New Faces: Overture
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Anne repeated the words to herself for the upteenth time. Maybe now, they would gain some special quality, some undiscovered meaning. But just like every other time, the eulogy fell flat. The words meant nothing. They were artificial sentences that built meaningless paragraphs that led to hollow ideas.

She hated that.

It wasn’t hers to hate, though. She surveyed the grassy field and the mourners who were all dressed in black suits or dresses. They had splintered off into tiny groups: those that cared about the man in the casket, those that didn’t, those that acted like they did, and half a dozen others. And isolated from everyone else was Anne, the only one who really knew the man.

She didn’t know his name, but she remembered his titles. Researcher, husband, father, all things the average person would commend. But guilt swarmed Anne whenever she heard them. Father to who? Anne had never seen any of his children. Husband? There wasn’t a grieving wife anywhere in sight. In fact, she didn’t even recognize anyone here from work.

It was bullshit. All of it was bullshit. Anne knew that all of it was bullshit. But she still had to speak about him. These people were grieving, and if a melodramatic speech would help even one of them get through that, then she would play along.

Her speech was short. She ran through the few short paragraphs in her mind again as she paced across rows and rows of white folding chairs that had been hastily set up the night before. Her eyes were chained to the ground. Whenever they drifted towards the casket, she turned to a tree or a mourner or to anywhere else. She couldn’t see this nameless man and act like she was his friend, not now.

“And…” she whispered.

She had rewritten that part hundreds of times, the final thought she would leave the mourners with. The culmination of a decade-long relationship that everyone so vehemently claimed she had with him. What was she supposed to say? They would tear her apart if the words were even the slightest bit manufactured, so they had to be perfect. A bird drifted by overhead. Anne followed it until it disappeared behind the treeline.

Anne sensed someone behind her. She slipped on her most professional-looking face before facing them. It was a woman, middle-aged with bags under her eyes and a head of uncombed hair. Anne couldn’t tell whether she was on the verge of an emotional breakdown or the world’s greatest actor.

“You seem to be holding up well,” the woman said. She was faking it. Nobody actually experiencing grief would speak like they were accepting an award. “This isn’t a disciplinary review, you know. You can tell me if you don't want to talk. But you should take advantage of days like this, where people will understand if you cry.”

Anne couldn’t meet the woman’s eyes. “Thanks for the… advice.” She turned to leave, beginning the eulogy again in her mind.

“You were close to him, weren’t you?” The woman called out. Anne just stopped in place.

What was the point of this act? There was no way she could lie to a grieving woman. Who did she think she was? If she walked in front of all those people and lied about knowing that man, she would break from the weight of their stares alone. It was all too much. She had to stop it now, when there was still some dignity left to save.

“Um… I wasn’t really…” she began. Then, her throat swelled up and her voice died out.

She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t say that their relationship, the mass delusion that had infected everyone at the funeral, wasn’t real. Anne was this man’s only real friend, the only person he spent significant time with at work. She was supposed to be the person he ate lunch with, the person he was excited to see each day.

She did not have the guts to kill that thing, even if it wasn’t real.

“Well… I was, yeah. It’s almost ten years now, isn’t it? It feels so short now. Listen, would you mind just leaving me alone for a few minutes? I really appreciate you being here, I just need to… collect myself.” Anne’s words felt empty. The moment deserved one or two tears, but her entire supply was empty.

“It seems like you really liked him.” The woman’s words branded Anne. She had to tell her. No, she couldn’t, not to this woman. She could never understand what was happening to Anne. “Well, I didn’t.”

Anne froze. A blank expression came upon her face. She slowly turned back.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me, didn’t you? I said I didn’t like him. Sure he was an alright researcher, but nobody deserving of a big-budget funeral like this. Wasn’t he killed by some reality-warping anomaly he was researching? That’s what the report said, anyway. It’s always the short-sighted ones that get people teary-eyed.”

Anne nearly snorted. Her face was contorting into different shades as blood rushed past her ears. Even if her relationship with the man was a lie, she still knew he existed. People cared about him. And he deserved better than to be insulted at his own funeral.

“What is wrong with you?” Anne marched towards the woman so nobody would overhear what she was about to say. “Did you even know who he was or do you just have a fetish for pissing people off at funerals?”

The woman grinned like a cat. Anne’s eyes squinted in suspicion, then suddenly widened. Her smile was genuine. Anne’s mind nearly broke apart trying to figure out what the woman knew that she didn’t. Could she see beyond Anne’s scowl and realized the phony emotions that were propping it up? Even the risk was too much for Anne.

She breathed in deeply. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know if he ever did anything to you but I just… Can you please just leave? Please just leave me alone right now.”

“Aww,” the woman whined. “Don’t shut it down now. We were making real progress there.”

“Really? This is what you’re doing right now? I… met that man the first day I joined the Foundation. I knew him, he was somebody I actually liked. And now he’s just… Fuck you. Why are you here? Just go away, I told you to leave already.” Something was swelling up in the back of Anne’s throat. She tried to swallow, but that only irritated it, causing it to inflate even more.

“Yeah, you’re right, but you can’t even say his name, apparently. Look around you. This is a funeral. We’re burying a man you spent eleven years with, you should be sad. And yet you’re just… like this. Why are you not angry? Why are you not telling me to fuck off? You’re not grieving.”

“I’m being polite. And his name, I… I’m really sorry, okay, can you—”

“There! You did it again. Stop suppressing everything, just let it go.”

“Stop trying to psychoanalyze me, you’re bad at it. Why do you even care? You don’t know who I am and you can’t say his name either. You could just go talk to your boss or one of your coworkers or anyone else. Why are you talking to me?”

“Okay, listen.” The woman waved at Anne to come closer. She didn’t move. “You need to be closer to listen.”

Anne lurched forward and the woman pulled her even closer to make sure that even the people standing nearby couldn’t hear.

“You want to know why I’m here?” she began. “I’m here because I have to be. You see that man over there talking up that intern half his age. The one with the dyed hair? That’s my boss. I want a promotion, and that man is the only one who can give it to me.”

The lump in Anne’s throat was the size of a fist. She stammered to get a word in, but the woman cut her off with a wave of her hand. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m long past all that bullshit. Your friend’s dead, too bad. But you need to learn from today. You need to learn how to work this into an advantage. Think of today as—”

The woman suddenly toppled over backwards and fell to the ground. The lump in Anne’s throat erupted, allowing her to take in a real breath. The woman reached for her cheek, which was stained red with a large bruise. Anne’s hand pulsed with pain. She looked down and suddenly realized what had happened.

Anne had slapped her.

A mountain of words piled up in her throat. Apologies and threats and expletives climbed over one another to be the first one out of her mouth. A beat passed as she tried to sort through the sea of ideas that were floating around in her head. Suddenly, she came upon a simple phrase that expressed every emotion she was feeling.

“Shut up!” she roared with a newfound intensity. The woman shuttered. A few of the mourners stared, but Anne didn’t care. “Just stop talking! I don’t need ‘skills’, I don’t need to turn this into an advantage. I just need you to leave me alone. Jesus Christ, it’s like I’m saying the same thing over and over again.”

“Yeah, I heard you.” The woman got up and returned to a professional stance as if she had erased her memory of the past five seconds. “And if you’d let me talk, I’d tell you why I’m here.”

Anne heaved a few breaths in and out. “Fine.”

The woman double-checked that nobody else was listening. The mourners that had been staring returned back to their conversations. The bird Anne had seen earlier returned, flying high above the field. “Because I knew people like you. The way you stand, your voice. It’s all so… familiar to me. I stopped speaking to those people a long time ago, but for a few moments when I first looked at you, I thought I was looking at them.”

The woman paused. She waited for the bird to leave. It wouldn’t return.

“At some point they each… changed. Their eyes were sullen and their faces were a little darker and they were always so tired. And I knew something was happening to them, but I told myself to not worry about it. It didn’t affect my work, and it wasn’t my business. So I did nothing. I just sat there and acted like nothing happened until they all… it doesn’t matter. But you — whoever you are — you’re here today. That’s why I’m talking to you right now.

“You’ve been rehearsing something, haven’t you? Either that or you’ve started talking to voices in your head. That doesn’t really matter; everyone here needs you to speak. And I want you to say that you hate us. I want you to say that we don’t care about your friend. I want you to get pissed.”

“What?” Anne said. “I don’t care if you feel guilty because you treated some coworker like shit. I’m not going to chew out your bosses right in front of their faces.”

“Don’t be stupid about it,” the woman continued. “None of them know you, but they can still file a report. Say something obvious enough that they’ll understand it but subtle enough that they wouldn’t be able to prove it to anyone else. You’ve got around… five minutes until your speech. That’s enough time.”

The mourners began to shuffle towards the chairs. There were eight rows, but only the first two were used. Anne wondered if anyone was even meant to sit in the back at all.

The priest, a man who had fit in so well with the other mourners that Anne hadn’t even noticed him yet, took his place at the front. He waved everyone silent and began the ceremony. After the opening prayer and the priest’s speech, Anne would give her eulogy. The woman moved to take her place with the stone-faced men in the second row.

“I’m not going to do it, you know. What you asked. I won’t,” Anne called out.

“Then don’t. It’s not my problem.”

Anne cleared her throat. Her ears were on fire — the casket was right behind her. If she turned her head even an inch, she would catch a glimpse of him. The mourners were all staring at her, and she couldn’t recognize a single face. Anne looked down at her hands like she was holding a deck of invisible index cards. The words were there, they had to be, but none of them dared to make themselves known. A few long seconds passed.

“I’m a friend of the man behind me, the one in the casket. You all probably know him, he has a few titles. Father, scientist, son. But I’m…” Anne looked out over the crowd, but couldn’t see the woman anywhere. “I’m not like you. I wasn’t just somebody he chatted with once or twice, no, we really talked. And whenever I looked at him, I always just had this feeling that I had built something. Something tangible, that I could hold in my hand. So when he left, I thought that it would just go but it feels like… that thing is still in my hand.”

Anne cringed at the words. She felt a cloud floating above her head, taunting her with a few glimpses of the things that were going through her mind, but never revealing enough for her to understand. It was like trying to drive at midnight with no headlights; she was bound to crash. But she couldn’t stop. She had to keep speaking, keep giving the people what they wanted. Anne was the friend that cared, and the mourners needed someone like that.

So, she drove off the road.

“He was an asshole some days.” A few people started murmuring to one another, but most stayed silent. “I would walk into the office and all I would need was just the tiniest bit of kindness, a crumb of respect. And then he’d just stonewall me like I hadn’t been dumping my problems onto him for years. And when I’d ask him to give me some kind of help, he’d just walk away and ignore me for the rest of the day. Right when I needed him, he’d be gone.

“And I know that I’m supposed to have some big perspective on him because I’ve known him for so long, but then I try to think about him and it’s like… it’s like he was speaking a different language and I was only catching the words I understood. I didn’t know anything about him. I still don’t know and I keep listening to people talk about him and I try to glean something from that but it’s like everyone else had their own private language with him and I can never put the pieces together.”

Part of that was true, but Anne didn’t know what. Maybe it didn’t matter. The mourners were all wide-eyed and silent. She wondered if they were waiting for her to continue or allowing her to dig her own grave. But again, it didn’t matter. The words continued to descend from the cloud and land in her hands.

Anne looked off into the distance, past the trees and the clouds to the sandy mountains that rose so far up into the sky that there was sand at the bottom and snow at the top. The nearest mountain was a massive, pure white shield that jutted out of the ground and shot straight up several thousand feet.

She pointed to that mountain.

“Do you know what that is? That is Site-θ. I met him there, I worked with him there. I built something with him there, and I know I did because I can feel it and point to it and say that it is there. But you probably don’t see it that way. None of you work there, I don’t recognize you. You probably looked at it and thought that it was just another rock. Maybe you’re right, but it’s more than that to me. It’s something that I can… I can feel, almost. And maybe you don’t understand that, but you know what? That’s okay.”

Anne turned and her eyes met the man’s face. He was smiling. That must have been the expression that was on his face when he died. Right when he knew he was going to die, he didn’t scream, he didn’t grow furious and roar, he just smiled. Laying on top of him was a dead and rotting flower, the leaves already withering away on his chest.

She frowned before turning to the mountains. The closest mountain was still all white, but there were noticeable stains of brown and blue on the edges. The color was fading. But Anne’s mouth fell a little when she realized something: it didn’t matter. The mountain would grow old, but it would stay. It would wither, it would die, and it would be forgotten a thousand times in a thousand different minds. But at least some part of it would remain inside hers.

And that was okay.

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