CW: death, road traffic accident
“James always liked to be prepared,” my best friend Chris said, clutching a crinkled piece of paper as he stood in front of his mother’s full-length mirror. His voice had an unnatural chirpiness. “His bags were all packed for college. He was so excited to be going to Columbia. But it turns out he was embarking on a different journey…” He trailed off, his brow furrowed.
Is he trying to be funny? I wondered, hovering just above the mirror. I shook my head frantically, as if he could see me. It was merciful that he couldn’t. Despite the undertaker’s best efforts, my broken body had proven too stubbornly concertinaed to allow for the ‘just-sleeping-not-dead’ look of choice for an open casket. By the time they’d managed to straighten me out into a recognizable human form, my corpse, with its bones protruding this way and that, had an unsightly gnarled appearance more in tune with a splintered oak than an eighteen-year-old boy in the prime of his life.
“Nah,” Chris muttered, crumpling up my eulogy. He tossed it toward the waste basket. He shoots… and he misses! I shouted, instinctively reaching for the balled-up paper to pass it back and give him another chance. Come on, you can do better than that. How about, “Ever since he nearly burnt down the school by trying to cook a bag of Doritos over a Bunsen burner, we always knew James would go out with a bang…” But my effort went unnoticed, my fingers as immaterial as mist.
Chris slumped on the edge of his parents’ neatly made bed, elbows on his knees, head in hands. “Shit, how do I do this? I’ve gotta get this right. Please help me…”
For a moment I thought he would break into an impromptu prayer, something I could recall him doing only once in all my years of knowing him: “God, I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get in…” It was a couple of months ago, when he was awaiting news of his application to UCLA. One of those last-ditch-effort kinda pleas, similar to my final, life-flashing-before-my-eyes appeal as I helplessly watched the tanker truck barrel over the median strip and collide with my Civic, the impact propelling me through the windshield, straight into the path of an oncoming SUV. Dammit God, is this really how my life is supposed to play out? I raged. At least let me complete a semester of college first. But even my basic, Sunday school level understanding of the Almighty was enough for me to know that wasn’t how it worked. For Chris or for me.
I was at Chris’s house when the letter finally arrived from the UCLA Admissions department. He tried to play it cool when his mom called him inside saying there was mail for him, but I could see the glint of hope in his eyes as he made his way to the kitchen, then the dimming as he handled the slim envelope. Both of us knew what that meant: a three-line form letter thanking him for his application and regretfully informing him of the exceptionally high standard of applicants that year. By that time I’d already been accepted to my first choice college, and my second. I didn’t know what to say. I felt bad for him—I did— but beneath that lay something else, something twisted and ugly—a smug satisfaction that for once, he hadn’t gotten what he wanted. For once I had the edge. “Hey, it’ll work out,” I said breezily as my best friend fought to keep it together. When he looked at me with glossy eyes, I was sure he could see straight through me. “Yeah, sure,” was his reply.
Maybe it was the predictable kind of drifting apart that happens with high school seniors on the cusp of leaving home and heading to their new, independent lives, but after that day, Chris seemed to actively avoid me, and I didn’t go out of my way to seek him out either. I couldn’t blame him; my path was clearly laid out, or so I thought, while he had to piece together a Plan B, involving community college courses and re-application to UCLA next year.
Our graduation was a cordial affair. Our families sat in the same row, unaware of the growing divide between two boys who in their minds would always be as close as brothers. One of the last photos of us was taken after the ceremony. We did our best to ham it up for the camera, big smiles on our faces, arms draped casually over each other’s shoulders. Still, I felt the distance between us, like the force of magnets repelling each other. Put two poles with the same charge together, and ultimately they don’t join up. They push away.
“Look at you boys!” my mother exclaimed in a choked-up voice. “It seems like only yesterday you were learning to ride two-wheelers. And now you’re high school graduates…” She beamed, positioned her phone, and snapped the photo.
It was the picture that she chose to blow up to poster size for display at my funeral.
Chris was the obvious choice for the one to deliver my eulogy. Even given recent events, he would have been my first pick, if I’d had a say. Better than some dull old clergyman who didn’t know me and would utter platitudes about what a good son I’d been, what a loyal friend and conscientious student. Even dead, I had standards, and I knew my mom and dad were in no state to address a grieving crowd. I was their only child, the center of their lives, and I worried about what lay in store for them.
But the more immediate concern was Chris, and how he would find the words he needed, not so much for my sake but for his. Face it man, humor isn’t going to work. You need a different angle. How about reading out a poem? Or the lyrics to a song? What about that Ed Sheeran one, “Castle on a Hill”… Or not, I reasoned, remembering the line about speeding down a country lane. I drifted closer, perching my invisible form next to him on the bed. It was strangely comforting, and I felt the years slide backwards, to when we’d sneak into this very room and jump on the king-sized bed, whacking each other with pillows until one of us would inevitably fall off and get hurt. I bounced up and down, but the mattress remained motionless. Chris stood up, smoothing out his crumpled pants, and faced the mirror again.
He cleared his throat and spoke, unscripted this time.
“James was my best friend. Everybody knows that. We were inseparable from the time we met at nursery school. As kids we played together almost every day. We’d play anything—cowboys, spies, Superman, even this weird made-up game called ‘pet detective,’ where we’d pretend that someone’s pet had been kidnapped and we had to find it. I remember James sneaking over the fence into his neighbor’s backyard and trying to catch their cat. He got all scratched up…” I flinched at the memory of Mrs. Cavalo’s enormous tabby cat swatting at me with its dagger-like claws. The scorching sting of antiseptic that my mom mercilessly sprayed over the wound.
Chris paused, his eyes fixed on the glass. It was weird to hover next to him, to see his reflection but just a blank space where mine should have been. “And although we eventually grew out of playing pet detective, we still stuck together. Every summer before a new schoolyear started, I always hoped to be in James’ class. I knew everything would be okay if I was with him. Somehow he always brought out the best in me—in lots of people…”
Was he being sarcastic? I hovered closer than a hair’s breadth in front of his face, but it was a picture of sincerity. I could even sense salty tears brimming.
“He was always good at everything he tried, much to my frustration at times. Baseball, basketball, school… he was an all-around great guy. So talented. He practically aced his SATs, and spent countless hours trying to help me study too. But I could never measure up. I could only hope to be half as good as he was.”
I felt my empty, embalmed heart quicken.
A gentle knock on the door and a familiar voice said, “You okay in there?” It was Mrs. Stiles, Chris’s mom, who had been like a second mother to me, who always knew the right thing to say. How many times had I turned to her for advice over my own mom? If only she could hear me now. Please tell me what’s going on here. Tell Chris to stop talking about me as if I were some kind of hero. I was always in his shadow, not the other way around…
“You can come in,” Chris said weakly, before sinking back down on the bed. He suddenly looked so vulnerable and small, like a child. “I can’t do this,” he choked.
His mother sat down next to him and embraced her son. He buried his head in her shoulder. “It’s okay,” was all she said. Suddenly I felt like I was trespassing, treading on shaky ground. I had already heard too much. But the pull to stay was strong. It wasn't time to go yet.
A moment passed, and Chris continued. “I was a terrible friend, Mom! I was so jealous—jealous he got into college and I didn’t. So jealous I didn’t even want to be around him. I resented him—my best friend! And now he’s gone and I can’t tell him how sorry I am, and I’m supposed to stand in front of everyone and talk about him at his funeral, for God’s sake…”
“Shh,” Mrs. Stiles said, rocking her son in her arms, pushing a stray hair out his face. “My dear boy,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”
“Do you want to hear the worst thing?” Chris said, peeling himself away and shifting his gaze to where I waited behind his mother. “When I heard the news of the crash, I thought it was all a prank—a sick joke to teach me a lesson. Like ‘wouldn’t it be funny if this guy, with so much to live for, died before he even had a chance to go to college and do all the amazing things he was destined to do’? And for a split second, I even relished the thought. The screwed-up irony…”
The words poured out in a torrent, and I felt the air shift around me. I wavered, feeling a lurch and fearing what little substance was left of me would dissolve into dust.
“It would have made more sense if it was me, not him! He would have gone to college and made new friends, been so busy he’d forget about his dead friend. But I’m left here, where I see him everywhere—whenever I pass his house, or the school, or run into his parents. I've even texted him to say sorry, left voice messages as if somehow he could hear me,” my friend finished, then collapsed in his mother’s arms. She squeezed him tighter.
Chris, I'm here! I cried silently, wanting desperately to comfort him, to tell him how sorry I was for those final weeks and months. For not being there, not offering to help him figure out the next steps. For not seeing the hurt he’d carried all these years. And finally, for leaving him. I wanted to take it all away. Go back to how things used to be. I’m here, Chris! And I’m sorry I was so blind…
I swooped in, covered his mother’s arms with my own, and held on to him. Gradually my friend’s trembling body calmed, his breathing slowed to a normal rhythm. I stole a glance in the mirror, seeing mother and son sharing their pain, and mine. I spooled the sorrow onto me, as much as I could carry, wearing it like flesh. Then I released my hold. I took off, leaving only a thread of grief trailing behind me.