As she walks out of the Pembroke Funeral Parlor beside her husband, a flash of light near the summit of Killdary Mountain causes Anne to stop at the top of the marble steps, assuming that what she’s seeing is an airplane or bird yet somehow knowing it isn’t. David stops a few steps ahead and turns at the waist, reminding Anne of a boy who just realized that the dog he was walking is no longer under his feet.
“Anne?” he asks. “You okay?”
“A hang glider.”
David walks back with his hands in his pockets. His face is illegible, his eyes obscured behind sunglasses a size too small. They’d fit when he’d first gotten them, but over the past year David had finally begun to match her in the slow deterioration of middle age. His jaws are no longer the sharp ridges they’d been at forty, and the cleft of his chin is almost completely rounded, swollen into a soft bulb of flesh.
“I thought they’d torn down the ramp after the crash.”
“No. Just put up ‘No Jumping’ signs. You can see the ramp from the house, David,” she says, knowing that the only time her husband goes outside is to mow the front yard – the back and sides of the house are encased in the woods that spread off of Killdary like lichen.
“Well, it’s the weather for it, I guess.”
“It shouldn’t be,” she says. Funerals in early March should be cold. The sky slate, the air a scouring pad on the lungs, the ground frozen, maybe even some light rain as a physical token of grief. They should be swathed in fog at least, huddling together for warmth and comfort, hidden. “Not for another month or so at least.”
While the receiving had been open to the public, Anne had requested that the ceremony itself be private, held at the gravesite by the prison chaplain who had seen Mark through his conversion to a religion he’d been raised to doubt and attended by no more than herself and David. Mark’s ex-girlfriend Theresa had chosen to separate herself and the child she and Mark had created together – no matter what the court certified, the little girl who was still Anne’s only grandchild – from not only Mark but Anne and David, too, vanishing so thoroughly that despite Anne’s best efforts she hadn’t even been able to extend the invitation through a lawyer.
She’d fought, though, fought with every tooth and claw she had for the right to see April, through phone calls and letters and checks for child support that went unanswered and uncashed, the awful consultations with the lawyers where they explained that in North Carolina grandparents have no rights for visitation without at least partial custody. Anne had even considered filing the paperwork for a hearing before David put a stop to it by rightly arguing that April had been through enough without another slog through the legal system. But despite everything she’d never given up. Never.
David rests a hand in the small of her back and applies just enough pressure to let her know they’ve left the limousine waiting too long, that it’s time to go to the cemetery. Around them, Jason and Sharon McAllister shake hands with Linda Maynard while cars start, the handful of other friends that had remained to the end of the receiving busy making their escapes down the hill and into the flow of traffic.
When Mark was a boy Anne and he would watch the launches together from behind their house, Mark’s hand in hers and his eyes wide, amazed that the vivid kites had people attached, people who could fly without the aid or security of an airplane. Of course, there had been more of them then, in the craze of the early 1980s when it seemed like every week brought a new crop of amateur stuntmen to the mountain, a trend that had slowly died over the course of the decade until there were only a handful each year. It’s been nearly three years since the crash, three years of empty sky.
She turns in her seat. David sits across the compartment from her, bent forward with his elbows on his knees.
“What are you thinking?” he asks, sounding like a high school principal, authoritative but with practiced concern like she’s a cracked vase that’s been put back together – functional only so long as the pharmaceutical glue holds her broken pieces in place.
“Nothing. Just thinking,” she says. “You?”
They’re stopped at the end of the driveway waiting for a break in traffic. Anne looks for the hang glider, but the limo is facing Killdary and her perspective is limited to one of two essentially similar stretches of Wilkesboro Boulevard. Gas stations, the school bus garage, and the entrance to their neighborhood heading towards town; gas stations, a grocery store, and the cemetery in the direction of Lord’s Creek.
David turns to the window, and for a second he seems to deflate. His shoulders sag, his spine bows like a tree in a storm. She almost reaches out to him, but the moment passes. “I just want this over with,” he says as he turns back to face her, his voice once again the calm timbre of forbearance, his eyes still hidden.
That day the police arrived at the door, confirming the fear Anne had felt since seeing the previous day’s paper, she’d wanted David to do what he always had in the past – stay strong and take care of the problem with the same austerity that had once served him so well at work. The day Mark broke his arm while she was trying to teach him to ride his bike it had been David who rushed home from the bank to drive them to the hospital while she sobbed in the backseat, David telling Mark on the way about how the bone would grow back stronger, turning the situation into a lesson about overcoming hardship in the same voice he used when Mark brought home a “C” on his report card or missed the game winning shot. When she had the wreck driving them home from some party or another, one where she’d had only slightly less to drink than he, it was David who had smoothed it over with the cop with a business card and a handshake, David who had called their insurance company and lawyer, David who had worked things out with the other driver so they hadn’t even gone to court.
But David couldn’t fix what Mark had done, what Mark had become – a killer – any more than she could understand it. And now that there’s no chance for redemption, Anne wants nothing more than for David to be what he’s never been, to tell her what he’s feeling instead of thinking. She wants to tell him that she feels cheated by the weather, the hang glider, by so much more. She wants to say that she understands why Theresa would want nothing to do with Mark but not why Theresa would punish them by keeping April away. She wants to ask if he feels the bank cheated him when they sentenced him to wait out retirement as a meager branch manager after the subprime market collapsed. She wants to know why he hasn’t cried in front of her since they received the phone call from the warden telling them Mark was dead for no other reason than he’d been at the wrong table in the cafeteria when a fight broke out.
The crash happened on a Saturday in June. Anne was waiting on the veranda for Mark to call, sipping coffee with her copy of As I Lay Dying in her lap. She’d meant to open the book immediately, to make good progress that morning so she wouldn’t make a fool of herself when the Book Club met on Tuesday, but the truth was she’d been having trouble getting into it. There were too many characters, too much going on; it was like standing in a room amid a torrent of echoing voices, all dimly menacing.
It was the first book she’d read since coming back to the club, and a part of her wished that she’d waited until after they were finished with Faulkner. But David and the counselor were right. It was time to begin socializing again, to return to the clubs and her volunteer work. After all, hers wasn’t the only child who had run into difficulties. Peggy Frey’s daughter had been expected to graduate as valedictorian of Mark’s class before getting pregnant, and now she cut hair for a living when she wasn’t down in Asheville doing God-knows-what. Yet that hadn’t stopped Peggy from being elected to the Friends of the Library board.
Still, Anne couldn’t escape the lethargy that set in whenever she thought about fighting through another few pages of incomprehensible Mississippians, so instead she gazed at the trees growing up the face of Killdary. It was something she found herself doing more and more often, just looking at nothing in particular and letting thoughts come in and out of her mind like neighbors waving hello as they walked around the block. She watched the sun make its way above the side, and from where she sat it appeared almost like God’s face peeking over the mountain’s shoulder. Mark was supposed to call as soon as the phone became free, but Anne had learned while he was still in the treatment ward at Morrison that it could sometimes take hours, a trend that had continued now that he was in Marion.
Anne sat up and turned, causing the book to slide off her lap and land on the concrete with a noise that seemed much louder than she thought it should. “Yes?”
“Were you asleep?” David took a few steps towards her but stopped before he was within reach. In his hand was a file folder with the white edges of someone’s loan application peeking out. He’d been working a lot more ever since the bank had moved him to mortgage acquisition, spending hours sequestered in the study if he wasn’t downtown.
It was an opportunity; Anne understood that. David had survived the merger while simultaneously dealing with Mark’s trial, and if the branch turned a profit in this venture it would mean a promotion to the regional headquarters in Winston-Salem at least, possibly even a position at the big headquarters in Charlotte. He’d explained it all – the oak paneled office with a view of the city, the ability to pay off all of Mark’s legal expenses at once, a retirement home on the Outer Banks.
“No. Just waiting for Mark to call.”
“Well,” he said. “I’ve got to run to the office real quick. I’ll have the cell if you need me.”
“What about Mark?”
He exhaled in a way that if he had been five years old Anne would’ve called a huff. “I’ve waited long enough,” he said. “Besides, I just need to run in for a few things I forgot to bring home yesterday.”
She nodded. Arguing wouldn’t make any difference. “Be safe,” she called as he slid the door closed behind him, the sun’s reflection changing the glass from transparent into a solid rectangle of white.
When Anne turned back towards Killdary the hang glider was already in flight, hovering first like a blemish on the face of the sun then swooping towards her, a falcon with flared wings diving to strafe, its path so direct that some nervous impulse told her to duck. It passed with the sound of a flag caught in a gale, so close that she saw the pilot’s bearded face just before it vanished beyond the roof of the house. It was an image she would remember, how the man had appeared to be not much older than Mark, his mouth hanging open in what she only could imagine was an expression of pure rapture at finding himself so free and unencumbered.
A moment later the glider returned, now so high the pilot was no more than a pill of onyx suspended underneath, and began ascending directly above her in increasingly wide circles, climbing like it was trying to escape the cage of earth and reach the sun. Anne concentrated on the outline, the blue of the wedge only a shade or two deeper than that of the sky. She was the vortex, the glider a junebug or child’s toy airplane that she held by a string, although it was uncertain whether she was the anchor or if the glider was going to lift her into the soft cradle of the atmosphere.
The harder she concentrated the more it became apparent that she was the one affected. She lost sight of the house, the mountain, everything save the glider and its aeriform canvas until even that was gone and she’d relinquished herself fully, allowing every thought or idea and even her own skin to fall away, leaving her blissfully adrift for the first time in years. Her only perception was that the moment was the closest to heaven she would ever be and she basked in the warm, spreading radiance of being caught between planes, a netherworld without time.
When the glider finally broke the circuit and disappeared around the corner of the house Anne found herself blinking as if she were at the theater in the moment the curtain falls and the houselights suddenly flip on, dizzy and disoriented by a sky once again populated only by clouds and the blue space between. She waited for it to return as long as she could, the stiffness in her neck and the growing shadows of afternoon seeping back into her consciousness until eventually she gathered everything, including the Faulkner still lying face-down on the concrete, and went inside.
She was still giddy, but she ate a small lunch and took her second pill of the day anyway, for no other reason than her doctor had directed her to when he wrote out the prescription. She thought about going back out to see if she could catch sight of the glider before it landed at the high school on the northeast side of Killdary. The school’s football field had always been the preferred landing strip, the only clear and level piece of ground nearby that wasn’t a fairway on the public golf course, and Anne remembered how, in the days gliders had sprung off the ramp in such large numbers they seemed to be discarded products of the mountain itself, she would sometimes take Mark over to the stadium to sit in the concrete bleachers and watch them land one by one – Mark clapping each time one touched down like the pilot had performed the greatest magic in the world just for him. If she wasn’t waiting for the phone she might’ve driven over to the school for old times’ sake, but instead she lay down on the living room couch where a diamond of sunlight poured through the western window, contenting herself with the idea.
She meant to try again at working her way through the Faulkner while keeping an ear open for the low whine of David’s Explorer, but the combination of sun, medicine, and the lingering afterglow of her morning lulled her to sleep, and when she woke it was to the plastic chirping of the phone’s handset on the table beside her.
The caller ID read UNAVAILABLE. Anne pressed Talk and waited with the phone by her side until she knew enough time had passed for her to lift her arm and accept the call without having to hear any more than one or two disjointed words from the cold, mechanized recording. Then there was the requisite thirty seconds of soft hissing broken by sporadic clicks before they were connected. The process had become rote, no more than punching in her PIN at the checkout line.
“Hey.” She sat up and placed her feet on the pale hardwood, realizing as she did that she was still alone in the house. There was no sound, no creaking of joists or footsteps across the ceiling, nothing but the white hum from the air conditioning. It was a fact she accepted – David would miss Mark’s call.
“Mom?” Mark’s voice reached through the static and distant clamor, the muted rumblings of men’s voices and occasional loud buzz of what sounded like the scoreboard at Mark’s basketball games in high school. “Did I wake you up?”
“No. Well, yes. I must’ve dozed off waiting for your father to get home.”
Anne rubbed her free hand across her face to finish the process of waking. Mark never had much time to talk, though whether or not it was due to crowds waiting in line behind him or whatever introspection, as he liked to call it, that caused him to prohibit them from visiting she wasn’t sure. “How are you?” she asked.
“Better than in a long time.”
There was something different about his voice, some familiar levity that Anne hadn’t heard before in his calls home. It took her a minute to place it, but once she did there was the same beatific expansion in her chest she’d felt watching the hang glider. It was Mark’s voice, the Mark she’d raised, the voice that summoned memories of them together in the mornings when Mark was just a child and David had left for work, when they’d lived in a world where their futures were fixedly interwoven and limited only by the maximum amount of magnificence allocated for any two humans. It was a voice that, just like his eyes, exuded potency, vitality, so different from the monotone he’d spoken in since he first went to Morrison.
“You sound good.” The words sounded too weak in her ears, too much like a simple platitude. “You sound like yourself, honey,” she tried again. It still wasn’t right, wasn’t enough, but before she could try a third time Mark broke in.
“I’ve been doing so much reflecting, so much thinking,” he said, his speech beginning to rush headlong. “The chaplain here says I’ve really been making progress, Mom. I’m on Step Eight, making a list of the people I hurt and how I can try and make it up to them.”
“I can’t tell you how—”
Anne caught herself before she said something trite. She wished that he could see her. Words just weren’t adequate. Because it wasn’t what Mark was saying that mattered – personally, she was skeptical of twelve-step programs and their sermonizing, though if they helped Mark she was willing to go along – it was the emotion conveyed, and she wanted to reflect that emotion so that somewhere in the middle their echoes would combine and reconcile the awful man Mark had been after high school with the boy who had so often run around the veranda with his arms outstretched in juvenile imitation of now-forgotten gliders above him, the boy who was and would always be the person she conjured when she thought the words my son.
“Honey, I’ve got to tell you about the hang glider I saw this morning—”
“Mom, there’ve been hundreds of hang gliders flying off that mountain,” Mark interrupted. “I’m sorry. I just don’t have much time and I need to tell you what I did yesterday.”
“Okay,” she said. It was a delay, not a rejection. Mark had only started sharing these things with her again recently, and, besides, there was always the possibility that the news he had was another tile in the day’s mosaic, news that would only enhance her understanding of this recovery. “What was that?”
“I signed the papers for Theresa’s lawyers.”
“Those are the only papers she’s sent me, Mom,” he said.
And just that quickly it was gone, like she’d swallowed an ice cube, a frozen rock in her throat that spread throughout her body as it melted. The doctor had told her Xanax would “take the edge away” from her black thoughts, but it was more like a speed bump than brakes, slowing the pain to lessen the impact but not stopping it altogether. But in this case it wasn’t even a speed bump, more like the difference between being shot in the face and slowly pressed to death.
“Why?” she asked, thinking Yesterday. Already done, then, no taking it back.
“What else could I do?” he asked. “I killed her mother—”
“That wasn’t you, though, not really. Those drugs …” Anne trailed off, fighting images she’d purposefully forgotten since the trial, the pictures the police had made, blown-up and pasted on poster board by the District Attorney so that everyone in the courtroom would see the annular pattern of blood on the wall, the gaping red mouth spread across Helen Coffey’s chest, and know what her son had done.
“It was me,” Mark said, the words unceasing but without heat. “I walked straight up on that porch and shot the first thing I saw over five feet tall. I can’t take that shit back and only God can forgive me now. I can at least give Theresa this.”
“But you’reher father.”
Anne realized she was crying, the living room dissolving into an unpatterned whorl of tan and white. Where was David? How could the day’s promise abandon her?
“Why do you have to be so melodramatic?” he asked.
She sat up. Since when did he use the word “melodramatic?”
“Do you have any idea how long I’ve spent staring at those papers?” He coughed out a laugh. “Her father? Shit. I haven’t seen her in three years. How can I pretend to be her father?”
“But what about me?”
“It ain’t about you.” Mark’s voice was nearly a hiss. “Theresa wants shut of us, all of us … that means you, too.”
“You didn’t have to give up.”
Anne found herself upstairs in the bedroom, grabbing the most recent picture of April she had from where it sat framed on top of the oak dresser alongside Mark’s senior portrait and carrying it back down to the living room in a rush as if to protect the house from any more contamination. It was a futile gesture, but there had to be some solace in holding tangible evidence that through everything she hadn’t given up the expectation that one day she’d be able to fit a new picture into the frame above the one of the two-year-old child now four years obsolete so that one would never know there had been a gap in the first place.
“What the fuck is there to give up? You act like one day this will somehow just go away and I’ll be working for Dad at the bank.” He paused to breathe. “I can’t take that shit, I just can’t. That’s why I don’t want you to visit. This is hard enough without you trying to make it better …”
Mark kept talking, but it wasn’t him she heard anymore. It was David, using the same voice he’d used in the past in regards to Mark’s decision not take the scholarship from Newberry and later when he’d ordered their lawyers not to prepare for an appeal, only less polished. When had Mark ever sounded like his father? Where was the son she knew, the one she’d talked to earlier?
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I didn’t expect you to. That’s the point.” He sighed. “Look, there are people waiting. I love you.”
Anne opened her mouth – to say what she wasn’t sure – but the leaden thump of the receiver ended the call before she found out. She spent the rest of the afternoon watching the patch of sunlight from the window behind her crawl across the floor as all the things that had happened passed through her head indiscriminately until they became a single, solid knot of displaced words and images.
The patch of sunlight had just begun its climb up the far wall when David came through the door, telling a convoluted story about traffic. Anne listened, nodding appropriately when the story seemed to call for it.
The Rev. Johannsen is waiting for them when the limo pulls up to the gravesite, standing at the head of the rectangular pit with a Bible held in both hands against the slope of his paunchy stomach. He walks over once Anne and David have been helped out by the funeral director and shakes both of their hands with a bowed head.
“Again, I’m so sorry for your loss,” he says, repeating the only words that passed between them when they’d met him at Pembroke an hour before. “I can’t tell you how special a young man Mark was, how much hope we had for him.”
Anne thinks about telling him that it isn’t his place to tell her anything about her son or hope or any of the rest, but she decides against it when she sees that his eyes are swollen and pinker than the rest of his face. She’d wanted to hate him, too, if for no other reason than he’d seen more of Mark over the past few years than she had, but when he’d walked into the funeral home he had been so opposite of the caricature of an English rector she’d expected, a staunch, dour-faced man with sprigs of white hair sprouting haphazardly from his scalp spitting Hellfire from rafters, that she couldn’t. Instead, Johannsen reminded her of a farmer or country doctor. And now, as he places one pudgy hand on her elbow to lead her to the grave she has trouble seeing him as anything other than a lonely old man wearing a clerical collar over an ordinary rib stitched shirt – short and balding with a round Nordic face and lips so pale they practically blend into his pink skin, a voice so soft she has to strain to hear him above the grinding of the mechanical winch settling the coffin into place.
“I know you meant a lot to him,” she says, taking her position beside David on the near side of the coffin.
Johannsen only nods and places a hand briefly on David’s shoulder as he makes his way around the periphery and looks to the funeral director.
“Heavenly Father,” he commences in a different voice than he used with Anne before, one so strong and commanding that it seems to be channeling through him. “We have gathered here to mark the end of one life and the beginning of a new, for this man we are committing to this ground now walks alongside You in Your Heavenly Kingdom …”
At first, Anne follows along with her eyes clinched tight against the brightness, but as the cleric continues his litany of imagined rewards her mind begins to wander. She opens her eyes to see Killdary rising in the distance, and she spots the hang glider coasting in front, the red of its wings a sharp contrast to the grey barrenness of the trees spreading below and behind it, the white expanses of cumulus mottled with blue beyond. A breeze sweeps in from the north, brushing against the back of her neck as the minister crescendos to a benediction.
She feels David shift beside her, and when she looks up their eyes meet for just a second. His face contracts in a way that suggests the puckered, browning peal of an overripe orange. It’s an expression Anne can’t discern before he nods and resumes his stiff-shouldered pose, his hands still clasped together at his midsection. She too looks away, pressing the image of the entire gathering to memory – from Johannsen and his convert being lowered slowly into the ground to the husband at her side to the hang glider floating above the maze of streets and mountains and rows of white marble.
Chris Nelson is originally from Western North Carolina. He received his MFA from North Carolina State University. Following a decade in the Midwest, he again lives in Western North Carolina with his cat, Suki.