It has been on my mind and heart today to share the first chapter of my novel in progress with you all. I’m not sure why, but I feel like I need to. Anyone else ever get that feeling? That you just have to put it out there to help hold yourself accountable for finishing the story? Anyway, I hope you enjoy and look forward to the rest (which will hopefully be finished soon). My goal is to self-publish by this coming summer!
“This is insane…I shouldn’t be here doing this. I CAN’T do this. Why me? Why now?” All of these thoughts run through my head as I sit on the cold, hard floor. You can smell the wood, the varnishes…the flowers. Then it happens. The walls start closing in. The doorways and voices all disappear. I can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t even feel. “Do you see one that you like?”, a voice from the distance asks. “Ma’am? Are you okay?” I stand up and try to whisper a strong “I’m fine”, but nothing comes out. At the age of 29, I never thought I’d be here. Which one would he like? Which finish? Which wood grain? Which interior? Does it really even matter? He won’t feel the material or see the wood with its gold embellishments. I slowly turn and walk back to the enormous mahogany table in the other room. Widowed before thirty. My daughter fatherless at 3 years old. Everything goes blurry again.
I feel a hand rest on my shoulder. I quickly pull myself together and turn to see who it is this time. The funeral director looks at me with sad eyes. I can tell that he’s seen people in my situation many times, but maybe never at such a young age. “What do I do now?” is the only question I can muster. His voice breaks as he quietly answers, “Just take care of yourself and your precious little girl.” He steps away as the room fills with family again.
“We chose the pine finished one with a cream satin lining. We are also going to have a blue stripe pillow placed in there for him and we need to run his obituary in four different papers. How does that sound to you?” John’s mom, Mrs. Linette, looks at me with hot tears pooling in her eyes. I just nod. I’m not sure how to handle all of this. I’m not exactly their top pick to make the decisions for John’s funeral. And I completely understand why. They out-lived their only son. It’s only natural for them to feel the need to make everything perfect for him.
“Obituary…we need to get that part together also.” I don’t think I have ever been so grateful for a stranger to take the lead. The funeral director’s voice seems to snap my mother-in-law out of her trance. “Yes, you’re right. We need to get that done and then we can all be on our way,” Mrs. Linette states in as passive a voice as she can muster, “Songs, scripture, pall bearers, what else?”
“Whether you believe me or not, John and I actually talked about this when he became an officer. He wanted that one Amazing Grace song that you like. The church can be used since he was a member there.” I try to give my input but the odds are that it’ll be disregarded and something else will be chosen. Silence…all eyes are on the table that separates us. The funeral director, whose name I haven’t caught yet, tries to break the silence by clearing his throat and asking, “Would you like that to be the first song? Or would you like it played at a particular point in the service?” Again, nobody makes a sound. At this point I take it upon myself to get this done, “Let it be after the final prayer, the one right before he is carried out of the church.” After a quick glance, I see that we are all in agreement with subtle nods. I proceed with the funeral director to finish the order of the service. When it comes time to pick the pall bearers, I look at Mrs. Linette. “I’m going to leave that part up to you,” I say as decisively as I can. She knew the life we had as a couple. She knew everything I went through with her son. She also knew that at this point that I didn’t care who she chose. They all played a part in the number of reasons our marriage crumbled, and I wouldn’t choose a single one if it came down to it. But, obviously, that isn’t an option.
Mrs. Linette proceeds with knowing glances, “Nicholas, Christopher, and Matthew of course. Maybe Joseph and Brandon?” The single thought for her to not look at me is all that crosses my mind. Bitterness will get me nowhere at this point. “DeAndre is another that I would suggest,” she continues. His sisters turn to look at me. His grandmother and father do the same. I politely excuse myself and walk outside to call my dad and check on Ryann.
Before I can begin dialing, I hear footsteps coming up behind me. With a heavy sigh, I turn to see John’s uncle slowly approaching me. “How you holdin’ up?” he asks cautiously. “Best I can, I guess…Uncle Gene, how am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to explain this to Ryann?” I’m doing my best to hold back the tears, but a few spill over onto my cheeks. He looks at me for a few seconds before saying, “You will know how to handle it one day at a time. You are strong and she’s a smart kid. Ryann needs you just as much as you need her. Prove this little town wrong and show them you can handle this mess. I’m here if you need me. You will always be a part of our family.” His concern still shows, but he’s trying to mask it with confidence. “Now come back inside and make the decisions others are too hesitant to make. You know how John would have liked his funeral. You were his wife, so you should have the say in how it goes. I admire your want to include his family and give them some control, but they aren’t in the place they need to be mentally to make the decisions. You have a good head on your shoulders and are holding yourself together with remarkable strength. Show them you can do this,” his smile slowly fades as I turn to walk back in. Does he really feel that way? Or is he setting me up for World War III?
They are still discussing pall bearers when I walk back inside. Still debating on two for the final spot. Mrs. Linette and Jennifer, his sister, are giving pros and cons for each of the two options. I can’t take this, so I decide to speak up. “Why not just choose Shawn? He was supposed to be his best friend and partner after all. I think he deserves a little bit of recognition in this.” Maybe I was a little too blunt. The stunned looks on their faces tell a story that only I can interpret. Shawn was the one that was supposed to have John’s back. He was supposed to help protect him. Instead, John is dead and Shawn is getting a promotion. I wait for a response and get none. “This is a decision that has to be made now. I understand that it’s hard for y’all, but it’s hard for me too. People are going to talk regardless of who you choose. They believe and repeat anything that sounds remotely close to juicy gossip. We all know that the rumor mill is what runs a small town. So…Who’s it going to be?” It seemed as if no one knew what to say. The funeral director nods and puts Shawn’s name in the empty spot. “That’s it then. Everything is set and ready to be put together. Is there anything else you can think of that you might want?” he looks directly at me. A quick, mumbled “no” is all John’s mother gives. She shoves her chair back and walks outside to get away from it all.
I’m the only one left in the room with the funeral director. “Thank you, Mister…” He slides his card across the table with a gentle smile. “Mr. Herbert. You have no idea how much you have helped me get through today.” We stand and I shake his hand before turning to walk out. “Would you like to see him one last time before we start the finishing touches?” Mr. Herbert asks quietly. I begin to shake. I can’t breathe again. But somehow, I manage to whisper “yes, please”.
I follow him down a hidden hallway and into a cold, stark white room. There he is. John is laying on a metal table covered by a white sheet from the shoulders down. I’m scared to inhale because I don’t want to smell the unforgettable stench of the embalming fluid. When I do make myself breathe, I realize there is no smell other than bleach. The fluorescent lights don’t even give off that annoying hum. Silence. Stillness. Emptiness. With each slow step, I can feel my heart breaking even more. Part of me wills John to turn his head and grin at me. Willing it all to be a dream. When I finally make it to the side of the table, I force myself reach out to touch his hand. Never in my life have I felt something so cold and lifeless. His still body looks almost transparent in the harsh lighting.
As I stand and stare at him, I start remembering things I blocked out from that horrific night. The phone call from Shawn, the grim expression of his chief and his refusal to look me in my eyes…I collapsed on the floor. My chest tightening from the shock. I didn’t think it was possible to feel everything and be completely numb all at the same time. Shock took over my entire being. Yes, I cried. I sobbed. I broke like fine china falling to a tile floor. But I also knew that I needed to keep it together for Ryann. My dad watched her for me to go identify his body. The calls come one right after the other. The screams from the select few calls that I do answer still echo in my mind. The same panic that I felt that night, but somehow didn’t let show, happens all over again. I have to snap out of this. Nobody else is remotely close to being strong, so it’s left up to me. I take off the necklace he gave me the Christmas before and place it in his hand. Someone comes in behind me but doesn’t interrupt my actions. I turn to see Mr. Herbert standing there with that same gentle smile. He nods knowingly and says that it will be placed accordingly for the services. I thank him and walk out of the room.
Exiting the building hits me like a completely different world. Everyone else has already left. Hopefully this means no interaction or conflict to deal with for the rest of the afternoon. I sit in my car for a few short minutes clearing my head before cranking it up and turning on the air. The southern humidity is almost comforting in its familiarity. As I reach over to put the car in drive, I hear a tap on my window. I look over to see Shawn staring back at me…`
I roll the window down half way and look into his sad eyes. “Natalie, I…I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t my fault. I got called away by another officer and…I should’ve never left him. I should’ve stayed.” Shawn turned away and stared out over the trees. This is neither the time nor the place to hear his side of the story. I figure the best way to do this is to sit down with him. It’ll help both of us if I hear him out. “Meet me at Nana’s Diner tomorrow morning at 9:00. You can explain it all then. Right now I have to get back to Ryann and figure out how to explain all of this to her.” He nods hesitantly in agreement and turns to walk away.
“Shawn?” I call back to him. He turns with a questioning look. “You said another officer called you away. Which officer was that?” He takes a deep breath before finally answering, “Natalie, I can’t say. I could lose my job. My reputation is on the line and I can’t risk it for my wife and kids.” Anger hits me like a wall of fire, but somehow I hold it all inside. A quick nod is all I can give as I roll the window up and drive away.
Of course he can’t say. His job is at stake. What about John? What about his life, and the family that is now suffering because of his death? What about us? I can’t hold it in anymore. I pull off onto the grassy shoulder of the road and bang my hands on the steering wheel as hard as I can. I scream at the top of my lungs. The hot tears stream down my face. I can’t go back to Ryann like this. I have to pull it together yet again. What good am I to her if I can’t hold myself up? I quickly dry my tears, take a few slow breaths, and pull back onto the highway. I turn the radio up as loud as possible to drown out the sound of my own thoughts. I’ll get my closure from Shawn tomorrow, one way or another. He will tell me who the other officer was. Screw his promotion. My daughter will be hurting because of him and this other cop. Nobody messes with my daughter’s well-being. Especially not someone who could be responsible for her father’s death.