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The sign read Welcome to Tiny, Tennessee, Population 1345.
Andrew MacMillan sighed and pulled his hand over his mouthmake that 1344. His father, retired veterinarian and widower, Barber MacMillan, had passed away sitting in a rocker on his front porch with a smile on his face. That was according to Red Tucker, his father's neighbor, accountant and best friend of seventy years who had found him the day before yesterday. Leave it to his father, Andrew thought wryly, to die as he'd livedon his own terms.
Since Andrew's trip would be openended, to arrange the funeral and settle his father's affairs, he'd decided to drive from Manhattan to Tiny to have use of his car.. and to think. He and his father hadn't been estranged, exactly, just cut from a different cloth. The fact that Andrew's mother had died when he was a teenager hadn't helped matters. She'd had a knack for mediating father-son squabbles with sugary words and buttered biscuits. Without her loving lubrication, the men had clashed.
But when Andrew had decided to attend college in Ohio, his father hadn't held him back. Then again, he hadn't made the trip to attend graduation. And although he'd congratulated Andrew on landing a plum job with a big advertising firm in Manhattan, he'd never once visited in thirteen years.
On the other hand, Andrew hadn't been the best at visiting, either. He'd tried to make it back to the MacMillan farm for a few days every year around the holidays, but last year things had been too busy at the firm and he simply couldn't get away.
Regret ballooned in his chest, but he couldn't pretend a trip home over Christmas would've made a difference in their relationship. In fact, it might've made things worse, since Andrew's suggestions that his father sell the fifty-acre farm and move to a place he could better maintain were always met with cross remarks. By the end of a stay, their tolerance for each other seemed to wear thin.
"Visitors are like fish," his father had been fond of saying. "After a couple of days, things start to smell."
Andrew tried not to take offense at the fact that his father considered him a "visitor" in the house he'd grown up in. It was just his father's way.
He slowed as he drove into the downtown area of Tiny, which consisted of three entire blocks of the most diverse and unusual shops one could imagine: Bitty's Bakery, Tiny Hardware, Har-lowe's Musical Instruments, Tiny Town Grocery, West Drug Dispensary, City Hall, Dr. Berg, M.D., Flood Dentistry, Dolls & More, Shoes & More, Flowers & More, Watches & More, Biscuits & More, Books & More and more. As customary, the shops' marquees featured personal messages to members of the community: "Congratulations, Wendy!"
"Happy Anniversary, Maggie and John!"
"Welcome, Baby Jenkins!" The windows touted Valentine's Day Sales.
Hadley's Funeral Parlor sat slightly off the beaten retail path, located in a freestanding former fast food building. No one seemed to notice or mind the drive-through window. Their marquee offered condolences to the Barber MacMillan family and the Sadie Case family.
Sadness tugged at him. Sweet-voiced Mrs. Case had been his third-grade teacher and had been around his father's age, he recalled. A generation of Tiny-ites was fading away as fast as the younger generation was moving away.
He wondered vaguely how long it would take to sell his father's farm, jokingly dubbed the Mane Squeeze Ranch by his dear mother, and preserved by his father for her sake. Years before, the adjacent state park had expressed interest in the MacMillan land because of the limestone cave spring on the property, but things changed.
Andrew pulled his black BMW into the nearly vacant parking lot, his stomach tied in knots. He couldn't imagine anything more painful than for a child to arrange a parent's funeral, but conceded it was the circle of life, the last thing he could do for his father to perhaps make up for all the little things he hadn't known to do when Barber was alive.
He climbed out of the car and squinted into the warm winter sun. The weather in Southern Tennessee was always unpredictable, so it wasn't altogether surprising to find temperatures in the high seventies in February. He would enjoy it today. Tomorrow it could be snowing.
In the short walk to the double doors of the funeral home, he listened to the call of songbirds lulled out by the warmth. Hardwood trees were still bare, but the cedar, hemlock and white-pine trees offered plenty of coverand colorin the otherwise gray landscape.
When he opened the door, a chime sounded somewhere in the distance to announce his arrival. The decor hadn't changed in the decade or so since he'd last been theretributes to the local high-school sports teams and Tennessee trophy trout mounted on wood plaques. Hadley's Funeral Home was a social hotspot. This afternoon it was, um, dead, but if a viewing was scheduled this evening, it would be hopping with regulars who would sign the guest register, ooh and aah over the casket, and peek at the cards on the flowers to see who had sent roses and who had sent carnations.
Geary Hadley appeared, tall and gaunt in his black suit, but his droopy features lifted in recognition. "Andrew, how nice to see you. Well, not under these circumstances, of course, but you know what I mean. Your father was a good man."
Andrew shook the veined hand the man extended to him, wondering how many hands the man had shaken in his lifetime. "Thank you, Mr. Hadley. It's nice to see you, too."
"Let's go to my office," the man offered in a low, comforting voice.
Andrew's stomach churned as they wove past various rooms in the hushed building. By the time they reached the small, cramped office, he was ready to get the meeting over with. "Regarding my father's wishes"
"Here you go," Mr. Hadley said, handing him a metal urn.
Andrew stared down at the urn, confused. "What's this?"
"Your father's ashes," Mr. Hadley said. "Those were his wishesto be cremated."
Andrew almost dropped the urn, but juggled and caught it. "Since when?"
"Since always. Every time Barber set foot in this place, he apologized to me in advance for denying me a big crowd here at the funeral home." Hadley smiled. "That was his way." He opened a file drawer and rummaged through it, then removed a yellowed sheet of stationery. "Here you go. He made me keep a copy of it on file."
Andrew shifted the urn to the crook of his elbow and took the sheet of paper to scan.
I, Barber MacMillan, being sane and all of that, upon my death, wish to have my body cremated and my ashes scattered over the Mane Squeeze Ranch. No muss, no fuss, no funeral and no headstone.
Andrew blinked in surprise. "I didn't know."
"I'm not surprised," Mr. Hadley said. "Barber was an odd bird but then, you probably know that better than anyone."
Andrew nodded. "Yes." He folded the paper and stared down at the urn. "So, how am I supposed to do this?"
Mr. Hadley shrugged. "Just unscrew the lid and start scattering. Make sure you're upwind."
Andrew pursed his mouth. "Aren't there laws against scattering remains?"
Mr. Hadley gave a dismissive wave. "If you don't tell anyone, neither will I."
Andrew nodded, remembering that in Tiny, Tennessee, laws were elastic. "What do I owe you for the, um, services?"
"Already taken care of," Mr. Hadley said. "Barber saw to that ages ago." He handed Andrew another piece of paper. "Here's an obituary for the paper. I think your dad would be okay with that, at least."
Andrew read the write-up about the man who had been a pillar of the community, a source of comfort and know-how for the farmers in the area who had depended on him to vaccinate their cattle against pink eye, treat swine pneumonia or birth stubborn foals. Barber MacMillan treated any animal that needed his help, but he was especially gifted with horses, a trait not passed on to Andrew, who had always worked in the stables, but didn't bond with the animals the way his father had.
Barber MacMillan is survived by his son, Andrew Barber MacMillan of New York City, and a host of grateful friends and neighbors, human and otherwise.
"It's a fine obituary," Andrew said. "Summer wrote it."
Andrew frowned. "Summer Tomlinson?"
"One and the same."
The image of the coltish, towheaded teenager who lived next door came to mind. Summer was fiveno, sixyears younger than Andrew. He had a vague memory of her giving him a Valentine's Day card when she was a shy preteen. He hadn't seen her since he'd moved to Manhattan after college. Even though his dad spoke of her often, because she'd assisted him in the stables on occasion, she hadn't been around during his holiday visits. But apparently, Summer had been close to his father. He felt a rush of gratitude toward the young woman.
"Oh, and my daughter Tessa asked me to give you this." Geary handed Andrew a business card.
Andrew glanced at the real-estate logo and the picture of his former classmatestill pretty and probably still as vapid. "How is Tessa?"
"She's done real well for herself," Mr. Hadley said, pride in his voice. "She thought you might be interested in selling your dad's place."
Andrew nodded. He'd seen his dad's will and knew he was the sole beneficiary. "That's the plan."
The man's eyes twinkled. "Tessa's still single, too."
Andrew coughed, then tucked the card in his pocket. "Thanks, Mr. Hadley. I'll give Tessa a call about the property."
He shook the man's gnarled hand again and left, carrying the dubious burden of his father's ashes in his hands. Andrew settled the urn in the passenger seat of his car and shook his head. "You managed to throw me one last curveball, old man."
How could he in good conscience scatter his father's ashes over the farm and then sell it?
Andrew's mind clicked as he drove over familiar roads, past recognizable landmarks, and allowed nostalgia to flow over him. The high-school campus and the city pool looked incredibly small. He shook his head, thinking about how big and important they had seemed when he was young. Ditto for the movie theater and bowling alley, around which his social life had revolved.
The road leading to the Mane Squeeze Ranch was hemmed by overgrown foliage on either side of the paved road barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. The closer he got to home, the more memories assailed him. The gigantic weeping-willow tree at the fork in the road where he used to ride his bike, tap the trunk then ride back, the wide spot in the road where he'd waited for the bus, now tangled with dormant blackberry bushes, the grouping of community mailboxes, all shapes and colors, lined up in a row.
As he drove by the Tomlinsons' house, he was distracted by the sight of a slender woman sitting on an upstairs balcony, combing her waist-length golden-blond hair.
Summer Tomlinson, he realized with a start. No longer in cutoffs and sporting a boyish pixie cut. She looked up and saw his car, then jumped to her feet, shouting and pointing.
Andrew looked back to the road and his heart leaped to his throat. Standing in the path of his car was a swaybacked gray horse that looked too old to move and too big to miss.