Her vase clashed with the other two surrounding it on the mantle, her vibrant red versus their generic slate gray. Hers cost more because of the painting and because of the silver engraving of her name, but Dad thought she deserved it since those were her two primary colors, even down to her hair where it faded from red to gray, stress having gotten to her one too many times. She made us promise that we’d never put her in an ugly urn.
I hated the word “urn”. It made my stomach sick with finalization. Only people who lost loved one kept urns, and now I had three of them sitting on my mantle like they belonged there, one covered in a light layer of dust from the lack of care.
“Sorry, Nana,” I whispered to myself, using the sleeve of my jacket to buff it and give it the shine it deserved. That woman would have killed me if she knew the condition we were keeping her urn in. Our one promise to her when she died was that we’d keep her house and her possessions tidy, the vase her ashes now sat in being part of those possessions. I could see my reflection in her vase now, at least, warped and stretched from the shape of the container, but I could still make out my tired eyes and gaunt cheeks. Dad wanted me to eat earlier, but I hadn’t had an appetite in about two weeks. Although the house did smell good from all the food. Everyone had come over today to see the vase and give their final respects since we opted not to have an actual funeral. It would’ve been a waste of money.
It was awkward, though. All of the guests were my parents’ friends or my dad’s side of the family, all of the family on my mom’s side having died already. I was the only living proof that she and her family had somehow been on this planet. It gave me a strange sense of loneliness, like it was up to me to carry on her genetics, and from my lack of history with being in relationships, that wasn’t going to be a possibility.
It felt odd, being this alone, yet there was a house full of people, none of whom had spoken to me yet. My dad probably told them that I was grieving, that I hadn’t said or done much in the two weeks since it happened, still trying to wrap my head around it all. He wanted me to go see someone about it, but I turned down the offer, wanting to get through this without a therapist. Time was all I needed. He had tried working around my class schedule, too, holding the wake on a weekend, then having this final resting. . .whatever on a Saturday.
Surprisingly, he was holding up well for someone who lost his wife. I think I had gotten mad at him at one point for smiling, wondering how he could show that kind of face after what we had gone through. I couldn’t blame him, though. I don’t think he realized how completely alone I felt right now. Lack of empathy was something I couldn’t fault him for. People had their own ways of grieving, and smiling to get through it all was his while mine was shutting down and tuning out the world.
“Dalton, come say hi to your Aunt Linda,” my dad called, his hand on my shoulder, instinct wanting me to shrug it off, but I kept it there, allowing the touch. He was still my dad, and I loved him, even if he wouldn’t let me grieve like I wanted.
“I don’t really want to,” I muttered, once more running my fingers along the silver named engraved into the red paint. My fingerprints were beginning to leave smudges, and my stomach clenched at the realization of how dirty I was making her urn. I had to quit touching it, had to leave it in pristine, once more using my jacket to clean it, swallowing the thickness in my throat, angry at myself now for putting a finger on it, only smearing the marks now. Goddammit, why weren’t the smudges coming off? It had to be perfect, had to be good for her.
“Dalton, hey, son, c’mon,” Dad urged, both hands around the tops of my arms, attempting to pull me back. The realization that I was crying hit me when the sobs filled the otherwise silent room. “Come on, son. Come here.” His suit was the one she bought for him for times like this, and he had only worn it twice, once to my Aunt Kathy’s viewing, and the other to my Nana’s, mom’s sister and mom having died within two years of each other. Now this. Now Mom. No, I couldn’t cry into that suit of his, though he had spun me around to face him so I could hug him at the very least. I didn’t want the touch, but I still leaned into him, coming up to be the same tall height as him, so he heard me clearly when I blubbered about this somehow being my fault, telling him I could have helped her .We both knew it was a lie, but it was what people said at times like this.
He led me over to the couch, the one Nana took so much pride in since it was a vintage Kittinger that she won at an auction up in Tennessee. Her house was a history museum of collectable furniture, Victorian silverware, and Old English books, things she had accumulated over the years. Mom and Dad never had the heart to throw any of it out after we moved in, so we kept it all, regardless of the easy money we could have made off of it. The Victorian dollhouse itself was built in the early 1900s, restored so that it was up to modern code, but that was it. The pale blue paint was still original, chipped away from years of wear and the salt in the air since we lived so close to the sea. It was my childhood home, and I loved it dearly, spending summers here with Nana, then moving into it three years ago. Too many memories.
If it was anything that made me feel better and get my mind to relax, it was this house, and Dad knew that. “Dalton, you have to talk to me,” he pressed, rubbing his hand over my back now, not as comforting as he would have wanted, I’m sure. “What’s going on right now, kid?”
Shaking my head, I pursed my lips into a thin line, balling my hands up in my lap. Already I wanted to start scratching at my arm, but I resisted, now not the time for Dad to be worried about my impulses, either. “Can I just go back to bed?” I asked him softly. Thankfully, he had left my room as is, not caring that I had moved away for college and had my apartment. I welcomed that old, creaking bad and that horribly uncomfortable mattress, wanting to dive right back into memories of how things used to be okay.
“You should go say hello to everyone before going up to your room. I don’t care if you do or don’t, but your Aunt Linda and Uncle Jack wanted to see you tonight since they miss you. They can’t make it from Mississippi as much as they used to.” He wasn’t trying to guilt me, really, only to tell me bluntly what was going on. He always did that, always trying to be the logical voice of reason when I didn’t want him to be. “Everyone’s in the kitchen and parlor if you want to see them.”
Bracing myself, I took in a heavy breath, releasing it slowly through my nose, the tugging in my chest finally dissipating, the clenching in my stomach never leaving. “Are my eyes red?” I asked him, and he shook his head.
“Just as lovely and green as your mother’s,” Dad said, his voice cracking some, letting his sadness show through some. Before he could break any further, I was to my feet, that childlike desire to make him happy getting to me.
“Come with me?” I asked, not able to get through all of this alone. While I felt empty and hollowed out mentally, at least physically, someone would be there with me.
Dad stood up with me, wearing that fucking smile that I wanted to tear from his face. I had to stop being angry at him. He was coping in his own way, so I didn’t have any right to judge him. “I wouldn’t have you go through this alone,” he said, wrapping his arm around my shoulders, squeezing me tightly to his body. Really, he was the best dad I could have asked for, my anger towards his smile subsiding when it struck me that he was probably just putting that face on for me. No matter what, Dad always wanted to look like my hero.
The parlor at the front of the house was filled with people, all adorned in the similar black attire, the burgundy shirt I was wearing making me feel self-conscience. Tugging my blazer closer to my body, I pushed through the crowd with Dad, heading towards my Aunt Linda, dreading it the closer we got to the blond haired woman. Dad stopped short before we got to her, putting his arm up some to stop me, my eyes following his, about to open my mouth to ask him.
“Uncle Mikhail?” I asked softly, my voice almost covered by the hum of people talking and the soft violin music. “I thought you’d be excited to see him.”
“I am,” Dad muttered, his mustache twitching as he fought some kind of expression, not sure if it was a frown or a smile. “I haven’t seen him since he told me about your mom, though.” Almost two weeks, then. That was rare for Uncle Mikhail to be gone for that long, my family having gotten used to him being at our house several times a week for dinner or brunch. He wasn’t my mom’s biological uncle or anything. She never said where he came from, but he had been there her entire life, as well as mine, being there the night I was born. Dad and Mom both knew why, keeping it a secret from me my whole life. I guess I learned never to question it, accepting Mikhail as my uncle, not like it mattered.
He was nice to me, treating me like any real uncle would. A few times, he had mentioned having a son about my age, but never brought him whenever he came over. Sometimes he would take me, Mom, and Dad on long trips for the hell of it, and he’d buy me toys and video games. As I got older, he offered to pay for some of my college, Mom and Dad gladly accepting since I didn’t have enough scholarships to get me through much schooling. Surprisingly, Dad never saw him as a threat, not that he wasn’t handsome in his own way. He didn’t look anything like Mikhail, though, with broad shoulders and sharp, angular features. He, Dad, and I all stood at around the same height, a little over six feet.
“Mikhail,” my dad called, voice carrying across the room, catching my uncle’s attention, drawing a grin from him as he cut through the crowd to get to us.
“Dalton, Jim,” his voice trailed off after that, his eyes searching for something to say. He wasn’t the kind of man to apologize to us again, knowing how much this meant to us. He always spoke from the heart, and I think that’s why Mom and Dad trusted him so much. “This is never the type of event I wanted to see in this house. Perhaps Dalton’s wedding or a nice dinner party, but not this.” Carefully, he set his glass of punch on the nearest table, making sure it was on a coaster so that he didn’t stain the dark wood, then put a hand on either of mine and my dad’s shoulders. “Don’t forget you’re not alone, my dears. I loved your mother like a daughter, Dalton, and this hurts almost as much as it hurts the two of you.”
My lips drew into a tight line, thinking of how to respond. I was sick of saying thank you like I had been for the past two weeks. “We appreciate it, Uncle Mikhail,” I muttered, wanting to leave now, run up to my room to hide until I was able to leave on Monday to go back to class.
“I tried getting Seth to come with me to finally introduce the two of you, but he said funerals and the like aren’t his “thing”, as he so eloquently put it,” Mikhail teased, offering me a smile that I returned, halving its size, being as polite as I could. “Maybe one day. I think you two will get along.” He sighed, then raised his eyebrows at Dad. “Jim, do you think we can talk privately? I wanted to discuss the finances about Jewel.”
Hearing my mom’s name set me off, my dad not able to snag my arm before I was shoving through the crowds, bumping shoulders with aunts and uncles and my parent’s friends, darting upstairs to get to my room. Making it before the tears started was my biggest success. Sliding down the slammed door, I propped my knees up to my chest, elbows on my knees and head buried in my hands, bawling until my eyes burnt and I started coughing. I think my dad or someone had knocked on the door to check on me, but I ignored it, not wanting to be bothered right now.
I needed this time to myself. For the past two weeks, I had been ignoring these pent up feelings, trying to get through class and work with a faux smile on my face, all of it slowly cracking whenever my dad called to tell me how the preparations for the cremation and wake were going. I had somehow even hid everything from my roommate. Today was the first day I had cried. Fuck, I was so alone without her, my best friend, my mom. There wasn’t any way to get rid of the sick, empty feeling floating through me, a space in my heart no longer filled.
God, her eyes. I had her fucking eyes. I was going to have to face that every time I looked in the mirror. And her smile. My teeth were even crooked in the same places as hers.
Fingers gripped onto my short, black hair, a brick settling into my stomach, my nails digging into my scalp, needing to feel something other than miserable. I took my jacket off, tossing it aside, my nails scratching at the spot on my left arm, right above the elbow, a fresh scab there from the last time I had anxiously itched that area. I thought about calling Paul, my roommate, just to have someone to talk to that wasn’t family, but I couldn’t bear to do it. I knew I’d be a sobbing mess on the phone. Honestly, I don’t know where I had last seen my phone. It was lost in all the chaos of today, getting ready, greeting guests as they came, letting them see the urn. That stupid urn. We didn’t even have an open casket viewing. Couldn’t see her one more time.
God, I was a fucking horrible son. I should have called her more often, drove up more than once a month. I had been home more often this month than I had in recent ones. No, I screwed up.
Mindlessly, I stood, lumbering over to my bed, still messy from when I had gotten up that morning, lack of sleep finally smacking me like a truck. If I could go to sleep for the rest of the day. Maybe the rest of my life. Wouldn’t have to feel this emptiness, then, a dismal spiral of an ocean that I was drowning in. Whenever I felt a little better, a wave struck me, bringing me one step closer to that feeling, that one I hadn’t felt in years, the one that molded me into an empty shell of a human being, one that ran off instinct and the strand of a desire to survive. Not live, just survive.
After what seemed like hours, Dad and Uncle Mikhail finally came up to my room, knocking again on the door to let me know they were coming in. Finally, fucking finally, Dad looked like what he should have. I know I was being selfish. He was grieving in his own way and trying to hold up for me. Quit it, though. I knew the smile was fake. There wasn’t that twinkle in his brown eyes like usual. It went missing the moment we found out Mom had died. “Feeling better, kid?” he asked me, sitting beside me on the bed. Uncle Mikhail stood in the center of my room, large arms folded across his chest.
Like I had been doing all day, I shrugged, attempting to identify what it was that I felt now. A little hungry, I think. “Aunt Linda still here?” I asked, my voice alien. My throat had become raw from the crying.
“She and Uncle Jack left about an hour ago. We’ll go see them at the hotel tomorrow,” Dad said, rubbing my leg now. He inhaled through his nose, eyes turning downcast towards my floor to hide the moistness in them. “I really appreciate you being here and really trying to make me feel better, Dalton. It means so much to me.” Seeing my childhood hero cry was maybe the toughest part of the day. Dad didn’t cry when his own father passed, but here he was, swiping at his eyes, trying to hold it all in.
“Dad, no, please don’t,” I begged, sitting up, arm around him. Uncle Mikhail tossed me a concerned look, gesturing towards my door with his head, and I nodded, wanting to be alone with my dad right now. “Come on, Dad. I’m here, it’s okay. I’m here.” Holding him tightly to my body, it reminded me of the time my first cat died and he consoled me, telling me Muffy was in a better place, trying to get me to calm down while I cried. It was about time I returned the favor.
He silently wept, and I ran my fingers down his arm, wanting to cry with him, but my eyes were all dried up from earlier. He had been too busy planning all of this and making arrangements and putting on a mask for me to actually sit down and let it all process. Dad was wearing thin. Even Superman needed to rest sometimes, considering he lost his Lois Lane.
We stayed like that for about forty-five minutes, him whispering to me sometimes about different stories from when they had gotten together twenty four years ago, three years before I was born, repeating stories to me that I had heard over the years, but I sat and listened, smiling whenever it was appropriate, giving an airy laugh here and there. Getting all of this off of his chest made him feel better, honestly making me feel it, too.
Around six, Dad gathered to his feet and removed his sports jacket. “Come with me, kiddo. We’ll go for a car ride, maybe see a movie and get a shake or something. My treat.”
Now that he said it, I was feeling hungrier than I had been, probably since I had finally released weeks of emotions and got to share them with someone who was suffering as much as I was. “That sounds good,” I sighed. “Let me change, and I’ll meet you downstairs.” He nodded, then left, closing my door behind him, and I went to my suitcase, digging through the unkempt mess to find jeans and another shirt, wanting to get out of this red button up. It was a mistake to wear this, even if it was Mom’s favorite color.
As I was pulling the new shirt over my head, I spotted what looked like a splatter on my pale orange wall, the dim lighting that one lamp provided not giving me enough to properly see. When it moved, I yelped and took a step back, the large spider flittering down my wall, back behind my headboard, and I shuddered, making a mental note to come up here with bug spray later. Old houses came with bugs, usually, one of the few downsides of living here. I’d have to remember to check my luggage before I left, making sure no spiders decided to take a ride with me back down south.
I was about to shut off the lamp but thought better of it, not wanting to walk into my dark room later with the threat of a spider. Grabbing a loose jacket, I left my room, closing the door behind me to meet my dad downstairs.