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Chance Encounters(3)
Author: J. Sterling

“Talk about inappropriate,” Tracey whispered.

Jackie dabbed at her face with tissue when she recognized the girls. She removed her sunglasses and walked over briskly.

“Tracey! Caroline! Oh…” She broke off into heaving sobs and grabbed the girls tightly, as if attempting to hug the life out of them.

“Hi, Mrs. Lucca. We’re so sorry.” Caroline spoke through her own tears.

“I know,” she lamented. “He loved you girls so much.”

“We loved him too,” Tracey sobbed.

“Thank you both for coming. Is Clay here?” Jackie asked, peeking over Caroline’s shoulder.

“He had to work, but he sends his condolences,” Caroline explained.

“Well, make sure to tell him that we missed him.”

“I will,” she promised.

“Johnny’s inside.” Jackie nudged the girls toward another set of doors. “You should go see him.”

Caroline shot Tracey a brief, uncomfortable look before agreeing. “Okay. So…we’ll be back.”

“I’m so glad you’re both here.” Jackie gave them a wan smile and turned toward a small group of adults standing near the guest book.

Tracey and Caroline slowly walked into the parlor where only a few people had gathered. The dark wood walls and lights gave everything a slight orange glow. Johnny’s white casket rested at the far end of the room; enormous flower arrangements adorned each side. The girls slowly walked down the aisle toward his lifeless body.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Tracey choked out, her face suddenly pale.

“Yes, you can. Come on. Just breathe.” Caroline took Tracey by the hand.

As they neared the open casket, the girls slowed their pace, finally coming to a stop a foot in front of the casket. Caroline peeked toward his face before they inched closer.

“He looks so weird,” she admitted with a whisper. Johnny’s face was unusually pale, like a dusty chalkboard, Caroline thought to herself. There was a scratch on his forehead and one on his cheek that they tried to cover up with way too much makeup. In fact, Johnny’s entire face was covered in some sort of makeup. A football was tucked under his right arm and the gesture made Caroline smile. She placed a picture of the three of them under his left shoulder and whispered, “We’ll always be with you.”

“It’s so weird not to see him smiling,” Tracey noted.

Caroline put her arm around Tracey and took a deep breath. “I know. You know that’s not him any more…right, Tray?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just mean, his spirit—or his soul, or whatever you want to call it—it’s not inside that body any more. He’s probably watching over us right now, laughing or making fun of us,” Caroline explained.

“Probably. It still hurts, though.” Tracey nodded her head and leaned into her friend’s shoulder.

Caroline agreed. “It hurts like hell.”

The girls spent another minute in silence before they turned to find seats. The room had quickly filled up behind them and additional mourners stood outside.

Johnny’s uncle stood behind a tall dark podium. He spoke through tears about a young life filled with laughter, excitement and adventure. “It’s all so fragile. Precious, really. You never think about the fact that it can all be gone in an instant. Hopes and future dreams, all snuffed out.”

Caroline watched as he pulled a matchbook from his pants pocket. Slowly, he lit one match and allowed it to burn for a few seconds before a short burst of his breath extinguished the once burning flame. Caroline watched as a single ribbon of smoke billowed up toward the ceiling.

“Johnny was like that match. He brightened every room with his light. And then, just like that,” he snapped his fingers, “his light was gone. And all hopes for his future were gone with him.

“Jesus. I’m never going to be able to stop crying now,” Caroline whispered into Tracey’s ear.

Tracey tried to respond, but couldn’t. Caroline grabbed her hand and pulled it onto her leg, holding it tight.

“Caroline Weber would like to say a few words.” The preacher’s voice broke through Caroline’s grief and nerves shot through her.

“Shit,” she mumbled under her breath towards Tracey. “Guess I’m speaking after all.”

Caroline shakily made her way to the podium sans prepared words, notes, or anything. You gotta wing it, she thought to herself. Standing at the head of the room she scanned the enormous crowd and instantly felt the warmth of love spread inside her. The crowd was a simple reminder to her of how much Johnny had been loved. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Hi, everyone. My name is Caroline and I went to college with Johnny. My roommate Tracey, Johnny, and myself were pretty much inseparable. Everyone at school called us the Three Amigos, the Three Musketeers, Three’s Company.” Caroline rolled her eyes. “People were very creative.”

Small bursts of laughter filled the room before Caroline continued. “I can’t believe this is happening. It doesn’t seem real, you know? I wish it wasn’t.” Caroline struggled to maintain her composure. “It seems so unfair. I stand here and ask myself, why? Why did this have to happen? Why did it have to happen to Johnny, of all people? Why now? Why, why, why?”

She took a deep breath and wiped at her falling tears. “But there are no answers. There is no reason that would ever be good enough. I will tell you all this though…I’ll never be able to look at life the same way again. My perspective has changed. My mindset has shifted. And that’s because of Johnny. Even in death, he’s still bossing me around.”

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