The Penultimate Adventurers

 

            The sun shone brightly, and clouds danced in the breeze.  Flowers bloomed everywhere, in every color.  Blue, orange, violet, yellow, red, pink.  Trees towered above their heads, creating patches of cool shade.  The grass was soft beneath them.  With every step their feet were welcomed by the earth, as if it were accepting the weight they carried on their shoulders.  The air was warm and fresh, and their skin was illuminated by the sun.

            As they got closer to the group assembled under an oak tree, they hated the beauty around them.

            Peyton and Alice grasped each other’s hands, seeking strength although neither of them had an ounce of it left.  Peyton’s blonde hair quivered in the breeze, each curl moving on its own.  Alice wore a long dress, and it dragged on the ground, gripping every stone and stick it touched.  Tears brimmed in each of their eyes, and without permission a few fell down Peyton’s cheek.  Alice sucked in a few shaky breaths, but the oxygen didn’t seem to touch her lungs.

            Sam approached with them all, but he was alone.  His hands were shoved into the pockets of his black coat.  He glared at the blades of grass below him, his brow set in a hard line.  His brown hair was disheveled, as if he hadn’t had the energy to comb it.  Next to him was Lucille, her arms crossed tightly before her.  She clutched her arms to herself desperately.  If she didn’t, she thought, she would surely shatter.  Her blonde hair was cut short to her chin, and a thin braid framed one side of her round face.  Tears fell fast down her cheeks, but she made no sound.

            They reached the assembly beneath the tree.  Many people spoke to them, but they responded to no one.  They went immediately to four seats in the front.  As they sat, they all joined hands.  They sat in silence, with the exception of their desperate gulps of air.  After what felt like hours, a short woman with brown hair approached a podium.  Her eyes were red and her hands shook, but her voice was strong and clear.

            “Today, my daughter should be leaving for college.  She should be entering a new phase of her life, a new adventure as she would say.  She should be packing her things and I should be dropping her off at her dorm.  We should be hugging and promising to call each other all the time.  But we aren’t.  Today, I have to say goodbye to my daughter.  I have to say goodbye to my child, forever.  And it’s not fair.  A mother should never have to bury her child, but such is life.  We have all come together today to say goodbye.  To share our memories and our joy, and our grief.  We have come together to say goodbye to a strong, adventurous, beautiful girl who held us all deep in her heart.  I thank all of you for coming, and I invite any of you to come up here and- and speak.”  She hurried off the stage and sat a few seats to the left of Peyton.  Many hands were placed on her shoulders, and she leaned her head on the shoulder of a man with grey-streaked hair.

            A young boy walked to the podium slowly.  He looked about 16, and his pain was clear on his features.  He bit his lip before speaking.  Later, Peyton would remember that the boy, Phoebe’s younger brother, told a story about how Phoebe had beaten up a kid who had picked on him.  But while he was actually talking, Peyton and the others could hardly even hear him.  They sat, enveloped in a fog in their minds, still clutching each other’s hands.  A huge weight sat on each of their chests, and their heads drooped under the weight of the tears they were holding back.  A few more people spoke.  A boy from their school with a lip piercing, a pregnant woman, an old man with a cane.  The four heard their voices vaguely, but their words couldn’t make it through the fog.

            After nine people had spoken, it looked like no one else was coming.  There was silence for a few seconds, then Alice stood and walked to the podium.

            “Phoebe was my best friend.  Or, she was one of them.  We were on that trip to find our story.  We wanted a story.  Or rather, Phoebe wanted a story.  We were all leaving, she said.  We were all leaving, and we didn’t know when we would see each other again, and we needed a story.  I don’t think this is what she had in mind.  No, this is far from what we wanted.  We wanted a story, a story, that’s all, just a story.”  Alice looked up to the sky and held out her hands.  She yelled, “Phoebe, I’m sorry!  We couldn’t give you a story, and we don’t get another chance.  I wish you could have gotten the story you wanted.”  She lowered her head and paused.  Someone in the audience was sobbing.  Alice began to mumble, “A story, just a story.  That’s all we wanted, I’m sorry…” 

            Alice kept mumbling, and she was crying and gasping.  Peyton went to her, and Alice threw herself into her brother’s supporting arms.  She couldn’t get enough air to calm her heart, and it beat viciously against her ribs.  He held her tightly for a few seconds, then led her to her chair.  Sam rose from his chair and, hands still in his pockets, walked to the podium.

            “We went on that road trip to be together.  A last hurrah of sorts, although that sounds really morbid now.  We were all going off to school, and we were leaving each other.  Phoebe wanted to do one last thing, just one last thing to send us off into our new lives.  And she wanted adventure.  But then, she always wanted adventure.  And boy, did we get adventure.  We picked up a few hitchhikers, we crashed weddings, we slept in parks.  Phoebe got arrested, but she used a fake name and accent and escaped.  So yeah, we had adventure.  But Phoebe wasn’t done, she thought there was more. And maybe there was, but it’s too late now.  But she wanted to keep going. 

            “But we were all tired, and we wanted a real mattress and a real shower.  We had to get home before we went to school.  She was angry.  Didn’t we want a story?  She kept telling us that this was our ultimate adventure.  But we were done.  We had had our adventure, and we wanted to go home.  Eventually she gave in; it was four against one.  She agreed to go home.  We shouldn’t have let her drive.  It was dark, and she was upset.  She was tired.  We should have made her pull over, but we all just wanted to get home.

“Alice is right, we wanted a story.  We wanted a story all our own, a story to define us.  I think we got a story to define us.  I think we got our ultimate adventure.  But if we had been given a choice, I would have chosen to be undefined, and adventure-less.” Sam wiped his eyes with the cuff of his jacket and went back to his seat.

Peyton went to the podium.  The sun illuminated every curl that framed his face, and when he spoke, his voice shook a bit.    

“I keep trying to think of something meaningful to say about Phoebe.  All I can think of is this one story.  We were twelve.  It was about 6 o’clock, and the sun was setting.  I was raking the leaves in my front yard before dinner.  Alice had ridden her bike to my house. She pulled up just as I was putting away the rake.  She wanted to run away.  It took a while for her to convince me to come.  But eventually I agreed, so I grabbed my bike and followed her down the road.  We ended up at some empty lot.  We set up camp behind some overgrown grass. 

“We talked for hours that night, staring at the stars.  We had every intention of staying the night there.  But then a cop came cruising by and saw us.  He made us get in his car and he took us home.  We were silent the whole way.  I was mortified.  But Phoebe was exhilarated.  She didn’t say a word until the cop dropped her off in front of her house.  She whispered to me that this would be our story.  She said we would always remember that night as the night that something real happened.

“I will always remember that night.  But I will also remember the night we crashed, the morning she died in the hospital.  This day, when we say goodbye forever.  These are all bad stories.  But I am so thankful for all the good stories that Phoebe gave us.  I will always remember those.” Peyton stood on the stage for a moment with his eyes closed, holding his breath.  Then he opened his eyes and returned to his seat beside his sister and his friends.

Lucille looked at Peyton for a moment, her deep brown eyes scanning his face.  His eyes were bright, and he was looking towards the dancing clouds.  Then she rose and went to the podium. 

“For as long as I’ve known Phoebe, she’s talked about ‘the ultimate adventure.’  And I always admired how she was so sure that she would get her adventure.  But now, after all that’s happened, I’m not sure anymore.  Is there an ultimate adventure?  Or is it just a series of next-to-lasts?  I wish I could tell her that.  I think it would lead to a pretty interesting discussion. 

“And everyone’s been going on about how Phoebe didn’t get her story.  But I think that’s wrong.  How can we say Phoebe went out without a story?  Her whole life was a series of penultimate adventures, her death included.  As long as my heart beats strong in my chest, I will tell the story of Phoebe O’Keefe.  I will tell the story of the girl who beat up bullies, who did things just because they sounded like fun, who was friends with every janitor in school, who believed in herself despite what was written on the bathroom walls.  Everyone will know her penultimate adventures. 

“And I believe that right at this very moment, as we all weep and grieve for our loss and hers, she is somewhere continuing her quest for that ultimate adventure.”  Alice backed away from the podium and placed a hand on the deep brown wood of the coffin.  As she stepped down from the makeshift stage, Phoebe’s mother rushed to hug her.

She whispered in Lucille’s ear, “Thank you,” and kissed her cheek.  Lucille hugged her back tightly then sat back down.

A man in black said a few words about life and death and heaven.  His words turned into a droning buzzing for the four friends.  The coffin was lowered into the ground, the levers groaning slowly.  It seemed to Alice that the ground itself was shaking as it welcomed Phoebe.  Somewhere yards away, a sprinkler turned on.  It seemed to Peyton that the earth was crying for the death of its child.  As Peyton, Alice, Lucille, and Sam walked away, wind blew strongly across their path, lifting the leaves from the ground and throwing them forward.  The four friends stopped.  Sam closed his eyes and relished in the wind, gently stroking his tear streaked face. 

The four joined hands once more.  This time each was offering their strength, rather than asking for it.  Love mingled with grief, and both seemed to flow between them through their hands.  They all strolled forward, accompanied by this strong wind that carried a sound like a ringing laugh.