"The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because it's only intangibles, ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die." -Choke, by chuck palahniuk.
Prologue (All Good Things Come To an End)
This is not about me. The sadness or sorrow I am feeling at this moment is nothing. Despite what you have heard, I am not a selfless person. I am being selfish in wanting everyone else to feel sorry for me while he remains stone cold and lifeless. It isn't fair, but as the saying goes...
I am dressed in a black suit, tight and form-fitting, as if I am trying to be as attractive as possible. I've come to realize that I am a pretentious bastard who really doesn't care about anything around, so long as it doesn't pertain to interrupting my life. The personification of a modern day human: selfish, vain and gluttonous for all things material. The speaker at the podium continues on about how he and my friend, Liam (who is the dead one in case that needed to be clarified), had helped some poor, lost woman downtown Phoenix find her way to some art museum or other. It was a pointless, trivial story that was supposed to show how caring and grand Liam had been. It only served as a footnote now. A distant memory that no one, save for my blabbering friend, would find comforting or helpful.
My friend stepped down after a few more moments of sharing memories and eulogizing Liam as some saintly figure who should be adored and cried over. The priest stepped up and called my name, as if I had just won some grand lottery. I'm rich everyone, let's share the wealth. I had been preparing a eulogy for a few days now. Liam Shaw. What to say about Liam Shaw?
All eyes turned to me as I stood from my seat in the second row, the row allotted for friends of the deceased. What a word. Like he was some expired computer program that was slated for deletion or a carton of milk that had started to curdle and would be thrown out. He was a fucking human being or Christ's sake! He was a fucking real-life, breathing person with hopes, dreams and-.
"I have known Liam since we were freshman in high school. For seven years we had hung out, gone to bars, seen movies, listened to music, traded stories and went on trips together. We did all the typical things friends do. We got to know each other. The one thing that a lot of people first notice about him is the fact that he has this...magnetism about him. This sort of force that compels you to want to know him. To want to be apart of his life. It's weird. He walks by, you look at him and you instantly want to be his friend. He had...charisma."
I look down at the words written on the paper, my eyes starting to mist over in tears. I will not cry. I am a selfish bastard and this death of my good friend does not effect me in anyway. Some words are then smudged by falling water. I clench my fist and look back up at the small sea of people. Most are wearing black, some holding white handkerchiefs and dotting their eyes. All have forlorn, sympathetic expressions. None of these people really knew Liam. Not like I did. Not like I thought I did. I brought one hand up to the podium and crumpled the paper.
"Liam is a selfish bastard. For a long time I've told myself that I am not deserving of anything. That everything good that happens, well, he did and I didn't. People like Liam deserved all the glory and greatness life had to offer. Well fuck that."
Some people gasped. Some cocked their heads to the side like confused dogs, wondering if I had actually said what just came out of my mouth or if some devilish harpy had taken my body, torn it to pieces and then finished for me. Or if some imposter and stolen my face and clothes and demeanor and then turned and spit on the coffin of Liam Shaw, deceased.
"He had everything he could have wanted. He was smart. Brilliant. Witty. Funny. I loved him. He had the world in his grasp. And what did he do? He threw it away. He spat on it, walked over it and then offed himself in one fell swoop. For years I always maneuvered myself into his orbit, like some clingy, lost puppy dog, hoping he'd take notice of me. And then he did. We got close. I always thought I made it apparent that I wanted him more than he could have known, but I guess I hadn't. Or if I had, he took no notice. Instead, he decided to get involved with some lowly fuck that didn't deserve him. Who treated him like shit. Who brought him down and helped to tarnish his perfect world."
My fists had completed obliterated the paper I had been holding, my nails, while not long, were digging into the skin of my palm, drawing up a shallow amount of blood. The priest stepped forward then, finally jolted out of his shock, and held a hand up.
"Son, that's enough now. Please-." Son. He called me son as if he knew who I was. As if he knew what I was feeling. As if he could possibly understand.
I waved my other hand at him and glared as fierce a glare as I could manage. I wanted him to feel the fire in my eyes.
"No! I am not finished." I turned back to the crowd, the priest forgotten. My voice shook and rose, my legs started to shake. "Everyone loved Liam. Everyone. They thought of him as some perfect, well-bred, articulate soul. He didn't have a soul. He was just as selfish, vain and cruel as all of us. In the end, that's what we found out right? And here we are, praising him as if he was better. He could have been better. But you know what? He isn't. He's worse. I'm glad he's dead."
I turned and looked at his coffin. The closed casket sitting there, holding the body of God, for all these people knew. I knew better.
"You hear that Liam? Can you hear that over the roar of the fire you're roasting in? I'm glad you're dead. You deserve all you got now."
I shrugged off the priest who had finally gotten the nerve to come and stop me. My face was red with all the pent up rage, my eyes watering with tears. People stood as I walked past, gasping and whispering at my back.My fist remained clenched and with my free hand I pushed one of the doors open and left.
"What was all that back there?"
I was leaning against the railing on the roof of the funeral home, looking out over the busy road before me. The sun was high up in the sky, typical of Arizona. Even on a day of sorrow there could be no clouds. No one outside of this building could tell how sad this day was supposed to be. I took another drag from my cigarette.
"Caleb, what was that? You've really upset a lot of people in there. Mrs. Shaw is devastated. They're talking of not letting you come to the wake." Israel stopped and stood beside me.
"You say that as if I should care." I had my sunglasses on now, so my red eyes would not be seen from the heavy crying I had done on my trip up the stairs. "I wasn't planning on going to the wake anyhow."
Israel closed his eyes and shook his head, something I had gotten used to seeing plenty of times since we met. It's not that the look was always directed at me or anything. Lately though, I did seem to be the sole recipient.
"He was our friend, Caleb. He meant a lot to both of us. To all of us." He paused and looked down, his dark fingers fidgeting with the button on the jacket to his suit. He looked back up. "Though he seemed to mean a lot more to you."
I threw my hands up in the air, letting the cigarette get carried away into the wind. "Jesus fucking Christ Is, why here? Why now?" I turned my attention back to the road. "He's dead, okay? What does it matter? What did it ever manner?"
Turning to face him, I caught the first hint of a pained expression. But as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. As if it had been sand and the incoming wind had carried it away. Classic Israel was what it boiled down to. The defenses were up now. The stonewall was in place.
"Yeah." He sighed and turned to walk away. He took a few steps, stopped and turned back to look at me. "Yeah, you're right. What does it matter? What does any of this matter? You can have everything put in front of you and you're gonna do exactly what you said Liam did. Throw it all away. Who cares who you hurt right? As long as you survive." He sighed and walked away. "You can be miserable without me."
And like that, Israel opened the door and closed it behind him. I stared at the silver portal for a moment, thinking on those words he had left me with. Shaking my head, I lit up another cigarette and turned back to the road.
Close your eyes and think of your very first memory. Is it warm? All fuzzy and lovely, like some perfect, cozy Thomas Kincaid painting? Does it make you happy and smile? I hate when I am asked that question. I try to think back and all I can find are shades and degrees. It starts off as a bunch of black nothingness in my mind, and after a while little blotches of white and gray start to form. No real images come to mind. That's when I'll get these flashes.
A van sliding backwards. A group of young kids all taking turns swatting at a piñata dangling from a leafy green tree in a grassy backyard. Burping up bubbles after being forced to swallow dish soap as punishment for something I had done. A group of us all sneaking out of a friends house to go play "king of the hill" and some other war games at our middle school down the road. Of being in the locker room during freshman year and having some senior, a friend of my older brother's, tell me to look at him so he can accost me more for being quiet and shy. Most of all I remember the newspaper room at my old high school.
3 years earlier…
"You gonna miss this place?"
I couldn't help but smile at the question placed before me. There were so many mixed and heavy emotions flooding my brain, but it all boiled down to this room. Yeah, high school is about change and growing up. People say they are the most important academic years in your life. They say high school helps to prepare young people for the "real world", whatever that is. A place where we have to take responsibility for our actions. A place where work and dedication mean success and happiness. A place where fantasies must be put to bed and the adult that had been a child mere moments before takes the stand and continues on. Was I ready for something like that?
I turned and gave Liam a noncommittal reply. I wasn't sure what I said, though it was probably along the lines of, "Eh, I guess." I wasn't ready to face the facts. High school was over and so were four years of my life. Four years that had been centered around this very room.
Liam laughed. I came to call them his "Pan laughs" because they reminded me of a free-spirited satyr prancing in flower fields, just giddy and full of passion for life. He gave me a quick pat on the shoulder and left to take his seat.
People were streaming into the classroom now. Newspaper had never been a popular subject to take in past years. Every year I had been on staff, the size rarely reached above fifteen. This year we almost had thirty. Most were freshman, brand new to the idea of journalism and reporting events that happened around campus and the city. Most didn't seem all that interested in carrying on the legacy this paper had come to be known for. As I liked to boast, the Express has won numerous awards in past years for layouts, story content and idea.
I remained at the head of the room, taking my seat on the stool behind the podium while everyone got settled. Most began talking amongst themselves about their weekend, about boys, about upcoming finals and plans for summer. It was in this moment, looking out over the others that I envied the juniors and underclassmen, that I grew envious and saddened. My legacy, whatever that was, would end today. Today would be my last day in this room as Editor-in-Chief, a title that meant more to me than anyone could possibly know. I had worked hard for three years to get that job and all the jokes about me taking it seriously always made me smile. Hard work and dedication.
The paper would continue on without me. Next year, some of these people would return because they got hit. They had been struck with the appeal of this room, of the job and of the other people in it. They would come back ready to tackle the news and demands that this room called of them. Sure, they might make light conversation now and then about last year's paper and how fun it was. But mostly conversations like those would revolve around how to improve. How to make the next year's paper even better. To overshadow my accomplishments and at that moment I would officially become a footnote in the history of the Express. Nothing more, nothing less. A memory.
There were only a small number of seniors in the room. Myself, Liam and four others. Liam had only joined this year and hadn't been hit. To him, this was a chance to do some writing and perhaps just be lazy. It would be an easy-earned credit and look good on a transcript. For the rest of us, those that had been on since our freshman and sophomore years, well, this was it. It is a weird feeling, sitting in a room with your replacements, just there to occupy space.
I cleared my throat as the final bell rang. Mrs. Ryder, our newspaper advisor, sat at her desk, her chair swiveled so she could face me. She smiled and nodded, giving me the cue to begin class. Newspaper was never like other classes. It wasn't structured in a manner where there were tests, essays or teacher-led discussions. No. This room was run by the students. The "advisor" was merely there to help maintain order and supervise. She had been very hands off, unlike two of the previous advisors, which always made me very happy.
I returned the smile and started off with the day's events. The paper had been distributed last Friday and it had been run through on that what we could have improved on, what was good about and what would be carried on to next year. Today was merely a day of speechifying and remembrance; of transition. My replacement was sitting off to my side. She hadn't been officially declared next year's Editor-in-Chief, but everyone, myself included, knew that she was the logical choice. She had served as my Managing Editor this year and was well groomed to take the reigns. Eve Schreiner would be a damn fine replacement. And I hated her for it.
After a few minutes of talking and thanking everyone for the best year the paper has ever seen, I stepped aside and let Eve take over. It was time for planning of next year's staff. It was time to start moving ahead. The moment I left the podium, Mrs. Ryder announced that interviewing among fellow staffers for all open positions, which was every position, would start today. As if out of thin air the applications were produced. Eve took one. The one I had filled out earlier this year. The one that would signal the beginning of something new.
Where were my thanks? Where was my grand applause? I suppose the comments left in my yearbook were thanks and congratulations enough. I moved away and took a seat in the back of the room and watched as everyone moved about, again talking and filling out paperwork. The new staff. To me, this was an end of an era. The other seniors took up old copies of the paper and started leafing through them, seeing as how they had nothing better to do. I had the urge to go back up to the front and start planning for the next issue. Discuss how many pages there would be. What story ideas did everyone have? Who would write what? Deadlines would then need to be set. Interview dates started. God I would not start to cry. Before I knew, the bell rang and class was dismissed. Granted, graduation wasn't for another three days, but this was our last day on campus before then. Seniors were dismissed today. Just like that.
"And so it ends," Liam said, coming up from behind again. People had a habit of sneaking up on me at these awkward, reflective moments.
I just sat there for a moment, looking at the room. The long desks were scattered in haphazard patterns in the center of the room, some with four or five chairs around them, others with two or even one. Computer consoles lined the perimeter of the room on three sides. Mrs. Ryder, who had stepped out, had her desk in the front of the room, though it was pushed off to one side. A place where I could commonly hang out, seeing as she had a lot to offer in terms of advice and the daily running of the paper. I closed my eyes and committed every detail to memory, since that was all I had now. I stood and grabbed by bag, slung it over my shoulder and smiled at my friend.
"Well, you know what they say…"
He continued to grin, his brown eyes still alive. "What's that," he asked, matching my pace so that we would walk out together.
I stopped at the door, allowing him to go out first. "All good things come to an end."
He then gave me a sagely nod and patted my shoulder. There were no words expressed between us then, but I knew exactly what he was telling me with his eyes and hands. This wasn't an end to anything, merely another chapter. We said our goodbyes and I turned back to the room.
"Good bye. It's been a hell of a trip." With that, I flicked the light switches off and stepped out, letting the door slowly close. I kept walking down the hall and never looked back. It would be the last time I would ever step foot in that room again.