by Lara Apps
The air inside the church was warm from all the bodies packed into the pews. As we entered, every head turned and a murmur ran through the assembly. I kept my eyes down and concentrated on taking my gloves off. Mom found a seat in the back row. Dad parked my wheelchair behind her and stood beside me, resting a hand on my shoulder. I looked up.
All of the candles were lit. The sweet, heavy smell of incense made me want to sneeze. The stained glass windows were bright with sunlight and cast colorful patterns on the dark wood of Dan’s casket. There was a framed photo on the closed lid.
The service took a long time. The painkillers made it hard to concentrate, so I don’t remember much of it. I nearly dozed off during the second reading. When it was time for communion, Dad leaned down and asked if I wanted to go up. Everyone else was shuffling forward in the line, but I shook my head. Dad stayed with me while Mom took communion.
I’d thought that would be the worst part, but I’d forgotten about the handshake. Near the end of Mass, everybody turns to their neighbor, shakes hands, and says “Peace be with you.” It’s my favourite part, usually. Mom and Dad shook my hand and gave me the blessing. No one else did. A couple of people in the pew shook Mom’s hand, but they didn’t look at her when they did it.
Finally, the mass was over and the pallbearers heaved the casket onto their shoulders. Dan’s father and uncle were in front, tall and dignified, setting a slow, solemn pace past the mourners. I’m not sure they noticed me. The other four bearers were my teammates. Mike and Derek were on my side of the casket. They saw me and looked away, eyes front like they were in a parade.
Dan’s mother, sister, and aunt walked behind the casket, arms around each other. Their faces were white, and their makeup was smeared from crying.
Dan’s mom saw me as she passed by. I’ve known her all my life. She looked straight at me, then at my mom and dad, and turned away like I didn’t exist.
I waited with Mom and Dad until everyone else left the church. I kept my head down while people filed past, but I could hear some of them whispering, wondering what I was doing there.
Finally, Dad wheeled me out and down the slippery ramp. By the time we got to the cemetery behind the church, everyone else was standing around the open grave and Father Dupuis was already speaking. The cold made my leg hurt. No one looked at me. When Father Dupuis was finished, he stepped back to let Dan’s mother throw the first dirt onto the casket as it was lowered slowly into the frozen ground.
I waited until most of the mourners had left. At last, Dad and I struggled over the snow to the graveside. Dan’s family were still standing there, not speaking or hugging or even crying, just staring into the grave where he lay. I touched Mrs. Latham on the sleeve of her coat. She turned and looked at me, and I knew right away that I’d made a mistake.
“Mrs. Latham, I’m...”
“How dare you? How dare you come here and speak to me?”
“Jean, he wants to say he’s sorry,” Dad said. He’d stepped up to stand beside me. “He’s just a kid. We’re all sorry, more sorry than we can say. Can’t you hear him out?”
I swear, I thought she was going to spit on us.
“I don’t want to hear what he’s got to say,” she hissed. “Or you, for that matter. Your son’s still alive, and mine’s in the ground. Don’t you dare think that saying sorry will make me feel better.”
I could hear Mom crying at my other shoulder. Dan’s dad put an arm around his wife. I thought maybe he would be the voice of reason, but I was wrong.
“Go away and leave us alone,” he said.
That’s when I started to cry, the way I had when Dad told me Dan was dead, huge racking sobs that hurt my chest and made my body shake. Dad steered me away from the Lathams and somehow got me to the car. As we drove away, I looked through the rear window. Dan’s family huddled together beside his grave. A couple of guys leaned on their shovels a discreet distance away.
That was about two months ago. I went back to the hospital for a while after the funeral, for another round of surgery. When they let me go home, I spent most of my time sleeping or listening to music in my room. That’s still pretty much all I do. I should be in classes, but my whole term got messed up, so I’m on a break till next fall. I don’t know if I’ll go back. I keep going to physio because Mom takes me, but otherwise I haven’t been out much. Every time I leave the house, I feel like people are staring out of their windows at me. I can imagine what they’re saying: “There goes the kid who killed his best friend, that nice Danny Latham, kids are so irresponsible these days, of course he was drunk... nineteen and stupid, of course he was drunk.”
So I don’t go out much. It must be driving Mom and Dad crazy, which makes me feel even worse, but I can’t talk to them about it.
Tonight, though, I’m going out. There’s something I have to do, and I’m finally strong enough to go for a walk by myself.
I wait until my parents have gone to bed and I’m sure they’re asleep. I creep downstairs as softly as I can, pick up my cane, and limp out into the cold night.
The cemetery isn’t far from my house, but it’s all uphill, and by the time I get there I’m panting from the exertion. I hobble past the looming church into the graveyard. Dan’s grave is on the far end, where the cemetery begins to slope away into the hillside.
It’s a little tricky, getting across the snow-covered ground without stumbling over the other graves, but I make it. Along the way, I pass the one with the huge copper and stone cross. When I was a kid, I figured that Jesus was buried there. Who else would have such a big cross? It’s not Jesus, of course. It’s the town’s first priest, buried in 1900. It’s just about the oldest grave in the town. I only know this because Dan and I dug a grave here last summer. I guess the regular guy was sick, so Father Dupuis asked us to help out. It was a little weird, but I don’t think it actually bothered us much. I just focused on shoveling the dirt. Afterwards, I had a look around, and that’s when I found out who was buried in Jesus’s spot.
Dan’s grave isn’t much to look at compared to some of the others. I tug my flashlight out of my coat pocket and switch it on. There’s a small headstone with Dan’s name, the years he was born and died, an inscription, and a carving of crossed hockey sticks.
I stand there looking at the marker for a while. I came up here wanting to say all kinds of stuff, but now I just feel empty. I turn the flashlight off and stand in the darkness. In the distance, a coyote starts yipping. He’s joined quickly by three or four others. It’s a still, clear night, and their singing carries across the fields and the town. I used to enjoy it. We used to join in, sometimes, if there was no one else around.
We’d gone out that Friday night, sure, me and Dan and most of the guys from the team. We’d won our game, so we decided to do a little celebrating over beers in the city. I know I didn’t have all that much to drink, just a couple of beers early on. I don’t have a car, so Dan drove us there in his new Mustang.
Once he started drinking he just kept going, and once Dan started something it was tough to get him to stop. He was never mean, exactly, just... touchy. Anyway, I saw it was going to be one of those nights, so I switched to ginger ale.
When it was time to go home, I persuaded Dan to give me his keys, and I got behind the wheel of his flashy yellow Mustang. Dan had only had it for a couple of days, so I had never driven it before.
Dan was in a good mood on the way home. It was pretty late, after last call, and the moon was full. With all the snow on the ground in the farmers’ fields on either side of the road, it was really bright.
We were about halfway home, just coming up on the little bridge over the creek. I could see the lighted cross on top of the church, still a ways off in the distance. I was tired. I pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and the Mustang’s powerful engine growled in response. Dan had his head back on the seat rest and was singing along to Nirvana. He wasn’t much of a singer, but that never stopped him. I’ve seen him do Madonna on karaoke nights. He did manage a pretty good Cobain, though.
There was a coyote in the middle of the road, its fur glowing ghostly blue in the moonlight. I saw it at the last second, slammed on the brakes, and hauled the steering wheel hard to the right.
The tires squealed as they skidded on black ice. We spun so sharply that Dan hit his head on the passenger window. I started to say I was sorry. The Mustang hit the edge of the ditch and flipped, hanging in the air for a sickeningly long time. Then it landed in the trees on the other side of the ditch with a crash, all shrieking metal and shattering glass and splitting wood. The CD player skipped and stopped. I’m pretty sure Dan screamed, but that might have been me.
We tilted crazily for a moment, and then the Mustang tipped all the way over onto its roof. Everything was quiet.
“Dan? Danny, are you okay?”
I’ve spoken out loud. I feel my face get warm, even though there’s no one to see or hear me in the graveyard.
“I’m so sorry, Dan. I don’t know if you can hear me — I hope you can — but I needed to say that. I never got the chance, you know?”
I wipe tears from my face before they can freeze onto my skin. With my other hand, I reach into my coat pocket again. I can feel the cold puck through my gloves.
“Here. I saved this for you. I was going to give it to you when we got home.”
I bend down and place the puck at the base of the headstone. Dan had scored the game winner with it. He could’ve been the player of the year. Not like me, a blue-collar winger who only got to play on the first line because the coach would give Dan whatever he wanted.
“Should be me in there, not you, buddy.”
I reach out and run my gloved fingers over the top of the headstone to brush away the accumulated snow. Then I lean on my cane and hobble away, my leg stiff and painful from the cold.
“Hey man, where do you think you’re going?”
I jump about a foot. I turn around, expecting to see some groundskeeper. But it’s Dan, sitting on one of the big headstones near his own grave. Dan, elbows on his knees, head cocked to one side, hair falling in his eyes like always, grinning.
I make the sign of the cross, and Dan laughs.
It’s definitely him.
I’m still standing there, staring like an idiot. He pats the stone beside him. “Don’t be a pussy, Todd.”
“I’m not.” So I have to hoist myself up to sit, shivering, on the big, cold, marble headstone with him. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt, same as on the night of the accident, and doesn’t even have goose bumps. I try to avoid touching him.
“How’ve you been?” he asks, kicking the stone with his heels.
“I’ve been better. What’s going on? I mean, I’m glad to see you, but you’re supposed to be dead, Dan. I saw you get buried.”
He shrugs and flashes me a grin. “I know. This is crazy.”
“So, what are you doing here? Are you a... ghost?”
“Yeah, I’ve come back from the grave to haunt you forever. Like I don’t have better things to do.”
“Not funny, Dan.”
“Well, what are you doing hanging around a graveyard in the middle of the night, anyway?”
I look down at the snowy ground between my feet.
“Didn’t get a chance to say good-bye at the funeral, huh?”
I shake my head. I don’t want to tell him what happened there.
“Mom’ll come around. She never stays mad for long, you know that.”
“Damn it, Danny, it’s not like the time we went tree-climbing and you broke your arm! You’re dead! I killed you! I don’t blame her for wanting me dead.”
Dan doesn’t respond right away. We sit silently, shoulder-to-shoulder, for a minute or so. Even the coyotes are quiet now.
“I’m really sorry, Dan. I screwed up. If I’d just kept going, just hit that mangy coyote, you’d still be alive.”
He turns and looks at me, his face serious for once. “Maybe, but then the coyote would be dead.”
“You’re more important than an animal, Dan.”
“I think the coyote might feel differently about that,” he says.
“Look, I appreciate that you’re trying to make me feel better, I guess, but you’re not helping. I can’t pretend it wasn’t my fault, or whatever crap you’re trying to feed me.”
“Why does it have to be your fault?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, maybe sometimes things happen that aren’t anyone’s fault,” he says, slowly. “The road was icy. I drank too much. So why are you acting like it’s all about what you did?”
I scramble off the stone and face him. “Shut up. I was driving, I couldn’t handle your car, I put us in the ditch...”
“So what? Think that makes you some kind of weird martyr? Or makes me a saint? What are you gonna do, Todd, go around crying about how you killed your best friend for the rest of your life? Trying to make people feel sorry for you?”
He stands up and comes toward me.
“Or maybe you just want a little time in the spotlight,” he says softly. “You never got much, hanging around with me all the time.”
That’s when I take a swing at him. My fist catches him on the cheekbone. He stumbles backwards, one hand to his face.
“You think you’d have scored all those goals without me, Danny? Huh? I protected you out there, I watched your back, I made sure everyone knew if they messed with you I’d make them pay for it...”
I’ve never yelled at Dan, not since we were kids.
I stop yelling.
I start crying.
Dan steps forward and puts his arms around me, and I lean into him and just cry.
Eventually, I’m all out of tears and there are frozen streaks on my face. Dan lets me go. While I’m pulling myself together, he parks himself on the stone again. I join him after a minute. We just sit there without saying anything for a while. Slowly, we start talking and laughing about that last game.
The sound of trucks carries up to us from the highway. It’s nearly morning. The houses are still dark, but it won’t be long before people start getting up. Dad will be heading to work soon. I used to like waking up and having breakfast with him, just the two of us, early, before Mom got up to go to her job. I haven’t done that since the accident.
Dan hops off the stone and reaches down. He stands up and holds the puck out to me.
“Here. I want you to have it.”
“Go on.” He takes my hand and presses the puck into it. “It’s time for me to go.”
I drop the puck into my pocket. “Where?”
“I don’t really know. I’ll be okay, though.” He holds out a hand. “I guess this is goodbye, then.”
“Screw that.” I give him a hug. He laughs and hugs me back. He grins, gives me a playful punch on the shoulder, and then he’s gone. Just gone, like he was never there.
In the distance, a coyote lifts its voice above the early-morning noises of the town. I tip my head back and answer him in a long, yipping howl.
On the walk home, I keep one hand in my pocket, closed over Dan’s puck. My leg is stiff from the cold, but it doesn’t bother me so much now. As I turn the corner onto my street, I spot Dad’s truck idling in front of our house. He’s still inside, probably having his breakfast and coffee.
When I get in, I head for the kitchen. Dad glances up from his coffee, looking puzzled. “Why are you dressed? Where have you been?”
I sit down, set Dan’s puck on the table between us, and tell him.
Copyright © 2005 by Lara Apps