Thursday, January, 20, 2000
Huge, battleship-gray clouds hovered over the small crowd of people walking through the cemetery. Under my boots, the soggy ground squished and oozed. A few drops of moisture struck my cheeks and mingled with my tears.
"Heaven is crying," I whispered, remembering what my father used to say when we visited my mother's grave and it rained. Maybe God really did care that I no longer had a reason to live. Even the thought of an all-powerful being taking an interest in what was left of my life couldn't fill the void inside of me.
I inched my way to the towering tree. Thirty-five years ago I had first seen this elm. My father had taken me by the hand and walked me down this very path. And every year since then my dad and I had come to my mother's grave on holidays, her birthday, my birthday and my parents' anniversary.
Over the years, I had watched the tree grow from an enlarged sapling to a giant. At first I had been amazed at how fast the elm grew. It wasn't until I was about twelve-years-old that I had read an article about underground springs moving and eroding caskets. That was when I realized what the tree was probably feeding on and why it grew much larger than the elms outside of the cemetery.
Shards of ice cut into my skin as I stared at the long black car. As I watched, six men pulled my father's coffin from the hearse. In spite of their advanced age, four of my dad's friends had volunteered to be pallbearers. In front of the elderly men walked Kevin, the paralegal from the law office where I worked, and my ex-husband.
My ex-husband had been by my side ever since my father had been killed. "No," corrected a voice inside me. "Mark had suddenly shown up just hours before your father was torched to death."
I followed the coffin down the narrow path between headstones. In spite of the cemetery's rules, several bunches of faded artificial flowers sagged against the muddy earth. As our small procession got closer to my family's plot, I smelled the dank odor of recently turned dirt.
Instead of a yawning pit, like I had imagined, the hole was crossed with poles. On top of the poles was some sort of green rug-like stuff. I suppose the artificial turf covering the strewn earth and the handful of floral arrangements strategically placed around the grave were meant to soften the effect of what was about to happen. But the cheap trappings couldn't hide the truth--the only man who had ever really loved me was going to be put into the ground. And I would never see or hear from him again.
The pallbearers neared the grave. My co-worker turned his freckled face toward me. Besides sympathy, there was longing in Kevin's dull brown eyes. Not watching where he was going, my clumsy co-worker pitched forward. Throwing out his free arm to keep his balance, Kevin slid on the ice and stumbled toward the grave. His other arm bent at an odd angle and he lost his grip on the casket. The coffin careened back and forth as Kevin struggled on the uneven ground. My mouth flapped open but I couldn't get enough air in my lungs to scream. Any minute the charred remains of my father would be tossed out of the coffin and laid at my feet!
Like a sacrificial offering, I thought.
As my eyes widened in terror, one of the elderly pallbearers grabbed hold of Kevin's elbow. After steadying himself, Kevin turned a beet-colored face toward me. He gave a lopsided grin and shrugged as if to say, "So, what did you expect?"
Something bubbled up inside me and started to rumble its way into my chest. It wasn't until the twisting sensation reached the lower part of my throat that I realized what it was. I clamped my hand over my mouth. I knew that the laughter that was trying to rip its way out of my lungs wouldn't sound sane.
"Brace it, Kevin," Mark hissed, effortlessly holding more than his share of the coffin's weight. Looking strong and competent, my ex-husband eyed Kevin with barely concealed contempt.
The men put the coffin on top of the rug-covered grave and moved back. The priest lifted his cherub-type face to the heavens and silently moved his mouth. Then he cleared his throat and began to pray. We bowed our heads. I clasped my gloved hands together trying to keep them from shaking.
"Dad?" I heard a voice say. I raised my head and looked around to see who had spoken. It took almost a full second before I realized the word had come from me. Before I could stop myself, my legs started walking toward the coffin. "Dad?"
"Honey, please," Mark whispered, grabbing my arm. "Take it easy. Your father wouldn't want you to go to pieces."
I looked into Mark's face. He squinted and quickly put his head down. Was that a sign of guilt? Was I standing next to the man who had killed my father? No. Surely I just wanted to blame someone for the horrible accident and Mark had simply come to the hospital at the wrong time.
A long arm crept around my waist.
"I am so sorry," said Mrs. Yatko, fixing her cold blue eyes on me. "You can count on me to help."
"Thank you," I said, moving slightly away. The woman's face was full of pity. It didn't match the look of power and control in her eyes.
Mrs. Yatko had come less than a week ago to the firm where I worked. She had hired the lawyer I worked for to represent her in a matrimonial matter spanning two continents. Mrs. Yatko had taken an immediate interest in me. And a few days later, my father had died.
"What's wrong with me?" I mumbled. First I suspect my ex-husband of being a murderer, then I point a finger at a woman I hardly know. Maybe worry and grief have unbalanced my mind. Why couldn't I just accept the hospital's report that my father had accidently made himself into a living torch by stealing his roommate's cigar? Or, if I couldn't accept the accident theory, why not believe the lawyer I worked for? He was sketching out a medical malpractice suit against the hospital for not properly monitoring my dad. Perhaps paranoia is grief's handmaiden.
I had no proof, no witnesses, and no motive. All I had to go on was my father's wild rambling the first night he had been admitted to the hospital.
"But it hadn't been wild rambling," I mumbled, staring at the ground by my father's grave. "Not all of it." Impossible as it had seemed at the time, all but two of his accusations had already proven to be true. And if my father's death wasn't an accident, then that left only one other event that needed to happen--I would be murdered.
"In the name of the Father and of the Son," said the priest, crossing himself.
"Just a week," I whispered, not caring if anyone heard me or not. If only I could go back in time to that night my dad had called me from the hospital. For the hundredth time since my father's death, I went over in my mind the first time I had any warning that Death was stalking us.