Short Story: Dearly Beloved

The funeral was to begin in 10 minutes. Cora shifted from one foot to the other. None of the mourners had arrived yet, and she was worried that the notices she’d taped to neighbourhood poles had been washed away by the overnight rain. She bit her lower lip and considered the small box in front of her. There were eleven snails in total. She had named every single one of them and had also made up a story for each. How they had come into the world, where they’d gone to snail school, and even how they had met their tragic and untimely end. She figured this would make it easier for the necessary bereavement of the mourners. Cora wanted real tears.

            But nobody was here. Nobody had come last week either. Cora had later figured that earthworms just didn’t bring out the necessary grief in ordinary people. So she had held the service for them on her own. She had spoken at length and with a well-rehearsed graveness about the worms and their movements in the garden. She had even mentioned how several of them had grown new bums after being split in half by her step-father’s garden spade. His name was Willie, and he had been married to her mom for two years now. Willie was a death machine, and Cora secretly referred to him as Willie-nilly—as in how he went about murdering the innocent life that lived in their yard.

            Cora checked her watch again and then leaned in to the cool cement of the garage wall. It wasn’t the ideal place to hold the service, but Willie-nilly wouldn’t allow them in the house anymore. Cora’s mom had been sympathetic and had even put her wine glass down long enough to help set up a few chairs. She had also offered some old plastic cups and a table cloth for the follow-up reception. Cora eyed the eight tiny reindeer that lined the edges of the plastic cloth. They seemed to be frozen in mid-gallop through boughs of green and red holly. Their wide-eyed faces twisted back over their shoulders searching for a Santa who was somewhere on the underside of the cloth. Cora closed her eyes and sighed heavily. She didn’t figure the snails would mind the cloth. She wasn’t even sure if snails celebrated Christmas, but a good Christmas-in-July snail story would make for a more endearing funeral speech. Cora pushed off the wall and cleared her throat.

            “Hello friends, and thank you all for coming,” she said to the empty garage. Her knees bent automatically in a slight curtsey. “No, no—” she crinkled her nose and shook her head. “People don’t curtsey at funerals.” Cora smoothed her tiny hands against the front of her t-shirt and then raised her arms out to begin practicing her greeting again.

            She stiffened suddenly, hearing his slow, mocking clap long before he appeared at the side of the driveway. She dropped her hands to her sides.

            “Are you at this crazy shit again?” Willie-nilly stumbled forward. He pointed a weathered finger at her and then slumped against the lawn mower. Cora stood silent.

            “You’re a messed up kid,” Willie-nilly slurred. He crumpled a spent beer can and threw it into the garage just over Cora’s head. “This is why you don’t have any friends.” He collected himself off the lawn mower and took an unsteady step toward her.

            “I… I have friends,” Cora stammered. She dropped her eyes to the floor to avoid locking eyes with him. You were never supposed to look the devil right in the eye. Tommy two streets over said that the devil could suck your soul out through your eye-socket. Cora wasn’t taking chances.

            Willie-nilly picked up the box of snails and Cora quickly protested. “NO—, please—,” her voice trailed off to a whisper. She knew all too well how this was going to end. Tears stung her eyes as she watched Willie-nilly unceremoniously turn the box over and dump the snails out onto the cold, oil-stained floor. He grinned at her the entire time. A murderous grin that dimpled the sides of his mouth.

            Cora blinked back tears. Don’t be afraid of him,she told herself. You’re almost eleven years old and not a baby anymore. She knelt down to collect the snails from the floor, cautiously reaching for one just by his foot. As her fingers touched the smooth caramel swirls of its shell, Willie-nilly brought his foot down hard, crushing the snail and her fingers against the floor. Cora shrieked and recoiled violently. She curled her hand protectively to her chest. Her knuckles throbbed and dots of blood beaded through slivers of broken skin. It was the first time he had made her bleed and she trembled at the sight of it.

            Willie-nilly laughed. Not an amused laugh, but a cruel, punishing laugh that was too big for the confines of a single car garage. It bounced off the walls and slapped against her ears.

            Cora balled her fists. He was wrecking everything. He always wrecked everything. She stood and took a tentative step forward. Her brows knitted together with determination and anger. Willie-nilly stopped laughing and pointed a filthy finger inches from Cora’s face.

            “What are you going to do about it, you little bitch?” Willie-nilly staggered slightly as he shifted his weight forward. Cora brought her own small finger to a point near his chest. It trembled slightly.

            “I’m not scared of you,” she said. The steady defiance of her voice contradicted by the thudding in her chest.

            “On no?” Willie-nilly grabbed her by the shoulders. He dug his thumbs into the folds of flesh where her arms met her body. “I’ll give you something to be scared of,” he said, shaking her violently.

            Cora didn’t make a sound. She watched the small tendons of beer-soaked spit dangle back and forth from the corner of his mouth.

            Willie-nilly relaxed his grip and swept an arm loosely across the festive table. “What kind of creepy kid gets off on this anyway?” he slurred. “I guess I have to teach you another lesson.” The murderous grin puckered his chin, pooling his saliva into a giant spit-missile. He pushed forward, intent on securing his grip on her again.  

            Cora shifted her rigid body sideways, causing Willie-nilly to lose his balance. He toppled forward and fell to his knees. Cora had the garden spade in her hand before Willie-nilly could extend his arms to brace his fall. She gave him two hard and fast wallops across his head—mimicking his technique on the worm family the week before. Willie-nilly sank to the floor in a puddle of loose limbs. Blood stretched away from his head and his wide-eyed face twisted ironically back over his shoulder with a new vacancy.  

            Cora put the garden spade back on its hook and picked up the box for the snails. She gently placed the family back against the tufts of  toilet paper that had been curled inside the box. She looked down at the body of Willie-nilly at her feet. She was going to need a much bigger box. And new posters for sure. Cora bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. She would have to remember to buy a waterproof marker.