This is the traditional heatherheart wake.
Specifically, this is the wake for Jeremiah Jones, or JJ to his friends and family. He was forty-six years old, and had been a heatherheart for the last eighteen. He was well liked. Real good at the job, very clear-headed and rational, and in the past he had been quick-witted enough to pull himself out of situations that might have gotten a duller man killed. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t matter how quick-witted you are. Sometimes a witch with a broken sense of humor conjures a piano above your head and you die like a cartoon character. Que sera and all that.
It could be any heatherheart’s wake, though. For such a small group that prides themselves on their lack of rules and over-the-top individuality, they do seem to love a good tradition. And never is this more apparent than when one of them eats the big one. To begin, the wake is usually held weeks after the death, although the reasoning for this is less sentimental and more technical. You try gathering twenty to thirty people spread out across three countries and see how fast you can get them all in the same state or province, let alone the same bar. By the time of JJ’s wake it has been four and a half weeks since he was set ablaze on a pyre. Since they were in Florida and the ocean was right there, JJ’s partners Nikita Brown and Elmer Roundhouse decided to give him a Viking funeral by putting JJ and the pyre on a wooden boat and pushing him out into the water. It didn’t go well.
Once the heatherhearts manage to get as many of them together as they can, always allowing if someone is too far away or stuck in a job, they take over the closest bar to the place of the death. In the case of JJ, this means the Gator Tooth, barely more than an open-air shack sitting next to a swampy natural spring and guarded by bug-zapper sentinels that went off almost continuously. The few locals present are wondering why their little sleepy little booze-pit is suddenly filled with people they’ve never seen before, but it doesn’t take long for them to realize.
All of the heatherhearts present will order two shots, one of whatever the recently deceased liked and one whiskey. So, typically, two whiskeys. Tonight, though, it’s a shot of whiskey and a shot of vodka. The heatherhearts start by raising the vodka over their heads.
“To JJ,” Nikita and Elmer say.
“To JJ,” the others repeat, and then shoot. Gasps and groans all around. No one besides JJ really likes vodka.
Now, it’s time to raise the whiskey.
“To Amos Smith,” Nikita and Elmer say.
“My God, what has he done?” the others call back, and then shoot.
This is the oldest tradition amongst the heatherhearts, so old everyone present really only knows the barest details. Amos Smith was the very first heatherheart, a Union soldier turned hunter who eventually decided the hunters stood for everything he had just fought against. He turned west. He fought the darkness in his own way. He found others to join him, and when he died those others toasted him just the same. No one remembers why. But when the next of the heatherhearts died, they toasted Amos as well. And the next. And the next. And two hundred and twenty years, and two hundred and thirty six dead heatherhearts later, they were still doing it.
Now, we have the usual things any group of people do at a wake. The telling of stories. The staring into the long distance as folks present think of their own death, looming. The occasional drunken fist fight. A close observer, though, will notice that as the heatherhearts go about healing themselves from the loss, they will occasionally look at the door of the bar – or, in the Gator Tooth’s case, the place at the front of the bar where a door should be – and say, “Get out of here, JJ,” or, “Go home, JJ, you’re dead,” or “It’s over JJ, time to move on.” Like the delay in the wake after death, this one has more practical than sentimental reasons. No one wants to think they let a friend and colleague turn into a trapped spirit, the kind who doesn’t realize they’re dead and gets mad about it. After a little bit of trial and error back in the mid-twentieth century, the heatherhearts realized this kind of repeated, gentle reminder was the best way to make sure the dead went where they were supposed to go. Wherever that is.
And then, there is the final tradition. The newest tradition. Requested by one Millie Pfeifer some sixty years earlier. Millie was an odd one, they said. The picture of her that hung in Ms. Didi’s house made her seem like she had been a Lowa, even though she died before the Lowa even became a thing. Skinny, pale, bright make-up and hair dyed black and cut up choppy with bright red streaks. Anyone who had actually worked with her was already dead, but Ms. Didi and a few others were old enough to remember them. They had called Millie an ‘emo’ like this was supposed to mean something. She had liked this sad kind of music, real whiney-like, and always talked about the ‘aesthetic’ of things. She’s scowling in the picture at Ms. Didi’s house, but that was apparently for her image. She was an unusually upbeat heatherheart, always ready for a fight, and when the discussion of death came up, she had always had just one request for her own wake.
Well, after she had taken that cultist’s ax to the neck they had honored her request. And it turned out it wasn’t a bad one. In fact, a couple others requested it at their own wakes. And then a couple others. Only two of the heatherhearts who had worked with Millie didn’t have the song played at their wake. The rest did. All the rest did, in fact. Right through to tonight, to JJ’s wake at the Gator Tooth in the middle of a Florida swamp.
It was also a tradition to pretend they didn’t like the song. The lyrics were a little on-point, they would say between wakes. It was overly-dramatic. It wasn’t the kind of music any of them would even dare to listen to on their own. Or at least admit they listen to. But when the bartender rang the bell for last call and the wake was drawing to a close, without fail the heatherhearts found a way to play their death song. Metal heads, country fans, even Quincy Marquis who only ever listened to classical and opera. Hell, JJ was a hip hop head. But he would have wanted it.
The Gator Tooth has it on their jukebox. It costs a dime. The heatherhearts know all the words. They are all very drunk. They clutch each other. They sing into each other’s faces. When the song gets fast, they dance. They dance like they never do. They get on tables. They sing so loud it carries over the swamp and into the night, making the deer run and the gators blink. The locals are pissed, but they understand. They see it for what it is. The bizarre ritual, this five minute relic from when the 21st century still seemed new and shiny, that allows this strange collection of people to mourn, to grieve, to heal, and to move on.
Statistically speaking, it will be a little over a year before they do it all again.