The Return

Ryan Daly (Fanatic)



I was sixteen when my Aunt Susan died. She was like an older sister to me, more than my aunt. My father, Jake Carlisle, is older than her by almost fourteen years. Uncle Tommy followed three years after Dad. And then came Aunt Susan. Grandma and Grandpa used to joke about their "bonus" baby. I always found it funny because my Dad and Mom did almost the same thing, except I had ten years without any siblings, then the twins arrived, messing up the good thing I had going. Aunt Susan seemed to understand that, and so she always made me feel special while everyone else fawned over the twins. I fail to see how being a split ovum makes them so fabulous. It screams defect to me.

I remember sitting in the church at her funeral and having the horrible thought that I wished it had been for Uncle Tommy or maybe his wife, Aunt Laura, instead. I didn’t really want any of our family dead. I just hated losing Aunt Susan. She was fun. We used to have a good time together. She was like an overgrown kid; she loved the circus and carousels and cartoons and anything that made her laugh. She always had a joke to tell me, most of which Dad wouldn’t have been too happy to know she was telling, but they made me popular at school. Sample: Sex is like a card game–if you don't have a good partner, you better have a good hand.

Dad and Aunt Susan had a weird relationship. They never quite got along, but he never let anyone say too much bad about her. He disapproved of her, that I knew. So did Grandma and Grandpa. Uncle Tommy did especially, and Aunt Laura has a pole stuck up her ass that’s about a foot thick and we’re worried that the Japanese beetles might infest her from within because of it. Mom was the only one who didn’t quite get all fussy about her. I think she liked Aunt Susan’s sense of humor too.

We were all sitting in the front pews at the church, the First Episcopal Church of Hanesport, with the Right Reverend Hartwell conducting the service. I always wondered who the Left Reverend might be. It was our family’s congregation. The Carlisles have been attending here for years, or, rather, sleeping here for years. Dad especially can’t make it through sermons if Mom has made us a big breakfast complete with pancakes and bacon beforehand. Hartwell’s sermons haven’t improved with time or repetition, and even I had begun to recognize his favorites. Aunt Susan was the smartest of all of us and hadn’t been inside a church, except for Christmas and Easter, for as long as I had known her. She said that since God didn’t seem to believe in her, she didn’t see the need to believe in him.

The reason God didn’t believe in her was seated behind us, to the left. Her name was Grace Winthrop and she and Aunt Susan had been a couple for over a year. She wasn’t Aunt Susan’s first girlfriend, but I figured she would be her last. I was right, technically speaking. Aunt Susan loved Grace, or at least, it looked like love to me. That’s what got Uncle Tommy and Aunt Laura so upset. They said it wasn’t natural and that she was an "abomination." I was always surprised that Aunt Laura knew such a big word, though I doubted she knew what it meant.

I liked Grace. She was pretty, like Susan. If you didn’t know they were lesbians, you wouldn’t know they were lesbians, if that makes sense. They were both on the tall side with athletic builds but not with bulging muscles or anything gross like that. Aunt Susan’s hair was shoulder length, light brown, and she had green eyes. She had an easy smile. Like I said before, she always seemed to be in on a joke. Grace was more serious, slightly darker hair, a little longer, often pulled back in a clip or a band. Her eyes were hazel and I noticed they would often follow my aunt around a room. Yes, they were in love.

Her eyes were now focused on the mahogany casket at the front of the sanctuary. The casket was closed and covered with a spray of white roses and baby’s breath. A picture of Aunt Susan was propped up on table nearby. She’d only been gone for two days. I missed her already.

Reverend Hartwell was up behind the lectern. "We are gathered here today to remember our dear sister, Susan Carlisle, beloved only daughter of Charles and Cynthia Carlisle, and sister to Jacob and Thomas."

Dad hated being called Jacob and I saw him roll his eyes. Mom reached over and patted his hand.

"Ever since I can remember serving this parish, I can remember Susan’s antics here. She was not the most outwardly devout of our congregation, but I believe her inner spirit loved God tremendously."

That was a blatant lie. She thought organized religion was a crock, but I guess she was spiritual in her own way. She did worship the feminine, no doubt. Perhaps she was into goddess worship.

"Why else would He chose to call her home at such a young age? I’m sure that all of us have a favorite memory of Susan as she managed, as she often did, to avoid work, have fun, and generally bring a smile to people’s faces. As her…" the reverend trailed off.

At first I wondered if he had run out of lies, then I realized he was simply distracted. But instead of it being the twins, who were usually the ones causing a ruckus, the problem was a bit closer to him. The lid of the casket was being opened—from the inside. The flowers slid to the side and ultimately down onto the floor. Then Aunt Susan emerged, struggling into a sitting position.

"Holy shit!" I said out loud, before I could stop myself.

"Kit!" my father sharply reprimanded me, until he saw what I did. "Good goddamn!" Behind us we heard several people run out of the sanctuary, and a few more cry out.

"She’s alive!" I heard myself shout. I started to race over, but my father grabbed my wrist and kept me where I was. The twins were both clinging to Mom. For boys, they weren’t very brave.

Aunt Susan was sitting up fully now, and rubbed her face like people do in the morning. "What happened? What am I doing in a coffin? Is this a joke?"

Reverend Hartwell clambered to her side. "A small mistake seems to have been made."

"Small?" she echoed sarcastically, mirroring my thoughts. She looked over at the family, her expression hurt. "You were going to bury me?"

"Yes," Reverend Hartwell confirmed. "We were real certain you died two days ago." He looked out at the audience for confirmation from her doctor and the funeral home director, both of whom were in attendance.

"Died? Impossible. I’m here. I’m fine. I’m sitting in a coffin, but I’m fine."

"Not impossible, Susan," Doctor Fletcher said as he made his way up to the coffin. He was our family doctor. He and Grandpa had met in college. Grandpa went on to be a lawyer and Doctor Fletcher became, well, a doctor. I’d seen him for scraped knees and broken arms and tonsillitis my entire life. I hadn’t known him to make a mistake like this before. "I pronounced you dead myself." He reached out and took her wrist in his hand, his fingers automatically seeking out a pulse. "I don’t normally make that big of a mistake. Yours was the worst case of flu I ever saw in my practice, made even that SARS strain look like a walk in the park."

Susan shrugged. "Well, hate to break it to you, but I’m here, and feeling just fine. I hope you don’t expect me to lie back down and go along with it so you don’t have higher malpractice premiums."

Doc Fletcher laughed. "I think that would be a tad unreasonable on my part."

"Good." Aunt Susan’s gaze fell on my grandparents, both of whom were rooted to their seats. "Guess I should be thankful we don’t believe in cremation, eh?"

"How are you feeling?" Grandpa asked, finding his voice. Grandma was still slack-jawed at the sight Aunt Susan being alive. I noted that Aunt Laura looked a little pissed off. I think she had been glad to get rid of the family "deviant."

"Pretty good. Better. I feel like I got a little rest, but I’m sure hungry." With a smile at the doctor, she gripped both sides of the coffin. "Doc, you put me in here, think you can give me a hand out?"

Between the doctor and the reverend, Aunt Susan was helped out of the coffin and settled on her feet. Aunt Susan looked over at Grace and smiled gently. "Hey there."

Grace approached slowly, tears streaming down her face. "Is that really you, Suzi?" No one but Grace had even been able to get away with calling her by that nickname. That was another reason why I knew they were the real thing.

Aunt Susan smiled and opened her arms wide. "Absolutely. You sure look like you could use a hug." Apparently, Grace did because she rushed over into my aunt’s embrace. They stood in the middle of the sanctuary, holding each other, crying unabashedly.

Grandma and Grandpa got to their feet and started over to her as well, and finally, Dad let me go. I rushed over, not wanting to disturb, but desperately needing a hug as well. Soon I felt Aunt Susan’s arm around me too, and Grace’s, and then Mom joined us.

"Hey, Kit," Aunt Susan said after a long moment.

"I’m so glad you’re okay," I replied, hugging her again.

"It’s a miracle," Grandma whispered. We all stepped aside to allow her to reach Aunt Susan.

I turned away, feeling like it was intruding to watch their reunion. Instead, I saw the repulsion on Aunt Laura’s face as she watched the scene unfold. "Disgusting," she hissed. "Touching that woman in church."

"Now, Laura," Uncle Tommy whispered.

"It’s wrong, Tom, and don’t pretend that it’s not. It’s unnatural." Aunt Laura began herding my younger cousins down the aisle, away from everyone else.

"I think rising from the dead is a bit more unnatural," I replied before I could stop myself. "But God seems to have allowed it."

"You watch your language, young lady," Aunt Laura warned me and continued on her way.

The funeral home director stood to the side, shaking his head. He was talking to Dad. I edged over so I could hear what was being said. "I thought your people did…things…beforehand." Dad’s tone was angry, though I knew he was happy Aunt Susan was alive.

"We do, Mr. Carlisle. We wash and prepare the body for burial."

"Don’t you embalm people?"

He shook his head. "No, sir. We only do that if there’s been a death due to a contagious disease or if there is to be a public viewing. Since your family was having a closed casket funeral, there was no need to do so."

"It’s not a law?"

"No. But, Mr. Carlisle, if we had done it, your sister would surely be dead. This is a fortuitous circumstance."

I had to agree. I wandered over to where Grandpa was having a similar conversation with Doc Fletcher. "How’d this happen? I haven’t known you to mess up this badly before Paul. Especially when it was with one of my children."

Doc Fletcher looked thoughtful for a long moment. "All I can think of is epso-pseudo animation. It’s a rare condition that mimics death, but it’s just that everything has slowed down. Often it occurs when a body has been under great physical stress, overtaxed, and it needs to shut down. It’s very rare. I can’t say I’ve heard of any cases here in the States in the last twenty, thirty years."

My finely honed teenage bullshit detector was ringing loudly, but Grandpa didn’t seem inclined to disbelieve his oldest friend. "What should we do for her? Does she need to go back to the hospital?"

"I think Susan might not want to go back there, given how she last left. I think some food and some rest, and it seems she’ll be just fine. Have her come around to my office at the end of the week for a checkup. She’s obviously done alright without medical intervention for the last few days, a few more can’t hurt."

No shit, Sherlock. Apparently, two nights in a refrigerator were better help than you were.

"I expect we won’t be seeing a bill for any services," Grandpa replied, eternally a lawyer.

Doc Fletcher sighed. "No, I expect not."

"Good." Grandpa walked back over to the rest of the family. "Come on, Susan, let’s all go home. We had a reception planned which will be much better with you actually attending."




A few hours later, we were all gathered at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The twins were running around, making more noise than even two boys should be able to make. Dad was trying to get them calmed down, but they weren’t listening. Our cousins, closer to the twins’ age, were also wound up. No doubt they picked up on Aunt’s Laura’s bad mood. Mom had cornered me earlier about "smarting off" to Aunt Laura in the church. She didn’t know what I had said exactly, so I knew that Aunt Laura had been less than truthful in her rendition of the story, lest she appear unsympathetic to Aunt Susan. I tucked that aside for bargaining power later, if needed.

The dining room was the only place which seemed somewhat peaceful. Grandma kept running back and forth from the kitchen, bringing out more and more food. We had more than we could eat, even though the house was full of people who had attended the funeral, abbreviated as it was. I stood to the side of the entryway into the dining room and watched everything.

Aunt Susan moved through the crowd, glad-handing like a politician. Though, there were a lot of people who wouldn’t approach her at all. I watched those ones, especially the more conservative religious ones, move out of her path as she worked the room. She would stop by each food station, chat with the people there, and move on.

"How you doing, Kit?" she asked me, making her way to my side of the room.

"I’m good. How are you? For someone who recently rose from the dead?"

She laughed and scooped up a handful of nuts from a nearby container. "About as good as I have any right to be." She tossed a few in her mouth and chewed while looking out at the crowd. "I always wondered what my funeral would be like."

"Not many people get to attend their own, that’s for sure. Well, attend and be able to comment."

"True enough." She shrugged and turned her attention to me. "Tell me, Kit, how come Grace wasn’t sitting with the family?"

I couldn’t meet her eyes, ashamed I hadn’t done more in the situation. At least, I should have gone and sat with her myself. "Aunt Laura objected, for one. Then she got Uncle Tommy on her side. And then…"


I nodded. "Yeah, Grandma was the one who told her to not sit with us."

"You’d think in death people would be more tolerant, eh?" She ate another handful as she silently watched the different groups interact. I noticed that her eyes were seeking out her beloved.

"Suzi!" Grace called out, running over. Before either of us could react, she swatted at Aunt Susan’s hand, causing her to drop the remaining nuts on the floor. "My God! Did you eat them?"

Aunt Susan shrugged. "Sure. I was hungry. Doc Fletcher said I could eat."

"Suzi, you’re deathly allergic to nuts or have you forgotten?"

I had. But she was right. I worried if we had received Aunt Susan back just to lose her again.

"Hon, I feel fine. Don’t worry." She hugged Grace to her and kissed her forehead. "No reaction at all."

Grandma had heard the commotion and she came over as well. "Susan, you know better than to eat those." She took hold of Aunt Susan’s jaw and turned her face side to side, inspecting for any swelling, rash or reaction. "Just touching a peanut when you were little would make you puff up."

Aunt Susan shrugged, unconcerned. "Must be a side effect of whatever I had. No worries."

I noticed that the reception started to wind down quickly after people heard of this latest development. In Hanesport, people aren’t supposed to be lesbian, come back from the dead, or get over allergies. Having all three at once was too much for the majority of the people to process.




Life seemed to be back to normal the next week. Aunt Susan went to see Doc Fletcher and got a clean bill of health. In fact, her cholesterol level was lower than ever before, she proudly boasted. But people still seemed a bit hesitant around her. My Dad especially. I came into the kitchen one night to grab a late night snack and found him sitting at the table on the phone. Since his back was to me, and he was whispering, I figured he didn’t want anyone to listen in. Being a good teenager, I did exactly that.

"I don’t know what to say, Tommy. It’s just…she’s different. You know?" He nodded, listening to Uncle Tommy (I assumed) and took a drink of his beer. "Yeah, that’s what I heard too from Papa. How the hell can you lose a scar? I remember when she got that. Shoot, you and I were both there when her bike went straight into that fence. She was bleeding so bad and I thought that her knee was tore off she was so upset."

Aunt Susan was missing a scar? I knew the one Dad must be talking about. It was a pretty ugly one on the inside of her right knee. Dad and Uncle Tommy had been chasing her on their bikes. She was trying to get away and hit a patch of gravel and flew over the handlebars. She hit a fence, and on the way down, some of the wood cut her real bad. Aunt Susan told me once that she used to hate wearing shorts because it stood out as a white lightning streak on her knee.

"I know. Mama says she’s talking about how she can’t wait to get back to her job. You know, they offered to give her a few months off, paid, but she turned them down. They find it creepy, and know that people aren’t gonna want to work with her for awhile. And Susan hasn’t ever wanted to work a day in her life. Suddenly, she turns down free money to stay home? She’s different. She’s not like she was."

The dog at that moment chose to come into the kitchen and run over to me, barking happily. I tried to shush her, but Dad heard and turned around in his chair. "What are you doing here, Kit?"

"I was just getting some juice, Dad."

He raised his eyebrow at me, clearly knowing that I had been listening in. "Then I suggest you get some, young lady, and go to bed."

"Yes, sir."




I began to realize it was more than our family who had begun to notice changes in Aunt Susan when we went out for dinner in town. I was happy it was just Aunt Susan and Grace and our family. Lately, Aunt Laura and her spawn had really begun to annoy me even more than usual. We were at The Inn, which was easily the best restaurant in Hanesport. That’s not saying much, of course, as Hanesport is really just a dot on a map. But it’s a dot on the map that has had the same families living in it for as long as anyone can remember.

We Carlisles have been here for at least five generations. The Edmundsons boast six, and have had at least one mayor of Hanesport in each. The McConnells have run The Inn as long as it’s stood on this location. I can’t walk down the street without running into a prior classmate, Sunday school teacher and neighbor. This is the type of town where everyone knows your business, sometimes before even you do.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me that two women were discussing Aunt Susan when I walked into the ladies room at The Inn. I stopped inside the doorway and shamelessly listened in, glad they hadn’t heard me enter. "I’ve heard that Susan is just not right. She’s different than before." I recognized the voice but couldn’t remember the name right away.

The other woman tore off a long piece of paper towel from the dispenser. "It’s wrong coming back like that. A person should stay dead."

I shook my head at that logic, if it could be called that.

"Where do you think she was those two days?"

"Most likely burning in hell for being so brazen with that girlfriend of hers. How she bribed the devil to get out of there, I don’t know."

Okay. I’m definitely keying her car the first chance I get.

The first woman spoke again. "My father said she was dead." That’s who it was–Debra Fletcher Berg, daughter of Doc Fletcher. She and Mom are pretty good friends. Or they were until I tell her what this bitch is saying about Aunt Susan. "He was telling us the other night that he didn’t just take her pulse. He made sure she was dead with all sorts of equipment, given that she was Charles’ daughter. Dad didn’t make a mistake, Sheri. She was stone dead."

"How do we know this person even is Susan Carlisle? My grandma used to talk about evil spirits roaming around the world looking for a body to take over. She said that they’d steal a corpse sometime before a person was good and gone."

"That’s crazy talk." A pause. "Although I think I better talk to my father again about her. Something’s not right. And I don’t want that here in Hanesport. Not near my kids. Her perversion was bad enough, but this…so-called miracle…well, that’s too much."

Before they could find me, I slipped out the door.




"Say, Kit, do you want to spend the night over with us?" Aunt Susan asked when I returned to the table as everyone was standing up, the dinner concluded. "I haven’t spent time with my favorite niece since getting sick."

"Getting sick" was our family’s euphemism for her death. I looked to Mom and Dad for permission automatically, having learned in the past it was always easier to secure it up front than have them try to teach me a lesson later. Mom smiled encouragingly. "I’d love to, Aunt Susan."

"Terrific. Just come home with us, we have an extra pair of pajamas you can wear." That said, they made their goodbyes to the boys.

My dad handed me my jacket. "Don’t forget you’re watching the twins tomorrow afternoon while your mother and I go out."

How could I forget such a thrilling event? "I won’t, Dad." I leaned up, kissed him goodnight, did the same to Mom and snarled at the twins. I bounded out the door and joined Aunt Susan and Grace who were getting into their car, claiming the back seat. "Thanks, Aunt Susan."

She looked in the rear view mirror and smiled at me. "No problem, Kit Kat, good to spend time with you." Kit Kat. She hadn’t called me that in years. "We can stay up late, watch a scary movie, and talk."

"Will we do our nails too?" Grace asked, humor in her tone.

"Yes, and talk about boys," Aunt Susan echoed. "For example, is it just my imagination or did the twins get more obnoxious lately?"

I laughed heartily. This was the Aunt Susan I knew and loved. The one who understood that having two brothers wasn’t necessarily the best thing that ever happened to a girl.

We drove back to their house, joking the entire way, and picking out which movies we wanted to watch. Grace hated scary movies, at least the bloody ones, so they tended to have psychological thrillers on DVD, more than slash and trash. Aunt Susan and I once got her to sit through A Nightmare on Elm Street, and she swore she’d never forgive either of us for it. To this day, simply starting the chant "One, two, Freddy's coming for you!" causes Grace to freak out.

They lived in a cute, two story home near the waterfront. Grace loved the beach and wanted a house where she could see the sun rise over the ocean every morning. They had a large deck that overlooked the Atlantic, and easy access to the shoreline. The house wasn’t large, but it never felt cramped as neither of them were packrats. The décor was comfortable and not at all stuffy. I loved the place, feeling at home there from much time spent in their company.

After changing, we all piled on the overstuffed sofa, propping our feet up on the coffee table. Aunt Susan sat in the middle, her arms around both of us. "This is the life," she sighed. "At home with my two favorite girls." She kissed the top of Grace’s head as she said that. "So what did we decide on? Signs?"

"Sure," I said eagerly. It wasn’t the best movie, but it did have its share of creepy moments. Grace agreed as well and Aunt Susan keyed turned on the television and DVD player. "We’ll watch the deleted scenes afterwards, right, Kit Kat?" she said as she started the movie. She knew I am a sucker for deleted scenes, sometimes preferring them to the rest of the movie.

We settled down and watched about a half hour before Grace announced that we needed popcorn. Aunt Susan paused the movie for us and started to get up to help. "Don’t bother," I said. "I’ll help Grace. You relax." I was still feeling protective of her, as if over-exerting might cause her to have a relapse. Not that popping corn was all that strenuous.

"Ah, thanks," she replied. "I think I’ll take this time for a bio-break." That was our family euphemism for going to the bathroom. Going "potty", "tinkle" or "wee-wee" were all frowned upon as being too descriptive. Our family is weird.

In the kitchen, Grace was heating up the oil and placed three kernels in the bottom of the pan. This was another thing I loved about coming over here, they made popcorn the old fashioned way. There’s something about air-popped popcorn that tastes like cardboard to me. I started to get the glasses for drinks and filling them with ice.

"Not too much in Suzi’s," Grace warned me.

"What?" I asked, pausing with a fistful of ice over the glass.

Grace shrugged. "She likes her drinks warmer now."

I hadn’t realized it, but I had noticed that at dinner as well. For years, Aunt Susan always ordered "extra ice" in all of her drinks. Tonight she hadn’t. "How is she doing, Grace?" I asked, not quite sure what I fully meant by the question.

The three kernels popped in rapid succession and Grace added the rest to the bottom of the pan, covering the oil again quickly. "She’s good. It’s as if she never was sick."

"Can she still eat peanuts?"

Grace’s shoulders tightened momentarily, and then she began gently shaking the pot over the flame. "It’s the strangest thing, Kit. She insists on a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day. Says she’s making up for a lifetime of not being able to eat them."

That sounds like Aunt Susan, not much in moderation. "Did Doc Fletcher explain how come the allergy is gone?"

"Not really. Susan isn’t that worried about it. But I make sure I keep an epi shot around, in case we should need it. The allergy went away without a warning, I don’t want it back the same way." The rat-a-tat of exploding popcorn kernels filled the kitchen.

After fixing the drinks, I started melting the butter in the microwave. "Do you think she’s changed, Grace?" I asked softly, almost fearing the question. "If anyone would know, it’d be you."

For a long second, I didn’t think she was going to answer. Finally, she said, "I think Susan had a life-altering experience. We all thought she was dead. And then she woke up in a coffin. God, Kit, I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been. To wake up and hear people talking around you, and you realize where you’re at and what’s about to happen." Her voice caught and it took her a moment before she could continue. "What if she had awakened even an hour later? My God, we wouldn’t have ever known."

I could tell Grace was really upset and I went over and put my arm around her shoulders which were shaking. "I’m sorry, Grace. I’m glad she’s okay too."

She leaned against me and I felt the need to be strong for her, for Aunt Susan. "I would have been so lost without her. I thank God every day that she’s here, and healthy, and whole. I’ll not look that gift horse in the mouth, Kit. She can have a thousand different habits nowadays. I’ll make peanut butter sandwiches for the rest of my life. As long as she’s here, I don’t care."

I wondered if I’d ever love anyone that much. The microwave beeped and I left go of Grace with a gentle squeeze. She removed the popcorn from the burner and began dumping it into the bowl, with me layering in as much butter and salt as possible for humans to consume. As we fixed the snack, she seemed to rein in her emotions. I felt terrible for upsetting her. She was right. Despite any differences, the most important thing was that Aunt Susan was back with us.

We gathered the snacks and carried everything back into the living room. I reached over to the left side of the couch, searching for the remote control that Aunt Susan had been using, wanting to go back a minute or so in the film. Figuring it had slipped between the cushions, I reached between them and rooted around, coming up empty-handed. "Grace, do you know where the remote is?" I finally asked.

She looked around and quickly spotted it. "Over there."

I followed her line of sight and saw it sitting on a shelf across the room, opposite the direction of the bathroom. "Why would Aunt Susan put it over there?" I muttered, walking over to retrieve it. I backed up the movie, paused it again, and plopped back down on the couch. Before I could stop myself, I asked, "Did you see the remote before, Grace? When we started the movie?"

She shook her head and took a handful of popcorn. "No. Why?"

I shrugged. "No reason. Just wondered why I couldn’t find it earlier. I must be going blind." Before I could say anything else, I shoveled some popcorn into my mouth. Fortunately, Aunt Susan came back at that moment and plopped down between us.

"Now, this is the life," she announced, leaning in for a kiss from Grace.

As Signs began again, I found myself preoccupied. I’m sure she put the remote over there when she got up to go to the restroom. That would explain it.




Things became increasingly tense over the next few weeks. It seemed that everywhere I went, I heard someone talking about Aunt Susan. No one felt quite comfortable being in the same town as a person who had been declared dead and returned to life without any real viable medical explanation. After her initial consultation with Doc Fletcher, Susan had refused all further medical inquiries, stating that she felt just fine and didn’t want to be seen as an experiment. It didn’t help that a couple of the tabloid news groups were going around asking everyone about her, about the funeral, about her sickness.

School was rough because of it, naturally. A few kids took to singing the "Monster Mash" and "Zombie Jamboree" whenever I walked down the hallway. And if I heard one more quote from the movie Young Frankenstein, I swore I was going to psycho on all those jerks. Though I heard Aunt Susan good-naturedly say "What knockers!" to Grace the other night. I politely stopped eavesdropping after that.

Mom had let it slip that Aunt Susan and Grace were getting a lot of strange phone calls. No threats yet, but a lot of silence and hang-ups. That was what it was like when they first moved in together, apparently being Hanesport’s first openly gay couple. We’d had plenty of gay couples before. Like Jeff and Pete who ran the tackle shop. They were constantly referred to as "confirmed bachelors". Well, sure, they weren’t ever going to get married. And then there were Mindy and Vicky Taylor, who were said to be "sisters" but I’ve never seen any two sisters kiss like I did that one time when they thought they were all alone. In Hanesport, we like our "sin" kept under wraps where it won’t accidentally offend the neighborhood serial adulterer, wife-beater, habitual liar or drunk. Only this time it wasn’t just the homosexuality that people had a problem with. It was that the lesbian had the nerve to resurrect. You’d think for people who were so pro-life, they’d be happy she was still alive. Though one shouldn’t expect logic from these people.

Thus, my surprise was great when Aunt Susan and Grace showed up for Sunday service to sit amongst the very people who wanted nothing more for them to move far away. To make up for my earlier transgression, I sat next to Grace without bothering to consult with either my parents or grandparents. Grace smiled sweetly and held my hand just as Aunt Susan clasped her other one. I figured I’d catch hell for that later, especially from classmates, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Aunt Laura noticed and was none too pleased. "Corrupting that child," I heard her fiercely whisper to Uncle Tommy. I didn’t appreciate being referred to as a child, to begin with, but if loving someone was corruption then I was all for it. Aunt Laura could do with a little corruption. Heck, as Aunt Susan would say, Aunt Laura just needed to get laid, and maybe she wouldn’t be wound so tight. I felt bad for thinking such thoughts in church, but I was sure God’s heard worse on a Sunday morning.

Reverend Hartwell seemed a bit out of sorts having her in the audience. I wondered if he was having to rewrite parts of his sermon now that Aunt Susan was seated a few rows in front of him. Given his limited repertoire, I was shocked when he preached a message I wasn’t familiar with. He read from 1 Samuel 28:

Then the woman asked, "Whom shall I bring up for you?"

"Bring up Samuel," he said. …

The woman said, "I see a spirit coming up out of the ground."

"What does he look like?" he asked.

"An old man wearing a robe is coming up," she said.

Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?… Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has turned away from you and become your enemy?"

Apparently, it’s a bad thing when people rise from the dead in Christianity, with one notable exception. The gist of the sermon was there should be no witches in the congregation. Aunt Susan, though not mentioned by name, was certainly suspect in this area since she was both a "deviant" and a suspiciously-alive person. These people, Reverend Hartwell urged us, are to be forcibly driven out of the community. And that’s when I knew we were going to have a problem.

After the worship service, it’s been our tradition to have a small greeting hour in the garden. The women of the congregation rotate who makes the finger foods for it and it’s always been a time for people to get caught up on the latest church gossip. We made our way back to the garden, stopping at the front of sanctuary to admire the flowers donated for the day’s worship service. Aunt Susan leaned forward and guided a few of the flowers to her nose. "Lilies. You’d think after being surrounded by them less than a couple weeks ago, I wouldn’t like them so much. But they’re so beautiful."

As we stood admiring the flowers and taking turns sniffing, a few of the older ladies of the parish pushed by us. One made no effort to not be overhead as she hissed, "I can’t believe she had the nerve to show up here. In God’s house."

I started to call out something, but Aunt Susan caught my eye and shook her head. "Don’t get all worked up, Kit, over people who aren’t worth it. Now, come on, let’s get out there before all the goodies are eaten up."

I was ladling some punch into cups for us when I saw the leading men of the congregation–and the town–surround Aunt Susan. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" she asked, with just enough emphasis on the last word to express doubt as to their intentions.

They looked amongst each other until Will Edmundson, current mayor of Hanesport, acted as their spokesperson. "Susan, we were wondering what you’re doing here, that’s all."

"At church? Well, Will, I was worshipping your Lord and Savior."

"Ours? Not yours?" Reverend Hartwell interjected.

Aunt Susan shrugged. "Reverend, you’ve made your point a number of times, as I recall, that the Lord rejects me and mine. Wouldn’t it then be presumptuous of me to claim a relationship with him when I am so clearly hell-bound?"

"So you admit," one of the deacons said, "that you’re not a believer? That you belong to Satan?"

"I think that’s a bit strongly put." I could tell Aunt Susan was fighting to keep a smirk off her face, despite the tense situation. "I belong to myself, to my family, to Grace."

"It’s not right for you to worship here with us when you live in sin with her."

"I think you’re wrong, Will. I thought the church was supposed to be a haven for sinners. At least, I know I am one, and I’m not putting on airs like some folk. Besides, my family has been a part of this parish since before I was born. While I don’t share your beliefs, I expect that my children will be welcome here, so they can decide for themselves."

"Your children?" Reverend Hartwell blurted. I nearly echoed him. I didn’t know they had this planned, didn’t even know they wanted kids. I stole a look at Grace who was blushing slightly. She was a private woman by nature and having their life talked about so openly was no doubt hard for her. She reached out and wrapped her hand around Aunt Susan’s upper arm.

Aunt Susan smiled broadly. "Why, yes. Grace and I have decided to start a family together." Her hand covered Grace’s comfortingly. "My sickness was a wake-up call in that respect. We love each other and we intend to be together for the rest of our lives. I don’t intend to not pass that love along."

"Outrageous!" one of the women nearby exclaimed.

The Reverend pulled himself up to his full height and seemed to swell under his cloak. "I can’t give my blessing to that course of action, Susan."

"Fortunately, we’re not seeking it, Reverend." Aunt Susan looked at Grace and could tell that this confrontation was enough for her. "Gentleman, thanks for your concern, but we’re going to be heading home now."

They started walking back out through the sanctuary, with a gaggle of the parishioners following them, when a woman shrieked, nearly scaring all of us half to death. We spun around wondering what had happened to cause such a fright. She was the same biddy who had made the nasty comment earlier. "She killed the flowers!" It took me a moment to figure out what she was talking about but then I saw it. The floral arrangement, all of the lilies, were shriveled and wilted.

"Who are you?" Reverend Hartwell, once again emboldened, cried out. "Come out of her!" With a flourish he reached out and almost touched Aunt Susan’s shoulder, but pulled back at the last second. I would have laughed if I hadn’t be so frightened by what was happening.

Aunt Susan did laugh. "You think I’m demon-possessed, Reverend?"

"I don’t think you’re Susan Carlisle, that’s for certain." A number of voices spoke their disbelief. "You haven’t been right since the funeral."

"She’s just the same as she always was," I said, stepping forward. I was pleased when I saw Mom and Dad make their way through the crowd and come stand by us.

"No, she’s not. Look at them flowers."

"You think I have poison in my hands, Will?" Aunt Susan held up her hands and wiggled her fingers, taking a lazy swipe at the mayor’s arm, but it was quickly pulled out of range. "You think I can kill with just a touch? And not that Annie just brought some flowers that were a little past fresh after enjoying them herself at home this week?"

"I never!" I assume it was Annie who protested.

"You’re all so sure I’m not me anymore. You believe I’m something bad, something evil. I had hoped this nonsense would stop, but it’s been over a month now."

The mayor spoke again, ensuring that he would lose my vote when I turned eighteen. "We’d just like it better if you left, Susan. You and Grace could find a new place and start over somewhere. Somewhere you don’t have any history."

Aunt Susan sighed dramatically. "Now why would I want to go and do that? I happen to like it here. My family is here. My home is here."

The Reverend Hartwell picked up the argument. "We’d feel better if you left. What you are is unnatural. It’s not right. Now, we tolerated it before when we probably shouldn’t have, when you were flaunting your sin in front of God and all of us. We turned the other cheek, in a Christ-like manner, when we should have taken a bold stand. It’s time for us to make that stand now. We simply can’t accept you here any longer."

"Really?" Aunt Susan looked out on the faces of the congregation, all of which looked much like Aunt Laura’s–pinched and uptight. "I see."


"No, Reverend, let me say something. I’m getting real angry right now. I’m not mad at anyone in particular, but it’d be a real shame if you got in my way and I had to take it out on you."

"Are you threatening me?" He tried to sound brave, but I heard a quiver in his voice.

"No, sir, but I am getting to my breaking point." Aunt Susan put her arm around Grace’s shoulders. "The simple fact is that we’re going to stay here." Immediately, a clamor arose as the Reverend, Will and others objected to her decision. Aunt Susan’s voice rose above them all. "Now wait a minute! I heard you out."

"Be quiet!" Dad ordered.

Aunt Susan smiled gratefully at him and took two steps into the midst of her accusers. "Like I said, we’re staying here. And that means one of two things. One, if you’re wrong about me, then you have nothing to worry about, because I’m just some lucky girl who managed not to die whom you’ve known all your lives. I’ll work hard, pay my taxes, join the PTA, even attend worship services, and raise my family here in a nice, quiet fashion. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll even manage to save my soul.

"But, on the other hand, if you’re right about me, then you better start treating me and mine real nice because you just don’t know the kind of trouble I could cause you." She stopped and looked around at people significantly. "I must just wave my right hand and cause all these pretty stained glass windows to crack and fly apart. Or I might wave my left hand and cause not just the flowers in this sanctuary to die, if you know what I mean. You all should hope and pray that I never wake up in a bad mood or feel a little ornery. That is, if I am what you think I am.

"But most likely I’m just Susan Carlisle and the ‘worst’ thing I’ve ever done is fall in love with Grace Winthrop and had the nerve to let all of you know it."

For the first time ever, I heard complete silence in the sanctuary as people contemplated her words. Slowly, people began walking away. It reminded me of the story of the adulterous woman, the crowd gathered to stone her, dropping their rocks and wandering home one by one. Soon it was just a few of us remaining. The Reverend wiped the back of his neck with a handkerchief, mopping up the moisture there. "You plan on attending services faithfully from now on?"

Aunt Susan nodded. "We do."

"It is not the healthy who need God, but the sick," he intoned. "If you’ll be coming in front of the Lord, perhaps it will do some good."

"It just might," she agreed, though I suspected she was thinking about for other people more than herself.

"We’ll see you next Sunday then." With that, the Reverend turned around and led the remaining parishioners back to the garden where Aunt Susan would be the main topic of conversation yet again. Perhaps, this time, it might be more subdued and respectful, as they thought things over.

The five of us walked outside to their car. "I think you’re going to have a rough go of it for a little while yet, Susan, but things should calm down now."

"I appreciate you standing by us, Jake," Grace said softly. "I told Suzi that I was afraid something like this might happen if we came today. But perhaps we’ve stood apart from them a little too much. It’s so much easier to hate what you don’t know. If we come, maybe one day they’ll see that love is the same, no matter what form it takes."

"Amen," Mom whispered. "Come on, dear, let’s go see how the rest of the family is holding up. I made Laura watch the twins during that commotion. I’m sure she’s fit to be tied between hers and ours right now." Holding hands, Mom and Dad walked back to the social.

I stood for a moment looking at Aunt Susan, trying to tell if there was any outward sign of a difference in her. "You couldn’t really do any of that, right, Aunt Susan?" I had to ask. I had to know.

"Do what, Kit Kat?"

"What you said back there, about the stained glass and the flowers and…" I let the rest of it hang out there.

"Of course not." She came over and hugged me. She still felt the same, smelled the same, hugged the same. "I hated lying to them, but it seemed like the best way to handle the situation. A little fear isn’t a bad thing. Even their Lord uses it with them, to keep them in line; a threat of hell and people are real quick to walk the straight and narrow. As sad a commentary as that is about human nature."

"I love you, Aunt Susan." I did. I always had.

"I love you, too. And you’re going to be our favorite baby-sitter when our little one arrives."

"That’s be great!" I actually wouldn’t mind watching their child, wondering which one of them would carry it, which one of them it would most favor. "I’m so glad you’re not leaving." I hugged them both again and watched them climb into their car and drive off.

Someone had removed the flowers from the sanctuary. I was disappointed because I wanted to get a better look at them, see what exactly had happened. Standing in the aisle, I noted a small burst of light coming through one of the windows to the left. Curious, I walked over to the stained glass rendition of the resurrection and noted a crack running along its length, cutting the tomb in half. I had never noticed it there before. Had it been there all the time?

"Kit, time for us to head out!" Mom called, reining in the struggling twins. "Grandma is serving lunch over at her house and she needs our help."

I was sixteen when my Aunt Susan died. When she came back, we all learned a lot about love and tolerance and acceptance. Even though–or perhaps especially since–I was never really certain who did come back to us.


A special debt to The Twilight Zone for inspiring this tale.

© 2003 Ryan Daly

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