The sea of black was threatening to drown me. There were hundreds of faces, some smiling politely, some sobbing or tear stained, while still others looked bored with the service to memorialize her.
It had been a week since she had died, and I still couldn’t believe it. Work was painful, because I’d turn to tell her something, but her desk was empty, or I’d go to order our meals before realizing that there was no longer any need for two.
“Sarah Rose was always a sweet girl,” her mother whispered loudly to some family member as the woman on the platform trilled her way through some hymn. Sarah lay in the coffin up front, beside several poster-board collages that boasted hundreds of pictures of her. A bouquet of roses lay in her hands, and I could almost here her telling me why they had to be roses.
“Do you know why I like them so much?” she asked, studying the bouquet he fiance had sent her for Valentine’s Day. I turned away from my desk to give her my full attention.
“Because your name is Sarah Rose?” I guessed. She smiled and set the vase of lovely red flowers on her desk.
“Wrong,” she answered, leaning in to try to smell them. “They’re so beautiful to look at, but when you pick one up you have to be wary. They’re dangerous, you know.” There was a dreamy look on her face.
“Dangerous?” I echoed, doubtfully.
“Dangerous,” she responded. “You touch them in the wrong place and you could hurt yourself.” I laughed at her and leaned back in my chair.
“You’re afraid of being hurt by the thorns?”
“No, not at all,” she said. “I want to be like one. Pretty, but able to draw blood. Even though the red ones don’t have much scent, they’re still nice, aren’t they?”
I was jerked out of my trip down memory lane as the singer managed a note that should never be heard on this side of Hell’s gates. Resisting the urge to cover my ears and cringe, I could almost hear Sarah’s comment on it. It was almost as if she was still beside me, not laying up front.
“What does she think she’s doing?” Sarah would say. “Summoning harpies?” I laughed quietly to myself.
I’ve got to stop this, I thought. It’s not healthy to hear voices. I bit down on my lip and forced myself to return my attention to the remainder of the service.
Everything seemed so surreal to me. It was so confusing. Sarah was so young, so alive earlier this week, and then she was laying a a pool of her own blood, the life draining out of her with every heartbeat. I’d seen her with my own eyes. This picture made no sense. How could it be happening?
She’d died less than two hours after I’d found her, and first the forensics team had to go over the scene, causing a fuss because the EMTs had not left everything as it was. Then someone, somewhere, had demanded an autopsy. The next thing I’d heard was that there were complications with the autopsy, so her body wouldn’t be released for a few more days.
Finally, the Mutant Replacement Organization* had released her body to the mortician and contacted Sarah’s family. They went through the motions, putting together her funeral and informing the near and dear. Today was the result of their work.
I rose and joined the line of mourners saying their last goodbyes. Sarah’s parents, a divorced couple, were standing at the foot of her coffin with her little brother standing between them. Sarah’s fiance stood on her mother’s other side, trying to calm, or stop, the hysterics before they even began.
“Thank you for coming,” Jack, her fiance, told me, hugging me awkwardly. “Sarah couldn’t have had a better friend than you.” I smiled slightly up at him.
“Squadron six will do that for you,” I told him. “For the record, she couldn’t have had a better guy than you.” He returned my smile distractedly as Sarah’s mother started another bout of badly suppressed sobs.
“Mrs. Castello,” I said, taking her hand. “I know it must be hard losing a child, but you need to be strong, for Sarah’s sake. What would she say if she were to see you now?”
This attempt to comfort her was cut off abruptly with a loud wail and a huge hug. Awkwardly I patted her on the shoulder as she sobbed into mine, and waited a few moments until she had calmed considerably.
“Thank you… You’re right, of course,” she said, releasing me as she dabbed at her eyes with a ratty tissue. “Sarah would think that I was a silly old thing, acting like this. But it’s not easy losing your child. Never easy.” With that she dissolved into another puddle of tears, and I shot a pleading glance at Jack, who quickly started to soothe her. I made my escape down the line, finding myself being hugged once again by Sarah’s brother.
“Alex, is this appropriate behavior for a funeral?” I asked him in a fierce whisper. He chuckled slightly, grinning easily as he let go of me.
“At this point, I couldn’t give less of a damn about what’s acceptable of not,” he said, looking around, a distant look in his eyes. “And do you have any idea how badly I need a drink or a smoke or anything?”
“Alexander Castello, you do not need either a drink or a smoke,” I scolded gently, earning an approving look from his mother.
“You have no idea how badly I need something,” he muttered. “Dad’s being in town has upset mom just as badly as Sarah’s death, and she’s swinging between tears and shrieking. I can’t take any more hysterical women.!”
“You’re just like Sarah,” I said quietly, reaching up and touching his face gently, without thinking. For an instant I had seen the passion, the humor and the life that had filled Sarah’s being in Alex’s large brown eyes.
“I hope you don’t mean that I’m best friends forever material,” he said, wrinkling his nose and making a face that only a little brother can make. “I’ve been friend-zoned way too many times this year already.”
“Alex,” I protested.
“Actually, I was hoping that you and I could go out for a drink after the dinner,” he said.
“Alright,” I said, the desire to forget and escape this waking nightmare overruling my better judgement.
“It’s a date, then,” he said with a wink.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” I returned darkly. With that I moved on to Mr. Castello.
I had never met the man before, and neither Sarah nor Alex had thought very much of him. Because of this, I had heard nothing but bad things of him.
He was a short man, and his Italian heritage was obvious, just as Alex’s was. Sarah, on the other hand, looked nothing like him.
“And who might you be?” he asked. His tone was brisk, and he didn’t seem to care that his daughter was laying in the coffin beside him. Revulsion rose in my chest, and I had to swallow before answering.
“I was one of Sarah’s friends and squad members,” I said, hoping my tone didn’t betray my disgust.
“The MRO,” he said, his lip curling derisively. “I don’t understand why Sarah felt the need to go join the government.”
“Technically, the MRO isn’t part of the U.S. government,” I said, tensing up. My distaste for the man was now personal. I, like Sarah, had joined the MRO out of feelings of patriotism. For this man, the father of one of our deceased comrades and friends, to sneer at the work we did did not sit well with me. “We receive our funding from them and are required to report to the Senate semi-annually, but we are not part of the government.”
“Of course,” he said. “My mistake, Miss-”
“Miller,” I said, my tone a little sharp. “Jen Miller.”
“Jen? Nice name. Short for Jennifer, I suppose. Nice to meet you, Jen,” he said, offering me his hand, which I forced myself to take. As soon as he had released me, I sidled as far away from him as possible.
I paused as I neared the head of the coffin and looked down at Sarah. Her face was serene and composed, more peaceful than I had ever seen it in life. With the exception of the little wrinkle in her brow- which only appeared when she was thinking hard- and the petulant set of her lips, I could be looking at someone else completely.
What were you thinking about, Sarah? I thought, studying her. What caused so much thought that death itself couldn’t erase that wrinkle?
I heard impatient murmurs behind me, and I made my way back to my seat, wondering what could have been so confusing to her.
Surely not the mission. That was straight forward, until she got shot, I thought, watching the rest of her friends and family proceed past the coffin.
One of her high school classmates started crying loudly behind me as they lowered the lid finally, and the pall bearers flocked around, removing her coffin from the stand.
I wanted to run after them, to stop them from taking her to the burial grounds. I wanted to scream that it had to be a mistake- that we were here for nothing, that it was all wrong.
Sarah can’t be in that coffin. She can’t be dead. She’s going to walk in, laughing and joking, I thought as they carried the coffin out the door. But you saw her die. You were by her side until the EMTs took her into the ICU. That blood was hers. All of that blood.
Suddenly I couldn’t get enough air. The church was emptying out around me, but I didn’t notice. My world spun and I felt like I was drowning in blood. Her blood.
*Author’s note: I’m not sure if this is what I’m gonna call them or not. The name I was going to use got changed. If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments below.