The sun was going into hiding for the night. The moon seemed to rise earlier than normal. I guess she didn’t want to miss anything. She probably got her eyeful the night before when she watched the events unfold in a single wide trailer in Starmount.
Steve pulled up in his pick-up truck. He was the youth leader at that time and one thing you could bank on is he really cared about those kids. I know–he told me so on many occasions. If there was ever a fault in that guy it was how much he worried about stuff and those teens were chief among those worries. We were close friends–at least at that time we were–and I could tell you how much he talked about the various problems they had, how much he tried to figure out how to help each one of those youths.
I sat on the steps outside the pastor’s study, which was part of the Children’s Wing. Steve got out and I stood. He rounded the front of the truck, his keys in hand and gave me a curious look. “Jeff, I got a call to be here early tonight. Earls said it’s important.”
I nodded. What was I thinking when I said I would tell him? I wasn’t prepared for this.
“Do you know what’s going on?”
I hesitated. “Yeah.”
“Does it involve any of the kids in the youth group?”
It’s an honest question, one that rightfully was asked. There were a few troubled kids in the group, most of them girls, and being the youth leader, it was a legitimate question with a legitimate concern.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Who?” I think he knew before I said it.
“It’s Chris.” My voice felt so small I wasn’t sure I had spoken.
“What about him? What about Chris?”
I looked at him. Could he see it in my eyes? Could he see it in the way my lips were turned down? Could he see it in the way I stood?
“Jeff, what’s wrong with Chris?”
And it came out. Two words, so simply stated and carrying all the weight in the world and wielding all the impact of a hammer to a nail. “He’s dead.”
I saw that hammer strike that nail right on the head. Steve’s face screwed up tight as the words reached his brain and the realization hit home. He turned, slung his keys toward the pastor’s study and walked a few feet away.
I looked away. Part of me felt like the meanest person in the world for telling him. I spotted his keys on the ground. It may not have meant anything to anyone else, but those keys became important to me. With what had happened, with the loss of a teenager to a senseless crime, those keys couldn’t be lost. I walked over, picked them up and held them tight in my fist. They were hot. Or maybe it was just me.
That Wednesday night service was nothing like it normally was. I guess that goes without saying. There was no singing and there was no message. The youth didn’t meet in the youth room. The only thing that seemed semi-normal was the nursery had kids in it.
We sat in the sanctuary on light colored pews with green cushions that matched the carpet. No one did much talking. For those who knew about Chris, they sat or stood in shock. I sat a few pews behind Steve and next to the girl I would marry one day.
Pastor Earls stood. His face, a study in grief and pale, his eyes rimmed red as if he had been asleep or crying. I believe it was the latter of those two things. He straightened his blazer, cleared his throat and began to speak. His voice was strong, without the first quiver.
I don’t remember everything he said, but the gist of it remains. He spoke of Chris’s death without going into any details–details most of us would find out over the next few days as things began to unfold.
Then the quiver came right along with the tears that followed. With the exception of people crying quietly in their pews, no one spoke.
The weight of a young life, gone way too soon, now sat squarely on each of our shoulders.
“How did… umm… how did Laura take it?”
“Who cares how she took it?”
He frowned, confused. “She was his girlfri—“
“No, she wasn’t.” I was a little too sharp in my tone.
“She said she was.”
“She lied. Chris was nuts about her. Absolutely nuts about her. He worshipped the ground she walked on. He would have done anything for her. Anything.”
I could feel the heat rising. My face was probably flushed red. I talked through gritted teeth.
“And you know what she did? She ignored him. He followed her like a lost puppy and she wouldn’t give him the time of day. He bought stuff for her and she took it, said thank you or maybe not and then had nothing to do with him.”
“But, I thought she loved him.”
That’s the first word that came to my mind. I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.
“You know,” I said and picked up my drink. I took a big gulp, swished the somewhat watered down soda around in my mouth before swallowing. “She never loved him. She toyed with him. Played him like a fool. It really pissed me off to hear her say how much she loved him after he died and to go on and on about how her boyfriend was murdered–you know he was murdered, right?” I probably shouldn’t have mocked her at that point, but damn I was angry.
I looked down at the table.
Deep breaths, man. Deep breaths.
Back up at him, I could see his eyes were a little wider behind his glasses.
“Chad, she wanted a pity party. Oh, poor Laura lost the love of her life. She wanted the attention. I think she liked it. The truth is it wasn’t true. She didn’t love him at all, and if she did, she had a funny way of showing it.”
He fidgeted with his cup for a moment, then changed the subject. I don’t blame him. If I were him I would have tried to do the same thing.
“How was the funeral?”
“It was nice,” I said. Totally the truth there. It was nice, even if it left me feeling a bit like the way Laura acted did.
I thought I got their early enough. Not so. I arrived at the church nearly an hour before the ceremony. The parking lot sat packed with vehicles. I only recall a couple times when the lot was packed like that and, sadly enough, they were all for funerals.
I went around to the front of the building like everyone else. I guess I could have gone in the back way, but no need making the entrance where folks paying attention would notice. At the door stood the ushers, members of the church who I knew well. I thought back to that blue teeth incident and forced a smile as the ushers greeted me and handed over one of the bulletins that held the order of service in it. On the front of the single folded page was a school picture of Chris, taken the year before. He smiled happily.
Teenagers filed in, most of them dressed nicely, some of them looking as if they belonged in a fashion show instead of at a funeral. As I watched the many youths enter the church I began to wonder… Admittedly, it’s something that probably should have never crossed my mind, but it did and if I’m going to be honest with you all, I have to tell you what that thing was. If you’ve paid attention throughout this, you would remember that I said Chris was a follower, someone always searching for people to fit in with. He’s the polar opposite of me. What do I mean? I’ve never cared if people like me. If they do, great. If not, well, their loss. Chris, however, did care if people liked him. He wanted his peers to like him. In some way I think he needed people to like him.
As teenager after teenager packed the small Nazarene church in Cayce, I couldn’t help but think, just how many of the well over a hundred kids there were actually friends with Chris and how many of them just wanted a day off from school or just wanted to say ‘hey, I knew him and he was a friend of mine and I went to his funeral and…’ You get what I’m saying? We all know those people. We all know them quite well; those people who use someone else’s tragedy to bring attention to themselves. People like Laura…
I met Catherine and we took a seat near the front of the church. The casket sat closed in front of the pulpit.
That’s pretty final.
Catherine sniffled and we talked in hushed tones. I had the hardest time taking my eyes off that closed casket. Goodbye came to mind. You know, goodbye? That thing you say when you don’t ever plan on seeing someone again. That goodbye has lingered with me for years, even when I think Chris is in the rearview mirror a long way off.
[[~…and there was so much left to dream…~]]
The next part of that lyric is ‘and so much time to make it real.’ Time ran out on Chris. Whatever dreams he or anyone had for him died on Halloween night of 1995.
I think about that goodbye and part of what Christopher later said when being interrogated by the police made a lot of sense as to why he said that. I’ll get to that later…
But, it’s still there. I can still see his face, hear his voice. I can still see it in his eyes–I would never see him again and I believe he knew. That feeling that crawled all over me when he said that… I should have gotten out the car, walked over to where he went and pulled him away from there. At the risk of him being pissed at me for doing so, I should have stuck my nose in his business right then and there…
…but I didn’t.
No, I don’t blame myself. Like so many others, when someone dies, we wonder if there were anything we could have done to prevent it. Maybe. Maybe not. We often kick ourselves or worry ourselves over what we could have done. The past is the past and no matter what, you have to move on. You have to live or you just die with the person who left already.
Pastor Earls gave his message that day and Michael W. Smith’s Friends played over the P.A. system. I think it was at that point that most of the tears fell. Catherine wept on my shoulder…
To be continued…