It was still warm even as the time approached midnight, all the nights that summer were like that, the heat of those long days settling and cooling into the darkness but never quite fading away. We looked at each other in the dancing light from the torches velcro fixed around our heads. Jones had said it made us look like the colonial marines in Aliens. I was pretty sure they had lights that sat just behind their shoulders, attached to their back but I wasn’t a hundred percent. Sam would have known. He always knew that stuff and it pissed him off when people got it wrong. Little things that shouldn’t have mattered – didn’t matter to anyone else – but that really riled him. I remember one time Jones had persuaded all of us to wind him up by saying that we thought it was better that Greedo shot first, that Han’s code of honour would never have let him kill something else without provocation. He made us watch the original scene frame by frame on his battered old VHS copy of Star Wars (never, never A New Hope, always just Star Wars) whilst he ranted about Solo’s narrative arc from rogue to hero and how Lucas had betrayed his own mythic principals of storytelling in making the change. He didn’t speak to us again for a week and for the next month he’d pepper his conversation with “Han shot first” like it was some kind of mantra.
Maybe we should have realised. Afterwards people put it all together as if it had been obvious, like it had been staring us in our faces all the time. He sat around in his room a lot listening to Joy Division. Or lost himself for hours in video games and unreal worlds. Scribbled out rambling, scrawling diary entries – that came to light later – that spoke of feeling isolated and anxious and lonely. Wore a lot of black. But that could have been any of us and we were still here whilst he was gone. That was just being fifteen and a bit awkward, wasn’t it ? None of us liked the way Sam’s life got retro fitted to his suicide, as if everything had led, neat and tidy and processional, to the point where he felt like there was no point carrying on. It just wasn’t like that. He just wasn’t like that. Not all like that at least. We remembered lying in the park looking at the stars and listening to him run through his terrible Star Trek impressions. He could make the sound the doors made pretty well but Patrick Stewart’s baritone always eluded him until he settled on repeating “make it so” and “Mr Data” over and over again until we begged him to stop. Or the time he cleared the floor at the school disco after finally persuading the DJ to put the Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” on and he’d turned the now empty space into his own personal piece of performance art, a mosh-pit of one until reluctantly we’d joined in at the end. He must have bought his own copy with him. That was Sam. All of us had slunk off embarrassed afterwards when the DJ, presumably as some sort of revenge, had teed up Rick Astley. All of us except him. He’d just laughed and pogoed harder and harder round the floor bellowing “never gonna give you up” until we dragged him away. Like I said, Sam’s death wasn’t the only thing that happened in his life.
We’d made him a character sheet. I guess it was for old time’s sake. None of us had played a paper and pen RPG for a while but it had been the thing that had brought us together in the early days. Sam had started it, albeit by accident. That first year at school he used to carry a full set of dice – three sided, six sided, eight sided, all the way up to the d20 – around with him until one of the older kids had tried to flush them down the toilet. I’d managed to salvage all of them by rolling up my sleeve and hooking my hand up and around the U bend. From then on they’d always made me play as a thief or some kind of character with a high Dexterity stat: my role as the retriever of stolen treasure was set. Jones always ended up playing a fighter. He was the smallest in the group and always had the most trouble at school, his mouth forever throwing better jabs than his fists. He was brave though. He’d been the one that had really saved Sam’s dice as he’d pulled the perpetrator away before he could hold the flush down fully. It had cost him a couple of blows to the head and a scuffle that ended with him ripping his trousers at the seams and having to spend the rest of the day flashing Spiderman boxers every time he wasn’t sitting down. None of us ever mentioned it again and none of us ever said anything every time he picked a warrior or a berserker or a knight or some big, strong archetype to project himself into. We all did it. Maybe Jones was just a bit more honest about it. Rob was always the magic guy which I always chalked up as some kind of ironic acknowledgement that he lived the least magical, most ordinary life you could imagine. Outwardly at least. I always liked how Rob held whole worlds in his mind. He used to write poems. None of us were supposed to know but I saw them once, discarded notes stuffed under his bed. Outwardly you’d never have known but inside his mind he soared. And Sam ? Sam used to mainly run the sessions. Dungeon Master. DM. In hindsight maybe it was the only time he got to feel like he was in control but you don’t think that at the time. Back then he was just the one with the graph paper and the imagination to plunge the rest of us into an adventure.
We’d written up his character sheet as a Cleric. It was sort of a joke about his family and sort of because we liked the idea of him being a healer. A slightly dark joke I guess but it wasn’t disrespectful. Not that we’d have ever said it but all of us loved him. Boys just don’t do that stuff very well. Just don’t say that stuff. We did crap jokes and head locks and arguments about whether Star Fleet was essentially an oppressive, militaristic organisation. We had endless conversations about girls who would never speak to us and whether The Cult had sold out with “Electric” and headers and volleys because we could never find enough people to make up a proper game. All that stuff we did well but none of would ever have told him we loved him. As well as making him a Cleric we’d given him really high stats. He’d have hated it because he always hated it when someone kept re-rolling to cheat their way to some ridiculous Strength score or insisted that they wouldn’t play unless they could have an Intelligence of 18. We knew he’d have hated it but I suppose it was our way, our useless boys’ way, of telling him that we loved him. The sheet was stuck to the side of the coffin.
I didn’t remember whose idea it had been to steal the body. I knew we’d all been uneasy after his death with the way he seemed to be reclaimed by his family as someone we didn’t know. Grief does funny things to families I guess. Before it happened we never really used to think too much about why we never convened at Sam’s house or why we never saw him Sunday mornings or even really why he sometimes left stuff with us rather than taking it home. Especially anything related to fantasy or magic. Just tame stuff like his copy of Lord Of The Rings or his Predator video, it’s not like we were reading Crowley and reaching out for the dead. Rob brought round an Ouija board once but we spent the whole time tilting it to spell out the name of some girl Jones was trying to ask out. Eventually he caved in and called her with the three of us whispering and giggling like idiots in the background. Obviously she said no. Funnily enough she spoke to us after Sam died. Said she was sorry for what had happened and that she’d always liked him. Not, you know, liked him but thought he was a good guy. It was awkward but touching. At the best of times us talking to Alison Miller would have been awkward but throw our sense of loss into the mix and the best we managed were mumbled thanks and intense scrutiny of our shoes.
After his death it sort of all fell into place, things became clearer. We were all told to stay away, that the family wanted privacy. No one ever came right out and said it but we all felt that we’d been recast as somehow culpable in what had happened, that we were part of the problems that Sam had, and not the outlet that we knew we were. The friends we knew we were. It hurt when they told us to keep away from the funeral and hurt turned to anger when we heard the details of the service. It just wasn’t him or what he’d have wanted. I suppose if we’d been older then maybe we’d have realised that the service wasn’t for him anyway, it was for the people left behind. His parents were the ones that needed their god and their church and their prayers to mark Sam’s departure from the world. I don’t know. Maybe we did realise on some level but we were angry just the same. We knew exactly what Sam believed in (punk rock, Ellen Ripley, some ill defined concept of magic) and what he didn’t (God, religion, Ewoks). He was passionate on it, angry even. A few months before Sam had killed himself Jones had briefly declared that he’d found God. After we’d traded various gags (“where was he, hiding behind the sofa again ?”) we realised that he was serious, or at least as serious as a fifteen year old can be whilst trying out various bits of identity to see what fits. Sam debated and argued with him for days. It was like the Han and Greedo and who shot first thing all over again but ten times worse. Quietly me and Rob thought the group might break up because of it, that this might be the point friendships fractured and fell apart. Then, as quickly as he’d declared himself a believer, Jones declared himself an atheist again. Or agnostic. He wasn’t really sure but, either way, whatever faith he’d discovered vanished like it’d just stepped on to a Transporter on the Enterprise and Scotty had beamed it away. Or O’Brien if you preferred Next Generation like Sam.
We even knew what Sam had wanted after his death. I don’t think he’d told us because he was planning it. I get that it might look that way now, knowing what happened, but it was just one of those conversations we had. He hadn’t even started it. I think Jones was going through a Trek phase and, inevitably given his warrior fixation, had latched on to the whole Klingon idea about good and bad deaths. This was after he’d found and lost God. He’d spun out some stuff about how he hoped he’d go out fighting, like Vasquez in Aliens or Boromir in Lord Of The Rings, and so there’d be no need for a funeral because there’d be nothing left of him. That was what had sparked Sam off, it was the chance to be pedantically right about something rather than some grand plan foreshadowing his own death. In painstaking detail Sam proceeded to tell Jones that his examples were flawed because, in fact, there had been all of Boromir left at his point of death, enough indeed to have a brief chat with Aragorn and to confess to breaking the Fellowship. He’d wound up being set atop a boat and cast adrift towards the Falls of Rauros. If anything illustrates why girls like Alison Miller didn’t really talk to us until catastrophic circumstances prevailed then it was this conversation. That’s where the boat came from though. Sam and Jones had argued for a bit about whether Boromir’s boat had been set ablaze by a flaming arrow before agreeing that it hadn’t. In turn that had set Sam to talking about his own wishes.
That’s why we’re here now, carrying a stolen coffin in the dark down to the river.
“Who’s going to do it ?” hissed Rob. We looked at each other, pupils shrinking as our eyes were caught in the glare of the torches. We hadn’t really discussed it, as absurd as that sounds. There’d been so much other stuff to plan that it must have just slipped attention. None of us had really spoken as we’d dug up the coffin and then replaced the earth to cover the theft. We knew there was something terrible about what we were doing but to us it was the lesser evil than not carrying out what Sam wanted. Grief does funny things to friends too I guess. We didn’t talk because there was nothing to say and, besides, we were terrified of being caught. So we remained silent as we wheeled the coffin, wedged across the back of two bikes, down through the woods at the back of the graveyard towards the river.
“Who’s going to fire the arrow ?” Rob tried again. Jones stopped sloshing petrol across the rowing boat we’d tied up earlier in the day. Rob had sorted it out and we hadn’t asked him how just as nobody had questioned Jones on the jerry cans full of petrol or the cords of rope and nobody has asked me about the bow. That one was legit. It was mine, dusted off from under some old sheets in the garage, left there ever since the end of a brief period when I’d taken up archery. Abandoned along with a telescope, my BMX, and a set of lifting weights: no future awaited me in astronomy, trick cycling, or body building. There might not be much of any kind of future waiting for me if we didn’t do this right.
“I’ll do it,” I offered. “Tether the boat so it stays close to the bank so I can hit it though. I don’t know how these arrows will fly with the lit cloth on them. We can always throw one on if I miss and then cut it adrift. Hopefully the current will take it straight down to the sea.” There were nods of assent but I could see the doubt. None of us knew how this would go. It must only have been half a mile to the mouth of the river, if the wind dropped you could just make out the sound of waves hitting the shoreline in the distance, but we didn’t really know what would happen.
We lugged the coffin on to the boat.
All of us were to blame for what happened next. Jones blamed himself because he was holding the matches. Rob blamed himself because he was holding the rope that was keeping the boat hugged against the river bank. I blamed myself for all of it. For not seeing the signs, for not joining up the dots into the bigger picture of Sam’s sharp decline. They were there now that I looked back at them: changing the subject whenever we talked about his life at home, evasive when asked about his random bruises, that time we got caught swapping notes and wound up in detention and the look in his eyes when he was told there’d be a letter to his parents about it. They pinned it on the washed out, faded black clothes, and the escapism, and the devil’s music, and the unhealthy obsession with the occult. Fuck all that. He was a kid that liked small f fantasy and capital F Fantasy. Just a kid that liked to shut out the voices around him by listening to fast, loud songs. And, yeah, maybe to shut out the voices in his head too. Just a kid like we all were.
Jones had tried to light a match. That’s when it started to go wrong. His hands were trembling, in the dark none of us had noticed that he’d started crying and he would never have told us. Boys just don’t do that stuff well. As he struck the match he managed to lose his grip on it and it tumbled over and over, a faint flickering light, to the floor. Everyone panicked. Jones tried to catch it, like trying to grasp a dancing firefly, throwing the box with the rest of the matches away to free up his hands. There was barely a ripple as the box hit the water and all of our other chances to make fire drowned. Rob saw the box leave Jones’ hands and he went for that, in turn relinquishing his grip on the rope holding the boat. He missed the matches and the eager tug of the river’s current pulled the boat, topped by Sam’s coffin, out away from the shore. I just stood, numbly watching the scene unfold in a kind of slow motion by the light of the twin torches strapped to my head, holding the bow and a solitary arrow.
None of us really know what happened. All I’ll say is that I saw the match go out and hit the floor and then it sparked back into life as Rob picked it up. Later on, when we talked about it, none of us ever used the word ‘magic’ but we were all thinking it. Back when we used to play D&D, if things were going badly, Sam would always find a way to even things up. Holding the game universe in balance, he called it. Not cheating exactly – there was always a pre-determined chance for something extraordinary to happen and there was always a dice roll – but something to tip the scales. As the match flared Rob held it against the damp, petrol soaked cloth skewered on the arrow that I had resting on the bow. It caught and I gripped tighter, fighting the impulse to move my hand away from the heat. The boat had drifted quickly, maybe thirty or forty feet from the shore, and I pulled back on the string, smooth as I could, arms shaking, lined up my shot and then released.
Some god we didn’t really believe in rolled a twenty sided dice somewhere and we held our breath. One last check against my Dexterity stat. Maybe it was Sam, wherever he was now, holding the game universe in balance one last time for us. The arrow arced up and out over the water, its flaming point streaking across the surface as a blurred reflection. The scales tipped. The arrow dropped soundlessly into blackness, there was no splash. Gradually flames appeared, seemingly on the surface of the water, but as they tightened their grip on the wood, burned through the petrol, we could see the silhouette of Sam’s makeshift funeral pyre stenciled between the night sky and the ink of the river.
Enough smoke blew back to the shore that all of us could later say that was what brought the tears as we watched in silence as our friend made his final journey, the boat drifting out towards the sea, a trail of embers in its wake.
This is story 38 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This is the first longer one for a while. Was nice to stretch out a bit. Your mileage may vary of course. I really like the characters in this one and hope I did them justice. Perhaps I’ll return to it later and tidy up the ragged bits.