Discover more from Gary Paul Varner
THE TEMPLE OF MAGGIE STONE
Chapter 7: Ray
Ray Stone was pronounced dead in his home at nine-thirty a.m. Three days later, Maggie was sitting in the back row of the funeral tent when she should have been sitting with her son and daughter. After all, she was just a live-in nurse, a live-in nurse who didn’t know CPR. It had been a heart-attack. Whether it was the strain of their conversation or an act of God, Ray died in less than five minutes. To make matters worse, the doctors had said his heart was particularly healthy. When Ray Stone was finally laid to rest, his heart was not supposed to be the cause, but life was chaos, and doctors didn’t know anything anyway.
The preacher, the younger preacher from Maggie’s funeral, stood behind his podium and gave his eulogy, but Maggie didn’t really hear it. She was too busy crying, her face buried in her hands to muffle the sobs. Some of the family and friends looked at her with mild curiosity, but most of them paid her little mind. After all, she was the incompetent nurse. If she’d known what she was doing, Ray Stone might have survived.
She was alone. The love of her life, the reason she’d agreed to the surgery, her whole reason for being, was dead, and she was sitting in the back of the tent weeping like she was the other woman. It was a disgusting thought, and it filled her with a bitterness she could taste in her mouth, something thick and sour covering her tongue. But more than anything, she was sad. And she wanted to die.
Maggie didn’t lift her head for most of the funeral. She kept her head in her hands and wept, her long black hair sticking to her damp cheeks. When it came time to form the line to the casket, she was among the first in that line. The immediate family always went last because they needed the most time. The ones in the front had to rush along, giving the body in the casket a cursory nod. It was almost unbearable. She should have been with her family! When she approached her dead husband, she wanted to kiss his lips one last time. But if she did, it might create rumors about her and Ray. She might inadvertently ruin his reputation. She couldn’t bear to do that. So, she stood over him, staring down at his closed eyes, letting the tears fall.
“Goodbye, Dear,” she whispered. She reached out, about to touch his cold cheeks, but lowered her hand. She couldn’t risk it. and this brute fact filled her with a helpless rage. She buried her face in her hands again. Maggie was so busy weeping that, for a moment, she forgot she was supposed to keep moving so others could see Ray. However, when she remembered, she still could not bring herself to leave him. She was frozen in place. She stood, paralyzed. Thankfully, Maggie felt a warm hand on her shoulder, and she turned to see Ashley, nodding sympathetically. Ashley hugged her mother. Then, with her arm around her shoulder, she guided Maggie to the front row where they sat down on the hard, metal folding chairs. A few of the funeral goers looked at the two with mild concern and even a little annoyance. Ashley shot them a hot look, and they all turned away.
“We’ll wait ‘til everyone is gone, Mom,” Ashley whispered. “Then you can have all the time you need.” Maggie nodded and continued to weep.
The line eventually ended. One by one, the funeral goers left. There was no oncoming storm this time, but a grey overcast hung over them. The tent was taken down, the folding chairs folded and put in their neat little rows, except for the three where Ashley, Maggie and Robert sat. Ashley stood up and spoke with the cemetery workers. She concocted some story to get them away from the casket. When they were gone, Maggie stood up. Robert stood as well, but he did not go with her. He simply turned and went to his car without a word. Maggie wasn’t concerned. Robert would either come around or he wouldn’t; there was nothing she could do.
Maggie stared down at her husband who, as the saying goes, looked to be sleeping. “I know you only asked one thing from me in the last twenty years of our marriage, to believe. I’m sorry, Honey, I can’t. Even if God were real, that would only mean he took you just so I would be alone. How can I believe in a God like that? He took you right as you decided to join me. Who would do such a thing? I can’t believe such a horrible God is real. So where does that leave us? I don’t know. I just want you to know…well, I love you. I’ll always love you. No matter how long I’m in this body, I’ll always love you. And when I die, if there turns out to be a God, well, I hope he allows me to be with you anyway. He owes me that much.” She bent down, kissed his cold lips and took a final look at her husband. “At least, we got to say goodbye before the end. Not everyone is so lucky. Goodbye, My Dear. I hope you sleep well…or you’re happy…wherever you are. I love you.”
She looked over at Ashley who motioned for the workers. Then she and her daughter made their way back to the van. Maggie didn’t turn around. She was not about to watch another casket lower into the ground.
Again, Maggie did not go to the reception after the funeral. She sat in the back seat of Ashley’s car, alternating between tears and sleep. Many of the people at the reception were also at her funeral. There were a few new faces, but none Maggie recognized. Almost everyone present was a couple of some sort. Young and old couples held hands or consoled each other as they wept, using their partner as support. Maggie might have been young again, but she was sure there would never be another Ray. She never understood how widows could remarry, and she felt bitter towards them. The reception went on for far too long.
When Ashley finally got back in the car, she looked exhausted. She sighed. Maggie felt horrible for her. Ashley had taken on all the preparations herself and in all the commotion had not been given the chance to grieve.
“Mom,” she said. “I don’t know what Dad put in the will, but either way, Robert is pretty adamant about selling the house. I think you’re probably going to have to live with me for a while.”
This should have angered her. Of all the spiteful things. Robert seemed determined to drive her out of his life. But she was just too tired. Maggie sighed. “Whatever you think is best. I’ll go along.”
“I really thought he’d get a new body, too,” Ashley added, tears falling down her cheeks. “I was hoping he would. You two were crazy about each other. I didn’t think he’d have the nerve to leave you.”
“He almost got a new body” Maggie said. “But in the end, I think he would have preferred it this way. He had his beliefs, and he felt we would be going to a better place. Maybe he’s right. Maybe he did right. I don’t know. Just don’t ever doubt your father loved me, and he loved you kids. We were his world, and he died happy.”
Ashley nodded and started to cry. Maggie let her. She said nothing until her daughter was finished. When Ashley finally collected herself, she looked at Maggie and said, “You know, he would’ve wanted you to move on. He would have wanted you to start a new life. So, just promise me you’re not going to spend your whole second chance alone. Nobody wants that. Do you promise?”
Maggie nodded…lied. She couldn’t see herself starting again without Ray. She didn’t want to, and she couldn’t help resenting her daughter for bringing the subject up. Still, she tried to smile.
Maggie’s phone rang. She dug it out of her oversized purse and, after struggling to move the green phone icon to the center of the screen, answered it. “Hello?”
“This is Dr. Lane. We need you to come back to lab. Come back to the lab, like, right now!”
“There’s nothing wrong with the bodies…well, our bodies anyway…but something has happened.”
“Ray just died. This isn’t a good time.”
“I’m aware, and I’m sorry for your loss. I really am.” Maggie didn’t believe her. “But this is important. Please.” Maggie looked up at her daughter who was watching the conversation with mild interest. “Go get Robert, Ashley,” Maggie said. “He said he wanted to come with me the next time I went to the lab.”
“They want you now?” Ashley asked, sudden color rushing her cheeks. “Don’t they know Dad is…”
“Yes, they know,” Maggie said. “But they’re insisting anyway. It sounds like there’s some kind of emergency, but I don’t know why they need me.”
“Tell them no” Ashley said. “I don’t care what it is. This isn’t the time.”
Maggie shook her head. “They’ll just keep asking. I need to go. Hopefully, it won’t take long. You go get some rest, Dear. I’ll call you when I’m done.”