An Angel's Prayer
The church was cast in black. Ornate flower clusters nestled the casket beneath the pulpit, and a silver framed picture of a beaming young woman sat in front of the display. Slit eyes squinted further as the smile bridged her pale face. A pink origami rose sat tucked within her severe straight hair behind her ear. That face didn't have a care in the world, which was the beauty of photographs. They were man's sweetest lies. The organist's fingers slow danced, and the pipes hummed the solemn march to lead the soul to the afterlife along a trail of tears, well wishes, and fond memories.
The pastor nodded to the young woman approaching, and he stepped beside the altar, clasping his hands beneath the wafting robes. She was a small sort in her knee length dress and flats that pattered as they carried her down the aisle separating the two sections of pews, and up the two steps to the carpeted platform. Dark eyes stared out at the sea of black hats, veils, and ties. She was one more spilled drop from that desolate gathering. It left a sunken pit in her stomach. Those faces were so stoic, unfeeling, traditional. Didn't they realize they brought this on themselves?
A conspicuous cough behind her made her crank her neck around to the pastor.
"Miss Marcy?" came his hoarse whisper. His hands made swift ringlets, an impatient gesture. Marcy kept her eyes from narrowing, but her mouth was a grim slash. So few people came up to speak on Corinne's behalf, embarrassed or just unsure. Immediate family spoke, of course, and some aunts and uncles, all with the highest praise in curt, reserved speeches. All of it was well deserved. You wouldn't find a greater student or friend than Corrine Park. But what did they know? Corinne was her friend, not theirs. And the pastor had the gall to rush her? There was all the time in the world. Corinne wasn't going anywhere, and any other services would forgive her if they knew what she knew.
Marcy only nodded and turned back to the family and congregation. Haze fell over them from the skylight as clouds blocked the sun, and the stark black of their uniformed grief turned to shades of dark ash like evil spirits. Marcy's hands began to shake, and she shoved them behind her.
"It's a beautiful day today," she said. "Corinne loved to sit outside, especially on days like this. She said it was better for her eyes when she studied or read or did homework. I asked her one time what she liked to read. You know what she said? She said, 'There isn't a classic I haven't read. Just quiz me.' I told her that wasn't what I asked. She couldn't give me a straight answer. Like she didn't know anything she actually enjoyed. Like all she ever did was because she was told to; not because she enjoyed it, but because someone else enjoyed her doing it, and she had to please him." Monster! "She had to please everyone but herself."
Marcy ignored the hushed murmurs cascading through the benches. She couldn't tell if they were endeared agreements or shock. She didn't care. "But I think she got her pleasure not from typical things, but just from pleasing others. It absolutely broke her heart to think she let you down. Cori baked me a soufflé for my birthday one year—from scratch. There was nothing she couldn't do. But before I got to her house, it collapsed. She spent the entire night apologizing, as if some stupid, pretty soufflé really mattered. I just wanted to have a slumber party with my best friend, and you—" She bit her tongue, and only then realized how much her heart had picked up as she stared down the front row of immediate family. Beneath the thin material of her dress, her chest heaved. But today wasn't about her feelings. It was about Corinne's name. Marcy wouldn't be the one to spoil the last moments with her best friend's spirit.
"She was superhuman and always smiling. The day she died—" Because of you! "—I called Corinne. I wanted to celebrate finishing our finals. Of course, my course load was nothing compared to hers. She always pushed herself to do more and more, and she always excelled. Finishing our Literature class was the first time in a long time I hadn't seen Corinne smile. She was worried because just this one time, through all of her careful scheduling and time management, the final slipped under her radar, and she didn't study for it like she wanted. But I knew if she just relaxed, it would be fine. No one would think any less of her for not being perfect." She was only human, not a machine! Perfectly imperfect! "Everyone knew how hard she worked…but it wasn't enough.
"I got a B+ on that final. I couldn't have been happier picking up that test from campus. Cori never told anyone her grade except me." Marcy's eyes fell on Corinne's parents again whose stone glances chiseled away. Her father, a broad shouldered businessman with a perfectly controlled receding hair line, took on a grave aggression. Marcy was glad he tried to hide his shame beneath a coat of arms. The slight creature that was her mother dropped her eyes to her perfect glossy shoes beneath the loose knit veil. What made it so much more painful was that Marcy could see her best friend through those eyes, just as she saw the authoritarians in Corinne's shining eyes. She was a product of her parents.
"She got a D on that test—" The air crackled. "—and it didn't affect her final grade at all. She still had her A, but it was tainted to her. Imperfect. It wasn't good enough. It was a shame like her family had never seen because, just like she told me a million times, no one in her family had ever performed less than perfect."
These words were no longer for the congregation. They were for Mr. and Mrs. Park. Each word penetrated like a surgeon's careful blade, cutting the design that Marcy had to live with for the rest of her life. Corinne dragged herself to Marcy's house, eyes bloodshot from tears, shivering like a leaf against a winter's frigid gale. She didn't do anything more than force the thick packet into Marcy's hands and wait as she flipped to the last page where the crimson letter sat, bleeding into the paper. Then, before Marcy could console her, tell her that this was nothing, just one little speck that all of her success would blow away, the gun was in Corrine's hand. Her tears began anew, and with just the briefest of hesitations and a deafening BANG!, it was done. Corinne was face first on her stained porch.
It was all so absurd as it played over and over in her mind without leaving any impression in her thoughts. It was the melodrama of movies. But it happened. And Marcy began to feel the bottled up pressure of fury. But it wouldn't do any good, she had reasoned. It wouldn't make Corinne's parents change, and it certainly wouldn't bring Corinne back. She was just a misguided child, too eager to please. And when she couldn't…
"I love Corinne," Marcy said, eyes burning. "She was the greatest girl I'd ever known, an angel straight from heaven, and—" She bit her tongue again, but the tears wouldn't stop. "—and she's gone too soon for a bunch of—" Please, Cori, please let me know it's okay to do this. The world should know! You deserve this!
The haze of the clouds beyond the skylight wavered and then passed. Rays of sun fell around the casket, lighting up Corinne's beautiful smile, and another flood of light fell on her parents who gave her that smile, and took it away as well. The tears traced Marcy's stiff, forced cheeks, and she finally allowed herself the pent up scowl.
"Why couldn't you just leave her alone!?" she said, leaning against the altar towards Mr. and Mrs. Park. "Why did you have to push her so hard? She was brilliant! She didn't need to drown herself in it. Did you know she didn't even like the damn cello?" The pastor laid his hands on her shoulders, but Marcy shoved him away. She stomped down the steps towards the first row of pews. The Parks edged back. The father glared, and the mother's glassy eyes widened. "And did you know her favorite color was pink, and she wanted her ears pierced, and she wanted to teach pre-school or bake, not go into medicine? You should know these things!" The tears were in full force, staining her face. "You should care! You're awful parents! She just wanted to please you because you're so perfect. You told her she had to be. Well, you're not perfect! You're despicable!"
She went to the lavish bouquet, grabbed a fistful of flowers, and launched them at the Parks one by one as she listed what else they didn't know about their daughter. The hate, the blame, and the sorrow couldn't be contained anymore. The dam cracked with each memory, and finally burst into a roaring torrent that wouldn't be denied. Marcy could barely feel the bigger men in the congregation tearing the flowers from her hands, and carrying her down the aisle as she kicked, clawed, and screamed. When they lugged her through the double doors, one man used his heel to kick them shut. The wails echoed through the church, but the meaning struck louder than the returning crushing silence could smother.
No one quite knew what to say or do. Even the pastor took a silent beat at the altar, wiping his sweating brow with a handkerchief. Such a display of grief they had never witnessed. Marcy's words rang pure with heartache. But who would ever accuse the parents for the death of the child at the funeral? When this notion spread, it shaped from seeing the grieving friend's logic to sympathy over the disrespect towards the grieving parents. The pastor spoke again, twisting the commotion into praise for the dead, and lifting the spirits of the injured left behind. Mr. Park nodded, grim for the rest of the service. His wife's eyes never left her daughter's tilted picture on the disrupted flowerbed. The effervescent smile was turned.
The grave yard teemed with marble head stones and fields of bouquets. The whispering breeze bent the grass as it pleased, and the waning sun, following the red moon, carried with it the passing of another soul to heaven. Corinne didn't belong anywhere else. She was an angel in a foreign realm, bringing light to a world where it couldn't be found. The devils of that world shrouded her light, stomping on it until even she forgot it was there.
Mrs. Park stood beside her daughter's grave with her eyes shut against the glare of the pinks in the sky, apparently Corinne's favorite color. She didn't know for sure, and a knife twisted through her heart. She looked down in her hands at the origami rose, wishing the paper was pink, but white was the color of heaven. It was perfect. Lines of type and cursive graphite left asymmetric designs in and out of the petals. Perfectly imperfect. She tucked the rose in one of the many bouquets over Corinne's engraved name to protect it from the breeze, bowed her head, and rejoined the procession along a trail of tears, aching hearts, and clouded memories. And regrets.
Just inside the bend of the heart of the blossom glared a red letter dug up from almost too many decades passed to remember—hated, but deserved. It was never spoken of, and it never would be.