Contest #95 shortlist ⭐️

6 comments

Fiction

TW: death of a child

My navy summer suit hit me in all the wrong places. I had bought it for my twenty-fifth birthday celebration years before, and had worn it exactly twice. With the more recent addition of a white blouse, it had become my funeral outfit, and I had last struggled into the jacket and skirt for my parents’ joint service. Now I pulled at my lapels and fidgeted as I waited to sign papers as part of the procedure for transporting the remains of my infant brother from Springfield, Illinois to Indianapolis, Indiana.

I was the only member of the family still “standing on topsoil” as my father had been fond of saying. For my own convenience, I had decided to gather everybody together in the same cemetery. Mr. Lloyd Cranfield had been put in charge of the arrangements, and had organized the disinterment of Daniel’s casket and remains, and their subsequent transport and reburial in Indiana. I had written him a sizeable check for his services; therefore, his demeanor was understandably cordial.

I wanted to reunite the Howards. I didn’t want Daniel to be by himself any longer. He’d spent years in Illinois, and now that our parents were permanent residents of Indiana soil, I wanted him to join them. I looked forward to visiting them all on Sunday afternoons, and I had already put in a standing order for a monthly arrangement to be delivered to the gravesites. For Christmas, I planned to switch to a large wreath with a bow.

I thought about Daniel, and wondered how he must have felt waiting for somebody to come back for him. We’d left him behind when we moved when I was still a little girl. I wondered if he thought I’d forgotten about him.

We’d left Daniel when my father took a position as a professor of English at a small college, and my mother always talked about moving the baby someday. In fact, right before they left on their thirtieth anniversary trip to Europe, she had mentioned it again. “I’d sure like to have him with us again,” she’d said.

The discussion remained unfinished, however. The cab returning my parents from the airport after their trip had been hit broadside by a Mayflower moving van while I waited with the neighbors for my parents to walk through the door so we could all yell “surprise!” and turn on the lights. When the police arrived, I was wearing a paper hat and holding a sign that said, “welcome home.”

I remember eating bakery cake for days, cutting carefully around the little plastic airplane on top of the icing map of France. Two days later, a card came telling me that Mrs. Franklin Howard had named me the beneficiary of her flight insurance for her trip from Paris, France to Indianapolis, Indiana.

Mayflower and the cab company settled out of court. I sent a bouquet to the taxi driver who lay in the hospital with both legs in traction. The truck driver had not been injured.

My parents’ life insurance company sent their condolences in the form of a check, and I arranged for my attorney to make a donation to the Humane Society. I handed the rest of my finances over to the family accountant, and turned my attention to the house.

It was a perfectly usable, comfortable home and it was now all paid for. I sold the furniture from my apartment, and moved in. My childhood bedroom became a studio, and I set up a drawing board and easel, and began working on an assignment to illustrate a book for children. I kept busy to fight the loneliness that made me remember things the way they had been. I’d find myself staring out the window, my pen or brush in hand, thinking about my parents, thinking about Daniel.

A half a year later, I had decided that it was time for Daniel to change his address, and I made phone calls that eventually led to him riding in his box in the back of a van at a cost that was approximately half as much as it would have been to send him to college for his first semester.

I had also made up my mind to accompany the van from Illinois to Indiana. I eased my father’s Dodge onto the interstate and hesitated slightly before I changed the radio station from the classical station he preferred. I settled on a noisy one, and made the drive to Springfield.

Despite making three wrong turns before I located the correct exit, I made it to Springfield. Honest Abe was evident everywhere I looked, from Railsplitter Bank to the Lincoln Motel. I checked my map, and found my way to the cemetery, where I heard the riding mower before I saw the statue of the angel with the outstretched concrete hands. She held a sign: Babyland.

The grave markers were flat bronze plaques of varying sizes and inscriptions. Golden Memory Gardens advocated the lawn concept in cemeteries, and except for the occasional pot of flowers, it looked more golf course than funereal. The riding mower passed easily over the graves, and the driver gave me a cheery wave.

I looked for Daniel, and found him easily. Near the Babyland angel were several rows of bronze markers. His name appeared in a line of markers that had grown longer than I remembered it. The date June 30, 1958 was under the name Daniel William Howard. It was a name that belonged on the door of a lawyer’s office or a doctor’s clinic. Daniel W. Howard, Attorney at Law. Daniel W. Howard, M.D.

Daniel, Daniel, Danny. I brushed aside the grass clippings, and leaned down to touch the bronze letters. “Hi, baby. Remember me?”

He had been the only son in a family blessed sparsely with children, none of them boys. When the announcements had gone out to the relatives in Iowa and Nebraska, little blue clothes had arrived in a deluge. Daniel William Howard took his place among us with all the fanfare of a crown prince.

Thousands of feet of home movies were developed. The man at the drugstore kidded my father about the small fortune he’d invested in film. He’s said, “Jesus, Frank. Why don’t you just get the kid’s portrait painted?”

My dad had smiled, but I knew he had no intention of letting Daniel’s activities go unchronicled. There were shots of Daniel coming home from the hospital dressed in blue, his face and fists red against my mother’s coat. His eyes were shut tight, and my mother looked tired but proud. She brushed an invisible piece of lint from his blanket before she held him up for the camera.

There were miles of film of Daniel in our grandmother’s arms; Daniel on a pillow in my lap, me propped up in the easy chair; Daniel at his baptism wearing a long white dress. I had complained about the dress. “It makes him look like a girl.”

“It’s a tradition,” my mother had told me. “Your father wore one, too.”

I had not believed her until my grandmother nodded. I was amazed at the thought, and could not picture my father’s stern face on a baby’s body clothed in a dress. I entertained myself for awhile trying to imagine it.

There were scenes of Daniel in his bathtub, infinitesimal penis bobbing in the water, too tiny to be offensive. There was an entire collection of Christmas movies, immortalizing both of us in matching red velveteen outfits with holly leaves embroidered on the front. Dad had coaxed Mom into letting him pose us before the fireplace in November in our Christmas clothes, and he’d had Christmas cards printed with us on the front. The two stockings hanging from the mantle had our names knitted in angora yard – “Danny” and “Kitty.” By December, Danny’s outfit was almost too small for him to wear, and my mother crooned to him, “You’re Mama’s big, big boy.”

I liked to talk to him, and would visit him in the morning before I went downstairs to eat my corn flakes. I’d tiptoe into his blue room and poke my finger through the bars of the crib to stroke a flannel arm or knee. “Hi, baby. Hi, baby,” I said as I patted him. “Hi, baby. Remember me?”

He almost always stopped turned his head when I spoke to him, and he would smile back at me when I made faces. When he got fussy, I liked to sing to him in a little soft voice, “Don’t cry baby, don’t cry baby…”

The neighbors got used to seeing Daniel pushed through the neighborhood in his buggy, and the neighbors smiled at each other when my mother rearranged his blankets. Harriet next door said one time, “Honestly, Angie, you’d think the child was made of crystal.”

When diapers were drying on the clothesline, I loved to walk through the tunnels of damp, clean white that smelled like sun and soap. It was a cozy, happy sensation and seemed to make up for having to check the toilet for soaking diapers before I sat down.

I was careful to be quiet under Daniel’s window when I played outside, and I kept our old dog Peaches from taking his toys or licking his face. I was so careful – always so very, very careful.

When the day came that my grandmother silently took down Danny’s bed and put away his clothes in the cedar closet, I didn’t know what I had done wrong. Nothing that morning had seemed any different at first.

I had tiptoed into his room as usual, but when I touched his arm he hadn’t turned his head to look at me. I poked his forearm gently once more, but he had slept on. His skin felt a little cool, so I pulled his blanket up over his shoulders and left him to sleep. I looked back at him once as I left the room, and I could see that his head was turned the usual way and his dark curls were pressed against his sheet.

I went to my room to color, and that is when the screaming began. I put down the blue crayon I had been using to color the sky and waited. I was afraid to look behind me to see why my mother, who was usually so careful to keep the house quiet when Daniel sleeping, was raising her voice. I was worried that her noise would frighten him and make him cry. In an instant, I heard my father’s feet running down the hall, and I looked over my shoulder and saw him hurtle past my door. I got to my feet, and followed behind him as he leaned over Daniel’s crib and shouted, “Oh God no, oh God no, oh God no.”

For a long time after that, I thought my parents’ loud voices had scared Daniel away. I didn’t ask where he had gone, and he was only spoken about in whispers after my mother came home again from the hospital. She looked so sad sitting in her bathrobe in the chair on the porch that I didn’t feel like asking her questions. I didn’t want to make her feel bad again. So I tried to find him myself.

I spent hours crawling around the honeysuckle bushes looking for him, and calling him in a low voice. “Hi, baby. Hi, baby. Remember me?”

I hoped to find him hidden under a branch, or cuddled in a nest of grass like a bunny. I didn’t believe he could have gone far, and I hoped he’d forgive my mother for making so much noise because now she was unhappy all the time.

I was afraid he’d be hungry, so I filled my doll dishes with milk and put them under the bushes at night so he would have something to drink. On the mornings that I would find the dishes empty, new hope would fill me and I’d call for him with a throat tightened by excitement, “Here, baby. Come here, baby.”

When the weather got too cold again for me to play outside, I knew Danny wouldn’t come back. I sat in the window and watched the birds at the bird feeder, and wondered why he had gone too far away to hear me calling him.

That Christmas, I got two dolls and an electric train. I wouldn’t touch the doll that drank from its own bottle, but I let the bride ride around the little track on the back of the engine. My mother watched me from the easy chair and smiled, but nobody said very much.

In January, my Sunday school teacher asked me about the picture I had drawn of my house. “Where are the doors and windows?”

“There aren’t any,” I told her. “Nobody can get out and not come back.”

The following summer, we moved to Indiana and I started kindergarten. Birthday parties and Halloween costumes came and went, and I was an angel in the Christmas pageant at church. When school let out again, we went to Springfield for a visit and my mother asked to go to the cemetery. My dad nodded, and stopped at the hardware store on the way to buy my mother a pair of garden gloves. “Just in case there are weeds to pull,” she had said.

The grass seemed perfect, and the little bronze plaques were immaculate. Mom dropped the new garden gloves on the back seat, saying, “I guess these weren’t necessary.”

I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t say a word. I was motionless as I tried to take my eyes off a word written on one of the plaques. “Howard.” It was the same as my last name. I could guess the other two words that came in front of it. “Daniel William…”

My mother looked at me and asked, “Are you okay?”

“He was here all the time,” I whispered. “You knew where he was.”

“What on earth do you mean?” she asked me, puzzled.

“He was just a baby,” I told her. “How’d he get all the way out here?”

“Why, the car from the funeral home brought him out here. Don’t you remember? You were so upset, we didn’t make you come. You stayed home with Grandma.”

“Why’d they bring him way out here? He was just a little baby. He couldn’t get back by himself.”

We both stood looking at the perfect expanse of green grass, and the little bronze plaques. My father walked over to us. “Something wrong with my girls?”

“Kitty needs some lunch,” my mother told him. “She’s a little tired.”

We drove back into town and ate at the Howard Johnson’s. I had a hamburger and some French fries. My parents ate tuna salad and drank iced tea from tall glasses that the waitress refilled. We didn’t say much, and soon we were driving away from Springfield towards Indianapolis. My mother said, “It will be good to be home again.”

I was suddenly aware of Mr. Cranfield straightening a stack of papers on his desk. I pulled my skirt a little farther down on my knees, and leaned forward to sign where he pointed. “There we go,” he said. “Everything is ready. Will you be at the cemetery in Indianapolis?”

I nodded as I put my pen back into my purse. “I’ll be there.”

I shook his hand, somewhat embarrassed at how cold it was despite the weather. I decided I should get a dog to keep the house from seeming so quiet. So very, very quiet.

May 25, 2021 00:02

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6 comments

Joan Wright
18:12 Jun 10, 2021

Heartfelt story. Very honest feelings from a child trying to understand death. Adults seldom see it from a child's point of view. Beautifully done.

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Cathryn V
01:51 Jun 07, 2021

sad story of a child trying to make sense of death when too young to understand. this sounds like a true story. if so, i’m sorry for your loss. good moving story and well written. congratulations on making the shortlist!

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K. Antonio
21:57 Jun 06, 2021

This was poetic, beautiful and sad. I thought the innocence of the main character when she was young really shined through. This style of writing, the oscillates from present to memory, almost like a stream of conscious really attracts me. This piece to me, though sad, was very well-composed and I'll say it again: beautiful.

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T.H. Sherlock
22:01 Jun 05, 2021

The images of Kitty looking for her brother in the bushes and leaving out milk for him in case he was hungry were heartbreaking. This was a powerful depiction of making sense of grief as a child. As the oldest sibling with two baby brothers of my own (even if they’re both grown-up now) this really moved me.

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Lilia May
17:21 Jun 05, 2021

Very, very touching. I loved the contrast between losing her brother and her parents, how much more aware she is of what's happening. The part in the cemetery where she realizes her brother was there the whole time is utterly heartbreaking

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Writer Maniac
14:56 Jun 05, 2021

"For a long time after that, I thought my parents’ loud voices had scared Daniel away." Woah. That line hit me hard. And the paragraphs after that, Kitty innocently looking for Daniel was incredibly moving, and so reflective of how things are black and white when we're children. This line as well: "She looked so sad sitting in her bathrobe in the chair on the porch that I didn’t feel like asking her questions. I didn’t want to make her feel bad again. " It is so relatable and honest, how we can sense our parents' sadness just as much as ...

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