“Your Great-aunt is dead.” My father makes the announcement in the middle of dinner and suddenly my day is so much more exciting. I have hated Great-aunt Patty with a passion and loved tormenting her more than anything else. “The funeral will be tomorrow. You’re both coming.”
My meat grows tasteless in my mouth. My Great-aunt is gone, now the only one left for me to tease and bully is my brother. I flash him a smile, letting him know things are going up a notch now that he’s the sole recipient of my attention. “May I be excused?”
My father nods but my brother protests. “It’s her night for the dishes. You never make her do them. She’s such a brat.” I’m out of the room but not before I savor hearing him get yelled at.
Standing in my Great-aunt’s room I know my brother is wrong. If I was spoiled I would’ve gotten the car I wanted for my sweet sixteen. Instead I just had a party. Sure it was a big party, everyone was there, but it wasn’t the same as a car. I remembered telling Patty about it with a smile.
“Have you ever kissed a boy?”
Her hand went to her mouth, touching her lips, but she didn’t speak. She was always like that, a little dotty, a little frail.
“I did. At the party.” I gestured out her windows, down to the pool and the yard beyond. From Patty’s attic room you could see all the way to the mine. My father runs the most profitable mine in the state. When you ask him about it all he says is ‘Cartwrights know how to manage people’. The mine pays for everything I ask for, like the party and all the people who went to it. Like Jeremy Brandt, the senior who kissed me, his hands were so warm. “I let him do everything he wanted.”
Patty’s eyes get wide, shocked and jealous all at once.
“It was wonderful.” It wasn’t, but I would never tell her that. It was messy and a little painful, not that fun at all, but I still want to do it again. “You’ve never even been kissed and I’ve already done that.”
I smiled daggers at her and left the attic. It was the last time I saw her alive. I’m sorry I didn’t think of something better to say, something to really get to her.
The funeral is in the family chapel. It’s a boring stone building made by some great-great-grandfather. All of the workers from the mine offices are here, all of the supervisors and foremen, but never the miners. We never see the miners. Mist shrouds the day, a heavy fog that comes inside the little chapel. I watch it gathering in the corners, piling up like drifts of snow, trying to tune out my father’s eulogy.
“She led men to the light. She was our conduit and for that we are all grateful.”
It’s all lies, of course, she never led anything anywhere. She never even left her room. The men shuffle out of the chapel, not looking me in the eye. For a minute I’m worried that what I did with Jeremy has gotten out, that they all know. But that’s impossible, Patty is the only one I told. Besides, it’s not like I’d get in trouble if they found out. Dad lets me get away with anything.
The mist gets thicker has night falls, climbing into the corners of the house. It doesn’t bother me, though I want to shout up and down the halls. I’m so glad to be free of the sad influence in the attic. I spend some time on the phone, watch some TV. When I get to my room my brother is already there, unplugging the cords on my laptop.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m taking it.”
“No, you’re not. I’ll tell Dad.”
“Go ahead. He said I could have it. You’re not going to need it anymore.”
“Liar. I need it for school.”
“You’re not going to school. You’re going to get sick like Aunt Patty, and never leave the house again.” His singsong voice scares me. He’s too happy for this to be a lie.
“Dad!” I shout, drawing his name out. My father always comes when I call. Except this time.
I find him in the attic, sitting on Patty’s small bed. The sheets have been changed, like someone is going to sleep there. He seems so sad, I think maybe he’s going to sleep there but that’s crazy.
“I’m sorry.” He looks up at me with red rimmed eyes, like he’s been crying. I’ve never seen my Dad cry.
“John says I’m not going to school. That I’m sick. I’m not sick.”
“But you’re seeing things aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not-” Except that the fog has come into Patty’s room and suddenly I don’t think it’s fog any more. “What’s going on,” I demand.
“It’s what we do.” He pulls himself back, like someone grabbed his shoulders. “No amount of money would get men with something to live for into that mine but lost souls will do anything for a chance at moving on. And for them to move on you need a conduit.”
“The first one, your great-great-great-grandmother, I guess she did it because it was the right thing to do but now, it’s about the mine. Without that mine this family has nothing, so… this is what we do.” He looks at me for a long time, and then hugs me. “Goodbye, sweetheart.”
“Daddy?” I’m so stunned I don’t move, not as he gets up, not as he pulls the door shut but the latch clicking in place breaks me free. I’m at the knob in a second, pulling and shouting. “Let me out! Daddy let me out!”
There’s silence and then the sound of my brother’s laughter. I know he’s been listening the whole time, waiting for this.
“John, let me out.”
“Nope.” He sounds so smug. I think of all the times I’ve hit him or gotten him in trouble. I should’ve done it worse, a thousand times worse. “Dad says it takes something out of you, so in a week or two we won’t even have to lock the door.”
The mist in the corners looks heavier suddenly, like it’ll form into something soon. I don’t want to be there when it does. I grab the knob and yank it hard, but the wooden door frame holds.
“I get your computer, and all your stuff. I get to tell everyone how sick you are.” He’s giddy with it. Thrilled. “And when I grow up I get the mine and the house, and the whole time, you’ll still be in this little room.”
“John, John, please.” But he doesn’t say anything else. He’s gone. That was his parting shot. I don’t want to turn around, don’t want to look away from the door, but eventually I do. There are faces now, in the mist, faces with eyes. They’re looking at me, coming toward me. Coming toward the conduit.