Salvage by Alexa Gregory
Tale of Two Funerals
Seventeen Years Ago
John and Sheena Ross sat on the loveseat, their shoulders glued together, their hands gripped tight. If one moved, the other would fall. John’s face was ashen with deep purple bruises under his eyes. Sheena, who was typically a force, looked teeny. The sofa would have swallowed her if John let go. Her throat bobbed up and down with sobs she wouldn’t let loose. Every time it looked like she was going to cry, she glanced over to Janet, Craig’s biological mother.
Janet was a ghost of a woman. Her pale, rail-thin body was wrapped in a black dress a few sizes too big for her. She’d long since stopped wiping her tears. They pooled on her lap.
Violet grabbed a few tissues and walked them over to Janet. The grieving mother took them without recognizing what they were, only balling them up in her fists. I wondered, for one uncomfortable and judgmental second, if Janet was on something. Hand to the fire, if I took a whiff of her, she’d smell like hard liquor and harder drugs.
It wasn’t a kind thing to think, but the woman hardly did her part to protect Craig.
Maybe if she hadn’t been so damn caught up with booze and drugs, Craig would still be alive right now. He wouldn’t have started his own twisted love affair with illegal substances and trouble.
He wouldn’t be buried six feet in the ground.
His death wouldn’t be a mystery, sure to plague us for years to come.
Like a lot of people gathered in the Ross home today, I blamed Janet.
If she had stayed gone, if she hadn’t come back into Craig’s life, none of this would’ve happened. But Janet had blazed back into her son’s life shortly after his fifth birthday, demanding custody.
By that point, John was no longer raising Craig alone. He was married to Sheena, who was the only mother Craig knew. They fought hard to keep primary custody of their little boy. He was, after all, theirs in all the ways that counted. It worked out for a little while. Craig only went to Janet’s every second weekend.
Then on his fourteenth birthday – the age at which he could theoretically pick which parent to live with – Craig declared he was moving in with Janet.
That was when the real trouble began.
It severed the close-knit Ross clan.
It basically led to this ugly, shitty day.
I swallowed hard, watching Violet cross the room to check on Daphne and Tavish. Her two younger siblings were huddled together, not crying but not okay either. Violet whispered a few things to them before they retreated up the steps. She didn’t follow them but ducked into the kitchen, where an impressive spread was laid out for the wake. She piled all kinds of things onto a plate and grabbed two glasses of apple juice.
“Vi, maybe you’d like to sit down?”
Her blue eyes met mine, and she blinked a few times. Each flutter made her more alert. “Sit?” The word was a foreign concept to her. “No. I have to bring this up to Tav and Daphne. I told them they could watch TV in my room.” Her voice wobbled. “The little shits know it’s just this one time.” She only swore to diffuse the tension stuffed into every inch of the house.
“I’ll bring them this if you promise to sit for a sec. I’ll make you a plate.”
She shook her head, a hand going to her stomach. “No. I don’t want to be sick. Not here. Not today.”
The not again was implied. I laid on the cold bathroom floor with her this morning, rubbing her back, holding her. Anything to offer Violet some kind of comfort.
She watched her parents for a long minute, her hand clasping mine tight.
“Vi, please. Take it easy. Sit down for a little bit.” I tried leading her to a vacant seat, but she wouldn’t budge.
“If you wanna bring this up to the kids and make sure they’re not digging into my bedside table, that’d be cool.”
Shit. That’s the last thing we need.
“Sure. Okay. Then you’ll rest?”
Violet waved me off. I couldn’t exactly put my foot down. I pressed a kiss to her forehead and grabbed the overflowing plate and cups.
“I’m gonna make some tea for Mom and Dad.”
I nodded, feeling about as useful as a tit on a door. I should be the one running around taking care of all kinds of things for Vi and her family. I didn’t know… what or how.
This entire day didn’t make any sense.
Craig was eighteen. He shouldn’t be dead. It wasn’t right.
If Craig were here, he’d do something outrageous. Probably stuff too many cookies into his mouth. Maybe even spike the apple juice. Violet would chase after him, hurling warnings with barely suppressed giggles.
With a ball in my throat, I went up the stairs, ignoring the family pictures that lined the wall. I didn’t look in his bedroom’s direction, beelining for Vi’s.
Daphne and Tavish were sprawled on the carpet with their eyes glued to the small television screen, but neither one actually watched the movie. Daphne, a typically vivacious eight-year-old, didn’t twist herself around my leg, and Tav, three years her senior, didn’t make a smart-ass comment about my forbidden presence in his sister’s room.
The world was a different place now.
“Guys, Vi’s asked me to make sure you eat.”
Daphne nodded and took one of the triangular-shaped sandwiches, taking a cursory bite off the side. Tavish barely looked at the food before shaking his head.
“Just pretend to, yeah? I don’t want your sister to be mad at me.”
Tavish’s laugh was dry and way too brittle for his tender age. Losing a sibling so tragically and so young – shit, finding the body – was bound to make him age too quickly. His chubby little cheeks were gone. Hell, he even looked a bit gaunt.
“Vi can’t fix this.” Tavish pushed off the floor and retreated to the window, looking out at the oak tree. He hid his tears.
“She’ll try.” Daphne took another minuscule bite. She put the sandwich back down with a cringe and went for a square of Nanaimo bar. That was discarded, too.
I stood there, like the tit I was. “Can I get you guys anything? I wanna check on Vi.”
“Like she’ll even stop one second.” Tavish pressed his head against the windowpane. “She hasn’t slept in days.”
That I knew. I’d snuck into her bedroom window every night since she and Tavish made their gruesome discovery. I didn’t know how to comfort her. I held her through the night when she lay in bed. Other nights, I watched as she did all kinds of things: reorganized her closet and dresser, made lists, even did the homework she was exempted from doing.
Violet hadn’t cried. Not at the memorial. Not at the cemetery.
Not even alone with me.
I couldn’t even remember if she cried the night Craig died.
The night she and Tavish found him floating in the river.
I sure did. We all did.
Three Years Ago
This was all painfully familiar.
The setting was different, but it was the same people.
Mom sat in the living room, clutching Libby’s hand. I half expected my little sister to break down. Her heart wasn’t that strong, and every single second that ticked by, I was terrified she would die from heartbreak.
Libby whispered something in Mom’s ear. They hugged, lost in their own little world. My sister’s eyes caught mine, and she waved me forward, patting the empty seat beside her on the huge couch. I shook my head before jutting my chin toward the back porch. It was too cold to sit outside, which meant none of the guests would be out there.
It was fitting, really, that the swing would be vacant. No one should sit there today of all days.
It was where Dad and I spent hours shooting the shit. Where he taught me a lot about life and being a good man.
For a second, I hesitated, nearly preferring to sit somewhere that wasn’t wrapped in memories.
With an apologetic sigh, I sat down, letting myself sink into the falling darkness. It was kind of a joke that the moon and stars should be out tonight, so unconcerned about what happened today.
We buried my father.
We laid to rest the best sort of man, all because I couldn’t keep my word. Mom and Libby held each other through tears right now because I hadn’t done the one thing Dad always told me was the most important.
Take care of your own.
I should be the one in the ground. I was supposed to be at the store, not Dad. But instead, I broke a promise and turned my back on everything he taught me.
He paid with his life.
If I’d taken the shift at the general store, like I said I would, we’d probably both be alive. The chances that I would’ve been sitting at the front of the store were zilch. I would’ve been standing behind the cash register, typing on my laptop or doing inventory or… something.
Really, that didn’t matter.
I would trade my life for his.
He was the better man. He tried to raise me to be like him, but I never could manage it. I was too stubborn, too pigheaded. Now, I’d give anything to listen to him – one of his life-lesson stories, always a little too long and a lot too preachy.
I looked up at the sky, to the stars that had the gall to keep on shining, and sent out a silent plea.
Fix this mistake. Take me instead. Bring him back.
That would set things right.
A life for a life.
“Hey.” The sweet, soft sound of Violet’s voice broke my already shattered heart. She held a plate of food in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. “You need to eat a bit and keep yourself hydrated. It’ll help.”
A sigh so deep it damn well made the earth stand still parted my lips.
This, too, was familiar.
Violet rushing around the house to make sure everyone was okay. Her flurry of activity somehow convincing her that she could fix things.
That she could fix me.
She handed me the plate, but I laid it on the swing without touching it.
“Do you need anything, baby?”
I shook my head. Better not to talk at all. My words only brought death.
No, Dad. I can’t cover the store. I’ve just had a walk-in who wants to register for a membership. This is huge.
With a forced cough and a pinch to the bridge of my nose, I stopped my mind from going deeper into the memory. I didn’t want to remember the rest. It was too horrible. Too painful.
“Rowan, do you need to talk?”
Violet shuffled on her feet, uncomfortable and uncertain. I looked away from her and back to the sky, taking breaths that weren’t mine. She sat and tried to hold me, but I quickly shrugged away from her. I jumped to my feet like her limbs were made of molten heat.
“Gimme a minute.”
I could feel her hurt. The breach I caused with my words and action cut deep. She swallowed hard, her hand going to the base of her throat to fiddle with her pendant.
“I’ll check on your mom and Libby. I’ll be right back.” She disappeared into the house but not without looking back at me. “One minute, and I’ll come back for you.”
If she did come back, I never knew. I didn’t stick around.
No sooner had the door closed behind her than I walked off.
Away, and away, and away until the dark night swallowed me whole.