Numb didn’t quite describe the empty, aching feeling taking over the cavity of my chest where my heart once sat. It was the opposite of numb if I had to describe it. I hurt inside and out, and no matter how hard I fought, an endless flood of panic continuously assaulted my brain. Adrenaline spikes left me in a constant state of wanting to flee, only there was no escape from this despair. I was trapped.
My mother may have left the world, but her terrorizing reminders had never been louder.
Raven insisted he drive. Since I could barely thread two thoughts together, it was probably a good idea. However, being in his vehicle was claustrophobic. My awareness of space was so elevated, I knew precisely how many inches separated us at any given time. The answer; not nearly enough.
My head was so beyond fucked, I didn’t think there was ever a time I’d crashed this hard. Not even the first time when I started working at the hospital and that patient came into the ER. My skin crawled, and even when Raven made no advances, I couldn’t fight the urge to shrink away from him and glue myself against the window.
Between working through the chaos of knowing that I was minutes away from planning my mother’s funeral, and the constant drone of warnings screaming in my head on a loop, I couldn’t focus. The hornet’s nest buzzing inside my skull left me on edge and jumpy. Tears sat on the surface, but I refused them presence. Even thinking about Raven touching me sent my heart into an unstable rhythm that would have concerned me if I had enough brain power to care.
Raven pulled up across the street from a large building that looked like an overly big house except with a double-doored entrance and wrap-around driveway in front. It was brick and well landscaped with flowerbeds and trimmed grass. The windows were heavily curtained so you couldn’t see inside, and the sign out front declared we had arrived.
Raven killed the engine, and the concentrated focus of his gaze made me squirm. Icy veins crawled up my nape like an unwanted caress, and I needed to break free or go crazy. Before he could say anything, I flung the passenger door open and launched myself into the cool September morning.
“Might as well do this,” I grumbled, not really intending to sound harsh but unable to pull back my biting tone and correct myself.
Raven followed a few steps behind as I approached the front doors. When I was within five feet, I spun and paced back toward the car. Shit. I couldn’t do this. Conversing with strangers was difficult on a good day.
“Hey.” Raven tried to reach out, but I dodged him and shoved my hands in my pockets. “I’m here to help. We’ll do it together.”
If he was upset at my avoidance, it didn’t show. I blew out a breath and blinked a few times when the backs of my eyes burned. Sniffling, setting my jaw and shoving everything into a tiny box inside myself so I wouldn’t have to feel, I jerked my head in a nod and entered the building while Raven held the door.
The lingering scent of incense tickled my nose, and I rubbed the tip with the back of my hand to prevent a sneeze. I hated that smell. It was forever associated with death in my opinion. How did people work surrounded by it day after day?
I scanned the entryway, unsure where to go. Raven came up behind me, not touching, but far too close. I stepped away and glared over my shoulder. “I need a lot of space right now. Don’t crowd me, okay?”
Again, my comment came off harsher than I intended.
The first signs of hurt cracked through Raven’s strong exterior, and he nodded, pressing his lips together and waving a hand to a nearby hallway.
“This way, I think.”
I let Raven take the lead. Being in control of our distance was imperative since I had enough on my mind. Just as he rounded a corner, a man emerged from an office wearing a metallic gray suit and a white button-up shirt underneath. His hazel eyes were warm and gentle. Kind, if not a little weepy or sad. He was a lot younger than I expected and strangely familiar only I couldn’t pinpoint from where I knew his face.
He had a soft smile for Raven and extended it in my direction as well before I cast my gaze to the carpet beneath my feet, refusing to acknowledge it.
“Good morning,” the well-dressed man said. Raven shook his hand, but I kept mine firmly glued inside my pockets. “I’m Finnley, owner of Hollins Funeral Home. Are you Ireland Hayes?”
He peered between Raven and me, unsure who to address, so I forced a friendly smile that disappeared in the same instance. “That’s me.”
Finnley extended his hand to shake, but Raven gently guided it down again, much to the man’s confusion. A small burst of warmth flared to life somewhere in the pits of despondency that was my core. Raven was protecting me, and I wasn’t asshole enough not to notice or appreciate it.
“If you’d like to come into my office, we can discuss you and your mother’s wishes.”
Raven glanced back, and I nodded, mouthing thanks as I followed after them. It wasn’t an overly large room. Warm browns and tans helped tone down the harsh feelings of being in a funeral home, as did the custom-built furniture and comfortable seating in one corner: a loveseat and cushioned chair which surrounded a glass coffee table.
Finnley guided us to that corner and helped himself to the chair leaving Raven and me to share the too-small loveseat. Raven sat first, and I wavered, considering the proximity, before deciding to stand. For the second time in under five minutes, Raven’s hurt surfaced. Don’t you trust me? his look implored.
Of course, I did. But the tenuous hold I maintained on my sanity needed to be coddled, and sitting that close was a ticket for disaster. If I was going to make it through this meeting with my resolve intact, I needed space.
Finnley took the lead and launched right into discussions of types of services and arrangements, asking more questions than I had answers to when it came to arranging a funeral. I tried to stay present and answer the best I could, based on what I thought my mother would want until he needed a decision on physical preparations.
I scratched a brow with my thumb, weary and exhausted, wishing this was all done, and I could go home. “I just want you to do whatever involves the least amount of touching, okay? If that’s cremation, then that’s what she needs.”
Finnley cocked his head and dashed a look at Raven before sitting straighter. “I assure you, we treat all people with full respect when it comes to arranging a love one’s body for burial, if that is your concern.”
“That’s not what Ireland is saying,” Raven jumped in. “It’s a religious thing,” he lied. “The least amount of physical contact after death the better. I hope you can understand.”
I gaped at Raven, but involuntarily my muscles relaxed, knowing he’d taken the pressure off once again by explaining something he knew I could never express—even if it was a flat-out lie.
Finnley’s brow creased, and he nodded, making a note on his pad of paper.
“I’m so sorry. I understand, and I apologize. We make it our business to stay up-to-date and informed of various religious practices, so we can accommodate demands in services. I’m simply unfamiliar with this custom. Forgive me.” Finnley met my gaze and nodded. “A cremation would be the best option I think under the circumstances.”
We agreed, and I paced as we worked out the final few details. Just as we were about to leave, Raven glanced at me and spoke, but he was talking to the funeral director. “One more question, if you don’t mind. Do you allow musicians to play during a service?”
I frowned. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Um… we’ve had people play the organ before,” Finnley explained. “Otherwise, most families request light background music for which we have plenty of options.”
Raven turned to the man. “What about a keyboard? Could I bring in my own keyboard and play something?”
Finnley dashed a glance at me and back to Raven. “I can’t see why not, provided Mr. Hayes approves.”
“Mr. Hayes has no idea what’s going on,” I said. “When I find out, if I agree, I’ll be in contact. Can we go?”
Raven smiled apologetically at Finnley, and they shook hands as Raven stood. I was out the door and halfway to his van before he called out.
I spun, my nerves on edge and bitterness on my tongue, but he continued before I could snap.
“I know you’re a mess. I know you’re hurting. I respect that you need all kinds of space right now, but just listen for a second.” He crossed the road to where I’d halted but gave me a wide berth when he stopped. “I want to sing at your mother’s funeral, if you’ll let me. I know this,” he tapped his temple, “is eating you up right now, and I don’t know how to help, but I thought, maybe I could give her something beautiful, even though I never got to meet her.”
“You’re a classic rock singer. It doesn’t feel appropriate. What exactly are you planning?”
A sympathetic smile crossed his face. “I’m not limited to classic rock, you know. Besides, I’m a quick study with music, and I’ve been looking into a certain artist a very special someone told me they enjoyed. I found a song a week or two ago, dismissed it at first, but looking back, I think it would be appropriate. I’d like to learn it and play it for you both, if you’ll allow me.”
I had questions. So many questions, but with no more fight left in me, I nodded and returned inside to give the director the okay.
* * *
Raven hovered the rest of the day. I assumed he must have called in sick to his job since it was a Thursday, and he wasn’t normally off. Part of me was grateful for the support, but a greater part of me wanted to scream, “Don’t you see how many layers of fucked-up I am?” The canyon separating us couldn’t be ignored. As I came to realize the severity of my setback, I coated my heart in ice, preparing for the inevitable rejection that would soon follow.
Crippled with grief, self-loathing, and guilt, I couldn’t do more than stare off into space as I struggled to hold together the few fragile pieces of myself that remained. Raven made lunch, reminded me to keep an eye on my sugars, and did all he could to draw me out.
“Who needs to be contacted?” he asked after setting our lunch dishes in the dishwasher.
Resting my forehead on the hard wood of the dinette set, I groaned internally. “Everyone.”
Raven brought a pad of paper to the table along with a pen. “Come on, let’s make a list and get it out of the way.”
Robotically, I scrolled through my contacts in my phone and dictated the names of people who needed to be called. When I rolled past Erin’s number, I stalled. Just wait until she saw the state I was in now. With a sigh, I made a mental note to call her later when Raven left.
Only, he refused to leave.
Once we’d made calls, I hinted about being exhausted and told him I planned to lie down for a while. Stuck in an emotionless bubble, I staggered toward my room.
“You can go. Just let yourself out.”
“Can I join you?” Raven stood in the threshold of my bedroom, his own internal pain painted across his face for the world to see.
Didn’t he get it?
“I won’t touch you. I promise. I just want to be near you. You look so lost.”
My heart clenched, and I sent a curse to any and every god imaginable for inflicting me with such problems. Worn out, and losing the will to fight, my shoulders slumped, and I blinked away the sting in my eyes.
“I told you this would happen. Between my head fucking with me and making myself understand that my mother is gone, I have nothing left to give.”
The clutter of thoughts battling for dominance made me grit my teeth harder as I fought off tears. When I remembered how close we’d become, the feel of Raven’s skin, his intoxicating, masculine scent, and the ghosting breaths of air that preceded his kisses across my skin, I desperately wanted it all back. But even considering such feats left me almost sick with fear and turned up the volume of the echoes to decibels which left it impossible to think.
“Ireland.” Raven called my name, tearing me from the prison of my mind. “I love you. Whatever you need, I understand.”
And would he continue to understand when he realized there was no cure for my problems, that normal was not something we could achieve together? Resigned to the fact that he would eventually follow the path of all my failed relationships, I smiled weakly and shrugged.
“You should probably go. I have nothing to give, and I need to be alone.”
His shoulders fell, but he didn’t argue. He backed up to the door again and turned around. But before he could go, he pivoted and eyed me with a look I couldn’t read. Then, he removed his hoodie and placed it on the foot of my bed.
“I know I can’t hold you right now, but if you need comfort, maybe this can bridge our gap. If you want.”
He backed toward the door again, paused, blew me a kiss, and left. My heart lurched, and the moment he was gone, as stupid and juvenile as it was, I caught the kiss and pressed it to my lips with a choked sob. Of all the people who’d come into my messed-up life over the years, Raven was the sole person I wished with all my might would stay.
I knew I had little to offer. More desirable options surrounded him daily. What little I could give most days would never be enough. Now he would truly witness what it meant for me to slip. Our relationship stood on borrowed time.
A few minutes later, the front door clicked, and I knew he was gone.
With a tremble I couldn’t shake, one that chipped away at my resolve piece by precious piece, I approached the bed and picked up his hoodie. For weeks in the beginning, it was the greatest sense of bonding I could allow myself to have. And there I was. Square one all over again.
I held it to my nose, inhaled his rich, soul-warming scent, and felt the cracks within crumble apart. Tears flooded over unstopped, my breathing hitched, and I collapsed in a heap, lost in grief, pain, and more longing than I could put to words.
I cried for my mother.
And for a fairy tale life I would never know.
All the rest of the day and long into the night, I never released Raven’s hoodie. It was the only thing keeping me grounded. The only touch of love he could offer in the shattered world that surrounded me.
* * *
Because of my mom’s struggles with mental health, she never had a lot of friends, even before her Alzheimer’s started ruling her life. Sheltered, she lived in her own bubble, away from threats. Only because I’d seen her life deteriorate as a result had I become more determined to lead a different life. Or try.
Every day was a struggle. There were times when her self-imposed isolation sounded a lot more appealing than the fight I chose. Especially on days like today.
Awake at four-thirty in the morning, I showered, shaved, and dressed in the nicest suit I owned. It was off-the-rack, not custom tailored, but it fit like a glove. It was Sunday and the morning of my mother’s funeral.
While I stared at my reflection in the mirror, contemplating the etiquette of wearing multiple, obscure pieces of jewelry to a sixty-five-year-old woman’s funeral, my phone rang. The hollow shell looking back at me barely flinched, knowing only one person would be calling me at such an early hour.
Leaving my eyebrow bar, lip hoop, and earrings in, I wandered to the living room and retrieved my phone from the coffee table. I’d denied Raven access to my home since Thursday. The chasm of distance I’d insisted on wounded him deeply. I knew he wanted to be there for me, but I couldn’t face the man I’d fallen in love with, knowing so many walls separated us now. The look of pain he returned cut deep.
Call it “protecting my heart from the inevitable” or whatever you will but having him around just reminded me how far I’d fallen and the eventual end to our blissful relationship that seemed impossible to avoid.
“Hey, were you awake?” he asked when I put my phone to my ear without a greeting.
“I thought I’d swing by around nine and pick you up. Does that work? I thought you’d want to be there early.”
Raven had insisted on driving. The funeral started at ten, but we’d been advised to be a bit early, so we’d be available to greet visitors or make changes if needed.
“Okay.” When I offered no more, he sighed. “Have you eaten breakfast?”
It took a minute to formulate an answer because I had to seriously think about what I’d done that morning. I’d fumbled through the last hour in a daze, not really noting what I was doing, just acting on impulse, going through the motions. Was one of those motions food?
“Okay. I’m gonna grab us coffee and something to eat. Never mind nine, I’m coming now.”
My mouth opened to object, but the dead air that followed his statement told me he’d hung up. I didn’t have it in me to be irritated, so I tossed my phone beside me and leaned back on the couch, closing my eyes and wishing I could shut off my thoughts for once. Mucking up my nicely pressed suit was the last thing I cared about.
Raven let himself in forty minutes later with a brown paper bag of bakery bagels and two large, dark roasted coffees balanced in his arms. My stomach growled at the aroma, but as I sat forward to greet him, I was stunned silent by how incredible he looked. A man in a suit was enough to catch my eye on a regular day, but Raven, all in black, wearing one that hugged his body delectably with his equally dark hair tied back off his face, took my breath away. It was also the first time I’d seen him clean-shaven.
Life was so unfair, handing me a man that ticked all my boxes, dressing him in a suit and making him shine all when I was at my worst.
When he set down the tray of drinks, his cologne wafted through the air battling for attention with the coffee and baked goods. I liked it. The entire ensemble and the man staring down at me with a furrowed brow squeezed my heart so tight it ached. He was too good to me. He deserved so much better.
“How are you doing?”
I looked everywhere but at his face. “I’ll live. Sit. Eat. Thank you,” I added when I realized my manners were lacking.
He did neither and disappeared down the hallway to the bathroom instead. When he returned, he was carrying my black pouch. Knowing I wouldn’t take it from his hand, he set it on the table nearby before finding a seat on the chair opposite the couch.
We ate in silence, his uncertainty thick enough in the air I could taste it. It wasn’t the time to draw attention to my limitations or to discuss where it put us, so I remained unspeaking and avoided making eye contact. At nine, Raven suggested we leave. We got our shoes on at the door, but before I could head out, Raven tilted his head to catch my eye. He was close—too close—but I fought the urge to step away.
“I’m here for you today. Whatever you need.”
He brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them. When he held them in the air between us, I stiffened, knowing he wanted me to kiss them back or something equally “connecting.” I stared at the offering, the strangling noose around my heart tightening. I couldn’t do it, and the moment he realized it, it would be one more rejection. One more reason to walk away.
His fingers hung in the air, and I screamed back at the echoes, telling them to fuck off and leave me alone. Every push was rewarded with a greater slam to my already fragile ego. My skin crawled and itched for me to step away. Even the anxiety pill I’d reluctantly taken that morning couldn’t loosen the tenacious hold over my body.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, stepping out into the hallway. I wouldn’t look at Raven. The last thing I wanted to see was hurt shadowing his beautiful blue eyes again.
We arrived long before anyone else which gave us a chance to meet with the director again. I let Raven do most of the talking while I wandered into the parlor that had been set up for Mom’s service. Flowers surrounded her urn and chairs lined the length of the room. Raven had come at some point and set up his keyboard in the corner. It’d slipped my mind he was planning to play something. I’d been too absorbed in myself and my own problems to give it any thought. Only then as I approached the front of the room did I wonder what on earth he’d planned.
While I was alone, I took a minute to read the cards attached to the flower arrangements. There were quite a few, and it was touching to know so many people had sent their condolences. A large bouquet was from the team of nurses I worked with at the hospital, another was from St. Helen’s. A tall bunch of yellow lilies mixed with a white flower I didn’t recognize came from my mother’s old neighbor, Wilbur Decan. I didn’t even know that man was still alive. He was ancient years ago when I was growing up, he had to be nearly ninety if my math was correct.
A smaller purple and white arrangement sat off to the side in a clear glass vase with a ribbon tied around its neck. The card sat askew, so I pulled it out to read it. When my eyes focused and I understood the messy handwritten note, my blood turned cold. I stared at it, willing the words to be different, not fully comprehending how it was even possible.
Without thought, I lifted the purple and white bouquet of flowers off the stand where it had been placed and carried it with me as I left the funeral home. I had tunnel vision. One focus. One plan of action. Each step boiled my blood hotter and hotter.
When I passed where Raven was still chatting with Mr. Hollins, both men stopped their conversation. I paid them no mind. Raven called after me, but his words didn’t penetrate. Outside, using all my strength, I launched that bouquet of flowers across the roundabout parking lot where it shattered and splashed petals, broken stems, and dirt across the concrete. Then, with fists clenched, I stalked the broken bits and kicked them further.
“FUCK YOU, YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” I screamed and kicked more pieces around, spreading the mess. My chest hurt, my entire body trembled, but I screamed it again, and again until I was hoarse and couldn’t scream anymore.