The corpse laid about ten feet away from Remy, and he intended to keep it that way for as long as possible. The line of people waiting to greet him and his mother with their potentially genuine condolences were stretched outside of the door and lingered down the hallway. He noticed how most of the people were pleasantly chatting while exchanging smiles and muffled giggles just before approaching the altar and then suddenly donned their impressive looks of despair. They would bend down to his eye-level, making it feel like they were trying to probe his mind with their sympathies, when telling him how sorry they were for his loss.
Remy’s mother was better at taking the brunt of the crowd, allowing his gaze to silently linger until he felt someone emerge beside him.
“I feel like most of these people all bought new outfits just to show off at this wake,” June grumbled from behind him, making Remy almost crack a smile which encouraged June. “I’m only guessing that the crowd is this big because the church is expecting a sizable donation from Herb.”
Remy winced. He hadn’t heard his grandfather’s name in over one week and somehow had already tried to forget the sound of it. Remy turned to look up at June who crouched over him with a warm smile and bountiful wrinkles. Her hair was pinned on top of her head and sprayed into place until it held like concrete. There was a smidge of lipstick on her front teeth, and she wore her usual blue afternoon dress. She beheld Remy warmly.
“It’ll be over soon kiddo. Once these phonies clear away then you and your mom can go home.”
Home…Home where Remy had always dreaded. Always created excuses to avoid. His home had become far too quiet after Grandpa Herb’s passing, too still for him to withstand it without biting his nails or humming to fill the void. He hated how the stillness made his mother just as on edge.
An elbow caught him in his thin ribs, making him jolt and turn around to see his mother looking down at him with distraught features from grieving. Her bloodshot eyes and quivering lips made Remy feel rotten as she pointed to the stranger in front of the boy. “He’s trying to speak with you,” his mother told him before resuming shaking hands and welcoming others expressing condolences.
Remy slowly looked up at the gangly old suit that stood before him with a man trapped inside of it. Only three hairs remained on top of his head, the rest of the hair was replaced with liver spots to detract from his tremulous hands reaching out to Remy. “Young man, I’m sure you’ll turn out as strong and as kind as your grandpappy,” he hoarsely greeted, not knowing how sick his words made Remy feel.
As the hand reached and tried to clamp onto Remy’s shoulder, he instinctively flinched while raising his hands to his face with anticipation for a wallop that never came. He froze and waited. Slowly, Remy glanced between his fingers to see the old man confused and staring at him with his shaky hand paused in midair.
“Let’s go,” June murmured from behind him.
Remy abandoned his mother and the line of all-too-important grievers to scamper out of the great room, down the hall, opening multiple random doors until finding an empty meeting room with a single table and chairs. There were bibles and pamphlets scattered across the room that detailed support groups for those experiencing loss. June attempted to pick up one to fan the hyperventilating Remy.
“That was Charles- Herb’s old high school buddy. They played ball together, I think,” June informed with one hand on her hip. “I don’t think he had spoken to Herb in about twenty years.”
Remy didn’t feel any relief as he plopped into a chair that was far too big for him. He still couldn’t fathom Grandpa Herb passing. He had always been lively. Too lively. Far too much energy and spite for someone who had survived two heart attacks and one stroke. Despite being given so many chances at life, Grandpa Herb never did seem all that grateful for it.
Remy’s knees bounced up and down as he tried to breathe through his nose. He could feel the pleather chair beneath his keister, the air conditioning above blowing the hair from his face, and the polyester fibers of his suit biting at his skin. He could hear the chatter and soft piano playing outside. He could see the beige patterned carpet below with mint walls adorning the room, along with June standing there watching him. He could taste a tinge of blood on his tongue as he bit down on it to keep his teeth from chattering.
“You’re lookin’ thin,” June remarked, distracting Remy from trying to ground himself. “There’s a horde of older ladies out there that would love to feed you.”
She wasn’t wrong. At least it didn’t include addressing people who wanted to say how sorry they were for losing Grandpa Herb.
He nodded and stood, trying to sneakily duck out of his hiding spot before bee-lining for the kitchen, like a derby horse straight out of the gates, all the while trying to avoid eye contact with his mother. He couldn’t understand why she was crying so much. She had even started crying when making coffee in the morning. It wasn’t as though Grandpa Herb had been any kinder to her than he had been to Remy. He was the only one who knew to look for the small scar behind her ear that his mother kept concealed by wearing her hair down.
June followed hastily behind Remy to the kitchen, scanning their surroundings to alert Remy if needed. They luckily both made it to the kitchen unscathed from any grievers so that Remy could wrench for one, two, three ham sandwiches and a chocolate chip cookie. He didn’t bother eating them there, but instead stuffed them into his coat pockets for later just in case of…Remy paused at the thought…He didn’t need to stash his food. The only reason he would have was laying fifty feet away in a wooden casket. He peered down at the sandwiches in his hands before bothering to take one bite, but out of habit, returned them safely to his pockets.
When Remy drew his attention away from his food, he found June wasn’t there. He was once again surrounded by other busying bodies. The crowd could have easily swallowed him. They brushed past him in their own quest to fill their grieving bellies, heckling and jeering yet still so close to a corpse. Remy thought he’d be able to emerge intact until he heard someone calling his name behind him.
He slowly turned to see a pair of lips masked in lipstick and a sequin black dress that hit the floor with a woman squeezed inside of it. She smiled and bent down to him followed by a cloud of her perfume that made Remy’s eyes water.
“You’re Charlotte’s boy, ain’t’cha?” she asked.
The lady tilted her head to the side and clicked her tongue. “Tsk, tsk, sure is terrible what your poor family has been through and not long after the death of your sweet Mamaw. Well,” she said while pointing at Remy, making him want to recoil. “I know your grandpa was a wonderful man of God and must be overjoyed with your Mamaw now in heaven. Don’t you think?”
Remy mindlessly nodded while reaching to chew on his nailbeds.
The lady’s smile widened as she reached into her purse and pulled out a cookie. “Have another on me,” she offered. Remy glanced behind her at the bountiful table of free cookies but reached out to receive her supposed gesture of kindness. She held tight onto the cookie. “And my thoughts and prayers are with you,” she said before releasing the cookie and finally freeing Remy from her miasma of perfume and half-hearted sympathy.
Remy had to get out of there.
He quickly paced out of the kitchen to veer into an adjacent hallway where he finally found June speaking with some stranger. They were quietly nodding and mumbling while Remy could feel his patience dwindling with the daylight. Remy marched up to her with a scowl and his hands thrown out to the sides, before gesturing to the stranger next to her.
June scoffed and waved him off before turning to her new friend. “Remy, this is Louis. He was just next door and got a bit lost.”
Louis had wide eyes and a potbelly with about two double chins that were exacerbated when looking down at Remy. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t meant to steal your friend.”
“Oh, you did no such thing. You can hang out with me if you want until you feel like trying to find your family,” June comforted while sending knowing looks to Remy.
Remi’s shoulders fell in exasperation before nodding in agreement, making Louis once flat affect gain a little glint of hope. At first, Remy didn’t mind when June befriended strangers, but it was starting to feel as if she were actively seeking them out rather than looking out for him. At least Louis seemed harmless enough. Remy just hoped that he didn’t follow them home. The boy coped with the annoyance by cramming a cookie into his mouth, letting it absorb all the moisture on his tongue before he dryly swallowed.
He almost choked when he heard the screeching. Everyone jolted as the hollers boomed and penetrated the walls of the funeral home, making Remy cringe as he recognized the sound of his mother at her wits end.
“I can’t look at him anymore!” her broken voice found his ears just as June rapidly emerged next to Remy.
“Go take care of her,” she ordered, and Remy did so, almost automatically like an endless and cold routine for him. Having tried to avoid the altar beforehand, Remy actively sought it out and dodged around curious grievers as he dove between legs and around pews before finding his mother on her knees with the palms of her hands pressed into her eyes. Mascara was dripping down her cheeks as wails erupted from her gaping mouth.
She was surrounded by curious and concerned strangers who all tried to reach for her, but Remy found her first. He knew to reach and cradle her head in his arms before softly stroking her yellow hair. He intentionally swept her hair over her ears so that no one saw her secret scars. Remy hummed lightly and could feel his mother relaxing against him. Her breathing shuddered but gradually evened in Remy’s grasp. Mascara was still making roadmaps across her cheeks when she looked up to her son and grasped his shoulders. She saw his forced, gentle smile and squeezed him. “My brave boy, don’t you take a day off?” she asked like it was supposed to be a joke. Neither of them laughed.
Instead, a mighty hand was placed on Remy and his mother. They both glanced up to see one of the younger grievers whom Remy had seen at school a few times. His gym teacher? He couldn’t remember, but he recalled feeling thankful as the man helped his mother to her feet and ushered her to a nearby pew “Let’s take a break, Charlotte," he murmured to her, almost enshrouding and shielding her with his massive shoulders from other nosy grievers. He looked down at Remy. “You’ve done well, young man. I can sit with her if you’d like me to,” he offered, which was refreshing.
He nodded in response, with the gym teacher stating, “Say no more,” as if they had some pact between them, from one man to another. And it was strange to Remy...but good. It was as if the larger man had an understanding as he sat next to his mother who voluntarily lost all her composure in the man’s arms. Her cries were the familiar foundation of Remy’s bitter memories. He slowly turned away from her and looked at the casket before him. It was a plain brown box. There were hardly any flowers that adorned it, and even the supposed shine on the wood looked dull in the overhead lights. Grandpa Herb still probably would have thought it too extravagant.
His mother couldn’t stand looing at Grandpa Herb, and Remy had outright tried to avoid it. But…could he do it so his mother didn’t have to?
“If you want,” June’s voice lulled beside of him. “I’ll stand there next to you.”
Remy glimpsed to June, seeing her sweet disposition clouded with Remy’s mirrored discomfort, before looking back to the casket and taking a large step forward. He held his breath and clenched his hands into white knuckled fists as he approached Grandpa Herb laying motionless in his box. As Remy dared closer, he saw the corpse’s hands folded over his chest with his jaw protruding from his face. His skin almost looked waxy and shined more than the wooden casket, like an uncanny mannequin. Remy shivered. Grandpa Herb’s shoulders were sharp even when being buried in a suit with shoulder pads, and despite being completely motionless, Remy fully expected to see the waxy lips curl into a snarl.
For once, Remy didn’t want to chew his nailbeds. He didn’t tap his foot nor chatter his teeth while gazing down at the corpse. It looked fake. Somehow the real Grandpa Herb was going to pop out any second and curse Remy for being so meek. The boy even dared to lean over the casket to get a closer look, seeing how the eyes were glued shut and fingers stiffly weaved together. Grandpa Herb was still. Still as death, and somehow that made Remy release a long sigh he didn’t know he was still holding onto.
The muscles in Remy’s face almost burned with the want to smile.
The thunderous nights were over for Remy and his mother. They could find their own peace, their own happiness, in a life without Grandpa Herb. Remy thought he knew how to find that kind of happiness. He had known it when his Mamaw was alive and was the shield that every child deserved. Maybe he could recreate that someday if he tried.
Looking next to him, Remy saw June’s eyes transfixed on Grandpa Herb as she reached to place a steady hand on Remy’s shoulder. He felt nothing. Her head shook and sucked in her wrinkled lips when saying, “Damn that man. Damn him and everything he ever did.”
Remy reached to place his hand over hers, only experiencing a cool gust of air rather than the warm touch he remembered. “Will I see him?” he croaked. “Like I see you, Mamaw?”
“No, baby,” she hushed. “No, I would never let him appear to you. I promise.”
Remy smiled. His hand fell while he turned away from the casket. He knew Mamaw June was behind him, always following him, always watching, and he felt as he neared an unfamiliar peace that she too would soon find hers.
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