Cigarette smoke billowed and followed AC drafts from the ceiling above, searing the eyes of children and seniors alike. Whirling electronic sounds escaped the murmuring machines, as teenagers to the next lane appeared to be having the time of their lives—perhaps even the highlight of their lives. We devoured the pitchers of beer, to stomach the onslaught of laughter and those crackling, cacophonous sounds. Each strike, spare, or even gutter ball were announced to the lounge, as if the bowling alley had transformed into an arcade on steroids. Laughter penetrated any reflection of what had transpired two nights ago. Velda, Joshua, and his girlfriend could not help but notice my existential unease—my detachment. In that moment, I realized this could not happen to my family, rather, time and space were illusions—manmade constructs to ease the understanding of physics, to laymen and scholars alike. I felt somewhere—somehow—Ella was with me. I could still smell her locks of hair. I heard her call my name from the back of the alley. She was there. She had never truly left—or so I would not accept.
Was it the chaotic sound, or was it the fact that my sister’s funeral was the next day? Bowling—sports in general—had never been my forte. I detest the flashing arcade lights. They remind me of a 1990s rave party, with less dancing—save the occasional victory cavort from a businessman, out with his friends with a pint when rolling strikes. I preferred the hum of solitude and books to these reverberating, demeaning tones. Although the need to unwind and redirect my mind could not supersede my worry for Joshua, let alone a funeral. He put on the show—acting as though nothing had happened, in a feeble attempt to calm the nerves of everyone around. I could not stay in a house of mourning—let alone a house in which tragedy continued to swell and to threaten any shred of sanity. A place where tears fell as the arrival of flowers on the front porch—our front door. The door which ushered police and paramedics, two days prior.
During the wake, I watched Velda's face. She stood, waiting for her turn to send her condolences and to, without question, hug me. Her turn had to wait. The Church held hundreds of grieving friends and family. Velda held in her tears, being stronger than I could ever be. Her care for me was clear—she had wanted nothing but happiness and good luck for me. Whether it be in our chemistry class the year before, or family strife. Her face was written in sadness and longing, to comfort me—how does one help someone stand next the open casket of his or her sister? She found her way; she looked into my eyes with her crystal blues, and I knew I was still—and forever—loved.
Late in the night of Ella’s death, I called Velda where she and her family were vacationing on Lake Hartwell—a little under an hour’s drive from Greenville—and at once, her family packed their belongings and returned to Greenville to be with my family and me. The same night she was on my doorstep, strings of tears falling down her flushed cheeks, and she hugged me with the strength I did not know she could ever muster. Outside, darkness had long fallen—creating ghoulish figures in the trees, and shrubbery dancing in a soft breeze—performing an amble choreography from the backyard to the drying forest below the horse paddock.
I had never had meaningful friendships as a child—no sleepovers, nor movie nights. I was friendly during school—but found myself more interested in my teachers’ personalities—and was often left out. I felt old, but had not yet learned how to be an adult. Velda was my one true friend—except the girl dressed in black, laying lifeless to my right. Now, she stood 10 feet in front of me, sizing-up my condition with tremulous waves of sadness, grief, and love glowing from behind her grey eyes.
“Hey, you’re 15, right?" Ella chuckled.
“You know I’m 15, and you know the sky is blue,” I jested.
“You’ll love this song,” Ella sneered, as she blasted the radio’s volume to maximum in her decomposing Ford from the 1990s—with the heat dialed to sauna-levels as we drove to a bookstore across town.
“A Hundred Years” by Five for Fighting blasted through the speakers, initially causing me to jump within my seat.
The problem was, unbeknownst to myself—or her, for that matter—Ella wouldn’t live to 100. She wouldn’t learn to love, or to kiss someone who thought she was beautiful, or climb the Rocky Mountains.
Laying in the coffin, dressed in her high school prom dress—draped in black—I watched, secretly hoping to see movement, to prove none of this was real—that her death was a fallacy, and life would continue as our plans had always been. I was to become a meteorologist, and she would work in international business. We would raise families alongside each other— visit Bucharest and Istanbul or Dublin together. I looked at the girl in black and, at some level, reality began simmer to the surface. None of our dreams were to become reality. They were to be buried along with Ella. The pianist began to play a softer rendition of “One Hundred Years” by Five for Fighting. My mom grabbed my hand, and I could feel her begin to fall downward toward the hardwood of the church. My eyes—once glazed in the shock and weight of such turmoil—watered. The cicadas began to roar within my head again and my vision became blank. I stumbled and nearly fell, but I remembered my mom. She needed my strength. I needed her strength. We pulled each other upward and continued greeting mourners—no matter how our faces must have been running red.