by Morris J. Marshall
Chapter 4: Paying Respects
Ed Starks’ office was a lot messier than Krista remembered. In sharp contrast to his meticulous personality, papers and file folders were strewn all over his desk, almost covering his personal computer. It jutted out of the papers like an Atlantic iceberg.
A blonde woman with black-rimmed glasses smiled at Krista from a photo on the corner bookshelf and boxes of old textbooks sat on the floor. If Starks hadn’t been Chair of the Business Department, the other profs would have called him a hoarder and insisted he clean up his workspace.
When he saw Krista in the doorway, Starks grabbed some papers from his desk and shoved them into a box. He sat down, leaned back in his chair and folded his hands against his chest. “Come in, Krista. Take a seat.” He motioned toward a brown swivel chair.
“I was shocked to hear about Gavin,” Krista said, sliding into the chair. She placed her briefcase on the floor.
“Most unexpected,” Starks agreed. “He recently became a manager at DBC Financial, one of their youngest at only 28 years of age. Quite an accomplishment, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir. Gavin was the best student I’ve ever had.”
Starks smiled. He seemed pleased with Krista’s compliment. He rose from his desk, went to his bookshelf and returned with a small booklet that he passed to Krista across a clear portion of his desk.
“Edwards Funeral Home,” she said, glancing at the brochure. The caption below read, “We Make Your Last Trip Unforgettable. Special Discounts Available.”
“The viewing is next Thursday at seven,” Starks said. “I’ll be out of town, but I was hoping you could make it on my behalf. I know Gavin appreciated your teaching. His father wants to create a scholarship in his memory, and I’d like someone from the college to be present.”
“I was planning to go. I want to give my condolences to his family.”
“Great. The college is sending some flowers. I feel so much better knowing that you’ll be there to represent us.”
Krista glanced at her watch. Class in five minutes. She excused herself, put the brochure in her briefcase and stood up. After closing the door behind her, she walked to the elevator.
* * *
Edwards Funeral Home was located one block north of the Eaton centre, at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas Streets. In the ’70s, a virtual smorgasbord of shoeshine shops, adult bookstores, strip clubs and massage parlors had lined Yonge Street. After the murder of twelve-year old shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques in 1977, the city of Toronto cleaned up the area. By the early 2000s, posh clothing stores, restaurants and a high-tech theater had sprouted up.
Krista associated the area with her own painful memories. When she was seven, her mentally ill mother had dragged her down to the Eaton centre regularly. Her mom would talk to herself while people stared, pointed and made rude comments, calling her a “nutcase” or “whack job.” Some would twirl their index fingers around their temples. In those days, there’d been more street actors and crowds surrounding them.
Even at that young age, Krista understood what was going on. She would cry, kick up a fuss and, eventually, after an hour or two of pleading “Please, mom, let’s go home! Please? I’m tired,” her mom would relent and they’d hop on the subway for the hour-long ride home.
As a teen in the mid-90s, Krista hung out at the Eaton centre with her friends, watching movies, eating in the food court and shopping. Her time there ended when a store detective nabbed her for shoplifting. Thankfully, the detective felt sorry for her. Instead of pressing charges, he sent her home with the police.
* * *
Edwards Funeral Home boasted about its longevity in the Yonge-Dundas area. “Forty Years of service!” announced a large sign above the front window. A purple carpet on the sidewalk outside ushered patrons inside, making them feel like royalty. Krista opened the front door and walked up to the front desk.
“Welcome to Edwards Funeral Home,” said a young man in a black suit. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here for the McLeod visitation.”
The clerk smiled. He pointed upstairs. “It’s on the second floor, immediately to your right. There’s an elevator just around the corner.”
“Thanks,” Krista said, “but I think I’ll walk.”
Looking at the steep, winding staircase, she was glad she had worn her flats. It had been five years since she had last been in a funeral home. Her aunt Louisa had died of breast cancer in her late forties. Krista stood beside the open casket, staring at her aunt’s smooth skin, rouged cheeks and red lips parted into almost a smile. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Krista almost expected that if she touched her aunt’s shoulder, she’d sit up in the coffin, grab her arm and shout, “What am I doing here, Kris? Let’s go out for coffee, dear!”
A steel sign at the top of the staircase proclaimed, “Visitation for Gavin McLeod.” Krista took a deep breath and peered into the room. Tightening her grip on her briefcase, she went inside.
A slide presentation played on a screen, depicting Gavin at various stages of life. Babyhood. First steps. Preschool. Teenager. College. Young banker. One of the slides featured him holding his Economics award at the Student Awards Ceremony while sandwiched in between his smiling parents. Krista had taken that one with her smart phone.
She was surprised to see a picture of her and Gavin at the Awards Ceremony, taken by a colleague. Krista couldn’t help thinking that she and Gavin resembled a couple rather than professor and student.
As she made her way to the front, several people looked over. No one familiar. Thankfully, Gavin’s light-brown wooden coffin was closed. Better to remember the deceased as he had been when alive. Most people didn’t look the same when they were dead, regardless of how masterful the undertaker had been with the make-up.
Gavin’s father was standing beside the coffin, wearing a tartan tuque with a small woolen ball on top. People shook his hand and hugged him. He smiled weakly and his eyes teared up as he talked.
During a break in the greetings, Krista approached him and extended her hand.
“I’m Bill,” Gavin’s father said, wrapping his hands around hers. “Say, I recognize you from Gavin’s pictures.”
“I was his Economics teacher. We met several years ago at the Student Awards. You were there with your wife and son.”
Bill removed a tissue from his pocket and wiped his eyes. “My wife, Jennie, died of cancer two months ago.”
“I’m so sorry,” Krista said.
“And now Gavin. He was a good lad. He had great things to say about you, Ms...”
“Beauregard, but please, just call me Krista.”
“All right, Lass, I appreciate that. I still can’t believe Gavin would do something like this.”
“Me neither,” Krista said.
“He enjoyed his job, Lass. Always looked forward to going to work each day.”
Bill sat down in a chair beside his son’s coffin. “This isn’t really the time or place to discuss certain matters, but I was wondering if you could drop by our place sometime this week. I’d like to talk to you about some things.”
“Sure,” Krista said. “I’d be more than glad to. Here’s my cell phone number.” She wrote down her full name and number on a small slip of paper and passed it to Bill.
He glanced at her name and looked at Krista more closely. “Is it true you used to work for a newspaper?”
“Who told you that?”
“Gavin mentioned it when he was in college.”
“I was an investigative reporter for a small business magazine named Econobeat. But it’s been ten years since I’ve written a story. I’m afraid I’m out of practice.”
They talked for several minutes. Before the service started, Bill asked Krista to say something about Gavin, and she was happy to comply.
When it was over, she hugged Bill, put on her coat and walked back to Dundas subway station.
* * *
After arriving home, Krista unwound by watching the news. Rents were up ten percent over the last six months, with the average rent of a one-bedroom condo in Toronto now at $2,000 per month. The Ontario government was considering a foreign buyer’s tax on purchases of new homes to calm speculation.
Krista went to bed around midnight, but when she closed her eyes she kept seeing Gavin’s coffin. She remembered what Steve Menter had said about falling from thirty stories and wondered if Gavin’s body was intact or in pieces inside his coffin.
She got up, warmed some milk and watched late night TV before returning to bed. Sleep continued to evade her. After twenty minutes of rolling from one side of the pillow to the other, she tried humming, “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Thirty smashed bottles later, she slipped into a deep sleep.
Krista wasn’t sure when the nightmare started, but her breath started to quicken, coming in short spurts. She was back on the King streetcar a week ago, waiting for traffic to move, late for work.
This time, when Krista disembarked and saw the blood-stained tarpaulin, she slipped under the police tape and walked toward it, unable to resist taking a peek, as if pulled forward by a large magnet. Her feet hurt as she walked in her high heels.
When she reached the tarp, she knelt down. Heart thudding, she grabbed the canvas and yanked it upward.
Gavin McLeod was lying underneath, dressed in his blue suit. His skull had cracked open like an egg, revealing a yolk-like mass of congealed blood and brain matter.
“Gavin,” Krista said.
At the sound of his name, his eyes snapped open, the whites replaced by pools of blood.
“Why didn’t you call me back, Krista?” he croaked. His breath smelled like decaying meat. “Now look what you made me do.”
He raised himself off the pavement, slowly getting to his feet. Krista’s heart leaped into her throat. She tried to run, but her feet were frozen. The smell of decay got closer. She tried again to move, to no avail. Gavin reached for her with bloodied hands. Just as he put them around her neck, she sat up in bed, almost certain she’d screamed. Her tuxedo cat, Simon, was standing over her, touching her shoulder with his paw.
Krista’s face and nightgown were drenched with sweat. The red numbers on her clock radio read 3:20. She swung her legs over her bed, her feet groping for the floor. Still breathing heavily, she got up and turned on every light in her apartment. She turned on the TV, flipped to an all-news station and cranked up the volume. Sitting motionless on the sofa, she stared vacantly into space and waited for daylight to come.
Copyright © 2017 by Morris J. Marshall