• WORDS FROM AN AUTHOR •
This suit jacket suffocates me, which is ironic since I already feel like I can’t breathe.
Popping the top button doesn’t give me any relief. With shaky hands, I undo the rest, but still can’t find the will to take a full breath. This is enough to make me wish I was the one in the coffin.
The lengthy line grows by the minute, and everyone has me in their sights. They’re here to pay their condolences. She was my girlfriend, my high school sweetheart. I hate seeing the pity in their eyes, the way they aren’t certain how to react. Some say, “I’m sorry,” while others latch onto me like leeches. The thing is, there’s nothing left of me for them to take.
Mia took it all with her last breath.
“Hey, Coach,” I say, finally daring to lift my head.
For the first time in the years I’ve known Coach Barnes, he tugs me in for a hug. His wife stands close behind him and does the same once he’s moved on to Mia’s parents.
“That girl loved you more than anything, Nick. When it gets really hard, close your eyes, and you’ll feel her. I promise,” Mrs. Barnes whispers, pulling away to join her husband.
Her words feel like lies as they soak in. I won’t feel her anymore. She’s gone.
Their daughter, Hannah, Mia’s best friend, is next, tears eager as hell to drop down her pink cheeks. Seeing others sad makes me angry, like I’m the only person who loved her, or something. That’s not the case, though. Look at this place. Every single person is here for her.
“I can’t do this shit,” I mutter under my breath, leaving the line of black to get fresh air. I push through the side doors of the church and step out to the parking lot.
People come and go. Some don’t bother giving me the time of day as they pass. I appreciate their lack of etiquette. That’s the realest reaction they can give me. What does one say or do when a seventeen-year-old boy loses the girl he thought was his everything?
The world likes to believe kids our age don’t understand what it means to love someone, but I sure as hell beg to differ.
They moved in down the street when we were in sixth grade, and she swept me away the moment she smiled at me. All curls and bones, my father used to say. For the first week, she sat on her front porch, and every once in a while, she looked up and smiled as I dribbled by. Sometime during the second week, she finally stepped down, snatched the basketball from my hands, and shot a basket. We didn’t have a conversation that day. It was just two kids living harmoniously together in her driveway.
Our friendship came easy. Our love, not so much. It took some time. On her part, not mine. I think I always knew she belonged with me. She wasn’t so sure, which I was fine with. Convincing her was half the fun.
Mia was insistent on us only being friends, but I knew deep down she felt what I did. There were moments when I would catch her watching me, and she quickly looked away, like I caught her doing something she thought she shouldn’t. She could deny it all she wanted, but the blush on her cheeks always told a different story. I loved those early moments between us. The innocence of our affection is something I’d give anything to have back.
Life isn’t like that though. We move out of those early stages so quickly and into what we believe is forever. Years tick by, and time doesn’t seem to matter anymore, because there’s too much of it on our hands. It’s when that clock slows that we begin to understand what we have found in another person.
Mine and Mia’s time has been cut short. Something I’ve always thought I’d have is a future with the girl of my dreams. Everything has been mapped out. She’d follow me to college, under the pretense that wherever I went would allow her to follow her own dreams, and then I’d be drafted into the NHL after that. We’d get married in a barn because Mia was obsessed with Joanna Gaines, whatever that means, eventually have kids, and we’d grow old together. That’s always been the plan.
Funny thing about plans is they’re bullshit.
Everyone has them, and unfortunately, not everyone gets to see theirs playout. If they’re like me, their future is stolen from them at seventeen.
Thinking about her hurts. It’s a stinging in my chest I can never get relief from. The moment Mia’s parents told me she was gone, that ache settled in. It’s a part of me now, a reminder of her, and I’ll hold it there if it means I can keep a piece of her with me.
“Nick!” Kellan yells from the door. “It’s time, man.”
What if I refuse to walk into the church, stand my ground, and say, “No, today is not the day to bury her?” Will it change anything?
Just inside the church, Mia’s mom clutches her dad. Damn, I’m being selfish. I have no other option but to walk in with my head held high.
I tell myself I’m not going to break down. As I sit next to my parents, my mother grasps my hand, reminding me I’m not alone. Lately, it happens too often. I’m starting to think she believes I’ll float off if she doesn’t check on me.
The pastor stands at the front, talking about loss and love, the world we are left in now that Mia is gone. He reminds us of different scriptures, and I’m desperate to stand up and yell, “fuck you.” It’s a load of shit. She was seventeen years old. There is no way in hell the world is cruel enough to take a life unlived.
“She loved fiercely.” A sweet voice pulls me from the darkness. Hannah stands behind the podium, nervously clutching a piece of paper. She sets it down, tucking her blonde hair behind her ears. Her eyes wander to the large photo of Mia, taken before she got too sick. At the end, she refused to be photographed. “Mia, she was the kind of girl who couldn’t help herself but to have such an open heart. Friendship came easy to her. At the end”— Hannah sniffles, tears desperate for an escape— “she was the best kind of friend to me. She sat and listened to me tell her things I’ve been holding on to for years. She didn’t judge when she had every right to. That’s the kind of friend she was. Selfless. That’s how I’ll remember her. Always.”
Hannah steps down and joins the rest of us in the parish. Kellan comes forward to speak. I didn’t know all of us were doing this. Mrs. James had asked me to say a few words, and I didn’t feel brave enough at the time to tell her yes.
“Mia helped me in the end. She was supposed to be the one in need, and every time I came to sit with her, she managed to move it back around to me. The girl didn’t have cancer. She never allowed it to possess her. Mia lived until the very last breath, and I often wonder how she did it. Mia taught us all what it meant to live, and I’ll keep living for you, Sis.” Kellan steps down, looking at the ceiling like he’s actually talking to Mia, and joins his parents. His eyes lock on mine, and he nods, this mutual understanding rolling between us.
Nicole, Mia’s other best friend, stands and pauses for a second. Her shoulders roll back, and she approaches the podium. Her hand reaches up and touches the frame of the photo.
“How does one explain Mia? It’s what I’ve been trying to figure out, this impossible puzzle I feel like I’ve been tasked with. She had this way of making you believe anything was possible. She’s the reason I’m not afraid to be myself, unashamed, even when the world is more than likely going to turn its back on me at some point.” Her eyes shift from her hands on the podium to Mia’s family. Her stare lingers heavily on Kellan. “She was a sister, daughter, a friend, and girlfriend.” Nicole’s eyes shift to me. “She loved you most, and I promised her I wouldn’t let you give up. So, in front of everyone today, I need everyone to promise not to let her death be the end of anything for you.” She swallows her tears. She and I both know the promise isn’t meant for all of us. It’s only meant for me. “Everyone say, ‘I promise, Nicole’.”
“I promise, Nicole,” the congregation says at once. A few chuckles echo among us.
Kellan smiles at me through his hurt. He can’t hide it. The same pain coursing through him is surging through my body. “Leave it up to Nicole to make demands at my sister’s funeral.”
“It’s why Mia loved her so much. Called her unapologetic.” Even saying her name hurts.
“She’s right, man. My sister loved you.” With those words, he returns to watch Nicole move into the crowd. Their eyes meet, and she offers a small smile. So much passes between them in an instant.
Everything they’ve said is true. Anyone who has spent a minute in the presence of Mia knows the kind of person she was. Selfless and unwavering. Kind and tender. She didn’t know what it meant to meet a stranger, because immediately, they’d hit it off. She was my opposite, and still somehow, she always found the good inside of me.
“Nick, would you like to say a few words?” Mr. James says. His wife sits beside him, sadness dripping from her eyes.
Fuck. I’m not sure I can do this.
What could I possibly say?
“Sure,” I say, wiping my hands on my khaki-covered thighs. Why didn’t I say no? No one would have blamed me.
My mom’s hand grips mine as I pass her in the pew. “You don’t have to, Nicholas.”
She’s wrong though. I do have to do this. For her.
I walk closer and closer to that damn podium they’ve stood behind, telling stories and little antidotes about Mia. If I had a box of matches and kerosene, I’d light this motherfucker on fire and walk away. Since my pockets are empty, and I’m too pretty to go to prison for arson, I step behind it like everyone else and look out among the town. There isn’t an empty seat, with crowds standing in any available square of carpet.
“Mia James is my girlfriend.” Breathe, Man. You got this. “She was my girlfriend, and I don’t think I’ve allowed that reality to settle in until right now, seeing all of you with tears in your eyes, looking at me with such sadness.” Don’t do it. You’re going to regret this. “Standing before you is a seventeen-year-old boy with the world at his fingertips. You already know I have a scholarship to any Division One university of my choosing, great friends and family, enough charm to dazzle anyone in this room, and yet, a boy stands before you, angry and ashamed, because I get to live this amazing life”— I beat on my chest— “a life he had planned to spend with her. And now, I’m making fucking promises to continue life in tribute to her death. If I’m being honest, I want to say fuck you to whatever kind of greater power has dealt this empty life to me.”
I ease around the podium and place my hand on the casket. Tears don’t settle on my cheeks; they pour down like rain on a rooftop, spilling over the edge. All eyes are on me, and not a single breath is taken. What will I do next, they wonder?
My attention strays to the enlarged photo. Her cheeks aren’t sunken in. Her eyes are full of a playful spark. This is Mia. Not that girl in the casket.
I grab it off the easel and hold it under my arm. This belongs to me now.
“Nicholas,” my mother calls as I pass down the middle aisle.
Fuck this church.
Fuck all their pity.
Fuck having a dead girlfriend.
“I’m out of here,” I say, not really caring if anyone actually hears me.
I hit the pavement, and the sun beats down on my skin. A quick glance shows no one’s followed me. Not that it would matter if they had. I’m taking this damn photo, and I’m going home. I can’t watch them lower her into the dirt.
With her portrait next to me, I drive through town. It’s like a snapshot of everything that reminds me of her. The diner where we had our first date. The movie theater where we shared our first kiss. The park she ran to after our first big fight. Everything in this damn town reminds me of her.
“Fuck!” I yell, banging my fist against the steering wheel.
I half-ass park my car in the middle of the driveway, race inside with the portrait under my arm, and fall onto the center of my bed. The metal frame bangs against the headboard. I see the edge of her brown hair from where I lie and imagine what it felt like to run my fingers through it.
The sky shifts from clear and blue to dark like the flip of a switch. In my mind, I know it isn’t possible. Not a second has passed where I didn’t watch the time change on the bedside clock. Numbers tick by so slow, and yet, time seems to pass by so quick.
Doors close outside, and I know they’re home. Mia’s parents had held a dinner afterward for those closest to her. There isn’t a world where I would have survived being stuck under the same roof as them.
“We missed you. Everyone did,” my mother says. She’s standing in the doorway, probably too afraid to come in. My actions today scared her I’m sure.
I roll onto my back and catch her eyes shifting down to the portrait of Mia. My Mia.
“It’s not fair, Mom.” I sit up, looking to her for answers I know she doesn’t have. No one does. Not a single person knows what to say to me to make it hurt a little less. “It’s just not fucking fair.”
“You’re right. It’s pretty damn cruel.” She perches on the edge of the mattress, not saying another word, just being with me in the silence.
I’ll no longer hear her goofy laugh, the way it hitches up in the end like she has to gasp for a breath. She won’t be there in the stands at all my hockey games or get to graduate high school. It’s all settling in now. The day leading up to the funeral, I’d had the privilege of ignoring the inevitable, but not anymore.
“She doesn’t get to have a future. She was seventeen years old, and that’s all she’ll ever be.” I fall back, covering my eyes with my forearm.
“No, she doesn’t have a future, but you do, Nicholas. Allow yourself to be sad. Do whatever you feel like you need to do, but at some point, you’ll have to dig yourself out of this hole I know you’ll be in.” She pats me on the leg like she always does when she’s trying to fling some motherly advice on me.
Once she’s gone, I pick up the portrait and lean it against my dresser.
Just outside of my room, my mom cries softly, and my father reassures her I’ll be okay.
Will I be okay, though?
It sure as hell doesn’t feel like it right now.