The crowd gathered in the courtroom roared their disapproval.
The judge shouted, “Silence in the courtroom!”
Because of a technicality, the judge had ordered the jury to toss out the evidence after it was determined that it had been obtained illegally. From the back of the courtroom, detectives Mike Sabian and Barry Clarke glowered.
Therefore, dried blood recovered in a deep groove between the head of the hammer and the handle—or his fingerprints—could not be used as evidence that he had murdered his wife. It was his hammer, so of course, there’d be fingerprints.
The only possible witness could not give reliable testimony. And holy Moses, but they must have tried everything to find out what they could from his two-year-old son only to come up empty. But what did they expect? A damning testimony from the little turd saying he saw his father beat his mother with a hammer, wrap her up in a now-missing blanket and then load her in the trunk and bury her somewhere on the side of some deserted road? The kid couldn’t even form the simplest words other than Mama, and sweepy. And ever since his mother’s disappearance, he hadn’t spoken a word.
Not guilty of the murder of Philomena “Mina” Parks.
Seymour Parks exhaled, before looking at the jury with a grateful expression on his face. Thank you, guys. All of you. Even that ugly bitch with the permanent smirk on her face. He could have sworn the woman hated him the moment she laid eyes on him and would surely have said yes, he’s guilty, but no. A unanimous vote meant she said yes.
Sure, there could be appeals, but with his late wife’s family living in the Philippines, how were they going to pay the lawyer? In dried fish? Ha! He’d been the one helping send money to them back home for the barest necessities, every text message asking for something, like a dowry paid in monthly installments. A few bucks here for the month’s supply of rice, another few bucks there to fix a leaky roof. Each dollar went far in pesos, Mina had told him though he still had to pitch in because she didn’t make much at the corner store. The minimum wage she made was a pittance, almost like like hobby money to him, though it didn’t make a difference to Mina. All of it went back home, and sometimes she ran short so he had to help out, too. He didn’t really mind it at first, but in the end he did, not when he’d married her and not her damn family. She was bleeding him dry and now, he’d been accused of killing her, allegedly with a blunt instrument, like his hammer. He’d been behind bars ever since, the only suspect in her disappearance and alleged murder, even though they didn’t find her body.
Just the bloody hammer with a speck of blood between the head and the handle, along with his fingerprints that the detectives discovered during what Seymour’s lawyer declared was an illegal search. They had no warrant. Ha! Served them right to hear the judge throw the only piece of evidence that could have sent him to death row. No soup for you, Sabian and Clarke!
Seymour gave the jury one more look of appreciation before turning to face his lawyer and thank him. He heard the judge say something about custody of his now three-year-old son who’d been in foster care ever since his mother’s murder, though this time, Seymour barely heard the judge’s words, his attention focused on the young woman sitting a few pews behind him. Damn, but that girl was hot. No bar fine needed here. There was certainly something to be said about women who liked men behind bars. They liked them dangerous.
“Congratulations, Mr. Parks. They’ll be sending your son over this afternoon,” his lawyer said, grinning from ear to ear. Doherty was one of those court-appointed lawyers one got when they couldn’t afford one, and damn if the kid just won his first big case.
“Great,” Seymour nodded. “How am I supposed to take care of him by myself?”
“I’m sure Child Services will help you there, Mr. Parks,” Doheny replied, before his brow furrowed and he continued. “Did you say you were going to fly him back home to the Philippines to be with his mother’s family? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Seymour shrugged. “Why not? She had a big family, and there’s only me here. And I’ve got to find work eventually. Who’s gonna keep an eye on him then? You?”
The kid was Mina’s idea, not his. She thought little Seymour (she even gave him his name) would guarantee her safety from the beatings. Boy, was she so wrong. Too bad she thought she could file for divorce, thinking she could be just like the American women he’d grown to detest. He’d seen the online searches she’d done in the browser history. How to file for divorce. What is domestic abuse? Who gets custody of a minor?
But I sure showed her, Seymour thought as he watched Doheny gather the folders from the desk and slip them into his briefcase.
Let her family back home take care of him now. The moment that judge’s gavel sounded and the words came out from the jury foreman’s lips, Seymour Parks was a free man in every sense of the word. And as the woman in the third row cast him a look that assured him that all her visits in jail weren’t for nothing, there were also other, more important things to deal with.
Seymour Parks needed to get laid.
* * *
The flight back to the Philippines took sixteen hours. One stopover in Japan and then to Manila. An hour after landing at Manila International Airport greeted by stifling heat and humidity, and then escorted to a more secure area of the airport to avoid the media, Seymour and his son boarded a smaller plane to the island of Alegria.
Four years ago, there weren’t any flights to the island southwest of Manila, but after a tourism boom, apparently they’d built a small airport to accommodate those who didn’t like having to get on those charter boats like everyone else. Seymour and his son sat among the many other foreign tourists in the small plane, none of them paying him and Junior any mind. News about the murder case didn’t concern them, not when most of them were there to get laid with the hundreds of desperate women eager to be with them. You couldn’t get a better deal for eighteen bucks, US. One girl every different night, if you wanted. And boy, would you want a different girl every night. Mina had been girl #5. Too bad he fancied himself in love with her after five days of San Miguel beer and sisig, a dish of pork simmered in spices. One month later, he found himself filling out the papers to get her to the US and then eight months later, she was there, his mail order bride all ready to give him everything he wanted. Everything.
Unfortunately, she fancied herself suddenly an American woman, unwilling to do anything for him. She wanted to work, and even go to school so she could learn how to speak flawless English, words beyond “yes, Seymour,” or “How may I serve you, Seymour?” Then she got pregnant even though he’d done his best to make sure she wouldn’t. But damn it, she did. The last thing he wanted was a child to put a damper on his kinky lifestyle, but the child arrived anyway, healthy and screaming its head off every chance it got.
And now here he sat next to Seymour Jr., his three-year-old mute son. Seymour had to promise the boy’s doctors that he’d find similar therapists back in the Philippines to help with the boy’s trauma – whatever trauma that was, Seymour scoffed. The kid didn’t do crap! He just stared at Seymour with those big brown eyes of his and it drove Seymour crazy. Of course, therapy wasn’t going to happen, not when every eligible speech therapist and psychologist had left the small island to work elsewhere, like Manila or even better, if they could swing the cost of relocation and job placement, the US. But Seymour couldn’t care less. He needed to wash his hands of the boy. He didn’t need him, and the boy surely didn’t need his father, not after what he’d seen Seymour do. Being mute certainly had its advantages.
Mina’s family greeted them at the airport with signs welcoming them home. It was embarrassing. But at least, no one said anything about a murder or even a legal case, even if he’d been found innocent by a jury of his peers. Her family couldn’t have cared less. He was free and that’s all that mattered. They still got their monthly stipend, no matter what. And besides, the less anyone else said about the damn case, the better. His plan was simple: he’d simply unload the luggage filled with all kinds of sweets he picked up at the warehouse store the moment they’d get home, and everyone would love him even more. Mina used to send similarly-packed boxes home, filled with chocolates, candies, and warehouse-size multivitamins that her family would then sell piece by piece from their corner store. One tablet for a few pesos. It was crazy, but that’s how they did things. Even eggs could be sold one by one, as were cigarettes—one stick at a time.
“Jun, go say hello to your Lola and Lolo,” Seymour said, nudging his son forward. Within seconds, Junior disappeared amid wide open arms and teary faces. Seymour couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he didn’t care. He’d only made arrangements to stay for two days before he’d head up to Manila and get his fill of San Miguel beer and bar girls. After a year behind bars awaiting his court case, he needed to make up for lost time.
But first, he had to play the grieving and wrongfully-accused husband. The family showered him with their sympathies, plying him with delicious food and beer. He must be tired, they told him. The flight must have been so long, they said, and so he should rest. And in the morning, they’d visit Mina’s grave.
“What grave? They couldn’t find her body,” Seymour said, perplexed. What was there to bury? For all they knew, Mina had run off with some boyfriend and was living somewhere in Milwaukee. Well, that was his reasoning anyway. For why else would she simply disappear like that?
“It’s just a pormality,” replied one of the cousins, a woman named Alma. Just like Mina before she started taking English classes behind his back, none of them could pronounce “f” without replacing it with “p” and “v” replaced with a “b.”
“That way we hab a place to go and lib plowers,” continued Mina’s mother, whom everyone called Nanay. “And we lib plowers ebryday.”
Seymour exhaled, wiping the sweat that gathered on his brow with his handkerchief. For a minute there, he thought he’d gone crazy. Pormality. He liked that. “Oh, I see. So it’s just an empty plot then.”
“Not really empty. Why don’t you come and see?” Asked Alma. She was older than Mina by a few years, and Seymour remembered how the women used to write letters to each other until he put a stop to it. All they did was ask for money anyway like they did whenever Mina called home.
They decided to visit the cemetery right after the mid-afternoon snack, even when most everyone else complained that it was too hot to go outside. But Seymour figured he might as well do it now. Besides, what game were they playing with him? Not empty, my ass. Did that mean there was someone else in there?
The cemetery was only a short walk away, and for a small town where most of their young residents had left in search for greener pastures, most of the people buried there were of the previous generation, although some were babies. As they walked alongside the tiny markers, Alma told him that some were probably born premature but with medical intervention coming too late. After all, the nearest hospital was a boat ride away.
A warm wind rustled the leaves around them, and Seymour wiped his brow with his handkerchief again. Maybe he should have waited until tomorrow to visit his wife’s fake grave. Fake. It almost made him laugh for he knew exactly where her grave was, and it was half a world away.
But he needed to get this over with. He hadn’t told them he was leaving in two days. The original plan was for him to stay for two weeks to help his son get acclimated to his new home, and set up the therapy sessions with whoever he found in town. At this rate, he’d leave it up to them to set that up. Besides, he couldn’t stop thinking about this grave. Learning they’d ‘buried’ Mina in some mock burial creeped him out. Who the hell did that?
They stopped in front of a marble grave marker that bore his late wife’s name although it was too high up on the plaque to just be for herself. There was room for at least two more names and dates.
“Mina paid por the plaque apter she went to de States.” Nanay wiped fresh tears from her face, her other hand reaching out to touch the engraved letters.
One of the cousins explained that family members often shared the same plot, one buried on top of the other. It was how they did things on the island since there wasn’t much land left that hadn’t already been sold to greedy developers who’d run out of beachfront properties to buy. So now they were making their way inland, snatching up whatever they could find and calling them hilltop residences. Thankfully, Mina’s hometown was too far inland for the developers to build anything profitable.
“So who is buried here?” Seymour asked, frowning. Why would they go through something like that when there was no body to bury in the first place? And why was it so infernally warm all of a sudden? He could feel sweat slide down the middle of his back.
Alma shrugged. “Nobody. We just bury an empty copin in der. Maybe when dey pind her, den we can do da ceremony.” Her English was breaking down as she spoke, and Seymour wondered if she was just too tired to think of the words or too flustered. She looked up at him. “She was happy with you, no?”
Seymour glanced at his son staring at the plaque in front of him. “Yes, she was. I still cannot believe she’s gone.”
“It must hab been hard, being in jail when you were innocent,” Alma continued.
He nodded, feeling beads of perspiration drip down the sides of his face. “Yes, it was. I loved her, but to be accused of her disappearance…her alleged murder…it was too much sometimes.”
Alma lifted Junior in her arms. “Tank you por bringing Jun home. We wait a long time, you know.”
“I think it’s going to rain,” one of the cousins muttered. “Can we just return home already?”
As they all agreed that it was time to say goodbye to Mina, Seymour couldn’t stop looking back at the grave. Creepy, he thought. Why would they hold some mock burial for a body that would never end up there?
Seymour had almost opted to stay at one of the beach front resorts, and if he had, he’d have had a woman sharing his bed by now. Twenty bucks, US… or maybe twenty-five, accounting for inflation. He could still do it, grab a tricycle cab and have it drop him off at the resort. He’d come back to spend time with Junior in the morning. But they convinced him to stay at the house, looking affronted at the mere mention of him needing to stay somewhere else when he’d paid to have that house built.
It poured as soon as they all returned home. And it was even more humid, a curse of the monsoon season. As Seymour settled into his room on the second floor, he could hear the women still talking downstairs, their voices interrupted by Junior’s grunts. What was the little turd trying to say now?
Seymour yawned and stripped off his shirt. He needed to hop in the shower even though the water pressure sucked in the second-floor bathroom. But he didn’t want to use the downstairs bathroom that everyone was using. He quite liked the master bedroom of the house that Mina built with all the money she – and he – sent home every month for five years. It was really a small price to pay, her being his personal punching bag when things weren’t going so well with his business, but she knew that before marrying him. It had been part of his kink. And before she discovered all the opportunities available to her in the US, she’d been fine with it.
Until one day, she wasn’t fine with it anymore, claiming later on that it was domestic abuse. Seymour still remembered how it all started, how she suddenly came home with a huge chip on her shoulder.
I will divorce you, you cruel man.
He’d laughed then because she still couldn’t pronounce her V’s very well, so divorce came out as diborce. But he couldn’t dwell on that anymore. She had tried to leave him, carrying little Junior in her arms and making her way to the garage where the car was parked. She was going to stay at the women’s shelter. The hell she was, he had thought then. And then what? She’d extort money from him to support the little turd for the next sixteen years?
Seymour shut his eyes and rubbed his temples. Man, but this humidity was doing a number on his nerves. Why was he thinking of her all of a sudden?
He stepped into the bathroom, determined to take his shower and then take a nap like everyone else in the house was going to do. He could also feel jet lag coming on, his eyes already feeling like lead. As Seymour stepped under the weak water spray, he could hear them downstairs talking and laughing, and little Junior grunting.
Yup, that was his Junior. Grunt, grunt, grunt, like a little pig.
And ever since Seymour got out of jail, that’s all he heard – the damn grunting. I’m hungry (grunt). I’m tired (grunt). Always the damn grunting, although, before the murder, the turd had just started talking. Mama. Baba. Sweepy. Never Dada, and as much as Seymour didn’t much care for the kid, it still hurt. Well, a little.
But now the turd was home where he belonged, and soon, he, Seymour Parks, would be where he belonged, too, between a woman’s legs, taking everything he could every single one of them.
* * *
Damn, it’s cold.
A deep chill seeped deep into his bones, and he wished he had something thicker than the thin cotton sheet he had over his body. What on earth was going on? One minute it was hot as hell and the next, it was cold. Freezing, even.
Maybe he was still dreaming, he thought, but that didn’t account for the freezing air… and small hands touching his face. The last thing he remembered before nodding off to sleep as jet lag hit him was saying goodnight to Junior. It was for show, of course, but he kissed the boy on the forehead and told him to be a good boy and listen to his Tita Alma because she’d be in charge of him from now on. Then Seymour had gone into his room to watch some porn on his phone before drifting off to sleep.
He heard a grunt. Junior?
Seymour sat up and rubbed his eyes, blinking as he tried to focus in the semi-darkness. He tapped his phone display. 3:30 A.M. It meant that it was about 5:30 P.M., Pacific Standard Time the day before. His time, or at least, his normal time if he weren’t in fucking Philippines.
He also had a few messages from Doheny. Not just a few—there were five of them. What did the lawyer want now? It had been a two months since he was acquitted—a year since he got charged with murder—and he hadn’t heard from his lawyer since, except to settle some expenses. At least, he got to collect some insurance money which was a consolation although Mina had been smart enough to give the bulk of it to Junior. And to add insult to injury, she didn’t name him as the custodian even though he could easily fight it, but her cousin, Alma.
Junior grunted, tugging on Seymour’s shirt. Seymour ignored him. He tapped on the first text message from Doheny.
Where are you? They found a body off Highway 71. Please tell me you didn’t do it.
The next one read, On second thought, don’t tell me.
Outside the window, the moon was partly hidden in the thick clouds. Still, it gave him enough light to see that Junior was wearing his Captain America PJs.
“What’s up, kid? You should be asleep.”
Junior grunted, then pointed to the door where a woman was silhouetted by the dim light of the hallway. Seymour squinted. “That’s your Tita Alma. Why don’t you go with her, and let your Dad get some sleep?”
“Mama,” the boy whispered, still pointing at Alma. .
Seymour grabbed his glasses and put them on. His kid must be playing tricks on him. Mama was long dead. “What did you say?”
“Mama.” Then Junior was off, running towards the woman standing by the door. Only she was no longer there. No one was there.
Seymour leaped out of bed, his heart hammering inside his chest as Junior ran towards the stairs, turned and disappeared around the corner. But there had been someone there. It was Alma! He was sure of it. And it certainly hadn’t been Mina, not when she was buried far from a hiking trail off 71.
Seymour cursed out loud, stubbing his toe as he under the bed with his feet for his rubber slippers. Then he heard the front door open and close, Junior crying out Mama, Mama in the darkness outside. Shit! Forget the damn slippers, man! Get your kid!
Barefoot, Seymour ran down the stairs, wondering where the hell everyone was for the house was deathly quiet. With all the money he and Mina sent home, the family had been able to build a big house that just about accommodated everyone in the family, all twenty of them from the cousins to the cousins’ cousins. It was crazy. There should be two or three people asleep in the living room, the servants sleeping comfortably on their floor mats. But the living room was empty, the doors to the bedrooms shut.
They were probably all asleep then, he thought, while he and Junior were simply going through the effects of jet lag. Or maybe this was a dream. Whatever. Dream or no dream, he still needed to go after his son.
The front door was ajar by the time Seymour made it downstairs, but he kept running, the faint outline of his son visible in the distance. How’d Junior manage to move fast like that? But of course, kids were always fast, and Seymour knew he wasn’t getting any younger. He stumbled once, tripping over an exposed root but he got up and kept running. For Junior was still going like a rocket, and straight ahead, someone—or something—was leading him.
“Jun! Come back!”
A dog howled in the distance. A bird flapped its wings nearby, the cool damp air caressing Seymour’s cheek like a kiss. A light fog drifted above the ground, just up to his knees as he kept running, ignoring the gravel cutting into the bottoms of his feet.
“Mama!” His son cried out again, his voice growing faint.
“Jun! Stop where you are!” Seymour shouted again, but he knew it was useless. This had to be a dream. Had to be.
Around him the fog lifted, reaching above his head before it dissipated, settling like a whisper against his bare skin. He realized then that he was only wearing a thin shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. Shit. No one better see him like this, running half-naked out in the middle of nowhere. He was Seymour Parks, for crying out loud. Women couldn’t get enough of him, and men loved to hang out with him. It didn’t matter if they did it only because of the money. At least, they did it for something.
He stopped when he spotted the gate leading to the cemetery, and beyond it, Junior. Seymour took a deep breath and pushed the gate forward.
“Jun, you’re in deep trouble, kid. Don’t you ever run like that, alright?”
The fog swirled around him, swallowing up the boy’s small form but Seymour was determined to make it to him. He stopped only when something tugged at his boxers. Seymour looked down.
“There you are,” he muttered as Junior stood next to him, the boy pointing at something in front of them. This time, Seymour felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. His skin prickled. Wait! Where the hell were they? He followed the little boy’s finger, pointing at something about his same height.
“Mama,” Junior said, pointing to the marble grave marker.
Seymour frowned, before glancing down. “Jun, you’re talking.”
Junior’s hand moved downward, pointing towards the ground though there was no ground to see, not right away. Seymour felt his mouth go dry. He tried to move, to run away as far as he could, but he couldn’t move. His feet felt rooted in place, frozen in the soft ground. Of course, it was soft, so soft that Seymour could feel himself sinking. It had rained hard enough to soften the damn ground.
But that wasn’t what made Seymour’s heart race. No, it was worse. Someone had dug up the grave, revealing an empty casket, its lid flipped open as if for a personal viewing.
“Dada,” Junior said again, his pudgy finger pointing at the casket.
This was a dream, had to be. For how else could Junior be talking when all this damn time, all he did was grunt? Seymour felt something wet on his cheeks. He brought his hand up to his face. Tears. He was crying.
“Jun, I didn’t mean to kill her,“ Seymour whispered as his son continued to hold his hand. ”It was an accident. You know it was.”
Seymour didn’t know why he was babbling like an idiot, but it was the only thing he could do, his feet still rooted on the same spot even though all his senses told him to run.
“Please, Jun. I didn’t mean to. Please.” That last word emerged as a whisper.
Junior tugged at Seymour’s fingers, the boy’s other hand pointing to the empty coffin. “Dada. Sweep… now.”
Suddenly Seymour felt himself falling. He landed into the open casket, face-first onto the cushioned liner although there was nothing soft about it. It felt hard. It smelled musty. Half-cursing and half-screaming, Seymour rolled onto his back, struggling to find leverage just as the lower part of the split lid slammed shut, trapping his lower torso inside.
Seymour squirmed to free himself and pull open the lower lid, but it wouldn’t budge. He grabbed hold of the other part of the split lid, only to feel it swing downwards, closing in on him with its viewing glass panel. But he was wide awake now, and fast. Seymour pushed it back up, leaving it open.
“I’ll get you, you son of a bitch!” he shouted although he laughed, too, for the term was too perfect beyond words. The kid was the son a bitch, that’s for sure.
Seymour forced himself to calm down, telling himself this had to be some cruel joke. He could do this. He could get out of this mess. Even if it were just a dream, he could still do it. He’d live and find his way to Manila, and to the bar girls waiting for him. Hell, he wouldn’t even do that. He’d fly straight home, and he’d stay there this time.
The glass lid covering the top portion of the casket came down then, hitting Seymour on the nose and he yelped, his head landing back on the satin pillow as he heard the latch lock into place. No! He pounded his fists against the glass, staring up at his son still standing where Seymour had last seen him.
But this time Junior wasn’t alone.
None of them talked. No one laughed or cracked a joke. They just watched him in silence. Nanay was the first to grab a handful of earth and throw it over the casket. It landed on the lower part of the lower lid with a dull thud. The cousin who said it was going to rain followed, brown earth hitting the viewing glass as Seymour shut his eyes.
When he opened them again, more soil came down on him by the handfuls as each one took their turn. Each one of them not saying anything. Seymour could pound on the glass and demand that all this was no longer funny, that this was a joke gone too far. But something told him this was no joke. Just as something told him that this wasn’t a dream.
This was real.
One by one, they tossed handfuls of earth into the grave as an eerie calm filled him. A resignation. Alma was one of the last ones, his view of them now obscured by the handful of earth she tossed over his casket. Then she stepped back to make room for the last one, and Seymour didn’t need to know who it would be. He could only watch helplessly as little Seymour, Jr. gathered the soil in his two little hands before the words finally emerged from Seymour’s lips.
Mina had caught him hitting Junior during breakfast. He’d lost his temper over something, though he couldn’t even remember what it was now.
She said she’d stay at the women’s shelter until Seymour finished an anger management course. But he said no and tried to stop her from getting into the car. He’d show her what happened to bad little girls.
Somehow he grabbed a hammer that had been sitting on his workbench. He’d forgotten to put it away, and he just happened to pick it up. He hadn’t meant to. He’d only held it up to scare her. Mina had just buckled a crying Junior into his car seat and was turning to face him, begging him to get help.
Somehow, hammer met skull then. And that’s all it took. She went down, blood caught in the hammer. Even bits of hair and scalp but he’d washed all that away. Then he wrapped her in a sheet, loaded her into the trunk of the car, and he buried her while their son watched.
Above him, Seymour heard the dull thud of earth landing over the casket. Someone was filling the grave by the shovelful now.
So this is how it feels like to die, he thought as the glass above him began to crack from the soil weighing upon it. Tears streamed down his face as he wondered if this must be how Mina felt then, too. For if Doheny was right—that they did find her body hours ago—then they’d certainly find out something else in the autopsy.
Maybe soil in her lungs as she struggled to breathe, still wrapped in that sheet as she gained consciousness too late. By then, Seymour had already started something he couldn’t stop.
The glass broke then, heavy damp soil filling the casket and covering his face and mouth, smothering him like a soft and unforgiving blanket as he screamed—or tried to.
Copyright 2016 © Liz Durano