They did a beautiful job with Papa’s service. Of course as far as family goes there was only me to take care of the meal at the church afterwards, Andy being busy catching up on work at the shop, but so many of the ladies pitched in that I hardly had to lift a finger, even just to put a spoon into the green bean casserole. We went straight from the pews to the cemetery, and then we slipped back into the church’s basement for a feast. Papa loved to eat, but I don’t know that it can really justify three different kinds of pie. Still, it was nice to hear the hall fill up with warm stories about the work he’d done and what he’d meant to everyone. It was much better than the tears.
Afterwards I’m trying to collect the folding chairs and the paper slips we’ve draped over them to make the whole place appear presentable. The chairs themselves are a disgrace, metal painted a bluish gray with large patches missing to reveal a layer of red, but as long as the chairs still stand to serve their purpose, modesty says we cannot spare them. I like removing the slip covers because it’s like shedding a costume and crumpling it up to throw away. It makes it okay to be a little ugly and exposed.
“Karen Mae, what do you think you’re doing!” It’s more an exclamation than a question because it’s obvious that I should know I’m misbehaving. Mrs. Winters was my second grade teacher and was considered old at the time. Now she’s absolutely ancient, but all those years dealing with cunning children has kept all of her senses trained like a dog’s.
I can’t tell her that tearing off each cover feels better than pulling a tissue out of the box. “I feel like I’ve done nothing but shake people’s hands or accept hugs today,” I explain to her, folding the slip in my hands over and over. I wonder how small I can make it before it starts to tear apart and what she might do if that were to happen.
“Well, now you can gather up all of your casseroles and load them up into your car to take home. You really shouldn’t be exerting yourself right now.”
“Why?” It’s not really something that you should ask. People want you to be wounded when you’ve lost a loved one, but the question’s already out, so all I can do is look back at her and wait for what she has to say.
After so many years dealing with emotional students and parents, she’s not easily flustered. She’s had to play every role from grief counselor to prison guard, and there’s no real reward for making it to retirement. She doesn’t have to really think about whether it’s okay to be blunt because being subtle isn’t going to accomplish anything for her anymore. “It must be very difficult for you to lose your father after all of the years that you two missed together. I’m sure that must weigh very heavily on your mind at this time.”
My jaw feels like an anchor has been lodged through my lower lip, yanking it down instantly. All day, nobody has mentioned what happened when I was eighteen. Why would they? It’s history, and it’s not like I haven’t apologized. It’s not like I can go back in time and tell myself that I shouldn’t skip out of town. As far as I’m concerned, everything that happened had its purpose, even if it’s been confusing to everyone who isn’t me. Nobody else was there. Well, nobody else but Dustin. “I am sorry that I caused my father pain, yes, but that was my decision. What happened between us was between us, and no, I don’t feel guilty about that when he died of cancer, not a broken heart.”
It’s hardly the time for me to get into a confrontation, so I throw the cover into the trash and walk up the stairs, hearing each step moan in accusation. By the time I make it to the top, all I want to do is run out the front door and go lock myself inside the house. Andy will be back from work in a while, and then I can tell him to come back for all the food that they’ve left behind. And the flowers. God, what are we going to do with that many baskets of flowers? They all smell so awful together, like everyone wants us to suffocate. We’ll have to pick a few to put on the grave, then a few for the house. The rest can go to a nursing home or the hospital or something. We’ll get it figured out eventually.
I’m about to dart outside to my car when I feel a hand on my arm. I don’t want to share another hug or go through another conversation about my loss. I don’t want to open up, and I don’t want to break down. I just want to be alone, and I honestly cannot remember the last time that I had the privilege.
“Do you have a moment?”
Pastor Norrell has obviously been ushering people in and out, giving them hope and comfort all day long, but I can tell by the look on his face that he’s not about to take me aside and pat me on the back. There’s something that’s urgent, and he doesn’t seem like he wants to have me put it off until later. “Sure thing. What is it?” I think I even manage a smile, but maybe it’s just the corners of my mouth twitching.
“I was thinking that we could go somewhere a bit more private than this. Could you step into the office?”
I’m not terribly familiar with this church, and even so, I’ve never really thought about it having rooms not dedicated to worship. Behind the pulpit there’s a door that’s somewhat obscured by the limbs of an artificial tree. He pushes it to the side with his foot and then unlocks the door. “You can never be too careful, even in the house of the Lord,” he explains with a kind smile as he opens the door for me. In his fifties, he’s just starting to lose the physique of his youth and settle into that of his later life. His hair’s gone pale, and his facial hair kind of resembles sandpaper, like he can’t be bothered anymore to get a smooth shave. Still, his face is one that reminds you of anyone’s father, and that makes him a calming presence.
Even his office is like that, with papers and books scattered all over the place in a way that reminds me of a student’s room rather than that of someone who would be a guide or religious teacher. “You could use some flowers in here. Do you want some? You can have your pick,” I offer, trying to keep the conversation light. He laughs, but it’s in that polite sort of way.
“What I wanted to talk to you about is your father. Obviously I’m very sorry for your loss, but as you know, he wasn’t well for quite some time. He anticipated his demise, and he wanted to provide for you. Frankly, I’m not a lawyer and have never cared for the law or anything made to be confusing rather than enlightening. But there was something else.”
“Something else? Like what?” I think about what my father had that he could leave behind. He owned a business, so there’s all the complicated stuff that goes along with that. Property, employees, the money made and the taxes that are probably owed. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s managed to find a loophole that doesn’t really exist. What if we owe more money than he’s left us? Why would he do that to us?
“There was a letter that your father received. Years ago. He wasn’t sure if you knew about its existence, but in the event of something happening to him, he wanted you to have it. I don’t know if there’s anything he wanted you to do with it. I haven’t even opened the envelope, though I’ve had this for about two years now. Let me tell you, I’ve thought about holding it over steam to unseal it, but I would never do that. Better to confess the temptation and grow from it. But this is yours now.”
I’m surprised to see that there’s postage and an address on the envelope. I expected a note that had just been sealed up for some reason, but this has never been opened. Judging by the way the ink on the front of the envelope is smudged, it’s been some years since it’s been sent. The address is my father’s, same as it ever was. And then I notice the handwriting. It’s Dustin’s.
I’m sure there’s some moment I should remember when he was writing something that he wouldn’t let me read, but there were so many secrets between us that it’s not like I could pick out a single moment and recognize that as being it. I slip my finger under a gap in the seal and tear carelessly, not trying to be careful about it.
His familiar scrawl is all over this sheet of paper, messy and spastic as though each word came to him through lightning. I can hear his voice in my mind as I read over the words. I can’t believe he did this. I can’t believe he actually took the initiative to write a letter to my father, a man who would never accept him, and apologize while remaining proud. I can’t believe he would do it and not even tell me about it.
It probably doesn’t matter. After all, he failed me—us—in so many ways that even if he had brought it up, I would have just called him a coward or something. Still, reading this I see the Dustin that I fell in love with as a shy, young girl, the boy who put on airs and was quietly brilliant. We made up plans to take over the world together because we knew that we’d never get too far. Then we tried anyway and were surprised when we failed.
“Is there anything that you want to talk about?” Norrell asks, and my first impulse is to snap at him to just mind his business. But that would be cruel, so instead I just take a deep breath and try to ask the Lord to grant me the patience to deal with this situation. I know that He would never give me a challenge that I couldn’t overcome, but sometimes I wonder if He might not be mistaking me for another woman.
“It’s just something from a past life. I think I need to just sit down with this at home and try to figure out what I’m going to do next. Thank you for saving it for me and not reading it though.” I force another smile for him, wondering if expressions count as lies and if that’s blasphemy in this situation. Something else to weigh on my mind, as though I don’t have enough.
Pastor Norrell shows me to the door of his office, giving my shoulder a squeeze and assuring me that he’ll pick out a few plants to take off my hands. At least it’s something going my way. The flowers, the leftover food, the women who want to all be the most comforting presence around—they can all wait until I’ve just had a bit of time to remember how to breathe.
As I’m walking to the car, I notice that there’s still someone by the grave. At first I think it must be Andy, maybe he managed to finally get out from under the pile of work that he had to do, but I know that it was more of an excuse than an actual reason to avoid the funeral. He’s never been good with that sort of emotional thing, and after staying away from home for so long, I’m hardly the person he wants he show a united front with. In a way it paid off, making me look like more of the doting child while he took care of business, but if it’s not him, it would only really be one other person.
My brain is screaming at me to get in my car and get away from here as quickly as possible. It would be for the best, to prepare myself for the moment that I’ve been avoiding for years. But I’m not a timid girl anymore, and it’s not like he has any hold over me either. He’s risked a lot coming here, and the least I can do is say hello.
My heels sink uneasily on the ground as I walk, and I get a chill as I wonder whether I’m walking over any graves that have been mislabeled or displaced over the years. It’s no fate that I ever want to have, but it’s not like I’ll actually realize it anyway.
As I get close, I can see why nobody has started to gossip and panic. When we left town, he was a gaunt teenager, clean-shaven with short hair and bright eyes. The years have been kind to him, but at the same time they’ve beaten him down. There’s a new hunch to his shoulders and shadows beneath his eyes, scruff along his jaw line, and he could certainly use a haircut. I think there are even streaks of gray that have managed to creep their way into his hair; they never were there when we shared a bed together and I woke up to the back of his head. Inexplicably, a bouquet of roses dangles from his hand. I don’t think he’s ever bought me flowers in his life.
He straightens up to his full, intimidating height when I approach, more than a couple of inches over six feet, and I wonder when it was that we both stopped being teenagers. This isn’t the way that we’re supposed to be here in this place, not where we used to hide away from the adults and plot our future together. Seeming to understand how ridiculous the flowers are, he lifts them up sadly and then holds them out to me, blossom first. There’s no convenient way to accept them, so I just stare at them. “I would have gotten something a bit more appropriate, but I think I might’ve caused a fuss if I did that.”
“You’d probably do that anyway. I’m surprised there aren’t helicopters circling this place right now.” I’m trying to tease him, but I can feel how flat my voice sounds.
“Guess we weren’t quite as special as we fancied ourselves to be then.”
“Speak for yourself.”
He gives a sad smile, and I can tell that he hasn’t slept. It’s the same expression he’d give me if he’d spent an entire night out drinking, or if he had driven for hours without a break just to get back home when he knew that I was nearly to the breaking point of missing him. “I think this is where I tell you that you look good.”
“Only if you actually think that I look good.”
“Well, there’s no question about that.” It’s something strange for him to admit while we’re standing at my father’s grave, and he seems to realize that as his eyes drop to the dirt that was packed down and smoothed out while we were inside. “Have you dyed your hair darker?”
I tuck a strand behind my ear absently, feeling odd that he would be able to pick out this detail when we haven’t seen each other in years. I don’t know how he has a way of getting under my skin, particularly when we don’t own each other anything anymore. “I thought it was time for a change. You’re getting a little salt and pepper yourself.”
“Well, I thought that it might make me seem a bit more mature if I kept it that way.”
“I think it suits you, in some way.”
He grins timidly at this, and I see a shadow of the hesitant boy that he had once been when we’d started to get to know each other. We’re far too old for all this, but there’s nobody around to tell us otherwise. He takes a sharp breath in through his nose and finally lifts his eyes back to mine. I forgot just how blue they could be, like he has any sort of control about those sorts of things. “Look, I’m really sorry to hear about your father. I read about it in the newspaper. I’ve been in town…”
“I know. I’ve known for a while. You know how people—”
“Always talk around here?” It was something that we always used to complain about, and even when we moved away, he wasn’t thrilled by the notion that anyone else was in his business without him filling them in.
“At first I thought you were coming after me or something. Like you thought that you could win me back.”
“Well, maybe I thought that. Maybe I thought a lot of stupid things when I came back here, but I’ve mostly spent my time just trying to make peace, you know? Going back and making my apologies to people, seeing if there’s anything that can be done there.”
“How’s that been going for you?”
“Mostly shitty,” he says, wiping his nose as he does so. At first I think that he just has a cold, but when he turns his head a bit, I see his eyes shining. He’s always been a bit on the emotional side, but I haven’t often seen him cry. It’s an uncomfortable feeling since I know that logically, I should be the one sobbing over my loss. Instead I’m wondering if it would be logical for me to hug my former husband or if we should just keep this distance between us. “I called your father.”
“Oh.” I feel the letter already burning its way through my pocket. There had been such a defiant tone to it, the confidence of youth clear with every pen stroke. Had he been apologetic when he had spoken to my father, or had he just spoken in cold, hard facts about what had to happen back then to go with our emotions. “When did you do that?”
“A while ago. When I first got back into town, actually. I called my father, but you know how he was. He’s still the same. Or was. I don’t know what he’s up to these days. So I figured I could do something melodramatic like try to put myself out of my own misery, or I could just start to go backwards. He told me that I couldn’t cross back over bridges I’d already burnt, so I figured it would be good to figure out which ones that would be.”
He crouches down by the headstone, nestling his bouquet down amongst all the other flowers and other arrangements that have been placed there. I know that it’ll only take a day or two before these things disappear, scattered around unloved graves or stolen by people who are just too cheap to get their own. “He said that he was sorry for ever judging me. For thinking that I couldn’t provide for you. If he’d just accepted me, then we probably wouldn’t have done what we did.”
“Do you really believe that though?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have knocked your brother over the head. I don’t think I would have risked my balls like that if I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary. Your dad was still not too thrilled about that one, but I think he had a sense of humor about it after so long.”
“Because I was back.”
“Because he knew that I didn’t pose a threat to him anymore.” Without the roses, he has nothing to do with his hands except shove them deeply into his pockets, hunching over as though that might let him find something that he’s lost. I want to tell him that it’s not true, but there’s just too much that’s gone between us. I can’t lie to him, but I can’t hurt him either. He clears his throat nervously and shifts around, something that I haven’t seen him do in ages. “Anyway, he told me about the cancer and said that he was trying to patch up the holes in his life before he went. I don’t know that he would have forgiven me if he didn’t have that weighing on his mind.”
“Why would he have to forgive you though?”
“Because I took you away from him.”
“But he knows that’s not what happened. I told him so.” It’s not that cold out, but I still bundle my coat around me, trying to make it part of my body as though it can hold off the chill that’s building up inside of me. “When I came back, I was just going to get my own place, but I didn’t have the money for it. I didn’t know where else to turn, if anyone else would just call me a whore and leave me out in the cold, so I just knocked on his front door and hoped that it was still the same address we’d always had. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he kicked me out, but he just opened his arms and held me to his chest. He said, ‘Welcome home,’ just like he always expected it to be that way.”
I hadn’t really shed any tears about my father’s death, but now I feel them stinging at my eyes because for just a moment, I forget that he’s gone. The illness had already started then, they’d found a lump, but he hadn’t told me about it. We’d just been together, a family again, and I was his little girl. “I told him everything that happened. How we planned it. What happened when we were gone. It was weird, but everything that took years to live just took a couple of breaths to tell him. And then he told me that it didn’t matter anymore. But I knew that it did. I knew that I’d destroyed some part of him.”
There’s pain on his face, but he doesn’t say what he’s thinking. Instead he just shakes his head and moves on. “Even if you did, you came back to mend it up again. That’s what counts. I’m sure his last years were his happiest. I know that you loved them all a lot. I never should have asked you to stop talking to them.” A weird sort of half-smile comes across his features. “Not that you ever were completely out of touch with them, of course.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
He gives a helpless shrug of the shoulders, but I’ve known him long enough to be aware of what that really means coming from him. There’s more up his sleeve than he’s let on, of course. “I’ll be straight with you then. I know all about it. I know about Damien and how you knew where you were going all along. How he would report back to you even after you left. I know you’re family. Didn’t you guess all that when I found my way back here? Did you think I’d come back here on my own?”
I hadn’t expected so many words to come out of him all at once, and just blinking after all that is an effort. I try to take it in, dividing up his words into chunks that I can try to digest individually. He knows that we didn’t just settle down to a new life in an unknown city where nobody would recognize either of us. He knows that Damien is my relative. He knows that we’ve been in touch. And so he knows that he’s not the only one here who has been less than truthful. “So you were chasing me then?”
“It doesn’t matter what I was trying to do. It’s not about me. It’s about you. You love your family, and that’s fine. If I’d known the extent of that sooner, maybe we could have avoided a lot of heartbreak. But maybe not. That’s all there is to it. But you’ve lost a lot, and I’m sorry for it. I’m sorry I took those years away from you.”
“No. Everything that you have to be sorry for is so far in the past. It’s pointless to apologize for it now since it’s not going to do anything. But thank you.”
“For finally admitting you were wrong, even if I was half the time.” I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve thought about this moment before. I’ve turned it around so many times while lying in bed or in the shower, getting ready for the day or winding down. It’s been a comfort of sorts, to think that eventually we might not be at odds with one another. Dustin was more than my husband. When we were young, we were the only people who understood one another. We stood in our corner together, convinced that we were going to take over the world. Of course we would make up, but I never thought it would be like this. I never thought apologies would be exchanged over my father’s grave.
“Well, maybe it would have actually meant something if I’d done it a decade ago.”
“It does mean something. It means a lot to me. You showing up here now, it’s really special.”
Is that a blush that crosses his cheeks, or is he just starting to feel the sting of the wind against his cheeks? “I guess I just figured out a long time ago that you can’t make people want the same thing you do. All you can do is put it out there in the universe, and if you don’t get that energy back, you have to just move on to something else.”
“What have you moved onto then?”
“Who says I’ve moved on?” he asks, and a chill runs through me. There’s just a moment’s hesitation that he affords before he shakes his head and gives a quiet laugh. “No, I thought that people were better gossips than all that. I suppose they just want the best bits though. I’m in the bar every night, behind the bar and still standing before I leave. Learned a bit of the old mixology from your cousin. I’ve been helping out at the library here and there. They’re trying to get their catalog all converted so they can put it on a computer. It’s a lot more work than they were anticipating, and they need most of their real employees to actually help the visitors. They think I’m really good there though. They want to offer me an opening when they have one for someone who didn’t go to school for that kind of thing. They—you’re laughing.”
I don’t know why accuses me of that. Wait, I do. I am. It surprises me. I’m laughing and can’t even help myself, not hysterical with grief or anything that I know I really ought to be feeling right now. Instead it feels good just to let out something that’s not negative or forced or outside my comfort zone. It’s just plain, simple laughter. My eyes are blurry with tears, but they’re the purest ones that I’ve felt all day. “I’m sorry, really I am. I don’t know what’s come over me, but I can’t really stop. I think it’s really great that you’ve gotten back on you feet like this. I just never really could have pictured you doing something like volunteering in a library.”
“Because Bonnie and Clyde never would have stood for something like this?” he asks with a little smirk. It’s basically what I’m thinking but can’t really put into words. We were never supposed to turn into normal people, but maybe we were just ordinary teenagers anyway. “What about you? What are you doing?”
“Bookkeeping at the shop. With Papa sick the way he was, it just seemed logical, you know? Help out any I could. It was the least I could do when they gave me a place to stay.”
“Andy still work there?”
“Yeah. He’s got ownership of it now. Well, we both do, but you know what I mean. He’s the one who’s going to be able to run the place. I can just keep the wheels turning, but he’s the one who makes the wheels do anything at all. That’s where he is right now. Lots of work that we fell behind on before, but nobody’s going to be coming in for a few days, so he reckons he can just push his way through the backlog for a bit.”
“I was wondering why he didn’t turn up today. I sat in my car until the whole thing was through. Even if your dad forgave me for everything, I don’t think he would. Not with the knock I gave him back then.”
“He even has a scar on his head from it. It’s really small, but he can’t grow any hair there, so it makes him really angry.” Just remembering what we went through so long ago gives me a tiny hit of adrenaline, and I so badly want to go back to when things were that simple that I consider suggesting that we just jump into his car and go, just to see who would come after us. But nobody did back then, and there’s even less of a reason now for anyone else to care. We know now just how important we aren’t.
Taking a step forward, I let my fingers brush against his wrist. It’s the only bit of skin that’s exposed between his sleeve and his pocket aside from his face, and it would be too personal, too painful to reach up that far. “People are going to talk if we keep standing out here like this.”
“Are you really still so scared of what people have to say?”
I close my eyes and try to remind myself that there’s no point in being infuriated when I can turn and walk at any time. “What I mean is, we should go somewhere else to talk. Do you want to go to a diner or something? There’s one just down the block. Then again, you probably already know that.”
“I know where it is. But I don’t think that’s a good idea. Take care of yourself.”
And just like that, he walks out of my life.