It’s hard to know what to say at a friend’s funeral. It’s even harder to know what to say at an enemy’s.
So what do you say when it’s both?
I chose the coward’s way out and said nothing. When the rabbi finished his eulogy and called for stories from the mourners, I stayed silent. Honestly, it would probably have been the right choice even if I hadn’t been chicken. Save for a few texts, I hadn’t spoken with Elijah in over two years. Who was I to him anymore?
It wasn’t like there was a dearth of speakers. There were plenty of people who wanted to talk—family, friends, even a couple other celebrities. They said the sorts of things you always say when a kid dies: he was so bright, so talented, so full of potential. Except in Eli’s case it was actually true. He wasn’t just poised to do great things—he’d done them, and had the Grammys to prove it.
Chance waited until last, of course. Always the showman, never wanting to risk being upstaged, even at his best friend’s funeral. He told a story about Eli getting so distracted writing a new song that he accidentally locked himself out of his hotel room in just his underwear. Security caught him trying to climb up to his own balcony, thinking he was some sort of crazed stalker. Everyone laughed through their tears, big sobbing gasps of relief.
It was the perfect ending note. But of course it was—everything about Chance Kain was perfect, from the slim black suit to the asymmetrical flop of his straight black hair. It was what made him America’s favorite asshole.
The rest of the service was a blur. I kept my distance from most of it, not wanting to intrude. At the cemetery, I joined the other mourners in forming a ring around the family, trying to shield them from the paparazzi waiting like vultures, giant camera lenses balanced on headstones.
Then it was back to Eli’s parents’ house for the shiva visit, where I took off my shoes and rinsed my hands with the pitcher of water outside the door. If the temple had been awkward, the house itself was stifling. Eli’s parents and sister shook my hand, but their eyes were far away. All the mirrors were covered with black cloth, which I knew was another Jewish tradition but just reminded me of the whole Darkhearts vampire shtick. Nobody really spoke, other than brief murmurs of sympathy and muffled tears.
When standing around in their living room got too uncomfortable, I found myself drifting away without really intending to. Nobody noticed as I wandered past the bathroom and down the stairs, retracing the route that had once been second nature.
The furniture in the rec room was right where it had always been, minus only the black bulk of the PA speakers on their spindly stick-stands. The lights were off, and the afternoon sun coming through the big picture window was so achingly familiar that it stabbed straight through me, pinning me to the bottom of the stairs.
I turned to find Chance tucked into the corner of the old couch, sprawled with his tailored jacket unbuttoned and legs outstretched. Even with eyes red from crying, he looked like a cologne ad. Whereas I looked like exactly what I was: a seventeen-year-old acned ogre wearing his dad’s suit.
At some point in the last two years, Chance had gotten a tattoo—a tiny silhouette of a crow in flight, just below and outside his right eye. Because of course he had. He was holding a vape pen, but the lack of candyfloss stink said he knew better than to use it in here. He waved it vaguely at the room.
“It’s all the same.” He looked up at the ceiling, where the footsteps of mourners clumped and dragged. “Up there, outside, everything’s different. But in here, it’s like we’re still fourteen.”
I didn’t want to have this conversation. Didn’t want to have any conversation with him. But my mouth had other ideas.
“Almost,” I said.
He raised a professionally groomed eyebrow.
I pointed past him. “They fixed the drywall.”
“Oh shit! You’re right.” He laughed, leaning forward and staring at the spot where the hole had been. “I’d forgotten about that. You jumped off the coffee table and put your guitar’s headstock straight through the wall.”
“Only because Eli ran into me.” I smiled in spite of myself. “We tried to cover it with that poster from the Vera Project.”
“Yeah, because that wasn’t suspicious at all—just one little poster on a giant blank wall.” He pulled a knee up to his chest, revealing a flash of purple dress sock with tiny black skulls. “I was sure his mom would kill us for that one. Or remember when we got all those people to come film the video, and someone backed up the toilet?”
I nodded. “The Poonami.”
“There was like an inch of water in the carpet. My parents would have had me in boarding school like that.” He snapped his fingers. “But Eli—” His voice cracked, and he fell silent. There were no tears, but I could see a muscle working in his jaw.
“Yeah.” Eli had been able to talk his parents into anything. I sat down on the other arm of the couch, not looking at him, the old perch still so natural.
“Hey, remember Mrs. Miller?” He pointed at the neighboring house across the tiny backyard, his tone artificially light. “Always banging on the door and yelling at us to turn down. Remember what she always used to say?”
“‘My father played with Louie Armstrong! If he didn’t need to be this loud, neither do you!’” It had been a running joke between the three of us. Whenever someone flubbed a note or was too loud in the mix, we’d throw something at them—a guitar pick, a couch cushion—and yell Louie Armstrong! Eventually it had become an all-purpose battle cry. Our own private yeet.
We both fell silent, staring out the window.
When he spoke again, his voice was tight. “We had some good times here, huh?”
“Yeah,” I repeated.
Another long silence.
Suddenly Chance kicked the coffee table, heel slamming into the wooden corner and spinning it halfway around. “God damn it, Eli!” He covered his face with his hands.
I still had no idea what to say.
“I just wish he’d talked to me.” The words were muffled, reverb-y. He pulled his hands away, blinking rapidly. “I knew he was drinking too much, that he was tired of touring, but everyone gets tired of touring. I didn’t know.…”
He took a shuddering breath, then stood. He pulled the table back into place, then pocketed his vape and walked to the stairs. At the bottom, he turned to take a last look around the room, searching it for an answer.
“Dammit, Eli,” he said again, softer. “How could you just leave us?”
Then he was up the stairs and gone.
I let out a breath. My hands unclenched, and I was suddenly flooded with gratitude that Chance had left when he did. I knew he was hurting, and as much as he pissed me off, I didn’t want to make it worse. But if he’d stayed another minute, I might not have been able to keep holding my tongue.
Because I knew the answer to his rhetorical question.
How could Eli leave him behind?
The same way you both left me.
All right, let’s rip the Band-Aid off:
My name is David Holcomb, and I was almost famous.
When I was thirteen, I started a band with my two best friends. Chance sang, I played guitar, and Elijah programmed everything else on his MacBook. Eli loved big, fake eighties drum sounds, and Chance loved vampires, and between the two we ended up at a sort of poppy goth-rock. We called ourselves Darkhearts, and titled our self-recorded demo Sad Shit You Can Dance To.
We got good quick, and for a while it was all I wanted to do. We played every all-ages club in the greater Seattle area, my dad dutifully hauling us and our gear around in his construction van. It was fun to rock out, and there’s definitely something to be said for hitting puberty while playing guitar in your middle school’s only band. When we won the eighth-grade talent show, you’d have thought we were BTS the way kids screamed. And when we played the Fremont Abbey, Maddy Everhardt threw actual panties onto the stage. So yeah, that part was good.
But the thing nobody tells you about being an underage band is that you hit the ceiling pretty quick. It’s a ton of work just to play the same handful of all-ages venues over and over. You can’t tour, because even if you could convince your parents to take time off work and drive you, who’s gonna come see you? Your friends can’t drive, either. And to be honest, after the initial novelty of seeing someone they know onstage, most of them don’t actually want to see you play the same songs again and again. Sure, there’s always YouTube or TikTok, but do you know how many teen bands there are online? The answer is all of them.
Add in Eli growing steadily more tyrannical about the songwriting, plus Chance embracing every annoying lead-singer cliché … well, you get the picture. So when freshman year arrived, with all the new pressures of high school, I proposed taking a break.
Words were exchanged. Birds were flipped. When I walked out of the practice space, nobody followed.
Two months later, a rep for Interscope saw the new two-piece version of Darkhearts at a Neumos early show and signed them on the spot.
Six months after that, they were the hottest new band in North America. Rolling Stone described them as “if Chris Cornell returned from the dead to front the Cure.” Chance leaned into his vampire act, changing his last name to “Kain”—a biblical reference I found deeply ironic, given how we’d ended things. Entertainment Weekly called him “the next David Bowie,” while Pitchfork compared his glam-rock sex appeal to St. Vincent and Prince. Billie Eilish took them along on her stadium tour.
Meanwhile, I was trying not to fail social studies.
Fortunately, becoming pop stars meant the two of them dropped out of school almost immediately. Between that and the fact that we’d barely hung out since the night I left, I could almost pretend they didn’t exist. Sure, it was hard to hear girls talking about how Chance Kain was the best thing to happen to eyeliner, or to hear a car drive past blasting “Midnight’s Children.” But it wasn’t like I’d spent every moment of the last two years jealously stewing about how my life should have been different.
That certainly wasn’t what I was doing two days after Eli’s funeral, lying on my bed recovering from a long day of stacking lumber. Junior year had ended weeks ago, and I’d consented to spending the summer working for my dad’s contracting business—a fate which, if not actually worse than death, occasionally bore a striking resemblance to Dante’s vision of Hell.
My phone chimed from where I’d dropped it on the floor. I stretched out an aching arm and flipped it over, revealing a new text.
I’m bored. Wanna get dinner?
The number wasn’t in my contacts, but it seemed like a weird sort of spam, unless the robocall bots were getting lonely. On the exceptionally small chance that a cute girl had somehow gotten ahold of my number without my knowledge, I texted back.
That depends. Who’s this?
The reply was immediate.
Chance. Had to change my number.
Chance? I let my body go limp again. On the big list of people I didn’t want to grab dinner with, Chance was at the top, tied with my mom and Mr. Ullis, the skeezy gym teacher.
The dude had driven me out of my own band with his prima donna bullshit—constantly upstaging me at shows, vetoing my ideas, making unilateral decisions for the whole group—then gotten famous and never looked back. This was literally the first time he’d texted me since the breakup. And now he was hitting me up like nothing even happened?
I was about to text back and tell him exactly what he could eat when an image of a disappointed Eli flashed through my mind.
It shouldn’t have mattered. Eli hadn’t invited me back aboard the Darkhearts fame train, either. But at least he’d kept in touch a little. And while Eli might screw you over, you at least knew he’d have the grace to feel bad about it. Eli felt bad about everything.
More importantly, he’d always been the peacemaker in the band. I knew he’d want me to play nice.
If he were still alive, I might have told him to get bent as well. But that’s the thing about dead people: it’s hard to argue with them.
My fingers seemed to move of their own accord.
The phone chirped.
Now. Pick me up?
The message came with an attached Google Maps link.
The presumption of it set my teeth on edge. He assumed I’d drop everything and pick him up? But I shot back a thumbs-up emoji and hoisted myself out of bed. This is for you, Eli.
My room was technically the house’s attic, which had pluses and minuses. On the one hand, it was big, running the length of our little house. On the other, the slope of the roof to either side meant there was only a six-foot-wide corridor in which I could stand without hitting my head. I grabbed a hoodie from the not-so-dirty pile and hauled open the Floor Door, the trapdoor my dad and I had installed when I was twelve. Except for the angle, it looked exactly like an ordinary door, complete with doorknob.
Downstairs, Dad was splayed out shirtless on the couch, rewatching Stranger Things. He saw me come down the stairs and paused the show. “Where are you headed so late? I thought you’d be dead after unloading that trailer.”
“Gonna go grab pizza.”
“Oh yeah?” He sat up. “Want company? I could even put on a shirt.”
“I’m actually meeting somebody.”
“Oh reaaaally.” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “Anybody I know?”
I briefly considered lying, but decided it wasn’t worth it. “Chance Ng.” I wasn’t about to use his stupid stage name around Dad.
“Chance?” Dad scowled like he’d bitten into something rotten. “What does he want?”
“Dad, come on.” I hated this topic. “His best friend just died of alcohol poisoning. He probably just wants to talk to somebody who knew Eli as well as he did.” As I said it, it suddenly seemed obvious.
“Shit. Right. Sorry.” His frown evaporated, replaced by guilt. “Eli’s poor parents … Well, that’s good of you to talk to him.” He gave me a sympathetic look. “How are you doing with all that?”
I shrugged. “Fine? I dunno. I hadn’t seen him in two years.”
“I know, I just … If you ever want to talk about it … I’m here, okay?”
The ticking of the wall clock filled in as Dad searched for something else to say. Finally he gave up, shaking his head. “You’re a good kid, David.”
“I know.” I opened the door, saving us both from further conversation.
Copyright © 2023 by James L. Sutter