Midnight Crossroad Page 24

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Two people from Midnight decided to attend the funeral: Fiji and Creek.

’’I must be some kind of masochist,’’ Fiji said to Mr. Snuggly as she got dressed for the service. The cat, who didn\'t often engage in conversation, looked at her as if he agreed completely. ’’First I make sure Manfred tells Bobo that Aubrey really loooooved him. Now I feel like I have to go to the damn funeral. To be his eyes and ears. You know what, Snug? I could almost not go and pretend I had. All funerals are alike, right? Aubrey\'s funeral won\'t be different from any other.’’ At least Creek was going with her. She\'d have someone to talk to on the drive.

The service was being held in a town an hour\'s drive past Marthasville, in a largish place called Buffalo Plain. When Fiji pulled up to Gas N Go, Creek came out wearing a black short-sleeved dress and carrying a white cardigan. Creek\'s only jewelry was a large silver and turquoise cross. The simplicity suited her.

Everyone has a style but me, Fiji thought glumly. When she pulled on things she liked, Fiji was pleased with how she looked, but today she\'d felt obliged to give her clothes quite a bit of thought. Black would be hypocritical, but she hadn\'t wanted to offend Aubrey\'s (presumably grieving) family by wearing something inappropriate, either. Dark brown pants and good shoes with medium heels had been her compromise, with a long-sleeved green sweater and the good gold chain and earrings she wore when she was dressed up. She\'d worked on her hopeless hair a bit, but she caught Creek looking at her head in a startled way. Fiji felt like sighing. There were those to whom style came naturally, and those who didn\'t have a clue.

Fiji was sadly aware she was one of the latter.

She and Creek got along well enough on the drive. At first, they talked about Halloween and the upcoming decorating party. Fiji would be preparing her house for the holiday, and anyone who wanted could come over to help. This was the third year in a row Fiji had held an open house on October 31. And no matter when the schools or city fathers decreed children should go trick-or-treating, Fiji celebrated on the calendar day. After they\'d discussed the plans for this year, an awkward silence fell. At least, Fiji thought it felt awkward.

’’I\'m glad you wanted to ride with me,’’ Fiji said, too abruptly. ’’I guess I didn\'t realize that you and Aubrey were close.’’ That was as close as she could come to saying, Why the hell are you volunteering to go to this funeral?

’’Aubrey didn\'t have much to do after she moved in with Bobo,’’ Creek said. ’’She cut back on her shifts at the restaurant so she could spend more time with him in the evening, when he was off work. So she\'d come over to Gas N Go, buy some Corn Nuts, hang around. She\'d talk to me and Connor.’’

’’I didn\'t realize that. I\'m sorry.’’ For the first time, Fiji realized that Creek was lonely for female companionship, and Fiji knew instantly that she should have thought about that and done a little dropping by herself.

’’She tried to be nice,’’ Creek said.

That was damning with faint praise, if Fiji had ever heard it. She said cautiously, ’’But . . . ?’’

’’Well . . . she bragged about Bobo.’’ Creek shrugged. ’’Like all the women in Midnight had been after him, but she was the one who\'d gotten him you know?’’

Two spots of color began to burn in Fiji\'s cheeks. ’’Right. As if we were all panting after him,’’ Fiji said, in a slightly choked voice.

’’Yeah. Come on! He\'s a little old for me,’’ Creek said with the sublime pride of youth. ’’He\'s got to be in his thirties, right?’’

’’Uh-huh.’’

’’So that was silly. Madonna is married to Teacher. Olivia, well, she and Lemuel . . .’’ She did look over at Fiji then, and Fiji nodded.

’’And you, well, you and Bobo are like best friends, right?’’

’’Yeah. We\'re buddies.’’ Fiji was proud of how evenly her words came out.

’’It bothered me that she couldn\'t help but flirt with every guy she saw. But she was nuts about Bobo.’’

’’I believe that, too,’’ Fiji said. ’’But she had some other reasons for going after him like she did.’’

Creek looked surprised. ’’I\'m sure she did. Living in Midnight isn\'t every girl\'s dream. I mean, I understand that she was put into position to meet him and . . . and seduce him. But I know the love came later. She was basically a good person.’’

Fiji said, ’’She was a right-wing nut.’’

Creek said, ’’You think she couldn\'t love Bobo because of her politics?’’

’’I don\'t know how much you heard when the sheriff was telling us that she had a whole backstory she hadn\'t told Bobo? Creek, the only possible reason she could have for not telling Bobo the truth about her background when she decided she loved him is that she still planned on doing whatever it was they set her up in Midnight to do. And to me that\'s just nasty.’’

’’I can\'t believe that. I know she loved him.’’ Creek\'s jaw was set in a firm line.

’’Okay, I\'ll concede the love. But if it had been true love, honest love, she would have told him her whole story.’’

’’If you think she was so devious, how come you\'re going to the funeral?’’ Creek was on the verge of being angry.

Fair question, Fiji thought. How to answer it?

’’I\'m a proxy for Bobo,’’ she said. ’’The family doesn\'t want him there.’’

This, too, was news to Creek. ’’Why not?’’ she asked, clearly indignant.

’’They know he didn\'t have any part in her death, but they\'re still resentful,’’ Fiji said. ’’I\'m going so if he wants to know anything about it, I can tell him. He didn\'t ask me to do this,’’ she added, in the spirit of absolute honesty.

’’I understand,’’ Creek said. She\'d calmed down. ’’I think that\'s pretty nice of you.’’

They rode a few minutes in silence. Then Creek said, ’’What do you think about Manfred?’’

Fiji was tempted to say, Why do you ask? But that would just be mean. ’’I don\'t know him very well, but so far, so good. He seems to fit into Midnight, and he seems like an interesting guy. What do you think?’’

’’I think what he does is kind of weird,’’ Creek said, as if she wanted to be persuaded otherwise. ’’I can\'t decide if he really believes he\'s a psychic or if he\'s a con man. I don\'t know which would be worse.’’

’’I\'m surprised that\'s a problem for you, since you\'re so fond of Lemuel.’’

Creek was clearly taken aback. Fiji wondered what the girl had expected her to say.

’’Well, Uncle Lemuel . . .’’ Creek began, and then faltered. ’’I do know what Uncle Lem is, but he\'s never been anything but wonderful to me.’’

’’Then Manfred might be no different.’’ Fiji struggled to keep her tone neutral.

’’I guess my dad is so cynical it\'s rubbed off,’’ Creek said, her voice stiff and resentful.

’’Just think about it,’’ Fiji said, sorry that they were not happier with each other, and wondering what else she could have said. Creek might be too young to take a direct conversation. Or maybe she herself was being a jerk. She felt that was all too possible. She said, ’’And there . . . that would be the turn to the left we have to make?’’

Creek consulted the directions they\'d printed off Fiji\'s computer. ’’That should be the turn, and then in three point four miles we make a right on Alamo Street. Then our destination will be on the right in half a mile. Solomon True Baptist.’’

Even the name of the church made Fiji feel gloomy when she eyed it on a large sign a few minutes later. The words were printed in Gothic lettering on a white background, and from the spotlight, it was illuminated when night fell. The overcast day depressed her even more.

Though they\'d arrived thirty minutes early, there were already vehicles in the parking lot. They dawdled in the car for a few minutes, checking their phones and chatting very cautiously. But cars and trucks and vans began to fill the spaces on the graveled parking area, and Fiji and Creek sighed simultaneously and got out of the car to walk to the door. Solomon True Baptist was a low building made with yellow brick, sporting unnecessary white columns that were supposed to look as though they held up the porch roof. To make absolutely sure the building was identifiable, a short spire squatted on the roof. Some church member with time and talent had created beautiful flower beds around the building, though they were faded with the onset of fall.

Fiji stopped at a pew close to the rear of the church, and she and Creek moved in after taking a program from one of the ushers. The pianist was playing a selection of somber hymns. Listening to the dark tones of the music, Fiji was terrifyingly, abruptly shocked all over again by the fact that a human being, a person she\'d known, was gone forever. She hadn\'t liked Aubrey, and nothing she\'d discovered about the woman after her death had changed that opinion, but purposeful eradication of another human being . . . that went against everything she\'d been taught by Great-Aunt Mildred.

Great-Aunt Mildred had not believed in striking the first blow. She had believed in self-defense. Fiji found it impossible to believe that Aubrey had had a chance to save her own life.

Fiji glanced sideways at her young companion. Creek looked serious but not sad. Fiji thought, She\'s been to a few funerals before.

As the doleful music continued, for want of anything better to do, Fiji examined the cover of the program. Centered on it was a photo of Aubrey, with a sort of halo effect around it, as if she\'d been snapped against a sunset. In a font resembling script, the obituary read:

Our sister Aubrey Hamilton Lowry, beloved daughter of Destin and Lucyfay Hamilton, sister of Macon, widow of Chad Lowry, will be sadly missed by those who knew her. For many years Aubrey attended church here, and she graduated from Buffalo Plain High School. She was a waitress in Oklahoma while she was married to Chad, and upon his death she returned to Texas. After working in Davy, she met her death by human hands, for reasons not yet clear to us.

Praise be to God! All will be known on the Day of Judgment. For it is not for us to judge God\'s actions. ’’They went to bury her, but they found nothing more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands.’’ (2 Kings 9:35)

Fiji put her hand over her mouth. Creek, who had just read the same passage, turned to Fiji. For once, the two women were in accord. They silently grimaced at each other to manifest their disgust. But at that moment the music swelled, and the mourners followed a silent hand gesture from the man standing at the front of the church and rose to their feet. The coffin came in on its gurney, guided by two funeral home attendants, with Aubrey\'s family walking in behind it.

The couple at the head of the mourners must be the parents. To Fiji\'s faint surprise, they were only in their forties. Under ordinary circumstances, she realized they\'d be vital and attractive people. Aubrey had definitely inherited her looks and charm from her father, who had his arm around a small, frail woman dressed in navy blue.

The other family members she could only guess about: the brother, Macon, was probably the big guy whose eyes were red with weeping. There was a man who (going on looks) must be Mr. Hamilton\'s brother, accompanied by his sturdy wife and their kids, who were in their early twenties. Cousins. There was one grandmother, tiny like Aubrey\'s mom. Once they were all seated, the funeral began.

To the fidgety Fiji, the service seemed to take forever. There were prayers and Bible readings and anecdotes. To Fiji\'s dismay, several people read poems or essays that described a very different woman from the one Fiji had known. Fiji noticed that even Creek looked uncomfortable as they listened to stories about how gentle Aubrey had been, how loving and thoughtful. And yet, if you listened with unkind ears (or as Fiji preferred to call it, ’’an open mind’’), you could hear that all had not been well in Aubrey land. A careful listener like Fiji could hear that Aubrey had not communicated much with her parents or with her in-laws in the past couple of years, that she\'d liked to party hard, that she\'d been overly influenced by those around her.

There were more prayers, and the minister\'s well-constructed homily that was so touching even Fiji grew more solemn. She glanced at her companion to see that Creek was crying. Fiji fumbled in her bag for a tissue to pass to the girl. Creek gave Fiji a grateful look and used it to blot her cheeks and her nose.

By the time Fiji thought she was growing roots in the pew, after yet another prayer, the service was over.

When Aubrey had left her parents\' church for the last time, Fiji said, ’’Do you want to go out to the cemetery?’’

Creek, who had recovered her composure, nodded. ’’I guess so,’’ she said. ’’It just seems polite.’’

Fiji joined the funeral procession, feeling like a fraud as the oncoming cars pulled off to the side of the road, and people standing on the sidewalks of Buffalo Plain took off their hats or stood at attention as the hearse drove by. About three miles out of town, the land began to rise again. They turned off the state highway to take a narrow road that jinked its way up a rolling hill. At the very top they entered the cemetery, the culmination of the road. The grounds were not fenced. There was a metal sign to the right of the entrance that read PIONEER REST. The graveyard was an old one;Fiji saw headstones that dated back to the early eighteen hundreds.

There were live oaks shading some of the older graves, and little brown leaves fluttered in the wind that scoured the hilltop. It was quiet and peaceful, or at least it would be after all the mourners left.

’’It\'s like we\'re an interruption,’’ Fiji said to Creek, who gave her a surprised look. Fiji wondered if she could come back on some other occasion, just to read the headstones.


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