By Dave Creek
The dark wood of the walls in the visitation room is muted. Matt feels as if it's designed to absorb all the color and all the emotions from its surroundings.
Why, he wonders, do such rooms never have windows? Wouldn't it be a comfort to see sunlight streaming in, to feel its warmth? Wouldn't it connect us to that broader world that still awaits us after this ritual of remembrance ends?
Then, his next thought: Perhaps that's the point. We release our grief into this room, then we release ourselves back into the world, squinting into the sunlight.
But Matt realizes that isn't working. The only emotions anyone has expressed about the sudden death of his wife Diane and daughter Megan are quiet condolences. He expects more from these friends, even though it's been years since he's seen some of them.
There's Gene, for instance – he and Matt had shared joints all through college, and he'd slept with his sister a couple of times back then. When those close encounters were revealed, Matt had been afraid he'd be pissed, but Gene just laughed, saying he was glad two people he loved were having a good time.
On this day, however, Gene provides only a loose, shoulders-only hug and some obvious platitudes about how great a woman Diane was and how much potential Megan had.
Then there were Bob and Annie from work, the two of them constant jokesters who help one another as well as Matt make it through the long days at their big box store, dealing on the one hand with managers who regard them all with suspicion, fearful they may spend half a minute away from their tasks, and on the other hand with customers demanding concierge-style service from minimum-wage workers.
As Bob and Annie approach Matt, they're poking each other in the ribs as they try, mostly unsuccessfully, to suppress laughter. "Sorry," Annie says through a final giggle. "We really are sorry." Each of them manages to maintain appropriately sad expressions as they deliver some worthy platitudes of their own. The instant they walk away, though, the poking and giggling start up again.
Matt wonders if these reactions are due to the shock, the suddenness of Diane and Megan's deaths. Dark, narrow mountain road on the way back from a trip to her parents, two states away. Drunk driver, Patricia Van Buren, coming the opposite direction on a curve near her own home. The crash.
Matt hesitates to take another glance at his two loved ones in their caskets, to stand over them and stare down one more time at their still features.
I don't want to imagine Diane's face not engaged in constant movement, he thinks. I'm so accustomed to her eyebrows arching upward when we disagree, her mouth sketching a sideways smile after one of my lame jokes, her hands gesturing every which-way as she tries to make a point.
And Megan – how could I think of seeing her when she wasn't tilting her head to one side and rolling her eyes as she listens to one of my parental rants, or making those furtive glances at me and getting up from the living room couch when her latest boyfriend calls? But also coming to me on the couch and curling up next to me without a word needed.
I know why I'm so numb, he thinks. I need someone to blame. The obvious target would be Patricia Van Buren. But she's dead, too, and she's beyond any idea of justice.
It's a void Matt is only just becoming aware he's trying to fill.
A stranger enters the visitation room, looks around, and his eyes widen with recognition as he spots Matt. Walks toward him with purpose. But as the man stares into Matt's eyes, he struggles to find words. Is this some co-worker of Diane's, or the parent of one of Megan's friends?
The man's suit is nicely tailored, while Matt's is a bit threadbare. The other man walks toward him with a confidence that tells Matt this is someone much more accustomed to such dress. For his part, Matt has spent much of his time pulling at his collar and re-centering his tie.
The man extends his hand: "I had to come here. I had to tell you how sorry I was. I'm...Frederick Van Buren."
The drunk driver's husband. Now all the pent-up emotions surge within Matt, everything that's been building since that knock on the door at two in the morning that revealed a police officer and a chaplain. Since the failure of denial. Since having to cope with arrangements and countless other practicalities all alone, as an only child whose parents had passed years earlier and who isn't close to other family members.
He jerks his hand from Van Buren's grasp, and is about to release that surge of emotions in an angry confrontation – why the hell would this man come here to add to his grief? How could he ever think he's someone whose presence could give him some comfort?
But he imagines Diane's hand on his shoulder, stopping him cold. Of course she would intuit his reaction and with a whisper into his ear would delay his outburst just for one moment, that single moment that would let his initial reaction subside.
Matt's voice is calmer than he imagined: "What do you want?"
Van Buren swallows. Licks his lips. "Only...to tell you how sorry I am. I never knew your wife, your daughter, of course. But I've seen the pictures of them on TV. Your wife looked to be so kind. I could see it in her eyes. I know she had to be a good mother. And your daughter – I bet she was devoted to you."
As he speaks, Van Buren's gaze falls from Matt's face, and Matt perceives guilt in those eyes. He finds his anger beginning to fade, even as he wills himself to hold onto it as the only thing that anchors his emotions right now.
But he can't sustain that. This man's not responsible for what his wife did, he thinks. And he has his own grieving to do, his own sense of that void he needs to fill.
Matt takes a deep breath. Decides to take the high road. "Well, Mr. Van Buren, I appreciate those thoughts. I imagine it took a bit of courage to come here."
Van Buren looks at Matt again. "Actually, I didn't have the courage to live with myself if I hadn't come here."
Matt can only nod and give Van Buren a wan smile. Van Buren tells Matt, "I'll be thinking of you in my prayers." He looks away from Matt, turns, and heads for the hallway.
* * *
Two days later. Matt trudges into his empty home just after 1:30 in the morning after a long shift. Everything from wrangling heavy boxes to helping a crying child find a lost parent.
Anything to keep from facing his grief straight-on. He wonders when he'll be able to let himself cry.
He pours a glass of milk because it's easier than making a cup of coffee or tea. Takes those couple of steps to the kitchen table. Moves aside a laptop computer to make room for his milk. Sits.
The past few months, he'd already been missing Megan's presence after she'd gone away to college. But at least Diane had still been here, and even now his ears strained to hear the squeaking of bedsprings, the padding of bare feet from the bedroom. She always got up to give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek and ask about his day, even when it meant less sleep for her when she arose for her early morning departure to her grocery store job.
After a couple of sips of milk, Matt's mind begins to engage again, but his thoughts head down paths he doesn't want to explore just yet.
Without thinking, he pulls the laptop close and starts it up.
Home page: Facebook. He scrolls past more condolences, some from people who showed up for the visitation and funeral, others from people who couldn't/didn't.
After a moment, Matt spots the red notification at the top of the screen. Friend request. He clicks on it.
Frederick Van Buren.
Goddam no, is his first thought and his right hand darts to the mouse, but it's shaking with so much emotion that he can't center the cursor on the offending dot.
He lets go the mouse and grasps his right hand with his left. And again the anger begins to fade, and he realizes that from outside this empty house, someone has reached out to him in shared grief.
Another moment of hesitation, then he clicks ACCEPT. Goes to bed, as always lying on "his" side, despite Diane's absence. As his slips into sleep, he wonders whether he'll ever find it natural to lie in the middle of the bed.
* * *
The next morning, Matt's cell rings as he roams through a grocery, trying to focus on what items he's low on at home. He shifts a package of toilet paper and a carton of eggs onto his left arm as he fumbles with his right hand to retrieve the phone, thinking he should've gotten a cart.
It's Frederick Van Buren.
Shit, Matt thinks. The Facebook friending was more than enough. He asks, "How'd you get this number?"
Frederick says "lawyer friends" found it for him, and he hopes he hasn't caught Matt at a bad moment.
Matt lets Frederick know he hasn't had a lot of good moments lately, and that he's busy in the grocery.
"It's not the grocery where..."
"Where Diane worked? No." He doesn't want to elaborate to Frederick that he doesn't want to have to listen to her co-workers telling him how sorry they are.
"Listen," Frederick says, "I'd like to get together with you."
Matt stops cold in the middle of an aisle. A woman pushing an overflowing grocery cart gives him a dirty look as she squeezes past him. He demands to know why Frederick would suggest that.
Frederick believes, he says, that the two of them could console one another.
Matt says, "You worried a minute ago about whether I should go to my wife's grocery. But now I should spend time with the husband of the woman who killed my family?"
Frederick makes his case – his own issues he's dealing with, the guilt he knows he has no reason to feel about the crash, but which tortures him anyway.
Matt searches mentally for a way to blow off the idea, but then Frederick says, "The police have been speaking to me about Patricia. About how much I knew about her drinking."
Matt considers this while clutching his toilet paper and eggs tightly as a couple more shoppers squeeze past him. Finally he tells Frederick, "How about tomorrow at noon? The Goal Post?"
Frederick doesn't answer at first, and Matt wonders whether Frederick would be comfortable wearing his fine suit at a sports bar.
Then Frederick says, "How about Charlie Winston's? Don't worry. I'll buy. And they don't care if you wear jeans for lunch."
Matt agrees, but as Frederick hangs up, he wonders what he's gotten himself into.
* * *
More dark walls, is one of Matt's first thoughts as he sits across from Frederick at Charlie Winston's. His furtive glances around tell him that jeans are, although acceptable here, worn only by a minority. I'd bet a lot of these nicely dressed fellas in here make more in a month than I do in a year, he thinks, noting Frederick's own immaculate suit, a different one from the one he wore to Diane and Megan's funeral.
A waiter arrives to take their drink order and Frederick orders something called a Caipirninha. "It's kind of like a daiquiri," he tells Matt, who orders whatever's on draft.
As the waiter departs, Frederick buries his head in the menu as Matt looks on. Eventually Frederick, from behind the menu, asks whether Matt's ever been to this restaurant before.
Matt explains he's more of a McDonald's or Wendy's kinda guy. Maybe Steak 'n Shake, if he has coupons.
When the drinks arrive, the waiter asks for their food orders. Frederick orders the Garlic-Rosemary Cornish game hen.
Matt takes a final look at his own copy of the extensive menu and says, "Chicken fingers." He could swear the waiter looks disdainfully at his jeans and takes the menu from him as if it's contaminated.
With no menu to act as shield, Frederick's gaze darts around the room. He rubs his hands together, taps his fingers on the table, then forces his palms down flat. Matt is content to sit in silence and watch this drama play out.
Frederick swallows. Licks his lips. This is a replay of the scene from the visitation room, Matt thinks.
Finally Frederick asks Matt how he's holding together.
I still haven't cried, Matt thinks, but isn't about to say that to this man.
Frederick pushes on. "I mean, I know what it's like to lose your wife. But you lost your daughter, too."
A silence lengthens, and Matt feels no need to fill it. I made a mistake coming here, he thinks.
Frederick takes another sip of his Caipirninha. Places the glass back onto the table with a measured movement. Says, "The police are still asking questions. About Patricia."
Matt works to keep his expression neutral. He's determined to wait Frederick out.
Frederick pulls at his collar. The police, it seems, want to know often Patricia drank, how drunk she'd habitually get. He tells Matt, "The...uh...deaths of your wife and daughter are officially a homicide."
Matt tells Frederick he knows that.
Frederick reaches for his Caipirninha, takes a sip, lowers it partway. The glass partially obscures Frederick's face. "I wish I didn't feel so guilty."
After only a moment's hesitation, Matt asks, "Do you have anything to – "
Frederick interrupts. "Of course not." He explains Patricia had been laid off from her job at a non-profit that collects food for underprivileged children.
Matt asks Frederick what he does. Work in securities, is the answer. Frederick says he's financially secure, but that Patricia was a bit of a clothes horse, and liked getting her hair and nails done at "fancy places." She'd run up a lot of credit card debt. "And I never noticed. Pretty dumb for someone who works in the financial field, huh?"
Matt has no reason to disagree, and no reason to state that out loud. He asks, "What do you want from me?"
Frederick runs his hands along the sides of his glass. "Just...someone who understands what I'm going through."
Matt sits back as the waiter brings their food. Frederick sits with a fork poised over his Garlic-Rosemary Cornish game hen, looking at it as if he'd ordered something different.
Matt pushes chicken fingers around on his plate. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the first signs of a stir at the restaurant's entrance. A bit of movement, people whispering. Two uniformed police officers, a man and a woman, are entering, along with another man in plainclothes who also gives off that unmistakable vibe of law enforcement.
Frederick's back is to the entrance. "I don't think we're going to be friends," Matt tells him. Their waiter is speaking with the officers, pointing toward the table where Matt and Frederick are sitting. A nod from a uniformed officer, a two-fingered wave from the plainclothes one, and the three head toward their table, every customer's gaze following them. They're barely two steps away before Frederick notices.
The plainclothes officer looks at Frederick. "Anton Frederick Van Buren?"
Frederick puts down his fork, places both hands flat on the table, and straightens his back. "Yes, I'm Frederick Van Buren."
"Detective Edward Galvan. You're under arrest in connection with the murders of Diane Sullivan and Megan Sullivan..."
Matt gasps. How could Frederick be the one who killed his family? He wasn't even in the car.
Galvan continues: "...and Patricia Van Buren."
Matt stands and stares at Frederick, who is still sitting calmly, as if this turn of events is one he's expected. Frederick lifts his napkin, gently pats his mouth, and stands.
Galvan says, "Don't give us any trouble, and we'll do the cuffs outside."
"That's fair," Frederick says. To Matt, he says, "I really did feel guilty. My reaching out to you was sincere."
Galvan nods toward the uniformed officers and they lead Frederick toward the front of the restaurant. He looks at Matt. "You're Mr. Sullivan?"
Now it's Matt's turn to nod. It's all he can muster. It's difficult for him to absorb what Galvan tells him next, that Patricia Van Buren had no history of alcoholism, had never been treated for it, friends and neighbors saw no sign of it, and her autopsy showed no sign of alcohol abuse.
The marital troubles, Galvan explains, including the loss of her job and the credit card debt, provided motive. Bruising on Patricia's arms and a couple of chipped teeth indicated a struggle; Galvan says he believes Frederick forced a combination of bourbon and vodka down his wife's throat. Somehow he convinced her to drive away, perhaps with threats of more violence.
"He wanted to her to die," Galvan says. "But he never considered she might take someone else with her."
That someone was my family, Matt thinks, and the thought that Frederick isn't beyond justice leads him to rush toward the front of the restaurant and pound Frederick from behind with both his fists.
It's only as the uniformed officers and Galvan pull him off Frederick and he starts to sink to the floor that he realizes that void within him is finally filled and, heedless of all the eyes upon him, the tears begin to flow.
Dave Creek mostly writes science fiction, but is also enamored of crime fiction. His short stories have appeared in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT and APEX magazines, and the anthologies FAR ORBIT APOGEE, TOUCHING THE FACE OF THE COSMOS, and DYSTOPIAN EXPRESS.
He is the author of the SF novel SOME DISTANT SHORE, with two more, CHANDA’S AWAKENING and THE UNMOVING STARS, forthcoming.
Find out more about Dave’s work at www.davecreek.net and on Facebook at Fans of Dave Creek.
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