An Open Casket

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My red-brick elementary school sat nestled against a forest on the edge of town, with a road in front and a soccer field on either side. Though we had swing sets and jungle gyms, many of the kids preferred playing in the woods, and we were allowed to do so as long as we kept the schoolyard in sight. But last Thursday night an accident took place on school property when no adults were around, and one of the students had gotten killed.

I don't know how he died, the teachers were tight-lipped about it the next morning; I only knew it had happened in the woods. I overheard various theories from my classmates throughout the day, but I wasn't sure which was the true one, if any. All I knew for sure was that he was there with a group of friends in the evening, took a risky dare, and now, somehow, was dead.

Mark Wilson was his name. I didn't know him very well being two years older than me, but he was in my cousin, Kasey's, grade eight class and I often saw him at recess too. One of those boys always tearing through the playground hollering and laughing and carrying on.

On Saturday evening my mom and aunt took me and Kasey to the funeral home for visitation, but we didn't attend the funeral. I'd never been to a funeral home before. When I was five I went to my great-grandmother's funeral at a church—a closed casket at the front—but I only remember fidgeting in my seat and wanting to run off and play. I didn't feel any sadness or even understand what the casket was for until years afterward looking back on the memory. So, this was the first time I'd seen an open casket too.

The room had dim lighting, thick carpet, and smelled of flowers. Lots of people were there, including many of the teachers from school, and a handful of schoolmates as well. The grown-ups were in little groups, speaking in hushed tones, and looking solemn. I held onto my mom's hand and we went up to the casket once the area opened up.

It was really weird to see Mark like that. I guess I'd been expecting him to look like he was asleep, but instead he just looked like someone else, like a different person. I only glanced at his face for a few seconds however before looking away and fixating on his clasped hands instead. His fingers were rubbery like a doll's.

"Mom," I whispered on our way out to the parking lot, "why were his hands so strange looking, so white?"

We climbed into the car. "It's because there's no longer any blood flowing through them," she said, starting the car. She'd been unusually quiet that day. I buckled my seatbelt and stared down at my own clasped hands, noticing how pink they were.

At school Monday morning Kasey found me at recess and we went to the woods where already a group of kids had gathered chattering, scurrying about, pointing, as they'd done on Friday as well. I stared at the ground, knowing it was the spot where they said his body had laid. It was just a bed of pine needles now but some of the kids were still searching for clues, any trace of what might have happened; looking delighted as though it were some great adventure.

I felt sick to my stomach and wandered away from the area, goosebumps rising on my arms as a cool breeze weaved in and out between tree trunks. Kasey followed me to a quieter area nearby and we sat down together on a log. One of the swing sets was still visible through the trees ahead of us; the blue sky peeking down through the canopy above. Children's laughter lifted now and again, the occasional happy scream from a game of tag.

"I keep staring at his empty desk," Kasey said, slowly tearing apart a green maple leaf, cropped brown hair hanging over her cheeks as she leaned forward. Her lips curled down in the corner as she snatched another leaf from a sapling.

"Mom says he's in heaven now," I offered, forcing a smile.

"Well I don't believe in heaven."

"How come?"

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