The line of mourners clanked by like metal ducks in a carnival shooting game while I picked them off one by one. My weapon was a handshake instead of a rifle, and I wouldn't win any prizes. As the never-ending flow continued, I nailed an indifferent look onto my face, locked away my tears, and shook their hands while responding to their useless platitudes. I wanted to shout that they were making this harder for us, but you didn't do that at a funeral.
"Jacob, I can't imagine what you're going through," a familiar-looking lady said as she embraced my hand in both of hers. She looked to be in her forties and had blonde hair with highlights. Her hair colors were an odd combination and contrasted violently with her black dress. Seeing black made me sick now. It looked like death. A long black, twisting, snake of people waited behind her.
Of course, you can't imagine what I'm going through, stupid woman. You've never come close to having pain like this. "Thank, you." I may have seen her at church. Her name was Maggie, Margo, Mary, or something like that. It didn't matter.
"Just before Thanksgiving too," she said. "It's a shame."
My daughter inconveniently being killed before a major holiday was a shame? People were idiots. Unfortunately, they hadn't passed a law against stupidity yet. I smiled while pushing her hand toward my wife, Melody. Thankfully, she released my hand and moved on.
For the first time in years, I had planned to spend the entire Thanksgiving week with my family. Just over a week ago, we'd put on a goofy elevens party for our family on 11/11/11. There'd been silly games and food that either looked like or were based on the number eleven. We all enjoyed it immensely and laughed more than we had in years. That'd been a week before the accident. Other than the party, we hadn't spent much time together as a family for a long time. I'd hoped that party would've been a turning point for our family, which I'd planned to leverage this week during my time off to reconnect with them. Instead, I ended up having to take even more time off to make funeral arrangements and then spend a good portion of the Thanksgiving week preparing for and attending a viewing and a funeral. Life was so unfair. God was unfair.
The flower arrangement on top of the coffin was beautiful but off-center. I'd thought about walking over and fixing it at least four times tonight, but I didn't want to see my dead little girl in there. I'd positioned myself at the other end of the room, so I wouldn't have to. I wanted to remember Chloe as the cheerful, energetic, beautiful, young girl I loved. Melody walked over once and had fallen apart. I didn't want to do that in front of all these people.
Butler's Funeral Home had done a nice job on everything else. The room for the viewing was large with seven floral arrangements scattered around. They had also placed the pictures of Chloe we had given them throughout the room in chronological order ending at her casket. About thirty people milled around the room or were in line waiting for Mel and me.
My police chief, Sarah Rodrick, was looking inside the coffin. My partner, Sergeant Reginald Karlton, was next to her. We'd been detectives together for about three years now. The police department in Woodstock, Georgia wasn't large but was well organized. I'd been furious with the chief for days becuase she'd pulled me off the investigation I'd been the lead detective on for two years. Once I'd cooled down, the wisdom of her doing so overcame my emotions, mostly. There was no way I could be impartial now. I'd likely do something stupid out of anger and let those responsible for Chloe's death walk free. I longed for the day when they caught the ringleader of that group. At least, we had the punk who'd killed my daughter in custody. The name Kyle Huntington was burned into my brain. Kyle had just woken up from the accident this afternoon. They planned to question him after the funeral tomorrow on Tuesday.
Melody glanced at me and gave me a weak smile. She stood next to me suffering through the same endless parade of worthless well-wishers. Even in mourning, she looked beautiful with her long black hair flowing down and blending in with her black dress.
"… for your loss, Mr. Burton."
I almost jumped. I looked back to see a young man standing in front of me looking at the ground. Well, leaning in front of me. He was on crutches and in a full leg cast. His face was familiar but was hard to see through the blanket of tangled hair. Oh, yes. His name was Jayden. I recognized him from the police report which said he'd known Chloe and was also injured in the accident.
His eyes flicked up toward my face but didn't make it all the way to my eyes. He held his skinny, worthless hand out toward me. I shook it like all the rest, pretending it meant something. I hadn't heard all he had said, but it didn't matter. I didn't want to hear anything this punk had to say anyway. I knew his type. I'd arrested enough of them.
Everything everyone had said all night amounted to the same thing: nothing. Nothing they said would take my pain away. Nothing they said would bring back my precious Chloe. Nothing anyone did would change that God had done nothing to save my baby girl from being crushed inside her car. Nothing.
The young man started to move away but paused. "Sir, I was in the car behind Chloe and … I …" The boy started crying.
Great. I'm barely holding back my tears, and he's bawling right in front of me. I've got to get this kid moving. "I saw your car. It was badly damaged. I'm glad that idiot didn't injure you worse than he did. Breaking your leg and being knocked unconscious was bad enough."
"Yeah … thanks." The kid didn't budge. "Chloe was a wonderful person. Did you know she helped me just before the accident?"
"The police report said you two had just bumped into each other at a RaceTrac gas station, right?"
The boy swallowed. "Yes, sir. I was buying rolling … cigarette paper when she came in."
I frowned at that. "You left that out of the police report. I can see why."
"Yes, before the accident, my life was a wreck. Still is. Chloe was trying to put me back on the right path, sir. She was a good friend. Better than I deserved. Chloe talked me out of meeting the people I was going to see that night. She made me rethink some decisions I'd made."
Putting my hand on his shoulder, I said, "Clo was a special girl. Thank you." I nudged him with my hand to get him moving so I could make it through all the people in line waiting to talk to us. He leaned to the right, but his feet didn't budge.
He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. "I'm partially responsible for Chloe's death." He looked back up. "I feel so guilty."
My eyes locked onto his. I saw pain there. I'd seen guilt in many suspect's eyes. This was not the same. "Kyle, the stupid kid who stole the car and smashed into Chloe's Honda, was responsible. How could you be partially responsible?" I shot a look at Melody who had dispatched her well-wisher and was also watching the boy. Her lips tightened when she looked back at me.
"I froze when the spinning car hit Chloe. … I didn't slam on my breaks fast enough." The kid was moaning and sobbing now. "I was in shock, I guess. … She might be alive … if I'd not hit her from behind."
"Son," I patted him on the shoulder, "that thief was the one responsible for the death of my girl." This punk would make me blubber in front of all these folks. I had to get him moving.
Melody stepped over and embraced the boy. "Oh, bless your heart. Chloe was killed by the front impact, Dear. The police report made that clear. I saw the car, and the damage in the back was not severe. From what I heard, you did a good job of veering away from Chloe's car. You had no way of avoiding Kyle's car as it spun toward you. Even if you hadn't been there, it would not have made a difference for Chloe."
"That's what the police told me," the young man said. "I just can't shake feeling that I'm partially to blame."
Melody pulled back and looked into his eyes while holding onto his shoulders. "Your name is Jayden, right?"
"Yes, Jayden Loughton, ma'am."
"Jayden, we don't hold you responsible for her death in any way." Melody squeezed his shoulders and briefly glanced in my direction.
"Thanks, ma'am." The boy nodded and wiped his eyes. He hobbled away on his crutches with his head hanging low.
A middle-aged woman, in line behind him, came up next. "Thank you!" Tears dribbled down her cheeks. She cast a glance at Jayden as he walked away. "I'm Rebecca, Jayden's mother. Before the accident, he had been making all kinds of poor choices. He was headed in a bad direction with his new friends." She snorted. "This was a bad … no, it was about the worst thing that could happen to anyone. I can't imagine the pain of losing a child. It's a parent's worst nightmare. But I want you to know good has come from it. My Jayden is back on the right path."
She made no sense. No good would come from such a senseless death. I couldn't count the number of idiots who'd told me God would bring good out of this. Hearing that phrase spewed at me yet again brought bile up into my throat.
"Thank, you," Melody said. "I hope he continues down that path."
Rebecca nodded and then frowned while looking over at Jayden. "He's been making better choices, but he's also depressed. I'd thought his broken leg was the reason. Now I know he felt guilty because of Chloe's death. What you said tonight will help him overcome that guilt." She embraced Melody and then reached out and squeezed my hand. "Thank you. I wish all the comfort God can supply for your family."
Squeezing Rebecca's hand in return was all I could contribute to the exchange.
I stared at the woman as she walked away and put her arm around the boy. A cough caused me to spin my head around. A gray-haired, old lady stood looking at me. She only came up to my shoulder. I looked down the line of people and sighed. This would be a long night.
She grabbed my hand in both of hers and patted it. "Trust that God is in control. He must have needed another beautiful angel up there."
I ripped my hand back from her. My voice started quietly. "You think God wanted to smash my little girl into a bloody pulp, so He'd have another angel to play with among the tens of thousands He already has?" My voice increased in volume with each word. "You think God planned to kill my precious baby because … what? He was lonely?" The nerve of some people. I yelled now, but I didn't care. I could handle stupidity no longer. "God didn't plan this. If He did, He's an idiot, or He's sadistic. That's the stupidest thing anyone has said all night, and I've heard a lot of stupid things, trust me."
When what I'd done reached the part of my brain that still thought rationally, I looked around the room. Everyone was staring at me. Melody's eyes were as wide as I'd ever seen them. My son, Kent, who'd been sitting in a chair against the wall, was now standing and staring at me.
I looked at the pitiful mourners and at the stupid old lady in front of me. If they'd heard what she had said, they'd understand.
I marched to the back door and slammed it as I left.
The funeral home had a small park in the back. It wasn't well lit, but I found a bench and sat down.
What was I doing? I'd yelled at a little, 90-year-old lady. What was happening to me?
The woman had been spouting nonsense though. Why would God want my precious angel to die like garbage in a trash compactor? And she'd been so young. No way that was God's will. If it was, then God couldn't possibly love her or me. He was an uncaring jerk, or He was totally clueless.
God wasn't alone in being a jerk. Melody had been one last night. I'd been at the kitchen table staring at a plate of leftover lasagna I'd microwaved while she washed dishes. I had no appetite even though I should have been starving. If I made it through the viewing the next day and the funeral after that, then … Well, I'd deal with life as it came or death as it came in this case.
We had more food than we could jam into our fridge. People thought food would make the pain go away, so they kept shoving it at us. It simply gave us more dishes to wash and made us feel guilty about throwing away so much food. At least, washing dishes usually calmed Mel's nerves, but it hadn't worked that night.
I heard her sigh loudly as she stood by the sink. "Why couldn't you trust our daughter?"
Pointing at Mel, I said, "You're the one quoting that verse about bad friends at us all the time."
She turned her head and rolled her eyes at me. "'Bad company corrupts good morals.' Sure, that's important, but she did not hang out with them often. She strove to shine God's light into their lives."
"I didn't want her spending time with kids who'd been arrested for drugs and alcohol. I had to put a stop to it."
Mel grabbed a glass casserole dish and started vigorously scrubbing it with a sponge. "She followed Jesus' example. If you remembered any stories about Jesus, you might recall He associated with sinners to show them God's love."
"My job often gives me the chance to see what these sinners do." I waved my hands in the air. "I didn't want her to have anything to do with the things they do or them."
She shook her head. "She is a smart … She was a smart girl. She would have done the right thing. She may be what that group needs … I mean needed. She told me she was connecting with a few of them."
My eyes narrowed. "She hung out with them too often. They would've pulled her down. I had to say something."
Mel's face was turned away from me, but I heard heat in her voice. "And you had to do it at 10:30 in the evening?" She turned around. Her eyes held more heat than her words. "You had to make her so furious that she ran out of the house for the drive that killed her? Was that better than trusting her?" It appeared she was trying to break the casserole dish in half because she was gripping it so tightly.
I stood to face her challenge. I fired off with, "There it is again! How many times do I have to tell you that I'm sorry Chloe and I got into a fight that night? How many times do I have to tell you that it tears me apart that I screamed my last words at her as she ran out of the house?"
Her words came slowly like lava oozing from an enormous volcano seconds from erupting. "I don't know. How many times will it take to bring her back?"
"How can you say that?" My body stiffened. "I'd do anything to bring her back. I'd give my life in a second for hers."
"I wish you would have thought about that before making her run out angry that night."
My face was burning hot. "I loved her more than anything. I was the only one who loved her enough to keep her from going down a bad path."
I jumped back as the casserole dish shattered at my feet. "How dare you say I didn't love her as much as you. You were never around to love her. She died because you did not understand her or trust her."
She ran out of the kitchen knocking me out of the way as she passed by.
"Do not even think about coming upstairs tonight," blasted down from the stairs along with the sound of stomping feet.
After cleaning up the pieces of the casserole dish, I found the extra quilt in the closet downstairs and made my bed on the couch. Unfortunately, I had this routine down pretty well. I'd already done it two other nights since the accident. This wasn't the first time Mel had said she thought I was partially responsible for Chloe's death. I'd ended up on the couch those times as well. She'd never broken anything before though. Deep down she must realize it wasn't my fault because she'd come back and apologized each time. None of this made sense.
I slipped into my bed of exile and lay there with my eyes wide open. I rubbed them and wasn't surprised to have my fingers come away wet. Crying had been a common occurrence this last week.
I rolled over and closed my eyes. I'd little hope of falling asleep soon, but eventually, I did.
As I sat on the bench at the funeral home, anger still flowed through me about the fight that night and the one between Clo and me the night she'd died. I'd been trying to protect our baby girl from harm. That was my job as her father. Why couldn't Mel accept that?
I'd been avoiding what I needed to do all week. My head fell into my hands with my elbows on my knees. The time had come to have it out with the true source of my frustration. I prayed out loud because the words refused to be imprisoned in my head.
"Lord, if you're listening, since the accident, I've been too angry to talk to you. I'm still angry with you. How can you be this all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God and not be able to stop my Chloe from dying in a senseless accident? From my perspective, you seem completely incompetent. Do you even care about what's going on down here?
"How could you let all this happen to my family? If you know all things, you'd not have let this happen. This one accident has ripped away my little girl and is tearing my wife and me apart. Why'd you let it happen? Do you even have the power to stop something like this? Am I wasting my breath here?
"I only see two options. You don't care what happens to us, or you aren't powerful or wise enough to stop bad things from happening. I still believe you created all this. I don't have enough faith to believe random chance caused this universe to come into being because there's too much order to everything. Which leaves me with the options that you're an idiot or that you aren't able to control what happens in this world. Maybe you went away, or maybe it's grown too complex for you with so many people.
"There's absolutely no way Chloe dying in that accident is a good thing. I can't count the number of morons who've thrown Romans eight-twenty-eight at me, saying that something good will come from this. There's nothing good in this, and there never will be. I don't care what Jayden's mother said. It's a tragedy and nothing else.
"One jerk even implied that Chloe must have done something horrible for you to have done this to her. I immediately blew him off, but then I started thinking. What if she had done something you didn't like? Would you punish her like that? That's even worse than you not caring a lick about us. I can't go that far. I'll keep believing you don't care what happens to us rather than that you are a sadistic, vengeful God.
"I'm heading back in there, but not for you. I doubt you care what I or anyone else does. I'm going back in there to keep my wife from being furious with me. Plus, it's cold out here."
When I opened my eyes, light surrounded me and then faded to reveal gears, springs, and pendulums all around me. The light below my feet didn't fade and became the floor. The size of the gears varied from the size of a dime to several that were taller than me. Some pieces spun or swung smoothly, some erratically, and others barely moved.
All of this filled a large room about the size of my entire house and rose about two hundred feet. At the top, sat a giant clock face with the second hand smoothly moving forward. I was standing inside a giant clock.
One gear drew my attention. Without moving, I was instantly standing next to it. It turned fitfully, causing the gears connected to it to sputter along. Etched onto all the pieces of the clock were strange symbols. The symbols seemed to be writing. I looked at the gears and springs, but I couldn't read the words on them.
I hopped back as three nearby gears jumped out of the clockwork. Those gears seemed to have a will of their own and chose to no longer be a part of the clock. They fell into the floor of light and disappeared. It saddened me, and I wondered what would happen to them. That was silly. They were clock pieces.
When I looked back up to where the three gears had been, a new larger, single gear was there. It was spinning in almost perfect unison with the gears nearby. The surrounding pieces may have shifted. It was hard to tell.
What was happening? This was all so odd. It must be a dream, but it seemed so … real wasn't the right word, but it was unlike any dream I'd ever had. I'd arrested druggies who had talked about things like this, but I'd never take any of the stuff they'd been on.
Suddenly, right before me, stood a man, or at least the shape of a man, clothed in light. Instinctively, I fell onto my hands and knees on the floor of light unable to speak or move.
"Peace. Jacob, do not be afraid. Stand up. Do not worship me." His voice resonated through my body.
This being knew who I was. I hesitantly rose. I lifted my head to look at his face. His eyes were gentle and mesmerizing. "What's happening? Where am I?"
The being smiled. "God chose to bless you in a special way."
I blinked. "Me? Why? I've not been nice to Him lately."
The being laughed. It was a beautiful, musical sound. "You think He doesn't know that? Do you think you are the first person to be upset with God? There is a long history of that. You might recall a man named Job."
A gear formed where there had been an empty space. It connected a gear that was already turning with another that had been almost motionless. Now, all three gears moved in unison.
I shook my head. "Who are you? What are you?"
"I am a messenger of God: an angel. God sent me to tell you He has heard what you think of His ability to watch over mankind and your thoughts about the choices He has made."
I fell to my knees, raised my hands, and lowered my head. "I shouldn't have said those things. I am so sorry. I'd have thought God would've smote me for how I talked to Him, not sent an angel. Is that why you're here? Are you going to smite me?"
The angel laughed again. "God never punishes people for expressing how they feel in their prayers. He savors honest prayers like incense. It would surprise you how many people have similar thoughts to what you just told God but are not honest enough to tell Him. Have you read the Psalms or Lamentations? Some of those guys blasted God."
"Ummm, I've read a few Psalms."
"You should read both those books. You would relate. And I am old enough to use words like smite. You are not. You should have said, 'God would have smitten me' not 'would have smote me.' But no one talks like that these days. You need a more modern translation of the Bible."
I lifted my head, lowered my hands, and smiled. "You don't talk like an angel."
The angel laughed. "Met a lot of angels, have you? We are messengers. We speak whatever language best communicates the message. If I used words like whosoever or wherefore, you would not understand me. And no, God is not going to smite you. As I said, He is blessing you. He wants you to play your part if you are willing."
"My part?" I asked.
The angel pointed to the gear that had called to me previously. "Yes, exactly. Have you looked at this one closely? There is a reason it attracted your attention."
Even though that fitful gear had drawn me, I resisted looking at it. When I did, I could read the words engraved on it: Jacob Burton. "That's me?" I looked around at the clockworks. "How do I fit into all this?"
"God is giving you three chances to let you show Him where He should have done things differently. You can pray to Him three times to change events within your lifetime."
My brain froze for several seconds. "God will let me change anything I want about my life?"
What did that mean?
What would I change?
Why was He letting me do it three times?
As I thought about all this, I rubbed the scar on my left elbow I'd gotten as a kid in a bike accident. I was half-surprised to find it still there in this place. "Anything in my lifetime?"
The angel gave a small bow. "Exactly. Past, present, or future. However, there are restrictions."
"I guess there would have to be." I was still trying to understand what this meant, but I realized there would be limits.
"You cannot ask God to do anything that is sinful, and you cannot ask God to tempt anyone to do something sinful. Well, you can ask, but He will not do it. The most important thing you need to keep in mind is that you cannot ask God to violate someone's free will. He will not force anyone to do anything. He can, however, put opportunities in front of people."
I nodded. "Do I need to tell you everything I want to change right now?"
The angel smiled and shook his head. "No, you need not ask for anything now, and you ask God not me. You can space them as far apart as you desire. You may pray all of them in a single day or space each one years apart. It is up to you, but I advise you to think carefully before you ask."
"I understand. There's no need for me to wait for the first one. I know what I want changed right now."
"Do you want to give this more thought?" the angel asked. "Time is irrelevant."
"No. I want Chloe not to die in that accident. Wait, change that. Please change things so she isn't killed or even injured in the crash. I want my baby girl back the way she was."
The angel nodded. "God has heard you. It will be as you ask."
"Thank you," I said.
"No, thank God. One other thing. It is up to you if you tell anyone about this. However, be warned. No one will believe you if you do because you will be the only one who knows things have changed. It will only complicate matters." He smiled. "I wish you well on your journey Jacob Burton."
With those words, the angel vanished, and the light faded to blackness.
I opened my eyes. Grass and the funeral bench lay between my legs. Nothing had changed. I still sat at the viewing for my dead daughter. Had it been a stress-induced hallucination? Had I fallen asleep? Why would God care about me? Why would He want to help me? He didn't care about my family. Chloe's death made that clear. She still lay dead in her casket. I'd imagined the whole thing.
I stood and turned to go back in. I froze when I saw Kent standing right behind the bench. I'd been praying aloud. What had he heard?
"How long have you been standing there? Did you see anything unusual?"
Kent shrugged. "You sitting there praying was odd. I was here long enough to realize that you should be a pile of smoldering ash. If God did exist, He would've smited you for what you said to him."
"Don't say that. God is real." I wasn't very convincing. My faith had never been as strong as Melody's. Right now, it was a shimmering mist. If that crazy vision had been real, that would be one thing, but it had all been in my head. Standing here at Chloe's viewing proved it.
"How long was I sitting after I stopped praying?" I asked.
"You only finished a few seconds ago. Are you OK?" Kent gave me a concerned look.
Not knowing how to answer honestly, I nodded.
"I'm confused," Kent said. "You would rather God be an idiot than him not existing at all?"
I had to laugh. "That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does." Kent took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "If God existed, horrible tragedies like this wouldn't happen. They happen all the time, so God must not exist."
"I can understand why you feel that way. I'm not ready to go that far."
"Why would he take Chloe? She loved him. She was such a sweet person."
I blinked several times. "I thought you hated that your sister was religious. She and your mother have to drag you to church."
"Sure, she gets … I mean … got on my nerves, but she believed in all that stuff. If God existed, why would he take someone who cared for him?"
"I can't answer that, Son. Even though I'm not sure he cares about us as much as people say, I'm not ready to say there is no God." I looked back at the funeral home and sighed. "We should go back in. And by the way, it's 'would've smitten you' not 'would've smited you.'"
Every eye in the room turned when I opened the door. I almost shut it and stayed outside.
I suffered through the rest of the evening. Thankfully, the line of mourners had dissolved by the time I returned. Or maybe they had scurried away in terror like roaches when I'd slammed the door when I left.
When we got home, Mel and Kent went straight upstairs without speaking. I guess that meant another night on the couch. Thankfully, the blankets, quilt, and pillow were there from last night. Sleep avoided me like everyone at the viewing had done after I returned. I tried watching television, but that didn't help. I glanced at the clock in the kitchen that also showed the date. It read Tuesday, November 22, 2011, 2:32 AM. I had to get some sleep. The funeral was coming up fast. I entombed myself in the quilt, fully dressed except for my shoes and closed my eyes.
I felt so out of control, and there was no hope for things improving. I cried a good while before sleep overtook me.