Felt like writing a short story. Dunno why. In any case, here’s the result!
This short story is based on my other, work-in-progess-but-indefinitely-halted story, Learning Fatherhood. Nevertheless, it is fully capable of standing as a story on it’s own merits. I might integrate it into the main story at some super-distant time, but here it is as it stands for now.
I could hardly bear to watch as the last spadefuls of earth fell.
The men doing the job did so professionally, working with the speed and efficiency of long experience. Their faces were passive, appropriately solemn, but held nothing of the crushing loss, the heartbreaking anguish that wracked my body. I screamed silently at their uncaring faces, shouting “Don’t treat this as a job! This isn’t just any corpse, this was my Uncle Alex!” I wanted to lash out at their disinterest, to scratch and pummel them till they felt the tiniest portion of the sorrow lashing my soul.
But of course, I would not. I would not shame my uncle’s memory in that manner.
My sister stood beside me. I stole a glance at her and was amazed at her composure. Her eyes were red, but dry; she stood erect and stared straight ahead. Only I, standing as close as I was, saw the subtle signs of her emotional distress: her quivering lip, frequent soft sniffles, the tear-tracks through her makeup, the small stains on her jacket, the cold grip of her hand in mine.
She was always the strong one. Despite being the younger by three years, she displayed a maturity that exceeded mine, a selflessness and inner resilience that I could only envy and admire.
I squeezed her hand in comfort, and she responded with a death grip that revealed her inner turmoil. But other than that, she stood still.
I observed the workmen as they tamped down the soil down with their spades. Finally, they stepped back, their work done, a mound of earth where a hole once lay.
A voice cut across the quiet. “Officers, Atten-SHUN!”
All around me, a hundred Police Officers, my uncle’s colleagues, ex-colleagues, superiors and subordinates, snapped erect, their clenched fists at their sides.
In sharp coordination, hands snapped up to brows and boots slammed as rifles were brought into ready position.
A snare drum rolled once, commanding attention, as the bugler raised his instrument to his lips.
After a pause, the slow, poignant notes of taps began to play.
I couldn’t help it; I broke down and wept. I turned to my sister, finding that her facade, too, had crumpled, and together we cried. We had cried so much we didn’t even think we had tears left, but nevertheless tears streamed freely down our cheeks as our stifled wails rose toward the heavens.
Someone stepped forward and put his arms around us, and I looked up to see Marcus’ familiar face. His eyes were filled with sympathy as he looked at my sister and myself, and together we turned our faces into his broad chest, letting our grief flow freely.
The last mournful notes trailed into deep silence, and all around me I could hear the faint sniffs of women trying to stifle their sobs.
Marcus gently nudged me, and I glanced to the side to see the Police chaplain standing beside me, a colourful bundle in his hands.
Choking back my sobs, I stood upright and hastily dabbed away my tears. Marcus stepped back, still cradling my sister who could no longer withhold her tears.
I turned and faced the chaplain, who extended the folded flag in his arms, intoning the ritual words of condolence:
“As a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it is my high privilege to present you this flag. Let it be a symbol of the grateful appreciation this nation feels for the distinguished service rendered to our country and our flag by your loved one.”
I felt like slapping whomever wrote those lines for making them so unfeeling.
Nevertheless, I accepted the flag with a nod of thanks. As I stepped back, the sharp voice cut through the air again.
Across the grave, seven officers raised rifles to their shoulders
The seven rifles fired as one, the crack resounding around the cemetery with an unexpected loudness. Startled, I stumbled and almost fell, but was caught by Marcus. I flushed slightly as I regained my balance.
“Thanks,” I whispered to him, as the command “Fireeeeee TWO!” was given. The flushing was partially due to embarrassment at my loss of balance, partly due to…something else.
Once again, the crack of rifles shattered the air.
One last time, the seven rifles thundered and fell quiet.
“Officers, at EASE!”
The Chaplain cleared his throat. “Let us take some time now to remember the life of the departed and to say your final farewells to him.”
After about a minute, the Chaplain gave a signal, and the bagpipes began to play the sweet strains of ‘Amazing Grace’ as a closing hymn.
I couldn’t help it then; once again, I turned my face into Marcus’ shoulder and cried.
After the funeral had been dismissed and the guests dispersed; most heading to the reception while some stood around and chatted in low voices, I stood next to the grave, still holding the folded flag in my arms.
“Hey, Chloe.” Marcus stepped up beside me and offered a bottle of water. I gratefully took it, handing the flag to him for awhile. He put it down on the tombstone as I drained the bottle.
“Thanks.” I told him. We stood in companionable silence for awhile, looking down at the grave. I leaned against his side and he put one arm around me.
I finally broke the silence. “This should never happen to anyone.”
Marcus knew me well enough to know that I had more to say.
“No one should ever have to watch their father die.” I swallowed a lump, then added, “especially not twice.”
“How was it like the first time? You know…”
“Horrible.” I had been comparing the two so much in the days before the funeral that the answer came straight to my lips. “I was only seven. I was terrified, and lost, and… and felt so alone.” My eyes threatened to tear up again, as I continued “It was worse than this…but somehow not as bad as well.” I surprised myself with a small laugh. “Does that even make sense? I’m sorry, I must be babbling…”
“No, it’s alright. I know what you mean.” And he really did. In all the years we’d known each other, Marcus had never been anything but truthful with me. With us. Speaking of which…
“She’s with your uncle and cousins. They’re attending to the reception.”
I felt a rush of guilt and shame and pulled myself upright. “I should go and help them.”
“No, it’s alright.” Marcus kept his hand around my shoulder. “You’re taking this much worse than she is. Probably because she can’t really remember the first time, while you were old enough to.”
I slowly relaxed back into his comforting embrace. “You know us too well,” I teasingly accused him.
“I know.” A brief smile played on his lips. “I’ve known you two for…eighteen years now? Since you were seven, in any case. I watched both of you grow up.”
“Literally, since you were babysitting us most of the time,” I responded.
“Literally babysitting, especially in your case.” He smiled again as I blushed, then frowned. “Speaking of which, are you…”
“Yes,” I forestalled his question. “I have been since I heard…the news. I couldn’t afford to have an accident in front of everyone,” I added defensively.
“Oh.” He fell silent, then asked “and Claire?”
“You know she outgrew this sort of thing years ago,” I reminded him somewhat wistfully. “After her bedwetting stopped, she gave whatever supplies she had left to me.”
“Oh yeah. Right.” He quietened again.
After awhile, he stood upright and began to lead me back to the main building, where the reception was taking place. I hesitated, however, struck by a sudden longing.
“Yes, Chloe?” he glanced down at me.
I looked up at his familiar face, remembering all the times when I was young and had woken up crying after a bad nightmare to see his concerned face hovering over me. A sudden longing for protection, for warmth, for someone to take care of me; someone who could soothe my fears and cocoon me with feelings of safety rushed over me. I blurted out the next words unbidden.
“Can you change my diaper?” I had wet myself twice, once during the sermon and once more when the gun salute had startled me. I was feeling excessively damp and needed a change, but didn’t want to do it myself. I wanted to feel safe, loved, the comfort of having someone I could absolutely trust once more, before having to put on my ‘adult’ face and face the world again.
“Please? Just this once?”
Surprise flashed across his face, followed by rapidly dawning understanding. “Sure, baby. Any time.” He gave me a quick squeeze. “Let’s go get you into a nice dry diaper, shall we?”
A strange feeling gradually suffused me as I walked away from my Uncle’s grave. I knew that even if he was gone, there was still someone who loved me in the same way, for what I was.
I began to feel at peace.
How was it? Hope you enjoyed it. If you have any comments/reviews, please do let me know!