by Karl Miller

I’m on my third slow loop through a nearly-empty parking lot, passing by darkened stores as the last workers depart on a Sunday night. The land on which the mall sits was once undeveloped woods – I helped survey it as a summer job during college. The crew chief would hand a machete to me and have me chop away branches so they could get a sight to the trees they would be saving. The slash pines were going, the live oaks would stay. While he and his assistant snorted cocaine in the company pickup truck, I’d be out hacking away until the line was clear. Fifteen years later, some of those same trees are still here, once part of the Everglades, now islands stranded in asphalt.

Three days ago, Sean, my cousin’s boyfriend, was waiting at a stop sign on his motorcycle at 9pm when an inattentive driver plowed into him. The viewing started at six. If I put off my arrival any longer, I’d miss it completely, so I finally drive across the street from the mall and park my Civic next to the much-nicer cars that most people in the family lease.

The owner of the funeral home wears a black suit and practiced solemnity as he greets me at the door. I am probably the last to arrive and I sense a slight addition of disapproval to his well-rehearsed demeanor. ‘The Carney funeral, sir?’ he asks. I nod and he points me to the left, past a black felt sign on which white plastic letters have been arranged into tonight’s pattern.

I walk into a large room that’s a swirl of awkwardness and dated fashion. With a series of sympathetic expressions and innocuous exchanges, I make my way toward my cousin who is standing by the coffin at the front of the room. Sira and I spent summers together as kids at the Fort Lauderdale YMCA but drifted apart by high school to the point that I’ve seen her maybe twice a year at family get-togethers.

She’s wearing a black dress and is facing away from me, looking down at Cinnamon, her kid, who is asleep in a stroller. I can make out the top of CINN in large green Gothic lettering across the top of her back.

‘Hey, Sira.’

She turns to me. ‘Hey, Robbie.’  Her mascara is smudged.

I give her a hug and look at her with a sincerely sad face. ‘Really sorry about Sean.’ I had only met the guy a handful of times. He seemed all right, but rumor said he was supplementing a part-time job by selling meth.

‘He was trying. He really was,’ she says. ‘He was supposed to go full-time soon at Old Navy.’

I nod, which is about the only response I can make to a cousin whose crappy ride with her little doomed sidekick just got a lot crappier. ‘Hang in there, Sira.’

I kiss her on the cheek and walk to the coffin – which is closed – and lower myself to the red cushioned kneeler. I cross myself and silently say a Hail Mary.

After what seems an appropriate amount of time, I stand and walk toward the exit. My aunt Joyce stands near it. She’s about forty, blonde, twice-divorced and obviously surgically enhanced. Her current boyfriend, Phil, is milling about a table with food people have brought.

‘Sad night.’

She makes a face. ‘Good riddance.’ Joyce could be harsh sometimes but this was special. ‘Dealing drugs around a baby. Hopefully Sira will get her head straight and meet someone nicer next time, i.e. a non-loser.’

‘I don’t know. It seemed like he was trying. I mean, he was on his way home from work when he got hit.’

She scowls. ‘You believed that BS? You did notice the coffin was closed, right? There was no motorcycle accident. He was shot in the face at his ‘other’ job. They still have the scene marked by Sears.’ She gestures toward the mall.

It starts to blur after that. We talk a bit longer, which is basically her grilling me on why I haven’t gotten promoted yet at my job, and why I don’t have a new girlfriend. As soon as it’s possible, I mumble goodbye, and escape past some people I don’t recognize and some that I do.

Back in my Civic, I start heading home but feel a morbid attraction pulling me to the fresh agony of a newly-minted ghost, if such things exist. I drive to the scene, the police tape moving slightly in the near-stillness by one of the live oaks I probably saved fifteen years earlier. I park and sit in silence for a minute.

A security vehicle rests by the mall entrance, but the guard is somewhere else – I am the only one in sight. I roll down the window and look closely at the ground for signs of violence but there is too little light to see anything.

As I drive away, I find myself trying to remember what this place looked like before all the development. It’s disturbing that somehow I can’t picture it anymore.

Karl Miller’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals, including RE:AL, Galley Sail Review, Cold Mountain Review, and others.  His play, A Night in Ruins, was produced Off Off Broadway in 2013.  A Best of the Net nominee, he lives in Coral Springs, FL.