The snap of the first shot breaks open the afternoon. I squeeze my eyes shut and wait for the second one, ears strained against the silence. Seven rifles have come together as one, in salute of Finn. With the second crack, I open my eyes and focus on the youngest of the riflemen, who stands on the end. His gloved hands had trembled as he’d lifted his rifle, but now they are steady, firm. A third shot. Rifles are brought back to the shoulders of their bearers, and the general bends, fingers brushing the grass, and picks up three of the gleaming spent shells. I stand there, stiff as the troopers, while my aunt cries softly beside me.
The bugler steps forward and licks his lips before he lifts his trumpet. It occurs to me that I’ve never actually heard taps played in real life. As the first notes emerge, I try to be present in the moment, try to press into my mind what this moment means. My brother is dead. And this . . . this song means it’s real. He’s playing for Finn.
The bugler is dressed like the rest of the soldiers, but his face is softer somehow, gentler. Maybe because he holds an instrument instead of a gun. He keeps his eyes open as he plays, and he looks at the flag-draped casket the entire time, playing for my brother. And I want to tell him about Finn because, even though I can feel the emotion behind his song, I’m sure he never knew him.
Aunt Gina squeezes my hand so hard it hurts while she tries to muffle her sobs. I press my lips together, gulp back my own. One of us should. Finn would be proud of that. He always told me to look strong, even if I didn’t feel it, because sometimes that’s all you can do.
The troopers let the last notes of the song drift off and settle into the distance before they step forward for the flag. They lift it gingerly off the casket and fold it once, twice, before the general tucks the shells within the waves of red and white. Then eleven more folds, until all that’s left is a rigid triangle of white stars on blue. The young trooper, probably my brother’s age, hands it to the general for inspection.
The general is a somber man in his forties, dark hair peppered with gray. He takes the flag and steps forward, looking from my aunt to me. But his gaze settles on me when he walks across the damp grass, and now my knees weaken. I don’t know if Gina has arranged this or if it’s because I’m listed as Finn’s only next of kin, but the general stops in front of me. His eyes speak of sorrow, and as he stands there, I wonder how many times he’s had to do this in his career.
He recites words I hear but don’t really listen to: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandment of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.”
As he talks, I am grateful that my parents never had to stand here and bury their son, but I mourn the fact a million times over that I’m here to do it alone. As soon as the flag leaves the general’s hands and is in my own, I clutch it to my chest like it’s Finn himself, and now I can’t look strong. I didn’t think I had it in me to cry more than I have in the last two weeks, but the tears flow immediately, and when they do, the general seems to step out from behind his uniform to grieve with me. We stand there, me locked within the circle of his brass and patches, and he means it as a comfort, but it’s all rigid corners and stiff fabric.
I whisper “thank you,” then pull back, and he squeezes my shoulders before letting go. Aunt Gina steps forward and puts her arms around me, and the general and his troopers fall away. Faces of people—my friends and Finn’s, his teachers, coaches, classmates, our whole town—stream by, puffy-eyed and heartbroken, offering their condolences. When it’s Lilah’s turn, she doesn’t say anything, but she hugs me hard and that says everything. More people come by us to pay their respects, and we stand there for what feels like an eternity, nodding, thanking them for coming, until they’ve all gone.
Aunt Gina excuses herself to talk with the funeral director, and I have a moment to myself. I don’t want to look at the casket waiting to be lowered into the ground next to our parents, so I walk over to our bench, the one Finn and I would sit on when we came to visit, and I sit down, still hugging the flag to my chest. And that’s when I see a silhouette I recognize, standing off some distance—one I didn’t realize was missing from the stream of faces until now.
Rusty stands there looking like a grown man. He’s in a proper suit and tie, his hair combed back, and he would look perfectly respectable if not for the paper-wrapped bottle dangling from his hand. I wonder who told him. I hadn’t even thought of calling him, but then, I wouldn’t have known how to get ahold of him anyway. He and Finn hadn’t spoken since Finn enlisted, and it wasn’t like we were friends anymore.
He’d come, and that meant something. Even if he watched from a distance. I want to walk over and tell him that him being there would’ve meant more to Finn than anyone else. That whatever differences they’d had were long forgotten. But when I get up, he raises the bottle to his lips for a long pull, then turns and walks away. Just like he did over a year ago.