Refuge

Attending Manfred Linden’s funeral was a mistake. He realized that now.

The huge wooden doors to the nave were propped open, so when Tyler entered the church – late, rumpled, and red-faced – he could hear the minister already intoning the sermon.

Booming phrases drifted into the entry and reverberated off the wide overhead beams: “True family man,” “pillar of this community,” “left us too soon.”

The carpet in the lobby was unusually plush, a deep rose that was probably fashionable decades earlier. Tyler paused to catch his breath at a table bearing a single rose and a stack of leaflets printed on creamy card stock.

“Manfred Linden, 1962 – 2016, in our hearts; and now in heaven,” the cover read.

Beneath the title, Tyler was confronted with a smiling picture of Manfred. It was the same photo they had used in all the news reports. He was squinting from the sun, but nonetheless, his eyes were open and trained directly on the lens. Tyler stared into those piercing blue eyes and asked himself again why he had come.

Drawing a deep, steadying breath, he took the top leaflet and moved towards the sound of the minister’s projecting voice, the muffled sobs, the heavy sound of grief.

The church was stuffy and full of teenagers, and Tyler recalled from the newspaper, now crumpled at the foot of his bed along with the unwashed sheets, that Manfred was a science teacher at a nearby high school.

All heads were trained forward, yet Tyler felt that every eye was on him as he searched for an empty seat in the packed crowd. A drop of sweat led an itchy trail down the back of his neck. He slinked behind the last pew, a row of young mourners. The teenaged boys looked like they’d borrowed their dads’ suits – the shoulders a little too baggy, the collars a little too untidy – and the girls wore indecently short black skirts. A redhead at the end of the aisle jerked her head up as he passed, and Tyler’s breath caught in his throat. I shouldn’t have come here.

But it wasn’t accusation he read in her eyes. Instead, her eyes looked guilty too, and he realized she was furtively tapping out a text message. Tyler moved past the row, and the girl, realizing she wasn’t caught out, returned to her phone.

He spotted a couple of lone spaces in the middle of the crowd, but the idea of squeezing past people, drawing attention to himself, and causing any inconvenience for the mourners deterred him from claiming a seat. Instead, he stood near the door, with its promise of fresh air two steps away.

A stifled, constant sob came from the front row. A dark-skinned woman whose thick black waves were disrupted by a stylish shock of silver hair was hunched over a handkerchief. Tyler assumed this was Manfred’s wife, flanked on either side by their two grown children. On Mrs. Linden’s left, her son patted her heaving shoulders. He seemed to be in his early twenties, despite the thinning hair and the spot on his head that in a few short years would be, in earnest, a bald patch. On her right sat the daughter. She had the same dark, wavy hair as her mother, but unlike the grieving widow, she sat upright with textbook posture.

Mrs. Linden’s sobs seeped through the room, picking up a tinge of each mourner’s sadness as it passed so that by the time the sound of her anguish reached Tyler at the back of the church, the cacophony of it marched a beat in his head, a noisy racket that carried the weight of the entire world plus a thousand mourners, and pinned him to the wall.

Perhaps that’s why he stayed.

Perhaps he stayed because as he attempted to shift the weight of her grief and flee from the room, Manfred’s daughter turned in her seat and looked straight at him through dry, red-rimmed eyes. His slowing heartbeat picked up speed again, while the rest of him froze in place. She looked at him for only a moment before her eyes traveled past just as quickly. She was scanning the room.

A rattled, relieved breath escaped his lungs. Still, Tyler wondered. Did she recognize him? Did she know he was the driver of the car that had plowed into her father eight days ago?

He had been featured in the news just as much as Manfred.

“Driver in pedestrian fatality identified as Tyler West, 31.”

“Local musician, Tyler West, responsible for teacher’s death.”

“Beloved teacher mown down by neighbor in late-night car crash” (The last published in the sensationalist free daily).

The only photos the media had managed to find were outdated. One was a fuzzy shot of him with his arm around Caroline, though they had blurred her out. The other an old picture he’d used to promote his first CD, back when he had long hair.

A reporter had called his parents’ home, looking for a recent photo or a quote. Any juicy detail. But she had come up short when his dad yelled at her to leave them alone and then chucked the phone at the couch near where Tyler was slouched.

“How did they even get our number?”

Tyler realized belatedly that this wasn’t a rhetorical question and tried to shake his stupor, but his dad had already stormed from the room.

In the aftermath of the accident, Tyler had sought refuge at his parents’ home. But whatever he had been looking for there – comfort, understanding – was absent, so he had returned to his basement apartment only a few days later.

But there was no refuge. It didn’t matter where he went. The truth of what he had done remained, always, at the forefront.

He gazed at his leaflet, losing himself in that squinting gaze until the minister invited Manfred’s children to the altar. The siblings climbed to the lectern. The daughter cleared her throat, raised her eyes, and began to speak.

9 thoughts on “Refuge

  1. gongli2000 says:

    I think this is pretty well written. I like most of the descriptions like this one: “The teenaged boys looked like they’d borrowed their dads’ suits ..” Just a couple of quibbles about some descriptions like this one: “. A drop of sweat led an itchy trail down…” I don’t know way but it seems like its trying too hard and does sweat really itch as it goes down?
    I think it takes too long to get to the fact that this guy was the guy who killed the girls father. I wish it came sooner. There’s no need to create suspense about this. Also is this: “does she know he was the driver of the car that had plowed into her father eight days ago?” the best way to introduce the fact? Maybe something more dramatic. Maybe this is too melodramatic but maybe the girl can recocgize him and tell him to get out or something. Who are these people though. Who is the dead guy? Who is the girl? Who is the guy who killed the dead guy? Maybe a little less description of church and funeral and people and a little bit more info about the characters.
    But all in all it was interesting and well written.

  2. Joy Perino says:

    I like the slow introduction to his guilt, and the creeping realisation that he isn’t the only on to feel guilty at this funeral. However I didn’t feel intrigued enough to keep on reading, if it had gone on further. In my opinion it needs a hint as to why this is different to any other hit and run or drunk driving accident, or why we should hang around to follow the protagonist’s story. Maybe even just a hint of a twist in the last sentence to thrown us in a new direction. Maybe something the daughter says that takes him by surprise or takes us in a different direction.

    • Douglas Hazelrigg says:

      I like what Joy says — something that sets this apart from your “standard” “killer arrives late to funeral of his victim” scenario. 🙂 I think she makes a great suggestion that the daughter says something that surprises our expectations. Incidentally, in order to fit something like that within the 1,000 word limit would serve to excise some of the unnecessary exposition —

  3. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    It’s well-written and easy to understand, which is job #1. Early on, I was wanting to know why Tyler felt like he shouldn’t be there; I think you provided the answer just barely in time. But I am wanting something more, something that links those two issues (his reluctance and the reason for it). For example: he has come in late, which inevitably creates at least a minor stir, and a number of the people in the back recognize him from the media as the one who killed the decedent, which develops into an even bigger stir, with people pointing at him and whispering, followed by the reveal. Just a thought.

    How is the church “stuffy?”

    Is it realistic to walk into a sanctuary, and then retreat to the rear, when one has arrived late to a funeral and the place is packed? I don’t think so. At least I wouldn’t do it (that is, I would not enter a few rows in; I would probably just stand in the very back).

    The part about the wife’s mourning collecting with that of the rest of the attendees and becoming a “cacophony” and “pinning” him to the wall is some really nice creative writing, EXCEPT — it seemed a bit overwritten at the point we are reading it. Maybe if it were placed AFTER the reveal it would fit better.

    Good job 🙂

  4. Kevin says:

    I agree with Douglas. You reveal the connection between your protagonist to the dead too late. Perhaps instead of saying: “Tyler stared into those piercing blue eyes and asked himself again why he had come”, my personal suggestion would be: “Staring into those piercing blue eyes, Tyler asked himself again why he had come to the funeral of the man whom he had killed.” This way the conflict changes from “why he had come to a funeral”, which I personally consider to be superficial and less interesting, to the mentality of Tyler’s action, which is probably more grasping. Plus, in this way, the rest of your story would flow just as well, with only minor changes.

    It’s just my own thoughts. Well written!

  5. Jack says:

    Well written!

    I like the premise and the voice, and I would definitely read on. I think the other commenters have already said most of what I was going to say, but I would like to add a few more things:

    “The carpet in the lobby was unusually plush, a deep rose that was probably fashionable decades earlier.” I’m not sure if this is trying to usher in (sorry for the pun) a motif, maybe red represents death, or the worn out style of the rug maybe represents the setting and certain elements of that nature, or something completely different. I’m not sure, its not my story. But if it doesn’t mean anything at all then I’d suggest cutting it because it would otherwise be somewhat pointless. Also, unless there’s something bigger at play here, I would try and stay away from using the word “rose” to describe the carpet, and then having a literal rose be present in the next sentence.

    I would like to second Douglas Hazelrigg’s point about the mother’s crying: on one hand I felt the sensation you were trying to decribe and it was gripping, on the other hand it did seem a bit overwritten.

    The progression from the funeral scene into Tyler’s press coverage of the incident, and then back into the funeral is good, but it could be smoother. Perhaps bookending the part where the news coverage is explained with stuff that is related to the funeral would work well. You transitioned well into the news coverage, with having the mother scan the room – Tyler hoping he’s not recognized – the media being why he would be recognized, etc. Try something like that (not exactly like it) to go back to the funeral.

    Great job!

  6. Rachel says:

    Some of your descriptions really are lovely. I think someone else noted the boys in their (fathers’) suits. I also liked the girl tapping a message on her phone, hoping not to be caught. Like several of the other commenters, I became interested when I realized that Tyler was attending the funeral of the man he had hit. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t drawn into the story you are telling. I think the problem is that I have no sense of Tyler or Manfred as humans. Since you seem to be telling us this through Tyler’s pov, give us a clearer sense of who he is, how he understands the world. From the beginning, I don’t need to know he’s seeing what everyone else would see walking into the room (faded carpet, etc). His perceptions of the funeral need to give me a unique insight into him. Similarly, what should I be sensing about Manfred based on his how he’s looking out of the photo? Was that some sort of shorthand as to who he had been before his death? It seemed instead to signal that Tyler felt guilt. I want to care about these men and what happened to them, but I need more knowledge of them for that to happen.

  7. Gentle Reader says:

    The well-written description of the setting invoked memories of funerals I’ve attended. However, I’d caution you about beginning a novel with a funeral. Funerals are on many lists for ways not to start a novel. For example, this one: (http://annerallen.com/13-ways-not-to-start-nove/). People browsing in a bookstore might move onto the next book if they pick up a book that begins this way, particularly if the book is written by a new author. The first scene in a book is often used to set the tone for the entire book. I’ve seen some best-selling authors begin with funeral scenes, but it’s risky. The reader doesn’t know the musician or any of his redeeming qualities. You might want to begin with a scene before the accident to give readers a chance to bond with the protagonist and be more able to experience his remorse at the funeral.

    Keep writing, and best of luck!

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