First Death

byAfterDusk©

"Hey Matt, what's up?" Teddy's voice was cheery. There was noise in the background, his girls were arguing over something, his wife yelling at them to figure it out.

"Just calling to say happy birthday, to my favorite brother," I said, tossing my backpack onto the chair in my small bedroom. I opened the window, letting the salty humid air waft in.

"I'm your only brother, Matt," he said, just as he does every year.

"That's why you're my favorite!" I quipped back at him.

"Gee, thanks. Are you going to come down for Thanksgiving this year?" he asked, hopefully.

I looked at the calendar; Thanksgiving was next week. It would be nice to see my nieces again, they had grown so much in the time that I was away at college. "I dunno. I have a big paper on the history of Scotland due right after, I was thinking I'd spend most of my time in the library."

"Because books aren't portable? Come on, Matt. It has been what, six years since you last saw Dad? He's not going to live forever, you know. When was the last time you even talked to him?"

There it was, the guilt trip. He always played that card. But something about it, this time, told me that I should just in and go home, "Fine. I'll see if I can catch a redeye next Wednesday. But I'll have to call him tomorrow, I've got a hot date tonight."

"Let me guess," he laughed slightly, a deep rumbling laugh that always made me smile, "she's twenty five, a righty, and pretty handy."

"Fuck you, Teddy," I busted out laughing.

"It was good hearing from you bro. I expect you to show up next week."

"Yeah, yeah, I'll be there."

"I love you, Matt."

"Love you too Teddy."

I pressed the end call button. Something felt weird about that conversation, but I couldn't put my finger on it. If only I would have know that would be the last time I spoke to Teddy before he died, maybe things would have been different.

...

"Have you given any thought to what you want to do, after college?" Professor Milburn looked at me over the edge of his glasses. He sat behind his desk; it was littered with papers and books, empty coffee cups. I always found it odd that he never bothered to clean up; maybe, in some way, he felt like he was leaving historical evidence behind with each piece of crap he left piled high.

"I don't know," I pushed my glasses up to my forehead, rubbing my tired eyes. I had procrastinated a lot of my papers this term and was ruefully spending late nights pounding them out on the computer. When I started college, it seemed like a good idea to major in history—it was something that always intrigued me, it was much more interesting than everyday life, but now, as I was almost done with through my Master's, I realized just how stupid a history degree was. "It doesn't seem like there are many job opportunities in the field."

He sat back in his chair, arms perched on the side, "I tried to tell you as much, Matt. You minored in what, Philosophy?"

I grunted. Yeah, it was a dumb choice.

"You could always get your teaching certification," he offered, "There are plenty of public and private schools looking for qualified teachers. I think you'd be great at it."

I shuddered. I remembered high school vividly—all of the teachers seemed so worn down, so broken like they'd given up at any dreams of happiness after their initial spirit was crushed by hundreds of ungrateful kids, "Yeah, I think I'd rather go for teaching at a college than high school."

"Then you'll have to continue to get your Doctorate's. You could be a lecturer; you've got a knack for it. Maybe even crank out a few books. Figure out what your focus would be and where you want to apply. I'll help you out with letters of recommendation, applications or whatever you need. Your grades are good enough that you wouldn't have any problem getting into anywhere—just keep your head on straight and finish the year on a high note."

Nodding, I stood up and shook his hand, "Thanks Professor."

"Don't mention it, Matt. Have a good Thanksgiving."

I headed back to my apartment, walking down the bustling sidewalk towards the beach. The rent was high—even split between four of us, $600 a month was a stretch for a bunch of college kids crammed in a three bedroom. Tiff and Jacob had fallen in love with the place when they were newly married undergrads—they shared the master bed and bath. Phil was a good friend of theirs, and I met him through a girl I used to hook up with. We all got on well enough, none of us were going to school for the same thing, which made it nice to have friends outside of the same faces we saw every day in class. I climbed the stairs to the second story of the building, letting myself in. They were all out on the balcony, enjoying the last warm days of the fall before the cool ocean breeze made the view less appealing.

I grabbed a beer from the fridge and joined them; I sat in a lounge chair and rested my feet on the railing before popping the cap and taking a long drink.

"Got plans for Thanksgiving Matt? You're welcome to come with Tiff and I to my mom's," Jacob offered.

"Actually, I'm headed home tomorrow night for the weekend. I'll probably be back late Sunday." I looked out over the deserted beach, watching the waves crash into the shore.

"Holy shit," Phil exclaimed, "I never thought I'd hear you say that. What happened—someone die?"

I pulled a foot off of the railing and tucked it under the leg of Phil's tilted back chair; putting pressure on it, I made it lean back further. Phil waved his arms, scrambling to keep himself from toppling over, "No, you dick, I just...wanted to see my nieces."

"How'd it go with your advisor?" Tiff asked. She swirled the red wine in her glass before sipping it.

"I'm fucked," I shrugged, drinking some more, "no choice but to get a Doctorate's. Or work at McDonalds," I held my hand out to her as if offering some imaginary food, "Would you like fries with that? Or perhaps, the history of fries?"

They laughed and I was forced to join in with them. As I finished my beer, I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket. When I pulled it out, I was surprised to see my Dad's name on the screen. I got up and walked back inside, answering, "Hey Dad."

"Matt?" He sounded upset.

"Yeah, hey, I meant to call you last week, but I'm catching the redeye tomorrow night, so I'll be home for Thanksgiving."

"Matt," he sighed, "I have some bad news."

I felt my heart drop. My first thoughts were of my nieces—I knew Teddy always worried about the crowd they hung with in high school, their friends were involved with drugs, "What is it, Dad? What's wrong?"

"It's Teddy. He's...dead."

...

"Matt," my Dad's voice cut into my thoughts. He was putting my suitcase in the trunk of his car.

I looked at him before looking around. We were outside the terminal of the airport back home. I closed my eyes, concentrating very hard. It took me a while to remember how I got there. I remembered dropping my beer, back in my apartment. There were hugs. I packed my things, I think I sent out emails to my professors letting them know I would be gone for a while. Dad must have gotten me an earlier flight—I opened my eyes and looked at my watch. It was Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving.

I felt a tightness in my chest—I don't know why, but it hit me hard. Teddy always cooked the turkey. It was probably in his fridge right now, marinating in his secret recipe. Dad's arms were around me. I hugged him back.

He pushed me into the car and latched my seatbelt like he used to do when I was a kid. He talked, but I only caught every other word.

"Janie and the girls are there now," he said quietly.

I peeled my eyes off of the scenery out the window, "Where?"

He glanced over at me for a moment, eyeing me. He must have already told me, "At the funeral home. For the viewing. We're headed there now, it will be over in about an hour and then we can go home. The funeral is scheduled on Friday...we didn't want to run anyone else's Thanksgiving."

I nodded, returning my blank stare out the window.

"I should warn you, Matt," my Dad said, "the morticians did the best they could, but...it is still hard, to see him like that."

"What happened?" My voice was flat. I had no energy left.

"He was out with his friends, they were grabbing a beer at the bar after work. We don't really know, exactly—Stu—you remember Stu? He was one of the groom's men at Teddy's wedding? Stu said that Teddy got a text. Said it was from Janie, and he had to leave to go home. He left the bar, but for some reason didn't take his car. He was found three blocks away in an alley. He," Dad choked up a bit. He cleared his throat and continued, "he was beat up pretty bad. The cops think it was a mugging gone wrong, his wallet and keys were taken. Before they found him, a dog must have..."

I looked over, seeing the strain on his face. His jaw was clenched. We pulled into the funeral home before he could finish. I got out of the car and followed behind him.

It was an eerie feeling, walking into the mortuary. I wasn't expecting it to be so well lit, warm brown and green colors everywhere. The morning sun shone in through the stained glass windows, casting a kaleidoscope of colors onto the light carpet. There were beautiful, fresh flowers everywhere, but it felt cold. There was a strange stillness to the place, much like the cemetery. It unnerved me to think that somewhere, there was a room full of dead bodies, empty shells.

I followed Dad to a small room; it was darker than the main entry and didn't have any windows. All I saw when I walked in was Janie, trying not to cry as a few people stood around her, offering their condolences. Then I saw my nieces, sitting on chairs, alone.

"Uncle Matt," Joan let out a cry. Sobbing, she ran up to me and threw her arms around my neck. In the two years since they had come out to visit me on the west coast, she had grown into a young woman. She wasn't as tall as me; the top of her head came up to my shoulder. She squeezed me tight, crying into my black shirt.

"Hey, kiddo," I said, wrapping my arms around her and rubbing her back.

Maria stalked over, her eyes red and puffy; she was in middle school still, but she had started to fill out like her sister. She couldn't say anything, she just wrapped her arms around the both of us. I shifted so I could hold them both tight, and I let them cry it out.

It was several moments before the girls were able to get a hold of themselves enough to let go. Janie had walked over by then; normally, she tried hard to be pretty. She took care of herself, always wore make up and made the effort to fix her hair and dress well, but today, she looked like shit. She was wearing a long sleeved black dress and her dyed blonde hair was hastily pulled back into a loose ponytail. She hadn't even bothered with makeup, her face was swollen with grief. She looked so much older than I remembered.

I kissed her on the cheek and wrapped her up in my arms. It didn't take long for her to come unglued too. When it seemed like she finally ran out of tears to cry, she pulled away from me and patted my cheek, "I am glad you're here, Matt."

I sat with my nieces on a bench. Though they were older now, they didn't hesitate to look to me for comfort. Joan leaned against me, her head resting on my shoulder. Maria lied down on the bench, using my leg as a pillow and it wasn't long before she fell asleep. I'm sure they were all tired, I knew I was.

People came and went. Dad kept it together, shaking hands and talking to distant relatives and friends. Janie did her best; her mom stayed with her the entire time, resupplying her with fresh tissues. Occasionally someone would come over and offer me their condolences, a sad, empathetic smile on their lips, tell me how much they liked Teddy and what a great guy he was. A few asked me about my life, but most didn't care. I was the black sheep and was always treated that way. But I didn't give a fuck.

As the crowd started to dwindle and I remained seated with my nieces, I found myself staring at Teddy's coffin. There was an alcove to the left of the door. I'm sure they did it like that so when you walked into the room you weren't tripping over a dead body. It was almost like they hid it off to the side, that way you wouldn't have to look unless you wanted to. I didn't want to. But I had to.

I raised my arm over Joan, pulling it out from behind her back. I shifted forward slowly, supporting Maria's head as I got out from under her; Joan scooted over so I could place her sister's head back down.

I stood up and took a deep breath, straightening my shirt somewhat before I walked closer to the coffin. I hesitated, losing my nerve. I didn't want to see him like this. But I needed closure. It was a few more steps and I was standing next to the coffin, looking down on what was my brother. He was so pale and still. His graying, dirty blonde hair was combed neatly back from his face. His eyes were closed, his mouth shut but seemed to be almost frowning, hands neatly folded over his fat belly. Teddy was dressed in a grey turtleneck and a suit jacket—I thought it was odd, until Dad's words echoed in my head, Before they found him, a dog must have...

My eyes were drawn to his thick neck; just at the top of his collar, I could see the wrinkles in his skin where it looked like anything lower might be missing. He was so still. He looked deflated. Whatever had made him Teddy, seemed to be gone.

I turned away, I felt like I was going to be sick. Almost everyone had left; Janie's mom was walking out with my nieces, Dad said something to Janie before she followed behind. Then, like it was when we were growing up, it was just the three of us—me, Dad, and Teddy.

Dad turned and looked at me; he seemed so broken. I watched him as tears started to fall down his face while he just stood there, unsure what to do. His eyes drifted away from mine and he looked distant, like he was remembering a better time. It wasn't hard, any time before Teddy died was a better time.

I heard the clicking of the heels before he saw her; when his eyes refocused and he looked down the hall, instantly he was angry.

"Go away. You have no right to be here," his voice was harsh, painful.

The woman stopped just before him after she entered the room. She was wearing a black two piece skirt suit, short black heels. Her almost white hair was swept into a high bun, making her face a little severe.

"So...it's true," her voice was almost a whisper.

Dad's arm was raised, pointing towards the door, "Leave."

The woman dropped her head. Slowly, as she turned to leave, she glanced up and over towards the coffin I was standing in front of. I caught her eye. I knew who she was, even though I had never met her before.

Dad looked horrified when he saw me, standing there. He froze like a deer in headlights unsure what to say to me or to her.

"It's all right, Dad," I said, "why don't you wait in the car? I'll be out in a few minutes."

He looked at me; he was breathing fast, I thought he would hyperventilate. Somehow, he pulled it together before he nodded and stormed out.

"Matthew," she whispered softly. She walked over and wrapped her arms around my shoulders; when I didn't move to respond to her affection, she awkwardly pulled back, "I'm—"

"I know who you are," my voice was still flat, I didn't have the gumption to bother with inflection.

Her lips started to quiver. She broke my gaze, glancing down to the coffin. Sidestepping around me, she walked to him, tears running down her face as she clutched the side, "Oh, Teddy, I'm so sorry."

I stood beside her. I should have been kind, but all I felt was an aghast irritation at her presence, "I'm sure he would have appreciated that apology twenty some years ago."

Her shaking hand reached forward. Narrow, bony fingers pinched at the collar of his turtleneck and pulled it down slightly; the wound was taped over with clear medical tape. It was pale just like the rest of him, jagged edges barely visible through the opaque plastic. It seemed small for a dog bite.

Carefully she put the collar back. In a tender fashion, she reached out to cradle Teddy's jaw but when her skin touched his, she jerked her hand away, "He's been touched by Death," her voice was a choked whisper.

"No shit," I said sarcastically, unable to get the edge out of my voice, "well, it was nice to meet you Mom but I've got to go. Why don't we do it again sometime? Hey, I know, maybe you can make it to my funeral too." I turned to walk away, but her cold fingers grabbed my wrist.

"Matthew," her voice was urgent. Her grip was strong; I thought I could feel my pulse beating because she was cutting the circulation off to my hand. When I looked down at her pale fingers, something seemed weird. The pulsing was irregular, almost like a throbbing of energy. It seemed to expand throughout my entire body. I jerked my hand away from her, glaring up at her face, "Please understand that everything I did, was to protect you. You have to leave town—tonight. Get far away, don't tell anyone where you are going," her eyes looked frantic as she spoke.

I huffed out a laugh, "Kind of like what you did?" I shook my head, "I'm not like you, Mom. I don't just run when things get tough."

"It is important," she urged.

I rolled my eyes, "I'm not missing his funeral. I gotta go." I turned around and walked away from her.

"Matthew," she called after me, "Friday night, meet me at the bar Teddy went to. Eight o'clock. I will tell you everything."

I waved my hand, not bothering to turn around as I walked out of the funeral home.

Dad was waiting in the car; he had it started. He was staring off into the distance, his hands clenching the wheel, his knuckles were white. He jumped when I got in and shut the door.

"What...what does she want?" He asked quietly, putting it into gear.

"Honestly, I don't fucking care," I said, staring out the window.

...

Janie came by with the girls shortly after we got to Dad's house. They were having trouble sleeping at home and they wanted to see me, so Dad offered to let them spend the night. We ate dinner in silence, not really having much to say. Joan and Maria flopped on the couch to watch some TV while I helped Dad clean up the kitchen. Janie was putting the leftovers away when she started crying.

I went up behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist, resting my head on her shoulder. It was hard to tell what set her off, but it could have been anything. I felt the same way.

"I...I just don't know what to do about tomorrow. All the food—he prepped it all," she turned around and sobbed into my chest. I rubbed her back slowly as she continued, "I can't deal with it. I should just throw it out."

"Calm down, Janie," I said softly. It helped; Teddy and I didn't look a bit alike. He was tall and thick with muscles when he was younger, though as he got older it slowly gave way to fat but none the less he was still intimidating, a decent looking man still with his graying blonde hair and brown eyes. I was just as tall as him, but was almost rail thin. I didn't have much in the way for muscle, but I never had any fat on me either. I took more after my dad, sharing the same thick, unruly brown hair, though, as I found out this afternoon, I got my green eyes from my mom. But the one thing that Teddy and I had in common was that our voices were similar, a low tenor. I watched Dad scoop some ice cream into bowls before he left the kitchen to go join the girls. The café hinged door swung shut behind him.

"Dad and I will come over tomorrow. We'll cook everything. Teddy always put his heart into Thanksgiving. I know he's gone, but it will taste like he's still there."

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