“I think I saw it, under his left hand. It’s in there with him,” whispered Eric Verlaine.
“The box?!” replied Bryan Palmer, Eric’s closest living friend.
They sat in the back row of chairs at the Coleman funeral parlor, where their mutual friend, Andy Kulowski, lay in wake.
Eric nodded. There it was—the box—a small, metallic combination safe which Andy had carried with him since freshman year of high school. Its dimensions had been unclear to them, as they had never really gotten a chance to handle it. But it fit in the oversized pockets of the baggy JNCO jeans that Andy frequently wore, like most skaters and punks in the late 1990s. Eric and Bryan would ask their friend, from time to time, what was inside the little black safe. But Andy was a consummate troll and would never share any details about the box or its contents, often ridiculing his friends for even asking.
“No way…” Bryan looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard. “You’re messing with me. Why would they bury him with it?”
“He probably asked them to. It’s not like he didn’t see it coming,” said Eric. “They’re going to bury him with that Nintendo controller too.”
“Yeah, having the N64 controller in the coffin is pretty cool of them,” said Bryan.
They watched a steady stream of people they barely knew wander past their friend’s open casket.
“I wonder what’s in it,” said Bryan, breaking a momentary silence between the pair. “Should we ask Patty and Todd?”
“No, that’s rude,” said Eric. “Let’s nab it and open it up. We can put it back later, or even tomorrow at the funeral. No one will ever know.”
Bryan didn’t immediately reply, conflicted between wanting to solve a mystery he had contemplated for years, but also not wanting to make a scene at his friend’s family vigil. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right…”
“Do you think Andy has some intense secret that would tarnish how we remember him? Something that would wreck his sterling reputation, just because we saw what was in the box?”
“No. He just liked that it bugged us,” said Bryan, smirking. “I want to see what’s in it, but I don’t want to desecrate the sanctity of his family’s grieving process.”
Eric laughed quietly, ready to steamroll his friend’s hesitation. “I know. Let’s get at the end of the line, and I’ll grab it. All you have to do is distract his parents.”
Bryan couldn’t stop smiling. He knew if Andy were in his shoes he would be all for digging through a mutual friend’s casket. “I don’t know if finding a few Magic cards, some weed, or even a titty pic from one of his ex-girlfriends is really worth it…”
“Bry, he’d laugh his ass off if he knew we nabbed it right out from under his cold, dead hands. We’ll put it back afterwards.”
Bryan finally relented. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
The pair poked around the other rooms of the funeral home, drifting in and out of the viewing area, while they waited for the line to die down. They had to make sure that they would be the last ones through, so no one would see them rummaging around in Andy’s casket.
“Look at all these kids who came out. As if any of them have said two words to Andy since middle school,” said Eric.
“Yep. It’s like they get off on it,” whispered Bryan. “Seeing someone our age dead is a spectacle to them—and their parents too.”
Eric thought of his own parents, and how they were noticeably absent. His dad lived a few hours away, so he didn’t really expect him to come, but he was dis-appointed his mom hadn’t stopped by to say a few words to Patty. Eric blamed his stepfather, Rick. He could only assume that since it was a Thursday night, Rick had taken his mom to the Ponderosa Steakhouse.
“Okay, we’re next. We’ll go up together, kneel or something. You talk to Patty and Todd,” said Eric.
Bryan nodded. They slowly approached their friend’s coffin. Having already gone through the line, they weren’t as shocked by Andy’s waxy, bloated appear-ance—though it still struck both boys that their friend looked completely out of his element. Andy’s nose ring and earrings were missing, and it appeared as if his wide-gauge ear piercings had been sewn, or glued, shut. He was uncharacteristically made up in a striped, collared shirt, which was buttoned all the way to his chin, and khaki pants, a sharp contrast to his usual band T-shirts and jeans.
“They dressed him up like Liam Gallagher,” whis-pered Bryan.
Eric shrugged, as he and Bryan knelt before their childhood friend. Bryan waited for the elderly man to his left to finish consoling Andy’s mom, before he popped up and began chatting with her.
Eric saw his opening and stood over the casket. He reached for Andy’s left pants pocket and, in the process, grazed his still hand. Eric shivered at the cool touch and odd texture of his friend’s lifeless fingers. Something was holding Andy’s hands together and in place, keeping Eric from snaking his hand into the pocket. He began to sweat, and a pang of nervous energy ran through his chest as he leaned in closer to the corpse. Eric’s hand shook as he reached toward the pocket. He gave a quick look back at Bryan, making sure he had Patty and Todd’s full attention, before dipping his fingers into Andy’s pocket. He felt the cold, hard surface of the box on his fingertips, and was about to dig in further and snatch it out, when he felt someone bend his other arm painfully behind him.
“Young man, what in God’s name are you doing?” whispered Mr. Coleman. The funeral director pulled Eric away from the casket like a cop ushering a perp back to the squad car—to the befuddlement of Patty and Todd. Bryan stared at Eric, wide-eyed.
“The body in repose is not to be tampered with,” said Mr. Coleman, having taken Eric into the hallway, and out of sight of Andy’s grief-stricken parents. The man loosened his grip on Eric’s arm.
“I just…wanted to say goodbye,” said Eric, affecting the whimper of a loved one in mourning.
“He’s in the Lord’s hands now, son,” said Mr. Coleman. Eric couldn’t help but think about the dozens of times he had heard Andy say things like “God is gay.”
“Yes, sir. Thanks be to God,” said Eric, before making the sign of the cross.
The funeral director shook his head and released the teen, then trudged out of the room. Eric sheepishly re-entered the parlor.
“Thanks for coming through again, Eric,” said Patty, her eyes red and misty. “It means a lot to us. You were a good friend to him.” She went to hug Eric, but he bent down and awkwardly placed his arms around her torso, only mimicking how human beings hug.
“No problem, Mrs. Kulowski. Just wanted to say goodbye to you and Mr. K.”
Todd took Eric’s pale hand in his and shook it, businesslike. “We’ll see you tomorrow, then, Eric. Thanks for coming.”
Bryan and Eric then wandered outside, eventually crossing Main Street to where Bryan’s car was parked in the St. James Church parking lot. “So, did you get it?” asked Bryan.
“No. I couldn’t get deep enough into his pocket. His hand was in the way. Then Mr. Coleman caught me. But I don’t think he knew I was trying to steal something.”
“You were too obvious. You should’ve popped a Mentos; then you would’ve stayed fresh and stayed cool,” said Bryan.
Eric chuckled. “Well, I guess we can try again tomorrow.”
But the next day’s phony funerary mass and ritualistic burial came and went. Eric and Bryan had only briefly considered making a move to get at the box within their friend’s pocket during the funeral itself. Ultimately, they thought better of it when Patty eyed them loitering by the open casket at the Catholic church, and there was certainly no time for shenanigans at the cemetery itself.
Eric stayed behind at Andy’s newly covered grave until sundown, his first time “alone” with Andy in weeks. He likely would’ve stayed much longer, had the caretaker not seen him to the cemetery gates in his old beat-up Ford pickup.
Eric went home and immediately descended to his musty basement bedroom. He sat opposite the TV in the well-worn maroon La-Z-Boy, which once belonged to his dad and, as he did every Friday night at nine, watched The X-Files. The room had once served as the family rec room. In middle school, it was where he and his friends would hold sleepovers—all-nighters playing Super Mario Kart, watching SNICK and TGIF. But as Eric outgrew his tiny second-floor bedroom, wanting more space for himself, he had gradually claimed the rec room as his own. Certainly no one else wanted it, with its wood paneling and shabby, orange carpet.
The walls were plastered with glow-in-the-dark stars and black light posters. Next to a cheap stereo he had picked up at RadioShack sat his CD tower, stocked with his favorite bands: Sublime, Weezer, Pearl Jam. He didn’t have a proper bed down there. He slept on the pull-out sofa, his pillow still fitted with the same old grade-school Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pillowcase.
A great deal had happened in a few weeks’ time, but the room still bore the telltale signs of Andy’s presence. A crumpled Taco Bell bag lay on the floor next to several empty cans of Jolt Cola. Andy’s dirty NOFX hoodie was slung over his grandma’s torn, hand-me-down loveseat, where he had forgotten it after a long session of GoldenEye. And always that hole in the laundry room door that Andy had repeatedly punched over the course of one wild, endless night following a breakup with his first serious girlfriend. It was almost as if his friend had just stepped out and would soon return—perhaps with a new game or slasher flick from Blockbuster, or a dime bag he had gotten from Luke Dobler at the McDonald’s drive-thru window.
When the notorious Cigarette Smoking Man appeared on screen several minutes into the episode, Eric could have sworn he heard a gasp from the loveseat, where Andy normally sat. He glanced over, envisioning his friend there—his nose ring, bleached hair, devious smile—but of course he wasn’t. Andy should have been sitting there, thought Eric, maybe smoking a bowl, dissecting the will they/won’t they relationship of Mulder and Scully. Not buried in a box in the ground beneath Valleyview Cemetery, like his grandparents.
The wake and lead-up to the funeral had distracted Eric from the brutal reality of the situation: his best friend was gone, and things would never be the same. Sure, Bryan remained present in his life, and was always good for a laugh, but it wasn’t the same. Bryan was a dude, someone to hang with, throw TVs off the bridge with—while Andy was his brother from another mother, a Chance to his Shadow, his ride-or-die Skeeter Valentine.
Eric and Andy had made so many plans together, had shared wild, extravagant dreams. Things they would do, places they would go. Eric was unable to contemplate a future apart from his friend. And his basement, what had been a place defined by fun memories—Jet Moto tournaments, Friday the 13th marathons, endless conversations about girls and music—had suddenly become unfamiliar, almost strange.
Eric watched a couple of movies, falling asleep as The Serpent and the Rainbow played on TNT MonsterVision.
He was awakened in the early morning hours, by what sounded like the laundry room door creaking open. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see someone walking toward him. He trembled, realizing by the outline of the figure that the intruder was neither his mother nor his stepdad. Eric braced for a confrontation, partly sitting in his bed, when under the dim glow of the overhead fluorescent light, Andy emerged. He was snickering, and it took Eric a moment to realize why—Andy’s balls were sticking out from the front of his jeans.
“What the fuck, dude!” said Eric, who had been treated to the sight of Andy’s scrotum on too many occasions. Andy just kept laughing and, despite how nasty it was, Eric couldn’t help but bust out himself. He reveled in Andy’s absurd, no-boundaries sense of humor, laughing hard for the first time in weeks. But Eric was pulled from the uproarious moment when he noticed pieces of skin peeling away from Andy’s face. He sat, stunned, immobile, as Andy began to shed before him, watching as more layers of his friend fell to the floor, revealing raw facial tissue and pulsating neck arteries. If Andy hadn’t been wearing a t-shirt and jeans, he assumed he’d be seeing all his friend’s innards, as if he were one of those transparent dummies in Mrs. Bauman’s biology class. It was only then that Eric recalled the horrifying truth—Yesterday was Andy’s funeral and burial. He’s dead—causing him to awaken, unsure if he had been in a deep sleep or just drifting off. But the vision had faded away, balls and all, and Eric again felt the dull emptiness of the basement.
Days later, Eric was surprised to get a call from Patty, asking that he and Bryan come to her house. She had some things that Andy wanted them to have. The boys arrived at the Kulowski’s modest, yellow ranch that evening, unsure of what they would be receiving.
“I saw the two of you with Father Ryan after the mass. Were you guys trying to put something in the coffin?” asked Patty.
The boys followed her into the kitchen. “Uh…no, not exactly,” said Eric.
Bryan spoke up before Eric could continue. “Yep, you got us, Mrs. K. We wanted to put a Hustler mag in with him. Since he won’t be able to get AOL down there…”
“Up there, Bry! Up there,” interjected Eric.
“Relax, guys.” Patty chuckled, her eyes still red and weary from weeks of mourning her lost son. “Thanks for not making a spectacle at his funeral. I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded, whatever it was you were planning.” She picked up an envelope from the counter and handed it to Eric. “He left this for you to open.”
Eric inspected the envelope. It was sealed, with his and Bryan’s names scrawled across the front in Andy’s horrendous handwriting. “Thanks, Mrs. K.” Eric paused, unsure if he should open it there in front of his friend’s mom—recalling the time Andy once had him open a birthday card with a naked, muscle-bound dude on the front, in the middle of the bustling high school cafeteria.
“It’s okay, boys. I assume it’s private. You don’t have to show me.”
They visited with Patty for a little while longer. She gave them some of her son’s books, PlayStation games, and CDs, before letting them leave. The pair practically raced out of the house and into Bryan’s green ’92 Toyota Celica, having shared a palpable, nervous anticipation since the moment Patty handed Eric the envelope.
“Fucking open it, dude,” said Bryan, grasping his steering wheel as if bracing for impact.
Eric slow-rolled the opening of the envelope and retrieval of the note, causing Bryan to cuss him out mercilessly. “Okay, okay, relax,” said Eric, before exhaling, then reading the letter out loud:
Hey, Eric and Bry. If you’re reading this—sorry for dying. Don’t know how you guys will ever get a girl to talk to you without me around. You can have whatever you want from my room, just ask my mom first. I want you guys to visit her once in a while. You can tell her some of my secrets, just leave out the really nasty shit. She considers the two of you her redheaded stepchildren, for some reason.
I know you jerkoffs want to know what’s in my box. I considered just leaving it for you, but fuck that, I’m not telling you shit! Anyway, here’s the combination: 69-04-20. Ha! Good luck with that!
P.S. The key to Bryan’s mom’s chastity belt is in my ass.
Bryan and Eric began laughing at some point during the letter and didn’t stop until Bryan pulled up in front of Eric’s house. “I can’t believe it,” said Bryan. “He left the fucking combination, but not the box.”
“I know, dude. Kills me,” said Eric. “We’re gonna have to dig him up. Show him we’re not pussies.”
Bryan laughed. “Sure, man.”
“I’m not joking.”
Bryan caught his breath and became uncharacter-istically serious. “Eric, let it go. He’s gone.”
“One last night of fuckery with Andy. What do you say, dude? One last gag for all the times he fucked with us,” said Eric, almost pleading. “I’m pretty sure we have his blessing at this point.”
“It’s over, Eric. I loved him, almost as much as you. But it’s done,” stated Bryan. “We’ll do something this weekend.”
Eric nodded, and his heart sank, as his only living friend pulled away. It was only moments before the feelings of loneliness and isolation crept back in and surrounded him like a moth-eaten blanket.
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