The April Sherman Series follows a young girl growing up in a small town, fundamentalist Christian family.
A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson.
My cousin Kasey lived in a country home, originally a clergy house back in the late 19th century. The church was long gone though, had burned down, and only a few visible sections of the stone foundation remained. A barn was built after that and the home became a farmhouse for the next few decades. Now it was a regular home and the barn had a caved-in roof.
The top floor of the house had three bedrooms, and Kasey’s had a view of the field; the first half mowed and green, the far half flaxen with overgrown grass. Sometimes I stood at the window and stared at the distant barn, thinking of the pioneer girl who’d supposedly died inside it, even though I’d decided Kasey was only trying to scare me last summer; had probably made the whole thing up. She didn’t even believe in ghosts. Still, I felt uneasy recalling it, especially since a kid at our school had just died.
Ours was a small elementary school on the edge of town, nestled against a forest, with the road in front and a soccer field on either side. Though we had swing sets, jungle gyms and the like, many of the kids preferred playing in the woods, and we were allowed to do so as long as we kept the school in view. I don’t know how the student died, my parents were tight-lipped about it, but I knew it happened in the school woods. I’d heard theories from my classmates, several completely different accounts, so I wasn’t sure which was the true one. And the accident wasn’t during school hours but on a Friday night, no adults around. He was there with a group of friends, took a risky dare, and now, somehow, was dead.
Mark Wilson. I didn’t know him well ‘cause he was two years older, but he was in Kasey’s grade seven class and I often saw him at recess—one of those boys always tearing through the school yard hollering and laughing and carrying on. Anyway, my mom and aunt took me and Kasey to the funeral home for visitation Sunday evening, but we didn’t attend the funeral.
I’d never been to a funeral home before. When I was five I went to my great-grandmother’s funeral at a church, a closed casket at the front, but I only remember fidgeting in my seat and wanting to run off and play; I didn’t feel any sadness or even understand what the casket was until years afterward looking back on the memory. So, this was the first time I’d seen an open casket too. The room had dim lighting, thick carpet, and smelled of flowers. Lots of people were there too, including many of the teachers from school, and even a handful of schoolmates. The grown-ups were in little groups, speaking in hushed tones, and looking solemn. I held onto my mom’s hand and we went up to the casket once the area opened up.
It was weird to see Mark like that. I guess I’d been expecting him to look more like he was sleeping, but instead he just looked like someone different. I only glanced at his face for a second though before looking away and fixating on his clasped hands instead. His fingers looked rubbery like a doll’s.
“Mom,” I whispered on our way out to the parking lot afterwards, “why were his hands so strange looking, so white?”
We climbed into the car. “It’s because there’s no longer any blood flowing through them,” she said, starting the car. She’d been unusually quiet that day. I buckled my seatbelt and stared down at my own clasped hands, noticing how pink they were.
At school the next morning Kasey found me at recess and we went to the woods where already a group of kids had gathered chattering, scurrying about, pointing. I stared at the ground, the very spot where they said his body had laid, but it was just a bed of pine needles, no sign of anything. Some of the kids were searching for blood, they said, and looking delighted as though it were some great adventure.
I felt sick to my stomach, goosebumps rising on my arms as a breeze filtered through the trees.
Kasey and I wandered to a quiet area nearby and sat on a log. We could see one of the swing sets through the trees, blue sky above. Children’s laughter lifted now and again, the occasional happy scream from a game of tag.
“I keep staring at his desk,” she said, slowly shredding up a dried maple leaf. She didn’t look at me, cropped brown hair hanging over her cheeks as she leaned forward. Her lips curled down in the corner and she snatched another leaf.
“Mom says he’s in heaven now,” I offered, forcing a smile.
“I don’t believe in heaven.”
“Dad says it’s just a fantasy, something parents tell their kids to comfort them, and there’s no proof of it. No more proof than made up stories about alien abductions. Do you believe in aliens?”
“There you go.”
I felt tension in my nose and realized it was all scrunched up. I wasn’t angry though, just uncomfortable.
“He says when you die, that’s it, gone forever. Worm food.”
“He said that to you?” I reached for a leaf and started tearing at it too.
“No, he didn’t say that to me, said it to Mom. To me he just said ‘take comfort in the memory of Mark—even though he’s gone, he can still live on in your memories.’ Then he patted my shoulder, and left the room. I think he’s really sad though. But you ever think about that, April? About dying?” A sidelong glance.“Everyone you love will one day die and just like that,”—she snapped her fingers—“you’ll never, ever see them again. Can you talk to a memory? Hug a memory? Sure. But it’s not real, it’s just your imagination. You can guess what they might say to you in a conversation, but it’s just a guess.”
We fell into silence for a couple of minutes. I didn’t know what to say since I believed in heaven and felt certain Mark’s spirit was still alive somewhere, wherever heaven was. He was still a kid, so I knew he was safe. Grown-ups were a different story.
Kasey reached down and fished for a rock, finding one and whipping it against a tree trunk. It bounced off and disappeared from sight on the forest floor. “You can’t even look into a person’s eyes in a memory,” she said, “because all you’re seeing is them smiling in the past, or smiling ‘cause you imagined them smiling, like a puppet. But they’re not smiling at you for real. Some day I’ll be dead too and all the memories of the dead people in my head will also die. I don’t remember my great-great grandparents, do you?”
I shook my head. Of course I didn’t remember them, they died before I was born. But I hoped to meet them someday though; that is, if they made it to heaven and didn’t end up in that . . . other place. In the corners of my mind again crept images of darkness, of flames. I shook away the imagery, focusing on the leaf in my hand instead; twirling the stem between my thumb and index.
“Mom and Dad thought I was sleeping,” Kasey continued, turning on the log to face me. “They didn’t know I was watching them through the stair railings, in the dark. You know that one spot I showed you, where you can see part of the living room and the TV, but they can’t see you? Yeah, there. That’s when I heard Dad say the worm food thing. And then he started talking about the sun. Said one day the sun will ‘burn out’ and the earth will be destroyed, and not a single trace of anything left. And know what else he said to her? Said oh yeah we comfort ourselves thinking we’re gonna ‘live on’ in memory, especially famous people like presidents, artists, and singers—and we have museums with special things saved from the past, like mummies and Egyptians and stuff—but when the earth goes kaput, that’s it, done and done. All our social justice and technology, all for nothing. He said, ‘some comfort.’ ”
“What’d your mom say, anything?”
“She said, ‘oh well, at least we’ll be dead and oblivious.’ ”
The school bell rang, signaling recess was over. We stood up and tramped through the woods into the playground, the hot June sun tingling my arms as we stepped out of the shade.