If Death is a skeletal being in flowing black robes, I pity them. It’s too damn hot for a funeral.
Now, you might call me insensitive for saying that, and I wouldn’t correct you. I think everyone has become a little too desensitized to death, to the point where the five stages of grief pass in a single breath. Or maybe it’s just me, and I’ve let old age and murder take the last shreds of empathy I had left. Whichever it is doesn’t matter in-the-now, though. I should save the philosophy for when this coffin is in the ground and buried.
I feel a stab of shame at referring to Saff's death that way. She was a delightful woman, really, and she deserves a lot more than a shabby funeral service at the edge of our little encampment. She deserved a better death than a gunshot to the side and a zombie bite to the neck. I’m honestly sad to see her gone, really, she was great with the kids and still managed to reel them in when every passing day makes them more restless and angry.
But, if I’m being honest with you, at the moment I would rather be anywhere than this makeshift graveyard. The sun is beating down like it always does, but instead of being in the shade of the commons or the workshop, I’m standing with my boots in the dirt and my hand grasping Marlene’s so tight her fingers are turning blue. I’m 99% sure she would collapse if I let go, and the infirmary doesn’t need another body haunting their beds, so I allow her to gather her strength while Lucas calls out what he remembers of the Christian prayers.
Alright, all of this is making me seem like an asshole. Which I am. But I’m sure that y’all have already gathered by now. My point is that I can’t wax poetry about Saff, you understand? She was good. She helped out more than her fair share and wouldn’t accept praise or extra compensation when God knows she needed it. She raised her girls to be kind but to never let people walk all over them and she taught ‘kindergarten’ to the smaller kids when there was time to spare. Saffron was just good, and there’s no other way I can put it. She was good and now she’s good and dead, and none of us can do anything to fix that. Best to lay her memory to rest today—quickly, I might add—and move on.
Someone in our rag-tag group coughs and my eyes shoot up from my boots. It’s not the cue I was hoping for, though, and I try to return my gaze to the ground, but I can’t manage to tune out the sound of breathing anymore.
Our town, if you could call it such, is full of quiet people. Most of us showed up in the dead of night asking for a place to stay and never left, which I assume is how most apocalypse groups are formed. We keep to ourselves. Protecting each other is important, of course, but you and your people staying safe ranks higher. Mingling with strangers isn’t on top of the priority list. Today, nothing has changed; we all stand silently with our groups in a loose semi-circle around Saff’s soon-to-be grave, our eyes on the ground or wandering away from each other. Lucas is the only one talking, which isn’t out of character for him, but he looks subdued as he stumbles through the Our Father and Hail Mary. He’s gripping his hat tightly in his hands and there’s a deep sadness on his face when we lock eyes, his worry lines more pronounced and his skin almost sagging. I nod at him before turning away.
Saff’s girls are standing closest to the grave, of course. There isn’t a body in the coffin lying next to their mother’s tomb, but from the way they’re all staring at it, you’d think there was. Sarah, the eldest, has her arms wrapped around the twins’ shoulders, and every so often you can see her fingers tense as if she’s scared they’ll disappear. Mack and Linsey are standing stoically, their faces almost blank and their fingers curled around the tiny stems of wildflowers. The smallest of them, ten-year-old Wendy, is trembling slightly and keeps frantically pulling at her braids. Tears are flowing down all of their cheeks, but they don’t look sad, really. They just look tired. I know the feeling.
The rest of the crowd’s faces almost blend together. I could pick them out if I really tried, but with everyone wearing matching dark circles under their eyes and the same anxiety-bitten lips, it’s kind of hard to distinguish them. The only other person who’s standing out is Marlene, just for the fact that she’s openly sobbing.
I’ve always liked Marly. She talks and talks and talks and before you know it you’re done with a task and it flew by just because her ranting took up all the unoccupied parts of your brain, you know? Even though she’s an odd duck and most of the town avoids her, she’s never shown any signs of being dangerous to herself or anyone else. She just likes to mutter cryptic things once in a while, and who are we to judge someone for losing themself during the apocalypse? I hate to admit it, but she’s grown on me.
Anyhow, she’s crying and sniffling while talking under her breath, alternating between talking about Saff and vaccines and “suited men” while fidgeting with a pen in her free hand. She’s capping it and uncapping it again and again as she almost falls from the strain of standing up too long. Marly can’t be more than forty, years and years younger than me and most of the settlement, to be honest, but she’s always been sickly and crippled. It’s a wonder she’s still kicking.
The thoughts of death bring me back to reality again and it’s at that moment that Lucas decides he’s done attempting to save Saff’s soul. He shakily puts his hat back on and stretches his fingers out before saying, “Would anyone like to come up and say something for Saffron?”
He says it too loudly, and most of the group startles, grabbing for weapons perfectly concealed in belt loops or skirt pockets and jumping into a defensive position. When everyone realizes what’s actually happening, they slowly straighten and mumble quiet negatives. Mack and Linsey detach themselves from Sarah, who immediately grabs Wendy’s hand, and take small steps towards the coffin. Honestly, on such short notice, it’s quite nicely made, even if it would never fit Saff if we had her body.
That woman is built like a bean pole, I remember Marly saying offhand, and it was such a clear, coherent thought from her that at the time I laughed out loud. She was right; Saff was tall and way too thin to still be doing the amount of running around she did. It was amusing, then. Now it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, along with a feeling of what if? I shake the thought away and watch as the twins place the flowers in the casket, as Sarah drops in what I assume is half of a mother-daughter locket set, and as Wendy presses a kiss to a stuffed animal before laying it down gently. They all step back after a moment, and if they were staring bullets into it earlier it’s nothing compared to the weight of their collective gaze now. I feel it burning into my back as I hand Marly off to another group member and as Lucas, Parker, and I close the coffin and prepare to lower it into the shallow grave.
Grabbing the edge of the coffin is harder than I expected it to be, and not just because my back is screaming in pain at the idea of me straightening. The combined stares of the Saffron girls and the heat beating down on me are messing with my mind and slowly deteriorating the walls I’ve put up. Touching that coffin and feeling all that it represents is bringing back hard memories, not just of Saff but all of the deceased I’ve come into contact with while staying here. I almost see Jake mixing a pot of soup over the fire and swearing violently when it spills on his arm, I can faintly smell the perfume that Tyrrea refused to stop using until the last drop was out, Natalie’s voice is filling the barren field with old show tunes, and Lily–
It’s like Lily is standing next to me. I can hear her laughing while she shakes her head, saying “Silly Papa, you have to turn the key the other way, Mama told me yesterday,” when I couldn’t quite open the front door. I can see her swinging higher than any of the other little girls on the playground, and even though her mom scolds her later when she sees the scrapes on her knees her smile never drops and she doesn’t stop talking. I hear myself act out all of the voices in her bedtime story as she listens intently, gasping and applauding at the appropriate moments before drifting off somewhere near the end. The smell of burnt waffles on Grandparent’s day fills my nose and it feels so real that I could swear I’m actually in a small house in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, eons away from any sort of pain.
Then I hear her scream when I swerve the car too hard, and I hear her cry out when the zombie grabs onto her and takes a chunk out of her. It’s too real and it’s too much and she’s right there I could grab her, I can save her if I’m just a little quicker, if I reach a little farther, she’s so close–
“Ben, you alright?” Parker says, worry evident in their tone. My eyes snap away from the coffin and find their face, and their concern only grows when they look into my eyes. “You can go back to Marly if you want, the coffin’s not so big that me and Lucas can’t handle it.”
I feel myself shaking my head before giving the count, and in less than ten seconds, the coffin is in the hole. I throw myself into the mindless work of covering the grave and soon enough it’s over.
The group disperses and everyone heads back for their homes, save Saff’s girls. I grab Marly’s arm and we hobble after everyone, sweating profusely and wiping matching tears from our cheeks. Both Saff and Lily are gone with the wind as we depart, and it’s almost like they never existed in the first place.