On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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I stood there at the graveside, the collar of my coat turned up more as an act of isolation than in defence against the weather, and there was only one thought running through my mind.

I am so goddamned glad she’s dead.

The mourners were plentiful, and I’d done the usual dance. I’d said thank you, and yes it was a shock, and I really appreciate your kind words, and I’m sure she would have been happy to hear that, and all the rest of it. I’d shaken so many hands, and had my head enveloped in so many clouds of perfume while powdered faces pressed colour-smeared lips briefly to my cheek. My patience with it ran out after the first ten minutes, but nobody could tell. I kept my poker face on.

The church service had been nice, I suppose. A minister who clearly knew nothing at all about her had given a pretty good impression of being her oldest friend, and nobody made any allusions to the fact that she wouldn’t have crossed the threshold of the place while her heart was still beating. Except maybe as some kind of cosmic insurance policy.

I let my mind drift while the guy was talking. I pretended he was eulogising someone else entirely, and that I’d quietly crashed the stranger’s funeral just for something to do. I tried to imagine I knew nothing at all about the person he was describing, and in a way that was even true. But that’s the nature of eulogies.

We stood up for a few hymns, the lyrics being all the usual drivel. The men mouthed and occasionally rumbled, and the women mostly adopted that weird octave-higher, operatic register that seemed to be reserved for places of worship, or perhaps for keeping up appearances. I just stared at my copy of the order of service without reading it.

There was a photo on the cover from decades ago, and when I saw it I thought for a moment that I’d entered a parallel universe, where I was attending the same funeral but for an unfamiliar version of this person. Someone who’d had an entirely different life, making different decisions, and turning out to be a much less damaged, corrosive, arrogant, pretty and vengeful sort of crow. But then I glanced around the room, and the faces in the pews were too damned familiar.

So were their expressions. Much more creased now, and sallow, but the looks were still the same. Reproach. Judgement. Disapproval. And just a hint of the hunger of the spectator, waiting and hoping for a nugget of drama and scandal.

I didn’t give them any. I’m too old for that, and too tired, and too clever — in that exact order. And I’d rehearsed it all a hundred times before I got there, and for years before that too. I had a polite deflection for every possible jab or gambit, and I hardly had to use any of them. If I’d gone on to the lunch-and-alcohol part of the proceedings, maybe it would have been different; people lost their inhibitions with some booze in them, and especially these people. But I was in no mood for sharp tongues or blunt fists. To hell with them. Let them tell their own stories all they like, and I’ll see them put in the ground too, soon enough.

I stayed behind to talk to the minister after the burial, going into great detail about how much I appreciated the service and how pleased she would have been. I shared a few anecdotes of my own, several of them made up on the spot, and I knew that he’d stand there and listen to whatever I wanted to say for as long as I wanted to say it. All I was waiting for was to see the last of the cars leaving in my peripheral vision. Then I thanked him again, shook his hand, and walked away.

I was on the motorway before most of them would even have reached the restaurant. I thought for a few minutes about what might be said about me in my absence, until I realised what I was doing and told myself to quit it. I have nothing to prove, and certainly not to those people.

It was only when I got beyond the city limits that I felt a weight being lifted from my chest. It was a sense that the other shoe had not, in fact, dropped at all, and it was accompanied by a sense of freedom that I’d never felt before. There was also regret, to be sure — a bitter feeling of having spent far too long waiting for this moment, and discovering that when it arrived I’d already burned away half of my life — but there was also a clarity, and a sort of renewal.

It’s amazing, really. How you can stand and look at a hole in the ground, with a green blanket of fake grass just beside it to cover up the unseemly sight of exhumed earth, and instead of sorrow and urgency, you feel hope. It’s not a charitable thing, but then one man’s charity is another man’s weakness and a vector for manipulation. Or another woman’s, more to the point.

It’s not the kind of thing you bring up at a funeral. Not in the church, and not out beside the mound of earth, and not at the restaurant even if you decide to go there. Most people aren’t ready for those kinds of revelations at the best of times, and definitely not at the worst. What they want is a handshake, or a greasy lipstick kiss, some sombre and well-meant words, and then the drinks menu. That’s fine. Life goes on.

The real lessons have to wait until it’s someone you really know and care about who’s lying in the box. Then you discover some truths, including the fundamental one that I could have taught you years ago.

Life is a son of a bitch. But so am I.

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