4 – February 28

I am nothing.

I am nothing but the emptiness that envelops, a frailty before the void.

I am nothing except a rattle and a rhythm, a resisting twist beneath cartilage and cage, a rusty pump battled with breath.

I am nothing more than hallowed hunger mining instinct, an illusion torn in time, the mournful regret of sense and purpose.

I am nothing beyond the limits of timely chance and yet…

I am still alive and aware.

I am what circumstance caught and what will pasted together.

I am what came to be the rest.

And I am more than enough to be what must.

“I’m still here.

“I’m still here.

“I’m still here. I’m still here. I’m still here. I’m still here. I’m still here. I’m still here.”

“Yes you are,” a voice called back. “And we have you!”

Prying themselves out of recliners and from beneath shouldered comforters, the townspeople had surfaced from their cozy depths to pay their respects. Wearing their Sunday best out of deference to formal obedience, dozens of dozens gathered at the front of a white church awaiting the service commemorating a passing opportunity. There had not been a public event like this one in years—the tragedy of a life lost so young provides so many with the sincerest of thoughtful prayers—and the line of quilted sentiment huddled in front of the entry before bunching by the frost heaves cementing the dirty border between the raised sidewalk and the poorly plowed street.

Tasting the icy melt of crushed rock salt, a pair of tongue-in-cheek parishioners in their frigid forties checked out neighborly suspects. Eager to donate a charitable two cents and a thawed penance, they began doing what they do best—talking about people instead of talking to them.

“You’d think a funeral for someone who died of hypothermia would have a greater concern for those waiting out in the middle of winter,” the flatulent man said, blowing hot air into his hands. “How much longer do we have to stand out here?”

“Oh hush, the procession will be here soon,” his wife replied, her turkey neck folded beneath the silkiest of scarfs. “How can you complain at a time like this?”

“This is America, I can complain about anything I want. Can’t we go inside? I’m freezing my knickers off.”

“Do you see anyone else going in? Just be patient. Have some tact.”

“It would be more tactful if we learned from their mistakes rather than repeat them. I mean, if you play with fire you’re going to get burned.”

“Don’t you mean if you walk on thin ice you might as well jump?”

“That’s exactly what I mean, sweetie. Fool me once, shame on my. Fool me twice, well, we’re the ones waiting in the cold.”

“We are here to offer our condolences to the family.”

“A family that couldn’t even watch their own children, and now this. Excuse me for seeing a pattern of negligence. Would you do this?”

“Me? Now I would never let my children play by themselves without someone watching them.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. Speaking of, where are the kids?”

“In front of their video games. I’d rather they be there than at a funeral.”

Several in the crowd nodded and voiced concurrence with audible mumbles. Some even decided to join the conversation.

“You’ve got to control kids today, show who’s in charge,” an obese woman said. “Always better to keep them where it’s safe and sound than have them roam about where anything could happen. I mean, who allows their children to go off into the woods unsupervised?”

“It’s probably something they learned from their old-man,” her closeted husband suggested. “Talk about awful parenting. It’s carelessness at its worst.”

“Let’s not forget about the mother,” an anonymous voice said. “Where was she?”

“Sleeping, supposedly,” added another.

“Probably nursing a hangover when it happened.”

“You don’t know that.”

“You don’t know that she wasn’t.”

“The family just lost a son. Let’s just focus on honoring the dead.”

There was a brief hiatus. Then the man burped out a thought.

“You know, it’s weird that the younger one survived,” he said. “A whisper of a boy, paper-thin, not even thirteen.”

“What are you getting at?”

“It seems suspicious, is all.”

“That new girl is only a few years older and apparently she rescued him.”

“She swam in and pulled him out?”

“I think so.”

“I thought she ran back to her house and got her father to rescue them?”

“Her father’s in a wheelchair.”

“I didn’t say he jumped in,” the woman hissed. “From what I hear the father tracked the GPS signal in her phone.”

“Who tracks their daughter’s phone?”

“A good parent, that’s who. I’d do the same, if I could figure out how to do it.”

“Well, thank goodness he did or else we’d be waiting on two funerals.”

“I can’t believe they nearly brought that darling girl down with them. Her poor father, stuck in that wheelchair watching it all happen.”

“And that’s his first impression of us. Makes the whole town look terrible.”

“Who does such a thing?”

“Wait, who pulled them out again?”

A black luxury sedan drove up beside the crowd. The man whistled at the pomp and circumstance. The driver’s window descended.

“Pardon me,” the chauffeur interrupted. “Is this where the Sonder funeral is being held?”

“Yep. The family should be arriving any minute.”

Upon hearing the confirmation, the window went back up, the back door opened and a figure hurriedly exited its seat. Quickly looking over his shoulder, the man’s unfastened cashmere overcoat opened to display the colorful flash of an emerald knot. His black boots marched past the line and pranced up the steps before disappearing behind the thick oak and iron doors of the church.

“If he can go in why can’t I?” the man asked his wife. She answered with an elbow to his ribs. Miffed, he rubbed the sore spot and turned to the driver of the sedan.

“Are you with the family?”

“I’m sorry but I was instructed not to say anything,” the driver answered apprehensively.

“Any idea how much longer we’re going to be freezing our asses out here?”

“We passed the procession,” the driver gestured behind him. “They should be here soon.”

“It’s a real shame, this whole story.”

“It’s heartbreaking.”

“Losing a child is such a tragedy,” the wife alleged.

“Yes, that too,” the driver replied, pushing the button to raise the window.

Before he could disappear behind tinted glass a police car pulled up behind the sedan. Out stepped a cop dressed in his navy winter uniform. Puffed up with unnecessary protection, a serial numbered badge and a Glock 22, he craned his neck to speak with the driver.

“You are going to have to move,” the policeman said. “There’s a funeral procession on its way.”

“Right away, I’m just waiting on my client.”

“Did I stutter? You’re going to have to move the car now. This is a non-loitering area.”

“I’m not loitering, I’m picking up my fare. If I move he won’t know where to find me.”

“I don’t care. You can’t stay.”

“Sir, if I’m not supposed to wait here then where do you recommend I go?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“I will lose my job if I move.”

“And I’ve got a job to do. You don’t have my sympathy, kid, but out of the kindness in my heart I’ll give you a pass.”

“I’m not looking for your sympathy and I’m not looking for your kindness. I’m just looking for an answer to my question.”

“Listen, I recommend you move before I—”

The officer was interrupted by the double tap knock on the roof of the car. The man in the green tie had slipped out of closed church doors and past the distracted crowed. He looked at the officer, shelled an ignoble smirk, and then vanished to the back of the vehicle.

“We’re all set here,” he said to his chauffeur, slamming the door.

“Thank you for your patience,” the driver said to the policeman. “Have a nice day, officer.”

The black sedan sped off before the cop could respond. Noting the insignia of the plates, the uniformed man shook his head.

“What a jackass,” a bystander gassed. He received a point blank stare that finally shut him up. The law enforcer used the anger in his voice to command those he had sworn to serve and protect.

“Everyone stand back,” he yelled. “Here they come.”

In the basement of the wooden Methodist church an overworked furnace radiated heat for the service above. Weeks prior, a hypochondriac Eucharistic minister constantly grousing about poor circulation had enough of shivering fingers and nudged the thermostat to high before prying the knob off the dial, burying the key piece of plastic beneath fraying excommunicated collection baskets. Had the usual number of parishioners attended, they would have eased into their Sunday morn with a gentle nod off during the sermon. This was a Sabbath special, however, so the well-dressed influx packed into the pews begging for mercy. Jackets were shed in an uncomfortable racket of shifting bulk, the whispered blast of hushed conversation blanketing carbon-dioxide exhaust over the proceedings.

Near the entrance at the farthest possible spot from the ecclesiastical discourse sat a man in a double-breasted blazer tucked into his wheelchair. A bouquet of carnation, chrysanthemum, gladioli and black rose rested upon his lap. Kay stood beside him, leaning against a wall depicting the seventh station of the cross, her index finger prying at the white collar tightly crowning the tear-shaped peek-a-boo window of her tight black dress.

At the other end in front of the altar were the Sonders. Leslie shielded her remaining son from the inside and Terrance from the out, each one struggling with implacable grief. The consolation of their collected embrace had long been left beside that hospital gurney the instant Ethan regained consciousness. It was then that their collective loss began. A scar with no suture. A pain with no end.

Before them lay Owen, his white casket open for the service to see. His arms were folded over an inert chest fitted into a never worn suit. His face was calm and waxy, eyes fixed permanently over rigid lips molded to display a serene disposition. The unexpected heat had caused his forehead to bead and his cheeks to glisten.

Sensing the crowd’s restlessness, Ethan’s father got up and leaned over to kiss his son’s brown hair before walking past his first. Unable to look at the entombed figure, his vision a water colored blur, he faltered—a pitiful scene wobbling its way to the rostrum.

Staring over a sea of turned up witnesses, Terrance grew queasy. Familiar with their ilk, aware of their judgement, feeling their rue, he found one who had always supported him. Terrance looked to his wife. Her unbalanced red glare gushed a well over ruddy cheeks and pursed lips, but she still forced a frowning smile and feigned strength. The honesty of her expression broke Terrance’s resolve. With a chortled gasp he made the sort of sound a man makes when emotion becomes too cumbersome to be trusted, too honest to be shared.

The microphone picked up and played the indignity over the speaker system hitched to vaulted arches. After its echo, stillness followed. The pregnant pause kicked at a hidden truth, and Terrance let it wash over him and into the crowd.

“Moments of silence,” he began, “are woeful obligations. They are forced sentiment, an awkward opportunity to pretend we mean well. In reality we forget seconds later as we get back to doing whatever it is we do with our time. We are asked to observe and honor people we have never met and had never thought about. Then they pass and we masquerade that they matter when the truth is we do not care.

“But moments of silence are real things. They aren’t a fantasy in which we pretend, they aren’t an escape route and they aren’t lies. Moments of silence are the truth that is left behind. When people are gone they take their thoughts, their affections, and their lives with them. Parts of ours, too, and we are left with an emptiness that we don’t know what to do with. So we stay there in that moment, in the wake of their silence, remembering what was and thinking about what could have been.

“I understand that for many of you being asked to have a moment of silence for my son might feel trivial. I get that—how could you care when you have no connection to him? You’ve come here because you thought it was the right thing to do, a well-intentioned act. That’s decent of you. But even if we try to make them customary, I’m sorry to say that moments of silence are not things we can share. If I could trade it off on you I couldn’t—it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be fair. These moments of silence are the empty spaces left behind when someone is gone. Too often I ignored that. And now I live with it.

“For much of my life I thought the world we lived in was built on positives: love, effort, ideas, empathy. It turns out it’s not. Our world isn’t built on revenge or ambition, either. It’s built on loss. It’s in those moments of silence where we start to care. When we finally have to confront that emptiness, that eternal peace, we force ourselves to act simply because we cannot accept it, can’t stand it, and can’t bear to live with that awful misery anymore. We act so we can feel something, anything but that silent truth. We pour our dreams and our hopes and our fears into that pit, hoping it will fill up, be plugged, stop hurting, but it doesn’t. It won’t ever. You live with it, this feeling of knowing something the way it was and now will never be.

“Sometimes I laugh because I get tired of crying. I think about how we whine and complain about life. Then it’s gone and everything you found fault with is now perfect in your memory. Which makes it so incredibly difficult to live with.

“But this memory, it comes with the body. It comes with our soul. It’s tough to bear because life needs it to be. Loss is how we teach ourselves to be strong, to survive. It’s why we remember. It’s why we continue to live. It’s why we remain. It’s why we are still here. We use that memory so it can be an example for others. We use it to teach—not to improve ourselves but because it’s what they would have wanted. We do it for them, for the people we’ve lost, and then, miraculously, we get better. We improve because they are there with us, guiding our movements, helping us succeed.

“Do you know what we call this miracle? Good. It’s invented in that moment of silence, it’s what remains when we choose to keep remembering. So please do not forget my boy. He was good. He was as good as good can get. When your moment of silence find you, don’t try to shake it. Trust it. Learn from it. Share the examples that have left us. Fill those moments of silence with their memory. Because good knows good. Because good remembers.”

Terrance took a minute, his hands curled around the dais clutching it for support, sweat stains under his arms. After a few seconds he stood upright, unwilling to whisk away the tears streaming down his face.

“Thank you for taking the time to be here. For those who would like to pay their respects, there will be a brief viewing before concluding this ceremony. I ask, please, to keep your comments to my family brief. Today is a lot for us to take. We know you mean well, and your kindness is much appreciated. It’s just a very tough day.”

Terrance lurched back but his body finally gave way. As his legs crumbled beneath him Leslie quickly rose and walked to her husband’s side, helping him to his seat.

Everyone in the church sat sweating in the heat, waiting for someone to make a move. Finally, the man in the wheelchair rolled himself to the front of the church with Kay in tow. He bowed his head and whispered a psalm.

“Kay,” he said, looking up, “could you place these for me?”

Kay took the stale and wilted bouquet and placed it on Owen’s chest. As they made their turn around the Sonder family, Terrance and Leslie looked up.

“Roland,” Leslie said, offering a weak smile of gratitude, “thank you for saving our son.” The man in the wheelchair nodded and continued. Kay followed.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said.

“Thank you,” Leslie submitted, having trouble meeting Kay’s gaze.

Terrance raised his chin with a brief, polite smile.

“Thank you for being there,” he said. “Thank you for being here. Owen would have liked that.”

Kay turned to Ethan.

“Ethan, I’m so sorry,” she said, shaking.

Ethan’s despondency made him unwilling to look at anything but his black shoes; anchors two sizes too big, they had been his brother’s. After feeling Kay’s regard, however, he looked up to see the guilt cracking sadness across her face. They soaked in each other’s sorrow and shared heart wrenching onus, building a bond lasting beyond their circumstance.

“I’m sorry, too,” he replied. Kay finally blinked. She held it and with a push she moved on.

One by one those in attendance followed to pay their respects with all the efficacy of an assembly line. The townspeople passed the stiff form, dropped a token of grace, whispered sweet nothings to the departed and then recycled back among their rungs. Most left immediately, some lingered, but before long the Sonder family was left alone in their anguish.

Finally, as Leslie looked to see the members of the clergy packing up the tabernacle, she calmly addressed her husband with a palm to the cheek. Terrance looked at her, nodded, and silently went to pay his sobbing last respects. Leslie rubbed Ethan’s back, feeling his lungs whimper with distress.

“Ethan, we’re going to have to leave soon,” she said quietly, rubbing Ethan’s back. “Do you want to say goodbye to Owen?”

“It’s my fault,” Ethan said. “It’s all my fault.”

“Ethan,” Leslie soothed, “you know that’s not true.” The mother tried to comfort her son by hugging him to her abdomen. Ethan immediately raised his head and looked back into his mother’s eyes with inconsolable remorse.

“I know that it is,” he said. “If I had listened to him, Owen would still be here. He’s dead and it’s my fault.”

Leslie’s disposition faltered. She had no response. Her thoughts went to when she had heard of what had happened. Her mind was stuck on the image of that girl at her door telling her what happened to her boys. Leslie’s only feeling was the weeping rage over what she had been forced to deal with, over the shattered remnants of a life she had earned and then abandoned.

Terrance had finally had his fill of crying. He looked to his wife and his son. Leslie looked at him and shook her head, unable to shake the thoughts in her head, unable to see her first child in his last resting space. Terrance understood. He then took the hand of his remaining son.

“Ethan. Come say goodbye to your brother.”

Ethan looked up, his body still weak from recovery. He stood and walked to his brother’s casket. Owen now had its makeup running off in washed-out drips. Perplexed with the change from when he had seen it last, he looked to his parents for answers.

“Owen’s face,” Ethan said. “He’s not the same.”

Terrance looked to the ceiling, unwilling to see, but Leslie’s head turned sharply at hearing the words and marched her way towards the coffin. She locked it with a finality that thundered through the hollow cathedral.

“Neither are we,” she said.

The painted black and white was finishing its stretch along the outskirts of Ashland when it reacquainted itself with a familiar dark luxury sedan parked on the side of the road. The bloated navy uniform sneered and immediately used his mobile date terminal to run the plates. Discovering nothing wrong the label to the left of the tailpipe, the cop nonetheless maintained a compelling reason to render it suspect. He flipped on the flashing red, white, and blue and exited his car. After a drift over and a tap on the driver’s window, the policeman was greeted by rolled down glass and a forced smile.

“Hello officer, good to see you again,” the man said. “How can I help you?”

“License and registration please.”

“Of course,” the man said. He quickly coughed up both. The cop, finding nothing unusual, began his line of questioning.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“I was already pulled over. You simply walked up to the car.”

“Do you know why I walked up to the car?”

“Because you are trying to find out what I am doing.”

“What are you doing?”

“I am waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“I’m waiting because that is what my client told me to do.”

“Where’s your client?”

“He’s in the backseat.”

“Can I talk to him?”

“Let me ask.”

The driver’s tinted window went up. After a few seconds the window descended.

“He said no.”

“He said no?” repeated the officer. “Why not?”

“He said no. He also said that this interrogation could be considered an unconstitutional seizure unless you provide probable cause.”

“He said all that.”

“More or less.”

“Have you ever been arrested?”

“You would not be asking unless you already knew the answer. Have I done something wrong, officer?”

“Do you have any illegal substances inside?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Can I inspect it to make sure?”

“One second.”

The driver’s tinted window went up again. After a few seconds it descended.

“He said no.”

“Of course he said no.”

“He said unless you have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity he cannot consent to a violation of his fourth amendment rights,” the driver responded.

“How about this. The tint on these windows needs to allow seventy percent of light. Now I can’t see through them which is impeding my ability to properly describe this situation. Unless you allow me to see the backseat, your failure to cooperate will be noted and I will charge you with obstructing my ability to assess the scene.”

“Just a minute.”

Before the driver could close the window, however, the police officer placed his hand on it.

“If you roll this up I will charge you with delaying my ability to exercise official duties and tack on endangerment of a law enforcer.”

The driver looked to the rearview mirror. The back window moved down. Mr. Green comfortably sat in the lavishly padded back seat. The policeman stepped over.

“Good afternoon officer. How can I help you?”

“License and registration.”

“I don’t have either. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m not driving.”

“What’s your name?”

“We are in Pennsylvania, correct?” Mr. Green said. “If so then I don’t have to tell you my name, unless I am being detained. Am I being detained, officer?”

“Step out of the vehicle, please.”

Mr. Green sighed and opened the door. The policeman’s fingers unfasted the holster of his gun and hovered above it as Mr. Green stepped out, his lambskin gloves raised in clear view.

“Is this alright, officer?” Mr. Green asked.

“Stay there,” the cop responded. “What brings you to Ashland?”

“I went to a funeral.”

“You were at the church earlier today, right?”

“Yes.”

“What were you doing?”

“I was paying my respects.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“Would you like me to move, sir?”

“I want you to answer my question.”

“I’m waiting.”

“Waiting for who?”

“A friend,” Mr. Green sighed.

“A friend, in this neighborhood?

“Yes.”

“There’s no one here your age.”

“Friends can come in all shapes and sizes,” Mr. Green smiled.

“What’s the address of your friend?”

“I do not remember the address, but the driveway is just over yonder.” Mr. Green’s eyes then widened as they looked past the policeman.

A booted foot stepped on rock salt. In one movement the officer pivoted and removed his semiautomatic pistol and pointed it at a blonde girl wearing black leggings and a grey hooded sweatshirt.

Kay had just made it to the road and was caught staring twenty yards away. She shot a quizzical look at Mr. Green before raising her hands.

“Don’t shoot.”

The four of them froze on the street. The wind blew over the trees and snow. The policeman moved first, holstering his weapon. Kay brought her arms down.

“Is this man your friend?” the officer asked.

“Something like that,” she said, looking at Mr. Green. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“How old are you?” the policeman asked again.

“Fifteen.”

“Where’s your father?”

“I don’t—he’s waiting inside,” she answered grudgingly. “He asked me to come get him.”

“As you can see officer,” Mr. Green said. “I was just waiting for my associate in my car. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue on with my day. Unless, of course, you’d like to arrest me, upon which I will have to lodge a formal complaint against you raising your gun at a teenage girl.”

The cop’s face soured. Without saying another word he crooked his head and returned to his car.

“Thank you for your service, officer,” Mr. Green called after him. “If we ever need to harass some law-abiding citizens, we’ll know exactly who to call.”

The high-performance utility tires squealed against the pavement before burning their way down the road.

“Jesus,” Kay exclaimed. “What the hell was that all about?”

Mr. Green tugged the roller of his quirk stitched gauntlet, making sure that the cuff was tight to his wrist.

“Just another of the state’s finest,” he said. “You’re a pretty one. Why isn’t Rollie here?”

“He sent me to come get you.”

“Good ol’ Rollie, always had a knack for timing,” Mr. Green said with a smirk. He finally closed the door and walked past his driver.

“I’ll be back in a few.”

Mr. Green turned the corner to the driveway. Once he was out of sight, the driver turned to Kay.

“Holy shit,” he blurted. “This guy is by far the craziest client I have ever had.”

Kay looked at the driver, fury in her eyes. She turned to follow Mr. Green back into the house.

“You’re not going to tell him I said that,” the driver shouted, panic in his voice. “Please, I have to bring him back after.”

Kay never turned. She just kept right on walking.

“It could be worse,” she whispered to herself. “It could be your life.”