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July 15, 2024

After Life 24

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Twenty-four: A Song of Remembrance

We were changed, she thought sadly. And how can I ever see that light that was in his eyes, only for me, ever again? She had wanted to keep Matt safe, hinder the meth train, thwart the evildoers ... but it seemed like it was more as a pastime than a goal; she now had to admit that. What she longed most for was her life with Matt, and a way to have done it all right, so that she and he could have had thirty, fifty, seventy years together, long enough to get old and shriveled and crotchety and play at swords with their canes from comfy recliners.

She sat in the sun's boiling surface, hearing the roar of coronal ejections over her, wishing that the heat was enough to burn off the sorrow in her heart. She was alone, and truth be told, she didn't want Desai's facts to keep her company. She wanted love, and Matt was too far gone into crazy anger to provide it.

I have no one, she thought, and howled her despairing song with the thunder of the flame around her.

"Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
from glen to glen, and down the mountainsides ..."

Roj strained to listen. It was her mother's voice! Her mother was singing, singing to her! Even when she was dead, her mother was still singing to her, like she did when Roj was a little girl, deep in the North Dakota night.

As she leaped from the sun and headed toward the voice, she remembered how her mother would sit on her bed, one arm under Roj's head, and sing. "Danny Boy" was her favorite, especially when her mother's voice would tenderly sound " ...and I'll be here, in sunlight or in shadow. Oh, Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so."

She looked back on the memory and saw the glow around her mother's head, saw the vibrancy of her mother's smile, the illumination of her mother's loving eyes as she focused on her daughter. Her mother wasn't just singing a ballad, she had been telling Roj that she would always be there, loving her with a heart as big as North Dakota, or Brazil, or Australia, no matter what. I just loved hearing her, loved the high notes, but I missed the real message, that she loved me so much that she would have gladly died instead of me.

The night was clear, the air was cold, a skifting of snow lay across the ground. Her mother was standing in what had been Roj's room, her white hair reflecting the light from the streetlamp. She had finished singing, and tears poured down her face.

I've been all wrapped up in Matt and me, and didn't even think about what Mom and Dad and Sheldon were going through. She looked at her mother with new insight, saw the line of nose that had been replicated in her own body, along with the eyebrows that arched so cleverly, the proportion of shoulder to hip. Roj saw the breakage of her mother's heart overflowing her eyes, and wished her own heart was broken open to receive the sorrow and help her carry it.

There hadn't been a lot of letters back and forth after Roj left for California. For a while they had been every few days, but as Roj settled in, there wasn't much news, and God knew there wasn't much news from Thornton, North Dakota. They weren't much into discussing philosophy, so what would there have been to write about?

Her mother stretched out her arms in the light coming in the window, and Roj could see the emptiness her mother felt, even though Roj was no longer a baby -- it was the emptiness of a mother's arms whose child had died, gone far beyond recall or touch. Roj ached for her, for the loss of a child; ached with her, wishing that her own arms had ever held a baby. Here, as with Matt, there was no consolation, not even one, for her death.

"I heard you singing," said her father from the doorway. "I remember how good life felt when I would listen to you putting the kids to bed." His voice broke, and he wrapped his arms around his wife, letting tears fall on her shoulder. When they grasped each other, they changed, their features shifting, exchanging, making visual echoes. Their sorrow intertwined, binding them more closely. The ache of their grief was so profound, so much a reflection of their love that Roj had trouble telling who was who. Both of them wanted to comfort the other, take the pain away, even more than each wanted comfort for her/himself. A kind of blanketing cloud came over them, radiating tenderness, softness, sweetness, like the sensation of stroking a sleeping baby's cheek, transforming them into a single creature of mercy and love. The creature was still agonizingly sad, but it had a structure built from the two of them that would hold them up. Some new structure, rich and glorious, rising with promise from the ashes of their grief.

Roj watched them in wonder. They grieved for her, but in this union of their grief, she was not a participant. She was outside what they were. She had no place in what their transformation was, in spite of her death having been the source of their sorrow. She circled her parents, gazing at the light, the darkness, the finding of one in the other. Sheldon wasn't a part of this, either, she could see that clearly.

She began to remember the downstairs kitchen, and saw her mother and father packing a cooler with sandwiches and ice, cans of punch-flavored sodas, and some bananas. They were preparing to go back to Bismarck and visit family. She and Sheldon were bouncing from yard to house and back again, eager for the adventure, waiting for Mom and Dad to finish their preparations and get on the road. Her parents closed the lid of the cooler, and looked around the kitchen as though from there they could see the entire rest of the house. Sparklers erupted from them, making them figures of fire with anticipation, but the look in their eyes told Roj clearly -- now, not then -- that the anticipation was far less about seeing relatives than it was for the chance of being together for two weeks, without work and schedules in the way. They all piled into the van. Sheldon's eagerness was like the sound of trumpets, the road beckoned like a siren, but when her father reached out and squeezed her mother's hand prior to starting the engine, Roj saw that same transformation all the way back then. It hadn't needed grief to fuel it. For a split second, Roj saw them exchange features, hearts, feelings.

That's the most amazing thing I've seen in my life, and I had no idea that they were like that. I wonder if any other couples do that? Her parents would be all right, she decided. They needed each other, but they had each other. Roj decided to check out her younger brother Sheldon and his girlfriend, to see if they had that trick going between them, and to look at Sheldon, as she honestly had no idea how he might have reacted to her murder.

Sheldon lived with his girlfriend in a one-bedroom apartment in Bismarck. He was done with his job for the day -- he did the books for a local ranch store -- and had his head in Jennie's lap while she watched television and he read a book. It was a Martin Cruz Smith story and Roj was jealous, because she had not had a chance to buy it and read it before she died. Her brother was absorbed in the pages, oblivious to the irritation Jennie had radiating off her like the stink lines you might see in the comic pages of the newspaper. The only part of her that was touching Sheldon was her lap. Her right hand held the remote control for the TV, and lay on the arm of the couch; the other arm was stretched across the back of the sofa, and some sort of anti-magnetism glowed on it; she didn't want to touch him at all, in fact, could not get far enough away.

That's not a good sign, Roj thought.

Jennie clicked the remote and changed channels. In three seconds, Sheldon said forcefully, "No! No goddamn cop shows! Change it! Change it now!" Fear had begun to emanate from him; abhorrence surged between him and the TV like a cascade of burning fleas.

"Fine," Jennie said, boredom and impatience distorting her features. "Is the cooking channel too upsetting for you?"

Sheldon put his book down. "Come on, Jennie, cut me a break. My sister worked for the police. All I can think is that they should have protected her, but they didn't. I hate every damn one of them, and don't want to hear that yap about them being some kind of heroes. She shouldn't have died, that's all I can remember about her, and that's shit. I can't even remember when we were kids, because of what happened to her." He rubbed his eyelids behind his glasses with two fingers, as though he was tired. A sheen of regret dulled his complexion. "And I hardly knew her once we were grown up. I keep thinking -- oh, never mind. You've heard it before."

His girlfriend did not look at him; she stared straight at the television, which was not on the cooking channel, but on a re-run of The Simpsons.

He put his glasses up higher on his nose, ran a hand over his close-cropped hair, and picked up his book again.

He hated his curly blonde hair, Roj thought. I wonder if that's why I loved Matt's curls so much, because Sheldon always sheared his off? Why is this girl so antagonistic, anyway? My brother's a cutie, all tall and slim and curly. She looks like a dyed in the wool bitch.

"Roj. This is none of your business." Desai appeared on the chair by the window.

"It's my brother."

"The relationship he has with this woman is their own to sort out. I can see the bubbling of anger on you. You would like to do something unpleasant to her."

"Can you see any intent?"

"No, but the preliminary signs are not likely to produce charitable works."

"I was thinking about glue, and her hair, but you're right, I should go. Sheldon and I weren't very close while I was at college, and then he was at college, and then I left. He's probably still trying to sort out all that involuntary estrangement crap, even though he shouldn't worry about it."

They flew through a window and out into the snow-filled air. "We used to play Monopoly on snow days when we couldn't get to school. I used to buy up all the railroads and crush him with my strategy. Once he went to Mom and demanded that she check the dice to see if they were loaded. She told him not to be such a poor loser, which made him so mad that when the roads cleared, he mixed hand lotion with my conditioner! I went to school looking like I put bacon grease in my hair. Mom made him buy me a new bottle of conditioner, and docked his allowance for two weeks."

"You were fortunate to have such a loving family."

"I know my little Shellibean loved me. He's making mistakes, though."

"What mistakes he is making are his. You may not take them away from him." Desai stopped over the city of Modesto. "Gerry is looking for you."

"I don't want to talk to her."

Desai said nothing.

It was not his job to tell her what to do; she had free will. She knew what she should do, and so his suggestion, even if it were his job to tell her, would be superfluous. Roj was feeling tired, as if there was no rest for her. Talking to Gerry was just going to feel like being the clown on the seat above the dunking booth at the town festival, who, once Gerry's barbs hit home, would be sent into a freezing, unpleasant plunge.

I'm dead.

"I get more tired the longer I go. Do I just keep on going until I drag to a halt because I'm so disheartened? -- Or I would be if I had a heart to call my own," she whispered with bitterness.

"You must think about why you are disheartened, Roj," Desai said.

"Do I need to list the reasons? I was an idiot sex-crazed teenager. I didn't pay attention to the kind of person I was becoming when I was growing up. I listened to lies and didn't try to find out what was true. I didn't listen to people around me, except superficially. I was too stupid to get Matt to run, and save his life and mine. I'm a wimp, Desai, a lightweight failure."

"Are you? What did you tell Gerry your questions were?"

What can I do about my corrupt precinct? How is the meth train through this city to be stopped? What needs to happen to keep my boyfriend safe? Roj quoted herself mentally, then realized she had found answers to all three questions. "I got Garrison, Hammer, and Hennessey into hot water, and got Costaine out of there; the meth train was derailed when we messed up Garrison and his chick's soiree with the money, and Matt's locked up in the hospital. That should be all that needs to be done, at least I thought so, but it isn't. The symbols that I saw, the message -- it said I had to save Matt from himself.

"But here's the thing -- no matter what I do, people keep on doing stupid shit. Hammer hasn't learned anything, she'll just go back to doing whatever it takes to keep that corrupt cash coming in on the side. Hennessey isn't going to grow a spine any time soon. Max and his gang certainly have no intention of stopping what they're doing; well, they might avoid Modesto for a month or two, but that's temporary. They'll find out who they can trust to take a bribe and pretty soon they'll be back in dirty business again."

"You had these goals, and you achieved them. In your sacred writings, you can see that human people can only seek salvation when they turn away from harmful deeds, and that no one can ever force them to turn to good. Why are you so despondent about that which has always been, since the earliest times of the Walkaway?"

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-04-09
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Ralph Bland
02:58:27 PM
A lot of deep thoughts about dark and sad emotions here. Grief, loss, sorrow, regret--it is like Roj is suffering an overload of earthly regrets in her afterlife. I think she is also being affected by the realization that the pursuit of her goals is over, and the ensuing satisfaction of accomplishment is not what she thought it would be. This is probably something that happens all the time in real life but goes unrealized until looked at from a distance, from a place where all is woefully clear.
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