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Jesse Proffitt stretched out on his son's bed, Daniel's threadbare stuffed whale clutched to his chest, and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars glued to the ceiling.
They'd buried Daniel this morning, under a light drizzle that had commenced three days earlier when a drunk driver struck and killed him on the street in front of their house. A hit-and-run. Daniel was chasing a neighbor's dog. The dog made it to the other curb.
Jesse tried to swallow, found his throat too thickened with unshed weeping. Outside, the rain intensified and drove itself against the earth, like his roiling grief. Even nature seemed to know that a six-year-old so full of life and spirit wasn't supposed to die like this.
He was Jesse's greatest joy. His life. His world. Jesse couldn't think past the pain. It filled his ears, his nose, his eyes, his mouth, choking him. It bubbled and seared like molten lava in the center of his chest, eating his insides, his soul, everything except his heart, which had gone brittle and shattered into a thousand, free-floating shards.
And still the world was spinning in its callous, insolent way, when it should have gone still in reverence. Still Toni Braxton sang from the small stereo in the kitchen, begging someone to un-break her heart. She had a deep, rich, soulful voice that Jesse would recognize anywhere. Funny that amid all the pain, he could muse over Toni Braxton and her lush vocals. He wondered if she'd ever lost someone she loved to the black void of death.
Silence would have been more appropriate now that all the mourners had gone home, but Sheila couldn't stand the quiet. She never had liked stillness, so Jesse and Daniel had given her that damned mini-stereo last month for Mother's Day, and it never went silent. She was moving around the kitchen to its constant yammer even now, on the day she'd watched their son's coffin lowered into the ground.
The refrigerator door opened and closed. She was putting away the casseroles brought by well-meaning neighbors. She hadn't eaten a bite of anything since Jesse called her from a bystander's cell phone three days ago.
Sheila, come home...Daniel's gone. He's gone from us, he died in my arms... our boy is dead, and I couldn't even tell him goodbye.
Not that her inability to feed herself had much to do with grief, necessarily. She'd been too thin when Jesse married her a decade ago, and he'd long since grown sick of admonishing her to eat. It was a thing with her. Emaciation meant power. It also meant a bony, unyielding body curled away from him every night in bed. But the slow dissolution of their marriage hadn't really bothered him so much over the past few years, because Sheila had given Jesse a terrific son, the best friend a man could want, and Jesse could stand anything.
Anything but this.
On the kitchen radio, Toni Braxton sang about un-crying her tears.
He hadn't, yet. Hadn't cried. Couldn't. He'd stood at the foot of his boy's grave and held Sheila up, and her ninety-nine pounds felt like a thousand, crushing him. She'd wailed and Jesse had been her wailing wall.
Now he lay on top of their son's quilted cartoon bedspread and closed his burning eyes, breathing in the fast-fading scent of Daniel, the echo of his laughter, his husky voice shouting for Jesse to come kiss him before he could go to sleep. And Sheila moved like an automaton around the kitchen, straightening, cleaning, anything to avoid the bleak reality that remained, which included her husband.
The phone rang down the hall and Jesse's body gave a startled jerk. Soon the sympathy calls would quit coming, and people would move on with their lives, while Daniel Proffitt's parents sank in the quicksand of loss. No one could save them, not even themselves.
Sheila's voice, tear-choked, murmured over Toni Braxton. Inaudible words. A pause, followed by the click of her black high heels on the wooden floor, leaving the kitchen. Coming nearer.
"Jesse? Where are you?"
He didn't answer. She didn't need an answer. Her narrow shadow fed the falling darkness in the hall, and then she appeared, her face a ghostly white mask in dusk's gloom.
"That was the sheriff's office." Her words quavered as Jesse sat up to look at her. "They arrested him."
"Who?" he responded automatically, even though he already knew. Even though Jesse's blackened mind had already decimated the man a thousand times in the last three days.
"The driver who killed Daniel."
He sat up to look at her, then said flatly, "All right."
When he looked up, the doorway was empty.
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Holiday Inn copyright © 2005 by Shelby Reed