Friday afternoon was cool and windy, but sunny. John Provo wasn’t sure he wanted to leave the warmth of his Chevy Silverado to make the trek into the funeral home. He’d been sitting in the parking lot for ten minutes watching sad people in their suits and Sunday dresses walking through the heavy-looking wooden doors into the funeral home.
How was it fair that Mark Longly had so many friends when John had none? There was something very wrong about being envious of a dead man, but still, he wondered. Maybe he was just trying to waste time until it was too late to go in.
He checked his watch. Two-fifty-four.
John got out of his truck and hurried to the door. He stopped just inside for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit lobby. He hated these places. The thought of breathing the same air that dead bodies were in made him queasy. He was glad it hadn’t been this way with Lizzie. She had chosen cremation and a small gathering of friends on the beach in Galveston at a spot where she and John used to go.
He was last in line for the guest book, and wondered whether he should even sign it. John and Mark were rivals—not friends. Ever since high school, their only relationship had been as competitors, fighting over Annabeth. John had won the battle and married her—but then lost the war by being a lousy husband.
After the divorce, it wasn’t long before Mark came sniffing around. Within months, John got a wedding invitation. It was like being cordially invited to have all his teeth knocked out. He did not attend.
But from all outward appearances, Mark had been good for Annabeth. John had run into them a few times—at the mall or in a restaurant—and she seemed happy. And apparently, Mark had learned the secret to keeping Annabeth’s dad off his back. John never had.
As much as it pained him to admit it, Mark was a good guy. But John wasn’t here for Mark—he was here for Annabeth. Not because of his lingering romantic feelings, of course. There was no way to go back and undo all the hurtful things he’d done when they were married—like blaming her for the miscarriage. It would have been her son too. How could he have been so selfish and thoughtless? Today he just wanted to give her a hug and tell her he was thinking about her.
The chapel was nearly full. Since Mark had been on the staff of Pyramid Church, John assumed that many of these people were church members. He pictured the pitiful attendance his own funeral would draw some day.
He found an empty seat near the back.
Flower arrangements lined the front of the platform and halfway around either side of the room. A photo DVD was running on a TV beside the casket.
The organist, who was hidden away in some room, played the hymn “Abide with Me,” partly obscuring the soft whimpers of several mourners. Annabeth sat between her parents in the family section in the front, next to the platform. Her long, wavy golden hair had a storybook-princess glow. Her mother put her arm around her and whispered something into her ear as Annabeth blotted her eyes with a tissue.
A well-dressed man in his late twenties stepped onto the platform and walked up to the podium. The organ music stopped.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Billy Morgan, and I’d like to welcome you to this celebration of the life of a wonderful young man that we all knew and loved—Mark Longly.”
“We all know that this is what Mark would want—for us to celebrate his life rather than mourn his death. Yes, his life was cut short—and this makes us all very sad. We hate that he wasn’t able to enjoy what we believed would be a bright future here on this earth. But who are we to argue with God? We have no business questioning God’s will. Mark is now in Heaven with the Lord. What could be more wonderful than that?”
Several in the audience said, “Amen.”
“Yes, we will all miss him terribly—especially his family.” He glanced over at Annabeth.
Annabeth held a tissue below her nose.
“We can’t possibly understand the devastation that Annabeth and all of Mark’s family are feeling right now. But we’re here to give our support and to let them know that we loved Mark too—very much. And in that sense, we do know how they feel. As most of you know, Mark was a staff member of Pyramid Church. He was one of my new team leaders. And I can tell you this: all of his members loved him. I know this because I got emails and phone calls from them telling me so. Mark cared deeply about his people.”
* * * * *
After the service, well-wishers crowded around the family. John stayed back until most of them had walked away, and then he approached Annabeth, who was in a conversation with her mother and didn’t seem to notice he was coming.
Annabeth’s father, Albert Ainsley, intervened with a stern look on his face. “What are doing here, John? You and Mark were never friends.”
“I’m here to support Annabeth. I used to be married to her, you know.”
“I’ve been trying hard to forget that.”
“Was I really that bad of a husband? Come on, honestly?”
Albert got in his face and whispered ferociously, spewing spittle as he talked, “You sullied my baby. You stole her innocence.”
“When are you gonna let it go, Albert? We were kids in love.”
“Kids? You were twenty years old.”
“Hey, I didn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do.”
Albert raised his fist.
John held up his hands. “Take it easy, Albert. I loved her, and we just got carried away. It wasn’t something I set out to do. How many times do I have to apologize?”
“You don’t have to apologize. Just leave right now and never come near my daughter again.”
“Daddy, what are you doing?” Annabeth walked up from behind him.
John said, “I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about Mark.”
“Good, you’ve told her,” Albert said, “now get out of here.” He took Annabeth by the arm and began to walk her away from John.
Annabeth stopped. “No, Daddy. I want to talk to John.”
Albert held his position.
“In private, Daddy—please.”
Albert turned back and glared at John and then walked away.
“Thank you for coming, John,” she said.
“Your father said that Mark and I were never friends. He’s right, of course, but I saw the way Mark was with you. He was crazy about you. And I’m sure he was a great husband.”
“I just wanted to let you know I’m sorry and that I was thinking about you.”
Albert called out. “Come on, Annabeth, we need to go. Your Uncle Bob is hungry.”
“He still hates me,” John said.
“He’ll never change. But I don’t hate you.”
John reached out and took her hand and smiled at her.
“I do need to go, though. But could you come by the house later? I need to talk to you. It’s important.”
“Sure,” he said.
“It’ll have to be tonight, though—late. My family will be hanging around for most of the day. Could you come after ten? Is that too late?”
“Not at all. How about ten-fifteen?”
“Perfect. Thanks, John.” She smiled and squeezed his hand, and then walked back over to her family.