Swallow Your Pride by Sarah Blue
A FUNERAL, A DOUCHEBAG, AND A JOB OFFER
I metmy dad on three occasions; the first was when I turned ten years old and my mother introduced us over moderately-priced food at our local Applebee’s. She was basically like, ‘hey, here’s this man who never knew you existed, his name is Collin and oh yeah, he’s your dad.’ The second was when I graduated college, he congratulated me and handed me a check for fifteen-thousand dollars and told me he was proud of me. This last time is morose, as I look down into the coffin and see the shell of the man he once was.
To be completely honest, I don’t know why I’m here.
My half-brother, Zach, invited me. Though I didn’t know I had a half-brother, until I received the invitation for the funeral. And by invitation, I mean a curt text message from an unknown number. I thought about not coming, Collin Kemper never meant much to me while he was alive, but now that he’s dead, it feels real. The concept of ever having a real connection or relationship with him isn’t even an option anymore. As much as I hate to admit it, I was hoping that finally having my father in my life was an option. There’s a reason I was already on my way down to Florida and it wasn’t just because I was running away from my life in Virginia—mostly. I thought I was running toward something, and that something is now in a casket.
The realization that I’m an orphan sinks in at this moment—I know I’m twenty-five—can someone really be an orphan when they aren’t a child? But the fact is, half the time I’m floundering, I don’t know who decided I should have to pay bills, have responsibilities, and carry around crippling debt. Most of the time, I still feel like I’m eighteen and that I have all the time in the world to figure out who I’m supposed to be. Lately, it feels like I have no path or direction. I was hoping that coming here would help me figure out what I’m supposed to do, who I’m supposed to be.
It’s this deep desire of wanting a connection that made me come today. Knowing that I have a half-brother—that I’m not alone. I suppose there was a need for closure too. Though, this isn’t what I had hoped for. I was hoping I’d come to Florida and be able to forge some sort of relationship from my estranged father, and now that I know he exists, a relationship with my half-sibling as well.
I haven’t been able to speak to Zach yet, but as I briefly look into the coffin and walk to my seat, I seek him out. He’s speaking with an older woman who has a pinched expression. She’s blonde and pretty in her own way, but she looks tense. When I tilt my head, I can’t help but see certain comparisons between Zach and myself. We both have dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a similar olive tone to our skin, but so do about twenty other people in the room. I look down at the pamphlet for the service and read.
Collin Kemper, loving husband and father leaves behind his wife of thirty-eight years, Abigail Kemper and his son, Zach Kemper.
I swallow thickly, both at the fact that I’m not mentioned and the realization that I’m a child from an affair. I look around guiltily, like I have something to be ashamed of—logically I know the guilt is unfounded—before continuing to read.
Collin was a man of faith who was devout to his church, constantly donating his time and money. When he wasn’t busy running his successful sports supply company ‘Kemper’s’, you could find him at any type of athletic event. Collin was a passionate fan of the Buccaneers, the Lightning, and the Rays. He will be greatly missed in so many communities; we only wish he could see what an impact he had on so many lives.
I cough into my hand and refrain from an eye roll. He could give to so many others, but he couldn’t seem to give me—his child—more than a second thought. I keep myself composed as I sit through the ceremony and watch as others mourn a man I barely knew.
It’s only when the ceremony is over and nearly everyone has left that I approach Zach. My nerves are nearly shot, and I have no idea how to even start the conversation. He’s nearly ten years older than me, and we know nothing about each other.
“Jessica?” he asks, tilting his head.
“Yes, but I go by Jessa.”
“Okay. I’m glad you could make it. Follow me,” he says, and I can’t help but feel disappointed. He doesn’t make small talk as he leads me down the hall and opens the door. I try to put my feelings on the backburner. Zach lost his father, the person who raised him. I lost someone who handed me fifteen-thousand dollars and his DNA. He steps in first and I follow, even though there’s an impending feeling of doom making havoc in my stomach.
When we step into the room, there’s a man sitting behind a desk, he’s in his late sixties and he’s rummaging through some paperwork. The same blonde woman is in the room. I’ve learned that she’s my late father’s widow. She doesn’t even look at me as I stand there fidgeting with my fingers. I try to keep my head down and figure out exactly why I’m a part of whatever this is. But there’s one more person in the room I can’t help but glance at.
I hadn’t noticed him before, which is saying something, because he’s devastatingly handsome. He’s likely in his late thirties with black hair, a shaven face, and dark green eyes. He glances at me from his chair, putting on his glasses and looking back at the man behind the desk. I feel like I’m invisible in this room, and all I want to do is run away, not that I have anything to run toward. If anything, I’m already running away from something. I’m so in my own head I don’t hear the man behind the desk speak. I raise my head to look at him, and he gives me a small smile before repeating himself.
“Miss Peters, please take a seat,” he tells me, and I agree. “We’re here to read the last will and testament of Collin Kemper.” I swallow and wonder why the fuck I would need to be a part of this. “The four of you are the only ones mentioned in the will, so I will proceed.”
Abigail coughs into her fist and glares at me before looking back at the lawyer. “To my devoted wife, Abigail, you shall continue to have all of our shared properties, shared assets, and my 401k.” Abigail nods, seeming pleased enough. I wonder why he has to put his wife in his will, wouldn’t all his things automatically go to her?
“To my business partner, Aiden Carlson, I bestow all of my sports memorabilia, my season tickets, and my extensive whiskey collection.” I turn to the man I now know as Aiden and watch as he smiles, covers his mouth, and shakes his head.
“To my son, Zachary, I gift you my Porsche, the vacation home in the Keys, and forty percent of Kemper’s Sports Supply.” I look over to Zach and his brow crinkles, his mother and Aiden look confused and they all turn to look at me. I would really like to crawl into a hole and disappear right now.
“To my daughter Jessica, I leave to you ten percent of Kemper’s Sports Supply and the cottage in Clearwater.” I blink rapidly a few times. All eyes are on me in the room, I can’t help but tug on my black dress, pulling it over my knees.
“This is simply ridiculous,” Abigail says, attempting to rip the papers out of the lawyer’s hands. “He was on a lot of medications, surely he wasn’t thinking properly.”
“Mrs. Kemper, he wrote this will before he was even ill. Collin was in a clear state of mind before making these decisions.”
“This means Aiden has the most shares in the company. There’s no way that Collin would do this to his family.”
I look over at Aiden, not at Zach or Abigail. Aiden seems completely calm, like he knew this was coming.
“It’s okay, I don’t need—” I start to say, when the lawyer cuts me off.
“You will have to go through the proper channels if you don’t want to receive these gifts.” I was just going to say the shares, because I need a place to live right now, so that gift is definitely staying with me. The lawyer hands me a thick, large manila envelope, and I take it.
“This is ridiculous, don’t worry, Mom, we’ll fight it,” Zach says to his mother before glaring at me. Definitely not the sibling introduction I was hoping for, not by a long shot. The room is tense and I feel itchy and unwanted, so I step out. My heels click against the hardwood floor as I leave the building and stand outside, taking some deep and even breaths. The air is heavy with moisture, and I can feel myself beginning to sweat. I can’t tell if it’s this horrific Florida weather or the disaster that I just walked away from making me sweat profusely.
I will not break down. I can’t afford to—literally.
“You all right?” a deep voice says, and when I look up, it’s Aiden. He’s a lot taller than I thought he was when he was sitting down. His all black suit fits him well, showing off his tall, muscular figure.
“Honestly?” He nods like he doesn’t want some bullshit answer. “No, this is definitely not what I was expecting when I came here today.”
“What were you expecting?” he asks, and I grimace.
“I was hoping I would have a brother, maybe find some closure.”
He removes a flask from the inside of his suit jacket, taking a heavy swig and holds it out in offering. I immediately clutch it in my hands and take a large sip. I wince when the whiskey burns my throat and then hand it to him. He takes the flask back with a smirk, and I’m happy at least one person here doesn’t seem to despise me.
“What does having shares mean? Does it mean I have a job?” I ask, feeling like a complete idiot. My degree is in digital design, not business. Do I just have stakes, or am I part of the decision making? I’m truly not sure. All I know is that I need something, sleeping in my car or hotels here and there is not working out.
“Do you need a job?” he asks, and I bite my lip and nod my head. He pulls a card out of his pocket and hands it to me. His face doesn’t hold much expression, but at least it’s not hostility. Aiden Carlson, CFO Kemper’s Sports Supply. 3625 Henderson Avenue, suite B. “I’ll see you on Monday,” he says and he begins to walk away.
“Wait,” I say, following after him, my heel hitting the pavement the wrong way, causing me to start to fall. His long fingers wrap around my forearm as he pulls me upright. I can feel the heat in my cheeks, but he doesn’t look at me like I’m a clumsy idiot, he just holds on longer than he should. As soon as I’m standing completely straight, he lets go. I clear my throat. “Do you know where this cottage is?” I ask softly. I only booked the hotel for one night. I’m not sure what my plan was next. If things didn’t go well, I’d probably head back to Richmond, as much as I dread going back there and facing everything I left. I was hoping maybe I would be calling Florida home before I got that text from Zach. It seems like I might be getting my wish in a round-about way.
He taps the envelope in my hands, I nearly forgot I was holding it. “Everything should be in there.” I tilt my head at him and wonder just how close he was to my father. I nod and give Aiden a tight smile.
“Watch your step to the car, yeah?” he says with a smirk. I can only imagine how pink my cheeks are right now as I turn, very carefully, to make sure I don’t eat shit on my way to my dated Chevy Malibu.
As soon as I get into the driver’s side, I delicately open the envelope. There are a few documents inside about my shares for the sports supply company and the deed to the cottage, whose address I plug in my phone. A set of keys come jangling out, and lastly a handwritten letter. My hands shake as I unfold the ripped-out piece of lined paper and read.
If you’re reading this, that means that I failed you. I want to let you know that I did love you, and I’m sorry that it wasn’t in a way that you deserved. At my core, I was a coward, afraid to face my wife and live up to my decisions. You were never a mistake. The only mistake I ever made was not being a proper father to you. I hope that you find the cottage as peaceful as I did. While I know that shares in Kemper’s doesn’t fix anything, I hope that it gives you some stability to follow your dreams. I wish I wasn’t such a prideful man and that I could have done better by you. Know that you are loved and special.
A tear stains the letter as I delicately fold it up and place it back into the envelope for safe keeping. I lean my head against the headrest of the car and continue my breathing from earlier. His words were ones I always wanted to hear, but I wanted them from his lips, not off a page beyond the grave. I feel frustrated, sad, and overwhelmed as I back out of the parking spot and listen to the directions on the GPS to get to the cottage I just inherited from a man I barely know—knew.
* * *
I’m not sure what I expected, but a small, light-blue house directly on the beach was not it. The house is well kept, with immaculate siding, white shutters, and flora that has clearly been maintained throughout the front yard. I take the folder, the house key, and my purse as I get out of my car and walk up the two steps to the bright pink door with a lighthouse welcome sign hanging on the front.
I swallow, turn the key in the lock, and open the door. The inside is modern, opening up into the living room that has a beige couch, TV, and nautical decor throughout. To the left is the simple eat-in kitchen and to the right are three doors. I open the first one and the room has mostly stuff piled in it, a lot of beach chairs, wooden lighthouses, and boogie boards. The second door is a full bathroom that’s simple, yet efficient. The last is the owner’s suite. There’s a queen bed with—you guessed it—lighthouse themed sheets and decor. There is a private bath, fully decorated with a lighthouse soap dispenser, a wooden lighthouse on the wall, and even a toilet seat cover decorated with even more lighthouses.
I sigh, tossing my purse and the envelope on the nightstand before lying down on the bed. The bed is far softer than I imagined, and I watch as the fan spins rapidly. When I turn to the nightstand, there’s a picture of my father, smiling widely as he holds up a fish that he caught.
I’m not sure if it’s the photo or the heavy weight of the day finally hitting me, but it’s then that I finally break. Tears streaming down my face as I grieve the man I never got to know, his pretty words, the disappointment of meeting my brother, and the overwhelming nature of my father’s last wishes.
It’s pretty fucked up when I think about it. The way I never had a dad but wanted one so badly. If I’m being honest, I just want someone to take care of me for once. I guess my father is doing that in his own way, in a way he couldn’t handle while he was alive.
But even so, these are financial things. Is this job and the cottage happening at a time I absolutely needed them? Completely. But yet, I feel I’d give it all up to just have someone actually care about me in the slightest. I groan and reach into my purse, taking a Xanax before lying back on the soft sheets, hoping that sleep doesn’t evade me and that I can shut my mind off for at least a few measly hours.