Axel Clawson carefully approached the familiar, worn gravestone and set one mug of beer on top of it. In his other hand, he held a second mug of beer. He raised the second mug, clinked it with the mug on the gravestone, and said, “Cheers, Pops.”
He downed his own mug of beer, then poured the second mug out over his father’s grave. The amber liquid ran down the gray stone, darkening the stone with dampness and making the words on the gravestone a bit easier to see. Not that it mattered. Axel’s eyes had filled with so many tears that he wouldn’t have been able to read even the clearest of texts at the moment.
He didn’t need to read the words, anyway. He’d read them thousands of times in the fifteen years since his father had died, and he could have recited them from memory. Right now, he wasn’t saying anything, though. He was doing his best to hold back the tears and failing miserably. A sob or two escaped his throat, but he swallowed back the emotions. He hated crying. Even when he was alone, as he was now. No one else was visiting the simple Bear Hollow cemetery on this chilly, early September morning. But still, crying made him feel weak, even when it was for a legitimate reason.
And damn it if the loss of his father wasn’t a legitimate reason. Axel’s dad had been one of the most renowned fighters in the Shifter Games, the contests of pure animal strength that the full humans of Gilt Hollow forced many of the Bear Hollow shifters to participate in. Sure, the full humans paid the Shifter Games competitors a lot of money, but they only did so in an effort to make it look like the competitors were volunteering. In reality, most of the competitors were forced to participate in the Games, and they all hated it.
Axel himself had never been forced to have any part in the Shifter Games, but he still hated the Games more than any of the shifters in Bear Hollow. His best friend, Oskar Warden, had nearly been killed in the Games. Many of his other friends had been forced to leave Bear Hollow behind to serve as slaves to the Games. But the worst loss of all for Axel had been his father. Fifteen years ago on this very day, his father had been killed in a Shifter Games death match. The Gilt Hollow humans had tried to make it seem like he had died fighting a noble fight, but there was nothing noble about the Games.
For years, Axel had hated his father for leaving for the Games. He had assumed, like everyone else in town, that his father’s choice to join the Games had been just that: a voluntary choice. But it had only recently come out that none of the shifters had actually volunteered. They had all been forced. Axel was grateful for that comfort, at least. As a child, his father had been his hero—a strong, noble snow leopard shifter. Axel had wanted to be just like him when he grew up.
Axel let out a shuddering sigh and wiped a few pesky tears from his eyes. He could never quite manage to keep his eyes completely dry when he came here.
“I hope you’re proud of me, Pops,” he whispered to the gravestone. “I’ve tried to use the money you brought our family wisely.”
Axel had saved every penny of the money his father had earned at the Games, spending only what was necessary to take care of him and his mother. When his mother passed away a few years ago, Axel had finally felt free to spend more of the money. He took a big chunk of it and opened a pub in Bear Hollow, naming it simply “Bear Hollow Brews.” He often gave away free beer to shifters that couldn’t afford it, and he did his best to make the pub a place where shifters could gather to feel a sense of community and security. No, he hadn’t achieved freedom for the shifters from Gilt Hollow’s oppressive rule. There was a resistance force working on that, and Axel offered whatever help he could. But a bar wasn’t usually much help in an underground war.
Still, Bear Hollow Brews offered shifters a place to come together, and a place to find hope. And Axel believed that was important.
“I think you would have agreed with me,” Axel whispered to his father’s gravestone. Then he stood on shaky legs, taking deep breaths to try to recover his composure. It was time to say goodbye, at least for now. He needed to get back to the bar to make sure everything was clean and stocked for today’s crowd. In the midst of what felt like a depressing chapter in Bear Hollow history, Axel was determined to keep Bear Hollow Brews open and thriving. He was determined to offer a sense of community.
“Bye Ma,” Axel said, bending to kiss the gravestone next to his father’s, where his mother had been laid to rest. Part of him was thankful that neither of his parents were alive to witness the terror and oppression of the current Gilt Hollow regime. The full humans were treating shifters worse now than they ever had before, although there had never been a time in recent memory when shifters had lived free from Gilt Hollow’s cruelty. But a bigger part of him missed them horribly. What he wouldn’t have given for one more day with his dad, fishing down at Golden Claw River. Or one more afternoon with his mom, helping her make berry preserves from the summer raspberry harvest.
What was gone was gone, though. His parents weren’t coming back. All he could do was hold on to the memories, and come here frequently to honor those memories. He came every year on the anniversaries of their deaths and birthdays, and countless other times in between. He wasn’t a religious man, and had always scoffed at those who said their loved ones were looking down on them from heaven. But Axel couldn’t help but feel that part of his parents was still with him somehow, and he always felt closer to them when he was here, by their graves.
He was just about to turn around and leave when someone behind him loudly cleared their throat. Startled, Axel turned quickly around, instantly tense. A few months ago, he would have said that the odds of a Gilt Hollow soldier coming to harass a shifter at a gravesite were low. The Gilt Hollow humans had, at least, afforded the shifters’ cemetery some respect. But these days, even the slightest semblance of respect seemed to be a thing of the past. He half-expected to see a sneering Gilt Hollow soldier when he turned around, and he clenched his fists, ready to fight. Usually, he did his best to just stay out of those jerks’ way. But God help him, if they tried to desecrate his parents’ graves, he would kill them or die trying to stop them.
But it wasn’t a Gilt Hollow soldier in the graveyard with him. Far from it. Instead, he found himself staring at Whisper Warden, who stood just a few yards away from him, holding a large bouquet of wildflowers in her hands.
“Whisper!” Axel stammered out, not quite sure what to say. He hoped that his eyes didn’t still appear red from crying. Whisper was one of the last people he would want to see when he looked so emotional. But if she noticed what a mess he was right now, she didn’t say anything.
“Hey. I’m sorry if I’m intruding. I thought you’d be coming by a little later, like you usually do.”
“Usually the bar isn’t so busy. I decided not to take any time off this year. It’s not fair to ask you to run the place by yourself.”
Whisper Warden was the younger sister of Axel’s best friend Oskar. Not only that, but she was Axel’s only employee. He had hired her mostly to be nice to Oskar. At the time, Oskar and Whisper had been desperate for money, and Axel was pretty much the only person in town who had work to offer. Truth be told, he didn’t think at the time that he’d had enough work to offer. But he’d been wrong. He hadn’t realized how much he needed help until Whisper stepped in and started helping him. She was smart, friendly, and the hardest worker he’d ever known. He quickly came to rely on her, and he couldn’t imagine running his bar without her now.
Not to mention she was beautiful. Like, “stop in your tracks and stare like an idiot with your mouth hanging open” beautiful. Her long, dark brown hair hung around her shoulders in silky waves, and her alert green eyes reminded him of emeralds. Her skin almost had a glow to it, and Axel constantly had to remind himself not to reach out and stroke her cheek, just because she had such an intoxicating look. There was nothing between them besides friendship, but that didn’t stop them from wildly flirting with each other. And Axel was often tempted to take that flirting a bit too far.
Now wasn’t a time for flirting, though. Now was a somber moment, remembering his father, and Axel drew his eyes away from Whisper’s curves and up to her eyes.
“It’s no problem for me to run the bar by myself,” she said. “I know it’s not an easy day for you.”
Axel was touched that she’d remembered. He had been coming out here for fifteen years, and in that time she was the only one who’d noticed or acknowledged when the anniversary of his dad’s death came along each year. Not only had she remembered this year, but she’d brought flowers out as well. Right now she was nervously passing a bouquet back and forth from one hand to the next. She would never admit it, but she got flustered when she had to run the bar by herself. It’s not that she wasn’t capable. She was perhaps even more capable than Axel himself. But she was a woman and a gorgeous one at that, and she often drew too much attention from the patrons at the bar. When Axel was there, he warned them to keep down the noise or he’d be more than happy to kick them out. When he wasn’t there, well…they got more out of hand than normal. They were good guys for the most part, but when they got around Whisper they seemed to forget that most girls didn’t like to be catcalled.
“Naw, I want to come in and work,” Axel lied. “It’ll help keep my mind off of the grief.”
That last part was true. Axel didn’t want to work, but he knew at work he’d be too busy to think of anything other than getting everyone’s drinks to them.
Whisper nodded, and the resigned look in her eyes told him that she understood more about the situation than she was letting on.
“Well, if you change your mind, the offer still stands.” She moved toward his father’s grave, and gently laid the bouquet at the base of the gravestone. She didn’t say anything, but she did reach out and put one arm around Axel. He put one arm around her, too, and they stood there, side by side, for several minutes. Axel felt much better with her there, which surprised him. He wouldn’t have thought something as simple as a hug from a friend would make the loss of his father easier to bear, but sometimes just a touch from someone who cares could make the world a little less dark. For the first time, Axel felt hope while standing in front of his father’s grave instead of despair. He wasn’t sure why that would be. His dad was still as dead as ever. But the feeling came as a welcome relief.
He sighed and turned to head back toward town. Whisper turned to, looking up at Axel with questioning eyes.
“Taking off?” she asked.
He nodded. “I should get back to the bar. Walk with me?”
She grinned and threaded her arm through his. “Of course. I have a feeling it’s going to be a good day, despite the fact that the day is shadowed by a bad memory.”
“I think you’re right,” Axel replied, his spirits buoyed by the beautiful woman walking beside him. “Today’s gonna be a good day.”
They had no idea how wrong they were.