Henry threw the screen door open and ran to his youngest son. He could feel the wind running through his shirt and it made a howling in his ears that let him know he was running very fast indeed.
Henry reached out, grabbed John by the arm and pulled him tight to his belly. Henry remarked at how thin the arm felt, how his hand seemed to press through the soft flesh, directly to the bone, as if that was all the boy was made of. Bone. John’s breathing was heavy and a spot of wet heat was forming on Henry’s stomach. He loosened his grip and looked down to make sure John was okay. John didn’t pull his face away from his father, but reached up with both hands and pulled himself in tight again.
Ms. Franks lay face-down on the grass. The whoosh of her garden hose ran from somewhere in a dense bed of flowers. There was the skipping sound of a functioning sprinkler somewhere down the street. People had started coming out of their homes. They didn’t go past their front stoops, though—as if they were all bound to their living rooms by invisible tethers.
The top of Ms. Franks’ head was almost as white as Henry imagined her bare skull to be. Her right hand was gnarled, its fingers splayed out at unnatural angles. They must have broken on the fall.
Henry wanted to approach the body—Ms. Franks—but he wasn’t sure how to step forward with John where he was. He certainly didn’t want to carry his son closer to the corpse just so he, Henry, could have a better look. So, instead, he picked John up and walked backwards toward the house.
He sat John down in the living room and gave him a glass of water and an ice cream sandwich. John was not to look out the window until Henry came back and told him it was alright. John nodded. Henry stood next to him for a moment, knowing that there was more to be done here, but being hopelessly ignorant as to what that was. Before exiting, Henry asked John where Rick, John’s older brother, was. John just shrugged. Henry hoped that wherever Rick was, he would not be back in time to see all this.
Henry went back out to the yard. Spectators had broken from their restraints and formed a crescent around the loose heap of human lying in a flower bed adjacent to his house.
“Looks bad, Henry,” Jackson Fuschit said from the center of the crescent. Perhaps he had been the leader of the newly formed audience. He did have the best seat in the house.
“Yeah, I think so, Jack,” Henry said.
“She could just be passed out,” Chuck Willis said, from the far end of the crescent. Late- comer. Terrible seat. Maybe indicative of a low-level of initiative.
“Chuck, look at this woman’s hand,” Henry said. “Are you going to sleep through that?” Henry knelt beside her. “Jesus,” he whispered, but his tone was off, so it sounded as if he were calling Ms. Franks by a new name.
“You callin’ that lady ‘Jesus’?” Chuck asked.
“My God, Chuck,” Henry said, looking up.
Chuck looked taken aback.
“I just thought I heard you—”
“Why don’t you go home, Chuck?” Henry asked. When Chuck walked away moments later, he was painfully aware of the squeaking sound his shoes made.
“Should we call the cops?” Jackson asked. “Because I have my phone right here.” He held his phone up so that they could all see that he wasn’t lying. Everyone appreciates honesty.
“Yeah, yeah,” Henry said. “Go ahead and call ‘em.” Henry knelt a bit closer to the body and reached out two fingers to check for a pulse. Ms, Franks was cold and clammy and her skin felt like a loose sleeve on something tough.
“Should I tell them there’s been a murder?” Jackson asked. Henry started and looked up at him.
“What? No. Why? This is not a murder, Jackson. The woman just had a heart attack.”
“How do we know, though?” he asked.
“Jackson,” Henry began, his voice softer now, “it happened in my yard. It wasn’t a murder. The old woman had a heart attack.”
“Hey now, come on, Hen,” Jackson said.
“Come on what, Jack? And please don’t call me Hen.”
“Calling Ms. Franks ‘old’ like that. It seems callous. There are children here.”
“What?” Henry asked. “There are children here? Where?” Henry scanned the crescent and saw that yes, there were a few kids in attendance. “What the hell are you people bringing children here for?” He waved a hand toward them. One of them waved back. There were murmurs from the crowd, mostly parents arguing over who would have to take their respective kids home. A moment later, all the children and roughly half of the parents were gone.
Henry sighed, his gaze returning to Ms. Franks. “I don’t think she’s going to go anywhere,” he said. “If any of you are out here when the police arrive, tell them I’m inside. And tell them not to walk through my shrubs.”
“We sure will, Henry,” a faceless voice responded.
“Good,” Henry said, lumbering back up the walk to his home.
Shortly after the back door slammed shut, Rick turned the corner with their family dog, Roscoe.
“Excuse me?” Rick called to the crowd, the dog trotting beside him.
They all turned at once. No one responded.
“What’s going on?” Rick asked, looking from person to person, each one averting their gaze in increasingly creative ways. Mrs. Collett pretended to wipe her nose. David Schlitt rubbed his eyes like he was trying to get something out of them. Mitch Zimmerman mumbled something about a satellite, then turned his face up to the sky. “Mr. Zimmerman, please. What’s going on?” The crowd was blocking Rick’s view of Ms. Franks—the body.
“There was an accident, Ricky,” Mitch said.
“What happened?” Rick took a step to his right and craned his neck around the crowd. His eyes widened and the corners of his mouth pulled to either side for a moment. He was pale. Roscoe was lying on the ground in a position that made him look like a furry Christmas ham. A woman in the crowd said, “Bless his heart.” Rick wasn’t sure if she was talking about him or the dog.
“What happened?” Rick asked again.
Still, no one would look at him.
Rick ran up to the body as if he was going to try to resuscitate the woman, but when he was about a yard from her, those invisible tethers snapped taught and stopped him in his tracks. It wasn’t until he saw her hand that it sunk in. This was a dead woman. Like, dead.
Most children in the United States will never see a body outside of a casket. Many children in other parts of the world rarely see a body inside of one.
“What happened?” Rick asked one more time.