The clouds hung low and grey with the weight of the imminent storm over the main road, filling the town’s occupants with dread. The few shops, gas stations, and restaurants on either side of the street were uncharacteristically dim from neglect. Most of the town’s businesses had closed for the day to mourn. Others, knowing they would make no profits today, had gone home to wait. Or, perhaps, they just did not want to venture out onto the streets while the police were preparing for the funeral.
The barricades blocking off either side of Park Avenue outnumbered the patrolling officers. Their good intentions were unneeded as the usually sleepy and quiet suburb, loud only with the cries of greeting between neighbors on a normal day, had gone silent as the grave. The streets were abandoned. The only sound reverberating through the emptiness was the whistle of the wind, which sang louder for the occasion.
A standard black hearse, hazards on, paraded across the pavement toward the town’s largest cemetery, followed closely by a limousine and an entourage of cars. Orange tags bedecked each passing vehicle’s rearview mirror: funeral tags. Though the brightest aspect of the parade, they were not the only thing to loop each driver and passenger together as a group; mothers held damp tissues beneath noses, fathers walked tall, determined to show strength, and children struggled to understand.
Black garments and tear-filled eyes had become a staple overnight. There was no shortage of them here, today. Just like there was no shortage of flowers, photos, or solemn words for the girl who had been torn from life so viciously and so long before her time.
The murder had been so heavily publicized that it had drawn the attention of the entire state. Strangers had flocked to the small town to pay respects to the young woman, the only damsel their renowned hero had failed to save from distress. It was a horror felt by all. The Psionic Soldier was as a deity: an inhuman of great strength and outstanding ability of the mind. He was named for the power he held to move objects with his mind, but even that had not been able to save her.
The guests waited for sight of their God in the flesh, but he did not show.
The procession arrived at the cemetery by noon to bury the refined dark brown casket, but the rain had yet to fall. The churchyard itself was well kept, well-watered, and green, despite the recent drought. Then again, it had always been brilliantly healthy over the decaying flesh of enclosed bodies within. Truer still, the undertaker was cautious, leaving a bouquet of calla lilies and blood red roses on the gravestone before the opening in the Earth; six feet deep, eight feet long, and four feet wide. The visitors arriving today were all too eager to add to the collection. Within the hour, there would be roses of all colors and stages of life loitering on the lush grass.
The deceased’s father, a few cousins, and a tall blonde with eyes cast downward carried the casket to the grave, crushing the defenseless roses beneath the heels of their shoes. The mother followed closely behind, having passed the point of hysteria long ago. She could not look to the casket, only at her husband when he had completed his duties and returned to her side. Silently, mother and father stood at the front of the crowd while the priest took his place by the grave. Their arms were entwined about each other, holding the other together, and their lips stayed firmly pursed. The two were strictly middle-aged but had matured a decade since their daughter’s murder ten days ago, as shown in the frazzled condition of their hair, the deep wrinkles of despair, and the makeup melting from the woman’s face. They looked around at the gifts left in their daughter’s honor and smiled bitterly, holding each other tighter. Neither made eye contact with the large portrait of the young woman smiling down at them. The girl was young and beautiful, her skin shining porcelain beneath a sprinkle of freckles and flushed cheeks. Her hair was long and blonde, naturally stained to a strawberry hue. It fell to her waist in a long, smooth curtain. Hypnotic blue eyes stared down at the coffin, unknowingly finding herself eternally asleep. She wore a white gown in the picture, one they had all seen her wear only once. On her wedding day.
With the priest’s permission the crowd dispersed a little over half an hour later, and clusters of mourners led the sobbing parents away with soft words of sympathy. The cars parked along the pathways pulled away slowly, navigating around each other before taking off to the luncheon venue. Not long after the departure the pictures, flowers, and chairs were gathered and placed beside the tombstone in a heap. It took an hour for the heavy machinery to arrive to bury the casket and another half hour for the job to be done. Still, the final mourner did not leave her side.
The young man held a single white poppy in his hand as he trudged toward the fresh dirt. He was large, well over six feet tall, brawny, and wide, with close-shaven blonde hair and unusually green eyes, currently bloodshot and rimmed with red. His face was turned to the ground. His hand unconsciously clenched around the stem of the flower he carried. The black t-shirt and slacks he wore were filthy and torn from continuous use over the last ten days. They reeked of dirt and sweat and the remnants of the bottle of mouthwash he had accidentally blown into a thousand pieces that morning. He was entirely too focused on the grave stretched out before him to care. His heart beat wildly in his chest. Each of his steps brought him closer to the girl he would never hold again. Would never kiss again.
Abruptly, he fell to his knees in the moist dirt, dropping the flower beside the gravestone inscribed with the name that would haunt him for the rest of his days. He fought back the pressure that threatened to burst from his eyes and lay his forehead to the stone. Thick, humid air squeezed his lungs, making it difficult to breathe as he fought to speak. No words would form. He knelt in silence.
“I don’t deserve to be here,” he whispered.
There was no one left to hear.
“It’s all my fault,” he shook his head. “I’ll never forgive myself.” He pressed his lips softly to the grave marker and sobbed into the unforgiving stone. Beneath his hands, the granite tombstone cracked, giving way to the strength of his hand. He squeezed his eyes shut, but the tears still slid over his cheeks. He struggled to contain his strength. “It’ll never happen again.”
The first raindrop fell to the Earth, and with it the storm.