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Callie Hart was numb.
As the airport limousine came to a stop, all she registered was the ominously dark sky and the large, steady drops of rain that had been falling since she had arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The rain mirrored the tears that had been falling from her eyes ever since she had heard the news.
Her aunt was dead.
The tragic news had been hard for her to bear. Auntie Jean had been more than simply an aunt to her. She had been a mother. Ever since the day twenty-three years ago when her own mother had dropped off her and her two sisters at their aunt's place and promised to be back, Auntie Jean had become their true mother.
"Mom, I think we're here."
At the sound of the voice, Callie glanced to her right. Kwame, her nine-year-old son, was looking at her with concern. His eyes were dry. He hadn't known his great-aunt well though he'd seen her a handful of times. Therefore he didn't have the chance to feel an emotional attachment to the truly amazing woman Callie had known and loved.
Callie offered Kwame a brave smile, noting that the driver had already exited the car and had the trunk open. After booking their flight, Callie's next call had been to arrange for a private car service. The last thing she wanted was to get to the airport and have to wait on a regular taxi in her distressed state of mind.
Now, Callie looked out at the church her aunt had attended for eons. Once, Callie had imagined being married in this church. Instead, she was here to say goodbye to someone she loved.
Ten years. In ten long years, she hadn't been back to Cleveland, for which she suddenly felt enormous guilt.
At the time, she had left for a reason that had seemed legitimate, and had stayed away all these years for the same reason. Now, in the wake of what had happened to her auntas well as her own brush with death days earlierher reason suddenly seemed unsubstantial. She had lost years with her family. Time she was all too aware she would never get back.
"Mom, is that a hearse?"
At the question, Callie's eyes went forward. Indeed, the limo had parked behind the hearse.
Callie swallowed hard, the sight making it clear that she wasn't in the middle of a nightmare.
Callie was about to reach for the door handle with her good hand when it suddenly opened. "Ma'am," the driver said. He held an enormous black umbrella over the door to shield them from the rain.
As Callie stepped out of the car, she saw her luggage on the sidewalk. It suddenly hit her that she couldn't head into the church with her suitcases. She would need them taken to the house.
"Norman, right?" Callie said.
"Is there any possible way you can wait for me?" Callie asked him. "I didn't think of it until now, but we're here for a funeral, and if you can stick around, I'll make it worth your while." Pausing, Callie considered how much he was charging for the trip from the airport. "If you're willing to be my driver for the next few hours or so, I'll offer you five times what I'm already paying you."
The man's blue eyes widened, indicating his surprised pleasure, before he resumed his business composure. "I'm happy to accept your offer. I'm yours for as long as you need me."
"Excellent. If you wouldn't mind putting the luggage back into the trunk, that would be great."
"Of course. Just let me get you both into the church."
Norman walked with Callie and Kwame to the church's doors, making sure they got inside without getting soaked. It was late May, and the spring shower was in full force.
"Thank you, Norman," Callie said.
Norman, in his mid-fifties with salt-and-pepper hair, nodded. Then he said, "I'm sorry for your loss."
The words made Callie's breath catch in her chest. It hit her once more that she would never see Auntie Jean again.
As though Kwame sensed that she needed strength, he took her hand. Callie gripped it and ascended the few steps that led toward the sanctuary. She couldn't help thinking that Kwame was turning from a boy into a young man. And she couldn't have been prouder of him. He was mostly respectful, though he wasn't perfect. He'd had a rebellious spell just last year, which Callie attributed to her breakup with Philip, her last boyfriend. He'd been a father figure to Kwame, and her son had been crushed to lose him.
Kwame had blossomed with Philip around, and Callie then realized what her son needed all along.
The very thought had Callie's heart constricting. She had thought of pretty much nothing else ever since being admitted to the hospital after her car crash, and the news of her aunt's death two days later had only made her thoughts more serious.
She had come back to Cleveland after ten years for her aunt, but also for another reason. To rectify a wrong.
"How does your arm feel?" Kwame asked.
"It's okay," Callie said. The pain in her shoulder was nothing compared to the pain in her heart.
As she and Kwame reached the top step, two older men who were standing there handed her a funeral program. Callie took it, saw the smiling picture of her aunt on the cover, and fresh tears filled her eyes.
And then she walked down the aisle of the church. The coffin was at the front, and open. She suddenly wondered if she should let Kwame see Auntie Jean like that, or if she should spare him the experience. But sadly, death was a part of life, and she knew she couldn't shield her son from that reality forever.
A head in the front pew turned. And then Callie was staring into the eyes of her sister, Deanna. Callie wasn't sure how either of her sisters would react to her after all these years, but Deanna immediately got to her feet and started down the aisle toward her. As if no time had passed, she moved toward her with open arms and wrapped her in an embrace.
"Callie," she said, a little sob escaping her. "It's so good to see you."
Callie drew strength from Deanna's hug. "It's good to see you, too."
Funny how it sometimes took death to bring people together. Because while Callie hadn't had a particular beef with either of her sisters, being forced into the middle of an ugly conflict between Deanna and Natalie had led to her being estranged from both of them.
Deanna turned her attention to Kwame. "And you must be Kwame. I'm your aunt. Aunt Deanna."
"Hi," Kwame said, his voice faint. He was normally an outgoing kid, but he was always shy when meeting people for the first time.
"You're very handsome," Deanna said, offering him a smile.
"Thanks." He paused, then said, "I've seen you on TV. My mother showed me one of your music videos."
"She did, did she?"
Kwame nodded. "It was a couple years ago. When I was seven. I like your music."
"Well, that's good to hear." Deanna ran her hand over his head affectionately.
"Is Natalie here?" Callie asked, knowing this was a touchy subject.
"Yeah. Like you, she couldn't make it before today. She just arrived a little while ago. We've said hi, but not much else."
Callie nodded. "Where is she?"
"Downstairs in the bathroom. She was " Deanna paused, swallowed. "A wreck."
"Yeah," Callie said softly, knowing the feeling. Deanna's own eyes were red and puffy, indicating that she had cried a lot of tears. But it was clear she was trying to keep it together now.
Callie took a good, long look at Deanna. Her sister had definitely changed in ten years. Her face was still slim, but her body had filled out, turning her from a skinny teen into a woman. Ten years ago, Deanna had liked wearing her hair shoulder length, but now it was cut into a short style and combed back from her face, letting her beauty show.
"Uncle Dave said you'd been in a car crash." Deanna's eyes swept over her, assessing her injuries. "But he said you told him it wasn't serious. Yet you're wearing a sling, and you've got a big bandage on your head. It looks like you were pretty hurt."
"I'll be fine," Callie said.
Deanna looked at Kwame. "But he was unhurt?"
Deanna sighed softly. "Yes, thank God. I'm so glad you're both here."
As silence passed between them, Callie knew that Deanna was thinking the accident could have been much worse. That it could have taken both her and Kwame's lives.
"Why don't you come with me for a minute?" Deanna said, wrapping an arm around Kwame's shoulders. "I'll introduce you to some other family members."
As Deanna began to walk with Kwame, she gave Callie a look, then jerked her head ever-so-slightly toward the front of the church. She was letting her know that this was a good time to go and pay her final respects to their aunt.
Callie moved forward, her legs feeling like lead as she made her way to the polished mahogany casket. Floral arrangements filled the front of the church. Callie saw the wreath she was certain she had ordered, the one that read "Beloved Mother" and was brightly colored, made up of pink, orange, yellow and lime-colored flowers.
Also at the front of the church were pictures of Auntie Jean in happier times. She had been so full of life, it seemed impossible that her life had been cut down at fifty-seven from a brain aneurysm.
Callie stepped up to the coffin and looked down at her aunt. Tears began to fall again. She was comforted only by the fact that Auntie Jean looked peaceful.
When she felt the arms encircle her waist, Callie looked to her right. Kwame was there at her side, being there for her once more, offering her his strength.
"This is your great-aunt, honey," Callie said. "You met her a few times when she came to Florida to see us, but the last time was three years ago." Way too long.
"She was beautiful," Kwame said.
"Yes, she was," Callie said, and leaned her head down to touch Kwame's, as her shoulder injury prevented her from hugging him properly.
At the sound of the tentative female voice behind her, Callie turned. Her youngest sister, Natalie, stood a few feet away. A sob escaping her lips, Natalie moved forward, and the two sisters embraced.
"I can't believe it's you," Natalie said. "It's been so long."
"I know. I just wish it wasn't under these circumstances that we are seeing each other."
Natalie nodded. She shot a brief glance over her shoulder in Deanna's direction, and Callie couldn't help wondering if her two sisters were going to continue their feuding.
"And what happened to you? I hearand seethat you were in a car accident."
"I'll tell you all about it later," Callie said. She glanced beyond Natalie to where her uncle was sitting on a pew, looking grief stricken. "But I've got to say hi to Uncle Dave, and the rest of the family."
"Yes, of course."
Uncle Dave stood as she approached him. He seemed frail, weak with sorrow. He had married their aunt two years after they'd gone to live with her, and he'd been the only father they'd ever known.
"Uncle Dave," Callie said, wrapping her good arm around him. She felt his frame shudder with a sob.
"Thank you for coming," he said.
"Of course I would come," Callie said, again feeling guilt.
Because there was no of course about it, at least not where Uncle Dave was concerned. How could he have been certain that she would come when she had so effortlessly put Cleveland in her rearview mirror? Yes, she'd been in touch with Auntie Jean and Uncle Dave, but less and less over the years, and she had seen them only when they'd come to Florida to visit.
"I'm sorry," Callie whispered. It was all she could say. Because no excuse she gave to justify her absence all these years was going to be substantial enough.
But she was here now, ready to start fresh.