Fortinbras Clay's Atomic Funeral

"I knew grandfather was rich, but I had no idea." Jess pursed her lips as she scanned her copy of the will. "I thought he just did infomercials for a living."

"You have no idea." The attorney had retreated hours ago, speeding back to the city in his battered GMC Canyon. We'd thought it odd someone in law would drive a vehicle so old, but grandpa Fortinbras had specialized in collecting odd associates. Calling the Clay family eccentric was like calling the Elephant Man disfigured. "That was just a sideline. He made his money in rare earth. The garden badger and rotary nose-hair extractors came in later when he indulged his more creative, ah, impulses. I think all the radiation might've been a factor there."

"Rare earth?"

"Thulium, gadolinium, ytterbium, those kinds of things. Rare metals."

"You're just making those names up."

"Could be. But I'm not." I sat down next to my sister. "The old man was from Norway. Owned half of Ytterby."

"You're making that name up, too," she accused.

"No deceit at all." I flipped through the will. In typical Fortinbras fashion, it looked more like the incestuous love affair between a ransom note and a party hat. To get to the point where the words were even sequential required extensive folding. "It's the site of a mine—half the periodic table is represented there. Watches, bike frames, superconductors, the wiring behind the screen of your smart phone. None of it would work without the rare metals coming out of those mines."

"Suddenly, his funeral demands are beginning to making sense." Jess flipped to the final section of the document. It was brief, nothing but a pair of cartoon cats with a word bubble coming out of their mouths: "GIVE ME AN ATOMIC FUNERAL."

This was the point where the attorney, having reached his limit for weirdness, had fled, leaving behind a cloud of apologies and knocking over the vase next to the door, spilling willow branches across half the entryway. He hadn't stopped to pick them up.

"I'd like to say I was surprised, that we were going to get a Pentecostal fire and brimstone funeral—"

"Grandma would've loved that."

"Yeah, she probably would—the witch."

"True," Jess agreed, eyeing the cats. The one on the right looked decidedly dodgy, I decided, watching her watch the cats.

"Anyway. But"

"Where do we even start?" Jess put her chin on her hands and stared at me. None of us had been particularly close to the old man. He had been too crazy, too surrounded by oddities and ideas and his close inner circle of misfits. Family had ranked fairly low in the circus carnival of his life. But we had to do this right, partly because our inheritance was riding on it, partly because of family obligation and partly because he was, basically, a good man. He deserved a proper send-off and his associates were too scattered, too dysfunctional to do it for him.

I'm not sure I'd trust his business partners with safety scissors, let alone something like this. Old Fortinbras always said he picked his partners the same way he liked to pick his nose. We still have no idea what he meant—not an uncommon occurrence at all. He said he went senile at twenty simply to get it out of the way and the years hadn't been particularly kind.

"I say we blow him up."

"What?" Then she narrowed her eyes. "Mushroom cloud, cute. No, we can't do that. Nukes are illegal."

"Mushroom cloud gravestone?"

"No, too tacky." Jess stared at the cats some more. The one on the left was lopsided, possibly malformed. I didn't like the way it drooled a little as it spoke about atomic funerals. Grandfather's art didn't particularly captivate her either. She drew a mustache on one, and quickly sketched in a goatee to keep it company.

"The man had elephants in his backyard. Tacky is something the Clay family is good at."

"Point." She stopped, thinking, then countered—"Bury him in Los Amigos."

"Los Alamos."

"Whatever. Somewhere radioactive. Can't get much more atomic than that."

"Hm. Feasible. Property values would be low. Getting permission to hold the ceremony would be a bitch." I leaned back, twined my fingers behind my head and stared at the ceiling fan, which had seen better days. The blades laced back and forth, tracing a lazy figure-eight above us. "Nah, how about this?"

"I'm all ears."

"We hold an atomic funeral."

"No shit."

"Quiet." I hold up a finger. "Special casket and gravestone. As many elements as possible represented. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen—all the easy stuff gets a free ride in whatever wood the casket's made of."

"Not to mention what's already in the corpse," she pointed out morbidly. "What about the dangerous radioactives?"

"Embedded in a lead casket that goes in with him."

"Or put in the punch of whoever grandpa had on his shit list."

"He didn't have a shit list. He genuinely liked everyone."

"Except for Belgians. Ever since the waffle-maker fiasco of ought-three."

"ANYWAY," I glared her into silence. "Grave marker has filigrees in as many other elements as artistically feasible. We ink the invitations in gold, cobalt, whatever pretty and harmless elements we can get away with. Transition metals go in the casket with him. I figure we can get up to about atomic number 90 or so before the half-lives get annoyingly short."

"What about the gasses?"

"Gasses? Oh, right. Helium and such." I paused. "Balloons. Of course."

"Even the poisonous ones?"

"Especially the poisonous ones."

"The Pentecostal side of the family's going to be deeply uncomfortable with this."

"Screw them, they never visited anyway. The elephants always scared 'em off."

She frowned and added a top hat to the cat on the left. "Are the elephants invited?"

"That's on page forty-seven." I flipped the will over. And yes, the elephants were invited.

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