The Vessel

By Chrissie Rohrman

“Cassie’s gramma says Mr. Carlisle didn’t have no heart attack.”

The man in front of us turns to glare. Mama winces an apology, shushes me.

I press my lips together, but the words bubble out anyway. “Cassie’s gramma says Old Mrs. Abbott stuffed a demon in him and he burned all up inside.”

“Bethany!” Mama squeezes my fingers until they hurt. “Don’t say such things in a church. Especially at the man’s funeral.”

It’s hot, and the air smells funny. I sulk as the line shuffles toward the altar, where I know Mr. Carlisle’s body is laid out in a casket like he’s sleeping. Everybody says it’s an odd flu that’s rolling through town, hitting the old folks hard. Everybody but Cassie’s gramma, who says creepy Old Mrs. Abbott made a deal with a demon in Hell and is trying to find it a body to live in. Her own husband was the first to die, two weeks ago. Mr. Carlisle was fifth.

I swing Mama’s hand in mine. “Why’d we hafta come? We didn’t even know him.”

“It’s a small town, Bethany. We knew him well enough. Now behave.”

She’s right; everyone in Maycomb is crammed inside the chapel. I even see Cassie and her gramma ahead in line, covered head to toe despite the stifling heat, they wear dark silk scarves over their mouths and noses.

I tug on Mama’s hand. “That’s so’s demons can’t get in.”

She looks to the rafters, making the sign of the cross. “You won’t be seeing Cassie anymore. That grandmother of hers fills your heads with nonsense.”

“Mama!”

The man in front of us glares again, and others are eyeing me now. I chew the inside of my cheek and stare down at a stubborn scuff in the patent leather of my shoes. I’m bored of standing in line at funerals.

A hand reaches from a nearby pew and bony fingers close around my shoulder. I raise my gaze, right into the pale, wrinkled face of Old Mrs. Abbott, and gasp.

“Good afternoon, Lorraine,” Mama greets over-politely, probably because of the gasp. “Say hello, Bethany.”

I can’t. I’m frozen in place as the old woman’s hand drifts from my shoulder to my bare forearm. I feel a chill through her lacy black gloves where she touches me.

“Nice to see you, Clare,” Old Mrs. Abbott rasps to Mama. “Even under such awful circumstances.” Her beady eyes search my face, seeming to bore right through me. She nods, and when her thin mouth widens in a garish grin, I get a whiff of sour breath.

She shifts one hand to the quilted bag in her lap and pulls out a pair of sewing scissors. I press close to Mama as Old Mrs. Abbott snips near my shoulder, by my braid.

“Loose thread,” she explains, dropping her hand back into her bag before I can see for myself.

Mama smiles and herds me along as the line continues forward. I stumble, looking over my shoulder at the old woman. My arm still feels cold where she touched it, and there’s a tingle under my skin. I hardly even notice when we finally reach the casket, my gaze skipping over Mr. Carlisle’s waxy face to look back to where Old Mrs. Abbott is watching me.

We take our seats for the service, and I wriggle anxiously on the hard pew until Mama swats my leg. I stare at the back of Old Mrs. Abbott’s wide-brimmed black hat, my hand ghosting over the spots she touched, my arm, my shoulder, my braid.

“Sit still, Bethany.”

I try. I try to focus on the preacher talking about the gift of life, but I’m distracted by a persistent, uncomfortable tickle that’s growing all over, like a hundred bugs burrowing under my skin. I tug at Mama’s skirt to tell her, but she ignores me. A shadow falls over the pew like someone has sat down next to me, but when I look, no one is there.

After the sermon and songs, everyone files out under a boiling summer sun to the cemetery behind the church. I don’t feel right, chilled, my stomach flipping like I might be sick. I spot Cassie and her gramma hanging back by the road, not stepping foot on the dry grass between the headstones. I try to walk toward Cassie, away from the hole where Mr. Carlisle will go.

“Be respectful,” Mama says, tugging me along.

I don’t wanna be respectful. I want to turn and run. I want to stay on the road next to Cassie, where it’s safe, and wrap one of her gramma’s special scarves around my head. But Mama drags me into the crowd of sweating bodies pressed together near the hole in the ground. She releases me then, with a huff of annoyance.

Across the way, Old Mrs. Abbott raises her head and pins her beady stare on me. Her gloved hands are clutched in front of her, and her lips are moving. My fingers reflexively go to the braid over my shoulder.

The drone of cicadas from the tree branches overhead grows louder, drowning out the mumblings of the preacher until all I hear is buzzing. No, not buzzing; rasping, like dried leaves scraping across pavement. Like a scratchy voice, saying come forth.

My vision tunnels down to Old Mrs. Abbott, and I hear nothing but her whisper of come forth come forth come forth.

“Mama,” I murmur through numb lips. If she hears me, she ignores me.

Come forth.

The whisper drops away, and cold drops over me like a bucket of ice water. Disoriented, I reach blindly for Mama’s hand, gripping tightly when I find it. But the hand in mine is frigid. Not Mama’s. I try to pull away, but they hold tight.

A long shadow appears in the brown grass next to mine, and there are slender coal-black fingers twined between my chubby ones, belonging to the red-eyed figure suddenly standing at my side.

It smiles.

Chrissie Rohrman is a training supervisor who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband and five fur babies. She enjoys white wine and writing competitions, and is probably calling her dogs to come inside right now. She is currently in the process of drafting the first installment of a YA fantasy trilogy. On Twitter @ChrissieRawrman