Father looked ill at ease in the box. He always said not to cry at his funeral, so I won’t. The plaid vest under the dark jacket was the last he had ever bought. He never wore it though. The stitching feels new. Perhaps tight is the correct word. The pockets are still sewn shut. I notice the mortician watching me inspect his work. In the silence of the room, the tick and the tock of the pocketwatch lying upon his belly was a reminder of how little time I have remaining.
The mortician says in a low voice that others would be arriving soon, so I nod without words and sit in the front row of chairs cordoned off with a placard reading, reserved for family. It’s painfully obvious that I am alone. My mouth dry and my eyes full of tears. A look to the casket reminds me to refrain from letting tears roll down my cheeks. He would never stand for that weakness. That irrationale. ‘Show how you feel while I’m alive,’ he would say. ‘When I’m dead, I will not hear you.’ Before I can clear the small cough from the back of my throat, an attendant hands me a small cup of water and a tissue.
The embroidered handkerchief in my purse is for show later - when others are watching. There will be moments my hand will pull the dainty cloth to my eyes and I will turn away from whomever stands before me with false sentiments of sympathy.
Mourners file in and I take my place at the head of my father’s box. He always called it a box. ‘When I’m in a box, he would say. ‘Make it a plain box,’ he said. He would be angered by the expense today. His box is a Copper Orchid, the most expensive one I could find. Although he could always afford the most expensive, he boasted of his frugality. Although thinking of his tastes, he sought quality. He was not necessarily frugal. He was shrewd. My ankles become uneasy in my heels. In the past, I’ve never been unsteady on my feet. I wonder if I am emotional with the events of the day. When I brace my weight on the Copper Orchid, I wonder if Father would commend me or chastise me for the choices I’ve made for his final day.
“You look faint,” a stranger says while touching my elbow, causing a chain reaction of movement - feigning a thin smile, retrieving the hanky, nodding and dabbing my nostrils, leaning in for a kiss on the cheek, and then bracing my weight on the casket. With every guest, the motion was the same. I say nothing throughout the wake. I hear nothing. I feel nothing.
It is only weeks before I return to work. Now I walk into my father’s office, feeling the sun beam down from the skylight centered in the ceiling. ‘Natural light,’ he would boast, ‘instead of paying for electricity.’ Sensors around the building allow light bulbs to illuminate when the sky darkens. Other sensors determine the temperature and control automation of window movement and air conditioning or heat. I’m in charge now. I know every aspect of the business having worked with him over thirty years.
The interviews start today. I need to replace me. I take my father’s chair, and someone must take mine. I need to replace me. What attributes do I seek? Other than the obvious skillset needed to do my job as Vice President. Who will I choose? I’ve interviewed personnel. Hired and fired almost everyone in the executive offices. But I need to replace me. How does one replace themselves?
The interviews exhaust me. I sit quietly, making notes for every candidate. I rattle off ancillary questions that have nothing to do with the job. A means of getting to know someone. I hate these questions. I only need someone to do the job.
My father’s assistant excuses herself as she enters my office. My brain is numb as I ask what she needs.
“A gentleman you met wants to rescind his resume. He no longer wishes to be considered for the job.”
I nod and motion toward the stack of resumes with notes. She makes small talk about my feelings. I am trying to think today. Not feel. The conversation is benign and when she finds what she sought, she leaves with a smile.
The sun remains overhead, but I request all other appointments are canceled. I will arbitrarily choose a name and have them begin work as soon as possible. I wonder which resume was removed and consider sending an offer out to see his response. I chastise myself for the nonsense in my thoughts and choose a resume from the stack. It is finished. I replaced me.
I lock my door and look in the drawers of my father’s desk. His belongings have not been removed. I fish through old papers and touch every pen and pencil in the drawer. The humidor remains full and I pull a cigar out and draw in the memorable scent of tobacco.
A knock on the door reveals a bouquet of flowers. I dismiss it as another sympathy bunch, but soon discover a small card indicating someone is taken with me. Smitten. I’ve long given up the idea of romance, but perhaps companionship would be helpful in returning some of the feeling to my body.
Days pass and to my surprise, I look forward to the phone calls and messages I receive disguised as sympathy to onlookers, but in private there is impassioned disregard of myself and I only want to be half of Mr. and Mrs.
“Let’s elope,” David suggests.
And he cares for every detail. And I let him, which is most unlike me.
“Another person is missing from a cruise ship,” I read aloud from the morning newspaper.
“We should take a cruise to celebrate our marriage,” David responds.
Ignoring David’s words, I ask, “Where do you think these missing people are? They must be somewhere.”
David takes the paper from my hands. “Put down this misery and say you will go away with me.”
“I’ve been taking too much time away from the office. I don’t think I should.”
He sighs heavily and asks,“When are you going to take care of yourself?”
“But it’s not caring for myself,” I retort. “You want to care for me.”
“I already do,” he says. David pulls me into his arms and only minutes of negotiation was needed before I conceded. We were booked on a cruise ship leaving in only a few days.
The crowd concerns me. I’m afraid of pickpockets and thieves. My husband asks for my wallet and passport to hold in his breast pocket while we take our place in line on the gangplank. Minutes later, our tickets are validated. We’re pushed and pulled in opposite directions and I lose sight of him. I position myself toward the front of the crowd who wave ferociously at folks on the dock.
My eye catches sight of him. My father. My father stands in the droves of people being left behind. I move closer to the railing so I can see without obstacle. I am certain the man who I see and stares back into my eyes is my father. Even stranger, my husband walks to my father on the dock and points at me. I must be seeing things. My husband is on the ship with me and my father lies in a box.
I shove through the crowd when I hear the massive horn sound. I must find my husband. I turn back to look at the dock. My father is gone. It must have been my desire to have my father approve of this marriage.
“I’ve lost my husband,” I tell an attendant.
He responds, “I’m sorry madam.”
“He was at my side and then I thought I saw him on the dock.”
The attendant suggests I check my cabin. I nod and quietly walk along the hall of the ship.
Why was he on the dock? Or perhaps he wasn’t? My father could not have been-
“B18,” I read the number aloud from the door that is ajar. “David?” My husband pulls me into his arms. I cannot control my tears. “I thought you left me. I saw you on the dock.”
“Don’t be silly; I’m here with you.”
I puzzle how David walked toward my father. He’s right. I imagined it. “I must have gotten turned around on deck.”
David looks different. Perhaps it’s the lighting in the room? He smiles and bares his teeth. I have only ever seen him smile with a closed mouth. The wrinkles around his eyes are more pronounced with this expressive difference. I stand with embarrassment in the shadow of his exuberance.
“Excuse me,” another man walks from the bathroom through the cabin as he apologizes.
“Who was that?” David’s toothy smile calmed me while he explains he called housekeeping because he was dissatisfied with the condition of the bath. I ask if we should request a room change, but it is not necessary. David notices I’m shaking and I cannot explain my unease. I take his hand and walk along the hall to the bar.
“Oh darling, I forgot my wallet,” David says when we reach the threshold. “I’ll run back to the room. Go order a drink.”
I wait for the bartender to serve others who sat before me. Plenty of time passes which would have allowed David to walk to the cabin and return to me, still I wait alone. The hour passes without my husband at my side. I’m embarrassed, but I tell the bartender I must leave without paying. I promise to return with the money. He suggests charging the drink to the room, but needs to see my cabin key.
“My husband took it to get his wallet from his luggage,” I explain.
“It’s okay. That ones on me,” he winks and turns to care for someone else.
“B18,” I say aloud again. The door is locked. I wonder if David ever came to the room? I step back and allow the wall to hold my weight. He must have gone to the bar. How silly that I’m waiting here while he waits for me in the bar.
I collect my thoughts and return to the bar without seeing David. Without identifying him, I ask, “Has my husband been here?”
The bartender smiles and says, “No one has asked for you.”
“I wasn’t able to get the key to my cabin. Do you think I could have another-”
The bartender interrupted and explained he could look up my name to charge the room.
“I don’t see that name. Would it be under another?” The bartender did what he could.
I do not know another name David would have used. “No. We booked the trip under-”
“Madam, could you come with me?”
A voice startled me from behind and I did not want to leave the bar, in the event David returned. “I mustn’t-”
“I phrased that wrong.” The broad gentleman is stern. “We prefer to handle this personal matter away from the other passengers.”
“Personal? Something’s happened to David.” Tears well up in my eyes and my belly tightens into a knot. I follow the man to a small room and answer questions about my identity. I am told of the penalty stowaways receive when they are discovered.
“I have a reservation. Our luggage is in B18.” I beg them check with my assistant to verify my name and provide payment. And then in tears, I question where my husband is.
We sit in silence and I notice the man’s look becomes softer.
“Your assistant told us you are unmarried,” The gentleman said while his eyes look away from mine.
I hate that he pities me. I wonder if I am really spiraling into madness. And then in a moment of clarity, I demand, “Where is my luggage? Take me to B18.”
The gentleman complies and opens the door to show me an empty cabin. “Our bags-” I walk in and touch the blankets. “Our suitcases were placed on the bed.”
“B18 was not reserved for this voyage.”
“That cannot be,” I say. “My husband-”
“Ms. Townsen, we have determined you do not have a husband.”
I sit on the bed with my head in my hands. I feel my reaction should be tears. I am curious though why there is no record of our reservation. I know I saw B18 on tickets in David’s hand. As I lift my head, I notice the man spoke to David before I walked in the room earlier. “Excuse me!” I push past the threshold and say, “You saw my husband!”
He responds, “I see many passengers.”
“You were in B18 when I arrived. You were cleaning the tub.”
“Ms. Townsend, this is a pilot. He would not be cleaning a bathroom.”
“But I’m certain-”
“He will be piloting the ship for the second leg of the cruise. You must be mistaken.”
“Yes,” i say, still in disbelief that no one I encountered saw David.
“I’ll leave you alone for now. We can check the cargo hold to see if your luggage was put there by mistake.”
I nod and stare out the porthole. Passengers walk by and I go to the window to draw the curtain. “David!” I knock on the glass. “David!” He cannot hear me. I run out the cabin and around the deck searching for my husband that I am certain I saw moments before. “I’m going mad.” The motion of the water hypnotizes me. Sound becomes silent. I no longer feel the chill from the brass railing on my fingertips. Time passes but I have no sense of the hour. I only know the sky is now dark and I should head to my room for rest.
I walk into the room as the phone rings and when I answer it is David. He says he has been looking for me.
“Where are you darling?” His voice is cheerful without concern.
“B18,” I respond. “Our luggage is gone.”
He tells me he is looking at our suitcases in cabin B15 and that explains the confusion.
“But, I am certain-” I said with my own thoughts interrupting my words. “Please stay there. I will come straightaway.”
I walk to B15 and knock softly.
David opens the door and wraps his arm around my waist. “Let’s walk in the moonlight,” he suggests, and leads me along the corridor to a deck away from the other passengers. “Kiss me,” he says. But as I lean in to kiss him, he forces my back over the railing. He moves his body down and grasps my legs, still pushing me over the railing.
“David, stop please!”
I fight with all my strength, and he fights with his. I throw my body to the floor of the deck as I scream, but see that no one is on the deck. He wraps his arms around my waist and pulls. My body bends in half and I struggle to keep my feet planted.
A shadow walks from the darkness toward us. “Please help me!”
The shadow asks, “What are you doing?”
I call out, “Thank you!”
I see the man from the shadow. “You’re the pilot! Please-”
He interrupts and says, “I can hear her screaming on the other side of the ship. Gag her mouth.”
A cloth is shoved into my mouth. My nostrils open wide for breath. My eyes dart back and forth between the men. They hold me down on the deck. I am certain they will both pick me up to dump over the rail. I stop struggling to save my strength.
“We get nothing if she returns home,” the pilot says.
David speaks to the pilot, “I know, her uncle needs it to look like an accident.”
I don’t know of an uncle. My father was an only child, like me. That must have been who I saw on the dock. I slow my breathing. I am strong enough to fight them.
“My dad is entitled to that business. We’ve been shut out too long from the family,” the pilot reveals.
David growls,, “My brother and I lose our paycheck if she returns.”
His brother? My mind is frantic. Is that who was talking to my father on the dock? It wasn’t my father. It was my uncle?
“Let’s finish this,” the pilot says and reaches around my neck. I lose control of my body and David grips my ankles.
I spit the gag from my mouth. I ask, “Are you my husband?”
“My brother gets seasick. I had to take his place,” David says.
My head drops to the floor with a thud. “You don’t have to explain to her-”
“Careful. She can’t have bruises. This has to look like a suicide,” David says.
I manage the words, “You’re going to kill me?”
My face is smacked to quiet my mouth. “The whole ship thinks she’s crazy. It’s not going to surprise anyone that she jumps.”
David called out, “But if she is found, she cannot have bruises!”
“Quiet,” the pilot demands. “The whole ship will hear you.” He picks up my head again and urges, “Get her over the railing.”
My body goes limp. My thoughts are serene. I feel the hands on me, but they are not a violation any longer. I am at peace.
The wind rushes in my ears. The smell of saltwater fills me. I look up to the sky looking at the ceiling of darkness. The stars remain, but they fade before my eyes. My body pushes the water out of its way and it demands a place in the ocean. I lose my hearing. I lose the sensation in my skin. I sink with ease as the air in my lungs is replaced with water. Emotion is gone but thought remains. I realize I will be lost in a mystery and never lay in a box.