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Mystery

“Shit,” she gasps. The coins clatter off the countertop and onto the floor as the stitching in her coin purse bursts open.

“Sorry, let me just…” she  mutters, dropping to her knees. She picks as many coins as she can into her hands, trying to ignore the line of customers forming behind her.

“One seventy-five, right?” her eyes lock onto her palms as she picks out three quarters. She puts the money on the counter and walks out hastily, grabbing her coffee with her left hand and shoving the remaining casualties from her coin purse into her pockets with her right.

She shoves the door open with her shoulder and the cool air snakes its way through her jacket and onto her skin. Thin strands of hair float around her face as she squints against the morning light. Another breeze brushes her cheeks as she brings the cardboard coffee cup to her lips, blowing softly through the hole in the lid  to cool it down.

Today is March 20th, she begins.  It’s a Tuesday.

It’s the first day of Spring.

It’s bright and sunny out.

It’s been sixteen days since dad died

She flinches as the coffee scalds her tongue. Frowning, she pops the lid open and blows across the black surface. Wisps of  steam rise and lick the tip of her nose before evaporating instantly. Carefully this time, she takes another sip.

Today is March 20th. It’s a Tuesday. It’s the first day of Spring. It’s bright and sunny out. And it’s been sixteen days since dad died.

She begins the familiar walk around her neighborhood with only a morning songbird to accompany her. The streets are empty, but the sounds of the town slowly waking up fill her ears: a key opening up a shop door for the day, a car engine turning over, a garbage truck starting its morning route.

Today is March 20th. It’s a Tuesday. My jacket is warm. It’s a quiet morning. And it’s been sixteen days since dad died.

She reaches a crosswalk as a strand of hair escapes from the clip holding her hair up. She tucks it behind her ear and hits the crosswalk button with her hip. Another sip of coffee. She frowns. Now that it had cooled down enough to taste, she realized how bitter it was, and she wondered how he ever stomached drinking it black.

Today is March 20th. It’s a Tuesday. There is a dog barking somewhere. This coffee tastes like shit. And it’s been sixteen days since dad died. 

Five things you can see, touch, hear, or smell, they said. It’s an exercise meant to ground a person to the world around them. Not sure how that’s going to help me, she had snapped. It’s not going to bring him back. But even she couldn’t deny that no one can live on cold Pop-tarts and microwave quesadillas, and after the fourth day of not leaving her room for anything except to use the bathroom, she relented.

I’ll try, she had said. 

She kicks a stone in front of her and it lands on a multicolored brick walkway framing the neighborhood hardware store.

“Don’t step on the purple ones, dad! Those are made of lava!”

“Oh? So which ones are the safe ones?”

“The green ones! Duh!”

“The green. Got it, sweetie.”

She smiles into her cup before a pang in her chest makes her wince and pull her expression back to neutral. She takes a big sip of coffee to quiet the part of her brain that just went into overdrive. The burned patch on her tongue aches in response. She focuses on it. Then on the heat from the cup on her fingers, then on the bitterness of the coffee, then on the smell of the cardboard. She walks faster, shoulders collapsing into her chest. She locks her gaze directly ahead of her, not daring to look down until she is well past the hardware store.

There are five stages of grief, they say. Like it’s a program you can complete with a certificate at the end. Congratulations! You are no longer grieving. Your dad is still super dead and six feet under but you just have to reach the acceptance phase and you’ll be done!

She grimaces against the memory of her therapist’s office. The gray walls, the white noise machine in the waiting room, the huge black recliner chair that sinks too low when you sit on it, and the sweet voice talking from behind a clipboard.

She finishes the last of the coffee and crumples the cup in her hand. She turns towards a nearby bus stop and moves to throw the cup away in the trash can, but just as she looks up to aim, she freezes. 

The blood drains out of her hands and face. Her chest tightens for a second, then expands as her breath catches up with her racing heart. The pang in her chest returns, then intensifies, because right there, next to the bus stop, is her dad. Standing, smiling at her.

She shuts her eyes and forces herself to take a sharp breath in. I can hear leaves rustling in the trees. I can feel my nails digging into my palms. She releases her grip. I can smell...the air, I guess? She allows herself one more breath, then she opens her eyes to meet her father’s.

His gaze is empty. His face is stone. His posture, stiff. His smile, always so animated in real life, is still. He stands with his arms casually at his side. Next to him, in opulent cursive floating against a blue background, are the words:

In Memoriam

1995-2060

“Hey, Dad,” she breathes.

She was expecting this. After he died, the city posted billboards and signs, and apparently bus stop posters commemorating her father’s life. The civil rights work he dedicated his life to is one of the reasons she can walk down the street without worrying about her safety. Apparently the city was grateful enough to pepper the town with visual reminders of that. For a second, she scolds herself for being an idiot, for thinking it wouldn’t be difficult seeing his face plastered around her hometown. She told herself she could handle it. The tightness in her throat said otherwise.

Slowly, she moves to take a seat at the bus stop bench. Avoiding her father’s eyes, she fiddles with the cup in her hand, now crumpled beyond recognition.

“You know,” she sighs. “The least they could have done for you is picked a decent picture.”

She looks the poster up and down. She remembers the day they took the picture. One of the biggest newspapers in the country was writing an article about him after the landmark civil rights legislation he spearheaded passed in Congress. They sent an army of wardrobe people, makeup artists, and photographers for it. He hated the fluff. Said he didn’t want the credit for what many had fought and died for long before him, but he begrudgingly changed his mind after his peers convinced him that people liked having a face to attribute to political victories. He was, and is, that face.

She returns her gaze to the crumpled cardboard ball in her hand and smooths it back to a flat rectangle vaguely resembling a cup. 

“I have no idea--” she holds the cup up with two fingers as if to give her father a better look “-- how you can drink this,” she says with a chuckle. Her father’s face stares directly ahead in response.

“Like, I really thought maybe I was missing out. You had one every weekend! I never even saw you grimace,” she says, returning the cup to her face to examine it. A long silence lingers between the two of them. She rests her elbows on her knees and looks out into the street. The sleepy city is now groggily awake as cars begin to pass by intermittently.

“Mom’s doing well,” she pipes up, conversationally. “As well as she can, I guess. She’s been busy dealing with me, so,” she trails off and looks down. Heat rises in her cheeks and her eyes begin to well, but she blinks hard before the tears have a chance to form. 

“Who, me? I’ve been good,” she continues, looking up at her father and forcing the corners of her mouth to curve into a bright smile. “Getting by, you know?” She yanks up her sleeves to her elbows and pops the collar of her jacket in an exaggerated flourish. She leans back, interlocking her fingers behind her head, and shrugs her shoulders.

“It’s just that, uh. Well, to be honest, Dad, I miss you like hell,” she says as a lump begins to form in her throat. Then she lets out an exasperated laugh. 

“It just sucks.”

She sits silently after that, looking at nothing in particular but listening to cars pass and pedestrians chatter. She hears squirrels climbing trees and bike bells ringing. She sits until her legs get sore from sitting on the hard bench and the sun starts getting too hot for comfort.

“Hey, you got the time?” a voice says from behind her.

“Hm? Oh, yeah one sec,” snapping back to reality, she reaches into her pocket and fishes out her phone. “Half-past nine,” she says, turning to acknowledge the person.

“Thanks,” they say. Then something behind her grabs their attention, and they smile, pointing to the poster.

“Great man,” they add. “People will remember him for a long time.”

She follows the person’s gaze and looks back at her father.

“Yeah,” she sighs. “I bet they will.”

She nods politely to the stranger and tosses the cardboard cup into the nearby trash can. Then, she gets up, stretches her legs, and moves to continue her morning walk.

July 31, 2020 22:14

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