Shell startled herself, she hadn’t meant to say it out loud; she had merely been imagining what Anna would have said. The hilarity of death had become a running theme for her best friend. Anna’s absence wasn’t unusual, over the last few years she had grown more reluctant to leave the house. After all the young woman had exceeded the socially acceptable grieving period (Anna liked to make jokes about that too) and was constantly plagued with too many looks of pity, frustration and awkwardness. In the end she had withdrawn, given up. Shell had still seen her closest friend regularly though, spending several mornings drinking coffee on Anna’s pale yellow couch and many evenings at Anna’s tiny dining table drinking beers.
Breaking out of her reverie she realised silence had fallen and everyone was looking at her. Shell put on a hopefully-not-too-bright smile and continued in a light-hearted manner.
“Well, it’s the great cosmic joke. People live, build, think, create, love, laugh and then,” she paused, affecting a magician’s persona, “Poof. Nothing. Gone.”
She received a couple of nods and grunts of agreement before Trevor opened his mouth to tell an offensive joke.
“Your jokes are never funny,” Oscar said curtly, cutting Trevor off.
“He’s just joking, that’s what we’re talking about here isn’t it; unfunny jokes,” Kayla said, defending her new ass-hat boyfriend.
The conversation turned into a meaningless buzz in her periphery as Shell was engulfed in memories.
People filled up the funeral hall and spilled over into the adjoining hallways and rooms. Shell merely watched Anna, she didn’t know what else to do, stung by helplessness so strong and raw it seemed to gut her insides. Anna didn’t want a shoulder right now, Shell knew she was trying to be silent and strong and accommodating for everyone else. Helping, organising, sorting. But as they stood in the hall, the service minutes away, Shell slipped her hand into Anna’s and met a responding desperate grip in return. But too soon Shell was ushered away; she wasn’t ‘close family’, she felt Anna stiffen and reluctantly let go of her hand. To keep her eyes on her friend she walked backwards through the doorway and when she saw shoulders slump even further had to fight the instinct to run back to her. But Shell knew Anna wouldn’t want a scene.
Two hours later, people stood around eating food and vomiting up condolences. Shell winced when she heard someone say,
“He’s gone to a better place.”
The whole day she had seen the cracks in Anna’s face every time those words were uttered. This time Anna smiled gently like every time before but didn’t follow up with ‘yes, of course’ instead she said calmly,
Shell followed as Anna left. They ended up in a small unfurnished room on the other side of the building.
Anna started laughing, big, mighty guffaws, “Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard?”
Shell didn’t know what to do, sensing the impending melt-down, she didn’t want to make it worse, knew nothing could make it better, she watched. That seemed to be all she ever did: watch.
“The only thing funnier is how we’re expected to go along with it,” Anna had yelled, voice rising in pitch as she continued, “Because we have to let people take their comfort where they can. No one has to care about the atheist at the funeral.”
Anna’s voice dropped and her body along with it. Hysterical laughter turning to sobs in the way Shell had known they would. She wrapped her arms around Anna and was surprised when more words were said.
“Even if it hurts. Every time it hurts. Because they get their heavenly reunion to look forward too, but we get nothing- we never get to see them again. And it hurts.”
Shell had watched. Every day after that day. She had watched as Anna was unable to put herself back together and watched as peoples understanding changed to weariness; watched as Anna made everyone uncomfortable; watched as Anna put on a smile and pretended to be fine; watched as Anna tried and tried and got worse and worse. Listened as Anna talked about all the idiots who wanted her old self and Shell sat there feeling guilty for wanting her old friend back too.
She tried to help the best she could but was resigned; watching was all she could do.
But Anna had given up: had embraced the great punch-line of death. And now Shell would never be able to watch her again.