Standing in the rain, he was alone in a crowd of several hundred. His mind blank, he was perfectly still, with a face devoid of emotion. A few present thought they recognized him, but none were convinced he was who they were thinking of, so he was left alone. A solitary wave in a sea of people.
He watched intently as the flag was lifted from the coffin, folded, and presented to a grieving widow. A familiar effect from a familiar cause, hanging heavy on a conscience he thought he managed to let sink into the quicksands of time.
Almost never formally invited, he still managed to almost always show up at such events. It was, as often proverbially pointed out to him, the least he could do.
Surveying the gathered mourners, his gaze crossed some of the men in uniform who were present at his friend's death. He knew that many of those men secretly ridiculed him, the long-haired Army drop-out who had seemingly run from the wars, and this almost made him laugh. For his secrets were far darker and deeper than theirs.
But nobody could know that, not without betraying circumstances and oaths that had long spiraled beyond his control. So, he just stood there in the rain, trying to fight off the creeping guilt of not being there when another friend was killed.
It was a futile guilt, he was well aware, as even when he had been there, friends were still killed and maimed. He, himself, had been injured on a mission, but it wasn't from enemy action... merely the random placement of a random rock that he and his parachute were blown into by a random wind.
The funeral came to a close. The people left, in groups and one-by-one. He continued to stand there and lit a cigarette in order to help pass the seconds ticking away from his mental clock. After a while, only he and the widow remained. Even the pastor had gone to have lunch, a hypocrite in sentiment and in purpose.
Initially, he was going to wait for the widow to leave. He preferred to pay his respects in solitude, alone in the presence of his friend, six feet beneath his shoes. She stayed, however, and didn't seem to want to leave. She wanted to stay with her husband forever, and until the pragmatic conclusion that her own life still needed to be lived, she would continue to stay.
He approached her, offered a cigarette. She wasn't a smoker, but she accepted. The two of them stared at the grave, their silence as deafening as the infinity of dreams in eternal sleep. Cognizant of the stranger beside her, she finally spoke.
"Do you believe in God?"
It was an odd question, he thought, for a woman who just buried her husband in a church cemetery to ask. He shook his head "no" in response. She laughed quietly, disconcerted by the unsympathetic, if somewhat expected, answer.
"Where do you think he is?"
He took a final drag from his cigarette, flicked out its burning embers, and placed the butt in his pocket, an action not unnoticed.
"Did you serve with my husband?"
Turning to her, he allowed the corner of his mouth to smile. He nodded slightly, both acknowledging and ignoring the question, and walked away... leaving her alone in his absence.
For the dead offer no company.