The church on 49th Avenue housed only three occupants: a priest, a corpse, and the corpse’s son.
Sunlight slanted through the lace curtains of the church, tattooing intricate shadows upon the empty pews. Christopher stood, straight backed, his eyes glazed, trying and failing to not stare at the open casket before him. To his left, the priest droned on about the fragility of life and the promise of everlasting peace if one allows the Lord into their heart.
Christopher barely heard him.
His eyes roamed to his father. He noted the grayness of the man’s flesh, the lines under his eyes, and how his chest never rose or fell. He noted how empty his own heart felt; almost as empty as his pockets. The boy had spent all his wages on his father’s unanticipated demise, and as he stuffed his trembling fingers into his coat, he realized he wasn’t quite sure how he was going to pay for dinner that night.
“For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. So then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Finished, the priest cleared his throat, shut his bible, and flashed Christopher a polite smile.
Christopher tried his best to smile back, but it seemed as if his lips had been sewn into a permanent, indifferent line. He nodded; the simple movement letting a solitary tear drift down the slope of his cheek.
Christopher cast his eyes downward as the pallbearers lugged the casket outside. He trailed after the priest and noticed with solemn certainty that the sun was shining uncharacteristically bright up above. He sent his gaze to the dirt and only looked up when they were standing in Sherfield’s community graveyard, inches in front of a six foot oblong hole in the earth.
He watched with glazed eyes as his father’s coffin was dropped rather unceremoniously into the hole, sending up a shower of grit and soil. He would’ve protested against the laziness of the whole affair, but he knew that lethargy was the trademark of his town. That, and cruelty. The two evils that had sent his father to his grave.
Christopher had been unable to help his father, even as the man was shivering in his bed, plagued with fever. The money had been running thin, though even the best tonic and elixirs couldn’t have saved him. When Christopher had dashed around the city at midnight, the night his father had grown so sick that he looked as white as the frost clinging to the windows, pleading with the best doctors and specialists, he was turned down. There were slammed doors. Scoffs. Laughter. Why should theycare about a sickly man who ran a decrepit bookshop in the poorest area of town? That night, Christopher had learned that the world, specifically his city, was an apathetic beast.
The front gate of the graveyard opened with a squeal, startling him out of his silent mourning. He turned just in time to see a clutch of society’s greatest, aristocrats and the like, drifting into the graveyard, dressed in their finest black. The ladies tipped their wide hats just so, permitting shadows to fall across their dainty faces, and the men’s fine walking sticks and canes prodded at the soil. It was such twisted irony; the rich parading their finest garments while down below the bodies of the poor rotted and disintegrated.
The rather large band weaseled their way around tombstones and wilted flowers, only stopping once they arrived at the late Mr. Quartermaine’s burial site. Christopher stood there, eyeing the newcomers with disbelief, a sour taste tainting his mouth. There was only one reason they would bother to show up: to shake off the guilt, like an old dog trying to rid himself of fleas. Christopher could see it now, how uncomfortable the group was, with their forced, tight smiles. He could already read the next morning’s headline, the wealthy’s reward for dragging themselves to such a stodgy event: SHERFIELD’S FINEST FAMILIES PAY RESPECTS TO UNFORTUNATE SHOPKEEPER. The article would trail on to include a few quotes on how “wonderful a man” the deceased was, and how “sorely missed” he would be. The mere thought of it made Christopher’s stomach churn.
“It truly is wonderful to see such a large gathering here, today,” the priest commented at Christopher’s side. “Though, it’s a shame that you all missed the preceding ceremony…”
“The parade on 102nd was quite the spectacle, it enchanted us so! It wasn’t until I stole a glance at my pocketwatch that I realized we had missed the observance,” a gentleman to Christopher’s left said. “We all rushed here, thinking we were too late,but how pleased we are to see that there is still some mourning left to do! How could we have almost given up the opportunity to reflect on Mr. Quagmire’s passing?”
“Quartermaine,” Christopher choked out, suppressing a glare as he leveled his stare.
The man pursed his lips, a bit offended that he was corrected, but offered a smile. “Yes, Mr. Quartermaine. What a great man he was, so noble…”
The men dipped their heads in agreement, and one by one the women lifted lace hankies to dab at their cheeks. On some level, it amused Christopher how quickly the rich could adapt artificial tears and emotion, while his were always raw and terrible, like the pain that was cleaving his heart in two.
The agony in his mind blocked out the sentence now trailing from the priest’s mouth. The words were choreographed, Christopher was certain, the same set of phrases said at every funeral in this section of town, rehearsed and rehearsed until each and every syllable grew stale and dry.
Though Christopher’s mind was nearly blank, he forced himself to listen to the quiet sobbing and tearful murmurs from the women and the occasional appraisal from the men. It was better than listening to the silence in his own head.
“A remarkable man,” said one woman between a bout of sniffles. Christopher vaguely recalled her as Ms. Davenshire, a woman who had once cheated his father out of money he so rightfully deserved. His bookshop had been the only one to carry a storybook the woman’s dear daughter had so badly desired. Christopher had watched the scene unravel right before him, as he hid behind a pile of dusty, worn books. He still remembered her pinched lips and narrowed eyes, the grating sound of her voice as she demanded a significant discount.
“I dashed all throughout town, you know,” she had said.
Christopher’s father had always been a meek man, afraid of confrontation. Without a word, he had dropped the price to half the amount, then, with no protest, to nothing.
They had gone without dinner that night.
The compliments continued, some from strangers, most from members of society that had snubbed Christopher’s father on various occasions. Each time, Christopher nearly objected. Each false praise was like soil being deposited into the open grave before them. But he held back, gaze unblinking and mind cloudy, for he knew his father despised chaos in any form.
But not as if that mattered anymore. His father was dead.
The priest had long since shut his bible, bowed his head, and offered a final prayer. As the minutes passed, the group clustered under the arms of a sagging oak, talking in hushed whispers. The priest, as well as the visitors, snuck glances at the boy, unsure of what to do.
“He’s grieving, that is true,” whispered one woman, angling her parasol over her face. The afternoon sun had been inching higher and higher across the sky, and all the ladies yearned to feel its presence instead of the prickling wind that numbed their soft cheeks.
“Shouldn’t someone...snap him out of it? Each time I glance over there I’m certain he’s about to fall into the grave!”
“I agree. We don’t need two corpses present on such a troubling day!”
“What a strong boy to have to go through this! So young, so young!” agreed another.
Their concern lasted just as quickly as their silence.
“Oh, come now! I’m certain our young Mr. Quarterhorse shall be fine. Let’s put our worries to rest. Agreed?”
The women bent their heads in agreement, smiling. “Agreed.”
Instead of engaging with one another, the men took to absentmindedly puffing on cigars and fixing their hats. Conversation was meant to be rowdy, full of hardy phrases tossed over jugs full of frothy ale. The quietness of dull conversations intimidated the men, though none of them acknowledged it. There was a special silence that shrouded all graveyards—especially this one, with its rickety, shambling fence and crowded, chipped headstones. There was no use for the men to look around and familiarize themselves with such a scene; Sherfield’s community graveyard was certainly not going to be their final resting place.
Boredom was a tiresome thing, and the women soon found themselves without entertainment. Since they no longer found even the slightest bit of amusement in each other, each member of the party turned their slender necks back toward the lonesome boy staring at the freshly settled earth.
All of the women, save for Mrs. Davenshire. The boredom of the whole affair had driven her gaze to the dirt. But a not so gentle elbow to the ribs made her flash her eyes upward toward her companion in annoyance.
“Mrs. Seely!” she said, bringing a gloved hand to her side, eyes narrowing. “I don’t believe that was necessary…”
“Oh, but it is, believe me,” the other woman replied. “Look.”
Mrs. Davenshire rolled her eyes, but when she glanced around, she realized that a hush had lulled her once chatty party. With a huff, she directed her gaze back toward the center of the graveyard, craning her neck to see over the shoulders of the men before her. “We’ve already seen all we can see, haven’t we, now? I don’t see what the whole fuss is...oh.”
Her words were silenced as she took in the scene before her. It was mostly the same since she had last witnessed it, with the same blurry-eyed, hunched-shouldered boy. But the man standing next to him was new. Yes, definitely new.
A tide of curiosity washed over the group. Even the men perked up, dropping their smoldering cigars and grinding them quickly into the earth. Almost at once they all moved forward, drifting toward the newcomer as quickly as their elegance and restrictive clothing would permit. The clan paused a few feet away, with nothing but a few rows of crumbling headstones separating them from the sullen boy and the newcomer.
“I wonder...Mrs. Davenshire, have you seen him before?” questioned one woman.
“His face is one I would certainly recognize,” another woman commented.
“Hush,” Mrs. Davenshire spat, her plump lips forming a frown. “Let’s listen instead of gabbing, hm?”
If it wasn’t for the slow, dull ache thudding inside his chest, Christopher would’ve suspected he was as dead as his father. He couldn’t quite register the name on the headstone. Each time he forced his gaze from the dirt to the marker before him, it was a grim reminder that a noose was being pulled tighter and tighter around his neck.
Quickly, he snapped his gaze away, wishing to see anything else, be anywhere else, but all around him was death. Lifeless weeds. Shells of beetles. The stripped remains of a rat. The sight of the rodent made him think of the crowd that had so pompously shoved their way into the graveyard earlier. He saw them now, huddled in the eastern corner, nabbing the only shade the whole cemetery had to offer.
“They should be down there instead of you,” Christopher muttered to himself, gaze dropping back down to the soil. “Why does Death take the pure ones while there are so many roaches crawling upon the earth?”
“What an interesting question. I wish I had an answer for you.”
Christopher sucked in a breath, startled at the voice, but did not turn around. The anger that had been planted in his heart was starting to spread its roots, and the insult scorching his tongue was not going to evaporate soon. “I believe my question was for my father, not one of the roaches themselves.”
“I must apologize, then. I wasn’t aware I was one of these...roaches.”
Christopher opened his mouth, determined to let another affront go free, but he paused. This voice was new. It wasn’t nasally or pompous. In fact, it wasn’t one that he recognized from Sherfield at all.
He spun around, his anger falling as embarrassment rushed to take its place.
The man before him sported a black overcoat with a burgundy vest underneath. He gripped a silver-headed walking stick in a gloved hand, while the other repositioned the top hat sitting atop his sable hair. His trousers were of a simple grey shade. He didn’t appear significantly affluent, but he was certainly richer than Christopher would ever even hope to achieve.
“Sir, I should be the one apologizing,” the boy said, stammering over his embarrassment. “I...I thought you were…”
“One of them?”
Christopher watched as the man tilted his head toward the cluster of well-to-do just a few feet away. Upon being noticed, the group diverted their gazes to anything but the newcomer, though their flustered-ness only proved the fact that they had been intruding. Christopher nodded, dipping his head once more in apology.
“I’m normally not so outspoken. I’ve just had...other things on my mind…” he trailed off as his gaze wandered back to his father’s tombstone.
“There’s no need to apologize. Your grief is entirely valid.”
Christopher glanced up; the sincerness in the man’s voice nearly shocked him. How could this stranger be more understanding of his misery than the pests that were standing just a few feet away, most of which had actually known his father? He was about to form a reply when one of the ladies interjected.
“Pardon me, gentlemen.”
Christopher turned in order to see Mrs. Davenshire step forward from her throng of socialites. The dead grass and weeds yanked at her skirts, causing her to teeter a bit, yet if this bothered her, she didn’t show it. Her expression was measured and calm, something Christopher wasn’t used to seeing on faces like her own, which were usually tilted up at whatever displeased them.
“But I strive in never failing to make proper introductions,” she continued. “No matter where the location is.”
The dull ache that had been residing in Christopher’s chest just seconds before sparked, igniting something akin to anger. He set his jaw, then bit his lip, curbing the insults he was penning in his mind.
Mrs. Davenshire held her hand out toward the newcomer, lips sliding into a welcoming smile. “I’m Mrs. Davenshire. And you are?”
“Warren Carlyle,” the man replied. “A pleasure to meet you.” He stared at her hand, appearing to hesitate before accepting her gesture.
“What a pleasure it is to see a new face around here,” a new voice stated. He stepped forward from the group, exposing a rotund face and belly. His face wasn’t any that Christopher recognized, but his tone was just as fake and banal as Mrs. Davenshire’s. He joined the woman’s side, and soon the whole clan was blathering introductions. The noise slithered to Christopher’s ears, rising to a near cacophonous volume that he could hardly make sense of his own thoughts. He couldn’t escape the prattling, the jabbering, the gibbering. How could he, when each word of every syllable were coming from the mouths of those who had put nails into his father’s coffin?
“You must forgive me for interrupting, but for a moment I thought my father’s passing meant something to you all.”
Christopher couldn’t see the group, as he had turned back to his father’s grave, but he could feel the weight of their stares. He could sense their stunned quietness that competed with the normal silence of the graveyard. For a moment, Christopher couldn’t decide which was more unnerving.
Laughter broke out to his right, nasally and contrived. Mrs. Davenshire’s. “Oh, how the young mind works,” she said. She tsked softly, a sound that made Christopher’s jaw twitch in annoyance. “But it simply isn’t true.” She moved forward, laying a hand on his shoulder. “We all admired your father very much. It’s silly of you to think otherwise.”
“Silly?” Christopher remarked. He yanked away, hands cold and clenched. “It’s this town’s silliness that sent my father to his grave.” He felt as if he was unscrewing a cap that bottled his frustration. The rage was almost intoxicating, like an elixir healing him of his pains, and each time he drank from the vial he felt refreshed and born anew. He stepped forward, and as one, the group stumbled back, eyeing him with uneasy stares. “I came to you all the night my father died, asking for help. For kindness. Unfortunately, that kindness has come too late.” Christopher inhaled, trying and failing to quell the rage in his voice. “I’m sad to say that your false amicability won’t resurrect him.”
A look of supreme embarrassment appeared on Mrs. Davenshire’s face, yet she chased it off within seconds. “The audacity in this boy is astounding!” she remarked. “We’ve all come to pay your dear father his respects. There’s nothing else to it.” Her gaze flicked to the elder Quartermaine’s grave in what looked to be a reprimanding glance. “I suspected your father had raised you up to be a proper boy. But I suppose all this time he had us fooled—”
“Do not bring my father into this!” Christopher stepped forward, guilt overshadowing his rage. What was he doing, causing a commotion at his father’s funeral? Yet quieting his rage was ineffective; it was like a toxin poisoning his veins. “All you ever did was treat him like garbage in the Thames!”
“I have half a mind to call upon a constable, for I am feeling quite threatened,” said Mrs. Davenshire. The girls around her murmured their assent. Were their eyes round with actual fear? Or was this just another one of their acting tricks?
“That shouldn’t be necessary.”
Christopher turned to see the man from before—Christopher had forgotten he was there—Mr. Carlyle, addressing the gathering.
“I appreciate the time you have taken out of your schedules in order to attend this event today,” he said, then tilted his head to the gravesite. “I’m certain my uncle would have appreciated it.”
A collective gasp rose from the crowd. Christopher’s heart stilled. Uncle? Christopher blinked at the man, bewildered. He had never seen this gentleman in his life; his face was that of a stranger’s, and until today, he had never recalled hearing his name. He wanted to speak out against the lie, for the two of them were certainly not related, yet he stalled, mind bare.
“And though it might not seem as such, his son always had quite the temper—genetics, perhaps? I’m not sure. But poor parenting isn’t to blame. You see, I haven’t visited this charming town in a number of years. His father and my own had a falling out, which prevented us from seeing each other. It is unfortunate that I have returned because of such a tragic affair, but I suppose this young man and I have a lot to catch up on.” He paused, letting those before him take in his words, then turned toward Christopher. “I believe it’s time for us to be going. I have arrangements for us to meet with my father at The Simpson’s Tavern. We don't want to be late.”
Christopher stared at the man. He worked his jaw, searching for words. He found none. Certainly, this was all some twisted nightmare. Certainly a stranger hadn’t declared lineage to him. Certainly his father wasn’t lying six feet under the soil. But that was his father’s name on the tombstone, and he was sure the confusion in his mind was very real.
He snapped out of his reverie as he heard the sound of retreating footsteps. His eyes (and those of the stunned group) followed Mr. Carlyle to the gate, where the man was standing, inspecting the silver surface of his pocket watch. As if feeling the stares settling on his skin, the man glanced up and said, “My father hates to be kept waiting, I’m afraid. We really must be going.” He held Christopher’s gaze, and the look he gave seemed reassuring. Trusting.
Had he imagined it?
Christopher found himself moving forward, though his mind yearned for him to stay. You can confront those fools. You don’t need some stranger to stick up for you. But could he? He stopped, leaves crunching underfoot, and turned to the group, then slowly to the marker. There was no safety near his father anymore. Not while the beasts guarded his grave.
So he continued toward the gate, toward the stranger, and outside of the cemetery.