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The Dearly Departedby Elinor Lipman
Come Back to King George
Sunny met Fletcher for the first time at their parents funeral, a huge graveside affair where bagpipes wailed and strangers wept. It was a humid, mosquito-plagued June day, and the grass was spongy from a midnight thunderstorm. They had stayed on the fringes of the crowd until both were rounded up and bossed into the prime mourners seats by the funeral director. Sunny wore white—picture hat, dress, wet shoes—and an expression that layered anger over grief: Who is he? How dare he? Are any of these gawkers friends?
Unspoken but universally noticed was the physical attribute she and Fletcher shared—a halo of prematurely gray hair of a beautiful shade and an identical satiny, flyaway texture. No DNA test result, no hints in wills, could be more eloquent than this: the silver corona of signature hair above their thirty-one-year-old, identically furrowed brows.
The King George Bulletin had reported every possible angle, almost gleefully. Margaret Batten, local actress, and friend found unconscious, said the first banner headline. Bulletin paper carrier calls 911, boasted the kicker. An arty photo—sunrise in King George—of scrawny, helmeted Tyler Lopez on his bike, a folded newspaper frozen in flight, appeared on page 1. “I knew something was wrong when I saw them laying on the floor—the woman and a man,” he told the reporter. “The door was open. I thought they might still be alive, so I used the phone.” Inescapable in the coverage was the suggestion of a double suicide or foul play. Yellow police tape surrounded the small house. Even after tests revealed carbon monoxide in their blood and a crack in the furnaces heat exchanger, Bulletin reporters carried on, invigorated by a double, coed death on their beat.
A reader named Vickileigh Vaughn wrote a letter to the editor. She wanted to clarify something on the record so all of King George would know: Friend in the headline was inaccurate and possibly libelous. Miles Finn and Margaret Batten were engaged to be married. Friends, yes, but so much more than that. An outdoor wedding had been discussed. If the odorless and invisible killer hadnt overcome them, Miles would have left, as was his custom, before midnight, after the Channel 9 news.
Sunny was notified by a message on her answering machine. “Sunny? Its Fletcher Finn, Miless son. Could you pick up if youre there?” Labored breathing filled the pause. “I guess not. Okay. Listen, I dont know when I can get to a phone again, so Ill have to give you the news, which is somewhat disturbing.” Another pause, too long for the machine, which clicked off. He called back. “Hi, its Fletcher Finn again. Heres what I was going to say. Ill make it quick: I got a call from the police in Saint George, New Hampshire—no, sorry, King George. They found our parents unconscious. Nobody knows anything. Ive got the name of the hospital and the other stuff the cop said. Whats your fax number? Call me. Ill be up late.”
Sunny phoned the King George police. The crime scene, she was told by a solicitous male voice, was roped off until the lab work came back. Sunny pictured the peeling gray bungalow secured with yellow tape, its sagging porch and overgrown lilacs cinched in the package.
“Are they going to die?” she asked.
“Sunny?” said the officer. “Its Joe Loach. From Mattatuck Avenue? We were in study hall together junior and senior—”
“I got a message from a Fletcher Finn, who said his father and my mother were found unconscious, but thats all I know. He didnt even say what hospital.”
Loach coughed. “Sunny? They werent taken to a hospital. It was too late for that.”
“No,” Sunny moaned. “No. Please.”
“It was the damn carbon monoxide. It builds up over time, and then its too late. Im so sorry. I hate to do this over the phone . . .”
When she couldnt answer, he said, “I saw your mother in Driving Miss Daisy at the VFW, and she was really something.”
Sunny pictured her mothers grande-dame bow and the magisterial sweep of the arm that invited her leading man to join her in the spotlight. It had taken practice, with Sunny coaching, because Margarets inclination was to blush and look amazed.
“Youre where now? Connecticut?”
She said she was.
“Okay. One step at a time. Nothing says you cant make arrangements by telephone. Maybe your mother put her preferences in writing—people do that, something like, ‘Instructions. To be opened in the event of my death. I could walk anything over to the funeral parlor for you. In fact, remember Dickie Saint-Onge from our class? He took over the business. Hes used to handling things long-distance.”
“Im coming up,” said Sunny.
“She and her fiancé didnt suffer,” said Joey Loach. “That much I can promise you.”
“Fiancé?” she repeated. “How do you know that?”
“That seems to be everyones understanding. Her cleaning lady wrote a letter to the editor to set the record straight. Plus, there was a ring on the appropriate finger.”
Sunny cried softly, her hand over the receiver.
“Can I do anything?” he asked. “Can I call anyone?”
“Id better get off,” she said. “There must be some phone calls I should make. Im sure thats what Im supposed to do next.”
“Just so you know, the house is okay now. They found the leak and fixed it, the town did, first thing. You dont have to be afraid of sleeping there. Ill make sure that everything is shipshape.”
“I think my friend Regina used to baby-sit for your sister,” she said. “Marilyn?”
“Marilee,” said Joey. “Shes still here. Were all still here. Sos Regina. You okay?”
“I meant to say thank you,” said Sunny, “but thats what came out instead.”
“Youre welcome,” said Joey Loach.
Fletcher sounded more annoyed than mournful when he reached Sunny the next morning. “Under the circumstances,” he said, “I would have thought youd have returned my call.”
“You didnt leave your number,” said Sunny.
“Im sure you can appreciate that I wasnt thinking about secretarial niceties last night,” he snapped.
“Such as ‘Im so sorry about your mother?”
“I didnt know her,” he said. “And at the time of my call I believed she was still alive.”
Sunny quietly slipped the receiver into its cradle. It rang seconds later.
From the Hardcover edition.
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