The church smelled of old wood and incense. About ninety people were bunched around a casket at the front of the church.
They were twenty rows back from the mourners. Jack had spotted her, hesitated, then walked over and sat down next to her. Carole winced, then shrugged.
“We shouldn’t be sitting together, Jack.”
“The gossip won’t be much worse than if we were separated by the aisle.”
They were noticed – faint murmur ripples, then graying heads atop dark clothing pivoted to reveal pale faces that quickly glanced backwards into the pews at them.
“I noticed we weren’t mentioned in the obit.”
“No, we weren’t. Janice made sure of that.”
He smiled. “Weren’t invited to their wedding either.”
“As the ex-wife who cheated with the ex-best friend we went from A-list to exclusion.”
“Yeah. You look good in black. You probably still look good in anything.”
Carole’s mouth twisted. “Looking good wasn’t our problem, Jack.”
“It’s been a long time. Pete married Janice, what, twelve years ago? About the time we broke up.”
“Jack, you moved out of state and didn’t take me with you.”
“You didn’t want to go.”
“No, I didn’t.”
The priest recited with due gravity, but the responses were patchy.
“When did you go from receding to bald?”
“After we separated.”
The funeral service had reached the point of eulogies. Relatives and friends, most of whom Jack knew, described the portions of Pete’s life that had floated above the surface. Pete was described as cherished and having no enemies or vices. Jack wanted to raise his hand and object.
“Remember Pete’s 30th birthday party, when we all got drunk and Pete picked a fight with a bouncer? Pete and I got beat on pretty good before they tossed us out.”
“You were an idiot to step in and take on another bouncer when Pete got wrestled down.”
“He was losing. Thought I should help.”
“Like I said, an idiot.”
“Did you go to the wake, Carole?”
“No, I would have just upset the family.”
“Neither did I. I wanted to try and talk with some of the friends Pete and I had shared, but it wasn’t the place to laugh about old times.”
“So why are you here, Jack?”
“Pete hated me right to the end, but he was as close as I ever had to a best friend. I needed to acknowledge his passing. Besides, I was hoping to see you.”
“Don’t go there. It’s been way too long since our overwhelming lust dissipated.”
“But we were awfully good together, weren’t we? It’s never been as intense with anyone else. You admitted it was never as good with you and Pete.”
“It was just different. Pete was comfortable and predictable. You and I were crazy.”
“But we loved it. Look what we gave up to stay together.”
“For a while. But we didn’t last very long after the divorce, did we? You still have a waist. How painful is it to hang onto?”
“Not painful, just boring. I don’t eat or drink what I want to, and I drag myself into the gym three times a week. You ever think about Provincetown?”
Carole showed a twisted smile. Provincetown had been the hormonal high point of their relationship, just before they’d told Pete.
“I always thought that our being a heterosexual minority sauced up the sex. We were never quite that wanton again.”
It was Jack’s turn to pause. “I do miss Pete. I miss his nasty sense of humor, the way he would always take my side in an argument, even when he knew I was being an ass.”
“And I envied what you had with him and resented that he was never like that with me.”
“Jesus, Carole, how wrong I was about Pete. I figured he’d eventually scar over and we’d be able to talk again.”
“There was nothing temporary about his hatred of us, was there?”
The organist started off into a hymn. Nobody seemed to know the words. The singing rose and fell in ragged, off-key voices. Jack was afraid to start whispering more loudly in case the organist stopped while he was in mid-comment. He silently reached out and wrapped Carole’s hand in his. She twitched but didn’t pull her hand away. The hymn limped to its Amen.
Carole tugged her hand out of Jack’s. “I can’t deal with this. I don’t want to see you again.”
“I’ve moved back here, Carole.”
“About three months ago. I’ve wanted to get in touch.”
“Didn’t want to be rash?”
Announcements were being made about the drive to the cemetery and the usual gathering with drinks to follow the burial.
“Carole, we have a choice of facing the mourners as they file out or slipping out the back door now.”
They stood together in a side garden featuring the Stations of the Cross and watched mourners and casket bobble down the steps and onto the church drive. They’d lost their gossip novelty with the other mourners and were being carefully ignored. Once released from church the attendees become chatty. Janice seemed almost strident.
Carole sidled up behind one of the obelisks, shielding them from the crowd’s sight. It read “Jesus Falls the First Time.”
“So Jack, how significant is your other?”
“I wish. There’s never really been anyone else. Not for more than a few months. How about you?”
“Not really. It seems twice bitten was enough.”
They stood close together. Closer than strangers, not so close as lovers.
“Carole, would you like to come with me next week to visit the grave? I’m sure by then we’d be the only two people there.”
“That’s such a bad idea in so many ways.”
Pete’s casket was dolly-rolled to the back of the hearse and loaded in.
She faced him more directly. “But I should visit his grave. When would you want to do it?”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty-odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had a hundred and forty stories and poems published so far. His collected fairy and folk tales, The Witch Made Me Do It, was published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing. His novella The Witches’ Bane was published by World Castle Publishing, and his collected fantasy and horror stories, Capricious Visions, was published by Gnome On Pig Productions. Ed’s currently working on a paranormal/thriller novel tentatively titled The Rule of Chaos. He works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of five review editors.