If she could just get through the next couple of days she'd be fine. At least that's what she kept telling herself. She'd been telling herself that for a month now, though. It worked some days, some days it didn't. She swore when she was done with this, though, she was never wearing black again. The somber smile was pasted onto her face by now as hundreds of people went through the receiving line between last night and tonight offering their condolences. No one expected her father to drop dead of a heart attack before the age of sixty. He was overall the epitome of good health. Sure, he drank on occasion, but he exercised and didn't smoke or anything else.
Her first genuine smile came when of all people Brian Johnson came through the line. He offered her a hug.
"I'm so sorry, Claire," he said.
"Thank you," she said.
"If there's anything you need, anything at all, just let me know. All right?"
"Thank you," she said again sincerely. Of all the people who had said those words to her over the last seventy-two hours he was the only one she believed to be sincere in the offer. She knew without a doubt if she called him later tonight or even a week from now and told him she needed something he'd do what he could to get it for her.
They hadn't remained close friends or anything, but she'd kept in touch with him throughout college since they'd both gone to University of Michigan. Neither had known anyone else who'd gone there so they met for coffee once in a while just to talk. He'd helped her with her sciences homework more than once. She'd helped him a couple times, too, with his foreign language requirement. She had a knack for them, picking them up easily for whatever reason.
They'd kept in touch enough after college for her to know what he'd been up to. She imagined he knew the same about her, probably some things she'd rather he didn't know considering he was from home and not just college. She had his home number, which was how she knew his offer of help was a sincere one. She really knew how to get in touch with him.
"I'll see you later. Maybe before you leave?"
"Yeah, sure," she said. "Maybe," she added. She was flying out tomorrow so she doubted it, but he was being nice and was sure he didn't really mean it.
Not too far behind Brian was Andy. He was the only one from that day of detention whose relationship with her hadn't changed from what it had been going into that day. He'd blown out his knee, though, midway through college and had to fall back on academics. His father hadn't been happy, but Claire couldn't remember seeing Andy in a better mood than their last year or so of college when the pressure of being an Olympian or something was off of him.
"I'm so sorry, Claire. I was shocked when I read the announcement in the paper."
"I know. I guess I'm glad it happened like that if it had to happen. They say he didn't suffer."
"That's something," Andy said. She imagined he'd probably like to see his dad suffer just a little. She knew their relationship hadn't gotten any better. Now, though, he was teaching Physical Education and wrestling at an area high school. She hoped he learned from how he'd been treated not to treat others the same way he'd loathed back then.
There was going to be a lunch at their house after the funeral, but they had to stand here and wait for everyone to leave the church before they could leave. She had no idea who even half of these people were, but she was the daughter he was evidently proud of because everyone told her how often he spoke of her. She found it hard to believe that was the case because he hadn't approved of some of her choices over the years. Then what parent had, she supposed.
A few of her lifelong friends had come to the wake or funeral today, but overall not many had. Her brother, Scott, had a ton of friends come. Claire wasn't sure what that said about her or her friends. Then, Scott still lived in the area where Claire didn't.
"I guess it's okay for us to go," Scott said. His wife Joan was busy gathering up the kids.
"Yeah," she said.
"Just a little while longer, Claire. I know this is hardest on you."
She shrugged. "I'm fine." Numb was more like it.
"You say that, but you don't have to lie to me of all people."
"Oh I won't deny tonight before bed I'll probably drink a big glass of brandy."
"I might just join you."
"I'd like that," she said.
They were fairly close as siblings went despite the distance between them. She was currently living in New York after a brief (less than a year) stint in Los Angeles. The move to New York was supposed to be the last, permanent, one. She wasn't sure anymore, though, if she was going to stay.
"We can catch up aside from the obvious. We haven't talked since before all of this."
He gave her a hug, going to help Joan afterward. Claire joined them as well.
"Auntie Claire," her niece Maddie said. "Can I ride with you?"
"I guess that's up to your mom and dad."
"It's fine as long as it's okay with you."
"Sure," she said. "I'd love it."
Maddie stuck her tongue out at her older brother, Scott Junior, who in turn pulled on her braid hard enough for her to cry out "ow".
"That's enough or you're not going to ride with her," Scott said.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"No, you're not," Joan said, "but at least you apologized this time."
"I just haven't seen her in forever," Maddie said.
"I know," Claire said. Of course it seemed like forever to Maddie's three year old mind. It'd only been a few weeks. Before that, though, it had been far too long.
"Let's go," she said, gathering up those who were riding with her. "There's food waiting for us at Grandma's house."
She stopped, dropping the little cap she was holding when she saw him standing there. He looked positively too good in a suit that he had no business making look sinful because it was just a basic suit. He was watching her curiously as she stooped to pick up the dropped hat.
"Hi," she said finally. "I didn't see you."
"I kind of sat toward the back and then the line was practically to the altar so I just waited."
"Oh," she said. "How are you?"
"Good. I'd ask the same question, but I can sort of figure it out."
"Yeah," she said. "I saw Brian and Andy."
"No, I think they're having problems," she said with a shrug.
"Problems enough she wouldn't come to something like this with him? That's too bad. I always figured them for the couple most likely to make it."
"Yeah, you know, they genuinely liked one another," he said.
"I guess they did."
"So, back to your house?"
"Yes, are you coming?"
"I could. I was really just here to offer my condolences."
"If you're busy that's fine, but if not you'd be more than welcome."
"Are Andy and Brian going to be there?"
"I didn't ask them, no. Andy might because he knows where I live, I'm not sure Brian does."
"I'm betting with all of his computer gizmos he could figure it out."
She smiled at that. "I'll bet he could."
"You sure you don't mind, Claire?" Joan asked.
"No, it's fine. I'll be right behind you. I promise."
"Okay, thanks," she said.
"She's about what I pictured for ol' Scott."
"You know my brother?"
"By reputation. He was quite the ladies' man in his day at Shermer."
Claire frowned slightly. He had been, of course, John spoke the truth. That was years ago, though. He'd met Joan and for whatever reason no one else ever turned his head again.
"See you at the house? I've got to get them going or they're liable to tear this place apart."
"You remember how to get there?"
He scoffed. "Yes," he said.
She made her way home, wondering how many drinks her mom had imbibed in between getting home and people arriving. She hoped not many. Of course, no one would blame her since her husband had died, but anyone who knew their mother knew that a few too many was not uncommon for her.
Everyone inside and accounted for she pasted the fake smile back on and prepared herself to hear stories about her father going back to high school and possibly earlier. Stories she'd heard before, but she'd listen again pretending that she wouldn't rather be curled up in bed with her blankets over her head, hiding from the world.
Hours it went on. She listened, she talked, and she even laughed a couple of times. It seemed so wrong to laugh at a funeral, but there were funny stories involving her dad and it seemed disrespectful not to enjoy those, too.
"I'm surprised you came alone," John said much later on in the evening.
"Well, I didn't. Not completely," she replied.
"Want to get out of here?" John asked.
"I can't," she said.
"You can't? Most everyone's gone by now."
"I'm surprised you stayed."
"I figured you could use a drink or something when it was all done. Come on, the husband can't get mad at an old friend helping you drink your sorrows away."
"I'll have to settle for having it here."
She sighed softly. Was it possible he really didn't know?
"I'm here by myself," she said finally.
"Even more reason not to worry about it. A drink isn't doing anything wrong."
"Mommy," Bill ran up to her.
"Uncle Scott said I had to ask if we can watch The Flintstones downstairs."
"I suppose," she said, watching John as he regarded her rather intrigued. "Not too late, though. We're leaving to go back home early tomorrow don't forget."
"Okay," he said, hugging her. "You're the best."
"I'll remember that when you're mad at me for making you eat your broccoli."
"Mom," he said clearly embarrassed to have that bit of information shared with a stranger, running off toward the basement.
John chuckled. "About seven?"
"Yes," she said.
"I heard you'd gotten married before graduating."
"Yeah," she said.
"Is that why?"
"Is he why?"
"No," she said softly. "We wanted to get married. He was a year ahead of me. I don't know," she shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Where is he?"
Oh God, he really didn't know.
"I take it you only read the part of the obituary that said Dad's name?"
"What?" he asked, clearly confused.
"Well, if you had read the obituary you would know why he's not here."
"Okay, I guess I skimmed over it. I saw your dad's name and knew I'd at least come see if you were going to be here. Sorry I didn't read every detail of his life."
She sighed heavily so not wanting to deal with this tonight. She was so close to enjoying that glass of brandy with her brother and going to bed.
"Well you would have read that he was preceded in death by his son-in-law among others. He died a month ago."
"What?" he asked. "You can't be serious."
"How in the hell does that happen to someone our age?"
"He was in a car accident. He was driving too fast and it'd been raining," she said. She still couldn't believe it herself.
"Geez, I'm sorry, I really didn't know. I didn't even know you had kids just knew through the grapevine you were married to some actor or something."
"Yes, he was actually pretty good."
"I didn't recognize his name."
"Because he was in plays not on TV or movies."
"So, it's just you and I didn't catch his name."
"Bill and my youngest, Justin, is three."
"Wow, that's rough. I'm sorry, Claire, really, I didn't know."
"I didn't expect you to."
"Well, I'll let you get to whatever you were going to do then."
"I was going to have a glass of brandy with Scott and go to bed."
"That's probably a sound plan," he admitted.
"I appreciate you coming today. Really. It was nice of you, more than you needed to do."
"Hey, what are friends for?"
They'd never dated or even really been involved with one another after that day of detention. Not that they hadn't thought about it, but nothing ever came of those thoughts. They were sort of friends, though. She'd liked him when he was willing to talk to her just her and do away with his tough guy persona. He hadn't done that often, though, and it was the reason whatever they felt for one another hadn't turned into more. She couldn't date someone who was one person in front of people and another completely different person privately. Once in a while he'd come over with a video or something and just want company from someone who didn't expect anything out of him. She'd fit the bill. Not to say that the attraction wasn't there. She'd found him incredibly attractive, but back then they'd both known that would get them nowhere. So, they'd hung out, talked, eaten pizza more than a few times, and talked about anything and everything they could think of talking about. Dreams, ambitions, plans, hopes, and other things not so pleasant.
"Maybe next time we come back. I'm sure I will be again soon now that Mom's alone."
"Thinking of moving back?"
"I hadn't thought about it real hard until this happened. I mean Dan dying threw me, but it wasn't a reason to just pick up and move. Now, though, Scott shouldn't have to deal with her on his own."
"Teaching. I could do that here."
"Well," he said pulling a business card out of his wallet. He flipped it over and wrote on the back of it with a pen he had in his shirt pocket. She still couldn't get over the suit and how good he looked in it. "Here. You come back through town whether to stay or just to visit and want me to return the favor you gave me more than once those few months before you left for school I'd be happy to. That's my home number and my cell number on the back there."
"I didn't do anything that major."
"Says you. I probably would've done something really stupid like kill the old man if I hadn't had somewhere I knew I could go for a while."
"Well, I'm glad I could help."
"You did." He stepped toward her then, handing her the card before offering her a hug. "I'm sorry, Claire. Not just about your dad either."
"Thank you," she said, hugging him back.
"That number works even from New York, you know? You need to talk or something."
"Thanks, I will," she said. She walked him to the door then. "Good night, John," she said, closing the door behind her. There were still people mingling around, but most of them were there for her mom or were just old friends of the family who she didn't need to be "on" for. She made her way downstairs to check on the kids and to see if Scott was ready for that glass of brandy yet.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com