It's a tad bit spooky, but there is love as well. Of course there is. =)
Only Bauer Grant can pull off gorgeous while dead. His dark blond hair is tucked behind his ears, and his full lips are still pink. I’m drawn to his reflection in the gold cross hovering above his casket. His body is laid out as if in sleep. The church is overflowing, mostly with students. Some faces I recognize, but most are still a blur of new; new school, new town, new, new, new. I stand near the back of the church. I want to sit, pretend I’m one of Bauer’s friends here to mourn a life unfinished, but the truth is I’m working. For the last twenty minutes, I’ve been chasing down pings, chirps, and pop song ringtones, doing my best to silently convey “Turn off your cell phone. You’re at a funeral!” Apparently sadness is best communicated through text messages and Facebook status updates.
A tall middle-aged man who introduced himself as Bauer’s uncle reads his eulogy—seventeen years of life summarized in three short paragraphs. The congregation sniffles and weeps along with Bauer’s family, who are sitting in the front row. No one is more distraught than his mother, who clutches a pale blue handkerchief in her right hand, her eyes disbelieving, while a parade of tears soaks the collar of her black dress.
I think back to Monday and how I awoke to sunshine, but once the news started circulating, it was as if someone had placed a lampshade over the town of Mystique. The clouds grew thick, the sky turned dark, and down every hallway at school, someone was whispering his name.
Bauer. Bauer. Bauer. When said in a hush, it sounds like wind blowing. And that’s when the November chill arrived. I watched it move the trees outside my English class while the girl behind me wept silently into her notebook. I wanted to offer her comfort, but instead, I handed her a crumpled-up tissue from the bottom of my backpack. And later, when I passed her in the hall, she smiled and said, “Thanks, new girl.” You’d think in a town this small they’d remember my name.
I still don’t know how he died. I asked my boss Lisa, who is the funeral director, but she mumbled something about how it wasn’t important. “Just keep the aisles clear, Presley.” Words she said so often they could be her life’s mantra. While herding people to their seats, I tried my best to eavesdrop, but all I got was “So sad to lose someone so young” or “Without Bauer, there’s no hope for the football team.” And that was only near the back of the church. No one was talking up by the family, where the collective silence was as respectful as it was unsettling.
His uncle’s voice breaks, and the microphone amplifies it to the back of the church. He barely gets to his seat before losing it altogether. I shift my feet awkwardly. I can’t cry. It wouldn’t be right. I didn’t even know Bauer. Even though I saw him every day at school and occasionally kept an eye out for him in between English class and calculus, when we’d usually pass in the hall, that still doesn’t make him my friend. And yet since the moment they wheeled his casket into the church, my throat has felt tight.
The service ends with a song. The congregation finds the strength to sing, even though most of the people around me appear to be busy staring down at their hands while they fight off the tears that will eventually flow at the cemetery.
I move to open the back doors, lifting empty Kleenex boxes as I go. Three men stand near the exit, looking very military in pressed suits so clean and dark in color that without the shiny trinkets pinned to their chests, they’d blend into the walls. They haven’t spoken a word to anyone since their arrival, instead, they just continue to hold up the back wall with their regulated posture. Is Bauer’s family military? I shrug internally. One more thing I never knew about him.
I glance back at Bauer as the music swells to a finish, and he’s still where I left him, laid out in a velvet-lined box. Everyone files out of their seats, eyes touching upon Bauer’s face for the last time.
Lisa busies herself with gathering the flowers to take to the cemetery. She looks up and summons me with her eyes. I know what she wants. It’s my job to explain to the family how they have a few more minutes to say their good-byes before we close and seal the casket.
I glance over at the front pew. Bauer’s mother and father are huddled together as if drawing strength from each other. Bauer’s thirteen-year-old sister, Ophelia, is staring straight ahead as if she’s willing herself to be anywhere but here. With her right hand, she pats and soothes her younger sister, Jill, who in her three-year-old state doesn’t appear to know exactly why everyone is so sad. Or why Bauer isn’t responding to his name being called over and over again.
When Lisa sees me falter, she approaches the family. Perhaps I’m not cut out for this. It feels insensitive to rush them. Lisa does it with a smile. My thoughts return to Bauer. For someone so popular, he sure did know how to look right at you in the hallway and make you feel like you weren’t invisible. I was too afraid to approach him when he was alive. And now that he’s dead, I’m still afraid.
His eyes are closed. I try to remember what color they are, but my mind is blank. Blue? No. Green? I’m pretty sure I never noticed. I was too busy trying to look away. No one wants to get caught staring at the hot, popular kid. It’s so unoriginal.
I reach out, daring my fingertips to touch him. I keep expecting his chest to rise and fall, but he remains still and silent. He’s cold, not like ice cold (which is what I was expecting), but more like when you touch one of those wax figures at Fisherman’s Wharf. You expect them to come to life, turn to you and brush your hand away, but instead you realize they aren’t real. They were never real, unlike Bauer. He may look too good to be true, with his clear skin and long eyelashes, but just last week, he was kissing his girlfriend in the doorway of my calculus class. Right before I reached them, Bauer stepped out of the way, narrowly missing me. I wanted to roll my eyes and be all “get a room,” but once Bauer looked at me, I forgot to use my words. The blush that colored his cheeks when he apologized did funny things to my stomach. He seemed genuinely sorry. All I could do was race for my seat, hoping no one else noticed how Bauer’s embarrassment was contagious. But Sam noticed. It appears Bauer’s best friend misses very little. Sam’s eyes followed me from the front row and only moved on once our class started.
The lights in the church begin to dim as if a show is about to start, and I slip away from the casket. I can hear Lisa explaining to his family how in a few minutes the pallbearers will be coming to get the casket. “It’s okay,” she whispers. “It’s time to say your good-byes.”
Bauer’s family rise to their feet as one, their arms encircling each other like a football huddle. Their next play: saying good-bye. For a split second, I wish I could be a part of that huddle, slip right under the rope of arms and move into the center. It’s very different from how my aunt and I acted at my grandmother’s funeral. It was just the two of us, and yet not once did we touch.
A single-file line of men enters the church and gathers around the coffin. I recognize Sam near the front. His hair is cut short, neat and trimmed around his ears, and normally he would be one of the taller boys in the church, but today his shoulders are slumped. I can’t make out his expression as he stares down at his friend, only that his jaw is clenched. When the man closest to him calls his name, he looks up and our eyes meet. I’m the first to look away.
The pallbearers’ heads collectively crane toward Bauer as if in prayer. Lisa moves toward the casket with a large metal key in her hand, and I’ve already forgotten what I’m supposed to be doing. What was I thinking when I took this job? Oh, yeah, college.
Suddenly, a loud gurgling noise fills the church, followed by a gasp of breath. The pallbearers spring back from the casket. Some fall to the floor. I’m left a clear view of Bauer, who is no longer still but shifting restlessly in his casket like a fish pulled from the water. The sound that escapes my lips is something between a scream and a gulp. I take a step forward and then another—I have to see it for myself. Bauer’s flailing stops as abruptly as it began, and his eyes snap open. When he sits up in the casket, my face is the first thing he sees.
I hear a solid thunk from behind me as Lisa hits the floor.
Don't forget it comes out NOVEMBER 17th!!