All of the mourners gathered at the home Brenda and Ryan’s father had purchased the year before, a house in a development so new that mounds of dirt instead of grass rose from between the cement driveways. Cars lined the cul-de-sac. On neighboring lots, identical houses stood in various stages of construction and Brenda’s home appeared at the end of the street like the finished product in a chart of assembly steps. Despite the brass lamp and sunburst windows, it looked plain. An enormous garage door made the house seem wider than it was.
The three of us stood awkwardly in Brenda’s dining room beside a spread of rolled lunchmeat and cheese, two boxes of white zinfandel and paper plates. Ryan bumped his head on one of the polished loops of a chandelier. The walls were painted a deep blue, thick, floral curtains shrouded the windows, and ceramic dogs and painted dolls lined the mantles and shelves, making the room seem too small and too precious for the crowd of mourners.
“Let’s get some food into this one before he passes out again,” Sandy said as she lined a slice of white bread with ham and mayonnaise. Ryan filled a plastic cup with wine. We sat together around a corner of the coffee table, chewed our sandwiches and watched two little girls in velvet dresses stare wistfully at one of the china dolls on the mantle, their hands poised in the air. Ryan set his plate on the end table, his sandwich nearly untouched, and maneuvered through the crowd with his empty cup.
Sandy leaned toward me conspiratorially. “He died in this house, you know.” I stopped chewing. “Not in this room, in the den. Laying back in his recliner. Had a heart attack with a beer in his hand. Not a bad way to go, I suppose.”
“Really?” I said, looking around as if I expected to see him among the mourners.
“I’ll give it to Brenda,” Sandy said. “She called me first because of Ryan. It was decent. She was real calm, though.”
I realized I’d drained my plastic cup of wine. My stomach felt warm and my muscles seemed to vibrate. I attributed it to an empty stomach. “When was the last time you saw him?”
Sandy looked down at her plate. “Can’t quite remember, but I was thinking about it. With Ryan gone, it wasn’t like I ever really meant to see him. Must have been that time at the Krogers, right near Thanksgiving. You know we weren’t really moving in the same circles anymore.”
“What about Ryan?” I said.
“He did double duty on holidays, come over to see me and my sister’s kids and then head to his dad’s place. It was probably Christmas last time they spoke.” She paused, rubbing her hand against the arm of the chair. “He’ll always be mad at me about the divorce, but he never saw enough of that man to know what I know. He cared about nothing until he was mad, and then he was in your face or worse.”
I nodded. “I don’t think I could live like that.”
Sandy put her plate down on an end table and leaned closer to me. “You’re quiet,” she said, “but you’ve got a lot more sense than the other girls he’s brought home..”
I smiled at her. Feeling the warmth of wine in my stomach and seeing Ryan across the room, for a moment I thought that this was what I wanted, to be the sensible girl, the one he could rely on.
One of the little girls must have reached for a doll too quickly and sent it to the floor, smashing its face on the brick stoop in front of the fireplace. A woman fiercely snatched the girl’s wrist and she started to cry. Brenda swayed into the room and, leaning on the mantle for support, stared at the mosaic of shards. Then she waved her hand, patted the little girl’s head a bit too fiercely and stumbled toward Sandy.
“How’s your boy doing? Thought we were going to lose him there for a minute.”
Sandy nodded. “He’s better.”
“He’s not going to lose it, is he?” Brenda’s voice dipped sarcastically.
Sandy shook her head.
“No one to bail him out anymore.”
Sandy looked up at her. “We don’t really need this here.”
“You know what I think?” Brenda said. “Your kid caused an awful lot of trouble to a man with a bad heart.”
Sandy pursed her lips. “A man who ate whatever he felt like when I knew him, no matter what the doctors said.”
Brenda shook her head furiously. “He was too busy to deal with police and lawyers and court dates.”
“Too busy for anything, really,” Sandy said.
Brenda must have seen my mouth open, as if I’d started to speak and found I had nothing to say. She pointed at me. “That kid beat up another boy so bad he put him in the hospital, beat his head into the ground, nearly killed him. And who paid for the lawyer? Who got him off with probation?”
I looked at Sandy, but she was staring down at the half-eaten sandwich in her lap. I searched the crowd and found Ryan a few feet away, sidelined by his Uncle Neil, staring at me. Almost everyone was staring at us now, or else politely avoiding it by staring at the floor or their food. The first thought I had was that it couldn’t be true, except that Sandy hadn’t denied it. Ryan was too awkward, I thought. In his glasses and his suit, the image of him fighting, throwing a punch, pinning someone to the floor was comical.
Brenda wobbled in her heels as she left the room. Ryan disappeared and I heard the front door close. I stood. Sandy looked up at me and offered a tight smile.
I found Ryan in his car, his hands clamped to the steering wheel as if he were a little boy pretending to drive. It had grown dark and the only light came from the house, a spotlight at the point of the garage roof, throwing a bright circle onto the driveway. My skin bristled in the cold. I wasn’t sure whether or not he would let me into the car, but I knocked on the window anyway. He reached over and unlocked the door and I climbed in beside him. For a while we just stared ahead at the dark sedan parked in front of us, our breath escaping our lips in curls like smoke. When Ryan spoke his voice was low.
“It’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not like I would’ve bragged to you about it.”
“I know,” I said. “I just don’t know how to react.”
He shifted in his seat. My fingers played with the cracked heating vent, the one he’d smashed when he’d punched the dashboard a month before.
“It was over three years ago. She wasn’t even there. All she knows is what she heard,” Ryan told me, his fingers squeezing the steering wheel.
“Did you do it?”
Ryan sighed. His hands fell into his lap. “Here’s my rap sheet. Underage drinking. Possession of marijuana. Assault.”
I wanted to ask him what sort of assault. The details mattered. I needed to know the place and the surroundings, draw a picture in my head, interview every witness and every bystander, before I could understand how it happened.
“Didn’t you ever do anything you weren’t proud of?” he said.
“I never hurt anyone,” I said.
“That you know of.”
“Not on purpose.”
The front door to the house opened and I could see someone silhouetted against the yellow light, watching us.
“It’s not like I meant to do it,” Ryan said.
“It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“It does matter.” His voice was suddenly intense. Then he turned his head and spoke to the window, his breath blooming in a cloud on the glass. “If I’m in love with you.”
My stomach seized. Once, Lindsey and I decided that love wasn’t a feeling, something that hit you all at once. Love was a choice. You knew what you were getting and you said yes or you said no.
Ryan stared at his hands, waiting for me to answer. I studied the landscape of his face, the slope of his nose, the crook of his chin. In the dark, he looked beautiful.
Maureen Traverse writes very long stories and very short stories. Her short stories have appeared in the online journals Elimae and Staccato Fiction. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University.
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