Karen Raylor pauses and looks at her feet. The audience’s laughter is diminishing but holds on, and Karen is glad they enjoyed her anecdote so much, for it buys her a moment of recomposure. What she is about to say has been a foundational element of her childhood, and she knows that quoting it will be emotional.
“Nana taught me so many things. Taught all of us so many things. But by far, the most important thing Nana ever taught me was that nobody is more valuable than anyone else.” Karen sees dozens of heads nodding. “I remember her saying, ‘The only person you can ever be better than is yourself. Take care that you’re better than your past self, not your future self.’” The audience laughs again, less emphatically but with a clear tone of warmth. Karen manages to keep her voice from breaking as she speaks. Then she glances at her teenage cousin, Abby, whose silent laughter barely alters her tear-soaked visage of open grief. Karen quickly shifts her gaze to her feet again, but not before her empathy kicks in and her vision turns watery. Idiot! she thinks. You knew better than to look at Abby!
But, Nana also taught Karen never to be ashamed of her emotions with people she trusts, so she takes a deep breath and looks around the room again. She sees even more eyes shining with tears than before. Karen gives one small laugh.
“Sorry to do that to you, but I guess we’re supposed to cry when great people die, aren’t we? I know Nana would have wanted us to laugh, but I think she also would have wanted us to cry. She always said it was okay to cry.” Karen’s voice falters and the audience becomes as blurry as though a sprinkler caught Karen in the face. “Thanks,” she says as her closing to family and friends, and then half-turns toward the casket and says, “I love you, Nana.” Karen blinks hard one time and is able to see well enough to make her way back to her front-row seat.
More people come up after Karen, each having a varying ability to speak in public but all with funny stories and wise quotes from Karen’s grandmother. By the time the service is over, Karen has laughed and cried so much that she’s exhausted, but she also feels immensely peaceful. It is perhaps the best funeral she’s ever attended.
Aunt Doris and Uncle Jared drive Karen out to the cemetery. It’s perfect for her — they carry on low conversation up front, leaving her to stare out the windows and reminisce. A few weeks earlier, the trees had begun to shed their summer jackets and don fall coats of yellow and red and purple. Karen smiles, recalling how fond Nana had been of autumn, how she had made it special for the family with her homemade pies of apple or pumpkin, the wreaths and other decorations she lovingly gave out to everyone, and the cackling impersonations of witches she eagerly performed as Halloween approached, making the children of the extended family laugh and shy away at the same time. Karen chuckles to herself.
As the more somber event of the graveside service goes on, Karen withdraws into her mind. Nana, she thinks, I’ll always keep you in my heart, but I already miss you more than I can bear. Losing Mom and Dad when I was a teen, the rest of my grandparents soon after… Brad just a few… Karen’s tears surge again as she thinks of her husband who had died two years earlier, a month shy of their ten-year anniversary. You were all I had left, Nana. Yeah, I have other family, and a few good friends, but you were the most important… Karen’s thought dissolves as her grief takes over again.
Finally, the long day is over and Karen sits in her squishiest chair with Mr. Totsley purring on her lap, his eyes closed and a feline smile on his face. She massages under his jaw and stares out the window at the brilliant orange and pink clouds, knowing that winter will soon add its steely cast to every sunset.
Karen looks over at the small stack of cards bearing her name. She doesn’t know how many times she’s glanced at them, but she still isn’t sure she’s ready to dive back into grief, whose waters are at once stinging and numbing. Eventually, she convinces herself.
The first card is nice. It has pretty images of flowers and store-written words that border on cheesy but are sentimental and mostly fitting. The second is much the same, but with an eagle flying over a river and mountains in the background. Third, the same. Fourth, the same.
Fifth. Something about the way the sender has written “Karen” on the envelope makes all her skin stand at cold attention. The front of the card is blank, furthering the sensation. Inside:
Seems you’ve had a rough couple years, but I’ll make it all better. This is long overdue. We never should have broken up. I know you still love ME.
Karen startles and draws in a sharp breath. The card flies out of her hands and Mr. Totsley off her lap, his rear legs pressing hard into her thigh. She stares at the card where it landed upside down on the floor. It seems a living thing, a portal that might open of its own accord and reveal a face. His face, staring at her with an artificial smile and feverish eyes that are reckless and needy.
ME. Mercer Evans. Karen rationalizes that it could have been someone playing a horrid joke, but she intuits that the handwriting is authentic. She hasn’t heard from him in fifteen years. Their short, toxic relationship has rarely crossed her mind since she married Brad, except as brief, painless memories. Karen knows she’s much stronger than the young woman she was then. No longer naive or overly trusting. Self-reliant, and loving life no less, but also skeptical.
Still… He was at the funeral, she thinks. He actually came there to deliver the card. For a moment, she feels like that naive girl of twenty-one again, caught up in Mercer’s exhilarating abandon and his apathetic chaos.
Karen, stop, she tells herself, closing her eyes. You’re an adult woman now. Strong. Mercer was a mistake. A terrible, scarring mistake, but you can’t change it, and you grew immensely as a result. If he comes around again…
She snaps her eyes open, expecting to see him peering in the window with that fake smile. She forces her eyelids back together.
If he comes around again, you can deal with it. You can.
Karen leaves all the cards as they are. She finds Mr. Totsley in the kitchen, hunched under the table and peering at her, his green eyeshine partly active in the shadows. She smiles at him, and he replies, “Maooo!” as he trots out and rolls onto his back. Karen rubs his belly. He purrs, all forgiven.
In bed, Karen sets down the paperback murder mystery she’s reading, which seems less appealing than before. She turns off the light and stares at her closed, light-blocking curtains. Listens to the cold murmur of fall’s night breath as it rustles dead leaves and bends trees into creaking postures. Karen is indeed far stronger than she had been, and she’s able to mostly force Mercer from her thoughts, focusing instead on Nana and the rest of the family. And yet, Mercer has claimed a small place in her mind, and Karen knows he’s going to try taking more.
* * *
Mercer Evans guns his aging muscle car as he turns onto his street, returning from his weekly trip to the nursing home. He roars past fall colors so rich that most people find them mesmerizing, not that Mercer notices or would give a sideways flying gorilla fuck if he did.
Ahead, in the middle of his lane, Mercer spots the body of a squirrel stuck to the pavement. It’s been severely compressed by repeated applications of intense pressure from his tires. The creature’s tail is still mostly undamaged, and the wind flicks it upward as though the squirrel might pop its body back into shape and dart off the road like in a cartoon. The contrast of tail and body make Mercer laugh every time, although not as hard as when the squirrel had first fled his metal stallion and Mercer had expertly swerved to run right over it. He crosses the center line yet again, smashing the abused body down a little further and just missing the tail. He chuckles and shakes his head. “Dumb fucker.”
Mercer pulls into his driveway. Walking to his front door, he gives a customary long glance in both directions. He never knows when some dumbass might come looking for a fight, and he sure as hell isn’t going to be caught off guard.
The living room is in its usual state of dirty orderliness. The furniture is all perfectly placed but covered in a layer of dust. And old radio sits dismantled in a corner, its electronic guts scattered around it on the floor along with tools from the nearby toolbox, all of which he set at right angles and equidistant from one another after he last worked on the radio two weeks earlier. A dozen beer bottles stand in a neat row on the coffee table like resolute soldiers, the pristine uniforms of their labels facing precisely the same direction, each bottle empty save for a few drops that give off a faint, skunky perfume. They’ve been there for several days, and Mercer figures he’ll take care of them eventually, but he enjoys seeing them in a line. He also likes to sit on the couch and hold the neck of one between his line of sight and the windows, slowly spinning the brown glass, his mouth gaping slightly as his mind soaks in the murky tones that the sky takes on. That was his idea of mesmerizing, not sissy shit like fall leaves.
Glancing down the neck of the bottle to the label, Mercer’s eyes narrow as he takes in the generously curvy form of the female demon it depicts. Double Desdemona, the label claims, and Mercer smiles as his gaze shifts back and forth from her hell melons to her fanged grin.
“Baby, I’d rather fuck you than any of the stupid bitches up here,” he says. “Except Karen Dean.” Mercer rolls his eyes. “I mean, Karen Raylor. Still can’t believe she married that needle-dick faggot. Whatever. He’s maggot mulch now.” Mercer laughs and runs his thumb up and down the label. In his head, he grips the demon’s red flesh and tears off her black clothing, what little there is of it. He goes further into the fantasy and indulges himself right there in the living room, completely go-fuck-yourself heedless of who might see.
When he finishes, Mercer’s mind returns to Karen. Yeah, Karen. You and I are gonna have fun, just like the old days. A whole fuckin lotta fun. Returning the beer bottle to its precise location in the row, he is completely uninterested in the demoness and her eleven identical sisters. All he can think about is how to make his next move with Karen.
* * *
Karen awakens to the pleasantly confident songs of birds seeking mates. She pulls back the heavy curtains and soaks up the final minutes of the sun’s morning show as she watches the birds flit from the trees to her multiple feeders, jostling for position and snagging a few seeds or giving up and returning to their branches with empty beaks. It takes a few minutes before she notices the oddity that lays off to one side.
Scrunching her brow, Karen leans closer to the window. Each exhalation creates twin cones of fog on the cold panes that fade before she fully inhales.
The leaves have fallen in an odd way, making long rises like speed bumps, but curved. Her face smooths out and her eyes widen as Karen realizes that what she’s staring at has the shape of a heart. I know you still love ME, she hears Mercer say in her head.
Karen steps back and away from the window. She turns around and stares at the floor, not seeing it. He was here. He was actually here.
Chapter 1 Choice: What should Karen do about the assumed contacts from Mercer?
- Friend: Get together with her best friend and talk about it. (21%)
- Investigate: Find out if Mercer is still around: where he lives, where he works. (26%)
- Nothing: Ignore it and go on with her life. (11%)
- Police: Tell them about the card, the leaves, and her history with Mercer. (42%)
This poll closed on October 15th, 2017.