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Tombstones and Ravens
Connor stared at the tombstones like he did every morning and waited, never daring for the words to pass through. They spread like disease in his mind, the syllables only bacteria festering between his ears, but he never let them press further, pushing the words farther and farther away into forget. He could barely stand to hear them. It was better that way, better that he forgot, better that they were no longer there. They were only lies. Only lies that the doctor told. Lies his father sent that slithered into his head and poisoned his thoughts. Lies. Connor stood silent and still, listening to the elder trees rustle as the wind raked its hands through it.
Are they really? The trees whispered.
Did he just—no, trees couldn’t talk. He was probably just hearing things. He had heard something, he was sure of it. Flinching, Connor looked around, his eyes darting to and fro across the lonely graveyard, seeing no else but the birds. He was just probably hearing things. Sometimes the wind liked to play tricks on him, shushing against the trees and making him hear things that never even happened. After all, it had been quite a windy October…
Even though they weren’t true, the words still bothered him, bothered him ever since that day. He hated to hear it, hated to hear their pity, hated to hear everything they said. They didn’t know how he felt, didn’t know what it was like. They only fed him lies; they were lies that came in packages, like staying up later, the latest video games, trips to buy new shoes, but no matter what they gave Connor, he hated them all the same. He didn’t need their sympathy, didn’t need to feel sorry for. He didn’t need any of it, need any of them.
You do, you do, you do…
Connor strained his eyes again, swearing over and over that something had talked to him, that something was there! But, no matter how hard he looked, how hard he tried, he saw nothing.
Connor could remember the disappointed look on his father’s eyes as Connor left the new gifts his father got from his trip overseas, unopened and untouched, like they themselves were some sort of cancer. To think that his father thought gifts would make up for all the lost time. Where had he been all these years? Where had he gone? After ten years without him, why did he just to decide to come home now? For Connor’s birthdays, his father couldn’t even manage to send a card, not even a single call. “Sorry, I missed your birthday,” he’d say, “but I just settled this huge business deal yesterday and I couldn’t make it. I’ll try next time, okay?” However, ever since the incident, his father had been coming every week, wanting him to stay, like he understood, like somehow Connor needed him to be there. What a joke that was. His father didn’t know anything.
Then who did?
There it was again! He searched and searched across the dug graves the wilted flowers, until finally, just finally, he saw something. Something was by the grave—the grave that had been haunting Connor for months. If he squinted hard enough, he could make out the faint outline of some sort of creature. Some creature small enough to be able to perch on the mantel of the white marble. “Who’s there?” Connor croaked, his voice trembling, “Who’s there?” He started at the creature again, certain that it was just a bird, a stupid raven.
Answer my question first and then, maybe I’ll tell you.
Connor just stared at the raven’s black beady eye again, unsure of what he was thinking was possibly true. Ravens couldn’t talk, ravens couldn’t talk, ravens couldn’t—
Yes I can.
A shiver ran through Connor’s spine as midnight wings fluttered beside him.
Who knew, Connor? Answer my question. Who did?
Okay, so it could talk, but how did it know what he was thinking? Maybe by accident he just said it out loud. It couldn’t read his mind. But, still Connor still wanted to try. He thought again.
His mother was the only one he could trust. “This time it’ll work,” she had chirped cheerfully, “I’m sure of it.” She’d smile the way she used to, a grin reaching across her face, and run her frail fingers through Connor’s hair in a way that made Connor tremble with happiness. And she’d be bouncing around the room, bright happiness radiating across the bleak white, and laugh so loudly that patients all over the hospital would hear. His mother would murmur the sweet lullabies into his ear and they’d make promises under the flickering light. He’d tell her stories, made-up stories, the ones that had the happy endings, and they’d whisper and whisper until they both fell asleep. Inside, something longed for his mother, to feel her soft touch again, her tender gaze. He longed to see her smile, to hear her voice again. But, he couldn’t. Now, he could barely stand to look at her. Not after what she did…
What did she do? The raven cawed. What did she do wrong?
He needed to change the subject. “What are you?” he asked, staring defiantly at the bird. “Who are you?”
Only a raven, it answered, so why are you avoiding my question?
Connor shook his head, trying to think of anything else. He suddenly found himself thinking of school. He remembered the way people he knew avoided him, treated him like he was invisible, like he needed some space. How some of them thought he needed their pity, their flowers, and their sympathy cards. How even some of the parents, some of the teachers, excused him when he forgot to do his homework, came late to class. All Connor wanted was to be treated normal like every other day, not invisible. What did she do, Connor? What did she do wrong? Clenching his fists, the boy closed his eyes and shouted drowning out the words he didn’t want to hear. “Go away,” he said furiously, “Go away!” What did she do, Connor? What did she do wrong? They screamed louder. “Go away,” he bellowed as he struggled to plug his ears, “GO AWAY!” What did she do, Connor? What did she do wrong? But, the words still bled through anyway, the memories flowing into him all in an instant.
He remembered his mother bent over a frothy soup, her hand clasped against the silver ladle, smiling her real smile for the last time. The way his mother got tired faster, no longer staying late with Connor like she used to. The sight of his mother buying new clothes because the ones she had never seemed to fit. The sounds of her coughing constantly and spitting up phlegm as if there was something still stuck in her throat. The way his mother doubling over in pain, the soup seeping into her skirts as she struggled to pick herself up. Connor remembered all of it. The surge of panic he felt as he found her, laying across the tile floor. The staleness of the air when the ambulance took her away. The clamminess of his hands as he waited behind the white walls, waiting for an answer…
You aren’t blaming her, Connor. You’re lying, the raven snarled, you wouldn’t blame her for anything. You’re blaming yourself.
What did you do, Connor? What did you do wrong?
It was only then that Connor finally broke. “I DID NOTHING!” Connor screamed, fighting back the tears, “I DID NOTHING ABOUT HER CANCER! I DID NOTHING AND JUST STOOD BY WHILE I WATCHED HER DIE!” His hands shook uncontrollably as his body was rocked by his sobs, his knees leaving deep imprints into the wet grass. “She told me she would try, try to fight it for me, and I, I just stood there. I watched her suffer. I watched her until she died.” Hot tears pricked beneath his eyelids and gushed down his cheeks. “W-w-w-why did my mother have to die? Why her?” he choked, “I can’t stand it! I can’t take this anymore! It’s unfair!”
That’s just the way life is.
“IT’S NOT!” he shrieked, “My mom had cancer and the sun still rises. My mom had cancer and the birds still sing. My mom had cancer and time goes on. She died and people are still laughing.”
Why are you still fighting when the fight is already over?
A chill passed through Connor’s spine. “How do you know?” he stammered, in between deaths, “how do you know that?”
Why won’t you tell me the thing you are most afraid of? Why won’t you tell me the truth?
“When she was dying, she made me promise I’d be okay, but I lied! I lied to her! I’m not okay. I’m not fine. I want to hear her again. I want her to be here—holding me, hugging me, touching me… I miss her.”
It’s never going to be okay, Connor, but it gets easier over time.
“How?” Connor asked, his voice quivering. And the raven just stared at him, its words hollow to Connor’s ears.