The morning passed slowly. After breakfast, and running out of steam with the pool brochures, nobody seemed to feel like doing much. For the journey to the church, Luke retreated into himself. It wasn't hard when nobody else felt like talking, either.
It remained a beautiful sunny morning—the perfect morning some might say. Maybe too perfect to have to say goodbye to a guy who'd been his closest friend since those first weeks after Luke had first stepped into the classroom, when those already there had all looked up to study the new kid, the kid from somewhere near London, England.
As they passed along the valley floor on the journey to the church, he could see the church from a distance as they travelled up the wooded highway. Set upon the bluff of a hill. the edifice still commanded a view of the approach nonetheless.
They turned at a junction, and Luke spotted the name of the road: Rainbow's End. The van began to climb gently under leaves that were becoming the hues of red and gold of an autumn that had come too quickly. The sunshine splashed across their windscreen in bursts of warm serenity, and, as they drew nearer to their destination, Luke could see glimpses of the white-stoned building through the trees. A final bend and they came out of the trees. Ahead of them, the church stood in confidant majesty.
It was a stunning setting, momentarily flawed by the presence of one or two vans from the local media waiting near the entrance to an already well-filled parking lot. At the gateway, a single police cruiser stood guard.
Some things never changed and his mum's planning had got them there just at the right time, and with a few minutes to go inside and find a quiet seat near the back. Somewhere out of the way, Luke hoped. Truth be told, he was relying on his parents to steer him through. He planned to follow their lead without having to think about anything meaningful. Otherwise it might bring him too close to the truth.
The large parking lot continued to fill as more arrived on their heels. Awkwardly, he climbed out of the van, balancing on his good foot until he could rest on the crutch.
He’d chosen to leave the boot at home. He just wasn’t getting on with it and it made his foot ache. Maybe it was fitted wrong, but he was happier just with the crutch. At least for the time being. Getting his balance, he braced himself on his crutch as he stepped forward.
He braced himself in his head, too. Being there was both the last thing he wanted to do and the only place he wanted to be that day. He twisted to glance at some of the other arrivals and his shoulder wound throbbed. Perhaps he should have taken some more painkillers. Still, he was glad for the biting discomfort as they slowly made their way towards the open church doors. It kept him from drifting.
The real pain, however, started as soon as they stepped into a wide, airy foyer. Some distance away, the tall, inner double doors that led to the main sanctuary were wide open, and he could see now how full the church actually was. His eyes tracked past the backs of both familiar and unfamiliar heads and he had to bite back a cry as, up near the altar at the front of the modern cathedral, two caskets lay side by side. Surrounding them, a number of candles flickered in the warm sunshine that bathed the stage area.
He was still staring at them in dismay, and even considering bolting for the door, when familiar voices caught his attention.
"Geoff...Lucy," murmured Brigadier Buford. "We so appreciate y'all coming.”
Like Luke’s dad, Andrew Buford was dressed in a dark, somber suit. Luke and Simon had no such suits; both had opted for their black school pants with black ties that their mum had bought.
Alice Buford was in dark colors, too, but had chosen to add a single red rose to the buttonhole of her formal jacket. Its simple beauty matched hers as she made a beeline for him. He didn't resist the gentle hug from the old lady, though it threatened his equilibrium.
"Bless you," she said. "It wouldn't have been right if you weren't here."
He was glad he'd seen them yesterday. This day was going to be bad enough without all the guilt and confusion he'd been carrying around up until then. He tried to smile, but it wouldn't come out straight, and he certainly didn’t trust his voice. She seemed to understand as she patted his arm softly.
"We have some seats reserved for you down at the front," she murmured. "Now you're here, why don't we just go down, and you can rest your leg."
"That's very kind of you, Alice," Lucy said, though Luke’s stomach tightened at the invitation.
The front? Sitting where everyone could watch him, was the last place Luke wanted to be. At the same time, he couldn’t reject their kindness. They tarried a few moments as other mourners arrived and passed them by in mute silence, and Luke studied the floor as they waited.
"Luke!" The not so quiet, yet unusually tense tone of Todd's voice tore at Luke, and he looked up quickly as Todd strode across the foyer from the open doors of the sanctuary.
"Hello, Todd," Geoff said at once. He reached out to Todd and shook the teenager's usual firm grip. His eyes drifted past Todd into the sanctuary. "I see your folks came, too."
“Yes, sir." Todd spun to Lucy. "Hello, Mrs. Summers.”
Luke looked past Todd as he was briefly being introduced to the Bufords, and he could see the Quince family, too. They, and many others now, were twisting heads; their eyes all seemed to be fixed on him.
However, rather than irritate or upset him, Todd's solid presence settled Luke. Todd appeared contained—sad, but still in control of his emotions, and Luke found that helped him focus, too. Todd was there. When it came to something important between them all at school, Todd always knew what to do.
Todd finally turned and greeted Luke with an embrace, and gripped him firmly enough that the pain of it in Luke’s shoulder helped push back the weakness that had been gathering in his stomach.
"We're all here," Todd murmured, though whom he was referring to was unclear. "I'll see you afterwards."
It seemed a plan, and Luke was grateful for it.
More people continued to arrive, several that the Bufords seemed to know well, so they continued to tarry a few moments while greetings were exchanged before slowly making their way to the front of the church.
It was a slow walk down the richly colored carpet, made slower by his crutch; like a wedding, but with no joy or hope for a future. Luke couldn't bear to look at the caskets and found himself flicking his eyes from side to side instead, studying those he passed as they studied him.
Many of those coming together that morning Luke didn't know from Adam—regular attenders perhaps, or maybe friends of the Bufords and their family. A good number, however, Luke did know, and more and more familiar school faces popped out of the congregation as he passed—and not just those from his class, but from other classes at the Academy, and staff members, too.
In fact, the more his eyes flicked around, the more Luke realized that the church was flush with Academy guys.
We're all here, Todd had said. Luke wondered if Benton had given permission, or whether they'd just bunked.
As eyes followed him, it made Luke feel uncomfortable, and he tried to focus on the idea that they weren't there for him. Still, he'd seen the articles, too—his dad had saved the papers and Luke had wanted to read them to know what was being said. 'The boy who’d lived', they'd called him—cheekily it seemed, an idea stolen from Harry Potter. Down the packed rows, heads still turned to search him out.
Looking anywhere but straight ahead towards the raised, carpeted platform and its arrangement of simple caskets, the church drew him in with a sense of tradition molded by the twenty-first century. He'd never been a churchgoer, and his only memories of such things were of the odd wedding and a few christenings in fusty old buildings where dilapidated hymn books and dusty, threadbare kneelers filled hard wooden benches. That, and the odd minster or cathedral they'd popped into as tourists, was about it.
He'd never really understood it at all, or why Ryan ever went to church, but at least this church felt properly churchy without smelling of mildew. Individual, comfortable-looking modern chairs were set in well-spaced rows facing a raised platform that carried an ornate pulpit dressed in red and gold. Cooling air-con laced with the rich scents of incense and faith had replaced the fusty mildew. Even the hymn books seem to have been updated to a powerful video projector mounted somewhere out of sight behind the screen. Across it played some simple words of welcome.
Other than that, there were no greetings or friendly waves from ones he knew as he limped forward. Some faces looked lost and sad, others seemed to be trying to get a measure of him, perhaps hoping they would be worthy of the inside track at some point. On one face, half way down the cream colored carpet, another set of eyes held him briefly until he looked away feeling troubled.
He’d known Elliott would be there, and his friend sat quietly with Rose Carter. It didn't help that those eyes hadn't been condemning or even just plain pissed off at his behavior—Luke still felt bad.
It had to remain a problem for another day as they reached the front. Thankfully they left the very front row for the Bufords, and, following their parents, he and Simon slipped into the reserved row right behind Andrew and Alice. Luke took the end seat so that he could stretch his leg.
Mrs. Buford and her husband weren't alone. Amongst several he didn't know sat Mel Piper. She turned and gave Luke a friendly smile. It didn't surprise him that she was there, and he tried to smile back, though it came out as a grimace.
Along with a Bible on the neat shelf mounted onto the back of the chair in front of him was a short order of service. He reached for it and fingered the simple, delicate paper in his hands. 'A Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving'. Thanksgiving? Tracing the journey of the service, he wondered how he was going to bear it.
Father Kenny was his name—at least according to the service sheet—the man who would be leading the memorial service. At some unseen sign, it began.
Father Michael Kenny. Luke studied the traditionally dressed priest as he entered from one side, stepped up to the platform, and faced them. Eschewing the prominent elevation of the main pulpit for a small lectern and a tie pin mic, he introduced himself.
The first part of the service was formal—a hymn, readings, prayers, yet it was endowed with a rich heritage and flowed with a tender beauty. However, it wasn't until Father Kenny began to speak, that Luke found his control slipping.
Kenny wasn't what he expected. He didn't come across as one who dealt in the coinage of sin and guilt, or got his kicks wagging his finger in recrimination. Neither was he a Mr. Bean! As the priest began to speak, Luke found himself being drawn in. Not by rhetoric or by a slick, pre-prepared sermon, but by the honest words of an old man who was as touched as any of them that difficult day.
Kenny finished reading a passage and then slipped off his reading glasses as he closed his Bible. He leaned on the lectern apparently gathering his thoughts.
"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose," he began, repeating the words of the passage he'd just read. He paused as he considered the words before stepping away from behind the podium. "You know, it's times like this when I need the most help in understanding what that means."
He came forward to the edge of the stage, free of notes, speaking with a soft conviction. There were probably none who were listening who didn’t feel he was speaking directly to them.
“‘A time to live and a time to die’ the book of Ecclesiastes tells us, and maybe some might take that as a prescription for indifference, as if the untimely loss of a loved one means little in the end—an unfortunate incident driven purely by some unknown almighty agenda.” The eyes of what had first appeared to be some doddering old vicar flashed with anger.
“Me?" he continued, his tone matching his words. "I’m angry. And if you’re angry too, then so you should be. In fact you should be furious that something important was stolen from us, because, in that sense, there’s nothing good about the reason any of us are here. You don’t believe that, and neither do I—and in my heart, I don’t think God demands that we convince ourselves that the loss of two beautiful people is all for some greater good.”
Luke was taken aback, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t sitting on the edge of his seat as the old man let loose. Kenny paused, and his tone and demeanor mellowed.
“Yet the very opposite is also true," he continued as his eyes flicked to the place where two coffins lay. "We are here to celebrate the very best of the lives of Helena and Ryan Alexis; to remember them for the good things in their lives and for the joy they brought us, and yes, to grieve too. And it's in those very things that we can still find peace, and we can be glad knowing that, in that very grief, we share something of immense value."
He went on to talk about Helena Alexis for a few minutes, and he seemed to know a lot more about her than Luke would ever have guessed. One thing was missing through it all, however...any references to Captain Ethan Alexis.
Luke had been relieved that there were only two caskets as he’d walked down the aisle, unsure about how he’d feel if the body of that murderer had been laid alongside the family he’d destroyed. The idea that the bastard should be allowed anywhere near Ryan, even in death, was abhorrent! But that was not to happen. Maybe his own family were conducting their own funeral somewhere and trying to find good things to say? Luke really didn’t care.
“Ryan was a remarkable young man who, over the many years I knew him, always seemed to be able to surprise me and never gave up, whatever challenges he faced.” The mention of Ryan's name caught Luke's attention, and he saw the face of the old priest light up in a different way as Kenny recalled his own personal friendship with Ryan.
Kenny chuckled. “He attended here at St Barnabus quite regularly...I think it was mainly to make sure I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of a sermon.” That got a soft chuckle from those listening. “But he helped keep this old man on his toes, and if he didn’t agree with something I'd said, he would often tell me!
“I remember meeting Ryan a few months ago in the most unexpected of places, down at Hartsfield Airport. It was one of the first days of May. I was heading to Dallas and, talking about falling asleep at the wrong time, he had apparently dropped off on the Marta, and then got off at the end of the line!”
Luke froze. The conversation he'd had with Ryan returned as if it was yesterday. It was the week Ry had been hung at school, and it sounded like Kenny was describing the day that Ryan had disappeared, unable to face anyone. ‘I ended up at the airport’’, was all Ry had been willing to say about that day. Luke wondered if the others had made the connection too, but he was too transfixed on the old man to start looking around.
Kenny continued. “To be honest, I got the feeling that that young man was at the end of the line in more ways than one as we talked, and, at the same time, it wasn't the easiest of days for me, either. I was about to step into a situation where the world of some close friends was crumbling as they watched their very sick little girl deteriorate, despite the doctors best efforts.” Kenny grimaced, but then turned it around and smiled. “When I told him about it as we talked, Ryan said to me—and I quote—‘So maybe all there is to say is that crap things can happen to good people?’
There were a few widened eyes and Kenny chuckled. “I know, I know...and I did tell Ryan that there’s a Papal Memo somewhere that suggests I'm not allowed to say 'crap' in the middle a sermon!”
Luke couldn’t help a smile coming to his face. Trust Ryan to get away cussing at a priest. Along from him, he could hear a small snort of humor from his mum.
“But the lad had got it right. Sometimes there is no answer…no reason to fall back on. Sometimes there’s nobody left to blame except maybe God, because He’s an easy target.
“During that same afternoon, I asked him what I should say to the young couple who were close to losing their daughter.” The priest looked sad and Luke wondered if that little girl was also gone now.
“This is what he told me after he’d thought about it for a few moments. He said, ‘When you see them later...I don’t think you actually need to tell them anything. It’s just words. Just being there for them is enough.’”
The priest opened his arms to encircle those listening now into his message. “And at times like this, where there are no easy answers, sometimes just being here…together…is enough. Because at those times when we feel like giving up in the face of discouragement and insurmountable odds, we know we have friends around us to lean on. And maybe we find the courage to face even God with our tough questions and our hurting hearts in the same honest and direct way as my friend Ryan did? In his words, sometimes just being here...sharing our grief together...is enough.”
Father Kenny paused and waited. Maybe he was unsure where to go next, but Luke doubted it. Perhaps he just believed that space and time to reflect were just as important—maybe more so—than just listening to him. Around the sanctuary, silence held sway as mourners wrestled with their thoughts, with nobody in any hurry to interrupt the grief of others as one or two tears began to quietly fall.
Luke felt so overwhelmed by emotions that tore at his badly-healed wounds, he began to tremble, his face twisting in the beginnings of a grief that he was petrified he wouldn't be able to control.
"It's time to say goodbye," Kenny began again after a minute. His tone was gentle and inviting. "We maybe do that in different ways, just as we grieve in ways that are profoundly us." He gestured to the front row and smiled with compassion. "Brigadier and Mrs. Buford, parents and grandparents to Helena and Ryan, preferred not to speak, but rather to express their thoughts and memories in a different way—through images of a daughter and grandson who were cherished through thick and thin.
"As this beautiful montage of their lives spreads across the screen, I want to invite you—if it's what you want to do—to come close," he gestured to the caskets, "and say your own goodbyes. There's no hurry, and you can take as long as you need. And if there's something in the quietness of your own heart that you want to say, then don't leave with it unsaid."
Kenny withdrew to the side of the wide platform—still there, but it wasn't just his space anymore, and gentle music began to play. Soft and haunting, it filled the sanctuary from unseen speakers, a piece Luke had never heard before, but one he would never forget, either.
And with the poignant staves, pictures began to melt across the screen, coming and going within the slow rhythms of the music. Those watching became captured by the quality of the images, and touched by the expressions of a family life—pictures at first of a young Helena Alexis, a daughter with the untapped potential of a whole life stretched out before her.
Luke could see that, even back then, Alice Buford was capturing the heart of her family, and it was even more heart-rending to realize what all the hopes and dreams reflected in the young, bright-eyed girl, standing next to what could only be her brother, had come to.
The slides continued to unfold, yet as she got older there was pain there too, yet the honesty of the story-tellers left that in place for all to see.
Part-way through the presentation, Luke noticed the old Brigadier speak quietly to his wife, and the two stood and made their way onto the platform, carrying themselves with the kind of grace and dignity he'd come to expect, but nonetheless seemed completely impossible in the circumstances.
Perhaps it was right. Nobody else had yet moved an inch closer to the simple caskets, but perhaps others were waiting, as it was right that the old couple should go first. Luke watched them traverse the stage. It was a journey he didn't think he could face, and he hoped they wouldn't think bad of him.
He was torn; not wanting to miss any of the pictures, but drawn, too, by the very poignant scene being played out as the couple spent a few personal moments over each of their kin. Alice withdrew the red rose from her tunic and laid it down on her daughter's casket, and then she leaned over and kissed the simple wooden frames that held their daughter and their grandson.
They came and sat back down and he could see the raw pain in both of them as they took their seats. Leaning together, they bowed their heads and submitted to the demands of their grief and quietly began to weep.
His own tears began to slip down his face for them. It wasn't fair; wrong that two lovely old people should have to carry so much loss, and he tried to use his anger to force away his other emotions.
After them, Mel moved. Her eyes flicked in his direction in invitation, but he couldn't find it in himself to stand. She seemed to understand, and, alone, she stepped up onto the platform. She didn't stay long, touching Ryan's casket with gentle reverence.
She stepped back, and it was then that, above and behind the stage area, the flow of images began to touch on Ryan.
* * *
Extract from Luke's notes:
In my sixteen years, I'd never been to a funeral.
Maybe that's normal? Maybe you only start going the round of services like that when you're older and you start the process of losing people who are important to you—until it's finally your turn and it's too late to find out if anyone came or said anything to give your memory meaning and worth.
I didn't really go to church either, and maybe all funeral services were like this, maybe not, but it really seemed the right place to be just then.
The priest—Michael Kenny—wasn't at all what I expected, and he spoke about stuff in a way I'd never heard before. He was right, I was needing answers...or at least I was wanting to know that there was nothing wrong in my questions! I've never been to a funeral since, though it's been seven years now, but I don't think anything will ever come even close.
Mel was there by herself and I regret that. I know she wanted me to go with her, but...right them, I...I just couldn't. She stood a few moments alone on the platform next to Ryan, and even then I couldn't get my head—or my feelings—past the idea that Ry was still a real thing lying there. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't that I thought he would suddenly come back to life or something stupid like that, but in a way, he was still there; as much a part of the service as any of us.
In front of where, Simon, Mum and Dad and I, the Bufords sat up straight again. To me, they were what people who are really together were meant to be like. As the slides changed to focus more on their grandson, they lifted their heads to watch, though still leaned together for support.
I guess they already knew the pictures, and you could tell it was Alice who'd taken most of them, but they still smiled. How they managed to be sad and glad all at the same time, I've no idea. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to learn? The music shifted too, and became a more modern tribute through Faith Hill and the song from the Pearl Harbor movie, 'There You'll Be'.
It was a magnificent choice and you could feel everyone being stirred by the rich, meaningful words as a young, cheeky faced Ryan made his debut in the frame. Every picture was a winner, sometimes just him, sometimes with his mum or grandad. Again, nothing of his father was allowed to taint the memories.
Laughter, absurdity, good times. A four-year-old bouncing on a trampoline, a six-year-old with what had to be his first day in First Grade, proudly wearing his new Academy Uniform. An eight-year-old hefting a tennis racquet that was way too big for him, already carrying that familiar determined expression as he got ready to serve.
Unbelievably precious to those of us that missed him.
I wish I could write the words down of that song here in full, but I can’t. Instead, please take a moment to listen to what I listened to that day. Let it sink into you as it did me.
* * *
As the song and pictures reached out, a few more stood and slipped up onto the platform. Luke didn't know any of them, and none remained long. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his mum look briefly past Simon, passing an unspoken message: she would go with him if that's what he wanted.
I'll be glad 'cause I was blessed to get to have you in my life. The song’s moving words touched Luke, and hefought with his emotions. Could he not just go up—visit a friend one last time and tell him that? Then the music changed again.
* * *
Extract from Luke's notes:
Even now, seven years later, I can't keep from choking up when I listen to Eva Cassidy singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' Elli tells me it's okay, but it's one of those things that still has the power to bring everything back.
I guess I walk with a limp—and I don't mean my foot. That healed fully within a few months. My shoulder too, though it took a lot of physio to get all the movement back without it aching like fire!
Elli and I have talked about this a lot. When something catastrophic happens, you don't just 'get over it' in the way that many people think you should. It never truly leaves you. Not really. It walks with you through life, and sometimes—especially at times you feel your lowest—you limp with the residual ache of it. Yet even then, remembering is still good. Remember, even when it means walking with a limp.
Can I ask something of you? If you’ve been journeying with me with this story, and you want to understand how I feel and what I’d like to leave you with, please stop a moment and listen to the song. Just get alone, turn up the volume and close your eyes.
* * *
The first few bars of the haunting Eva Cassidy rendition of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' caressed a different picture of the Buford's grandson. Luke didn't doubt for one minute that it was deliberate and he also knew that the Eva Cassidy album had been his gift to Ryan...and Andrew and Alice knew that.
The picture on the screen could even have been taken quite recently. It was an older Ryan, but also one who was a little more worn, or perhaps just deeply thoughtful, not even realizing his mood was being captured.
The image stayed there for long, long moments, filling the sanctuary with its sadness.
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
How could a song from some silly movie suddenly mean so much? Along with it, the image of Ryan was so close for Luke, so immediate. It could have been any of a hundred moments of all his memories of his friend, and they came crashing into his memory and broke him. He began to sob.
Further images followed swiftly, as if striving to get to the end of the story before time ran out—some of just Ryan, others of him and his mum. Some had other people in them that Luke knew. There were several with Mel as well as a nice one of Ry with Mase and Jacko that Luke guessed had been taken at the Nike camp.
Luke shook with emotion, unable to tear his streaming eyes from the screen, and cried as, time and time again, his own face joined Ryan's, pulled from the numerous times he'd been at Ryan's over the years when the Bufords had been visiting. They were the face of real friendship, pausing once again on the one Alice had taken that Sunday afternoon over mint julips.
Someday I'll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Along the row, Luke's mum finally let go a muted sob.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that's where you'll find me.
It had become more than an invitation; now it was a plea, and Luke knew he had to respond, to go up there and stand next to Ryan and say what was in his head, whatever the cost. But then the song came to an end and the slides with it, resting on one final shot of a happy mother and son, cleverly photoshopped together from other pictures.
His moment was gone, and Luke hung his head in worn disappointment as it looked as though the flow of those wanting to pass by the caskets had trickled to nothing.
Then, there was a movement to his right across the other side of the church. Alone against a background of quiet meditation, Jacko Jackson stumbled past neat rows of chairs to the front of the church, his face steaming with silent grief. It was painful to watch, as the young tennis player climbed heavily onto the raised area and went to stand by the casket.
Still, it gave Luke fresh hope that he wasn't going to leave with things unsaid, and he determined in his heart to totter up as soon as Jacko moved away. Wanting to give Jacko space, Luke waited, only seeing his back as the younger guy bowed over a friend—a guy, Luke knew, who had his own very personal connection with Ryan, a guy who Ry had reached out to in the most difficult of times. But the moment extended longer and longer and Jacko's stooped form began to visibly shake. Nobody seemed to be there for him as he bore the crushing weight of loss alone.
Luke struggled awkwardly to his feet, balancing his weight across to his crutch. Maybe Simon had just been waiting for him all this time, but he quickly stood, too. But it wasn't Simon that took him by surprise as they began to shuffle toward the steps, but the heavy, dependable presence of Todd coming alongside.
"I've got ya," Todd murmured, lending a helping hand as they navigated the stepped edge of the platform. With him, was Mason.
Shuffling closer, Luke could only manage to lay a comforting hand on Jacko's shoulder, though Simon snaked his arm around the shaking waist, and the lad didn't resist. All linked together, it was how it should be—the six of them as it had been so many times in the past, for one last time, with Ryan now sleeping and at peace.
Not trying to curb his tears, Luke closed his eyes and opened himself up to say what he needed to, though none could hear except him and Ryan. Maybe the others were doing the same.
‘Hey there, Ry… I think you already know how so totally crap I feel for the times I let you down, and I hope you know now how much I’m really going to miss you.'
It helped to think that Ry, close enough that he could reach out to touch the smooth wood, was just resting—like he did when he hogged the bed in Luke's room.
'We didn’t get much time together—at least not in the way that I know you would have wanted—but like you, in my own way I was drawn to you from those first few weeks when we started goofing-off on the tennis court. I hated coming from the UK at first, but I want you to know that I still wouldn’t have missed a day of the last five years.
'There’s so much stuff I’m gonna miss, and I hate it that I'm never going to just come over to see you. I’m going to miss you coming over to our place, too, and hogging the bed. I’m gonna miss shooting baskets with you. I’m even gonna miss enjoying how crap you were at golf!
'We’re thinking about getting a pool...I just wish you’d been here to see it, too. I’m sure you’d like it.’
There was so much going around in Luke's head, there just didn't seem enough time to say it, yet while he tried to arrange his thoughts, around about him there was a growing presence of others as the sounds of movement and quiet grief rose.
He opened his eyes, somehow unsurprised to find more were joining them on the platform. Guys from school. Alone or in groups of two or three they began to flock around, and he understood now what Todd had meant when he said ’we’re all here’. There were no hysterics, though there were few who weren’t visibly moved. Not everybody could get close, but it didn’t matter. It was just important to be there—all of them—and Luke felt better for it.
‘Like Todd said, we’re all here.' He closed his eyes again as tears continued to blink past his lids and down his cheeks. 'You'd like it.'
There was more to say.
'Your grandparents have been amazing with me. They told me that they knew about you, and I know you found it tough living with being gay all these years. I still think you could have told me, but even though you’re gone, I want you to know that I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe so nobody will have any reason to have a go at you. I know it’s what you’d want. Jacko's here too. I'll make sure he's okay.
He got to the painful truth at last.
‘I don’t know what else to say other than I wish you were still here and I feel just so fucking lonely and lost now. When you told me to run that day, you saved my life, and now I just don’t know if I can make it without you, or do all the stuff we said we’d always do without out you around anymore.’
The painful truth was that Ry was gone. More than a friend, he was his irreplaceable rock, leaving Luke frozen with despair.
It was Todd who had the final say. “We’re gonna miss you, bud," he said softly. There were murmurs of agreement as he found and voiced the right words for them, but even his usually strong voice was too choked to manage more. As if the declaration had released them, they slowly began to leave the stage, spreading once more back to their seats.
As Luke reached the floor, he whispered to Jacko, "Come and sit with us." He’d meant it when he’d told Ry he'd look out for the kid and it made him feel better that he was actually able to do something positive as Jacko nodded, looking grateful. Back at their row, Simon slid in first and Jacko went into the middle as their mum and dad pushed over a seat. Nobody else went up to the platform, and perhaps that was how it should be, Luke mused.
Eventually, Michael Kenny stood. “I…” he began, then swallowed, visibly moved. “In all my years serving as a priest, I’ve never been part of a memorial service that has been so rich in love.
“To those young men—and in fact all who have come up here to show their respect and speak those last personal words—will you let me pray for you and with you?” He went on to offer a prayer that was off the cuff, yet full of honesty and truth.
“You know,” he said, once he had finished. “I remember seeing the Wizard of Oz the very first time when I was a boy.” It seemed that the service wasn’t yet concluded and Luke was glad that they didn’t have to leave quite yet, and that maybe Kenny had something to say that would make sense of the song that had so touched Luke’s heart.
“In fact, if I tell you that I was five when I first saw it, and that it came out in 1939, some of you bright sparks will be able to guess how old I am—but if you say one hundred and three, then I might pout a bit!”
The gathering chuckled at the light relief, and next to Luke, Simon immediately whispered, seventy-four. Luke smirked—some things never changed!
“We all know about tornadoes round here," Kenny continued. "And I can tell you I went home that night totally petrified! I had an awful dream that I was going to get swept up and dumped somewhere in Kansas! Kansas of all places!”
That did get a laugh and helped draw a line under the previous grief-filled minutes.
“The truth is—” Kenny coughed into his hand, muttering a number as he grinned "—years later, I’m afraid to tell you that storms are inevitable.” He left his podium and came forward again, becoming serious once more. "And the most difficult storms are not just because of physical suffering, but caused by deeper hurts like the loss of a loved one or by broken relationships. And in the middle of those storms, reactions are natural. You might feel confused or angry, guilty, or even fearful for the future.”
"We will miss our friends, but I truly believe they're the ones in a better place right now. So let's not remember them just with sorrow and sadness. I'm sure that's the last thing they would want. For sure, there's a right time to be sad and to mourn for their loss, but they are worth so much more than that, don’t you think? The legacy of their lives pleads that we remember them with joy, too.
"Like the scarecrow and the tin man, we can use our minds and our hearts to make a choice: and we can choose not to remember our friends for their weaknesses and failures—and don't we all have plenty of those ourselves—but instead choose to remember Helena and Ryan for the beauty and the friendship they brought us, for the good and fun times, when smiles creased our faces and laughter filled the air.
"And then, like the lion who once feared everything, we too can lift our heads high and find courage, and we can walk again with lighter steps, finding support from those still on the journey with us."
Next to him, Luke felt Jacko take a deep, shuddering, yet cleansing breath, helped by the profoundly touching words.
The service drew to a close without any further singing, but with another simple prayer. There was no internment planned, for which Luke was relieved. He didn't think he could face watching a coffin being lowered into the ground. He found out later that both caskets would be transferred to the small town in North Carolina where the Bufords lived, to be buried in the family plot of a quiet, peaceful, tree-shaded churchyard. Ryan and his mum would be buried next to Helena's younger brother, Luke’s dad told him—a boy who had died from cancer when the Buford’s children were young.
In time, Andrew and Alice would lie alongside the three of them; a hurting family at peace at last.
The congregation waited in patient silence until, in front of Luke, the Bufords came to their feet. Carrying themselves again in quiet dignity, the couple, followed by Mel, made their way down the central aisle and out again into the remains of the warm morning. It seemed like it was over as others began to leave, too, and Luke and his family stood and gathered what few things they had. Luke slipped the order of service into his pocket, and then maneuvered himself out into the aisle. Around him he watched others do the same.
There was an aroma of peace in the place.
Rather than the kind of hurried pushing found at the movie theatre at the end of the film as people jockeyed to get out, Luke sensed something different here. Everyone took a moment and stopped to looked each other in the eye. There were nods and smiles—a recognition that the service had changed them all, bringing out better, nicer people.
As Luke made to leave, Lucy touched his arm.
"You go on," she murmured. "I..I just need a few moments." She turned to the stage and, without hesitating, Geoff followed her as they stepped up onto the platform, hardly noticed by those turning towards the door. The two of them went to stand over the kid who, Luke knew, they—especially his mum—had counted as their third son. His dad had his arm around her and she was weeping softly.
Already fragile, he began to fill up again. Turning away, he took Simon and Jacko with him as he made his way towards the doors, leaving his mum and dad to their own farewell. No parent should have to bury their child, even if Ry was only on loan.
Todd was waiting in the foyer.
"Wow…that was amazing!" Todd breathed softly as, like others, they began to talk once they passed the threshold. Luke didn't get chance to reply before other voices were clamoring for attention.
"Hi Kier. Matt." He greeted them and many more gladly, and it was easier than he’d thought it was going to be. Definitely a lot easier than waiting until he finally got back to school.
They moved outside into the warm, late-morning air. With the service over, some headed straight for the parking lot, but many tarried, not yet ready to leave. He was quickly surrounded by his friends.
“How are you?" was the question on all their lips.
“So, so,” he admitted as they pressed around him looking for answers.
"I think I'll be back soon," he said answering one of the many questions they put to him. To the other ones, the ones relating to Ryan, he merely said, "Maybe I can talk about it all later. Just not now. Not today."
"Take as long as you need, bud." Todd was back on track again, riding shotgun on Luke. "You're not missing anything exciting. Get properly mended, and we'll see you when you're ready."
“Thanks, guys. I guess I’m just thankful to still be here.” It was a sobering thought, and they gradually withdrew. Soon, only Todd remained.
‘Well, we’d better be getting back, I guess.” Todd looked at his watch and grunted. He shouted over to his brother who was sitting on the grass with Simon, Jacko, Gabe and a few other of his brother’s friends.
“Mase!” Mason looked up and Todd tapped his watch. “Five minutes.”
No longer surrounded by people and their pressing questions, Luke looked around himself at last. He couldn’t see the Bufords or Mel, and he wondered if they’d left. His mum and dad hadn’t yet appeared as far as he could see, and his eyes flicked to the doorway of the church, wondering where they were. However, they weren’t the ones who appeared through the entrance just then; it was Rose Carter.
Elliott, however, wasn’t with her. Rose still made an immediate beeline for Luke as Todd drifted off. He watched her approach. Dressed somberly, she still looked classy.
“Oh…Luke…” Her musical tone was filled with honest concern and she didn’t hesitate to gently wrap him in her arms. Her generous tactile warmth didn’t surprise him. She was easy to hug, and he let it wash over him before disengaging.
“Such a beautiful service.” She brushed the side of his cheek with light fingers and searched his face, though he wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Briefly, one corner of his mind toyed with the realization that she knew a lot more about him than most. From what Elliott had said, she would already know that Luke was gay. She would also know that there was something between him and her eldest son.
Was it wrong to like two people at once?
“How are you?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“A bit bruised,” he admitted. He put the questions aside. He had no answers and for now it didn’t matter. “But yes, I’m okay. I saw Elliott earlier…in the service. Has he already left?”
She shook her head. “No, we drove here together. I think he went for a walk. The service was hard on him—it brought back some…difficult…memories.”
“Miguel?” It wasn’t hard to guess, though her eyes widened a little at his reply.
“He told you about Miguel?” She might know that he was gay, but Luke could tell that this was news to her.
“Just a bit. It must have been tough.” Damn right it would have been!
Just then, Luke spotted his mum and dad as they came out of the church. Both of them looked drawn.
“Hello, Rose.” There was nothing antagonistic in Geoff’s tone and Luke was relieved as he clasped Rose Carter into a warm embrace. Lucy was still dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
“I was just telling Luke,” Rose said. “Such a beautiful service. You will miss that young man, I can see.”
Lucy nodded. “It was so nice of you to come,” she said and her eyes flicked around. “Did Elliott already leave?”
“Rose was saying he just went for a walk, mum,” Luke explained. “Just to clear his head a bit.”
He wanted to go home. His shoulder hurt and his eyes felt dry and achy. He could do with sleeping for a week, but he knew Elliott deserved better.
Gathering himself, he asked, “We’re not in any hurry are we? I should probably just see Elliott before we go, and I think I could do with a bit of time alone, too.”
His dad seemed relaxed. “No, we’re in no hurry, sunshine. Not today. Take all the time you need.”
“Mrs. Carter—if Elliott comes back, can you tell him I went that way?” Luke pointed to a path that went around the side of the church. He’d seen enough of the setting as they’d driven along the valley floor to know where the path would lead. It would be a pretty spot to spend a few minutes alone to think.
Leaning on his crutch as he passed along the pathway, the scent of autumn flowers followed him, and to his left, a beautifully-tended cemetery full of well-spaced memorial stones covered the undulating ground. He kept going until he broke out past the church building, and then further until he reached the bluff that looked out over the valley.
The church had chosen well; it watched over those in the valley below, a beacon of hope for those who had time and belief enough to lift their eyes. Benches and soft grass were left for those coming to the vantage point, and he settled cross-legged onto the ground and studied the landscape. The sun stroked the hillside and he knew that, somewhere in the far distance, their home waited.
It wasn’t long before another body settled softly onto the ground next to him. A hand touched Luke’s—a brief graze to let him know Elliott was there.
They didn’t speak much, and there was no need for it, but it was good to have the company. Luke closed his eyes and let the birdsong and soft breeze envelop him.