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Bench to Judgment
Couldn’t believe spring got here, because winter hung on from November until now. Like it did every year. May got here, and the temps shot to the mid-seventies instead of the thirties and forties we’ve been having.
It seemed everybody wanted to revel in the weather also, because all the benches were occupied. The city blocked the red one, but other than that nothing was open. I didn’t need to sit and enjoy it, anyway.
I had to get back, seeing as how it was Sunday, and Sunday meant chores to finish before the work week started. I didn’t want to starve, so a quick trip to the store was necessary. Going hungry would be bad.
I got back to my car and pulled out of the parking lot. Not too much traffic to deal with, which was a wonderful thing. It made it easier to get to the store.
With groceries in my car, my laundry needed to get done. That and I needed to vacuum. An ongoing picture in my head included the vacuum cleaner and it yelling at me while it did its duty always came to mind. I could’ve gotten the robovacuum cleaner, but that meant no exercise.
Chores done, relaxing time came at last. I pulled a pizza out of the freezer and heated it up. Movie on TV and my night was set. Nothing to complain about the weekend. It was good.
Monday came, and I needed to get up at five o’clock in the AM to be sure to move the body. Then get ready to get to work. Eight o’clock, perfect, I signed in.
Kids everywhere, some screaming and some crying. Mine came up to me and smiled. “Hi, Ms. Biddy,” they said. I preferred Bidelia but Biddy was easier for three-year-olds to say.
The day went along as planned. Sometimes my life worked. These were the times it did.
I always dreaded the days where one thing would go wrong and would escalate into a colossal mess at the end. Those times didn’t happen often, but they did.
It started with me getting up from the floor of my bedroom. With no idea how that came to be, I got ready for work.
As if the start of my morning wasn’t enough, I got to work ten minutes late because of an accident that happened ahead of me. Once there, one of my kids bit me, and I had to do overtime because that same kid hadn’t been picked up yet and it was closing time. It should’ve stopped there, but it ended with me listening to a message from Mom because Dad died of a heart attack. I couldn’t find the words to describe that day.
After a phone call to my boss, I breathed. She let me take three weeks off for grieving. I got to Mom’s house to help with arranging the funeral.
About a dozen phone calls later, everything from the funeral itself to anything to do with finances were taken care of. Things didn’t get emotional until I looked for him to ask about the car.
Once it started, the crying didn’t seem to stop. Such a minor thing caused that kind of reaction. I needed some space. It sounded horrible, but a break would be great.
I didn’t want to see my reflection, but I did. Red and puffy eyes with a nose so stuffed I couldn’t breathe. The shower didn’t wash anything away except dirt.
Mom approached me from the kitchen with a smile. “Bidelia, dear, I need time. It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that I need to gather myself together.” She grasped my hands and smiled. Tears welled up and flowed down her cheeks.
“I understand. I thought about going to the lake myself. Maybe we just need to be somewhere else other than here.”
She nodded and kissed my cheek. “You and your father always did.”
“I will be back.” I got to the door. “Love you.” With that, I left for my destination.
The roads didn’t have any traffic, which was weird. It was a regular day, no holiday. People packed the lake any chance they got. Maybe they found something else to do.
After parking the car, I continued towards the benches without caring if anyone was there and sat on that red bench. People appreciated nature. The birds, bugs, and squirrels seemed to get their attention. That is everyone but me. It never fascinated me, so I stayed away from places like this. At that moment though, I welcomed the change in scenery.
The red one looked over the space between two trees with a cliff a couple steps beyond that. A bit farther and ducks swam in the water.
I closed my eyes and heard the birds. A whoosh of wind blew by me. I opened my eyes and a tall woman stood in front of me.
“It is not your time,” she said.
I looked up and she was dressed in a black leather coat, black pants, black wide-brimmed hat, with black hair that cascaded down her back. The white shirt looked odd with all of that black.
I stood from the bench. “Who are you and what are you talking about?”
“I am Constantina.” She smiled. Her voice was deep for being a woman. Almost whispery. It gave me goosebumps. “Your time has not come. Unless you wish to leave this plane of existence now.”
I couldn’t see her face. Somehow, shade kept me from seeing it. “I’m Bidelia. And plane of existence? I sat here because of the view. That’s all. There’s no sign saying nobody can sit here.”
“Perhaps you were not informed. It does not matter. There was once a man who sat there. He was warned the same as you. ‘I don’t care. My wife and my daughter would be better off without me. I can’t forget about something I did a long time ago.’ Those were his words before he had been given his last warning.”
There was a moment she sounded like Dad. I must’ve needed sugar or food or something because I was hallucinating. I glanced at the trees for something else to look at while thoughts came together. I looked where she stood, and with another gust of wind she disappeared.
Not knowing what else to do, I went back to Mom’s. A note on the table said she would be back in a while. That meant waiting until she got back before talking to her about it.
I crashed on the couch and stared at the blank TV. I couldn’t wait anymore and went around the house to look for something, anything at that point. Maybe we missed a paper or an odd coin somewhere.
A thorough search of the home-office turned up naught. That was until the bookcase caught my attention. Dad didn’t read. OK, he did the odd magazine article, but as far as books he didn’t. It never did until now.
“Of Mice and Men? Crime and Punishment?” What the….
All one hundred eighty-seven pages of Of Mice and Men glued together except the back of the book. A yellowed envelope fell out when I opened it.
All seven hundred pages of Crime and Punishment was the same way. Well, a pull-string pouch existed inside a square hole with a key in its depths. It looked old, and in a design I never saw. Sort of like a skeleton key, I guessed.
I put the pouch aside while I read the note. It only said that inside all will be revealed. What did he mean by that? “Dad!”
Mom said she would be back in a while. Lucky for me, she got a cellphone.
“Mom? Are you OK?”
“Oh yes, dear. I decided to stay for a while at your aunt’s. Uhm, if you need me, just call me.”
“Are you sure you’re OK?”
“Now don’t judge me. I’m not a strong woman. Leave me alone.” She hung up.
That was a shock. Give her a bit to calm down before I go after her. Maybe go after her was a little too severe. Maybe try again would be better. Back to this mystery.
In the movies, they often revealed a secret passage when a book was pulled. Starting from the top, that’s what I did. Until I got to A Tale of Two Cities on the bottom left and the bookcase opened to reveal an exit. I put the key in the hole in the middle, and it turned. On its own. I gulped and stopped to think for a moment as the door creaked open.
With every step, lanterns lit on the wall. The house didn’t look big from the outside, the typical ranch-style single-family home. The passageways made it huge. I had no idea how long it was before it led me to a room.
Lanterns puffed on one at a time on the walls. The room was round with a red carpet in the middle. What kind of man was he? Yeah, he was my old man. Football weekends, worked nine to five, drove a Toyota, grew up in the Midwest, loved beef and everything sweet. He never showed me any of this.
A pile of leather-bound papers piled on a desk. Ten of them. “Dad, what’s going on here?” I kept turning around, in awe of… well… everything.
Did I want to sit down and read about his thoughts and emotions? That stuff was personal and without him here it would be intruding. There were questions, and those books would help to answer them. Mom hinted that she might be awhile.
I pulled out the chair and picked up the one on top. The pages were written in a hand I had never seen before. His handwriting always looked like a doctor’s with squiggles and lines forming unidentifiable words. These were neat and well formed.
I got through the first one. A secret society meant to protect the innocent. Huh? Too confusing to even comprehend. About as far as I read was the beginning of a love story between him and another woman. Not Mom, but a woman married to a wealthy industrialist.
These things got me wondering. My hand shook as I reached for the second journal. It didn’t feel cold, so why would it? I snatched it up and read that one. All about training and procedure. A more technical side to the tale.
She wanted to leave him and had begun the proceedings. That was as far as I got. Yeah, I thought I finished before but Mom came home. The slammed door shook the house.
It took a bit for me to get out from there. About to close the bookcase, Mom called me.
“Bidelia, I have been calling you and calling you. Have you gone deaf?”
“Mom, everything will be OK. Just relax.”
“You know I don’t like to be kept waiting and where were you and why did you destroy the house.”
With no other way to explain, I held her hand and took her through the maze. I let go of her hand and waited for her to take it all in. I half expected her to look around and poke at things.
Instead, she pointed her eyes at me. “Well? You destroyed my house too.”
“Mom, I didn’t do this. I’m guessing this was Dad’s secret office.”
“He didn’t have any mysteries. He was my guy and my companion. I knew everything about him.”
After all that yelling, a soothing tone would’ve made her listen. “Maybe all he wanted you to know.” We stood there and beamed at each other. “Take a look.” I swept my hands around the room. “See the journals over there on the desk.” I pointed to the stack. “They might have—”
“How dare you suggest my husband would have secrets from me? From me. His own wife. He was my man, and he always told me whatever I needed to know. Even things I didn’t have to. It’s what a married couple does.” She slapped me.
It stung, but not as much as her speech. “I’m only suggesting that you take the time to read his journals. It might hold the answers.”
“To what? To what, huh? What are you keeping from me? Huh? I can’t believe you. Secrets from your own mother.”
“I didn’t do this. I wouldn’t know how.”
“Yes, you did.”
“How? How could I accomplish all of this?” So much for a quiet approach. “I live all the way across town. You were always home. Tell me how I could do all of this.” I was only surprised nothing fell after all that reverberation.
“I don’t know. You just did. You had to have. My husband would never keep any secrets from me.”
She didn’t want to hear me. We glared at each other before I left her standing there. I didn’t realize the key sat in my pocket until I reached into it.
They always said death was never easy. Nothing like this has ever happened though. Did it? I mean, my father led a secret life nobody knew about only to be discovered when he died. He’s the only one with all the answers to this big giant mystery.
I wailed as intense and as long as I could muster. It felt draining, but I thought of that as a good thing. All of those trapped emotions must’ve lurked under the surface. Whatever they were. With nothing more to do, I put the key in and turned it.
Mom in front of the door. Her lips quivered. Deep breath in, I turned off the engine, and left my car to find out whatever else she might want.
“No. You go on right ahead. Let the construction people know they forgot to put in a floor and walls and—”
Maybe one more time. “You didn’t read the journals did you?”
“No. Did you?”
“Not all of them. I read the first two.”
“Don’t yell at me. I’m an old woman. I don’t like to be yelled at, especially by the likes of you. Traitor.”
I couldn’t do it anymore. “I’ll be there for the funeral. Otherwise, let me know when you are willing to talk.” The keys jiggled in my hand as I walked away. The quickened pace spurred the tears to fall.
The car started and I left. For good or not I had no idea. I didn’t know what to do or say. Not anymore.
I walked into my apartment and crashed on my bed. The next thing I knew, my clock read 07:45 AM and the middle of the bed was wet. Maybe a good shower would wash everything away.
A couple days passed before I had to get ready for the funeral. That time creeped every second before that point. Black pants suit on with a black shell top and my black flats, I was ready for the funeral.
Mom sat on a bench in front of a hole in the ground. I guessed it was the place that they were going to bury Dad. No rush in getting there, so I walked as slow as I could. There was no telling how Mom would react to my presence.
I had to try to at least be civil. “Good day, Mother.”
She looked at me before she bolted upright and squeezed the daylights out of me. I looked beyond Mom’s greying hair to my aunt who smiled. She kissed my cheek and held my hand while she led me to the bench. She patted it as she continued to hold it. I took that as a good thing.
After that, it was time to go home. There was still some stuff to take care of, but they didn’t have to be done at that moment. I waved goodbye before I started to walk to my car. “I just wish I would stop crying. It’s all I’ve done.” I dried the tears, or at least tried to, while I made my way down.
I still had another week before I had to get back to work. I had a feeling that week would go by real quick.
“Bidelia,” Mom said. “Bidelia.”
I turned around to Mom running towards me. “Yeah?”
“Let’s go home. There’s something we need to talk about.”
I followed Mom back to the house. What did she want to talk about? Was there something she needed to clarify? Did she read the journals and not understand? Not that I did, but I didn’t know. The longer we took the more questions popped in my head.
We got there. I turned off the engine and sat there as I watched her walk up the sidewalk. It’s not that I wanted to but I had to. Deep breath inhaled, let it all out, and… I had to get out at some point and stop this nonsense.
I followed her to the office. “Mom?”
“Oh, come here.” She waved me forward. “Nothing bad will happen, I promise.”
I walked towards her ready to get yelled at again. “What is it?”
“You say that like I want something bad to happen.” She took my hand and held it. “Just let me finish before you say anything.”
She patted my hand and smiled. “I talked to your aunt about everything and she yelled at me. How could she? My husband died and she yelled at me. I couldn’t understand why until she told me. ‘Your daughter lost a father. Here she is trying to tell you about something she found and you bit off her head. You want her to just come back to you and say I’m sorry Mommy?’” Mom sat down in Dad’s chair. That was when I realized the door was still open. “It did sound outrageous. So I’m sorry, my baby girl. Sorry for reacting the way I did. You just found out something I never knew about my man, my husband, my love. It felt like you wanted me to just forget about everything and discover something I never knew. I couldn’t forget and realize there were new things to learn. He was everything to me and I couldn’t.”
I got tired of standing. He never had any chair for guests because it was his office and his office alone. I leaned against the wall instead.
“I still haven’t read those journals. Well, I did what you told me you did and it was a man I never knew. I stopped there and didn’t go on. I’m afraid to go in there and discover things about him I never knew beyond… beyond this.” She swept her hands around the room. “That’s where I’m at now. So I am sorry.”
Well, she did apologize. However long it took. I couldn’t fault her. It had to be hard for her to learn that there was more to dear ol’ dad than what he presented. “It’s OK, Mom. I wouldn’t have started looking if it wasn’t for meeting this strange woman by the lake. I don’t know what to do. I tried looking for her again but I haven’t been able to find her. No number or address so I turned up a big fat nothing.” I looked at the bookcase. “How long it must’ve taken him to dig all of that up. It must’ve taken years to build and I can’t figure out how he did it.”
Mom nodded. “How about if we sit down with a cup of coffee. There’s cookies in the pantry we can have with that. Afterwards, we have to explore what’s in it. I don’t want to know but I have to. I just need you to do it with me. Please, Baby Girl?”
“Sure.” I smiled. It felt like old times.
The morning after, I went back to the lake to try one last time. “Constantina, if you’re listening, I wanted to tell you that because of you, a room full of secrets was discovered.” Nothing. The red bench was taken away. I shrugged and went back to my car. So I get called for being a lunatic. Oh well, worse things can happen.
I stopped at the entrance to be sure the traffic was clear. One last check in the rearview mirror, she stood behind my car and when she looked up I screamed. She didn’t have any eyes. They were black pits and her face was a white sheet.
I floored it, cars or no cars. That was something I wanted to forget. All of this because Dad died.
Please visit Calliope on her blog: https://calliopenjosstories.home.blog/