With This Heart


by R.S. Grey

CHAPTER ONE

On a rather insignificant Saturday afternoon, I stood in a funeral home searching through rows of urns as if I was browsing down the aisles of a super market. There were quite a few options to choose from. That fact surprised me. I thought there was a standard issue size and color, but no. They’d become a product of our economy long ago. Not to mention the guilt. Why would you want your loved one stuffed into a black, ceramic eyesore, when instead you could opt for a more personalized touch? They had it all: camo-print in the shape of a deer head, bedazzled hearts, and the ever-patriotic American flag emblazoned beneath a bald eagle.

Anyway, that’s where I was standing, ogling all of the ridiculous choices, when he walked in.

The little bell on the door chimed merrily, which I thought was a strange touch for a funeral home, but I didn’t turn around. Funeral homes are depressing and I had one mission: to pick out an urn and get out as quickly as possible. The echo of footsteps sounded behind me until a figure came to stand in my peripheral vision.

I froze.

Out of every aisle, this person needed to browse directly next to me? Wasn’t this sort of a personal process? Does anyone have any decency anymore?

I didn’t bother moving my gaze from the urns lined out before me, but he didn’t let that deter him.

“I would definitely pick that one. Nothing says ‘these are the remains of my loved one’ quite like red and white polka dots,” offered a gravelly voice.

It was that voice that convinced me to lose focus.

My gaze shifted to the left just enough to make out a guy with his hands tucked into his jean pockets and a navy baseball cap sitting on top of unruly brown hair.

His wry smile hinted at the fact that he was teasing me. In a funeral home.

I narrowed my eyes, trying to assess his motives, but I came up empty.

“I’ll be sure to count your vote,” I muttered flatly, and then turned to walk down another aisle. He didn’t follow me right away, and I thought perhaps my curt response had offended him.

I was dragging my finger pad on the ledge of a shelf, letting it pick up dust, when an employee rounded the front desk. I hadn’t noticed him before, but now he was impossible to miss. The grizzly looking man was a blob of black. He was trying in vain to fit into a cheap suit that might have fit him about ten years ago, perhaps when he could still see what his toes looked like.

“Hello. Welcome to Al’s Funeral Parlor. Can I help you find anything today during your time of need?”

The spiel was obviously rehearsed, yet I still felt a pang of disappointment that his voice was bored and expressionless. Obviously the last thing he wanted to do was help me purchase an urn.

I didn’t get the chance to answer.

“Yes. Al, is it?” said Gravelly Voice from behind me. I hadn’t realized he’d followed me down the new aisle.

The employee shifted his thick eyebrows into a furrow. “No. I’m his grandson, Fred.”

I didn’t turn around, but I could feel the stranger stepping closer behind me. “Fred. What a great name. I do believe this young lady needs help. She looks sort of lost.”

My head whipped around and I’m sure I was staring daggers at him. He said ‘young lady’ as if he wasn’t a year or two older than me.

“What the hell. I’m not lost,” I argued with a sharp stare.

His goofy smile never faltered. Who the hell was this guy?

My eyes swept down to his soft black t-shirt that read: “don’t do school, eat your drugs, stay in vegetables”. Then I glanced back up at his shadowed eyes. I could barely make out the color with his hat covering them, but everything else was there: the chiseled cheek bones, the straight nose, the sensual lips, the long lashes, and the strong eyebrows. If I wasn’t standing in a funeral home, and if he wasn’t borderline harassing me, I might have wondered if he traded his soul to look the way he did.

“Ma’am?” Fred asked, reminding me of the task at hand.

“Yeah, actually I’m looking for a simple black urn. Do you have any of those?” I gestured to encompass the parlor’s entire stock. “It looks like I can get a black one if I also want it to have glitter, but that’s about it…”

Fred did a poor job of hiding his eye roll before shifting his hefty weight and turning toward the door to the side of the front desk. “I’ll check in the back.” He grumbled like I was asking for the moon.

My eyes followed the man for a moment, and then I glanced up toward a sign hanging over the desk that read: “Our prices are six feet under the competition”.

Tasteful.

“Well then,” Gravelly Voice guy offered, rocking back on his heels and narrowing his eyes on me.

“I’m sorry, are you here to pick out an urn or…?” I asked, looking around for clues to his strange, albeit interesting, behavior.

“No,” he answered simply.

“No?”

He shrugged his shoulders innocently. “I like coming in and checking out the latest models. Never know when you’ll need one.”

I gaped. “Are you serious?”

Cue a sexy smile. Damn. “No. I was getting a slurpee across the street and I saw you walk in, so I followed you on a whim.”

I narrowed my eyes in confusion. Of course. He’s too hot to be normal.

“So you’re a stalker?” I asked with a hard stare.

He smirked, a knees-turning-to-jelly kind of smirk. “I prefer gravitationally linked by your presence.”

Oh c’mon. I’d be lying if I said his answer didn’t take me by surprise. I had to recover quickly and stay on task.

“Right. Uh, well you’ve successfully annoyed me so you can go about your day now.” I was being harsh, but his entire demeanor felt like a threat to my rock-solid plan.

We stood there, locked in an awkward moment, and neither one of us made a point to end it. Most people I’d met in life were satisfied with surface content and meaningless pleasantries. Like the fact that everyone’s default answer to “How are you?” is always “Good.” But this guy was the exact opposite. He seemed curious, stubborn, and persistent, yet I didn’t know him at all.

“What’s the urn for?” he asked with brazen curiosity.

What?

“What? Who actually asks something like that? Don’t you have a filter?” I could feel my eyebrows tugging together to form a judgmental scowl.

He slowly nodded his head once and I could tell he didn’t want to drop the subject, yet he still backed off. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“It’s for my dog.” I crossed my arms and cocked my head to the side with a hint of attitude. There, now go away.

He licked his lips, trying to hide his grin. Shouldn’t he feel terrible about bringing up my dead dog? Well, my fake dead dog, but he didn’t know that.

“Ah, I’m so sorry to hear that. What was its name?”

He sounded sympathetic, but his eyes were narrowed on me as if he didn’t quite believe me. It felt like he could see right through me.

“Sparky,” then to truly seal my fate, I added, “he’s real.” Don’t ask me why I felt like I had to justify my lie to him or why I chose to sound like a four-year-old when I said it.

He nodded thoughtfully. “Where are you going to keep his ashes?”

I could have lied, but something stopped me; instead, I found myself telling him, a complete stranger, about the secret adventure I’d been planning for the last month.

“I’m spreading them on a road trip.” I said it with a shrug and a soft voice.

Without missing a beat, his smile unpeeled an inch wider. I couldn’t strip my gaze away.

“I’ll save you the trouble of asking. Of course I’ll come with you.”

I stared at him in utter bafflement. Every pre-set pathway in my brain was thrown for a loop by this guy, leaving me gaping in silence. He was the most arrogant person I’d ever met, but there was something hidden beneath his jokes. I think he actually wanted to go on the road trip with me even though he didn’t know me at all.

Just as a retort formed on my lips, Fred stepped back through the storage room door. I paused and took in the stranger for one last moment before turning toward Fred.

A black urn was cradled in his puffy hands. Bingo.

“It’s the only one we have, but it’s got a chip on the corner,” he muttered.

“Will you sell it to me for a discount?” I asked. It didn’t need to be perfect for the plan.

“You can just have it,” he shrugged, reaching out to hand it to me.

“Oh, okay, thanks. It’s for my dog,” I told him, letting the lie multiply and take root.

“Okay,” he answered dead-pan. “Anything else?”

A whiff of sexy cologne brought my attention back to Gravelly Voice.

“I think this guy is looking for a casket,” I offered, pointing behind me.

His throaty laugh followed me as I took flight toward the exit. My hands pushed against the thin metal handle of the door and soon the Texas heat greeted me with a vengeance. Oh, July, must you be so cruel?

“Hey, wait!”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end. I tried to assess the situation as quickly as I could: It was the middle of a Saturday in a suburb of Dallas. People were milling about on the sidewalk. Cars zoomed by, making the hot asphalt seem even more extreme. This guy couldn’t do me any harm in broad daylight. Though, if he did, we would definitely end up on the five o’clock news. Talk about living on the edge .

With that thought, I decided I could spare him a few more minutes.

“What’s your name?” he asked the moment my ballet flats spun me around to face him.

His eyes were a light hazel with a bit of swirly green madness. I could see them perfectly now that we were in the sun.

“Abby.”

He smiled like I’d just told him he’d won the lottery. It split his face in two, and instinctively I felt the corners of my mouth lift in response.

“Abby,” he repeated. It sounded better coming from his lips than it ever had from mine.

“Yup.” I tapped my foot.

“I’m Beck,” he answered, pressing his hand over his heart. It seemed endearing even though I hadn’t decided what to make of him yet.

“Like the band?” I asked, squinting my eyes and holding a hand at my brow line to shield the sun.

“Literally.”

I smiled then because I couldn’t help it anymore. It’s hard fighting relentlessly quirky charm.

“I want to go on your road trip,” he said again so confidently that I had to wonder if he’d ever been rejected before.

I cocked my head, and then shook it back and forth. “My road trip isn’t accepting any new passengers, but I’m sure there are plenty of other road trips occurring throughout the world at the same time that mine is taking place.”

He thought I was funny. He smiled at my comment, but I could see it more in his eyes. They were pinned on me, scrunched at the corners as he contemplated my rejection.

“I’m sure,” he began, “but something tells me that yours is one I don’t want to miss.”

I rolled my eyes and took a step back for reasons I later realized were my body’s last attempt at staying away from someone like Beck.

“How long will you be gone?” he asked. Maybe he had short-term memory loss. Either that or he was really good at sports as a kid. No one had beaten the fight out of him yet.

“Two weeks… but I’m not sure why you’re asking since I would never go on a road trip with a stranger unless I wanted to end up joining a cult and drinking the Kool-Aid.”

He thought my rambling was funny enough for another smirk. “Not everyone drank the Kool-Aid,” he clarified. “Some people were sleeping or deaf, and they missed the call. Besides, it was Flavor Aid.”