“What do you want? Candy?” Derek asked, smacking a piece of spearmint gum between his teeth, some pop punk band blaring over his car stereo. Felix, sitting completely still in the middle of the road on his bicycle, stared at him with a bored expression. They’d been engaged in said stare-off for about five minutes at that point, Derek intermittenedly laying on his horn to try and usher the boy out of the road. This also wasn’t the first time they had crossed paths, in fact, these run-ins between the two were becoming more and more common.
“You sound like a pedophile!” Felix called back after a moment, a slight grin turning up the sides of his lips. His full, rosy cheeks plumped with mischief and wrinkled his eyes. He was pretty tall for his age, riding a bike ill fitting for his size compared to other kids in his grade, but his squeaky voice gave him away as the ten (almost eleven) year old he really was. Derek sighed in anguish, glancing at his watch before honking the horn again.
“I’m gonna be late, you little asshole,” the man growled, trying to calm his anger as he reached over to his passenger’s seat and grabbed his wallet. He shook his head as he fished out a twenty, dangling it between two fingers out the window so the boy could see. Felix’s eyes lit up at the sight of the bill and he swiftly rode his bike around to retrieve the money.
“Easiest twenty I’ve ever made,” Felix giggled, snatching the money from Derek. The man seethed, slicking his hair back with his palms as he stared through his Ray-Ban sunglasses at the boy’s pudgy face.
“Stay out of the damn road,” Derek snarled, speeding away down the road before the boy got the chance to get in another snide remark.
About an hour later, Derek was finally at the front of the line leading up to the casket. He stared down at Maggie P. Jones with a pensive look in his eye, almost as if he was trying to get a read on the poor dead girl. He wore a perfectly tailored three piece suit in deep navy, his Ray-Bans hanging out of the chest pocket on his jacket. He thought to himself as he stood that Maggie seemed pretty homely … and frankly wasn’t the type of woman he would go for. She looked to be at least thirty-five, with dull brown hair and ivory skin. Her lips were flat, and her eyes a bit sunken in. Derek wasn’t sure if this was just her face or the deadness. Either way, he decided, she was a bit too old for him and far too aesthetically boring. But, with that in mind, he knew exactly what he was going to tell the family when he walked over. (After all, this was all in the name of acting).
“Yeah, Maggie and I, a few years ago, we had the greatest summer together,” Derek went on wistfully, really trying to put himself into this acting excercise. A woman in the group, looking to be about the same age as Maggie, piped up. She was more muscular in build than the dead girl, and had her dirty blonde hair cut into a shoulder length bob. She wore a beautiful burgandy suit, a tattoo on her neck peaking out from the collar of her white shirt.
“When was this?” She asked with a tone in her voice Derek couldn’t quite read. Her expression, cold and strong like stone, seemed out of place to the man. But he’d heard from his acting teacher how grief had many faces, and perhaps she took the more stoic route. He continued confidently, not breaking character.
“Three summers or so. She was amazing. I’d never felt so close to another person,” Derek sighed, looking down at the floor dramatically to add to his act.
“Three summers ago Maggie and I were on our honeymoon in Greece,” the blonde woman growled, a furrow forming in her brow as her eyes glossed with tears. She stepped closer to Derek with such intimidating energy he stumbled backwards on instict, feeling wimpy for reacting this way to a woman. He tried his best to play it off, but realized the situation was beyond saving at that point.
“I-“ Derek felt his face twitch as he gave one last-ditch effort to keep up his vulnerable facade, “I should go.”
The woman, Maggie’s Wife, personally watched as he left, shaking her head as he went back out to his car in the funeral home parking lot, feeling mortified. But that didn’t keep him from attending more viewings around town in the search for natural vulnerablility when acting. He’d never been able to cry at one of the damn things, but he held out hope that one of these days his made-up story about knowing one of the deceased would click and break down that last wall. He had the look, he had the money, he had the apartment already waiting for him in Los Angeles, all he needed was that last piece of the puzzle and he would be a star. Moving out to some rural hillbilly town hadn’t seemed appealing to him at first, but when his acting teacher back in L.A. had told him he needed to expose himself to more vulnerability he knew what he needed to do. It wasn’t going to be easy to attend stranger’s viewings, especially in a town of hicks, but in the pursuit of becoming the next Channing Tatum, Derek would do practically anything.
The next week after the dead lesbian mishap, Derek was on his way to another viewing just a few blocks from his rented apartment. When he stepped outside that afternoon, wearing a crisp pinstriped back suit, he found Felix standing with his bike on the sidewalk right next to his parked Mercedes Benz. Immediately he was irritated.
“Hey!” Derek called as he huffed over to his vehicle in a hurry, “Get away from my car!”
Felix, who casually stood in the same spot and sucked on a cherry ice pop, turned to look at Derek as the man reached the sidewalk.
“What kind of car is this?” Felix asked, his lips stained red, the popscicle he held dripping over his fingers in the July heat down onto the pavement below. Derek lowered his Ray-Bans a tad and looked at Felix closely, scoffing at the boy’s question as he paid him no mind and got into the front seat of his car.
“The kind you can’t afford, kid,” Derek answered mockingly, shutting his car door between himself and the boy.
“I’m ten. Of course I can’t afford a car, dickweed,” Felix shot back after taking his popscicle out of his mouth for a moment. Derek seemed stunned at the way the boy talked back to him, pulling off his sunglasses in slight disbelief as Felix went on: “Where are you always going in those goofy suits?”
Derek gritted his teeth for a moment and then sighed, feeling generous enough to answer, “Viewings.”
Felix ruffled his dark brown hair as he thought about that, as if scratching his head to understand.
“You mean movies?” the boy asked back, ditching his popscicle stick on the ground as he bit off the last red bit. Derek watched him, chuckling under his breath at the boy’s actions, thinking how he sort of reminded Derek of himself as a young man. He was completely unafraid, doing whatever he wanted, and saying whatever he wanted unapologetically. It was admirable, in a way.
“No,” Derek replied, making a playful face as if to say ‘are you dumb’, “Viewings for dead people.”
“You go to funerals for fun? You’re that lonely?” Felix smirked, licking left over sugar from his lips as he mounted his bike once more.
Derek, once again shocked at the boy’s moxy, ran a hand back through his hair and laughed curtly. He started up his car and watched as Felix slowly started biking his way down the sidewalk.
It wasn’t until three weeks after that day that Derek got the opportunity to go to another viewing. He debated going at all, the funeral home where it was going to be held being an hour or so out of town, and his hope that these experiments were going to open him up emotionally consistently dwindling. He decided he might as well, knowing he had nothing to lose, stepped into another one of his suits and made his way to the funeral home. He wondered in the car as he drove where that kid he had been seeing was. He hasn’t seen the boy in over a week, which part of him was grateful for. The other part of him felt … disappointed to not see the little shit riding around on his neon green bike. Derek quickly whisked those thoughts out of his mind as he found parking outside of the funeral home though, trying to get himself into a vulnerable state before he stepped out of the car and made his way inside. After a spritz of breath spray and one last look at his hair in his rearview mirror, he was satsified.
He noticed almost immediately as he walked in that something about that particular viewing was different. The long, long line leading up to the casket was full of younger children; middle school aged children all huddled together with sad looks plastered on their faces. He knew he had never seen a crowd so prodominantly young, but wrote it off as probably being the death of a teacher or caregiver. That was, until he saw the size of the casket.
And the neon green bike parked right beside it.
Suddenly his chest felt tight, and he tried to crane his neck in order to look over the ten or so people ahead of him that blocked him from seeing the actual body. There was a heavy stone forming in his throat, far too large for him to swallow. As the line inched closer and closer up to the casket, he felt his eyes start to get itchy. He looked around at all of the flowers around the room and wondered if he was having some kind of allergic reaction. By the time he made it to the front, he had to squeeze his eyes shut in order to soothe them, tears rolling down his cheeks. Another horror presented itself as he realized it was closed casket. There were photos of the little boy plastered around, but for the life of him he couldn’t decide if that was him—the boy that had been pestering him around town for weeks and weeks.
That certainly was his bike.
More tears poured from Derek’s eyes without his permission, startling him as they began rolling down onto the collar of his white dress shirt. He choked on the stale air in the funeral home as he began to push back toward the door, his eyes red and his voice hoarse as he excused himself past groups of people. His hands began to shake as he drove back into town, his eyes glossy as they scanned the road for that damn neon green bike.
When he finally did find Felix, the boy sitting in a neighorhood yard with his bike standing next to him, his brakes screeched to a hault. Felix, alarmed by the sound, holding a half-finished ice cream sandwich, looked up as the car came to a stop in the middle of the road.
In the driver seat, Derek felt the weight in his chest fall to his stomach, the lump in his throat rising faster and faster until the first sob errupted from his lips. He hung his head as tears poured out of his bloodshot eyes, gripping the steering wheel with both hands as his chest hiccuped with every whimper. He only looked up when there was a knock on his window, and there stood Felix.
Derek sucked in a deep breath and attempted to gather himself, wiping at his eyes and then repositioning his sunglasses to cover the irritation. Then, slowly, he rolled down his window.
“You okay?” Felix asked as the glass between them lowered, genuine concern on the boy’s face. A single tear rolled down Derek’s cheek as he stared at the boy, the usual irritated tension in his muscles around Felix nowhere to be found. In fact, he felt more relaxed than he had in a long time.
“I’m alright,” Derek said back softly, nodding his head at the boy. He felt partly stupid for how emotional he had gotten thinking something had happened to the boy, but partly invigorated by the floodgates finally opening for him.
“You keep talking to me people are gonna call you a pedophile,” Felix said then, his voice deadly serious, but a mischevious grin spreading across his face a moment later.
Derek laughed, the sound rising out of him like he had been holding it inside of himself for years. Felix, seeming proud that he had gotten such a reaction, stepped back from the side of the car. He dug around the pocket of his red gym shorts and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. He held it out to Derek, who stared at the bill with a puzzled look on his face.
“So you can go to the movies instead of staring at dead people all the time,” the boy said simply, “you need it more than I do.”
The man stared at the boy for a moment, gauging the situation before he responded. After a moment, Derek reached out and took the bill with a smile on his face.
“Felix,” the boy corrected.
“Derek,” the man offered.
“Get home safe, Derek.”
A beat of silence, the man’s eyes watering once more. He had to take a breath before he replied, afraid his voice might crack. It still did, but the man didn’t care much anymore.
“You too, Felix."