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art by Eleanor Bennett

Forgiving Dead

Jeff lives with his wife in the woods of northern Minnesota, where he divides the year into canoe season, ski season, and those few weeks between where he gets more writing done.
Her first customers of the day were teenagers, a brother and sister. Too young to remember the one they sought.
Dolores kept the curtains drawn in her little shop, not for atmosphere, but for the privacy of her customers. From these two, however, she expected no tears, no weeping. They were here on a lark. Their chairs close together for courage, they fidgeted and shared frequent smirks and giggles. Probably ditched their parents in another part of the memorial village.
"I'll need the full name of the departed," Dolores said as she lit the candle. "But don't tell me anything about yourselves or your family. If I make contact, I'll ask the departed to provide verification. Once you're satisfied, we'll move on to your questions."
The candle wasn't for atmosphere either. Her shop had little of that. Nor was the flame part of a ritual, at least not in the traditional sense. Lighting a candle was her way of letting the dead know she was ready for them. She had been overwhelmed at times before working out a way to signal when she was off duty.
"Is it dangerous?" The girl seemed to be having second thoughts.
"Not at all, my dear." Not for anyone their age. But if the ghosts had blamed them, they'd have been dead long before reaching this shop. It had happened three times in the history of the memorial. All three had been Dolores's former coworkers.
The girl took a deep breath, making her decision. "We want to talk to Mary Louise Baumgartner. She was--"
"That should be all I need, thank you." Dolores opened herself to the others who peopled the village and repeated the name. She didn't have to wait long. A young woman, just a few years older than the kids, slipped into the empty chair. Dolores looked at the flame so as not to see that look from the ghost, a mix of sorrow and kindness.
I know them, Mary said to Dolores. She has my sister's face.
Dolores relayed what she was told, identifying first the teenagers, though they had been toddler and infant when Mary had known them, and then their father. When she spoke of their mother, Mary's older sister, she went on at length until the boy stopped Dolores mid-sentence.
"All right, we believe you!" Brother and sister looked at each other wide-eyed. "Um..."
"Did it hurt?" the girl asked.
Dolores knew what the girl meant, knew the answer, but waited for Mary's response. No, it was over in the blink of an eye.
Yes, for 5,792 of them. For 83 it was slower. A few survived the blast. One hell of a design flaw.
"Does it hurt now?"
No, dear child. At least, not for most.
Dolores could feel Mary's gaze as the ghost said the last. Dolores passed on the answer.
The kids started to rush their questions, and Dolores had to slow them down to give Mary a chance to answer. The questioning soon turned from the novelty of talking to the dead to the more important matter of Mary's relationship to the family. This was the normal flow of things and when the tears usually started to flow. To Dolores's surprise, the girl did shed some tears, and the boy surreptitiously wiped his eyes a time or two as they heard of the love between mother and aunt.
In the end they thanked Dolores, and the girl gave her a sudden hug. Exhausted, Dolores responded with her usual platitudes and closed the door behind them. She opened a curtain to let the sun shine in.
"Why me?" A question she'd asked many times. There had been dozens on the design team. Their firm hadn't been responsible for the reactor's core technology; however, the containment system had been their responsibility, and it had been a critical element in the disaster. The firm had disintegrated in the aftermath, its people scattered to the winds. Some of them had visited the memorial over the years. Dolores had been the only one to stay. The only one asked to stay.
It was a mistake, dear one. Five knew about it beforehand, and the remaining two will be held accountable, in your world or ours. But you have helped us much since that day. We are grateful.
Dolores and her coworkers had thought they were helping people, thought they were changing the world. And perhaps they did. The technology lived on, the flaw corrected. There were other sites now, successful ones, making the world a better place, but Dolores didn't feel like she'd had a hand in that. Her legacy was here, the dead.
"My penance."
No. Your path to healing. Mary hugged Dolores, warm and comforting.
Dolores stepped back and blew out the candle. She was not yet ready for forgiveness.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 13th, 2013


I wrote this story for a flash fiction contest in my writers group. The prompt was to write about someone who had failed in one career but found success in another. I settled on the idea of a medium early on, and the rest grew from there. When it comes to tragedy, I usually gravitate toward an inability to accept forgiveness as the flaw that brings the protagonist down. Despite this not being an issue I've struggled with, it's always resonated strongly with me. Somehow it seems a tragedy on top of a tragedy.

- Jeff Stehman

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