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She sat in silence. The casket was open but she couldn’t see him from where she sat. People stared at her, wondering why she wasn’t up front with the rest of his family. Everyone knew how long they’d been together. Ten years, since they were teenagers.
The truth is, she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. No doubt he was dressed in clothes he would never have worn, the color swept from his face, those gorgeous blue eyes closed forever. That wasn’t the way she wanted to remember him. So Eileen sat in the back corner of the church. No one approached her. She had watched him die and they left her to grieve on her own.
Hailey, the niece of the dead man, ran up to Eileen. She wanted to know why her aunt looked so sad. Her mother ran to pick her up, told her that her aunt needed to be alone for a while. Hailey’s mother caught a glimpse of Eileen’s face. She was staring out the stained glass windows, her eyes were glazed over, somewhere far away.
Eileen’s mind had flashed back to the day River died. For quite some time before his death, River had a drug problem. He started off just buying a little here and there for a once in a while trip. Eventually, it grew to not only buying, but selling to be able to indulge in his habit. Eileen would admit it, she had done it with him but she had to keep her job so she couldn’t afford to be high all the time like River could. He was, somehow, a functioning drug addict.
A month before he died, River answered the door in the middle of the night. A man dressed head to toe in black stood in the doorway. He pushed River aside and entered their home like he owned it. He surveyed the small portion of the house he could see and sneered. River stood by the doorway, keeping his distance from the man. “What do you want?” River had asked, his face calm but his voice betraying the fear he felt. “You know what I want. I want the money you owe me,” the man said, grabbing hold of River’s collar and slamming him up against the wall. “You’ve been buying more and selling less and less my friend. If you don’t pay up, well, you know what happens.”
The man in black dropped River onto the floor and headed back out into the night. Eileen, who had watched the scene unfold from the kitchen doorway, came forward, shut the door and sank down next to River. He tilted his head and rested it on her shoulder. She wrapped her arms around him, closing her eyes as to fight back the tears building behind her lids. They fought their way out and slid down her cheeks, dropping into River’s dark brown hair. “You need to stop,” she said tilting his face up toward her. “I can’t lose you. You need to find the money and pay whoever the heck that was. Promise me you won’t buy anymore,” she looked him in the eye but he turned away. He knew if he let her look at him long enough, he would give in and do whatever she asked. River just nodded, looking at the opposite wall, never actually promising a thing.
Four weeks went by and Eileen saw no signs that River was using anymore. She trusted that he had kept his word. The two of them had been together for so long that Eileen knew all of River’s quirks and habits. Whenever he tried to keep something from her, he couldn’t look her in the eye. The day he died River avoided her gaze like the plague. When he told her that night that he had forgotten something at work and needed to head back and get it, Eileen felt in her gut that something was up. She followed his car on her bike. Dressed in a navy hoodie and black jeans, Eileen blended in with the night. She made sure to stay far enough behind River’s car that he wouldn’t spot her.
River parked the car by the docks. He got out of the car, took a few steps and looked around. He found what he was looking for and headed toward a boat named Mariela. River stopped and leaned against the stern of the boat. Eileen hung back in the shadows cast by other boats that were docked.
The man who came to their house appeared from below deck. He jumped on the dock, landing in front of River. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited. “Where’s my money friend?” he asked. River shifted nervously from foot to foot. “Look I can get you the money. I just need some more time. I couldn’t stop myself. You know how it is when you want to be up high all day long and how bad it is once you crash down.” River said hurriedly. He continued “Give me one more week and I’ll have the money, guaranteed.”
It all happened so fast that Eileen almost didn’t see what happened. The man reached behind him, wrapped his hand around a gun that had been stuffed into the back of his jeans. He pointed the gun at River and said “You’ve tested my patience too much, friend; you have run out of time.” The shot rang out, echoing through the waves. The man stepped over River’s back onto his boat and went back below.
Eileen didn’t scream or yell or run for River like in the movies. She stood as if she had been turned to stone. She had to remind herself to breathe. Once the man’s head disappeared into the boat, Eileen broke. She sprinted to River’s side. Kneeling beside him, she held his head on her lap. Ripping her hoodie off, Eileen pressed it to the hole in River’s chest. In the back of her mind she knew it was pointless, he wasn’t going to make it.
River opened his eyes when Eileen placed a hand on his face. She absentmindedly ran her thumb back and forth across his cheek. He smiled weakly at her, pretending, as always, like nothing was wrong. A tear began to fall from Eileen’s eyes. River reached up and wiped it away, using most of the strength he had left to do so. “I’m so sorry Darlin’.” he whispered. “I should have listened to you. I wish I didn’t have to go but I can feel Grandpa calling to me.” River said, his voice growing softer and softer. He took Eileen’s hand in his and pressed them against his heart.
Eileen could feel his pulse slowing. She leaned down and kissed him softly on the lips. “I love you.” River said. “I love you too River.” Eileen said as his hand dropped away from hers and his eyes slowly closed. She pulled his body closer to her as he left her there, alone.
Eileen shot straight up in bed. A cold sweat covered her body and had soaked through her pajamas. She brought her knees up to her chest and hugged them close to her. Putting her head down she cried, her body wracked with sobs that seemed to be ripped from her chest. She turned her head, tears streaming down her face, her hand placed on the cold bed sheet beside her, to survey the empty room.