An Open Casket

A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson.

My red-brick elementary school sat nestled against a forest on the edge of town, with a road in front and a soccer field on either side. Though we had swing sets and jungle gyms, many of the kids preferred playing in the woods, and we were allowed to do so as long as we kept the schoolyard in sight. But last Thursday night an accident took place on school property when no adults were around, and one of the students had gotten killed.

I don’t know how he died, the teachers were tight-lipped about it the next morning; I only knew it had happened in the woods. I overheard various theories from my classmates throughout the day, but I wasn’t sure which was the true one, if any. All I knew for sure was that he was there with a group of friends in the evening, took a risky dare, and now, somehow, was dead.

Mark Wilson was his name. I didn’t know him very well being two years older than me, but he was in my cousin, Kasey’s, grade eight class and I often saw him at recess too. One of those boys always tearing through the playground hollering and laughing and carrying on.

On Saturday evening my mom and aunt took me and Kasey to the funeral home for visitation, 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 for 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, including many of the teachers from school, and a handful of schoolmates as well. 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 really weird to see Mark like that. I guess I’d been expecting him to look like he was asleep, but instead he just looked like someone else, like a different person. I only glanced at his face for a few seconds however before looking away and fixating on his clasped hands instead. His fingers were rubbery like a doll’s.

“Mom,” I whispered on our way out to the parking lot, “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 Monday morning Kasey found me at recess and we went to the woods where already a group of kids had gathered chattering, scurrying about, pointing, as they’d done on Friday as well. I stared at the ground, knowing it was the spot where they said his body had laid. It was just a bed of pine needles now but some of the kids were still searching for clues, any trace of what might have happened; looking delighted as though it were some great adventure.

I felt sick to my stomach and wandered away from the area, goosebumps rising on my arms as a cool breeze weaved in and out between tree trunks. Kasey followed me to a quieter area nearby and we sat down together on a log. One of the swing sets was still visible through the trees ahead of us; the blue sky peeking down through the canopy above. Children’s laughter lifted now and again, the occasional happy scream from a game of tag.

“I keep staring at his empty desk,” Kasey said, slowly tearing apart a green maple leaf, cropped brown hair hanging over her cheeks as she leaned forward. Her lips curled down in the corner as she snatched another leaf from a sapling.

“Mom says he’s in heaven now,” I offered, forcing a smile.

“Well I don’t believe in heaven.”

“How come?”

“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?”

I pictured little green creatures with skinny bodies, oversized heads, and bulging black eyes. “No.”

“There you go.”

I felt tension in my nose and realized it was all scrunched up. I wasn’t upset though, just uneasy.

“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, thinking of my uncle with great surprise.

“No, he didn’t say it to me, he 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 what?”

“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? Or hug it? No. It’s only your imagination—one sided. Of course you can guess what they might say to you in a conversation, pretend to talk to them and stuff, but it’s all just guessing. And even if you guess right what they’d probably say to you, it’s still not real.”

We fell into a gloomy silence then as Kasey scowled at the ground. 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. Only his body had been left behind.

Kasey reached down and fished for a rock amongst grassy forget-me-nots, finding one and whipping it against a tree trunk. It bounced off and disappeared from sight on the forest bed. “You can’t look into a person’s eyes in a memory either,” she said, “I’ve tried it. All you can see is them smiling in the past, like watching a home video, or them smiling at you like a puppet ‘cause you imagined them smiling. But they’re not smiling at you for real.” She picked one of the blue wildflowers, and it came up from the ground roots and all.

We made eye contact then, hers hazel and flashing; mine unblinking.

“One day I’ll be dead too,” she said, “and all the memories of the dead people in my head will also die with me. I don’t remember my great-great grandparents, do you?” A pointed look.

I shook my head and focused on a leaf in my own hand; twirling the stem between my thumb and index. Of course I didn’t remember them, they died before I was born. But I did hope to meet them someday. To me they lived in both the past and the future, at the same time somehow. In the past so far as photographs went, their clothing and hairstyles so strange in comparison to how people currently looked; and in the future as I imagined encountering them in the next life, being introduced, and getting to know them like I would any new person.

“Mom and Dad thought I was sleeping,” Kasey continued. “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 where I was when I heard Dad say the worm food thing. And then he started talking about the sun!”

I tossed the leaf away. “The sun? But what does the sun have to do with it?”

“He said one day a million years from now the sun’s gonna ‘burn out’ and the earth will be destroyed, and not a single trace of anything will be left. Then he said, oh yeah we comfort ourselves thinking we’re gonna ‘live on’ in memory, especially famous people like presidents, artists, and singers—and we’ve got museums with special things saved from the past, like art and mummies and Egyptians and arrowheads and stuff—but when the earth goes kaput, that’s it, done and done. Everything we ever worked for or cared about, all for nothing. He said, ‘some comfort.’ ”

“What did your mom say?”

“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 back into the playground, the hot June sun tingling my arms as we stepped out of the tree cover. The sensation made me glance down at my right forearm. Fine blond hairs glinted around a scabby scrape that was halfway finished healing. Kasey called out to a friend crossing our path and ran off with her, leaving me alone.

I flicked my gaze upward at the sky as I walked and imagined being able to see through the blue expanse with x-ray vision to the place hiding behind it where only rockets could reach: where everything suddenly became jet black for infinity. Jet black but not empty. Full of the unknown, the unseen. I slowed my step, watching my fellow students stream into the open doors of the school ahead where they disappeared inside.

My mind hovered over the moon, which I could see vividly from many angles thanks to all the pictures and video clips I’d seen of the moon landings. It was as though I’d actually been there myself. I considered then how we’d only traveled to the moon so far, and rovers a little farther, like mars. Mars I could picture just as well as the moon, though I knew no humans had yet set foot on it. I also knew that there were other galaxies out there too. And suns even bigger than our own.

I reached the tarmac and waited for the line up at the door to diminish. It didn’t seem to me that this little planet could possibly be all there was to existence, holding no greater meaning or value. It seemed to me that death was much like traveling to the moon: it was as far as us humans had yet gone in our bodies. The rest of the galaxy and beyond was still a mystery. Not an unsolvable mystery though, but an infinite one, just like the universe. Those who potentially traveled to some world beyond after death simply weren’t able to return to tell us what they’d seen.

A robin landed on the ground a meter ahead of me and hopped about, nipping at invisible worms. I met its beady black eye for a half second. Then it flew away.

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