This wasn't where she wanted to spend her Saturday, surrounded by people that she barely remembered that only offered false words of sorrow but no real substance. It was the first time any of them had seen her dressed in a skirt and she was thankful they hadn't the mind to point that out. Never one to approach, she allowed them to come up to her and say hello first, that way she didn't have to try and recall their names. Her eyes were heavy but tears didn't fall; her lips were frowning but she had always scowled.
It had been a few years since she'd last set foot in that small, dying town. The circumstances then, however, were a little more joyful and her outfit a little more colorful. Now, she was clad only in black. The sight of the open casket seemed to be visible no matter where she stood. Makeup concealed death's ugly color on her best friend Sarah's pretty face. Yet the smile that Sarah had always shown was nowhere to be a found, a stark reminder of her terrible fate.
Shocked more than saddened by the news, the eventual breakdown of emotions hadn't quite started yet. Instead, she almost envied her deceased friend, as she didn't have to deal with all the frauds gathered in that room. Really, there was only a handful of people in that town she'd ever cared about. Most of those that had shown up were high school classmates, college classmates, and a few coworkers. They probably only bothered attending to get out of whatever responsibilities they had. Never would they have traveled on barely a dime for this somber occasion.
A heavy sigh, and then her eyes scanned the room again. Sarah's husband was nowhere to be found, but she couldn't really blame him. Discovering your wife's body after she committed suicide would be enough to send anyone into shock. Yet where were Audrey, Kyle, and Doug? They were all present for the wedding a few years ago. Had they dropped off the planet? Questions never led to answers, so she opted to finally move from her spot in the back corner and head toward the exit. Sarah would understand her desire to get out of town again.
Fresh air filled her lungs the moment the door was opened. It hadn't occurred to her how stuffy it had gotten in there with everyone's hot air. Heels touched sidewalk as she elegantly removed herself from the funeral home. No one would notice if she left – they never had before.
"I thought that was you I spotted," a calm, comforting voice called out to her. At first she merely glanced over her shoulder, uninterested in whatever newcomer this way trying to pretend to reminisce about memories they never shared. Greeting her was a pair of pearly whites barely peeking out from a thin-lipped grin. Before she could say a word, he said, "That's just like you, slipping out when no one is watching."
"It's not about me today, anyway, Walter," she said. Finally, she turned around fully for this old friend of hers.
In a flash he had embraced her, probably more for himself than her. Cautiously, she returned it as he whispered, "Sure it is, Emily. It's about all of us that loved her."
"You're right," she conceded in hopes he would release her. Wish granted, she felt herself able to breathe again. She said, "At least you showed up. Where the hell is Chip? It's his fucking wife."
"Still got the mouth, I see," he teased.
Faintest hints of red touched her cheeks but were gone in an instant. It only made his smile grow. Since grade school they had always teased each other until one would crack, the first to throw a punch was always the one to lose. A chipped tooth and blood stains on the monkey bars in the schoolyard marked one particular time when he had taken it maybe a little too far, and she proceeded to make him pay for every dirty word out his mouth.
A look of nostalgia crossed his hazel eyes as the memory returned, his tooth still aching many years later. She recognized the look and the sight of his tongue darting to that part of his mouth, as it did every time the incident was mentioned or remembered. Despite the lack of contact between the two of them over the years, they were able to pick up on these small habits. Once again, they felt as peace in the company of a friend.
"The last time I saw her, she was so beautiful in her gown," Emily abruptly said with a deep sigh. Somberness was replaced with fury when she seethed, "The hell did Chip do to make her that damned depressed?"
"I don't know, Em. I don't think it's that simple," he said plainly.
"I know. You're right."
"Twice in one day? You're admitting I'm right twice in one day? You really have grown up!" he said as a laugh escaped his lips. She returned it with a punch on his arm. He winced and it wasn't forced. Apparently growing up and moving away had only made her stronger. The moment she turned away he tried to check under his shirt to see if a bruise had already formed.
Inconsistent rain drops fell atop his head and he shook his hair out of instinct. Drizzle turned into a downpour before he could even look up. Pedestrians on the street scattered to find shelter and their fellow mourners that had found themselves outside quickly dashed back in. Silence seemed to reign over that street. It was comforting. Content just to stand there forever, Emily remained still like a statue as the cool rain washed over her. Average rainfall was less than ten inches per year in that town, so she wondered what the odds were it would rain on that particular day.
If she were to stand there forever, then he would have watched her forever. In a town that had changed its face many times, she was an uplifting vision on the dusty path that remained. Maturity had done wonders on her profile. Gone was the baby fat of their childhood and the rosy tint of teenage years; in their place a smooth complexion had formed which added a special glow to the wisdom her eyes held. Once more his gut held the brash desires of youth. Without thought, he snatched her wrist.
Surprised, she jumped at the contact of his warm hand. Any other time he might have laughed at the scare. Instead, he grinned and said, "Let's say we get Chip and play hooky? Ditch this joint. Just the three of us, like the old days again?"
There was no hesitation as her smile grew to match his. "Alright. Let's go," she said.
Back in the "old days" her heart would beat excitedly at the thought. Now, it was calm and steady, as though he had merely told her it was raining outside. Somewhere deep inside of her that spark yearned to be lit again and she knew that well. Perhaps spending time with old friends was all that she needed to gain traction again and kick start her life back on track.
Tugged along she ended up at his car, where she had to keep her mouth shut at the sight. Her hunk of junk had barely made it there, while before her awaited a chariot only a king could afford. As he opened the door for her she thought it odd it belonged to him. Walter had always been frugal with his money, but that was many years ago. Even when he drove away, the tires splashed water across the sidewalk in an immature move she never would have imagined coming from him.
None of that was mentioned as they drove to Chip's house. Instead, they asked basic questions about life: how's work, are you dating, what's your five year plan, have you heard from so-and-so… He admitted he got a "boring office job befitting his boring personality," just as she had predicted when they were teens. Life outside of that small town had been "boring" for her, too. A barista, a waitress, a gas station attendant, and anything and everything in between had been her career since graduating. Openly they joked about the dating and sex life, "or lack thereof," and both were pleased at how easily they could converse about such things.
It grinded to a halt when he said, "It's our ten year reunion in a few months."
Ten years seemed like a lifetime some days for Emily. All she could say in response was, "I feel like I saw the entire class at that funeral. So don't snitch if I play hooky for that, too."
Quietly, he laughed. It was hard for them to fathom. Within that decade a lot had happened. Emily had left in haste and had only returned to town a handful of times since then. If it wasn't for social media, they would have completely lost contact years ago. Chip and Sarah married before they finished college, just has everyone had foretold. Walter had finished his degree quicker than anyone expected and had shunned most social life in favor of his work. That tight nit group of rowdy kids had drifted apart. It was hard to even call them "friends" anymore.
Life was on autopilot. They were floating. Time was meaningless, because even though the world moved on without them, they had yet to budge an inch since entering their twenties. Hell, if that funeral was any indication, fate was going to catch up to them a lot sooner than anyone wanted.
These thoughts were put on hold when Walter parked the car. Before them stood a two-story blue townhouse with cute, cream-colored shutters. Together they approached the front door, but neither knocked. She said, "We're here because you're worried about him, aren't you?"
"Of course. For Christ's sake, it was his own wife's funeral and he's not there? I haven't heard from him all day. I'm actually glad I ran into you, because if he's killed himself I'm going to need someone there. I'd prefer a good friend over anyone else," he admitted. Despite the content of his words she smiled at him. It gave him a bit of confidence that everything would be alright, so he finally drummed his fist against the door. "Hey, Chip! Open up, buddy!"
There was no response. For almost a full minute they waited. The process was repeated. Same result. Walter was getting upset but he was good at hiding it. The only sign was the way he tightened his fist just enough that a small amount of white appeared on his knuckles. It wasn't until he clicked his tongue did Emily realize that he was ready to break the door down.
Annoyed, she rolled her eyes, removed her shoes, and said, "Here."
A pair of heels was thrusted into his grasp as she approached the home. Curiously, he watched as she used her bare feet to climb the gutter spout and window shutters toward an open window on the second floor. He asked, "What are you doing?"
"Reliving my party days," she flatly answered.
His snicker didn't go unheard. "Party days? Is that what you tell your fancy friends in New York? I'm pretty sure you didn't have time to party because you were busy trying to beat Deadly Dungeons Three!"
"It was Deadly Dungeons Two! Three was terrible. I didn't even finish it!" she retorted.
Unsure if she was angry at his inaccurate jab or just playing along, he could only laugh harder. Just as she stuck her hands through the second story window and began to climb in, he shouted, "Nice panties!"
"Funny, but I'm not wearing any!"
Naturally, she couldn't see his reaction, but she could just imagine it. Throat dry, heart stopped, eyes wide, and face flushed. There was no way he could have seen up her skirt at that angle. He had no idea whether she was really wearing any or not. Such jokes had grown common between them in their later high school days, mainly with her trying to embarrass him.
She shook her head. Nostalgic thoughts could happen later. At that moment she needed to focus on finding Chip. The window she had snuck through had led her into a bedroom – a nursey, in fact. The pastel colored walls and cartoony animal drawings were enough to make that clear. There was no sign of a baby, however. Dust had collected on the furniture thick enough she could write in it. Shuffling her feet on the comfy carpet, she made her way out and into the hall.
Everything was pristine outside of that one room. It came as no surprise, as both Chip and Sarah loved to keep things neat and organized. A familiar scent entered her nostrils and she could recall the same smell welcoming her wherever Sarah went. Mixed within that aroma was the dirty locker room odor and new shoe scent she had always associated with Chip. It was the most heavenly, hospitable combination she had ever experienced. It was strange how even a smell could make her feel at home and bring her back to easier times.
Quietly she descended the stairs and found herself in the living room. Passed out on the couch with drool on his cheek, Chip appeared alive and well. Stubble had grown over his baby cheeks and his brown hair was longer than she had ever seen. Instead of waking him up, she opted to open the front door and let Walter in first. It only took a few seconds for Walter to locate a glass of water on the coffee table and throw it on his best friend's face.
If it wasn't for the solemn events of the day, the sight of Chip thrashing wildly after his rude wakeup call would have caused Walter and Emily to laugh out loud. Not even a giggle escaped them as they waited for Chip to realize what was happening.
Chip's eyes caught Emily first. He blinked and said, "I've done it." There was no chance to question what he meant as his eyes rolled back into his head and he nearly went unconscious again.
"Are you kidding me?" Walter spat. Even the most innocent person could tell he wasn't sober.
Walter grabbed him by his collar and shook him. The movement only made an elated smile grace Chip's face. "Bringing me down, bro."
"Oh, for fuck's sake…" Emily muttered. The sound of her voice tickled something deep within Chip's brain and he couldn't stop the cackle that emerged.
"What the heck are you on? Don't tell me DMT again…"
As Walter berated Chip, Emily gave the room a glance. Broken cups, crushed beer cans, and a pipe were laid out amongst video game controls, comic books, and sketch paper. Without regard to any of Chip's belongs, Emily pushed everything aside to grab his sketchbook. Each new page brought a familiar sense of warmth to her. Chip had always been drawing. He was the most creative of the group. Even now, after all those years, the talent was still there.
His voice reached her when he mumbled out, "No. No, man. DMT was a onetime thing. Maybe two."
Walter massaged his temple in a rare open display of fatigue. Softly, he said, "Chip. Do you know what today is?"
"Shit. I have work today?"
"No. It was Sarah's funeral."
They swore that they could feel the gears in Chip's head grind and click as the thought started to sober him up. Blue eyes that could barely stay open were widening with each second passed. Something had dawned on him – something serious and immediate. He announced, "We have to rescue her."
"Rescue her? From her funeral?" Emily questioned in disbelief.
Shaking on his feet, he stood. In his mind, it had happened in a blink, but for Walter and Emily it was an agonizingly slow crawl. Then, he posed. A forward jab from Chip nearly knocked Walter in the face. "I remember what today is! It's the eleventh day of March! It's been seventeen years since we became heroes and defeated the evil Interfector!"
"Inter… wait, you mean that stupid game we played as kids? You've really flipped your lid!" Emily shouted.
"Chip. Buddy. That wasn't real. That was just pretend. You understand, right? That was fantasy. But, Sarah… she's really dead," Walter said. A steady hand had snagged his arm and gripped tightly in a desperate attempt to bring Chip back from reality.
Pupils once dilated seemed to retract. Confusion spread across Chip's face faster than either had expected. "What do you mean? You guys don't remember?" he asked. The way he spoke, it was clear to both Emily and Walter that he truly believed what he was saying. When they didn't answer, but instead shared a worried long between each other, Chip panicked. "But this scar! I got it in the battle against Nuntius! What?! Where is it?! It's gone!"
Chip had gazed down at his belly where the long incision had always been. No scar was present, just baby-smooth skin that had never seen even the smallest scrape touch it. Distressed, he started to flail. It took all of Emily's willpower not to deck him in the face. When she closed her eyes in an attempt to calm herself she mumbled, "Dear God…" Walter knew it was time to back up.
"It was right there! I misread the joust and it struck me right there! I would've been a goner but Sarah –"
He was silenced by Emily's fist. It struck him hard enough that he was flattened. After his back smashed harshly against the wooden armrest of his cheap couch, he rubbed his bruised cheek. A small whimper was uttered but nothing more.
"Sarah's fucking dead! Jesus Christ, how many times do I have to say that?! You missed the funeral of your wife! The girl you've had a crush on since you were fucking four! Snap out of it, Chip!" she screamed.
All he could do was mumble, "This… this is a parallel world. Where we didn't become heroes. Where… Sarah died…"
Her voice was still strict but a tad more sympathetic when she said, "Take the nostalgia goggles off, asshole. Quit the cartoons and drugs."
Walter knelt next to his friend and gave his shoulder a squeeze and a shake. "Maybe it would be best if you stayed at my place tonight. Just in case. Emily, you're free to join us," he offered.
The pain from the punch reached her hand and she shook it as she answered, "Thanks, but no thanks. I've had enough of druggie here. But I'm here for one more day. Maybe we can grab coffee tomorrow. Ouch."
He decided to be polite and not comment on the "ouch" she uttered. No doubt her hand was throbbing. Chip had a pretty hard head. "Alright. Where are you staying tonight? I'll give you a ride," he said.
"No, thanks. I can walk."
"Suit yourself. Come on, Chip."
Chip muttered a few things under his breath as Walter helped him back to his feet. An unknown force snatched Emily's feet when she went to follow them out. Subconsciously her eyes returned to the sketchbook she had discarded on the table. Another flip through was warranted. This time, she landed on a page that tickled her mind. Sloppy pencil lines were colored with a vivid array of marker colors. A lovely illustration of her deceased friend gazed back at her.
A shiver ran down her spine at the sight of the young Sarah clad in an elegant priestess's robe. Emblems from a nation she had never studied were outlined in brilliant gold thread. Butterflies ravaged Emily's gut as déjà vu loomed. Cold sweat from her hands stained the paper. Something told her to get out of that house as soon as possible. What kind of childhood memory was stirred from this drug-induced sketch and why did it threaten to control her?