In celebration of the holiday season, and in celebration of the Green Bay Packers' win today, I am posting the first chapter of my newest novel, Fresh Ice. Enjoy!
I hope you’re enjoying your funeral, Jason; it’s the best your sister’s money could buy, since you left your own family with nothing.
Izzy Marks looked around the room hoping no one read her bitter thoughts. Her eyes rested on the silver urn. Inside was what was left of her husband. Izzy tried to keep her face smooth, calm; what her sister-in-law would want. It was a losing battle. Her sense of betrayal clung to her features like stage make-up.
Cremation is best, in cases like this. That’s what the mortuary told her a week earlier. It’s best when all that remains is what’s left after an explosion in an auto body shop. So there’s nothing left of you, like you left your wife and daughter with nothing.
She felt justified in her anger. Izzy recalled too well the years of working and saving and paying the mortgage. She knew about the life insurance policy Jason paid on every quarter. She knew about the money in the bank. She knew about the mortgage burning party they had three years ago.
What she didn’t know about until her meeting with Jason’s accountant three days earlier, was the two new mortgages on the house. She didn’t know every bank account was empty. Jason drained every asset they had in the span of three years.
Which made you look desperate, suicidal. And life insurance policies don’t pay on suicides. This much I now know.
What did you do that was so much more important than taking care of your daughter?
It was a question she’d asked herself a thousand times in the past week.
There were so many questions for which she did not have answers, and it never bothered until now. Married at a very young age, Izzy hadn’t finished high school, and never went to college after finishing her GED. By the time she was eighteen she was raising Jenna and keeping the house. Jason took care of everything else.
And before that, Daddy did. Or Mother. Or Coach.
“Hello, Izzy.” Adele Grady, Izzy’s sister-in-law, crossed the room and stood next to her brother’s casket. Mikayla, Adele’s daughter, stood just behind her, tears rolling down her face. Sean, Adele’s husband, stood in the background, as he always did around his loud, commanding wife.
“Hello, Adele.” Izzy attempted to smile, an expression she hoped was the one Adele expected.
“Aunt Izzy, where’s Jenna?” Mikayla dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
She’s dealing with the loss of her father calmly, like she deals with everything that comes her way. Izzy glanced over Adele’s shoulder for her daughter. “She might be in the bathroom. I know she’ll be glad now that you’re here, Mikayla.”
Mikayla nodded and fled.
“Are you holding up?” Adele handed her a tissue.
Izzy blinked and dabbed her eyes, trying to decide how to answer Jason’s overbearing sister. “I’m fine. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.”
Adele glanced at the group of mourners huddling near the back of the room. “Well, keep it together. A lot of people will be coming today. You don’t want a scene.”
Leave it to Adele to worry if I will embarrass her with a show of emotion at my husband’s funeral. “I know.” Izzy sighed. “I have a lot on my mind. There’s so much to do. I have to settle up the business. I have to go through his things.” Izzy dabbed her eyes again and squared her shoulders. “I’m a little overwhelmed.”
“Sean will take care of things at the business.” Adele’s voice was low, but her tone, as usual, was imperious and cold.
Izzy looked beyond Adele to Sean, who nodded. Relief washed over her and she smiled at her brother-in-law. Is it wrong that I just want to clean out the house and let Jason fade away?
Put on the right face, Isabella. Put on the right face and give the audience a great performance.
Izzy shook her mother’s words out of her mind. Where on earth did that come from? How long has it been since my mother said those words to me?
Jenna, her beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter, entered the room.
Izzy focused on Adele again and forced a weak smile. “Sorry. I’m drifting today.”
“Don’t drift too far.” Adele glared at her. “Sean and I will be here, for support, of course. We have always supported Jason, and you.”
Izzy did not miss the double meaning in Adele’s words.
Adele fished in her purse and pulled out tube of lip balm. “Here, take this. It’s going to be windy at the interment later. One thing you can depend on in Wisconsin in March. The weather will be awful. “ Adele frowned again. Izzy wasn’t certain if Adele was displeased with the weather for daring to be unpleasant on the day of her dear brother’s funeral, or if she blamed Izzy for the weather, as she blamed Izzy for so many other things.
It’s probably me. She believes Jason killed himself because of me. Left us penniless because of me. Ended his promising professional career before it even began…because of me.
Izzy took the tube and tucked in the pocket of her suit coat. “Thanks.” She blinked back a tear and focused beyond Adele’s shoulder. “Who is that?”
Adele followed Izzy’s gaze to a tall man standing a few feet away in the archway. “I haven’t a clue. He’s not some relative, is he?”
None of my relatives would be here. Izzy blotted a tear from her cheek. “No.”
I think I’d remember someone like that. Izzy stared at the man. He was tall, very tall, and fit enough to be an athlete. He seemed frozen, unable to step inside the room. He scanned the room slowly, as if looking for someone or something specific. His gaze settled on Izzy for a beat. The stranger had, quite simply, the most beautiful blue eyes Izzy had ever seen. No, they’re green.
“If he doesn’t belong here, you should get rid of him.”
You’re right. I’m only the widow; I’ll get rid of the unwanted guest. You’re the one truly bereaved, you stay here and weep.
Izzy wiped her eyes again. The stranger was no longer in the doorway, but she had an overwhelming need to get away. “I need to run to the ladies’ room for a minute.”
Adele checked the archway. “No, not now. You can’t possibly leave this line; people will want to talk to you, after they’ve looked at all the picture boards and signed the guest book. I can’t cover for you all day, you know.”
Izzy closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, something she learned to do in the years since she and Jason had escaped one angry, disapproving family unit only to join another. “Adele, if I don’t go now, I’ll pee in front of the mourners and that,” she allowed the corners of her mouth to turn up in this tiniest of victories, “would be bad manners.”
Adele’s frown deepened, but she said nothing as Izzy scurried out of her reach.
Once in the lobby, Izzy breathed more evenly. I’ve got to stop letting Adele have that effect on me.
A cold fog washed over her. With Jason gone she had very few choices, and her most logical one, the safest one, the easiest one in many ways, was to move in with Adele and Sean. It was really the only option Jason left her.
She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and bumped into someone.
“Oh excuse me.” She opened her eyes. In front of her was the stranger. Blue-green.
“No, pardon me. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
His voice warmed her. While his accent was clearly Midwestern, there was the slightest hint of a drawl that she remembered all too well. It made her homesick, and she ached to hear him speak again.
“Is that a family member you’re mourning?”
“Yes.” She cleared her throat, hoping a stronger sound would come out. “Yes, my--my husband.”
The man took her hand in his and patted it. “I am sorry for your loss.”
“Are you…did you know my husband?”
Something, a shadow, crossed his face and his eyes darkened slightly. “No.” The word came out hard, strained, as if he were denying something. The shadow left his face and he smiled, “I’m here, with friends. Some of the Milwaukee Admiral Hockey players are here to pay their respects.”
“Oh yes. Jason did a lot of work for them. He rebuilt classic cars.”
The man nodded. “Yes, I know.” He looked beyond her. “Someone’s looking for you.”
Adele, no doubt. Why should I be allowed a conversation with anyone she doesn’t know?
“Again, I am sorry for your loss.” He dropped her hand and backed away.
She stared at her hand, his warmth lingering. I never got his name. She looked up, but he was already gone.
“Aunt Izzy, Mom says if you don’t get your ass back in there, she’s going to make you live in the garage.”
Izzy smiled at Mikayla. “I’m sure she didn’t say that.”
“No, but what she said wasn’t enough to get you to smile.”
Izzy hugged her niece. “Thanks kiddo. I guess I should go in there and greet people.”
“It is the tradition. Sort of barbaric, if you ask me, walking past the dead person.” Mikayla put an arm around Izzy. “But I guess people need to say good-bye, right?”
Izzy walked back to her station at the side of the casket and stared at the people gathered to say farewell to her husband. There were friends, coworkers, and people who knew Jason because he rebuilt automotive works of art for them. She could match each face with the pristine classic car they owned. My parents aren’t here. You’d think after all these years they’d forgive us. They should be here for something like this. How long am I supposed to pay for my sins? I gave up my career. I gave up my life. I lived in exile for almost twenty years. Now Jason’s gone and everything we had went with him. How much more must I pay for that one night?