We buried Thunderbolt in secret, just like we had Strongarm and all the others before him. It was a quiet ceremony, with only a few of us in attendance. As expected – as requested – it was raining. Cold droplets, like tiny bullets, whipped in on a brisk wind to scour exposed flesh and leave us chilled through to the bone. Geist sang Amazing Grace in that clear, vibrant voice of hers, and beneath our masks, we wept.
We are all buried in the same way: Secretly. The public sees a coffin; sees an accessible grave. That place soon becomes a kind of memorial, with mourners and curious alike coming from all corners to view the final resting place of Captain Such-And-Such or Mister Whatever. Their tears are welcomed there, as are their conversations and idle questions, their donated trinkets and handwritten cards. We as a community see the necessity for this. We do not begrudge or belittle the need to mourn. We simply do not bury our fallen where the press reports. Those caskets are empty of reality. Made-up dolls of latex and plastic, filled with sand, occupy the spaces beneath the stones at which citizens gather. To be sure, we attend, but the emotions are not the same.
The true funerals are reserved for those of us who actually knew the fallen. Gathered clandestinely in some place special to the dead, we inter them in our own way. Druidess wanted a clearing within a grove of oak, and we found one. Icepick had requested the Arctic Circle. We made that happen, too, despite some pretty impressive logistical issues. Thunderbolt? Top of a high hill during a storm. His element raged around us as we all said our silent farewells. It was fitting.
Following the burial, we adjourned to a cabin that Dyre owns, no more than a few dozen miles from the grave site. Some flew, some ran, others took cars. As it has always been, it was of no consequence how you got there, just that you arrived. Inside, it took all of three seconds for Blazer to have a fire roaring in the stone fireplace. It would have taken less time than that had he not been trying to control his output to prevent melting of the stones. The warmth penetrated each of us as soon as we entered, burning away the cold and damp that had worked their way into seemingly every joint.
We milled around the cabin for a few minutes, making – as standard at any such gathering – inane small talk, until the last of us had arrived. Once everyone was assembled, we gathered around the dining room table. Dyre had already poured the glasses for each of us. The first round was a light shot of Bushmill’s, Thunderbolt’s favorite, and we raised the glasses slowly toward the sky.
The word was spoken by all present, in a semblance of unity. Everyone drained their glass and lowered it slowly to the table. None of the cliched slamming onto the tabletop shown in movies. The glasses were lowered in much the same glacial slowness that one sees a flag lowered at a funeral. Respectfully. Regretfully. Silence fell.
“I remember,” Dyre said. The crossed swords emblem on his azure-suited chest rose and fell as he took in a deep breath. As host, it was his right to speak first. “I remember Thunderbolt standing on the bow of that yacht when we took on Tempest. The water under us just churning while Tempest tried to flip us. He’s just up there, like a statue or something. Feet braced, arms raised, lightning just pouring out of his hands and into the ocean. Tempest manifested. Came at us like a tornado across the water. Thunderbolt never flinched. Met him head-on, like he always did. I watched the two of them go at it for an hour.”
Though present, Dyre had been unable to assist in the waterborne battle. His close combat skills had no place in the environment in which the skirmish occurred, and he had regretted not being able to aid his partner. Even given that regret, that was his most precious memory of the hero. It said a lot about him as well as Thunderbolt. He followed his statement by pouring another Bushmill’s and raising it.
Next at the table was Geist. She lowered her head for a moment before speaking. It was strange sometimes, the dichotomy she presented. Outside, in the world where she dealt with so many, she was strong and fearless, standing tall and proud. Away from the crowds, she was another person entirely: shy and soft-spoken, her voice barely able to carry across the room. She rarely meets your gaze, and when she does, there is a hinted smile that tells you she would rather not be doing so at all.
“I remember him standing up in court. That broad stance he had, you know? Where he would put his feet out wide and turn his body to face you? Standing just like that, in a courtroom, with his arm out straight…pointing like the hand of God right at Louie Malletti.”
The picture had been front-page news the next morning, as his testimony had put away one of the mob’s most notorious hitmen. It had also put him on their radar for years, and he had spent a great deal of resources and energy fighting back against the various costumes they sent his way. Some of us had also been on the receiving end of a few of those attacks.
Geist poured another drink – water, this time – and toasted Thunderbolt as well.
“He dragged me out of a burning house,” Cortex murmured. The psion rarely spoke aloud, disdaining speech as being beneath him and choosing to communicate telepathically. It was a measure of respect that he voiced his words now. “Two years ago, during the Heldan Riots. I was cornered inside the building, my legs having been pierced by arrows shot from Nightstalker’s bow.”
Many of us had faced that bow at one time or another. Titanium, steel, and raw power. Arrows of carbon steel tipped with tungsten. It was capable of punching through armor plate if Nightstalker wished, and he had absolutely zero qualms about using it on living flesh. Overdrive was still in the hospital because of that damned thing, with a ventilator making up for his triply-punctured left lung.
“While I was unable to pursue him, Nightstalker set the house ablaze around me. Had Thunderbolt not arrived when he did, I am certain that you would have gathered around a table to salute me, instead.”
“Nobody said we’d salute you, Cortex,” Lady Mist said with a chuckle. A ripple of laughter spread around the table for a moment. She winked and stuck out her tongue to lighten any sting the remark may have made.
“Touche,” he said, grinning a bit. He lifted his newly-refilled glass. To Thunderbolt, he transmitted.
Delta was next to Cortex, and he took his cue from the silence to speak. His voice was raspy and mechanical, a result of a replaced larynx following a disastrous fight against The Eradicators some years back. The voice box was not the only replacement part. Delta could set off metal detectors from the next room. “He brought my mother flowers in the hospital when the cancer got her. Sat by her bed for a full day. He was there when she finally went.”
Carefully gripping his glass in a cybernetically-enhanced grasp, he hoisted it overhead. “To a man who I call Brother.”
Lady Mist raised a hand, waving it slightly in the air before her. A thick fog coalesced into being, taking the shape of Thunderbolt when he stood against the Ka’ar. The aliens had nearly killed him then, and almost everyone present had been a part of that war. Most of us had seen Thunderbolt as he stood, the majority of his costume shredded and blood coursing down his skin. We had seen the damage they had inflicted as he fought to repel them. We had been present when he had gone into the hospital and when he had emerged, triumphantly holding aloft his scarlet-gloved fist.
“I remember a man who stood tall no matter the odds. A man who fought and bled for the rights of others. I remember a true hero,” she ended, raising her glass. She didn’t bother with his name. It was not required. Everyone toasted in their own way, just as every drink after the first was the choice of the drinker. It was only the first call and first toast that belonged to the dead. Beyond that, as with all funerals, we were here for the feelings and needs of the still-living.
“He made me who I am today,” Blazer said, his voice soft and gentle, a direct counterpoint to his usual boisterous nature. “I was nobody back then, just a kid that burned shi…stuff,” he said, catching himself before uttering the imprecation. He had indeed been a child of the streets last year, and his language was only one part of it. He was making an attempt to clean up his act, though, and none of us held the occasional slip against him. Several of the group had been prepared to write Blazer off as hopeless; as an enthusiastic but unskilled rookie to the game. Thunderbolt, though, had taken the youth under his wing – as he had so many of us at one time.
“Taught me how to channel it, how to make the fire work for me instead of the other way around. Showed me there was more to living than just surviving.”
A smoking tear trailed down his cheek as he raised his glass. “To my friend.”
I looked at the table for a minute as everyone turned their gazes to me. Inhaling slowly, I let the breath out in a deep sigh. “I’ve seen him fight, you know? I’ve seen him fight and I’ve seen him relax. Seen him at his best and worst. Through it all, believe it or not, I still see him in the kitchen,” I said, fighting to keep my voice from cracking. “Down on Third and Elm? Saint Joan’s. I can remember him doling out food. No complaints, no feeling that he was better than anyone and just doing some charity work to keep his name good, just another normal guy helping out where he could.”
I left out the part about the scruffy alley rat that had come in for a handout when the Dumpsters came up dry. The one who had yet to discover his own metahuman abilities. The one who would one day stand at the head of this particular table, looking at the grain in the wood because he was embarrassed by his own past. The one who even now felt hot tears welling up in his eyes as he lifted a glass into the air.
“To the best of us all,” I said. “To Thunderbolt.”
“To Thunderbolt!” the others echoed, their voices filled with joy and sorrow at the same time.
Following the toast, we moved to the great room of the cabin and let our memories guide us through the next few hours. Each of us told their favorite Thunderbolt stories, whether good, bad, or indifferent. We spent the afternoon and evening thinking of the man and the sacrifice he had made, and honoring his memory. No one brought up the topic of Arsenal and how he had been responsible for bringing us to this place; none among us would spoil these moments with thoughts of revenge. This was Thunderbolt’s time.
Blazer was the first to leave – late as usual for one appearance or another on the ever-full agenda of the teen hero. Cortex followed soon after, and then it was generally acknowledged by those remaining that we had completed the ritual of mourning for our fallen partner. We helped Dyre clean up and then, one after another, filtered out the door and fled from thinking of the fate which we knew awaited us all. One day, every one of us would end up in a grave, with others left behind to toast our memory.
I had to land three times on the way home to wipe the tears from my eyes. I lied to myself at first; told myself it was the rain. I knew better, and soon I gave up trying to convince myself that it was anything other than the grief that it was. In my heart, I really had seen Thunderbolt as the best of us – as though somehow immortal, untouchable, above it all. It should have been one of us in that grave instead of him. Cortex, or Dyre. Any of a host of others, not only from our group but from costumes all over the planet. Anyone but Thunderbolt. Christ, even me! The world could do without me, but taking him?
I bit back on a fresh crying jag and touched down just outside the doors of Saint Joan’s. I thought about going inside and volunteering for the kitchen staff out of respect for his memory, but knew that would be little more than a sham on my part. Acting a part to assuage my guilt was no real homage to him. Had I half of his devotion I would have been there anyway.
Where do you go after you bury the man who taught you what it means to be strong? Not just ‘I can lift a truck’ strong, but that indomitable kind of spirit that lets you stand tall in the face of the worst that comes at you. I just stood beside a grave and watched as rain and mud covered the casket of the only person I truly believed was above me. The thought made me gag.
I stepped into the alley off Third, pausing beneath a fire escape that blocked the worst of the rain, and leaned my head against the side of a building. Even through my mask, the brick was cool. I let the tears come, rolling hot and thick down my face to blend with the rain. I squatted there, in the alley, as the emotions overtook me, and I held my head in my gloved hands.
Is this what it’s gonna be like, I wondered. I’m gonna die and they’ll have my funeral, and they’ll drink a toast to me and then just go home? Is this all there is? What’s the point?
A cat in the alley hissed and I looked up, realizing that I had been squatting there crying for several minutes with absolutely no knowledge of my surroundings. Hell, Arsenal could have been standing there and I would have missed him until the machine guns started up. I scanned the area. No eight-foot mechanical monstrosities. Always a plus, in the grand scheme of things.
There never seems to be anything to do on the day when you bury your best friend, either. Nothing to take your mind off what just happened. No petty crime you can stop, no autograph sessions – well, I suppose Blazer is an exception – and no places worth going to. Everything serves to make you think more and more about what you’ve just done. You just stood in the rain and shoveled dirt onto your friend. Someone you’ll never see again. You’ll never laugh with them or see them throw darts, or drink a beer with them, or loan them your screwdriver when they need to fix that stupid refrigerator yet again, or sit and talk with them when your wife leaves you because you never seem to be able to make the relationship work since you’re constantly unavailable. You won’t ever get to show them the new sculpture you finally finished, even though they were going to get to see it first before the gallery put it on display. You won’t get to congratulate them on that three-year smoke-free anniversary next month.
I wanted another drink. Something hard and painful, to burn away the thoughts. I knew it was irrational thinking, but there was that part of me screaming for anything to take my mind off the sound of wet dirt slapping down onto the lid of that coffin. That thick, gelatinous sound, like oatmeal dropped onto a floor. It was ringing in my ears and whiskey might well take it away.
Where was I going to go? It wasn’t as if I’d be inconspicuous strolling into a bar in a wet white costume. Folks in liquor stores aren’t prone to simply having a costume step in and snag a bottle of Jameson’s. Not likely that they’d just nod and say, “Evening, Whitechapel. You see the Sanford and Son marathon on Channel 54? That Fred, man. He cracks me up.”
Nowhere to go. Nothing to do but think. That’s what happens when you bury a friend.
I took off again, unwilling to just hang around the alley until I came up with a better idea than simply, ‘get a drink’. The air was cold on my face, but I flew on, going faster and higher. I didn’t consciously think about where I was going, but I knew where I would end up before I ever left the ground. It was the only place I could land. The only place that mattered.
The rain had turned the area surrounding the grave into a sodden mess, and the musty, sweet-smelling dirt that had been piled atop the hole was running off in reddish-gray rivulets that threatened to stain the pure white that was my costume. I didn’t care. Tomorrow I would start to track down Arsenal and bring him to justice. Today, I sat on the ground beside the grave of my friend and just let the rain fall on me. It felt good, cleansing, like somehow it was taking all my anger, all my doubts, all my fears with it, sending them all cascading down to merge with all the days that Thunderbolt didn’t have left.
T. Mike McCurley lives in a small city in Oklahoma, where indeed, “the wind comes sweeping” and all that. He began writing superhero prose on a whim one day, and found it enjoyable enough to continue. His short stories soon formed the backbone of what became known as the world of The Emergence, describing events and players in a world of metahumanity that began in 1963 and has continued to grow since. From there came the stories of the metahuman cop known as Firedrake, which has now filled three books, with a fourth in the works. He is a founding member of the Pen and Cape Society, an online cabal of authors of superhero prose, and his Emergence setting will soon be featured in Lester Smith’s D6xD6 roleplaying game.
In another (non-writing) life he has been a radiological monitor, an emergency medical technician, a private investigator, a videographer, a certified GLOCK armorer, and a dozen other things too varied and goofy to list in one space together.
His works can be found linked at www.tmikemccurley.com and at the Pen and Cape Society, www.penandcapesociety.com .