This story is by Lauren Sisley and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The day we buried Archie was gray.
I had only known him for a few months, but I would never forget him.
“Almost there, Connor.” Bridget turned to me as she drove. She tried hard to be motherly during this time. After my own mother was caught with heroin twelve years ago Bridget became the woman assigned by the state to keep watch over me. “It was a lovely ceremony.” She tried to soothe my anxiety as we entered the grounds lined with tombstones.
I had no words with which to draw up a reply. Bridget gave up and continued the short drive to Archie’s plot without a word.
I watched as the hearse parked beside a red tent. I couldn’t take my eyes off of its cab. Something about the fact that Archie’s body was in the back of that car kept my attention.
Out of the row of chairs under the tent only two were occupied. Bridget sat beside me and grasped my hand as the men dressed in tailored suits brought the casket and set it above a six foot hole. The priest took his spot in front of the casket.
“Please join me in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.” He opened. My eyes did not divert from the oak casket as Bridget joined the priest in repeating a prayer. The words were foreign to me.
“Our Father who art in heaven…”
My mind went back to the first day I met Archie.
It was cold and I had just flunked my Algebra exam. I knew that bringing home the test score would mean undergoing house arrest with Bridget again. I was walking home along my usual route trembling from the frigid temperatures. I reached into the pocket of my coat and felt a small paper tube. I took it out of my pocket and lit it.
Three kids from school approached me from behind. I tried to keep my eyes down as they called after me.
“There’s that freak from school!”
“Yeah, that weird kid that doesn’t talk to anyone.”
There wasn’t enough time to run away. Before I knew it they had caught up.
I didn’t put up much of a fight when one of them punched me across the face. My vision went blurry as I was knocked around a bit more.
“What are you kids doing? Get lost!” I heard a voice from the house behind me shouting. “I’m calling the cops. Get off my property!” I took a few more hits to the face and the boys ran. They made off with my coat and cigarettes.
I laid on the pavement for a few more minutes aching from the beating.
“You alright, kid?” The man asked me. He didn’t touch me or try to help me off the ground. I took a closer look at him and saw that he was in rough shape himself. His face was leathery and scarred. His eyes were sad. Several teeth had fallen out.
“Who are you?” I questioned this stranger.
“Nevermind that. Let’s get you inside. We can call your parents in there.” The weak old man attempted to help me off the sidewalk, but in the end I had to muster the strength myself. We used each other’s bodies as crutches as we made our way up the path into his small home.
Entering his home was like stepping back into the 1940s. It smelled of molasses and his living room had wood paneled walls that were barren except for a crooked wedding photo.
“The telephone is in the bedroom. I’ll fetch it. Take a seat on the sofa.” I lowered myself gently onto his old fashioned sofa. The room was dark and there was no television. Instead, an old radio was standing in the corner of the room. From his bedroom down the hall I could hear him coughing loudly. It sounded painful. At the time I didn’t know that it was caused by the cells metastasizing on his lungs.
A few seconds after his cough I saw his silhouette emerge from the bedroom carrying something that resembled a house phone.
“What’s your house number? I’ll dial for you.”
“Bridget won’t be home. You will have to call her at work.” I answered still a little weak.
He returned ten seconds later brandishing a large book with yellow pages.
“Where she work?” He asked adjusting his bifocals on his nose.
“She cleans offices at Barrel and Dumm’s.” I replied noticing that my lip was bleeding.
The man thumbed through the book struggling to read the small print. Just as he located the number he turned and released another loud bark from his throat.
“You okay?” I questioned.
“I’m fine.” He said as though my question was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.
“Who am I to ask for?”
“Yes, may I please speak to a Ms. Morris?” I let myself relax a little into the sofa as I imagined Bridget’s reaction to these recent events. I listened as he assessed my state to Bridget and imagined she was quite frantic on the other end. The man provided Bridget his address and then hung up. “She’ll be here within the hour.” He assured me as he walked the telephone back to his room.
He returned with a pack of cigarettes and turned on the radio as he took a seat in the recliner beside me.
“Want a light?” He offered, but I turned him down. I wasn’t about to smoke if Bridget was on her way. That would add another month to the grounding. We waited for her arrival without speaking. He read the newspaper and I stretched out on the sofa.
I felt at home in the silence.
The doorbell rang thirty minutes after their call. I know this because I watched the arm of the clock on the wall make half a revolution around the dial as I listened to the grossly outdated music on the radio. The man removed his glasses and folded up his paper before opening the door.
“Can I help you?” He asked roughly.
“Yes, I’m Bridget, I believe you have my foster son.” I could hear the fear in her voice.
“Come in. He’s on the sofa. Not much of a talker that one.” He opened the door and pointed toward me.
“Connor!” She gasped as she saw my face.
“Thank you so much, Sir.” She turned toward the man. “Where’s your coat?” She questioned me.
“They got it.”
“Let’s get you home. You’re freezing.” Before we could leave the man went to a closet in the hallway. He brought out an old coat and offered it to me. I tried to decline, but Bridget thanked him and wrapped it around me as we made our way home.
A week later I was wearing a new coat from the thrift shop and decided I would return the old man’s coat on my way home from school. I rang the doorbell and could hear coughing and cursing from within his house.
“Can I help you?” He acted as though he had never met me before.
“Yes, Sir. You let me borrow your coat last week. I just wanted to return it and say thank you.” I stood freezing as we spoke in the doorway.
“Come in.” He ordered. I entered and was met with the familiar smell of molasses. “You don’t look like that same sorry sod was here last week.” He coughed.
“I’m doing much better.” I smiled. He coughed again as he reached into his pocket and brought out a pack of cigarettes.
“Want a light?” He offered the pack to me. This time, I accepted. I reached in and took a paper tube and pulled my own lighter from my pocket. I inhaled and felt myself relax. I took a seat on the sofa where I had laid last week.
“Was that your wife?” I asked motioning my cigarette toward the wedding photo on the wall.
“Ah, yes. Beautiful right until the end.” He took a long puff and let his mind wander back to her. Another loud bark interrupted his memories.
“Are you okay?” I asked again.
He shook his head this time opening up to me about the cancer.
I would stop there six more times over the next two months. Some days he would tell me about his wife or about the war. Other days we would sit in the smoke of silence that we shared.
A few days ago I stood on his porch with my lighter ready. I knocked. No one answered.
“Ambulance left a couple hours ago. Took Archie with ‘em.” An old lady called from across the street. I knew in that moment that he was gone. I turned to walk home and smoked a cigarette in his memory.
“For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”
I watched as they lowered Archie into the ground.