We were on our way to Annie’s funeral on a cold morning in the pit of December. Sky heavy with rain and aching. I had just turned on the defroster. Jay was in the passenger seat, sipping his coffee. We were waiting for the rain.
From the corner of my eye I watched Jay’s fingers sliding against the paper cup. Side to side. The giant fingers tentative and light.
“Thanks for driving,” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders. “It’ll be easier than jamming up the parking lot with both of our cars.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s going to be packed.”
My iPod was on some random playlist with the volume low. He picked it up and switched it over to City and Colour. The quiet melodic hum drifting in and out of our bones.
“You look nice, by the way,” he said.
I looked down at my black dress. I used my other hand to bunch my coat closer.
We were silent. The song hummed onward, painful awareness, filling me up to burst. I took occasional glances at Jay. He stared straight ahead. His normally unkempt red hair and beard were combed and trimmed. His coat was still dusty.
“I don’t even know what an aneurysm is,” he said.
“It’s like a blood clot, I think. You don’t feel it, and there’s no symptoms. A built up bubble of blood bursts, and you die instantly.”
“I didn’t know you could get one in your 20s,” he said.
“Anyone can get one anytime.”
We were quiet again. The freeway was clear. Jay had the back of his hand against the window, tapping at each tree as it whipped past us.
“I hope it didn’t hurt.”
“It’s painless,” I said. “She didn’t feel anything.”
He put his coffee back in the cup holder and said nothing. I pressed my thumbs into the steering wheel.
“I didn’t think you would respond,” I said.
He exhaled a quiet laugh. “I didn’t either.”
“Why did you?”
“I don’t know.”
He was unreadable in the overcast light. His head swayed with the current as we drove. When he looked back at me, his eyes were narrow and focused. “I don’t think you’re ever going to be satisfied with how things went.”
“How could I be?”
“Can we just drop it?”
“It’s Annie’s funeral.”
“I said okay.”
In the silence I remembered the phone call at 7pm on a Friday night that changed a lot of things. Nicole on the other line, her voice careful and soft, a distinct mumble and the word “dead” hanging between us. How I sat in front of my computer in the bank of the quiet. Stared at Annie’s number in my phone. Watched her Facebook swell and burst with photos and words. By the time I’d mustered the courage to call her and hope she would pick up, knowing she wouldn’t, I was mostly drunk and slurring a voicemail from the floor at the foot of my bed with 10% battery life and a half empty bottle of Bushmills. The deep sleep when all I wanted was to be awake.
Jay ran a hand through his beard. “When did you last talk to her?”
“Couple months ago.”
“Did she know about us?” he asked.
“She always knew.”
He nodded. Slow but assured. Straight ahead staring and bleeding the dashboard.
I felt like I was chasing the road somewhere. All that big gray sky. But all either of us was chasing was a church and a casket and a spray of flowers no one would notice was there. One big show.
“Sometimes it feels like we just got caught up in one giant clusterfuck mistake, and we just need to start over,” I said.
“Why would we start over?” he asked.
“Because you loved Annie. Before you loved me.”
“But she didn’t love me.”
“What difference does that make? Doesn’t change how you feel. How it went for us.”
“Maybe if we had been more open. Weren’t ashamed of it. Maybe if I hadn’t been ashamed of it.”
“Maybe,” I said.
I had told Annie all of these things over many days and months and glasses of wine and maybe whiskey. The truth of it was that she knew it all and wanted it for us as much as I did, and more than Jay did. More than Jay ever did. I remembered her face in the dim light of my apartment one night over Christmas break when she was home visiting from her college up north. Assured and knowing.
“Hey,” she’d said. She swirled her glass of cabernet without taking her eyes off me. “You deserve to be happy. And so does Jay.”
“I don’t think either of us will ever believe it,” I’d said. I downed the glass.
She smiled a sad smile. “I hope someday you do.”
She had been echoing in my head in the days since she died. Loud and wavering in my line of sight, vague. I slept with the uncertain hope that she was next to me with a hand on my head saying it over and over and over, that I deserved to be happy.
I wanted to tell Jay this. Instead I asked him if he remembered that night that a bunch of us got drunk in his garage junior year and took his dad’s Cadillac and did donuts in the court. Jay throwing his head back and howling as I grabbed the bottle of Stoli from his lap and took a swig. Annie and Molly singing a Something Corporate song. The night in its patterns and a glimmering starlight we traced with our fingertips. When Jay’s beard only grew in clumps on his chin and left cheek.
He smiled. I laughed a little. There was so much we didn’t know.
“I hadn’t heard from you in almost a year,” I said.
He looked down at his coffee. “I had a lot of thinking to do.”
“Not even a text?”
“What good would it have done?”
But I didn’t answer him. We were just 21 again, laying out on the golf course a block from my house, trading a bottle of whiskey back and forth, and I was tucked under his arm. Even in that moment I remembered being warm and knowing it wasn’t the whiskey and thinking, “Yeah, we can do this; we always could.”
The rain came down harder. In the shadows cast off by the passing trees I swore I saw Annie standing there, and for a second, she wasn’t dead, just missing. Just missing and we were on a mission to find her. And when we found her we would hug, and I would tell her that I was so sorry for everything and for not calling and that it wasn’t because I was busy; it was because I hated Jay, and it was always easier when things were his fault. And then we would all laugh about it, and I’d give her the keys to my car, and she’d drive the three of us north, and God knows where we’d go but wherever it was, it’d be home.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Jay said.
“Sometimes people just die, and sometimes the only thing we can do is acknowledge that it happened.”
“It’s not going to make things better.”
“No. But maybe it’ll make you braver.”
Annie always thought that we were going to fly off into the sunset when we died, after we crash landed with whatever fucked up ideal we were pushing when the time finally came. No quiet sleep. Never.
“We aren’t quiet people,” she’d said. “We’re loud. And loud people go out as loud as you can possibly get.”
And I cried then because Annie went out quiet and alone.
I held the ache in my throat to a choke. I was the one who had called Jay at three in the morning a few days before, voice a timid whisper, to tell him what no one ever wants to tell anyone. And I lay on that floor expecting voicemail, and instead got a hello. The hello that gave me permission to be brave.
I didn’t realize how tight my hand was gripping the armrest until I felt his hand come over mine. At first it was light, cautious. His skin was rough and callused. But it held mine, tight enough to remind me he once loved me, loose enough to assure that we were different people in a bigger world and things were new here. And whether we got out of it was its own to him as it was to me.
If there was something that needed to be said, it was said there in the hollow of his hand, warm and tensed. I felt his fingers in the crooks of my knuckles and eased them into his hold. We were careful, marking our steps and waiting.
In the end, Annie with her end cast a glow in our darkened corners, and we followed that glow up the stairs where it lit us up and we could see the bats in the attic we had spent too long ignoring. Hanging upside down and gnawing at us internally. Jay is holding up his candle, and I’m standing still because their meaty eyes are crooked, and if they rush us, they may blow the light out. So we stand there silent and maybe a little aware. Maybe in the end we will laugh.
He moved his hand away from mine, back to his lap. I watched his eyes from the corner of mine as they followed the trail of the windshield wipers.
We had agreed that we should get to the church early, and we were right. The parking lot was nearly full. We found a spot near the back, and through the rearview mirror I could see the hearse, a black stain at the foot of the church. There was a trickling of people on their way in, long coats and black umbrellas swimming along the blacktop against the current of rain.
“Do you think maybe,” I asked, “if we get through today, we’ll feel better about how it ended? Even a little?”
He took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Will you be ok?”
He smiled. Another soft laugh. “Will you?”
In my mind, I waited for Annie to tell us both yes. But there was nothing from her. Any more than from us.
I opened my door and stepped out. The heels of my shoes fell into a splash of rain water as I shut the door and bunched up my coat. Jay came around and leaned over with his umbrella, covering us both, and I caught the ends of his mouth tipping upward in the slightest smile. I smiled back.
We stood in the parking lot staring up at the church for a moment before either of us was brave enough to take that first step. And even then I was a step behind Jay, who had one hand in his pocket and the other gripping the umbrella. But he was still smiling, slight, just enough for me to notice, and I stayed close to him.
The rain came down harder, then. It fell around us as we ascended the steps; it fell in splashes over the black hearse; it fell in speckled bursts over the steeple and spilled over the holy crucifix; it fell like a fist. And in those moments, in the spaces between us and the rain and God and our most precious dead, there was silence.
About the Author: Clare FitzPatrick started writing Lion King spinoffs when she was six, and hasn’t stopped. She’s still waiting for Disney to call her back regarding any one of her 47 sequel or prequel pitches. She graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California with her MFA in Fiction in 2013. After spending a couple of years working at a funeral home and getting reprimanded for making terrible death jokes at parties, she found her way into the tech industry, where she still makes terrible death jokes. Her written work has appeared in The White Stag Journal, St. Mary’s Magazine, and riverrun. When she’s not writing masterpieces, you can often find Clare playing video games, sleeping, or speaking at length about the problems with the Oakland A’s ownership. She currently works at Google and lives in a tiny apartment with an awful dog