By John Thomas Tuft

Friendship is one of life’s true miracles. A friendship that lasts a lifetime is perhaps the rarest of all precious gems, considered by those who know to be miracles in and of themselves. Such was the friendship of three people in the small town of Aldeanville, nestled in the foothills right next to the river. Folks there considered themselves to be basically kind and decent, a basic belief that they were living the good life and if the world out there would just be more like them, well, maybe it wouldn’t have half the problems. Such are the building blocks of the delusions that we tend to hold close to ourselves as protections against our fears and frailties. It didn’t make the good folks of Aldeanville any more or less than the rest of us, it did not make them more or less faithful, patriotic, or paternal, neither misogynists nor missionaries of wokeness. Charlie, Beth, and Eldon became fast friends in elementary school, a friendship that they cemented with a ritual of their own invention named, Pass the Empty.

The three were maybe eight years old the first time they went on an adventure together, something that can be tried whether or not one is in a small town…believe it or not. They set out with a big bag of Chex mix, a sack of Oreos, and a quart of birch beer. An entire morning passed wading in the creek, exploring the woods out behind Johnson’s farm, and even going into the dark dankness of the old Civil War cave where villagers hid from the hated Yankee invaders. When the sun was high overhead, the three settled down under the shade of a weeping willow and partook of their feast of friendship and hope. In due time, Charlie let out a gigantic belch and asked Beth to pass him some more Oreos. “All gone,” she announced. “I can always pass you the empty, though.” Eldon held the empty bag of Chex mix high. “All gone,” he proclaimed. “I can always pass you the empty, too.” And thus it began.

Pass the Empty became their traditional way to close out a day of fun. The empty packages or bags would be passed from friend to friend, and each would whisper something into it and clench it tightly closed as they passed it to the next. Of course, Charlie often yielded to the temptation to burp into the empty and laugh like an idiot, but most of the time the solemn ritual remained intact. Time after time, year after year, whisper after whisper never revealed as they each would Pass the Empty. In junior high school, when Eldon’s mom took suddenly ill and passed away, Charlie and Beth were not sure how to help their friend. But they soon decided there really was only one way. They showed up at the funeral home with a bag of M&Ms, a bag of potato chips and a 2 liter bottle of Coke. The three sat on the back stoop and munched on the offering, mostly in quiet silence. When it came time to Pass the Empty, each one could not help but add a tear to their whisper.

Life at Aldeanville Regional High School was not much different than at other high schools. Charlie and Beth realized that they had a deeper interest in each other than simply friends of childhood.  Eldon began to feel left out as they wandered off into the world of dating. And he never dared tell them, or anyone else, that he kept as many of the Pass the Empty sacks and containers as he could, tightly closed up and safe in the bottom drawer in his bedroom. They were mementos of childhood, but he could not bear to part with them. Not quite yet.

After high school, as Charlie and Beth were making plans for their future, the country went to war. Both Charlie and Eldon volunteered but they went to different destinations, different battles. Beth stayed back in Aldeanville, doing her best not to worry, even as Charlie’s child grew within her own body. Six months into his deployment, the entire town was stunned to learn of the tragic death of Charlie in a land thousands of miles away. His body was welcomed back home by a slow, sad procession of police cars, fire trucks, his old high school team, and a hearse. Beth searched and searched all the faces around her but there was no sign of the one friend she needed right at that moment.

The day of Charlie’s funeral arrived. He was to be buried with full military honors. At the graveside there was a color guard in spit shined shoes. There was a 21-gun salute that cracked open the heart of the small town as it echoed across the river. The flag was taken from the coffin and folded into a tight triangle. A Marine in dress blues came and knelt before Beth. “On behalf of a grateful nation…” said the Marine. Beth looked up. It was Eldon kneeling in front of her. Tears filled his eyes. Tears filled her eyes. Eldon handed her the flag and then set a small box on top of it. Burned into the top, Beth read: Pass the Empty.

Which is why, if you were fortunate enough to be in Aldeanville that day, you might have seen a very pregnant woman and a dashing Marine, sitting on the side of a grave, their feet dangling inside the hole. And if you were close enough you could see them take out an old, wrinkled Chex mix and crumpled Oreos bags, not to mention the old birch beer bottle. And oddly you would hear them laugh. “I always whispered, I love you guys,” says the Marine. She reaches out to touch his cheek as she says, “So did I. And Charlie told me he said the same. I love you guys.” And one last time, as all true friends can do, they pass the empty…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.