The Last Supper As he walked up to the house on Melville Avenue, Peachtree Creek, Jake thought about his family. Nothing annoyed Jake Monroe, journalist on an Atlanta newspaper more, than polite conversation. The day to day lies that kept existence ticking over drove him crazy. He preferred the truth as he saw it, and that’s what he tried to write about. It was a tradition in the Monroe family that they would continue to avoid truth until it was time for a deathbed revelation, and then of course it would be too late to talk about how they really felt about their relatives and the world around them. Jake disliked the false veneer that most of his family preferred. He loathed it, with as much venom as a copperhead contained, on each strike. However, there was one member of the family that had broken the rule recently; he wished she would keep to the lies, for indeed each venomous word was akin to a snake strike. Those words would come, and sometimes they took many years, simmering, and increasing in their potency, until they were uttered. These were the words of his sister, Marie. His sister Marie—nurse, wife, mother of five daughters, aged between ten and twenty, all handsome and well mannered of course, because they took after their father. Marie, upon the surface was well mannered, but she wasn’t so beautiful and had a hook nose that would have given the Brothers Grimm cause for concern. Marie had abandoned her family, to travel a thousand miles to Atlanta, to look after her ailing mother and a cynical father. A father who had never lifted a hand to help his sick wife do the housework. It was beneath him. So there it was: a dying mother, Mother Teresa for a sister (though if MT had produced children she probably would have not left them to their own devices) and a father wondering what he was going to do when his wife of fifty years passed on. Where would they all be, if it wasn’t for Marie’s ministering, her organizing, and her particular care? On the Sunday night it was not long before a copperhead put in an appearance. Jake was sitting on the porch that overlooked the back garden. The scent of mimosa filled the air. The snake slithered out from behind a clay pot and settled within a few feet of him. In the half light the red burn of its head glowed unnaturally, and he could clearly see the hourglass – shaped cross bands on the long body. It was almost three feet long. The copperheads always appeared before a Monroe died. Jake was more fascinated than afraid at first, and then he thought of his mother. Ignoring all the advice on not to make sudden movements around snakes he fled the porch, and ran up the stairs to his mother’s bedroom. He was too late. His mother’s ashen face was lifeless and her pale body half lay in her daughter’s arms. His father stood on the other side of the bed, letting out small squeaking sounds, as if he could not help but cry and was trying hard not to. “Why didn’t you call me? I was only on the porch,” said Jake. His sister carefully rested her mother’s head upon the pillow. “There was not time.” Jake knew she was lying. Marie had wanted this moment for herself and her father. There was to be nothing for Jake. Not being with his mother at the end hurt him more than anything, but then he kissed Joanna Monroe, for who lay on the bed was a body with a name and was his mother no longer, and left the room. The funeral was on Friday at 2p.m. Relatives, who were travelling in from out of town, had plenty of time to get there. In the chapel two friends of the family, who Jake didn’t know very well, read the eulogy, and if he had not known he was at his mother’s funeral, the words could have been said about anyone. Jake was briefly mentioned as someone who fixed the computer, instead of the dutiful or not so dutiful son. Marie, of course, was the dedicated daughter. It did not rain, but he could see the storm clouds brewing in the distance. It was June and the graveyard, although he saw many fresh flowery wreathes, smelt of dead chrysanthemums. A flower he had never liked. When it came to putting soil into the grave, Marie glowered at Jake as if he hadn’t the right to do it. She had organized a buffet at The Cedar House Hotel and teetotal it was too: with cucumber and salmon sandwiches, bacon and broccoli quiche, scones with jam and cream. An English tea for an American woman. Jake was desperate for some bourbon but would have to wait. Next to the buffet table his sister had placed a huge board and covered it with photographs of his mother, from birth to grave. If there had been time she would have probably put up the photo of the coffin, covered with white lilies and roses that she had just taken, or one of her mother laid out in the funeral parlour. Jake knew Marie was quite capable of that. Then it was all over and they were back at the house on Melville Avenue. Jake could never look his sister in the eye, for the contempt that lay therein. His mother was barely cold in the grave when his sister turned upon him after the funeral.
“Now Jake, what can I expect from you for our father?” He did not hear his sister’s words. He could only think of his mother. Jake had loved her. If she could speak now she still wouldn’t tell him that he was her favourite, although he knew he was. He hadn’t been able tell her that he loved her, for no one in his family had ever done that, but he hoped that she had known he did. Jake’s thoughts drifted to the many long walks he had accompanied her on, when he had barely been big enough to tackle them. His mother told him the name of each wild flower and bird they came across, and he had fond memories of that time together. She had taken him to the headstones that lay along the battle line, south of Peachtree, where on July 20th 1864 there had been 6,506 estimated casualties—1,710 Union, and 4,796 Confederate. His father and sister never went with them. Jake squirmed in his chair fearing the worst as his sister’s voice registered in his brain. Marie’s tone was sharp. “You could stay every weekend; do the gardening and a bit of cleaning.” “I could, but dad’s got enough money to hire a gardener and a cleaner, and I couldn’t be here every weekend.” “He doesn’t want that, he wants family to look after him.” “I can’t do that.” “Why not?” Marie was beginning to get impatient. She had always achieved the result she desired quickly. “Because I—I have a life too.” There it was said. It was how he felt and the truth. She would run with that he thought. “It is our duty to give back to our parents. They have given us so much.” Jake thought about that one a little. Given? Taught? Is that the same thing in this instance? Yes, his father had tried to teach him to be a misogynist and a racist like himself. He didn’t owe his father anything. Jake had made himself into the journalist he wanted to be. He did not accept his father’s values thank you very much. “You mean give up my life to look after our father?” Jake panicked once more at the thought of staying over every weekend for the unforeseeable future, sacrificing his life, ministering to someone he had no identification with, and ending up changing his father’s shit ridden pyjamas. “Well, I have given up so much, nursing mom and leaving my children, who will not be able to have a holiday because I’ve used up all my holiday leave.” His sister sat bolt upright with a straight back as if it would kill her to slouch, even a little. At this point Jake thought he could just say, your choice, but knowing just how much his sister and his father had suffered during those last few weeks, he would let it go. He should say that it was somewhat heroic, nursing your own mother, day after day, to the bitter end. Why was he having so much trouble finding the words? He actually thought that deathbed nursing your own kin could only end in too much grief for any sane human being to bear. Marie had done it for two weeks solid. If he didn’t know her better, he would have almost felt sorry for her. Yes, she had been there with her white apron and ministering hands, for a long time. Too long, but now she was going home and asking him to take over. “I can’t look after dad.” Jake again felt the panic rising within him. He wasn’t a companion, a nurse, a dutiful child. Why he hadn’t even had the time to have a wife and one child yet. If his sister got her own way he wouldn’t have the time to get laid, let alone have a child. “I thought that you would have supported us more.” The emphasis on the word us spat venom and little more was said. He looked on in silence. She was more aloof and unreachable than ever. Marie left the room with a look of disgust, as if she had just stood in some shit and that shit was Jake. Jake decided to go home on the night of the funeral, go to work the next day and go to Melville Avenue after the day shift. He was determined to have supper with his father that night. He wouldn’t turn up empty handed to give his sister one more thing to hold against him, so he took his dad a bottle of bourbon. Jake didn’t want her to say that she was cooking and waiting on him as well as his father, so he took an apple pie, which his sister turned her nose up at. The supper table was laid out as it always had been, with a white lace tablecloth over a pink cotton one. The pink colour showed through the intricate workings of the lace. Jake had always been terrified of spilling anything on that tablecloth. His father poured two glasses of bourbon out, one for himself and one for Jake. “You know Jake; your mother thought she would have seen more of you when she was ill.” “Dad, she was ill on and off for six months. Mom was pleased that I was getting on with my life. I was here when I could or when I was thinking I wasn’t in the way.”
His father drew in a deep breath, “well it’s done now.” Jake said nothing; whatever he said or did was never enough anyway. He helped set the table and there was his sister, serving his father, handing him his napkin. At one point she was going to put the salt on his food for him but thought the better of it and handed him the salt cellar. Supper continued in polite conversation about who had sent sympathy cards and just who had or hadn’t turned up at the funeral. Everything was going okay until a copperhead turned up again. Jake entered the kitchen and saw the serving dish crash to the floor, as Marie staggered backwards towards him, away from the fast disappearing tail of the serpent. The door had been left ajar to take the rubbish out to the trash can. Two copperheads—seen within a week of each other. Or the same one twice? The first sighting had been for the death of his mother. Who was the second for? Jake kicked the door shut and went in search of the bottle of bourbon. Now, Marie had a fear of snakes and a fear of the stories that were told to them in their childhood. Jake remembered all too well their grandfather Bob telling them of the copperhead snakes that were only seen before something awful befell the family. Jake knew all about copperhead snakes. He had made it his business to know. They could live for up to thirty years, ate mice, birds and frogs, and their fangs were automatically brought forward when they opened their mouths. The family used to think they lived in the brickwork around the old well out back but when it was filled in and the bricks removed, the copperheads kept on turning up. A copperhead had been seen before their great grandfather was run over by a train and when Jake’s grandmother, Elizabeth, had run off with a salesman and had been found face down in the Chattahoochee River. A young copperhead had been seen in the sink, when their mother had filled the potato pan with water, and she had narrowly missed being bitten. That night she got a telegram saying that her brother had been found at the foot of his apartment block in Denver, the curtain hanging like a flag at half mast from the broken window on the twenty first floor. And of course there was the worst time of all when Marie’s twin sister, Carrie, had disappeared at the age of seven. She had never been found or heard of since. A copperhead could not outlive five generations of the family. They must have lived and died alongside the Monroe clan generation after generation but no one knew where. Or some knew alright but did not venture there. The Monroe family and those who married into it, had good reason to be afraid of the copperhead, but it was not just because of its bite. A rather hazy few hours later with the bourbon taking the edge off his angry mood a little, and after his father had fallen asleep in his armchair, Jake decided to go and look for some of his books that were kept in a closet in his old room. He needed a little hardboiled crime. Jake was feeling nostalgic and wanted to see if the books were still there. The room was now cluttered with faded, battered boxes and the forgotten things that families just could not part with or be bothered to throw away. Jake moved a few boxes to one side and nervously wondered if another copperhead would appear at any time. He ventured towards the closet. He opened the door slowly and felt for the pull switch. His hand fell across something cold and he pulled it quickly away. Jake cursed himself for not opening the door wider in the first place. On opening the door fully he saw that what he had touched was an old, black leather handbag sitting next to his battered Mickey Spillanes. He took half a dozen books and the black bag. Jake put the books on top of a nearby box and opened the bag. It contained one solitary photo that had been handled many times and was slightly scarred in the bottom left hand corner. It was a photo of two little girls, dressed alike in little white blouses and red skirts. One girl frowned and the other had the smile of an angel. Jake turned the photo over; something was written on the back. In his mother’s handwriting he read—Carrie. I miss you. Jake put the bag back where it belonged, closed the closet door and left the room, with the books and the photo. He was clutching the books to his chest and standing at the top of the stairs when he felt a sharp push in his lower back. The books flew into the air as he made a wild grab for the stair rail. He missed the rail, then the first spindle, but he caught the second, felt a sharp snap and a searing pain through his wrist. The second attempt at catching a spindle, although causing him an agonizing injury, had halted his fall. Fighting the pain he scrambled back up the stairs to see Marie slam her bedroom door, and then he heard the key turn in the lock. Jake began to shake violently with shock. The pain was intense. His father was in a drunken stupor so Jake pressed 911 using the fingers of his left hand. “I need the police…and an ambulance,” Jake’s voice trembled. He gave his address and put the receiver down. His limp wrist hung at a weird angle and the pain made him even angrier.
“For Christ’s sake what was that all about?” he muttered as he struggled up the stairs again. Jake banged hard on Marie’s door with his uninjured hand. “Marie! Marie! Open the door before I knock the damned thing down—Marie!” There was no answer so he pushed his weight against the door and he felt it give a little. He then rammed the full force of his shoulder into it and this time it burst open. What he saw then made him flee the building in terror. There, on the carpet, lay his sister with a Gordian knot of writhing snakes on her belly, and he could see the red burn of one snake’s head as it entered her still screaming mouth. He would never forget her bulging eyes as the copperheads automatically brought forward their fangs, as their mouths opened, all striking in turn and twisting around each other. After his sister’s body had been removed and Jake’s father was sobering up at a neighbour’s house, Jake was finally taken to the hospital and had his wrist cast. Incredibly, it was just two days later that Jake decided to find out just where the copperheads had come from. The snakes writhed in his nightmares, and he imagined them waiting for him everywhere. Finally, he pulled himself together, and for some reason found himself thinking about the crawl space under the house. To his knowledge, no member of the family had ever mentioned it. The crawl space had been sealed up, except for a small hole where the snakes must have ventured from. It was hard work, stabbing away with a chisel one handed whilst leaning on the arm that had the cast around the wrist. He bore the pain well and the old bricks finally came away, enough for him to shine a torch inside and see if the snakes were there. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead as light illuminated something unusual. A copperhead slunk to one side of the light and looked Jake right in the eye. It then slithered away, deeper into the crawl space to reveal that it had been resting on what looked moundshaped and quite solid. He moved the torch slightly to get a better view and the beam then fell upon the small human skull. It was then that Jake began to shake again. A week later the police confirmed that the body was that of a young child, and the case reopened into the disappearance and subsequent murder of Carrie Monroe. Jake’s father broke down under questioning, and admitted that he had concealed the body of his daughter, but he protested strongly that he hadn’t killed her, and that her murderer was dead already. “You see, Marie was always jealous of her sister Carrie. Madly jealous she was,” his father said. After the police had finished their investigations, Jake had his little sister’s remains buried in a small grave next to his mother and other sister. On the little headstone he had the engraver write the words that meant so much to him now. Carrie Frances Monroe 1966 1973 The Sweet Sister I should have had.
Short story from the collection 'Wine and Rank Poison' by Allyson Bird