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    Parker Owens
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Stranger at the Grave - 1. Chapter 1

When one's last stop is home, does one really go home again?

They say you can’t go home again, but I hadn’t challenged the notion much until that day. When was the last time I was back home? Not my current house, but home, the place where I theoretically grew up? Years ago. It wouldn’t have been too much of a detour to swing by the old place and neighborhood, but that rabbit warren of suburban postwar ranches where house moms presided over too-small kitchens couldn’t rate even the point of a star in a Michelin guide.

Locating the cemetery was hard enough. At the time of its inception, Maple Crest Cemetery must have been a peaceful, rural setting for a final resting place. Like so many things, its name was more wish than reality. No hill, no crest of any kind rose within ten miles of the place. Any maples growing there had vanished before the onetime farmland was transformed into a burial ground. However, the city had long since overgrown itself, like an aggressive, weedy shrub growing untended for decades, crowding and overshadowing everything in its path. Pershing Road’s six lanes of traffic supplied a dull roar, a sonic background to go along with the headstones and decorative trees. The green, well-tended acres contained the remains of the dead from generations of local families, including my own.

Mom and Dad were there. And now, so was my little brother.

Navigating my rental car along the winding drive that meandered through Maple Crest, I struggled to remember the exact location of the family plot. More graves had been added since my last visit, and the trees I thought I knew were no longer little spindly things, but substantial specimens.

At a place that looked somewhat familiar, I pulled up behind another car already parked there, and got out. The late September afternoon sun blazed hotter than it had any right to at this latitude. Already breaking into a sweat, I tried to orient myself.

The gravesite I recollected should have been in the direction of the setting sun, so I walked over the manicured green turf in that direction. A few moments of walking revealed that my hunch was correct. I recognized my parent’s polished granite gravestone. Fresh sod, with a slightly different color, told me my brother was there, too.

But I was not alone.

Another figure stood to one side, head down, hands held together in front. Unlike me in my rumpled grey business suit and blue tie, he was dressed in casual, but stylish clothing. A frown creased my forehead as we exchanged a nod, acknowledging each other’s presence. I hadn’t counted on having to share the moment with a stranger.

Time to take a deep breath; time to just be present – not for my little brother, it was too late for that, but to the situation. Unconsciously, my stance mimicked the man on my left, as I tried to bring a prayer, or really any sort of words to mind. Nothing but an uneasy emptiness filled my head. Minutes passed. I tried to will myself into some semblance of grief, into an outward display to override the dull ache in my heart, but all I could do was stare into the grass at my feet. I felt the heavy, leaden weight of years which passed too quickly, of relationships that faded, and a palpable sensation of not having done enough.

There should have been a stone. There wasn’t one, of course, not yet. Even though I was days late in coming, it was much too soon after the funeral, and a granite grave marker takes time to produce. I had learned that much as my parent’s executor. But who had organized the burial and memorial services, anyway? I guessed that my sister was the responsible party, though how MJ managed it from Texas, was a mystery.

As I pondered, a dark, caramel colored beetle clambered through clover leaves and green stems. A tiny orange and black spotted butterfly sailed through my field of vision. The vague white noise of traffic, and the nearby chattering of sparrows, seeped into my consciousness and I felt aware of an irritation that I knew to be unworthy my visit to the grave.

“You must be Robert.”

I lifted my gaze. The other visitor regarded me with dark, intelligent eyes set beneath wavy, lighter colored hair.

I blinked and narrowed my eyes. “That’s right. How did you know?”

There was a hint of a smile. “You look a lot like Jamie.”

An involuntary shiver ran through my frame at the mention of my brother. “And you are?”

“Ed Sarafian.” He stretched out a hand.

I took it, gauging his firm grip. I tried to place the name. Someone my sister had mentioned, maybe. “A colleague?”

He raised a dark eyebrow.

I tried again. “You were friends, then.”

“Jamie was my partner.”

“I thought—”

“My fiancé,” Sarafian clarified with a trace of bitterness.

I stood motionless as the world swayed around me for a moment. My brother’s fiancé?

“You didn’t know he had one, did you?”

I reeled. I shook my head to clear it and stared at the sod. So many untold stories lay beneath it now. “No. Jamie never said a word.”

“I’m not surprised. When was the last time you and Jamie talked?”

I held him with a blank stare, mute. To say it had been far too long since any conversation with my brother occurred was unnecessary.

Ed took a step closer. “Maybe we ought to talk someplace more comfortable. I don’t know about you, but it’s getting warm.”

“What did you have in mind?” I managed to get out.

“How about an iced cappuccino, Robert? There’s a place not too far from here.”

My head was full of unaccounted and unruly facts, which whirled like drifts of fallen leaves in an autumn wind. Coffee, any kind of coffee, sounded good at that moment.

I nodded.

Wordlessly, we turned and walked to the cars, he to a gracefully aged Jeep Cherokee, and me to my soulless silver Nissan rental.

I followed him through the sprawling cemetery, meandering in a slow loop back to the main entrance. Partner. Fiancé. The words echoed in the back of my head like a GPS chanting directions to an unknown destination.

How the hell could I not have known?

Sarafian signaled a right turn outside the gate onto Pershing. He waited for a longer gap in the busy traffic than necessary, so I could follow more easily. In short order, he slid over to the left, so as to get in the turning lane at the next light. With the green arrow, he swung the SUV around in a U-turn, leaving me with no choice but to grind my teeth and copy him, not knowing if the maneuver was legal or not.

We passed the cemetery again from the other direction, and I began to wonder where we were headed. I shouldn’t have chafed, because he signaled right again and slowed. I followed the Cherokee into a mini-plaza containing a liquor store, a pet supply emporium and a plain storefront for what I assumed was a coffee shop. I parked next to him and exited my car.

“Nice maneuver back there,” I commented, trying to show some humor.

“You want to wait to turn against four lanes of traffic?”

I had to grin. Sarafian didn’t seem like a bad guy, at least. “So where are we?”

“Manu’s.” He pointed to the sign painted on the window. “My cousin runs the place.”

“So I get to meet your cousin?” I joined him in walking across the lot toward the door.

“Not here. He’s at the main shop downtown. This is just a satellite location. Besides, you’re not ready to meet the family yet, Robert.”

The remark felt like a hard jab, not that it wasn’t deserved. I tried to take it gracefully and managed something halfway between a wince and crooked smile.

Two jarring electronic tones sounded as we entered. The place looked clean, with modern blond wood flooring along with stainless and birch furniture to match.

“Let’s take a table at the back.” He gestured.

I let him lead the way.

A black-clad server took our orders almost as soon as we were seated.

I had a thousand questions, so I asked the first one that sprang to mind. I ventured, “How long were you and Jamie, um…together?”

“It would have been four years, this November.”

“That long?” The question just slipped out. “Jamie never said— I mean, Christ, I never even knew he was….”

“You can say it. ‘Gay’ isn’t a dirty word. It’s not even four letters.” Ed’s mouth twitched up on the left.

“I just—” The sentence was left hanging. What just was I going to say or signal?

“He wasn’t going to tell you.”

“You were engaged, and he wasn’t going to say anything? Not even an invite?”

Ed didn’t respond directly. Instead, he asked, “Can you remember when you and Jamie were last together?”

Now it was my turn to pause and think. “At Mom and Dad’s funeral. Five years ago.”

“Six, Robert.”

“I’m sorry, but how did you—”

Ed interrupted. “I remember because that’s about the time we became friends. Jamie was still recovering from their deaths. It took me a year to get him to notice me as someone who could be more than that.”

“It was a horrible time.” I remembered. “You probably know Mom and Dad died in a plane crash, then. Coming back from Alaska, their cruise of a lifetime: the plane iced up and crashed no more than ten minutes from the runway.”

“I do know. I was one of the lawyers representing Jamie and your family.”

“Oh. You’re a lawyer. Injury law?”

“I take on cases for people without the means to hire attorneys: migrants, refugees, working families. Jamie never had a lot of money. He contacted our practice after the plane went down.”

“I guess I have you to thank for the settlement, then.”

“I was working to advocate for a number of people. Not that the airline had any choice at all. They were clearly at fault.” Ed’s smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry about the circumstance which brought your brother and me together. But I’m not at all sorry I met Jamie.”

Our order arrived. I nodded my thanks at the server. I pulled a napkin to me and peered at my tall coffee drink. I took an experimental sip.

“And now Jamie’s gone.” My voice sounded hollow.

“Will you miss him?” Ed asked after a few moments.

My head snapped up. “Of course I’ll miss him! I loved him! What kind of a question is that?”

“The kind I’d ask a distant brother.”

“What do you mean, distant?”

“Six years is a long time. And I doubt you spoke on the phone with him more than once or twice a year.”

“You’re putting me on trial.”

Ed’s impassive façade broke. He looked away. “I’m sorry, Robert. Sometimes I can’t help myself.”

I took the moment to examine my tablemate. For the first time, I really saw him: Ed’s handsome face was etched with too much grief and care, while dark circles spread beneath his eyes.

“It’s okay, Ed. You loved Jamie, too,” I told him. And I continued with a sigh. “And I don’t blame you for the way you feel. It’s not like we’ve been burning up our phone minutes or anything.”

He glanced my way. “Jamie was petrified of coming out to you.”

“He was? I mean, I understand, we were six or seven years apart, but why?”

“You can’t think of a reason?”

I cast my mind back, trying to remember. “We began to drift apart after I went to out east to college, maybe. Hell, I’d come home on break, and Jamie would be out and about, being a kid, meeting up with his posse; I’d want to sleep in and then go out with friends. But you have a point: I can’t remember the last time we had any kind of deep conversation. Even when we talked, it was like we didn’t know what to say to each other.”

Ed took a swig from his coffee and waited.

“Jamie was the youngest. I was the oldest. With our age difference, we didn’t always have a lot to bind us together. But he was a sweet kid. I remember once he found a lost puppy wandering around the neighborhood. It was a cute little thing, all big paws and floppy ears. You’d have thought Jamie would have begged Mom and Dad to keep it, but he didn’t. Did you know, he was more concerned that some other little boy was missing his puppy than he was about keeping the dog for himself? That was Jamie, worrying about someone else.”

I sipped my cold drink for a moment and continued. “And there was the time I took him and a pal swimming with a buddy and me right after I got my license.” My face creased in a smile as I reminisced. “I must have been about seventeen, and Jamie was eleven. We drove out to a place my friend knew – a swimming hole out in the boonies southwest of town. You know where Pine Knoll is?”

“Sorry. I didn’t grow up around here. I haven’t explored enough.”

“That was the best day. We spent the whole afternoon playing and splashing and generally being young hooligans. That was the happiest I ever saw Jamie.”

“That far back? So what happened?”

“I don’t know. I got to be a big, bad Senior at Arrowhead High. I was too full of myself – you know, studying hard, varsity sports, getting into college, hanging with the crowd —”

“You sound like the ideal kid. But you weren’t completely perfect, were you?”

I was back on trial again. And suddenly, I knew what Ed was talking about. A deep, dense knot formed in my stomach.

I swallowed. “No. I wasn’t. So you must have heard that part, too.”

“You want to tell me your side of the story?”

“I’m not proud of it.” I stared at the tabletop. Long seconds passed. “I admit I what I did was wrong. During Winter Carnival Weekend, three of us brought some beer to the event at school. We got a roaring buzz going, and dragged a classmate into the boy’s bathroom.”

“Why him? Why that kid?”

I stared at my napkin. “Because we always had. We’d picked on him since freshman year. He made himself an easy target for looking and acting, you know…. Gay. Gay, because of his arty clothes, long hair, and general aloofness. That kind of thing.”

“And what happened on this night, senior year?”

“We held him down, over a toilet bowl, to, you know, humiliate him.”

“Humiliate him? Your buddies held him down while you urinated over his head, all the time calling him a disgusting…well, I won’t say it. But you know what you said. You know what you did,” Ed confirmed.

“It’s worse than that.” I tried to swallow the giant lump in my throat. “I actually boasted about it afterward. I swore Jamie to secrecy. But, I bragged.”

“You said you smeared the queer. Literally.”

“Shit, Jamie told you that, too?”

“There wasn’t a lot we didn’t tell each other.”

“My God, what did I do?” The tears that refused to fall at the graveside began to stream down the sides of my face now.

“Not only did you make one of your classmates miserable for years, you were pretty much traumatizing your brother the whole time,” Ed stated without emotion.

I buried my face in my hands. Of course Jamie wouldn’t come out to me. One damn drunken mistake in a whole life. Mistake? No, it was more than that. My unthinking habits, my adolescent tribalism and self-superiority had cost me years of knowing Jamie for who he really was. Cost me my brother.

“And God only knows what lasting damage you did to that other kid.” Sarafian added. “I don’t know what the statute was back then, but do you realize what you did qualifies today as assault today; a hate crime? Such entitled, homophobic attitudes in schools beget violent queer-bashing later in public. If we don’t insist on acceptance in schools, we get blood later. It’s not a mystery why Gay male teens have the highest suicide rates of any minority group.”

Ed was relentless. And right.

I tried to pull myself together. “Jamie didn’t…he didn’t take his own life, did he?”

Sarafian let out a long breath. “No. You’re not to blame for Jamie’s death. Our precious health care system did that, but not you.”

I frowned. “So how did it happen?”

“Acute appendicitis. Jamie had been complaining of stomach pain for a couple of days. He went to work the following Monday feeling crummy. I argued with him and told him to see a doctor. What Jamie was really afraid of was the deductible for a medical visit – his insurance sucked. He insisted that the pain was manageable. Anyway, he said that he had clients who were counting on him. He was trying to keep them from being evicted.”

I waited for more.

“Sometime in the afternoon, Jamie collapsed, and his co-workers called 911 – they took him to Mission of Mercy Hospital. As soon as somebody from his office contacted me, I rushed over there, only to find him still waiting in the ER. They didn’t want to let me back to be with him, seeing as we weren’t related, officially, but I bullied my way in, playing the lawyer card. I can be that way, sometimes. That’s when I found out Mission didn’t want to take his insurance. They said that was the holdup in getting treatment, even though Jamie was in agony by that time.”

“Oh, God.” I couldn’t help interrupting.

“And that’s not all of it. When I made it clear that Jamie was my fiancé, the Mission staff somehow thought it was best to send Jamie over to County General.”

“Did they actually say they wouldn’t treat a Gay man, even if he obviously needed emergency care?”

“That’s the clear implication, even though it wasn’t expressed.”

“But they have to provide care, don’t they?”

“The law says they have to, if the patient has a life-threatening emergency. Then they have to stabilize the patient. Of course, it’s the hospital’s call as to what constitutes life-threatening. And what counts as stabilized.” Ed grimaced.

“You must have gone ballistic.”

“I was beside myself. They still had Jamie on a gurney in the damn hallway, writhing in pain. I was ready to start a war for him right there in the ER.” There was a pause. “But Jamie reached out and grabbed my hand. Even then, he could calm me down with a squeeze. And he pleaded with me…he whispered…‘just let them do what they want.’”

Ed’s face screwed up in a grimace. Tears began to trickle down his face.

“It went against every instinct not to dig in my heels. I followed the ambulance over to County General for thirty fucking minutes – they wouldn’t let me ride with Jamie. By the time I got inside, he was in surgery.”

A chill swept over me. “What happened?”

“The surgery got complicated. A blood clot….”

“Oh, hell. Fuck.”

My voice was loud enough to reverberate off the hardwood floors in the café. As heads turned in our direction, I thought it must have been an embolism. I’m not a surgeon, but I have enough medical training and knowledge from my bioengineering research to know how such things could happen, especially if the resident anesthesiologist was swamped or nearing the end of a long shift.

Ed looked down, not meeting my eyes. He wiped his nose with a napkin and stared at the table.

“And the worst part of it is—” Ed struggled to regain some composure. “The worst part is that I never got to tell Jamie I loved him.”

I reached out and took one of Ed’s hands. How could I not? I squeezed.

“Can I ask you something?” My brother’s partner inquired.

“What’s that?”

“Do you think Jamie will ever forgive me?”

“For what?”

“For not being there. For not fighting hard enough when he needed it most.”

I squeezed again, trying to reassure; to comfort.

He went on. “I go to Jamie’s grave every day, hoping for some grace, a sign that he can hear me and absolve me.”

I brought my other hand over and held both of Ed’s hands in mine on the tabletop. My eyes held his. “I’m certain you’re already forgiven.”

“How can I know that?” My brother’s fiancé demanded through tears that threatened to fall again.

“Think about it. You knew Jamie. Was he a vindictive man? Not the guy I grew up with. Even though we drifted apart, the little brother I knew was gentle and compassionate. If there’s such a thing as a spirit watching over you, then Jamie’s is, trying to hug you and make you feel better. And the sign? After travelling halfway around the world on three different airlines, I managed to get here at the right time for us to meet.”

Ed said nothing, but I could tell he was listening. Without thinking, I let my thumb stroke the back of his elegant, yet strong and sinewy hand. I had the fleeting mental image of him playing racquet sports or rowing or something.

“You should know that Jamie loved you anyway, Robert,” I heard him say. “He idolized you.”

I lifted my head. “What? How?”

“You were Big Brother Rob, the medical engineer who was inventing miracles, saving lives, making a difference.”

“How could he think that? After what I did? And I was never there for him. I was in school, or doing research or traveling. Ugh. And the conferences; marketing and licensing the patents. I was in South India when the news about Jamie finally got to me.”

“Jamie wanted to outdo you; to show you he could save the world, too, in his own way.”

I nodded. “Maybe that’s why he chose social work?”

Ed shrugged. “I think that was part of his decision.”

“And what made him choose you?”

“Honestly, I don’t know.” He sniffled a little and tried to smile. “I’d like to say it’s my model’s physique, but that can’t be right.”

“Maybe it’s because he recognized a kindred spirit. You both cared.”

Ed gave me a long, appraising look. Then he smirked. “You realize you’re holding a Gay man’s hands, don’t you?”

I blinked but continued to look him in the eye. I didn’t let go. “So?”

“That doesn’t make you uncomfortable?”

“Only if it bothers you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What happened to your homophobia?”

I glanced away, then met his question head on. “Ironically, it didn’t last long. When I got to Georgia Tech, there were plenty of students who were out. The Pride Alliance had its rainbow logo all over the place. I wasn’t in high school anymore. In my program at Tech, I met Gay scientists, instructors – had them in my classes, and in my labs. There was one guy named Manfred in my Biomaterials lab: when I floundered during the first month, Manfred took pity on me. We became study partners and friends. He and his boyfriend showed me what love and support really means. I learned. I changed.” I paused for a couple of beats. “I’m ashamed of what I did. At my tenth high school reunion, I saw that boy I hurt. I tried to apologize, but…he brushed me off. I can’t blame him. I failed there, and I failed Jamie. If I’d been a better brother, maybe Jamie would have felt okay telling—” I couldn’t finish my sentence.

“Stop right there. If. Could. Should. Let’s both agree to end all that.” Sarafian pulled his hands away. He extracted a tissue from one of his pockets and wiped his nose. Afterward, he leaned back in his chair. “You know, you’re not exactly the bastard I expected.”

“Well, thank you, I think.” I attempted a smile, but it faded. “I just wish—” I stopped, remembering what Ed had said. I tried again. “I’m sorry that it was such a reasonable thing for you to have anticipated.”

 

“I’m happy you exceeded my expectations.” He spoke so sincerely that I had to take Ed’s words at face value. He continued. “What’s your plan? Where are you staying?”

“I’m not sure. I expect I’ll book a room somewhere close to the airport. I have a noon flight home to Minneapolis tomorrow.”

He leaned forward. “Don’t do that. Come back to our place with me. I can take you out to dinner, and maybe you can meet some of Jamie’s friends; people you missed at the funeral.”

I took a moment to think about what Ed was offering. It was a chance to connect to my brother, and through the people who knew him, feel a small degree of closure. There was no guarantee that I’d be even a little bit welcome. I could make a complete mess of things. And what emotional cost would Ed bear? “I’d hate to be a burden.” I temporized, passing a hand over my face, trying to keep my travel exhaustion at bay.

“You wouldn’t be a problem. I’d welcome your company, truly. And there’s an actual guest room in the apartment so you can catch a nap.” He chuckled. “I’ll discount your room rate to stay the night.”

That earned a short laugh from me.

“Please.” Ed’s earnest gaze bore into me.

What choice did I have? None. There would be no other chances to jump into Jamie’s world.

“Sure.” I relented. “That actually sounds really good. Thank you. But only on one condition.”

“You sound just like Jamie when you say that. What’s the catch?”

“Thanksgiving is coming up in six weeks or so. MJ will be there. Come up to the Twin Cities for the holiday. Carrie would love to get to know you, and the kids need a chance to meet their uncle.”

Sarafian’s face looked wary. “I don’t know. I’m not—”

Knowing what a leap for him such a visit would be, I cut him short, and covered his hand again. “You have to be there. You’re family.”



My enduring thanks go to @AC Benus for his help with this story. And thank you for reading this story, too.
Copyright © 2023 Parker Owens; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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