“As we commit their bodies to the ground, we pray to our spiritual mother, that she grants our brother and sister eternal peace and may her gracious Goddess rest their souls,” Jeremiah, a member of the council of elders conducted the service, ending the ritual by lowering the joint coffin into the ground.
I was completely numb with grief, barely hearing a word that was being spoken. It was only when the words ‘bless the Goddess’ were spoken, that it shook me from out of my stupor and I muttered the words a millisecond after everyone else, my defeated voice sounding lifeless and bereft.
“Do you need a moment alone?” Mrs. Bennett asked gently, the frailty in her voice reminding me that she would be the next to leave me.
I didn’t answer her, I couldn’t bring myself to speak, look in her direction, or do anything but stare straight ahead at the people who had come to pay their last respects by scattering handfuls of dirt onto my parent's coffin.
I requested that they were to be buried in the same casket. I knew that they had spent half of their mated life fighting and making one another’s life a living misery, but these past few years had been great. It was like they had been given a second chance with each other and I had never seen them happier.
Mrs. Bennett tapped her hand against my shoulder with so much affection, that it causes a lump to swell in my throat. It was burning like a bastard, and no matter how much I tried to swallow it down, it refused to budge. I had originally picked out this black suit for the summer dance, and I was even considering asking someone to accompany me as my date... Maybe even Stacy Thorne, but that was now off the table. After I take it off, I plan on burning it in the back yard.
Jaxton’s parents took a step towards the grave and scooped up a handful of dirt. I saw Throttle’s lips moving solemnly as he opened up his fist. His wife, Jenna buried her face against his side as they walked away with Jaxton trailing behind them. He had his head bowed with a sorrowful expression. He flicked his eyes towards me as they passed and pressed his lips together in a sad smile. All I could do was nod weakly as a way of saying thanks.
Most of the people here were rangers like my dad, and other guys that I recognized from the cage. Some even came from the drug abuse support group to say goodbye to my mom. Even some of her old friends from school showed up to give their condolences. I wanted to say more, maybe say a few words of thanks, talk about my parents, and say those final speeches that people gave at times like these, but I couldn’t think of anything to say.
People patted me on the shoulder, saying things like ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘If there’s anything you need, then don’t hesitate to call me’ but there was something that I needed, but nothing that anyone could help me with.
I watched as their grave was filled with earth, just standing there as still as a statue and hardly blinking my eyes. By the time they were done, all of the stars were out and a cold wind began blowing around the mountain tops. In our community, funerals took place during the evening. The wake would often last until the early hours; people would drink, eat, and reminisce about the good old times. Not that there were many of those, but at least I had the last six years to remember them by.
Just to top off the evening, it started to rain. A small voice from somewhere inside my head was telling me that it was my dad’s way of telling me to fuck off and stop acting like a pussy. I could almost hear him chastising me from beyond the grave: “I raised a man, not a wuss, now go and have a double scotch for me, will you?”
I pinched the corners of my eyes and tried to muffle my sobs with a forced out groan through gritted teeth.
My heart hurt like hell, that’s all I could feel and it was the worst feeling in the world. It took everything that I had left inside me to leave, to go back to the house and face everybody at the wake. I knew I had no other choice. Mrs. Bennett would be worried if I didn’t show up. There would be nobody to give her some pain meds or help her to bed otherwise.
The whole street came out for this. To anyone who didn’t know better, it looked like a regular street party, but that was a traditional Bear Creek send-off and Mom and Dad would’ve been proud.
“Hey, Kian,” Jaxton greeted me as I dragged my feet along the asphalt.
He thrust a paper cup into my hand that was half full with brown liquid. My nose was all congested through the build-up of tears, but upon further inspection, I could taste that it was whiskey. I knocked back a large mouthful, hitting my tongue and throat like a liquid magma.
“Do you want me to stay here tonight?” Jaxton asks a little awkwardly.
There was an air of awkwardness when a straight guy asks another straight guy to stay over. Jax fidgets from foot to foot while he awaits my decision. I nod my head feeling just as awkward. Company is not something guys like to ask other guys for, especially when it's obvious that they 'don’t want to be alone’ but Jaxton asked, so I felt comfortable with accepting his offer. Because he brought it up... Not because I asked.
See... Awkward as fuck!
“Mom is looking after Mrs. B,” Jaxton says, jerking his head to where they were sitting on one of the fold-out chairs on my front lawn. The whole street had brought out their patio chairs and dragged out their tables, some had brought out their armchairs and some were cooking on barbecues. The clean side of the Creek could say what they wanted about us over here on the shady side of town, but when tragedy strikes, this shitty little neighborhood all pulls together in a time of crisis.
It’s a sense of knowing that we’re all the same here, nobody is better than the other, we’re all dirt poor with few to little opportunities thrown our way, just like one big trailer park family. I’m trash, I come from trash, and I’ll probably die like trash too. Maybe I would know a handful of guys who would throw dirt on my coffin, maybe they would call a gathering like this and people would all drink to my memory. Who knows? Maybe I would leave behind a legacy worth remembering, and maybe I wouldn’t. Right now, I didn’t care about anything.
“Thanks,” I tell him, because that’s all I can say, and I know that I sound like a record that’s stuck on repeat, but it’s all that I can manage.
Jaxton doesn’t mind. He bobs his head as if he gets it. We drink some more, I put Mrs. Bennett to bed when I see her eyelids start to droop. I lock her front door, then I pick up a cup and I drink some more. I keep drinking until the sun comes up and everyone has long gone home. Everyone except Jax, who lays with me on the patchy lawn while I stare up at the starry night sky, watching it while it transitions from dark to light.
We put the world to rights during our alcohol-fuelled talk. My eyes are scratchy and raw, but I don’t care. We solved the ways of the world in one long conversation. Maybe that’s how all decisions should be made, over a cheap bottle of whiskey and a packet of smokes.
“What's your plan?” Jax croaks, his voice sounding as gravel rough as mine right about now.
“I can’t afford to keep this place, so I’m going to have to sell it,” I tell him, using logic now that I was sobering.
“No,” Jaxton grumbles as if that wasn’t what he meant, “Like today! What are your plans for today?”
I see him rising up on one elbow to look at me then flops back down onto the grass with a groan. “Think I’m gonna be sick,” he complains.
“I’m going to walk my hungover ass into town and I’m gonna get me a big, greasy breakfast,” I tease my words out in a tone intended to torment.
Jaxton was feeling fragile and I knew that his stomach would be rolling at the thought of mixing it with something greasy.
“I hate you,” he whines, rolling over to his hands and knees and heaving like a cat trying to cough up a hairball.
“You kept on yapping all night about just how much you love me, so I know you’re lying,” I mutter back to him, lazily.
Jaxton chuckles a pained laugh as if he’s got the worlds biggest headache. Even though it was self-inflicted, I feel responsible because it was all in aid of making me feel better.
My back feels stiff but I manage to drag myself off the ground and roll my shoulders.
“Let me help you,” I tell him, offering out my hand. “Mrs. B has got some kick-ass pain killers in the medicine cabinet.
Jaxton takes my hand and lets me take most of his weight as I yank him to his feet. He massages his temples and stumbles a couple of steps.
“Won’t she need them herself?” he asks.
I respect that he doesn’t want to take medicine from her if she’s in desperate need of it, but these are surplus to requirements.
“Nah, they upped her dosage last week and these are leftover from the last prescription,” I reply, noticing him wince with pain again. “I need to get her up anyways and make her some oatmeal.”
He nods gingerly and follows me across the lawn to her house. Her place smells of pot pourri when I open the door. In the past couple of weeks her health has really taken a turn for the worst and a shifter can tell by the change in a person’s scent when the end is nigh. It was me who suggested that the fragrant dried-up wood and petals were a way of cheering up the place. Even if it did smell like an old ladies perfume factory in here, it didn’t hold the scent of impending death.
“Go take a seat on the couch and I’ll be with you in a minute,” I say, jerking my head to point the way.
I amble through to the kitchen and fill up a glass of water, remove a couple of pills from out of a blister strip, then head back into the sitting room so that I could hand them to Jaxton.
“Here, these should shift it,” I mumble as I drop the pills into his hand. He knocks them back with a long chug of water, then stares through the window as he finishes it.
I don’t stick around to ask him what he’s thinking because I still have a job to do, taking care of Mrs. B, and getting her ready for when Charlie visits in a couple of hours.
When I’ve finished, its almost nine a.m. We step outside into the full glare of the sun. We’re still wearing the clothes from last night, my mouth feels a little better after a cup of coffee but my teeth have a filthy feel to them. I must smell like a silage tanker but I was all out of fucks to give. Jax and I both don a pair of aviator shades as we stroll through to the respectable side of town, looking anything but respectable. We look like a couple of teenage tearaways who are due to show up at court.
“I’m feeling better,” Jaxton mutters while we walk.
People pass us on the roads and give us the side-eye, whether they’re driving past in their cars, out for their morning jog, or walking the family dog, their disdainful looks are all the same. It’s the type of look that makes you feel about as welcome as a dose of dog shit on this fine summer’s day, stinking up the power washed sidewalk and tarnishing the pristine perfect streets.
I see the quaint little café along the street and hasten my steps. Jax keeps in stride with me because now he’s developed an appetite. We reach the destination: a cute family-run establishment with a country and western theme, the wooden furniture and ranch pictures on the walls really sets off the ambiance. They’ve got a cheesy country song playing through the speakers, the female staff are all wearing tight jeans and red gingham shirts that are tied at the front. Jaxton cracks a joke that he wishes it was more like a Hooters, and that they would gain him as a regular. The waitress rolls her eyes and slaps the menu down at him and walks off with a huff. In the next breath, a large guy, who I assume is her daddy, steps out from the back kitchen and stares over at us long and hard.
“Was it something I said?” Jax mumbles, acting all innocent and pretends to read the menu.
I already know what I want so I lean back in the wooden backed chair and wait for her to come back. And come back she did, but under the watchful eye of the big fucker behind the counter.
“I’ll have the mega mountain breakfast, thank you kindly,” Jaxton orders.
I look up from my seat as she’s scribbling that onto an order pad then flicks her disinterested gaze to meet with mine.
“Same, darlin’,’ I say.
She rolls her eyes as if I’m the biggest jerk in the world, so I add, “I apologize on behalf of my friend. It was my parent's funeral last night and we drank our way through a distillery.”
Shock floods through her face and she’s immediately remorseful.
“Oh my God, you’re the Jones kid,” she announces as if I’m the hot topic of the town.
My cheeks flush at that, and I answer her with a simple nod.
“This is on the house,” she offers kindly, not that she should feel obligated to give me a handout, but I could tell by the earnest tone of her voice that it’s a gesture of goodwill.
“That’s kind of you but we don’t want to put you out,” I reply, offering to pay my way because that’s the man I am.
I’m proud, I don’t respond well to pity, I like to pay my own way and I want folks around here to respect that.
“It’s on the house anyway, but if you insist on paying, I won’t slap your hand away from tipping my jar,” she chirps, pleasantly.
It’s hard to act around a grieving person. I give her ten out of ten for effort because I know how hard it is to pluck all the right words from the air. You don’t want to kill a conversation with gloom when you can bet that person already feels like shit, but at the same time, you don’t want to crack a joke because that would seem disrespectful. Some people manage to find that equilibrium in-between, while others choose to say nothing because that is easier.
My eyes must be redraw as I look up at her, my voice as gravelly as the sound of a rusty engine. I don’t feel anything but the ache in the place where my heart used to be but I find the strength to muster her a smile. Its weak one, but it’s there, pulling on my lips just a touch to become visible.
“You got it,” I reply, my voice barely there but audible enough that she catches it.
Jax lounges back and mirrors my actions, offering a weak smile as a way of an apology. He can’t help being the way he is sometimes; that all comes down to being raised in a biker gang. He’d disagree about the gang comment and tell me that it was a club, a group of guys who share the love of bikes and the liberating feeling of cruising the wide-open road. Then I would politely remind him about all the shady dealings that would take place within that unsavory establishment known as 'The Clubhouse' and he would often be stumped into silence. It was a biker gang... One that he kept begging me to join.
“So, Mrs. Bennett’s son is visiting today?” Jax mentions while we’re waiting for our food.
I nod my head. “Yeah, it’s been a while since he visited last.”
Jax plays around with the salt shaker, tipping a mini-mountain onto the plastic red and white checkered table covering. “Didn’t he say something about taking her back to Stonevale the last time he was here?” Jax reminds me and I tense in my chair.
“Somethin’ like that,” I answer, frowning at the salt pattern he’s creating with his finger. "Although, not to Stonevale... To his condo in Hawcroft."
Stonevale was a wolf pack. That's why Hawcroft was established, so that mixed shifter matings could be accommodated for.
“She’ll be better off going with him,” Jax mentions in a matter of fact tone, and I know he’s right but I’m too damn selfish to admit it.
“She doesn’t want to leave her house, all her memories are there,” I say in her defense.
Jax drags his gaze to meet mine. “You can’t be the one to take care of her, man,” Jax states, then continues to point out all the reasons why. “You’re not in the right frame of mind to take care of an elderly lady. She needs around the clock care. You’re still at school; you come home two hours late because of football practice, and then there’s the fact that you work during the day every weekend, and spend most Friday and Saturday nights down at the cage,” he let out a heavy exhale, looking as if he didn’t want to be the one to rip off the bandaid before the wound had the chance to scab over, but he felt as if it needed saying. “I’m not trying to be an asshole. I know how much she means to you, but her son is probably going to ask her,” he told me what I already suspected, “and she’s going to say no because of the thought of leaving you. She could be around her own son, her own grandchildren. She hasn’t got long,” his voice dropped to a lower octave as he spoke the last part.
“Then what?” My own voice finally gives out as I lean forward and rest my elbows on the table.
I’m bone-tired by this point, and scared too. Jax can see it, and his woeful expression shows me that he understands.
“Then you start taking care of you,” Jax begins as if that’s now part of the new master plan. “Sell the house and pay off any outstanding debts, then walk away with a clean slate. I know that you’re not keen on joining our way of life, and that you want to go to college with all your jock buddies and fuck cheerleaders until your cock drops off.”
I roll my eyes at that part and wished that I had kept my mouth shut last night. Fucking alcohol and how it loosens the tongue.
“It’s not even about that,” I cut in, “If I want to make it in the construction industry then I’m going to need to hit the grades,” I remind him of the real reason that I’m doing this. “If a cheerleader just so happens to land on my dick, then that’s a bonus. I’m not chasing the experience, I look towards the end game,” I tell him, picturing the solid career path and a stable pay check. “I want to give my mate and cubs the life that they deserve. Is that so bad?” I fling my hand in the air and lean back in a slouched position. “To want the white picket fence lifestyle, the love of a good woman and to have a couple of cubs running around our feet, isn't that what we all want?”
Jax can’t answer because last night he told me something similar. Although, I doubt if he can remember himself going into too much detail.
Jax looked me dead in the eyes as he answered, “We all want to chase after something that we never had, Kian, but if you want all of those things, then something’s got to give.”
I swallow hard at that, knowing that it makes perfect sense.
“I’m grateful that you’re here with me, keeping my mind occupied and all,” I reply, gearing myself ready to blast back with the ‘all due respect’ retaliation speech but the waitress walks out of the kitchen with our food.
It saves the day and provides us with pleasant silence while we eat. Even afterward, nothing more gets brought up about my future. Not even after we tip the waitress and leave, the walk home is all about sports and Jax trying to talk me into trading in my Capri for a motorcycle. It takes my mind away from Charlie and whether he’ll manage to persuade Mrs. B to go with him back to Stonevale.
Jax stayed with me for a couple of extra nights before his duties called him back to the clubhouse. I had showered once all week, then spent every day shuffling between Mrs. B’s place and mine. The grief seemed to worsen whenever I found myself alone. I found it easier to box things away, pulling all the framed photographs down off the walls and packing them carefully. I plan to pull them out of hiding again someday, I just don’t know when.
The sound of the For Sale sign being knocked into the edge of the lawn echoed around the street. My house resembled an empty shell now that Throttle and the boys from the biker club helped to move my parent's belongings into their storage yard.
Charlie, who had been staying to help out with his mom, rubbed the back of his neck, awkwardly. “My wife and I have decided to take my mother to our home in Hawcroft,” he said, his words delivering a sucker punch to my stomach. “It’s for the best. She needs around the clock care that only a nurse can give her.”
He went on to say that he had hired a nurse to move in with them so that she can tend to Mrs. Bennet's every need. His lips were moving but the sound of his voice was drowned out by the high pitched buzzing in my ears. My life was falling apart. Mom and Dad were gone, and now I was losing Mrs. Bennett too.
He waited for me to respond. I opened my mouth to say something but my words must have got stuck in my throat, temporarily stunned by the smoldering ball of fire that burned within my lungs. My eyes filled with tears and I glanced away before anyone could see. All I could do was give a nod in response, knowing that it was all for the best. What was the alternative? That Mrs. Bennett suffers and dies in pain? There's no way that I would be selfish enough for that to happen.
“Do you have anywhere to go?” Charlie asked, dropping his voice to an even kinder note than it already sounded.
The guy had a heart of gold, just like his mother. I could see her essence within him.
I had options, but nothing set in stone. Jaxton’s parents had offered to take me in, but I told them that I would think about it. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone and still held an element of pride. As soon as the house was sold and any outstanding debt was paid off, anything leftover belonged to me. It might just be enough to put a small down payment onto a rental property here in the rundown side of town. Nothing flashy, just somewhere with basic amenities and for me to lay down low for a while.
“I can stay with a friend,” I croaked. “You know? The guy who was here a couple of nights ago.”
Charlie’s brows furrowed pensively. “The biker kid?”
I nodded my head in affirmation.
“You really ought to stay in school, Kian,” Charlie answered in a warning tone. “You could always come to Hawcroft with us and finish up your schooling there.”
As tempting as that sounded, I couldn’t face starting out in someplace new. Everything that I knew was right here in the slums of Bear Creek. My heart was anchored to the memory of my parents and the pull was so strong that I knew that I couldn’t leave here even if I wanted to.
“You make sure that you take really good care of my Mrs. B now won’t you, Charlie,” I replied, choking down the lump in my throat.
Charlie understood me, pressing his lips into a saddened smile. “You got it.”
My shoulders drooped as I released an unsteady breath. “How long do you think she has?” I asked, noticing the sickly change in her scent had worsened over the past few days.
Charlie made a face which suggested that he wasn’t sure. “A few weeks maybe... Maybe less.”
That stung, hitting me straight in the heart. My vision distorted behind a wall of moisture and my anguished sob made it obvious just how much of an emotional train wreck I was.
“Just a second,” I excused, pinching the corners of my eyes and scrubbing my hand over my face in an attempt to rub away the evidence. "I just need to—"
Charlie’s hand came down on my shoulder and he held it there as a gesture of comfort. “Take your time, son,” he murmured.
“Can I go in and say goodbye?” I asked, forcing the words out.
Charlie gave a nod, then jerked his head as if to say ‘Go on’.
I fumbled with my crinkled t-shirt before gathering the strength to go in and say my goodbyes.
A stale stench clung to the air in Mrs. Bennett's bedroom. All elderly shifters emitted the same distinct smell in their final days on earth. That’s why nobody liked the thought of putting her in a rest home. Places like that always smelled like death.
Charlie's mate let go of Mrs. B’s hand as I entered the room and busied herself away to the kitchen. Mrs. B was sitting up in bed with the floral patterned duvet half-way up her chest. She was wearing her favorite peach nightdress, and her hair had been fixed into a side plait, courtesy of Charlie’s eldest daughter. How could I be selfish and deny her spending the remainder of her days with her family? I couldn’t. Mrs. Bennett had been there for me for the majority of my childhood. It’s only fair that she is taken good care of in her final days on this earth. At least I wouldn’t have to see her passing. Whenever I think of her I would only have happy memories.
“Hey, Mrs. B,” I spoke gently as I approached.
Her wise old eyes rounded upon me and immediately filled with sadness.
“I’ve told them to leave without me,” she mumbled, stubbornly, “but they won’t take no for an answer.”
Her comment made me chuckle.
“You’re going to live in a condo like some rich city slicker, and have a private nurse at your beck and call,” I replied, making light of the situation for her benefit. “I’m totally jealous. I wish I had a nurse that would come and give me a sponge bath.”
Mrs. Bennett rolled her eyes. “Kian, what have I told you about waiting for your mate?”
Me talking about women like that always ground on her last nerve. “I was kidding,” I told her.
“How can I leave you?” she almost whined as she spoke. “Who will take care of you when I’m gone?” her frail voice broke off at the end. It was as if the word ‘gone’ had a double meaning. It was so final. Both of us knew what was meant by it and it was as if neither of us wanted to accept it.
“I’ll call you every day and bore you with school stuff,” I promised, feeling my words turn to fire in my throat. "You'll get so sick of me calling that you'll block my number."
Mrs. B’s lips were pressed together tightly and her chin was trembling as her eyes swelled up with tears. This was it. The moment where we said our goodbyes. I wanted it to be epic, to tell her thanks for everything that she ever did for me and to leave nothing left unsaid. But we never get to remember everything that we wanted to say in those moments, do we? Because our emotions take over and our brains turn to scrambled shit and all the meaningful things... All the pretty words that you read about in poems seep through the cracks of your mind, and all you can muster is a few clumsy words while you’re clinging that person like they’re your own personal life-support machine.
I held onto her like I was afraid to let go. I could feel her trembling in my arms as she cried. She loved me like I was her own flesh and blood, and I felt the same way about her too.
“Thank you,” I mumbled into her hair. Everything that I had ever wanted to say was applied to my voice in those two simple words.
It was a 'thank you' for being there for me, 'thank you' for taking care of me, 'thank you' for boosting my spirits whenever I was down, 'thank you' for your guidance, and 'thank you' for taking me into your heart.
She cried harder for a few moments, then her sobs became more composed. I could feel her tears soaking through the material of my shirt and dampen my shoulder. It wasn’t my favorite shirt, but I would cherish it none the less. It would be stripped from my back, never to be washed, and placed somewhere for safe-keeping. I had a small box that contained some of my most treasured items. They were worthless to anyone else but they were priceless to me.
“Don’t forget, Kian,” Mrs. Bennett murmured, pulling away from me so that she could point to the wooden box on her dresser. “Bring me my jewelry box.”
I did as she asked and handed her the small, varnished box. She opened it with trembling fingers to the sound of the melodic tune that played from the mechanism. She then held out the ring that she had shown to me all those years ago.
“When you find your mate, you give her this,” she said, placing into my hand and curling my fingers around it. “You’ll find your happiness, Kian, and you better hold onto it with everything you’ve got. Let her into your heart and let her see the real you. Always be honest with her and she will love you for the wonderful man that you are. Don’t ever dwell on the past or become tempted by greed. Do something wonderful with your life. You go build yourself that house and raise that family that you’ve always dreamed about. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”
I swallowed thickly. “I will make you proud, you’ll see.”
“You already have,” she stated as if speaking from the heart.
She reached out and cupped my face between her hands and held me there while she looked over me, eye mapping my face as if taking a lasting memory away with her. The stone of the ring was biting into my palm at this point, having not realized how tightly I was holding onto it.
“You know that I love you like my own, don’t you?” she uttered, to which I nodded that I knew and mumbled that I loved her too.
I stayed with her for a little longer while she made me promise a whole bunch of stuff until her pain meds began to kick in and drag her off to the land of dreams. Leaving this place while she was sleeping so soundly was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do. Charlie poured me a scotch and asked me to have a drink with him before I left. One drink wouldn’t affect my driving thanks to my fast metabolism, so I accepted. He promised to call me when the time comes.
By the time that I finally started my car and drove down to the edge of the road, there was only one place that I was headed,and no, it wasn’t the cage. Mrs. Bennett made me promise that I would stay away from that place at all costs. I was headed over to Jaxton’s place. His momma had apparently laid out the spare room ready for my arrival and stocked the fridge full of beer.
I had no idea where I was gonna go from here on in. I just had to take it one day at a time.