Harder Chapter 1
Rough Draft Version
It ought to rain at her funeral. You could at least do that much, thought Adam Stark as his heavy boot crunched the gravel. The sky overhead was a cloudless blue and Adam frowned at it as though he could intimidate it into growing darker. At 6’4” and over 200 pounds, Adam Stark was not a man you crossed. Especially when he was in his element with faded jeans, a black T-shirt, and ink skittering across both his muscled arms. He levered himself out of the sleek, black town car the funeral home had provided for the service. The luxury interior was still less comfortable than his Charger, and any car -even the Charger- was no match for his Harley DynaGlide. However, he’d shepherded his somber family through the viewing and now to the cemetery.
It wouldn’t be much longer before he could take off the suit and tie he’d put on this morning- the only one he now owned. He’d accidentally cut the material of the sleeve when he snipped off the tag a few hours earlier. He didn’t care. He didn’t plan on wearing it again anytime soon. God willing, he supposed, as he glanced at his aging father still sitting in the back seat of the Lincoln. Adam and God had never had much to say to each other, but Adam hoped for the sake of his siblings and his old man that this would be the last they’d hear from Him for quite a while.
As usual, the old man didn’t have much to say, either. He’d barely spoken in the last few days. Adam assumed that his mother’s death had hit the man hard, but it was difficult to tell through the icy stoicism. All Adam’s life, the old man had never been too happy or too angry or too anything, but he’d been a good father, a good provider considering he’d gone from the navy to the factory until retirement. There hadn’t been money for things like art school for Adam. Dalton, two years Adam’s junior, had put himself through trade school learning carpentry. But the Starks always had food on the table and clothes on their backs and shoes that fit and now that Adam was 35 and had recently started his own business he understood how hard it was to keep a roof over his own, let alone five additional people.
He leaned down into the town car. “Pop?” he said. When the older man didn’t answer, Adam tried again. “Pop? We’re here.” It seemed like a stupid thing to say. Pop was staring out the window and there was nothing to look at but rows upon rows of headstones nestled in the freshly cut grass. “Pop?” Adam didn’t know what to do. He stood awkwardly by the car, just holding the door open.
For the first time in a long time Adam was struck by how much he resembled the old man except for his own wavy dark hair that fell just past his ears, despite his father’s disapproval. The old man had as many tats as Adam, probably more. He’d started on a drunken stint during his Navy days and never really stopped adding to his collection. By the time Adam was old enough to climb into his father’s lap, he’d been fascinated with the drawings on his father’s skin. Douglas Stark had no problem with tattoos, but long hair was where he drew the line. He’d never grown out his shorn, naval regulation buzzcut after his retirement. Adam assumed that if you lived one way long enough, it stuck.
The Stark patriarch still refused to leave the car, and so Jonah climbed across the seat to get out on Adam’s side. Jonah stomped away before Dalton even got out of the other car. Adam sighed and watched as the youngest Stark boy headed toward the white canvas tent that covered the open grave. Adam and Jonah had never been close. Adam didn’t think today was a good time to try and change that.
Adam glanced to the second car, where Ava, Dalton, and Ava’s best friend Sienna were emerging. Ava and Sienna were both still crying. By now the rest of his siblings and Sienna were just a few feet away from him. All three of them were waiting, waiting for Adam to do something or say something. Adam looked back at his father, who obviously had no intention of attending his own wife’s funeral. Jonah had somehow managed to make attending a family funeral seem like an act of defiance instead of an exercise in solidarity. Ava hadn’t stopped crying for the last two days and Dalton was busy studying the cloudless sky above them while propping himself up on the trunk of the Lincoln.
Adam glanced at the tent where Mom’s pastor, Keaton Smith, was attempting to engage Jonah in a conversation. Adam knew that wouldn’t lead anywhere good. The boy seemed permanently disengaged from everyone and everything. He’d always been that way. After Adam and Dalton had both graduated from high school, Miriam and Douglas, though Miriam especially, took the change hard. Miriam, too old to have another child of her own, had opened the Stark home to two foster children, a baby girl named Ava, abandoned by her junkie mother, then several years later a brooding young seven year old boy named Jonah.
Ava was no longer a baby, though. She was seventeen and a junior in high school herself now. Jonah; however, was still brooding though he’d recently graduated. For lack of another, better plan, Adam quietly closed the door of the car, leaving his father to the cool air conditioning and leather seats and solitary grief. Ava and Sienna held each other’s hand as they made their way toward the tent. Dalton tripped on a headstone but didn’t go down. Adam didn’t help him. Starks always stumbled, but Starks never went down. Pastor Smith smiled at them, the way people did when they had nothing of importance to say. Unlike the other people beginning to gather around them, Miriam Stark’s friends and acquaintances, Smith had actually been to the house during Miriam’s final days, and the man knew better than to offer any of the Stark clan empty platitudes.
People often had a romantic idea of cancer. They imagined that it played out just as it often did on the screen, with a noble, but courageous patient, surrounded by friends and family while making poignant last statements and final requests. The Starks knew better. For the first time in the year since Adam had opened Stark Ink, he’d closed its doors for the ten days it had taken his mother to die after her official prognosis. Miriam Stark had not passed on words of wisdom as she lay dying in her bed at home. She had not gone softly into that good night. She screamed and fought to get out of bed. She’d carried on enigmatic conversations with invisible visitors, most often speaking gibberish about the furnace being on or the doorbell ringing even when neither was true.
No amount of morphine had been able to give her comfort. Since Miriam had chosen hospice care at home, Adam had the most difficulty with her medications. For a man who worked with needles for a living, it seemed impossible to give his mother any relief with them. It was never enough, or so much that she was still in pain but unable to communicate clearly. Every time Adam had felt he had cracked the morphine code, something about her condition had changed. Either fluid was building up in the lungs or a bout of vomiting and diarrhea had rendered it impossible to keep her hydrated. Adam had slept on a barcalounger that he and Dalton had carried upstairs. No one else had seemed capable of caring for her except Adam. No one else could believe that such a good woman, a woman who’d raised two challenging sons of her own (even Adam admitted that was putting it mildly) with love and devotion had opened up her heart and home a second time to another pair of challenging children, only to see a doctor at sixty two about a dull pain in her shoulder that had developed after an intense day of gardening and walk out with a diagnosis of bone cancer. Miriam Stark was the heart and soul of the Stark family and of all of them the person least deserving of the end she was given.
Adam had spent ten days with a ringside seat to his mother’s personal hell, with nothing to do in the dark hours of the night except think about every bad thing he’d ever done growing up. Spray painting an overpass, racing cars on back roads, sneaking beers into the woods with his friends, all of which had landed him on his parents’ doorstep in the middle of the night, standing next to a cop. It was Adam’s mother who finally encouraged him to pursue his art in any way that he could (that didn’t involve vandalism). It was her steadfast belief that Adam would one day put it to good use, even if they couldn’t afford college, that convinced him to stop messing around and get serious about his life. Adam still messed around with girls, often in his backseat, which also led to a few late night encounters with Rapid City police, but his parents overlooked those missteps. Miriam Stark probably secretly prayed that she wouldn’t end up a grandmother before Adam graduated high school. Adam didn’t believe the Almighty kept his condoms in one piece, but he had been lucky so far.
Under the tent, Jonah stood back from the rest of the family, a visual illustration of his self-imposed alienation. Dalton put his hand on Ava’s shoulder, though Adam didn’t think his brother was comforting his sister. Pastor Smith made polite noises about Miriam Stark’s beautiful and utter devotion to church and family. Pop was still in the car, angry that she’d left the family, angrier still that the church didn’t save her. Or maybe that was just how Adam felt.
Miriam Stark’s friends politely wiped their eyes and nodded silently every time Adam accidentally made eye contact with one of them. For lack of anything worthwhile to do and no interest in Pastor Smith’s sermon, Adam slipped his hand into his newly purchased black suit. His fingers grazed the long, sharp edge of a white envelope. He knew its folds and creases by heart now, though he still hadn’t opened it. His mother was never mean or spiteful or hurtful in anyway, but perhaps she, like Adam, had spent those final days contemplating the past. She’d had four relatively good days following the prognosis. She’d been able to speak and hold meaningful conversations. That was before the morphine and the cancer had incapacitated her so completely.
The first day, she’d asked Adam for a pen and some stationery. Since Adam would have given his mother anything on Earth in that moment, even trading places with her so that she could go on and he could be the one lowered into the ground today, he’d given her what she’d asked for. Tucked into her Bible later, he’d found five pressed white envelopes, each sealed, each addressed to a member of the Stark family. Adam had laid the others on the dining room table two days ago when she’d finally died. He’d pocketed his own, but couldn’t bring himself to open it. He’d been a disappointing son. Nothing had been made clearer to him in the days he’d spent caring for her at the end. For over a year he’d been saving money, scouting locations for the shop, sourcing equipment and supplied. He’d seen his mother at Christmas and on her birthday. They lived in the same city and he’d never even called.
Stark Ink was all he’d cared about. Now Stark Ink was all he had.
Adam stood tall in front of his mother’s open grave. The processional line of mourners threaded their way between the Stark family and their matriarch’s black coffin. Though he was tired and not really in the mood, he thanked each one of them. Not because he gave a shit but because his mother would have done it. He hadn’t been a good son while she was alive, he could at least get this right. After the last of the stragglers had made their way back to their own vehicles, Adam looked back at the town car hoping Pop would emerge now that the crowd had dispersed. He couldn’t blame the man for wanting to grieve in private, but the car door didn’t open. Adam shook his head silently. Jonah took off, not toward the car, but just off on his own. Who knew where he was going or when he’d return? Ava and Sienna left the tent, unable to face the open grave any longer. Dalton and Adam stood silently as a cemetery worker in gray overalls and heavy work boots gave them a sheepish look and then hit the switch on the winch that lowered the casket.
“Dalton?” It was on the tip of Adam’s tongue to ask if Dalton had opened his letter yet. It was out of character for Adam to be so cowardly, but it had been a hard week and one more blow just wasn’t what he needed right now. Adam and Dalton had been close before Adam opened Stark Ink. Dalton had fixed the wooden steps that led up to the one room apartment over the shop, though they usually hung out at Dalton’s apartment because it was bigger and Dalton had a flat-screen. Dalton also had Zoey, who cooked for them on nights Adam came by. Adam suddenly realized that Zoey was nowhere in attendance, though he’d seen her earlier at the viewing. “D, where’s-”
The winch stopped. The casket was settled into the vault below. Adam turned at the loud click of the motor cutting off. Dalton groaned and lurched on his feet. Thankfully, instead of moving forward to the open grave, he turned toward Adam. He doubled over, one hand on his knee and one on his stomach, and heaved loudly. In the quiet, sunny afternoon, under a white tent constructed underneath a bright blue sky, Adam’s younger brother added insult to Adam’s sense of injury with regard to the weather. He puked on Adam’s polished, black boots.
Adam closed his eyes, clenched the letter in his jacket pocket, and sighed loudly. “Awesome.”