Though the town is miniscule, Santa Clara always held a wistful mystery for me. Papa Glen's woodsy cabin overlooking the cliff, the cliff towering over the beach below had always been a favorite retreat for me during our summers here. Roasting marshmallows for s'mores, swimming in the ocean, nightly raucous dinners were just a few fond memories I had here. Uncle Sam and Papa Glen spun tales around the supper table of vampires and hunters and sieges upon the cabin, like typical dinner conversation. My parents always cautioned both my Papa and Uncle to knock it off, though it never held for long. They always finished their stories one way or another and I relished every moment of it.
I loved the connection that Uncle Sam and Papa Glen had, a shared joke they dare not divulge with just anyone. They understood the humor in everything, usually to the chagrin of the rest of our family. So needless to say, I was all too happy to become the third Musketeer.
My parents always seemed less than thrilled to be here and always became overbearing as soon as we crossed the city limits, but we never missed a summer. Well that is, until last year; but even now, driving down the familiar highway, my face in the salt-scented wind the annual warning didn't fail. Always as we passed the Santa Clara sign, faded and worn, including my favorite warning, "Murder Capitol of the World", spray-painted across the back. It had been painted over several years ago, but the letters still came through if you looked hard enough.
"Sammy?" my mother's voice called faintly, "Samantha?!"
I startled back into world, into my parents' compact SUV. Making contact with my mother's eyes, I removed the earbuds and asked, "What?"
"Listen, while we're dealing with the arrangements, I think it would be a good idea if you stuck close to the house. I think the family just needs to stick together, right now. I mean, we'll make time to go to the boardwalk..."
I interjected, "Jesus, Mom! You think I care about the damn boardwalk? Papa Glen just died! I'm not just gonna jack around." I could tell my words had caught her off guard, but she also took comfort in them. I would be close by at all times.
I never completely understood why my normally laid back parents became Mr. and Mrs. Margaret White, psychotic and domineering. Even though I'd given them plenty of reason in the last couple years, this rampant tyranny went back as far as I could remember any of us visiting Papa Glen in Santa Clara.
"Sammy, just keep close by, okay?" my father voiced from the driver's seat catching my gaze in the rear-view mirror
"Dad, that's what I just said I was going to do."
"Sam," he annoyed me when he used his 'Dad' voice.
I rolled my eyes and sighed, "Fine. Okay."
The last fifteen minutes to the cabin passed in a haze. I hadn't realized we were there until the car came to a full stop. When I looked at the house the reality finally hit me; I wouldn't see Papa Glen this trip and I'd missed my chance to see him last year. In that moment, the once luminous and vibrant cabin lost some of its color. My eyes welled and I could barely see to step out of the vehicle. I wiped away my tears, hoping no one saw, but soon realized I wasn't alone in my realization. Mom's arm encompassed my shoulders.
"I know, honey," she said simply as she kissed my hair.
A moment later, Grandma appeared on the porch drying her hands in a dish towel. Her usually bright smile was slightly darkened, but had lost none of its warmth. She held her arms out anticipating the hugs from her family. Dad moved in first, holding her for awhile, mumbling words in her ears. I assumed he asked how she was and what she needed. Mom came next, giving kisses and condolences, but I just stood, arms wrapped around myself, unable to move. Grandma smiled at me, triggering the floodgate. My tears spilled over as she grabbed me, kissing and stroking my hair.
"Oh, sweetie, it's all right. He loved you so much," she whispered in my ear. I could only clutch to her and cry softly.
Everything after the porch moved too fast to keep up with it. I didn't exactly pay attention, which is why Mom gave me only menial tasks; cleaning up, wiping down, setting up. Things I couldn't really screw up.
Loads of people came and went over the next few days, to the cabin, the mortuary and the service. I knew or recognized most people, but barely talked to anyone. Though we weren't very close to any of the Johnsons, given that Widow Johnson passed so quickly after marrying Papa Glen, her son made an appearance to pay his respects. The members of Papa's lodge, neighbors, their kin, and numerous others bled into an endless sea of faces that kept the house in a constant buzz until 6pm each night.
I kept to myself, really only talking to my Mom and giving solitary answers to those expressing their sympathy. Robotically, I followed orders from my parents, hoping it would all end soon, though a short relief came when Uncle Sam arrived. He attempted to cheer me up by showing me his new sketches, but I kept finding myself lost in thought. My brain flooded with memories of our quirky Papa Glen and his obsessive taxidermy, mainly because the house was still filled with it.
Badgers, deer, rabbits, birds of every feather, just to name a few hung over every doorway, window and every wall. Each one stared with glassy, dead eyes. Papa had always posed them as life-like as possible, adding to the creep factor of each piece, but now their "life" seemed to have gone with him. It was when I was staring at gray rabbit perched upon a side table when his voice first pierced my daze. In front of me, he stood, at least 6 feet tall, blonde, blue-eyed and reminiscent of past troubles.
"Hello," he said gently holding out his hand, "I'm Seth."
I took it half-heartedly, attempting to be polite, but really wishing to be left alone. Still, I felt compelled to reply. "Sam." I said simply, hoping the conversation would quickly end.
"I did odd jobs for your great-grandfather. Stuff that he couldn't really do anymore," he retorted.
I smiled, civilly, unsure how he expected me to respond when something struck me as odd. "I've never met you. I've never seen you around."
"Well, we just moved here last summer. My dad decided he wanted to move back to his hometown, so here we are," he responded while gesturing with his hands.
"Oh. Well, I've got to help my mother in the kitchen." I said, promptly turning on my heel to head down the hallway. I didn't look back, though I badly wanted to see if he watched me leave.
In the days after the service, everything slowed to a tortuous speed. Papa left the house to Grandma. She wasn't sure what to do, but knew she couldn't part with it. After days of hesitation, she finally told the pushy-ass realtor to piss off and called Papa Glen's lawyer to give him the news. While Grandma dealt with legalities, Mom and Dad began sorting through and boxing Papa's things. He'd given all of us free reign to take what we wanted and give away or sell the rest, but it felt more like pilfering.
To make matters worse, Uncle Sam couldn't stay more than a couple of days. He had business in L. A., but he promised to come back. The world weighed a little more when he took off in his Jeep; I just tried to focus on his return. With Sam around the whole situation seemed easier to handle, but more than that was what he said before he left.
We stood by his car, saying our good-byes when he pulled me into his traditional bear hug. Just as I was beginning to let go he whispered, "Do you want the truth about before you born?"
I was taken by complete surprise. No one, not even unruly Papa Glen or Uncle Sam, would ever tell me the full truth behind my parents' courtship. The story always went: Dad fell into a wild crowd, in which Mom was already involved. They fell in love, pissed off the leader, Mom's ex, and then there was a fight. I'd always known there was more to the story of how Mom and Dad had met. They'd never denied there wasn't, but it wasn't an allowed for discussion. When I did ask, as though they'd rehearsed it, they simply said, "Don't worry about it." Yeah, like that would stop me from wondering.