The second time Ronald Ernst visited the cemetery, he was eleven years old. He liked it there. The first time, for his mother, he was seven and he brought a lollipop his Aunt Mary had let him have. Today, for his father’s service, there were no sweet treats and that disappointed him. Ronald’s hair was longer than last time they visited Marlborough Cemetery, and Aunt Mary’s had more gray in it.
“Sit here, Ron,” she said.
Ron sat on the smooth wooden pew. He could feel the chill of the seat through his black trousers. Aunt Mary sat down next to him and took his hand in hers. She pulled it onto her lap and patted it gently—once, twice, three times—then her thumb rubbed back and forth on his skin in such a short space that he thought she might start a fire.
Ron pulled his hand away, but Aunt Mary squeezed and wouldn’t let go. She looked at him. She’d been crying.
Ron sighed and his shoulders collapsed. He stopped trying to free his hand.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” It was Aunt Mary’s friend Robin, wheeling her oxygen with the tube that snaked to her nose. She made the best chocolate chip cookies. “Sebastian was a wonderful man.” Robin stretched her lips in a sad smile.
“Thank you,” Aunt Mary said. She let go of Ron’s hand and took Robin’s.
Ron saw her thumb whisking back and forth over Robin’s skin. Robin squeezed. Aunt Mary looked her in the eye but said nothing. Robin squeezed again and pulled away, moving down the line.
“You look nice today, Ronald.” Robin patted him on the shoulder. Ron’s eyes flitted to the yellow flower pinned to her black lapel.
Next was Frank Morrissette (“double-r-double-s-double-t”), a heavyset butcher with a tie that never reached his belt. “Mary.” He put out both arms.
Aunt Mary stood, setting her flyer down on the pew next to Ron. Frank wrapped her in a bear hug.
Ron looked down at the picture of his father on the flyer. It didn’t really look like his dad. Well, not recently. This picture was from years ago, maybe before Ron was even born, and showed a broadly-smiling Irishman with a bushy mustache and narrowed eyes that glinted even in the shadows. Ron had seen a similar smile a few times over the years, but never quite like the one in the picture.
“So hard,” Frank said. “Maggie. Now Sebastian.” He shook his head and held Aunt Mary at arm’s length. “It’s not fair.”
Frank looked down to Ron. Ron looked away. He didn’t know about fair, but it had to be this way. It had to be done.
“We’ll be okay,” Aunt Mary said.
Frank nodded and moved down the line, sitting next to Robin.
Slowly, methodically, Aunt Mary sat as if something was on her mind.
“It’ll be okay, Aunt Mary,” Ron said. “Just wait.”
Aunt Mary’s eyes grinned, then she took Ron’s hand back into her own. Ron didn’t pull away this time. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, it will, Ron.”
Aunt Mary, Frank, Robin.
Frank was fat and Robin had lung cancer, but, if Ron knew, Aunt Mary would be next. He looked at the lines on her face, the bags under her eyes, the skin loose on her neck. It was her turn.
He pulled his hand away and, this time, she let it go. Might as well start getting used to the next one, now.
Aunt Mary would be next. Yes, he’d decided it. Maybe it would even be tonight. She’d be his third.
Ron smiled at her. She smiled back. He took her hand and rubbed his thumb over the veiny hills of her skin. Then he patted—once, twice, three times.
Ben Gartner is the award-winning author of The Eye of Ra adventure series for middle graders (ages 8-12). His books take readers for a thrilling ride, maybe even teaching them something in the meantime. Ben can be found living and writing near the mountains with his wife and two boys. https://BenGartner.com