Fiery angels on their way to heaven. Red, blue, turquoise. They ascend floor to ceiling in the stained glass windows of this old grey-stone cathedral. I noticed the angels as I took my seat. My gaze shifts and I direct my glare steadily at my stepfather’s coffin. I will for the rest of my days envision that polished brown metal draped in white linen adorned with a gold cross.
Under my breath I mutter, “No heaven for you! Go straight to hell, you son of a bitch!”
Can it be? Is he truly dead? Or will he rise like a vampire?
I feel for my own holy relic. The pen in my jacket pocket. Beautiful relic. Ruby-colored metal in a coat of rubber with two conal gaps where the metal rises to form a caduceus. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Stark white letters against the ruby. This, too, part of the story.
I have this overwhelming urge to run to the coffin and as Mom and Father Jake and the whole choir and all the others look on in horror, lift that lid and stab the bastard right in the center of his stone cold heart. Just to make certain he’s down for the count.
I won’t, of course. But what will I do? Do I have the guts to tell her?
She pleaded with me. “The newspaper, they need an obituary. I don’t know what to say or how to say it. You go to school for this—you’re good with words. Please do that for me, honey?”
I went silent. My heart skipped a beat then pounded for what felt like ages. At last, in agony, I managed in a muffled tone, “I’ll come up with something.”
My hands won’t stop shaking.
Way back, in the beginning, I liked him. I really did at first. He seemed laid back. When Mom worked the late shift he’d sometimes take me to Taco Pete’s. And she was so happy. Anybody could see that.
Then one night when she was out, he was waiting. Alcohol on his breath. Wrinkled blue sports shirt buttoned to his neck. That South Carolina drawl: “You look so much like her.” His words slurred. Then quick, like a snake’s strike, his calloused hand reached down to touch me.
I gasped, too scared to move or cry out or anything. And for some reason, he stopped.
So many times I planned what I’d say. I’d tell her. But the day I almost did, it was as if he had obliterated my voice. Same as if he’d choked me. At least that would have left marks, some evidence for her to notice.
I kept his secret. Five years, kept my bedroom door locked. Even now in the depths of a random dark night—though I don’t even live here—I wonder sometimes if he really stopped.
The call came when I was at a writing seminar. “He’s sick. I don’t understand what the doctor is saying,” Mom declared, choking back sobs.
Of course I did what she wanted. Flew back, went with them to the next visit. There we sat. A small office, big windows overlooking a tall building of marble and glass. I noticed how much he’d aged. His calloused hands shook. Then the doctor. “Terminal.”
A mantra played in my head. Justice, justice, justice…
They walked out in front of me, the doctor beside them to say a final word. I swiped the pen from his desk.
Yet here I sit. My hard-won voice stifled. Feel as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. Feel thirteen again. I grip the edge of the pew till my fingernails turn white and the shaking quits.
I pull out the ruby pen, hold it in my lap, admire its design. Mom turns a bewildered face my way. I bend the pen until it cracks like a walnut. The words to the story I will tell fly into my head like fiery angels.