by Robert Petyo
When Father Jacob stepped onto the altar to begin the funeral mass for Oscar Menio, he noticed that the Bush twins were not in their usual pew, third row, extreme right, beside the stained glass window of the first station of the cross.
He didn’t know their real names. He referred to them as the Bush twins because they reminded him of former First Lady Laura Bush. Thin, short dark hair, attractive in their old age. But certainly not as neatly dressed as Laura Bush. These two always wore the same dark dress with gaudy white buttons. They weren’t members of his parish. He had been here for six months, after one year at Saint Vincent’s in Albany where he had served under the stern Father John Bertrand, and he never saw them attending Sunday mass. Only funeral masses. In fact, he was certain they hadn’t missed any of his funeral masses.
Their absence unsettled him. During mass he kept looking toward the third pew, expecting that at some point the Bush twins would materialize and all would be right again. At one point he forgot the prayers and had to pause to refocus and concentrate, feeling pressured by silence, before finally continuing. He stuttered a few times during his brief homily. He always hated the homily at funeral masses since he was new here, still getting to know his parishioners, but this one was even more unsettling than usual. Because there were no Bush twins. He felt he owed the deceased an apology.
No one seemed to notice, though. The mass was sparsely attended, and even fewer people continued to the cemetery, but those who did shook his hand and thanked him for his efforts and soothing words. Still, he felt he had been a failure. His time here at Saint Ignatius had been a failure. He was unsure why, uncertain of what he was doing wrong, but the people didn’t warm to him. The same had been true at Saint Vincent’s, but there he had convinced himself that it was the aloof Father John Bertrand hovering over him that kept the parishioners at a distance. But he didn’t want to be like Father John. He wanted to be welcomed and loved.
He didn’t feel welcome here at Saint Ignatius. He was not yet a part of this parish.
When he got back to the rectory, he showered and made himself a sandwich. After afternoon prayers, he strolled over to the church. Usually he heard soft music whenever he entered the empty church. Of course, there was no actual music, but he heard it just the same. To him it was the comforting sound of angels watching him.
But there was no music this time. He sat in the pew where the Bush twins sat. He knelt and prayed, draping his gangly forearms over the wooden pew in front of him. He bowed his head, and when he looked up there was a blurred figure before him. Dark dress, gaudy white buttons. His breath caught in his throat and he began to hiccup, the sound echoing to the high ceiling. He saw one of the Bush twins, beckoning him with a gnarled hand. He banged his knee against the pew as he stood.
But she was gone.
She had never been there.
His throat ached from the sudden onset of hiccuping and he stroked his long fingers along his neck, swallowing slowly. He returned to the rectory and hurried to the cramped office just inside the door. Millie, who did secretarial work, was only here twice a week, so he had to struggle with the laptop, finally finding the file with the record of funerals. He paged back a week. No. Two weeks would be better. He didn’t want to intrude so soon after a loss.
He called the Honuses.
“Father Jacob?” The woman seemed startled. “Can I help you?”
“Do you remember all the people who attended your father’s funeral mass?”
She hesitated. “Yes.” It was a multisyllabic answer.
“Did you know everyone?”
“Do you remember a set of twins? Elderly women. Seventy, maybe seventy-five.”
She had answered too quickly. “They sat in front, but off to one side. Away from everybody else.”
“I’m sorry, Father. I don’t remember any twins. And I’m sure I would have remembered people like that.”
“Of course.” Her tone had grown slightly scolding and Father Jacob made brief, boring small talk before a quick excuse about a missing ring that he thought might belong to the twins.
Next he tried the Andersons, but there was no one home.
The Stempiens were no help either. Theirs had been a small crowd, even less than the Menios had this morning, and certainly they should have remembered the twins. But Mr. Stempien insisted that there were no twins at his brother’s funeral.
Father Jacob wanted to shout at him. How could he not have seen them?
They were there. Identical twins. Every funeral mass they sat in the third pew.
He tried one more. Mrs. Butkiewicz. But she was still grieving. She burst into tears when he mentioned her husband’s funeral.
He hung up, knowing that he had failed her. His duty was not to bring pain to people.
He stood and stretched, trying to smother the rising anger borne of frustration. Why didn’t anyone remember the Bush twins?
The funeral homes, he thought. Hadn’t the twins been at some of the funeral homes for pre mass services there? He tried to remember. Thought back. Yes. Not always, but yes, often they were there.
He checked the laptop again. Two days ago. The Zawatski funeral at the Bogusko Funeral Home. Had they been there? He closed his eyes as he thought back, but he couldn’t see them. Before that was the Klondales. The Harris Funeral Home. The twins had been there. He was certain. They stood in the back. The same dark dresses. They had matching scarves draped over their heads.
He scribbled some notes before shutting down the laptop, then he locked up the rectory and drove to the Harris Funeral Home.
“Father Jacob. Welcome.” Mr. Harris greeted him in a somber business suit.
He asked to see the guest book from the Klondale funeral.
“Guest book?” His heavily ridged brow contorted as if he had just bitten into a sour apple. “We don’t keep them. They are given to the family.”
“You don’t make copies?”
“Why would— ?” He stroked his brow and forced a thin smile. “Under some circumstances we might make copies, but it’s not our standard procedure.”
“I see. Thank you. I’ll visit the family.” He turned to leave, but stopped. “Could I trouble you for their address?”
Harris’ lips were parted as he was about to ask another question. Instead, he shrugged and disappeared from the small front alcove, returning a few moments later with the Klondale’s address.
They were members of his parish, but Father Jacob did not know that they lived only a block from the church. They probably walked to Sunday mass. He had only been here six months, not long enough to get to know his flock.
“Father Jacob!” The chunky woman had a surprised gape pasted on her reddish face.
“May I come in?” Once inside he explained what he wanted. Her surprised look remained as she turned, inviting him to sit in her kitchen while she found the book. When she reverently handed it to him, he opened it on the table and hunched over it, studying the names.
He was looking for two women listed together. There were five possibilities, and two of them had the same last name. He was certain the women were twins, but their married names might be different. He wrote the names down in the small tablet he had brought, thanked Mrs. Klondale, and left.
It was approaching five o’clock and he should have been making plans for dinner followed by private prayers, but this sudden obsession had overtaken him. He sat in his small Ford and looked through his tablet to the next funeral. Mr. Velder. A tragic case. A head-on collision with a drunk driver. The family was distraught and could barely make it through the service at the funeral home. He shouldn’t disturb them this soon after their tragedy.
He closed his eyes and envisioned the scene at the Velder funeral. Yes. The Bush twins had been there that morning.
He started the car and realized he didn’t know where Mr. Velder lived. He returned to the rectory and found the address. Only two blocks away.
“Father Jacob.” Velder spoke in hushed weak tones that matched his fragile appearance.
“Forgive my unannounced visit.”
“No. It’s quite all right. I appreciate the company. My wife is away,” he added without explanation.
“I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
His weathered face softened a bit and he backed from the doorway to allow him in. The house was dimly lit.
Father Jacobs entered and forced himself to ask a few soothing questions about Velder and his brother. Any problems coping with the tragedy? Did he need any help? He was preparing to leave when he asked to see the funeral book.
That terrifying question rooted him to the floor, but Velder disappeared, not waiting for an explanation. He returned with the small leather-bound book.
Father Jacob took it and looked for adequate lighting. For a few moments Mr. Velder was confused at the delay, then he pointed toward a tiny reading desk against a wall mirror. Father Jacob sat and turned on the goose-necked lamp that perched on the edge of the desk. He held his notes from the Klondale home and checked names.
Abby and Anna Bridgely. They had been at both funerals. The Bush twins.
He thanked Mr. Velder and returned to his car. He used his phone to find that there was an A. Bridgely on Brown Street. He dialed the number but got a message that the phone had been disconnected.
He drove to Brown Street a short alley less than a mile away. House number thirty-two was a narrow wooden structure cramped among a row of similar buildings on one side of the street. Three pale white steps led to a wooden porch with slivers of paint curling up like orange peels. He knocked loudly. A little too loudly. He fluttered his eyes closed and prayed for some serenity.
A light deep in the house clicked on, barely splashing the curtained front window with a few specks of yellow. High in the wooden door was a small window. He thought he saw a shadow move across that window. The light bulb above him flickered to light and the door inched inward.
“Hello.” He couldn’t see inside. “May I come in?”
The door opened farther and he entered. She was wearing a dark house dress with a thin cotton sweater that was a size too small. Her forearms glowed like fire logs exposed in the dim light. “It’s nice of you to visit.” Her voice was nasal and had a slight New York City tartness to it. Father Jacob realized that he had never heard the Bush twins talk.
“I—“ He stopped.
“Is something wrong?”
Very much was wrong. He couldn’t explain why he had come here. “May we sit?”
“Sure.” She shuffled into a small den where a light was on. She cleared a pile of paper bags and newspapers from a lounge chair and offered it to Father Jacob.
There was only one other chair, a metal folding one that faced the lounge chair. He sat there. She waited several seconds, tugging at her inadequate sleeves, before sitting in the chair.
“You weren’t at the funeral today,” he said.
He bowed his head and mumbled a brief prayer. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. She was your twin?”
“How did she die? When?”
She struggled out of the chair. “You never been here before, Father.”
She looked around the tiny room as if suddenly recognizing its sparseness. He felt her embarrassment. “Why not?” she asked.
He couldn’t answer, so he asked a question of his own. “Why did you and your sister always come to my funeral masses? You’re not parishioners.”
“You never spoke to us at any of the masses.”
She shuffled her feet as if seeking a comfortable position. “Why not?”
“I don’t know. I just didn’t.”
“So why are you talking to me now?”
“Because you weren’t there.” He paused. “I wondered why? Why did you come to my funeral masses?”
“I like funerals.”
“Abby didn’t like them much. At least, not at first.”
“Why do you like them?”
“All that sorrow. That dignified service. I like hearing people cry.”
She sat again and hugged herself. “I don’t got much of a life. Funerals made me see that there are people worse off than me.”
He swallowed slowly, realizing he shouldn’t have come here. “That’s—“
“Sick? Is that what you think?”
“You shouldn’t take pleasure in other people’s suffering.”
“I’m not doing that. I really am sorry for them. I cry, too. Me and Abby always behaved nice in church. Real reverent. You know that. Then we left and came back here. We saw that maybe our lives weren’t so bad after all. But now Abby is gone. I got no life no more.”
“That’s not true. Of course you do.” He paused. “There’s another funeral mass in two days.”
Her eyes brightened for a moment, then she sighed. “I couldn’t go myself.”
“Of course you could.”
“It was Abby done the driving. That’s how—“ She stopped and folded her arms with a stubborn pout.
“An accident? Is that how Abby died?”
“She was a great person, my Abby. You shoulda known her.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t.”
“All the times we went to your church, you never talked to us.”
“I should have. I realize that now. I should reach out more. Welcome you. Welcome everyone.” He stood. “Your sister will be in my thoughts and prayers.” He turned to leave, but instead asked, “When is she to be buried. I would like to perform the service.”
“Abby woulda liked that. But we buried her yesterday.”
“I’m sorry. But where? Let me pray over her grave.”
“That’d be real nice.” She slapped her knees as she got up. “Let me get my coat.”
He held out his palm. “No need. It’s too late tonight anyway. Just tell me where.”
He blessed the woman and said, “I’ll see you Friday. There’s no reason for you to stay away.”
“I don’t drive.”
“I’ll come and get you.”
It rained overnight and the ground was soggy when he got to the cemetery after morning mass which he said before fifteen people, none of whom he knew by name. Silvery skies blocked the sun, but only a fine mist was in the air now, moistening him like sweat from hard labor. The fresh grave was easy to find at the base of the gentle hill checkered with small gravestones. The dark mud was still mounded, waiting for new grass to sprout. There was no headstone.
He stood, head bowed, hands clasped, and mumbled prayers for the dead.
“Are you all right, Father?”
Startled, he turned to a young woman who had moved beside him.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. But are you all right?” She rested her fingertips on the arm of his black coat.
“Do I know you?”
“Millie Grayson. My mom and I go to Saint Ignatius. I work here for the city. Are you sure you’re all right?”
His vision was clouded. Until now, he hadn’t realized that tears had been staining his cheeks. For how long, he did not know. He patted her hand. “Could you walk with me for a few minutes? I’d like to learn more about you and your mom.”
Robert Petyo is a Derringer award nominee whose mystery stories have appeared in small press magazines and anthologies, most recently in EconoClash Review, Hardboiled, Suspense Unimagined, Transcendent, and Serial Magazine. He also writes SF, fantasy and horror and an occasional mainstream piece.
He lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania, is happily married, and is recently retired from the Postal Service, which allows him more time to read and write. Unfortunately, there never seems to be enough time to read and write. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook and Twitter at robertpetyo.