Edith stood beside her husband's casket, her posture as straight and tall as her cane would allow.
The only flowers were those that had been placed by the funeral home. Part of the economy service. Already fading, wilting at the edges. As if they had been to more than one viewing today.
It didn't bother her. Joe wouldn't have cared about flowers. Nor would he have cared about the canned organ music issuing from hidden speakers.
Near the end, Joe hadn't cared about much of anything. He hadn't been able to. But even the old Joe, the Joe she had loved for so many years, wouldn't have wanted a big production.
Still, it would have been nice if more people had come.
Behind the black mesh of veil that hung from her hat, Edith closed her eyes. She could hear the faint murmur and rustle of the other mourners behind her.
Not that they could properly be called mourners, she supposed. This wasn't about grief, not for them. This wasn't about Joe. None of them had really known Joe, not the real Joe. This wasn't even for her, because although she thought she was still the same Edith she had always been, none of them really knew her, either.
No, this was about duty, about routine. About the unspoken belief that their attendance at enough funerals would ensure a decent turnout at their own. And it was something to do, a change of pace from the daily routine of meals and medications, Bingo in the rec room and game shows on television.
There was no one here, besides her, who knew. Who remembered.
She'd thought that someone might come. He had touched so many lives over the years. Helped so many people. Been a hero and role-model and mentor to hundreds. Yet not one of them was here. Not one of them knew.
She would even have welcomed a reporter. The privacy they had once guarded so rigorously didn't matter anymore.
What had his name been? That fresh-faced, eager young fellow with the "Press" tag worn so proudly in the band of his fedora … did they still call them "cub" reporters these days?
"Sparky," she whispered, her breath stirring the fine black veil that draped from her hat. She opened her eyes and looked down at Joe. "Did we ever know his real name?"
Joe's still, pale face gave no answer.
He wouldn't have remembered, anyway. The disease had eroded his mind long before it had gone to work on his body. Scrubbing away his memory bit by bit. Scrubbing away the Joe she had loved since she was a wisp of a girl … since long before she learned his real name.
At the end, he hadn't known her at all. Before that final decline, he had spent long years in the twilight. Sometimes almost himself again, but other times spilling secrets that the two of them had held close for more than half a century. If Sparky had been there to hear, all of his questions would have been answered, all his suspicions confirmed.
But Sparky, who had never known their real names either, had not been there. And those who had heard had not believed. Surely no one who had been such a man, and done such things, could end up in a place like Silver Oaks.
"We certainly didn't plan to, did we?" murmured Edith. "How did it turn to this, Joe? When did it all slip away from us?"
If only there had been a single moment, some pivotal event … but there hadn't. No great failure or tragedy had led them to purposefully move away from that former life. It had happened, like the Alzheimer's, slowly and subtly. Bit by bit. So that she could not, now, looking back, pinpoint one given day and say, "here, this is when it all changed."
"We just … got older," she said, hands folded on the knob of her cane though her fingers ached with the grinding bone-glass of arthritis. "Others came along to replace us. Others who were younger, stronger, more powerful. The world changed around us, Joe, and we couldn't keep up. We … we weren't needed anymore."
He lay there, looking so wrong to her in his for-best suit that was too big now for his shrunken frame. Once, he had been handsome, square of jaw and broad of shoulder. Once, that fine ghost-white hair had been as blond as the summer sun. His arms had been so strong, yet so tender when they enfolded her. His smile so brave, so bright.
"If we'd had children …"
Edith stopped, taking a soft shuddering breath to quell the tears that wanted to brim. She had promised herself she wouldn't cry. This was only the final release. The real Joe, the essential Joe, had been dead to her for a long time.
Children would have made a difference, and she blamed herself for that lack. She had seen over and over how good he was with kids. How they'd loved him, flocking around him in starry-eyed adoration. Wanting his autograph, wanting to touch his cape, idolizing him.
He would have been a wonderful father. Had been a wonderful teacher to the younger ones who had come to him. Some students, some sidekicks. They had all grown up and moved on, changed their names, taken new masks and new missions. Gradually losing touch.
"Except for me," Edith said, wincing as she opened her left hand and fumbled with the clasp of the black purse hanging from her elbow. "The one sidekick you never quite got rid of. It took you so long to admit you loved me, but in the end, I wore you down."
They had outlived their friends, who had died young and vital. Died in a blaze of glory, most of them, doing what it was that they were meant to do. They had even outlived their enemies. Now there were only her scrapbooks, newspaper clippings old and brittle.
Her questing fingers found what they sought in her purse, amid the litter of tissues, lipsticks, and loose change. She unwrapped a small bundle of cloth, exposing something glittery-red.
A twinge of pain filled her hand with rusty barbs and broken glass. The item dropped from her weak grasp.
With a clink and a click, it spun across the floor and fetched up against Henry Niedermeyer's shoe.
"Hey!" he said, picking it up. "A Captain Vigilance ruby-crystal mystic ring! I used to have me one of these, got it from a cereal box. Had all the comics, too. If I'd been smart and kept them, they'd be worth a fortune today on that e-Bay thing my grandkids talk about."
Abigail Denks leaned over and squinted at it. "Why, I remember him. What ever happened to him, anyway?"
"I heard he married that … what was her name? Guardian Girl. She was a real pip, that one. Remember the costume she used to wear? Oh, that was back in the day, that was. Short little skirt and those tights and gloves and boots? Va-va-va-voom!"
"Nothing like the trashy costumes you see on the news now," Abigail agreed with a sniff. "Back then, though, it was awfully daring."
Henry brought the ring to Edith. "Here you go, missus. I never knew old Joe was a Captain Vigilance fan. We could have gabbed about the old times."
"You … you remember all that?" she asked.
"Aw, sure!" he said. "You never forget a real hero, do you?"
"No," Edith said, sliding the ring onto Joe's forefinger.
Even though the hand it now graced was dead, the ring came alive, glimmering with a sparkling reddish light.
"No," she said again. "I guess you never do."