AUTHOR'S NOTE: Those familiar with my stories know that I loath cliches. So for this story, I've taken an old favorite and attempted to turn it inside out, as well as on its head.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE?
By Margaret Price
Colonel Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach stood at the graveside, staring down into the dark hole in the ground. The funeral was like the dozens of others he had attended. The Priest had said all the right words. The eulogies had ranged from impassioned to somber, his own being the latter. The graveside service had been equally solemn. The day overcast and cold, yet the threat of rain remained only a threat. Unlike all the other funerals that Klaus had attended, however, this one left him empty.
All the other mourners had gone by this time, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He drew a deep breath, his eyes moving to the head of the open grave. Only a small cross with "von dem Eberbach" marked the place that would soon be covered with earth. The new headstone would not arrive until later.
What words of wisdom do you have for me now, Father?
How many hundreds of times had he heard the same thing? "When I was your age, I was of higher rank. And married."
What advice do you have for me now?
"Colonel?" a voice said quietly, breaking into Klaus's thoughts. "Whenever you're ready, sir."
Klaus turned to look at the man who had been assigned as his driver. Then he looked up, seeing only a single car remaining where there had been dozens. Now for the last part of the ritual. The funeral feast. He dreaded this. He hated parties to begin with, and to attend one over a death, this death, was just…
Klaus sighed heavily and straightened, wordlessly walking to the car. He just wanted it all to be over. He just wanted to fill the black hole that had so inexplicably opened inside him.
What advice do you have for me now, Father?
Klaus ignored all the orders to take extended bereavement leave, to take time off, to get away. Get away? How do you get way from a hole inside yourself? I don't want to think. I want to work. I need to work.
Klaus looked up, seeing his men working diligently at their desks. From time to time, he would receive a quick sideways glance. They're trying to gauge my mood. Normally, he would have found this infuriating. But not now. Instead, he found himself incapable of losing his temper. In fact, he found himself incapable of feeling anything. Just the black hole that had opened inside him, threatening to swallow him completely.
A few days later, the call came telling him the grave marker was ready and would be installed at the end of the week. Did he want to be there when it was placed? Unfortunately, work conflicted with this, and Klaus told the person on the phone to go ahead as planned. He hung up and closed his eyes, drawing a deep breath. He would look at it on Sunday, after mass. And take flowers, because you were supposed to take flowers. Perhaps then he would find closure. The placement of the marker would end this ordeal. Hopefully. And put an end to the black emptiness inside.
Sunday arrived quickly and Klaus found himself back at the graveside. It had been covered with earth, the small cross having been replaced by an austere granite headstone. As he stood looking at the inscription, someone came up behind him.
"It looks like your mother's."
Klaus did not even bother to turn around. "What advice do you have for me now, Father?" he asked bitterly. "What words of wisdom?"
"Go on, say it," Klaus challenged. "When I was your age, I had the same rank and was also a widower." He turned to look at his father, his eyes blazing. "Only your son lived."
Klaus's father could not have looked more hurt if he had been physically struck. His mouth dropped open, but he found himself at a loss for words.
"What will you be telling me now? That I should re-marry, the way you didn't!"
"Klaus!" his father snapped.
"No, I've heard enough," Klaus spat back. "I did what you've been pushing me to do since I was eighteen. Don't talk to me about this again. Ever." So saying, he strode off, leaving his dumbfounded father staring after him.
Even after the placement of the headstone, Klaus found the black hole remained. The following Sunday he returned to place fresh flowers on the grave and stopped short. Someone else was there laying flowers. One of his in-laws, probably. Shit, I don't want to see any of them now. Not this soon. When the person looked up, he recognized Eroica and the anger that had eluded him for days suddenly boiled over.
"What the hell are you doing here, Lord Gloria?" Klaus demanded as he stormed through the cemetery.
Eroica rose to his feet, meeting the attack head on. "I'm merely paying my respects, Colonel."
"Respects my ass," Klaus snarled. "Didn't you give me enough grief before I was married? Now you come to pester me again! I just buried my wife and son—" He broke off and closed his eyes. My wife and son, he thought, feeling the hole within him open again.
"I apologized for that years ago," Eroica said gently. "Mercedes accepted it. Why can't you?"
"Because my wife didn't know you as well as I do"
"Colonel, I'm not here to fight with you."
Klaus glared at him. "Why are you here?"
"I wanted to see you—"
"You son-of-a-bitch. Have you no sense of decency? You're lucky we're in a cemetery. Otherwise I'd deck you right here and now."
Eroica gave the man before him an odd look. "Did you love her?" he asked suddenly.
Klaus was completely thrown by this. "What the hell kind of a question is that?"
"A normal one. She loved you. Absolutely and unquestioningly."
Klaus stood staring at the Earl in a stunned silence. "How the hell would you…?"
Eroica gave a small smile. "She told me."
"What?" Klaus struggled to get hold of his thoughts.
"Your wife was the most extraordinary woman I've ever known."
"Can we go somewhere where we can talk?" Eroica asked calmly. "You need to know a few things that Mercedes never told you."