Aphelion Issue 256, Volume 24
November 2020
 
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Our Beloved Dead

by Meg Smith




“We could be pioneers. Homesteaders.”

Kevin Block felt this way whenever he surveyed his backyard, which he did often.

As backyards went, it wasn’t large, or commanding of attention.

But it was theirs, and served as a keeper of time. He had built their daughter’s first jungle gym set in it.

Later, he had built her a tree fort, on stilts, because there was no tree.

She and he had planted a vegetable garden together, and they worked it together, growing tomatoes, zucchinis, even peppers.

In one small corner, he had cultivated a cemetery -- years of much-loved pets, including two cats, miscellaneous gerbils, and a rabbit named Huey.

There was even a small burial plot for a frog -- which technically a pet, but which had lived out a happy life within the confines of their fence.

His daughter was 15 now. A sophomore in high school.

She still spared him some time on a Saturday afternoon, to tend to their garden. They made a great team. They always had.

Stephanie. He had picked out her name. He said it within his mind, many times, during the day.

He was a bulwark of paternal pride. But as he looked out over the yard, and the many milestones it represented, he felt a twinge of pain.

One more year, he wished silently. Please, just one more year. One more year of trick-or-treat.

Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. One more year before she would surely have her mind set on a driver’s license, a job, maybe college. Boys. Fear fluttered faintly in his heart.

The pain blurred with his pride, and he felt a prickling at his tear ducts.

The day he and his wife, Dana had welcomed their baby daughter into the world -- when he beheld her, small, helpless and utterly mysterious -- was truly the greatest in his life.

He and his wife had lived in their house since Stephanie was an infant. He was proud that they had bought it, and had worked hard to keep it.

Unlike many of his friends growing up, who’d spent their young adult years in a torpor of anxiety about kids, Kevin Block had looked forward to fatherhood, and most especially wanted a girl.

He could not entirely explain why. Perhaps it was because he could dote on a girl, protect her, and she would always smile and look up to him agreeably.

If it had been a boy, he knew what they’d be in for -- 18 years of fire-setting.

After all, he’d been a boy once, and he and all his friends had traveled the course from childhood to adulthood moving from one fire to another.

He had just come home from work, and his daughter was not yet home. She was in an after-school club, an art club.

To his reckoning, Stephanie was extraordinarily gifted in the arts.

Dana, he knew, was asleep. She had worked a shift and a half. He was proud of her sense of industry.

They had been together 17 years.

This fact, too, filled him with pride. How many of their friends from high school could claim such longstanding success in their marriages?

So many of his friends were drifting through the clouded valley reserved for divorced fathers -- fighting with their exes over sparse weekend visits.

Kevin’s and Dana’s partnership, meanwhile, endured, and grew stronger.

They seldom argued. She did not generally resist his ideas, and when she looked at him, her eyes still sparkled.

There was a picture from a dance at the Elks, of him, and Dana.

She’d convinced him to go to this dance, a fundraiser of some kind, although dancing was not ever one of his skills. He’d shuffled across the floor, barely lifting his feet, but she’d beamed as if in the arms of Fred Astaire -- the only dancer he’d ever heard of.

The photo was sitting on the coffee table of their rustic home. He stopped to glance at it. He was proud that his wife’s looks -- her green-gold eyes, her smooth black hair -- all were still in top form.

Her hips had started to widen, but, hey, they were no longer young. She still bore a close resemblance to their early days of dating, as far as he was concerned.

He thought, too, of some of his friends’ wives, and ex-wives -- and the toll that turbulent children, failed marriages and other disappointments had wrought on their appearance.

Absently, he brushed a hand over his belly. He was wearing a long T-shirt.

He was taking on that bell shape he had once laughed at in his father. Ruddy stubs of hair speckled his chin, which was still square. He refused to wear a beard -- many of his friends were growing them, and he thought of it as conceit to old age, and rubbery chins.

At that Elks dance, Dana had escorted him around the floor, her arm still locked in his, her eyes fierce with possessiveness.

He did not see any women look up at him, even in his peripheral vision.

But it made him smile to think that his wife still regarded him with such jealousy.

They had a sound system in the living room that was also a point of pride. He sat down on the couch.

He put on headphones; he did not want the music to disturb his wife. He put on some rock music, and his mind drifted along a misty pathway of pleasant memory.

The thudding beats surrounded him, driving away all the stresses of the workday.

As he settled into the couch, listening, nursing a beer which he promised himself would be his one beer that evening -- a strange thought occurred to him.

So strange, that he sat up again, took off the headphones, and put them to one side.

The music rattled from the discarded headphones, a faraway, tinny sound.

He put on the headphones again, and turned up the volume.


*****



She can’t still be angry with me, Kevin thought.

It was late at night. His wife was at work, electing to take on another shift.

His daughter was asleep, or at least, tucked safely in her room, with her door closed. Music had tapped softly from the inside -- a boy band. She was 15, he had to concede that to her.

He’d been a teenage boy, once. The thought made him want to lock her up in a tower, even though, it seemed, she seldom talked about boys, and near as he could tell, many boys did not express an interest in her.

He ascribed that to his intimidating presence as a father. His tall height had made him awkward and ungainly when young. Now, however, he used it to his advantage, carrying himself grimly, warding off any threat, real or imagined, to his wife, his daughter, or the precious nest of their family life.

After finally coming to like and owning his height, it did not please him to think he might actually start shrinking in a few years’ time.

He sat at his laptop, open on the kitchen table, a yellowing overhead light on.

The strange thought of earlier in the evening floated back to him in the silence.

She can’t still be angry with me. It’s been 22 years.

He was looking at a photo, online, in Business Beat Journal.

It was a picture of a girlfriend, his last girlfriend before he met his wife. It was a profile, announcing getting a promotion.

The profile had a link to her employment, and from there, it was easy to find a contact email.

He drew in abreath, which felt more labored than it should have, and began typing.

His grammar and spelling were not the best, but he managed a brief, polite note that ended with, “Hope your doing well.” That was wrong. You’re. He corrected it and he hit “send.”

His palms were slick against the table. He turned them up and studied them. Damn, they looked like big, padded, bear paws.

He went to bed, earphones on.

A day passed. Another day passed. No reply. At first, he countenanced disappointment; now, he only felt relief.

On the third day, finally, he received a response, from an unfamiliar email address.

He realized, at once. She created this account, for one purpose, and one purpose only -- a response, and a very angry one.

She castigated him for bothering her at work.

No, she hadn’t forgotten, and told him if anyone treated his daughter the way he had treated her, he would not be happy.

He expelled hot breath through his nostrils. She had brought his daughter into this. He felt his paw-hands curl, clenching.

She took her time answering so she could go prodding around online, he thought. A creeping rage began to fill him -- as if an intruder had broken in.

There was a post-script: “And, that creature. She’s the stupidest thing on two legs. You must have won her in a meat raffle.”

A torrid of furious replies went through his mind, and his paw-hands shook slightly.

His temper sometimes took over, it was true. But he did not want to commit to the online universe, something said in haste.

That night, he went to bed, turning over what he might say, or do, in response. Send it to her employer, maybe. Shame her on his own social media profiles. With these dark, swirling thoughts, he fell asleep.

He had a dream, about his three childhood cats -- Harry, Gabby and Ziggy. He had found them when he was a boy -- abandoned in a box behind a convenient store. He had folded the box under his arm, and spirited them home, where his parents, after some wrangling, agreed to keep them.

Gabby had lived 18 years, and Ziggy and Harry, 17 -- the last two dying in shocking, quick succession.. They had a little burial plot in the backyard of his parents’ house. He had buried them himself. With the loss of each cat, he had sat in his room, rock music turned up very loud, while he wept.

In the dream, Harry, Gabby and Ziggy were alive again. Sort of. They were skeletons, but bright, clean, dazzlingly white skeletons, walking around, brushing against his legs, and then dodging in front of him on the way to the kitchen, just as they had done in life.

They wanted breakfast, but it made no sense. Why would cat skeletons want to eat anything? They didn’t even have tongues, or stomachs. They were meowing, which was even more nonsensical to him.

He was just about to run the can opener in the dream, when he awoke. Dana was asleep next to him, her mouth open, her breath making a soft, whistling sound.

He looked up at the ceiling of their rustic room. Exposed beams. It reminded him of a cabin in the mountains, someplace remote. Homesteaders, he thought, again. We’re homesteaders.

He squeezed her drooping hand, as she slept. She made a muttering sound, not quite a word. He smiled, and ran a hand over her curved, widening hip. She made another sound, another not-word. He let her be.

He stopped on his way to work at a donut shop, to meet his best friend from high school, Tina.

Everyone called her “Tat.”

In high school, it had irritated him that she would say things like, “Girls find you easy to talk to,” because as a teenage male, that was not how he wanted to assess himself.

But here they both were, on the verge of 40. She had remained a friend, a confidant.

She had come to the end of her second marriage.

Their friendship was old, and comfortable.

He told her about the email exchange with his ex.

She sipped her hot coffee gingerly, shaking her head. “Now, dude, that was pretty dumb. You gotta admit.”

“Damn right it was,” he said.Then he realized she was referring to him.

“I didn’t see any harm,” he said defensively. “It was just an email, saying ‘Hey.’ Why should she get so upset? Trashing my wife like that?”

Tat took another sip, this one more indulgent, as her coffee began to cool. “I don’t know what all happened between you two, way back then, and I don’t wanna know. But I do know this. Men forget things, but women keep notes.”

“Are you serious?” His voice climbed slightly. “I didn’t do anything.”

“That you remember,” Tat said. “They keep track of the time, the date, and the position of the sun in the sky when a guy does something shitty.” She smiled in a way that was almost sinister. “Just ask Michael.” Her last husband.

She added, with diplomacy, “I’m not saying you’re like him. No way. Not even close. Just saying, if a woman feels hurt, she remembers forever. Right or wrong.” She paused again. “She shouldn’t have said those things, though.”

He looked down at his donut and vaguely considered -- since he couldn’t pull the chair all the way in at the table -- that he ought to have gotten one of those healthy, multi-grain things.

“I think her memory’s flawed,” he announced. “Right or wrong. She’s wrong. Delusional. It was over 20 years ago.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tat said. “Time means nothing to a woman when it comes to these things. I think the bigger question is why you emailed her in the first place.”

There was silence.

“I’ll tell you this,” he said, with dark resolution. “I’m not going to let her bad-mouth my wife.”

“Huh? Do they talk?” Tat asked with alarm.

“No,” he said. “She doesn’t even know her,” he said, as much to himself as to Tat.

Tat pondered the remark, and said, “Dude, it doesn’t matter what your ex thinks. Just leave it alone. It never happened. Forget it.”

“She’s not a creature,” he said, and even he understood just then that he was looking for affirmation.

“No,” Tat said finally. “She is not. She’s -- you guys are great together.”

Kevin was fine with Tat’s assessment, although he turned it over in his mind uneasily all the way on the drive to work.

About halfway through the day, Dana called him on his cellphone. “Hey,” he said.

He got an earful of teary, wretched blubbering, which induced a stab of panic.

He sighed, up from his desk, and went down the hall. There was an atrium with some fake-looking plants, where no one ever went.

He sat, jostling, on a bench, surrounded by this jungle of artifice.

“What’s wrong,” he said, lowering his voice, into the phone, while looking down the hall.

“It’s Helen,” she said, sniffling.

He exhaled in relief. “Who -- oh.”

He didn’t know Helen very well, mostly just through her comments on his wife’s social media posts.

He recalled her profile photo -- an odd grin. Her teeth looked square and flat, like a horse. She was single. “Okay, um -- so, what’s wrong with...Helen?” he asked. “Is she all right?”

After a moment, in a trembling voice, Dana said, “She unfriended me.”

“Oh, no,” he said, feeling momentarily off guard. “That sucks.”

In his mind, social media wasn’t a real world -- it was like some place people pretended to go. All the faces and comments and jokes were like the fake plants in the atrium.

Although, after speculating that his ex had gone rooting around, the social media sphere seemed somehow less make-believe.

His wife continued the story, her voice breathy and tragic, about the unfriending.

Something about the way relayed it reminded him of Tat, age 16, blubbering into the sleeve of his jacket, outside in the piercing January cold. They were sharing a butt outside of school.

Tat and her best friend, Judith, had some kind of fight at their lockers, but were the best of friends once more the following week.

“Give her a week,” he advised his wife, feeling sure of his quick thinking.

“A week!” his wife shrieked. “We’ve been friends for 10 years, and you’re saying, a week!”

His ear winced, and he waved an arm in the air -- as if his wife were standing right in front of him.

“Yes. Give her a week,” he repeated. “And have a drink later, when you get home. It’ll calm your -- pancreas.”

It was the first thing he could think of, and as he said the words, it sounded to him like good medical advice.

She sniffled and said meekly, “Okay. Love you.”

“Love you, too. ‘Bye.’”

He stared at the phone for a moment, and then at the plants. The leaves were richly green, and looked waxy. He looked up at the ceiling skylights, at passing, indifferent clouds.

When he came home, his daughter was in the backyard, and his wife was sitting in the living room, staring at her phone, and laughing in a loud, bawling laugh.

It was a good sign, he thought. She’s in a better mood, and felt sage in the advice he’d given her. Life had presented them with another problem, and as with most problems, he solved it, cleanly.

I’ll go back out later tonight and get her flowers, he thought. He knew of a store that would still be open.

“Look!” she commanded, brandishing the phone in front of him.

He took the phone from her hand. It was a video. He found himself squinting at it.

In the video, a man, or so it appeared, was pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket, and a boy kept pulling the other end of the shopping cart away from him.

The man fell down. It had been viewed a few thousand times, with lots of viewers registering amusement, a few complaining that the video was cruel.

He gave the phone back to his wife, minus any assessment. “I’ve been watching this, like, forever,” she told him, grinning. Despite a hint of gray, her teeth still dazzled. There were tears on her face, this time from laughter.

He smiled, his mouth closed.

His daughter, Stephanie, came in from the backyard, slamming the sliding back door with gusto. Stephanie was normally neat and tidy, but she had dirt smeared on her shirt.

“Hey, pook,” he said. He still called her by her baby nickname.

“I’m working on my art project,” she said. “It’s due next week.”

Dana called to her, “Hi, honey! Look!” But Stephanie’s attention was fixed resolutely on her father.

“Should we get stuff at the store?” he asked. There was an arts supply store where he’d been taking her for years. It would be one more chance to spend time with her, just the two of them.

“No, it’s all done!”

His shoulders sagged, a little.

His wife was still laughing at something on the phone. “That had to hurt!” she guffawed.

“Well, can I see it?” he said to his daughter, and there was begging in his voice.

“‘Course!” She grabbed him by the hand -- her small, thin fingers were freezing -- and pulled at him with some strain, leaning toward the sliding back door.

Once they were in the yard, he asked, “It’s out here? Is this why your clothes are dirty?”

She only gave a laugh that said, “Oh, Daddy.”

He stopped, abruptly, and her thin, straining fingers pulled at him.

He noticed the backyard plot where they had buried her pets. It was dug up, artless piles of soil, popsicle stick crosses flung about in disarray.

A streak of cold ran up his arms, through his chest. “Stephanie,” he barked. “What the hell -- “

“Not there,” she said, impatiently, yanking at his arm. Her fingers were like stiff, sharp little shards of ice. “Over here!”

She was trying to haul him in the direction of the tree fort-- which was showing signs of decay, its stilted legs bowing slightly.

Her long, wispy hair whipped around her face in the chilly autumn breeze. She gazed up into his face and commanded, “In there! Look!”

He leaned into the treehouse ladder, using his cellphone as a guiding light. “There!” she yelled.

His stomach wrenched, as if trying to make its way up his throat.

There stood some kind of being -- but it was not alive.

For a moment, he was dumbstruck by its magnificence. It was like a model in a science museum. It was made of bones, some stout, some delicate.

It stood upright, with splayed feet, and its skull -- a cat skull -- stared sightlessly at him, like the face of the moon.

And, yet, he felt it piercing him a million places, piercing his eyes.

He felt a sensation of dizziness, as if he were tottering over the edge of a chasm in the forest.

She had constructed it -- from the skeletal remains of all of those pets of her childhood.

Kevin Block stared wordlessly, at his daughter’s creation, his breath thin and sharp.

“I need a carrier,” she said. “Something to put it in. I should really get an A.”



THE END


2020 Meg Smith

Bio: Meg Smith is a writer, journalist, dancer and events producer living in Lowell, Mass., USA. Her poetry and fiction credits include Aphelion, Sirens Call eZine, Raven Cage, The Silver Blade, and many others. She welcomes visits to megsmithwriter.com.

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