The park was alive with joy, a small bastion of nature among the sturdy houses and bustling streets. Parents laughed and told stories, clinking their glasses together while keeping half an eye on the children, running and falling and running again. The sun beat down a soft, blanketing warmth, an intense presence in the cloudless sky.
Little Ben separated himself from the rest, he didn't need the company of playmates, not when he had his favourite red ball to bounce on the pavement. Up and down the path through the park he strode, flinging the ball forth and chasing it down, repeating without tiring. He threw the ball down with all his might, and striking a small crack, it bounced from the path and towards a nearby tree. Ben skipped through the grass, glad to be in the shade of the tree for a while. On his way to retrieve his precious ball, a bird, black as night, flew down from the branches above.
Ben watched the bird as it hopped towards the ball beneath the tree, its feathers dark and its eyes darker. The bird tilted its head towards Ben, then back at the ball in the grass. It began to peck and grab at the ball, much to Ben's intrigue and amusement. He laughed as he stepped closer, and soon enough, scooped up the ball as the bird backed away. But as Ben walked back towards the concrete path, he sensed the attention of eyes watching. It was not his parents, off laughing in the distance, it was the bird, who seemed to stare intently at Ben.
"Silly bird." Ben thought, uncomfortable with the unblinking intensity of the black gaze.
Ben returned to the path and threw his ball down once again, launching it off the pavement and into the blue sky above. As the ball reached its peak, a black shadow swooped swiftly across the sky, grasping the ball in its claws. The bird had stolen the ball, flying back to its low hanging branch.
Ben's face turned sour, and he stormed over towards the tree, yet as he approached, the bird took flight and landed a few metres away. Ben kept up his pursuit, but the bird was always just out of reach.
Finally, the bird sat with the red ball in its claw at the edge of the grass, a row of parked cars the only barrier between parkland and the road. Ben broke into a sprint as the bird took flight from the grass and onto the other side of the street. Ben had eyes only for the ball as he jumped towards it, but suddenly he froze midair. An arm cradled around his stomach, just as a car sped past his vision on the road in front of him.
Ben looked up and saw his dad, who lifted him into a hug and began walking back towards the group.
"The road is not a play zone, Ben! Let's go find your ball."
Ben's eyes began to tear up, yet he still kept his view on the thieving bird across the road. Bitterly staring back, the bird dropped the ball in the gutter, and flew away with a caw.
Facing your own mortality has a way of accelerating your life plans. It certainly had for Jim. When the doctors told him he only had a few months to live, Jim sprung into action, planning his final days precisely. He had always been exceptionally organised, a trait that had brought him much success in his life as a lawyer, as well as admiration and jealousy from rivals. Everything always seemed to be under Jim's control, yet this sickness could not be abated.
He got the most physically demanding tasks out of the way first, things like bungee jumping and forest trail hikes, yet now he had come to the end. His final weeks consisted of reading and talking to himself, as if trying to figure out an invisible problem.
Jim had lived a solitary life, with no family to call upon nor a wife to come home to. He had fleeting relationships here and there, but mostly, he lived separate from others. This made ticking tasks off the bucket list easier, but it also brought about its own philosophical quandary: What legacy would he leave? And to whom? He thought about this as he lay in the final throes of sickness, connected to a drip in a sterile, white hospital room.
Jim had one final task on his list, and it had to do with business. If he couldn't pass his legacy down to family, he would instead leave a public legacy.
Jim had a contract created, giving control of his half of the law firm to a beneficiary. All that was needed was the signature of both Jim, and the man he had chosen to take his place. Jim had surprised everyone, with rumours beginning to circulate that he would sign over his position to his greatest rival, Bernard Tompkin.
The last time the two had met, it had ended bitterly. Bernard plead insanity for his client on trial for murder, and after a short time in a psychiatric hospital, the man had escaped and killed again. Jim mourned, losing that case put the blood of the innocent victims on his hands. Bernard knew his client was not insane, but he was very convincing, and he had softened justice's verdict.
Bernard strolled into the hospital room with a smirk, greeting Jim from a distance. He spoke of his surprise that he would be summoned by Jim, and even more surprise that he was being offered such a lucrative position. Jim forced a smile.
Bernard signed the contract first, and brought it over to the fragile hands of Jim. As he signed, Jim motioned towards the bedside table, where a bottle of whiskey sat with two glasses. A toast, he told Bernard, was in order.
Bernard was hesitant, but Jim insisted, a dying man's final wish before letting go of it all. Two glasses were poured, pleasantries were exchanged and both men drank deeply.
Jim's smile faded.
"I never forgave you." he whispered at Bernard, eyes full of loathing.
The doctors rushed in a short while later, finding two dead men, and a completed bucket list.
The priest entered his third bible passage, on love and marriage and forgiveness in the eyes of the lord. The church was stuffy, the guests shifting in their seats tried to gain any relief they could. The sun shone through the stained glass, casting multicoloured light on the floor and the faces of the revellers. They were here for a celebration, two people married under the eye of God, but the heat seemed to take precedence and could not be ignored.
The priest seemed unaffected, continuing to talk of the strength needed to be humourous in the face of adversity. The Saints, you see, all had a good sense of humour. In fact, the Vatican looked at this when declaring sainthood. A fun little fact, he said, giving off a seemingly forced smile.
I stood listening as much as I could, wicking the sweat away from my brow as scarcely as would allow. There were eyes on me, and my fidgeting did not seem apt in this setting. I remained still, if not focussed then at least appearing to be.
Who was I here for again? I had been drifting in and out of focus as the priest continued his monotonous, rehearsed lines. He gave no clue as to who we were here for, no names spoken throughout his speech but for the name Jesus. It was as if I was listening to a recording coming from a machine. Human looking, for certain, yet perhaps just an android, programmed to deliver each necessary blessing onto the wedded couple, without having to personalise it at all. The priest was unperturbed by everything; random noises, the heat. Nothing swayed his voice booming towards the crowd.
I should have had more water in the morning, this heat seemed to dry me of not only my moisture but my wits. Thinking of android priests and programmed sermons was not a particularly good sign of a sensible mind. I took a deep breath and tried to regain myself, yet the voice of the priest seemed to become a buzz of white noise, eerily relaxing and sending me into daydreams. I swayed off balance, but caught myself before I totally tipped over.
"Excuse me." I muttered quietly in apology, returning to my standing position. Nobody seemed to notice, everyone had a far off look in their eyes, as if they too were falling under a certain trance. This environment was suffocating.
I looked around, attempting to lock eyes with those familiar to me. My brother stood nearby, and smiled as my gaze hit his, yet his focus moved quickly. The same happened with both my mother and father, each smile automatic and warm, yet brief, as if the focus was required elsewhere. The anticipation on everyone's face was coming to a climax.
"Gerald, do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live?"
The priest was staring directly at me I noticed all of a sudden.