The Finishing Touch
by Neesha Niaz
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
When twelve-year old June learned of her grandfather’s death, it was the equivalence of the moon dropping out of the sky. His tether to the living world disconnected during a couch nap while June was at school. Mrs. Princette, the school counselor, summoned June to the main office in the middle of a math test. June found her standing outside her office door with an odd half-smile and her hands cupped together at her waist. The no-words approach was a bit creepy, but June played along as Mrs. Princette gestured for her to follow. June found her mom sitting in a chair rubbing her fingers, staring at her hands. The minute June saw that crinkle between her eyebrows, she knew there was terrible news awaiting.
The only other time June had visited the counselors’ office was when a bully had tripped her into a mud puddle in front of the entire sixth grade during field day. Her mom had to bring her some new clothes. Now, Martella held her daughter’s hands while she gave her the most devastating news she’d ever heard. June stared at her mother’s mouth in horrid anticipation.
“June, honey, Grandpa passed away this morning. His song is over.” The words spilled out like a swarm of angry hornets from a provoked nest and stung just as harshly. The silent walk to the car was deafening.
As they pulled into the driveway, they both felt a lurch in their stomachs.
“I don’t want to go in there,” said June.
“I know, honey. It’s going to be really hard for a while.”
“This isn’t fair. I don’t even...” Tears rolled down June’s face. “Where is he now?”
“His body is at the morgue. I have to make funeral arrangements. Come on. Let’s go inside. As much as I’d like to, we can’t stay out here forever.”
June had never heard of a morgue until that day. Such a word had never been on her vocabulary lists, and now she was forced to accept that this place, the morgue, was where Grampa must remain until he was laid to rest.
That night, June tossed and turned, her mind flooded with grief and curiosity. How drastically her life had changed in a matter of hours. She calculated just eighteen hours and thirty-seven minutes prior, she’d waved her final goodbye to Grampa as she got on the school bus. I should have hugged him. Why didn’t I hug him? I always hugged him before leaving. I’ll never get to hug him again.
June wondered about his last moments before his life slipped away. Did he know what was happening? Did he just wake up in a new place? Is he happy there? Does he miss us? Does he remember us at all? What exactly are natural causes? Is he watching me right now? What am I going to do without him? Unable to mute her mind’s volume, June wandered to the kitchen for some chocolate milk. She saw the front door wide open and became alarmed.
“Mom?” said June. No answer. She checked her mom’s room. Empty. Second nature compelled her to look into her grandfather’s room. Maybe this was all a bad dream... Empty. She stood still for several minutes, waiting to see if her mom would walk out with an explanation. No such luck.
June grabbed a softball bat from her room, took a few deep breaths, and tiptoed toward the open door, bat held high, ready to swat. June knew she didn’t look very threatening, but Grampa had taught her how to swing it in self-defense if the need ever arose. “Picture them kneecaps as homeruns, Junebug. This bat ain’t just for baseball.” She took another deep breath and stepped outside. Maybe Grampa woke up and came home. Maybe it was all a mistake. He always left the door open.
“Mom! What are you doing out here? It’s one in the morning,” said June.
“Do you hear that? It’s gotta be a loose board or something,” said Martella. “It’s either the window panel or something in the attic that needs adjusting. You don’t hear that thumping sound? I can’t figure out what it is. Dad’s not here anymore to fix stuff, so I have to learn to do these things on my own now.”
“Mom, you’re scaring me. Please come back inside.”
June’s expression brought Martella back to reality. She looked at her daughter holding a bat, terrified, her dark red braids resting across her shoulders, a tear rolling down her cheek. Martella’s eyes mimicked those of her distraught child who looked upon her mother kneeling in the grass with a flashlight in the middle of the night.
“My sweet girl, I’m so sorry,” said Martella, her words slurring. “I just feel so scattered... I was talking to him. Washing the dishes from breakfast. We’d just had breakfast just an hour or so before. I mentioned how funny the weather girl looked in her silly hat... on... on the news. He didn’t even poke fun at her,” Martella rambled. “He was already gone.”
“Come on, Mom. Let’s go in the house.”
“Then I asked him if he wanted a tuna sandwich for lunch, because I needed to run to the grocery store, and he didn’t answer. I can’t remember the last thing he said to me. Oh, God... Dad hated winter, and now he’s in a freezer.” Martella rested her forehead against the house for a few moments. The touch of June’s hand on her shoulder compelled her to get up.
June snuggled into bed next to her mom like when she was little, listening to her sniffle until sleep became a rescue from the pain.
And... the thumping sound.
* * *
On funeral day, June marched up to her grandfather’s open casket during the private viewing, trying her best to be strong. She stared long and hard at his face, squinting. They’d always have staring contests to see who would laugh first. This time, it was a tie.
“You promised you’d never leave me, Grampa,” said June.
She imagined one of his witty comebacks like the time he told her, “Oh, toughen up, Junebug. The world is full of broken promises and disappointments. You just gotta be sharp enough to see ’em coming.”
June begged for five minutes alone with her grandfather. Her mother decided this was one request she couldn’t deny. “No touching,” said Martella. “It’s bad luck to touch the dead just before they’re laid to rest. He taught me that himself when I was your age, and he was very stern about it. So, I mean it, Juniper. No touching.”
June promised with her hand on her heart, holding it there until her mother was reassured and out the door.
“You look really nice, Grampa. I’ve never seen you so dressed up. Where’d you get that suit? Never seen you wear a suit before. Mom made me wear a dress today. This is so weird. The funeral, I mean. And the dress, too, I guess.” June gazed at him, expecting a response even though she knew it wasn’t coming. “You know, Grampa, you were right about one thing. There are a lot of broken promises in the world, and I’m about to add one to the list.”
June reached in and, for the last time, held the hand of her hero and the only father figure she’d ever known. She thought of all the times she’d held that hand to cross the street and how those same fingertips had wiped away a million tears from her sad face as he preached one of his unique philosophies about life and how sometimes it just sucked.
“Don’t haunt me or anything, Grampa, but can you at least give me a clue about what it’s like on the other side? I really hate surprises. I wish I knew what you were doing right now. And I wish I hadn’t said no to playing Checkers with you last time you asked. I was really sleepy after homework. And I wish... I dunno. I wish life didn’t suck like it does all of a sudden. I know you warned me about that, but still.” June spoke to him in the humorous tone they’d always shared, missing the reciprocated wisecracks.
She knew what he would say. “Wishing’s for wusses. Life’s a very short song, Junebug. No time to waste on wimpy wishes. Once they come true, there ain’t no turnin’ back. Remember that next time you go pourin’ your heart out to the stars.”
“I miss you a lot,” said June. “Say hi to Grandma for me, too. Tell her about me. And tell her I love her.”
Just then, June heard the sound of her mom’s heels on the hollow wooden floor in the hallway.
“Sorry, Grampa. Gotta go now. Love you forever,” said June.
But she couldn’t let go. His grip tightened around her hand, and June felt a chill crawl up her arm. His face became a swirling light. She saw images of him in a strange place, somewhere else, somewhere unlike anyplace she’d ever visited. She saw Grampa looking much younger pointing toward a night sky full of moving stars. She almost screamed right before her mom grabbed hold of her other hand and led her away, oblivious to the phenomenon her daughter had just experienced and severely disappointed that her father’s purity had been destroyed. She didn’t have the strength to issue a reprimand.
June was so flustered after the incident she hardly noticed the prayer service or her mother’s discontent. She was oblivious to all the crying eyes and sympathetic glances, or the coffin as it descended six feet below at the cemetery, taking Grampa to his portal in the stars.
Martella didn’t speak to her daughter much for several days following the funeral. She believed that June had ruined her father’s peace upon entering his final resting place, something unforgivable, even if the culprit was her own child.
Unable to find peace of mind after what happened, June spent hours locked in her room after school, avoiding her mother’s arctic coldness, replaying the funeral day in her mind. The house was eerily quiet without Grampa’s whistling, corny jokes, and constant attempts to prank them.
Martella prepared meals in silence. Instead of hearing the usual “Dinner’s ready, Juniper!” she got a knock on her door.
“I’m really sorry, Mom.” Apologizing every chance she got, June hoped for life to return to some kind of normalcy.
“This is hard for me, Juniper. Maybe time will help. You and Dad were all the family I had, and now half my family is gone.”
Every night, June would open her window and look up at the night sky, wondering about the place Grampa had tried to show her. She wasn’t sure if he’d granted her request about hinting what was on the other side or if it was something else entirely. Perhaps a grief-induced hallucination, or some freak cosmic disturbance with uncanny timing. Are the stars a roadmap to the other side? Maybe we’re not meant to reach them or explore them until we’ve moved on to the next place. What if all the stuff I’ve learned in science class about space and time is wrong? What if astronauts are just wasting their time? June decided never to speak of her experience to anyone. Who’d believe me anyway? she thought.
To remedy her confusion, June decided to embrace the oddity and pretend it was a final gift from Grampa. Nothing seemed scary once Grampa was involved. After all, he was the world’s best prankster. I can almost hear him snickering about how he got the last laugh.
* * *
On her thirteenth birthday, June went for a walk with her prized possession, a copy of A Tale of Two Cities that her grandfather had given her on her tenth birthday. Martella had given her permission to walk to a nearby park with her school friends: Kelsie, Jonathan, and Jane, and Jane’s mom, Lisa.
While the others went to feed ducks, June found an empty bench beneath the shade of a beautiful oak. I can’t believe you’ve been gone for five months, Grampa. I still miss you so much. She looked at his note written inside the front cover. “My little Junebug, I hereby declare you owner of this wondrous novel. Read on, and on, and on, and enjoy the adventure. Love you to bits, Grampa.”
“Hope you’re enjoying that as much as I always did,” said a strange voice. June looked up and saw a man walking toward her, smiling broadly. He was bouncing a small red, rubber ball off the ground.
“Excuse me?” said June. Her eyes searched for her group and found them far off near the pond’s edge. Her stranger-danger alarm was sounding off.
“It’s nice to finally see a friendly face around here, and to see you holding my favorite book. What a blessing. I’m Leo, and you are?” He held out his hand, but June chose to exercise caution and ignored the gesture.
“June. My name is June. So... you like this book, too?” Oops. Maybe talking is a bad idea. Why did I tell him my name? Stupid.
“Are you kidding me? Was there ever a greater piece of work? Even by Dickens himself? I think not. The love of my life gave me a copy for our first anniversary. Let’s just say, I fell in love twice in one lifetime. How many times have you read it? Don’t tell me this is your first time.”
“Umm. I’ve read it lots of times.” Who is this guy? She heard Grampa’s words in her head. Friendly doesn’t always mean good... Maybe if I mention it’s my birthday, he won’t kill me.
“I try to read it during my birthday week every year. Umm, my... dad gave it to me. He’s a cop.” It’s OK to lie sometimes to save your skin. Another Grampa-ism.
“What an impressive tradition. Happy birthday, by the way,” said Leo.
“Thanks. OK, well, bye.” He stared around awkwardly and didn’t seem to notice when June departed. Maybe he’s working out the details of how to kidnap me. June clutched her phone and walked hurriedly toward her friends.
“I’ve been around here a long time. Rarely have anyone to talk to. When did you arrive?” said Leo. June heard him but ignored and kept walking.
The following day, June was hanging out at her friend Jane’s house. Kelsie and Jonathan were playing video games, and Jane was glued to a soap opera. A typical Friday afternoon. June decided to sit out on their porch and read until the hour her mom would be home. A speck of paranoia made her glance up and down the sidewalk. No one else in sight but a stray cat hopping up a tree across the street. June opened her book.
“Hello again, Miss June.” She heard the rubber ball bouncing on the walkway.
June noticed Leo was dressed in the same blue pin-striped shirt, grey slacks, and black dress shoes as the day before, odd for someone just taking a neighborhood stroll.
“Hi, I was just about to read.” So, go away. Bother someone else, weirdo.
Leo took a seat on the porch steps. As on the day before, he gazed around as if he were looking for something or someone.
“Are you waiting for someone?” said June.
“I’ve been waiting a long time, but I’m starting to think she isn’t coming,” said Leo.
“Does she live around here? Shouldn’t you be waiting there?”
“Yes. It’s a long story. But I don’t mind sharing it.”
“Oh, uh, no, it’s OK, none of my b—”
Copyright © 2021 by Neesha Niaz