Our neighbor, Mrs. Wheeler, died. She was a gypsy. She lived in the other half our our duplex. The funeral was in her very own living room. So many people showed up, they were crowded off of her porch and onto ours. Nobody was even crying.
"Come on," mom said. "Get your boots tied."
I didn't see why we had to pay our respects. Billy and I didn't respect her. She stared at us with her weird eye; the one that didn't look off into space.
"Up!" mom said. "Get up and out of that door before I get out the licking stick!"
I wasn't afraid of being spanked anymore. It was scary when daddy used to do it, but he doesn't wake up every day, now. He likes to stay out at night. Sometimes when he comes home, I'm sleeping and mom starts yelling. Billy and I have to jump out of bed and put on our slippers to drag him in out of the rain.
She swatted at me with her free hand as I dragged my feet to the screen door. "Move, boys," she said. "I have a hot casserole, here."
The night before, she'd fretted over what to cook for a gypsy funeral. "Do they even eat tuna?" Billy asked over his shoulder while we watched Knight Rider and she made too much noise in the kitchen.
"Of course they eat tuna," mom said. "They eat everything. Who wouldn't eat tuna?"
"She probably eats eyeball soup and frog's breath or something," Billy said.
"Well, she's dead," mom snapped. "People eat tuna casseroles when somebody is dead."
I wondered if we would eating it tonight. She didn't seem to be making anything separate for our dinner. Maybe dad would turn up dead.
I wasn't watching where I was walking and when I pushed on the screen door, it smacked somebody in the back. "Watch yourself, boy," a man said. "You'll knock somebody down into the mud."
Our yard was pretty muddy. Still, these people were on our porch. I never had to be careful on my own porch before. "Sorry," I mumbled and turned sideways to squeeze myself through the half opened door.
"Come here for a minute," the man said.
I didn't have much coming to do, seeing that I was standing only a few inches away from him. "Excuse me," mom said, her teeth clenching the pinched butt of a cigarette. "Excuse me. Casserole coming through." She pushed her way through the crowd and stepped over the divider between our porch and the dead gypsy's.
"Come here," he said, again.
I sort of nudged my toes forward a few inches, trying to accommodate him. He leaned in close and said in a low voice, "Nadya was my sister."
I had no idea who Nadya was.
"She talked about you and your brother," he said. "She said you were good boys but that you got into mischief."
I didn't know what he was talking about. "Did you steal grapes from her vine, out back?" he asked.
"Grapes?" I said.
"When you were a boy, did you steal them?" he said.
"Mrs. Wheeler's grapes?" I asked. "She told my mom we could have them."
My dad whacked down those grape vines two or three summers ago. He said they looked too messy and that grapes brought in the crows. Why was this man bringing them up now?
"Are you afraid of me, boy?" the man said.
"I guess so," I told him. "Those grapes were a long time ago."
He laughed so loud that the people crowded in next to him startled. Then they all started laughing and patting each other on the back and spilling some of their drinks.
"I haven't spoken to my sister in at least five years," he laughed, and clapped me on the back. I was glad I didn't have a drink. I would have spilled it.
"I don't know your sister," I said and started trying to shove past him. He roared with such convincing laughter that I felt the corners of my mouth creep up into a smile. "I don't," I said. "I think you might be a little crazy."
I wasn't supposed to say things like that. Mom explained to me that you only tell the truth when it's something you wouldn't want to take back. "You can't take back the real truths," she said. "You can try to brush them behind you and excuse them away, but if you're telling the truth about somebody's ugly side, they'll never forget what you said."
I didn't care whether I might hurt the man's feelings. I'd held my own against my dad when he was less drunk than this man. All this guy did was laugh, anyway.
"Here," he said, holding out a large golden coin.
I didn't want to take it. His fingers were short and thick and unusually hairy. "Here, take it," he said. "It's good luck to carry a coin like this when you're headed to a funeral. He pressed it into my palm and patted me on the shoulder. His eyes were blue and they sparkled in the watery sunlight.
"Thank you," I said, finally making my way around him and through the crowd of drunk, laughing mourners.
"What did he want?" my brother whispered as I made it inside.
Mrs. Wheeler's house was the same as ours, only reversed and full of dusty, toppling furniture that was all missing legs and sagging in the seats.
"He gave me a coin," I said.
"Give it to me," Billy said.
"No," I said. "Get off of me."
Mom shot us a look. She placed her casserole on a rickety little table in the kitchen. A woman was at the stove cooking cabbage. Everything smelled like old people and food. I punched Billy in the arm as he reached across me for the coin.
"Let me see it," he said.
I held it up. It was heavy and golden. There was a carving of the sun on one side and on the other, it said, "Cogito ergo sum."
"What does it mean?" I asked.
"Who knows?" Billy said. "He probably stole it from somebody who speaks Spanish."
"I don't think it's Spanish," I said.
Mom came up behind us and started shoving us slowly toward the open coffin in the living room. Mrs. Wheeler was wearing the same crappy purple dress she wore every day. I wondered if she hadn't just finished breakfast, gone to the toilet and then plopped down here to die. I thought people were supposed to dress up for their funeral.
I'd never seen a dead person before. It was strangely underwhelming. It felt the same as when I'd seen her sitting in her rocking chair in the yard, never moving or smiling. She just looked like a stupid dead old lady. The only weird thing about her was that there was a coin sticking out from between her lips.
"Look," my brother whispered. "It's another one of those coins."
"Mine is different," I said. "That one is silver."
"I bet you it is stolen, too," Billy said. "I bet you gypsies are always buried with something they stole."
I rolled my eyes. The only reason Billy even knew these people were gypsies is because daddy was a manager at the grocery store. The boss before him told him to watch out for Mrs. Wheeler and her family. "They'll come in here in a big pack and start trying to confuse your senses," he said. "They'll give you a five dollar bill instead of a ten and drop a bunch of quarters. When you bend down to pick them up, they'll steal the hair right off your head." I always found that part to be interesting. How would they get the hair off?
"I'm going to get it," Billy said.
"What?" I asked.
"Make sure mom isn't looking," he instructed. "Go ask her for some casserole."
"No way," I said. "I'm not eating that casserole again." She made a double batch and we did indeed have it for last night's dinner.
"Just do it, idiot," Billy said. "Tell her you're hungry and get her into the kitchen."
"Are you going to take the coin out of her mouth?" I whispered.
"Yeah," he said, flexing his fingers.
"You can't do that," I hissed. "It's in her mouth."
"So?" he asked.
"So, there's dead people spit in there and germs," I said. "Did you ever picture Mrs. Wheeler as being a particularly thorough brusher?"
"Shut up," Billy said. "We can just wash it."
I glanced around behind us. Nobody seemed to be paying attention. Mom was already back in the kitchen talking to the cabbage lady.
"Nobody's looking," I said.
"Are you sure," he whispered.
I looked again and nodded. I wasn't sure, but I didn't think he would actually do it, either. In a swift motion like a pelican diving for a fish, he swooped in with his fingers and tried to snatch it out of her mouth. It didn't come away very easily, though, so he started grasping at it and pulling. I saw that her teeth were about to give way and pop right out of her skull.
"Shit," Billy whispered, tugging and tugging on the coin. Finally, her mouth sort of popped open like it was fixed with a spring. I gasped and Billy pulled his hand away like he'd been burned by fire.
"Look at her," I hissed. "She looks different. She looks crazy."
"She looks fine," he said.
"Her mouth is hanging open," I panicked. "You can see that dangling thing in her throat."
"It's fine," he said, "She's fine." He took a few measured steps backward. "We'd better go."
"Go where?" I asked. We lived only a few feet from here and that man already knew that we used to steal Mrs. Wheeler's grapes.
A heavy hand landed suddenly on my shoulder and before I could think about what I was doing, I screamed like a girl and started shoving my way to the door. People were murmuring and leaning over the casket, peering into Mrs. Wheeler's open mouth. Somebody shouted, "Hey!"
Billy screamed, "Run!" and catapulted himself off of the porch into the mud. We took off, slipping and sliding and running down the alley. I could barely breathe. The weight of the coin in my hand was enormous. There was a little pinging sound and the one Billy stole from her mouth bounced once off of the pavement and landed with a soft thud in the grass.
"What if it's cursed?" I yelled.
A great and enthusiastic laughter erupted from behind us. I turned to see Mrs. Wheeler's relatives falling all over themselves on the porch with merriment. A woman threw a dish towel in a man's face and said, "Oh, stop it," as he pointed at us and laughed.
"Faster!" the man called out. "Put your head down and run as fast as you can! We'll find you, boys! We know where you live!"
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Head Ant challenged me with "Cogito ergo sum," and I challenged Kelly Garriott Waite with "Don't ever go that way".