General Fiction posted March 27, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
dealing with life, and death

The Shrine

by mfowler

There's a short, straight stretch of road running  past my home. It follows a downhill section where traffic quickly builds up speed coming out of a bend. My husband calls it Speedway Alley, as the road makes Formula One drivers out of young men who regularly test their souped-up motors on this piece of driver paradise. The road is also a domestic route where buses, family vehicles and commercial traffic travel en route to the nearby shops and schools.
One Monday morning, two years ago, I was clearing the dishes when I heard a dreadful thud, a screech of brakes, and screaming coming from the road. I abandoned my work and rushed outside. The inevitable had happened. An H43 bus was parked awkwardly near the gutter. On the roadway lay the crumpled body of a young woman. Some people were in attendance, one the driver of the bus. No one seemed to know what to do.
'I'm a nurse,' I said. 'One of you call an ambulance and the police.'
There was little I could do for her. Her pulse was very weak, and it was clear she had multiple injuries. I stemmed a major bleed from her temple with my jacket, and made her as comfortable as possible while we awaited the paramedics.
She was a pretty girl with auburn hair and deep green eyes. As she wavered in and out of consciousness, passengers from the bus gathered around. I could hear their murmurs, but I concentrated on the young woman. Suddenly, she squeezed my hand and partly opened her eyes.
I leaned closer as I thought she wanted to speak. 'Thank you,' she whispered. 'I know your face.'

And then she faded, lost consciousness, and died.
For the next few days, I couldn't get the dying woman's face and those final words out of my mind.
What did she mean, 'I know your face.'
The story of the woman killed by a morning bus as she tried to cross the road made Page 6 news in the local paper, but the immediacy of the death clung to me like guilt.
'Honey, you have to let it go,' Ralph would say. 'You did your best. You know that's because you care. Let it go before you get sick.'
But, I couldn't. Visions of her face recurred in dreams each night, and her strange final words reeled through my consciousness seeking explanation.
Her funeral notice was sombre. I heard the sadness in the words, the first grief for a stranger:
Friends and Family of Karen Jill Anderson
tragically killed in the prime of life
are invited to attend the service of remembrance
at Paradise Uniting Church
this coming Thursday at 10am.
Her face now had a name. The bus had taken the life of a real person with a family, presumably, one which loved her. I couldn't help feeling part of the drama, connected I suppose, by the tragedy on the road, but more importantly by the emotions I felt as a mother. I decided to attend the funeral.
The church was small, however every pew was filled with mourners. As no-one knew me, I slipped in just before the funeral and sat in the back row. The service was simple and respectful. A picture of Karen Anderson sat atop the walnut coffin. She looked lovely in a summer dress, and she was smiling as if she hadn't a care in the world.
When testimonials were given, it was her father's speech that caught my attention:
Karen was a bright girl, always did well at school. She loved sports and theatre. But, to me, she'll always be my little girl.
At this point, Mr Anderson paused and wiped a tear from his eye.
As you all know, Karen was adopted as a baby. Her real name was Corcoran. We gave her the name Karen and she was as much a daughter to us as if we'd created her ourselves.
I left the church before the other mourners. Karen had been farewelled in the most  loving way. I expected that would be the last I'd hear about her.
A week after the funeral, Ralph commented over breakfast, 'Someone's put flowers against the lamppost out front. Looks like someone's trying not to forget that girl who was killed.'
 'Karen,' I said sharply.
 'Oh, you found out her name.'
 'I went to the funeral. I didn't tell you because I didn't want to worry you.'
Ralph shook his head. He knows I'm a soft touch for a sad story. At least this time he knew to leave it be.
Later that morning, I visited the scene. There were three bunches of wild flowers surrounding a picture of Karen, laminated to a piece of plywood. Whoever put this there, meant it to last. The board was wired to the post. A short message was inscribed with a marker at the base of the board:
We'll miss you, Kaz. With the angels now. Love BJ, Lola and Kimbo.
Her friends had spoken. I cut some new roses and placed them next to the wildflowers. 'With the angels now, Karen,' I said without really meaning to speak.
As the weeks passed, the shrine was visited by many people. Cards, flowers, messages of remembrance added to the pile. I'd watch from my living room window as the outpouring of grief took a public face. Each evening, I visited her at the memorial. I tidied up a little, cleaned away the dead flowers, and kept the area from deteriorating. Sometimes I'd speak to her, 'Sorry, Karen, I couldn't do more. I wish I'd known you young lady.'
One evening after I'd come inside, Ralph said, 'You've got to stop this. It's obsessive. Maybe you should talk to someone about this thing you have about the dead girl.'
I said nothing. I wasn't ready to deal with my feelings just yet.
One day, as I rearranged the cards and flowers, I was approached by a plump, young woman.

'Who are you?' she said sharply.
'Dorothy Hammond,' I replied, startled at her abruptness. 'I live in that house.'
 'Did you know Karen?' she asked.
'Briefly. I was there when she died.'
'I heard about you. You helped her. I'm Lola,' she said.
Lola. Of course, the name on the board.
'Pleased to meet you. You must have been a friend.'
 'You could say that. Karen was my first real friend. I met her in the park one day when I was off my head on weed. She talked to me, bought me a coffee. I still don't know why she bothered.'
'You must miss her.'
'Like a piece of me's gone. She saved my life. Helped me get off the dope, get a job. It should be me up there, not her. Life's shit, sometimes.'
'Would you like to come in and have a cuppa?'
 'No thanks, I just came to put new flowers down and say g'day to Karen. Thanks for looking after her.'
She sauntered off down the road.
I looked back at Karen's photograph, and I suddenly realised I knew her face. Yes, from the accident, but it was more, something deeper, something I couldn't name.
Two months passed. Karen's spirit drew me to the shrine each day. It was as if she'd replaced Sheila, the daughter we lost to cancer ten years ago. The daughter whose life was far too short.
'That's it,' said Ralph as I came in one evening. 'I knew this shrine business would go too far. You're to stop going out there. I know you.This is about Sheila, right.'
I cried, but I wouldn't admit it.
After that I tried. I took extra shifts at the hospital to keep busy. I looked away from the shrine as I entered the front gate, and I tried so very hard to forget her name.
My roster saw me posted on the Maternity ward. I couldn't help but think of Sheila and Karen when I looked in at those tiny bubs in their cribs. It was if they'd been reincarnated, and ready to start all over again.
Three months on, I arrived home one evening from the afternoon shift. A woman sat on the roadside by the shrine. She was sobbing.
'Hello, can I help?'
The woman looked up. Mascara smudged around her eyes. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'She was my daughter.'
 She pointed at Karen's fading  image. 'Mrs Anderson, that's OK. Losing a daughter is no easy thing.'
She squinted. 'You know me.'
'I was at the funeral to say goodbye, and saw you there. I live in that house, and I was there when Karen died. She seemed like a beautiful soul.'
Mrs Anderson wept. 'Thank you so much. I know who you are now. I'm so pleased to know it was you.'
I felt a little awkward at such praise, but smiled in acknowledgement.
'You know, I can't get her out of my mind. I cry all the time. I miss her so. I just want my child back.'
I could feel the blood pumping faster through my veins. I sat beside her, then put my arm around her. I found words I didn't think I was capable of saying. 'In time you'll need to let her go and start again. She may need to know you can cope.'
It felt so counterfeit. I've been unable to face the same reality for ten years.
 'I know,' she snuffled. 'Ted's been telling me that. Maybe you can help me.'
We sat there in silence, two grieving mothers on the gutter's edge, as evening traffic sped by.
And then Karen's words dropped into my mind. 'I know your face.'
I remembered something from long ago. The auburn hair, the emerald eyes of that teenaged mother dying in the delivery room where I was in attendance. The healthy baby with the terrible cry and the deep green eyes. Karen.
'I know your face,' I said out aloud. 'I know your face.'
Mrs Anderson turned. 'Did you feel it?' she said. 'I know she's OK. I told her I loved her, and that I wanted her to be happy, and then I suddenly felt warm all over. She's gone. I know it.'
I squeezed her tight, and two mothers sat crying tears of release for children now passed.
People have told me there's a link among us, an unseen network of connection that runs throughout the universe connecting all to an infinite source of love.
Sheila's death at the age of ten had stolen my belief in anything beyond this world. For me, life had become getting on with it. Her life was given, then taken without any rhyme or reason.
Finding Karen woke that part of me which wanted to believe, to see purpose in existence. The strange co-incidence of our meeting, the shrine and the grief of her loved ones, had stirred my memory of Sheila and my need to say goodbye forever.
That night by the road when Karen spoke to me, I knew my little girl had found an angel to watch over her. I don't know how it works or why, but in that moment I saw those strands of love.


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