FOR ALL the death I’d seen, I’d been to very few funerals.
This one was fraught, and I couldn’t sort out my feelings, or what I was supposed to be feeling. Grandma Norville had fallen and broken her hip three months ago, but the pneumonia she caught after had been the final culprit. I kept thinking I should have been there. I could have come to visit one more time if I hadn’t been so busy, if I’d just made the effort. But I thought she’d hang on longer. I thought she’d always be here. How selfish was it, to feel guilty at someone’s funeral, as if her passing were somehow my fault, or a personal inconvenience? I was sad, nostalgic, tired, shell-shocked.
Mostly, I was worried about my father. He seemed tall and stoic enough, his chin up, eyes dry. Mom held her arm wrapped around his and kept a tissue close to her eyes. He didn’t seem to be looking at anything, though. Not the flower-drenched casket, not the dark-suited minister, not the sky or grassy lawn with its rows of modern, polished headstones. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. I couldn’t ask.
The service was graveside, the springtime Arizona weather was reasonable—sunny, but windy. I kept squinting against dust in the air. The crowd gathered was small, incongruously young. All of Grandma’s friends, siblings, and her husband had gone before her. All that was left were her three kids, their families, and a couple of staff from her retirement home. It had been a quiet ceremony.
My husband Ben and I had driven all night to get here. We stood a little apart from the others. Not so much as to be noticeable, but enough to be comfortable for us. Werewolves didn’t do so well in groups, even ones as small as this. Especially when we were off balance. We stood side by side, our hands entwined. Ben had never even met Grandma. He was here to look out for me. A rock to stand next to. He’d pulled out polish, combing the scruff out of his light brown hair and wearing his best courtroom lawyer suit with a muted navy tie. I’d had a terrible time packing, convinced that all my clothes were inappropriate for the situation. I’d settled on a black skirt and tailored cream blouse for the service, and pinned my blond hair up in a twist. I looked like a waitress.
The rest of the family had flown ahead of us. My sister Cheryl’s husband, Mark, had stayed home with their two kids. Standing next to Mom, hugging herself, Cheryl seemed small in her dress suit, which she probably hadn’t worn since before she was pregnant with Nicky, eight years ago now. She was staring at the flowers with a wrinkled, worried frown.
The minister, a nondenominational chaplain from the retirement home, spoke in a calm, inoffensive voice. He’d started with a Bible verse, the one about walking in the valley of shadows and not fearing evil, and dispensed comforting words of wisdom that might have come from the lyrics of a sixties folk song.
What would the guy say if I told him that I’d had proof that people existed in some form after death? He’d probably say, of course. He was a minister, after all. I had proof of life after death. But I couldn’t say I believed in heaven or hell. I still didn’t know what exactly happened to us after we died. What had happened to my grandmother.
When people at the funeral told me that my grandmother had gone to a better place, did I believe them? I believed that part of her lived on. But I couldn’t say where she was. Was she here, watching us mourn for her? I resisted an urge to call out loud to her, just in case. Was the cemetery filled with the shadows of the dead, all of them watching?
I’d met beings who claimed to be gods. Were they, or were they just powerful people who had existed for thousands of years and so built up a tangle of stories around them, and in those stories they became gods?
When the minister called on his own God, did he really know who he was praying to?
In matters of faith, I couldn’t believe in much of anything anymore. I had my family who loved me, my friends I could count on, and that was about it. Everything else—I saw the signs, but I didn’t know what they meant. All I could do was focus on the road in front of me.
The chaplain said his amens, the rest of us echoed him, he closed his book, and that was that. I decided Grandma would have been disappointed with the whole thing. She’d have wanted something big and grand in a cathedral, with organ music. But this wasn’t for her, it was for the rest of us. Funny how we all seemed so anxious. I wasn’t sure having a chance to say good-bye at a funeral was any better than not having a chance to say good-bye, when the people you loved were snatched away in front of you without ceremony.
We filed back to the cars parked along the curb, leaving the flowers and casket behind. The earth that would fill in the grave had been discreetly hidden away during the ceremony, and would be brought back after we’d all left. I spotted the cemetery employees who would do the deed lurking behind a well-groomed hedge, waiting.
I squeezed Ben’s hand before letting go and trotted forward to catch up to my dad.
“Dad? You okay?”
He smiled a sad smile, putting his arm around my shoulders and pulling me close to give me a kiss on the top of my head. Without a word, he let me go and kept walking on with my mother.
So what did that mean?
My aunt, Dad’s younger sister, was hosting a lunch—catered, I found out after discretely poking among my cousins, which was a relief. Friends had been bringing over mountains of food as well. I didn’t want to find out anyone had been cooking for everybody, but no one had. A little less guilt there. I slipped my cousins some money to help with the cost. Wasn’t much else I could do. Ben got directions to their house; I’d never been there. I was close to my immediate family, but I didn’t see the extended family that often. Weddings and funerals, and that was it. Another cliché in a day filled with them.
Before we reached the car, I took a last look over the cemetery’s green slope, toward the row of folding chairs and the mountain of flowers that marked Grandma’s grave. Said a farewell, just in case she was hanging around, and just in case she could hear.
Ben had stopped a few yards away from me and gazed off to a stand of bordering trees. Two figures, a man and a woman, were standing there.
“You see that?” he said, nodding toward them.
“Yeah. They just keeping an eye on us or do they want to make trouble?”
“You want to find out?”
“I kind of do,” I said, and we started toward them.
They’d put themselves upwind so we’d be sure to catch their scents: musky, odd. Werewolves and foreign—not part of our pack. He was a big, burly Latino; she was young and motherly, her dark hair in a ponytail, a gray cardigan over her jeans and blouse. When we approached within speaking distance, they lowered their gazes. She started fidgeting, shuffling her feet—pacing, almost.
“You must be Andy and Michelle,” I said.
She blushed and smiled; he nodded, only raising his gaze to us for brief moments. The werewolf pair had gone submissive, which was a little unnerving—they were the alphas of the Phoenix pack, strong and dominant. I’d been able to send a message ahead to warn them we were coming, that we had no intentions of invading, and could we please have permission to stay in their territory for as long as we needed for the funeral? They’d sent a welcoming message back. I wasn’t sure we’d even meet them while we were here, or if they’d keep their distance.
“Thanks,” Ben said. “For letting us pass through. I hope it hasn’t caused any trouble.”
“Oh, no,” Andy said. “I hope you haven’t had any trouble. You haven’t, have you? You have everything you need? Is there anything else we can do for you? A place to run, maybe?”
“No,” Ben said. “Full moon’s not for another week, fortunately.”
“Ah, good,” Michelle said. “I mean, not good—I’m really sorry about your grandmother.”
My polite smile was feeling awfully stiff. “Thanks. We’d probably better get back to it. We’ll let you know if we need anything. Really.” I started backing away slowly.
“It’s nice meeting you,” Michelle said. She was so earnest I could almost see her tail wagging. “I mean—you’re not really what we expected.”
“What did you expect?” I said.
She ducked her gaze. “Well, you both look so friendly. I guess we expected you to be…”
“Tougher. Tougher looking,” Andy finished. His smile appeared as strained as my own felt. “Given some of the stories we’ve heard.”
“Ah,” I said. “I think some of those stories exaggerate.”
“Even so. It’s still pretty impressive.”
I shuddered to think. Exactly what did I look like from the outside, anyway? I was just a talk radio host. A werewolf talk radio host who’d publically declared war on a shadowy vampire conspiracy. Alrighty, then.
“Thanks again,” Ben said. “We’ll be out of your territory in a couple of days.”
Their smiles suddenly seemed relieved. Ben and I waved good-bye and walked back to the cars.
I frowned. “They’ve been keeping an eye on us the whole time we’ve been here, haven’t they? Just to make sure we wouldn’t start a fight.”
“Seems likely.” His smile was amused, his hands shoved in the pockets of his suit jacket. I was a little offended that he wasn’t more worried, or at least insulted.
“They acted like I might try to eat them. When did I become such a badass?”
“Your reputation precedes you,” Ben said.
“I don’t even know what reputation that is anymore. I don’t even recognize myself, the way they were looking at me.”
“Don’t let it go to your head.”
“On the contrary, I think I’d rather ignore it completely.” I wouldn’t know how to act like the badass tough they’d expected.
Cheryl was watching our approach from the edge of the groups of relatives still lingering and talking. There was one person who’d never see her little sister as a badass.
“Do you know them?” she asked. Andy and Michelle were walking away, into a different section of the cemetery.
“Not really,” I said, and left it at that.
“You’re kinda weird, you know that?”
“I’m a werewolf,” I said, glaring. “Trust me, Cheryl, you don’t want to know.”
She rolled her eyes at me.
It wasn’t until the reception was almost over, after Mom, Dad, and Cheryl had already left for their hotel room, after I’d said good-bye to all the relatives without knowing when I was going to see any of them again—we made noises about a family reunion, or maybe a big wedding anniversary celebration, or something—and Ben and I were walking out to our car, parked at the curb a block down the street, that I started crying. The tears burst, all at once, without warning, soaking my cheeks. I choked on a blubbering breath I couldn’t quite seem to catch.
Stopping, I squeezed my eyes shut and held my nose in an effort to stop the stinging.
“Kitty?” Ben had gone on a few more steps before looking back.
I took a deep, stuttering breath that staved off the waterworks. “I’m fine. It just got me for a second.”
He took my hand and leaned close, not to kiss me, but to let his breath play over my neck. His touch, the scent of him, calmed me. I was safe, I was protected. We stood like that for a moment, taking comfort in each other’s presence.
“I’ll drive, okay?” he said finally.
I slouched in the passenger seat, watching the suburban tract housing pass by as we drove away. I turned over the thought that had pushed me over the edge, had triggered the grief I’d kept at bay for the last few days. Grandma had always called me Katherine, refusing any less dignified nickname. Never mind that I hadn’t displayed a lot of dignity as a kid. To her, I was Katherine.
Then it hit me: now, the only people in the world who’d call me Katherine were vampires with an overdeveloped sense of decorum. It was enough to make anyone cry.
Copyright © 2013 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC