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Secrets of a Grave
Swollen purple clouds loomed like bruises across the gray sky. The only wind was a soft breath of air rustling the dry grass. Rain fell. Not hard or fast, but gentle, as if even the angels were weeping. The rolling thunder, too, sounded hollow and distant with grief.
The small crowd atop the hill of the cemetery seemed not to notice the weather. Of course it would be gloomy on a day such as this. Most of the group had taken shelter under a large white canopy, but the glossy black casket was speckled with rain. There had been talk of moving the service inside, but they knew he wouldn’t have wanted it that way. And how could they have denied such a small wish.
One man stood apart, blending into the shadow of a gnarled willow. Like the others, he was clad in black, his head bowed in grief. This, however, was where the similarities ceased. He did not know these people, and they did not know him. No one really knew him, no one except the man nestled in crisp white satin beneath the sleek black lid. This was the only man who had ever truly known him.
Many accusatory glances were thrown towards the willow, towards the tall, mysterious man daring to impede upon their grief. He seemed oblivious to all but one. He couldn’t seem to avoid the gaze of the tiny old woman near the edge of the canopy. Her face, twisted in pain, was unrecognizable to him, but he knew who she must be. There was only one person she could be, to be showing so much agony in her face. She didn’t want him here, and he knew it. He recognized the fire of defiance in her eyes, the unspoken anguish she could not escape. And he knew, without a single word or gesture, that the body in the coffin was the body of her son.
He lowered his gaze, unwilling to argue her right to challenge him and unable to deny that she was inescapably correct. He shuffled around the willow and sank down behind a root. He could still feel that tormented gaze piercing through him, and, much as he was ashamed to admit it, he was afraid. Afraid of what she would see if her green eyes found his gray ones. Afraid of what she might find if she looked into his soul.
It was his fault, after all. The look on her face, the rock in his chest. His fault. The sleek coffin holding his one true friend, the wails of the mourners. All of it. How right they were to despise him, whether they knew his secret or not. How justified they were in wishing him gone. And yet, he knew it could not have gone any other way. They both knew this was how it had to end.
The creaking of chairs and swish of feet on wet grass stirred him. They had opened the casket, and the mourners were shuffling forward for one last glimpse of their loved one, a final chance to say goodbye. He fought the urge to disappear, the desire to run as fast and as far as he could, the longing to escape both the past and the future. Because he couldn’t leave, not yet. And so he remained where he was, crouched in the shadow of the willow.
Slowly, the trail of black trickled away, back down the hill and into the light mist that had materialized from the rain. He watched the tiny woman, hobbled more from grief than age, disappear over the edge of the hill, clutching the arm of a young man, another son, perhaps, for support. When there were only a few figures left among the chairs, he straightened up and emerged from behind the willow. With weighted steps, he walked slowly up to the casket.
At the edge of the hill, three men paused. As one, they turned and watched the strange man approach the coffin. These men, too, had been at the funeral, but they, too, had been outsiders, separate from the other grievers. The man stood over the casket, and they watched his head bow, his shoulders hunch in pain. He sensed their stares, but did not turn. Turning would reveal the secret. They had come too far to be discovered, now. Every sacrifice would be in vain. All hope would be gone. After what seemed an eternity, the man in the middle nodded once. Together, they spun around and strode away.
Still, the man did not move. Unconsciously, his hands gripped the edge of the case. The satin was cold. It burned. He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes against the tears that he knew would not fall. He had never cried. He didn’t know how.
The worst part was that no one knew. No one knew how much had been lost or why. No one knew the true sacrifice that had been made or how much was still at stake. And, if he played his part right, they never would.
He whirled about. The night was empty. He stood isolated upon the hill, alone but for the souls of the dead. It was now or never. He braced himself, looking into the cold, pale face, the face of the man that had come to be not just a business partner or friend, but a very brother. He took deep breaths, fighting to slow the pounding of his heart. It had to be now, without witnesses or disturbance. After a final, nervous glance, he turned once more to the coffin.
“Comfortable, John?” he muttered.
The lips of the corpse twitched, and his eyes flashed open. “You kidding? Couldn’t move my legs an inch!” he grinned. “Do us a favor, Ted. Next time, I’d rather be cremated. Wouldn’t have to get cried on, anyway.”
“Those actors certainly played their parts, didn’t they?” Ted smiled. “Nearly had me convinced they were your real family, and I was the one who hired them!” His grin faded for a moment, thinking of the tiny old woman. He knew that the woman had been no actor. No one could feign such unfathomable anguish. But their fortune rested on her grief. The safety of the entire mission depended on her belief that her son was gone, forever. There was nothing to do. It couldn’t change. Nothing could change anymore.
John seemed to notice his companion’s preoccupation. Glancing around, he lowered his voice. “Vince send anyone?”
“Three. Only recognized the middle one. Harrison. They were waiting around, but they bought it in the end.” He hesitated. Then, “Well?”
In answer, John sat up and reached inside his shirt pocket. Dangling from a tiny ring was a small black hard drive: the sole purpose of the entire mission.
“Excellent,” he murmured as John stowed the small drive safely back beneath his shirt.
Ted held out his hand, and John grasped it as he clambered out of the casket. Together, they heaved the lid shut, latching both silver clasps, concealing the emptiness of the tomb from the world. Without another word, they strode toward the crest on the other side of the hill, not towards the town, but towards the dark, unmarked car that waited at the edge of the trees. Neither looked back, for there was nothing to see. Like shadows, they melted into the mist, leaving their secret safe in the care of the dead and the dark embrace of the night.