Everything We Keep

by Kerry Lonsdale


Gem City of the Foothills

Los Gatos, California



On our wedding day, my fiancé, James, arrived at the church in a casket.

For years I’d dreamed of him waiting for me at the altar, wearing that smile he reserved just for me. It never failed to make my insides flip. But instead of walking down the aisle toward my best friend, my first and only love, I was at his funeral.

I sat beside my parents in the sanctuary filled with friends and relatives. They should have been our wedding guests. Instead, they’d come to pay their respects to a man who’d died too young and too soon. He’d just turned twenty-nine.

Now he was gone. Forever.

A tear trailed down my cheek. I captured it with the shredded tissue in my hand.

“Here, Aimee.” Mom gave me a clean one.

I crumpled it in my fist. “Th-thanks.” My voice hitched on a sob.

“Is that her?” a voice murmured behind me, and I tensed.

“Yes, James’s fiancée,” came a whispered reply.

“The poor dear. She looks so young. How long were they engaged?”

“I’m not sure, but they’d known each other since they were children.”

A surprised breath. “Childhood sweethearts. How tragic.”

“I heard it took weeks for them to locate the body. Can you imagine? The not knowing?”

I moaned. My lower lip quivered uncontrollably.

“Hey! A little respect here,” Dad whispered harshly to the ladies behind us. He stood, shuffling past Mom and me, bumping our knees, and then sat, bookending me between himself and Mom. He pulled me into his side, becoming my shelter against the whispered gossip and curious stares.

The organ blared as the funeral ceremony commenced. Everyone surged to their feet. I rose slowly, my entire body feeling achy and aged, and gripped the pew in front of me to keep from collapsing back into my seat. All heads turned to the rear of the church, where the pallbearers hoisted James’s casket onto their shoulders. As I watched them process behind the priest, I couldn’t help thinking they carried more than James’s remains, his body too decomposed for an open casket. Our hopes and dreams, the future we had road-mapped, also rode on their shoulders. James’s plan to open an art gallery downtown after he quit the family business. My dream to start my own restaurant when my parents retired from theirs. The little boy I imagined standing between James and me, his small hands linked with ours.

Everything would be buried today.

Another sob tore free of my lungs, reverberating off the church walls, the sound louder than the organ’s withering notes.

“I can’t do this,” I wailed in a harsh whisper.

Losing James. Feeling everyone’s pitying stares burning my back as I stood in the second pew. The air was stifling, a stale mixture of sweat and incense wrapped in the sweet, syrupy scent of the orchid bouquets artfully displayed throughout the mission-style church. The flowers had been purchased for our wedding, but Claire Donato, James’s mother, had them delivered for the funeral. Same church. Same flowers. Wrong ceremony.

My stomach pitched. I covered my mouth and tried to move around Dad toward the aisle. Mom snagged my hand and gave it a squeeze. She wrapped her arm through mine, and I rested my head on her shoulder. “There, there,” she soothed. Tears rained unhindered down my face.

The pallbearers lowered the casket onto a metal stand, then moved to their seats. Thomas, James’s brother, slid into the front pew beside Claire, who was dressed in a black suit with her silver hair coiled as tight and rigid as her posture. Phil, James’s cousin, moved into the pew to stand on her other side. He turned and looked at me, dipping his head in acknowledgment. I swallowed, inching back until my calves pressed into the wood bench.

Claire twisted around. “Aimee.”

I jerked my attention to her. “Claire,” I murmured.

Since the news of James’s death, we’d barely spoken a word to each other. She’d made it quite clear my presence was too much a reminder of what she’d lost, her youngest son. For both our sakes, I kept my distance.

The funeral progressed with a predicted lineup of rituals and hymns. I half listened to the speeches and barely heard the readings. When the ceremony ended, I slipped out the side door before anyone could stop me. I’d heard enough condolences to last me two lifetimes.

Guests spilled into the courtyard. I could see the hearse as I moved through the breezeway, hoping to leave unnoticed. I glanced over my shoulder and locked gazes with Thomas. He marched through the arched passageway and looped his arms around me. He gave me a hard hug. The coarse material of his suit scratched my cheek. He looked like James: dark hair and eyes, olive skin. A broader, older version, but he didn’t feel like him.

“I’m glad you’re here.” His breath wove through my hair.

“I almost didn’t come.”

“I know.” He moved me away from the crowd gathering around us until we stopped under the blooming trumpet vine at the edge of the breezeway. Lavender blossoms danced in the July afternoon breeze. The coastal fog that had blanketed Los Gatos in the predawn hours had burned off with the rising sun. The day was already too warm.

Thomas leaned away and gripped my upper arms. “How are you doing?”

I shook my head, pressing my tongue to the roof of my mouth to stifle the sob threatening to be heard. I stepped from Thomas’s arms. “I have to go.”

“We all do. Come, ride with me. I’ll take you to the burial and reception afterward.”

I shook my head again. He’d driven to the church with Claire and Phil.

Thomas sighed heavily. “You aren’t coming.”

“Only to the burial.” I twisted my fingers in the tie of my wrap dress. I’d driven there with my parents. I planned to leave with them, too. “The reception’s your mother’s affair. Her relatives and friends.”

“They were also James’s and your friends.”

“I know, but . . .”

“I understand.” He reached inside his suit and withdrew a folded piece of paper. “I’m not sure when I’ll see you again.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Just because James is . . .” I swallowed and studied my shoes, black wedges. Not the white satin open-toe pumps I was supposed to wear that day. “You can call me. Or visit,” I offered.

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