The rented Ford Focus pulled up to the house where Dale grew up. He cut the engine and pressed his forehead against the wheel. The last time he’d been here, he told his father that he didn’t want his life, because his father’s idea of life was complete bullshit, a bad fucking play where the actors weren’t told they were acting but still faked every daily motion. Or at least that how he’d wanted it to come out. Wasn’t hard to envision his diatribe being far less eloquent. Probably a lot more vulgar. Now Todd had died without them ever reconciling.
“Well, here we go,” he said. He turned to Melissa. She had her feet propped up on the dashboard. Her phone rested on her knees and she typed a message to a guy whose name Dale didn’t recognize. Dale felt a flare of jealousy, but pushed it away. “Thanks for doing this with me.”
She finished the message and put the phone back in her purse. “You so owe me a trip to the beach after this.”
The beach was the only place he ever saw Melissa smile.
“It’s a deal,” he said.
“I can’t promise I won’t slap your sister or mom for saying something stupid though.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that. Who starts a fight at a funeral anyway?”
“You don’t know my family.”
Dale didn’t pursue the matter further. They got out of the car and he slipped his arm around her shoulders. As they neared the front door of his old home, he felt nauseous, and his skin grew hot. He made himself ring the doorbell.
The door swung open. The woman on the other side couldn’t be his sister. She had grown up so much since he left. Her features held a weariness no amount of makeup could hide. He wondered what happened to her. He knew about the break-in, but not much beyond that. Katie had relayed only scant details. When he asked if she needed him to come home, she said not unless he was ready to talk to Dad. Fuck that.
Resentment toward their late father aside, he felt like a real shit right now. He and his sister fell into an embrace. The frame in his arms was thin and frail, as if it would break if he squeezed too hard. He almost cried, but he didn’t want to be weird. Especially not with Melissa standing behind him. She didn’t like oversensitive men.
They broke the hug, made introductions and went inside. Jake met them in the kitchen and offered them breakfast. The four of them sat down around the island in the kitchen. Katie took a gulp of black coffee, but didn’t touch her food.
“So did you lose your phone?” she said.
“What?” Dale said.
“You didn’t answer any of my messages.”
“I didn’t think you were coming.”
“He said he was sorry,” Melissa said.
A heavy silence full of shifting gazes fell upon the group. Dale’s face grew hotter.
“You’re right,” Katie said. “Let’s just…I’m glad you’re here. Both of you.”
“Thanks for reaching out,” Dale said.
Melissa gave a tight smile that held anything but warmth, nothing like her smiles at the beach. They finished their food and dressed for the funeral.
A Presbyterian pastor presided over the service, with most of the religious language removed. Katie was never clear on what her father believed or didn’t believe, and her mother was no help, so she went with something in the middle. She sat between Jake and her mother. Dale, Melissa, and Keith all shared the row with them. They showed solidarity, despite how fractured their family had become. The entire time, Katie felt as if she sat in a glass cage. The preacher’s words sounded muffled. Every few minutes, Jake tried to take her hand, but she kept her hands folded in her lap. She focused mostly inward, recalling the day her father died. She remembered the beaten expression on his face and the defeated words that conflicted with his determination to find some sort of answer for everything that had happened, to try to find Chloe.
She hoped he found whatever he was looking for, but resented him all the same. In his last few years, he seemed perplexed more than half the time, lost in his own thoughts, dreaming of that self-fulfillment he neglected for so long, perhaps.
She touched the scar on her cheek. It was mostly faded, but still rough to the touch.
“You okay?” Jake whispered. She lowered her hand and nodded. He tried to touch her knee, but she pulled away.
The pastor called Katie up for the eulogy. She left what she’d prepared in a folded paper stuffed deep in her dress pocket and improvised something formal, but sweet.
Dad was extraordinary. Blah blah blah. He was always a dreamer. Blah blah blah. I love you, Dad.
She finished, but felt no weight lifted off her shoulders. At her pew, she told Jake she needed some air, and she stepped outside.
A gray sky greeted her. She leaned against the cold brick wall and stared across the grassy acreage spread in front of the church. Thick woods surrounded the grounds and made her think of fairy tales and magical places, but there was nothing magic about this place. The preacher’s words rung hollow. Her eulogy, full of sweet words, came out cold. Headstones filled half the field around the church. This was a dead place.
She longed for the fire. At least it was warm.
As if in response, something pale and green glowed between the trees. The amorphous shape expanded and contracted. It floated some five yards into the woods.
Katie pushed away from the cold bricks and tromped down the chapel stairs. She crossed the headstone-laden field, hypnotized by each movement of the illuminated shape. Though she expected it to brighten as she drew closer, it seemed instead to grow dull. She got halfway across the field, and the light slipped behind a thick pine and disappeared.
She glanced over her shoulder. Part of her wanted to go back and write off the strange apparition as some trick of the light. Another part compelled her to move forward. She felt as if something awaited her in the woods she needed to see.
She reached the edge of the field and stepped through a carpet of undergrowth until she reached the tree the light slipped behind and peeked around its trunk. The light was gone. A bizarre scent drifted under her nostrils. It was milky and sweet and reminded her of her childhood friend Maddie. Something about that made her sad. Though she still kept in contact with Maddie, they weren’t nearly as close as they used to be. But it was more than that. It was her father. It was trauma that robbed her of a life without fear. It was something undefinable and very old, something that had been with her since she was born, or maybe even before that.
Her gaze scanned the expanse of pine trees, moss-covered rocks, and bushes she could never name. She heard no animal sounds. Usually the woods were full of life’s music: birds whistling back and forth, bugs click-click-clicking. But now she heard nothing, nothing but her thundering pulse.
Her father stepped out from behind one of the trees.