in the beginning He wasn’t always a monster. It’s important to know that. He was once so small he curled into the space beneath his sleeping mother’s chin. So helpless, that was the only place he felt safe enough to close his eyes. He once fed with a mouth that held no teeth at all, only a red ridge where they would soon appear. He wasn’t always a monster. And that is always the case.
The day we bury my dad, I am almost a ghost myself.
My mom waits at the cemetery already—she’s been waiting there for five years. But her old friends are with me today in her stead: Maggie wakes and dresses me, Sofia brushes my hair and pulls it up. Trish makes toast and eggs just in case I’ll eat a few bites and won’t stop hovering until I do.
After that, it is Ben at my elbow all day, best-friend-turned-babysitter even though, technically, we’re both adults now. He leads me into the church, where the whole town of Harmony has gathered for the funeral and every speaker makes Dad sound like a saint. He guides me out of the church and walks beside me through the cemetery, where Dad will be laid to rest next to Mom. The grass over her grave has transformed from a patchwork of sod strips into an unbroken extension of the greater field of green. When did this happen, and why I didn’t notice? How long will it take until the seams of his grave disappear too?
A memory comes then, of sneaking into their bed on cold, dark mornings, not because I was afraid, but because I knew there was no place warmer or safer in the world. “A Calli sandwich,” they would say as I wedged myself between their warm bodies. I want so much to climb back into my own past life, into that warm, safe bed, that I drop to my knees in the grass, stretching one arm forward—
—until Ben pulls me back and whispers my name and it strikes me how wrong this is. Not just because we’re in a cemetery and there’s a hole and a headstone instead of a down comforter, but because they are on the wrong sides.
He should be on the right.
She should be on the left.
That is where they belong, and I belong between them. But they are mixed up with no safe space between them and they will be like this forever. Couldn’t we have gotten at least that small[SA1] thing right?
Ben loads me back into the passenger seat of his old white Ford and pulls the seatbelt across my body. What does it matter?
I almost ask, but it’s easier to click the buckle into place and look away.
Before we turn out of the cemetery, I see Dylan Rigby climb into a backhoe next to the storage shed, and I realize he is coming to move the dirt.
It is Dylan Rigby, my first boyfriend, who will bury my dad.
Back at home, Maggie, Sofia, and Trish are here again, helping the women from church serve lunch. Long, rectangular tables covered with taped-on, dollar-store tablecloths wait under the cottonwoods. Even in early June, it’s hot enough in our corner of high southwest desert that we’re all seeking the pockets of shade wherever we can find them.
Up by the porch, they’ve set up a serving area for the food. Lines of people pass by on both sides of the tables, taking thin slices of ham and scoops of cheesy potatoes—funeral potatoes, we call them around here—and wilted salad from a bag. I’m not sure I can eat any of it. I’ll have the prime rib
Dad’s voice cuts through the crowd, so clear and sudden that it startles me. I know he’s gone; it’s not like I look around to see if he’s standing beside me somehow. But still, there’s a comfort in knowing it’s exactly what he would have said, just to lighten the moment—and in feeling like the words didn’t come entirely from me. I’ve been flooded by memories ever since he died, but the voice—this is new.
I find myself hoping to hear him again as I accept the plate that’s been assembled for me, hoping this hallucination might bring me back into myself.
Because, from the moment I got the news of the fire, I’ve felt myself fading from my own life. Maybe part of me has wanted to show Dad that this is how it’s done; you don’t just leave all at once. I know he didn’t have a choice, but I still want to be angry at him for disappearing so suddenly, so completely. No smell of shaving cream in the morning, no slightly off-key singing while we fold laundry, no guilty smile when he peeks in my room at night to check that I’m home in bed and not off with Ben. (Or Dylan Rigby, once upon a time.) When he left, it wasn’t a slow fade, a gentle ride into the sunset, but the click of a light switch. Binary. There, then not.
Copyright © 2023 by E. B. Vickers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.