
“Well… just think about it, okay?”
“Alright. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” Lucy hung up and pushed her phone away from her. She should talk to Stephen. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.
In the end, it was Ross & Co. that determined their holiday plans. “We pride ourselves,” the email read, “On respecting the personal lives of each and every member of our staff. For this reason, services carried out during the holiday season, including scheduling, scripting, and in-home interaction, will incur a cost increase of…”
“Well, that’s that,” Lucy sighed, letting her hands fall into her lap.
“It’s just impossible right now,” Stephen agreed, nodding mournfully. “We… we really need to get our finances straightened out.” He stared down at the counter, his face impassive.
“Yes.” Lucy pushed a lock of hair behind one ear. “Well… we’ll do a small Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then we’ll get everything worked out in the New Year.” Such a soft and pliant answer, though only vaguely comforting, was the easiest to swallow. Stephen nodded, still avoiding her eyes. “So, should we have Beth, then?” Lucy continued. She felt clumsy. She and Stephen were out of practice managing a conversation on their own. What, she suddenly wondered, were things like before Jay was born? She couldn’t seem to remember. But, then too, that wasn’t a fair question. They’d been two completely different people then, incomparable to their present selves.
“It’s up to you. She’s your sister.”
“Alright. Um… let’s do it, then.” Stephen, again, nodded, as if resigned to an unpleasant but concrete fact. “It’s been a while since we’ve done anything with family. And, if I know Beth, we’ll save a fortune on food.”
“You’re right. We will.” Lucy couldn’t guess what passed through Stephen’s mind. Did he feel the weight of their silences, too? Did the thought of two holidays passed in solitude sicken him, too? Surely. Yet, he let the silences grow, consume them, surround them like water.
“It’s settled, then,” Lucy said softly, “I’ll go call Beth.” She left him sitting alone at the kitchen table.
It was unusually warm for November, for the week of Thanksgiving. Lucy opened every window she passed, letting the wind slip through the house like bolts of silk. It steadied her— the smell of sunshine and an earth in transition. It seemed to steady Stephen too; he pushed himself off the couch and helped Lucy prepare for Beth’s arrival. Fresh sheets on the spare beds, soap in all the accompanying bathrooms. Unpaid bills entombed in the deepest catacombs of Stephen’s desk.
“Stephen?” Lucy looked up from the soft envelopes of laundry she had been folding. “Do you think we could lock Jay’s door?” He studied her face for a moment.
“Um… yeah. I’ll grab the master key.” Stephen stepped out to the garage and returned a minute later. “Do you want me to do it?” he asked, fidgeting with the stolid, unwieldy key.
“No, no. I’ve got it. Thank you.” Stephen passed off the master key, then took Lucy’s position behind the stack of laundry as she rushed upstairs. Throughout the day, Lucy continually slipped upstairs to check the lock, test the handle. Even after Stephen noticed and wordlessly reclaimed the key, she returned again and again. It comforted her to feel for herself the barrier of wood and metal between his world and theirs, to know that each was safe from the reaches of the other.
Beth and her family pulled into the driveway just past four. They surged through the doorway, a writhing mass of suitcases, coats too heavy for the mild evening, sticky lips exchanging kisses.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Lucy!” Beth cried over the untamed symphony of her children’s voices. “So good to see you!” She kissed Lucy’s cheek, leaving— Lucy was sure— a silhouette of lipstick vaguely reminiscent of a rose beginning to wilt.
“Hey, Beth.” Lucy admired, envied, loathed her sister for her role as nucleus of this raucous, joyous entity.
“Thanks for having us, Lucy,” added Paul, her brother-in-law. He hugged her gingerly.
“Of course.” Lucy returned his hug, the wool of his sweater rough against her skin. Lucy and Stephen corralled the family into their two rooms. Lucy distributed extra towels— how was it possible that she always underestimated the size of Beth’s brood? — as Stephen blew up two ancient air mattresses.
“You guys might want to be kind of gentle with these,” Stephen advised nervously. The damn things will probably pop, Lucy thought, slinking out of the room.
Lucy’s father and youngest sister, Erin, arrived as the sun sank behind the jagged horizon. As the two climbed out of the car, Lucy was immediately reminded of two birds— two fundamentally solitary creatures temporarily joined in flight from some unknown and unknowable place. This was more easily weathered than Beth’s uproar. She embraced her father first, shocked by the new ridges protruding under his skin. She was certain she could distinguish every vertebrae and rib beneath his sweater.
“Good of you to have us, Lucy,” he said. His smile was the same, at least. Jay had had a smile akin to this one. She blinked tears away as she turned to Erin.
“Hi, little one,” Lucy greeted her, using the old nickname.
“I’m as tall as you, now,” Erin admonished, laughing so softly that it was little more than a bounce of her chest.
“Yes, but still stick-thin.” Erin shrugged. Lucy could see Jay in her face, too— something in the harmony between nose and mouth. She wanted to reach out, to trace the curves and angles of Erin’s face with her fingertips. And her father’s, for that matter. And Beth’s. She would rediscover each trait, every marker of the lineage that connected Jay to them, past to present.
“Beth inside?” Erin asked, stooping to pick up her suitcase.
“Oh, yes. The hen and her chicks.”
“Of course. Of course.” Erin laughed again. She and Lucy walked into the house together, trailing behind their father and Stephen.
Lucy and Stephen lived through the week in a permanent state of shock. The noise, the unceasing movement— such a vivid display of life— was simply unfathomable to two people who had come to inhabit the gray space between life and death. Neither could grasp how to live fully in one world, not after months of straddling two. Their bewilderment was obvious. Stephen drew further and further into himself as the week aged. Even at their staunchly cheerful Thanksgiving dinner, Lucy could count the number of words he uttered on her fingers. Not that she was much better. Several times a day, she caught herself staring off at a blank wall or a floorboard, as if waiting for the house to crack like an eggshell with the pressure of this much happiness, this much certainty.
The only person she could talk to with some imitation of normalcy was Erin. They hadn’t been extraordinarily close in childhood— Erin was so much younger, always, it seemed to Lucy, lagging behind her and Beth— but, now, Lucy felt an immense gratitude for her baby sister’s quiet, steady presence. She hid behind Erin, almost— hid from the others. Beth was so unashamedly vivid, exuberant with the triumph of her family, her food, her wholeness. Lucy was almost afraid of her. And she almost despised her. Beth’s children, too, felt volatile. They studied her face so intensely, as if her grief were inked across her skin, clearly visible, engrossing. Lucy was sure that, at any minute, one of her nieces or nephews would ask about Jay. And she was sure, too, that, even after all these months, she would break down in front of everyone. Lucy avoided even their father. His new frailty nauseated her. She was struck with guilt, of course. But still, she could not speak to him, could not stand near him without choking on her own fear. His thwarted thinness reminded her only of the proximity of death— his own, hers, everyone’s. And his deeply wrinkled, puckered face seemed to her the physical manifestation of their shared brokenness. And so, Lucy hid from him along with the others. If he noticed, he said nothing. It is possible he was afraid of her, too— this daughter who, in many ways, was closer to death than he. And so, this is how the visit passed: a lengthy, morbid game of hide-and-seek in which only two or three players fully grasped the rules.
Erin and their father slipped away the Saturday after Thanksgiving, once again joining forces in their migration.
“He really hates leaving Mom alone,” Erin explained as she and Lucy packed leftovers for her to take home. “She just doesn’t understand when he doesn’t go to visit. You know? Besides, on Sundays, they watch a sermon on TV.” Lucy nodded. She swallowed hard, realizing that she hadn’t asked Erin or Beth about their mother even once. Well, it was too late, now. She sent Erin and their father off with gentle hugs and whispered comforts, then simply waited for Beth’s departure, planned for the following morning.
“Saturday traffic, you know…” Beth explained. Lucy had no idea what she meant, but she nodded before retreating to strip down the newly vacated beds. She supposed that her plan, now, was to hide from Beth behind laundry and leftovers.
She might have guessed at the plan’s futility. Within hours of Erin’s desertion, Beth caught Lucy alone in the kitchen. She stationed herself on one side of the island, directly opposite Lucy.
“Lucy, can we talk?” Her voice was calm, but as solid as the granite against which she drummed her fingers.
“Of course,” Lucy relented. “What’s up?” She didn’t look at her sister, but busied her hands folding and refolding a damp kitchen towel.
“I wanted to save this until the end….” Beth continued. She pulled in a deep breath. “Well… I got a notice of late payment from Acorn Ridge.” Acorn Ridge. Beth was the only member of the family who refused to call it “the home.” As she explained when asked, things have names, and names are meant to be used.
“Hm-mm,” Lucy acknowledged. She had received the same notice, printed, as she recalled, on mint-green paper.
“Lucy… it was your turn to pay.”
“Yes.” Lucy kept her voice low. “It’s just… not possible at the moment.” She glanced up at Beth to study the effect of her half-explanation. Beth’s eyebrows rose into two ferocious arcs.
“What does that mean? This is our system— the system we agreed on!”
“I know, Beth. I’m sorry. We just can’t.”
“I don’t understand.” Lucy sighed.
“There’s not much to understand. We don’t have the money right now.”
“Lucy, you’re not some college kid, not some newlywed. You’re forty-four years old. Old enough to take some res— “
“Okay, that’s enough. I don’t need to hear it, Beth.”
“So where’s all your money going?”
“You… that’s none of your concern. As you said, I’m forty-four years old. I don’t— “
“When your money problems keep us from taking care of our own mother, it is my concern. You have responsibilities, Lucy. Life doesn’t just stop. I know you’ve had a rough time, but… but I need your help.” Lucy looked down at the counter.
“Listen, I’m sorry. I know I dropped the ball. But I really don’t have the money right now. I just don’t.” She let her hands fall to her sides, as helpless as she. Beth sighed, massaged the patch of skin between her eyebrows.
“I can kick in this quarter. But I’ve got kids of my own and money’s tight enough as it is. I’ll talk to Erin, too. But she doesn’t even have a solid job, yet. She’s too young to worry about this shit. We really need you.” Lucy wanted to scream, if only to drown out Beth’s voice for two minutes. But she could only mutter,
“I’ll talk to Stephen. See what I can do.”
“Thank you.” Beth slid around the island and coiled her arms around Lucy’s shoulders. “Love you, Lucy.”
“Love you, too.” Lucy whispered into the fabric of Beth’s shirt.
Beth’s family swept away on time, and Sunday afternoon brought the return of Lucy and Stephen’s cultivated silence. Lucy never thought she would miss it. She stretched herself out along the length of the couch, inched upwards to find the pool of warmth where sunlight fell across her chest.
“Tired?” Stephen queried, lowering himself to sit on the ottoman opposite her.
“A little,” she admitted, twisting to face him. “Everything okay?” Stephen nodded slowly, but let his chin sink towards his chest. “What is it?” Lucy demanded. “What’s wrong?” Stephen sighed, his shoulders falling under some intangible weight.
“Beth… talked to me about…” Lucy struggled to a seated position, her heart flipping wildly in her chest.
“Stephen…” she began, without knowing, even, what she meant to say.
“We have to make a change, Lucy. Our finances are out of control. We can’t even afford your mother’s nursing home bills. What’s wrong with us?” His hands clenched into fists.
“Stephen, we’ll figure it out.” Her voice was feeble beside his.
“Lucy, come on! We still have a mortgage. We have debts. We have bills. We have retirement to think about.”
“I think…” Lucy felt tears behind her eyes even before Stephen forged ahead. “I think we should consider cancelling our Ross & Co. service.” Lucy immediately felt herself recoil from him. She was shocked by the revulsion she felt— revulsion so pure it rose like a tidal wave in her stomach.
“It’s one of our biggest expenses. We just can’t do it right now.”
“I will not do it!” Lucy swore through gritted teeth. “I will not go back to the way things were. I won’t.”
“Lucy…” Lucy resisted the temptation to cover her ears like a stubborn child.
“I won’t go back. Can you? Can you?” Tears cut down her cheeks. And, yes, there were tears in Stephen’s eyes, too.
“Do we have a choice?” Now it was Stephen’s voice that had softened, faded. “I don’t think so.”
“We can’t go back to the way things were.” Lucy repeated. “I’ll put in more hours. We’ll figure it out.” She pushed herself to her feet. Stephen looked up at her, his face ravaged, as if by tornado, hurricane, wildfire.
“No, Lucy, we really need to talk this through.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. We’ve decided. A few more months at least.” Lucy tried to move past him, but he caught her wrist.
“Lucy, you’re being ridiculous. We need to make an informed, adult decision here.” Every word seemed to drain him.
“I’m tired, Stephen. Leave it alone.” She pulled her wrist away, avoiding his eyes. “We’ll figure it out.” She took precise, measured steps until the living room was behind her. It took every ounce of her strength to keep from running.
And, so, their argument, their minute betrayal of one another, became one of the many things they did not speak of. Both, isolated in their silence, watched their ruin with maddening helplessness.
Two observers, watching the train crash from opposite sides of the tracks.
Jay returned to their home in the new year, bringing with him their shared, miotic rhythm. As promised, Lucy worked more hours. They paid their Ross & Co. bills in both January and February— albeit a little late both times.
The first week of March.
Even the Ross & Co. bill slipped through their fingers. They would pay it, of course, as soon as possible. Before the end of the month.
The third week of March.
Stephen was at work, so Lucy found herself left to open the letter alone. “As of March 15, your record shows three late or missed payments. Due to your recurring failure to meet your obligations, per your contract (dated June 7, 2018), we regret to inform you that your Ross & Co. services have been terminated. Effective immediately…” Lucy gripped the counter to steady herself.
“No, no, no…” she gasped. With shaking hands, she grappled with her phone, dialed their facilitator.
“Good morning. This is Linda Williams, with Ross & Co. Living Memorials. How can I help you?”
“Linda, this is Lucy Dawd. I just received a notice that our services have been terminated.” Lucy clutched the letter in one hand, holding it away from her body as if it were a snake on the verge of attack.
“I see…” Linda paused. There was a staccato of key strokes. “That’s Dawd, D-A…”
“D-A-W-D, yes.” Another pause.
“Yes, Mrs. Dawd. I’m so sorry to inform you, but your record shows three late or missed payments. As a result— “
“So that’s it? No extension? No payment plans?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Dawd. We have a very strict system here at Ross & Co. Our staff are constantly in high demand. We feel that it’s unfair to rob families of the chance to heal simply because— “
“We can’t pay,” Lucy finished bitterly. She closed her eyes against a wave of physical nausea.
“I’m truly sorry, Mrs. Dawd. If circumstances change, we’ll be happy to draw up another contract.” Lucy hung up without another word. She sank to the floor, leaned back against the counter. For a moment, all she felt was the urge to fill the house with her screams. She wanted God Himself to hear her. Death was meant to bring, at the very least, finality, some iteration of completion. But here she was, watching Jay’s second death. Her entire body trembled. Surely, her bones would splinter under this weight. Surely, this would kill her.
When Stephen arrived home, he found the letter where Lucy had left it on the linoleum floor, one corner so deeply crumpled it was nearly torn. He read it, then folded it into an immaculate square and stuffed it into the trashcan. He found Lucy in their bed. She lay still under the heft of the perfect dark. Stephen peeled off his coat, eased out of his shoes, and crawled across the bed to lay beside Lucy. She didn’t respond to his touch, to the curve of his arm over her waist. The two bodies still completed one another’s shape, like the light and dark of a crescent moon. She hadn’t cried that day— not even after the letter. But Stephen’s warmth against her back loosed her tears. She wept silently, allowing each tear to drop onto the pillowcase.
“I’m so sorry, Lucy,” Stephen whispered, perhaps crying, too. His voice was so soft— his breath hardly disturbed her hair where it lay over her ear. Lucy said nothing. “Are you asleep?” Lucy’s jaw tightened as she suppressed a sob. The tiniest flutter of a sigh escaped Stephen’s lips. After that, they lay still and silent in the dark.