Balance & EquilibriumbyStefan_J©
Light rain had been drifting down from the heavens all morning. The dark, foreboding rain clouds above might actually be smoke, and the drizzle falling to the earth could be spurting from an emergency sprinkling system which had been set off due to it. However, the only trace of fire in the Green Hills Cemetery resided in Penelope Baker's heart, which had been smouldering for two days straight.
No amount of rain could extinguish the searing flames licking at her soul.
In the sea of black umbrellas, a singular one stood out like a beacon shining from a lighthouse. It was splashed with every colour the human eye could interpret, giving it a bright, cheery look that would be offensive on the best of days. Such an object had no business being in a cemetery, for it shattered the sweet melancholy mood that a graveyard should bask in.
The rainbow umbrella would be an item that a young child would purchase, not, you would imagine, an elderly woman who was prone to periodic bouts of dementia. Perhaps the bizarre purchase of this item was another facet of her illness, one of which Penny had no knowledge of. Dementia to Penny was the equivalent of a television to a chimpanzee – alien and beyond her understanding.
Penny tore her eyes away from the distracting umbrella – a distraction which was quite welcome – and focused them on the coffin that lay ten feet away. A reverend stood eminently at its head, bible in hand, reading from it certain passages that the parents of the deceased had requested. His voice was sombre and filled with a whimsical empathy, yet despite his kind words Penny received little comfort.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," reverend Thomas uttered, finalising the verses. He closed the leather bound book and glanced around at the small gathering. Penny detected a sadness in him that emulated her own, which was strange because, from what she could gather, the man had never met Brian Jackson.
'And he never would,' she thought.
The coffin, which had been carved out of a beautiful red gum, descended slowly into the ground and the surrounding mourners struck up a symphony of sniffles, sobs and loud whimpers. Brian's father, Joseph, was so stricken by his grief that he fell to his knees and covered his face with hands that resembled a giant bear's paws, proceeding to cry into them with such a powerful display of raw emotion that Penny's heart almost couldn't handle it.
Tears slid down her face and she tightened her grip around the waist of her best friend, Jacob McCloud. It seemed as if she was faring far better than him. Both had been close friends with Brian, although Jake had known him since primary school. With twenty years of companionship suddenly flooding back from the deepest archives of his memory, Brian's death had sent Jake spiralling into a depression that no amount of coaxing could bring him out of. He had always been such a jovial person, quick to laugh and make others do likewise. It scared Penny to death to see him plunge into such a dark void, and it seemed there was nothing she could do to bring him back.
Like the moisture from the sky, Jake's eyes had been leaking all day long. Every now and then Penny would wipe at his face with a handkerchief, but streams of tears and droplets of rain would re-emerge the moment the pink cloth left his skin.
Neither of them cared enough to protect themselves from the pouring rain; the thought of securing an umbrella for both of them had never entered Penny's mind. Thus, they were saturated from head to toe. Jake's unruly hair sat slicked back from his forehead, his black suit appeared a shade darker, and his handsome face was lined with beads of rain, perhaps descending from the heavens with the sole purpose to cleanse him of his tears.
Clad in a pair of dark blue denim jeans and a black leather jacket, the only tell-tale signs that she was soaked were the streams of water from the tip of her ponytail and a similarly bathed face to Jake's.
One by one, people shuffled up to the yawning hole in the ground, paying their last respects by plucking a single white rose from the wicker basket and tossing it inside. Penny slipped her hand into Jake's and led him forward. Their steps were small and it took twice as long to cover the distance than everyone else, but in circumstances such as these there was no hurry.
They both selected a rose and shuffled up to the grave. "Goodbye," Jake said softly, letting a single rose fall from his hand. It flipped end over end and bounced off the lid of the coffin, disappearing down the thin gap that separated Brian's new home from the sheer walls of earth that surrounded it.
"I'll never forget you," Penny whispered. She got down on her haunches and dropped her rose inside, weighing her underhand toss so perfectly that the flower landed on the centre of the coffin. For some unknown reason it was important that it didn't follow a similar fate to Jake's.
Friends, family and apparent strangers quickly materialised at their sides and disappeared twice as fast, not wanting to linger so close to where Death had used the sharp blade of its scythe. This silly superstition mainly extends from the fear that ebbs through people when they sense Death's presence. Typically, when confronted by the dying or the dead, every single person finds themself plunged headfirst into the realisation that their grasp on life is tenuous and often short-lived. Each passing mourner that paid their respects could smell, see and sense the fragility of their very existence, and fleeing Brian's grave diminished the overwhelming notion that, someday, sometime, somewhere, they were all going to be in receivership of a service not unlike the one taking place for Brian Jackson.
Penny and Jake were riveted to the spot, unable and unwilling to move, letting their mutual silence and downward gazes say their true goodbyes. Jake's hand was soft and warm, and without his touch Penny knew that she would feel lonelier than she had ever felt in her life.
After enough time had passed, she turned to him, gave his hand a gentle squeeze and attempted to smile. "C'mon, let's go," she said.
"Okay," he sighed.
As if the traditional roles between dancing partners had been reversed, Penny led her grieving friend away from the newly filled plot and negotiated their path through the crowd. No one spoke. The air of morbidity was so dense that Penny thought she would choke on it. People were either walking around aimlessly or standing still nervously, unsure of what they were doing and where they were going.
What could you do?
How were you supposed to react?
The life of a twenty-year-old had been extinguished so suddenly. Nothing prepares you for this eventuation. There are no lessons taught in school that educate you on the finer points of how to deal with the loss of a loved one and the grief that comes attached.
They weaved in and out of the gravestones, each becoming bigger and more deteriorated as they exited the contemporary section of the cemetery and worked their way through the older. Headstones are rarely used nowadays; most people opt for a simple plaque with a small photograph of the deceased.
And then, as if they never existed, the decrepit, century-old monuments were left in their wake and they passed through the cast iron gates that served as an entrance to the Green Hills Cemetery. Gravel crunched underfoot as they crossed the parking lot to Penny's car. It was a run-down yellow Volkswagen, the same make and model as that lovable bug Herbie from the Disney movies of the same name. Sometimes she joked that it was the fifth Beatle, but not today.
Penny slipped behind the wheel while Jake dropped himself into the passenger seat. Usually his posture was impeccable, but today he slouched like a disinterested high schooler. He looked defeated, world weary, forcing Penny to override her own anguish for the time being in order to keep a close eye on him.
A part of her wanted to kiss him, needed to kiss him. Not a friendly peck on the cheek mind you, but a full-on, passionate, I-love-you-forever type of kiss that you read about in books and dream about in dreams. They had been best friends for six years, and for the last three she had developed an intense crush on him that now, more than ever, filled her with a desperate yearning to hold him in her arms.
Penny gazed at Jake through blurred eyes. Every trickle of water could be felt as it traced a unique pathway down her face, along her neck and underneath the collar of her leather jacket. The droplets of rain wracked her body with sporadic tremors, but she didn't switch on the heater because the chill was the only stimulus that made her feel alive.
"I can't feel anything," Jake said.
His hands matched the ghostly white of his face, so, thinking that he was freezing, Penny slipped her hands into his and rubbed at his flesh in an attempt to create enough friction to warm him up. "Is that better?" she asked.
"I didn't mean it like that." His voice was cold and distant, devoid of any emotion. "It's like I'm dead. I feel…nothing."
No words of wisdom fell from her mouth. All she could do was remain silent, because any advice in the context of bereavement would sound false and contrived. Talking is overrated. Simply touching his hands conveyed a deeper sense of respect than any clichéd meanderings could ever do.
Cars started pulling out around them, most likely heading back to the church for the post-funeral reception. "Would you like to go to the reception they're holding at the church?" she asked. It seemed rather tacky to effectively celebrate a loved one's passing by holding a party, but Penny guessed that most people gained a certain measure of comfort in the fact that life does indeed go on. Eating produces energy, and energy is what keeps the body functioning. Without it, we would all be paid a visit by the scythe-carrying figure draped in a midnight-black cloak.
"No. I want to be alone right now."
"Where would you like me to take you?"
"I…I don't care. Just take me someplace where there aren't any people."
"Okay," she said, giving his hands a final squeeze before starting the car.
A swirl of colour entered the rear view mirror as Penny manoeuvred the vehicle out of the parking lot, producing a stark contrast against the grey backdrop of clouds. It was Mrs. Meyer, twirling her rainbow umbrella like an elderly version of Mary Poppins, which would forever haunt her dreams when images of Brian Jackson's funeral graced them.
A period of time passed where neither of them dared to speak. Hundreds of different memories of Brian overlapped her vision of the road, none for any other reason than because everything she saw reminded her of him: the town municipal tip where the three of them used to play, Mr. Swanson's hundred-year-old oak in which they climbed like monkeys every day after school, their old bus stop, Mrs. Brewer's candy store, and so on and so on. Everything reminded her of Brian.
They drove past the fire hydrant on the corner of Marble Street and Pride Court. The sight of that cylindrical object produced the first genuine smile that had adorned Penny's face in the two days since she'd heard the shocking news of Brian's death. A few giggles followed, causing Jake to turn in his seat and scrutinise her face.
Her smile transformed into a grin. "Do you remember the summer when Brian discovered a way to turn on that fire hydrant?" she said. A faint smile lingered on his lips and he nodded. "God that day was hot. We went to the pool but for some reason it was closed. Damn, I can't remember why it was closed."
Jake chuckled and he broke out into a giant grin. "How can you not remember? Ryan Jenkins broke in the previous night, not before eating a ton of food followed by an entire box of laxatives. It took them two days to clean all the shit out of the pool."
"Oh yeah!" Penny laughed. "Ryan gloated about that for months; he thought it was the coolest thing he'd ever done. Anyway, what about Brian though. I'll never forget the moment he turned on the fire hydrant and it blew him out into the street."
More laughter filled the car as they both reminisced over that long ago day. Brian had somehow gotten his grubby little hands on a hydrant key, which is a crank with a hexagonal slot that you insert into the top of the hydrant so that you can turn it on. Being the ever lovable goof that he was, Brian stood in front of the nozzle when he rotated the crank, and was subsequently blown to the ground due to the awesome pressure he unleashed when he opened the valve.
Jake's face suddenly morphed into a mask of pain and their laughter subsided. "I miss him already, Pen. Jesus Christ, I miss him so much and it's only been two days."
"I miss him too."
A two-storey building came into view, which was broken up into sixteen individual one-bedroom flats that made a dog's kennel look like a mansion. The builder who laid the bricks had done a shocking job. On the bottom storey, between most bricks, if you looked close enough, you could see large cracks splitting through the poorly mixed mortar. If gone unfixed by the landlord – an alcoholic who was typically barely conscious enough to remember his own name – the upper storey would eventually collapse on the lower one, hopefully long after Penny's lease ended.
Penny steered the car into her allocated parking space and got out. Instead of sprinting through the rain like some kind of idiot, Penny ambled towards her flat as slowly as possible, a forlorn Jake plodding along behind her like a faithful servant. She tilted her face skyward and droplets of water splattered against her skin, sending more shivers through her body. Each tremor felt like she was experiencing a miniature orgasm and her nipples hardened.
They arrived at her front door and removed their shoes. Even though the flat's carpet was thoroughly ruined by the previous tenants, it was impossible for her to purge the instinct to remove all footwear before entering a house, courtesy of parents who had spent a lifetime drilling it into her.
A small – but very clean – kitchen greeted them when they entered the apartment. Beyond the kitchen was the lounge room, hardly any larger than the size of your average shoe box. Despite its shortcomings in regards to space, the interior of her flat had a very lived-in feel about it: the walls were decorated with images of forests, beaches and waterfalls, all perfectly captured from exotic locations from around the globe; plants were suspended from the ceiling in ceramic pots that she had painted; knitted blankets draped over the old, otherwise ugly two-seater couch; and hundreds of knick-knacks lined the shelves of her bookcase.
To someone with a lot of money it probably wouldn't seem like much – to her it was home.
She made a bee-line towards her bedroom and motioned for Jake to follow. Even as she crossed the threshold that separated her bedroom from the lounge room, the intent of taking Jake in there was lost on her. It was as if some higher force was guiding her actions and she was merely a marionette, dancing to a tune that was beyond her comprehension.
Still on autopilot, she closed the door after Jake entered and then went and turned on her off-the-shelf, cheapo electric heater. Its internal fan whirred to life and blew out a stream of warm air.
Jake's eyes met hers and she instantly knew why she had brought him into her bedroom.
Two beautiful green eyes gazed curiously at her from across the room, eyes which were filled with so much despair and confusion that she would do anything to distract him – as Mrs. Meyer's multi-coloured umbrella had similarly distracted her – from the constant awareness that he was never going to see Brian again.
If Penny was to learn anything from this day – other than the fragility of human life – it was that when it came time for her to meet her maker, she wanted to regret nothing.
"Why are we in your bedroom?" he asked.
Penny didn't answer him. Instead, she walked over to where he stood and placed her hands on his shoulders. The silky material of his suit jacket was sodden from the rain.
"Take off your clothes," she said.
Three years of pent-up sexual frustration threatened to burst out of her, forcing Penny to consciously keep a stranglehold on every ounce of her desire. Some may consider it a sign of disrespect to want to have sex with a friend on the very day another had been buried, but this sudden urge to make love sprung from the very notion that life was far too short to waste.
Her inability to declare her love for him stemmed from a deep-seated fear that he would not feel likewise, and this might cause their friendship to fall apart. It only now occurred to her that if Jake were a true friend, one that stood by you at any cost, he would accept her feelings and not allow them to ruin the wonderful friendship they had spent so many years building.
Jake blinked at her. "Excuse me?" he blurted.
"Take off your clothes," she repeated.
There's a certain way a man looks at you when he finds you attractive. It can most usually be found in a lingering stare or in that timeless red-faced sideways flicker of the eyes when a girl meets a man's gaze. On numerous occasions Penny had found both Brian and Jake giving her body the once over, but that's a far cry from being an indication that either of them wanted to take things to a whole new level. Every man looks a girl over; it doesn't mean he wants to spend hours touching what he sees.
Not that she was an ugly duckling. Guys who had fancied her in the past had showered her with flattery, focusing especially on her big brown eyes, friendly smile, chestnut-coloured hair and her beautifully shaped behind. Although the men who had slept with her had never complained, Penny would prefer to be a little slimmer around the midriff and a lot bulkier when it came to her boobs. They were pert and nicely shaped; she just wished they were a little bigger.
"You're having me on, right?" he said, producing an unsure smile.
"Nope, I'm being utterly serious."
The desire to kiss him stole over her again, only this time, unlike in the car, Penny didn't resist the temptation. She placed a hand on the back of his slick neck and pulled their bodies together, while her other hand journeyed from his shoulder, down his flanks and around his waist. Their faces were only inches apart. Jake's eyes were wide with shock. Her lips were trembling – she was more nervous than the first time she kissed a boy.
"What are you doing?" Jake whispered.
"I'm going to kiss you."
Penny tilted her face and brushed her lips against Jake's. They were cold and wet, but they were also very soft in texture, offering no resistance to her unexpected, overly affectionate kiss. For the time being she was content with limiting her kisses to simple pecks, but her heart surged with the hope of feeling her tongue slide against his.
With her lips tingling with excitement, Penny broke the contact between their mouths and pulled her face back until she could focus her eyes properly on his. If inclined, it was entirely possible for her to lose herself in those twin green pools; such was their beauty and hypnotic hold over her.
He tentatively slipped his arms around her waist as she did likewise around his neck, their bodies easing into one another's orbit with an awkwardness that afflicts all couples who share such an intimate embrace for the first time.
"You…just kissed me," he murmured.
Trembling with a mixture of fear and giddy rapture, she nodded her head and said, "Yes, I just kissed you."
"Why now?" he asked softly. "Of all the days you could have picked, why today?"
"Because as scared as I am about ruining what we have, I'm even more petrified of never knowing what could have been. I've felt this way about you for a very long time, and I don't want to spend another three years of my life not telling you how I feel."