The song for this part is Victim by MOTHXR: https://open.spotify.com/user/nihilismdun/playlist/0iqtApD1DN1dM4RpTsL93n?si=KU4VqAVxTNisI2oSgj5IGQ
Natasha’s baby teeth sat loose on the dressing table, each one aligned to replicate the placement in her once baby mouth. Gentle fingers touched them all too fondly, the shifting back and forth of the enamel made tiny scuttling sounds against the woodgrain. James knew he would never admit to pulling them out of the ornate china box almost every day – the guilt that surmounted in tsunamic waves at the base of his ribs on the days that he didn’t was crippling. But what could he do otherwise? Life goes on. It always does. He scooped the teeth back into the case and hid it away in the back of his wardrobe, so well versed in keeping this shame a secret that it was second nature.
When it first happened, dishes had piled so high in their fridge that the family didn’t buy groceries for three weeks – barely able to eat the casseroles offered let alone leave the confines of their combined mausoleum to function on a basic human level. When it first happened, James had laid in bed for weeks, convinced that the youngest, Clint, was Natasha and that he was seeing some psychotic apparition; his dark hair turned slate grey seemingly overnight. When it first happened, many nights had seen Steve awake and startled, pained sobs from his husband and son anguished enough to peel paint and move mountains, but not wake the dead. When it first happened, he, of course, mourned, but hadn’t the courage or will to do it so openly: disappearing into the bathroom at his menial office job to cry, between doing the filing and the paperwork. When it first happened, they’d gotten vacant prayers, muscle-memory sympathy and idle well-wishes, but where the hell was God when they needed him most?
Trump tweeted about it. People got angry about it. Nothing was done about it.
Now, it had happened something like a year ago now, and that pain never lessened.
“C’mon Clint, we’re going.”
“Some other time, had to go in early today.”
Steve’s had to go in early everyday for the past six months. Not once had he gone to visit. James and Clint both knew it was the darkness lurking beneath the surface of his skin, drawing him further and further back into his body with the weight of fear, guilt and desperation. Natasha had known him for nearly her whole life before it happened: a tiny, frowning three-year-old with wild tangles of hair, blocking the hallway as James and Steve stood in the entrance to the run-down brownstone. Steve, with his own fears in his throat, abandoned by the woman he thought he loved, and a squirming, months old Clint in his arms, had leaned down to show the girl the baby at her demands.
“Your baby is squished .” She’d finally announced, punctuated with a nod, and James’ eyes had widened in shock as Steve laughed for the first time in what felt like his entire life.
“ Tasha !” James had hissed at her. Steve just kept laughing, securing a fussing Clint in his arms and letting the tears fall as they did, his laughs morphing into cries.
“Okay,” James had grabbed Natasha’s hand, steering Steve into the family room and lowering him onto the couch. “Nat, baby, can you go find a stuffed toy you think Clint might like? Think about it real good for him.” She’d frowned at that, but James knew she’d do it, and take her sweet time as well.
“As long as he just looks at it.” And then she’d skipped away, feet stomping against the wooden stairs. James and Steve had been best friends (and something between that and boyfriends) for what felt like a millennia, until college tore them apart and young, single parenthood glued them back together not even six years later.
It still hurt Clint when the question was asked – whether he would visit or not – until the clouds of fear that made Steve’s blue eyes stormy and desolate rolled in. James was a little more understanding, but not by a lot. As the car roared into drive, Clint plugged his phone in, shuffling through the music until something mediocre played. The next song, however, pierced the speakers, and suddenly James was thrown back in front of the school gates that afternoon. Red and blue lights flickering, casting echoes and glows and throwing the other distraught parents into frenzied panic, the shrill ring in his ears distorting the confusion of the cold sun. There were calls, cheers, cries, but they were all made underwater, seemingly, and for some reason he had forgotten how to swim. There were loud pops mingling with the police sirens and battering rams as they broke the bike locks on the exits. Everyone could hear the running, a stampede of children in their most primitive state – a pack of antelope sprinting from a sole, hungry lion. The police were quick, and so were the medics, and in the throes of families being reunited, Police Chief Fury – a kind albeit strict friend of Steve’s – threw a boy to the ground, the other officers scrambling to detain him enough to clip the cuffs around his wrists. The hunting rifle lay alone at his feet. He was only a child, just like the rest of them. Fury had hefted him up, greying beard nothing to deter his muscular stature, and he caught James’ eye over the symphony of people. His worst fears were confirmed when the lines between Fury’s brows creased even deeper: could feel it twist and ache in his stomach while bile rose and he fell forwards to the grass—
James’ fingers went taught, white knuckles straining around the wheel as Clint’s face grew wide and tearful, the sound effects of the song replicating that of a gunshot. He fumbled with the music and finally ripped the aux cord from the phone. “Dad, God , i’m so–”
His voice was so pinched, so strained and foreign. Clint hid inside the hood of his sweater, and a tear collected dust on the sill of his eye, while James’ chest rose and fell in too quick a succession to hide the fact he wasn’t okay. Life goes on, it always does. It had been a year, they should have themselves together by now, surely? But the car remained silent, static tension broken in harsh compound fractures that dared to tear open wounds they’d tried so fruitlessly to heal. There wouldn’t be any kind of redemption, but they would learn, so agonisingly slowly, to breathe easier with every day that passed. Nervously, Clint reached a fretting hand over. James' fingers were still clamped too tight around the leather of the steering wheel, but his son was careful to gently unwrap the one closest to him. He held his father’s hand in his lap, delicate as he smoothed his purple finger-nailed hands over the faint speckling of age spots. James’ skin was starting to become pliant with middle-age, and Clint kneaded the one he gripped like it was clay. James worried at his bottom lip to stop from letting out a rattling breath. Clint hadn’t held his hand like this since he was eleven.
The cemetery was too icy for the time of year. The weatherman had told the family it would be like this though, smiling behind the glass and LED screen. His ugly suit bought just for that night, just to tell James and Clint and Steve – but not Natasha – that the snow was coming early this season. The sleeted grass cried and groaned underfoot, but James was certain he had no more tears to share with it. Clint wondered aloud if Nat was cold, tried to lighten the mood as best as his naïve fourteen-year-old brain could, but James ignored him for the best part of all the time lately, so he didn’t really hear. They walked among the morbid isles, rather stoically, with the caked-on nonchalance of a trip to the grocery store, over a graveyard. They’d plastered on band-aids of stone, determined that the disposition in the car would not be the one they took to her tombstone with them. Clint stood a little farther away than James would have liked, but as he toed his boots at the wilting ground, he was suddenly reminded of how young his second child really was.
“Go on, I’ll be just a minute.” James sighed, and Clint didn’t hesitate to leave him to kneel in quiet melancholy before the grave:
Natasha Alianovna Barnes
27th August 1998 - 11th December 2014
Beloved daughter of Natalia Romanova and James Barnes
Natalia Yelena Romanova
18th April 1975 - 30th August 1998
Loving mother of Natasha and partner to James
James was careful to keep the ceramic box hidden in the deep pocket of his biggest winter coat, fingerless gloves closing over the warm, insulated clasp and pulling it up. The faded flower pattern painted atop had been a family heirloom from Natasha’s mother, the design trekking footprints in Natalia’s family for as long as she (or anyone for that matter) could remember. It had survived wars, fires, migration from Russia to America where a dream was born and people died. It was meant to be Natasha’s by now, but she hadn’t made it to seventeen – Clint would be the recipient if he ever made it to seventeen instead.
The cut-throat burn of James’ thoughts caught him in a chokehold, fingers rattling like a wind chime in a hurricane. One hand wrapped tightly around it, the ornate edging bit into his freezing skin, the sting grounding as he dug the fingers of his other hand into the hardened soil. Scooping out a trench big enough, James’ certainty was proven wrong, when the deep ache of his breastbone stirred up the tears he’d left behind so long ago. Gasping, the case clinked, its contents jittering with the aftershocks of his anxiety as he pried it open. He laid out each piece, had the alignment so carefully memorised that he could have done it blind – or asleep, though that was a thing he had all but forgotten existed. The dirt patch, no bigger than the size of a baby’s mouth, welcomed the tiny whites of Natasha’s teeth in two perfect rows.
“Life goes on. It always does.” More tears fell as James covered the teeth over with the loose dirt he had dug up.