The service was small, less than 30 people, unlike the city wide memorial for the injured and lost that had happened last night. 11 dead, 27 others wounded and an entire city effected. These were our brothers, sisters, children, boyfriends, girlfriends…and best friends. It was hard to look, to watch as they lowered the coffin in to the grave. Disappearing with Eli was a bouquet of lilies, his camera, a picture of him, and something that no one could see. A letter. That was my contribution, a letter. At the wake when no one was looking I slipped it in to the coffin, into his pocket, on top of his heart just where the bullet had entered. I looked around. His mother was crying, everyone was crying. I couldn't cry. I felt the lump in my throat, but the tears weren't there – just the pang of guilt I suddenly felt for their absence. I ran, not stopping until I was certain it was just me, a couple trees and some headstones that meant nothing to me. He was really gone, seeing the coffin lowered sealed it. The realization finally hit; he wasn't coming back and suddenly the loosely knotted black tie around my neck was too tight. I reached up to loosen it, but stopped myself; it was supposed to feel like that.
I leaned over, my left hand against a tree supporting me, and vomited. This was how I was supposed to feel, completely empty. How was I supposed to make it through the rest of high school without him? How was I supposed to go to class and deal with the empty desk next to me? How was I supposed to eat lunch alone? How was I supposed to escape my house when my dad got angry? I pressed my back against the tree and slid to the ground, feeling the unevenness of the bark pressing in to my back. Why didn't I tell him how much I needed him enough? He was the best friend that I could possibly have asked for; he was sensitive when most guys didn't want to be seen as weak, he wasn't afraid to be artistic, he wasn't afraid to ask me what was wrong – and when he did he actually cared enough to listen to my answer. Great. Now the tears came…
Not now. Please, not now.
"John, are you alright?" I didn't answer. I wanted to be alone. "His dad wanted me to give you this…he said that he'd have given it to you himself but…" Acadia trailed off, leaving the sentence hanging without suspense; we both knew what she would have said so there was no need for the words to be uttered. I still didn't look up, but I felt something fall in to my lap. I looked down and saw a manila envelope with my name on it and some other writing.
We're all sure that Eli would have wanted you to have these ones…There's more at the house, you can come over and go through them and take whichever ones you want. Also, we were hoping that you might want to finish putting together his portfolio, you know, sort of like closure. I think there are some things in his room that you might want…or at least things that he would want you to have. You don't have to come over right away, I understand that this is hard for you, it is for us too. Eli was lucky to have a friend like you for as long as he did and Mary and I want you to know that you're still welcome in our home when you need a place to go. – William
I opened the envelope and pulled out the pictures inside. They weren't your average digital photographs, they were prints Eli had made himself, artistic shots, just things for his portfolio…the portfolio that it was now on me to finish. I didn't want to do it, it would bring back all of these thoughts, feelings and emotions that I just wanted to suppress, but that wasn't a possibility. He worked so hard on that portfolio and now he wasn't ever going to use it…not to get in to college, not to win any awards, not to have around when he was older to remind him of what his pictures were like in high school…
"John…" Acadia spoke again.
"Go away," I whispered.
"John, are you alright?"
"No, I'm not alright! I'm here and Eli's not! My best friend Acadia, my best friend and I didn't do anything to help him! He died and I just waited outside for everything to clear up."
"Oh John…" she slid down the tree and sat about six inches away from me. At least she allowed me some space. "John, this isn't your fault."
"I should have stopped them! Alex, he told me not to go inside, he warned me! I should have stopped him, tried to talk him out of it!"
"Then he would have shot you…"
"But everybody would have been warned! A gunshot outside would have locked the school down and Eli would…" I trailed off and set the pictures down, burying my face in my hands.
"If you did that it would be Eli sitting here, thinking the same thing. This shouldn't have happened, but it did. Eli shouldn't have died, but he did. It's not your fault, it's not anyone one person's fault…it just what happened." How could she say that? Wasn't he her friend too? Did she not understand what it was like to lose a best friend? No…she didn't, she still had hers. Then silence. I don't know how long, could have been five minutes, could have been twenty. "How do you feel?"
"Numb." Completely numb.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Leave me alone." She sighed, but stood up.
"If you need anything…"
"I'll call." I wouldn't, but she needed to hear it. I should have been nicer to her, she was just trying to be a good friend – Acadia was a good friend to everyone. She walked away and I turned my attention back to the pictures. There were some of random things, things I liked, things he liked…there were several of me and Boomer from a shoot he did for a project last year…and then there was the last one he took of me, the last time I saw him in the hallway that day, just before I ran in to Alex, just before I failed to make the difference I should have. This picture said a lot about our friendship even though most people wouldn't have known that. I wouldn't have struck that pose for anyone else. That's how tight we were, I wasn't embarrassed to be like that in front of him. We had a friendship that a lot of guys are afraid to have because they're afraid of what people would say. We had the closest bond two friends could have and now that bond was broken. Broken by a single bullet that was the result of someone who didn't have a bond like Eli and I.
My hands shook as I put the pictures back into the envelope. I looked up at the dark, Portland sky, waiting for the usual rain to fall. Eli would have loved to photograph the way the sky looked right now; if he were here he would have pointed his camera upwards and ignored my teasing. I sighed. I didn't have anything left. "Eli," I whispered to the dark, grey sky. "Hold on, once I get your portfolio together I'll come and find you."