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Burnt Stew

by Brent Rourk 5 months ago in siblings · updated 4 months ago
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Unbearable Justice

Burnt Stew

In an instant the crimson vase involuntarily hit the wall, thrown by enraged, red-haired 18-year-old Chelle. “I am not going to court tomorrow to testify against dad. The prosecution wants me to say things that will keep dad in jail”, she yelled at her older brother Liam as she hurriedly stuffed belongings into her small, worn suitcase covered with tattered stickers: ‘ABBA’, ‘Hell is Here’, ‘Be Kind’, and ‘Don’t Judge’ were but a few.

“You must testify. Maybe dad’s lawyers can win”, replied Liam, optimistic but truly not knowing how their father Peter could escape prison for the active euthanasia of their mother Laila. “Running is crazy.”

“It will be a year ago tomorrow that mom died. Since then, I have been suicidal and in therapy. I miss mom and I miss dad. Mom passed on and dad in jail because he helped her die with dignity. Now you think I should take the stand against our dad? No!”, Chelle said with frustration and defeat. “I love dad. He did what mom wanted. I’m leaving.”

“Look Chelle, I love dad too, but… you’re hurting dad’s case. Ya gotta show up! Come on sis!”, Liam said bravely, turning his nose towards the kitchen where reheated stew was burning.

“Damn it! Sometimes I think even you don’t have a clue about how the past year has destroyed me!”, snapped Chelle.

Continuing, Chelle quipped, “I have worried that in court the lawyer will make me say things to put dad in prison. No. How can I do that? How can you be sure that us showing up in court will help him and not hurt him? This is all too much for me to handle. I’ve been depressed for a year. Therapy? It helps some, but every day I worry that dad will pay a heavy price for helping mom die. Stupid laws. We were there. We knew.”

“I know. I know. But sis, laws are there to protect people”, replied Liam.

“Protect or prosecute? The lawyer will make us say that dad killed mom. How will that make you feel? Do you really think that will help dad’s cause?” shouted Chelle, now distraught enough to throw something else against the wall.

Liam wondered how fragile his sister’s mental health was. He had decided that she was strong enough to testify in court on dad’s behalf. He was sure that she could explain how sick mom was, how she begged to be relieved of immense pain, humiliation, and lack of dignity. Maybe she wasn’t strong enough, but surely, she must see that her presence will be in dad’s favor. He was optimistic, stubborn, resolute, and maybe short-sighted.

Maybe it was because he was a male or maybe he really didn’t understand how depressed and confused his little sister was.

Not even soothing, classical music piped through her expensive earbuds adaquately calmed Chelle. She needed her depression meds, but instead threw the last few pieces of clothes and mementos into her suitcase while Liam stirred the stew and prepared two bowls.

“Come get something to eat sis”, implored Liam.

Blowing on each large spoonful, they slowly slurped the stew as they rehashed everything: mom’s long bout with terminal and painful cancer, dad’s arrest and jailing for ‘mercy killing’, and the additional, horrific pain inflicted on everybody because the state chose to try Peter for murder. Losses.

“We’ve been through enough. Dad has been through enough. How can I testify against him tomorrow of all days? Won’t matter what I say or how I respond to his tricky questions, it will backfire”, declared Chelle between bites of piping hot, savory burnt stew.

As they debated, Liam looked absently at two hungry, young blackbirds that landed on the outside window sill. One blackbird, perhaps frightened from the animated discussion between the siblings, flew away. Chelle stated, “I can’t go Liam. You must under…”, but Chelle’s cell phone rang loudly, startling both of them.

“Hello, this is Chelle”, she said gruffly.

He explained softly without sincerity, “Hello Chelle, this is Mr. Tanner, I’m the prosecuting attorney…I am just checking up on you. It must be hard, and I know how you feel. I am double checking to make sure that…”

“You don’t know how I feel!”, Chelle said, tossing her spoon into the bowl in frustration. “You are a terrible person.”

“I understand Chelle, but it is …”, he tried to sound sensitive for a prosecuting attorney, but she cut him off again.

“You don’t understand! You can’t possibly understand or else my dad would be home now with Liam and me”, she shouted.

“You’ll be there tomorrow, right?”, he tried to verify.

“Liam will be there. I don’t know where I’ll be”, cried Chelle, now in a spiraling emotional crescendo marked by raised voice, tears, and a reddened face.

“You need to be there Chelle”, he stated without warmth.

“I’ll be where I’ll be”, responded Chelle. “Go away!”, she screamed as she hung up.

“Come on sis. Let’s cool down and talk about how this might help dad. His attorney Ms. Sophia has reassured us that she will not allow Mr. Tanner to make us say things to convict dad”, claimed Liam.

“We were called by the prosecution. He will twist everything. He will convolute things for a jury to hear. He would just as soon try me, and maybe you too Liam. After all, we knew about it. We knew what mom wanted. We knew dad was going to help her pass and end her misery. We knew it all. We did not stop it. Are we also responsible”, Chelle declared, with reddened face and a splotch of burnt stew on her upper lip.

Looking deeply in to his sister’s face after contemplating about what she just said, Liam explained, “This is about dad, not us. We can only help dad’s case.”

“So you think! I think we can just as easily help convict him. I cannot be a part of that, and don’t understand why you can’t comprehend that. Maybe you are strong enough to handle this. I am not”, responded Chelle with mounting frustration as she wiped the stew from her face.

“Sis, I think I know you pretty well. You will be ok. It just takes time”, offered Liam thinking he could easily convince his sister that she was fine and would be ok tomorrow.

“Sometimes my dear brother I think you do not know me as much as you think. Anyway, people are different and grieve differently. People think differently, even siblings.

“Maybe we have processed the past year differently. I was reading this book about grief and it said that people grieve differently, not just in different stages, but people perceive things so differently, even between boys and girls in the same family. Maybe you haven’t taken the time to feel your emotions. You always have come across as a strong male. Well maybe…”, Chelle stated before her thoughts swept her away.

“We have been family for a long time, so I think I know how you think”, claimed Liam, speaking without thinking.

“We are on different timelines seeing things from different perspectives”, piped Chelle, her voice beginning to rise again and her eyes fixating on her brother’s face.

Finishing the tasty, strong stew, Chelle called the jail to talk with her father. After waiting several minutes, the call went through. “Dad, I’m so happy to hear your voice!”, she stated. Tears instantly ran down her face, leaving a track of moist purple and black mascara in their wake.

“Yes, my dear Chelle. I’m fine. One of the guards smuggles snacks and the best meals. Lucky me, huh? Then to the courthouse tomorrow morning. Chelle, please don’t worry! Everything will be fine. I have confidence in Ms. Sophia. Please have confidence in her too. Be calm when the prosecuting attorney directs questions at you. Slow down, think, and answer. Don’t be bullied or rushed. Stay calm...like you did when you answered your social studies teacher who degraded your opinions in class. Remember?”, recounted Peter, trying to calm his daughter.

“I love you so much Chelle. Don’t worry about me or what is going to happen. Remember? Worry is negative goal setting. Don’t worry about things you cannot control”, stated Peter, trying to give her strength.

She had heard those ‘daddy sayings’ and several other nuggets many times throughout her life. Chelle again thought about the seriousness of tomorrow’s court and how it was eating away at her. Even her prescribed medications had less impact at calming her. “I love you dad! You did the right thing. I hate that our country lets people die in misery. I hope they change the law. I cannot think about what might happen to you”, she said through tears.

Continuing through sniffles, Chelle cried, “I just can’t think about testifying against you. Our family has suffered enough. First mom’s cancer and death at 44, then you jailed…then my emotional trauma and breakdowns. Even Liam has a rough go of it daddy. I’d rather die than say something that the attorney can twist to put you in prison. You know how lawyers trap and trick people into saying things.”

“Get off the phone Peter. You’re not the only killer who needs the phone!”, shouted another inmate from his cell.

“The law is the law Chelle. Hopefully, my attorney has a few cases to use as convincing precedents. Remember that while you sit in the courtroom”, said Peter with unimaginable hope.

“Maybe daddy, maybe. But I’ve had enough. I can’t imagine what you are going through. I love you so much daddy!”, said Chelle, now crying loudly while being consoled by Liam.

“Love you and Liam. I know it’s hard. See you two tomorrow”, said Peter before the phone went dead.

Liam ladled more stew into their bowls. It was undeniably savory, but had a burnt taste to it. Everything did now. Chelle went to the living room to retrieve two photographs; one of the family and one of mom and dad. Placing them on the table to stare at, she nodded towards the photographs, and within seconds, they both broke down.

“My college history professor says that history is ‘pocked with people between a rock and a hard place’. That’s where we are now sis. But this will be over soon. Let’s just go. Don’t worry”, stated Liam as a consoling offering to his distraught sister.

“Sorry, I don’t want a history lesson. This is now. It’s been a horrible year. This is our history, and I hate it”, said Chelle to her brother while she continued to stare at the 11x14 inch photographs. They were larger than life yet she felt lifeless… and powerless.

“I miss mom and dad so much”, said Chelle.

“Me too sis!” replied Liam.

As Chelle went to the bathroom and then to her bedroom to retrieve her suitcase, Liam said, “I won’t restrain you, but I beg you to trust the court and have faith.”

“Ha! Faith? In what? Archaic and insensitive laws? He broke the stupid law. The kindness of prosecuting attorneys? Right! More misery? Imprisoned dad? No Liam. I’m tired. I hope dad gets set free, but I don’t have hope in that”, stated Chelle.

As she reached for her suitcase, she became more resolute, more defiant, and more convinced. “Nobody in that courtroom except for us saw mom’s last three months. Dad did what he thought was best. It was also mom’s firm wish. I want dad freed, but I do not want to be a part of the court or part of the prosecuting attorney’s brutality”, explained Chelle with worn tear tracks on her cheeks, even more defined and hardened by her running mascara.

Setting her suitcase down, Liam and Chelle hugged, tears flowing fast. Bottomless sadness. Speechless, they remained standing in a long embrace. Liam knew that Chelle was going to leave. He could only hope she would come to her senses and appear in court tomorrow. He could only hope if not, then she would be safe somewhere.

“I love you sis”, whispered Liam to his broken sister.

“I love you too Liam. I’m sorry, but I need to get out. I told my therapist I probably would. She didn’t like the idea either, but asked if I had safe places to go. Hope the prosecuting attorney has a stroke tonight!”, replied Chelle.

“That’s not a Christian thing to say. It’s not nice. Think about it. I will be there tomorrow to comfort you. I will be right there with you. We have to stick together”, said Liam.

“There is no heaven, only hell. And this is it.”, whispered Chelle as she stood in her cocoon of loneliness.

“Promise me that you will think about this and reconsider. I know you can be strong and I will be strong with you”, offered Liam, hugging his sister again. He was confident she would be by his side in the morning holding his hand in the cold courtroom. He knew his sister well. At least that is what he told himself. He had spent more time with her since their mother was diagnosed with cancer, and after she died. Liam made regular efforts to talk with his sister. He knew that the year had been hard on Chelle, but he was sure it had not been that devastating. After all, she always told him she was fine.

“I know and I love you brother. More than you know. I’ll think about it but need to get away from this house”, stated Chelle, while sadly looking into her brother’s eyes.

Both of them ignored the ring of the cell phone setting next to the bowl of stew.

“So, you are going to be ok sis? You understand that you will only help dad by being in court and testifying? I understand you wanting to see your best friend for a few days, but it is important that you be there. Should I pick you up?”, asked Liam. He was convinced.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll get my friend Vanessa to drop me off”, replied Chelle flatly.

The phone rang again as she headed out of the apartment door. Liam answered it to discover it was his dad again.

“Hey son, don’t worry about tomorrow. Whatever happens is ok. I feel good about what will happen. You and Chelle just need to be there and answer whatever questions they ask you. Is Chelle there?”, asked their father.

“No, she went to stay with her best friend, but I am certain she will be there tomorrow. She understands how important it is”, explained Liam with assurance that he did not fully understand.

“How did you get another phone call tonight? I though you had a limit of calls”, stated Liam, dumbfounded about how his father could make more than one call.

“The main guard here likes me. Truth is, his mom died of cancer. Was sick for a year. Awful time for him. Anyway, he knows my story and supports me. Nice, huh?”, shared Liam’s father.

“That is cool. Ok dad, we will see you tomorrow. I love you. I’ll be there next to Chelle and your mom”, said Liam quickly before his dad had to hang up the phone.

“See you two tomorrow”, his dad said before the call ended.

Before he put the cell phone back on the table, Liam called his sister, but only got her voicemail. “See you in the morning sis. Love you”, he stated.

Returning to his seat at the kitchen table, he gazed out the window into a grey sky darkened even more by a covered setting sun. A few blackbirds, faintly distinct silhouettes of the night, headed to their own nests in the nearby, neighborhood trees.

Chelle composed herself in the back seat of the taxi before she pulled out her cell phone and began to compose a text message to her brother – ‘Dear Liam, I know this is difficult for all of us. I think you are a lot stronger than I am. Maybe you don’t fully understand how hard this has been on me. I need to tell you that…”

“We are here. Do you need help with your suitcase?”, announced the driver loudly as the taxi came to an abrupt stop. Chelle looked up to see raindrops quickly covering the windshield. She forgot her rain clothes, but only had to walk half a block through the complex to her friend’s apartment.

“No, I have it ok. Thanks”, replied Chelle as she handed the driver $15.00 before stepping out into the dark, wet night.

Liam slurped at a large spoon of stew, now colder and tasting more burnt. He ate a few spoons of the thickening slurry until his stomach resisted another bite.

“I know she will be there tomorrow”, he said to himself, satisfied that he knew his sister.

The following morning in the brisk, nearly full courtroom, Peter, dressed in a conservative suit instead of his orange jail jumpsuit, turned around to see who was there. He saw his mother Astrid sitting next to Liam, and he smiled. Comforted. But no Chelle.

Liam then looked behind him in the courtroom to see if his sister silently slipped in and sat in the back row. He scanned the other rows intently searching for his sister, certain that she was there somewhere. She wasn’t in the courtroom.

Peter watched his son scan the courtroom in vain. He sensed that Chelle would not be there and just hoped she was safe and thinking rationally.

The tasteless train station coffee offered Chelle only slight warmth. She added a sugar packet and two small containers of bland coffee creamer. Now only slightly bearable, she took two sips and pulled apart a stale breakfast roll topped with unimaginable chemical icing, spilling crumbs on the table and train station floor. A few courageous and voracious sparrows, looked up at Chelle’s face and hands before stealthily darting near Chelle’s feet to scavenge the crumbs.

Chelle followed the hungry birds with her eyes and wondered what these birds ate years before there were train stations, tables, and people pulling apart breakfast rolls.

Then she wondered what people did before there were courts and laws and jails. What did they do to terminally ill family members she wondered. Who decided what was right she asked herself as she pulled another piece from the hard, bittersweet roll. More crumbs for the sparrows.

She finished the roll a minute before she finished the text to her brother that she started in the backseat of the dank taxi the night before. She hit SEND.

“I’d rather die than go to court. I need a new start somewhere else. I need a change”, mumbled Chelle to herself while squeezing her train ticket and staring at ominous clouds and a fine mist.

Liam’s phone vibrated in the courtroom. He was able to smuggle it past a lazy security crew, too intent on talking about the pro basketball game the night before. He slowly and secretly pulled the phone out of his pocket and looked down at it, slowly reading his sister’s text.

Shaking his head from side to side, he then whispered something to his grandmother and slipped the phone back into his pants pocket. ‘How could she do this?” he whispered to himself.

A train station announcement over cracking speakers was her signal to leave the sparrows, leave her family, and leave the town that she thought suffocated her. Her regret was abandoning dad, but she thought about herself this time.

Chelle reassured herself that she was doing the right thing, the only thing she could do. Tossing the remainder of the roll on the concrete floor of the train station cafeteria, she watched even more sparrows descend on the pickings.

Toting her suitcase and clutching her ticket and a book about surviving family deaths, she walked towards the train. Somehow there were no more tears.

Brent Rourk 361-244-7603

siblings

About the author

Brent Rourk

Travel, nature, photography, music, and writing are my current vices and passions. Awed by the influence of words and powerful writing, I try to give my readers the opportunity to think and feel.

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