Joseph Powell's mother was dead.
It was difficult to process everything that was going on around him. He was sitting at the front of the church, in the pews off to the left while Father Desmoulins finished speaking. He had been to more funerals than he was comfortable with at thirty years old. He'd lived in one of the rougher neighborhoods in Toronto. There were squeegee kids who rushed up to his car on the highway who he'd read about being dead on the side of the road a few weeks later in the paper. It was terrible, but winter hit fast and nobody seemed to care about it. He knew enough of them to be sure to go to the funerals though. They were good people. He could be like any of them if he didn't keep things under control.
But then, he hadn't been in Toronto in six months. When he'd heard that his mother had cancer he'd headed back to Alberta. Hawthorne was the kind of town you stopped to get gas in and took a few photos for its "charm". It wasn't the kind of place anyone stayed in long term. The population, for the most part, tended to hedge a little older. When most people graduated they left town to head off to the oil sands. You had to really love the town to stay put. You had to have roots. Joseph had. He didn't think he did anymore.
He looked over his shoulder to see the gentle smile of Sheriff Donnie Swick. He'd been crying. Joseph could see the edges of his eyes all puffed and red. Joseph looked around and realized that the service was over. That people were starting to move. The casket had already made its way out the door and was heading for the hearse. He cursed himself in his brain. He must have looked like an idiot.
"Hey Sheriff." Joseph said softly "Sorry man, I don't know. I must have spaced out a little. It's…"
When he trailed off Donnie jumped in to fill the space "It's kind of a hard day." Joseph was thankful for it. He didn't know what to say. Pancreatic cancer. That's what they'd told them. He'd spent the next six months preparing. All of his crying was done. Right now, sitting in the church at the actual funeral he just felt like a hollow sack; none of what should have been there – the crying and sadness that everyone expected – didn't come. It was just him.
He and Donnie started to head for the doors. Donnie sighed "It was a beautiful service. Your mom would have liked it. Desmoulins always knows what to say in situations like this. I'm terrible with them myself. Never know what to tell anyone. I just babble and hope it makes them feel better."
In spite of it all, Joseph smiled a tiny bit. It was raining. Of course it was raining. He stood on the church steps and watched them load the large, wooden box into the back of the vehicle. "It's making me feel better." He said "Are you going up to the burial?"
Donnie nodded "Yeah. I've got a few things I want to drop at the site. Flowers and stuff, you know?"
They walked down the stairs together. A few people offered Joseph their condolences. He shook hands and gave slow, nervous nods. He accepted a few gentle kisses on the cheek from old women his mother played bingo with. Once he was on the other side of the leftover crowd he started heading for his car. There were too many eyes on him for him to take. Not all of them watched just because of the death of his mother. They had their reasons. He knew it was his own fault. That didn't make it any easier to take. Donnie walked with him across the lot, and both men came to a stop at his vehicle. Joseph leaned against the door of the Acura and crossed his arms in front of him.
"It's starting to get to me a little, you know?" Joseph told him quietly "Even before she died I knew they were all watching me. I think they think I'm going to freak out again or something. I didn't expect it to follow me home like this."
"Stuff like that follows you everywhere."
That was the unfortunate truth of it, wasn't it? It was his own doing and there was no walking away from it. "I've always been a good guy here." Joseph said firmly "I won't deny what I did, but that was because I got twisted up while I was away. I've never caused trouble in Hawthorne. You know that."
The Sherriff nodded "People are just worried. That's what small towns are like, kid. People in this town will latch on to any excitement they can find. People hear a story and it gets told to everyone. It gets wilder and wilder over time like a bunch of kids playing telephone. You beating up one guy in a bar has probably turned into you going after him with a chainsaw by now."
"I know you didn't." Donnie chuckled "Still, people talk. I'd better take off. Am I going to see you up at the burial?"
Joseph hesitated for a second before he answered "I don't think I can watch them put her in the ground Donnie. I don't know. I guess I thought I'd be ready when this came but I'm not quite there yet."
The older man rested a hand on his shoulder for support for a minute and made sure Joseph was looking him right in the eye "If you need to talk to somebody I'm around alright? We'll go get a beer and hash this thing out as best we can."
Joseph smiled as best he could and shook the other man's hand. Donnie headed across the street to his own truck. Once he got across the road, someone else walked up to him. A woman, in her late twenties and not dressed for a funeral. She wore a pair of dusty jeans and a short sleeved plaid shirt. Her looks matched her attire. Sofia Swick was her father's daughter. She was practical in all things. She was pretty, but he'd thought she was pretty back when they were kids all those years ago.
Seemed like forever.
Sofia and Donnie talked for a couple of minutes. She studied his answers and her eyebrows twitched every couple of seconds. Joseph had seen that before. She didn't like what she was hearing. For as long as Joseph had remembered, there had been a bit of a distance between Sofia and her father. He often considered that may have been why they got along so well, because neither of them felt particularly close to their parents. The distance had only grown the older they'd gotten. He watched as Sofia and her fathered shared one very awkward hug and she headed over to see him next.
He froze up a bit and his grip tightened on the steering wheel. They'd not parted on good terms. This was going to be a very awkward conversation on a day that was already full of more turmoil than he could handle.
He briefly considered getting into the car. That would be too obvious. She'd know she was being shunned. That meant she'd know that she got to him. The last thing he wanted was to give the impression that he gave a damn about her, even though his brain was going a mile a minute with memories and things he wanted to say to her. So when she walked up to see him he simply gave her a shaky smile "Hey Sofia."
"Hey stranger." She said playfully, walking up and giving him a hug. He stiffened up and if she noticed how defensive she was her face didn't show it "How are you doing?"
"I think I'm going to be alright." He replied with a shrug "I've had a couple months to get ready for it. I'd be lying if I said I'm completely okay but I think I should be able to get through it."
Sofia nodded and wiped a stray string of brown hair that had escaped her ponytail out of her eyes "Ruth was a pretty amazing person. I think I saw half the town heading up to the cemetery."
"I don't think she'd appreciate that too much." Joseph shrugged "I don't think I ever saw her go to a funeral. I think she thought they were a waste of time."
Sofia laughed and nodded "I remember. Oh man, she got into it with Father Desmoulins about it one day. I guess one of the…" She trailed off and looked over at the church. It looked for a moment like the situation was going to overwhelm her but she took a deep breath to compose herself "Sorry. Trying to remember the happy times here. I'll miss her a lot."
Her head was cocked to the side a little. She did that a lot, studying his expression like it was a poker game and he had a tell. It had always infuriated him. She questioned the most obvious of answers from him. He sighed "Of course I will, Sofia."
"It's just…" She stopped and then waived her hands dismissively "Nevermind. Sorry. You know me. My brain's all scattershot. Just thinking out loud."
A low, frustrated rumble came from deep within Joseph's belly and he stopped leaning on the car "I left because I had to leave. That doesn't change the fact that I'm going to miss my mother. I had less time with her than you did. You think that doesn't bother me?"
"I didn't say that!"
"You think it though, don't you?" Joseph muttered, shaking his head "I thought you could let this go. I was gone. I was gone and I was making a life for myself and you're always going to hold it over my head right? Why?"
She looked stunned by what she was hearing "You're being ridiculous. I came over here to make sure you were okay. I didn't mean anything by it. I was just…"
He opened the door to his car and went to get inside it. She put her hand on top of it to stop him from shutting it, unless he wanted to jam her fingers between it and the car. Sofia said her next words softly "Just…just wait a second alright? Let's talk. Don't leave angry like this."
Joseph's head was pounding. Stress headache. They were nothing new for him. He touched his fingers to his temples and closed his eyes "I don't have anything to say to you."
"I just need you to listen." Sofia moved around the car door to look inside. She saw his pained expression and her tone changed instantly "Are you going to be okay?"
He didn't answer.
She did her best to make her point anyway "I'm over it. I'm past you leaving. That was your choice and you felt like you did what you had to do. Hell, you did great in Toronto. I hear the book's still selling well. The past is the past. What we were before is what we were before. Right now though, you need someone to talk to who isn't all hung up on what happened-"
"-What happened." He finished her sentence with a sneer "One fight. One fight and it's all anybody in this hick town can remember."
"You nearly killed that guy."
Joseph felt another shot of pain and winced. It wasn't just the pain that was hard to take. It was the sounds. There was a pounding at the back of his head. It was like someone had set up a bass drum right next to his ear and they were pounding it relentlessly. He couldn't even make out Sofia's next words. He got his eyes open long enough to watch her mouth something angrily at him, but he didn't understand what it was. He wasn't in any mood to listen either.
"When I left you acted like it was all about you." Joseph argued, managing to sit up and flop back in the driver's seat "You acted like I was leaving just so I could abandon you. What? Like I'm suddenly some complete scumbag because I decide I want to have an actual life instead of staying here? You could have come with me if you wanted us to stay together Sofia. Instead, you acted like I was being an asshole just for wanting to go get my own life."
She backed away and that gave him enough room to slam the door shut. Outside his window, she yelled something in at him. He winced at the pounding headache and started his car. She hit the window with her palm and yelled something else. It was probably a request to lower it. He didn't listen. Nothing she could say right now would make him feel any better.
Fuck her he thought.
He drove out of the parking lot and back toward his home.