What happens when the last man on Earth dies?
“Have I ever told you the worst thing about witnessing death?” said the father.
“You haven’t.” replied the son. He was nervous. His father was in a recognizably good mood. This was something that had never happened before in the son’s memory. They were climbing stairs. Endless steps, up and up and up. The son followed the father, the way he had his whole life, never asking questions or wondering where they were going.
“I saw a lot of death in my day. The entire population of the world died while I lived, so I know a thing or two about it. Now, the thing you probably don’t know is that once you die, your body starts losing all it’s heat right away. When you’re living, your body makes it’s own heat, but as soon as you die you turn into nothing, and your body isn’t you anymore. It’s just an inanimate object like anything else. It can’t keep it’s heat. All that warmth and energy that made you up starts to get sucked away by the environment around you, because you’re not a person anymore, you’re just an object, you’re nothing.”
The son remained silent, continuing to follow his father up the stairs. This was the most the father had ever spoken at one time, and the son was starting to wish he had never started talking. He had always wondered whether his father was insane, with his weathered skin and long unkempt hair, his beard that was tangled and dirt encrusted. There were sores on his body, and his hands were cracked and bleeding, his wounds never quite healing properly.
“That’s why the worst thing you can do is touch someone just after they’ve died.” said the father. “Because the living cling to life, and you steal all the heat and energy from the body. You take whatever was left of them when you hold them in your arms after they die, because all that heat slips from their skin to yours, until they turn cold. There’s nothing worse than touching the skin of someone that you loved, only to feel that all the heat has gone away. Then it turns real. They’re not like you anymore, they’ve left you behind. They’re nothing. But this is the most incredible nothing.”
They reached the very end of the steps, going through one last door, onto the roof of the skyscraper. The son looked around him, momentarily forgetting the mad ramblings of his father. This was the top of one of the tallest buildings in the empty city. The son had never seen a view like this before. Beside him, the father grinned, laughing as he stepped closer to the edge, looking over the side.
“Why are we up here?” asked the son. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful. This was probably the most interesting thing that had ever happened to him, outside of the books he’d read. But still, his father was acting strangely, euphoria emanating from him.
The father turned to his son, the deep blue sky behind him. “We all came from nothing, you know.” he said. “And when we die we become nothing. So in between, what else could we be but nothing?”
“I don’t understand.” said the son. He wasn’t used to having conversations with his father that didn’t involve brief instructions about survival. This was a new kind of interaction he didn’t know how to take part in.
“I kept my promise.” said the father. “Now I can finally be free.” He looked at the son, his eyes crazed, unfamiliar. “You can choose to be free, if you’re ready.” he said. “If you aren’t that’s for you to decide. I did all I could.” The father looked over the edge once more as the son stared at him in bewilderment. Watching the father whisper to himself, so low that the son could hardly make out the words. “The most incredible nothing…” he whispered, trailing off before turning his attention to the son once more. “You’re the last straggler now.” he said. “If you don’t want to follow me, then make sure you don’t touch me once you climb your way down.”
Those were the last words the father said to the son, the last words the father ever said. He moved without hesitation, taking a calm, sure step off the side of the skyscraper. One second there, the next gone. And the son couldn’t find it within himself to weep.
The world was rotting, and he was the only one around to witness it. Buildings were crumbling slowly, rust eating away at metal and mold eating away at everything else. He picked his way through the library, thinking of how much he preferred rust to mold. Mold was all encompassing, preying on once living things. Mold covered the scattered skeletons of the people he came across as he walked aimlessly from town to town. Worst of all, mold ate away at the words printed in the books that humanity had left behind for him. Any poems or stories that the mold destroyed were lost to him forever, and in the case of this library, that was a huge amount of information. He seethed with anger as he searched through the library, flinging books that weren’t books any longer. He should have known better. Libraries and old book stores, they were too obvious. All the books had been taken or thrown carelessly to the floor in the world just before the end. They were left at the mercy of decay. Everything in this library was destroyed. He would do better in old houses, where books had not been the main concern of looters.
The books were his only surviving connection to human thoughts that weren’t his own. It must have been years, although how many he couldn’t say, since he had seen a living person. He walked out of the decrepit building into the late afternoon sunlight, making a mental note to check the surrounding houses for stray volumes.
The last remnants of human presence were being reclaimed by nature, trees growing up through the pavement. He wove his way through them, passing broken store fronts and gas pumps that hadn’t worked in decades. Ducking into convenience stores here and there, he searched for cans of food, adding each find to his pack.
For so long, this had been his life. He grew up alone, eating, sleeping, and wandering. He couldn’t remember anything else, except faded memories of his father, when he was still alive. His father was the only living human he had ever known. Not that he minded. His books had given him a complete enough picture of what humanity had been, and his father hadn’t been much of a shining example. From what he could tell, people had spent most of their time hurting and hating each other in one way or another. It made him happy to be alone.He was already in enough constant physical pain without adding messy human connections. His insides ached and stabbed at him constantly, growing in severity every day.
He kicked some fragments of concrete as he walked around a traffic circle, skirting the thorn bushes that had sprung up in the center. In the distance, he could see the remnants of a large brick building. The Y on the side was damaged, but marked the place as an old community center that he could use for shelter. He started toward it, intending to cut through the patch of thicker forest standing in his way. Ducking through a rusted old fence, he took only a few steps before spotting the first standing slab of stone. Only the faintest grooves still existed on the face of the headstone, and he had no hope of reading the name that had once been written there. The forest in front of him was littered with the graves of people whose names were lost. He sighed, shaking his head. This explained the thicker patch of trees between him and his shelter for the night. Cemeteries had been abandoned before anything else in the world before the end. It wasn’t so much that he minded traveling through them when it was necessary, but he could never help but feel the weight of the lives that he walked over every time he entered a cemetery. It was as if they had destroyed the world, and were rewarded with peaceful sleep. They mocked him with their headstones.
He stood abruptly, realizing that he had knelt down with a hand outstretched to touch the grooves in the nearest stone. Shaking his head again to clear it, he continued on. Many of the headstones were still upright, despite the trees growing up between them. The silence pressed in on him from all sides as he moved slowly through.
He lifted his chin curiously, tasting a freshness in the air that he had never encountered before. It stirred around him, breezing through the trees and bringing with it the faintest trace of a sound he had not heard in years…a human voice? He froze, panic and confusion stilling his progress. Listening intently, he dared not move a muscle. Maybe he had imagined it? There was no one here, there couldn’t be. He had always been alone. The sound came to him again, louder this time, and he realized he had a name for what he was hearing. It was music. As he listened to the rich melody, the terror spiking through his chest gave way to longing. It was a wordless song, and he suddenly found himself rushing toward it, his heart swelling involuntarily. He ran through the trees, trying not to topple any headstones in his path. Reaching the source of the sound, he stopped just out of sight to peer around a tree into a small clearing. Before him, four statues stood side by side. The grass around them was tall and unkempt, but no trees had grown in the small clearing to shift the stone out of place. The dappled sunlight streaming through the leaves of the trees growing overhead made the clearing look as if it were glowing gold and green.
There in the middle of it all, was a girl. She was dancing, or at least he thought that was what she was doing. He had only read about dancing, never having the opportunity to see it with his own eyes. She twirled gracefully, breathing deeply as she sang. He skin was far darker than his, a beautiful ebony that stood out against the white dress she wore. Her hair was kept in what seemed like hundreds of small braids that floated around her as she spun, her face lifted toward the sunlight. The smile on her face as she looked toward the sky made him smile in spite of himself, and he took a few steps forward without thinking.
The girl must have heard his approach, because she spun toward him, her grin widening as she looked at him. “I’m sorry,” she said. Her voice was like music even when she wasn’t singing. “It’s been so long since I’ve had skin to feel with and lungs to breath with. It’s easy to get carried away.” She was looking at him expectantly, still swaying slightly, and he realized she was expecting him to speak to her.
He opened his mouth uncertainly. “…Are you real?” The words came out as a hoarse whisper that sounded foreign to his ears.
“I can see it’s been awhile since you used that voice.” she chuckled as she looked him up and down. “Your whole look right now screams ‘it’s been a while.’ What’s your name?”
He shook his head, clearing his voice this time before he spoke. “I don’t have one.”
“Don’t have one. Your father never named you?” Despite her questions, she didn’t look surprised.
“He said names were for humanity. Not the unwanted scraps left behind.”
She grimaced, but said nothing. He watched in fascination as she turned on her heel and started walking away from him into the trees. There was no way he could just let her disappear, so he followed her out of the clearing. “Hey wait! You never answered my question. Are you real?”
She glanced back at him, a distracted expression on her face as she looked from headstone to headstone. “What do you mean by real?” she asked.
“Well, are you a living person? Are you part of my imagination?” He reached out a hand to touch her, but she stepped out of his reach, still staring at each headstone they passed.
“Are those the only two options?” she asked.
“I think you know exactly what I’m asking you. You’re being difficult on purpose. You don’t look surprised at all to see me, and you knew my father didn’t name me.” His frustration got the better of him as he followed her desperately. “What on earth are you looking for?!”
“Ah! Here it is!” she exclaimed, ignoring him. She pointed at the headstone in front of them. There were no decipherable words on its face. She knelt down next to it as if she could read the inscription that once marked the face of it. “Here! Elijah. The perfect name for you.” she looked at the headstone fondly. “I so loved him.” she grinned, patting the headstone. “You remind me of him. Welcome to humanity, Elijah.”
“You can’t just name me.” He said, feeling flustered.
“Why not? No one gets to choose their own name, Elijah. That’s part of being human. I don’t see anyone else around here to name you.”
“Was it always like this when there was more than one person? Confusion and annoyance?” he asked.
The girl stood up, bouncing on bare feet. “I’d say it’s pretty close to accurate.” she grinned. “Now that we got that important part out of the way, we can get back to your questions. You’re right. I’m not surprised to see you. But I’m not just some hallucination of yours either.”
He raised his eyebrows suspiciously. “I’ve read a lot of books, mystery girl. The hallucinations always deny what they are.”
“So you think you’re insane?” she asked, a smirk twisting her lips.
He thought about that for a moment. “Fair point.” he said. “So, a ghost then?”
She considered that. “For our purposes, I think that will work.”
“Our purposes?” he asked nervously, “What are our purposes?”
She started walking again, wandering through the cemetery, skirting some of the toppled headstones. “Elijah, you’re the last human alive on Earth. Yours is the last story.”
He walked in silence next to her considering this news. He knew that he should be less surprised than he felt. It wasn’t the first time he had considered the idea, that there may really be no one else left. In the back of his mind he had always imagined that somewhere far away, people still lived. He felt a twinge of sadness, even though knowing for sure didn’t change anything.
“Why does it matter to you if I’m alone? You’re already dead. You should be like the rest of them.” He gestured toward the graves that surrounded them. “Just some moss covered stone sticking out of the ground.” He looked around at the headstones they were walking past. “Which of these headstones are you anyway, What’s your name?”
She glanced back at him as they made their way back toward the four statues. “It’s funny that you think I’ll just tell you my name.” she said.
“Well, why wouldn’t you?” he asked. “You aren’t going to make me walk around this place and guess are you?” When she didn’t answer, he said “Maybe I should just make up a name for you at random, see how you like it.”
“I think you’ll find that no name you can think of will suit me.” She said.
He stopped short, caught off guard by the briskness of her comment. She leaned against the nearest statue, regarding him with a smile tinged with sadness as he ran through any name he could think of. She was right. Nothing fit her.
“The sun is setting.” She said gently. “You should rest Elijah.”
He didn’t have time to answer her before she was gone, disappeared before his eyes, leaving him alone in the fading light of dusk. He spun around, searching for her even though he knew he would find nothing. The renewed stillness of the cemetery pressed in on him, making him shiver. Had that actually just happened?
He grabbed his pack off the ground, weariness sinking into his chest. While she had been standing in front of him, her presence had been so natural that he hadn’t thought to be afraid or to run. But now that he stood alone, surrounded by the dead in the fading light, he felt a sudden urge to move along. He moved quickly toward the nearest rusted gate, away from the headstones that now felt as though they were staring at him.
That night spent in the community center next to the graveyard was the longest one he could remember. Laying on a threadbare couch with moonlight falling through the window, all he could think of was how suddenly the idea of being alone was unbearable. How had he done it for so long before today? When sleep finally did come to him, it was uneasy, filled with nightmares and dreams of lonely years.
In the morning, the sunlight brought pain. He woke up gasping for air, his muscles contracting painfully. This had become a ritual, something that had been growing in severity with each passing day. He laid still, counting the rapid beats of his heart as it began to slow.
He moved each limb cautiously, stretching and massaging away the pain until it was no more than a lingering dull ache. Sitting up stiffly, he reached into his pack, grabbing a can of tuna and a knife. He ate numbly, tossing the can aside when he was finished. Steeling himself, he looked out the window. From his vantage point, the cemetery was no more than a thick wooded forest. For a moment, he sat and watched the tree tops as they moved with the wind. There was just enough time to entertain the thought that the events of the day before had been a dream before the laughter came to him, nearly the same way it had the day before. The only difference was that this time, it was a man laughing. The voice was a rich tenor, filled with joy. It made him vault off the couch, ignoring his aches and pains. He ran down the stairs, out the door and through the broken fence. As he moved through the cemetery, uncertainty slowed his steps. Reaching the clearing of the statues, he stopped just out of sight. Peeking out from behind a tree, he took in the scene before him. He had been right about the laughter being a man’s. The man in question stood before him facing the mystery girl who had named him yesterday.
The man was tall, distinguished looking in a dress shirt and pants, dark suspenders crossing his back. He was young, probably in his early thirties. As Elijah watched, the man laughed again, gesturing to the mystery girl. “Come now.” he said. The girl stepped up to him, taking his hand and placing the other on his waist. She grinned at him, looking as if she was just barely containing her laughter.
“Daniel, how will you feel when I start stepping on your feet? Is this dance so important to you that you’ll sacrifice those perfectly shined shoes?”
Daniel began to move, his steps graceful and sure as he led her through the dance. “My dear, the thought of one successful waltz is worth the sacrifice of a thousand pairs of shoes.”
She laughed, losing her focus and stomping on his foot. He held it together, faltering only a step or two before guiding her back into place. “A shame you don’t have a thousand toes.” she said, biting her lip in concentration.
“One always knows the risks when attempting to teach the waltz.” he said smoothly. They moved together successfully for a few more beats. “So, where is this last man you called on me for?” asked Daniel.
“He’s standing behind a tree over there gathering his courage.” she said. She was looking down at her feet now. Daniel lifted her chin, reminding her to look at him as they danced.
“A shame he’s only going to get to see our initial attempts to conquer this beautiful dance.” said Daniel.
Elijah rolled his eyes. It would be silly to pretend he was unseen now. He stepped out from behind the tree as the two broke apart, both regarding him with knowing smiles.
“By all means,” he said. “Don’t stop on my account.”
Daniel’s grin widened. “As tempting as it would be to continue, the lady has other plans. My name is Daniel Gerard, Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
When Elijah only nodded, the girl cut in. “His name is Elijah.” she said to Daniel. “Although he still isn’t used to it.”
He gave her an irritated look but focused on Daniel. “So you’re a ghost too, I suppose?”
“Ghost, spirit, apparition…whatever suits you.” said Daniel with a shrug.
“When were you alive?” he asked. The girl had refused to tell him her name, much less anything else, so with Daniel his curiosity was getting the better of him.
“I died on April 2, 1879, after 77 years of life.” Answered Daniel. “Does the year mean anything to you?”
“I don’t know what year we would be in at this moment. But I’ve read about the centuries before timekeeping ended. I’m familiar with the era.” He said. “Why are you here?”
Daniel glanced at the girl, who nodded at him to continue. “I’m here to tell you a story.”
Elijah rolled his eyes again, unable to suppress the heavy sigh as confusion and frustration made their way to the forefront of his mind. He leveled his gaze on the girl whose name he still didn’t know. “What game are you playing with me, mystery girl? What is all this talk of stories and ghosts? Is this the ghost of Christmas past? Why do I care about any of this?”
She waited in silence, happy to let him finish his rant, before glancing at Daniel. “That was rude of him, wasn’t it?” asked Daniel.
She smiled at him, then looked at Elijah before saying, “Yes Daniel, it was. He knows no better. He’s only a child.”
“I’ll show you rude.” muttered Elijah.
“You’ve made an understandable mistake.” She said. “You seem to think that all of this is about you. You’ve read too many books, Elijah.”
“You said that the last story was mine, how can it not be about me?” he asked.
“Everything in time, Elijah. Right now, you might just be a little too selfish to understand. For now, you will let Daniel tell you his story.” said the girl, her tone indicating he had little choice in the matter.
He sighed again, this time resigned to his fate. “So, what?” He asked Daniel. “Are we going to build a fire and roast marshmallows while you tell ghost stories?”
Daniel approached Elijah, putting a hand on his shoulder. His other hand came up to cup the side of Elijah’s face, his thumb pressing against his temple. “The ghost of Christmas past had more flare than that, friend.”
Before Elijah could reply, a terrible sensation of ice shooting through his veins stole his breath. He shut his eyes tightly, reaching to grab Daniel’s hand away from his face, but instead finding that Daniel wasn’t touching him anymore. He opened his eyes, the ice being replaced slowly by warmth.
He and Daniel were standing in an empty street that was blanketed in snow. It was night, but the falling snow seemed to have painted the world in sepia. Everything was still and silent, as if the snow had muted all the white noise. There were no trees growing up through the road, and the houses looked well kept, better than anything he had seen in his life. The air had a pleasantly cold bite to it. Beside him, Daniel breathed deeply. He was watching the doorway of the house closest to them, a look of anticipation on his face. As he watched, the door swung open, a younger version of Daniel stepping carefully onto the stoop, and making his way onto the sidewalk. He was dressed for the cold in a heavy overcoat, distinguished as ever, pulling a pair of leather gloves on as he looked around.
“How old are you?” asked Elijah. As expected, this younger version of Daniel couldn’t hear him, and it was the spirit of Daniel who answered.
“I had just turned twenty three.” he said. As he spoke, the door opened again, a girl hurrying quickly through it to join him on the sidewalk, grinning widely as she held the hem of her dress up to avoid stepping on it. “She was eighteen.” Daniel continued. He sighed as he looked at her. “She was so beautiful.”
In the memory, Daniel didn’t seem quite as taken with the girl as he did now. There was a warmth in his eyes as he looked at her, but none of the adoration his spiritual counterpart was displaying.
“Easy Charlotte,” he said gently as she bounded up to him. “It may be difficult to catch you if you slip and knock me over too.” Her cheeks heated as she smiled, an abashed look on her face. Daniel smiled fondly at her, offering his arm. “Mrs. Gerard,” he said, his voice taking on an heir of mock formality.
She lifted her chin, taking his arm as she matched his tone. “Mr. Gerard.” she said, “A lovely night for a walk, don’t you think?” They started to walk down the snowy sidewalk. Daniel’s spirit gestured to Elijah to follow.
Daniel nodded, “The world is different on a night of snow. When I was a child, my mother would tell me that nights like this were magical. He watched her as she looked toward the sky, smiling as the snowflakes landed on her cheeks.
“The colors are different.” she agreed. “The stillness is wonderful. Anything could happen on a night like this.”
They walked at a leisurely pace arm and arm, the conversation light as they turned down one street, then another. Beside him, Daniel’s spirit was smiling fondly at Charlotte, and Elijah noticed that she was slyly choosing the turns they took in their walk, as if she had a destination in mind. Daniel seemed completely oblivious to this, content to let her steer him. “But really,” Charlotte was saying, tucking her dark hair behind her ear, “You think Mr. Quincy Adams will even be competent as president?”
“I should hope so.” said Daniel. “I voted for him after all.”
She was silent for a moment, thinking. “I wonder what I would choose if I were able to vote.” she said, a wistful edge to her voice.
“You’re my wife now, Charlotte.” Said Daniel. “When I vote, it’s for both of our interests.” Charlotte nodded, looking unimpressed. “How about this,” said Daniel, “The next time an election rolls around, you and I will sit down and discuss the candidates. We’ll decide together who we vote for. Does that suit you?”
“You won’t vote for someone I disagree with?” she asked.
“No ma’am.” said Daniel.
“That suits me just fine.” said Charlotte, the smile lighting up her face once more. She made to turn down another street, this one bordering a small graveyard. Daniel hesitated, a hint of uncertainty crossing his face as he glanced at the graveyard.
“Why don’t we go this way?” he said casually, gesturing in the opposite direction.
“Daniel.” said Charlotte, dropping all pretenses. “It’s time.”
“Charlotte…” said Daniel, unable to hide his discomfort. The look he was giving her was pleading, but she wasn’t bending. It was as if she had hardened her resolve against any excuse he might make.
“You haven’t gone to see her since we began courting.” she said firmly. “You never even speak of her. She loved you, Daniel. She deserves better, and I won’t let you treat her like this.”
Unable to find a dignified escape, Daniel nodded, letting Charlotte take his hand. Elijah and Daniel’s spirit followed the couple toward the gate of the cemetery, and with each step forward, Elijah felt a growing sense of dread. A wave of emotions was hitting him with such force that he paused before the gate, not wanting to enter.
Daniel’s spirit put a hand on his arm. “What you are feeling right now is a shadow of the emotions I felt on this night.” he said. “You’re going to feel them whether or not we enter the cemetery, so we may as well enter.”
Elijah nodded, his hands trembling as they caught up to Charlotte and Daniel. It seemed that Daniel wasn’t faring much better than he was. Charlotte was nearly pulling him through the cemetery. Neither of them were bothering to make small talk now. They walked over the snow, passing headstone after headstone until finally Charlotte stopped in front of one near the back of the small graveyard. The stone was roughly hewn, the name Eliza H. Clay displayed across the front. She had only lived 21 years, from 1802-1823.
Charlotte and Daniel stood for a moment in front of her grave in silence before Daniel said a word. His voice was strangled, as if each word cost him, and Elijah felt the weight of his torment like a physical pain in his chest.
“This is unnecessary.” whispered Daniel. “It’s been two years.”
“She was your fiance and your first love.” said Charlotte quietly. For the most part she looked calm, that same determination setting her features. Elijah couldn’t imagine what this might be costing her. “You couldn’t even go to her funeral.” she whispered. Daniel’s chest was heaving as he fought for control. Elijah could feel the struggle as he blinked rapidly. Next to him, Daniel’s spirit watched the scene before him. He looked entirely unaffected by the pain his counterpart was enduring .
“I won’t let her be taboo, Daniel.” she said gently.
“I can’t…” whispered Daniel. Tears were flooding his eyes now, spilling down his cheeks.
“Yes you can.” she said. “It’s why we’re here.”
Daniel was shaking his head, but the words were spilling out of him anyway, as if they had only been waiting for permission. “It was always her.” he said. “From the moment I saw her until the day she died. She was my soulmate, Charlotte. When she got sick I never dreamed I’d lose her. I never thought I would have to watch her wither away! It’s like a nightmare and I can’t wake up. Two years later and I can’t wake up.” He sank down, first to one knee and then both, his hand pressed against the name on the headstone. “I wanted to give her my name. As she was dying, I begged her to marry me, but she refused. She said she couldn’t let me become a widower at the age of twenty one.”
He covered his face with his hands, trying to choke back the sobs and breathe. Elijah felt tears rolling down his own cheeks as he realized the depths of Daniel’s desolation.
Daniel caught his breath for a moment, still looking at the headstone. “I would have happily been a widower, if only Eliza could have been my wife. Even if it was just for a day. I would have traded a thousand days for one day with her in marriage. Why wouldn’t she let me marry her? Why did she have to die?” Daniel seemed to remember that Charlotte was there. He looked up at her, his eyes swollen and red, his face white. He hung his head in shame, hunched over in the snow shivering. “Charlotte.” he said her name with such wistfulness, such pain. “I do love you. That’s why I married you, because you were a light in the darkness. But she was my soulmate.”
Charlotte had remained still as she watched her husband come to pieces, her face inscrutable. Snow was collecting in her hair, on the shoulders of her jacket. She looked down at Daniel, even though he had no strength to look her in the eye.
“Now you know.” muttered Daniel. “Now you know the worst of me. I will never love you as much as I love a dead girl.”
Elijah found himself shaking nearly as badly as Daniel was, terror running through him. A pure, deep fear of judgment, of a sentence about to be laid down. Charlotte breathed deep, looking at the sky before taking a few steps forward. She was practically standing over Daniel, who didn’t dare look at her. She sat down next to him.
“Say something.” said Daniel.
She sighed. “You haven’t said anything that I didn’t know when we said our vows.”
Daniel looked sick. “Why on earth did you marry me, Charlotte?”
Charlotte reached over, lifting Daniel’s chin, turning his head to make him look at her. “Because I loved you.” she said. “And I knew that you loved me.”
“I don’t know if this will ever change.” said Daniel. “How could you love me knowing that? How can we go on?”
Charlotte was silent for a few minutes as she wrapped an arm around Daniel’s waist. She pulled him close as he gave her a pleading look.
“Love is patient.” she whispered. She held Daniel close, tucking his head under her chin as she looked heavenward. Elijah could see the tears rolling down her cheeks and the deep breath she took. She could tell that she wasn’t only speaking to Daniel.
“Love is kind.” she said. “Love does not anger. Love does not boast.” With each word, her voice grew stronger. As she spoke, Daniel closed his eyes. Elijah felt his heart slowing, Charlotte’s voice sending calm rushing through him. He shut his eyes too, hanging on her every word. Charlotte kissed Daniel’s temple gently. “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”
There was stillness for a few moments as the snow fell, covering the two as if they had turned to stone in each other’s arms. “These are my vows to you Daniel.” said Charlotte. “You don’t need to ask how I can love you. All love in this broken world is a miracle. There’s no point in questioning miracles. The only thing you need to know is that I will be kind to you. I will be patient. Everything that love is, I will be toward you. I will honor Eliza by showing you every ounce of love that you deserve. Daniel, I’m not asking you to love me more than her. I’m asking you to wake each morning. Ask yourself if you love me. If the answer is yes, then be the embodiment of that love toward me. I’m not in competition with Eliza. She has her place in your heart, that belongs to her.” There was silence for another long moment, as Charlotte stroked Daniel’s hair absently, letting him absorb everything. “You can love her, Daniel.” she said. “Don’t waste your energy worrying about who you love more.”
Daniel leaned heavily against his wife, his eyes closed. From what Elijah could feel, he was at a loss for words. Charlotte seemed to understand this as she kissed him one last time, before pulling him to his feet. He looked numb as she wrapped an arm around his waist. “We’ve spent too long in this cold.” she said softly, beginning to pull him toward the gate. Daniel’s spirit watched them go without following. Elijah waited as their footsteps faded away, watching them disappear slowly down the street. The new silence filled the graveyard as Daniel’s spirit looked idly at Eliza’s grave.
Elijah folded his arms as the snow continued to fall. “You didn’t deserve her.” he said to Daniel, unable to keep a smirk off his face.
Daniel laughed, nodding his head vigorously. “Elijah, that’s the most insightful thing I’ve heard you say yet. As she walked me home on this night, that was the main thing running through my mind. Before this moment in our marriage, my resentment toward Charlotte was at an all time high. As if she was the reason I couldn’t be with Eliza. ”
“What happened after this?” asked Elijah.
Daniel winced, but smirked. “Nothing glamorous, I assure you. The next morning I woke up feeling beaten. But I asked myself, do I love her? The answer was yes. Every morning, for the rest of my life the answer was yes, more enthusiastically each day. Every day I watched her. She was so full of light and love, Elijah. She made love a game, and I never even noticed until she reminded me. It took me years of watching her to realize the gift she gave me. By asking me just to love her, and letting me continue to love Eliza, she showed me more love than anymore else in my entire life.” He paused for a moment, letting a smile play across his lips. “She was the one.”
Elijah raised an eyebrow. “Did you ever tell her that? It must have killed her to hear you say otherwise.”
“I never said it out loud to her. But she knew. I made sure of it. When I loved Eliza it was like fireworks exploding. It was loud and colorful and it looked perfect. But in the end, Eliza didn’t take my name because there wasn’t enough of either of us present there in that love. We set the fuse but we couldn’t keep it burning. Had she lived, we would have been miserable.”
He looked at her grave, holding out his hand as a rose materialized in his palm. He laid it on the snow before her headstone, then looked back up at Elijah. “Charlotte taught me to build love. We didn’t have explosive fireworks. We had a small and steady flame, and we grew it and fed it with every passing day. We fed it with pieces of ourselves, and it grew out of the ugliest moments of our lives.” He sighed, clearly still in awe of his great luck. “I loved her so much.” he said. “What a thing it was Elijah, to be entirely known, and yet loved still.”
Elijah crossed his arms. “I’ve tried not to think about love too much.” He said. “Even after reading about it in my books. The concept of it is foreign to me.”
“Ah.” said Daniel, raising his eyebrows. “Therein lies the problem, Elijah. You are entirely unloved, and you love no one in return.”
A flash of deep, terrible sadness moved through Elijah, and this time he knew the emotions were his alone. Powerful and overwhelming, the sadness quickly twisted itself into anger. “So what’s the point of all this?” he asked angrily. “Are you here to gloat, to lord your humanity over me? To show me what I’m missing?”