A F L A S H F I C T I O N S T O R Y B Y S H E I L A B U S T E E D
"I couldn't very well leave you here alone, not today."
His flashing, white smile and dark, familiar eyes were my strongman, lifting the weight of the day off my shoulders in one sweeping motion. We huddled together in the corner of the room, avoiding all of the other guests.
I glanced at them as I bit my nails, wishing I had a cigarette between my fingers instead. They greeted each other with upturned brows, watery eyes, forced smiles, and lingering embraces. The crowd was growing quickly as more people flowed through the front door, all of them dressed in monotone fashions. Their uncomfortable togetherness seemed to mirror the dark cloud that hung over the day. I didn't want any part of it.
"It's pretty amazing how many people are here," Marley remarked as I looked back at him.
"You're right," I replied solemnly. "I doubt as many people will show up to my funeral."
"Don't be ridiculous. You have many years ahead of you filled with far more loved ones. You'll see."
"If you say so." My voice was flat and disbelieving. Most people, I thought, who slowly fall apart before the end lose almost everyone before they go. But when cancer sneaks up and takes a young person even sooner than expected, everyone else is still around, left to deal with the loss.
Marley wrapped his arm around me for comfort, but his soft touch on my bare arm sent a chill down my spine instead. "Your hands are freezing."
"Sorry, babe," he replied as he rubbed them together for warmth. "It's getting very chilly outside, and I didn't think to bring gloves."
"You know, you look a little pale, too," I added. "Are you sure you're up to this? Maybe you should head home and rest. This whole ordeal's been rough, and I don't want you to be worn out for the wedding next week."
"I'm fine, trust me. Nothing could ever stop me from marrying you, not even today. What do I always say?"
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I know." I smiled at him and he kissed my cheek. Inside, though, I worried. We'd been through enough drama lately trying to speedily plan the wedding, and this funeral had come at the worst time.
We stood in silence for a moment as I chewed the edge of my thumbnail. The guests began to take their seats.
"I just spotted my parents," Marley said softly, pointing to the other side of the room. "I'd like to say hello before this thing gets going."
"Good idea," I agreed.
"I'll be right back. See you in a minute."
As Marley made his way through the crowd, I leaned against the wall and stared at my feet. A moment later, a hand on my shoulder jolted me back to reality. I looked up to see my father standing in front of me.
"Come on, pumpkin," he uttered. "You belong at the front with the family. It's about to begin."
Dad offered me his arm and guided me up the aisle between the rows of white folding chairs. Everyone's eyes were on me. I glanced around to see many of them blotting their eyes with tissues as I passed by. As we approached the front row, I looked ahead to see Marley staring back at me, a beaming smile on his face.
But it was flat and lifeless. And framed.
His portrait rested on an easel next to a linen-draped table, which was covered in bouquets of white lilies and blue roses surrounding a black urn. Silver letters, intricately carved into the urn's surface, displayed the name Marley Jacobsen.
I glanced at the urn, then back to Marley's picture. Then the urn again. The same chill ran down my spine. "He was just here," I muttered.
My knees buckled and smashed into the cold, stone floor.