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In Their Blood
By Sharon Potts
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2009 Sharon Potts
All rights reserved.
Dark, cool, silent. The thick scent in the air reminded him of the fresh flowers his mother always kept in a vase on the foyer table.
His mother. His father.
Jeremy stared at the shiny wooden caskets. Sealed, the man in the black suit had told him. Their ashes inside.
Their ashes inside.
Impossible. Impossible. His parents were back in their house on Lotus Island. Angry with him. They always seemed angry with Jeremy these days. But that's where they were. Not here. Not here in this dark, cool, silent room with a smell that didn't belong. Or maybe they were at work. His dad playing big prof on campus, his mom intense and serious at the accounting firm where she was a partner. And they'd be very busy. Maybe too busy to be thinking about Jeremy. About what an idiot he'd been a week ago. But they definitely weren't here. They couldn't be here.
The room had high ceilings, drapes over the windows, rows and rows of benches. Flowers everywhere. A pulpit at the front. And two caskets. Two. Stroeb memorial service, the sign outside the room had read.
"Can I help you?" the man in the black suit had said when Jeremy arrived at the funeral home straight from the airport a short while before.
"I'm, I'm Jeremy Stroeb."
"Jeremy," the man had said, his face saddening. "Their son. I'm so sorry for your loss. We held off on the memorial service as long as we could, but your uncle said your flight had been delayed. I'm really sorry, young man. But you're welcome to sit for a while in the chapel with their caskets."
With their caskets.
Jeremy touched the dark mahogany. Their caskets. Impossible. He rested his face against the cool smooth wood. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, everyone would jump from the shadows shouting "surprise!" A stupid, terrible joke. A hoax to get him to come home. But he was ready to forgive them for that.
Please, God, let this be a big terrible joke.
A hand rested on his shoulder. Jeremy jerked up, expectantly.
The man in the black suit. "Your neighbor, Mr. Castillo, has opened his house to anyone wishing to pay their respects. I'm sure your family's waiting for you there. I've asked my limo driver to take you. Whenever you're ready, of course."
The man was being very nice, and it made Jeremy's throat close up. He didn't know what he should say, even if he could speak. Thank you for your kindness, but you've made a mistake?
The limo stopped at the guardhouse at the entrance to Lotus Island. It had been a year since Jeremy had been home and things looked different. Darker and greener, somehow. The flag was flying at half-mast. They did that when one of the island residents died — lowered the flag. His father used to joke that it was a signal to the real estate agents that a fresh property would be coming on the market. He loved irony, his father. Jeremy turned to see if he was smiling. But his father wasn't there. Just the driver waving to the guard.
The car took a right on Lotus Circle and Jeremy was about to correct the driver, until he remembered they weren't going home. Would he ever be able to go home? Jeremy's brain was clogged. So tough to process what was happening. For the last twenty-four hours, he'd refused to think about it. His focus had been on getting home. Getting home. And now here he was.
Mansions, tall hedges, and gated driveways went by in a blur. Something wasn't right. The quiet island had turned into a carnival. Cars were parked along both sides of the street, extending back as far as the guardhouse. Several had pulled onto the grass of the bayfront park. Jeremy and Elise used to play hide-and-seek there, near the huge banyan tree they called "the grotto."
The driver continued just past the park to the Castillo mansion, stopping at the base of the circular brick driveway, which was blocked with cars. The huge ivy-covered house was just visible behind thick hedges and the tall wrought-iron gate. So different from his own house. Jeremy had never been inside this place. Enrique Castillo was a client of Jeremy's mother and Carlos Castillo was Elise's boyfriend, but the Castillos hadn't been close to his parents. So why was the gathering here?
Jeremy thanked the driver and hoisted out his worn backpack and ski jacket. The shirt he'd put on hours ago — the best one he owned — stuck to his perspiring back. The Miami air was so thick, even in January, he could hardly breathe. Or maybe it was something else.
He passed some people his age. The guys, in jeans and sport jackets, were leaning against a car smoking cigarettes. The girls, holding Kleenexes to their eyes, were mostly in short black dresses, though one wore tattered jeans and dilapidated army boots. Probably his dad's students. They eyed Jeremy as he walked up the driveway. The girl with the boots took a step toward him, a confused expression on her face. Jeremy picked up his pace so she wouldn't try to talk to him. He pulled open the heavy front door.
Harsh whiteness struck him like the flash from an atomic bomb. The walls, marble floors, baskets of lilies, columns stretching toward the domed ceiling — everything white, as though life had been sucked out of this place. Mingled voices, sounding like a record played backward, floated toward him from the rooms beyond the entrance hall. The air smelled sickeningly sweet. He dreaded going in there, receiving their condolences, seeing the awkward sympathy in their eyes.
Elise, he thought. He had to find Elise. He stashed his backpack and jacket behind a column, the abrupt movements causing momentary dizziness. How long had it been since he'd slept?
"May I help you?" The voice was deep with a hint of accent. Enrique Castillo, tall and stiff.
Jeremy straightened up.
"My God. Jeremy." Enrique Castillo held him by the shoulders. "I didn't recognize you."
"I just got in. I didn't —"
"I'm so, so sorry, Jeremy. What a shock for all of us. Your uncle said he didn't know how to get in touch with you. No address. No phone. You weren't responding to e-mails."
"I —" Jeremy coughed to clear his throat. "I was in Portugal."
"Yes. Your uncle said you finally checked your e-mail yesterday morning. That you'd be here in time for the services. But then we heard you wouldn't." Enrique stroked his silver beard. "I suggested we have everyone gather here. Your parents' house — well, you understand. It didn't seem suitable."
"I'd like to see my sister," Jeremy said, wincing at the sharpness in his own voice.
"Of course," Enrique Castillo said, "of course."
The living room was an extension of the white. Jeremy blinked from the glare of light bouncing off the bay through the French doors. He reached for the back of a chair to keep from falling. There were people everywhere, but they were backlit and their faces no more than shadows. His friends wouldn't be among them. Chris was with the Peace Corps in Zambia, and Ben was hiking in Machu Picchu. The others he had grown apart from, and besides, they'd all migrated to New York and the West Coast. Jeremy was alone.
The dark bulk of a woman with flying blonde hair was hurrying toward him. "Jeremy. My God. You're here." Liliam Castillo squeezed his arm. "We're so sorry, Jeremy."
"Thank you." He tried to pull away, but she held fast. "Excuse me, Mrs. Castillo, but I really need to find my sister."
"Elise?" She glanced around the room. Her blonde hair covered one eye. "She was sitting on the sofa with your grandfather a short while ago. But your grandfather went home. He wasn't well. I wonder where she's gone. Perhaps with Carlos." She pressed her fingers deeper into Jeremy's arm. "He was the first one there, you know. My Carlos. He could have been killed himself." She crossed herself with her other hand. "He'd walked Elise home. He knew something was wrong as soon as they stepped into the house. And Carlos pulled Elise outside and ran to get the security guard."
"My uncle said it was a burglary. A surprised burglar who wasn't expecting anyone to be home."
"Is that what Dwight told you?"
Jeremy's heart was racing. "The burglar thought they had a gun, so he shot them. Wasn't that what happened?"
She released Jeremy's arm. "Of course. I'm sorry, Jeremy. I'm not myself. Let me get you a drink and something to eat."
Jeremy sensed a blur of movement around him. Everything surreal. It had been a foiled burglary. What else could it have been? People touched his shoulder, shook his hand, hugged him. And Jeremy nodded as they mumbled things. Told him how great his parents had been, what a tragedy, what a shock.
Right, he thought, grateful for the numbness that had settled over him when he had first learned the news. Wondering how he would survive when the numbness dissipated. Searching the room for his sister.
A stout, ugly man in a wrinkled suit and bow tie was staring at him. He looked familiar. One of his mother's business partners.
Someone was talking to Jeremy. A southern accent. "I know you must be overwhelmed," said the large man. He had a puffy face with small, alert eyes. His mother's other partner. "But I wanted to tell you," he continued, "as well as I knew your mama, I feel like you and your sister are family to me. And if there's anything I can do, you call me, y'hear?"
"Thank you," Jeremy said. "Thank you." The voices in the room got louder, softer, like someone was playing with the volume.
Liliam Castillo was hurrying toward Jeremy with a platter of food and a bottle of beer. "Here you are, Jeremy."
"Excuse me," Jeremy said. "I have to find my sister."
He pushed through the crowd. Where had all these people come from? It seemed as though they were multiplying before his eyes. Their voices bounced off the floors, echoed against the high ceilings, and reverberated in his head. He bumped into a young woman with short black hair and intense blue eyes.
"You're Jeremy, aren't you?" she said. Her eyes and nose were red. "I worked with your mother. She was —"
"I'm sorry," he said. "I really need to go." Air. Beyond the French doors, the sun was setting, covering the sky and bay with bands of pink like smeared blood. A yacht at the end of the dock rocked gently, making Jeremy queasy.
It had happened. It had really happened.
Jeremy hurried toward the water. The smell of fish and brine overwhelmed him. He puked into the bay.
In the distance, a horn bellowed. The sky had turned red.
My mother and father, he thought. My mother and father are dead.CHAPTER 2
His house. The house he'd grown up in. The house where his parents had been murdered.
Not his house anymore.
Jeremy stood in the front foyer, his backpack over one shoulder, dropping the new key his uncle had left for him on the foyer table. Breathing caused a physical pain as though his ribs were in a vise. It was the first time he'd been home in a year, since he'd left for Europe. The last time, he'd also stood here, in this very spot. His mother had offered to drive him to the airport, but he told her he'd already called a cab. "I understand why you have to go, Jeremy. But remember, your father and I will always be here for you."
The house was quiet. Too quiet. "Elise," he called. He didn't think she'd come here alone, but maybe she had. He had borrowed someone's phone at the Castillos' and tried Elise's cell, but it had been turned off. So he'd left word that he was going home if anyone saw her. All he could do now was wait.
Geezer was at the top of the stairwell, tail wagging. The sight of his dog was so unexpected that once again Jeremy thought he'd gotten it wrong somehow. That it had been just a cruel trick.
Geezer hurried down the steps, going as fast as he could with his hind legs dragging behind him. He licked Jeremy's hands and face.
"Hey, boy. What are you doing here? Who's been feeding you? Walking you?"
Geezer seemed to be okay. But now he was sniffing the air, running from room to room, looking for something. For someone.
It was no trick. It had happened. But although Jeremy's brain told him otherwise, he wasn't all that different from the dog, his senses also poised to hear or see his parents in the next moment.
He was drawn to his father's office, adjacent to the foyer. A working office, with bookshelves filled to overflowing and dozens of classical cassette tapes piled high beside the old cassette player he'd had since college. When Jeremy was a kid, his dad would roll back his desk chair to see who had come in when the front door opened. Then he'd smile up at Jeremy. "So, did you beat 'em?" he'd ask, even if Jeremy wasn't coming from a game. Or even if he was, and his dad had no idea who he'd been playing against, or whether it was basketball, soccer, or lacrosse. An inside joke. "So, did you beat 'em?" But now there was no rattle of rolling wheels over the plastic floor protector.
Geezer had returned to the foyer and lain down in front of the entranceway table, his sorrowful eyes fixed on Jeremy. The vase, always filled with fresh flowers, was empty.
Jeremy carried his backpack up the stairs. The door to his parents' bedroom was closed. He couldn't remember it ever being closed. His mother liked to leave it open a few inches so she could hear Jeremy and Elise coming and going. It used to annoy Jeremy, this overprotectiveness of hers. He hesitated, his hand on the doorknob. He couldn't go in there. He might never be able to go in there.
Jeremy went down the hallway, turned on the light in his childhood bedroom, and dropped his backpack on the floor. The room hadn't changed, same deep blue comforter and navy carpet, posters from different phases of his life covering the walls — rock stars, cars, sexy girls. A collection of empty beer bottles from around the world lined the shelf above his desk. He was surprised the room was clean, dusted, but it smelled funny. Like stale cigarette smoke.
He sat down on his desk chair. This was where his parents assumed he did his homework, but mostly he daydreamed and surfed the Net. He'd gotten the big, clumsy computer when he was thirteen — almost ten years ago. It was a 600 MegaHertz Pentium III and Jeremy had thought it was the coolest, fastest machine ever. But today the machine was a dinosaur. He wondered why his parents hadn't gotten rid of it. But they were like that. They kept up with the latest in technology, but never could part with the old.
And then it hit him again like a punch to his abdomen. His parents didn't need to keep up with technology. They were dead. His mother and father were dead.
He rested his head on his folded arms, trying to block it. Trying to breathe despite this unbearable pain. Don't focus on the negatives, Jeremy, his mother always said. Think about something positive.
Positive? Oh God. Mom, Dad, how could you leave me like this?
He jerked his head up. He must have fallen asleep. Jumbled voices were coming from downstairs.
Jeremy's heart almost ripped through his chest at the sound of his father's voice.
"Jeremy, are you up there?"
And then he collected himself. Not his father. His uncle Dwight.
Jeremy went downstairs and into the kitchen. His aunt Selma was putting platters of food and casserole dishes into the refrigerator.
"Hey, Aunt Selma." He kissed her cheek.
"Jeremy," she said, holding him tight. "Oh Jeremy." She was very skinny with white-blonde hair like cotton candy, and she had always been nice to Jeremy and Elise in the unnatural way some childless people were with kids.
"Ah, Jeremy. Here you are," Dwight said, coming from the direction of the guest bedroom. He gave Jeremy an awkward hug, pulling away quickly. "We're so sorry, Jeremy. What a tragedy for all of us. My big brother. I still can't believe it. Thank God my parents aren't alive to witness —"
"You should have waited, Dwight."
"Waited?" His uncle cocked his head. He looked like a warped version of Jeremy's father.
"The memorial services. I should have been there."
"But we did wait, Jeremy. We waited as long as we could. I had to make a judgment call. I couldn't tell when your flight would finally get in and everyone was already there." He pulled on his thin mustache. "I couldn't very well ask people to leave and come back another time."
"They were my parents. I should have been there."
Excerpted from In Their Blood by Sharon Potts. Copyright © 2009 Sharon Potts. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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