Cold, white winter sunlight shone obliquely through leafless trees. Cole's hard breath hung heavily in the air. He pushed a wheelbarrow up the hill that stood behind the town he had spent seventy years living in--most of his life. HIs chest ached with the cold air. There was no snow yet on the ground, but it was crusted over with frost. The wheelbarrow tracked through well-worn ruts. The forest on the hill was quiet of any wind or sounds of fauna.
At the top of the hill, in a clearing, Cole let the wheelbarrow rest on it's struts. He tried to stand up straight, but his back refused. As he caught his breath, he surveyed the town below. It too was quiet. The roofs of houses were covered in white frost. Only three houses in the town had smoke coming from their chimneys. So few left, he thought.
Cole stamped his feet, then reached into the wheelbarrow and carefully pulled out the shovel so as not to rip the plastic garbage bag and disturb it's contents. He walked to a spot that he thought was suitable. He looked back towards town, and made sure that he could see his own house through the branches.
"You won't be able to see it in summer," he muttered. "Oh well. Best I can do."
Cole started digging. The top few inches were frozen and hard, but he scraped through that. When he had dug a foot down, he stopped and rested next to an oak tree. He looked at the black bag. He started to cry again, they he quickly wiped them away with the fringed end of his scarf. He went back to digging. At noon the hole was about four feet deep, and about four feet in circumference. He leaned the shovel against the oak tree, then picked up the wheelbarrow and rolled it towards the hole. He set it down again, and laid his hands on the top of the bag.
"I'm so sorry this had to happen to you," he said. "I don't know why this had to happen." He started sobbing, then looked up at the tree branches above him, trying to stem the flow of tears. He looked out over the hill. There were dozens of grave markers. The town started burying bodies taken in the epidemic up here about five years ago when the two town graveyards filled up. There had been debate about creating a mass grave, but the town voted to use the hill instead. Now it too was almost full.
"It's not fair. You didn't get to live a full life," he said. He looked down at the bag. "I remember when you were little. You were small for your age, but you were strong. You wanted to do everything by yourself. You got mad when your mother or I tried to help you do things you wanted to do. We were irritated sometimes by it," he chucked, "but we were proud of you. We thought you'd be able to do anything you put your mind to. And you did," he smiled.
Cole looked back down on the town and his smile faded.
"I'm done with praying," he said quietly. "There's no sense to this." He thought of his grandchildren who died in the first wave of the epidemic. He could barely remember their faces anymore. He looked down at his hands. They were beginning to twist from arthritis. The skin on the back of his hands was loose and spotted and thin like vellum.
"You should have got the chance to outlive me. And you should have got the chance to outlive your babies," he said. "It's not right!" he yelled, "It's not right!" he screamed. Then he started sobbing again. "How could this have happened?! How could this be the end?!" He work to try to catch his breath from his choking sobs.
"Why were the elderly the only ones immune? It's so cruel. So cruel..." he trailed off, looking off into the distance at nothing in particular. He sighed heavily, then looked down at the wheelbarrow again. He picked up the handles, and slid the body into the grave. He looked at the curled up figure outlined in the bag and wished he had the strength to do a proper job of it.
He walked to the tree and picked up the shovel, then started filling the grave back in with dirt. When he was done, he contemplated what to do for the marker. He looked around and saw a large dead branch on the ground. He picked up up and shoved it down several inches into the loose soil. He took off his scarf and tied it around the top of the branch. A chill breeze picked up and jostled the fringe of the scarf.
"Goodbye daughter," he said. After a moment he tapped the shovel on the ground to get rid of the caked dirt on the scoop, then he put it back in the wheelbarrow, picked that up, and started down the hill towards home.