The Truth About Keeping Secrets

The Truth About Keeping Secrets

Savannah Brown

About the Author

Savannah Brown is an American author and poet currently residing in London, England. In 2016, she self-published her bestselling collection of poetry titled Graffiti (and Other Poems), which won a Goodreads Choice Award.

Chapter 1

Seeing the body was supposed to be cathartic, but the man in the lipstick wasn’t my dad.

I mean, he was. But he wasn’t. There was so little Dad left in him that the emotional experience wasn’t too dissimilar from gazing upon a giant steak in a suit: there was discomfort, and a sick sort of a fascination, but mainly a desire for the moment to end. That sounds callous. Maybe it was. Maybe it was a symptom of over-researching; the night before I had spent hours reading about embalming to prepare myself for what this would be like, and now all I could focus on were his glued-together eyelids, his sewn-shut mouth, and his bloated limbs stuffed into clothes tailored well enough to distract everyone from the fact that he looked like a Jim Henson fever dream.

Benjamin Whitaker, the artist formerly known as Dad, had hugged a telephone pole while travelling at approximately sixty miles an hour. Swerve, smash, gone. Well, not really, but ‘swerve, smash, unconscious’ doesn’t have quite the same punch. The lungs were the problem. The lack thereof. They’d popped like a balloon, which isn’t super-conducive to living; even so, he’d managed to survive long enough to get to the hospital, but not much longer. And when there was no one left to keep alive, they tried to figure out why. Town officials. Police officers. Launched an investigation that only led to more uncertainty. The front of the car had practically melted and there was no way to tell if it’d been faulty brakes or steering or whatever, so the best they could come up with was that maybe he had fallen asleep, or been texting, or suicidal, or maybe there was a deer or a person, or maybe he just wasn’t paying attention.

And I’m sure, to the outside observer, any of those possibilities might have seemed realistic. But the outside observer didn’t know Dad.

I’m exaggerating about how he looked, by the way. He looked fine. Enough to be recognizable, and underneath the pale foundation and pink lip tint, there was still the time-locked stubble and the square jaw and the taffy-pulled limbs. But the sight of his chest was jarring. A mountain range, all slopes and concavities where the newspaper balled up underneath his shirt had deflated. Then something occurred to me.

‘Why the hell is he wearing his glasses?’

Mom turned to me, the outside of her cheek puckering as she gnawed on the inside. She was all red: red lips, red blush, reddish hair wound into a bun. Rushing red blood. Practically taunting him. ‘Language, please.’

I said the same thing but with heck.

She sighed, because she knew what I was implying. ‘It’s a symbolic thing, Sydney.’ I knew it was a symbolic thing. I just sometimes liked to say stuff I wasn’t really thinking. Because I was actually thinking about the corpse of my dad being lowered from the ceiling on a swing, singing a soulful rendition of Rainbow Connection with Miss Piggy.

Mom looked me up and down. Just as stoic as I was; she wouldn’t cry here either. ‘Straighten your skirt, honey. You’re all crooked.’

I didn’t know where I was crooked, but I believed her – she knew more about skirts than I did – so I did some miscellaneous smoothing until she seemed satisfied. I wasn’t sure why she cared. (‘Well, yes, the service was lovely, but that girl’s lower half was a bit off-centre, don’t you think?’)

‘I’m gonna fix myself up before everyone gets here,’ she said. ‘Do you want to come?’ She wasn’t asking me to come so much as she was suggesting I should.

‘I don’t need to fix myself up.’

Mom was about to protest but seemed to be informed by Dad’s ghost that she should drop it, and walked off alone, the ugly carpet dulling the tap of her stilettos to a thud.

Crawford Funeral Home was completely depressing. Because of the light, I think. It was a sickly yellow, leaking on to stiff-looking armchairs and fake potted plants and paintings of places more beautiful than here. The paintings were the only indication that a world existed outside that place; there were windows, but they were the approximate size and shape of a keyhole, and something about the awful baroque pattern on the walls made it seem like they were slowly closing in on you. I wasn’t claustrophobic often, but in here, each breath felt itchy and earned. That might’ve been the intention, though – to make you feel like you were the one about to be buried.

But Rick Crawford seemed right at home. He was the undertaker, well groomed and stout, and spoke with a drawl. The Crawfords had owned the place for generations, and the guy looked like he hadn’t been born, but had just crawled out of a vat of formaldehyde. I wondered if he grew into the death or the death grew into him. Anyway, it couldn’t have been an easy job. Especially not here, since I was sure he would have recognized at least half the people he had to drag on to the slab every morning. Sort of like Dad. Dad was the only therapist in Pleasant Hills, and I bet that, collectively, he and Rick Crawford knew most of the place’s dirty secrets, living and dead.

Our family was small – Dad’s parents had died young and Mom wasn’t close to hers – so the people who started to trickle in were only faintly familiar. Old family friends. (‘Your hair’s so long now, wow, strawberry blond, you have your mom’s freckles, wow, junior year already? Wow, wow, wow.’) Teachers I’d had who felt some sense of obligation to me. Bible-thumpers. Tongue-chewers. The women Mom knew from the gym, from her Tupperware parties, who said things like ‘It was his time’ over and over again. And there were a lot of strangers – patients. Thanked us for everything Dad had done for them. I knew none of them, which meant Dad had succeeded; he’d always made a point of keeping me away from that part of his life, from the cars pulling up before school and after school and on Sundays, from the murmurs and more-than-murmurs from behind the office door, from the weights fastened one by one to the heavy, rolling skin underneath his eyes.

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