Mae didn’t know how she was going to survive the funeral. Not that she could remember much of it so far. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to remember it, or why it ever happened at all. But the more she let that thought pass through her mind, the more guilt built up inside of her.
I shouldn’t think of it this way, she thought with remorse. Hassan didn’t die for nothing. Not remembering today would be an insult to his memory.
Her vision went cloudy then. She couldn’t tell the sweat trickling from her forehead from her tears.
“Mae!” Hassan’s voice rang in her mind like bells resonating, bouncing around the edges of her skull with no end in sight. “Mae, go! Get help! I’ll hold him off!”
“But—” she almost didn’t recognise her own voice, sharp and broken due to panic.
“Go!” Hassan was pleading now, out of fear and desperation. She had never seen her best friend so terrified before; it made her stomach churn. “We don’t have much time! Go—!”
“Are you okay?”
Mae jerked and involuntarily elbowed the person at the side. “Oh god! Elsie, I’m so sorry.”
“That’s fine,” Elsie said through a grunt. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about me.”
“You know I still will, right?”
Mae couldn’t bring herself to say anything more. She just wanted it done and over with.
They finally lowered the casket; the thumping noise it made was barely audible, yet it was the loudest thing next to her beating heart. The crowd—those who cared to show up—was hushed. They’ve started moving the soil back into the hole.
Unmistakably, this time, tears were the reason she couldn’t see ahead.
Why did you do that for? She wanted to scream. You, playing the hero and saving the day? Who do you think you are? Why? Why did you have to sacrifice yourself? There could’ve been another way. There has to be another way. Why did you do that for? Why did you have to go and leave me?
The tears came harder.
Lord, forgive me. How selfish can one person get? I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m—
Had she fallen over? She must’ve, because suddenly she was aware nails biting into her skin and an arm wrapping tightly, protectively, around her waist. Interrupting gravity from taking its toll.
Mae glanced down in a daze, peering at the small, dark-skinned girl, the only one keeping her steady and upright this very moment. The only other reason she has for sticking around anymore.
In the light of everything that’s happened, this girl doesn’t seem real. Or feel real.
But she is.
Mae squeezed Elsie’s arm in an attempt to reassure her; Elsie’s didn’t let go. Her grip was gentle yet unrelenting.
The burial passed in a blur, but also felt like it went on forever. Strange how time works sometimes. The sun was blazing hot, searing her arms, stinging the back of her neck. Sunburn, she thought. She read somewhere—or heard from someone—that to minimise some kinds of pain, just deliberately create other kinds of pain to distract from the first one. Like pinch your arm when you stub your toe so it balances it out. Strange logic, but sound in a way. So she thought maybe if she focused on the physical pain for now, her emotional pain would be held at bay.
It didn’t work.
Then came the eulogy. Mae dreaded this moment. Every person who went up to speak spoke of her late friend with grace and respect, but they sounded detached. They didn’t know him like she did. But that was the root of her anxiety, because what if she didn’t do Hassan’s sacrifice and memory justice, even after everything they’ve been through?
Elsie rolled her thumb across the back of Mae’s hand, then said, “Just speak out of your heart. Hassan loves you, and he would’ve been proud of you, if he was here.”
Mae felt remote-controlled as she walked up to the podium, her feet seemingly moved on their own accord. Her hands shook, but she also felt numb with apprehension. The silence was so loud, it was deafening. She faced the crowd, her eyes wandering everywhere and nowhere at the same time, like a camera lens that couldn’t find its focus, blotting everything out into indistinguishable dots.
She met Elsie’s tender, unwavering gaze.
“It’s—I never thought this day would come—” Oh, how she hated the sound of her voice. It was too deep, too . . . manly. But she couldn’t let it distract her from her eulogy. She swallowed, cleared her throat, then tried again. “Um, no, I honestly didn’t think it would ever come. Or that it would be so soon. I’ve always thought that Hassan and I would live until we were eighty, and by then we would’ve explored the world and kept the treasures to ourselves. N-Not, like, loot or anything, but, like, souvenirs. It’s a recurring joke we have.
“W-When I told people I had been asked to do this, they said it would be a hard thing for me to do. And i-it is. This is one of the harder things I have had to do in my life ever. I don’t know how to put Hassan into just three pages for a eulogy. I don’t think anyone could. I—He was my best friend, the best you could ever ask for. He was kind and brave and funny. There world needed more people like him, and . . . and I . . . I . . .”
* * *
“Mae! Mae, go! Get help! I’ll hold him off!”
“Go! We don’t have much time! Go, hurry!”
“You’re fucking mental! You can’t fight him by yourself! You’re in a wheelchair, you can’t possibly—”
“We don’t have much time, Mae! I’ve seen his kind before; he’s a suicide bomber. I can stop him from getting towards the school. If you take me with you, I’ll only slow you down. It’ll be too late. Please, you have to trust me.”
“No! I won’t let you do this!”
“And let thousands of people die? I’d rather sacrifice myself than let that happen. Now, go! Please. The longer we argue, the closer he’ll get to the school. Please!”
And so Mae tore up the hill. Looking back out the corner of her eye, she spotted her best friend catch up to the bomber, leap out of his wheelchair, and tackled him to the ground. Her heart leapt to her throat as she ran, all the while praying to every god in existence ‘please, please, please let him be safe’. She only had enough time to process that it was break time, which meant everyone wouldn’t be in any of the classrooms. She reached the refectory—a separate building from the rest of the school—and threw the doors open with a thundering bang. Hundreds pairs of eyes looked up to meet her.
She had barely opened her mouth when she heard the explosion in the distance.
* * *
The next thing Mae remembered was the sun glaring down on her, and being curled up in a foetal position, her head resting on someone’s thighs. She had trouble breathing from sobbing. She was vaguely aware of her mumbling ‘I let him die. I could’ve done something.”
Someone was rubbing her hair, then wrapped their arms around her. Then a soft voice said, “Don’t blame yourself, Mae. It’s not your fault. Hassan was brave just like you said.”
“Hassan died because of me, Elsie. If I had thought of something else, I could’ve . . . I could’ve—”
“Shhh, it’s not your fault, Mae.” Elsie sounded like she was on the verge of crying as well. “It’s not. Please don’t blame yourself. Hassan chose to do this for us. There was nothing you could’ve done about it. Please. I’m sorry.”
That only made Mae cry harder. She curled Elsie’s shirt in her fists and wept into it, howling and screaming in anguish. It didn’t hit her until much later that she was still on stage by the podium, but at that moment, she couldn’t care less.
She was missing a part of herself. Her heart had been broken, and she wasn’t sure if it was ever going to be put back together.
(inspired by Aitzaz Hassan‘s story)