Written for LiveJournal's 5_times challenge
Ryan Parker hated goodbyes.
As a matter of fact, he hated most things which prompted some sort of emotional reaction. Physical wounds were alright; they'd hurt like shit for the first few days before closing up for good. But funerals now… they were just shit.
For fuck's sake, eighteen was too young to be stuck in a funeral parlor.
There obviously wasn't a lot of fanfare going on either. The deceased can't have been all that popular to deserve a service attended by… three people including the pastor, the undertaker and a tramp who'd wandered in from the cold. Guess that meant no obligatory lunch afterwards. Not it mattered much anyway… he'd lost his appetite long before that. Would have been a waste of time and public expenses to organize a proper wake for a punk who'd snuffed himself out in a gang fight.
He ran a hand through his dyed-blue hair. He'd kill for a smoke now…
It wasn't even raining. How come it always rained in the movies when someone died? Wasn't enough that the whole audience was in tears, the director just had to crack open the fucking sky to add to the melodrama. Where was that automatic water sprinkler when he needed one?
He shoved his hands into his pockets and would have chewed a hole in his tongue to ease the nicotine cravings…
Except that she walked by.
Dark eyes narrowed, they pounced on her moving form and proceeded to rummage through it for curiosity's sake. Elbow-length straight chestnut-brown hair, lightly tanned olive skin and a great ass was what he could instantly make out. Her torso twisted sideways as she slid some papers over the black granite reception counter and he was impressed to note the decent-sized cleavage hidden beneath a layer of cream sweater. Not too small so that it was indistinguishable, not too large for them to appear like she slept with her plastic surgeon for free gift vouchers. Long dark eyelashes curved downwards added volume to her silhouette.
She saw him.
A lush thick fringe covered her forehead. Not that the face was bad anyway. Pretty, lovely even. Piercing coffee-brown eyes met his. Burning with life as they were, he wasn't too sure if he could quite label the fire in them. Oh well, let blazing eyes burn and they'll cool down eventually…
"Your name?" she asked.
"Parker. Ryan Parker." He hoped he sounded suave enough for this joint. She may have been dressed in a sweater and black slacks but she could pass for a younger version of any random Bond girl. Nice aura, very European, foreign, sexy, mysterious too.
"Nice hair." was how she replied before shifting her focus to the papers stacked on the counter. He smirked, thankful for choosing the ebony blue rather than the commando green his buddy had been raving about.
"So what's your name?"
After brooding over whether she should for a few nanoseconds, she added, "Guthrie."
"Guthrie. As is Paige Guthrie from the X-Men comics?"
Ah, a sincere reaction. So she wasn't a closet dork and neither did she associate with any.
"She's also known as 'Husk'. Superhero who has the ability to shed her skin to form new layers."
"Nothing like Superman's super speed and strength?"
"Nah. Why would you want those anyway? Too generic for my taste."
"I don't know a lot about comic-books, sorry."
"Well," She flinched slightly as she sensed him edge closer to her. "Ain't that the surprise of the century."
She… Paige lowered her gaze under long lashes. Obviously taking in the sight of his dirt-stained hoodie and jeans. Quite an eyesore in the stern environment of a funeral home. Fortunately for him, his shoes hadn't left any muck in their tracks as he'd paced the austere lobby. Then again, with carpeting this thick, not even an elephant in football studs would have left any imprints behind.
"Don't suppose you got a smoke on you…"
"I haven't. Mr. Travers might."
"You should've seen him earlier. A tall thin man in a dark suit."
"They were all tall thin men in dark suits."
His response prompted a small smile. Corners of the lips turned upwards without opening her mouth. "A sallow-faced guy. With thinning hair."
Ryan pointed at the man in context as he sidled through a half-open door and closed it behind him. "Aw, he got away."
"I need a smoke. Pretty damn bad."
"Don't worry. You'll live."
So she wasn't one of the feisty ones. Fine, he could live with that. His last girlfriend reminded him vaguely of her. Except that she'd been two years older and had smoked like a furnace. Grace, he remembered, her name had been Grace. They'd met at a rave which he'd accompanied his friend Asher to and she'd disappeared a few months ago after a hailstorm had battered the city black and blue.
But that was past tense. At present, who was he to care?
"So, Paige, you go to school?"
"Congratulations." He didn't mean it. What lay ahead of her was a hefty couple of years crammed in this bleak desolate hole of a city. Where the neon shop lights shone brighter than the stars. "So that'd mean college and shit next."
"What're your plans?"
"Majoring in business administration."
Probably because it was either that or get a job waitressing at a moldy old diner.
"And what about you… Ryan?"
"Just hangin' in there. Nowhere to go."
"Got a job?"
"… Kinda." Yeah, hustling drunk bastards in rundown nightclubs and pounding the shit out of anyone who tried to stick a knife up his ass in a deserted alleyway. "Don't tell me you work here?"
"It's a family affair. Not because I had a choice."
She kept her tone husky and neutral at all times. Judging from her finesse, he assumed that she'd had enough and more practice at it. He could picture her as a little girl, clutching her doll and peering discretely from under her heavy fringe. He wondered if she'd ever lay awake in her bed and mapped out her future in the glow of the moonlight. Or if she'd given up on that like he'd done.
"Hanging around dead people in coffins all day, huh? Nice way to spend the summer."
"Could be worse."
"I could be one of those dead people in coffins."
He grimaced. "Why so morbid?"
"Hard not to be in this place. Unless you're the type that cracks jokes in the middle of a service."
Actually, that's what he would have been doing earlier were it not for the fact that there had been no one willing – or lightheaded – enough to listen. Maybe that wouldn't have worked if he'd tried. This place had a knack for muffling sounds. Including laughter.
"I could give that a try."
"Really?" She arched her eyebrow as her eyes shifted to his. "Impress me then."
"Okay. Bury any atheists here?"
"Why bother? They got no place to go."
Now it was her turn to grimace. "How comforting…"
"You're one of them?"
"Sorta." He caught a glimpse of a sparkling stud in her left ear when she tucked her strand of her behind it. "More precisely, I'm not really committed to anything."
"I can agree on that."
He heard a doorknob turning and glanced over his shoulder. Travers reappeared from his den, mouth set in a thin wrinkled line and eyes as cold as a slab of concrete. The grainy age lines between his eyebrows gave Ryan the impression of persistent sulker. Someone who refused to be happy no matter what the occasion.
He opened his mouth to transmit his sentences and closed it immediately on completion. Like a robot. An android perhaps. Except that he was so obviously human it was painful, from his cigarette-scented suit to the turquoise veins at the sides of his forehead.
"Do you have the Mathews file with you?" He inquired.
She flicked through a nearby sheaf of papers until she found what she was looking for. Without uttering a word, she handed it over to him. Just as silently, he took it and left without as much as a word of thanks.
Ryan couldn't help but smirk behind the man's retreating back. "Nice guy. Blends right in with the place."
"He's our funeral director."
"Looks the part too. Think he was raised from the dead himself?"
"He died a long time ago." She murmured, barely a hint of sympathy inflecting her tone. "I'm not sure how but he seems to have withered from the inside. As if he began hiding from the sun on purpose."
"Maybe he's like Michael Jackson. Allergic to sunlight."
This time, she ignored him. Obviously, she didn't take too kindly to anyone mocking the bitterness she could see in someone. He definitely didn't feel like apologizing for something which came so naturally to him so he stayed put, leaning against the chilled dark grey wall. She, on the other hand, walked around the reception and sat down at the desk there. Observing carefully, he wasn't surprised to discover a lack of personality gracing the space. No pictures of high school friends, no cartoon-embossed stationary, no saucy calendars depicting male models in varying states of nudity, not even a china ornament to break the bland monotony. If this was supposed to be in line with the deco standards at work, then she had done one hell of a good job.
She continued filling in the detail on a form.
"You ever seen a dead body?"
Oh fuck. Now he'd gone and screwed things up. He braced himself for the crocodile tears that were sure to follow.
He waited for it.
The silence was so thick that he started tapping his feet to dissipate it. She barely noticed, much less erupted into a heaving, sobbing mass. What kind of person had her brother been in life to deserve the silent treatment in death? One fucked-up son of a…
"He died when I was two so don't expect me to mourn for someone I can't even remember."
"So that explains it."
"I have a sister."
He wasn't sure as to what possessed him to blurt that out. Come to think of it, it had been fucking ages since he'd given Sue the time of day, let alone giving her a ring to ask how Gwen and the others were doing. Damn, if she could see him at this very moment, hitting on a chick at a fucking funeral parlor. Anyway, now that he'd mentioned her, he might as well do her justice.
"Her name's Sue and she's fourteen. Starting high school in a few months."
"Does she take after her brother?"
"Nope, she's cute. Lives with my step-mother and my step-brother and sister."
"Don't tell me she's a Cinderella too."
"Course not. She's cute but one tough cookie. She'd like you."
The hand holding the pen paused in mid-sentence. "How would you know that?"
"Your hair. She's always wanted hair like that. With the fringe and all."
And that was it. She dotted a full-stop at the end of the passage and set the paper aside. She would have to wait until the next death and the usual heap of paperwork that came with it. Two months later, she would be attending classes at the local college. Flash-forward ten years later, he could picture her at the same desk and her college diploma yellowing with age in her lonely apartment.
"Say, Paige, you don't mind if I drop by sometimes?"
"You want to 'hang' here?"
"Yeah, kinda. To keep you company. Not everyday, maybe some days?"
The fire was back in her eyes, ready to defend its sacred territory. Briefly, they connected and he could tell that she was wary. Not to mention cold. No wonder, anyone with more emotion would freeze to death here if they hadn't tried to drown themselves in their own sorrow first.
"Okay." There it was, a smile. "You can come."
He turned on his heel and left her. "See ya."
Sooner rather than later, he hoped. There was only so much time that one could spend with the dead…