Every muscle ached with the strain of trying to keep myself together. I didn’t have the strength; I was barely managing standing upright. If he’d leave the damn oxygen mask on, then at least I wouldn’t need to listen to the wheezing of his thirsty lungs as he panted and tried desperately to pull oxygen. Short little gasping breaths were all he managed. His body was giving up its fight while mine struggled sympathetically to control the rising panic within.
The chill in the room made me shiver, and I clenched my jaw tighter. It was as though the late January snowstorm, which was in the process of battering Dewhurst Point, was successfully penetrating the concrete walls of the County General Hospital. I knew without touching that every metal surface in the small private room was probably ice cold.
“Now listen up, son.” His voice was barely a whisper, but an authoritative one I couldn’t ignore. For my whole life, I’d known better than to ignore that tone when he used it. “I don’t want you passing off duties just because I’m your father. I’ve drawn up everything exactly how I want it done. You take care of it all personally, do you hear?”
It took an exorbitant amount of control not to cringe at the weakness behind his words. Samuel Hollins was a stoic man and had been his entire life. As his son, I was more than a disappointment. He would never voice those opinions of me openly, but they’d been written clearly on his face every day for as long as I could remember. Even as death knocked on his door, there remained a steady affirmation that I should not fail him. If I planned to ever prove myself, now was the time.
When the pull to breathe became too difficult, he moved the mask back to his face with a steady shake in his hand—one he could no longer hide. Did it bother him to show weakness? Was he even afraid?
“Dad, you can’t ask this of me, please. I’ll call Margret, she is more than capable.”
His eyes darkened as he struggled and failed to catch his breath. “Nonsense,” he said into the mask, the word nothing more than a muffled objection. When he held up a finger, indicating I should wait because he wasn’t finished, I remained silent. The inside of my cheek was bloody from the abuse of my molars. I needed to leave before too many cracks formed. My eyes burned and the steady tremble throughout my body was no longer hidden.
My heart thrashed as I cut my eyes to the collection of monitors beside his hospital bed. I’d never been able to look him in the eye when I was being lectured—and I’d spent a lifetime being lectured. Staring unseeing at the erratic numbers that all told me my father’s time on this earth was at an end, I waited while he found the strength to continue.
“Margret will make me look like I’m some glowing fifty-year-old man who just came back from a trip to Aruba. I want to look dignified and as steadfast in death as I was in life.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“You’ll do it yourself because I said so.”
“Then why did you hire her if she isn’t good enough?” There was no hiding the mounting anxiety brewing under the surface, and I knew the moment my father saw it shining through my eyes.
“She’s an extra pair of hands if necessary, and it’s not necessary. You think I don’t know how business is going, even as I lay in this godforsaken hospital? She is a fine woman and does an exceptional job, Finnley, but I want my son to take care of me in death. I didn’t put you through school to carry on the family business for nothing, do you understand me? You’ll do this for me just as I did it for your mother and that’s final.”
“Yes, sir.” My response was robotic as it had been all my life. When Samuel put his foot down, you didn’t argue.
For a few minutes, he resumed breathing with the aid of his oxygen mask. I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms as I worked to calm my jittering nerves.
“Have you called Rev. McCormick?”
“Yes, sir. He’s aware. I gave him the papers you drew up. He knows what passages you want read.”
“Do not let that man blather on. Make sure he sticks to what I asked for. Harriet and Donald will be available—”
An eruption of “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell blasted from my pocket making me startle and sent my heart to jump into my throat. My father frowned as I pulled out my phone and passed him an apologetic look before answering. The call display told me it was work.
“It’s the home,” I explained as I accepted the call, turning my back subtly so he couldn’t analyze my facial reactions any longer.
“How’s the old man?”
It was Margret. Because I’d needed to divide my time between work and dad, she’d stepped up to give me a hand.
“He’s hanging in there.”
She sighed, and knowing Margret, I could tell it was sympathy for me rather than for my dying father. The older woman had been hired to help out at the home when I’d been sent off to school. Even though I’d been back and working fulltime beside my father for nine years, she was still on the payroll and came in to help out when we needed her.
“You asked me to call and save you. So, here’s your call, Owl.”
A faint wash of relief calmed my heart hearing the sentiment in her tone. “Thanks, Maggie.”
We disconnected our call, and I dropped my phone back in my slacks while giving Samuel an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Dad, I gotta run.”
“Change that ringtone. It’s not professional.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry. A man is coming by…” I trailed off, unable to finish the lie. It didn’t matter, Samuel saw through me as he always did.
There were a lot of things I knew when I’d received that call from the hospital at nine o’clock that morning. I knew my father’s time was up. I knew if he fought hard enough that he’d try to remind me of my obligations—which he’d been doing for the past forty minutes. I knew he’d want me near. But most importantly, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t stand by his bedside and watch him take his last breath. Maybe that made me a terrible son, but I also knew my limits. And that was a hard limit. Concrete hard. Call Margret and beg her to save me hard.
“It’s all right.” I was surprised to hear an edge of understanding in his tone. “I’m pretty tired, son. I think it’s time for me to sleep.” And he winked his dull gray eye knowingly.
A cold chill radiated across my skin and tingled over my scalp. Nausea turned my stomach, and I had to swallow three times to keep myself from vomiting. Then, my breathing came faster as my lungs constricted. Before I knew it, I was mimicking the panting breaths from the man on the hospital bed.
Shit, I needed to go.
The action of walking to his bedside was like that of a dream. A surrealness surrounded me. My body trembled, and my vision dimmed as I sucked in one breath after another, desperately trying to hide my panic and the fact that I was becoming lightheaded.
He held me in a tighter embrace than he should have possessed, and I knew in my core he felt my rising anxiety.
“I love you, son,” he murmured against my neck. “Take care of yourself.”
“I love you, Dad.”
My tears sat on the surface, but I wouldn’t allow them presence. Stoic Samuel wouldn’t like that. When he released me, I wasn’t certain my feet would hold me upright. He patted my cheek, and I couldn’t decide who was clammier.
As though moving in fast forward, I darted from the room without looking back and aimed for the first washroom I could find. Locked in a stall, I collapsed to the floor and gasped desperately for air, my lungs thirsting for more than I could offer as tears prickled my eyes. I thought my heart was going to expel itself from my chest, and I raked my fingers at the buttons of my too snug dress shirt and tie, fumbling to loosen the chokehold around my neck.
Pinching my eyes closed, I scrambled desperately to think calming thoughts, to move my focus from the looming darkness of the unknown to something, anything else. I was not a novice to panic attacks, but it didn’t make them any less frightening when they blew up in my face.
With my head leaned back against the stall door, I tried to force deeper breaths while moving my thoughts to the recent episode of Friends I’d watched the night before. Bringing up the comical antics of Phoebe and her horrific singing at the coffee house seemed to work. When I didn’t need to gasp for air any longer, I hummed her cat song while continuing to replay the episode in my mind, distracting myself at all cost.
When I could breathe again, and my tremors calmed, I opened my eyes and rose on shaking legs. I went to the sink and splashed cold water on my face before finding a paper towel to dry.
While staring at my reflection in the mirror, I fixed the buttons on my shirt and straightened my tie. Behind the well-groomed man peering back at me, was a barely functioning adult and I knew it. How long could I keep it up?
My light brown hair was cut short and styled with gel to perfection off my face. Although I hadn’t fully shaved in a few days, I’d at least cleaned up my neck, so I looked moderately professional. Enough Samuel wouldn’t complain. Under the small amount of concealer and polished exterior were dark circles and undeniable exhaustion. Even when I hid it from the world, I knew it was there and saw it clear as day. The man looking back at me was a mess.
After taking a few more minutes to steady myself, I returned to the hallway but went in the opposite direction, farther away from my father’s room. At the bank of elevators, I rode one down to the parking garage and found my silver Jetta.
Maybe I was a terrible son, but I wasn’t equipped to deal with watching my father die. Despite having been surrounded by death all my life, I had limits. Severe limits, and it didn’t matter how upset or disappointed in me he was, I was already hanging on by a thread each day. The last thing I wanted to do was test that thread’s strength.
I cranked the radio loud enough I couldn’t think and drove to my apartment across town. By the end of the month, I’d be moving back home. I’d really hoped I had a few more years to prepare. Not that I would probably ever be ready. As the only child to Samuel Hollins, I was about to become sole owner of Hollins Funeral Home.
I’d grown up in that place and had been working the family business in one capacity or another for as long as I could remember. Like it or not. No one had ever asked me if it was what I wanted. At thirty-one, it was officially the only thing I knew how to do, so what choice did I have?
I unlocked the door to my third-story apartment and kicked off my loafers. I’d need to take a minute to thank Margret for saving my ass earlier. She’d assured me I didn’t need to bother being present at the home that day and told me to take care of myself.
In the kitchen, I popped a few Adrafinil and made myself a Keurig to ward off the encroaching pull I’d been feeling toward sleep. Once I’d settled on the couch with my feet up and had taken my first sip of coffee, Soft Cell pierced the air again. A lump formed in my throat, and I put my coffee down and fished my phone from my pocket.
Dewhurst County General Hospital.
That phone call played a pinnacle point in my life. It marked the moment I no longer had a parent to lean on. Which, in turn, also meant I no longer had anyone to make excuses to. From that day on, I would become the front man in a sadly profitable family business. Worse yet, that phone call exacerbated my already debilitating fear and caused a steady decline in my daily life, one I wasn’t sure I would come back from.