Chapter One: Funerals
I stare out the window of my car, watching as other drivers wait impatiently at the traffic lights. Some are texting furiously with their free hand while others are creeping forward, as if by doing so they will somehow make the lights change faster. I smile bitterly as I notice the sun blazing down upon them. Isn't it supposed to be raining? That's what always happens in movies. Funerals are supposed take place on the dullest, dreariest of days, preferably with as much rain pelting down as possible. But the sun is shining and all is right in the world, apparently. As they say, life must go on, although it feels like mine has ended.
My little sister Frances watches me anxiously from the driver's seat. She is only twenty, ten years younger than I am, but she acts as though she is my age or even older sometimes. Her left hand is poised on the gear stick, but she does not shift into first gear even though the lights have turned green and cars are beeping frantically behind us.
"I'm fine," I lie, giving her the best smile I can manage. She nods and at last starts to drive, but she doesn't believe me. Frances knows me too well for that, after all. She is aware that I am most certainly not fine. But what can we do? My eldest son is in the backseat, sniffing loudly at a rapidly increasing frequency. His mother died less than a month ago, the last think he needs is to see his father break down. So I shift my feet and force my smile further, glancing back at him.
"Are you okay, Max? Do you need anything?"
He shakes his head, his dirty blonde curls bouncing as he does so. I nod, reaching over to pat his head. He reacts by curling his small hands into fists and staring at them.
The three of us sit quietly for the rest of the journey. Luckily it is a short one, and we soon find ourselves at the graveyard.
"We're here," Frances announces as she pulls into the car park. If this were a normal day, I would reply with a sarcastic comment saying I hadn't noticed.
A large number of Lauren's family and friends have already arrived, talking quietly amongst themselves on the other side of the fence. They stare at me as I get out of the car, and I become the topic of their whispers. At least, I am fairly certain I do. That's just one of the snags of your wife being murdered – as if your own grief over the matter isn't enough to deal with; everyone assumes you're the culprit. I have been questioned by the police and have a solid alibi, but it doesn't matter. I am her husband, so I am the killer until they find who really did it.
Perhaps I am her killer. Even if I didn't stab her thirty times and decapitate her before placing her head on the kitchen table for her husband to find, I killed her. I killed her because I wasn't there to stop it.
A lump rises in my throat but I swallow it down. Memories of Lauren swirl through my mind, but by some miracle I manage not to lose control like I want to. I want to scream and yell and cry until there are no tears left in me, but I can't. Not today.
I feel their eyes follow me as I open back door. My son is still sitting inside, his knees drawn all the way into his chest. His dark brown eyes are watering, and he shakes his head before I can even say anything.
"Hey," I say gently, kneeling in front of him and wiping his tears away with my thumb. New ones sprout in their place, dripping down his cheeks uncontrollably. I unclip his seatbelt and prise it from him, a difficult task considering his legs are in the way. I scoop him up in my arms, hugging him into my chest as I lift him out of the car. He starts to howl, his tears soaking through my freshly ironed shirt.
"It's just for today," I say, struggling to keep my voice level. I glance at Frances over Max's shoulder. She is watching us, biting her lip so hard a small amount of blood is dribbling down her chin. I adjust him so I can hold him with one hand, stroking his hair with the other. It is the same colour as my own, although curly like Lauren's.
"I want Mum back," he says between sobs, his little fingers digging into my shoulders.
"I know," I say quietly, kissing him on the forehead. "I know you do. But you have to be strong for today, okay?"
He nods, his tears at last beginning to subside a little. I set him down on the ground, glancing at my sister.
"Do you mind looking after him for today?" I ask as he clings to my legs like a limpet. A month ago he never would have done this, as at five he is "too old" for hugs unless they take place in the secrecy of our home.
She nods, swallowing. "Of course."
She prises him away from me, taking his hand and leading him through the gate into the cemetery before us. I watch them go, reminding myself of what I must do. I must talk to everyone, thank them for coming, and endure their endless condolences and their false offers of help. That's another –
My mother is standing next to me, having just arrived herself. She pulls me into a bone-crushing hug. My stepfather is hurrying behind her, his long face uncharacteristically solemn as he nods in greeting.
"How are you feeling?" she says when she sets me free. "How's – how's Max? And Connor?"
I ignore her first question. "Frances is looking after him. Connor's at a colleague's house. I thought – I thought it would be better for him to stay there. He's only two months old, so…"
My voice trails off. Mum watches me anxiously, her lips slightly pursed. I know she wants to pepper me with questions about how I'm coping, so I decide to make an excuse and leave before she can take the opportunity.
"Thanks for coming," I say, forcing a smile on my lips like I practiced last night. "Mum, Dad… It means a lot for me that you're here. But I have to go greet everyone now."
She relaxes a little, as does Dad. "Okay, honey. If you need anything…"
"I know," I mutter over my shoulder as I hurry away. I then wander from guest to guest, repeating the same words over and over:
"Thanks for coming," I say as I shake their hand.
"No, thank you," they simper in response. "We're very sorry for your loss. If there's anything we can do, just ask."
"I'll let you know," I reply. "Thanks again."
When the minister signals it's time to start, I have managed to say it to as many people as I can. Feeling satisfied that I have fulfilled that part of my role in the funeral, I make my way to my seat at the front next to Max. My sister and I take one of his hands each, squeezing his fingers every so often as the minister drones on about what a wonderful woman Lauren was. He talks of her generosity, her kindness, her intelligence… But he isn't really talking about Lauren. He's talking about the "funeral woman" – this unknown, perfect person who seems to die a lot. It's not his fault He doesn't know Lauren as I do. He's not describing her quirky sense of humour, the way her eyes would crinkle when she smiled… My lip wobbles and I have to bite my lip hard to stop myself from cracking as I remember everything about her. I've lasted this long, I have to keep going. Beside me Max sniffs softly, tears spurting down his cheeks again as he wipes his nose on the sleeve of my suit. I wish I could be like him, but I can't. I have to keep going, I have to –
I blink in surprise. Everyone is staring at me, craning their necks to look.
"It's time," Frances says, reaching over Max's head and squeezing my shoulder. I nod and stand up, straightening my tie as I make my way to the front. All eyes are on me again. I'm the killer, after all. I can't read minds but I don't need to, they're all thinking the same thing: the killer is getting up to gloat about the woman he murdered.
The minister, at least, smiles reassuringly at me as I stand at the podium. I stare at the crowd, all waiting anxiously for my confession. I don't give it to them, but what I give isn't much better. I've never been a public speaker, and it shows as I stammer my way through a description of how Lauren and I met, got married, all the usual stuff…
I then move on to describe the same woman as the minister did. It hurts too much to talk about the real Lauren, so I don't. Her parents and mine are both sobbing by the end of it anyway. I finish off by saying that I love her and will never forget her. That's the truth, but it's only a page of the book I could write on the subject. The crowd claps and I sit down, relieved that my part of the service is over. My sister whispers that I did well, but I'm not paying attention as the service continues.
Instead I'm thinking about all the things I could have said. I could have said how I ache inside all the time, and how I feel like my life is over even though I'm only thirty. But they don't want to hear those words from the killer.
People swarm around me once the service concludes. They say my speech was wonderful (what lies) and offer to help again. I nod and smile, thanking them for coming as I'm supposed to.
"I'm going home," I say to Frances once the crowd disperses a little.
"But her parents…"
"I know they've organised a…" Party? After-party? After-funeral? "A gathering, but I'm not going. Max is tired, and I said I'd pick up Connor by three…"
This is a blatant lie, but Frances doesn't know that. She nods, shifting her feet.
"Do you mind getting a lift with Mum and Dad?" I ask. She drove this morning, but the car is mine. "They live closer to you, anyway…"
"Sure," she says, digging into her purse and pulling out the keys. I thank her and hurry away, steering Max through the crowd. He stopped crying when the service finished, but so far he hasn't said a word. I've manage to make it almost to the gate without someone stopping me, which is quite an achievement. Just a little -
I stop suddenly at the sound of that voice. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I turn around. A tall, dark-haired man stands behind me. His eyes are red and his mouth wobbles as he smiles in greeting.
"Brandon," I manage, despite the sudden dry feeling in my throat. "I – I didn't know you were here. I didn't see you…"
He steps forward, his hands in his pockets. "I was late."
"Well," I say, my voice shaking slightly. "Thank you, for coming. Lauren – Lauren would be glad to know you're here."
I turn away at once but he grabs my sleeve.
"Listen..." he says quietly, his fingers tight around my wrist. "There's something I need to -"
I squeeze me eyes shut and pull my arm from his grasp. I take Max's hand again and practically run to the car before getting as far away as possible from the graveyard.