“Yeah, were you watching Hector at the funeral? He was staring at me the whole time like I took the last doughnut. In the world.”
Xiyuan found himself trapped in an odd corner of the room, with a wall on one side, a seating area behind him, complete with fireplace; and a man whose eyes he’d stared into so many times, across banquet halls and juice pong tables, and whose face now seemed to be shifting color along with his words in a manner that threatened to corrupt Xiyuan and swallow him up into the hue itself, like he was stuck in a waking nightmare on bad meds, in front. “Was he.”
“I’m not sure why Hector’s acting like this. He wasn’t even there for most of the day! He doesn’t know what happened.”
“It’s like, I realized she was feeling down, so I took the day off to hang out with her. Cheer her up a little. And now he’s blaming me? For trying to do something nice for my wife? Kids, right? They don’t get how the world works.”
He’d answered his own question, but waited for Xiyuan’s answer anyway. The other mourners kept their distance; they must have also sensed something dripping off of Mike, even if they weren’t able to see it. The room’s sound distribution was crappy—you’d expect that of a public meeting space. It wasn’t clear if they could eavesdrop and even less clear if Mike wanted them to. In theory, they could be absorbed in their own conversations, having assumed Mike’s best friend was effectively carrying out the usual best-friend counseling duties that would be expected at such a time. “Mmh.”
“Claudia’s—she’s—we joke around all the time! He does it too! Just yesterday morning, he was watching a comedy special with her, yukking it up about plastic cheese. Do you see me pointing a finger at him for making her laugh? No.”
Mike hadn’t paused for Yuan to answer that one, and in fact had only now noticed that Yuan had stopped responding at all. His gaze darted either to the left—Mike’s left—where presumably Bernard was trading gym stories with various Flexes, or to four o’clock—Mike’s four o’clock—where Mike last recalled seeing Hector working on his stack of empanadas.
“He’s being ridiculous about the whole thing. Kids, Yuan, right?” He stepped forward, far enough so that ignoring him would cause a collision. Xiyuan would be forced to respond.
As expected, he stepped back. Mike had regained his attention. He’d tensed up noticeably, defensively, but that was also to be expected with an invasive gesture. And because Mike had ended on a question, Xiyuan had to say something.
“I’m really quite unwilling to talk about it at the moment.” For the difficulty he’d had getting the words out, he may as well have grunted again and spared the effort.
“Aw, come on, Yuan, I—“
Before Mike’s protest had been fully interrupted, and before they’d realized a third person had approached them, Xiyuan felt a hand on his shoulder.
And as if to shatter any doubt remaining as to who it was, the person spoke up. “Oh, you poor dear.”
Bernard kept his hand on Xiyuan’s shoulder until it began to relax. “You must pardon me; I misunderstood the purpose of this event, as did many others. Perhaps an announcement to the bereaved is in order. Why not give us a speech where you raise a fuss about how her untimely demise tainted your precious image? Rather than grumbling through the entire funeral, it would allow you to enlighten us once and be done with it! How silly of me. I was under the impression that the victim was resting in pieces in an urn.”
“Come on, this is a really hard time for me.” Over this unwanted interloper’s shoulder, Mike could see Xiyuan beginning to lose focus again. “My wife died and my son won’t talk to me because of it. I’m losing my whole family because of this one accident.”
Now fully in between the other two men, Bernard’s menacing presence gave Mike no choice but to step backward, making room. “An accident? Why, that changes everything! Why have a funeral at all? Quickly now, let’s ring up the Reaper and tell him it was all a big misunderstanding! He can tell you, ‘Oh, silly me, that’s the third time this week it’s happened, let me get the papers in order and we’ll have her back in no time.’ How convenient; you could march right up to her and say you were only joking, of course.”
So Bernard had mastered sarcasm, as Mike had known for a while, but still hadn’t gotten the brevity part down. The inappropriate gesture bothered him more; humor shouldn’t be used for ridicule here. He’d have to counter with his own to diffuse the situation. “Et tu, Bernard?”
“How noble you are, to put aside your wife’s suffering out of concern for the living. What a shame no one could foresee this unavoidable tragedy! What a shame you were unable to stop it!”
Theatrically, Mike raised both his hands as if at gunpoint. “Whoa, whoa. What’s the scene for?” After the gesture’d carried out its purpose—matching the double ‘whoa’—he looked over his shoulder at the black-clad rabble, or toward an uncooperative Xiyuan, anywhere but at Bernard. Everyone else had to be deliberately ignoring them, or pretending to, to look so blasé about the vicious attack going down. Most likely pretending. They were mumbling; they had to be mumbling about him. Louder for those in back, he continued. “Yuan, you want to calm down the Haunted Spouse?”
“Ah, yes, what a brilliant time for humor. Are you really that dense?” Bernard’s path forward continued, and in Mike’s distracted state, the distraction being having to suppress a joke about being chased by a zombie, he followed the lead.
“Look, ‘mate,’ of everyone here, I’d expect you to understand. You know,” he made an explosion noise and wiggled his fingers to mimic the tips of flames.
“Well, you may be assured that the man who terrified generations of Windenburg children thinks you are the monster. The world knows I killed my wife! That was my sole legacy! And yet I have never once, in the past hundred years, denied my involvement. Do you know what I first said to Mimsy, when I saw her in that dreadful state? ‘My dear, I’m so sorry.’ And I groveled at her feet! I would never dream of lecturing her for the mess she left on the carpet, much less moaning to the poor woman about starvation like a wolf who ate the whole flock!”
“—I’m talking now.” A knife to the back couldn’t have shocked Mike more, leaving him silent. “Mimsy was bought and sold as if she were a part of the Estate itself, and yet even when all of Windenburg feared me, she never did. Ask anyone at The Shrieking Llama, she even struck me in public! More than once! And you, astoundingly, found yourself wed to the great Claudia Espinosa, who at one point was the strongest woman in the world, and she was powerless to raise a finger against you! Tell me you never saw the terror in her eyes! Mimsy’s flame may have been snuffed before her time, but Claudia was melted away until there was nothing left to burn!”
“But you didn’t mean it and neither did I—“
“—I’m not finished. You have been killing Claudia for years. And finally there is proof, proof of how ‘harmless’ your prodding and teasing had to be, that no naysayer can deny. You cannot convince us that Claudia is still alive. You cannot say your actions did not contribute to the hysteria that killed her. Prove that you have a soul. Tell me you can still feel guilt. Say it.”
This freaking guy. He’d set a trap. Mike stretched to look past him and was pleased to find that while Xiyuan had been out of sight, his being a hype man was unlikely. He didn’t even seem to be watching the verbal beatdown. Just his own hands. But if he looked up now, he’d see Mike—attacked without a friend in the world to stand up for him!—refusing to fall for his husband’s tricks. “That’s ridiculous. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” The repetition hadn’t caught Xiyuan’s attention, so he spoke louder. “Why are you doing this to me at my wife’s funeral?”
“He evades it!” Bernard had repositioned himself to block Xiyuan from view. “Why, it’s as if I said nothing at all! Can you not remember half a minute into the past? Is there a blank space in your brain where facts that don’t suit you are supposed to be?”
“Look, Hector also made her laugh. Why aren’t you bothering Hector? Go ahead, be the hero. That’ll make you look real good.”
“Do you still think I am the enemy? Your feud is not with me, but with reality itself.”
He dodged to the right again, almost into the hallway, to escape from the onslaught. “Yuan, this is ridiculous. Are you gonna stop him?”
Lord, but the man was shaken. If he hadn’t failed his best-friend duties, Mike would have felt concerned. But he was being impossible; he wouldn’t even look at Mike, and when he finally raised his head and turned to Bernard—who’d stopped screaming long enough to comfort him—you would’ve thought he was the one getting yelled at. Like he should be the one feeling scared and confused. And when he finally spoke, it was painful to listen, the croaking even more severe than last time.
“This isn’t what Claudia would have wanted.”
He was heading for the door before finishing his sentence, as if by compulsion, as if he weren’t speaking to Mike at all.
No matter; the knowledge he was upset should still be enough to placate his husband. “Well? You heard him.”
Just as Mike was about to follow up with a go-get-’em-tiger-adjacent statement, Bernard dove in closer. This was a man who was practiced in intimidation, fear as an art form, but a potency behind his expression made it worse, much more so, than the fake one he brought out when the parent of a vegetable-repulsed child slipped him a fiver. “Let me explain something.”
“Didn’t you hear—“
“Your actions crossed the line long ago. I have watched you mistreat your wife, and my husband, and I have tolerated your presence only out of respect for their free will. This will no longer be the case. The jester mask has come off, and your curse on Yuan has been lifted.” Bernard was so close, now, that Mike could feel puffs of breath when he spoke. “That man’s love is a treasure to be cherished. It is not a weakness to be exploited.”
“So you’re telling me to stay away from him.”
“Of course not.” Mike was once again treated to personal space and cool air that wasn’t tainted with a chewed sugar-cereal scent as Bernard pulled away. “I have no need to control my spouse.”
That being said, he shot Mike one final venomous look before heading to the door, just as Mike had predicted. Big mistake. Rookie mistake, Mike thought, chewing out the spouse of the deceased in front of anyone who cared enough to show up. With a classic-cartoon villain speech and all. No one’s going to believe him after that.
If they wanted to make Mike the bad guy instead, they’d better damn well behave.
Behind him, Hector moved his dirty plate into his inventory, having just turned down the sixth person who offered to comfort him about his loss.
Xiyuan’s successful escape brought him back to the outdoor marigold shrine, where Claudia’s urn was still displayed. Few other mourners strayed from the reception. Aileen had removed herself early: she hadn’t spoke since her reflections at the ceremony—hadn’t had her eyes open for most of the ceremony, as if to block out the glowing splendor of color she’d been encapsulated in—and had been watching ripples propagate and disappear in the fountain. Matt was still inside.
Watching Aileen in front of the fountain, disrupting Myshuno Meadows’ lively vibe with her funerary black, and her disquieting stillness, Kendra got the impression she didn’t want to be bothered. But she couldn’t move on until she spoke to Aileen. The last witness. Time moved around them; the flora swayed unperturbed, birds filled the silence with their own language of pickup lines and territorial disputes.
Aileen turned—over her left shoulder, had she known?—and Kendra saw that she maintained the same neutral expression she’d held throughout the ceremony, which Kendra felt contrasted oddly with Mike’s performance.
“Aileen.” Though her gaze was blank, Kendra felt it too intense to maintain eye contact. “Hi. Uh, do you want to be alone right now? I can go.”
“It’s alright. I’d been meaning to talk to you.” She gestured to a bench on her left, one right up close to the fountain. “Come, let’s sit.”