Hile, beloved inklings!
I come to you today with entertainment. Skip the next four paragraphs if you want to bypass the preamble and just get straight to the opium.
Over at writer Chuck Wendig’s blog, you’ll find a flash fiction challenge containing ten random words as prompts. Mr. Wendig issues such challenges on a regular basis, and this is my first time to answer one.
My story is a bit longer than Chuck’s suggested wordcount (1700 vs. ~1000), but that’s just what the story wanted to do. If you follow my blog and/or my writings, you might remember my talking about “Grace and Jack stories,” my incomplete series of short stories about insanity, love, choice, and cross-dimensional time-travel. (Check here for more info.) Today’s story is one of those.
You might also remember that I’m writing a story for Tony Healey’s charity specfic anthology. That story is also a “Grace and Jack,” but that story is not this story. This story is a good way for me to get into the characters’ heads, and it fits in great with the “Grace & Jack” timeline. So, without further ado or adon’t, here’s the story:
Random words provided by Chuck Wendig:
Funeral, Captivate, Deceit, Brimstone, Canyon, Balloon, Clay, Disfigured, Willow, Atomic.
“At the Funeral of a Marriage”
a Grace and Jack story
by Courtney Cantrell
August 10, 2014
A month after the ballgame, I remember my sister’s words and consider divorcing my wife.
Beneath me, the bike’s engine roars its defiance and its despair as I race the setting sun to the horizon. It’s summer, late evening. Everybody’s either tucking their kids in or at the bar. The highway is mine. Out in the arroyos, the coyotes are my only witnesses, and they don’t give a damn about any challenge my bike and I might issue.
It would be like a funeral, our divorce. A solid, traditional funeral with lace veils and stopped clocks and mourners in black. I should list the clocks first, because they’re the most important. I would want to stop the clocks because right now, I don’t know when our marriage died, and I would want to know.
The bike and I approach a sharp curve and I lean into it, feeling my momentum in every atomic particle of my body and wishing I could just surrender to it. A different kind of funeral, then. But I don’t want to go there–that’s too much Grace.
In my mind, Grace and I stand at the open grave of our marriage and look down into it. The corpse doesn’t get a casket; it just lies there desiccated on the cold ground at the bottom of a hole. Grace and I excavated that hole together: she with her insanity and her refusal to accept my love for her, and I with my weariness. Exhaustion isn’t dull or blunt the way people think. Exhaustion is a sharp tool that digs hard and fast, more effective than madness ever could be. My wife and I might have conspired to murder our marriage, but it was my weariness that delivered the killing blow.
So Grace and I stand at the gaping hole, looking down at the shrunken corpse of our marriage, and I say to her, “You still captivate me,” because it’s the truth.
Grace turns her face toward me, but I can’t see beneath her veil of black lace. Her eyes might still be assessing our dead marriage. “You’re not usually into that kind of deceit, Jack.”
My bike takes me across a bridge spanning a deep canyon, and I wonder what lies at the bottom and if it’s cold. The conversation in my head is different from what I expected. Maybe the disinterest of the coyotes isn’t the only thing that can dry my tears.
“I’m not lying,” I tell the Grace in my mind. “You do still captivate me, and I am still deeply in love with you.” Since this is the Grace in my mind and not the real Grace back at our small house, I can be brutally honest. “I don’t care if you’re crazy. I love you. I don’t care if you do believe you’re responsible for someone’s death. I love you.”
My foot gets heavier and heavier on the accelerator.
“I don’t care if you do imagine you can hop dimensions and time-travel to try to fix that mistake. I love you.”
The wind makes me squint, and I find that the coyotes were not successful.
“I don’t care if you do drink yourself into oblivion so you can stop thinking. I love you.”
Maybe the high speed will tear the pain out of my chest and I can leave it behind on the pavement of the highway like roadkill.
“I don’t care if my sister is right and staying with you is stupid of me. I love you.”
The wind and the bike are a universal roar in my ears. But at the graveside of my marriage, all is silent. The stillness spreads, embiggens, balloons out into my hearing until even the sound of my own rushing blood disappears.
The first mourner steps up beside me. It’s Frannie, Grace’s medieval-fair-ing mother who has always liked me but has trouble loving anyone in jeans and a T-shirt. Frannie tosses a long-stemmed flower into the open grave. The purple petals smell like brimstone. Do bad marriages go to hell when they die?
“But this wasn’t a bad marriage,” Frannie says. In my mind, she turns and looks at me. “It wasn’t bad. It was just fragile.”
Grace lifts her face to the sky. “Fragile does not mean good.”
Frannie goes away, and my sister takes her place. In a black silk blouse, black skirt, and black cowboy boots, Reese looks like the country-Goth version of the Grim Reaper. Even her blond hair hides underneath a black bonnet with feathers. Reese drops a clod of dirt into the open grave and addresses Grace.
“Lunatic,” says my baby sister. “You should have died before you ever married him. At least then he could get on with his life.”
Grace lays a gentle hand on Reese’s arm. “Sometimes, death isn’t the end. Sometimes, death is just the clay and we use it to mold something worse.”
Reese goes away, and a man with hazel eyes takes her place. At first, I think a shadow lies over his face, although I can’t tell what might cast it. Then he reaches up to brush a strand of long, brown hair out of his eyes, and I realize it’s not a shadow. The right side of his face is disfigured with burn scars that turn his skin purple. None of this is real, it’s all in my mind, but my bike swerves out of control for a moment anyway. The scarred man is only in my head, but I know I should speak to him before he speaks to me. It’s the only sign of respect I can give him.
But as I fight to force the bike back into the right lane, he beats me to the punch. “Where is your honor?” he asks.
For once, Grace is silent.
My arms are trembling. I should pull over, let the adrenaline rush away to wherever adrenaline rushes go after they hit and pass. I should sit at the side of the road in adrenaline’s wake and then maybe push the bike the 40 or 50 miles back home instead of turning the engine back on.
Instead, I press the accelerator a little harder and face the scarred man at the graveside of my marriage. “I don’t know where my honor is,” I say.
He smiles a little, and the scars pull one side of his mouth into a grimace. It hurts my heart. If I were an asshole, I’d think the effect of the scars comic. Then again, I did marry this man’s wife, so I guess I’m an asshole anyway.
“She wasn’t my wife when you married her,” he says.
“I wanted her when she was still your wife.” I already know I can counter his every argument. “I loved her when she was still your wife.”
“But you did nothing until she wasn’t my wife anymore.”
I make a bitter noise that even I don’t recognize. “Only because you died first.”
“She wasn’t responsible for my death.”
“Tell her that.”
“You tell her enough for us both, Jack.”
“Why are you here?” I ask.
Finally, the scarred man looks down into the open grave. Before I can stop him, he leaps into the pit, right beside my dead marriage. “You pay homage to the dead,” he says. “Especially when the dead is someone you respected in life.”
I realize that he holds a shroud in his hands. He unfolds the shroud and drapes it over the dried-out husk. A knot forms in the pit of my stomach as the scarred man leans forward to pull the shroud over the sightless face.
“Don’t,” I whisper.
The scarred man stops mid-motion and stays that way, leaning over my dead marriage, prepared to lay it to its final rest. “Are you sure I shouldn’t?”
“I don’t know,” I whisper to the wind.
“Or would you rather I applied this?” He reaches into his pocket and pulls something out. It’s two wide twigs bound with a third thinner twig into the shape of a cross. He grips it in his right hand.
“Every grave must have its marker,” he says. “But this is a marker of resurrection. The wood of the willow infuses the essence of love. So what shall it be, Jack? The comforting death shroud, or the cross of love and life?”
My gaze drifts from the grave up to my wife’s face behind her veil. “Tell me what to do, Grace. Tell me if it’s worth it. What do you want?”
For a moment during which my entire universe trembles on the brink of oblivion, Grace remains silent and still. My lungs shudder and my heart skitters. But then Grace lifts the veil from her face and her eyes to my gaze. Her eyes are so dark, they infuse me with light. Her smile makes me want to touch her, but there’s a canyon between us and I fear that something worse than coyotes inhabits it.
But Grace smiles.
Grace smiles at me.
“I want the truth, Jack. The truth is all I’ve ever wanted. I know there’s nothing in you that would deny me the truth.”
Though I don’t want to, I look away from her and down into the grave where the specter of her first husband awaits my answer. The scarred man raises his eyebrows–again, a caricature of deformity, but I do not want to laugh. My mouth won’t work, but apparently my glance at his right hand is enough. He nods, then turns to lay the willow-twig cross upon the forehead of the dry corpse.
In that moment, the scarred man disappears. At the bottom of the cold grave, my dead marriage open its eyes and stares into my soul and says, “Remember me.”
I slam on the brakes so hard, I think I might go over the handlebars and catalyze a funeral after all. The screech of my tires is loud enough to trigger an answering, indignant chorus of coyote wails. But the beasts no longer matter. I slide to a stop, almost laying the bike down. But even if I broke an ankle or road-rashed my leg, that wouldn’t matter either.
Grinning like a loon, I turn the bike around and ride home to Grace.