The child unconsciously mirrors his mother’s pose. They stand with their feet apart and their shoulders hunched, fighting off a cold that isn’t there. He grips her papery hand, and every time she shifts and shuffles her feet her skin makes a raspy sound against his own. He’s too young to ask why they have come here, but his eyes register the way his mother clenches her other hand into a fist. He’s too scared to look at her face, so he scans their surroundings, taking in the willow tree that resembles something out of his nightmares. He shrinks back against his mother’s side, his other hand clutching at her shirt. She frowns down at the top of his head, at the way his blonde curls flutter gently in the pre-dawn breeze. She will have to explain to him why they are here, but she doesn’t know how. Maybe she will make something up, like the fairytales he was learning to read in school.
“Mommy, what’s that?” he’s pointing at the willow tree, at the small hill beneath it. She had hoped he wouldn’t notice, so she wouldn’t have to do what she came here to do. Sighing, she tugs at his hand until he knows that she wants him to move. Hand in hand, their footsteps synchronized, they walk to the mound of earth beneath the tree. There is nothing there to suggest that it could have been a grave. The rain that had been cutting across the city for the past week must have wiped away the letters she’d hurriedly penciled in, she realizes. It’s a small fortune, or else the boy would have probably tried spelling them out. She could tell that the question was on the tip of his tongue, but he wouldn’t ask her again. She had taught him too well.
“This is a grave, Jr. It’s where people go after their time on Earth is done.” She makes sure her words are neutral, so that the child won’t pick up on her anxiety.
“But Gran said people go to heaven after. Like Daddy.” He furrows his brow, pulling his hand out of her grasp because she’s suddenly tightened her grip without realizing. Immediately, her hand goes to his shoulder instead, so that he doesn’t run off.
“Not everyone goes to heaven. Your Gran’s too optimistic for her own good.”
She almost laughs at the way he scrunches up his nose with distaste.
“Don’t you worry about that. Come on, you want to see what a grave looks like?”
The blue eyes widened, fear and excitement mingling in cloudy depths.
“Are we s’posed to? Won’t they be mad?” The boy asks, curling into her side out of habit.
“Who? There’s no one here but us, Jr. It can be our secret.”
“Ok,” he whispers, and the fear disappears, replaced by trust. The mother smiles.
“Good boy,” she tells him, squeezing his shoulder.
It’s the first time he’s heard these words, and the smile he offers her almost makes her pause. But she reminds herself that it’s for his own sake.
Together, they walk closer to the edge of the willow, and the child’s smile matches the bright rays of the rising sun.