AN: This was an assignment story. I was given certain parameters (setting, number of characters, ext) to follow and had to write a story out of it
Justin didn't want to leave his car. The Fraser River was only a five minute walk past the thick line of trees, but inside his car he was protected from the heat and what he would have to face at the river bed. The sun was in a brutal place in the sky, right above him, and there was no breeze. If it wasn't for the constant air conditioning for the three hour drive he would have been perspiring in his suit. The lot was empty with the exception of his black Ford Focus and his brother's empty Plymouth Sundance parked three spaces to his left. The Sundance was white and rusted. Justin bought his vehicle three months ago.
"I don't want to get up. My legs feel like they're stuck to the seat," Tracey said.
"Please don't change the subject."
"I thought we'd finish after the ceremony." Tracey ran a hand through her thick hair. She coloured it blonde a week before but it lifted to a dark gold. Her two inch roots had a brass tone to them that didn't match the rest of her hair.
"Just answer the question." Justin took his sunglasses off and let them rest on to top of his head. His greasy brown hair was pushed at awkward angles behind them. He squinted from the sun and watched Tracey fidget in her seat. She adjusted her mid-thigh black dress and lifted her legs from the leather before her blue eyes met his.
"I'm not sure when I would have told you. Things got serious so I couldn't keep it from you anymore." Tracey reached into her black purse that sat at her feet and pulled out a small bottle of sun block. She squeezed some of the cream into her hand before she offered it to Justin. "Want some?"
"Things didn't get serious," Justin said.
He watched Tracey rubbed the sun block onto her bare arms before she moved to her legs. Her skin was pale and flawless with the exception of freckles across the bridge of her nose and the odd mole on her arms and back. She always complained that her skin had two tones, white and sunburnt, and how she hated that Justin tanned so easily. She placed the bottle back into her purse and looked at Justin again, taking a sip of water from the bottle that was tilted to its side beside her. The plastic made a cracking noise that irritated Justin.
"Then why did you invite me here?"
"Because you're my girlfriend. Isn't that who you invite to these things?" Justin shifted in his seat. His fingers started to drum on the steering wheel.
"Not someone you've only been dating for two months," Tracey said. "I was really touched that you asked me. No one's ever asked me something like that before."
"It doesn't matter. Let's get this over with. Michael's waiting for us." Justin pulled his keys out of the ignition and stepped out of the car. He took off his black blazer and folded it over one arm and pushed his sunglasses back over his eyes. Tracey followed; her flip-flopped feet crunched the gravel as she walked beside Justin in silence and tried to keep up with his long strides. He was a tall, thick man and a foot taller than her.
Justin owned a small liquor store in Vancouver. It was nestled between an old pub that he frequented and a family owned restaurant in a strip mall. He bought the business after he moved to Vancouver with his new wife four years previous. It wasn't much, the building needed to be renovated and the greasy smell of French fries and nachos wafted through every hour or so from the pub, but the place was all his. He had two employees that he paid minimum wage, it was all he could afford, so Justin was at work during most hours of the day. He didn't mind. He discovered how expensive lawyer fees were after his wife filed for divorce three and a half years later.
Tracey came into the store one evening looking for a good bottle of wine. She asked for Justin's advice and followed him around the wine selection. She nodded her head at everything he said and touched his arm every chance she got. It took her a full forty-five minutes to pick out a bottle of pinot gringo. Her identification said her name was Tatiana-May and she was twenty-four years old. She said everyone just called her Tracey for short. Two nights later she showed up again and asked Justin to recommend another bottle of wine for her. She stayed at the store for an hour and a half and admitted to Justin that she lived with her father. She had an apartment that was being renovated, she said.
"That's fine," Justin said. "My brother still lives with my parents and he's older than I am."
The third time Tracey showed up at the store Justin asked her out. They met up at the pub next door and four hours later went back to Justin's place. They both agreed it would be casual. Justin wasn't in a position to be in a relationship and Tracey assured him she didn't want one either. That was until Justin found out that Tracey was better than him at Call of Duty and was also into the television show Mad Men. They stayed up late every night to watch old movies and wore their matching Sons of Anarchy sweaters whenever they went out to the pub together.
Tracey was spending the night at Justin's place when he got the call from Michael.
The walk to the river bed was silent with the exception of sporadic squeals from Tracey every time her flip-flops got caught on a root or a dip in the ground. Justin made sure he stayed close enough to her that his arm was out and ready to prevent her from falling on her face. She was small and dainty, easy for Justin to catch or hold whenever needed.
By the time the pair was out of the shade from the trees sweat had collected on his brow and under his arms and he noticed how Tracey kept on combing her hair off her neck with her small fingers. He was envious that she wasn't wearing pants. Justin wasn't much for suits but felt it was the appropriate thing to wear for the occasion.
The location they picked for the ceremony was close to where Justin's family used to fish when he was a kid. The riverbed was rocky with the odd log on the ground that was often used as a bench or meeting spot to store supplies or anything else someone brought to the river. Trees were everywhere. No matter where you looked in the distance you'd see a mix of deep green and browns that complimented the blue of the water. The water was calm but it reflected the sun's rays and turned it into a painful glare against Justin's eyes.
"Hey Justin, catch!" A dirty volleyball soared towards his face. He ducked just in time for it to pass over his head and land with a thud behind him. Tracey stopped walking to collect the ball. Michael, wearing a button up dress shirt and a pair of khaki shorts and flip flops, was standing next to a long thick log a few feet from the water's edge, grinning. A violin case sat beside him. "Your reflexes are still good."
"How are you doing, Michael?" Justin said. He walked over to his brother and gave him a hug.
When it came to physical appearance, the two brothers were quite a bit alike. They both had messy, dark brown hair that brushed across their foreheads and laid flat on the back of their heads. Justin was an inch taller than Michael, and had a thicker frame. They both shared their mother's amber flecked eyes and their father's pointed, angular nose. Justin needed a haircut and Michael looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days.
"I'm good, I guess. It's been a while, man. You look good." Michael clapped a hand on Justin's shoulder. "Do you know how much longer Nan's going to be?"
Justin shook his head. "No. I gave her a ring before I left Vancouver. She wasn't even heading out then."
"Yeah, but you know how she drives—"
The volley ball flew back towards Michael and collided with the side of his head with a THWACK.
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I was aiming for Justin!" Tracey stepped over the rocks towards Justin and Michael, hand over her mouth. Her hair was now pulled back in a pony tail. Michael looked like he was going to swear out loud before he saw who the perpetrator was.
"Who's this, Justin?" Michael asked. He grinned at Tracey and rubbed the side of his head where the ball hit him. Tracey offered her hand to Michael. Justin was never good at introductions.
"My name's Tracey. You must be Michael. Justin told me all about you." Michael shook Tracey's hand. "I want to offer my deepest condolences."
"Thanks," Michael said.
"Michael, this is Tracey my...girlfriend." Justin wasn't sure how he wanted to introduce Tracey. He was determined he was going to break up with her. She lied to him. She had been lying to him for the past three months, but that wasn't his top priority. He had to spread the ashes of his deceased parents first.
Michael pulled his boxy cell phone out of his pocket, flipped it open and looked at the screen before he shoved it back into the depths it came out of.
"Nan's here. She just parked."
"One of us should have given her a ride," Justin said.
"She wanted to drive herself," Michael said. "She's just got diabetes. She can still take care of herself."
"Yeah, but she's not that far out of the way for either of us."
"Then why do we only see you every few years?" Michael said under his breath.
"I'm excited to meet your Grandmother, Justin!" Tracey said a little louder than normal. She plastered a smile on her face; it was obvious she wanted to keep the conversation on a positive note.
It didn't take long for Justin to spot his grandmother. She was in a simple black dress that cut off a few inches from her knees and a large back pack was strapped to her back. She had short, frizzy grey hair that sat in a curly mess on her head. Even though she was carrying the ashes of her only son and daughter-in-law on her back, she walked with confidence. Her strides were long and sturdy, and her eyes were bright from a genuine smile. She waved at Justin and Michael from a distance and quickened her pace, one hand with a firm grip on the strap from her back pack.
Without a word, Joan gave her two grandsons a hug. Like her long strides, Joan's hugs made her seem much taller than she was. She was quite a bit shorter than Justin, but she managed to wrap an arm around his shoulders so his face would press into her hair. She smelled like vanilla and fresh laundry. Justin loved his grandmother's hugs, even though years would pass between each one. He couldn't help but notice that this time he could feel her shoulder blades protruding from her back, and that she had a white bandage wrapped around her upper arm.
"What happened?" Justin asked.
"Oh I fell and scraped my arm. Question, why the hell are you wearing a suit in this weather?" Joan said. Tracey laughed. She covered her mouth her hand again and Joan turned to face her. "And who's this?"
"My name's Tracey. I'm Justin's girlfriend." Tracey offered a hand to Joan, who brushed it aside and gave Tracey a hug instead. "It's so nice to meet you. I just wish it wasn't under these circumstances." Tracey shrugged her shoulders. "I'm going to go...check out that log over there. Grab me when you need me, Justin." Tracey patted Justin's shoulder, hesitated, then lifted to her toes and pressed a kiss on his cheek before she walked away.
"New girlfriend already?" Joan said when Tracey was out of ear shot.
"Yeah, I guess," Justin said
Joan's eyes followed Tracey as she walked down the rocky beach. "She looks nice. I'd watch out, though. She looks a little young for you."
Michael sat beside Justin on the fallen log as he examined his violin. Joan placed her back pack next to the men and joined Tracey's walk along the water. Michael's violin was deep brown in colour, smooth, but the odd scrape and sign of wear and tear showed that he wasn't its first owner.
"When did you decide to pick up the violin?" Justin asked. He placed his blazer on the log beside him and rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt and pants. His shoes and socks rested on the rocks beside him. Michael thought he was an idiot for wearing a suit in the first place.
"Almost two years ago," Michael said. He placed his instrument back in the case but left the lid open. "You know Dad. He never thought it was too late to pick up a new hobby."
Michael was right. Every year his father would discover something new that he would want to try out. He built model aeroplanes for a few years and would spend his weekends flying them with friends. He moved on to model helicopters, and in the winter time he built himself a model train set to keep him occupied during the rainy winter weather. He liked to work with his hands and had turned his basement into a small workshop area that was always filled with trinkets and new instruments that he wanted to try out.
"That's cool. Good for you, man," Justin said. He hesitated before speaking again. "I'd hate to ask this now, but do you have your share of the money for the cremation?"
"Yeah. I mean, I'll have it for you soon. What's with the new girlfriend?" Michael asked.
"She's not going to be my girlfriend for long. And please don't change the subject."
"Seriously, Justin. You move pretty fast. You've been divorced and through a new relationship since the last time I've seen you." It was hard for Michael to disguise the bitter tone in his voice for the last part of his statement. "She's cute. What's wrong with her?"
Michael snorted. "You're joking, right?"
"I wish I was. She lied to me about her age. She just told me during the drive over here." Justin sighed and crossed a leg over the other. "She even had a fake I.D." Michael watched Tracey walk with Joan along the water. The pair was talking, but he couldn't hear what was being said. Tracey was picking at her nails, holding Joan's purse for her, before she placed her free hand on Joan's shoulder. Joan returned the sentiment and wrapped an arm around Tracey.
"Now that you mention it, she does look a little young." Tracey and Joan turned around and walked towards Michael and Justin. Michael noticed the Hello Kitty tattoo on Tracey's ankle and how she pulled and tugged at her dress in different places. It was like she was in constant adjustment.
"Want to start?" Joan asked when they reached the log. "I want to hear you play that thing."
Michael nodded his head. He lifted his violin out of its case as Justin leaned down to take his parent's urns out of the back pack. He kneeled in front of the pack and picked up both urns, pulled them to his chest and stood up. The two urns were slim, silver, and simple with curved bodies and a plain lid that popped off after a couple of twists. Michael's mother always said she didn't want anything fancy after she died. She was dead and it wouldn't matter to her. Justin held the both of them together until everyone was situated by the water's edge, and then passed his father to Joan. Michael stood facing the other three, violin in hand.
"Does anyone want to say anything?" Justin asked. Tracey stood beside him. No one said a word.
"As you can see, Tracey, this family was never any good at planning things," Joan said with a smile. She turned to Michael. "Why don't you play something?"
Michael nodded his head and tucked the violin under his chin. He planned to play Ave Maria, a song his mother always enjoyed listening to. Michael hit the opening notes with perfection, and the soft music of the song played out for everyone to hear. It was a song he had been practicing for quite some time now, and for a few moments Michael felt like the work was worth it. That was until one of his fingers tugged the strings wrong, and his bow screeched and all three people who watched twitched from the sound. He tried to recover from his mistake, but he messed up the rhythm of the song and the strings made an unattractive sound three consecutive times in a row.
Michael's face was red by the time he finished the song. Joan grinned at him and reached over to pat him on the shoulder. Justin looked solemn. Tracey was trying to suppress a giggle. She bit her bottom lip and coughed.
"I never said I was any good," Michael said with a grin. He placed his violin back in its case, snapped the lid shut and walked it over to the log where Justin's blazer, shoes and socks were.
"That was lovely, Michael. Thank you." Joan said. Michael wrapped an arm around Joan's waist when he came back to the group. Everyone looked at both urns but no one said a word. "Would you like to say something first, Justin?"
Justin exhaled a long breath. Sweat stains were now obvious under his arms and his hair was dark and damp from the perspiration on his forehead. His free hand reached for Tracey's and she laced her fingers with his. Michael pulled Joan closer to him.
"I'm sorry I was never around," Justin said, his voice deeper than normal. Tracey squeezed his hand, "and I'm sorry for forgetting Mom's birthday last month. And I'm sorry for not being very good with words. And I love you both." Justin coughed and pulled the urn tighter against himself. Tracey let go of Justin's hand and wrapped her arm around his waist and rested her head against his chest.
"They were two amazing people who were taken too soon," Michael said. He stared at the rocks that surrounded his feet as he tried to think of what to say. Like his brother, Michael wasn't the most elegant with words. This was even more apparent when it came to what to say about his dead parents. With a shrug of his shoulders Michael finished with, "I'm going to miss them, and I love them very much."
"Would you like to help?" Joan asked Michael as she walked towards the water with the urn. Tracey let go of Justin and he joined Joan at the water's edge. Michael shook his head and stood beside Tracey.
Joan stared at the urn in her hands. "A mother isn't supposed to do this for her son. It should be the other way around." She and Justin opened the urns together and tilted them to their side.
Joan leaned against the door of her car as she watched Justin and Michael talk a few feet away from her. She couldn't hear their exact words, Joan wasn't one to listen into someone else's conversation, but she could tell it was about money.
Justin looked frustrated. Wrinkles creased his forehead as his eyebrows pressed together from frustration. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his black trousers and his back slouched forward as he rested his weight on one hip, then the other. Michael looked much more relaxed. He ran a hand through his hair and rubbed his face as he explained something to Justin. Tracey stood next to Justin's car and watched the pair before she made her way over to Joan.
"It was really nice to meet you, Joan," Tracey said. She stood beside her and leaned against the car before she folded her arms across her chest. A breeze blew past and Tracey pulled the elastic out of her hair.
"It was lovely to meet you, too," Joan said.
"Are they always like this when they see each other?" Tracey asked.
"They never used to be," Joan said. "Not until Justin left for university. I suspect it started to happen when he was paying his own way through school and Michael was still living with their mom and dad."
"I still live with my dad," Tracey said.
"You're much younger than Michael."
"Do you think Justin will forgive me?"
Joan sighed. "That was a pretty big lie. Can you blame him if he doesn't?"
"No, I can't." Tracey said. She ran a hand through her hair before she looked at Joan again. "Can I ask you something personal?" Joan nodded her head. Since Tracey had admitted her big secret to Joan an hour before, she thought it only fair to let the girl in on something personal of her own. "You didn't fall and scrape your arm, did you?" Joan looked down at the bandage before she looked back at Tracey. The girl may have only been seventeen, but she was observant. Joan opened her mouth to speak, but changed her mind and nodded her head instead. "Is it to hide a recent operation?"
"How'd you know?" Joan asked. She knew there was no point to trying to lie to Tracey. The girl figured it out herself, at least enough to know that something was wrong.
"I noticed the medication in your purse, and Justin mentioned that you're diabetic. If I'm not mistaken, the meds were for heart disease. Did you just get an operation for it?" Tracey pointed to Joan's arm.
"Are you a doctor now?"
"Do you always answer personal questions with another question?" Tracey asked. Joan laughed. "My mom was diabetic. She had cardio vascular disease and had to get that operation. A coronary angio-whatever it's called. She died from heart failure two years ago. The doctor said diabetes increases the risk of CVD. I'd recognize the signs any day."
Joan wrapped an arm around Tracey and the pair watched Justin and Michael again. "You haven't told either of them, have you?"
"I want Justin to visit me because he wants to, not because he feels obligated." Joan said. "Michael knows I haven't been well, and I want it to stay that way."
Joan remembered taking the boys to museums and parks and getting ice cream back when they were still shorter than her and still wanted to hold her hand in public. She missed holding her grandson's hands. She missed when they reached for her before they crossed the street, or when they walked through a parking lot. That was a habit her son got them into as kids. Holding hands. It was what she always did with her son when he was a child. There was something safe about holding a loved one's hand and knowing that they are there to protect you.
"Ready to go, Tracey?" Justin asked. Michael was standing a few feet back, leaned against his car with his arms folded across his chest.
"Don't worry about Michael's share, Justin. I'll cover it." Joan said. She released her arm from Tracey.
"No, that's not supposed to be your problem, Nan. I'll pay it. Michael will never get around to it." Justin shook his head. "We've all got a long drive back. I'll worry about it in the city."
"I really enjoyed meeting you, Joan," Tracey said before she wrapped her arms around her in an embrace. Joan returned the hug, and she couldn't help but notice that this wasn't the type of hug that was shared by strangers— butt out, loose arms in an embrace that lasted only half a second. This was a tight arms, pressed bodies, smell what kind of shampoo the other person used that morning type of hug and Joan felt an odd comfort in it.
"You too, Tracey," she said. "I hope to see you again." Joan winked at Justin before she gave him a hug.
"Call me when you get home," Justin said. Joan waved to Tracey one last time and watched her walk to the car with Justin. Once the doors were closed and Justin pulled out of the driveway Joan made her way over to Michael.
"Come over here and give me a hug before you leave, too."