Everyone sat around the dining room table, surrounding Luca like planets orbiting the sun. Few voices bounced off the wall as the room filled with subtle conversation and strained laughter. I smiled, genuinely pleased with the warm reconciliation that was occurring.
“Yes, yes, being home is wonderful, of course,” Luca said. “It smells like—” he hesitated, looking up and taking a few sniffs. “—I would say gingerbread. Yes, gingerbread.” And as he smiled at his sister, his skin wrinkled near his eyes, and his body—practically emaciated— shook alarmingly as he laughed. Yet, his smile, a vivid and grand smile, reminded me of Luca, not the fragile Luca that sat before me, though.
It reminded me of the Luca before, the one I knew. The spry Luca. The witty Luca. My bright, bold best friend who smiled shamelessly.
“Now, how is—what’s his name? Ah, Antonio,” said Luca, satisfied by his ability to pinpoint his nephew’s name. “Now, how is that young man doing? Because last I saw, he was going off to university—a bright kid, for sure. I shouldn’t even ask; I’m sure he’s already some mayor of a city by now or president of some company or manager of—” He quickly stopped rambling after looking around at the still faces: no smiles, no nods, no movement. Just sympathetic stares.
“Antonio was drafted soon after you left, but only a year after he left…” his sister disclosed, almost unable to finish her sentence. “Only a year after he left, we were told he didn’t make it.”
Luca sighed, staring at his sister. “I’m sorry, Matea.” However, he and I barely knew Antonio, so the apology was more out of respect and sympathy for his sister than sorrow for the young man.
Whatever subtle conversation floated among the dozen heads seated in our living room halted. It seemed no one dared to speak after that, too afraid to uncover more of the past.
“Okay, yes, I’m sorry. Now, how is Leo? He was a good kid, last I remember.” Luca piped, alleviating the silence.
I placed my hand over my forehead and sighed, staring at Luca earnestly. I knew the answer. We all knew the answer.
“He didn’t make it either, Luca.” Accustomed to death, no tears emerged from his sister’s eyes. However, her sadness weighed her down as she sat on the couch hunched over, unable to sit tall. She sniffled, yet her dry eyes stared at the floor. Her spirit faltered: a frail and feeble aspect drained from the darkness.
“Goran?” he asked, but I looked at him, shaking my head.
“David?” he continued.
“Andrej?” he stopped before listing off every young man in the neighborhood who was now buried. But, no one knew how to respond, allowing silence to envelop the room.
His legs shook as he began to stand, so I walked over to rescue him. Step by step, we traversed across the living room and into the hall to exit the tense room for a moment, allowing the people to recover from the previous conversation.
I led Luca to the bench in our hallway, guiding his aged body onto the seat. Time seemed to move like sap slowly draining from a tree. A viscous, gradual decline.
He moved costively too, dragging through the air between us with each movement. His drooping eyes and lethargic movement made it conspicuous he was aging quickly. As time sped past him, he was stuck in one place.
Sitting in the silence, I realized then, the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
“I’m sorry, Sandra,” he apologized without looking up at me.
“No, no, don’t apologize,” I replied calmly, taking in a deep breath.
“I see now, nothing is the same anymore.”
“I suppose you’re right.”