By A. K. Thomas
On the drive over, she had seen the webs. Hundreds of webs suspended inches from the ground, clouds of spider-silk fog hovering through the roadside fields, threatened by invisible inhabitants. She had wondered what would happen if she stepped in the silent traps.
The daze of spider-silk morphed into gravestones when she stepped out of the car at the cemetery. A small crowd had already gathered around the pit. She saw uniforms of various colors, dapper hats and shining buttons. Kelsey stepped past the guests, approaching a measly brown folding chair near the head of the coffin. She felt pity like raindrops landing on her shoulders and seeping through the fabric until they touched her blond freckles and pale skin, precipitating from the blurred faces surrounding her. She kept her eyes averted, engaging instead a singular twist in the wood grain on the box. At a quivering touch on her wrist, she glanced up, and her grandmother nodded down at her. Kelsey touched her grandmother’s hand, and Grandma Matthews turned her gaze to the minister.
Kelsey listened so hard to service that she heard nothing at all. She watched the breeze tease the minister’s vestments and brush women’s hair into their eyes. She fiddled with the slim leather gloves her grandmother had given her, unaccustomed to wearing so much black.
Her father had always given her so many colorful things: yellow canopy curtains, running shoes with pink stripes, the Christmas dress made of bright lavender satin. He used to say he gave her colors to match her smile. “But Daddy,” she would whine, “teeth are white!” He would always look back at her with warm cheeks and say, “Not to me. You smile and I see rainbows.”
At five years old, Kelsey would squeal and think of unicorns and Barbie dresses made of all those rainbow colors. At thirteen, she would think it was corny and embarrassing and sell her Lisa Frank folders to a fourth-grader for two dollars. At seventeen, she spent hours grinding her teeth in the mirror, pulling her cheeks back time and time again in desperation, seeking those dental prisms her father saw, seeing nothing but blankness. She waited weeks to hear that vaguely aviatic swoosh and watch her father’s username fly up to the “online” category on Skype, when she would simultaneously holler for Grandma Matthews and click “Call” until the computer nearly froze. He would answer immediately, and when his face appeared in the little pixelated box, her face would hurt and her eyes would sink with joy and he would say he saw all the colors he was missing in her smile.
One designated Thursday she and Grandma Matthews waited through the dark night hours for the swoosh that never came. By the time Grandma Matthews’ tea got cold and Kelsey’s blanket got thin, they went to bed, assuming something important had come up and that they would reschedule tomorrow. Kelsey slept for mere hours before she heard her grandmother’s voice, more visceral and alive than it had been in years. She leapt out of the bed and through the sepia hallway to the aged kitchen, where Grandma Matthews lay collapsed and sobbing before the open door on the worn yellow linoleum. Kelsey’s eyes jumped to two officers in uniform on the front step, arriving just before the morning fog had dissipated.
Kelsey glanced toward her grandmother’s hand. The pale veins seemed illuminated against her black sleeve. Kelsey followed the sleeve up to Grandma Matthews’ face, steady and worn, unbroken against the wind and the misery. Instead of swarming over swollen cheeks and inflaming smooth eyes, Grandma Matthews’ tears soaked into her skin like dew into damp soil. Who knew what would grow there next? Memories, wisdom, thoughts of days to come… Kelsey saw it all being planted.
A shout broke her reverie, and she glanced through the crowd of attendees. One or two people looked up, but most were quiet and demure, still listening to the minister’s blessings. Her posture began to slowly relax until she heard another more distinct shout, and this time several others began looking around with her. The shout was joined by a few other voices and became repetitive, but Kelsey could see nothing through the shoulders of the standing group, and eventually the sounds grew so loud that the minister paused for the disturbance. Kelsey stood and craned her neck but could not see until she stood on the folding chair. Grandma Matthews grasped Kelsey’s hip in worry, and at first all Kelsey saw were rainbows, big bright rainbows bounding over the curls of the wind, a cloud of rainbows conglomerating and growing nearer. Her eyes were suddenly overcome with tears, and she thought she heard her father, and her teeth were suddenly bright, bright colors again and then she heard them—
“You deserved to die!”
“Only God wins his war!”
“Live by the bomb, die by the bomb!”
“God hates you!”
“Unnatural life deserves unnatural death!”
“God has punished you!”
The rainbows shining in Kelsey’s tears sharpened as shock dried her eyes, and the ugly black words thrashed across the signs came into focus. She read on the signs what she heard over the gravestones. She clamped Grandma Matthews’ shoulder by instinct and withdrew when she felt a bone so brittle as a bird’s wing. All the colors had leaked out of Grandma Matthews and melted into somewhere far below them, leaving only her heavy black tweed outfit and her pale, empty skin, and a thousand years of pain in her muddy eyes. Kelsey stepped off the chair, pushed back the cage veil over Grandma Matthews’ pillbox hat, and pulled her as close as she could. “Sit down, Grandma,” she said, leading her to the chair. As her grandmother sat, Kelsey put her palms over her ears and said, “Don’t hear them. Don’t hear anything that isn’t me. Don’t hear anything they say. Daddy didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve to die; he didn’t deserve anything they’re saying! He didn’t—” Grandma Matthews’ tears began warming Kelsey’s wrists, and soon they both could hear nothing but each other’s grief, and forehead to forehead they tried and failed to shut out the belligerent world.
A. K. Thomas is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, where she worked as fiction editor and editor in chief of the Santa Clara Review. She currently serves as an editor for Classic Corrections proofreading and editing services.