The next day was the funeral, but Mom was still making us go to school until it was time to go. I resented the decision, especially as I wasn’t sure whether it was to give us some kind of normality or she was kicking us out for her own benefit. I didn’t see a point in it, either, as it would be a half-day anyway and it was unlikely we’d learn much. I doubted I’d be able to focus on anything for long, not with that looming over me. Unwilling, I got out of bed and dressed in a black jeans and a grey and green plaid button-down over a white t-shirt, putting a black polo in my backpack in case there wasn’t time to come home beforehand. I might have worn the polo instead of the button-down, but I didn’t want to show up to school wearing all black—it would screw with my image. Everyone would think I was going emo or something. And I wasn’t interested in being scrutinized when I already had enough crap to deal with. I slipped on my tennis shoes, which were black and grey—no way was I wearing dress shoes—then headed to the bathroom. I didn’t feel like trying, but I put some effort into styling my hair, if only to look presentable for the funeral. I spiked up my short bangs, flattening the rest, and then just stared at myself in the mirror for several minutes. It felt like a dark cloud was hanging over me, dragging my mood down farther and deeper with each moment, and it made me feel rather lethargic. It was like my emotion center was shutting down, making it hard to feel anything, including pain. It felt impossible, trying to set my expression into something normal, but somehow, I managed it, and just in time for my sister to appear in the open doorway.
“You okay?” she asked. I breathed a sigh, turning away from the mirror.
“As okay as I can be, all things considered,” I answered with a shrug. “You?” I asked, concern touching my voice. Instead of answering right away, Carmandy turned slightly, breaking our eye contact, and bit her lip. I reached out and touched her arm, and she turned back toward me, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Hang in there,” I said quietly. “We can get through this.” She nodded and I released her, leaving her to finish getting ready.
I returned to my room to get my backpack, then went downstairs. Again, I wasn’t in the mood for breakfast, so I took two granola bars and put them in my backpack on the off chance I got around to eating them. Mom was there, but even though I greeted her, if a little sarcastically as I was still kind of bitter towards her spontaneous announcement the day before, she acted as though I wasn’t even there, like I hadn’t spoken. And it hurt. But I ignored her, and sat down on the couch in the living room to wait for Carmandy to be ready so we could go.
She appeared about ten minutes later. I’d spent that time staring at the floor and trying to keep up an emotionless mask with limited success. I took a better look at her as my sister approached, wondering how she managed to look so calm when my own emotions were all over the place. She wore her favorite turquoise halter top under a short-sleeved white cardigan, jeans and white flats. Her coppery hair was down and wavy, but pinned away from her face. When she drew closer I could see that she wore more makeup than usual, concentrated around her eyes which, now that I could see her better, I realized were red-rimmed and glistening with tears. Unless you saw her up close, though, it was impossible to tell that she was anything besides perfectly content. But I could see through the mask she put up, and as soon as she was close enough I stood, ready to do or say whatever she needed at the moment. She came closer, and I put both hands on her shoulders. In response she threw her arms around me, pressing her face into my shoulder, and I thought I felt her trembling, ever so slightly. Only a few seconds later, though, she pulled away, taking a deep breath and resetting her mask.
“I’m assuming you’re not up for breakfast, so let’s just go,” I said, handing her one of my granola bars. She nodded in thanks and tucked it into her bag, then I led the way out of the house. She called back to Mom that we were leaving, even using my name, but Mom replied as though Carmandy was the only one leaving. I tried not to show that it hurt and confused me even more, and just got in the car, my sister right behind me.
The drive to school was silent, and neither of us were looking forward to it. When we got to the school, I briefly squeezed my sister’s shoulder for encouragement before we separated for our classes. I successfully appeared to be untroubled throughout my morning classes, but as the minutes passed towards the time I was supposed to leave, it grew more and more difficult. I was anxious about the funeral—what my reactions would be, how many people would be there, and how long I’d be able to tolerate the “I’m sorry about your dad” ’s. Plus I could sense reality trying to sink in, telling me that Dad was truly gone, but I wouldn’t let it. So I was relieved when, about eleven fifteen or so, an office aide arrived with another of those white slips. I knew it was for me this time, and I knew what it was for. I took it from my teacher, gathered my things and bid farewell to my friends, then left the room and headed toward the front entrance where I assumed Mom would be waiting. I met Carmandy halfway there. She drew close to me so our shoulders brushed, and I could see in her expression how much she was dreading the next two hours. Just as I was. As I’d suspected, Mom was waiting for us in the office. She led us out the front doors without a word.
“Meet me at home. Do not dawdle,” she said firmly, though she was only looking at Carmandy. I bit the inside of my cheek so I wouldn’t shout at her in indignation. Carmandy brushed her fingertips against my wrist as Mom turned to go, offering reassurance but also reminding me to keep my cool. I nodded slightly in acknowledgement, then led the way to our car.
“Do you want to drive this time?” I offered Carmandy. She hesitated a moment, but nodded.
“Okay,” she answered. I nodded back and got in the car once she’d unlocked it. A moment later she was buckled up beside me and pulling out of the spot, following the main road home. We arrived moments after Mom had, and we both entered and ate the brief lunch Mom had prepared. Then the two of us headed upstairs to get dressed more appropriately for the funeral. I simply changed my shirt and fixed my hair, then went back downstairs and sat on the couch alone, trying not to think or feel, waiting for Mom and my sister. Carmandy came back downstairs a few moments later dressed in a spaghetti-strap, knee-length black dress, her hair still down and styled as it had been that morning. She was wearing a pair of heeled sandals, also black. She came to join me on the sofa, sitting beside me. Neither of us spoke. Mom came down a moment later wearing black slacks and a black blouse, and herded us into the car. We obliged, and remained silent the entire drive to the cemetery.
We arrived early, much to my dismay. I didn’t want to wait; I just wanted to get this thing over with. Or for time to fast-forward a few days—or rewind. I had no idea how I was going to react, and I didn’t want to drag anything out. Mom, her face an expressionless mask that even I couldn’t see through though it was a little more like her normal self, saw to the final preparations while my sister and I were stuck waiting. If it weren’t for Carmandy clinging to me for support, I would have been pacing. Instead, I impatiently—and somewhat anxiously—tapped my foot.
Eventually, the few people Mom had invited had arrived—it was too short notice for more than nearby family and friends to come. Reluctantly my sister and I joined the small crowd around the prepared gravesite. Carmandy’s grip on my forearm tightened and I knew she was close to tears and fighting valiantly to stay them. I briefly touched her hand, knowing she needed me to be strong for her now more than ever. The thing was, I wasn’t sure if I could do it.
We turned our attention to the minister leading the funeral. Admittedly, I heard very little, and took in even less. I just didn’t care what he had to say; the preacher hadn’t known Dad, and the things he said about religion, about God not wanting us to mourn, meant nothing to me—I just didn’t believe in it. I had a vague belief in some kind of existence after death, but that was the extent of my religious views. I listened a little closer, though, when my uncle—Dad’s brother-in-law—gave his eulogy, and even closer when Mom tried to speak. She didn’t make it far, though, before she found herself unable to speak. She was escorted off the stage by my aunt, or her sister-in-law. The minister then took over again and wrapped up. Carmandy was crying, though silently. I felt numb.
When the preacher finished, a short precession started passing the casket, and I realized it was open. My breath caught without me knowing why, and my heart was beating fast. My gaze was continually drawn to the coffin where the body was concealed, drawn there as opposite magnetic poles are drawn together. It only got worse as the space between me and it closed. My heart was in my throat when it was finally my turn, after both Mom and Carmandy. Mom was first, and I thought I saw tears on her face before she turned away, her body stiff. Carmandy and I were immediately after her, and then all thoughts of Mom were driven from my mind as I looked into the coffin.
I couldn’t make myself look directly at the body yet. I placed a white chess pawn to the right of his head as a sort of tribute, then I took a deep breath and actually looked. Hi seemed so peaceful, and if he weren’t so pale I would have thought him sleeping—or biding his time until the perfect moment to leap up and shout, “April Fools!” But I knew that would never happen. Taking a deep breath, I reached out and touched one trembling hand to his. And jerked it away an instant later. His skin was so cold it was like I’d been given an electric shock, and so stiff it was like a wax statue. All at once reality came crashing down on me in that exact moment, a strangled sob escaping before I could stop it. That was Dad lying there, so still and cold and lifeless. It wasn’t a dressed-up dummy. And in just a few moments the lid would go on and he’d be under the ground. He wasn’t coming back. Ever.
Tears spilled down my face for the very first time with me fully comprehending the repercussions of previous days’ events. I desperately wanted to look away, but it was as if my eyes were glued to Dad’s empty expression. I wanted to run, but my feet were rooted to the ground and I couldn’t move. My mind was racing, every single possible scenario of how this could have been avoided, and what would happen next, running through my head. I barely noticed the hand on my arm until it had tugged me away from the open casket and I suddenly found myself in my sister’s embrace. I didn’t bother to fight it; whatever pride I’d had was gone, and it was taking everything I had not to completely break down. I clung to my twin like she was my lifeline, the only thing keeping me sane and rooted to the earth. Without her I would have been hopelessly lost.
It was a long time before I was even conscious of anything going on around me. When I did finally start to calm down, the first thing I noticed was the wet patch on my shoulder. Carmandy was—or had been—crying, too. I wasn’t surprised. The end of the viewing passed without my knowledge, and even though I had calmed, I couldn’t make myself release my twin to participate in the symbolic handful of dirt. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have wanted to—it would have made things too permanent.
I was finally able to pull away as the pallbearers filled the grave and the minister closed the service. I left one arm around my sister, though, for both of our comfort. She pressed close to my side, her hand on my wrist as though to reassure herself that I was still there. Neither of us listened to the preacher’s closing words, nor did we move once everyone began to leave. I barely heard the murmured condolences from various family friends and relatives, and it was a relief when they had all left. Shortly after, I felt another arm around me, and turned to see Mom standing behind my sister and I, an arm around each of us. Closing my eyes against more tears stinging my eyes, I turned my head to lean against Mom’s chest, seeking comfort. I felt her arm tighten around me, and heard a muffled sob from my sister.
The three of us stood in silence for several moments, then Mom spoke. “Are you ready to head home?” she asked softly. I didn’t even bother to compare her tone and manner now to what it had been earlier. I needed the reassurance more than I needed to stay angry at her.
I hesitated a moment after she spoke, then shook my head. Now that I fully understood that Dad was gone for good, I wanted to say a proper goodbye—even if he wouldn’t be able to hear me. Forcing my eyes open, I was a little surprised to see Carmandy shake her head as well. Mom sort of nodded, then spoke again.
“I’m not going to stick around. Are you okay to walk home?”
“Yeah,” I answered, my voice hoarse from crying. Beside me, my sister nodded in agreement.
“All right. Be safe,” Mom told us, her voice cracking slightly. She hugged us both, and kissed each of us on the forehead, then left. Carmandy and I stood silently for a moment longer, then, with an unspoken agreement, we approached the fresh grave, not letting go of each other.
Without my consent, my knees completely gave out just below the headstone, and I landed hard. Carmandy knelt more naturally beside me. I squeezed my eyes shut, fighting to stay in control. Not caring that anyone could hear, I leaned closer to the headstone and whispered how much it hurt, how much I desperately longed to have Dad back, how lost and alone I felt even with my sister’s hand on my shoulder and sensing her right beside me. My voice broke too many times to count and finally tears spilled over once again. It took everything I had to stay silent, to hold back the sobs trapped painfully in my throat. I dimly heard my sister say a few things, but I didn’t try to understand. When she fell quiet, tears streaked her face, and suddenly she threw her arms around me, burying her face in my shoulder. Her entire body was shaking, but she, too, was silent. I put my arms around her and pulled her closer, struggling for control.
An eternity later, I’d managed to lock the pain away, and shortly after Carmandy pulled away from me. Doing my best to avoid looking at the fresh grave, I pulled her to her feet and gently brushed away the moisture on her cheek, drying my own tears on my shirt sleeve. She hugged me again and gave a whispered thanks as she withdrew.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said softly, her voice still not quite steady. I just nodded, not sure I could trust my voice, and led the way out of the cemetery. It wasn’t far from the beach, and it wouldn’t be a long walk. I led the way down the street until we reached the shore, then we turned south along the waterline, which would take us home. Carmandy ditched her shoes only a moment later, and I followed suit, rolling up my jeans to mid-calf as well. Carrying our shoes, we continued just above the waterline, waves occasionally washing over our feet. Almost unconsciously, it seemed, Carmandy reached out and her hand closed around my wrist. I let her, taking comfort from the contact myself though I’d never be the initiate. We walked in silence, both of us lost in thought.
About halfway there I remembered that Byron was going to stop by after school, but checking the time told me it was barely two-thirty, and school didn’t let out until at least three. But I started wondering what I’d tell him, and worrying about how well I’d be able to stay in control when he was bound to ask how I was, not to mention the fact that he could see through almost any mask I chose to wear. Eventually we reached a familiar stretch of shore, and right across the street was our house. I started to lead my sister there, but she released my hand and shook her head.
“Let me be alone for a bit,” She said quietly, almost pleading.
“All right,” I told her. I hugged her gently, kissing the top of her head as I withdrew, then I took her shoes from her. “Don’t be long—you mentioned Allie was coming over soon,” I reminded her softly. She nodded, and so I let her be, returning to the house alone. I informed Mom, who was sitting in the living room, that Carmandy elected to stay on the beach for a bit, then went upstairs. I put Carmandy’s shoes near her closet door, then went to my own room, where I tossed my own shoes across the room, not caring when they thudded against the far wall, then dropped onto the edge of my bed, staring at the ground.
About a half-hour later, I heard the doorbell and a female voice that wasn’t Mom’s when the door was answered. I ignored it, staying where I was. Barely five minutes later the doorbell rang again, and I heard Byron’s voice when it was answered. Not wanting him to find me staring morosely at the ground, I made myself move to my desk and pulled a notebook from my backpack. I opened it to a random page and forced my expression into something more pleasant, even if Byron would see right through it. A moment later I heard a knock on my door.
“Come in!” I called, trying to sound casual. I pushed aside the notebook as Byron pushed open the door. “Hey,” I greeted him.
“Hey, Jon,” Byron answered, sitting down on the end of my bed as I’d beckoned him to do as I turned around in the chair so my arms rested on the back of it.
“So, how’s it going?” I asked, forcing myself to be upbeat. The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement as Byron answered—I knew he could tell I was faking, and trying to delay the inevitable.
“Same as always,” he said, shrugging slightly. He seemed to sense that I was avoiding the issue, but he obliged me anyway, at least for the time being. “I’ve got a stack of homework being left undone to be here. How are you holding up?” he asked, almost abruptly. Clearly he wasn’t going to let me get away with putting off the unavoidable discussion.
I held back a sigh. “As well as can be expected, I guess,” I answered, shrugging.
“That’s what you said yesterday,” he pointed out, and I just shrugged again, indifferent. “How was the funeral?”
“Open-casket,” I answered flatly, using anger to fight back the pain. “And the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I swear, it wasn’t even that bad when the words ‘your father’s dead’ were dumped on me.”
“I imagine that was because then it was a shock, unexpected.” Byron said with a slight shrug.
“Not really,” I murmured, too quietly for him to hear. “Oh, there’s one more thing you should know,” I said suddenly, bitterness touching my voice and making him pay closer attention. “We’re moving to Nevada because Mom can’t stand to stay in this house.”
“Is that what she said?” Byron asked, equal parts shocked and incredulous.
I scoffed. “Hardly. She used a promotion as an excuse. I know that it exists, but I also know that she’s trying to run away from the pain. I told her as much yesterday, and I tried to talk her out of it. You know what she did? She said that it was none of my business and that what she says goes, no matter what. It was like she didn’t even care what she was doing to me and Carmandy. And then she ignored me the rest of the night. All for the sake of her escaping her memories. I haven’t even seen her properly cry; it’s like she doesn’t care. But she’s making us leave behind everything we’ve known, and Dad’s fresh grave. She’s uprooting all of us, in effect abandoning us when we need her most, just so she doesn’t have to face the pain we’re all feeling. And I don’t even know why.” The anger hadn’t entirely left my voice through my rant, but towards the end it broke more than once. I set my jaw, turning away. Then Byron’s hand was on my shoulder. I took a breath, and raised my head. He offered a slight smile of encouragement.
“It’s hard, isn’t it.” It was a statement. “I’ve never lost anybody, so I don’t know how it feels.”
I scoffed again, trying to force back the pain with anger. “You want to know how it feels? Like someone’s stabbed you with a dull, rusted blade right through the heart, then twisted it and left it lodged in your chest. Every time you move the wound gets deeper, more painful. But you can’t bring yourself to remove the blade, because then it will hurt even more,” I said, my voice hard and bitter, but unsteady. But, it didn’t break. “So it cuts away at your heart more every moment, until you can’t bear it any longer.” This time my voice broke and tears stung my eyes. I turned away, my hands tightening into fists as I fought for control. It was all hitting me so hard, all at once, though, that I doubted I’d be successful for long. Byron squeezed my shoulder, but tried to lighten the atmosphere with a joke.
“You should be a poet,” he teased. I raised my head to glare at him, and his expression was instantly full of concern. His hand tightened on my shoulder, and I accidentally met his eyes. I saw my reflection in his irises, and I realized my tears had spilled over. I blinked hard and turned away again, though I knew it was pointless, trying to regain my lost dignity.
“I’ve always thought I could imagine how much it would hurt to lose someone close to you, but…I grossly underestimated,” Byron said softly, and I knew he’d seen not just the tears, but the anguish in my eyes. “Because I’ve never seen you cry before. Not when you broke your arm in two places, not when Jess cheated on and then dumped you. Not even when your twin sister was barely hanging on to life after that surfing incident.”
“Oh, I cried. Just where nobody could see,” I answered bitterly. Byron’s hand tightened even more on my shoulder, then unexpectedly he pulled me into a hug. Taken by surprise, a strangled gasp that may as well have been a sob escaped, and I realized I was shaking. I forced it back, but not before he heard, and before I knew it my best friend had me in a tight hug. In fact it was painfully tight, but I returned it. I refused to fall apart on his shoulder. I doubted he’d really mind much because he was practically my brother, but it took all my self-control not to. Finally, I made myself pull away, drying fresh tears on my arm and hating myself for it, struggling to keep back more.
“Hang in there, Jon. You can get through it,” Byron said, his voice softer than usual. I managed a nod.
“Thanks,” I answered. Byron just gave me an encouraging smile. For a moment we sat in silence while I struggled to get a hold on my emotions. Then Byron spoke.
“So you’re moving. I guess that explains the boxes,” he said. I just shrugged. “Well, I was only able to put work off by an hour, so I should probably be going soon. And since you don’t seem very inclined toward conversation, now seems like a good time,” he continued, probably trying to get a reaction out of me.
“I’ll walk you out,” I answered, getting to my feet. Byron seemed to sigh, but he let me lead him out of my room and to the door. Before he left, though, I caught his shoulder, and tried not to sigh. “Look, don’t take it personally. You know I’m not exactly myself at the moment. I wouldn’t mind if you stayed just to hang out, but I’d rather not wind up crying in front of you…again,” I said as he turned, trying to smile. Byron returned the smile.
“I totally understand. And I’ll be here to listen if you want to talk,” he answered. “And…” he gave a sheepish grin, “I’ll miss you. Maybe,” he teased, and I cracked a real smile, however small.
“I’ll miss you more. Possibly,” I answered, returning the tease. He grinned again and gave me a brief, brotherly hug.
“See you around, I guess. Don’t wait too long to visit,” Byron told me. I nodded.
“Definitely,” I answered. “So, see you around,” I repeated, not wanting to say goodbye, and with a last wave, he left. But I watched as he pulled away, waving again as he pulled out of my driveway. I saw him wave back, then a moment later he turned a corner and was gone. I closed the door and started back for my room, finally collapsing to the floor beside my bed, fighting back more tears as the reality of the move sank in alongside the anguish from Dad’s death and hating that I couldn’t recover my earlier numbness and detachment.
I stayed there until dinner, which I only ate because I knew I ought, even if I was hungry. Mom had gone back to ignoring both me and my sister, and I saw that Carmandy was really struggling, too. There was little I could do about it, though, my own emotions as frayed as they were. I did offer a brief hug of encouragement to my sister before I returned to my room, though. Mom had informed us that Carmandy and I were going to school tomorrow, no excuses, and that the movers would come while we were gone to collect the boxes and furniture. We were to leave out something to sleep on the following night, clothing for that day, and anything we wanted to take in the car with us, before we left for school, and put it out of the way of the movers. Because of that new verdict, I still had some packing to do. I put away everything but my backpack, which would come with me in the car, my sleeping bag and a pillow, and a duffel bag full of miscellaneous stuff as well as three changes of clothes, just in case. I’d strip my bed the following morning before school. The rest of my packing took two hours, and by then it was late enough to go to bed, so I did. I stripped to my boxers as I often did for pajamas and dropped face-first onto the bed, wishing for sleep to claim me instantly. Thankfully, it did.