The Animate

There was something wrong with the morning. Henry felt it in his skin. The air was thick, the clouds were low, and the faces of the civilians he passed were unfriendly and inscrutable. Since his father Stuart’s death every day had felt this way. And his mother already had a new lover, taking Stuart’s place at the dinner table, in the living room easy chair, and, of course, in her bed. The intruder had been there this morning too. Henry had pointedly refrained from greeting him as they’d been together in the kitchen.

What’s he doing here? Henry asked himself, though he had not yet drummed up the courage to ask this of his mother. That’s what a man would have done, but Henry was not yet that. He was still in high school even though he skipped class often, and was doing so now to visit his father’s grave. He had so much to ask him. Why did you let yourself get killed? Did you know about this man Michael? What about me? Why did you leave me here? He couldn’t blame his father for getting hit by that car. It had struck him once, then backed up over him, drove forward again, and fled the scene. Henry agreed with the police: it must have been murder. Unfortunately it had been early morning, so even on busy 40th Street there had been no witnesses.

Henry got off the bus on Piedmont Avenue and Pleasant Hill Road and walked the short distance to Mountainview Cemetery, which grew up the side of the hill and offered stunning views of Oakland and the Bay Area. People jogged here, walked their dogs here. This morning, however, there was not a soul to be found.

He stole a bouquet of plastic flowers from another grave. He wanted to leave something behind, some kind of offering, a token of his confusion and fear and anger.

He climbed the hillside, bearing the flowers. He wished a moment, futilely, that his mother was with him. As far as he knew Josephine had not been back to the grave since the funeral two weeks ago. Henry had a problem with this. He found that he didn’t trust her.

The lovely scenery to either side of him scrolled slowly past as he walked. It had been Henry who had insisted on his father’s burial here. He’d told his mother he wanted somewhere he could see him, somewhere Stuart would be happy to live out eternity. It was expensive, but Stuart had had more money than his wife and after his death it became readily available for the spending, that and the life insurance policy Henry had heard Josephine and Michael discussing.

Henry approached the grave, and as he got closer he saw something strange: there was some kind of mess in the plot of grass in front of the tombstone. Indeed, when he got close enough there was no denying what he saw: Stuart’s grave had been desecrated; there was a hole, and mounds of damp earth around it. After a few moments a deep panic shook him. When, sweating and shaking, he dared himself to look down the hole he saw it reached all the way down and into the coffin, where there was a chaos of dirt and splintered wood, a space large enough for a body to escape through. Stuart himself was nowhere to be seen.

Henry dropped his flowers down the hole, got to his feet, and left.

Josephine’s phone rang. She picked it up from her desk and then put it back, exasperated. She recognized the number, it was Henry’s school, and she knew what they were calling to tell her, that he wasn’t there. This had become routine since Stuart’s death. Unfortunately she had no answers for them, just as she had no answers for Henry. She was afraid to confront him. She was worried about him, but, having already embarked down this path, there was little she could do. Her job took most of her productive time. She was to receive a healthy payout from Stuart’s life insurance policy. She’d had the idea of murdering him ever since learning he’d taken it out. It was if he’d been able to read her mind, and had wanted to tempt her.

Josephine was an administrative assistant at an advertising agency. Her supervisor watched her closely, and therein was another reason not to answer her phone and alert the office to her personal problems. Still, it begged the question: what was Henry doing with his time? Building the case for she and Michael’s guilt was not out of the question. She would have to see to it that he found nothing. There was nothing illegal about taking in a fresh lover. It was no secret to anyone that knew her, including Henry, that she and Stuart had been unhappy.

The rest of her day passed without further incident. Before she knew it it was 5:00. She packed her things, cleared her desk, and left.

She walked to the multi-level parking garage, found her car, and keyed the ignition. She looked into the rearview mirror and saw a man standing directly behind her. She let out a scream when she realized it was Stuart, dressed in the suit he’d been buried in, mud and dirt discoloring it.

She spun around to see with her own eyes, and the apparition was gone. She looked back into the mirror and he wasn’t there either. Her hands were shaking. Her heart was beating fit to burst. If there was anything worse than committing the deed itself it was the possibility that it hadn’t been done right. But Stuart was dead, she’d seen his broken body. There was no coming back from that.

Why then, she wondered, did it take her so long to compose herself for the drive home?

The cemetery was operated out of a chapel down the street, and Henry didn’t know how to tell them what he had found. He knew he looked like he was in a state, and he also knew that he should have been in school. He settled on telling them about the hole, but not about the missing body. He wanted to read their faces when they saw it for themselves. When an employee agreed to drive the two of them back up the hill he heard the confusion in her voice. Was it possible they’d buried a living man? She soon decided it was to be a police matter, though when they arrived they were equally dumbstruck. They all agreed with Henry’s initial judgment, that the grave had been desecrated from the inside out. The only thing they could agree on was that they had no answers. The officer offered to put out a missing person’s notice for Stuart. If he was alive perhaps he had seen who had hit him. Then they asked Henry why he wasn’t in school, and it was his turn to have no answers.

Henry eventually accepted a policeman’s offer to drive him home. The officer left him with his business card and badge number. “Call us,” he told Henry, “if you notice anything out of the ordinary.”

“Would my mother’s new boyfriend count?” he spat back.

The officer looked back at him. He’d had nothing to do with the homicide investigation. Poor kid, he thought to himself when Henry left his car.

It was still several hours before his mother would get off work. He went into his room and cried himself into a nap.

He didn’t fall fully asleep, so he heard his mother come into the apartment and make for the kitchen. She and Stuart’s had been a traditional marriage in that the wife had cooked most of the meals. Sometimes she’d call Stuart lazy. Sometimes Stuart cooked to mollify her. There had always been something to fight about, and that included Henry’s poor grades. The teachers could blame his parents, but his parents only blamed each other.

A while later Henry heard the front door open and close again, and the sounds of Michael joining his mother.

Some more time passed, then there was a knock at Henry’s door.

“Henry are you there?” It was Josephine.

Henry didn’t respond. The door opened.

Henry was on his side, turned away from the door. He felt her sit down on his bed.

“You missed school again today?” she asked.

Henry kept his peace.

“Where did you go?” she pressed him.

No reply.

“Talk to me, son!” she raised her voice. “I can’t help you if you don’t talk!”

“You don’t want to know what I found today,” he said, “and I don’t want to know how your day was either!”

“Why are you so difficult?”

“You say that like you don’t know.”

There it was, she thought quickly.

“But I don’t!” she said. “Honestly.”

Henry sat up and swung his feet down to the floor, still with his back to her. She was going to make him say it.

“Please,” she said. “Come to dinner.”

Henry rubbed his forehead with his left hand.

“Do you blame me for what happened?” Josephine asked, feeling herself forced to lie.

Henry groaned. She was so cruel.

“I don’t like him,” he managed to say.

“Who? Michael?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s your right.”

“I’m gonna get a job and move out of here as soon as I can.”

“You’re gonna have to finish school to do that.”

“What? That’s not my right?”

“You’re a child. You need an education.”

“I also need a father, but you’d didn’t think about that, did you?”

Silence from Josephine. Henry turned to look at her. She had a weak smile on her face.

“Your father was no angel either,” she said quietly. “Did you know he was having an affair?”

Henry did not know this, and did not know how to respond.

“Just like me,” she went on.

“I’m not eating with you,” Henry told her.

“Well just fucking suit yourself then. There will be leftovers in the fridge.”

She got up and stormed out of his room, slamming the door behind her. Henry lay back down, curled into a ball on his bed and drifted off. He thought more about what his mother had said: it all made a little more sense now — he wondered who the mystery woman could be.

It hadn’t took much planning. Stuart was a man of routine. Josephine knew his habits well. He always hit the snooze button twice before getting out of bed, then he would go to the kitchen and make a cup of black coffee and a bowl of oatmeal.

She got out of bed early that day so she could watch him.

“Can you make a bowl for me?” she asked, coming into the kitchen.

Stuart grunted, ostensibly in the affirmative.

A part of her might have still loved him, and she thought a part of him felt the same about her. But the inevitable was already in motion: Michael was parked down the street, awaiting her texts.

She sat at the kitchen table holding her phone, and she watched him clatter about. He didn’t even pretend to notice her.

She wanted to talk to him, but she didn’t have anything to say. She didn’t want to reveal her intentions. Even being in the kitchen right now was risky because it was so out of the ordinary.

“What are you doing up so early?” she heard her husband ask.

“I just want to watch you,” she replied, and when he turned to look at her she turned on a sneer to greet his eyes.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“Of course you would think that.”

He went back to work on his coffee. He ground some beans and poured them into a coffee filter, put the filter-holder over a mug, and poured hot water over it. He looked like an automaton.

“So you just want to torment me before work?” he asked, not facing her.

“Just because I love you so much.”

She picked up her phone and sent Michael a text: “15 minutes.”

Soon his breakfast was ready. He took his coffee and oatmeal to the table and sat down across from her. She watched him eat and bile filled her throat. She felt like vomiting, or shouting invectives at him: “Convince me not to do it! Break up with your bitch and I’ll break up with mine! I don’t even need the money, I just hate you so much!”

He sipped his coffee and spooned oatmeal into his gullet. She wanted to spit in his face.

“Henry missed school again,” he said.

“I’m worried about him,” she agreed.

“We aren’t the best parents, are we?” he said.

“I guess we aren’t.”

She stood up and walked past him, scooped her half of the oatmeal into a bowl. On her way back to her seat she checked how much he’d eaten: he was right on time. She sat down and sent Michael another text: “12 minutes.”

“Do you hate me?” she heard him ask her.

She said simply, “Yes.”

“We’ve been together too long,” he went on.

“We have.”

Maybe she’d been grooming Michael for this purpose. She didn’t love him either, but this was the most she’d spoken to her husband in months.

“Do you want a divorce?” he asked.

She sighed and said nothing.

Stuart finished his oatmeal. Now he was staring at her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and it sounded like he meant it. He kept looking at her. Josephine found herself momentarily confused. The wheels of her plot were too far advanced to be distracted, as was her disappointment in she and her husband’s relationship. If only he’d said as much to her before she’d met Michael. Perhaps this end wouldn’t have been inevitable.

She started to eat. A little while later Stuart left the table, and there might have been an element of sorrow in his slouch as he did his dishes. When he was done he walked into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

“4 minutes,” she texted.

She started her own cup of coffee, and listened to Stuart. She heard him spit once, twice, thrice, and she texted Michael another alert: “Get ready.”

Stuart walked down the hallway to the living room, where the front door was. He put on his coat.

“Wait a moment,” she said, coming into the living room. “I want to kiss you.”

“Oh please don’t bother me.”

“No really, come here hubby, kiss me like you used to.”

He stared at her, into her.

She took her phone in her right hand and started a text: “Now.”

“What on Earth are you doing?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she replied.

“I’m gonna be late,” he said briskly, with perhaps a hint of anxiousness, made nervous by Josephine.

“Fine,” she said. “You’re under no obligation to talk to me if you just want to get out there and get to work.”

He continued to stare, then, shrugging his shoulders, he zipped up his coat and left their ground floor apartment.

Josephine sent the text, then she followed her husband outside.

This is it, she thought. There’s no coming back now.

Stuart was crossing the street to his car parked on the other side. Michael’s car was creeping down 40th Street, less than a block away. There was a sudden sound of screeching tires and burning rubber and the car came careening down the street andstruck Stuart squarely and fully. His body bounced back onto the car’s hood and rolled up to the windshield. Stuart cried out in pain. The car stopped and Stuart rolled down the hood back onto the street.

Michael drove over him and there were twin thuds Josephine could hear. Michael reversed and backed up over the body, then rolled forward over him again, then he sped off and took the next right into a residential neighborhood where no traffic cameras would see him. On the pavement she saw Stuart rolling slowly onto his back, moving strangely.

It was done. It had happened.

Josephine looked around: No one had seen it except her.

She crossed the street and knelt down at Stuart’s side. He was bent at an unnatural angle. His back or his neck were broken, but he was still alive when she rolled him over and he looked up at her, and what she saw there, in the blood in his eyes and coming out of his mouth, told her that he knew now why she’d been in the kitchen.

A few minutes later the ambulance arrived, but they were too late. He was gone. After she told Henry what had happened she continued the rest of her day as if it hadn’t. She went to work, grief and all, and wondered if she’d really gotten away with it.

It was a fairly typical night at the Red Room, where Michael Hebert tended bar: Slow in the early hours, and swamped with 21-year-olds after about 10:00. Michael was on until midnight. He cleaned up on tips. It was a popular bar and Michael was one of their most well-liked employees. He was funny; heavily tattooed he was a bit of a tough guy. For Josephine’s purpose he’d been perfect: he was selfish and un-sentimental. He’d done what he had done because Josephine had insisted on it. He felt some remorse, especially when he faced Henry, but overall it didn’t bother him too much.

He’d had a bit to drink, but was probably under the limit. He noticed, walking back to his car, that Josephine had called him several times. He put on one of her voicemails:

“Something’s gone wrong. Please get here as soon as you can. I’m afraid.”

This disturbed him. It might be about Stuart. He couldn’t think what else it might have been.

He drove back to her building and parked out front. He got out of the car and locked the door.

He heard an unfamiliar voice behind him:

“Michael Hebert I presume?”

He spun around.

“Do I look familiar to  you?” said the figure facing him.

It was dark. Michael couldn’t tell. But before he could get his wits about him the creature came forward and attacked him, punching him in the face and grabbing him. The two of them fell to the ground and the creature, smaller than Michael but considerably stronger, wrapped his hands around Michael’s neck, and began to throttle him. Michael coughed and kicked and clawed, but couldn’t dislodge this man who smelt of dirt and rot.

The last thing he heard before his neck and windpipe broke was the following:

“When she finds you she’ll know it was me that did it.”

Indeed it was Josephine, going out in the morning afraid because Michael hadn’t come home, who found his body, head crooked on his shoulders and graveyard soil caked into his clothes.

She began to scream, thinking about how she’d seen Stuart yesterday, how now it made some sense, and she didn’t stop until a passing pedestrian reached out and touched her, then, noting the body, called the police.

It might have been her battered conscience that made her cry so much that day. That and her fear. In death Michael took with him a layer of protection. She shed far more tears for him than she had for her deceased husband. Perhaps Henry would read something into this. That scared her too. Henry, so plodding, so mysterious. What had happened to him these past weeks?

The police stayed a while, canvassing the scene for witnesses, stray photos or camera footage. Even in the middle of the night it was hard to believe all these incidents of violence could occur un-observed, but that they were. People died often in Oakland; sometimes the police were lucky and sometimes they weren’t. Henry told them of his father’s exploded grave, but what was to be said of it? Of course Josephine told no one that she’d seen Stuart herself. At least she had the .45. When the police left she went and retrieved it and put it in her purse.

Henry was in the living room watching TV. She came in.

“Shouldn’t you be at school?” she asked.

“What? After something like this? I’m traumatized, mom,” he said, but the furious smile on his face when their eyes met told a different story.

“You’re not just using this as an excuse or something?” she tried, unable to look at him.

“It’s been a crazy couple weeks,” he replied.

“That it has,” and then, completely unbidden, she continued: “I’m sorry.”

“Oh mother, what are you apologizing for?”

He frightened her. But it had been the truth what she said: she was sorry. It wasn’t Henry’s fault she and his father had fallen so far. She told herself to be strong.

She crossed the room and stood in front of the TV. She turned around and clicked it off, then faced Henry again.

“You should be at school,” she repeated, more adamantly.

He looked at her, then dropped his eyes to the floor, and said nothing.

“Come on,” she said, taking steps toward him. “They’ll be calling any minute now.”

“I don’t want to go,” he stated, still staring at the floor.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she reiterated. “School is where children belong, and you’re still a child.”

“Well why aren’t you at work?”

“I’ll go after I drop you off. Come on.”

She knelt down next to his arm and took his hand in both of hers:

“I wish I could explain all this to you,” she said.

Henry groaned, then answered: “Can you try?”

“Your father and I were not right for each other. It’s a miracle we lasted as long as we did.”

Henry let her hold his hand. She hadn’t told him anything he didn’t know..

“What are you sorry for?” he repeated.

“I’m not going to tell you,” she replied. “You can think about it for yourself.”

Henry wondered if she would ever admit it, why his father appeared to have come back from the dead.

“You’re a liar,” he finally managed, then said: “It’s not my fault.”

“You’re right. It’s not.”

He pulled his hand away, and Josephine stood up.

“Get your books,” she said. “I’ll drive you.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I’ll not have you a truant when you don’t have to be.”

Henry got to his feet. He was still afraid of her. Parents have that power over their kids. What about the woman Stuart had been cheating with? What would she have to say?

He walked away from his mother down the hall to his room, where he found his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He returned to the front room.

It was a short drive to his school. They made it without speaking, the consciousness of the both of them consumed in this chaos. When they arrived Henry made sure to slam the car door after him as hard as he could, but Josephine drove away as if she hadn’t noticed.

Sitting cross-legged on Telegraph Avenue you could be forgiven for mistaking the animate for a panhandler who wasn’t asking for change.

A lot of people passed him on the busy street, but no one said anything to him, and he in turn was silent. Taylor had been in contact with him this whole time. The past few days had been as stressful for her as for everyone else.

Taylor was watching his family through her crystal ball. She relayed information to Stuart while he sat on the sidewalk. Henry had just been taken to school. Taylor said he looked angry, and alone. A normal couple, after all, would have gotten a divorce, but not Stuart and Josephine. That would have been too easy. It had become a question of vengeance, and Josephine had reached this conclusion first. Now it was Taylor and Stuart’s turn to catch up.

Henry was in his last period at school. He would be home before his mother. Stuart looked forward to the coming hours. He would bring this all to a fitting conclusion.

Henry’s last class ended. It was time for him to go home. What he had planned was more important than anything he might learn at school. Josephine didn’t get home until the evening. Henry would have plenty of time.

When Henry arrived at their building and entered the apartment he dropped his backpack in his room, and then went to his parents’. It was clean and well organized. The table on his father’s side of the bed had a lamp, an alarm clock, and a Stephen King book. Henry wondered if it was Stuart’s or Michael’s.

Henry checked his father’s nightstand first. Then he went to the dresser and began rooting through the drawers.

“What are you doing?” Henry heard, and, after a moment of shock, found himself not especially surprised, and completely unmoved, to see Stuart standing in the doorway.

“I’m trying to find out what happened,” he answered, not sure where to look next.

“What makes you think you’ll find anything?” Stuart asked.

“It’s worth a try.”

“Maybe I can help you.”

“I doubt you will.”

“Don’t you want to know what I have to say?”

Henry closed the dresser’s top drawer, turned and asked: “Where did you keep your phone?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Why are you still here? What difference does it make?”

“You know what your mother did to me.”

“What, before you could do it to her?”

“I take that as an insult, my son. I was the only one who had a life insurance policy.”

But the look on Stuart’s face was, if anything, apologetic. Just like Josephine’s sometimes was.

“I don’t want you to find it,” said Stuart.

“Why not?” Henry shot back.

“Because our business isn’t finished. Your mother will be home soon.”

“Your girl on the side had something to do with it, didn’t she?”

“Of course she did. Is that why you want to find my phone?”

“It’s none of your business. You’re dead.”

“Don’t you want to see justice served?”

“She’s the only mother I have.”

“And I’m the only father you have.”

“Not any more. I don’t think you’re yourself.”

“You always were a sharp one.”

Henry didn’t know where to look next. He went to the closet and found coats and dresses hanging on hangers, shoes and shoeboxes lining the floor. He started into these but was disappointed to find them filled with nothing but old shoes, until he opened one, pushed into the corner, and found, within it, boxes of clearly labeled Magnum .45 bullets.

“Whoops,” said Stuart. “You’ve discovered one of our secrets.”

“Father, just tell me, where is your phone?”

“Okay, I’ll tell you. The police have it. It’s in their evidence room. You’ll never find my woman on the side that way.”

Henry closed the box with the bullets and shut the closet door.

“Where’s the gun?” he asked after a while standing there, surveying the room.

“Your mother has it. She’s afraid for herself, as she has every right to be.”

“I love her.”

“Do you? Still? We’ll see about that shortly.”

“Go away. I don’t want you.”

“I can see that. No family should ever go through something like this. I guess we’re all just unlucky.”

Stuart stood across the room from his son, blocking the door that led into the hallway.

Henry walked towards him, and, after a moment’s hesitation, he got out of the way. Henry went to his room and, at his son’s exit, Stuart vanished into the ether.

The next day passed almost like any other. Henry woke up and decided he wasn’t going to school. He listened to his mother puttering about, then he heard her leave. He got up and went into the kitchen and poured himself a bowl of cereal. When he was done he went on the computer and checked the movie times. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was playing at Piedmont Cinema. He made the walk.

The movie was good, if a bit too long. He went back home after it was over and watched TV. Then he went into his room. His mother came home a few hours later.

Josephine, dropping her purse in her room, knew Henry was there. She’d received yet another call from his school. She was an awful parent. She never should have killed his father. She believed that her son, just like she herself, knew something was going to happen.

There was a knock at the front door a little after 6:00, and, when she opened it, she was afraid, but less than surprised, to find her husband.

She tried to close the door on him but he banged it open with his right hand and came into the apartment.

Josephine backed up slowly. Their eyes locked.

This was it, she thought. This is the end.

“I know what you want,” she said.

“I’m sure you do.”

“Let’s just get it over with.”

She continued to back up as he advanced.

“Aren’t you going to apologize?” Stuart asked.

“What, to you? Fat fucking chance.”

Josephine’s back struck the wall. Stuart’s hands came up.

“I’m not sorry either,” he said. “I guess we just weren’t right for each other.”

He put his hands to her throat and started to squeeze.

Anticipating, and then beginning to feel, what was soon to be a mortal pain, Josephine closed her eyes and offered no resistance. She tried to console herself by thinking that soon it would be over.

But then there was a gunshot, and the hands let go.

Ears ringing, she opened her eyes and saw Henry standing to her right, holding the smoking .45 and looking down at Stuart, brain and blood sprayed across the room, dead once again. She started to cry. She got down on the floor and rolled Stuart onto his back just to get a better look at him. Then she looked at her son, and there was nothing but anger in his face. She wondered whether it was she or Stuart he was more unhappy with.

She cried harder when he put the gun to her temple. The three of them had never been happy together. If she survived the two of them never would be either. There was no coming back from something like this.

But there was no second shot. The gun fell from Henry’s hand. He went back into his room to call the police on his own phone. They were already on the way.

Taylor’s eyes flashed open. She’d been abruptly cut off, and could no longer see what was happening. There had been a sound that might have been a gun shot.

Henry, she thought. I hadn’t considered him.

It would be in the papers the next day, most likely reported with a heavy dose of bemusement. She would be sure to look for it. She herself had been surprised at the strength of the spell. No one would ever know it was she who had done it. No one would ever find her.

She blew out the candles and packed her Tarot cards. It rankled her to think of Josephine, walking around, free, as if nothing had ever happened. She deserved everything that had happened to her and worse. But then again Taylor probably did too, for not worrying about the child. The universe is an un-just place. Awful things happen to the good and the bad alike, if such a distinction between people is even possible. Perhaps it was all shades of grey.

Taylor, exhausted, went into her kitchen. Those concerned still living had much reflecting to do. Of course the whole episode had been for naught, but when was there ever a point to anything? Meaning was always elusive.

She hoped Henry would try harder at school. She felt like she’d gotten to know him.

Children were the only blameless ones. After all they hadn’t lived long enough.

Smoke from the candles snaked into the air. She made herself a pot of red beans and rice and drank a bottle of beer, then she sat on her couch and turned on the local news. A story about the animate could come on at any time. And, of course, tomorrow was another day.

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