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"I guess I should be going," Neil said.
"Won't you stay, please?"
"I can't...I won't forget you, Tony."
Tony stood and helped him to the door, where he hugged Neil. "Of course you won't forget me. You'll see me tomorrow, and the day after."
"But if something should happen..."
"Nothing will happen!"

--Chain Letter, by Christopher Pike, chapter 14, page 123.

 

Tony Hunt sat alone in the front seat of the hearse. The driver was outside talking to the minister. He had felt awkward looking back while the driver was in the car, but now that he was alone, Tony turned slowly on the seat until he was facing the casket behind him. It was a dark off-blue, an odd colour that didn't look right--metallic, but plastic. Tony placed his hand on the smooth surface, rubbing his fingers over the curve of the lid. It was quite cool, cooler than it should have been in the warmth of the day.

Neil was always cold. Even in the height of summer and sweltering heat, Neil would never take off his old black leather jacket. Tony couldn't picture him without it. Too bad it had been destroyed in the fire; it seemed wrong to put him to rest without it. Neil shouldn't be cold where he is. The slick surface of the casket warmed some beneath his touch as he lightly stroked it, but it didn't make him feel better.

In the corner of his vision, Tony could see the other cars passing by the hearse, finding places to park. People walked past, not looking inside but heading straight towards the deep, empty hole. He saw Alison, dressed in grieving black; she, too, stoutly averted her gaze. Tony was silently grateful for that. Alison had been there throughout the funeral, standing by his side since he had arrived at the church. He appreciated her support, but in a way it annoyed him, too. She wanted to be with him, and all Tony wanted was to be with Neil. He didn't know how to say it aloud, but he hoped that in a way she understood. Right now, it felt wrong to be with her. She was a reminder of one more way he had failed Neil.

Tony appreciated the few minutes alone. Mrs. Hurly hadn't rode in the hearse with him; she had drove her car to the cemetery, following behind. He could see her grey head coming towards the hearse from over the hill. When Tony had asked for the honour of riding with Neil, she had merely smiled knowingly, her hand briefly wandering down his arm to squeeze his fingers in her small grasp. She understood.

Tony had wanted to ride in the back, so Neil wouldn't be alone, but there wasn't enough room. The casket was small, that wasn't the problem. Neil had always been slight in his life, and his fiery death hadn't left much behind. Flowers were bundled all around the casket, making the cheap coffin look like it sat in its own private heaven within the confines of the hearse. He had paid for them all himself, making sure there was a bundle of every kind of flower in the shop. He had wanted to make sure that everything was beautiful for his friend, to somehow make up for everything. The strong scent of the blossoms filled the small space of the hearse, but underlying it Tony was sure he could smell acrid ashes. It was like brimstone in his nose; the hell that Neil had been so frightened of, that Tony was sure held a special reservation for people who let their best friends die.

The worst part wasn't the guilt. Tony didn't really feel guilt. Tony didn't feel sad. The worst thing was that he didn't feel much of anything, not since he received the phone call two days ago. It had been in the middle of the night, just after 1 am. His phoneline had been suffering a rash of middle-of-the-night calls lately. Mrs. Hurly called from her brother's place in Arkansas. There had been an accident at the house, could Tony act in her place and answer the police's questions because her flight was leaving in two hours and she had to pack and the traffic would be really light this time of night and he was such a good friend and... She choked out the words, "Neil's dead," before her brother took over, relating the story.

Since then, since those two little words, he'd been running on automatic, seeing the world through a thin veil of smoke. He could feel some things, but it was vague, eerie and unclear. Cold, perhaps. Empty. Utterly alone. He should be feeling more. He should be grieving. Neil had been his best friend. His conscience. Neil watched out for Tony. He said what Tony couldn't say. Neil had been everything that Tony had wanted to be, but never, ever could be. Neil had been his heart.

It was as though it really wasn't Neil in the small, cheap casket under Tony's hand. It was as though it were Tony's own soul locked inside. Without his soul, he couldn't feel anything, not even anger, not even pain.

There hadn't been a wake, and there was no way to have an open casket. His last memories of Neil would be his memories of their last visit together--that useless, resigned meeting of minds--and the school picture Mrs. Hurly had placed atop his casket during the funeral. Neil's green eyes had been dulled in the picture, just as the memories of the good times were fading to a foggy grey in Tony's mind.

Tony would give everything to take a little bit of that time back. Like a ghost over his skin, Tony could remember the feel of Neil as he hugged him that last time. Closing his eyes, he called up the memory desperately, replaying it over and over so as to burn the feelings into his mind, his body, so that he could hold on to something of Neil forever. The thin arms around his shoulders, the delicate bones of Neil's ribs as Tony's arms wound around his back.

So frail, so easy to hurt...

Tony clenched his eyes, concentrating on the smell of the well-worn leather, the clean scent of citrus from the orange juice Neil hardly touched. The feel of the thinning hair against his cheek, the way Neil pressed against him--for a short moment letting Tony take on his weight, hold him upright, keep him stable. Tony concentrated on it all so hard, so desperately, until he could feel Neil in his bones, the smaller body fitting perfectly against his own.

"Neil," Tony whispered, the name itself a little pain, like a pin-prick in his heart. He would give up everything, anything, just to see Neil one last time. To spend a few hours talking like the old days, or sitting in the sun, or even just sharing the same space for a few minutes. A silent glance. A warm smile. Something more than a few fatalistic words before leaving Neil alone to fight their unseen enemy. Something more happy and meaningful and real to burn into his memory. Something to last him an entire lifetime.

Though with the Caretaker's threat still over his head, his lifetime might not be that long at all.

It just didn't seem real--none of it. The disappearances, the murder. Tony had never thought anything bad would happen. Nothing permanent. They were kids for fucksakes. He'd wake up tomorrow, walk outside his door, and Fran would appear unharmed, stumbling out of the woods after getting lost. Kipp would come roaring down the street in his car, fiddling with his radio.

Neil would limp down the street, smiling as he reached Tony's side, and they would continue to walk together, side by side.

Nothing felt real anymore. Not even the skin-warm casket under his palm, holding all that remained of Neil Hurly.

The back door of the hearse opened, and Tony blinked his eyes at the minister's politely solemn face. It was time to say his last good-byes to his best friend. In spite of everything, Tony couldn't say the words. He didn't feel them. It didn't feel like good-bye.

Not yet.

The casket was rolled down to the edge of the door, ready to be carried out of the hearse. Tony's fingers slid off the casket as it moved, until his hand fell limply off the edge of the lid. He let his hand dangle a moment, then clenched it into a tight fist. If it killed him, he would find the Caretaker and stop him from hurting anyone else. He made the silent promise to Neil, too late to really make a difference to the one person he had loved the most.

Tony slid around in the seat and opened his own door. He hurried to the back of the hearse, taking his place by its side, one hand on the lid and one wrapped around the bar on the side. It wasn't quite time to take it to the grave, but he didn't want to be separated from Neil just yet. Not yet.