Mike Haines sat in the back row in the large viewing chamber at Markham and Sons Funeral Home staring at the open casket at the front of the room.
Ten minutes ago, he’d gone up, done his duty, looked down on a dead man then chatted briefly with his wife. After, he gave his ex-girlfriend from high school, Darrin’s sister, Debbie a hug and his condolences. He then moved to Mr. and Mrs. Holliday, brushed his lips against the older woman’s cheek and squeezed the older man’s hand. And after that, he’d solemnly shook Darrin’s two sons’ hands before moving to the back to find his seat.
Looking at the casket, Mike thought Darrin would fucking hate that. Being on display. Mike was surprised Darrin’s wife Rhonda had done it. Especially with her two boys, Finley and Kirby standing in front, close to that shit. But it was easy to see that even though they were forced to stand close, they were doing their damnedest to get as far away from their dead forty-four year old Dad displayed for everyone in The ‘Burg to see.
And everyone was there. Folks had even come from out of town. People Mike went to high school with that he hadn’t seen in years. Friends of Darrin’s parents who had long since moved to Florida or Arizona. Folks who’d lived in The ‘Burg for a while after high school then moved to Chicago, Lexington or Cincinnati for jobs but took the hours long drive home to say good-bye to a friend who died way too fucking young.
This was because Darrin Holliday was a man people liked. Always had been from when he was a kid. A good guy, a good son, a good brother, a good friend, a good football player who turned into a good farmer and a quiet man devoted to his wife and family.
Heart attack. Shoveling snow and then he was down. Rhonda had looked out the window, saw him in the snow and ran out. It was his eldest son, Fin, who called it in. Mike, living a stone’s throw away, was off-duty but he got the call anyway. He took off out his backdoor, ran through his yard, out the back gate and across the field to the farmhouse. He then administered CPR while Rhonda kneeled in the snow next to her husband, sobbing, her hands moving over his shoulders, his face, through his hair. It was a fucking pain in the ass to administer CPR with Rhonda all over Darrin like that but he didn’t utter a word. This was because Darrin was dead before he arrived. There was nothing he could do.
When the paramedics arrived five minutes later, Mike did his best to keep Rhonda, Finley and Kirby back. Fin and Kirb were frozen stiff, easy to control. Rhonda was hysterical, impossible to control so he did his best not to harm her while he contained her. Then he held her when she collapsed, sobbing, in his arms.
Understandable but fuck, he hated that shit. As a cop in a small town, he didn’t see it often but he saw it more than anyone else. And he never got used to it. They told him he would but he didn’t. This was because witnessing loss was impossible to get used to. A cop had two choices. Learn to bury it and use the burn it caused to make you a better cop which was the only way to eventually let it go. Or just bury it, let it fester, turn bitter and make you a cynical smartass to the point nothing fazed you. Mike had known a few cynical, smartass police officers and they were shit at their jobs because they didn’t care about the people they protected and served. They cared about nothing but getting their paycheck. So he’d learned to use the burn.
What he experienced that day with Rhonda, Finley and Kirby was worse. He’d had that more than once in his career. There was no explanation for a man dying in his prime. There was no one for Mike to set about finding. No one to blame. No one who would pay. No justice to be done. Just a man dying in the snow twelve days after Christmas and it was done.
Mike saw George Markham, the owner of the funeral home, approach Rhonda and Mike, like everyone else in the room, knew it was time. Pastor Knox was moving toward the podium. Folks started shifting about the room, taking seats. George had brought in extra seating and still there were people lining the walls.
Darrin was liked but he was also young. Most of The ‘Burg would come out for that just for curiosity sake. This was fucked but it was also the way of people. Death fascinated them. So did grief. Mike never understood that shit but then most people didn’t have his job. He got his fill of death and grief even in a small town. So, unlike that day, when he could he was happy to avoid it.
As people settled, his eyes scanned the room. Colt and February were there as were Tanner and Raquel. Colt standing against the wall by Tanner because they’d given their seats to two elderly ladies. Their wives, Feb and Rocky, were seated next to each other and across from their husbands. Colt and Feb had a young son who Mike knew, since he worked with Colt at the Station, was being looked after by Violet Callahan. Vi didn’t know Darrin and her husband, Cal, who did, was out of town. Cal and Vi had a toddler of their own, a little girl, so Mike knew Vi’s hands were full that day.
George took the podium and started the proceedings, saying a few words then introducing Pastor Knox. As he did this, Mike continued to scan the room.
He knew he was looking for her.
But he’d already looked for her and she wasn’t there.
This surprised him and it pissed him off. Not a little, a good deal.
His first reaction he understood. She loved her brother, always did, even when she went off the rails. He’d heard she came back to town, not with frequency but on occasion. Christmases. Thanksgivings. Her nephews’ birthdays. Darrin and Rhonda’s wedding which, for reasons Mike no longer remembered, he was invited to but had to miss. But he’d never seen her. Not for twenty years. She took off the summer after her high school graduation. He’d attended her party, even brought a gift, but she hadn’t so much as looked at him.
He couldn’t believe she wouldn’t come back for Darrin.
This was what pissed him off.
Obviously, she hadn’t changed.
Well she had, once. A major, fucked up change taking her from a sweet, hilarious, precocious young woman to a moody, troublemaking pain in the ass teenager. She went from daisies and rainbows to grunge but she did that with too much makeup, sulking and “the world doesn’t get me” teenage bullshit.
No one got it. Darrin was troubled by it. Debbie was ticked off about it. And their parents were baffled by it.
Mike was in Darrin’s frame of mind. He’d loved that kid. One of the best parts of going to Debbie’s house was seeing her. She was fucking hilarious and so damned sweet. She loved her parents, she loved her brother and she tolerated Debbie who always thought she was a pain in the ass even before she actually became one.
She also loved Mike and made no bones about showing him just as she didn’t anyone else. Debbie was two years younger than him, her younger sister three years younger than her. This meant when Mike was seventeen and eighteen and dating her sister, she was twelve and thirteen, gorgeous, loving and sweet as all hell.
Then when she hit fifteen she was none of those things. So much so, Mike was away at college and still, coming home, he heard all about it.
Darrin talked to her. Debbie yelled at her and got in her face. Her parents had quiet words. And Darrin even asked Mike to speak to her. Darrin knew his baby sister adored Mike. It wasn’t a secret. And he hoped, where they all failed, Mike could use the special bond she’d always had with him to break through.
And since they had that bond, he felt it and never lost that feel, he’d taken the time to find her and have a chat. This was a huge fail mostly because he treated her to gentle and open and she’d treated him to a teenaged bitch. It was like she wasn’t the same person. Gone was everything that was her and in its place was a person no one would want to know.
Their confrontation was over two decades ago and Mike still felt the pain from it. At the time he remembered he’d felt stunned at the depth of his reaction. And now, he still felt it like it happened yesterday.
He didn’t get it then, he didn’t get it now.
But over the years the pain had twisted and turned.
Sometimes, it made him contemplative. Wondering what was behind the change. Wondering if something had happened to her. Wondering if he should have tried harder. If they all should have.
Sometimes it just made him angry.
At that moment, he was feeling anger and it was manifesting itself as he sat there knowing she wasn’t going to show for her own brother’s funeral. Her brother who horsed around with her. Teased her until the light shone in her eyes and her smile was so big it looked like it would split open her face. Let her lie on top of him as they watched TV. Sat her in front of him on the tractor when he was out helping his Dad in the fields. Took her to school and, when summer started coming, swung by Fulsham’s Frozen Custard Stand to get her a cone before they headed home.
Oh yeah, he was angry.
Pastor Knox started speaking and Mike stopped scanning and looked to the reverend. The man knew Darrin, as did everyone, and his words were heartfelt. Then again, Pastor Knox was a good man. His church had recently suffered a stunning blow when he’d mistakenly hired a youth minister who was the worst kind of con man there was. But even as he dealt privately with his error in judgment, his strength of character was such that he’d hidden his personal pain and managed to guide his flock back to strong ground. And Mike knew why watching him speak about Darrin. His sorrow was obvious for Rhonda and her family’s loss, the loss to the community, the loss to his membership and he didn’t hide it.