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We gathered together in our plain, small-town church for the funeral of my friend, Eric. We had to wait in a hall outside the room where Eric was lying in his coffin for some time, waiting for the room to open. Almost the whole town stood in the hall. I saw my neighbor, Mr. Crandle, leaning up against the wall, taking his dusty cowboy hat off to swat some manure off of his boot. Mr. Jackson, the town mechanic and bartender at the High Mountain Tavern and Sport Shop, was talking in whispered tones to his short, plump wife. I began to wonder if Mr. Jackson owned any other clothes besides the stained, blue overalls that he wore all of the time. The mayor, Bob "The Bobber" Thompson, was the best dressed of them all in his faded, brown, pin-striped suit. I began to wonder why he was known to all as "The Bobber." As I probed deeper into this question, I was awakened from my thoughts by the scuffling of feet and saw everyone entering the room. I stood outside for a long time, not wanting to see Eric in his final resting place, wanting to remember him alive.
As I entered the small, cramped room, some were trying to sing the hymn, "Father in Heaven, We Do Believe," while most wept, catching a final view of my friend before the oak coffin was closed and his earthly life was officially over. I was standing in the crowd, looking at Eric. He looked so peaceful, as if he was just sleeping and would wake up at any moment. The makeup on his face disturbed me. His skin was a bright peach color, his cheeks were pink, and his lips were full and red. He did not look like my friend, but like some sort of dead mime. His small, unmistakable smile eased my apprehensions, however, and the program went on.
Suddenly, the crowd seemed to part in slow motion and I saw the man in the black suit standing before the coffin. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, and yet he seemed somehow to be much older. Perhaps it was his dark eyes that seemed to sink into his pale face or his thin frame that seemed so frail. His hair looked the same as the first day I met him, combed sideways as if his mother still did it for him.
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I looked to the floor, wondering why he was here and what I should do. He did not deserve to be here. He did not even know Eric. I felt a cold chill suddenly and raised my eyes from the floor. He had turned to face me, his cold, dark eyes staring deep inside me. I tried to look away, but could not. I stood motionless, remembering the first day that I met him. It was six days ago, just last Friday. Eric and I had been playing all day on the outskirts of our small town. There were only a hundred or so people in our town. I hated it. I had just moved here from Chicago. I was always telling Eric that I was going to leave and return to the city. He would shake his head and smile, saying that this town had the power to suck you in so you could never leave.
We were walking alone along the highway that ran straight through town. The doctors said I had a case of really bad asthma. I felt weak and my breath came in short rasps as I walked beside Eric, having forgotten to take my inhaler that morning. Asthma had plagued me all of my life, so I was used to breathing hard on occasion. Eric never seemed to mind that I was always pale and weak because of the asthma. Most of the others in our Freshmen class avoided me because I was different. Eric was the one person who did not.
The side of the highway we were on dropped off into a fifty-foot cliff which overlooked a lake. I remember looking down at the base of the cliff, watching the waves beat against the sharp, jagged rocks below. The height made me feel light-headed and I began to collapse, but Eric caught me and straightened me up. I looked thankfully into his face. He nodded and gave me a pat on the back, making me cough.
"Well?" Eric asked, looking at me for an answer. Apparently he had been talking all of the time we were walking.
"Well what?" I replied. He rolled his eyes and sighed. He ran forward a few yards, turned around suddenly, and smiled. I loved his unpredictability and his care-free way of seeing the world.
"Do you think Julia Bronson likes me?" he said as his smile widened.
"I think she does," I replied coughing. "Her old man won't let you go out with her though. He'll shoot you full of holes with his shotgun chasing you off of his front porch."
"Then I will go to her," he said, bowing low to the ground, "and I will dance around her father's front porch until he has fired his last bullet." He seemed invincible as he bowed. This aura of invincibility, which seemed to pulse throughout his being, gave me strength. I think this is why I loved to be around him so much. He stood up, putting his arm around my shoulder, and we resumed our trek home.
I was watching the ground fly past my feet when I suddenly looked up. There he stood, the man in the black suit. Eric, who was looking into a pasture of cows across the highway, almost walked into him. The man stood there motionless. I remember how his eyes were so dark and sunk in so that it made it seem like he had a skull instead of a head. He seemed young and old all at the same time. I thought he was some rich guy from up north who had gotten lost because of the black suit he was wearing.
"Are you lost or something?" Eric asked, tired of the silence. That is what I liked most about Eric: He always got directly to the point.
"No," he said in a sleepy whisper. "I know exactly where I am." There was a long silence again and I began to get uncomfortable. Dark clouds rolled softly in from the south. There was going to be a storm and the wind made the waves beat harder against the cliff. Sometimes the spray would rise above the cliff and drench us all. Eric and I shivered, but the man in the black suit did not. He just stood on the side of the road, staring at us.
"Is there anything we can help you with?" Eric asked with impatience. "If there isn't, we'll be on our way because I'm cold and late for supper."
"There is something you could help me with," he said, turning and pointing at me. "I have come for Seth." His hand was pale and motionless. Eric looked from the hand to me. I felt so weak and I could hardly breathe. I covered my mouth with my hand as I coughed. There was so much pain in my lungs. I was terrified by the pool of blood in my hand as I pulled it away from my mouth.
"What if I don't want to come?" I replied, my voice almost a whisper.
"It is your time," he replied. I heard the hard, metallic sound of horses walking on pavement. I looked to the highway. Two black horses were pulling a huge carriage behind it. There was no driver as it ambled down the road and stopped beside us. I heard soft moaning and lamenting from within the carriage, but when the pale faced man opened the door, all I saw was darkness. He motioned for me to enter.
"Whoa, friend," said Eric, stepping in front of me, "nobody is going anywhere."
"It is his time," he said. He reached for me and grabbed my shoulder. His icy hand touched my neck. His grip was strong, hurting my shoulder. Eric grabbed his arm, trying to free me. The man's hand slipped free from my shoulder and they began to wrestle.
"You're not taking my friend," Eric said. I admired him as I stood there wheezing. My admiration suddenly turned to sheer terror as my friend slipped and fell from my view off of the cliff. I ran to the edge and saw him mangled and mashed upon the rocks below, the falling rain washing his red blood down canals in the rocks into the water. I felt strong, so strong that it scared me. I could breathe normally and easily, and it seemed as if for the first time in my life I did not have asthma. The man in the black suit turned to me. He was only a couple of inches from my face, his dark eyes looking straight into mine. I could feel the cold emanating from him.
"It was not his time," he said. He closed the door to his carriage, got on top, and began to slowly drive down the road. I heard a faint whisper from inside the carriage say, "Seth, please help me." The man looked back, angrily shook his head, and then turned away.
When I had returned from remembering the incidents of Eric's death, I found that the congregation was singing another hymn and the pale face man in the black suit was standing right beside me. I looked around to see if anyone noticed him, but nobody seemed to see him.
"It was not his time," he said as he turned to look at me. I turned to Eric. The oak coffin was being closed. I looked at my friend, lying there with a funny little grin on his face, for the last time, realizing that it was supposed to be me in that coffin and not him. My heart became wrenched with guilt as the coffin was shut and all of his family gathered around to weep for him. I turned back to the man, but he was gone. I ran outside and fell to my knees, tears streaming down my eyes as I finally realized the mistake that had been made.
"Take me instead!" I yelled at the sky, my hands raised in the air. "It was my time, not his! I am supposed to be in that coffin!" There was only silence. I lowered my head and the wind blew my long hair gently into my face. I did not see the man in the black suit again for many years. I guess death can make a mistake.