David Ashby lit the end of the cigarette and watched as the slender strand of smoke snaked its way towards the sky that almost mocked him in its brightness. Everything seemed so ordinary and downright happy; from the birds that were chirping away in the trees next to the church, to the thin clouds that passed in front of the sun. He could even hear laughter coming from the playground of the elementary school down the street, but he could also hear Brandi Meeks quietly sobbing on the bench in front of the church.
He rolled the cigarette between his fingers and breathed in the scent of the smoke. For the briefest second, a smile drifted across his lips. The smile faded as swiftly as it came. People flitted past his field of vision, stopping occasionally to greet him before entering the church. He was numb to everything, to everyone. Nothing felt right to him anymore. His eyes glazed, he fixated on the smoke rising from the tip of the lit cigarette.
“Since when do you smoke?”
He looked up to see the lovely, pale face of Lauren Staub standing in the entryway of the church’s grand double doors. She was dressed in a flattering black dress, which brought out her vivid red hair. He offered her a smile as she climbed down the steps to join him at the edge of the church parking lot.
“I don’t,” he said, indicating the cigarette. “The smell just reminds me of him, you know?”
She inhaled, and that same momentary smile that took him, passed on to her face. She was able to sustain her smile a little longer than he was, and even released a light chuckle.
“It really does,” she said.
She stuck out her hand and stole the cigarette, taking a drag. She let out a cough.
“Ugh,” she said, disgusted. “I don’t know how he could stand these.”
She gave the cigarette back.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked. “The wake’s inside.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m just not ready yet.” He struggled to find the words to explain why he hadn’t gone inside. He thought about fear, but it wasn’t that. Nor was it anger. The word that jumped out at him was reality. “I feel like if I go in there, then it’s real.”
“It’s real either way, sugar,” Lauren said in a voice that soothed.
“I know that,” he said. He took a seat on the curb and ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s just…it’s hard to imagine him…I mean, I just keep thinking about all the times we hung out, you know? He always just seemed so alive. He always had so much goddamn life in him.”
“I know,” Lauren said. She knelt down next to him and put her arm around his shoulders. “It’s so weird to think that I won’t get one of his random 2 AM texts again.”
“Right?!” he exclaimed. “I loved those, or his never-ending phone messages. Or hearing his stories. He was the best person to be around because you always came away with a good story.”
David scanned his memory for the perfect example as Lauren readjusted so that she was fully sitting on the curb next to him. “Like, do you remember the time he found that Burger King uniform?” he asked.
“What?” Lauren asked giggling.
“Yeah,” he said launching into the story. “We were in a thrift shop and he found the complete uniform for Burger King employees. He bought it and immediately brought us to the nearest Burger King, put it on, and got behind the register and started helping customers.”
“Shut up!” Lauren said through her laughter. “What happened?”
“What do you think?” David responded. “He’d never used one of those registers in his life, so he asked the manager for help. It was hilarious because for a second the manager started to assist him, but then realized he didn’t recognize him and booted him from behind the registers.”
“Seriously?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Want to know the best part?”
“What?” she asked again.
“After the manager kicked him out, he asked if he could have an application since he already had the outfit.”
Lauren burst out laughing. “He was the ultimate shit giver,” she said.
“He really was,” he said. “But he had a charm about him that made it not come off douchey. Like, after he was finished messing with the manager he apologized and placed an order, tipping him ten bucks.”
“I remember once,” Lauren started, “in high school he came fully decked out in Captain Kirk’s costume. I mean, he went all out. He even combed his hair Shatner style and sported the little gun thing.”
“The phaser,” David helped.
“Yeah,” she said. “That thing. Anyway, I had three classes with him that day and for all three he drew a window looking into outer space on the white board and greeted the students aboard the Enterprise as they entered the class. It wasn’t even Halloween. He just did stuff like that, and the teachers let him because they found it hilarious, too.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “I vaguely remember that. Didn’t he dress up like Superman for the senior class photo and had a bunch of dudes in the back row hold him up so it looked like he was flying?”
“The picture is inside near the casket,” she said quietly.
The weight of reality sank like a stone to his gut, and with it all the hurt came back, as did a little anger. “See, that’s what I mean. How can a guy who was that clever and funny and genuinely nice be there and then gone in an instant? How is that ok?”
Lauren just shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not, but we have to deal.”
“I know,” David said defeated. Silence stole them. Again, all he could hear was the birds chirping, the slight ruffle of leaves on the wind, the distant laughter of children, and Brandi Meeks softly sobbing on the nearby bench. David breathed in the smell of the smoke once more. He decided to ask the question that had been burning in him since he arrived to the church. “Is it open? The casket I mean?”
“Ugh,” he groaned. “I don’t know if I can handle actually seeing him.”
“Yeah,” Lauren admitted, “I wouldn’t have done open casket.”
“Why?” he asked, suddenly startled. “Does he look bad?”
“No,” she said. “I mean, not really. I just find it a little unsettling. He does look a little waxy, but they dressed him in his favorite shirt.”
“You know Brandi has been over there sobbing for twenty minutes,” David said.
“She’s taking it hard,” Lauren said. “They asked her to do a eulogy but she said she couldn’t get through. Seeing her now, I believe it.”
“Yeah, they asked me too,” he said. “But how do you summarize a person’s life in words? Words that will—what—hang in the air for a few minutes? Then what? Then they’ll be just as gone as he is. What’s the point?”
“So you’re not doing it, I take it?” Lauren asked.
“No, I am,” he said.
“Really?” she asked. “You wrote one? Can I see it?”
He reached into his jacket pocket and handed it to her. He watched her eyes as she scanned his speech. She smiled at times, and was visibly moved at others. It didn’t take her long to finish reading, but when she spoke again he could hear how his words had affected her.
“I don’t think you understand the power of words,” Lauren said.
“What do you mean?” David asked a little offended.
“Sure, you say the words and then you finish. There and gone, just like you say he is. But what you say can really stick with people, just as I know he will always linger with us. Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean our memories of him are any less potent. I mean there will be songs you heard at concerts together that will trigger your memories and he will come flooding back to you. Places you hung out at, jokes that he told, even certain smells.” She paused, inhaling the smell of the cigarette.
“There and then gone, but not forgotten,” she said handing him back his eulogy. “It was really beautiful. It brought back so many memories. You defined him well. He’d be honored. I know he would.”
“Really?” he said feeling slightly inspired. “It sounded ok?”
“Yeah,” she said. “But in order to read this you have to go in there because I don’t think anyone would hear it if you shouted your speech from the parking lot. Might be a little rude, actually.”
“Cute,” he said and then sighed. “I think I’m ready.”
He stood up and wiped off the bum of his pants and offered his hand to help her up. She took it and rose gracefully. He leaned in and gave her a tight hug.
“Thank you,” he said.
“I just know he’d want you to be there for him,” she said.
She turned and walked back up the steps to hold the door open for him, but David didn’t move to join her.
“You coming?” Lauren asked.
“Just give me one more minute.”
She winked at him and let the door close. David was left alone with the memories of his friend. He took one deep breath and clung to the smell of the smoke in the air, the smell that so reminded him of his friend and whispered, “Goodbye.” David looked down at his burning cigarette and flicked the ash away.