Discover more from Gary Paul Varner
THE TEMPLE OF MAGGIE STONE
Chapter 5: Funeral
Robert came to the funeral but did not sit by his father and sister. He gave a warm, heart-felt eulogy, but once it was over, he stepped down from the podium and sat near the back without looking at Ray or Ashley. As the preacher spoke, he glanced at them from time to time, but mostly, he stared at the ground.
Maggie sat behind the tinted window of a rented SUV. As frightening as the possibility was, Maggie couldn’t help but wonder if her son was right. What if the real her was gone? What if the real her had died during the operation? She’d never believed in the soul, and she didn’t feel any different, but what if there was some part of her that was missing? It was a terrifying question, a question which could never be answered.
Despite Ray’s objections, Maggie had decided to stay in the van and watch the funeral from afar because, unlike Dr. Lane who seemed to derive real pleasure from watching her old body rot, Maggie had no desire to see her corpse. Also, there was Ray’s reputation to consider. Ray was not the type to care what other people thought about him, but Maggie worried enough for the both of them. She did not want her family to be tainted by the neighborhood gossip. While she respected and loved her immediate family, her more distant relations gossiped enough to support the grapevine with their own hot air. If she risked coming to her own funeral, they would begin talking about Ray’s long-lost daughter from the past affair, or even worse, think he’d picked up a hot, new trophy wife. What she found even more terrible, now that she’d had time to think about it, was that had she not been in the casket herself, she would’ve been gossiping with them. It seemed awfully shallow while sitting in the van, but had she been sitting outside, watching the coffin and refusing to think about mortality, whatever they conjured up would’ve seemed very important.
There was a third reason she’d stayed in the van. She didn’t want to hear the speeches. She didn’t want to hear what others were saying about her. Maggie didn’t know what her old life’s legacy was, but she was afraid it might not be worth very much, and this possibility hurt somewhere deep. So, she sat watching the ceremony while listening to the faint hum of the air-conditioning in the SUV.
The last speaker, a young preacher who was clearly just practicing under the guidance of an older one, stepped down and a long line formed in front of her casket. Maggie watched each person pass by. There was Elaine Rogers, her oldest and dearest friend. The old woman bent down and feebly kissed the dead face in the casket. Next, Millie Franks said a few words and left. Then came Dana Carpenter who placed something inside the casket and walked away. This went on for half an hour, first her friends, then Ray’s side of the family, followed by her own, ending with her immediate family. Ashley came first. She looked at the casket then back at the SUV. Then, once again, she looked down at the casket and back at the SUV. Ray squeezed her arm gently, and Ashley reluctantly returned to her seat. Ray stood over the casket for a long time. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there. A small part of Maggie was afraid Ray would start talking to the body as if his wife had really left. She didn’t think she could handle that. But he didn’t say anything. He simply stared. Finally, to Maggie’s relief, he too went back to his seat. The last person to approach was Robert. He just stared at the corpse, weeping bitterly. Everyone let him have his goodbye. It broke Maggie’s heart to see him in such pain, but the only thing she could do now was hope he would come around.
After Robert had collected himself enough to take a seat, the older, more experienced preacher said some last words and a final prayer, then two pallbearers closed the casket. People started back for their vehicles. My old life is being buried in that casket. It was a strange thought, but it was true. Here she was, alive and well, but she would never speak to Elaine, Millie or Dana again. Never again would they be sitting together in Dana’s living room, drinking tea…or margaritas…and talking about their small suburb. She would never get to hear their sweet fragile laughs as they lovingly discussed the failings of their husbands. They would never hold each other when one of those husbands died. They would never again get to complain about the new generation. She was the new generation. She was the very thing they’d spent so many afternoons complaining about, or at least, she’d have to learn how to be. Maggie had survived her ordeal with cancer, but she was alone. All alone, except for Ashley and Ray, and unless she could talk Ray into taking one of those bodies, soon it would only be her and Ashley. But Ashley had her own life, and it didn’t feel right to intrude. And wasn’t that just what she was doing? Ashley would have to spend the next few months teaching Maggie how to live in the new world, but what about after? Was she going to cling to her daughter forever? That didn’t seem fair. Ashley still needed to find a husband, and while she was too old to bear children, they might still be able to adopt. But could she do anything like that with her mother constantly around, interjecting herself into her daughter’s little world? Maggie began to feel like she was committing a crime. What had people called Frankenstein? A monster? An abomination? She stared into the rear-view mirror, looking at her dark green eyes and hair. She wasn’t natural. She was beautiful, but she wasn’t natural.
Ray, Ashley and Robert remained a while longer, speaking with family and friends. The large, open tent which housed the funeral-goers had been put away, and the chairs were all stacked in neat rows on the grass. Then, as if her thoughts were reflected in the sky, she heard a roll of thunder. Everyone looked up and started moving toward their vehicles. Someone pressed a button, and the casket began to lower. Maggie shuddered. As the coffin disappeared underground, she felt something behind her, an accusing presence, as if death was a real entity after all. She imagined the grim reaper staring at her.
“You cheated,” it whispered.
For a split second, she felt an icy hand on her shoulder, and she quickly turned to see nothing. Had she really heard it? The voice sounded real, but it couldn’t be. As she scanned the other seats, the feeling faded but not much. A shadow fell on the cemetery. A second low murmur of thunder echoed through the clouds. Ashley hugged her father while Robert nodded to them politely and jogged to his car. When Ashley and Ray reached the driver side door, Maggie heard Ashley ask her father if he felt he could drive. Ray insisted he was fine, and she reluctantly let him open the door and sit down.
Ashley looked into the back seat. “I’ll talk to you soon, Mom.”
“I know, Dear,” Maggie said. “Talk to you soon.”
Ashley nodded and closed the door, leaving Ray and Maggie alone. They were both silent until Ray let out a long, tired sigh before turning on the car. “Are you going to get a haircut?” he asked.
“No,” Maggie replied. “I think I’ll keep it long. I like it. But I would like to get some dye on the way home. Black. I think black is just about the only color that is going to overpower this ridiculous green.”
“Yeah,” Ray said. “You do look like an angry teenage girl.” The two stared at each other for a moment and started to laugh. When the laughter dwindled, Ray added, “We might want to get you some colored contacts. They have those now. Can you believe it? Ashley says people wear colored lenses so they can have eyes like yours!” He shook his head. “What a time.”
“Yeah,” Maggie sighed. “What a time.” She gave him a sly look and began rummaging through her oversized purse. “I have something for you.” After another minute of digging, Maggie pulled out a prescription bottle. She shook the bottle, listening to the pills rattle and grinning. She tossed it to Ray. He tried to catch it, but the bottle fell into the floorboard of the passenger’s seat. Ray leaned over, and after a minute of intense straining, he retrieved the small bottle and inspected the label. His eyes shifted towards hers. They both smiled.
“My heart will literally explode,” he said.
“You’re being dramatic.”
“I’m not sure these will even work,” he said. “I’m not exactly in my late forties.”
“The doctor assured me they’ll work.”
“We’re a little out of practice, Dear,” Ray said.
“Well, what do you want me to say, Ray,” Maggie argued. “I have needs again. I suppose I had those same needs before, but I just didn’t realize it until…recently.” She blushed. “Look, your Bible says I’m supposed to submit to you and all that crap, but it also says men are supposed to be good to their wives. Well, be good to me, Ray.”
Ray laughed then groaned. “I’m going to break a hip.”
“You’ll be fine,” Maggie assured him.
Ray stared at her, and a long silence fell between them. She knew what he wanted. Ray wanted her to get out of the van and sit in the front passenger seat. Maggie looked out the window. People were still outside. Men were rushing to fill the grave before the storm hit, piling dirt on to her coffin, her old self. She grimaced.
“Not yet. You still have the reception.”
Ray frowned but nodded and started the SUV.
During the drive, Maggie didn’t speak. Ray tried to make conversation, and she nodded politely as he went over all the various things she’d have to learn in order to survive in the modern world. Maggie listened as best she could, but her mind kept repeating the reaper’s words. “You cheated.”
The words echoed in her mind, and Maggie couldn’t help but agree. She had cheated. Could she expect to get away with such a crime?
“Cheater’s pay,” she whispered.
“What’s that?” Ray asked.
“Nothing, Dear,” Maggie said.
There was a crash of thunder, then the rain fell.