This one started as a romance for Woman’s World. They didn’t like the funeral setting. Then one year the Coveted Dead Bird theme was Graveyard Shift so I pulled this out, added a murder and entered. It didn’t place or get anything… Maybe I should try it again as a straight meet-cute romance.
The Last Laugh
“Are you asking me for a date? At a funeral?” My jaw dropped and I had to force my mouth closed. The dark-haired man standing in front of me had the grace to turn red and duck his head.
“I know it’s tacky. But –”
I interrupted, not wanting to give this jerk any more time. “You’re so right. And so wrong. Excuse me.” I stepped around him and continued down the aisle of People’s Church, looking for my cousins, Gus and Cindy.
The nerve of that man. I shook my head to get rid of all thoughts except why we were here: to say goodbye to Aunt Sissy. She wasn’t really my aunt. Married to my mother’s older brother who had died when I was a child, she’d always been a part of my life and I loved her. Most of Aunt Sissy’s children lived in other states and she didn’t get to see them or her grandchildren often enough. Aunt Sissy treated me as a favored niece and I adored her in return.
Cindy and Gus were the only local grandchildren and Cindy and I had always been close. Ever since we could pull ourselves up to the big table and snatch oatmeal cookies before running out to play. Being three years older, Gus couldn’t be bothered with us except to steal our dolls and perform all kinds of weird transplants with their parts. I still had my Cabbage Patch Kid with the round head. Except she was on an American Girl Samantha body.
Cindy leaned over and whispered. “Molly, did you meet my cousin Rob?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think so. Is he here?”
“Supposed to be. Grandma always wanted you two to meet again, she thought you would be perfect together.”
“I know.” I sighed, remembering. Every time Rob came to visit, I seemed to be out of town or too busy to go out to the ranch where Sissy lived. She’d begged me to come see her favorite grandson, but it just never seemed to work out.
“What does he look like?” I whispered back, and then caught myself. I had just bawled out a man for suggesting coffee after the service and now I was about to ask Cindy to set me up.
“I’m as bad as he is,” I murmured.
“As bad as who?” Cindy asked.
“Some guy. He walked up to me when I came in and asked if I wanted to go out later.”
“Who?” Cindy craned her neck around to look at the mourners still entering and finding seats. People’s Church is about the largest in Fresno and it was packed. Aunt Sissy was well known for her work in the raisin industry and the fund raising for Children’s Hospital through the La Comida Guild.
“Never mind.” I elbowed her and forced my attention to the platform up front where the minister stood. “I will not use your grandmother’s funeral to pick up men.”
“Why not? She’d love it.” Cindy picked up her program. “I just can’t believe she’s gone.”
“I’m going to miss her so much.” Tears filled my eyes, grief still sneaking up on me when I wasn’t on guard. My own grandparents were distant, both geographically and emotionally. Aunt Sissy had been the older woman who loved me unconditionally, whose face lit up whenever I walked into her home, and who wanted me to fall in love with someone special.
She often talked about what a great guy her grandson Rob had grown up to be, an attorney with a family law practice. I had a vague recollection of a scrawny towhead, chasing Cindy and me with tadpoles one summer. We ran and squealed and pretended to be afraid. Then we collected a whole bucket of worms, polliwogs, and minnows. We put fish in his orange juice at breakfast, his water glass at dinner, and his milk at suppertime. He drank everything down, either never seeing the added protein or pretending not to. We weren’t sure which.
As the years went by, Rob’s family had moved further away and stopped coming for long visits. Now that we were grown, Aunt Sissy would occasionally mention how much she’d like Rob and I to renew our acquaintance, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The minister started and Cindy and I stood to sing How Great Thou Art with the rest of the crowd. Lots of people stood to share their memories of Sissy. The associate pastors were running all over that sanctuary with hand held microphones so everyone could get a chance to talk. Then we dismissed to head down Herndon to the Clovis Cemetery at Villa.
Cindy tugged me into one of the family limos with her. The procession of cars moved slowly with motorcycle cops holding traffic for us the whole way. It was less than five miles but it seemed to take forever. By the time we pulled through the gate and parked along one of the curves, I had a different problem. Nature was calling and pretty insistently.
“I’ll catch up with you in a minute,” I whispered to Cindy. There was a restroom in a stone building in the center of the property and I hurried to take advantage of it. As I washed my hands and stared at myself in the tarnished mirror over the sink, my mind wandered back to the last time I saw Sissy. She’d had heart surgery, but was recovering nicely. I visited her in the hospital after work one afternoon. As I gathered my purse and prepared to say good-bye, she’d held my hand and not let go.
“Can’t you stay another minute or two, Molly? Rob is on his way, I’m sure he’ll be here any minute.”
“I can’t. I have to get back to school for Open House. My class has been working so hard and I have to be there to meet their parents. The next time he comes for a visit, I promise I’ll come see him.”
“I’ll hold you to it. Even if I have to come back and haunt you.” Aunt Sissy’s eyes flashed and for a moment I saw the steely determination that had helped her run a cattle ranch and raise a family after her husband died.
“You planning on dying any time soon?” A sudden concern washed over me. The doctor said she was recovering nicely. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” I demanded.
“No, sweetie. I plan to make your life miserable for a long time. And I have a surprise for you when I get home.”
“I can’t wait to hear it.” I’d kissed her good-bye and hurried out, only to run smack into Gus in the hallway.
“Squirt,” he’d said as he pushed past me into Sissy’s room.
I rushed back to school. After an evening showing twenty-four sets of parents their third grader’s desks and schoolwork, the message that greeted me at home later shook me to the core. Aunt Sissy was gone. She’d had a massive heart attack shortly after I left and died instantly.
My heart still had trouble believing she was gone. I checked my purse for tissues and headed back out. The crowd around the awning was too thick to squeeze and find Cindy so I found a place on the side to listen.
“Our beloved mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, and friend will be missed,” the pastor was saying. He was different from the one at the church, maybe they divide up the services. “We take great comfort in knowing the person responsible for her death has been caught and will have to face a jury of his peers.”
What? I stood on tiptoes to get a look over the heads. Aunt Sissy had a heart attack. Didn’t she?
“A person’s days are numbered by God and God alone. He doesn’t like it when others decide to take a life before its time.”
Something is definitely wrong. I look around for familiar faces and find the stranger who tried to pick me up at the church. So, I was in the right place. He caught my eye and edged his way through the throng until he stood just behind me.
“We’re at the wrong service.”
I whirled around. “What are you talking about?”
He cocked his head toward the restroom. “You picked the wrong crowd to follow when you left there. I noticed and came to bring you back.”
I felt my cheeks redden. “Are you sure this isn’t another plot to ask me out?”
He grinned. “Are you sure you didn’t do this on purpose to get me away from the others?”
By now, we’ve walked far enough away to talk normally.
“As if,” I said, determined not to flirt. A thought struck me and I froze. “This woman was murdered.”
He nodded. “I heard.”
“What if Aunt Sissy was too?” My chest tightened just thinking about it.
“She had a heart attack,” he said.
“But what if she didn’t?”
“Look, I know you were close and all—”
“How do you know that?” I demanded.
“I saw you leaving the hospital the day she died.” He shrugged and pushed his sunglasses up onto his forehead.
Fear and anger surged up my spine, giving me the strength to turn and run for the crowd on the other side of the stone hut. I found Cindy and Gus sitting on folding chairs near the pine box. I gripped Cindy’s elbow and whispered in her ear.
“Aunt Sissy was murdered.”
Cindy stared at me. “What are you talking about?”
“I figured it out when I shifted myself from one funeral to the other. From what I thought I knew to the truth.”
“Talk to me.” Cindy pulls me up and away from the mourners. Gus follows us.
“Sissy was getting better. There’s a guy who’s stalking me and he was at the hospital. He saw me visiting and he killed her.”
“Molly, are you sure?” Cindy’s eyes welled up. “Because I don’t know if I can take knowing someone killed Grandma.”
Gus stepped between us and took our arms.
“Ouch.” Cindy tried to wrest her elbow out of his grip.
Pain shot up my arm. “Gus, you’re hurting me,” I said.
“I’m sick of you, always butting in. Always trying to get into Grandma’s good graces. And you finally made it when she changed her will.”
“What are you talking about, Gus? I loved your grandmother.”
“Don’t make me laugh.” His eyes blaze with something and dread creeps into my gut. “You were playing her for the money. I heard her telling you she had a surprise. You succeeded in getting her to making you one of her heirs. And it cut my portion down. Way down.”
“Gus, you mean you… you killed her?”
“I had to. She had called Rob to come, too. To change her will.”
I stare at Gus in horror. “No. She called him to introduce him to me. She was trying to set us up.”
“That’s what you want me to think.” He starts pulling us toward another open grave a few rows over.
The stranger steps out from behind the giant tombstone and tackles Gus. Gus takes a swing but the guy ducks it and throws a punch that lands on Gus’s chin and puts him down on the ground.
The crowd of mourners is looking at us and a few of the uncles hurry to us.
“Thank you, Rob,” Cindy said.
I gasped. It couldn’t be.
“What’s wrong?” She looked at me out of the corner of her eye.
“That’s the guy I insulted for asking me out, the one I thought was stalking me.”
She giggled and I tried to scrunch behind her and blend in as we inched closer.
“I need to apologize.” Rob reached around her and touched my arm.
“No, I’m sorry. I told Sissy—”
“Grandma made me promise—”
We both stopped talking and stared at each other.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to use her funeral as a place to pick up women, it’s just that I promised Grandma we would get reacquainted.”
“It’s my fault for jumping to conclusions. I should have known Aunt Sissy would get the last word.”
“Didn’t she always?” He smiled and a familiar warmth spread over me, as if Sissy had just wrapped me in one of her quilts.
“She certainly did.”