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SunLit Excerpt: In “The New Neighbor,” a life-changing text message collides with grief

Carter Wilson's psychological thriller begins with a widower struggling to reconcile wondrous economic fortune on the worst day of his life

The Day I Broke

June 2, 2018
Baltimore, Maryland

I thought I couldn’t handle another minute in the funeral home, but this church is worse.

My wife doesn’t belong here.

Thirty-four years old and the count stops there. Her biological clock runs backward now, ticking decomposition. I try to push away the thought of her face being anything other than radiant and smooth, but I can’t do it anymore. I can only picture it collapsing in on itself, a pumpkin rotting in the sun.

“Daddy, your tie.”

I look down. Maggie points at my neck, her fierce, blue eyes gift-wrapped with streaks of red. Easy to tell when she’s been crying.

“What?”

“It’s coming off.”

I reach up, touch my clip-on, find half of it coming out of the collar. I jam it back in, doubting it’ll stay.

I neither own nor know how to fasten a proper tie, so I had to go to a department store to find a clip-on for my wife’s funeral. What an experience that was. Holly was two days dead, and I had to stagger into a Macy’s and endure the glossy smiles and empty-calorie banter of the staff just so I could look acceptable at the service.

“Thanks,” I tell my daughter. I realize she’s missing her other half. “Where’s your brother?”

“He wanted to stay outside.”

“What?”

“Can I go outside, too?” she asks. “I don’t wanna be here.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

“None of us wants to be here, love. Last place on earth we want to be. But right now, it’s where we need to be. Least for a little while.” I place my palm on her seven-year-old head. Jesus wept, this is brutal. “Stay here, I’m getting Bo.”

It doesn’t take more than a dozen steps to get back outside, and I’m both thankful for the bout of fresh air and guilty I made my daughter stay inside.

Bo and Maggie. Twins, but couldn’t be less alike. Sun and moon, water and sky. The day Holly and I found out we were having fraternal twins, we’d agreed the girl would have an Irish name—from my ancestry—and the boy would have a Swedish name, from hers. As the years rolled on, we couldn’t ignore the huge body of water between them, as if they were truly raised in different lands.

Outside, Bo stares at a tree in the courtyard of the church. A handful of people stroll across the cobblestone, making their way to the service. A coworker from the bar I work at spies me, shoots me a pitied look and pivots my way. I lower my head. Attention isn’t something I crave on my happiest of days. Today, it’s poison.

As I reach Bo, I touch his back. His navy-blue blazer is the other thing I had to buy at Macy’s, and I guessed a size too big. With his mop of jet-black hair, pale skin, bony frame and loose wardrobe, he looks like a miniature scarecrow. Shows about as much emotion, too.

“Whatcha doing?” I ask.

He keeps looking at the tree.

“It’s an oak,” he says.

I look at it, not really caring what kind of tree it is. “Aye. But we have to go inside, buddy.”

He doesn’t move.

“It’s probably older than she was,” he says.

I take a breath, bite it in half, spit it out.

“Bo, listen to me, we gotta go inside. I know you don’t want to, but we gotta.”

Now he turns, fixes his gaze on me. He has her eyes, deep and dark, a thousand lifetimes behind them. “Why?”

“Because you need to say goodbye.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“I did already,” he says. “When the ambulance took her.”

“You know that’s different.”

“It’s all that counts. I said goodbye. I don’t want to see her.”

“You won’t actually see her,” I say, knowing exactly how he feels.

“So then I’ll stay here.”

I feel the muscles tighten in my neck, spread down my arms. I kneel and look into those bottomless eyes.

“Bo. You have to. Right now. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

He blinks. Once. Twice. “Tell me why.”

I rub his arm, think on it for a second. Logic is a fleeting ghost these days. Then I say, “Because you’re her child. And there’re folks in there who want to see her again, but they can’t. But they can see you. They can see her in you. Those folks are grieving, too, and you being there might help relieve a little of that pain for them. Does that make sense?”

He thinks on it. “Not really.”

“No, I suspect it doesn’t. Well, how about this. I need you. You and Maggie. I have to go in there, and I don’t know if I can do it without you. You two. My columns. Need you to keep me from crumbling. Just do it for me, Bo. Can you do that?”

He lets this settle with him a minute, and with no verbal confirmation, he takes my hand and lets me lead him back inside.

Every inch feels like battle, hand-to-hand combat.

The next hour comes and goes in intermittent bursts of clarity, like driving through rolling fog. There’s the service, not quite what I want or expect, but how am I to know what to want or expect? I say a few words to the congregation, mumbling them mostly, then do a reading from King James. I choke up, look away from the Bible, and spot Da there in the front pew. My father flew in from Dublin just yesterday. His gaze so hard, willing the strength for both of us, and he gives me this little nod, the slightest thing. But it helps.

Da and I know about death.

I sit down. A few more readings, I don’t recall who or what. The priest says words I’ve heard before at the services of others who were much older than Holly. Hearing these words, my brain comes up with the word widow.

No, that’s not right. Not widow.

Widower. That’s it.

A sudden, irrational flash in my mind. I’m at a cocktail party. A fancy bloke in a slick suit shakes my hand and asks what I do.

I’m a widower, I say.

My name is Aidan Marlowe and I’m a goddamn thirty-five-year-old widower.

The vision shakes me, the distraction welcome. More words, more fog. Some organ music.

We go outside.

I touch my collar, checking. I’m still wearing the tie.

Holly wears a casket.

Does this make me look fat?

The thought almost makes me laugh. Ends up making me cry.

We carry her. Me, Da, Holly’s two brothers, her mother and father. Holly’s family all lives in Maryland.

I see it ahead. The hole.

More blurring. At one point, dizziness sweeps me, and I think, I can’t bear this weight anymore.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

And yet I do, because I have to. The casket sits beside the open hole. There are more words. Priest’s words, flavorless as communion wafers. Bo and Maggie flank me, my arms around them. Maggie sniffles, having run clean out of tears. Bo is as silent and steady as that oak tree, and I don’t know how. It worries me a little. Maybe more than a little.

I daze away for a moment and then am aware of a slight murmur from the crowd around me. The priest has a brief conversation with a grounds keeper who’s just ghosted onto the scene, his dirty jeans and long-sleeved, green T-shirt in stark contrast to the black donned by the lot of us.

Comforting to see a working man here. A bloke who’d wear a clip-on tie, I’d wager.

Their conversation ends, the grounds keeper whisks away, and the priest says, “I’m sorry.” He follows this up with something about the ground not being quite ready, and I don’t know what this means. The ground isn’t ready? To swallow up my wife? I might have said this out loud, I don’t know.

The priest apologizes a second time and tells us it will be another fifteen minutes or so, that the crew hasn’t prepped the site to completion, and suggests we go back inside.

“I’ll stay,” I say. “I’ll stay here.”

Others agree, say they want to stay as well, but I tell them no. Even my kids, my family, Holly’s family. I tell them to go inside, because I want to be alone with her one last time. That maybe the ground wasn’t supposed to be ready, just so I could have this final moment. The priest tells me I won’t be totally alone, that the grounds crew will be here.

“Okay,” I say. “That’s okay.”

The crowd trails back to the church like a long, black cat skulking through high grass. Holly’s mother holds the hands of my children.

They are gone and, for a moment before the grounds crew comes back to do what they need to do, Holly and I are alone.

So alone.

All my life I’ve felt energy. The radiating pulses of others. Good, bad, hot, cold—I could tell a friend their mood before they’d realized it themselves. And Holly…her energy was special. I felt it the first time I saw her, when she strutted into my family’s pub in Dublin twelve years ago. She sizzled, an exposed live wire. I thought I might die when I finally touched her but instead came alive for the first time.

Now there’s nothing. Not a single crackle or sparkle. Whatever wellspring of energy is left of my wife has transmitted to some void I’m not allowed to visit, at least not yet.

I’ve said plenty of things to her, dead and alive, and have an eternity more to say, but what comes to mind is this:

“Shoulda bought a better fucking tie.”

I reach up, yank my tie off, jam it in the front pocket of my blazer. “Shoulda spent more money and learned how to tie it. I’m sorry. It’s just that…with the funeral. The costs. Everything’s so expensive. Your parents are helping out, bless them. But I was in that store, looking for ties, and my brain was swirling, and I just wanted to be out of there, and then I heard your voice. Scolding me, in that playful way you always did. Told me, ‘Marlowe, don’t spend good money on a tie you’ll only wear this once.’ You said that. I swear you said that. And I ended up spending eight dollars on a stupid clip-on.”

And this breaks me in a way I haven’t been broken since she died. The simple failure of dressing proper for Holly’s funeral, despite the fact she’d see it as an unnecessary expense. I owed that much to her. An extra twenty dollars on a decent tie. I couldn’t even do that.

“I’m sorry.” I reach over, rest my fingertips on the casket. Honey glaze, cool and smooth. “I can’t do this. I canna do this alone.”

The bitterest part is she never knew all of me. I never told her everything about my past, and now, even with her gone, even with only her husk to confess to, I’m still tempted to hold my silence. My unending, poisonous silence.

Tell her, Marlowe. Tell her now, before the ground takes her.

I suck in a deep breath, thinking I’ll finally tell her. This thing in me, waiting to come out all these years.

“When I was younger,” I start. “Back in Ireland—”

My mobile vibrates. Two short buzzes. A text message.

The only reason I reach for it is the timing. As if Holly can talk to me, but only through text. As I swipe my screen open, I’m 99 percent convinced there’ll be a message from her telling me the one thing we always said to each other no matter the time of day, no matter how rushed we were, no matter our moods, no matter how much we even meant it in that very moment. The same thing she last said to me two hours before she died, on her way out the door that morning. The thing we said because it was our one truth, without which everything else would have been a lie.

I love you.

I check my notifications. There is a new text, but it’s from an old childhood friend in Ireland.

Thinking of you.

I don’t reply. Maybe later.

My gaze sweeps all the older texts, so many unread.

Later.

Then, for no reason other than how my synapses decide to fire in this moment, I look at one of the other unread messages, one I receive twice a week. Every Wednesday night and Saturday night.

The Powerball numbers.

With a Pavlovian lack of thought, I click on the message, hardly aware my other hand still rests on my wife’s casket.

These are throwaway texts, discarded in seconds. A few times a year, I might have two numbers match. In years of playing, I’ve had three numbers match only four times, despite playing twice a week.

I’ve spent countless dollars playing the same numbers on Powerball for years on end yet buy a shit tie for Holly’s final day of rest. Goddamn me.

The text is familiar, with one exception.

Powerball 05/30/18 Winning #s:
01-05-08-10-14 PB 22
ONE Winner
Annuitized $60.4 Mil Cash
Lump sum value: $29.8 Mil
Official results at powerball.com

The numbers.

The fucking numbers.

They’re mine.


A jolt of electricity bursts through my fingertips, the ones
resting on the casket. Travels up my arms, into my chest, up to
my brain. It’s Holly’s energy, I think. One final pulse of it.

Then a sound, like a tree limb snapping clean from a
towering oak. I look to my left, to the only tree nearby. An oak, a
solid twin for the one in the courtyard Bo fancied, its limbs all
intact.

The sound doesn’t repeat.


Carter Wilson has authored eight critically acclaimed, standalone psychological thrillers, as well as numerous short stories. He is a four-time winner of the Colorado Book Award, and his works have been optioned for television and film. He also hosts The Making It Up Show video podcast. Wilson lives in Erie, Colorado. Visit him online at carterwilson.com.



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