They say you can never go home again, but sometimes you have no choice. A phone call in the middle of the night and news of the death of her sister’s husband has Abigail Henry catching the next flight back to the small hometown she hasn’t visited in nearly a decade. Nearly everything and everyone looks untouched by time, but it's Abigail herself who has changed. A love story by genre, Bittersweet Homecoming grapples with that one basic question: Can you really ever go home again?
I've been meaning to change my cell phone's ringtone for a while now. Whenever it goes off in the middle of a meeting I'm embarrassed. First, because you'd think after it happening so many times that I'd remember to put it on silent. Second, because it's some horrendous hip-hop song that's so not me. Now, deep rattling bass that instead sounds reed thin coming through the tiny speakers on my cell phone, shakes me from my sleep.
The glowing numbers on my bedside alarm clock inform me that it's just past 3:00 a.m. I can't imagine who'd be calling me at this hour, but when I see the name blinking back at me on the screen of my cell phone, it feels like my heart has stopped dead in my chest. It's 5:00 am in Minnesota. I instinctively know there will be no good news when I hit the answer button.
"Hello?" My voice is foreign to my ears, like there's cotton shoved in the canals that distorts everything I hear.
"No, it's fine," I tell her. The voice is familiar, but the sound of her tears is not. I’m transported back to our childhood. She’s remained sixteen in my head, but I know she’s twenty-six or twenty-seven now. I haven’t seen much of her lately. Grown, graduated, married, no kids.
A slender arm moves to drape over my waist. "Baby, who is that?" Her lightly accented voice is garbled by sleep.
I put a finger up to my lips to keep her from saying anything else. Her usually unlined brow crinkles, but she obeys my wordless plea.
"Don't worry about the time,” I say. I'm gripping the phone so tightly, I'm sure it'll crack under the pressure. "What's wrong?"
The voice on the line breaks. It shatters and falls apart. I can only make out every other word, which are punctuated by sharp sobs. But I understand just enough to confirm my suspicions.
Words of consolation get caught in my throat. “When’s the funeral?” I ask instead.
I pause and listen to the facts.
“I’ll be there.” I pause again and suck in a deep breath. “I love you.”
The woman next to me in bed looks startled by my words—probably because I’ve never said them to her, and she’s been my girlfriend for nearly half a year.
Without another word, I hang up and carefully return my phone to its normal location on my bedside table. My movements are slow and deliberate. I'm numb.
“What’s wrong? Who was that?” she asks me, suspicion creeping into her normally carefree tone.
“That was my sister,” I say. I run my hand over my face. “Her husband died.”
“Oh no,” she laments with a heavy sigh.
I pull myself out of bed, a full-sized mattress that takes up nearly all the floor space in my one-bedroom LA apartment. I turn on the lamp on my bedside table. The base is in the shape of Mickey Mouse and Disney characters are screen printed on the lampshade. I've had it since childhood.
I find a suitcase in my bedroom closet and begin throwing clothes into it. It's summer in LA, a season I don't think I'll ever get used to, but back in my hometown the temperatures will just be getting over seventy degrees. I pack jeans and short-sleeved shirts and throw a bathing suit in there as an afterthought—not that it's ever warm enough to swim in Lake Superior. Not that I think this trip will warrant a trip to the beach.
"You're packing now?" my girlfriend asks incredulously.
"The funeral's tomorrow. I have to catch a flight to Minneapolis and rent a car."
She chews on her lip and nods after a moment as if to say the math checks out. "Do you want me to come with?"
The question, whose answer should come so easily, makes me pause my disorganized packing. "To Minnesota?" It's like she's asking me if I want her to go to the moon with me.
"No," I decide finally. "You should stay."
I don't look in her direction because I'm afraid of the hurt or the disappointment I might see on her pixie features.
"Are you sure?"
I nod vigorously, still not making eye contact. I shove a handful of underwear into the suitcase, not bothering to count out the days I'll be gone. Because I honestly don't know; I've never had to do this before. What's the proper amount of time to stay and grieve when your little sister has just lost the love of her life?
With the sunroof open, my long hair whips around my face. I know the wind is going to horribly tangle my already chaotic mane, but the slightly chilly breeze is refreshing. It’s too hot in southern California. Air conditioning leaves me feeling refrigerated and disconnected from the outside world, so being able to drive with the windows and sunroof open is a special treat.
It’s about a four-hour drive from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to my hometown. The trip takes me down a curvy, wooded county highway along the shoreline of Lake Superior, heavily traveled by semi-trucks and RV campers. I usually find the winding highway an adventure, but this is a sobering trip. I’m not on vacation; I’m going to say a final goodbye to the husband of my only sibling. Adam wasn’t even thirty yet—the innocent victim in a drunk-driving accident.
I haven’t seen Adam or my sister in at least ten years, minus their wedding a few years ago. I’d been the Maid of Honor, but I had no right to that job. Emily had friends in her life with whom she was infinitely closer, but my sister is a sucker for tradition and social etiquette, which means that I was the one in the pink dress giving the toast at her wedding reception.
Lost in thought, the drive goes by quickly and I find myself in my hometown: Grand Marais, Minnesota. Population, just under 1500. It’s summer—tourist season—so I’m forced to drive at a snail’s pace through the heart of the tiny downtown district. The town has been untouched by time. Some of the storefronts look a little different—new coats of paint and updated signs—but for the most part it’s exactly as I remember. One side of the street is local businesses—T-shirt shops and ice cream parlors. The opposite side is an unobstructed view of Lake Superior. Before I was born, the city passed a zoning law that kept the lakeshore undeveloped. The city marina and a few grandfathered-in businesses dot the lakeside, but other than that, there’s nothing between you and the view of the lake.
I pass my dad’s store on Main Street. The hand-painted storefront sign is faded from age and sun exposure: Handyman Henry’s. He’s the town’s handyman and our last name is Henry. It’s not very original and a little on the corny side, but it gets the job done—kind of like my dad.
When my parents first got married, they lived in the apartment located above the shop. When they had me, they moved to the house where my dad still lives. The three-bedroom, one and a half bath, A-frame house is filled with memories, both good and bad. Most of my friends in Los Angeles can’t fathom having lived and grown up in the same house since birth to high school graduation, but that’s what small-town life is like.
Between the cross-country flight and the drive from the Twin Cities, it’s late in the evening by the time I reach the long driveway to my father’s house. The tires on my rental car crunch loose gravel, and the vehicle bumps in small grooves made by time and run-off water. The front porch light is on and a warm glow from other lights inside the house illuminates the walk from my car up the wooden deck and to the front door.
I still have a key and I’m sure my dad hasn’t had need to change the locks since I graduated high school, but I still knock anyway.
The door swings open, and my dad stands on the other side of the door. “Where’s Emily?” I ask. I drop my suitcase in the front foyer.
“Adam’s parents’ house. They’re hosting the wake this evening.”
My dad looks tired. He looks thinner than I remember him being, too. His jeans are baggy and the red flannel shirt he wears is a size too big. The man frozen in my memory banks doesn’t look like this.
“Why isn’t it at the funeral home?” I ask. My hometown is so small there’s only one funeral home, and the funeral director and the undertaker are the one and the same.
My dad frowns. “There’s no public viewing of the body."
“The car accident.” My stomach sinks when the realization hits me. “Adam was . . .” I trail off.
“He was practically unidentifiable.” My dad’s voice drops a little, and I can tell he’s working hard to keep his emotions in check. Fathers don’t often like the men who marry their daughters, but I knew my dad had really liked Adam. There wasn’t much not to like. “They used his dental records to identify the body.”
I clench the keys to my rental car. “I should head over there. Do you want a ride?” I should probably freshen up and change into something more appropriate for a wake, but I just want to hug my sister.
“I’ve just come from there,” he says. He grabs my suitcase before I can stop him. “I’ll put your bag in your room.”
I should hug him, but he’s already a few steps up the staircase. I hesitate in the front foyer and watch him lug my suitcase upstairs. I’ve been away for too long. But now’s not the time to apologize for that.
+ + +
Adam’s parents live only a few houses away from my dad, but the properties are so spaced out that it ends up being more efficient to drive there. The street in front of the Harvester home is lined with cars, other folks coming to pay their respects, I assume.
I find a spot to park on an adjacent street and make my way to the two-story brick colonial. The Harvesters are one of the wealthier families in town with Mr. Harvester being bank president and Mrs. Harvester perpetual president of the Parent-Teacher Association.
I don't know either of them all that well even though Adam and Emily dated forever. They’d been high school sweethearts, attended college in Duluth, and had gotten married soon after graduation. I used to joke with Emily that the best part about marrying Adam was that she didn't have to change her initials.
The house is all lit up and I can hear the muffled sounds of conversation coming from inside. I knock on the door instead of using the doorbell and am immediately greeted by someone whom I don't recognize. She's a tall woman with stick straight black hair cut just below her ears.
“Come on in,” she says, ushering me inside and closing the door behind me. “Emily’s in the back.”
I nod my thanks. I wonder if she knows who I am.
The house is filled with people, all of whom wear some shade of grey or black. I'm decidedly not dressed for a wake. I'm wearing my most comfortable jeans, t-shirt, and hooded zip-up sweatshirt. It makes me rethink my decision to come straight over to the house. Some of the gathered mourners look toward me as I begin to walk through the house, but after deciding that I’m no one of interest, they return to their respective conversations.
The Harvesters have a lovely home. I’ve never been inside, but I’ve driven by the house more times than I can count. My ears are filled with the quiet din of hushed, polite conversations and the scent of casserole dishes perfumes the air. Pictures of Adam throughout the years, and quite a few of Adam with my sister crowd the walls and flat surfaces. Adam was an only child, a star athlete, and an overall nice guy, the pride of his parents.
Before I get too far into the house, I run into Adam’s mother in a hallway. She’s a tall, thin woman with a pronounced nose. Her black dress reaches below her knees and a black shawl is draped over narrow shoulders.
"Hello," she greets. She presses a crumpled tissue to her nose. "Thank you for coming." Her eyes are shiny and red.
I take her hand in mine. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Harvester.”
“Thank you . . .” She trails off and her eyes narrow momentarily, as though she recognizes me, but can’t place a name to a face.
I had been all but invisible in high school, which is hard to pull off in a school system of less than two hundred students. I didn’t play sports, and I wasn’t in any after-school activities like drama, or band, or even Bible study. My closest friends had been books and the sour-faced librarian at the public library.
Emily had been the pretty and popular one. She’d had a boyfriend since she was eight years old, she’d played basketball and had run track in high school. She’d never been a great brain—that was my department—but she’d gotten solid enough grades to get into the local state college in Duluth where she and Adam had stayed after graduation. It was close enough to Grand Marais that coming home for Thanksgiving or Easter wasn’t a big deal, but far enough away that they weren’t back in town every weekend. She’d gotten a job as an insurance underwriter and Adam had had his own accounting firm in the small city.
I clear my throat. “I’m Abigail Henry.” I don't think I look much different from when I used to live in town, but it's been a few years.
“Emily’s sister,” she breathes. She throws her arms around me in an unexpected hug and I freeze from the gesture. “It was so soon, so unexpected. We never got to say goodbye.”
I pat the space between her shoulder blades. I can feel the bones of her back beneath my palms. She’s so thin, so frail, one tight hug would have her ribs collapsing. “H-have you seen Emily?” I ask.
Mrs. Harvester pulls back from the hug and wipes under her eyes, collecting her ruined mascara on her long, boney fingers. “She’s in the parlor, by the piano.”
The parlor is near the front of the house, so I'm forced to change directions. Between the baby grand piano, straight-backed furniture, and a line of mourners, the room is stuffy and crowded. Over the top of people's heads, I spy my sister. She looks good. She looks calm. Strong. She gives hugs to people and consoles those who break down. I feel myself relax. Maybe this won’t be so horrible. Maybe I won’t cry, either. The line starts to dwindle, and I get closer to the front.
When our eyes finally meet, her face crumbles. “Hi, Abs,” she says in a tiny voice.
I skip the two people waiting in front of me and wrap my arms around her. I feel her give in to body-shaking sobs, and her hot tears spill on my shoulder and neck. “Thank you for coming,” she routinely mumbles through her tears.
I hug her tighter. “There’s no way I wouldn’t be here for you,” I say in the strongest voice I can muster.
She points in the direction of the piano. “He’s inside there,” she sniffs, gesturing to a worn basketball sitting atop a small, raised platform. “It’s what he would have wanted.”
It takes me a second to realize what she’s talking about. I knew Adam had been cremated because of the severity of the accident, but I didn’t realize that using a sportsball as an urn was even a possibility. I guess I don’t think about death too often.
There’s a framed photograph of Adam's handsome, goofy, smiling face beside the unconventional urn. He’s wearing one of those wacky winter hats like the characters in the movie Fargo wear.
"I like that picture," I remark.
"Me, too," she sighs.
I know there’s others waiting for their chance with her, so I give Emily a quick squeeze and pull away. “I’ll see you back at the house, okay?”
She nods wetly and wipes at her face. She takes a deep, racking breath, preparing herself for the rest of the receiving line.
+ + +
My dad’s house is silent and empty when I wake up the next morning. It’s a two-hour time difference between the West Coast and Minnesota, so when I wake up at 9:00 a.m., my body thinks it’s only 7:00 a.m. There’s a note from my sister posted on the refrigerator that she and my dad have left for the church already and that the funeral is at noon.
My cell phone has a string of missed text messages from my girlfriend, Kambria, each full of emojis and well-wishes, and I don’t know what to do with it. It's too early to call or even to text back so I let her messages go unanswered. Kambria is sweet—maybe a little too sweet—for a city like Los Angeles. Although a Midwesterner by blood, I’ve grown harder after a decade of living away from my roots, more cynical, and less eager to trust new people into my intimate circle.
I have nothing to do until the funeral so I decide to go for a run in my old neighborhood. Along with the bathing suit I'll never wear, I had the foresight to pack running shoes and workout clothes. It's a beautiful morning, perfect jogging weather. A strong breeze blowing off Lake Superior whips around me, and it takes my breath away. I see Mr. and Mrs. Harvester driving down the road, probably on their way to the church. They both raise a hand in greeting, and I do the same as their car passes.
I clean up after breakfast and head over to the church. There’s still an hour before the funeral is scheduled to begin, but the building is packed. There’s a long line of grievers heading toward the altar where I see Emily and my dad. Seated in the front pew is my ninety-two year old grandmother. She immediately recognizes me even though I haven’t seen her in at least a decade. Her face lights up, but there are tears in her eyes. “Abigail,” she exclaims. “You’re so tall!”
The Harvesters flank Emily on one side, and my dad and I cover the other. The number of mourners lined down the center aisle is even greater than the day before, and I don't know how we're going to get through them all.
"Thank you for coming," I murmur to each person as they shake my hand and express their condolences. I don’t know what to do with my hands when they’re not on the receiving end of a handshake or thrown around someone in an awkward hug. I flatten my hands down the front of my dress’s skirt and tug at the neckline. I didn’t know what to wear to the funeral. Most everything I own is black, but my dresses are of the cocktail variety since my agent Claire insisted I have them in my wardrobe for networking purposes. I’m probably dressed okay, but standing next to Mrs. Harvester, who’s dripping in black gauze and pearls, makes me feel underdressed.
Death is a funny thing—not funny ha-ha, but funny awkward. Funny—what’s the proper etiquette for this kind of thing? Funny—fuck, why can’t I find the right words or get my tear ducts to produce at least a few tears so I don’t look like a total, heartless robot? I’d rather be sitting with my grandma and holding her hand or not be here at all. It’s a display of emotions that doesn’t come naturally to me. I watch my sister out of the corner of my eye. I don't know how she has the physical or emotional energy for this. I'm drained by the time mass begins.
The funeral opens with “On Eagles Wings,” which has an Pavlovian impact on everyone seated around me. You hear that song, and you immediately cry. The priest is the same officiate who married Emily and Adam in this very same church only a few years prior. When he speaks to the congregation, he talks about how hard he thought this was going to be—to give this homily. “But if you want to see hard,” he says, “think about Emily.” I haven't cried yet, but his words make my resolve crumble. No one should be a widow at age twenty-seven.
Every funeral in my hometown church is followed by a luncheon in the church basement, and the menu is always the same—biscuits and scrambled eggs with bits of country ham mixed in. I hate those eggs. They taste like death.
The burial is much harder than the funeral. I’m standing next to Emily. It’s just the two of us. We’re staring down at the tiny square hole where a camouflage-painted metal box rests. Inside is the basketball that contains Adam’s ashes.
“I wish I could just jump in that hole and be with him.”
I hold her harder. I’ve never considered myself to be good with death. I don’t have the words that seem to come so easily to others. I open my mouth, however, and do my best.
“He’s not really down there,” I murmur. “He’s in the grass now. He’s in the flowers. He’s in the breeze. He’s all around us.” I kiss her temple. “I love you,” I whisper into her hair.
Her body shakes harder. “I love you, too, Abs.”
“You’re strong, Em,” I tell her emphatically.
“I don’t feel very strong right now,” she whimpers.
“I know,” I murmur, squeezing her again. “But you are. I know you are.”
After the burial we all head to a local brewpub for a celebration “like Adam would have wanted.” The crowd from the funeral and the burial has mostly been replaced by people closer in age to Emily and me. As I stand at the bar, a girl with whom Emily and Adam went to high school comments how the gathering feels like everyone is back together and we’re getting ready to start senior year. I don’t point out the fact that we’re drinking at a bar. Paltry details. Everyone’s high school experience was a little different, I suppose.
Emily has disappeared, and I worry that she’s slipped out and gone home or back to the cemetery. At dinner my dad assures me that she’ll be fine, however, so I concentrate on filling my growling stomach with planked whitefish. A storm is blowing in from the lake, but I’m not worried because the outdoor patio at the restaurant has a roof and plastic sheeting separating us from the elements. I’m thankful any inclement weather decided to wait until after the burial. Nothing would be more miserable than replaying that day’s events with dark storm clouds overhead and pelting rain.
Over my dad’s shoulder I spot a brief flash. I can’t be sure if it’s lightning or just the flashbulb on a tourist's camera. And then comes the rain. I don’t know if it’s actually raining hard because the patio roof is tin—to give the impression of a tropical island, I suppose—and it makes a loud racket. The wind picks up, and I can see the sheet of rainfall dancing across the surface of Lake Superior.
Our waitress comes back to ask how our food is. I give her two thumbs up—my mouth is full of coleslaw and the rain bouncing against the patio roof is so loud, I doubt she’d actually hear me.
“Wow,” our waitress openly admires, staring past us toward the lake. “Look at how bright it is; you hardly ever see the purple.”
I turn to look at what she’s talking about. Cast across the midnight blue clouds is the most vivid, picturesque rainbow I’ve seen in quite a while. In a few minutes, the entire staff is out on the patio to admire the rainbow. Passers-by stop and take photos of the sight.
Within a few minutes of the rain stopping, a second rainbow appears alongside the first. It’s fainter than the first, but definitely a second rainbow. With the lighthouse, harbor, and lake in the foreground, it’s awfully impressive.
It’s such a small thing, this rainbow after the storm, but the words I told Emily earlier echo in my head: He’s everywhere now.
He’s in that rainbow.
And in that moment I realize that my sister has many more storms to weather. But at the end of the rain, there’s always a rainbow.