It was the sweltering middle of summer. I was sitting on my porch in the shade lamenting this horrible season. I hate summer. For as long as I can remember I loathed the sun soaked days. Everything bad seems to happen during those months. Maybe that is just me making a self-fulfilling prophecy but regardless of that and much unknown to me; summer was about to rear its ugly head once again.
My brothers were coming in a couple of hours. We were supposed to be leaving on a trip to the old camping ground my father used to take us to. They had fond memories there. I had memories of finding shady spots to read books. Our father had been sick and my brothers thought that some pictures of our old stomping ground might cheer the old man up.
My mind was strangely empty. I stared at my computer screen trying to think of something to write but nothing came. The day felt ominous. There was no rain, barely a cloud in the sky. But the air had that strange quality that only happens in summer. Humidity coated my body like an oily second skin and there was a feeling in the air. An electric feeling. Like at any moment heat lightning would form followed by the glowing orb of the rarely seen ball lightning that would follow me insisting that it did exist. This made my oily skin crawl.
My phone sat next to me. I was lost in thought. The idea of finding something to write was mostly gone. Instead my brain was showing me old home movies. The lake that my brothers splashed in. The time one of them accidentally went skidding on a patch of sharp rocks and skinned his feet and knees but refused to go to the hospital. My father fishing and sharing his idea of wisdom with the boys as I sat close pretending not to listen. The nights where my complaining was endless. “It’s too dark! Why are there so many bugs? Who sleeps outside by choice? This is why we have houses!” Yet still I ate the s’mores, still I delighted when I caught a fish.
The ringtone on my phone began to blare loudly. I ignored it. It was simply background noise for my memories. It stopped briefly as it went to voice mail and then its shrill screaming began again. That was enough to snap me out of my reminiscing.
“Ketha’s phone. Ketha speaking. How may I help you?” I answered. Pretending I was my own secretary always amused me.
“Ketha?” questioned a shaky voice from the other end. It was my oldest sister. It was her turn to stay with my dad and by the sound of her voice something had gone wrong. But I tried to keep it light. My sister Jason was very emotional and she didn’t need me to make it worse.
“I hope it’s me.” I uttered with mirth. “It would be silly for someone to copy my voice considering I rarely get important calls on this phone. I use the burner phone the CIA gave me for those.”
I finished my little joke just in time to hear Jason sobbing.
“Jason, what’s wrong?” I questioned, all the likely answers running through my head.
“It’s dad.” She said followed by more sobbing. I was filled with a strange sensation that was a mixture of bracing myself and wanting her to get to the point already.
“Ketha, he… he died this morning.”
If I am going to be honest what I felt at that moment was a sick relief. He had been sick for so long. A shell of the man he used to be. Since I was the youngest I could barely remember a time when he was not like this. I had a feeling that Jason called me because she knew this would affect me the least.
I said lamely. More sniffling and quieter sobs from the other end.
“I have some things to take care of here. Is there any way that you could tell the boys for me?”
I knew she could call them. I also knew telling them in person would be better and I could easily spare Jason the pain as it seemed like my grief was not as powerful as my siblings.
“Yeah, I can do that sis. Just call me if you need anything.” I felt like this was very little comfort but her relief when she thanked me proved that I was at least slightly wrong. I pushed the end call button on my phone and quickly dialed my brothers. I implored them to come over sooner and after much good natured brother complaining they agreed.
Viz, the younger of the two arrived first and quickly sought out my fridge and returned with a beer despite it being about noon at this point. We sat on the porch, him drinking and both of us smoking while I tried not to think about the fact that very soon I would be causing him heart shattering pain. Fifteen minutes later Asher arrived. His VW bug pulled into my driveway and an alarming amount of smoke was issuing from the engine. I would have commented on this but it happened so often it seemed silly to point it out. Asher joined us on the porch. I groaned internally and despite myself tears formed in my eyes. Asher had hero worshipped my father all our lives. Despite the fact that my dad had done a lot of wrong in his life he was a hero to Asher. My father had a huge beard, was covered in tattoos and rode a motorcycle. And those were the least of his transgressions against society. I noticed that Asher was carrying a mid-sized white box that had seen better days.
“Look what I found!” He held up the box as if it was a trophy.
“That’s great Asher, boxes make me happy too.” Viz said sarcastically.
“No, idiot. It’s what’s in the box.”
Asher opened the box and inside there must have been a hundred pictures. He started rifling through them.
“Look! Here we are at the lake. And look Ketha you are actually swimming. This must have been taken before you were a killjoy.”
I was about three in the picture. White blond hair and naked splashing in the water.
Viz was now looking through the pictures too.
“Here is the first big fish I caught. Man, Dad was so proud.”
“And look here is the sketch I drew of us around the campfire. Dad loves this one I am sure this will cheer him up.”
I looked at my shoes. I felt like I was in some kind of macabre NASA countdown. T-3 minutes before you ruin two lives. I sat silently while my brothers brought out what seemed like every memory caught on photograph in the box. When they finished Asher stood.
“Well we should probably get going. This is the time of day that dad is most active.”
“Sit down.” I muttered quietly.
“What?” Asher asked
“I said sit down” This time I was a little more forceful. I was gathering my courage. I was preparing myself for the inevitable fall out. Asher sat down and looked at me his head cocked to one side as if to ask “What the hell is going on?”
“I have something to tell you and it is not going to easy”
Concerned looks bloomed upon their faces. I could not tell if comprehension was there too. To my brothers no matter how sick he got my father was immortal. He would always get well and live to ride again. I paused. Trying to think of a kind or sensitive way to say this. Something to soften the blow. But really are there any words that would make this less painful? What was I supposed to do? Tell them that we sent my father to a farm where he could ride all day with other bikers? I opted for honesty. I opted to avoid the euphemisms my family never used anyway.
“Dad died this morning.”
I said it simply. Almost coldly. I did not want whatever small amount of grief I was feeling to intensify my brothers reactions. Asher sputtered “How? W-when? What h-h-happened? Was he alone? Please tell me he wasn’t alone!” The many emotions Asher was feeling were beginning to spill from his eyes. “Jason was with him.” I spoke soothingly. “Call her and find out the details.”
As I said this I looked over at Viz. He was standing with his hands clenched. Ready for a fight. Viz was not used to fights that he could not win and it made me feel desperately sad for him because I knew in that moment he would have taken on death with his bare hands if given the chance. His eyes, normally a warm amber, were lakes of fire. Asher was frantically talking to the hospital staff because Jason had been sedated. It was surreal. Like a scene from a movie as if any moment one of the characters would fall to their knees and scream “Noooooooo!” until they had no breath left.
Asher had just hung up the phone and fell into the chair beside me. I think that between the shock and the grief his legs could no longer hold him. He was mumbling, something about an “aneurism” and repeating “I should have been there. I should have been there.” Lost in this train of thought I noticed Viz before he did. He had been clenching his fists so hard that they were bright red but his face was a ghostly white. I had seen this before.
I jumped to my feet and reached for his shoulder but it was too late. Viz was releasing his fury on the posts that held up my porch. Thankfully they were sturdy.
“He didn’t deserve this!” Viz shouted and punctuated it with another flurry of punches.
“Stupid idiot! Taking all those risks!” More battering of my post.
“And where are you now, huh?” Viz screamed at the sky. I knew this anger for what is was… terror. Who would guide him now? Who would show him who he was supposed to be? I tried to come closer to him to offer some comfort but with his chest heaving from effort and rage he turned those burning eyes upon me and I thought better of it.
Asher was still sitting. Oblivious. “I should have been there” was still on his lips. He stared at his hands as if maybe, just maybe there was a way to change all of this.
“Fuck this!” Viz shouted and punched the post as hard as he could. I noticed now that both the post and my brother were covered in blood. Asher followed my line on sight and seemed to snap out of his shock. He stood putting a hand on Viz’s shoulder. Something I had not been brave enough to do. This seemed to diffuse some of Viz’s rage. He looked down sadly. Deflated. I had never seen him look so vulnerable, so wounded. Asher pulled him into a hug and Viz started crying. Sometimes when the worst happens only a brother will do.
I sat back down and stared at my shoes. I may have only been the messenger but it would be my words that they remembered for the rest of their lives. My words that had broken their hearts in a way that could never be repaired.
My father was cremated. Some of his ashes were given to close friends so they could spread them while riding their bikes in his favorite places. It was beautiful in a way. My father would remain chasing the wind forever. My father had taught me that what society thought didn’t matter as long as you were true to yourself. He taught me that good and evil were shades of grey and rules were meant to be broken. He taught me how to laugh at tragedy and that any obstacle could be overcome even if you destroyed yourself in the process. If any man embody the ride or die philosophy it was him.
My brothers and I were given the rest of the ashes. My sister has a deep dislike of death rituals and chose not to participate but we gave her a small bottle to keep. We went to the camp grounds and I thought of all the lessons I had learned from this man who I held in my hands reduced to dust. We spread his ashes on the cliff that over looked the lake. Oldest to youngest.
“Heroes never die.” Asher said as the ashes fell
“I can’t believe you made me cry old man.” Viz said “I can still hear you saying “Man up” whenever I get tears in my eyes. Oh, and I broke three of my knuckles. You would have been so proud.” Viz grinned in a way that was both mournful and filled with love and admiration. He let the ashes fall and sighed a sound of downhearted acceptance that this was finally over.
I stepped up last. I chose a quote I had often heard my father say.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the death I shall fear no evil… because I am the baddest motherfucker to ever walk through this goddamned valley.”
I let the ashes fall and the wind kicked up and carried them off the cliff. Down into the valley. At that moment I knew that we were all imaging my father as he had been long ago. As free and rebellious as the wind. As powerful as a storm. With hands that may have been stained but could still hold his children. In some eternity somewhere he was riding again. Maybe Asher is right. Heroes never really die.