Metlief Mortuary sits quietly behind rusting iron bars on the corner opposite of Wagner Elementary, visible through the school playground’s chain link fence. The children, whether playing kickball or four square on the chalked blacktop, only acknowledge the ivy-grown building when the black hearse and its metallic growl drive down River Street.
As rubber tires squeal, youthful laughter turns to grave silence, and each youngling runs behind their teachers.
“I don’t like that Meatloaf is right there,” one student says as another shouts, “Don’t let the horse get me!”
Feeling trembling arms holding onto their legs, the children’s respective teachers correct them. “Metlief, Johnny” and “Hearse, Rebecca,” they say. The chill air fills with teachers’ reassuring words from their softened voices, calming down each child so they can return to their joyful games. “Now, kids, we’ve been over what that place and that car mean to each of us,” Mrs. Gardner exclaims. “We should be happy!”
Now pulled into Metlief’s storage garage, the hearse’s engine grumbles to sleep, and a tall figure steps out of the passenger seat with muddied dress shoes and a face longer than a river, his shoulders dropped and his hands loose at his side. After the ride from the service back to Metlief, he turns to thank the driver but does not meet their eyes for fear of them seeing tears beginning to well again.
While he walks back to his car down the long driveway, head low, a child climbs out of the back door of the hearse, and she tries to follow him, yelling, “Daddy, please don’t forget me!” but the brown-haired child cannot get his attention. She tugs at his pant leg, shouts, and even tries to stand in front of him and block his way—but he walks straight through her.
The child, in a pink, sequined dress and light-up sneakers, sits down in the dry grass and watches her father get in his car and drive away.
“Okay everyone, you know what to do,” Mr. Harris calls out and guides the children to the fence.
“Over here!” one child calls, and another yells, “We’ll play with you!” as they all waved their hands and jumped against the fence.
Each of the children remembers being alone in the hearse themselves, not knowing where they were going, and are sometimes afraid that it will come to take them again, so they try their best to make each other happy again and welcome the next child with open arms.
Sniffling, the girl raises her head and turns to look at Wagner Elementary, her eyes widening and a smile starting to peek out from a pout. She walks across the street to the school, which has been closed down nearly thirty years now, seeing so many bright faces calling for her to join them.