Sometimes, John really wondered about the sanity of traditional customs.
This was one of those times; standing there in the funeral home, staring at the small clumps of people surrounding a closed white coffin. No crying could be heard. Laughter, conversation, and the pounding of little kids' feet hitting the carpet were the only sounds he could make out.
He stood still a few moments longer, handed his coat to the attendant, and scanned the room. Finally he spotted the only familiar face, Chas's mother Chelsea. She was dressed in all black, holding a handkerchief, but her eyes showed no signs of recent tears.
He hadn't walked into a calling; He'd walked into an ice cream social, or so it seemed.
"Oh, Mr. Constantine!"
He looked back at Chas's mother, who was waving him over to the small group of women she was standing in, flicking her hankie in the air like he was some kind of butler she could summon. He sighed and started to walk toward her, cringing as the heavy scent of fresh flowers hit him.
"Ladies, this is John Constantine. My son worked for him," Chelsea said, placing one hand on his back as he got close enough and prodding him forward into the circle. He gave a simple nod, unable to force a smile.
"He was such a good kid," one lady commented. "A hard worker, I'm guessing?"
John almost laughed. Almost. "You really have no idea, ma'am."
"Such a shame," a short, chubby woman griped, shaking her head. "And in a car crash, of all things. I'm telling you, they've needed harsher punishments for drunk driving from the start. Have you heard anything about the man's trial?"
Chelsea shook her head. "No. Red tape is slowing everything down."
John could hardly hold back the shame as the women went on and on about the US legal system. A car crash was a great cover story, but it didn't change the fact that Chas was dead because of him. Because of what he'd done, and what he hadn't done.
He could still remember that night, still feel the weight of Chas's body in his arms. After a few spells and quick deliberations with Midnite, the first thing he did was go back to Chas's body. He flinched at how cold the boy was; sure, it wasn't the first dead body he'd handled, but this was different. This was Chas.
He still wasn't sure how he'd managed to strap the boy into his cab. All he knew was that when it came down to it, he hadn't been able to let go. Midnite was forced to wait as he leaned in the cab, holding Chas's broken body close to him with ragged breaths. He'd never been this close to the boy, never dared, and now it didn't even seem right. The teenager he'd fallen in love with wasn't there anymore.
Midnite had to do most of the work. His spells came in handy to start Chas's cab and a random truck they'd stolen from down the road. Within moments, Chas's cab and the other vehicle had collided head-on at fifty miles an hour in a parking garage close to the hospital.
All of the evidence was in place. With a few mind tricks, the cops were convinced, and Chas's death was recorded as a simple drunk driving incident- on the part of the other driver, of course. Midnite wanted it to be a single car crash to make it easier, frame Chas as the drunk, but John would hear none of it. In fact, Midnite had to dodge a quick punch as a result of even suggesting it.
"Mr. Constantine? John?"
John broke out of his trance, looking back up at the group of confused women, quickly realizing that he was shaking and his hands were now tight fists. Chelsea touched his arm. "Are you alright?"
John nodded, forcing himself to relax.
"Yeah. Just mad."
That seemed to satisfy the women. Unfortunately, it also drew attention to himself.
"What kind of business are you in, Mr. Constantine?" an aging brunette asked, taking a sip of her water. John stuttered for a few moments, but for once, Chelsea saved him with her ignorance.
"He's in the religious research and trade business. He's a historian," she said, bragging as if John was her son and not Chas. John nodded, and the women whispered excitedly.
"Oh how interesting! I suppose you spend a lot of time in exciting places, traveling to do research and such," a woman said, and John shrugged.
"Not really that-"
"It's amazing, actually. Chas told me all about the archaeological digs in Jerusalem, and the museums in Italy," Chelsea said, and John's eyebrows barely rose. Chas had certainly woven a wonderful web about his mentor to keep his mother satisfied.
John snuck another look at the coffin. Still no one stood beside it, no one truly mourned.
"If you ladies will excuse me," he said, and thankfully, they let him leave the circle. He backed away, walking toward the coffin, feeling rage welling up within him.
Half these people didn't even dress to give proper respect to the deceased. Women were treating it as a fashion show, seeing how low-cut their blouse could get without looking slutty, and the men either stood passively by their wife's side or mingled and talked about how their business was going.
A few girls moved toward the door, and John caught sight of a large white board behind where they'd been standing. It was covered in photographs. He looked around, determined not to be caught in an unwanted conversation with someone else he might know, and then he stepped over to the messy, thrown-together board of taped-up snapshots.
John could feel his throat tighten and his eyes sting as he looked at each photograph, but he managed to hold back any tears. John Constantine didn't cry. He just didn't.
From a little kid in footie pajamas to a high schooler on the golfing team to…to now. No pictures of now except for a couple pictures from his seventeenth birthday party. Chas had been too busy doing what John told him to, not at home with his family or out with his friends- instead, he'd been in places where cameras were inappropriate. Churches, John's apartment, sitting in a cab outside strangers' homes, or waiting on the steps at Midnite's club. No pictures of that. Even if there had been, Chas's expression wouldn't have been much to savor. Disappointment, impatience, frustration.
One picture. There was one picture of Chas that was taken recently. Chas was leaning back against his cab, his hat in his hand, grinning for the picture with the same cheesy, chest-out pose that he used for every picture. He was a ham from the moment he was born.
An older couple edged up beside John to look at the pictures, and John stepped away, clearing his throat.
Do what you came to do. Go pay your last respects, like a good mentor. You may have never been one before, but you can act the part.
He turned and started toward the coffin once again. No one was in that end of the room, not even Chas's mother- no one seemed to want to be near the body. John felt like he was stepping into an empty room as he walked up to the stand holding the coffin.
"Chas…" he said softly, reaching out and placing a hand on the cool surface. Two feet below his hand was his apprentice's body, now simply an empty shell.
He knew Chas wasn't there anymore. He knew that there was no chance of the boy coming back. All the same, hope was there.
He set his other hand on the coffin. "I'm sorry, Chas."
More laughter behind him. Those people didn't care. This whole thing was a charade to pretend Chas meant something to them, when in actuality, they all just wanted to say 'that's a shame' and move on with their lives. No one wanted to be there.
He could almost feel Chas's disappointment at the whole morbid affair. A social gathering on the opposite end of the room as his coffin, people avoiding the obvious subject at hand…
Chas was alone, even in death. The kid had always felt alone, John knew that, but never had he really seen it. Now, the only person standing next to a teenager's coffin, he felt all the weight land on his shoulders.
Nobody was here for Chas. Nobody except him.
"Fuckin' Christ," John muttered, lowering his head, tears finally falling. He managed to choke back sobs, but he could no longer fight the tears that left wet trails down his cheeks.
A hand gently touched his shoulder, giving it a supportive squeeze. John jumped and looked over his shoulder, expecting Chelsea, or maybe a friend of Chas's.
No one. His side of the room was still empty, no one near him.
John turned to look at the coffin, stubbornly wiping tears off his cheeks. It was still closed, no way anything…anyone...could've escaped. Or hid behind it.
No point in staying, John. He wouldn't want you to waste your time standing here staring at nothing.
John turned, lifted his chin, and walked away from the coffin.
He'd almost been late to the funeral. In fact, up until ten minutes before it was supposed to start, John was sure he wasn't going to go.
Then he remembered that he'd promised Midnite he'd go. The last time he'd forgotten a promise to Midnite, his favorite gun got turned into a chinchilla. A chinchilla with three legs that could spit bullets out of its mouth.
He arrived at the funeral home just as they had started the ceremony. He slipped in and sat down beside Midnite, who was predictably sitting in the back row.
"You're late," Midnite said, not looking at John.
Midnite grunted, and the priest began to talk. He listed Chas's achievements one by one, most of which Chas had mentioned to John before, trying to convince him that he was more than capable of helping out. John still wasn't sure how Chas equated golf achievements and science academic bowls with fighting an irate demon; probably the same way he equated Twizzlers with calculus.
"Your soul is troubled," Midnite said darkly, and John snorted.
"If you just now figured that out, you're not quite the witch doctor you once were."
"Why do you worry about the dead, John? You hardly have before, unless they've appeared to you."
John paused, and then shrugged. "Chas hasn't appeared to me. And I'm not worried about him."
"Because I know where he ended up. He had the soul of an angel, Midnite, you could sense it too."
Midnite grunted and nodded, and they fell silent for a few moments. Eventually, though, the priest was again not a dynamic enough speaker to hold their interests, and Midnite spoke.
"I didn't expect you to come today."
John sighed. "His mother needs the support."
"His mother doesn't care and you know it. Do not treat me as an idiot."
John's fingers twitched in the longing to pull out a cigarette. He clenched his fists. "I'm showing my respects. I did appreciate his help. He was a good kid."
"You're still bullshitting me."
"Well, what do you want me to say?" John hissed, louder than he meant to. Someone a few rows up shushed him, and he lowered his voice. "If you're expecting some earth-shaking revelation, you can forget it. You know I don't do that sentimental bull-"
The sound of his own name over the church loudspeakers made John stop in mid-sentence and blink. He turned his eyes forward, where the preacher was staring at him from the pulpit and the people who knew him had turned to look.
Great. He's gonna tell me to shut up and I'll feel like I'm back in damn grade school.
"Mrs. Kramer wants you to speak about her son, as she is unable to do so," the preacher said. "Unless, of course, you'd rather not."
Damn Chelsea. Damn the unpreparedness of this whole damn ceremony. I can't exactly say no, can I? Not with everyone expecting a speech and the mother playing stricken mute by grief.
Midnite nudged him hard, and John realized that everyone was waiting on an answer from him. He clenched his jaw and stood up, taking a few moments to straighten his jacket and tie. Feeling like a death-row inmate being led to the electric chair, he trudged up the aisle, seething with pent up anger.
The preacher smiled sadly and stepped aside, and John stepped up to the pulpit, expecting to be struck down by holy lightening for even attempting to speak from such a location. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat, his mind struck blank. He'd never been good with public speaking- unless, of course, he was throwing around threats and curses.
"I, uh…I really don't know where to start with this," he said with a nervous chuckle, chancing a glance at the eager crowd awaiting his words. He swallowed hard, gripping the lectern with a white-knuckle grip.
Calm down and talk, John. They're waiting on you.
"The day Chas Kramer first met me, I honestly thought he was just another brainless teenager," he started, eyeing the doors as another latecomer slipped in and stood at the back. He couldn't quite see the person, but he could immediately sense a change in the aura of the room. He paused, but then continued.
"He proved me right at first, when the very first thing he did was trip over his own feet and fall on his face," he said, getting a short laugh from his 'audience'. "But that kid was da-…he was persistent. Stubborn. And eventually I gave him a chance to help me out in my particularly difficult line of work."
Thank you, Mr. Understatement of the Year.
"And that's when he proved me wrong. Hidden within that normal teenager was an intelligent, dynamic, quick-witted young man full of promise. Full of life."
Good. That was good. Keep going, don't lose it, and don't cry again, damn it all.
"I worked with Chas for three years. I trusted him with some important things, but more important than that, I trusted him with my life. And to have someone like him torn from this pl-…this world…it's a damn shame."
Fuck it all, Constantine, you're in a church. Don't curse.
He paused, judging the audience. They still seemed interested. Time to wrap this up before he really started to sound like a sappy motivational speaker.
"I didn't ask for Chas to enter my life. I thought that an idealistic, typical seventeen year old kid tagging along with me was the last thing that I needed. But typical is the worst word to describe the young man we're honoring today. Chas was the furthest thing from typical that I can imagine. There won't ever be another like him, and…"
John felt his throat tighten, and he took in a ragged breath, lowering his head for a few moments.
Don't cry. Don't you dare cry, you stupid exorcist.
"And that's the way he would've wanted us to describe him. Unique. Kind of crazy, but certainly unique. And it hurts me more than anything that I couldn't admit any of that until he was gone," he finished, his voice a bit weaker. He looked down at the front pew, surprised to see Chelsea break down into sobs.
"My condolences go out to you, Mrs. Kramer, and to anyone else who had the privilege of meeting my apprentice and one of my closest friends, Chas Kramer."
John stepped down, the silence deafening, broken only by sniffles and the sobs of Chas's mother. When John did look up as he neared the back pew, the figure who'd entered the back of the church was gone.
"What was that about your abhorrence of sentimental bullshit?" Midnite asked as John sat down, and John scowled.
"If I asked you to do that at my funeral, you'd laugh me all the way to China."
"No…since you'd be dead, I'd jump right up there and tell everyone what a conniving bastard you really are."
"I can be when I want to.
Midnite smirked. "Love does crazy things, doesn't it?"
John frowned, pretending to be oblivious. "What?"
"John Constantine doesn't give random speeches like that. Not unless he's high or very drunk. Charming isn't your thing."
"I was put on the spot. What did you expect me to do?"
"Tell them to fuck off."
John snorted. "I got the kid killed. I owe him a speech."
"Whatever you say, John."
John wanted a moment alone with Chas. Of course, with all the activity of the funeral and burial, he decided his best bet was to wait a few days before he went back.
He wasn't sure what prompted him to go in the middle of the night. It just seemed fitting, since the boy had died in his arms in a dark night like this one. John could still hear Chas's last gasping breath echoing in his ears, a sound that even haunted his nightmares.
He tried to keep his mind off the influence of other spirits as he made his way through the cemetery, tried to ignore the nagging voices. As he stepped onto Chas's grave, though, all of that seemed blocked out. It was…peaceful.
"Hey, kid," he said quietly. "The last few days have been hell, you know."
Only the chirping of crickets answered him. He sighed.
"You don't want to listen to my bullshit anymore. I know, I know."
He fell silent again, this time longer, just staring at the headstone. He immediately knew what Chas would say about that slab of granite: "You know what they say about guys with big headstones."
And John would've chuckled and ruffled the kid's hair.
He stepped forward, fishing around in his pocket for his lighter to light up a cigarette. Then he remembered that he didn't have any cigarettes on him- only that damn gum.
His hand closed around the lighter. A thought hit him.
He pulled out the lighter, holding it over the gravestone.
"You did good, kid," he said, his voice gravely, and then he set the lighter down heavily on the gravestone. He paused again, sure he could smell licorice, and then he turned and started to walk away.
The sound of the movement of wings, that's what stopped him. He stopped in his tracks, and then looked over his shoulder.
His heart leapt when he saw Chas there, crouched on the gravestone, the lighter in his hand. The boy was in all white, his skin was glowing with angelic energy, and his eyes were just as mischievous as they would've been had he snuck into John's liquor store. Then he smirked, and John was so close to turning around and running back there to give the kid a proper welcome.
But quick as that, with one powerful flap of his wings, Chas was gone. John was alone again.
The hand on your shoulder at the calling. The person in the back at the funeral.
That little bastard. I should've known.
John smirked, almost laughed, and then he continued walking- that is, until a winged creature landed in front of him.
"You know what they say about guys with big headstones," Chas said with a grin, and John gave him a 'look'.
"You've been trailing me all along."
"No, I've been trailing myself. You just happened to be there," Chas pointed out, taking a step forward, the light hitting his slim hips only covered by pure white fabric. John's eyes traveled up and down the teenager's body before he could stop himself, and he took a deep breath.
"Why wait so long to show up?" he managed to ask Chas, who looked suspicious.
"Well…being an angel is kinda like biology class, John. First day is all the red tape, next three are learning how to use all the equipment…"
"So…you did miss me?"
John smirked, and then nodded. "Yeah, kid. I missed you."
"Then what the hell are you waiting on?"
John hesitated, and Chas rolled his eyes. Then the angel stepped forward, grabbed the back of John's head, and pulled him forward into a kiss that made every single one of John's nerves come alive. It took him a few moments to begin to return the kiss, and then only a few more to wrap his arms around Chas's waist, hungrily pushing his tongue into the teen's mouth to explore and take in more of his intoxicating taste.
Curiousity seemed to spread through him, and moments later, John moved one hand up to run his fingers through the feathers on Chas's wing. The teenager squirmed and hummed appreciatively, tilting his head to deepen the kiss.
John didn't know how long it was until they broke apart, but it seemed like forever. His lips tingled and his breath was shorter as they pulled apart, and Chas was breathless too, his eyes remaining closed for a few moments.
"Geez…I've wanted to do that for months," Chas said softly, his eyes finally opening.
"Chas…why'd you wait until now to tell me?"
Chas smiled, the hint of a blush spreading across his cheeks.
"Well…you can't kill me for kissing you."