The casket glinted in the light as it hung over the grave. A few people shed tears, a few more tried to hide theirs. One woman dabbed at her eye with a black handkerchief. Others managed to keep their composure.
None of the audience shuffled when a woman stepped behind the casket. Her black hair was cut short just below her shoulder, almost blending in with her black dress. A pair of diamond earrings sparkled in the sunlight.
She looked over the audience and futzed with the few sheets of paper she held in her hand. She took one glance at the papers, then lowered them and looked at the audience instead. They looked back at her with wanting expressions. Then she spoke.
"One day, I was walking with Eve and I asked her, 'If you had seventy minutes to do whatever you wanted, no matter how possible or legal, what would you do?' When I asked her this, she kept looking forward, and simply answered 'I would watch the world.' So, I asked her why.
"She broke into a big smile then, and I think you all know how infectious her smiles were." Some of the mourners gave a small nod, smiles playing across some lips. "She replied, 'Because the greatest thing in the world is the world. I don't think that many people notice that, even when they're aware that it's true. The only ones to really see it are the astronauts, because they can't depend on Earth to keep them alive anymore. They're just up there, relying on themselves and the metal can they're floating in.'"
She ruffled her papers a little and went silent for some time.
"When she said that, I had to stop. 'To really answer your question,' she said, 'I'd say that I would want to be in space for those seventy minutes. But, watching the ocean is a close second.'" The mourners were staring at her now. A few had watery trails running down their faces, shimmering in the sunlight. Others tenuously held their composure.
"She was telling me something that day. It was one of her suggestions-disguised-as-stories. What she was saying," she paused for just a moment, "was to get me to stop my alcoholism. She knew I did it. She knew I liked going out and just forgetting everything down a bottle. Except she knew that telling me to stop wasn't going to do anything. Instead she taught me how to save myself. That will be how I remember her, out of every facet of her beautiful life." She flipped through a few sheets of paper and shuffled them around for a little, but didn't look at them.
"She was someone that you could meet on the street and end up chatting with at a diner within the hour. By the time you finished your meal, you would have learned something about yourself. By the end of the week, you would be a changed person. I think each of you," she turned her gaze across the crowd, "can agree to that, just as each of you knew of her smile, and her laugh - the sort that was even able to stop a couple from arguing. Everything she did seemed to have that air to it. The way she moved, the way the spoke, the way she just was."
She stopped again, and breathed in the crisp air.
"I told you my story for two reasons," she said, "The first, was to show you what she's done for me, personally. The second, was to show you what she's done for everyone else left behind. Her husband," she nodded at a black-haired man with a bright glint in his eyes. "Her friends," a group of black-garbed people stared at her, trying not to crush any more dew-licked grass. "And her love. She loved each, and every, one of you. She showed people themselves because she made them realize what they could be if they were just happy. That's what she was. Happy. Happy to be around people and to make them happy." She took a slow breath.
"I think, that I need to tell you what she said when she told me that story. She didn't change anything she said for me. She just said what she believed, that people should view things for what they truly are. Beautiful. Every single thing. She wants you to realize that by yourself, in your own way. Just my words, like hers, won't change anything. If she was still with us, she wouldn't tell you what to do to achieve that. She would just tell you to do, to go, towards wherever you're pulled, and not to listen to her or anyone else when they tell you what you should do. Do this for her. Then maybe, if she's still looking down to us from wherever-she-is, she can smile one more time."
She stood up for a little longer over the coffin, before walking back into the crowd, to a few happy nods and smiles. No one else came up to the coffin, leaving a silent pall for the few minutes before the coffin made its final descent. It touched the ground silently, but the impact shook everyone.
Two suit-clad men walked up in and took gleaming silver shovels, and moved the dirt over the plot. They worked slowly and meticulously, handling the shovels like trays full of diamonds. It took a long time.
By the time they were finished, the sun began to droop lower into the horizon, dangling above the peak of a mountain. It wasn't sundown, but everyone felt tired. They dispersed in pairs and groups of six or seven, walking down the cobblestone pathway and out to the street, back to their cars.
The final pair that walked out looked different from the other two, despite the crisp black suits that adorned both of them. Three pairs of eyes shot around on one. A pair of wings hung off the back of the other. Each one had a tail running across the ground. White and black, respectively. The scales of the black dragon contrasted with the stark white of his horns. It was the same white as that of his brother's, and was covered in old gashes and scars. The only other visible color on his head were two hard eyes that looked around with a measured thoughtfulness.
They walked down the street in silence, ignoring the blurred flashes of cars down the street. They were in no hurry, and were instead moving purposefully slowly. It seemed to fit the occasion.
For a while, silence hung with them like a fog, disturbed only by gusts of footsteps and car engines. Max - the lighter one - looked around the street they were on, but didn't find much interest in the cracked pavement or dull brick apartments that hung at the side of the sidewalk. Eventually, he decided to say something to his brother.
"When was the last time you talked with Eve?" He asked.
JT thought for a little bit, "A month ago, I think. Ran into her on the street."
"Around here, I think. We chatted for about an hour or so."
JT shrugged, "Jobs, life, stuff."
"You know, life stuff."
Max rolled his eyes, "Oh come on, you can do better than that. Last time I talked with her we started talking about what it'd be like to have wings. Come to think of it, what's it like?"
JT gave him an odd look, "I've told you already. Couple times."
"Yeah, but Eve hasn't heard you."
JT's expression darkened, “Eve? Eve's gone.” His voice was frank and flat.
Max shook his head, “I don’t think she is.” Max gave a glance to his brother. “Maybe she said 'dang' just now.” He said it with a small, honest grin. They turned down another street and into an alleyway guarded by a pair of brick walls, marked by a cracked concrete path. A window garden hung off one of the apartment windows.
JT rolled his eyes again and shook his head, “As what, then?” Max gave a pause.
“I dunno. Angel maybe. Spirit?”
JT sighed, “No. I don’t think she’s anything now.”
The pair turned onto a larger street, lined with apartments on one side and glass-fronted stores on the other. It had the happy effect of sparing them from the main crush of people rushing to and fro across the sidewalk on the other side. “Oh come on,” Max said, “You think that we just disappear? Poof?”
“Yeah. Poof. Nothing.” He gave an sarcastic half-smirk.
“I don’t believe that. We can’t just go poof.”
“Sure we can.” His said, both lightheartedly and bitterly. A thick group of people walked by them, forcing the two into single-file.
"Then tell me," Max said, after the laughing group past, "What are stars, then?"
“Big balls of gas that keep things from freezing,” he replied, with the sort of perfunctory tone you’d use when reciting an announcement, “Why?”
“People used to believe that their ancestors lived on as stars, watching their families from above.” Max responded.
“Poetic, but it doesn’t make sense. What does that make our sun?”
“I don’t know,” Max said, chuckling, “A really nosy ancestor? It's just an example, not what I think. I just think we can't disappear. That just makes things seem so pointless if we-”
“I’d say that it makes a hell of a motivator.” JT shoved in. Max gave him an odd look that nearly made him run into a streetlight. “If there’s nothing in death,” JT said, “Then your only chance to get anything done is while you’re still breathing. Something after just makes it too easy to shrug off the now and screw off.”
They walked across the street and turned left onto another sidewalk. A lake laid one one side of it, making the sidewalk snake and turn across its perimeter until it disappeared behind some storefronts. There was a short drop to the water on that side, covered in stubby green plants and flowering bushes. A few palm tree saplings, newly planted, tried to find purchase on the bank, fighting to grow around the handrail that protected people from a reason to sue.
“But everything's lost once you’re gone. All that struggle gets you absolutely nothing.”
“You’re already dead," JT said, "it doesn’t matter for you anymore. But your memory? That’s immortal. Think of Eve, she'll be remembered for what she did.”
Max gave a pause, then reached down and pulled a flower off a bush, “Got me on that. But the fact of the matter is that the basic argument still doesn’t make sense.”
JT looked at him with a slight tilt of his head, “Oh?”
Max handed the flower to him, before picking a second, differently-colored flower off a bush. “Both of these flowers came off the same plant, yet they’re unique.”
“Yeah?” It took a little time for JT to get rid of the confused look on his face, “That’s genetics. Same reason we look so different.” To this, Max handed him the flower, then several more until he had no way to hold them properly.
“But doesn’t it seems so pointless,” Max asked, “To have all this variety and have it mean nil?” He pulled one final flower - a brown, wilted one - and put it in JT's hand with the others, before taking one more for himself, “I just don’t see how all of this variety just disappears when we die.”
“Simple,” JT said, before throwing the flowers back over the handrail, where they landed with nearly inaudible plinking sounds, “Because it doesn’t mean anything.”
Max made a big grin and earned another odd look from JT, “But the beauty of it is that everything has a meaning. You just need to spot it.”
JT gave a skeptical, expectant look, “Prove it.”
“Let’s start with something simple,” Max said, “Like those flowers you killed.” A smirk crept up on JT’s lips, “They’re there to give people a little bit of color in their lives. Nothing that special, and someone was probably paid a little more than minimum wage to plant them.” They turned down a dirt path that branched off from an opening in the handrail. It followed the lake more closely, its side lined with water-smoothed rocks.
“But, I also don’t think that they have a problem with that. Why?” Max picked up a smooth, somewhat flat pebble and showed it to JT, “Because they like what they’re doing. They find purpose in their work, a reason to stay in their job and not just chuck the flowers into the lake.” Max skipped the pebble over the water, where it narrowly missed a thin kayak. “I’ve seen people that can stack those little stones up in stacks as tall as me. Guess why.”
“They’re bored.” It was hard to tell if JT was joking or not.
Max chuckled, “They love doing it. They love seeing the reaction of people when they wonder how on earth they pull it off. A little mystery in someone’s life. I don’t think that it matters how much money they made. On the other hand, that’s all that matters to some people.
“I personally think they’re flawed, because money doesn’t matter when you’re dead, but,” Max said, before JT had a chance to chime in, “It can mean the world in some situations. But not because of what it is, but because of what it means. It could mean relief from a hungry stomach, or a smile from a small child on Christmas. Or,” Max added, his voice a touch harder, “it could mean another reminder of how little you’re doing for other people.”
They came to an opening in the dirt path that led to a small dock. The wood was weather-beaten and threatened to splinter off into any unprotected feet. A few boats were moored to the dock - A a pair of pristine, colorful kayaks and a small motorboat, adorned with worn seats and faded paint. The wooden floor was coated in scratches and scuff marks. JT looked at the pier skeptically, eventually stepping onto it after he saw Max energetically walk to the end of it.
"That's all personal," JT said, after stepping looking at one of the kayaks, "Just emotions that they'd leave behind like one of these kayaks. The emotions die with them. Presto, gone, leaving just other people's memories. It doesn't matter how emotional someone is, or how well you remember them." JT sighed and lowered his gaze when he realized what Max was doing.
"Eve's gone, Max."
Max looked at him for a second, rebellion painted across his face, "No, she isn't. You know how I know?"
JT returned the stare, "Because you want her to be here?" Max opened his mouth to speak, but JT continued, "There's no such thing as meanings. No one is meant to do anything, no one is destined for greatness or failure, there's nothing but what you think there is." His voice held level, but anger crept up along the edges, making it cut even deeper.
"No." Max said simply. "There's too much thought and just pure emotion in the world for that. Haven't you seen it? It's everywhere!" Max went up to the motorboat quickly, almost angrily, "See this boat? See the scratches? Someone loved - loves - this boat. They use it every day, and they parked it over here, in such a nice, quiet place." His voice grew louder, like someone giving an intensely involved speech, "It's peaceful, it's tranquil. Imagine how much this means to the owner, imagine him coming over here after a day of work and just letting this place all of that anger and frustration away. This place probably means more to him than anything else. Each person has something like that," His words grew faster, threatening to blend into each other, "A person or a place or a thing or a person that they just want to be with, to be near, maybe just to see. And if that's taken away from them, they lose something that they can't get back. She's not gone," Max told to someone, he wasn't sure if it was to JT or himself. "Just moved."
JT didn't move for a little while, and instead stood mute, while Max watched him with eyes that belonged back in the funeral. He sighed again, trying to figure out what to say.
"Eve..." JT started. Then stopped. He decided to restart. "The truth is is that you... you can't talk to Eve again. You won't see her again." It hurt him to see Max's reaction. "But that doesn't mean she's gone. She's not gone, despite what I've said, because you cared for her. She meant something to you. But what you've done - just this..." JT moved his hand in a circle, searching for a phrase, "This thing you're doing. It's not going to change anything. You can't convince her to come back to life, as much as you - and I - would want her to. The best you can do is listen to what she had to say. Keep her thoughts close, let a little bit of her live in your thoughts. That's the best way to keep her alive." Max nodded, slowly. "She's not coming back. That's just how it is. Don't try to tether her to you. She's gotten her wings. Let her use them."
Max sighed, then nodded. He wasn't smiling, but he held himself upright again. He let go of his flower, and let the wind take it over the lake.