A Solemn Comfort

Tears; burning, wet tears were all you could see on the faces of the people scattered among the benches of the church...especially mine. Even the smaller, younger children could see something awful had happened, for their own eyes glistened with silent sadness. Today was enough to keep everyone quiet.

I held my gaze steady, glazed over, and faced the front of the room, gazing up at Father Williams.

"Melani," my younger sister spoke in a wobbly voice from my lap, little feet resting on the bench beside us. Her voice was filled with fear and confusion. "Mel, where's Daddy?" I slowly turned my silver-grey eyes on her green ones and brushed the salty sorrow off her rose-red cheeks. She was just like my mother, I thought sadly.

"He..." I started, in a tight voice. "He's gone." I said it simply. What else could I do? She buried her blonde head in my shoulder and cried softly for a long time.

I wanted to be able to tell my sister that Dad was never coming back, that he left for the same reason we were sitting in this church, mourning the loss of a loved one...

Our mother was dead, killed, murdered, in my opinion, but Sora didn't understand. How do you explain to a six year old that their father is a bloody murderer, and their mother is dead? They couldn't come back. So I didn't elaborate. I just placed her pale hand in my equally pale hand and resumed my absent minded staring toward the priest behind the altar, hoping our father wouldn't dare come home.

My dad, Norman Berge, was the kind of man you glance at casually, while really taking in his sheer hugeness, and planning your escape, should he try to attack you. He was over six feet tall, with enormous, hard as granite muscles everywhere. He had jet-black hair, chopped off in a brush cut, which he proceeded to have cut every two months, and deep grey eyes, no warmth showing, only hardness

If you saw my dad smile, though, you'd instantly change your mind, and believe it was genuine. His straight, pearly white teeth always made people relax and think, "What a nice man. He's not intimidating at all, once you get past the giant biceps." This was a lie.

My own mother fell for that trick fifteen years ago, on a chilly November night, when she produced me, and married him, in that order, unfortunately. They were apparently living happily with me, when Sora came along three years ago, which was when I noticed something was truly and deeply wrong.

I was lying casually on a soft blue armchair in the basement of a red bricked house on the corner of Maple Street. We lived in a cozy town called Locks, in Pennsylvania. My mom and dad were constantly changing location for "a different perspective on life," I was told. Right. Anyway, I was watching television (on the only TV we'd ever owned, might I add) and Sora was asleep beside me, when I heard a distinct crash from above.

I snapped alert, but knew to keep quiet. I'd been noticing these little crashes all month, but whenever I raced to see what was going on, my mom just brushed it off and said in a forced-calm voice, "I just dropped a dish, Mel. Why don't you go downstairs?"

Without even my pant legs brushing together, I crept up the wooden staircase, eased open the unlocked door and wandered silently down the eerily forsaken hallway toward the kitchen, where I knew they would be. They were always there, it seemed.

That's when I heard the voice. It became steadily louder as I approached the kitchen door, speaking quickly and angrily, but in a gruff tone. He wasn't yelling, but enunciating his words exactly. I knew this voice. I'd listened to it a thousand times before. It was my father, of course.

"Annabel, it just doesn't work that way! You either have it or you don't!" He stated in a verbal flurry.

My mother, Annabel, leaned against the onyx countertops, trying to keep from freaking out; I could tell by her strained expression and deep breathing. Her pixie-like, golden hair was tousled and her pale face was contorted into anxiety, vibrant green eyes reflecting the ominous feeling I felt in my stomach.

"How could I possibly get that, Norman?" Annabel nearly sobbed, hands shaking and clasped together in a tight bundle. "Where on Earth could I have gotten it from?" Her cheeks and eyes were flushed red, like she'd been crying.

Norman screamed in fury and launched a wine glass from across the room. It soared like a bird for a moment, then I felt my heart in my throat as it smashed into my mom's left shoulder, slashing her with broken glass.

I winced and turned away, eyes prickling with distressed drops of dread, and stole away from my eavesdropping position.

I could've done something, called the authorities, told a friend, but I didn't. I was too scared. So I just tiptoed to my room and crashed on my bed. But how could I have known that my sweet, caring, brave and innocent mother would be gone in just a few more hours?

I attended a fairly nice school in the northern half of the town; it had greyish-beige brick walls and a large tarmac outside, where the elementary kids played hop-scotch and basketball, while the middle-school kids strolled around the field with their hands in their jacket pockets. There were two classes of grade nine students, mine being slightly smaller because three students had recently moved away, and, as I'd been told, I was in for the biggest and most different move my class had seen yet.

It was a rainy and cold spring day Monday morning on the day after the funeral. I had been staying at my best friend, Alexis' house for the past week with Sora. Today I was to meet with the guidance counsellor, Carter Jonson, to be assigned my new home, if you could call an orphanage a home.

I was slouching against the white-as-snow wall outside Mr. Jonson's office, dreading every minute of it. My whole future was about to be flushed down the tube, all my freedom gone. Not that I had much of it before, but at least I'd had a place to go, people that I could talk to, a life. Now, I would be stuck and confined to a single building, maybe only one room, for the rest of my adolescent days.

"Melani, I'll see you now." Mr. Jonson's deep, annoyingly comforting voice called out from behind the door as a quiet-looking kid shuffled out it. I pushed it open and faced the counsellor, hopelessness - probably as obvious as an elephant tap dancing in the middle of a crowded street - evident on my face.

Mr. Jonson was probably about thirty, but his head was shiny and bald, and his dark skin wrinkled with laughter lines around his eyes and mouth. He always wore black pants and a dress shirt varying in colors. Currently, he sported a striped pastel top with a buttoned-up collar. He smoothed out the front and motioned for me to sit down in the heavy blue chair in front of the desk he was sitting in.

"Melani, you are fifteen, are you not?" he looked at me curiously. I wished he'd butt out of my business.

"Yeah..." I whispered back, hardly daring to speak.

"Great. We've decided to send you to St. Jerome Emiliani's House for Orphaned Children. It's in the southern half of Locks, so you won't feel completely out of place, hopefully." He smiled at me encouragingly, but I just glared down at the floor, feeling more out of place then he'd ever know. "You'll be able to return to public school, too...when you-when you feel ready." He hesitated slightly. "It's a multi-family home and care center. I know you'll love it once you get used to it! We have decided to let you go home to pack up your belongings, and your sister will be arriving at the orph- multi-family home around the same time you are. She's been well cared for at your neighbour's house; I believe their sir-name is Carson? Yes, well..." He trailed off, slightly uncomfortable.

"Yeah...that's them..." I knew the Carson's fairly well, their daughter, Alexis, being my best friend, and having babysat their son, Jordan, enough times, with Alexis. He was a five year old kid with the ears of a bat, and the eyesight to match - he was actually blind in one eye and required constant attention, which Alexis and I were kind enough to give. According to them, we were the only ones to be trusted with such a pressuring and care-required job. I scowled a bit, remembering the time he almost fell into their enormous swimming pool.

Mr. Jonson's grin faltered, but he kept assuring me I'd "be happy with my accommodations" and "be well cared for". I wasn't convinced, but I didn't say anything, or else I was sure I'd break down in hysterics. Then where would we be?

"Melani, where're your parents?"

"Where are you going, Mel?"

"What's wrong? Why can't you tell me?"

These were the kinds of insensitive questions I received as I exited the school, with Mr. Jonson at my heels, later that day. I kept my arms crossed around me and my feet scuffed the floor as I was marched to a black Mercedes-Benz, whose windows were so tinted that I couldn't even see the front seat, never mind the driver. When I was ushered in unceremoniously by Mr. Jonson, there was a dark screen that provided grateful privacy from any prying eyes that the person steering might have given me. This car was owned by the non-orphanage, so I hoped the screen was kept up all the time. If there was one thing I couldn't stand, it was people butting into my personal experiences, and if this was one of those times, I would keep to myself as much as humanly possible.

I thought about a week ago (could it only have been one week?), the Sunday evening my mother vanished from Sora's and my life, and my father fled for a better one. My theory of their disappearances was not pleasant...

CRASH! The racket rang in my ears, and I flinched, like someone had slapped me. It all sounded the same. It was either a large herd of zebras on the loose in my kitchen, or my father was home, having a 'chat' with my mom. I had bet on the latter.

I listened for the piercing midnight scream that usually followed, but when none reached my ears, I felt my stomach clench, and panic arose and spread like a fire in my chest and head. I couldn't do anything but sit there, cover my face in my ice-cube hands, and cry as smash after smash ensued below me.

When a door slammed, I was forced to jump out of my thoughts and fear and face reality; what the heck was going on in my kitchen? I clenched my teeth together and jolted from my closed-off - but not soundproof - room to investigate.

What I saw made me want to throw up; blank eyes, silent moaning, dripping, mouth open as if trying to shriek in pain, was my mother, and she was dead, bleeding, stabbed, right through the heart that had loved me for the fourteen years I'd known her, the open back door swaying in the night time breeze behind her. My father was nowhere in sight, and I didn't deny he'd ran off. It was my fault my mother was killed, me who witnessed countless beatings - on my father's fault - happening, me who wouldn't tell anybody, me who was the only one who could have possibly saved her, and I didn't. I let it happen. I was as much to blame as my father, whom I believed without a doubt to be the cruelty behind the killing. Maybe I should've been angry, but I found I couldn't. I knew what I should've done, but I didn't know what to do now. I had no knowledge of the killer, just a theory...my brain imploded with dread and guilt. So I did nothing, nothing, nothing...

Okay, so maybe I did do something. I had the sense to call the authorities this time. They came, saw and conquered the situation. All there was left to do for me was take Sora and escape to the Carson's house. They welcomed us with open arms and a cup of warm milk, but that's all I remember. I'd been in a kind of waking coma for a few days after...

I heard a buzzing and jerked my head up in surprise to face reality, as the screen covering the unknown driver slid down. He gave me a sad smile and held up his hand to the three-story, castle-like beige house, which we had all of a sudden arrived at. The steep, stoned pillars gazed down at me with unwelcoming forlornness and a sense of unknown bliss etched into its aesthetics. My eyes averted them by nature. The rest of the building was as cold and cruel-looking as I had imagined it; greyer than rocks, blander than dead grass, and more evil than...well, not my father, at least.

Stepping out of the car, I realised that for the first time in my entire life, I was going to be by myself. I felt alone. I was alone.

"Welcome to St. Jerome's, Melani," I whispered, and moved forward to accept my fate.

"This is your room," Sister Margaret said. She was one of four nuns who managed this home, with two priests, as well. She was small, thin and very young for a nun, only about thirty-two.

I pushed past her, annoyance flooding me as I clambered through the doorway, luggage in hand, to find Sora asleep on the queen-size bed before me. She appeared so innocent, eyelashes fluttering as she breathed softly, and chubby pink cheeks resting against the pillow. She was so tiny, so fragile, yet she was the only one I had left that belonged to me.

Currently, St. Jerome Emiliani's was so stupid, I couldn't even describe is utter nonsense. Who runs an orphanage and a church alongside each other for Christian children, but then accepts atheist and other children as well? I wasn't even sure I could be classified as Christian, or atheist, because my mother was a catholic and my father...wasn't.

Oh yeah; and who maintains it with nuns and priests? I was sure that was going a bit overboard. Like, we already know you're catholic! You don't have to flaunt it! I groaned outwardly, and Sora stirred, and then woke up, crying. I groaned quietly again.

Why did everything have to happen to me?

Recently (as in, the past three days I'd been at this prison house), I had decided that if things were going to be this awful for me, they might as well be for everyone else here, too. I mean, why should I be the only one to have anger surging through them for something they had no control over? Why should I be the only one with problems to succumb to because they can't change the outcome of the situation? Why should I be the only one to lie under my bed covers, shivering from gut-wrenching iniquity and remorse, because of mistakes made, actions not taken, and pure cowardliness? No.

So when the time came for me to greet my fellow house-inhabitants, nothing could stop me from completely eradicating them from my thoughts and being.

"Hey," a soft spoken boy with windswept, mocha-coloured hair addressed me with the eyes of a sloth. They drooped with tiredness, but his voice held gentle happiness, as if he'd finally accomplished what he wanted in life. It brought a lump to my throat and made me think about how much I longed to reverse what my father had apparently done.

But I didn't. I stared right at him, narrowed my eyes and pressed my lips together in a tense line across my face and bit my inner lips until I could taste the metal tang of blood.

The guy just raised his eyebrows and put his stubby-fingered hands in front of him in surrender. I rolled my eyes and waltzed away, to the dining hall.

Just leave me alone, I pleaded soundlessly. Just leave me alone...

I was handing out cold expressions and snotty glares like it was Christmas and the Grinch had taken over. Every time I heard someone utter a single word to me, I whipped around, already prepared with my sour face. Nobody could take a hint! I didn't want attention! Go away! Stop talking to me!

It was about ten o'clock and I was hurrying to get a glass of water before the kitchen doors were locked for the night. That was another thing about this annoying place; everything closed at a certain time, so there was nothing to do for a night-hawk, like myself, until seven AM came and the doors were unlocked again. I scrambled down the wide staircases and across the charcoal-tiled floors, through heavy oak door after heavy oak door until I approached the kitchen, when I slipped. Gravity pulled my butt below my feet and I found myself facing the high-windowed, bright white ceilings of St. Jerome's.

"Melani, are you okay?" Sister Margaret rushed over to my side and knelt down, putting her hand to my now-bruised shoulder. I shrugged her off and sat up quickly to avoid awkwardness.

"Leave me alone," I whispered to my surprise. Sister Margaret jerked back and, the way I'd said it, I'd obviously offended her.

"Melani, if you want to talk about it"- she started, but I cut her off.

"No. I don't want to talk to anyone about anything. It's my business, not yours!" I yelled and stomped away.

"Melani, Melani come back here!" I could tell she was trying not to be hurt, but I didn't care. I kept sprinting, up the cool stairs, down the long forsaken hallways of my present prison, smashing and kicking anything I came into contact with, and arrived at my new room, which was my only place of rest, with the only person I wanted to see right now and she was nowhere to be seen. Sora wasn't even in there! They had taken my life and now they thought they could just take my sweet, innocent sister, too? I screamed in anguish and buried my face in my pillow. Everything was wrong!

"MELANI!" I heard the call of several people in the near distance, but kept up my frustrated cries.

SLAM! My door hit the wall behind it in a deafening bang and I jumped about ten feet off my mattress into the air, the experience of the sudden panic of a person who was about to be executed arising in my stomach.

But the person standing, six feet tall, grey haired and strict in a handsome dark grey suit, was not the person I'd been expecting.

I'd never seen Father Williams outside his church before. Even though I'd only met him officially once, when I was very young, it was extremely odd to see your neighbourhood priest looking ready to attack someone. I leant back against my pillowed bed frame and shut my mouth grimly, eyes unable to return to their less expanded form.

"Melani Berge," His voice didn't match his enraged stance or indignant demeanour; he was so unsettlingly calm! "Why are you shouting at the top of your lungs at the time of night when most of our residents are asleep?"

"I -I don't kn-know..." I whispered, surprised I could say anything at all. I was almost alarmed when I noticed my eyes filling up with tears. In an even tinier voice, I mumbled, "I told them to let me be."

Immediately his tight features relaxed into a sort of neutral expression.

"It is a curious emotion, empathy," Father Williams stated gently. "Sometimes, people can express it very openly and consolingly, other times it is produced in such a way that people often mistake it for hatred."

The elder priest shuffled over to my crumpled bed and sat down on the ruffled sheets. He nodded his head once and laid his eyes past the thick glass of the open window, to the green hills behind and beyond.

"Where's Sora?" I finally questioned. Seriously, I really wanted to see my sister. I wanted to hug her close to me and forget everything, to sleep, to dream...but I knew I wouldn't. Not until I calmed down.

"Melani, what happened to you?" He watery blue eyes pierced mine with sharp integrity. "The little girl I knew a long time ago was so bright and happy; nothing could bring you down! Your mother..." He stopped suddenly and sighed. "I'm sorry for your misfortune, but you've got to know that she's in a better place now."

I had been glaring down sullenly at my feet and my head jerked up when he pronounced that. How could he say that? How could anyone be so insensitive!?

"What are you saying?" My voice quavered as I fought for it to stay low.

"Well, your father was no angel; you knew that, you frequently saw it, from what I've heard. Maybe it was better-" He started, but I cut him off informally.

"Don't tell me that! She would've been happy without him! Ugh! This is just all wrong!" I cried in dismay, now unable to stop the flow of tears. "You know nothing about her life! I don't even know anything about her life!"

"But I do." He announced sadly. "In fact, I know more than most people. She came to me, every Friday afternoon while you were in school and spoke to me. She told me everything about her, what she'd done lately, what she was doing, what was being done to her...so all in all, I know, in detail, a very great portion of her life. What's wrong with yours, Melani? I know you're deeply upset."

"It's-s all s-so pointl-less," I sobbed. I sounded like an ostrich gargling with oatmeal. "And-d your not-t d-doing anything about it!" I punched the feather pillow behind me and squealed loudly.

"Life has value, Melani," Father Williams declared patiently. "You seem to have forgotten that."

I closed my eyes and sighed, then, slowly, in hoarse deliverance, I asked, "What is its meaning then? What does it mean to me? The person I cared most about in the whole world is gone! Why should I care about anything now?"

Father Williams gave me a kind smile and spoke in a pleasant voice, like a father talking to his daughter.

"Life is ever changing; some days, you feel like that entire world is against you, and everything should just end. Some days, you isolate yourself from society, in fear of the rest. Some days, tears spring to your eyes without a moment's notice. Some days, everything is perfect and you never want things to change or to end, but they do anyway, without your permission. Some days, you have no guidance. But all days, you should never blame yourself for things outside of your control. Life is a test; by making up your own rules, or following another person's, you're cheating. If you cheat, you can never be happy. If you forget where you are or where you're going, there are many, many people who can help. If you're hurting, Melani, you are not the only one. Life is a journey, a path, a decision. What is your choice? If you choose to isolate yourself, diminish yourself then prepare to be disappointed, because I won't let that happen. The meaning of life is complicated; there are many parts that work and fit together, or don't, and you have to let yourself decide what's right and wrong, and adjust to new things. You have to relax and take it as it is. You can change things with help, but you have to be willing to admit you need help before you accept it."

Father Williams clasped his hands together and stood up without another word. He was like an angel; he seemed so unreal, so far away from me, and yet so close. The man before me opened my door, but didn't close it. I had the choice to slam it, to scream, to destroy, and to make as much noise as possible...and I didn't. I was my own solemn comfort.

Sora came back to my room the next evening. Her smile sparkled beautifully as she called my name. She was so much happier and more agreeable...and I was so not.

"Hey Mel; you are so sleepy!" She giggled. I picked her up and tickled her. She screamed with delight and laughed until she was red faced and intoxicated from it. I gave her a bear hug and grinned back at her, feeling myself shake with silly laughter and polite pleasure.

I settled her down beside me on the clean, tan sofa in our bedroom. She was ten times more tired than I was, apparently, because she fell into slumber as soon as her bottom touched the cushions and her head leant against my shoulder. I could hear her baby breathing, soft as feathers, lovely as her.

My mind wandered to last night, to what Father Williams had conveyed to me. I hadn't spoken to him since, but I was beginning to understand what he was trying to make me understand. I figured he was waiting for me to come to him, to do what my mother did and say what was on my mind.

Scooping up delicate Sora in my arms like a fragile vase, I decided to venture downstairs to find Father Williams and apologize. Maybe I'd ask him if anything like what I'd experience had happened to him, and maybe he'd give me some advice...

My thoughts trailed off into an incomprehensible mess. My feet shuffled anxiously along the floor and down the staircase. Why was the entire level so quiet? Who died?

Sister Margaret was wandering by, carrying some sort of candle, dripping with wax, like it had been lit for a while...

"Hey! Sister Margaret," I ambled over to her, not able to help but beam. She faced me with ruffled brown hair and an expression of mourning. My own grin vanished like it had been broken and I knew, once again, that there was something amiss.

"I want to see Father Williams, please," I enunciated worriedly and urgently.

"I'm sorry Melani..." Sister Margaret replied sadly. Her voice held longing and reverence. "I'm afraid Father Williams is not with us anymore."

"You mean he got moved to a different church or school, right?" I was short of breath, anxiety giving me a headache the size of Canada.

"Melani," whispered the distressed nun patiently. "Father Williams died of a heart attack this morning. Please, don't make me go into any more detail." She bustled off, wiping at a stray something on her cheek.

I probably stood there, unmoving, for twenty minutes before I realised what she'd actually just told me. I could've told him, right there, that I understood, that I could comprehend what he'd been trying to put across to me, and give me a hand, help me up because I'd fallen, plunged, to the depths of guilt and grief, and beyond. But I didn't do it...it seemed too personal...

My return to public school a week later was fairly easy, easier than it could've been. I no longer felt the need to suffer in silence, but I still didn't want to declare my private emotions to the world. My friends engulfed me with consoling words and comforting smiles, which I gratefully accepted. Life just seems to fall into place, if you let it.

I would always remember what Father Williams had forced me to see; life was only what you made it to be; you can choose your destiny. Maybe I'll put more thought into what I say and do and feel more often.

Maybe I'll take Sora to church on Sunday.

Maybe I'll make my life better, get over it all eventually, with help for once.

But for now, maybe I'll stop being such a solemn comfort.