The Finishing Touch
by Neesha Niaz
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
When everything changed back to reality, June gasped and let go of Leo, stumbling backward. She broke into a sweat. Feeling dizzy, she went to her room, climbed onto her bed, and cried into her pillow like a small child. She’d never had an experience so terrifying. It was exceptionally different from the swirling stars. If this was truly Grampa’s work, she wished he would take it back and forget that she’d ever asked him for a glimpse of his new world. She began to realize the hard way that mixing both realms was most unwise.
“June, what is it? What happened just now? Tell me. I want to help,” Leo.
“This is crazy. This is all so crazy. Why did this happen to me? I don’t want this!” said June. Leo stood there, looking at her.
“Leo, I need to tell you something. My name is Juniper Marie Wilson. I was born on June 1st, 2000, around 4 in the morning. My mother’s name is Martella Marianne Louise Stephanie Wilson. My grandfather was Henry Farrow Wilson. I found out that my father’s name is Leo. I never met him. My mom never speaks of him because she thinks he abandoned us. All I know of him is that he’s... dead. Does any of this sound familiar?”
Leo didn’t speak.
“You were in an accident... a fatal one. That’s why you warned me about the buses, I think. You and I. We’re in two very different places. Leo, you’re stuck somewhere in between the world where Marty is and the next. For some very insane reason I’ll never understand, I can see you. Mom can’t. She’s here, in the other room, very upset because I mentioned your name earlier. It’s her I was talking to, Leo. Not the wall. I’m sorry.”
Leo remained still and silent, but June kept talking, all the while wondering if she was losing her mind.
“For all I know, I’m psychotic and you’re not even real, and I’m just talking to air. I’m not sure anymore, to be honest. Leo, do you understand what I’m saying? Do you know who I am? Leo... Dad... say something. Please.”
Yep. I’ve lost my mind. That’s the only explanation that makes sense. They’re going to lock me up. My mom will be devastated all over again because I’m all she has left. June buried her face into her hands and cried. When next she looked up, Leo was gone.
June waited a couple hours before knocking on her mom’s door.
“Mom? Are you OK? Can I come in?”
Martella opened the door, her eyes puffy and red. The two sat side by side on the bed. Martella took her daughter’s hand.
“I’m sorry, honey. I ruined your birthday. Can you ever forgive me? It’s just... this subject is like an open, festering wound for me. It never healed, and probably never will.”
Her mother’s voice and all the honesty it divulged gave June a warm and comforting feeling. To have closure in knowing about her father was something she’d always wanted. It was surreal to hear her mom’s deepest kept secrets spilling out like a mystic waterfall. The gist was that her parents met in college and fell deeply in love. Both dropped out of school and got engaged, planning to open a toy store together instead.
“The toy store was his bright idea, because college was pricey. He believed it was better to invest our dollars in something more lucrative than tuition. He said the world will always need toys, so we’ll always be in business.” Martella opened a drawer and took out a red rubber ball.
“He carried this stupid thing wherever he went. He liked to bounce it around. I guess it was a kind of comfort for him. I hated it, though. It was embarrassing. I mean, nobody else did that.” June saw a half smile. “He was fun and sweet, but he had no business sense. Needless to say, the toy store never became a reality.
“Then he started drinking when things got tough. We didn’t have any money, and what little we had to spare he spent on alcohol. Dad offered to help, but Leo was too proud. Then I found out I was pregnant with you. It’s not that he wasn’t happy about you, just worried that he couldn’t provide for us. He could never hold down a job, because he was such a dreamer. Always trying to think of how to make fast money rather than going the traditional route. Always falling short. My part-time job wasn’t enough to carry us. The pressure broke him.”
June stared at the ball in her mom’s hand. “Can I hold it?” said June, opening her palm for the ball. The sight of it was overwhelming. Touching it, even more so. She looked around for Leo, but he hadn’t returned.
“He’d vanish for long spells and come in all disheveled and cranky. I made him promise to be there, sober, for your birth. But he never came. I left a million messages, but he’d gotten drunk at a bar, got into a fight, and got thrown in jail. The thing is, after he got out, he still never came home. I stopped answering his calls. I waited for him to show up here, ready to cuss him out, but he never came.”
“So, he just stopped calling?” June felt angry at Leo.
“Yes, well, after a while. I mean, he called night and day for months, but I wouldn’t answer. I wanted him here, not over the phone. I figured if I refused to answer, he’d show up. He eventually stopped calling. Then I felt bad and I broke down and called, but the number had been disconnected, and that was it.
“Four years later, I got a phone call from a nurse at Red Oak Medical Center there in downtown Houston. Apparently, he’d listed me as an emergency contact when he’d been there before in the ER. He didn’t have any living relatives. He was an only child, and his parents had died. The nurse told me he’d been hit by a bus and died at the scene from his injuries. He was intoxicated and just wandered out into the street. I had to identify him.
“By the looks of him and his few belongings, it appeared he’d been homeless for a while. It was so painful for me. All I could think of was that it was my fault somehow. That I should’ve swallowed my pride and answered the damn phone and convinced him everything would be OK. We could’ve been a family.”
Martella paused to cry, pulling tissues from a box on her side table. “Since he no-showed your birth, I decided not to give you his last name. I didn’t even name him on your birth certificate because I was so angry. Anyway, that was that.”
He was trying to call you, Mom, just before the bus hit him. I saw it. His last thought was you.
“His song was over,” said June, unaware she’d said it out loud.
“Yes. That’s what Dad used to say. ‘Life is a song. It’s up to you whether it’s happy or sad.’ God, I miss him.”
“I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to stir up all this.” June put her arm around her mom. Neither had an appetite, but they ate a little and opened June’s presents before bed. June joined her mom at bedtime, feeling guilty to ask any more questions.
“Why is it wrong to touch the dead?”
“My parents and grandparents always told me nothing good could come of it. When a person dies, they must go on in a pure state. Life and death must never mix. Touching them breaks the barrier.”
“Oh. I guess that makes sense. Mom, can I ask one more question?”
“Where is my dad buried?”
* * *
The following morning, June and Martella took a drive to Willowhaven Cemetery, about five miles from where Leo died. June could sense her mother’s anxiety the closer they got to their destination. On route, she saw a bar as they passed Higgins Rd. and realized she’d just seen where her father took his last breath. Martella parked along a curb inside the cemetery. It took her a few seconds to speak.
“It’s just up that footpath. Come on.”
June couldn’t remember feeling so uneasy in all her life. The trek wreaked havoc on her nerves.
“Over there. The one closest to the tree up that hill. You go on. I... I can’t go there. June, I love you, and I’m sorry. I can’t. I said my goodbyes long ago. This is as far as I can go,” said Martella, her voice shaking as she forced the words out. “Take your time, honey. I’ll be right here in the car.”
June hugged her mom, then walked toward her father’s grave.
Leonard Thomas Loggins, III
Born February 21, 1981
Died September 3, 2005
Beloved soul, rest in eternal peace.
The seasons seemed to change in the air around her as she anticipated some macabre surprise. One minute she felt cold, then next she was burning. She wanted to shout at the grave, at her father, for being so reckless, for abandoning them. For choosing the bottle over his own family.
June looked around the cemetery, tears blurring her vision. She looked for Leo. Where is he now? Even in death, he still abandons us when things get tough.
“You coward. I don’t blame her for not answering your calls. And stay away from me. It’s too late now.” June kicked dirt toward the headstone then backed away and looked upward.
“Well, Grampa, like I told you the last time I saw your face, I wish life didn’t suck like it does all of a sudden. I’m sorry I touched you and ruined your peace. So, if you really did this to me, please, I beg you, take it back,” said June. A feeling of guilt interrupted her grandfather talk. I just kicked dirt onto my father’s grave after insulting him. June stopped walking and closed her eyes for a second. The good in her made her turn around. She had to make peace with her father, no matter what. She’d waited her whole life to know his story. It can’t end like this.
As she approached his grave, she saw Leo standing over it, looking down at his own name carved in stone.
He didn’t turn around. “That’s my name there.”
“I know,” said June.
“You’re my baby girl.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Is my Marty here?”
“Yes, she is. But you can’t see one another. Where you are, only I can see you. I don’t know why.”
“That’s me in there.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I wish things were different. I wish—”
“Wishing’s for wusses. Henry was right,” said Leo.
June smiled through tears. Leo continued to stare at his name.
“You don’t belong here. I mean, if only things had turned out different. Maybe we could’ve been a family, but that’s not what happened. We both have to accept that and move on. Do you understand?” I hope you do because I can’t stand having you around me anymore. It hurts too much.
“I understand. Juniper, I loved you every single day. Since I knew you existed. I’ve been waiting so long.”
“I know you have. The waiting is over now. You have to find your way home. And that isn’t with us, not anymore. I’m really sorry. I have to go. Mom’s waiting for me.” He still didn’t look away from his grave. June didn’t really want to go, but she knew this had to end.
There was nothing else to do but walk away from him. “Goodbye, Leo.” Her legs felt cemented to the ground. She turned to leave, but only made it a few steps before she turned right back around.
“Leo? Dad!” He finally turned to her. It isn’t fair, she thought. She knew this was the last time she’d see her father. There’d be no keeping in touch. The fact that she ever saw him at all was an unsolved mystery, something she’d never share with anyone because it was the craziest thing she could ever imagine. But June knew there was one last connection she could make. She’d done it before, and she couldn’t depart before she took his hand one last time.
June extended her hand. “Dad.”
Leo placed his hand into hers without hesitation, and her body went cold. She saw the spinning light, and her father stood beneath a sky filled with moving stars that twirled about in an elegant dance. He smiled. The energy inside her palm weakened. The stars vanished, and she was once again looking upon her father’s headstone. Leo was gone. She knew this time it was for good.
June knelt down and dusted away the dirt she’d kicked onto the stone then stood up and looked into the sky, wondering about that mysterious place.
* * *
That night, June lay in bed, eyes wide open. She wondered if Grampa and Leo were together, if they’d made amends, if Leo told him what had happened, and if the sky there ever lit up. June mimicked her father, tossing the red rubber ball against the wall.
“There goes that stupid thumping sound again! Juniper, do you hear that? I really need to get that fixed,” said Martella from her room.
Copyright © 2021 by Neesha Niaz