Chapter 3:

An Optimistic Mortician

Sera flinched, rustling the wall of leaves surrounding her. Not bothering to rise, she pulled the ringing cell from her pocket and flipped it open. She stared at the caller ID.

Isaak.

Flopping her head back onto the foliage pillow, she offered the obligatory greeting.

"Hey, did you make it back to your apartment in one piece?"

"Yes."

"Good. I was worried about you. After this morning…"

"I'm fine, Isaak, really. Is Dad still mad?"

"I don't know. He's stayed on the computer all afternoon."

"He's still mad."

"Don't take it so hard. He gets mad at me, too."

"Isaak? The perfect son? Mr. Straight-A at U of V? Mr. Future Surgeon? Mr. Attends Church Every Time the Doors Are Open and Uses Dad's Key When They're Not? Dad can't get mad at you. You do nothing wrong!"

"You haven't been under my dorm bed."

Sera rolled her eyes. "I don't want to know."

"And for your information, I only go to church when Dad drags me. I just don't complain about it...unlike someone."

"Yeah, well, I had enough of that place from PreK-12 to last me a lifetime. I think the every Sunday deal is unnecessary." She hit the speaker phone button and laid the cell on her stomach.

"I went there, too, you know. Do you honestly think it was all raspberries and sugar for me?"

"What, Mr. Bible Scholar champion—four years in a row?" St. Paul's held an annual contest for grades 9-12. Those who entered faced daunting questions about the Bible, such as Esau trades his birth right for bread and a stew of what? Only Isaak would know what lentils are.

"Well, it's not like I enjoyed learning all that stuff. Between Dad and the teachers, I practically had it beaten into my head."

"All the girls liked you." She picked off a leaf that had fallen onto the bridge of her nose.

"Well, I never liked any of them. Except that friend of yours, what was her name?"

"Joselyn."

"Yeah, she was hot."

"She's married now, Romeo."

"Yeah, sniff, that's why, sniff, I had to move on."

Sera could picture him holding his hand to his heart. She laid one arm behind her head. "Oh, shove it. Wait, are you seeing somebody?"

"Maybe."

"Cut it, Isaak. What's her name?"

"Cindy."

"What's she like?"

"Italian food mostly. Fettuccine's her favorite."

"You know what I meant. You're not going to tell me, are you?"

"Maybe someday."

"What else are you not telling me?"

"Well, Mother..."

Sera glared at the cell on her stomach.

"Actually, I've been meaning to tell you something," Isaak said, "but you've got to promise not to tell Mom and Dad. Especially Dad."

"Like I can have a conversation with either of them without causing an argument."

"You'll definitely cause one if you tell them this, and I won't be too happy about it either."

She waited, wondering what Isaak was about to tell her. Maybe he's dropping out of college, or he's gotten Cindy pregnant. What if Cindy's really a guy?

"Well?"

"I want to be a mortician."

Sera blinked. Twice.

"You know, the people who do autopsies."

She glared again. "Yes, Isaak, I know what a mortician is. I just can't picture you holding a knife over a dead person."

"And you can picture me holding a knife over a live person?"

"It would amount to the same thing."

"I'm glad you have so much faith in me."

The sky was mostly dark now, with thousands of tiny glitters filling in its emptiness. Sera couldn't find the star she'd wished to earlier. That was something she wasn't going to tell Isaak.

"I miss Rachel," she said. Yesterday made seven years since her sister passed away, but time had yet to heal that open sore in her past.

"Of course you do. When she was around, it took the brunt of Dad's frustration away from you."

"Don't you miss her at all? Or are you like Dad and think that when she died it erased her from the family?"

"No, she'll always be my sister, but I think she hated me." All the cheer in his voice was gone.

"Hated you? Why?"

"She always looked at me the same way she did Dad, like I was some sort of monster in the making."

Sera shook her head slightly, rustling the leaves. "She wasn't in her right mind most of the time. She looked at everyone like that."

"Not you. I'd hear her in your room at night through the wall. A lot of times, she'd be crying."

Sera didn't disagree. Rachel would go all week like that—shaky, depressed, unstable—then she would get her allowance, blow it on more heroin, and go through withdrawal all over again. It was a never-ending cycle, except that it did end. On Rachel's 18th birthday, someone slipped her 55 pure. She died on her friend's living room floor.

Sera blinked away tears. "Do you think Mom and Dad knew she was using?"

"I don't know," he whispered.

"I think they suspected it, but Dad was probably too proud to get her help. She'd ruin his image."

"Give Dad a little more credit, Sera. He would have stopped her allowance if he knew she was using."

Sera shrugged, wobbling the cell.

"Dad does blame himself, though," Isaak said.

"Really? Dad blaming himself, that's a new one."

"Mom says Dad doesn't sleep well. He tosses and turns. She says he has nightmares because he wakes up violently, shaking and breathing like he ran to Virginia and back. When she asks him what's wrong, he just growls at her and turns back over to go to sleep. Mom says his side of the bed is damp when he gets up in the mornings because he's sweat so much."

"And you think that's because of Rachel?"

"Why not? He's probably afraid the same thing's going to happen to you."

"I don't use, Isaak, and I've tried to tell him a thousand times, but he doesn't listen."

"I know. But I also know that Dad loves you. He just—"

"Doesn't want to admit it?"

"Doesn't know how to express it."

Sera didn't want to talk anymore. She just wanted to lay there in her leaves and listen to the sounds of a cool autumn night: the last of the cricket song before the upcoming winter, rustling of brittle leaves, flapping of large feathery wings. An owl whooed from a near-by tree.

Maybe it was time to go in. She didn't mind the small little song birds of the day, but the great horned owl that ruled the woods at night was far too large for comfort.

"Are you outside?"

"Yeah, I'm taking the garbage out."

"You're not laying in the woods again?"

She sat up. "Nope." Her cell slid down the side of her stomach onto the leaf wall.

"You and Dad'll make up eventually. You'll see."

Sera shrugged a corner of her mouth. An optimistic mortician, just what the world needs.

"Well, I have to go," Isaak said. "Mom wants me to help with some new dessert. I think it's one of those jelly, fruity mound things."

"Uhk. Have fun."

"Later."

She flipped her cell shut and stepped outside the leaf border. She stared down at the outline of her body. All she needed was the crime scene tape.

Sera stuffed the cell into her pocket and shuffled barefoot through the foliage toward her apartment. She didn't want to think of her father loving her. It was much easier to hate him if she felt victimized. She rummaged around in her mind for a less perception-altering topic.

A few days ago, she finished reading a book one of her regulars gave her. He was drunk at the time so she wasn't sure he had meant for her to keep it, but when he hadn't asked about leaving it behind on his next visit, she took it home. It was a collection of philosophic thoughts, including Ockham's razor, attributed to William of Ockham, who thought it would be best if people jumped to logical conclusions instead of thinking up some irrational entity to explain whatever phenomenon they were experiencing. Thus, if you were in Europe and heard hoof beats, you should think horses, not zebras.

She thought her dad would have appreciated how she turned the philosophic thought around, applying Jesus' own controversial standards. If one should turn the other cheek when someone slaps it, which is contradictory to the normal urge to bash the sucker's head against a tree, then people in Europe should think of zebras when they hear hoof beats, not horses. Think of the inconceivable, and it will happen to you. Just because.

For her big finale, Sera had drawn from the uproar over Jesus' appearance. Instead of arguing whether He was white or black or olive or red when he is obviously Jewish, people should argue whether he was white with black stripes or black with white stripes. She still considered this to be a thought-provoking conclusion, if you wanted to take a philosophic approach. Unfortunately, no one did.

It was a small wonder why Jesus called his followers a flock. All the senseless bleating and grazing and clopping along behind someone without question…

Sera shook her head. No, no more analyzing. She tried to think of something less provocative.

Mother. No, that won't do.

Ham. Is unpleasant and unworthy of consideration.

She opened the door to her apartment and stepped inside, setting her heels down at the doorway. She padded to her bedroom and changed into a mauve tank top and girl boxers. She flung herself onto the bed, feeling guilty for not brushing her teeth. Then she remembered she hadn't eaten. Her teeth couldn't be that dirty.

Her stomach grumbled, but she lacked the self-will to walk to the kitchen, and making food was out of the question. Was there anything edible left? Maybe crackers...or the box they came in.

With the line of thought becoming too discouraging, she decided to try again.

The kitten.

Because that was so much better.

Sera immediately shoved aside the image of the flattened tan and white kitten and the necessity for tears. It was time to stop thinking about today, about the future, about everything. With the owl safely outside, she rolled onto her side and slowly drifted off to an uneasy sleep.