"A State of Graceful Mourning"

by Stephen Dressler

In the end, what was the purpose of fighting the battle that you would never win? Wasn't it punishment enough, just knowing this fact? This is what Hans Battalia combated each and every day since he'd lost his wife in a freak car accident. The knowing, the understanding that she was gone, forever. He'd battled his anger, his fear and the empty feeling of loss with no avail for the last six months. This conflict scarred him, made him into the unfeeling cynical monster that he hated today.
It was a balmy Saturday morning in July. The sun had peaked it's head from to distant horizon and threatened to heat the day, just as it had for the past week. There was no rain in the forecast for the next week, the dry, arid lands desperately begging for reprieve. Yet it would not come, the ground thirsty and the vegetation wilting from the lack of precipitation.
"Daddy?" Inga called out to her father.
Hans stared at the little one with eyes that told her nothing. He said nothing to his daughter, his gaze seeming to stare through her.
"Daddy?" she repeated.
"What?" he answered, shaken from his trance.
"Will you play outside with me?"
"Not now," he replied as he turned from the girl and continued to wash the dishes in the sink. The heat began to run rampantly through the house, sweat beads springing from his brow. Out of the corner of his eye he spied Inga as she moped, saddened by his denial to play with her. He ignored her attempt, his hand clenching the dish-rag tighter as he scrubbed a plate. She scowled and then stuck out her tongue at the man, her eyes rolling up. Giving up her effort, she turned and walked through the door and into the outdoors.
"Play with her," his wife's voice urged him.
Startled, he looked around him for the woman. The room was empty. It was only another cruel trick that life had begun to play on him since Kelly had passed away. Since that faithless night he'd been visited by the ghost of his wife, come time and time again to remind him of what he had lost.
Returning to the task at hand, the dishes, he stared at the plate he held in his hands. They were ivory colored with a double green border that followed the rim. In the center was a pale green spot, perfectly round. They'd picked out the settings together, registered for them as wedding gifts in fact. Now, they were one of the few things that remained that he could say was their's.
"Do you like this one?" he remembered his wife asking as they walked the
department store.
"Sure," Hans said without feeling.
"You didn't even look at it!" she blurted in disgust, placing the dish back where she had found it.
"What?" Hans said surprised, his attention now turned fully toward the woman and the setting she had picked out. He'd made it a bad habit, ignoring or showing little concern for the things that inspired her. He would have to work on that, at least he thought he remembered scolding himself then.
"Daddy!" Inga called from outside. "Look!"
He placed the plate that he'd been washing now for the past five minutes in the water and dried his hands on a towel. Walking over to door he stood and stared out the screen and watched his daughter playing on the swing-set that his wife and himself had bought three years ago. She hung upside down on the monkey bars, her shirt falling to her head, baring her chest for the world to view.
"Careful honey," he hollered through the screen.
"Pretty cool, huh?" she yelled back. A smile floated across her face a mile wide, clear from where Hans stood inside the house.
"Yeah!" he returned his approval, thinking to himself that he wished his wife had been with him to see the sight. Maybe she was, that was what he at least hoped. Maybe she was standing next to him, her spirit smiling at their daughter. He thought he might be smiling too, hoped he was in fact. It had been a long time since he'd been able to show his daughter that he was happy, that he loved her. She'd persevered through the tough six months better than he had, upset and hurt at first but able to overcome that and become the strong person that Hans knew he should be.
"What should we do tonight?" a woman asked from behind him.
Hans turned again, astonished to see his wife standing there. He blinked his eyes and then she was gone, and with her went the brief joy he had felt swelling inside. Walking to the spot she had stood a second earlier he closed his eyes and felt her arms wrap around him. She held him tightly, defying the laws of nature and giving him the security that she would never let go.
"I love you," she whispered in his ear.
"I love you too," he spoke back, hoping that the trueness of the comment had come across as blatantly as he had tried.
"You will forget sometime," she explained to Hans.
"You will."
"I promise," he tried to sooth her concern.
"I don't mind," she revealed.
"I won't," he began to cry, opening his eyes now to find that his arms were wrapped around himself. He thought he caught the familiar scent of Kelly's perfume as it pricked at his nostril, reminding him even more of his loss. "I wont," he said again, if only to remind himself of the promise he had made.
That evening, after tucking Inga in for a good nights sleep, Hans sat down in the recliner in the family room and picked up the days newspaper. This had become his daily ritual, uninspiring and uneventful. He'd been reduced to this facade, pretending to himself that the things he routinely did had some significant value.
He'd read the sports page first, not really comprehending what he'd skimmed through. Next came the front page, nothing but death and destruction littering the page. It was no wonder he couldn't let the death of his wife go with all the constant reminders around him. He set the paper down, glad that he'd removed the insinuations from his sight.
What now he wondered? Hans looked around him for something else to read, something perhaps uplifting and motivational. There was nothing, not even a magazine. Making a mental note to run into town tomorrow and pick up some books he reached for the remote control and flicked on the television. Persistently he changed the channels searching for something worth watching. He'd settled on the news for a few seconds, reminding himself that this type of stimulation was just as bad for him as the newspaper had been.
Dejected, he switched off the set and reclined in the rocker. Closing his eyes he pictured his wife again, the way he wanted to remember her. She was beautiful. The long dark brown hair had drove him insane with lust the first time he had met her, soon after her pale green eyes doing the same. She was a tall woman, standing five feet ten inches, six inches shorter than he was. This was the Kelly that he wanted; no this was the woman he needed to remember.
"There's been an accident," the policeman had told Hans on the phone. "Your wife's at St. Mary's hospital in critical condition."
Hans sat quietly in his chair fighting the recollections. He contested the images, trying to replace them with the effigies he had just been dreaming. Still with his eyes closed, Hans glimpsed his wife. She was beautiful, the wind swirling around her, enhancing her perfection.
"Critical condition," the policeman said again, the vision of his wife fading from his mind. "You'd better come quickly." Hans had hung up the phone and gathered Inga and raced to the car. The divination of his wife was now gone completely, replaced with the horrible remembering of that evil night.
He had raced to St. Mary's, ushered swiftly into the room where Kelly was lying on a bed, tubes placed up her nose and into her arm. Her face was black and blue, cuts and scabs littering the surface. They'd shaved half of her hair, presumably to stitch up a large gash on her head and then bandaged it with a light cloth. The other half of her hair stuck out wildly from the bandage, not hiding the fact that it had been sheared. There were two missing fingers on her left hand, the ring finger and the pinky. And when he walked into the room, the heart monitor went dead on cue.
Doctors flooded the room, pushing him out of the way and making for the woman immediately. They ripped open her hospital gown, bearing her flesh. On her chest was a large wound that ran from her right breast to her belly button, now sutured shut yet still bloody and oozing. An intern wheeled in the fibulator and quickly plugged it into the wall next to the bed. The doctors had already begun CPR and where screaming for the nurses to get the man out of the room.
They'd grabbed Hans and guided him out into the hallway, his eyes still fixed on his wife as the doctors continued their work. The nurse had shut the door then, Hans finally awakened from his daze once Kelly was out of his sight.
"It's my wife!" he screamed at the woman.
"I know," she tried to hold him back from reentering the room. "The doctors can't have you in the room while they are working on her. I'm sure she'll be just fine, you'll just have to wait."
"My wife!" he screamed again, pushing the woman to the side and pawing at the door knob. Three other woman were on him quickly, wrestling him away from the entrance and down the hallway.
"Relax Mr. Battalia," one woman pleaded. "There's nothing you can do right now. Let the doctors handle this."
Hans looked at the woman who had spoken as if she were a ghost. His eyes widened in surprise, the shock of the words cutting deeply into him. He'd given up his struggled yet kept his focus on the doorway that was now fifty feet away. The nurses continued to usher him away from the place, leading him to the waiting room where he would sit and sojourn with the expectant husbands and other grieving spouses and relatives for the next thirteen hours.
Hans shook in the recliner, his body convulsing, bringing him out of his stupor. The insipid heat of the night had brought about sweat, soaking his clothes. He silently cursed the fact that he and Kelly had never purchased the central air unit that they had talked about last summer.
He glanced at his watch; 1:47 am. He'd fallen asleep; relived that dreadful night in the process. Many of his nights had been similar, filled with discernment that haunted him and blasted his ineptness. Really, what could he have done? This was the question that had plagued him for those six months. What could he have done to prevent the accident and curtail Kelly's death?
Gingerly he pulled the sticky clothes from the parts of his body where they had begun to stick. Hans peeled the t-shirt he wore over his head, wiping his slick body with the fabric before depositing it in the clothes basket in the bathroom. He ran the cold water for a few second before taking a long drink from the tap. The fluid felt wonderful on his pallet, sating his dry throat and renewing his vitality.
"Mr. Battalia," the doctor said to him as he stared into the mirror. "We're sorry. We did everything that we could for your wife. She passed away ten minutes ago. Internal bleeding you see, we tried everything we could."
Hans had been dumb struck, as he was now. The voice of the man that had relayed his wife's demise was all too clear to him, almost as if he was listening to it all over again. He'd cried at that moment, just as he felt the tears coming to him once again. How many more nights did he have to relive that instant? Once was more than enough.
In the morning he woke to his daughter's smiling face. She stood next to the bed, shaking him and calling out to him to wake up.
"Daddy?" she pleaded.
"Inga?" he rolled over to face her. "What time is it?"
"I don't know," she stated before he realized that she was only five years old. It would be a few more years before she even learned to tell time. She would be starting Kindergarten this fall and Hans understood that she would soon enough be old enough to do most things by herself. "What's for breakfast?" she wondered, not caring about her father's sleep.
"It's only six," Hans protested after grabbing his watch to see what time it was. He looked at Inga for a sign that she understood that Daddy needed more sleep, she stared back with those big cow eyes that parents couldn't deny. "I'll be downstairs in a minute," he gave up.
The girl pranced from the room, satisfied that she'd succeeded. Hans slipped out of bed and stretched his limbs. He was sore, his muscles rebelling against his attempts. Climbing from beneath the covers he didn't know if he should be thankful or distraught that he still had one day left that weekend. Sundays were always the hardest, knowing that work loomed just over the horizon.
Again he made his way to the bathroom he had only left a little more than four hour previously. He stank, the sour smell of night perspiration making him sick. His daughter would not mind. She wanted nothing more than her chef to make his way down to feed her. He'd shower later.
"What do you want?" Hans tried valiantly to show enthusiasm with his comment as he walked into the kitchen where his daughter waited patiently.
"Pancakes!" she screamed, rubbing her hand together delightfully, another huge smile pressing across her lips.
"You got it." Hans loved her. She was everything and the only thing he had left of Kelly. Without the little one, he could not exist. Patting her on her head he went to preparing her meal, grabbing the ingredients and proper bowls and pans. Mixing the ingredients he turned around to see what Inga was up to. She sat on a stool next to the counter coloring a book, crayons strewn across the counter top.
"She's a beauty," his wife reminded him.
"I know," he replied. "Not unlike her mother."
He continued to watch Inga for a few more minutes, forgetting about the pancakes. She was so innocent, yet so vulnerable to the outside world. Had she been a few years older she probably wouldn't have been able to deal with Kelly's death as well as she apparently was. So oblivious, so unmoved by what was revolving around her. He loved her for that and yet despised the fact that she could act that way and he couldn't. Life was never fair.
"Daddy?" she said when she looked up and saw that he'd stopped preparing her food and was staring at her.
"Yes?" he pretended that he'd been doing nothing wrong, his hand picking up the spoon and beginning to beat the batter.
She didn't know what to say now that he'd picked up his duties again. Her eyes twitched and she lowered her head back to the book. Hans still watched her for a few second before she picked up her head again and motioned as if she was going to speak. Catching herself, she dropped her head again and continued coloring. Hans turned his attention to the pancakes to see if he'd beat the batter well enough when Inga finally spoke.
"Do you miss Mommy?" She might as well have flung a dagger at him since the words stung no less than any blade.
"Honey," he sobbed, walking to his daughter and wrapping his arms around her. "I miss her more and more each day. But I still have you, right?" He kissed her forehead gently, brushing her hair back before doing so.
"I miss mommy," she declared.
"I know. She misses you too."
"How do you know?"
Hans thought of the many times his wife had come, weather real or not, to visit him since her death. Each time, as the days passes, it had become less and less bearable. Even if she had never come back, he would have been certain that Kelly missed Inga. He didn't need a spirit to tell him that.
"She told me so," he almost regretted mentioning it to his daughter after it had come out. How would he explain to her that she had come to him many times, Kelly never showing herself to Inga. This was how a child's mind worked. They were so susceptible to things they were told, believing almost everything. She would be hurt by the fact that Kelly had failed to at least say I love you or I miss you when she had come and presented herself to Hans.
"She told you?" Inga frowned not understanding as Hans had feared.
"She told me that she would miss you if she ever left." he tried his best to protect her with this lie. Kelly had never said such a thing, though it was another understood point of being a parent. "She said that she loved you so much that she would hate to be away from you." He didn't feel all that uncomfortable telling Inga what Kelly had felt, assuming that she had felt exactly as he does. Yes, maybe he was speaking of himself now, only using Kelly as the mouth piece.
"Tell her that I love her," Kelly said from behind Hans.
He turned in shock, hoping that she would be standing there, if only in spirit. Maybe, just maybe Inga would have a chance to see her apparition herself. She'd know everything that he'd related to her had indeed been the true feelings of her mother. There was nothing save for the empty room behind him. A wave of disappointment ran through him.
"What is it daddy?" Inga noticed his despair.
"I've gotta check the pancakes." Leaving her side he went back to the opposite counter to resume his task. He didn't look back at the girl for the next ten minutes.
"Did I check the mail?" Hans wondered aloud. Had he checked the mail yesterday? It was a question he began to wonder about after they had filled their bellies and Hans had taken to washing the dirty dishes again. Why couldn't he remember what he'd done the previous day?
"You'd forget your head if it wasn't attached to your body," his wife had quipped many times before and now it came again from the air around him.
"You're right," he relented for the first time. Only in death was he able to admit to the woman when she was right.
Inga had gone outdoors again, playing on her swing set after her father had again denied her his company yet again. She'd left without complaint, content at least that the warmth of the day would allow her to come out with bundling up as she might in the winter.
"Why don't you play with her?" Kelly wondered again.
"I have these things that have to get done," he snipped back at her, regretting that he did so after the fact. She was already dead, she surely didn't need his inauspicious remarks.
"Sorry," she said sarcastically.
"I didn't mean it," he explained. "I only miss you so much, it hurt sometimes when you come back to talk to me."
"Do you want me to stay away?"
"No!" he cried in desperation. "I need you." Hans lunged at her in an attempt to grasp her. He needed to hold her now, needed to feel her against him. Wouldn't that have been grand? And she disappeared again, the sad look on her face still lingering in his head. How had he been so callous, so cold to the woman he loved? Was her death affecting him that much? Had he finally begun to slip off the deep end?
"See what you have done?" she questioned him from nowhere. Tears had come forth now, stinging his vision, making it impossible for him to locate her essence.
"What did I do?" he wanted to know.
"You've already forgotten me."
"No, I haven't forgotten!" he pleaded.
"Why don't you just admit it to me. I'm not hurt, I understand that it was bound to happen."
"I swear. I haven't forgotten!" Hans continued to survey the kitchen, hoping, longing to find out where she now was. Over in the corner, next to the dinning room table a smear darted through the air, streaking the fabric of the atmosphere as a smudge on a photograph. He quickly made after it, hoping that it was Kelly. He wanted to smell her perfume again, feel her arms around him and hear her tell him that she loved him once more. If that would be the last time, it may just be enough to keep him sensible.
"Inga?" Hans called out through the screen door. "Lunch time!" She was no longer playing on the swing set in the back yard. She'd disappeared out of his sight. A tense moment began to swell inside him, one where he began to envision the loss of his daughter. That would have been the end of it all, the Coup de Gras. Her laughter came from beside the house then, the little girl skipping finally into his view.
"This is Johnny," she told her father as a young boy came into the picture. "Can he eat lunch with us?"
Hans looked at the boy who couldn't have been older than six. He had dark hair and a small scrawny body for a boy his size. Johnny looked malnutritioned and sickly. Where had this boy come from? The nearest neighbor was a quarter mile down the road and no respecting parent let their children venture that far from home.
"Sure," Hans told his daughter hesitantly. "Johnny, do your parents know where you are?"
"Yep," he smiled evilly.
"And where are your parents?"
The young boy pointed West briefly, lowering his hand quickly. Hans didn't like what was happening, wondering to himself if his instincts where right. And those where that the boy was lying or at least hiding something.
"Do you have a phone number?" Hans asked as the two children made their way to the back door.
"Can I call them and tell them that you are going to eat lunch here so they
don't worry?"
"What's the number?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders to state that he didn't know. Hans almost slapped himself in the head, wondering how he'd thought that this boy would remember something like this. Though it was one of the first things he and Kelly had taught their daughter, in case of an emergence, not all parents acted as they did.
"Do you like peanut butter and jelly?" Hans gave up.
Johnny smiled fully, acknowledging that he did indeed like the sandwich. Inga took the boy's hand then and led him over to the kitchen counter where her crayons and coloring books still sat. The two of them separated themselves from the adult, intent on their labors and anticipating the food.
"I should take you home," Hans said to the boy after lunch. "Your parents are probably worried."
"Okay," Johnny shrugged. He looked a final time at Inga, their eyes meeting in a sad exchange. Hans felt like he was taking her best friend away, Inga's expression making him feel like he was stealing the boy away to take off to war. "Bye Inga," he said as Hans led him out the back door.
"Aren't you coming?" Hans asked his daughter.
"Yeah!" she screamed with joy as she bolted out the door behind them and raced them to the car.
Hans pulled out of the driveway and drove West, just as the boy had motioned earlier. It would take a minute before they actually reached the next home, he wouldn't bother the two children again until nearing it. The sat in the rear seat together, whispering secrets into the others ear. Hans watched them in the rear-view mirror, wondering what they could possibly be detailing to the other. And what was so secret?
"Here?" Hans pointed to the nearest house they came to.
"No," Johnny told him.
"Who is this?" Kelly asked Hans, motioning to the little boy in the rear seat.
"Inga's new friend," Hans explained to her. He looked up into the mirror to see the boy, the two children were staring at him, wondering who he was talking to.
"He's a little skinny, don't you think?" Hans had made the observation earlier and didn't bother commenting on Kelly's remark.
"There," Johnny pointed without feeling to the house they were coming to. His interests still remained on Inga and their confiding.
Hans didn't bother to make sure that the house on the left was the one Johnny had pointed out. He pulled into the driveway and shut the engine off on the car.
"Bye Inga," Johnny said again, grabbing the door latch and jumping out of the car. Hans had already exited the vehicle and was walking with the boy up to the front door. As they walked up the front steps the door opened, a woman appearing from inside.
"Johnny!" she sounded excited. Hans looked at her as she exited the home. She had a noticeable bruise, quite large, on her left cheek. She wore a flowered sun dress that swung nicely about her as she moved. Her hair was pulled back in a neat bun, the dirty blonde hair reminding him of his mother's.
"Who's there?" a man's voice called out from inside the house.
"It's Johnny?" she called back, her eyes now examining Hans. He'd stood silently at the end of the porch and witnessed the woman's exhibition, making him feel like he'd just reunited an owner with a pet that had been missing a week. It was strange to see the show, making him feel so uncomfortable that he half thought about stepping off the porch without further explanation.
"Thank you," she said barely audible.
"No problem," Hans said feeling bad for the woman for no apparent reason.
"I'm June. June Dover."
"Hans Battalia. I live just down the road. Seems our children found each other this morning." Hans turned around to see Inga staring out of the car window at them. He smile at her and half-waved to tell her that he'd be right there. June also looked at the girl, a smile of great satisfaction coming to her.
"She's beautiful," June told Hans.
"Thank you. She has her mother's looks."
"Don't forget that," Kelly said in Hans' ear then.
"Your wife at home?" June pried.
"No," Hans stopped, the emotions and regrets of bringing up the dead surging inside of him. "She's dead." He looked away from June, trying to hide his pain. "I have to go, just wanted to be sure this is where Johnny lived."
"I'm sorry," June offered. "Thank you again."
"Who the fuck's out there!" the man screamed from inside.
"It's our neighbor," she explained, her eyes never leaving Hans. "He brought Johnny home."
"Get inside!" he returned.
"Okay," she conceded. June Dover backed away from Hans Battalia. She held Johnny in front of her, her eyes still focused on Hans as she opened the door and continued to slip away still facing her neighbor. As the screen door slammed shut, she stopped and raised her left hand from Johnny's chest to wave farewell to the man. Hans had remained on the edge of the porch, unmoved throughout the exchange and bewildered by it. And then the woman finally turned from him and disappeared somewhere into the house.
"Did you like her?" Kelly wondered as they drove back to their home. Hans ignored the question, biding his time until they got home, when he could be away from Inga so they could talk freely. Now was not the time, not in front of their daughter.
The rest of the ride had gone quickly and quietly. Hans hadn't seen Kelly during the ride but her voice and her accusations had been all too clear. He suddenly felt like he was being challenged, tested to prove his worth. It was a trial he would not fail since he'd done nothing wrong.
"Do you want to go out and play?" he asked his daughter, half hoping that she'd take him up on the suggestion so he might be alone with her mother.
"No," she said blandly.
His mind fought for an alternative. How could he get away for a few minutes so he could right things with Kelly without doing it in front of Inga? A tinge of shame swept over him. He felt lower than low trying to get away from his daughter. What was he trying to hide from her? Was it so bad that he talked to Kelly still, even if it was from the grave? Inga may have been overjoyed by the fact. She may also have been hurt that Kelly didn't show herself to Inga, but just the knowledge her mother was somewhere near should have been rather comforting.
"I have to get some fire wood, okay?" Hans ran his fingers through the girl's hair. "I'll be right back honey."
"Can I watch television?" she asked before Hans reached the back door.
"Sure honey." He was glad that she'd thought of something to occupy her time while he hashed things out. Even though it was the Devil's tube, it was only for a few minutes. As he walked away, he promised himself that he'd play with her outside when he returned.
"Did you like her?" Kelly didn't even bother to wait until they were far enough from the house so their daughter couldn't hear. "You did, didn't you?"
Hans wouldn't give her that satisfaction, wouldn't bother to respond until they were further away. She could pester him and blast him all she wanted. Only after they had reached the garage would he answer her questions.
"I don't mind, really." Kelly explained herself. "I want you to meet another woman. Just not that one, because she's already married!"
"I didn't like her," Hans forgot his promise of waiting.
"I saw it in your eyes."
"Kelly," he pleaded with her to give up the barrage.
"Just admit it."
"No, I didn't like her." Wasn't he telling the truth? Hans wondered. Did he like her? He didn't think so, it may have been pity that he felt for her. The bruise that he'd seen on her face had probably come from the man inside, though he didn't like to presume these type of things. Still, the way that man had talked to her, yelling at her from inside had been a shameful display. The way that she had finally left him standing there, her eyes clinging to him like she couldn't bear the thought of being left alone with
that person. That was what had filled his head, all those strange and seemingly cruel details. Never lust.
"Their boy wasn't healthy," Kelly told him.
"I saw that."
"The man beat them both. He's an animal."
"I figure out that much."
"So stay away," she warned him.
"I have no plans to go back there, if that's what you mean."
"You did like her though."
"No," Hans had to smile. The perfect feeling of jealousy that his wife was exhuming made him feel all that much more wanted. He knew what she had said, how she had declared to him that she did want him to meet another woman and live his life happily. Still, these fits of suspicion showed him more about the way that his wife felt about him than words had ever been able to.
"Don't lie to me."
"I felt sorry for her, nothing more."
"Look me in the eye and tell me that."
Hans turned around in a circle trying to find his wife so he could do just that. He'd been talking to her without actually seeing her, something he'd done many times before. Her spirit began to materialize. She was off to the right, between the car and the wall of the garage, perhaps five feet from him. She stared at him, waiting and daring him to follow through with her request.
"It's good to see you again," he offered before his statement. "I'd thought I might not see you again after this morning. I'd thought you'd finally given up on me."
"I'm always here."
The revelation was startling to Hans, if she meant what he thought she was saying. It suddenly made him uncomfortable to have this knowledge. To know that she was there when he sat on the toilet, dressed in the morning and ate breakfast. Had she seen him masturbate, which had become a common nightly ritual since her demise? He was ashamed, disgraced and strangely violated. All these were things that he hadn't thought twice about when she was alive, allowing her to witness ever strange quirk and habit he delivered. Now, this was different. She was the spy, sitting invisible in the corner, watching and criticizing his ever move. That wasn't his idea of love.
"I didn't want her," he challenged her now that he stood before her. His eyes never left hers, presenting to her the best testimony he could.
"Don't," she warned, apparently satisfied.
"Inga," Hans called out after returning to the house. She came running into the kitchen where he waited for her. "Let's go outside." He was trying to make good on his promise to himself that he'd play with her when he returned.
"Where's the fire wood?" she wondered.
"I'll get it later. Let's go play."
And with that they retreated to the outside, into the heat. Tomorrow would be the beginning of another week, the start of work. Hans let Inga skip past him to the swing set, smiling that he'd finally taken the opportunity to spend time with his daughter. Strangely he had been feeling much better about his wife's death since this morning. The talks that he had held with Kelly had apparently begun to help him along the healing path. No matter how much he hated the idea of knowing that his wife was somewhere out there, always, it was also a reality that would help him achieve a state of graceful mourning.
"Can Johnny come over tomorrow?" Inga asked as her father pushed her on the swing.
"We'll see honey."
"I didn't say no."
"We'll see means no," she articulated.
"No it doesn't," he defended himself. "It means that his mother and father have to say it's alright before he can come over."
"Oh," she sighed. "Push me faster!" she screamed forgetting about her request.
Hans did just that, leaning a bit more into each thrust, lauching the girl higher with the ensuing arcs. He knew how much he loved Inga now, perhaps more than ever before. Now that Kelly had showe him, in her way, that her love was undying, he felt able to consentrate on the daughter.
Still, he was uncomfortable when Inga had asked for Johnny to come over tomorrow. What had Kelly thought about Inga's question? He wasn't asking for it, nor was this a certainty that he would see June again. If the boy did come over the chances were greatly increased, but still not certain. In some weird way, he wouldn't mind seeing the woman again, if only to be sure that she was alright. He didn't approve of any element of domestic violence and would be happy to help out in any way. Kelly would understand that, she had to feel the same way.
"Faster!" Inga hollered in delight.
"I am," Hans retorted. "I can't get you much higher," he warned.
"Weeeee!" Inga bellowed as her hands clutched the ropes that held the swing.
In the morning Hans had waken to Inga's cries. It was now 7:00 am, an hour before he needed to begin getting ready for work. He'd run to her romm to find her sweating and crying. She had a fever of 101°. There's no way that he could drop her off at the day care center while she was sick. He wouldn't do that to the other children, risk them getting ill as well. Nor would the center likely take her in. Hans was now faced with two choices; call in sick to work or find Inga a sitter.
After trying his mother and Kelly's mother and sister, he was left with no option. He had to stay home with his daughter since all the people he tried to reach already had made plans for the day. Slightly happy that she'd allowed him one more day's reprieve from the grind stone, he went to the bathroom to fetch the children's medicine. Though he'd have his hands full taking care of his daughter, he still relished the fact that he would not be commuting to work this Monday.
"Take this," he directed Inga, holding a spoonful of dark red liquid before her mouth.
"It tastes yucky!" she protested.
"It will make you better."
"I don't want it."
"Inga," he sounded sternly, "take the medicine right now."
She opened her mouth slowly and let him direct it inside. She swallowed and made a horrific face.
"Gross!" she proclaimed of the liquid.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?"
A knock came from downstairs. Hans turned away from the girl trying to surmise who would be calling at 7:30 in the morning. Inga was oblivious to the distraction, licking her lips and scrapping her tongue to try and get rid of the foul taste.
"Be right back," he told her as he set the bottle of medicine on the table next to the bed. Walking down the stairs he had visions of his boss, come to see if he was well. No, it was too soon. It would have taken at least an hour before someone could have reached his home. Reaching the main floor he stopped to wonder which door the person was at. Hans turned to the back door. When the knock came again, he was glad that he was heading in the right direction. Upon reaching the kitchen he saw that it was June Dover and Johnny. He could see that they were covered with dirt, the boy crying as if he'd just been punished.
"June?" he said surprised that she had come. As he approached and began to take in the scene more clearly, what he saw brought a chill to his spine. It was not dirt that they had covering them, but blood. Large amounts of blood that had begun to dry and flake off of their skin. "What happened?" he opened the door and ushered the woman and child inside.
"I don't know," she cried in desperation.
"Are you alright?"
Johnny cried louder, clutching at his mothers leg for comfort. He buried his face into the fabric of June's dress, still the same one from yesterday. The woman's hand held the boy's head next to her side, her fingers white from the pressure she exhumed.
"Don't," Kelly warned Hans once again from nowhere.
"It's alright," Hans ignored his wife. He went to June's side and took her arm in his hand. Johnny let his left hand go from her leg and grabbed at the pant leg of Hans. He took hold of both of their legs, positioning himself between the two adults. Hans looked down at the boy in surprise.
"He's dead," June offered a bit of an explanation while Hans looked at the boy. "He's dead," she repeated for effect.
"Who?" Hans looked up from Johnny to June. "What happened?"
"It was an accident," she cried, defending herself.
"What happened?" Hans repeated himself.
After allowing them to wash up before he questioned them further, he'd taken their clothes and thrown them in the washing machine. He doubted that all the blood stains would come out but they would at least be better than they were now. He'd given June one of Kelly's old summer dresses to wear. It was too big for the woman, but it would suffice for the time. He'd given Johnny Inga's bath robe, which he'd objected to because it was pink. After a time he'd persuaded the boy that it was only temporary, only until his clothes were dry. Inga had stayed in her bed the whole time at the request of her father. She'd protested to begin with, wanting to know what was going on.
"What happened?" Hans asked June again while she dried her hair in the living room.
The distress and fear lit her face, clamping her mouth shut and holding her tongue. She wanted no part of explaining what had happened but Hans would have no part of that. He'd taken them in and now he needed some answers.
"Go see Inga," June told Johnny.
"She's sick," he told her, dissuading her from putting the boy in jeopardy of catching whatever she had come down with.
"It's okay, go see her." June pushed her son gently on the back, directing him out of the room. Hans understood she didn't want to talk in front of the boy and only hoped that it wasn't as serious as he feared it might be.

"June?" Hans asked uncertain.
"Fred is dead," she told him after she was certain the Johnny was out of ear-shot. The dread was clear in her voice, the seriousness only now peaking out from beneath the cover. "He fell into the harvester." That was all she said, all she was going to say.
"How?" Hans pictured the man, though he'd never actually seen him, falling into the machine while it was running. The large blades that swirled around inside would have no problem picking his body apart. June and Johnny must have been close by, judging from their blood splattered bodies and clothing.
"Did you get help?"
"No," she sobbed. "I didn't know what to do. We just ran away."
"He could still be alive!" Hans thought not, but miracles have happened before.
"No." She sat down on the chair next to her, the dress pulling up slightly.
Hans saw the bruises and cuts on her upper thigh, only for a second but he understood their severity. "He's dead." The low monotone voice she was speaking in frightened Hans. Maybe she was glad and felt bad only because she was happy.
"How do you know?"
"I saw his head," she stated plainly, finally looking up at Hans.
He'd left the woman to watch the two kids while he went down the road to see the scene for himself. It wasn't something he had not wanted to witness but more likely needed it to try and understand what this woman was all about. Maybe he did like her. More than likely it was just pity he felt for the woman who had obviously gone through a lot of abuse.
"I told you," Kelly stated plainly as they pulled into the Dover's driveway. "You like her."
"Not now Kelly," he interrupted her.
"Why go through all this trouble then? Why pretend that you're not happy that she's a widow now?"
It really hadn't been something he had thought about before his wife had brought it up. It was true though, she was alone now. Maybe she might have been attractive once, longs before the years of abuse and premature aging had set in. Hans had deduced that she was maybe thirty-five, possibly younger. Still, she wasn't by any means unbecoming. A wave of confusion crashed on him, Hans beginning to understand that Kelly might have been accurate with her summation. This, he would never divulge to his wife.
"Why come here then?" Kelly wonder as Hans exited the car and spotted the harvester off in the field east of the house. It was about a hundred yard from where he stood, the dirty blood stains clear from the distance.
"To be sure that he's still not alive."
"Always the good Samaritan?"
"Yes," Hans smiled as he began to trudge through the over-grown wheat field.
Kelly had walked with him. Though he didn't see her, he knew that she was next to him. Maybe her curiosity was as unsated as his, needing to see for herself the gruesome details of Fred Dover's demise.
They's covered the distance swiftly, Hans placing a hand over his mouth as soon as they were close enough to make out the details. Blood was splatter all over the machine and the field around the front of the harvester. The blades within were blanketed with pieces of flesh, various sizes. It was a mess, a molten glob of skin and metal insides. Maybe the lumpen glob thrown on windshield had once been a foot, it sort of resembled it at least. Whatever those pieces had been, June had been right, Fred was dead.
"Satisfied?" Kelly shot at him.
"You want her!"
He didn't understand what was going through then. Maybe it was a burning desire, more likely it was just contentment that June was now free from this monster. Whichever it was, he was sure that she was better off. He could do no worse than Fred Dover. He wouldn't have beaten the woman. Kelly would testify to that. No matter how tempting it may have been at the worst time, he'd remained poised and calm enough to control those animal instructions. Now, he wanted to be away from this sight, return home to see June for himself. It would be the first time he saw her as a widow, a fact that Kelly had informed Hans. Maybe he was scared of what might happen, maybe he didn't want anything to happen. It was all too confusing to figure it out. Whatever happens will happen he told himself as he and his wife left the gory scene for the comforts of home.
June was sitting in the living room, Inga and Johnny cuddled up to one another one the couch. The children where taking a nap, June warning Hans to remain quiet. She slipped from her seat and went over to meet him at the back door.
"They're sleeping," she explained.
"He's dead," Hans couldn't hide his grief and disgust. "What the hell happened?"
"He fell in," she tried her best to rationalize.
"Bullshit!" he yelled, forgetting the kids. Neither of them woke from the outburst, both glad for the fact. "Tell me what you know." Hans didn't know why he didn't believe her story, nor why he had this strange vision of the woman pushing the man into the machine. Maybe because he knew she had been suffering, maybe because he hoped she wanted to be with him instead. Strike that. He didn't want to believe that nor did he hope that was true. Did he?
"It's true," she declared her innocence.
Hans grabbed her arm and pulled her outside where they might speak more freely. He stared into here eyes, searching for what he thought was the truth. Tears welled in June's eyes, coming out now and pouring down her cheeks. She did not look away.
"We have to tell someone," Hans warned her.
"I know."
"They won't believe you, or at least they'll question you thoroughly."
"I know."
"Your not scared?"
"Yes I am," she pulled herself to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and burring her wet face into his shoulder. Hans' arms came up instinctively and closed around the woman. He drew her closer, whispering in her ear that everything would be alright.
"What will you do?" Hans wondered, vainly hoping that he fit into the plans somewhere.
"Do I have to know?" she asked the simple question.
"No, I guess not."
And as he stared over her shoulder into the field behind his home, there was Kelly. The sun played havoc with her spirit, melting her essence and threatening to dispel her from reality. She stared at them and watched as the two people comforted each other. He understood what it looked like. It may have seemed that he and June were showing the other affection. Kelly shook her head. She began to vanish then, apparently having enough of the spectacle. Hans smiled at her before she had gone, trying to tell her that everything was alright.
Still, he couldn't deny how good it felt to be in the arms of a live, warm-blooded human being. As he tightened his hold on June he relished the idea of learning to love again, here in the land of the living. Maybe not this woman, maybe it would never happen. Whatever the final act of his life would play out, he understood that he was still alive. And as much as he had punished himself for things beyond his control, fought battles that he would never win, there was something oddly divine about being defeated. Once he had learned to accept that loss, nothing seemed to matter any more. And wasn't that what he was searching for, a state of graceful mourning?
"A State of Graceful Mourning"
© April 9, 1997
Stephen Dressler

Stephen Dressler