We pulled up outside the funeral home thirty minutes before the viewing was to start. Mrs. Keane had planned our arrival that way so that I would have time to say my goodbye to Mother privately before anyone else showed up. The Sheriff himself met us at the door of the building.
"It's just me at the moment, but I have two deputies that will be here in five minutes. The Chief of Police for the town has also sent along a few folks so that every door of this building will have constant surveillance tonight. No one gets in without you knowing about it, little buddy."
"Thank you, sir, for everything you've done," I told him, trying my best to keep my emotions under control.
"I am proud and glad to have been in a position to help you, Elijah. Not that I mean I'm glad that you needed me, just glad that I was the one there when you did need someone."
"We feel the same way, Elijah, dear," Mrs. Keane told me as she hugged for like the tenth time in the last hour. She didn't let go of me, nor did Robin let go of my hand until the funeral director opened the door of the room where my mother's casket was. "Do you want us to go in with you, or should we wait out here for a moment or two?"
"Robin, could you and your mom go with me?" I whispered. "I don't think I want to do this alone."
"I will never leave your side unless you tell me to," Robin assured me.
"My King, will you come too?" I asked looking up into Mr. Keane's face nervously.
"I would be honored to," he whispered. He put one hand on my shoulder and one on Robin's shoulder as we walked into the really chilly room.
All around the edges of the room were chairs and couches and there was one of those round sofas like from an old hotel lobby in the middle of the room. At the far end of the room was a shiny steel box containing my mother's body. It was a really soft pastel pink color with silver handles. The cloth inside was the same shade of pink. As we got closer I could see my mother laying there as if she were asleep, except that she had on a lot of makeup.
"She never wore makeup before," I mumbled.
"I'm very sorry about that, sweetie," Mrs. Keane said softly. "The funeral director told me that it might be necessary to use heavy makeup on her face to.... well... to make her look her best."
"They had to hide what he did to her, didn't they." It wasn't a question, because I already knew the answer. The three people in the room with me hugged me tighter and didn't say anything. "Mother... Mom... this is the Keanes. They are going to be my family now, and I want you to know I am happier with them than I have ever been in my life. I know that wasn't your fault, and I will really miss you. I kept your cookbook so I will still be able to eat the meals you made for me. And My Queen really likes grandma's dishes and grandpa's cabinet, so I will be keeping them too. Oh, I call them that because they run the Fantasy Faire in the woods near our house. How Father never found out about that and launched one of his crusades against it, I don't know, but I'm so glad he didn't. If they hadn't been there that day, I would be in one of these beside you. So see, they're already taking really good care of me. You look prettier than I ever remember Mom. I told you when you got this dress that purple was the best color for you. There's so much I want to say, but I want you to be able to talk back to me when I say it, and it's not fair what he did to us. I know I'm not supposed to, but I hate him, Mom. Dr. Branstetter is going to have a lot of work to do to get me over that, if it ever does happen. I want you here with me Mom. I want my Mommy."
I couldn't talk anymore after that. All I could do was bawl like a big baby. Robin and his family held me tight and just let me cry it all out though. They led me over to one of the couches and Robin sat one side of me with his mom on the other. I hadn't heard the door of the room open, but I looked up when I saw the sheriff talking with Mr. Keane quietly.
"Elijah, there are two people outside that would like to come in, if you are ready for them," Mr. Keane said softly. "The Sheriff and I agree that these two are ok to be here, and I'm sure you will too. Is it ok for them to join us?" I could only nod and look toward the door as first Rev. Spangenberger walked in and then right behind him was Grampa Olly. I jumped and ran to him.
"You didn't have to come to this, sir," I told him as I got close. "I know this can't be easy for you." He yanked me into his arms and hugged me tight.
"Now where else am I gonna be when my only grandson is going through this?" he whispered into my ear as he held me. "I might not think your father is worth the lead to kill him, but I didn't have no reason not to come pay respects to your momma. She raised one damn fine boy, and I want to tell her that." He walked me to the casket again, holding me just as tight as the Keanes had a few minutes earlier. "Mrs. Rundle, you got one mighty fine young man here, and I would be a fool if I didn't know that it all came from you. You rest your soul easy, ma'am, cause old Olly is going to be helping to watch after your boy for a long time to come, and I already love him just like he was my own flesh and blood." After that, he led me over to a wall rack of floral arrangements that I hadn't even noticed until just then. "This here bouquet is from me, little man. I never been to a funeral yet didn't have some flowers, so I wanted to make sure your good mama had some too. Seems like I ain't the only one, either."
"May I guess that you are Grampa Olly?" Mrs. Keane asked as she stepped up beside us. When Grampa Olly and I both confirmed it, she surprised the man by hugging him and kissing him on the cheek. "Thank you so much for watching out for and loving Elijah, and thank you for the invitation for the fish fry as well."
"We all this boy's family now, I reckon, so that makes us family too," Grampa Olly told her. "I tell you the truth; it's going to be powerful good for me to cook my fish for a family again."
As they spoke, I started looking at the flowers and noticed that there were cards with each arrangement. I was surprised when I opened those cards and found that one of the bouquets was from the Sheriff and his family. Another was from Baka. Yet another one was from one of my teachers from this past year in school. The others were the biggest shock though. There were seven or eight arrangements from families in the church. Just as I started reading those cards, the Sheriff walked up and cleared his throat to get my attention.
"Elijah, there are a couple of families outside that would like to know if they can come in and pay their respects to you and your mother," he told me. "They admit that they were members of your father's congregation, though and told me to ask you if it was ok for them to come in, even before I could tell them that I would have done that anyway."
"Who are they?" I asked.
"The first family to show up was Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Lowry."
"He is one of the deacons at the church," I said nervously, then I looked down at the stack of cards in my hands and saw their name on the one at the top of the stack. "Let them come in, please. Who else?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Durbel, and Mrs. Inez Gabel."
"Mrs. Gabel is... was my Sunday School teacher. The Durbels just joined the church a month or so ago. I guess it's ok for them all to come in as well." Old Mrs. Gabel came straight to me and hugged me into her rather large chest as she sniffled. She tried to speak a couple of times, but just couldn't seem to get words out. Mrs. Keane rescued me by helping the old woman to one of the couches and sitting with her for a few minutes. The Durbels walked up to me next.
"I know we hardly know each other, Elijah, but Louise and I really wanted to come tell you how sorry we are for what's happened to you. If we had known what sort of church we were joining, we never would have. I was born not far from here, and that was the church my parents had belonged to when I was just a little boy, so I didn't really check into things much when we started attending there," Mr. Durbel told me.
"The big reason we wanted to come tonight is because there is the rumor going around that this all happened because you are gay," Mrs. Durbel said. Mr. and Mrs. Keane were instantly right beside me and so was Robin along with the sheriff and Grampa Olly. "Oh please don't misunderstand me. I don't want to cause a scene, I promise. It's just that I had to come see you just in case that rumor is true. You see my brother was gay, and he killed himself when he was about your age because he didn't believe our parents or I could ever accept that and neither could he."
"No matter what your father believes or says, Elijah, there is nothing at all wrong with you being gay if you are," Mr. Durbel continued. "My best friend from college is a gay man. He and his husband will have been together for 25 years next month, although they only recently were able to actually marry. Trust us when we say that it won't matter to us if you are. In just the few brief times we have been around you, we have seen a warm, caring and intelligent young man that the world cannot afford to lose any time soon."
"Thank you for telling me about your family and friends," I smiled a little. "In fact the day my mother died, I had planned to kill myself, but then I met these wonderful people and they showed me that my life didn't have to be filled with the pain and hate from my father. Mr. and Mrs. Durbel, I would like to introduce you to my foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Keane, and my boyfriend, their son, Robin."
"Oh, Elijah, you have excellent taste," Mrs. Durbel teased, and Robin and I both blushed.
"The other thing we wanted to tell you is that we are no longer members of that horrible church," Mr. Durbel told me. "I'm not sure where we will be going yet, but I will never go back to that hateful place."
"Maybe Rev. Spangenberger can help you find another church," I suggested. "You don't have to go to his church if you don't want to, but he did tell me he knows a lot of the other ministers in the area. He's Episcopal."
"I was raised Episcopal," Mrs. Durbel smiled. "I think we might like to speak to him. Thank you."
They walked away and Mrs. Gabel returned. "My poor baby," she gushed and squished my face into her big boobs again. "I tried to ignore the hate that your father yelled from that pulpit, but I knew it was wrong and I knew he was wrong. I never dreamed in a nightmare that he would do anything like this, though. I just learned today that a little girl I used to play with when I was growing up was burned to death in a house fire that was started by men from my... that church. We didn't care we were different colors, she was my best friend and I was hers. I won't ever go back to that house of hate. But don't you worry, Elijah, your new foster mom gave me her address so I can come by every once in a while with a batch of my ginger molasses cookies that you like so much. You won't have to share them with that greedy little scoundrel Blake Kiper either." She hugged me once more and then said, "If it's all right with you, I would like to be at your mother's service tomorrow."
"Yes, ma'am please come," I whispered as I hugged her this time. "Thank you, Mrs. Gabel."
By the time the viewing for my mother had ended several hours later, ten families or individuals from the church had stopped by to pay respects and let me know that they had left the church and several of them told me that because of me, they were rethinking a lot of things about what they believed versus what they had been taught all their lives. The biggest surprise of the night though was Coach Fuller. He was the baseball coach for my school and the coach of the young people's softball team for the church.
"I owe you an apology, Elijah," he told me as he stood in front of the couch I was sitting on with Grampa Olly at the time. "I should have spoken out about that garbage your father was spouting a long time ago. He was so full of hate for anyone that wasn't white, and I knew better than that. Athletics is one field where race makes no difference. There's all-stars of every color. I also should have called him on the treatment I saw him giving you. I never knew it was as bad as I have heard in the last couple of days, though, and for that, I beg your forgiveness, Elijah. I knew he didn't treat you right and I should have checked into that and got you the help you needed a lot sooner. You should never have had to find it on your own."
"I was pretty good at keeping up the appearances so no one ever knew what was going on, Coach," I told him honestly. "I just got tired of doing that finally."
"You should never have had to hide your life from anyone, kiddo," he frowned. "You are a very brave, very smart, very wonderful young man, Elijah, even if you are a lousy ballplayer." He ruffled my hair and walked away.
I was more than ready to walk out of the funeral home when the director announced that viewing time had ended, but the Sheriff stopped from me going to the front door. "You don't want to go that way, buddy. The news media showed up thanks to some of the church folks we didn't let in tonight."
"You mean some of the other church folks came too?"
"Yes, but paying respects was not what they had in mind," the sheriff frowned. "It looks like a Westboro Baptist demonstration out there."
"Might I offer a suggestion?" the Funeral Director asked with a mischievous grin. "How would you two boys like to be the first live bodies to ride in the back of a hearse?"
"What?" Robin and I both squeaked.
"The unloading area when a new body is delivered is completely walled in and private for obvious reasons," the director told us. "We keep the old hearse there for going out to get and bring back the remains. You boys climb in the back, and close the curtains all around yourselves. I will drive you to some other location where you can meet up with Mr. and Mrs. Keane and they can take you the rest of the way home. I have to warn you though, it will be a rough ride. Hearses may look like luxury cars, but the looks are as far as it goes. There are no shock absorbers due to the weight they are normally carrying, but none of our other passengers have ever complained."
"EEW was that a dead person joke?" Robin looked as grossed out as I felt.
"You will find that Funeral Directors are some of the funniest people in town. If we don't laugh as much as we can, this business will really get to us."
"Well, that does make a lot of sense, actually," I mused. I looked at Robin and wiggled my eyebrows. "What do you say, my prince? Do you want to go lay down in the back seat of a Cadillac with me?"
"OO Baby, that sounds much nicer than hiding in the back of a hearse," Robin agreed.
"You two are incorrigible," Mrs. Keane groaned.
"It's all his fault, Mom," Robin blurted, pointing at me. "He's been incorriging me ever since I got him naked in my room in the trailer." This time he wiggled his eyebrows at me.
"You will be taking them through the room where the bodies are prepared for burial to get to that unloading area, I presume," Mr. Keane said completely killing both my libido and my appetite for the snack we were supposed to get once we got home. Robin didn't appear to appreciate that knowledge any more than I did.
"If we keep our eyes closed, can you just pull us through the room until we get outside?" Robin asked the funeral director.
"Good idea," I agreed. "I don't want to see anything until I get to the car."
"That is probably for the best, since I do have a couple of fresh ones draining in there," the man answered. At the looks on our faces, he cracked up. "Teenage boys can be so gullible at times."
"That was just mean," Robin pouted.
"And gross, EEEWW!" I added.
The Funeral Director just laughed more and so did Mr. and Mrs. Keane. I don't know if Robin kept his eyes shut through the room or not, but I know I sure did. Another man met us outside. "I took the liberty of bringing a few cushions from the couches in parlor B so you boys wouldn't get bruised too much on your ride."
"Thank you, sir," Robin and I both told him. We then gasped as the two men from the funeral home kissed each other and said goodbye.
"Gay men aren't all hairdressers and floral designers, you know," the director told us as we climbed into the long black car. "Although, I guess in my line of work, I do both of those at times as well. Make sure the curtains are closed tightly, boys. I'll have you back with your parents in just a few moments." It actually took a bit longer than a few moments because the Keanes and the sheriff both had to make a statement to the media crews and the protestors from the church which delayed them getting to us. Robin and I remained in the back of the hearse hiding behind the thick black curtains giggling at the funeral director's tastes in music. He told us the singer was named Ray Stevens. One song about a squirrel getting loose in a church had Robin and me in tears we were laughing so hard. We still had wet eyes when the Keanes finally arrived to pick us up.
"Oh boys, I'm so sorry that you had to go through that," Mrs. Keane gushed and started wiping our eyes with her husband's handkerchief.
"Oh, no ma'am, we're not upset," Robin told her.
"We were laughing at the music," I explained. The funeral director turned up the volume so we could hear another song about a convention of some kind. My new family and I laughed all the way home.
Home. What a thought. All the years with my Father, I called the places we lived many things from parsonage to hellhole, but never home. This would be my first night with the Keanes, but in my heart, I already knew I was home with my family.