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.