His Mother was the one to give him the news, and afterward she had she asked if there was anything she could do for him. He said no and later went for a walk down to the creek. Along the way it started raining, lightly at first and then harder, coming down in great lashing streaks by the time he was back home. It continued all afternoon, hammering against the pane over his desk while he passed the time idly playing guitar and lying on the bed.
After supper the phone rang. His Mother answered it and called for him.
“Hi...Craig,” the voice hesitated. “It’s Claire.”
“I know,” he said. “Hi.”
“I wasn’t sure if you knew yet and I just thought I should call and see if you’d heard.”
“Yeah,” said Craig. “I heard.”
The line was quiet. Then after a moment she said, “So you moved back home.”
“Yes. I did.”
“Listen. I know it’s been awhile, but did you want to come over? Maybe, you know, talk about it.”
“OK,” he said. “Sure. Where are you living?”
Claire gave him her address. It was on the other side of town, the second floor of an old brick apartment building located at the top of a hill overlooking the Cahmoo Valley. Craig drove over and let himself in, as instructed. He found her on the couch in the living room. She was watching a late night talk show. The picture was grainy and hard to make out. “We don’t pay for cable,” she said turning to him.
There was a crackle of laughter and she hit mute on the remote.
“Is it just you here?”
“Yeah. Phil’s at work,” she said. “West End Video. They’ve had him working nightshift all week. Have a seat.”
He sat down next to her.
“I’m glad you came over,” she continued. “To be honest, it gets kind of lonely around here at night. Lonely and quiet. Add to that, I think the building might be haunted.”
“It is,” she said. She adjusted herself on the couch so she was facing him. She didn’t look that different, he thought. Her hair was a bit shorter but still black, though now it had streaks of blond in it. He liked that, thought it suited her. Made her look older, he thought. More mature.
“So how have you been?”
“OK,” he said. “What about you?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a strange day. I guess it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I still can’t believe it really happened. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel.”
“That’s how I feel most of the time,” he said and grinned weakly.
Claire pulled her hair back and tied it behind her head with a hair elastic.
Craig sat nervously and watched her, feeling self-conscious but calm. He had imagined this meeting countless times and now it was here. It had been a long time. Several months now, since he’d last seen her. That time at the coffee shop. When he learned he would not be a father after all. At the time he’d taken in the information, nodded, finished his coffee and got up and left. Time passed and tried to put it out of mind, to move on, but found the incident coming back to him at unexpected hours of the day, playing over and over, the news, the sudden rush of something, like a zap from some electrode, followed by his numbed response. And so, almost unconsciously, he began preparing himself for that inevitable day when he would see her again. He had formulated a full response. One that was sound, complete, considered. He knew exactly what he would say, he had the whole speech planned. Only thing left was to get up the nerve. But now that had all changed.
“When was the last time you saw him?” she asked.
“Long time,” he said. “A few months at least. Around the time…” He caught himself, looked down, and played with the zipper of his jacket. “Anyway not since our last show.”
“How was he then? How did he seem?”
“About the same,” he said. “No, that’s not true. He was sort of weird. Thinking back now, he seemed sort of weird and distant. Fuzzy. I should have known something was wrong. I should have read the signs. Done something.”
“But how could you. You didn’t know. You didn’t know what he was going through.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe you’re right.”
“What could you have done anyway? These aren’t things you plan for. There’s no set way for how you’re supposed to react in these situations.”
“No,” he said. “No, I suppose there’s not.”
They continued to talk, eventually getting caught up on things, other mutual friends they’d gone to high school with. It felt easy and natural. Then around one o’clock there was the sound of footsteps across the hall and the door creaked open.
“I should probably go,” he told her. “It’s getting late.”
“OK,” she said. “Maybe I’ll see you again, before.”
“Yeah. All right.”
In the hallway he passed Phil. He had shoulder length hair and a goatee. Craig nodded a greeting on his way out and got back a quick nod and a weary “Hey.”
The next day when no one else was home, Craig made copies of the band’s last concert. It was held at a small club in town that had recently opened. The club had a full PA system, good acoustics and was clean. The show was well-attended. His Dad had been there and got the whole thing captured on his camcorder.
He sat on the carpet in his parent’s living room, cross-legged, in boxers and a t-shirt, and watched the playback. It was the first time he had watched it. The sound and video quality was quite good and you could see everybody, the whole band on stage, clearly. But then, in the middle of the first song, the camera zoomed in for a close-up on him, his face locked in deep concentration behind the drums. It held the shot for what seemed to Craig an eternity, and then pulled back and scanned over the others. Then a few minutes later it did it again, focusing in on his flushed, sweating face. It continued to do this throughout their performance, and he cringed every time. “Thanks, Dad,” he thought ironically. He thought of all the people, friends and family and others still, people he didn’t know or hadn’t met before, who’d be watching it. He cringed but he had no choice. He had to accept it.
That night they drove over with the tapes, Craig and his Dad. The house was filled. In the living room people, mainly adults, sat and stood around talking quietly, having subdued conversations—most with drinks in their hands. In the kitchen was a whole other scene entirely, and it was where most of the sounds—hooting and hollering and irrupting, dangerous-seeming laughter—were coming from. Craig break off and went over. They were mostly younger people, compared with the other room, people closer to his age but maybe a few years older. No one noticed him at first and he went over and filled up a plastic cup with punch from the punchbowl. Then Craig saw a couple people he knew. Two guys. He wasn’t good friends with them, didn’t know them really well, not personally, but they had been friends of the band and sometimes helped move equipment for gigs and then would drink with them after. One of them, the guy with dark curly hair and an indulgent grin, spotted him and came over.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, putting a consoling arm around Craig. “Can you believe it? I can’t. Can’t fucking believe it. Unbelievable! Un-fucking-believable. Fuck, man, fucking hell. Goddamn!”
Craig said, “I know, I know,” but the curly-haired guy wasn’t listening, was ignoring him—drowning out his words of comfort with more of his own.
Craig looked around at the others and it seemed more of the same. They too carried on talking loudly, gesturing and even laughing. On the surface it was just like any other party but there was something else—an unease maybe, a sort of creeping desperation in their laughter; like being on the brink of something, trying to push against a wall and break through but it wouldn’t give. Wouldn’t give for anything. There was purpose to their drinking.
Then Craig’s Dad popped his head around the corner and signalled him into the next room.
“What is it?” said Craig, following behind.
“There’s someone who wants to see you.”
His Dad directed him to a man sitting in a recliner in the corner of the room. Others stood around, nearby, watching, but no one else approached. The man’s face was pale. His features seemed frozen in an expression of surprise, shock, pure bewilderment. Craig approached.
“Thanks for coming,” said the man, each of his words was slightly forced, in a wheezy drawl.
He held out his hand. Craig took it. He leaned in closer, concentrating on the man’s words.
“He thought highly of you,” he said. “He respected your talent.”
Craig nodded to him, then again.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for saying so.”
He looked on pensively at the man. His eyes were raw looking and dried-out, strained and unblinking. Craig continued to hold his hand, to nod.
The next day Claire invited him over. It was almost noon when he arrived, and she was still in bed.
“Come in here,” she called out from under the covers.
“Is it just you here?” he asked. He was leaning against the door frame, looking over the apartment.
“It’s just me. He went to work an hour ago. What is it?”
“Right,” she said. “Come. Sit,” she patted the sheets.
He came in and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“You OK,” she said. “You seem tense.”
“I went over last night.”
“Oh. How did it go?”
“Come here,” she said. “Lie back.”
He did as she instructed. With his jacket still on he laid down next to her on his side, facing away from her. He stared ahead at the black-finished dresser. On top of it was a small stereo playing a Matthew Good album. He lay there stiffly overtop of the black silky sheets. The bed was still warm and his body seemed to sink into a space that was already there. Then Claire rolled over on her side. She pulled herself up slightly and brought herself closer. Craig suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. He felt another one on his back as she began massaging it. She brought herself closer still and he could feel her breathing on his neck.
“Claire,” he said.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” she said.
“I know. It wasn’t your fault. I know that now. It’s nobody’s fault.”
She rested her cheek against his back and breathed heavily. Craig continued to stare ahead. One of the drawers was missing a handle and there was a band sticker on it, starting to peel.
In a moment she sat up. Craig turned to her. Her eyes were red and puffy. She wiped them with a Kleenex off the nightstand.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I should have been. And I wasn’t.”
“I should get up and shower,” she said. “There should be some coffee already made up if you want it.”
Craig sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and flipping through an entertainment magazine. In a while Claire emerged. She stood in the doorway with her hair wrapped in a towel.
“How would you like to take me shopping?” she suddenly let out.
“For a new dress,” she said.
“But you already have lots of dresses.”
“Yeah, but I want something new” she said. “Something...special.”
“OK,” he said, and she disappeared back into the bathroom.
At a clothing store in the mall, Claire tried on a series of dresses. While that went on, Craig perused a some rackets in the men’s wear section, trying to seem interested. Then Claire came out of the change room wearing a silk black dress that was cut in a v at the bottom around her calves. He watched while she examined herself in the mirror. She raised her arms and touched her shoulders. She made a graceful little spin and then arched her back slightly, looking back at her reflection. The dress fit neatly around her naturally slender figure, and she turned and smiled at him. She suddenly seemed younger to him, even with the hair. She looked to him like she did back at prom when she wore something similar and her hair was long and black and styled for the occasion, with a flower in it.
“What about this one?” she said, running her hands down the sides of the dress.
“I like it,” said Craig.
She turned back to the mirror, hands on her hips.
“I don’t know,” she said, and rolled her head side-to-side critically. “I don’t think it’s black enough.”
“Not black enough,” he said.
“I mean do you think it’s right,” she said. “You know, for the occasion.”
“Who’s to say what’s right with something like this.”
She continued to scrutinize herself, and he walked up behind her, standing over her shoulder. He adjusted one of the straps and then looked up at them in the mirror and for a moment it was as if nothing had changed.
Finally she settled on a dress and bought it. They went to the food court to eat, sitting at a metal table with attached swivel chairs sharing a container of seasoned fries.
“Are you still with that girl,” Claire said. “What’s her name?”
“You mean Bree?”
“Yes,” she said.
“How did you know we were seeing each other?”
“Word gets around. So...”
“No,” he said. “Not really.”
“Oh. When did it end?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means...It means it’s been kind of off-and-on.”
“So what is it now, off or on?”
“Off,” he said. “But I think she wanted to get serious.”
“And what gave you that impression?”
“I think she wanted a kid,” he said.
“That is serious.”
“Yeah. She hadn’t said anything but I was getting that feeling. Strong baby vibes for sure.”
“And you weren’t into that.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I still do, I think. Someday. But…”
“Not the right one.”
“Something like that,” he said. “Phil—you think he’s the right one.”
“We’re engaged aren’t we?”
“So it seems.”
“I know it probably took you by surprise. I know it did me.”
“I’d heard,” he said.
“Word gets around.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, I would have told you earlier but I wasn’t sure if you wanted to hear from me.”
“I did. I just had to get things figured out.”
Claire snatched at a lock of hair nervously and wrapped it around her finger, then ran her fingers through it smoothing it out.
“You know,” she said, “sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind if I got pregnant again.”
“Are you two trying?”
“No. Well, I guess. But I mean we’re not trying-trying. I’m on the pill. But you know how that can turn out. Anyway, if it happens, it happens. If not—that’s OK too. No rush. He goes back to school in the fall. And I’ve been thinking of doing the same—if I can get all my records in order in time.” She took a sip of her drink. “Then there’s the wedding to plan.”
Craig tore open a ketchup packet. He spread its contents over his half of the fries and ate one.
After a moment Claire said, “So is she coming tomorrow? Bree, I mean.”
“I think so,” he said. “She knew him. She’ll probably want to go.”
“A lot of people did.”
They were almost late getting there. Craig waited in the kitchen with Phil while Claire rushed around getting ready, moving back-and-forth hurriedly between the bathroom and bedroom. They sat at the table drinking coffee and trying to ignore the clock.
“So what are you taking at school?” said Craig.
“I’m in the film program,” Phil said. “Going into my third year.”
“I want to get into directing. Start in commercials and go from there. Claire told me you were a musician.”
“Yeah. Drums and guitar.”
“Are you playing with anyone, a band or anything?”
“No,” Craig said. “Just myself.”
When she was finally ready they drove over in Craig’s car. Along the way they stopped to pick up Claire’s friend Michelle and then Bree, who had called earlier that morning asking for a ride. When they arrived at the church it was almost full but the service hadn’t started. The Billy Joel song “Only the Good Die Young” played over the sound system.
At the end of the aisle, in front of the podium, was the open casket. Next to it was a wreath of roses and a blown-up portrait. Claire turned to Craig. “Do you want to go up?”
“I don’t know,” he said softly. “I’m not sure of the procedure for this sort of thing.”
“It’s alright,” she said, and took his hand and led him up, while the others found seats in one of the pews near the back.
It wasn’t real, he thought, looking down at him. The makeup made him seem more like a doll, more unreal than any person he remembered. He was more put together, more made up than he ever remembered him being. His normally wild, frizzy hair was combed down and neatly parted and his face was completely shaved. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and as a result his nose seemed more prominent and severe. The contours of his face were harder, more defined. Like a mask. Harder but relaxed—peaceful somehow. Like an infant gently sleeping. He hadn’t seen him in a suit and tie since their prom.
Craig turned around and scanned the room. Directly back from the casket, in the second row, his father sat with the rest of the family. His expression remained unchanged from the other night, his eyes glassy, his expression beaten, shattered.
As Craig and Claire walked back up the aisle the song ended and another, “In My Life” by The Beatles, started.
“How did he look?” asked Bree when he was seated next to her.
“Jesus,” he said. “How do you think?”
The service began shortly. There were speeches and eulogies delivered by the minister, friends and family members. Those from family members all ended the same, with the person saying we’ll meet again one day while staying admirably composed.
At one point Claire started to tear up and Michelle gave her a hug while Phil rubbed her shoulder and held her hand. Craig, who was a few seats down, looked over at her and then Bree. Her hair was long like Claire’s used to be but lighter, dark brown, her skin naturally darker. She sat slouched and tried to smile back at him but it looked more like a scowl or mischievous grin. They didn’t say anything and Craig waited for something to pass—a gesture, a whisper, anything. Then slowly she moved her hand over and took his. It felt cold and clammy, he thought. Muggy. A muggy hand.
After the service let out, the parking lot filled with people. Craig and Claire recognized many from high school—mostly fellow students but also some teachers. Claire and Michelle talked with a group of girls while Craig gave a few passing nods and waves. He looked around at the crowd. It was obvious some were seeing each other for the first time since graduation. They appeared excited and beaming as they talked, while, close by, others were visibly distraught and being hugged and consoled. “Some reunion,” Craig said out loud to no one.
Once back at the car, they decided, all five of them, to go for lunch.
At the Dairy Queen by the highway they sat at a booth after placing their orders. Phil had ordered a burger, fries and a shake; Claire and Michelle chocolate fudge Sundays; Bree an Oreo Blizzard; and Craig chicken strips and fries, with ranch dipping sauce on the side. Across from them were a group of people who had also, obviously, from the way they were dressed, come from the service.
While waiting for the rest of their food, Michelle mentioned the road trip she was about to go on. She was driving down south to see her fiancé. He was in California, for one reason or another, and they were going to meet up and then go on to Las Vegas to elope.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said. “It’s our secret, for now.”
“That’s so cool!” said Claire. “That’s how I want to do it. Forget all this planning. I get overwhelmed with all kinds of anxiety and whatnot just thinking about it.”
“But there are others to consider,” said Phil, between sips of his shake. “We want to make sure everyone’s there. Both our families. It’s not all about you and what you want.”
“I know,” said Claire. “But still.”
“We’ve got to plan it out,” he said. “Do it right.”
“Of course we do,” she said.
“Have you set a date?” asked Bree.
“No,” said Claire, still looking ahead at Phil. “Not yet.”
Later on Craig and Bree ended up back at Claire and Phil’s apartment where they ordered pizza. When the buzzer went Claire said, “That must be Freddie Mercury with our order.”
“Freddy Mercury?” said Craig.
“That’s what we call the guy,” she said. “You have to see him—the resemblance is uncanny. He has the mustache and everything.”
They ate the pizza and drank red wine and watched the movie Vanilla Sky. After it was over they watched the special features. In an interview with Paul McCartney, who wrote the title song to the movie, he described his songwriting process, which involved finding words that rhymed with sky.
Some time after they’d finished the wine, Claire and Phil disappeared into the bedroom, leaving Craig and Bree on the couch.
“I’ve missed you,” she said when they were alone.
“That’s just the wine talking.”
“No,” she said, “I really have. You’re so hard to track down. I can never get a hold of you.”
“I’ve been busy,” he said. “I’ve been occupied with things.”
“It’s because you don’t like me, isn’t it?”
“I like you fine.”
“Really,” she said. “It sure doesn’t seem like it.”
“Then why do you ignore me?”
“I don’t ignore you.”
“You do. We never talk anymore. You don’t return my calls.”
“Well I’m here now. What do you want me to do?”
When Craig awoke early the next morning, Bree was already up getting ready. She noticed him stirring and came over.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” she said, kneeling down in front of him and running a hand through his hair. “I have to go to work. My ride’s waiting outside. FYI, I found the aspirin in the bathroom behind the mirror if you need any.”
She pulled the blanket up to his chin and kissed him.
On her way out she turned and said, “Call me sometime.”
“I will,” he mumbled.
He went back to sleep. Sometime later he was woken again, this time by Claire who had made tea. She brought over a cup and he sat up to take it, still wrapped in the blanket. She sat next to him.
“You and Bree have a good time after we went to bed?”
“What?” he said. “What do you mean?”
“No. We didn’t.”
“Right,” she said. “I’m sure.”
“We just talked and went to sleep is all. Together. On the couch.”
“OK,” she said. “I believe you. I just assumed...”
“It’s fine if you did. I don’t mind. Really.”
They sipped their drinks in silence.
Then Craig said, “Listen. There’s something I want to tell you.”
“What is it?”
Just then Phil walked into the room. He was wearing a housecoat and holding a mug of coffee.
“Claire—where did you put the sugar?”
“Where it always is,” she said. “In the cupboard over the fridge.”
He went back into the kitchen as she turned back to Craig.
“So you were saying.”
“Never mind,” he said. “It’s not important.”
“I’m glad we got to hang out again. It’s been good. Even if the circumstances completely sucked.”
“I’m glad too.”
“We should do something,” she said. “Not to celebrate it, of course, but to—what’s the word? Commemorate it.”
“What were you thinking exactly?”
One night, some weeks later, Craig picked her up and they drove out to the highway. In the passenger seat Claire rolled a joint while beyond the windscreen headlights rushed past like dozens of exploding stars in the night.
Ten minutes outside of town he turned down a side road and drove through a set of gates. A sign overhead read SUNSET SANCTUARY in stately metal lettering.
He parked the car and they get out. It was dark and there were no lights so Craig retrieved a flashlight from the trunk while Claire pulled a lighter out of her purse. They started off towards the large open field, making their way as best they could. They looked around but had no luck and after a while they split up, with each walking as far as they could in the opposite direction, until coming up against the thick shrub that surrounded the grounds, and then back.
Craig stopped and shined the flashlight over the wet grass. The air was calm and still and slightly humid. He moved the flashlight all around him and then caught sight of it and called Claire over. She was some ways away but heard him and in a minute was there and both were looking down at it.
His full name, Markus Warren Lessing, was written out on the rectangular slab of stone, with the years 1986-2007 carved underneath. An electric guitar had been chiseled in the right corner.
Claire pulled out the joint and lit it. She took a drag and passed it to Craig and he did the same. They passed the joint back-and-forth, with neither saying anything for what seemed like a really long time. Then, without thinking about it, he put his arm around her. He rubbed her shoulder, and then squeezed her a little next to him, like they were two human-size puzzle pieces that didn't quite fit. She tilted her head and let it rest on his shoulder. Then she leaned over and put what remained of the burning joint on the grave marker and the two started back towards the car.