Edison, New Jersey: July 14th, 2012
The alarm clock woke Alex, too early, on Sunday morning beside her peaceful fiancée, the last ray of sunshine in her life. The black dress she’d picked out for the afternoon’s gloomy occasion was folded over the computer chair, more prepared to deal with the tears and the day than she was. Slamming her fist down on the Snooze button, she sat up, begrudgingly, and turned to shake James awake. She’d moved into his large house when they returned from Europe a few days before and the couple had immediately immersed themselves in wedding plans and searching for a way to resurrect Claire.
She hadn’t wanted to go to the funeral in the first place, too stubborn to believe that her best friend was really dead. The only way she’d been convinced was because of Claire’s parents.
“Wha—” James whined, rolling away from her and trying to go back to sleep.
“Janie’s picking me up in an hour, you gotta get up,” she mumbled, hugging him and planting a kiss on his forehead.
Exhaling deeply, he turned his head to meet her lips with his. “It’s today, isn’t it?”
She nodded grimly. “Unfortunately.”
With a sigh, he muttered, “Sometimes I still wake up and think it was a nightmare.”
“So do I.” Her voice cracked. Rather than burst into tears before the man who’d seen her cry more times these past few weeks than she could count, she threw herself out of bed and went through the motions of getting ready for Claire’s ceremony.
Staring into the bathroom mirror at her reflection as she pulled her hair into a bun, she inspected the emphasized blood vessels in the whites of her eyes. Alex would’ve done anything if it meant she didn’t have to cry anymore, but she could never seem to stop.
Inwardly, she was more determined than ever to find a way to retrieve her friend from the other plane. Outwardly, she tried to make herself look upset by Claire’s upcoming funeral, but she only ended up looking really tired. She didn’t want to be sad anymore. She didn’t want to wake screaming from nightmares anymore, only to realize that the nightmare never ended.
She was uncharacteristically putting on make up when James’s body suddenly filled the doorway. If possible, he appeared more exhausted than she did. After all, it had been James who’d been making all the trips from their home in South Plainfield to the protective encampment in Massachusetts where he led other guardian angels in a search for Claire’s return, visiting his new friend in the process.
Taran had been brought into protective custody there and had been all too willing to help. He continued the search in James’s place when he was home with her, but Taran wasn’t an angel; he didn’t have the necessary connections to find spells or past experience that could help them.
Running a hand through his blonde locks, James said, “She’s here.”
Alex nodded. “Send her in.”
He slipped out of the room. For a moment, the only sounds in the whole house were footsteps and Alex’s slow, light breaths. She waited for their new friend to come upstairs, and eventually, her red hair appeared at the top of the marble steps.
The older girl had benefited greatly from an extended stay in the hospital and her first shower in six months. Since their meeting in the catacombs, Janie had gained fifteen pounds and was slowly filling out to what she must have been before her incarceration. The grime that had once layered her face and the hair growth on her legs were both gone now, in favor of a tall, severely thin woman in a clean, black dress and flats. Her frail ankles wobbled as she clacked across the expensive flooring, despite the crutch under her armpit, and her frayed hair had been cut to shoulder length, now arranged in a braid.
She cracked open the door of Alex’s room and cautiously called her name.
Alex said nothing; she gave her friend a polite smile and led the way to the car parked in front. James was waiting there and opened the door for her, but he wasn’t coming.
While the women ventured to the funeral home, James would be venturing up to Massachusetts for a meeting with Taran and the coven. In the meantime, Janie would be staying in the house with Alex, her only means of protection since she wasn’t allowed in the camp and she was without Taran.
Janie drove. Alex stared absentmindedly out the passenger’s side window, searching for color in her dim world.
Meanwhile Janie was becoming uncomfortable. “Alex?” she finally murmured.
“What?” the other girl grumbled, irritated by the sudden lapse in silence.
“Are you okay?” Janie articulated, studying her face for any sign of emotion. Anything at all.
She returned her attention to the road, leaving Alex to wallow in hidden self pity. She hadn’t expected she would ever have to go to her best friend’s funeral. More than that, she never expected she would have to keep a secret from the world about said best friend. She could be consoled with the knowledge that Claire wasn’t really dead, only banished to another plane, but she couldn’t tell Claire’s father that.
They had yet to arrive at the funeral home, but Alex was already feeling the full force of her burden.
Alex wondered as the building grew closer why funeral homes were always so well-kept when they were full of people whose last concern was the architecture. As if the images of mowed, emerald green grass and always-fresh flowers could soften the blow?
Janie pulled into the parking lot, lining up with the other parked cars while Alex walked off to find familiar, grieving friends and family. The building was small, only one story, and made up almost entirely of windows. Two men in black suits directed her to the appropriate room for the ceremony.
The air reeked of the cheap flower arrangements, moth balls, and bathroom mints. Every room was packed to the maximum carrying capacity with people, some laughing, others crying. Alex felt almost personally insulted by the humorous exchanges; they were convened there to pay respects and they had the nerve to think anything was funny amongst the grieving family. The girl they were remembering had been eighteen years old and none of them knew anything about where she was or what she was going through.
And, as far as they knew, that girl was never coming back.
“Oh, hello, Tom,” an old woman addressed a man of equal, if not greater, age. “It’s so great to see you again, if only it was under better circumstances.”
Shove your fake condolences up your old, fat butt, lady, she couldn’t help but muse.
A hand slapped down on her shoulder from seemingly nowhere.
“Can you handle it?” Janie, the owner of the hand inquired, practically reading her thoughts.
No matter how much of a lie it was, Alex nodded, sliding out from under her hand in a gesture of wanting to be left alone. Janie nodded, understanding completely, stepping away from her to find a corner to hide in. Alex lingered in the back of the room, as far away from the empty casket as she could get. And that was where she stayed until a man strode to the front of the room.
“Would everyone please take their seats?” the priest announced from the pulpit. Everyone promptly took a seat while the ceremony began:
“There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain,
A time to search and a time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
A time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.
He went on through the prayers and speeches, bringing up Claire’s father, who gave the most heart wrenching speech Alex had ever heard before their tears forced them to sit.
With a final, “Amen,” everyone stood to go to their cars for the drive to the cemetery. Alex searched for Mr. Strong through the thick crowd but found it nearly impossible. In a break in the crowd, she caught a glimpse of his head and impulsively changed course to get to him, but someone stood in her way, his back facing her. She recognized that back, dressed in the usual black t-shirt and pants, tucked into combat boots.
Trying to gather her words, she reached out for the familiar man.
He spun around, with difficulty, when he felt her fingers on his skin and looked down at the girl who’d become child-like in comparison, despite his being hunched over crutches. His storm-cloud grey eyes narrowed at her, angry he’d been spotted by anyone he’d met in France. Attempting, in vain, to push around her, the crowd began to close in, and Kierlan had to acknowledge her. With a sigh, he grunted, “Excuse me.”
Alex wasn’t at all surprised by his hostility, but she wasn’t a fan. “Where have you been,” she demanded.
He rolled his eyes. “Around.”
“So you’ll attend her funeral, but you won’t help us find a way to help her,” she challenged. “Makes a lot of sense, Kierlan, it’s good to know that you cared about her.”
His face darkened. “I’ve had enough of your magic shit to last a lifetime. She’s dead. And as much as I care for the rest of you, so are you.”
Alex shoved him as hard as she could, but he only stumbled back a step. He gasped, leaning more heavily on one crutch when his stitches pulled.
Growling something unintelligible under his breath, he, one-handedly, shoved her back. Alex staggered blindly backwards, flailing her arms as she very nearly fell to the floor. Someone grabbed her under her arms, but the two of them crumpled to the floor, as Janie wasn’t nearly strong enough yet to keep them both standing, especially not with a broken leg. Janie helped her back up, with some difficulty, before turning to face Kierlan.
Hazel eyes blazing, Janie poked one bony finger into Kierlan’s chest. “You can’t get away from what happened, Kierlan. I’ve tried.”
“Is that what this was?” he grumbled. “Trying to get passed what happened? Believe me, you should try harder.”
Face growing red, Alex stepped purposefully in front of her friend. “You’re here, too, dumbass. Or did you forget?”
“I can’t forget! No matter how hard I try, I can never forget!” he yelled, catching the attention of nearby mourners. Lowering his voice, he continued, “I can’t sleep. Every night I have nightmares. I see her face. I hear her voice, begging for help. She haunts me when I’m asleep, and when I’m awake, and I just want to forget.”
“Don’t even think that you’re the only one here who misses her!” Alex hissed through clenched teeth. “And don’t think that you’re the only one with nightmares.”
“Because of you,” Janie fumed, poking him again, “I was left with a maniac for half a year! I’m scared to be alone. I’m scared she’ll come back to find me. I’m scared that no one can protect me. I’m scared all the time. You wanna talk about nightmares? Don’t whine to me about your nightmares, you…you ass!”
He stared at the two of them, all three red-faced as the last of the mourners filed from the building. Two men in black suits holding the doors watched them suspiciously when they didn’t follow and one approached them cautiously.
“Umm, we’re moving to the cemetery now. If you would please return to your vehicles…?” he trailed off, studying each of their faces.
Janie pried her scowl away from Kierlan’s eyes first, facing the man. Hesitating, she began, “Of course, sir.” She took Alex’s arm and lightly tugged her toward the exit. “We were just leaving.” Pausing her limping, she spoke to the only other in the room, “Goodbye, Kierlan.”
Alex never broke eye contact, promising as they left the building, “We’ll be seeing you, again.”