Southern Niceties

"Jesus, Trista, watch out!"

Meredith grabbed her older sister by the back neckline of her dark purple dress, yanking her a few steps towards her. Trista stumbled, teetering dangerously on the narrow heels of her shoes, but she managed to hang on to the roses grasped in her carefully manicured hands.

"Mere, what the hell?" she griped, still focused on keeping her balance. After all, if she fell on her face, it would be in front of nearly every member of her family and all their extended friends, in addition to many judgmental strangers. "This dress was expensive, you could have torn it!"

Because that was what would matter to Trista, of course. She might be the older of the sisters, but it had always been Meredith who was more focused on practical matters. Trista wasn't stupid, although sometimes her life choices made Meredith wonder otherwise, but she did tend to focus far more than Meredith thought necessary or in good taste on her physical appearance and the makeup, clothes, and hair dye that it took for her to maintain it.

"Your foot was literally dangling over the open space of the grave," Meredith informed her. "If one person bumped you, then you would have fallen into the casket, knocked it off its podium thing, and fell into the grave. Do we really need to end this day with that fiasco?"

Trista's bright blue eyes, the shared characteristic of every member of the McCormick side of the family, widened with alarm as she pressed a hand against her chest. "Oh, shit, really?"

She shot a guilty glance at the grim-faced pastor standing perhaps four feet away from her and flushed. "Oops, I mean, um, shoot?"

Meredith snickered, neither offended nor surprised. She was just glad that her sister had slipped up on language before she had, and that they had both made it through the funeral service without making any major faux paus.

"Smooth, Tris. You know you're gonna be on the prayer list for the next month now. Mama and every other member of her Bible study is gonna be putting your name on top of the Save Their Souls action plan for cussing in front of a man of God, across the street from the church."

"Well, I'll hold it in here, but all bets are off when we get to Kimberly's house," Trista declared. "Especially if she has some decent brands of beer."

"Ooh, now you're talking about drinking in front of the pastor!" Meredith teased in a loud whisper, smirking. "You sinner!"

Trista giggled, but the sound was a little sharper and more strained than usual, and Meredith saw tears come into her sister's eyes. Swallowing and blinking deliberately so as not to let her own tears emerge in response, Meredith moved closer and slid an arm around her, leaning her head against Trista's shoulder. Trista let her head rest against Meredith's, twining her arm around her waist in wordless response.

They had both been trying hard to keep their emotions in check since the start of the service- hell, since the night their mother called in tears, telling them that her sister Rita, their aunt, had passed away. With Rita not yet sixty and in good health until recently, the death had been unexpected and devastating for the entire family. Meredith and Trista had grown up seeing Rita and her daughter Kimberly not just on holidays but several times a week, often daily during the summer. Things had changed as they all grew older, and their frequent visits with both their cousin and their aunt had dwindled down to occurring only a few times a year. It was a natural enough shift- the cousins were in their thirties now, with busy lives and careers. All three had married, though Trista had also divorced, and Kimberly, if not Meredith and Trista, had children to care for.

They had valid enough reasons for the limited time spent with Kimberly, her husband and children, and their aunt Rita over the past few years, but to Meredith, the reasons felt stupid and meaningless, now that she knew she would never again have the opportunity to get to know Rita in the way she felt she had known her when she was a child. She would never be able to know Rita as a fellow adult, as an equal and as her friend rather than an authority figure or stand in for her own mother. It was the loss of this possible future relationship rather than Rita's death itself that stung the most to her.

She let her eyes drift past her sister to the coffin, finding it nearly as hard to look at it closed and hovered over what would be Rita's final resting place as when it had been opened in the church, exposing her aunt's face to the mourners' view. Meredith had never understood the point of wakes or open casket funerals. To her, a dead body was just that, a body, no more worth viewing, touching, or speaking to than a mannequin or doll. The fast glance she had managed to cast over the body of her aunt had confirmed to her that whatever it was that had made Rita her unique self was no longer present, because the figure in the coffin did not resemble the aunt she knew at all.

Of course, she knew better than to say those thoughts out loud, at least to anyone other than Trista. She had done the expected actions of a family member of the deceased, supporting Kimberly and her own mother, Nancy, the best she could while also keeping an eye on Kimberly's teenaged children. She had half expected the younger, Sabrina, to make some sort of dramatic scene, but Sabrina had been subdued, almost stunned, and far quieter than Meredith had ever seen the fourteen-year-old under any circumstances. Perhaps the child had figured that the impact of bringing her African American boyfriend to Rita's very conservative Southern Baptist church for the funeral service was drama enough, and she hadn't been wrong. Meredith had personally witnessed so many people openly staring at the poor kid that she wasn't surprised he had barely lifted his eyes from his phone, even during the pastor's not one, not two, but three separate altar calls throughout the service- one after each hymn.

Meredith was pretty sure the first altar call was planned, but the second two were out of an effort to get the black boyfriend, their parolee cousin Houston, his facially tattooed brother Sean, and everyone Pastor Neil judged to be an alcoholic, drug addict, or sexual deviant off their backsides and on their knees. She was also pretty sure she and Trista were both part of his intended target audience, even though she had made it through most of the service with minimal eye rolling- what was for her very restrained behavior.

When the Pastor turned towards her, clapping one hand on Meredith's forearm, the other on Trista's, both women flinched, straightening their stance and inching back. He smiled, but the expression looked too broad to be genuine to Meredith's already suspicious judgment.

"Ms. McCormick and Mrs. Owens, I sure was happy to see you attend our service today," he declared, as though the sisters had shown up for a Sunday sermon rather than the funeral of their aunt. "Your mama talks about you all the time, she sure does love and worry about you girls. I know she and I both would love to have you come back and see us here again soon."

We will, the next time someone dies, Meredith thought, and only seeing her mother approaching them out the corner of her eye made her swallow back the sarcastic response. Instead she said with slightly less bite, "We know, she tells us herself all the time."

"Right, she totally does, no worries on that," Trista chimed in brightly- brightly enough that Meredith side-eyed her, recognizing her "ditzy" voice that she tended to put on right before burning someone with a smile. "And it's Ms. McCormick for me too, actually. I got divorced five years ago, did Mama not tell you that?"

Meredith hid her smile with a cough behind her fist, enjoying the sight of the man's face stiffening.

"Yes, well, she did mention that, you've been the source of many a praying tongue for some time now," he said tersely. "As I'm sure your mama's taught you, though, in the eyes of the Lord and the church, once you've taken those marriage vows, it doesn't matter what the court says, you're still married until the day either you or his husband takes his last breath."

"Well, if that's the case, here's hoping that it's gonna be Keith who goes first, and soon," Trista said in the same deceptively airheaded tone, but Meredith heard a hint of steely anger beneath. As their mother, close enough to hear her now, gasped out Trista's name in shocked reproach, Trista looped her arm through Meredith's and tugged for her to walk away with her.

"Nice service, especially the talk of us sinners going to hell. Very appropriate for a lady's funeral," Trista called over her shoulder. "Bye now, Meredith and I need to catch up on our daily sins!"

Meredith let out a startled but appreciative burst of laughter as Trista steered her away, keeping a surprisingly strong and even stride on her heels.

"That was badass, Tris," she approved, shaking her head. "He really must have gotten under your skin."

"I don't care if that was rude, he was rude first," Trista insisted, pressing her lips together tightly. "He gets people like Mama scared so they do whatever he tells them to, and then they make themselves and everyone else miserable. I wish Mama would go to church somewhere else."

Both she and Meredith knew that was never going to happen. Their childhood had been spent attending church every time its doors were open, short of blizzards, tornados, or near deadly illnesses. Their father, far more in line with the "sinners" that Pastor Neil railed against than their earnestly pious mother, had refused to attend by the time the sisters were preteens, and by the time they were teenagers, they had started to refuse right along with him. They had both attended other, less overbearing churches sporadically in the past decade and encouraged their mother to try them out, but Nancy McCormick was nothing if not loyal, at least when it came to what she saw as her home church.

"Come on," Meredith sighed, gesturing towards the parking lot of the church. "Kimberly won't mind if we're at her house a little before she is, maybe we can set things up for her. Maybe ask the kids if they want to come with us, that would be one less thing for her to worry about."

But as Trista turned, scanning the throng of people still gathered in the cemetery for her niece, her niece's boyfriend, and her nephew, Meredith saw a figure slowly walking towards them. She squinted, unable at first to determine if the woman was someone she knew. Then it clicked, and she tried not to gasp, dropping her voice as she jostled Trista's arm and nodded in the woman's direction.

"Trista, look- that's Jayna." Then, at Trista's blank look, "Jayna- you know. Uncle Dan's daughter."

Trista squinted in the direction Meredith indicated, then widened her eyes. "Oh wow, she looks…different."

She wasn't wrong. Neither woman had seen Jayna for several years now, but the memory they held of her didn't resemble the Jayna they were looking at now very closely. Jayna had always been slender, but she now looked nearly skeletal, her cheekbones hollowed, and her patterned black t-shirt and sweatpants bagged loosely on her limbs. She looked haggard, her hair was unkempt and showing several inches of dark root from a dye job grown out too much without upkeep, and although she was close in age to Meredith and Trista, she looked at least a decade older. Had Meredith not been at a family gathering, expecting to see family members she had not thought of in some time, she wouldn't have recognized Jayna as the cousin she once saw frequently.

"I wonder who told her about Aunt Rita," Trista mused, now downright staring in Jayna's direction. "I didn't think anyone was talking to her, even Uncle Dan. Didn't he and Aunt Erica disown her or something?"

"I think it was more or less even, Jayna disowning them too," Meredith shrugged. "Stop staring, she's going to see you looking."

"Well, if she didn't want people looking she shouldn't wear sweatpants to a funeral," Trista muttered back, rolling her eyes. "Doesn't she have anything else to wear? Do you think she's high? She wouldn't come to church high, would she?"

"How would I know what she would or wouldn't do anymore?" Meredith murmured back. "She hasn't come to family stuff basically since we were still kids, I don't remember seeing her anywhere but Facebook since maybe college. But you know how everyone talks."

She didn't want to say it out loud, just in case Jayna could somehow hear, but the family gossip of Jayna being heavily into various drugs and in and out of trouble with the law didn't look like it was much of an exaggeration, if at all, now that Meredith could see her cousin for herself. Jayna looked like she had gone through years of hard living, and not a single family member was speaking with her, or even standing near her. Meredith looked around the throng of remaining funeral goers, searching for Jayna's father, Dan, or one of her several half siblings, but although Dan was in attendance, he kept his distance from his daughter.

Meredith felt a pang of equal parts pity and guilt towards Jayna as she regarded her surreptiously. Jayna had never been close to her, growing up, but she had seen enough of her to know that she had never had much stability, even in her earliest years. Her parents had both struggled with alcoholism and a pretty volatile relationship, and Jayna and her brothers had spent almost as much time staying with Rita and Kimberly as she had living with her own parents. Meredith was pretty sure she had stayed with other family members as well whenever Rita couldn't or wouldn't take her. Meredith had heard Jayna had kids but no steady partner, and however true it might be that she wasn't living a lifestyle that was any better than that of her parents before her, it still was a pitiful thing to see her standing alone and uncared for, even in the middle of her own family.

"We should go talk to her," she said to Trista on impulse, tugging at her sister's arm. "Come on, Tris, let's go talk to her."

"What?" Trista protested, scrunching her nose lightly. "Why?"

"I don't know, because no one else has or will," Meredith murmured, giving her a meaningful look to keep her voice down. "It's kind of sad, don't you think? Be nice. Just for a minute."

Trista huffed lightly but let herself be pulled by her, eventually matching her stride. Jayna didn't seem to notice their approach, her gaze blank as they drew closer to her.

"Jayna? Hi," she said lightly, stopping several feet in front of the other woman. When Jayna looked at her without changing expression, Meredith faltered, thinking that perhaps her cousin didn't recognize them. "I'm Meredith, your cousin. Nancy's daughter? And this is Trista, my sister."

"Hi," Trista put in, her polite face now in place. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Yes," Jayna said flatly, her hands shoved into the pockets of her sweats. "It has."

Meredith waited for more, but that was apparently all the woman had to say. She didn't seem interested in any further conversation, and as Meredith shifted her weight, feeling awkward, she already regretted her impulse to go up to her cousin. Maybe there was a reason other than family gossip and alleged sins that had kept the others from trying to talk to her- maybe it was because trying to have a conversation with her was almost painful.

Trista, though, seemed bound by some sort of southern manners she chose to follow as it suited her, and she persisted, giving Jayna a bright smile.

"Gosh, we're all getting so old, aren't we? Kimberly's kids are practically grown, have you seen them? And I heard you have kids too, I'd love to meet them some time. Are they with you today?"

"No," Jayna answered, shaking her head briefly. "My youngest is with his dad today, and DSS took the other two, they don't stay with me."

That was more of a reply than Meredith had expected, but somehow, the expanded answer only increased the awkwardness of the situation. Trista's smile briefly faltered, but nevertheless attempted to continue some sort of discussion. "Oh, okay, that's uh, too bad about DSS, but that makes sense. Why the kids aren't here, I mean. Meredith and I don't have kids, do we, Mere?"

"Yep, child free, unless you count pets," Meredith answered, giving a somewhat strained smile of her own.

Jayna shrugged. "I don't have any pets. Just kids. Really just one kid now."

Meredith definitely regretted pushing Trista to talk to the other woman now. How was it possible that everything she said, limited as it was, could be just enough to make her want to squirm?

"Well, it's nice to see you again, Jayna," she added. "We're supposed to go drive Kimberly's kids back home, so we should probably get going, right, Tris?"

"Oh, right," Trista said quickly, nodding. "Bye, Jayna, good to catch up with you."

They both started to turn, but Meredith jumped, her pulse rocketing as a hand almost claw-like in its slimness landed on her shoulder unexpectedly. She barely suppressed a scream as she whirled back around to face Jayna, knowing her eyes were still wide and her heart was still beating far faster than usual when the other woman spoke.

"You can come to my baby's funeral, if you want," she said, her voice and expression showing no further emotion than before in spite of the shocking nature of her words. "Both of you."

Meredith opened her mouth, then closed it. She was still feeling a surge of adrenaline, and she couldn't be certain that coherent words would emerge if she spoke right away. Behind her, Trista seemed to be struggling with a similar experience as she too just blinked at Jayna, attempting to process this stunning invitation.

Finally Meredith managed to come up with a response. "Your…your baby died? Uh…wow. I'm sorry, Jayna. That's horrible."

And she truly was beginning to feel badly about her reaction to her cousin and her judgments of her. If the woman's baby had just died, within days of her aunt dying too, it was little wonder that she wasn't looking or acting very normally. Even if the drug use rumors were true, who could blame her, given the extent of tragedies she had just experienced?

Trista too stammered out, "Jayna, I'm so sorry. I didn't know you lost your child, no one said anything."

"I don't think they care anymore," Jayna shrugged, her narrow shoulders barely twitching up with the gesture. "They've all written me off, so they wrote my kids off too. Even the baby. It isn't fair on them, but it's my fault, I guess. I'm the one who's screwed up my life."

Meredith glanced at Trista, having no idea what to say in response to that. Jayna was right, that didn't seem fair on the children to be denied the attention or relationships of their family members, but she was also right that it was probably the natural consequence of their mother's choices. Still, for people to ignore that Jayna had lost her child…that was more heartless than Meredith would have expected out of even her most self-absorbed family members.

"What….I'm sorry, but what happened?" Trista asked uneasily, extending a hand towards Jayna but not quite letting it fall to touch her. "To the baby? Was it sick, or…"

"Don't know, really," Jayna shrugged. "He seemed fine when I put him in bed, and when I went to check on him, he wasn't breathing. They were going to do an autopsy, but I didn't want them to cut my baby up like that. I wanted to embalm him like Aunt Rita, but I couldn't afford it, and they thought I was so crazy then I might drink the embalming fluid to try to kill myself."

Meredith was pretty sure that her eyes visibly bulged at that nonchalantly tossed out declaration, and she saw her own astonishment echoed in her sister's expression. She tried to wrap her brain around the mental image she was having of Jayna, reaching across an autopsy table holding her dead infant for a flask of green, science fiction looking embalming fluid and gulping it down like a glass of Pepsi. Did they even store embalming fluid in a way that someone could easily access and consume it in a morgue? Would they even let her, the family member of the deceased, close enough to those kind of products for her to be able to try?

"Oh," she said lamely, fighting an urge to pull out her phone and start googling.

Trista, as the older sister and the one more accustomed to social niceties when she wanted to be, managed to pull her expression into a somewhat more neutral one long enough to start asking more questions.

"If the cost is a problem, Jayna, maybe you could talk with someone about cheaper options, or start a go fund me. I could help you do that, I've done one before. This is your baby, you should be able to have the kind of funeral you want for him."

"Yeah, well, that isn't happening, because no one will come," Jayna shrugged again, her tone flat and resigned rather than holding resentment. "That's why I'm asking you guys. You don't have to feel obligated or anything, I know you didn't know him and we don't really talk anymore. But a funeral ought to have people come to it, so I thought I'd ask, anyway."

"Well….um…when is it? The funeral?" Trista asked.

Meredith knew her well enough to know that Trista was trying to figure out how to decline the invitation that she clearly did not want to accept as gracefully and regretfully as possible. She herself was mentally rifling through possible excuses for reasons she wouldn't be able to make the date, whatever it happened to be.

But Jayna didn't seem capable of giving expected responses, such as a straightforward date and time.

"I'm not sure yet, I have to raise the money to afford one," she shrugged again. "I think I'll probably have enough in the next couple of months, I've been trying to save up for a while."

Meredith and Trista spoke in one voice, nearly identical in its tone of disbelief. "Next couple of MONTHS?!"

"Yeah," Jayna nodded, seeming not to notice the shock in their expressions or their words. "I got the coffin, and I have enough for the flowers. I just need to find a pastor and have enough to buy a headstone and someone to bury him, I guess. So I just have to wait a little longer, save up a little more."

Meredith gave an uncomfortable chuckle that she tried to cover by clearing her throat. "Um- you have a coffin? But…where's the, you know, your baby? Is he, like…still in the morgue or funeral home, or did you cremate him already? How long are they willing to hold him for you until you have the money?"

"Oh, I never sent him to a morgue or funeral home, they wouldn't have let me wait until I had the money if I did that, and besides, I didn't want him away from me before I was ready to say goodbye the right way," Jayna corrected with a slight shake of her head. "I just bought the coffin I liked and took it home with me."

"Took it home…it's just….sitting in your living room, or something? Laying under your bed?" Meredith burst out with. "You have a coffin just sitting in your house somewhere?"

"Well, I had to have something to put the baby in," Jayna answered, tilting her head at Meredith in a manner that suggested she thought Meredith was being a little slow on the uptake. "I couldn't just keep him in his crib all this time."

This time it was Trista blurting out. "I'm sorry, you- are you saying you still have the baby in your house?"

"Yeah," Jayna said slowly, narrowing her eyes as she turned the judgmental look she had cast towards Meredith in Trista's direction. "He's my baby. I'm not going to let him sit with strangers and dead people he never knew. He belongs with me until I can give him the right kind of goodbye. I told you."

A long pause stretched between the three cousins as Trista and Meredith instinctively stepped back from Jayna and closer to each other, their shoulders touching. Meredith had to fight not to grab Trista's hand for support as she spoke the question she knew must be on her sister's mind just as prominently as her own.

"Jayna…just how long ago did your baby die?"

Jayna rolled her eyes upward, as though trying to do math in her head.

"Let's see. Aidan is 3 now, and he was two when Jayden died, so it would have been almost a year ago. Yeah. Almost."

After that bombshell, Meredith and Trista couldn't make their excuses fast enough to get away from the other woman. Trista muttered something about Jayna letting them know when the date for the funeral was set, grabbed onto Meredith's arm, and strode away as fast as they could manage given the height difference and instability of Trista's high heels. Once safely behind the closed and locked doors of Trista's car, both women burst out in nervous, incredulous flurries of words punctuated by snorts and snickers.

"Can you believe that?!"

"Oh my god, what is she on? She's completely lost it!"

"Her baby died a year ago, and she doesn't know when she'll get around to a funeral?!"

"She's just keeping a dead body in the house with a toddler?!"

"What is she doing with the coffin, using it as a coffee table in a pinch?!"

They clutched each other's shoulders, trying and failing to suppress sputters of laughter. After the stress of the past week's events, something like this was perhaps exactly what they needed as a release.

"Stop, we shouldn't," Meredith managed, trying to compose herself. "It's sad, really. If she really did lose her baby, it's sad she can't even remember how things really happened."

"Are you serious, the only thing she lost any baby of hers to is child protective services!" Trista retorted. "You're right, it's sad, but not because of any dead baby, what's sad is how bad she's scrambled her brains with whatever she's hooked on. Half this family needs to go to detox or rehab."

"Just half?" Meredith said, but her heart wasn't in the joke. There was too much truth in it to really be funny.

"She's gone, she got in that shitty brown pick up and drove off," Trista sighed. "Come on, let's go see if Kimberly or the kids need anything before we head over to her place. I really need a drink now."

Meredith looked around quickly, making sure that Trista was correct in her assertion that Jayna had left, and having reassured herself, followed her sister in sliding back out of her car. They were scanning the remaining people still standing in the cemetery in search of Georgia and her children when their mother, Nancy, came up to them, her eyes narrowed in judgment even before she spoke.

"I saw you two talking to Jayna," she declared, hands on her hips. "Well, what did she have to say for herself? I'm betting this is the first time she's been to church since she left her daddy's home, and it would do her a lot of good to come back far more often. You girls two," she couldn't resist adding.

Meredith stopped herself from her desire to retort that it would do Nancy good to see a hair stylist who knew how to give her any haircut in the world besides a mullet. As much as her mother managed to get under her skin, she knew that it had been a hard day for her. She was burying her only sister, so she swallowed down the instinctive defensiveness that rose up, making herself cut the woman some slack. For today.

"Nothing, mama," she said instead, "nothing important."

"No, nothing worth going into," Trista added, and Meredith had to avoid meeting her eyes, knowing that if she did, they would both start laughing again. Somehow, she doubted that her mother would see the joke, even if they did try to explain.

"Well, she left her purse on the church pew," her mother informed them, holding up a worn bag with a faded picture of Tinkerbell on it as evidence. "Probably on that dope, going off like that without her things."

Meredith had to bite the inside of her cheeks and stare at the ground to continue to remain solemn-faced, and she saw Trista's shoulders quiver slightly from similar effort out the corner of her eye. To Nancy McCormick, "dope" was anything and everything from CBD oil to heroin, no matter how hard they tried to explain to her that there were differences in both name and severity of different types of substances. But for a woman who wouldn't even drink a glass of wine, they should probably expect no less.

"Why don't you go catch up with her and bring it to her?" Nancy persisted, holding the purse out to both her daughters with the air of someone who was not making a request, but rather giving an order. "Tell her to come back to church next week while you're at it."

Both women took an immediate and nearly synchronized step back, shaking their heads.

"Mama, we don't even know where she lives," Trista tried, as Meredith said simultaneously, "Mama, we were about to go get Kimberly's kids and bring them home, help her set stuff up for the meal."

"I can take care of Kimberly and the kids," Nancy was undeterred. "And as for not knowing where she lives, her driver's license is in her wallet, it's got her address on it. Go on now, bring this to her and tell her we all want to see her in church next week."

Trista and Meredith looked at each other somewhat helplessly. Grown or not, their mother still managed at times to make them feel like they were still fifteen and obliged to do as she said, just by her tone of voice. Between that and the nature of the occasion they were present at, this was one of those times where neither felt they could refuse her.

Exhaling, Meredith took the bag from Nancy's hand reluctantly, passing it on to Trista, who held it gingerly, looking at it as though the cheap material would somehow rub off on her own overpriced Coach bag to magically transform it into a Wal-Mart brand. As they walked back slowly towards Trista's car, Meredith nudged her, murmuring once out of Nancy's earshot.

"Are we really doing this?"

"Well, we can't just keep her money and credit cards and stuff, that would be stealing, wouldn't it?" Trista said uncertainly. "Even if we didn't use it?"

"Well…not exactly," Meredith hedged. "More like holding onto it."

"Oh, come on, let's just do this fast, make Mama happy," Trista sighed, digging out Jayna's wallet and searching for her license to check its printed address. "Besides, aren't you kinda curious what her place looks like, how she's living now? This way, we get to see and we can't even be accused of being nosy."

"I'm not actually sure I want to know," Meredith muttered, but Trista was already plugging the address into her car's GPS and pulling out of the parking lot.

"It will be fine. It ain't like she's going to keep us propped up in her living room forever, she only does that to her dead kids."

Meredith broke out in laughter at that, and Trista joined her. Still, she felt tense, apprehensive, as they drove towards their cousin's address. The very fact that the girl was a few crumbs short of a cracker made showing up uninvited at her place a little nerve-wracking. She wouldn't be the first family member to greet all visitors to her door with a shotgun in hand.

Ten minutes later, the GPS announced they had reached their destination. Jayna's place of inhabitance was a single wide trailer, its siding peeling in several areas and stained with age and lack of repair. The wooden add on steps were splinted, one was broken in the middle, and appeared on the verge of collapsing all together. The screen door over the trailer's entrance was torn, and one of the windows was boarded up. Meredith stared, not surprised, exactly, but saddened by Jayna's circumstances. It was difficult not to compare her living quarters to her own, modest as her own may be.

"Wow," Trista murmured, exhaling. "Her place looks like it came off the set of Breaking Bad. I hope to Jesus the meth lab part of the scenery isn't present. We don't need to make today a two for one funeral."

The women got out of Trista's car slowly, taking care to watch their step as they approached the weathered stairs of the trailer's stoop, as there were several potholes and multiple objects that could be tripped over in the front lawn. Any curiosity Meredith might have harbored about Jayna's living situation had shifted to apprehension only now, and she stuck close to her sister, letting her slightly take the lead. It wasn't that she wanted Trista to be the first shot, if Jayna did happen to respond violently to their approach, but she certainly didn't want to offer herself up for injury either.

Trista too hesitated for several moments, holding Jayna's purse in front of herself like a shield, before giving a quick knock, having to reach through the broken screen of the screen door to do so. She didn't dare open it, as it looked as though it might fall off its hinges if she tried. Both women heard the shuffle of footsteps approaching and a muffled voice before Jayna slid the door open a few inches to regard them. Trista gave a quick and clearly forced smile, holding up Jayna's purse as if in peace offering.

"Hi! You left this at the church, so we thought we'd drop it off for you. Here it is!"

She barely managed to get the words out before she coughed, her face contorting, and attempted to cover this with both hands. Meredith was pretty sure she was suppressing a gag behind her palms, because she was struggling mightily to keep from showing disgust in her expression herself. The moment that Jayna opened the door even slightly, a strong odor of something rank and rotting had filled their nostrils.

What the hell was that smell? It didn't seem to Meredith like animal urine or feces, or even mold. Did she have dead rats in the house or under the trailer? That was what it smelled like to her- a dead animal, like old roadkill or particularly noxious garbage left to swelter and ferment.

"Thanks," Jayna said, showing none of the reaction to the smell that her cousins were fighting to conceal. "That was cool of you."

She opened the door a little wider, revealing a badly stained and threadbare carpet, a couch with sunken cushions at least thirty years old, and a toddler, slouched on the floor with a Matchbox car hanging partly out his mouth as he sucked on its lower end. Jayna nodded towards the child as she introduced him.

"That's Aidan, his dad just dropped him off."

The child, like Jayna, showed no sign of being bothered by the terrible smell in his home, and he didn't react when Trista and Meredith greeted him weakly. He started to awkwardly push himself up, using a long, narrow box beside the couch to brace himself for balance.

Trista seemed to understand first, if her stunned gasp and suddenly rigid stance was anything to go by. Meredith peered around her, trying to understand her sudden increased severity in response, and then she too took in suspicious shape and appearance of the box that the little boy was holding onto. It was a box that was just the right size and shape to hold a human baby. A box that very much looked like a miniature version of a coffin.

Trista, for once, appeared speechless, and Meredith too could not form words. Jayna, seeing their expressions, gave her first flicker of emotion as her brows knit slightly in confusion.

"What? I know it's kind of dirty, you try having a toddler and see how well you keep things up."

"No….uh…Jayna…what is that? That…thing?" Trista managed, pointing with a shaking finger towards the object of their concern. Meredith nodded fervently, taking a step back and making sure to keep within distance of being capable of jumping off the porch if necessary.

Jayna followed her indicated direction, then glanced back at them, appearing slightly exasperated by what she seemed to see as their redundant question.

"That's Jayden," she explained. "I told you already, I'm waiting for the money to be able to have his funeral. Weren't you listening?"

Later, the sisters could not quite recall how they managed to excuse themselves and get back into the relative sanctuary of Trista's car, nor did it seem important. As Trista pulled out of the front lawn, hands shaking so badly she swerved several times on the road, neither spoke until they pulled into the parking lot in front of Meredith's apartment. They sat in continued silence for several moments, still stuck in their mutual shock, before Trista finally spoke, her voice hoarser than normal.

"We have two options on what to do now, I guess. Either we call the police…or we start a go fund me for her to have that damn funeral, already. Which is your vote?"

And Meredith laughed, so long and hard that her chest began to ache in equal parts shock and grief. Because in her family, laughing was about all you could do to keep from inching that much closer past the edge of sanity to join the ones who had already sailed over that cliff.