Charlotte had no notion of blasting the top off Major Tidwell’s tall and elaborate Woodmen of the World monument. It was shaped like a tree with its limbs sawn off and, as anyone could see, it was an easy mark. Under normal circumstances, she would never have dreamed of it. The only reason she did it was pure frustration and perhaps she was tired, she later told the sheriff’s deputy.
The day had started out well enough. She reached up in her closet for the velvet heart-shaped box that held Cameron’s cremation urn and prayed she wouldn’t drop it. She didn’t. Then she went into Cameron’s room and searched for the skull-and-bones pirate keepsake box their mother had given Cameron when he was thirteen. It held all his precious things. His first lost tooth. The first dollar he earned. Mexican jumping beans from Six Flags in Houston. A picture of Darla Shay, his best friend in high school. The enormous blue bowtie he wore to the junior-senior banquet. Charlotte had decided she would bury the keepsake box right alongside Cameron’s ashes. Cameron would have said she was going Egyptian on him, but it felt like the right thing to do and Charlotte always went with her feelings.
Cameron said Charlotte was cursed that way, that she was a victim of her feelings and didn’t have a shred of logic in her brain. He’d warned her about going off the deep end after he died.
“You better get control of yourself,” he said, reaching out an emaciated arm, his voice a hoarse whisper. “Pull me over. I’m hurting.” Charlotte pulled him over and he groaned. She sniffled and wiped her nose across her sleeve. “You’re like a child,” he said. “You need to pray to God you don’t fall apart without me.” His eyes were large and black, dilated and empty, like he’d already left and was crossing over the Jordan even as he spoke.
“I’ll be okay,” she said. She squeezed his hand. He didn’t smile like he used to. He just breathed through his mouth and stared past her.
“I don’t want to die,” he said. “There’s a lot I want to do still.” He looked at her suddenly, held her in focus for a moment.
“I know.” She couldn’t think of what else to say. Usually she couldn’t stop talking, but now she felt weak in her words. There were none.
“I’m tired.” He shifted and picked at the sheets. “I’m just lying here rotting. No one’ll even come see me. Afraid they’ll catch what I got.”
“That’s not true,” Charlotte said. “I tell them you’re too sick for visitors.”
“You don’t have to lie to me. They’ve already written me off. Wrote me off twelve years ago when they heard what I got.”
“I tell them you’ve got cancer.”
“Yeah, and they know what else I got, too.”
“You’ve got cancer. That’s what I tell them and that’s the truth.”
Not long after, Cameron went into a coma and the death rattle started. It filled the whole house. There was nowhere you could go and not hear it. The hospice nurse said it could be a few hours or a few days. Sometimes, Charlotte sat by Cameron’s side with the pain pump in her hand and pressed and pressed and pressed. She watched religious shows on the TV in his bedroom and prayed with the faith healers. She laid hands on Cameron when Benny Hinn came on. But the death rattle continued. After three days, Cameron’s lungs stopped pulling in and expelling air. The house was silent.
Cameron had been born on the side of a highway on the way to the charity hospital, right on the line dividing two Louisiana parishes. A state trooper assisted in the delivery. Charlotte had been there, five years old, peering over the front seat of the Chrysler, a powder blue one with fins, long as a swimming pool. Their mother had wanted to give birth in a hospital and not at home, not the old-fashioned way, the way Charlotte had been born. She wanted to wake up from a pleasant sleep and be handed the baby. She wanted to be pampered and fussed over and told how to bottle feed. She and Charlotte set out for town as soon as the contractions started, but Cameron would not wait. He burst forth blue and covered with mucus and blood, staining the back seat of the Chrysler, and he screamed until he turned a scarlet-purple. Charlotte held him briefly, took in his musky smell as the trooper carried her mother to the back of the police car for the ride to the hospital.
“Don’t you drop him,” her mother warned as the trooper lifted her up. “You hold him tight.”
Charlotte held him tight and even supported his head. He was wrapped in the trooper’s jacket, but she was afraid he might get cold on the chilly December morning so she turned her back to the wind. There was frost on the grass on the side of the road, so frosty it crunched when you walked. The tall pine trees swayed and bent and creaked.