Every Other Color
The cashier doesn’t remember me from high school, but she meets my eyes when I set down the flowers—roses for Mina, lilies for me. Then she looks at my outfit, the only black I had in my suitcase, and says, “You going to the funeral?”
Her name is Ellen, and she graduated three years ahead of me. She knew my sister, but I don’t look anything like her.
“Yeah,” I say, and I leave off her name so she doesn’t feel bad, or guilty, or seen.
Ellen nods and rings up the bouquets, their plastic wrapping loud in the empty grocery store. All the cars I’ve seen on the road tonight are going the same way.
I look at the total and do not cringe, which is progress, and tell her I don’t need a receipt.
“Wish I could be there,” Ellen says. Her eyes look red and wet, and I wish I had any sympathy left in me. I just hurry back to the parking lot without saying anything.
My hometown is the smallest in southern Michigan, under a thousand people total, and like all small towns it feeds off gossip and empty air. You can walk the length of the town in a half hour and see at least four familiar faces, and when people leave, they tend to leave for good. I wasn’t even planning on being home for Christmas this year, but my mom said the United deal was too good to resist. I guess I’m glad now, the way I’m glad I packed myself a black button-down. Darwin has always been a town of ghosts but tonight it’s a town for them.
I pick Mina up in the van my uncle is letting me borrow—he paints houses, relatively often and occasionally well. The back is full of paint and tarp, and the smell of it fills the back of my throat. Mina’s wearing her hair in a braid like she used to when she spent the night at my house. The flowers sit on the dashboard between us and catch the lights from the street.
“How are you feeling?” Mina asks.
It’s weird that I’m not expecting it. “I’m okay.” I adjust my hands on the wheel, preparing for the final turn. “You?”
“Okay,” she says. “None of it feels real.” I can feel her eyes on me like she’s waiting for me to do something but I don’t, and she sighs and rests her head back on the headrest.
She’s right though—none of it seems real. The violence. I can’t get past it. It’s all I can think about, but even now, I can’t picture him actually doing it. I picture what his family friends are calling “an accident.” I picture him, laughing and joking the way he is in my head, until the gun just goes off, a slip of the finger. An accident.
Mina and Charley were two of the first people who knew I was gay, and Charley only knew because Mina’s shit of a boyfriend told him. He was Mina’s friend but only my acquaintance and so he owed me nothing. That day had set me shaking, my hands unsteady on the greasy cafeteria pizza. I thought I was gonna swallow my tongue, or my phone, or my feelings. I don’t know if I was afraid of Charley, but I didn’t trust him or anybody back then. He looked like he could hit with a smile on. I was ready for a fight, but what I got was a hand on my shoulder blade, so light I could have imagined it. I tensed all the way up, but he didn’t move, just leaned in close and said, “I won’t tell anyone, okay? I won’t tell anyone.”
But not even Mina knew about New Year’s. Three years ago now, after our first semester in college, Bobby May threw a party big enough to bring everyone back home. Mina and I went together but I lost her to the shit of a boyfriend five minutes in. There was a pool table in the basement but there was also quiet, which I needed more. Charley was sitting on the couch, staring down at his phone, cup on the carpet by his feet.
He startled when I nudged him, too deep in his head. “You hiding?”
That made him laugh. He tilted his half empty plastic cup toward me. “Just soaking.”
“Mind if I join?”
He gestured to the open seat beside him and I remember how cool the leather was on my legs. It was the first time we’d ever really been alone together, and I was surprised that I didn’t mind it. Liked it, even. There was something about his posture, spine curving forward, wilting like the sun had gone. Neither of us said a word. We both heard when the counting started up, loud and unabashed, the ceiling above us shaking with it.
“Do you wanna head back up?” I asked, but quiet so I wouldn’t ruffle the silence.
“Nah,” he said. “Think I just wanna hang for a little.”
And as the numbers fell, I can’t really explain it, but we caught eyes and I thought maybe we understood something about each other then. We leaned in at the same time, and it was gentler than I thought either of us could be.
“Happy new year,” I said.
He blinked at me. I thought his eyes were a little red. “Happy new year.”
Mina found me a little while later and we left. That was the last time I saw him.
Grief is an animal I can’t fully understand. It doesn’t have claws, I know that. It has soft hands and a strong grip. It holds on so tight and for so long that you want to just let it stay. Open your doors and say, welcome, I guess this is home for you now.
Charley’s parents are standing at the entrance of the funeral home and they hug Mina and me and thank us both for coming. Neither of them are crying just now, but my throat is getting thick already. His mom doesn’t know who I am, and I don’t tell her that her son and I shared something once.
I walk in and I hold my breath and my coat and I look around. All I see is flowers. The whole room is flowers—there’s gotta be at least a hundred arrangements in here, the well-made kind, too, no grocery store bouquets in sight. Must have cost a fortune.
Al Reitz earned their BFA from Emerson College and was a Lambda Literary Fellow for Emerging LGBTQ Voices in 2017. They live in Boston, MA, where they spend most of their time investigating bouts of everyday magic and studying Jewish mysticism. They are the author of the short story collection Middlelands (Wilde Press, 2017), and their their work can be found in Emerson Review and Berkeley Fiction Review.