The leaves crunched loudly underneath Oscar’s feet. Normally, the crisp sound soothed him but today he found no comfort in it.
His feet trod the familiar steps to the church, his mind absent. He had been down this road before, had allowed himself to stray from the well-worn path, had given in and turned back.
At the end of the day, this was because of him.
Sometimes the guilt would threaten to crush him. Sometimes, it felt like he was on a lone raft in the wide, wide ocean, the platform barely hanging together when everything depended on it and there was no one to drag him to shore... not anymore.
Oscar’s eyes caught on a black, ornamental gate. He faltered in his stride, hugging the flowers he carried to his chest as though they would disappear if he loosened his grip even slightly.
He had been here many times but he’d never made it past those gates. Walking through the gate meant he was admitting to himself what happened… admitting his own part in it.
He shuffled the flowers in his hands. He couldn’t do this today. The… the weather wasn’t right! It was too cloudy and drizzly – Jacob would’ve hated it! So… maybe another day…
Oscar pushed the gate open.
He walked through row after row of cold, stone slabs. Words flashed at him from every direction: “in loving memory”, “a beloved father”, “a sister”, “a brother”, a lover.
He already knew which one was Jacob’s.
Jacob was, by all rights, a criminal and criminals didn’t get funerals for their family to attend, they didn’t get memorials and they certainly weren’t buried in the churchyard. Oscar had thought that, maybe, just maybe, it might help ease his conscience slightly knowing Jacob’s family had at least a grave to visit. It didn’t.
Oscar’s heart constricted as he drew near. Someone was crouched over Jacob’s grave, sitting in silence, just staring gently at the earth.
He didn’t belong here. This wasn’t his place to be. He needed to get out of here. He stepped back, stumbling slightly on the uneven ground. This was the woman’s time with Jacob. He’d had plenty of it when Jacob had been alive.
“It is every parents wish that they never outlive their children,” the quiet voice said. The stranger smiled sadly. “He would’ve liked this attention, y’know,” Oscar froze, turning back to look at the woman. She chuckled softly, “He was a bit of a drama queen.” Her eyes flicked up, boring into Oscar’s, “Did you know him?”
If she recognised him, she showed no sign, externally at least. Was it safe to tell the truth?
“I did,” He began, hesitantly, “He was... a friend.”
The woman nodded, looking back at the ground. “I’m glad.” Silence stretched between them for a moment. The two stayed still, as though movement might shatter the tentative bond they’d formed.
The woman shook her head gently. “Listen to me, prattling on.” She stood up suddenly, brushing herself off. She glanced up at Oscar, her eyes seeming to stare through him as though he was nothing and everything all at once. “What was your name again, sweetie?”
“I’m Os-“ Oscar paused. “I’m Alfie.” The name felt more natural to say than ‘Oscar’ did now. The woman studied him for a moment, eyes flickering across his face then she smiled.
“It’s been lovely to meet you, Alfie. I hope to see you again sometime.”
Alfie nodded. “I would like that.”
The woman brushed past him then she stopped and turned to him. “It wasn’t your fault.” Alfie flinched. He wished he could believe her, he wished he didn’t know what he knew, he wished he’d never met Jacob, he wished he hadn’t fallen so hard for him, he wished he hadn’t reacted the way he had. For a moment, he wished Jacob’s hit on him had succeeded.
He watched her walk underneath the trees, the wind sending petals cascading down around her.