The door was the first thing Brian noticed as he approached the funeral home that late September afternoon. It appeared heavy and was full of ornate, three-dimensional carvings of birds, trees, and a river. He guessed this was the perceived path to heaven, down a babbling brook. He was meeting his sister Jane to determine how their mother’s funeral should be handled. So far, the whole ordeal had been just that—an ordeal. He looked down at his clothes before he entered, dark jeans, a baby blue button-down shirt that nearly matched his eyes, and a pair of loafers without socks. His dark hair kept falling over his brow, demanding a trim, but he enjoyed seeing how far he could let it go before bordering on madness. He hadn’t bothered to shave and thought he might continue with this scruffy look. His mother would have hated what he was wearing, how he looked, and he knew it. Only now, it didn’t matter anymore.
Jane was already inside, naturally. He had seen her little blue car in the parking lot and felt instantly annoyed that she had come early. It’s not like he wasn’t on time, in fact he was five minutes early. But that was Jane, the beautiful people-pleaser. Her chestnut hair could not be tamed and fell in curls across her shoulders. Her green eyes were so vivid that it seemed as though she wore wear contact lenses, a striking contrast to her ivory complexion. He knew she was attractive and that other men tripped over themselves to be near her. She was often oblivious to her surroundings—perhaps a survival instinct carried over from childhood.
The inside of the funeral home was predictable. The furniture could best be described as traditional, sofas with ball feet sporting studded trim around the arms and trailing down like a line of soldiers along the bottom. The wing chairs were lightly worn paisley and bent gently as if arching their backs. The colors included rich hues of crimson, plum, and goldenrod throughout the entire space, including the heavily-draped windows. Oil reproductions of fruit and children playing with puppies adorned the burgundy brocaded walls. Brian hated wallpaper.
He sat down in the chair next to his sister and held her tiny hand, something they had done since they were small children. Their childhood had been extraordinary, but they didn’t know it at the time. It had taken many years of therapy to sort that out. As twins, they already had a unique bond. As abused children, the bond became completely unbreakable.
Their mother, Charlene, had never wanted children. They knew this because she told them so regularly. She had become pregnant by their father, to whom she was never married, and he bailed out on the family when the twins were less than a year old. Brian couldn’t remember the first time she struck him, he had been so small. He could only recall that he never remembered not being abused. What started as a minor butt paddling had graduated to slaps in the face and punches in the stomach over time. As a little boy, he was constantly riddled with bruises and felt sore and sad most of the time. He never understood why she hurt him, but never touched Jane. Not that he wanted Jane to endure the pain as well, but as he grew so did the questions in his mind.
Brian looked more like his father than Jane did, who looked like neither of her parents. Brian so closely resembled the photos he had seen of his father that he often wondered if the abuse came from his mother’s misplaced anger. Their mother was a beautiful woman and turned more than her fair share of heads. Her brunette hair was kept nearly shaved, as if she had no time to be bothered with it, and this sleek look made her large brown eyes dominate her thin face. Her lashes were so long that most people assumed they were false. Had she been six inches taller, Charlene could have been a model.
During middle school, the twins started to recognize that their mother’s behavior was not normal. What Jane endured was more verbally abusive in nature, and it whittled away at her innocent soul. She often quietly cried herself to sleep, her tears as much for her brother as for herself. Her weight dropped; eventually she stopped eating altogether. Brian did his best to encourage her eating, but it wasn’t until they graduated from high school that things took a turn for the better. Her weight returned to somewhat normal. By that time, the children had learned how to outsmart Charlene at her own game. They found that coddling their mother worked most of the time to escape her proclivity for cruelty.
Brian encouraged Jane to take classes at the community college while he went to trade school. She began babysitting in the evenings for income and to avoid Charlene. By now, the beatings had subsided because Brian had become a physical challenge to his mother and willing to defend himself. Once he punched her so hard in retaliation that she had fallen, seriously injuring her back. She never touched him again.
One night, while Jane was watching some children across town, Brian was home with Charlene. As they sat somberly across the table from one another eating dinner, she suddenly started to choke. She picked up her glass and attempted to drink from it, but this only aggravated the problem. Her eyes widened in disbelief as she continued to choke and point toward her neck, as if her son were unable to recognize what was happening. She was on her feet by now, trying to dislodge the pea or pork chop or whatever it was that was stealing her air. Brian watched for a long moment, blinking slowly as he contemplated what to do. He wiped his face with his napkin and quietly excused himself from the table. Inside his bedroom, he used one finger to engage the slide lock he had installed on both his and Jane’s door a few years before. He turned the television on, the volume up, and did not return to the dining room for over an hour to find Charlene lying dead on the floor. He never told Jane what happened, although he suspected his twin knew. She knew everything about Brian. And if she knew, she never breathed a word of it to him or to anyone else. He had called paramedics, and his mother had been pronounced dead without further inquiry. That day had been just forty-eight hours ago, and Brian considered it Independence Day for him and his sister.
As far as Brian was concerned, their mother wasn’t worthy of a coffin, let alone expensive flowers to lay on top of it. Their mother was a mean-spirited woman who died with no friends or family to surround her, none who liked her anyway. She had abused her children to the point of their indifference. In his mind, this modest burial was a grand gesture. He knew that Jane had begun to feel guilty for not doing more, but also knew that if they held a formal funeral that no one would actually come. Roses would assuage Jane’s guilt for the lack of fanfare.
“It’s completely appropriate to have a spray of roses on top of the coffin,” Jane said quietly.
“Why does the spray of flowers have to be roses? They could be anything.” Like dead roses left behind from someone else’s funeral, he thought, or weeds from the lawn. Or absolutely nothing at all.
“Because it’s just what people do,” Jane said. “It’s what mother would expect.”
“Mother is dead. She’s not expecting anything from anyone anymore.”
Brian could sense his twins’ panic. She should have known he would never agree to the roses. He was considerably more hardheaded than she was, and not nearly as forgiving. But who could blame him; he had taken the brunt of the abuse. Charlene had had no business bearing children.
“It’s not going to happen. That woman doesn’t deserve any of this,” Brian added.
Jane came to the realization that posturing simply wasn’t necessary. Her mother was not there to criticize, slew hateful comments, or add otherwise demeaning dialogue to an already uncomfortable event. She knew her brother was right, and that it was best to be respectful, but get it over with as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
“Fine. Daisies,” she said, taking what she felt was the high road, even if they were merely daisies and not roses. Brian had originally wanted to cremate her, after all, but the plot was already paid for, so that made no sense to Jane. Charlene would be properly buried.
Brian let out a sigh of relief, and took her hand back up in his. They finalized the arrangements and continued to hold hands as they left the funeral home. Dusk was descending on the horizon and the birds in the trees were quieting for the evening. The sidewalks were folding up for the night in their little town as they walked through the fallen leaves to her car. They hugged for a long time before Brian broke the silence.
“I will always protect you,” he whispered in Jane’s ear. “You know that, right?”
“I know,” she said squeezing him harder. “Brian, I know everything.”