Maybe the best way to start isn’t with who or what, but where. Venoir is an isle of mystery; a small quarantined archipelago surrounded by a toxic sea, segregated by a social class border and suffocating from the inside out.
Venoir. A pretty name. The word conjured a picturesque city of tall ghoulish buildings, of foggy streets and cotton candy skies, artistic vandalism and sun-bleached vending machines. If you cared more about aesthetics than you did about breathing, then Venoir was probably your cup of tea. But know that once you’re in, there’s no getting out. You’re doomed to die within these waters or die trying to escape it.
Staring at Will Rigby’s casket, Nate wondered if Will had ever imagined more for himself, if he knew he would die in Venoir, and at his own hand, from an overdose of all things. Nate couldn’t say he felt sorry for him. Though he had to wonder how high a guy had to be to think that burning down a school two weeks before graduation would be worth the effort, especially if you were just going to commit suicide afterwards.
Rivera, of course, was the one who told Nate a few days ago. It was the middle of the night at stupid-o’clock. Nate had been half-way through bullshitting a philosophy essay when his classmate messaged him in a flurry of shock that their Sixth Form had just gone up in flames, that Will Rigby—remember him? With the reddish hair? We had Chemistry and History with him in High school?—was behind it. A few minutes later he was found dead in his bathroom, OD. It confused Nate for several reasons. One: he never pegged Will as a junkie. Though now that he thought about it, it explained a lot. Two: Will didn’t go to Richmond Sixth Form. He transferred to the South after High School. Why burn it down? Three: The hell was he supposed to do with his essay?
Nate manoeuvred his gas mask to wipe the sweat from under his neck.
Will’s casket lay centre stage beside the alter, a slab of shiny black granite amidst the white marble and obnoxiously colourful stain glass windows that painted St. Fosters church like a ruined watercolour painting. Will’s school picture had been blown up onto a canvas and enclosed in a lavish golden frame, an elaborate wreath of every imaginable flower circled his familiar grin. Nate didn’t realise the Rigby’s had that kind of money. But this was the North, so he couldn’t say he was surprised.
Nate knew he had no right in being here. He could count the number of times he’d spoken to Will on one hand, counting the terse nods in the corridors and the compulsory ‘hey can I borrow a pen’ during class. They were friendly, but they weren't friends. Nate had to blame Rivera for giving Mrs Rigby his number. He also had himself to blame for picking up the call yesterday.
"Could you play the piano at the funeral, please?" Such measly words spoken by a broken woman, yet Nate hadn't heard such chilling words since his mother died. To some this might’ve been an honour, they would immediately interject with something to console the poor bereaved mother—of course ma’am, don’t worry about it, I’ll be there, would you prefer Mozart or Beethoven—but upon hearing the words ‘play’, ‘piano’ and ‘please’, Nate’s spine had locked up. A blood-warm anxiety had slipped through his veins as he clutched his phone against his ear, choking for an excuse.
He could slam his hand on the door, break a few fingers. He’d done it before. It’d hurt. Couldn’t be much worse the second time.
“Will always said he loved it when you played. He loved the piano, the violin. I should’ve got him lessons, I should’ve…” Mrs Rigby went silent for so long Nate had thought the line had gone dead, but then he heard her spluttering through her tears. Nate’s forte was not kindness, not even sympathy. But he did not want to be the arsehole who said no to this distraught woman. He knew how Venoir worked, had been careful for years.
Nate had looked down at his hand, disgustingly scarred from a depressing childhood and willed himself to speak the words: “Would the violin be alright?”
Now here he was, with fifty other black-clad figures in the hall, baking like a jacket potato in a hot oven because maybe Christians were against decent air conditioning. Nate barely counted it as a blessing that the ventilation system was working enough to let them take off their gas masks inside. It felt awkward showing his face in a sea of grieving strangers, strangers who most likely knew as well as he did that he did not deserve an invitation to their beloved’s funeral.
He kept close to the exit for as long as he could, sitting himself on the furthest pew to the back. If he looked hard enough, he’d probably recognise a few faces, might be able to see Rivera’s piss yellow gas mask near the front row.
Mrs. Rigby sat by the stage as the eulogies rolled on, laughing through her tears at the funny stories. Nate couldn’t stomach looking at the woman for too long. There was something about her grief that made him uncomfortable.
Nate’s mother hadn’t gotten a funeral. For reasons that were obvious at the time. The closest thing they got to one was when Nate’s sister put up a picture of their mother, one that Nate's sister had drawn in eerily intricate detail, onto a blank wall of their new house. They both stared at it wordlessly for what felt like forever, blanketed in shock and silence, blurry eyed and weary, before calling it a night. To listen to these people speaking so fondly about something they loved was intriguing, if not a little disorientating.
Maybe it was a shitty thing to do, but Nate imagined Antoinette’s body in that closed casket, imagined these strangers as her make-believe friends, co-workers, imagined them grieving over his mother the way he never did. It was supposed to be a comforting thought, but by the time it was Mrs. Rigby’s turn to deliver her eulogy, Nate felt like a ghost in his own body, oddly detached and a little numb in the chest, the neck, the legs. He flexed his fingers to will the feeling back into them.
Nate felt his phone vibrate. He slipped out his flip-phone from his breast pocket.
A: are you still at the funeral?
Nate ignored it. But then he got to thinking about the house. He’d locked the door. He remembered locking the door. Or was that yesterday? No, he always locked the door. He must’ve.
Shit. He tried to ignore the thought, but it was there now, like a hangnail.
He distracted himself with a game, the kind bored children start playing at the back of the family car when trips got too long.
Bone, ebony, teal, blush, honey.
Colour thesaurus: name every colour you can see without using its original label.
Mint, garnet, ivory, coffee, violet.
“I met Will in play school.”
Nate looked up at the new voice. Casper Adams had replaced Mrs. Rigby at the altar, the woman being ushered off to the side by a man who Nate could only assume was Casper’s older brother, judging by the uncanny resemblance. “We were five years old…I was the quiet child who kept to himself.” Casper kept his eyes downcast on his notes. The suit he wore was old and ill-fitted for his lanky figure, too broad around the shoulders, too short for his arms. Nate almost didn’t recognise him without the school uniform on, or a camera dangling around his neck. For once his hair had been swept back and away from his eyes. “Will approached me with this grin on his face out of nowhere and offered me these strange chocolate sweets. Considering how stingy he was as a child, I realise how kind a gesture that was now that I'm older.” Quiet laughter. Nate’s phone gave another quiet buzz.
“It was one of my earliest memories; Will smiling up at me with a missing tooth, a scab still healing on his face from when he fell off his bike. We became friends immediately. We were so unalike, in interests, in personality, but even so, being friends with him made sense.”
He went onto mention a few stories; the time Will forced him to marathon a sci-fi movie when Casper was sick in bed. The time in Year 5 Will changed the clock in the classroom when the teacher wasn’t looking so they would get an early lunch, a time last year when Will got stupid drunk and tried to prove to people he was Targaryen by burning himself on the arm with the kitchen hob.
Silly, nonsensical, everyday things. Nate hated that he hated listening to this; hated that something so normal to others sounded to him like a brag. Nate wanted to scrap every memory of childhood out of his brain.
“He was erratic. Hyper. He had so much life in him, so much happiness to share. He was a fire that lip up the room when he walked in…but that fire vanished from him long before his passing.” Casper ran a finger under his nose and cleared his throat, but his voice was steady as he spoke. “Two summers ago, Will and I lost a close friend of ours…On June 12th Luka Andris went missing.”
Oh yeah. Luka Andris. Nate remembered her, remembered when everyone and their dogs were looking for this girl, but the search stopped after a mere three days. To this day she hasn’t been found. Which was pretty impressive, considering there was nowhere in Venoir to disappear to.
“It was after losing that special friend that the fire in Will’s eyes faded…I don’t think he was the same ever since. Neither of us were.” A flip of the pages, another cough, another text message buzzed against Nate’s chest. Casper went on, “Will, when you told me you’d be transferring to the South, I was so upset. I think about it and I’m still mad.”
Right then, Casper looked up from his notes and his stone cold gaze found Nate’s, blood-shot brown eyes blunt with accusation, blurred by a well of tears. Nate didn’t look away, if only because he was intrigued enough by such a wounded expression to hold his gaze.
“Let this be known that the Will I knew wouldn’t have rested until Luka was safe with us again. And it’s that Will, the one with the fire in his veins, the kindness in his heart, that I implore for you all to remember. Thank you.” A small round of applause. Are you supposed to clap at funeral? Nate didn’t think so. He kept his hands on his lap as Casper walked away from the podium.
The priest looked to Nate then. He was an old wrinkled man with too absent eyes, but he gestured to a blue violin case that rested below the stage, right under Will’s casket. Nate took one final deep breath. It was no piano, but it didn’t nauseate him any less.
He let the world turn grey, and stood.
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