Winter was the worst time for funerals, Jack decided.
The fading of the year served only to emphasise the whole “in the midst of life, we are in death” thing. And wasn’t that the most obvious pisser of all.
He shucked further into his overcoat, pulled the collar up higher, fiddled with his gloves, shuffled feet that had frozen half an hour ago.
He couldn’t keep still. Cemeteries made him antsy. He’d been in too many, military and civilian, seen too many tears, witnessed too much loss and despair, and he especially didn’t like this cemetery.
A short walk down the gravel pathway, a little to the right, under that frost-coated, bare-limbed, tree lay a little piece of his heart and a big part of his soul. Try as he might, he could not make himself turn to look.
He shivered despite the layers of clothing and turned his attention to the closing moments of the service.
Standing a little apart, across from the assembly, he scanned faces, searching out those he knew, those he thought he remembered, mentally ticking off aunts, uncles, cousins. He’d seen some glance his way, their eyes shifting quickly when he met their gaze, either by accident or design. He didn’t belong with them now. There was a part of him that believed he never really had.
Friends and family were dropping small clods of half-frozen earth onto the coffin, and Jack winced with every stark sound they made. The noise translated into zat fire, the sharp report of machine guns, the thud of bodies … a single heart-breaking gunshot. Maybe a dozen people had been gathered and now they left, one by one, talking in muted voices made softer by the gentle fall of snow that had begun moments ago.
Just one mourner was left, given a few moments of precious solitude in a lonely day filled with well-meaning people.
She wiped her eyes and whispered something that made her smile through tremulous lips, her breath huffing into a cloud of white against an angry, leaden sky that promised a deep carpet of white by nightfall. Then she gently dropped one of two white roses into the open grave, closed her eyes briefly and drew her coat closer around her, as though trying to keep something in rather than shut the cold out.
Finally, she raised her head until her gaze caught his.
A small smile, that didn’t quite reach her eyes, touched her lips and he raised a hand in awkward recognition. She took one last look at the coffin and walked towards him.
He found his legs could move after all. He’d thought he was frozen to the spot and it had nothing to do with the temperature.
They came face to face at the point where the grass met the edge of the path.
“Hi,” she said, shoving the hand that didn’t hold the remaining rose deep into a pocket.
“Hello, Sara.” He spoke gently. She’d once told him she loved that caring timbre; it melted her to the core. He’d always used it when she most needed to hear it. She needed it now and he was amazed at how easily he defaulted to what she needed.
He held open his arms and she stepped into them without hesitation. Her hair tickled his chin and he breathed her in. She wore a different perfume these days, not the light, floral fragrance he associated with her. The change was unexpected and he filed the shock of it away, vaguely wondering why it bothered him as much as it did.
She was shaking, whether through cold or reaction he didn’t know. Probably both. He rubbed a hand slowly up and down her back, offering silent comfort. He flashed on an image of doing the same thing when she went into labor with Charlie. It had helped then. He hoped it did now.
After a while, they pulled apart and stood at arm’s length, looking at each other, quietly weighing, assessing, the way it was with people once so familiar with each other.
“You came,” she said.
“I came.” He winced.
“Well, we’ve proved we’re both masters of the obvious, I guess.” She sighed, raised her eyebrows in a what are you gonna do? kind of way and they both smiled a little. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“I’m so sorry, Sara.” As the words left his mouth, he recognised them for the useless platitudes they were.
She smiled sadly and he studied her face. She looked tired and drawn, wore the distracted mask of pain mixed with disbelief that marked out the bereaved.
He thought she’d lost weight. There were a few more crow’s feet at the edge of those still-stunning blue-gray eyes. In another life, he’d told her he loved those lines as he kissed them. She’d told him he was full of it but she loved him anyway.
“I’m glad you called. Mike was a good guy. I always liked him.”
They’d begun walking, meandering side by side, leaving the cortege behind. The snow was coming down a little harder and their footsteps were falling softly on the path.
Sara eyed him sideways. “No you didn’t,” she said, teasing accusation in her voice.
Jack quirked a grin and turned slightly towards her as they wandered on. “Okay, maybe not always. But he started it. Accusing me of deflowering his little princess.”
Sara laughed aloud, the sound doing surprising things to Jack’s heart. He loved her full-throated laugh; so full of mischief and joy. So very Sara.
“Well, look at it from his perspective, Jack. You were half undressed on his living room sofa.”
“And I’m just glad I’m a speedier dresser than you. And he might have bought your ‘I think I’m coming down with the flu and running a temperature’ explanation if you hadn’t left the pack of condoms on the coffee table.”
They both laughed a little more.
“Not the most auspicious of beginnings I guess. When you put it like that,” Jack conceded.
Sara sighed. “He did like you Jack. Very much. Said you had a heart as big as Minnesota. Also said you were a stubborn, uncommunicative son of a bitch sometimes. Good judge of character, my dad.”
Jack didn’t know whether to smile or wince at that, so he coughed and felt a little embarrassed instead.
“I’m glad it was quick. I mean, I’m not glad, it’s just …. God, I really am bad at this stuff.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, I know what you mean. It was very sudden and, like they say, it’s best for the person involved and lousy for those left behind.” She kicked at a pebble on the path, spraying up some wet snow on to her boots. She watched as it dissolved on the leather. “If he’d survived, he would never have been the same. So it is a blessing. I just can’t see it like that right now.”
They came to a halt and turned to face each other.
“You gonna be all right?” He needed to know.
Sara’s leather-gloved fingers played with the petals of the rose.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Are you happy? I mean, not right now, obviously. Shit.” Jack shifted his feet uncomfortably. How did she manage to make him feel like the gauche, young individual he’d been when they first met? He was an Air Force colonel, for God’s sake. He made life or death decisions, flew planes, killed people. Saved the planet.
“Yeah. I am.”
Jack pursed his lips and nodded, tilting his head towards the man he knew was waiting by the car behind them.
“Does he make you happy?” Does he know about that sweet little spot behind your ear? Does he buy you dark chocolate instead of milk? Does he know not to hold you while you cry but when you go quiet and angry afterwards?
“Most of the time. But I guess that’s as good as it gets with any man.” And there was that glint in her eye, the one that always challenged him and made him realise all over again why he loved her so much.
Jack smiled down at her and hoped that something of what he was feeling was written on his face. Something. Maybe not all.
“How about you?”
“Oh, you know me. Busy, busy.”
Sara tilted her head and waited. Damn, but he never could get anything past her.
“There is someone. It’s early days. But yeah, I’m happy.”
She smiled and linked her arm through his. Together, they looked down at the gravestone in front of them. “He would have wanted that. Both of us, happy. If ever there was a child who radiated happiness …”
Jack tensed and Sara’s hand closed tighter on his arm. “Remember when he lost those front teeth. That enormous gap? And you teased him about not being able to whistle?”
Don’t do this. Don’t make me talk about him. Don’t make me think of what I cost you.
Sara’s hand tightened further. For her. He could do this for her.
“Oh yeah. He went to the toy store, bought a kazoo and blew it right in my ear to wake me up the next morning. He was his mother’s son alright.”
A silence fell between them and Jack hoped Sara was remembering only happy things.
She bent down slowly and placed the flower on the cold ground, pausing to run her hand briefly across the name on the headstone.
Jack slipped an arm around her shoulder. “You coming back to the house?” she asked, still looking at the grave.
“I can’t.” I shouldn’t. They wouldn’t want me there.
She studied him hard for a few moments. “Jack, I may have left our marriage, but I never left you.”
And there it was. She never had left him in all the ways that really mattered.
“I have to go,” she said. “They’re waiting.”
He leaned down and placed the warmest and gentlest of kisses on her ice-cold lips. She smiled, reached for his hand and squeezed it.
In the failing light, he watched her walk away from him again.