“Black Wreath” by Brandon Hreha


Rain had just finished pouring onto the walkway outside Jacob's dormitory. It rained with very little break, for four days straight. Jacob was thankful that it had stopped for his trip back home. His brother's funeral is in four days.

He stood up straight staring at his summer home, wondering what waited for him just on the other side of the oak door. He carried his duffel bag up the steps and tried to remember if he had told all of his professors he wouldn't be in class for a week. His hand balled into a fist, ready to knock, but realizing there was no need, he entered.

"Mom." His voice barely audible. "I'm home." He made his way through the living room into the kitchen. Jacob thought about how the kitchen still smelled like the Christmases they used to have in their house, before their father died at the hands of a drunk driver almost three years ago. His mother sat on a stool, her head on the counter.

Her eyes were red and her black eyeliner was smeared. "Hi, honey." Her breath had a hint of cherry vodka on it. She stood up, wiped the remaining tears from her face and hugged him. "You feel thin. Are you eating up there?"

"Mom, yeah. I've been eating. How are you holding up?"

She closed her eyes tight and started to sob again. "He's gone. He's not going to graduate."

The thought of making a joke about Josh's poor grades crossed his mind, but decided that it would be inappropriate, so instead he pulled his mother into his arms hugged her and kissed her on her forehead.

"Why don't you go lie down for a little bit and I'll order us some food," he suggested.

Alex had been a senior in high school. He and Jacob were opposites. Jacob likes to read Jim Daniels and keep an interest in current politics. Alex liked beer and barbiturates. Jacob had graduated from high school with ease. Alex had no such luck in school. He was barely a "C" student. Jacob always thought it was just an act and that if his brother applied himself that he would be just as successful.

The brothers barely spoke to one another, even before their father was killed. They'd pass each other in the house almost as if they were strangers being courteous to one another. They didn't ignore each other; they just didn't have anything to say.

Alex's bedroom door was closed, but it didn't stop Jacob from stepping inside. He flipped on the light switch and looked around. His carpet had a big stain near the doorway; it looked like it could be soda or hot chocolate. On his walls were pictures of his friends. A lot of them Jacob didn't know. The plug-in air freshener near Alex's dresser was giving off a honey-like smell. Basketball trophies lined his shelves; most of them were for second place. Jacob wondered whether his mother would keep the room the way he left it or if in time she would pack things into boxes and turn it into an exercise room. He turned the light switch off and closed the door.

Jacob's bedroom door was open. The posters of his favorite rock bands still hung on the wall and his favorite books were alphabetized by author's last name on his bookshelf starting with Bret Easton Ellis and ending with Kurt Vonnegut. His room was just as he left it at the end of August. His diploma was in a display case above the desk. There was a yellow Post-It-Note on the corner.
Jacob
Alyssa called.
713 555-9842

He stared at it, magnifying it in his head so large that it was the only thing he saw. A piece of yellow square paper with blue ink scribbled on it. He repeated the number softly, "Seven, one, three, five, five, five, nine, eight, four, two."

His eyes moved to the cordless phone hanging on the wall by his light switch.

He hesitated dialing the last digit. The thought of her voice on the other end both excited and angered him. He clicked the end button on the phone and thought about how his brother was dead and that it probably wasn't a good time to bring up old feelings or old times. They broke up after their senior year. He figured that because he was going to school four hours away that the relationship would be doomed, so he broke up with her. The last time they had talked, right before he went back to school for his second year, she told him about a night she had spent with Alex.

"It wasn't something Alex or I planned. It happened though," she said. "It was only one time and I thought that you should know about it. We've been broken up for almost a year and it shouldn't bother you that much."

He wondered how many of the arrangements his mother had started to make for the funeral.

Alex's casket was midnight silver with silver carel crepe. The mortician, a tall thin man dressed in a mustard colored suit, commented how lovely a choice it was. Jacob's mother buried her head into his shoulder and cried.

"How would he know if Alex would like it?" she muttered.

"It's his job." Jacob said. "He wants to make this as painless as he possibly can." His response didn't please his mother as she continued to cry.

Jacob's palms were sweaty and his throat became dry. He hated the sweet smell of flowers. In every room he looked in there were mini corner tables with a vase of flowers on it. He hated the oil paintings in gold frames of the owners that hung on the wall. Their smiles were smug. He hated the basement area where their offices were. Jacob thought about what goes on in the rooms that are locked. He started to imagine his brother propped up on a table with tubes draining his blood. Jacob sat outside the downstairs offices while his mother and the mortician talked about other arrangements.

"Jacob, your mother wants you to call the people on this list and inform them that the viewings will be held tomorrow night and Thursday night at six-thirty until ten PM. And the burial service will be on Friday morning at ten." The mortician handed him a list with about forty people on it. "Your mother is very strong and is handling this very well. She's a spectacular woman."

Jacob nodded. "Thanks. Yeah, I'll start calling people." Jacob scanned the list and saw that Alyssa's name was on it. He'd call her last.

After the third ring, he thought that maybe she wasn't going to answer, but on the fourth, she did.

"Jacob, I don't even know what to say to you. I've been crying ever since I found out, I can't even imagine how you're doing."

"I'm doing okay. It's affecting my mom more though. She looks bad." There was a moment of silence. "There's going to be a viewing tomorrow and Thursday night. Then he's getting buried on Friday morning."

"I can't make it to tomorrow's viewing but I'll be there Thursday night and I'll be there Friday." She began crying. "I'm so sorry. I feel like anything I could say to you would be inappropriate. I talked to him just a few days ago. It's been so long since you and I have talked and I can't believe the reason we are is because of Alex's death."

"It has been a long time." Jacob shifted the phone onto his other shoulder. "We always say we'll keep in touch, but then time sneaks up on you. One day turns into a week and a week turns into a month and soon after that it's been too long to even think about a phone call."

"Remember Prom?" she asked. "Honestly, it felt like we were one of those royal couples." She sniffled. "I almost called you about a month ago. I was watching a cooking show on TV and they were showing how to bake a double layered fudge cake. It reminded me of that time we tried baking cookies."

"Yeah, I remember that. I still remember hearing the timer going off and not caring."

She started to laugh. "I remember the rug burns I got on my shoulder blades. Things have not been the same for the past couple of years, have they?"

Jacob stared at his diploma, the note still hung on it. He started to think about his brother and his ex-girlfriend together. "I have to go," he said. Before she could even respond he hung the phone up.

He turned his attention to his bed and tried to make his way there. His legs were wobbly and his stomach felt sick. He thought that if he even took a too deep of a breath that he'd throw up. He fell onto his bed, stomach first. Memories of his dad started to come to him. Memories of his brother overlapped with a few of them. Soon, memories of his father and brother morphed the two people into one. And for a second he couldn't even remember what either of them looked like.

Alex, in his coffin, wore a black suit. Jacob thought to himself about how he was fairly sure that his brother didn't even own a suit. He wondered if his mother had picked it out or if the mortician with the mustard suit did. This was the second night of the viewing and more people came in to pay their respects than the previous night. Jacob sat as far away from his brother as he could. His palms were sweaty and his mouth was dry. He was tired of family members that he hadn't seen in years telling him that they were sorry for his loss. He spotted Alyssa far across the room, kneeling at the coffin. He wondered what kind of prayer she had made for his brother. She stood up, wiping tears from her eyes, and spotted Jacob. Alyssa made her way to him. He stood up, unsure of what the appropriate gesture was, he stuck his hand out. She put her hand in his and pulled him in for a hug. Jacob's knees got wobbly and his stomach got sick again. He immediately sat down and motioned for her to do the same thing.

"Are you alright, Jacob?" Alyssa asked.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Jacob closed his eyes and tried to ease the sickness away by being completely still.

"You look sick," she said as she put her hand on his forehead to check if he had a fever.

"I'm fine, alright. It's just hot in here, that's all. Why do they keep it so goddamn hot in here?" Jacob's face was red and there were sweat beads rolling down from his temples.

"Jacob, it's not hot in here. It's really cool, actually. Get up. Let's go outside and get you air." She helped Jacob out of the building and sat him down on the steps to the entrance of the building.

"When was the last time you and him talked?" She felt his head again.

"Must be all those damn flowers. Why the hell do people think flowers make everything better? They're too colorful. I thought black was the traditional color of a funeral, not reds and pinks." Jacob put his head in his hands.

Alyssa put her arm around him. "I'm sorry Jacob. Things have been messed up for too long. Your brother should still be..." she started to say.

"He should be here. My dad should be here. What the fuck? They're not though. You fucked my brother. He killed himself. My dad went to a football game and got killed on his way home. Those fucking flowers should be black." Jacob took a deep breath, and then looked at his ex-girlfriend, she was crying. "I'm sorry. Alex didn't even look like himself in there. He looked like a wax dummy. I still almost expect him to be at home, playing video games in his bedroom. But he won't be. And I'm trying to find someone to blame. I'm really..." Jacob started to cry.

There wasn't a sound when he woke up. It was still dark outside. He could feel her body next to his. Alyssa sat up. He tried to see through the darkness to get a better look at her.

He couldn't remember getting into a car and coming home. He couldn't remember walking to his bedroom or Alyssa sitting next to him and falling asleep, but there she was. She kissed his forehead. Jacob remembered watching on television live news footage of an airplane that couldn't land. There was something wrong with its landing gear so it had to circle in the air for three hours. The plane kept flying around in Jacob's head.

Alex's funeral went without any complications. The hearse led the way and Jacob and his mother followed in a black limo, behind them was the rest of the family and friends. There wasn't a cloud in the sky to block the sun's light. Everyone met at the cemetery and watched as the mortician released two white doves into the air, to symbolize Alex's soul being set free of all worldly possessions.

Jacob woke up and tried as hard as he could to remember what Alex was wearing the last time they had a conversation. He tried to remember the last time they talked. He couldn't remember any of it. The alarm clock that sat on his desk started to ring. He didn't remember setting it for 9:43 AM. He stretched and walked out of his room. His mother's door was still closed and he figured she was still asleep. Jacob went downstairs and into the kitchen. He got a glass of orange juice and drank it. He realized how empty the house would be now and that maybe he could transfer to a closer school. He made his way outside to get the newspaper. On Jacob's doorstep was a wreath. A small card, attached, read:
For you, a black wreath, to remember me by. I'm sorry.
Love,
Alyssa