The Angel Gabriel
The triple funeral took place in a spooky old church in Missouri, one that had been built many years ago. Its clapboards were peeling white paint, and someone had carved a big cross on the wooden door and then painted it blood red. A black bell hung from a pole in the yard, and the little orphan boy peeked around the worn front pew and watched through the open portal as a scarecrow-gaunt man in a black suit pulled down hard on the long rope. The slow, steady knell sounded scary and foreboding and made him shiver.
This place was far away from where the child had lived for the first ten years of his life. He had never even visited the remote, heavily wooded hills where his momma and daddy and baby sister were to be put into the ground. He'd never met the old woman sitting beside him and patting him on the hand and telling him she was his grandma. She smelled funny, musty and dusty like the dark attic in his Pittsburgh house where white sticky cobwebs clung to the rafters, and she used an old wheelchair that squeaked when the wheels went round. He would never get to go home to that redbrick house again. And he would never, ever see his momma, daddy, or baby Katie again.
His head still hurt something awful from the terrible accident that had taken his family's lives and left him alone. The deep cut wouldn't stop hurting, and he touched the white gauze bandage where it was wrapped around his forehead. Sharp jagged pains shot through his temple and made his ear ache. His head hurt so bad that he began to cry from all the suffering and anguish and grief and confusion and the strange, frightening dreams that plagued him since he had woken up in the hospital. Tears ran down his cheeks and tasted salty.
Grandma noticed his weeping and draped her arm around his shoulder, but he didn't like the strange old lady hugging him so close. He didn't like her, or the ugly church, or all the people dressed in black hovering around and staring at him. He loved bright colors and happy people, like his momma with her long, orangey-red ponytail that swung from side to side when she walked.
He was scared. He was alone. He wished he'd died, too, in the horrible car crash that killed his family, but he'd had on his seat belt and they hadn't. He had been in the back with Katie but her car seat had not protected her the way it was supposed to. A drunk man in a black pickup truck had crossed Interstate 579 on the bridge over the Allegheny River and hit his family head-on. He never saw any of them again.
Now, weeks later, the lids on the two long white coffins were shut tight, never to be reopened. They said his baby sister was in with his momma, and his grandma said Momma would hold Katie tight in her arms until the host of angels flew down and transported them off to heaven. Furtively, the little boy shifted his gaze upward to the ceiling rafters.
An old-fashioned fan rotated slowly, making the white lilies atop the caskets sway and dip in its breeze. A sweet, flowery scent wafted to him. The dark-blue hymnals in the shelf on the pew in front of him smelled old and moldy and the fan's blades wobbled a little and squeaked rhythmically, as if they might come down on the old preacher's head. He wondered if the blades would tear the angels' wings when they fetched his family, but throughout the somber service not one angel appeared.
Maybe his family had already gone off to heaven, flown away for good without him. He should've died, too. If he could drive, he'd crash a car straight into a tree and catch up with those angels flying high in the clouds.
The preacher had short gray hair and pale skin with lots of crisscrossed lines and wrinkles, especially around his eyes. After a while, he finally quit droning, and six men in dark suits picked up the two boxes and carried them outside. The day was sunny, late summer, the twenty-fifth day of August, but the air was heavy with humidity. Sweat trickled down the boy's tight collar, and he tugged at it, hating the clothes his grandma took from a battered green footlocker in his daddy's childhood bedroom.
His coat and pants were black and smelled like her and the round white mothballs covering the bottom of the trunk. He had never seen a mothball before, and his grandma's house looked like the one in Katie's book called
Little Red Riding Hood
. It was even deeper in the woods than the church and had kerosene lamps and a hand pump in the kitchen sink. His grandma told him that she didn't believe in newfangled things, that God in heaven didn't cotton to people who were lazy. She lit candles at night and the oil lamp on his bedside table. It reminded him of the one his daddy used on camping trips. Everything in his grandma's house was sort of scary, even her, but she had been nice to him and rocked him by the fire that first night when the social worker had brought him there to live. She had wept for a long time, loud sobs that frightened him into silence.
Outside, everybody followed the coffins along a gravel path to where two rectangular holes gaped like hungry mouths. Furry green moss clung to cracked gravestones with burial dates that said 1809 and 1896 and 1937. He wondered how old his grandma was. She had deep furrows in her cheeks and blue eyes that weren't really as blue as his daddy's, but paler, as if the color had washed away.
He stood beside Grandma's wheelchair and didn't watch as they lowered the coffins, not liking to think of his family down there covered up with all that red dirt. Instead, he watched something crawling under his Grandma's thin white hair, a tiny little spider, or something. He wanted to pluck it out but was afraid to. He suddenly felt so sad that he wanted to bawl and bawl but was afraid he'd start crying and never stop. Nobody else was making a sound, just standing hushed and somber in their black clothes, like a bunch of watching crows.
“Come, child, it be over now,” his grandma whispered, when the preacher finally closed his big black Bible. “The church ladies done fixed us up a feast celebratin' your folks goin' to heaven with the angels. Don't you worry none, they're in the most wondrous place, where there ain't no hurts or fears or tribulations.”
He wondered what tribulations were as everyone filed out the gate under the big oak tree. Their shoes crunched on fallen acorns. People started to talk and laugh as if a spell had been broken. Other children ran and played tag and hide-and-seek while ladies set out food, but he wasn't hungry and didn't want to play. He wanted to be far away from them and the way they all stared at him.
Suddenly he missed his family terribly, especially Momma, and he wanted to say good-bye. He checked to see if his grandma was watching him. She was busy with the other women, so he sneaked back through the creaky metal gate. He wanted to be alone and cry where nobody could see.
The graves still lay open. Shovels were stuck in the mounds of dirt piled beside them. He stared down into the dark holes and wondered how his momma looked inside her coffin. She was real pretty, with lots of freckles and a big, beautiful smile. She must look awful now because nobody got to look at her after the wreck, but he was glad Katie was in his momma's arms. Katie was so little and sweet and would've been afraid to be alone in her own box until the angels came. He bet his daddy was lonely in his box and wished he was in there with him.
“Well, lookee here, boys! What ya doin' back out here, freak?”
Three boys were standing behind him. They were grinning but not with friendly, want-to-play-with-us? grins. They looked about his age but were all bigger than him. Afraid, he stepped away from them and stood between his parents' graves.
“I know, Freddy, let's push him in! Wanna get in there with your mommy?”
Frightened, the orphan looked down into the dark holes. “No, please don't, I don't want to.”
“You a momma's boy, you a sissy, you scared?”
One of the boys lunged around and shoved him hard in the back. The orphan almost fell before he caught himself at the edge of the grave. The other boys pushed at him, laughing, and Freddy picked up a shovel and jabbed it at him until he lost his footing. Frantically, he flailed his arms but couldn't regain his balance. He fell into the gaping hole and landed hard on his back atop his momma's coffin. The breath knocked out of him, he stared up at the blue sky. The boys' faces appeared. They looked scared. Then Freddy laughed. “C'mon, let's bury him! Get a shovel!”
Clods of red clay rained down on his head, and he screamed and jumped as high as he could, trying to grab hold of something. The dirt walls crumbled under his scratching fingernails, and he knew the sides were too high to ever get out. Terrified, he dropped to his knees on the coffin and covered his head as his tormentors shoveled dirt in on him, faster and faster, more and more, until he was half covered in it. Then the avalanche of dirt stopped abruptly, and Freddy's voice rang out, muffled, frightened, yelling something about Angel Gabriel and running. Then all was quiet.