Standing in the Dark - Chapter Twenty
It had been four days since Carlos died.
The funeral service was being held in Carlos' hometown in Duluth, Minnesota. The rain had moved on from the west coast to the north east and now hung over the great lake states, providing a dark and gloomy atmosphere to go along with the already angsty day ahead.
Bradley slowly drove into the gravel parking lot of the small church where the service was being held. He gazed through the raindrop dappled windshield at the building in front of him, making note of the peeling white paint and stained glass windows. He felt strange having the funeral service here, given that Carlos wasn't a particularly religious person, but his parents were strong church goers and believes their son deserved to be honored in a church.
He parked his dark blue rental car beside a dark red van, that he suspected belonged to one of Carlos' family members because of the Minnesota license plate, and cut off the engine. Listening to the sound of the light rain against his car was soothing but also heartbreaking at the same time. Every day since Carlos died it had been raining and it just continued to remind Bradley of his best friend's death. Especially driving in the rain.
The blonde leaned forward against the steering wheel and covered his face with his hands. His eyelashes were wet with tears that threatened to fall, but he couldn't bring himself to actually cry. He was afraid that if he started, he wouldn't be able to ever stop.
"Are ya' sure ya' wanna go through with this?"
Bradley jumped. He'd forgotten that Nate was sitting in the car next to him. Even though Nate wasn't as close to Carlos as Bradley had been, he was still one of their friends. After all, he had been there that night when Carlos had shown up at the shop and given him dry clothes to change into. It had been raining that day too.
The blonde nodded, sat up slowly, and took a deep breath. He hadn't spoken much since Jennifer left him in the apartment four days ago, leaving details about the planned funeral and offering to pay for his plane ticket to Minnesota. He paid for his own, of course. He didn't want a grieving mother - even though she wasn't his real mother, Jennifer still loved Carlos like a son - to worry about money at a time like this.
Nate buttoned up his black jacket, shivering slightly, and pushed open his door. He didn't wait for Bradley to follow him out as he stepped out into the rain and closed the door lightly behind him.
Running a hand through his hair, Bradley rolled down the sleeves of his black sweater. He didn't often wear black, or follow common traditions, but he respectfully wore it for today's occasion. He figured it might insult Carlos' parents if he wore a brighter color. They were the traditional type, after all.
Pushing his door open, Bradley climbed out of the car and closed it behind him. The rain was falling lightly and he turned his head to the ground to keep the water from getting on his face. He slowly made his way across the gravel lot and arrived at the front doors of the church much quicker than he hoped.
"Welcome to the Harvest Catholic Church." A cheerful voice murmured, causing Bradley to look up. A bald man with a bright smile on his face was staring down at him and the blonde involuntarily frowned at him. The man was dressed in black priest attire and he held the door open, still looking happy even though Bradley's disdainful attitude was the only thing that greeted him.
Nodding in silent thanks, Bradley walked through the front doors and stepped into the interior of the church. It looked much nicer on the inside than it did on the outside and the blonde felt slightly better. The colors inside were warm shades of brown, red, and gold and a large arrangement of flowers were placed at the front of the room where Carlos' casket was sitting.
Bradley stopped dead on his tracks, eyes locked on the dark mahogany case that held his best friend's body. The cold feeling of dread in his stomach that had plagued him for the past few days worsened as he stared at it. It was like being slapped in the face with reality. His best friend was dead and his body was sitting in a wooden casket not thirty feet in front of him.
"Brad! Over 'ere!"
The blonde managed to tear his eyes away from the casket and turned to the side of the room where Nate was standing with a few people. Bradley immediately recognized a few people that he and Carlos worked with over the years and one or two people who had regularly bought prints from the Latino.
Making his way across the church, he joined the group and listened to them talk quietly and awkwardly about the weather. Most of them had never been to Minnesota - except one of their old co workers who went to college upstate. Diverting his attention away from them, Bradley let his gaze wander around the small church. He watched as a two hispanic women walked through the front doors, followed by three small children who were being strangely silent. He knew one of them was Carlos' older sister, Caterina, and her two boys, Michael and Austin, who had come to Los Angeles a little over a year ago to visit her brother, but he didn't know the other woman and her daughter.
Caterina looked over at him and waved before leading her sons and the other two girls towards the front of the church, where they sat the children down in the pews. Bradley waved back and bit his lip. He could see that Caterina's eyes were red and swollen and it broke his heart to see her in so much pain. A lump formed in his throat and he had to look away from her to keep himself from breaking out into sobs.
About a dozen more people arrived - some being Carlos' family members and old friends - before Kendall, James, and Logan finally showed up, followed by Jennifer and Kendall's younger sister. The blonde had expected that they would show up, but he was still surprised to see them. They, just like everyone else, were wearing black and picked one of the back rows of the pews, sliding into their seats in silence.
"I think the service is about to start." one of the girls beside him said and the group pushed past him and Nate to find seats in the pews.
"Is there anywhere you'd like ta' sit?" Nate whispered into his ear.
Bradley said nothing as he led the way across the church towards the third pew from the front. He figured the first two rows were reserved for Carlos' immediate family and he and Nate slid into the end of their row quietly.
Caterina turned around in her seat and reached over the row to place her hand on top of Bradley's, which was resting on top of the seats in front of him. She said nothing but the look in her eyes told him that she was sorry and she knew that he was grieving just as much as she was. He nodded and smiled faintly before she turned around to hush her son, who was fighting with his brother over who got to play with Caterina's phone.
"You'd think those kids would be at least a lil' sad." Nate murmured.
"I don't think they knew him that well." Bradley whispered in reply as the church doors opened from behind them.
Nate turned to look and gasped, causing the blonde to look too. His brown eyes fell on a huge crowd of people who were wearing matching long sleeved shirts and jackets with the name of Carlos' photography school printed on the front of them. Bradley recognized a bunch of them from classes that he'd tagged along with Carlos too and a few of them waved. The crowd took up almost three rows as they slid into the pews.
"I can't believe all of them came…" Bradley whispered and he felt a hand on his shoulder. Nate's voice echoed in his left ear as he continued to stare at the crowd of students, "Carlos had a lot of friends man. He was one of the best students at the school."
Before he could answer, another group of people entered the building and quickly walked to the front of the church and climbed into the seats in front of Bradley and Nate.
He immediately recognized Carlos' parents. He'd never met them in person, but they'd talked over the phone. They didn't even look at him and Nate as they sat down in front of them and Carlos' mother rested her head on her husband's shoulder. She sniffed loudly and they both knew she was crying. Two men who looked old enough to be Carlos' uncles and an elderly woman who was obviously a grandmother sat beside his parents in silence.
The priest that had greeted Bradley when he entered the church made his way to the front by Carlos' casket, where a podium was standing. If anyone had been talking, the room would have fallen silent when he cleared his throat to begin the service.
"We, the friends and family of Carlos Garcia, gather today to celebrate his life…"
"I still can't believe he's gone." Nate whispered, staring down at Carlos' gravestone. He bit his lip and stuck his fingers in the pockets of his jeans. "I know I wasn' very close to 'em, but 'e was my friend."
Bradley stood beside him in silence, nodding slowly in response. He still hadn't brought himself to say anything, even after the service had ended. He and Nate were the only ones who remained standing beside their old friend's grave. Even Carlos' parents had retired to their car and left. They were holding a get together at their house for anyone who wanted to go and celebrate Carlos' life, watch old home videos, eat casserole and do whatever they could to cheer up Carlos' family.
"Don' you wanna say anythin', Brad?" Nate asked, turning to look at the blonde. His large, brown eyes that were usually sparkling with playfulness were strangely dull and just made Bradley's mood worse.
Taking a deep breath, Bradley nodded. "I kinda want to be alone with him, if you don't mind Nate."
The shorter man nodded respectfully. "Sure, man. I'll be waitin' in the car," He said before turning around and heading back to the parking lot.
The rain was slightly heavier than it had been when he arrived, but Bradley didn't care. At this point, he didn't care if a tornado was heading straight for him. All he cared about was talking to his best friend. He sighed quietly and closed his eyes, trying to steady his breath before speaking.
"I'm so sorry, Carlos." He began, "I didn't want it to end like this. I'm so sorry we fought. I'm so, so sorry that you died thinking that I hated you."
On the last words, Bradley choked and he could feel the tears begin to stream down his face. He desperately wanted to see his best friend again. He wanted to pull Carlos into a hug and tell him that he loved him too and that everything was going to be okay. He wanted to be sure that Carlos heard his apology.
He didn't know how long he stood there in the rain, hands in his pockets and quietly crying, before he felt a hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder, locking eyes with Logan. He hadn't heard the man walked up behind him, but he hadn't really been paying much attention to his surroundings either.
"How are you holding up, man?" Logan asked quietly.
Bradley shook his head and brought a hand up to his face to wipe the tears away. "Not good."
"It's okay to cry, you know. It's okay to miss him."
"No, it's not okay." Bradley snapped, "The last thing that I said to him was to leave. I told him that he was a piece of shit and that I didn't want to live with him anymore. He died thinking that I hated him. It's my fault that he died."
"T-that's not true at all." Logan began, mouth hanging open in disbelief.
"It is, though. He died because he was texting me instead of watching the road."
"That's not your fault. It was his decision to text while driving."
Bradley covered his face with his hands again and groaned. "Before our fight, he came into the apartment looking happier than he had in weeks. He looked so happy when he saw me until I started yelling at him."
"The last thing he said to me that that text. All it said was, "I love you." Bradley was sobbing now, "And I didn't even see it until the next morning."
Logan said nothing as he extended his arms and pulled the taller man into a hug. He let Bradley sob into his shoulder and comfortingly rubbed his back. He'd expected the blonde to blame himself but he didn't know the details behind it. He could see why Bradley thought Carlos' death was his fault.
"Listen to me. Carlos died because he made the stupid decision to text while driving, especially during a storm at night." Logan said sternly, "Blaming yourself for his death won't help anyone, okay?"
"He died thinking I hated him." Was all the blonde said in response, his face still buried into Logan's shoulder.
"He died telling you that he loved you." Logan whispered, "Carlos never lied about things like that. He knew that you didn't really hate him. He wouldn't have risked his life to tell you if he didn't forgive you for the things that you said."
Bradley remained silent. After a moment, he pulled away from the younger man's embrace and wiped his eyes again. "You're right, Logan," He whispered, a small smile appearing on his face.
Logan smiled in return, although his eyes still looked sad. "I miss him, too."
"I regret hurting him. I regret it so much it's killing me. I thought I had a lifetime to make up for all of the bad things that I did to him, but I was wrong." Logan murmured, "I would give anything to take it back. I'd give anything to have one more minute with him by my side. I'd give up anything for you to have one more minute with him."
The blonde looked at the ground, which was dappled with raindrops and healthy grass. The air was slowly getting colder as the sun set behind the cover of clouds and a foggy mist was beginning to form over the graveyard. It was almost eerie, but Bradley couldn't bring himself to leave Carlos' grave just yet. Logan's words broke his heart and all he wanted to do was curl up and cry for days, weeks, or months even.
He didn't feel like he'd ever be whole again.
He looked up at Logan, who had shed a few tears and was staring absently as the grey headstone. His voice broke as he whispered, "How do we live without him?"
Logan squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, "I have no idea."
The sounds of approaching footsteps caused both of the men to turn around. James and Kendall were heading towards them, both wearing jackets and shivering against the wind. They looked like they were holding back tears but didn't dare let them fall in front of anyone. Neither of them stole a glance at Carlos' grave as they came to stand in front of Logan and Bradley, as if looking at the grey headstone might make them burst into tears right there and then.
"Are you guys going to stand here all day or do you want to go to the Garcia's house for some fun and games?" James asked, his tone laced with fake cheerfulness.
"Do you really think it's appropriate to go have a party right after our best friend's funeral?" Logan snapped irritably.
The smile that was plastered to Kendall's face faded slightly at Logan's words. "Do you really think that Carlos would think it's appropriate to stand around in the rain and cry all day?" He teased.
Logan knew Kendall was just trying to cheer him up, but it felt like nothing could ease the pain of losing the person he once considered a brother to him. "How do you know what Carlos would want? People change and we barely knew him when he died." Logan grumbled.
"Well, Brad knew him pretty well. What do you think?" James asked the blonde. He, Logan, and Kendall all turned to look at Bradley as they waited for his response.
Up until that moment, he'd been staring at Carlos' grave while he listened to them argue. Tearing his eyes away from the grave once more, he looked up at the three of them. Even though Logan was right about Carlos changing over the years that they were apart, Kendall wasn't exactly wrong. He knew that Carlos would be upset that they weren't heading over to his parents house to celebrate his life and try to make the grieving process a little easier by sharing happy stories and laughing instead of crying over him.
"Kendall's right," Bradley began in a quiet voice, "He wouldn't want us to stand around and cry over him. He'd want us to be happy."
"Well that settles it," James said in a playfully smug voice, "You heard the man. Let's go pig out at his parents' house and tell Brad all about the time when Carlos accidentally set fire to the couch in the living room."
The brunette slung an arm over Kendall and Logan's shoulder and began to lead them away from the grave. It was getting darker and darker and it wouldn't be long before it was too dark to find their way back to the parking lot.
Bradley hung back for a moment and turned back to Carlos' grave. Sticking his hand in the pocket of his jeans, he pulled out an ivory colored envelope with the word Carlos written in cursive on the back. Kneeling down, the blonde placed the envelope on top of the clump of dirt and let it rest beside the headstone.
"Are you coming or not, blondie?" James called over his shoulder.
Bradley laughed at the stupid nickname and stood up again. Taking one last look at his best friend's grave, he turned away and followed the three men back to the parking lot.
There are no words that can describe how much I miss you. Every day that goes by it gets harder to breathe. Without you here, it feels like a this huge black hole in my heart and I don't know if I'll ever feel whole again.
I miss you so damn much and it hasn't even been a week yet. You were my world, Carlos. You still are. I have no idea how I'm going to live the rest of my life without you in it. I always pictured growing old with you and having you by my side. I thought we had more time together. I thought that eventually, the bad things would come to an end and we could both be happy, but I was wrong.
I need you to know that I don't hate you. I never have and I never could. From the first moment I saw you, I knew that you would be a big part in my life.
The second I found out that you died, I knew I should have told you. I should have let you tell me what you wanted to tell me that night you died. Things might have ended differently. You might still be alive.
For the rest of my life, people are going to tell me that it wasn't my fault. They're going to say that there is no way I could have stopped your death. But we both know the truth. You died because you thought I hated you. You died because you desperately wanted me to know that you loved me.
They said that you died on impact. They told me that you didn't feel any pain, probably because I was feeling it for you.
I love you. The three words that I never said but always meant.
We'll see each other again. I know we will.
Love, Bradley Owens
PS: If only you could have seen how the whole campus came for you. They weren't crying or depressed or mopey like the rest of us. They brought life to the service. I think you would have liked that.
There we go. The end.
I am literally so proud of this story. This is the first story that I've ever actually finished. I've been working on this project for a year and eight months and it's a part of my life that is coming to an end. Even though this is just a piece of fanfiction, I can't explain how much this story means to me. Every bit of feedback I've received, every time someone favourited or followed it, has meant so much to me.
I'm thinking about writing and epilogue to follow this chapter, but nothing is set in stone yet. What do you think?
Thanks for everyone who read my story - whether you were here from the very beginning or just recently found it and started reading.
I can't wait to move on to TPC and newer stories to come, whether they are fanfiction or actual novels. Thank you again!
PS: Shout out to my best friend Laura who encouraged me to write this story and continue it even when I thought it had died. She's awesome and she is an aspiring writer who I hope we will see work from in the future!