Outside of Time
"You sure you want off here? Itís 50 iles to the next town, quite a walk in the middle of the day." The driver scratched his head and watched Vash the Stampede climb slowly out of the car, slinging a travel bag over his shoulder and adjusting his yellow tinted glasses.
"Thank you for the ride." Was the simple reply as Vash handed the driver 20 double dollars and shut the passenger side door. The driver simply shrugged his shoulders, pocketed the money, and drove away, leaving Vash the Stampede to himself in a cloud of dust.
What lay in front of Vash was a graveyard filled mostly with dilapidated wooden crosses. Most had been felled by the dust storms, but once a year Vash the Stampede came out to this site and cared for the graveyard. Time had this place behind, as time had left behind the legend of Vash the Stampede.
Every year, on his birthday, July 21st, he would come out here to where the city of July once stood and care for the graves. He would remember the people he saw milling around town that day so many years ago, how he had completely destroyed their lives with his weapon. Tears would creep out of the corners of his eyes and cut trails in the dust that accumulated on his face as he straightened each and every wooden cross, fixing the broken ones, marking the name carved into them in his mental list to be sure that they were all there.
He had tried to abandon the gun that could cause so much destruction back in Demetery after he had found and defeated Knives. Knives had simply gone back for it and insisted he carry it for protection. Vash had complied reluctantly. He had wanted to leave the gun and the red coat back with his old life. But he had forgotten the lesson that all those years searching for revenge had taught him, that you can never run away from the past. After awhile he had begun wearing the red coat again as well, both as a symbol of determination and as a mark of an outlaw. People had died while he wore that coat, and trying to leave their memories behind was wrong. So he wore it to remember the ones that time had forgotten, but the ones who lived outside of time never would.
He finished up the last few replacement crosses, carving the names into the surface and placing them over the graves where the crosses had been blown away. After wiping the wood shavings away from the last freshly carved name, he looked out over what once had been the great city of July, but now was only a cemetery that didnít mean anything to anyone but himself. He allowed the tears on his face to dry before tending to the last few graves, the ones that hadnít lived in July, but were out here because this was a place for people he had changed.
He walked up to the first grave, marked not by a small wooden cross, but by a large cross wrapped in cloth. It had been tipped over in the wind, but miraculously still remained after all these years. Looters had probably stopped coming out this far long ago, and even if they did, the cross was probably too heavy for them to lift.
"Wolfwood... itís been awhile."
Vashís throat closed off, making it very hard to say anything else. He didnít know what to say, same as every year. Here was the man that taught him friendship. Here also was a man who had taken the lives of so many people out of his own free will. Wolfwood had had a different education than Vash, and Wolfwood had learned that the people he killed were wicked people that caused pain and that the World would be a much better place without them.
Vash knew that everyone had the right to live, and that people can change. He hadnít ever been able to show Wolfwood.
Just before Wolfwoodís death, they had fought over the Gung-Ho Gun called Zazie the Beast. Wolfwood hadnít seen the small boy cry out in his sleep. Wolfwood had only seen the Gung-Ho Gun threatening the lives of children and a town with giant insects at his command, so Wolfwood shot him without any questions asked when he had everyone else held up at gunpoint. Vash had tried to make him see that everyone had a right to live right then, but Wolfwood simply walked away. Vash knew that it had scarred Wolfwood to kill the child. Theyíd tried to talk later, and Wolfwood had almost seen Vashís way of thinking, but then the Gung-Ho Guns interrupted again, and when Vash came back, Wolfwood was mortally wounded. Vash had let him die peacefully in the church that day.
Perhaps just before he died, he had seen. There was some reason he felt it necessary to go to the church, after all.
Wolfwood had also taught Vash that no matter how hard you fight for something, sometimes you can never win. Vash never could figure out what Wolfwood had been fighting for, why he was traveling with that chip on his shoulder and fighting injustices, but he had died trying to obtain his goal.
Vash moved onto the next grave marked Meryl Stryfe. Hers was still in perfect shape after the sun and winds had been unforgiving for another year. Meryl had died at a young age as a result of being with Vash. The wounds associated with Merylís death were torn open anew when he beheld her grave, even though her death had happened over 150 years ago.
"Meryl... here I am again. I know youíd love to see me. Iím just waiting for the punch to the face for taking so long." A solitary tear rolled down his cheek.
Meryl was different than the rest. He felt more responsible for her death than anyone elseís, even Legato Bluesummers. He knew how much he meant to the short-tempered woman. She had meant quite a bit to Vash, and he couldnít stand to see her put in danger as a result of being with him. After so many years of dodging the bounty hunters that recognized him every now and again, sometimes you were a bit slow with the dodge. Vash decided it was safer for her to stay away from him permanently after she had gotten a bullet through her leg that caused her to limp severely. He knew she couldnít dodge anymore, and next time the bounty hunters wouldnít miss her.
Vash never told her she wasnít going to see him again.
He still remembered the final goodbye down to the very last detail. The two of them walked out to the car Vash had been using at the time. It was dark, they could only see by the light from the windows of the homes lining the street. At that time, it only rained once every twenty years or so, but it was doing it that night. It was as if the heavens mourned for him. That night they were both soaked as they walked together. When they reached the car, Vash looked down at the woman, looked into her face. The rain drops gathered together and ran in small rivers down her cheeks, almost like she was crying. She was not meeting his gaze, instead looking at the ground. They were both tired. Perhaps if she had been aware of the fact he was leaving her, more meaningful conversation wouldíve passed between them. Vash opened the car door and spoke.
Meryl looked up at him, her hair collecting in ropelike strands and sticking close to her head. She gave him a strange look and simply said "Yea."
Vash drove away, tears mingling with the rainwater on his face. He knew it was wrong not to tell her, but he also knew she would follow him if she found out he wasnít coming back, and that was the last thing he wanted.
Six weeks later, Meryl Stryfe was killed by a bounty hunter trying to get to Vash. If he had known she was being held captive, he wouldíve been there in a second. Instead, he found out about it a year later when he went back to hear word about how the girls were doing.
He shuffled over to the next grave, which was tipped over and buried in the sand. He cleared the dust out of the name carving on the center. He traced it with his fingers and spoke out loud.
"Milly Thompson. Iím so sorry about what you had to see. Noone like you should have to go through that. You always bore everything else with a smile and perseverance, but I guess that was the last straw. No one can go on forever. I know, I know. I say the same thing every year. I promise next time Iíll bring pudding and act more upbeat. I know you would have." He smiled in spite of himself.
Meryl was around 38 when she had died. Milly was still living with her at the time, but was visiting her family when the bounty hunter came. She remained with her family for two years after Merylís death and after she quit her job at Bernardelli. It took a serious toll on her health. Meryl had been her best friend ever since theyíd started working together 18 years ago. After Meryl died, it was as if Milly lost her will to live. She was no longer her happy-go-lucky self, instead she was devoid of personality. One day she simply didnít wake up.
Milly Thompson died of a heart attack at age 42. Vash heard about it two days after it happened. It was easy to convince her family to bury her alongside Meryl. It had been easy to have the funeral home move Merylís body out to July since she had no family.
The next grave stood well away from the row that the other special ones were in, but it was still there, still standing upright. It was smaller than the rest, and unmarked. Legato Bluesummers. Vash only stood at it momentarily. He had long ago repented over the sin of taking someoneís life. Legato Bluesummers had been an awful person that had made him choose between the life of a wicked man who had caused suffering and death to countless people and the lives of the people he cared about. Even though Legato had deserved life, he had done much less with his than Milly and Meryl had with their own, so Vash chose him in the end. It was the only life he had taken in his 300 year existence. But still he remembered the sound the gun made when ejecting the bullet, the smell of the gunpowder, the bullet connecting with the skull of his victim, then the small smile as life fled Legatoís body and he crumpled to the ground. Legato was there to remind him that he had sinned, no matter the circumstances, despite the fact he didnít need the reminder. It was more of a verification, seeing every year the spot where he lie.
He moved on to the oldest grave on the planet. He said nothing at this one, he never did because he felt words from the mouth of a sinner like himself would offend the person resting here. He knelt and planted a red geranium on the spot. An ornately carved cross that Vash had done himself was there and marked with a name, but no body lie underneath the sand. All of Rem Saveremís remains had been vaporized when the ship she had been on exploded. But this spot was here for the woman that only Vash kept the memory of.
He had always been tempted to tell as many people as he could that the reason they were all on this planet was because of a woman named Rem Saverem. He wanted to take them to this spot and tell them this is where she is to be remembered, everyone should pay their respects. He told no one but Meryl Stryfe of Rem Saverem. All human memory of Rem had died with Meryl over a hundred years ago. Her influence still lived on in the people walking the planet everyday.
No, Vash never told anyone of the person that made their lives possible. However, he made an effort to tell everyone he could about her philosophies. Whenever he stopped a conflict and no one died, the people learned of Remís philosophies. Whenever Vash took a beating in place of someone else, the crown learned of Remís philosophies. Whenever he was playing with kids and they asked him about what he thought of something, they learned of Remís philosophies. To Vash, this was the most important woman on the planet. She was the most important woman ever, no matter what anyone else thought.
Rem Saverem. If only people knew.
The last grave was marked with an ornate cross carved with vines and flowers, just like Rem. The ornate carvings on both were to mark family. This grave contained the still-decomposing body of Millions Knives. Knives had died two months ago, having spent all his energy. Sadly, Vash was the last plant left on the planet, all the ones in captivity had died out over a hundred years ago. Luckily the systems they maintained were picked up and run by the planet itself and the people were still able to survive. The rains had been the first sign that the people were going to live after the plants expired. Knives had spent a great deal of energy hunting Vash all those years ago, more than Vash had spent hunting him, so Knives was the first to die.
"Knives... brother... this is my first visit to your grave. Donít worry though, if you ask the others, theyíll tell you that I come out here every year. Iíve run out of things to say to them though. That kinda happens after a hundred years." Bitter tears ran down Vashís face as he addressed Knives. He turned briefly to the other 5 graves that he had honored with memories that afternoon and spoke.
"Since you guys havenít heard me ramble in so long, you can listen while I talk to Knives. There are no secrets among us now." He turned back to Knives.
"This place Iíve had them put you is for the special people in my life. You remember July, when you triggered my Angel Arm? That was this place. Most of those hundreds of graves are from the residents of July. Some of them are from August, but luckily most of the people there evacuated before my Angel Arm went off. I come out here every year though not only to honor the lives I ruined, but to honor the lives that changed me. Itís a sad thing to see you join their ranks. I always assumed Iíd die before you. The innumerable scars on my body are proof enough to back that up. Unfortunately, your obsessions outdid mine and you lie here now."
"I put you next to Rem since you were the only other one here that knew her personally. Revnant Vasquez was a relative of hers, but he wasnít even born yet when she died. Only you and I know her. Despite the fact you DID know her personally, you hated her with every fiber of your being even after our showdown in Demetery. Why, Knives?! Just because Joey treated us harshly all those years ago doesnít mean that every human is bad! I know you saw that to an extent after our duel, but you never fully believed in the human race. If only youíd listened to Rem... I wouldnít have this cemetery to mourn in every year! Think of the Utopia that wouldíve been had you not ended Project SEEDS prematurely. This planet is Hell, and the inhabitants generally adapt to it, making them much more violent and corrupt than they would be in a better environment. But I promised a long time ago to stop blaming you for that. I know you felt bad."
"Knives, Iíll really miss your company. Youíre the last friend and family Iíve got. Now that youíve left, thereís nothing left for me to do but live. I have to spend the rest of my days in Hell alone. I have no one that can relate to me on this planet now. I donít even have anyone that can relate to the legend of Vash the Stampede anymore. You remember those silly stories we listened to every now and again when we wandered through towns. No one knows the truth anymore. No one ever knew the truth though, except you. Meryl maybe to an extent, but I only told her the truth, I donít know if she really ever understood or not. Iím glad we worked out our differences. Iím also glad you kept your promise not to kill. You and Rem should get along slightly better now."
Vashís throat tightened at the thought, even though it was humorous. He thought heíd better finish quickly while he still could.
"I think I have to go now, Iím not going to be able to say anymore today. Besides, that leaves me with more to say next year. Take care of them, Knives. Please." He stepped back away from the row of graves.
"Until next year."
He took off his glasses to wipe his eyes and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the lenses, the same reflection that had stared back at him for the past 300 years. He slung his heavy travel pack over his shoulder once again and trudged away from the former July. He ran his fingers through his spiked hair.
Only the barest tips of it were blonde now, the rest had turned black. Knives had only spent slightly more energy in his hunt that Vash had.
He wondered how much longer heíd have to go on living outside of time.