Peasants and Kings - Emma Slate


My heart thumped in my chest like the beat of a solemn war drum as I stared at the newly churned earth over my mother’s grave.

The pulse of my blood reminded me that I was alive, and she was not.

Ominous clouds dotted the sky. Thunder boomed in the distance, announcing impending weather. A warm, gentle breeze tugged at my hair.

I clasped my hands together, my jaw clenched as I tried to keep my emotions locked inside me. If they were allowed to escape, allowed to run free, I might never be able to wrangle them back under control.

My mother had been a devout Catholic, but she was now buried in a nondenominational cemetery in a town I’d never heard of. When the minister had called to inform me of her death and that her funeral had already been scheduled and paid for, my mind jumped into overdrive.

Had she been sick? No. If she’d been sick, she would’ve tried to get into contact sooner than a week ago. I’d silenced her call and hadn’t even bothered listening to her voicemail. She called again and again. I’d deleted every message.

My chest was tight with guilt, each breath like jagged glass puncturing my lungs and shredding my heart.

I hadn’t cried. Not even when I’d gotten the phone call from the minister.

What the hell was wrong with me? Was I in shock? Or was it something more?

A lifetime of resentment had stood between us, and what began as months of not speaking so long ago had melded into years.

Grief, shame, and confusion…it was an ongoing battle of emotions, the victor still unclear. Feelings consumed me like a tidal wave, and just when I was able to break the surface and breathe, another emotion would crash down on me.

The soft tread of footsteps on damp grass momentarily diverted my attention. An older woman in a thick black sweater dress, black hose, and rounded-toe heels came toward me. Her chestnut hair was heavily laced with gray and her brown eyes were warm with compassion as they met my gaze. Her face was lined with age, smile parentheses bracketing her mouth and wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.

She held a manila envelope. Her nails were perfectly manicured, and she wore a dainty diamond tennis bracelet.

Who was this woman? She clearly had money, but it was more than that. She had class.

This town didn’t showcase either of those things. When I’d driven down Main Street, I noticed the decayed state of the buildings. Those that weren’t boarded up were dilapidated and required renovation. Most needed new roofs and some were too rundown to inhabit, even for a business. No one had paved over the crumbling brick streets, not bothering to conceal the fact that the town had once been a bustling hub of economic activity at the height of an era when small-town America reigned. It was a time I’d only seen in vintage movies that my mother had loved to watch when I was a child. All that remained now were memories of what once was, a nostalgia that was nearly tangible.

“Ms. Miller,” the woman greeted, hand outstretched with the envelope. “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother…was a good person.”

She released the envelope as I grasped it and then turned to leave.

“Wait!” I called to her.

She looked over her shoulder.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter. You’ll never see me again. Good luck, Sterling.”

I swallowed as I watched her vacate the immaculate grounds of the cemetery. The lawns had been mown; the flower beds along the sidewalks were all pruned to perfection. It was as though the town cared more for the dead than the living.

I looked down at the thick envelope. My finger toyed with the edge of it, wanting desperately to rip into it so I could devour my mother’s final words to me.

I headed to my old blue Toyota Camry that was parked along the curb. It wasn’t going to turn heads, but it was reliable enough to have made the drive all the way from Dallas without a worry.

As I drove back toward the cheap, outdated motel I was staying at near the edge of town, I kept glancing at the envelope that rested on the faded and cracked leather passenger seat. It taunted me, intrigued me. I didn’t know what I’d find when I opened it, and I wasn’t sure I was ready.

I pulled into the parking lot of the motel. It looked like a crime scene waiting to happen.