Claude's parents publish an obituary. It's short and almost blandly sentimental. There's not much actually about Claude—just his parents gushing about their pride in his service and the phrase "honorable death" being thrown around like it's going out of style. The funeral is to be held next Saturday.
Crissy finds it on Tuesday.
She's with Jeanie, lingering outside the Waverly like she has almost every Tuesday for the past three months, and she really only picks up the crumpled newspaper so she can avoid Jeanie's pitying gaze a little longer. She flips it open to a random page, eyes jerking across it in a reasonable facsimile of reading.
She pauses when she sees a familiar face staring back at her. She can't place him at first- his hair is too short, his gaze too resigned and solemn. The photo looks almost like a mug shot, or a particularly awful school photo. Crissy can't remember having ever met someone so miserable looking. And then recognition dawns, and her hands clench around the paper.
"Jeanie!" she calls, voice panicky. "Jeanie, come here!"
Jeanie looks at her with concern. "What is it? Is it Frank?" she asks. With a grunt of effort, she pushes herself up from her seat on the bench and walks towards Crissy. She lays a hand on Crissy's trembling shoulder. "Crissy?"
Crissy chokes and thrusts the newspaper at Jeanie, who drops half of it in surprise. Gathering up the scattered papers, she keeps glancing at Crissy in bafflement. Crissy takes a shuddering breath and says, "That top page."
A moment passes before Jeanie reacts. Her expression seems to shatter, her knuckles whiten, and the edges of the paper tear under the force of her grip. Tears begin to roll down her cheeks, but she hands the paper back to Crissy, walks unflinchingly up to a passing businessman, and asks for change. He seems to give it to her more out of discomfort than any philanthropic inclinations, but Jeanie doesn't care. She walks to a payphone on the corner, hand on her swollen stomach.
Sheila picks up on the third ring.
Claude had barely been gone for two months. Just two months.
Sheila knew he hadn't even been in Vietnam the entire time. He had to be trained first, assigned to a unit, deployed. It took time to—to—to ship him off away from everyone who cared about him, to steal his life from him, to ruin everything, to fucking kill him—
A loud sob broke the stillness in the apartment. Sheila blindly grabbed for something, anything; her hand found a lamp, and she tossed it as hard as she could against the wall. The lampshade cracked and the glass base shattered, showering the carpeted floor with sharp splinters.
"Goddamn it!" she cursed, fingers twitching at her sides. Her face was flushed and her nose and eyes were dribbling and she needed so badly to just hurt something, but the only other thing within reach was a framed photo of her and Berger and Claude and just looking at it ached so much she didn't want to touch it even to break it.
There was a pounding on her door, and Mrs. Matthews from next door was calling her name. "Sheila, darling, is everything alright? Sheila? I thought I heard something breaking."
Sheila breathed hard. "I'm fine," she called, but her voice cracked. She grabbed her jacket and rushed out the door, pushing past her flustered neighbor. "I'm fine," she repeated.
Once outside, the frigid early January weather did nothing to cool her emotions. When her feet automatically brought her to the park, Sheila immediately turned in the other direction. She couldn't deal with the others right now, couldn't be sure that she wouldn't do or say something she would regret. That she wouldn't accuse them or blame them for what had happened.
She thought of Berger and the way he'd looked since Claude had gone. Since before then, even. How he'd seem to have known—known that Claude would leave, known that Claude wasn't coming back. He'd been sulking around, high half the time and waiting to get high the other half. Sheila had nearly kicked him out of the apartment a week ago after a particularly nasty fight about his future.
Maybe she should have.
How could he—why didn't he tell her? All that time, he'd been acting so strangely. She'd been so sure that Claude would listen to her; that he'd burn his draft card with the rest of them, or that he'd come to the protest, or flee to Canada, or just do anything but what he did. She'd thought she knew what Claude would do, but she hadn't at all, but Berger had known and he hadn't told her. Maybe if she'd understood, she could've done something, could've stopped him.
Could've saved him.
Fury, intense and nauseating, built up inside her gut. If Berger had just said something, maybe none of this would have happened. He had known what was going on, and they were supposed to be in this together; he should've told her. If he had told her, Claude might still be alive, might still be here to take her hand and just…
Sheila stalked down the street thunderously. Her tears felt hot against her chilled skin. She growled in frustration, wiping at her face and kicking out blindly. Her foot collided solidly with the base of a streetlight, and she cursed in pain, limping back a few steps. This was Berger's fault, everything was his damn fault, he should've just—if he hand just—
Sheila slumped against a building, foot aching, the rage draining out of her to leave a hollow, raw feeling.
She hadn't understood Claude at all. She hadn't seen what he was thinking, what he was going through—hadn't ever considered that he wouldn't listen to her. She hadn't understood Claude, and now he was dead.
Now she'd never understand him.
A message on Sheila's answering machine told her that Jeanie had seen Berger in the park. When he wandered into the apartment subdued but lucid, Sheila was surprised. She'd thought that Berger would want to escape—this—however possible.
Maybe she didn't understand Berger either.
Sheila said nothing as Berger sat down heavily on the couch. She didn't have anything to say; nothing seemed appropriate. The silence weighed oppressively in the air.
Claude would have known what to say.
"I'm going to bed," Sheila murmured eventually. Berger just grunted, not mentioning that it was only nine thirty or lewdly inviting himself along. Sheila swallowed and quickly closed herself into the bedroom.
The next morning, Sheila left her room to see Berger's sleeping form sprawled half on the couch, half on the floor, his left hand pillowing his head and his right resting on his crotch. She was a moment away from going to him and laying her hand on his, from grinning and saying, "Banana Berger, it's nice to know that even in your sleep you find my presence so irresistible," from kissing him awake—but her feet were stuck frozen to the floor and her mouth was glued shut.
She turned away and poured herself a bowl of cereal, eating at the counter so she didn't have to see Berger as he woke, could pretend she didn't hear the soft, "Claude," on his breath.
Berger mumbled, "Morning," and Sheila half-heartedly returned the greeting. The awkward silence of last night seemed to carry into the morning, and after that there was no sound in the apartment save for the sound of Sheila's whole-grain cereal crunching in her mouth.
Every bite that she took seemed unnaturally loud to her, as if a microphone was pressed up against her cheek. She swallowed, and it practically echoed.
Unable to take it any longer, Sheila turned to Berger and asked, "So what are you doing today?"
Seeming surprised at the address, Berger glanced up at her. In his hands was clutched a metal picture frame, and Sheila's heart nearly stopped. He gazed at it for a moment before placing it gingerly down beside him. "Dunno," he replied with a shrug, aiming for casualness but betrayed by the tense line of his shoulders. "Hang in the park, scare some tourists. See if Dionne's free."
Sheila was struck with a sudden, fierce annoyance at his answer. The emotion felt familiar and easy, and better than thinking about—
"That's it?" she asked.
"Nothing much else around, is there?" Berger replied, eyes cast towards the picture.
"There could be," Sheila said sharply, "if you'd look for something. You're going to waste your life like this, Berger."
She had a class at ten o'clock, Sheila realized belatedly. It was already nine; she was going to be late if this turned into another argument. "Let's just leave it be, Berger," she said, grabbing her jacket and key off the counter. "I have class; I can't deal with this right now. We'll talk later, okay?"
"Or we could not," he replied, tone falsely conversational. "And you could just get off my back."
Sheila paused, frustration halting her at the door. She turned to glare at Berger, mouth open to rebuke him, but hesitated when she saw him.
His arms were folded in front of his chest defensively, his shoulders slumped forward as he curled into himself on the couch. His wild hair hung half in his face, and his eyes were red-rimmed and wet. Sheila felt something break inside of her at the sight, and the wall of her irritation crumbled.
"This isn't…" She tried to say. "I didn't mean…
"What are we going to do?" she finally asked. "I don't…" She moved slowly towards Berger, kneeled in front of him, and laid her hands on his knees. "Claude used to fix things," she whispered. "He used to help us talk, or he'd talk for us. But he's— he's gone now."
Berger shuddered underneath her, lurched forward and wrapped her in his arms, and suddenly everything seemed too real again.
Claude was really dead.
It was snowing at the funeral.
Not the funeral that Claude's family had put on, because they had assuredly not been invited, and gatecrashing just hadn't seemed worth it. Claude's parents wanted a proper military funeral for their son, and Claude would've wanted them to be happy. But the Tribe came together after the official party had disbanded and stood around the tombstone.
They'd give Claude the service he would've wanted.
Hud stepped forward. Covered in snow, his hair looked gray, and the sad set of his eyes gave him the appearance of an old man.
"We're gathered here today to celebrate the life of our Lord Buckingham, who overshot on his way back to Manchester and got himself caught up in Nam," he said, the reverend of their makeshift ceremony. "And they liked him so damn much over there they figured they'd keep him."
He swallowed, then continued. "Now, maybe someone's regretting that purchase, but there's a No Returns policy in Vietnam, so Claude won't be getting back to us anytime soon. Maybe he wishes he could, or maybe he's in a really great place right now and isn't giving any of us a second thought. Doesn't change the fact that he's not coming back." Hud paused and looked at the rest of the Tribe grimly.
"Let's make sure not to give them anybody else, alright?"
A cold wind wound about them, whipping the snow around their ankles. The only movement was that of their hair flying in the breeze.
Hud sighed. He reached out to the tombstone, laying his hand on it as if on a friend's shoulder. Tears lingered at the corners of his eyes. "Sorry, man," he said. "That's all I got." He squeezed the stone, then let his hand slide off the edge and stepped back.
No one else moved for a moment. Finally, Crissy approached the tombstone and draped a wreath of slightly withered flowers on the cold granite.
"Bye, Claude," she murmured.
"Bye, Claude," Woof echoed.
Berger reached out and clasped Sheila's hand in his. She squeezed it hard.
"It's not fair," she whispered.
"No," said Dionne, hugging her arms tightly to herself. "It's really not."
They lingered there in the cold and wet for a long while. Eventually they disbanded, heading back to whatever homes they had, unable to look one another in the eyes. For weeks afterward, their corner of the park remained abandoned.
It hurt too much to be together.
Berger and Sheila barely spoke to each other anymore. He still lived at her apartment, and they were still together—but that didn't mean much. Sheila spent as much time as possible travelling and protesting, molding her grief into a weapon to wield against her opponents. She almost felt lucky that, on most of the nights she spent at home, Berger was too high to even notice her.
The first time they spoke in a week, they ended up arguing again.
Sheila hadn't meant to bring up Berger's expulsion in the middle of it. She knew that it had hurt him, whatever he said, and that as little as he had cared for school he hadn't wanted to get kicked out during his senior year. (Claude had told her that, she remembered, had explained to her why Berger had reacted so badly to her disappointment. Her heart ached at the memory.) But she couldn't stop herself from picking at it, from reminding him just how little he was doing now, how badly he was wasting all the potential she saw in him. It drove her nearly mad.
She couldn't even remember what he'd said that had triggered her explosion, either. He was high, incredibly so, and most of what he said in that state either revolved around food or was nonsense, but she had arrived home from a particularly bad day of classes and she couldn't stop thinking about Claude, and he'd been there; part of her wanted to hurt him, if only to relieve the stress.
The fight was uneven. Sheila wasn't entirely sure Berger understood everything she was shouting at him, or why. She understood the feeling.
"Why are you doing this?" she demanded. "You could be doing something, anything, instead of lying here all day getting stoned. You could get a job, learn a trade, get your GED. Claude wouldn't want—I don't want you to waste your life away like this. What's the point of it?"
Berger simply stared at her, and for a moment Sheila wasn't sure he was going to respond.
"I couldn't make him invisible," Berger said. Sheila looked at him in confusion, and he shrugged.
"Maybe if I can figure out how to be invisible now, I can try again on him."
Sheila's breath caught in her throat. "Berger, babe…" She struggled to continue, tears suddenly building up in her eyes, and she cursed herself for being so weak.
"Claude's dead," she finally choked out. "He's already invisible."
Berger was silent.
Sheila reached out and pulled him into an embrace, his head resting on her shoulder and his arms slowly coming up to wrap around her waist. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "So just stay visible for me, okay? I can't lose you too." Shuddering, she tightened her grip. "Not ever, you hear me?"
Jeanie's baby was born two weeks after Claude's funeral, and if anyone thought that Hooper was a god-awful name for a baby girl, then no one said anything.
The Tribe gathered all together in the park for the first time in almost a month the week after Jeanie left the hospital. The atmosphere was awkward and stifled until she arrived, looking tired but happier than any of them had felt since December, Hooper cradled in her arms.
"Say hi to your family, Hooper," Jeanie said with a smile. Hooper's mouth flopped opened and closed, drool dribbling from her mouth as she babbled unintelligibly. Her large blue eyes fluttered curiously over the new people surrounding her.
Woof took a tentative step forward, waving at Hooper timidly. "Hi there," he said. He looked lost for a moment, fiddling with the edge of his vest, before inspiration dawned on his face and he leaned in close to the baby, covering his face in his hands. "Peak-a-boo!"
Hud let out a loud snort of a laugh, and several other members of the Tribe chuckled with him. In that moment, the tension seemed to ease away, as if a weight had been lifted from their collective shoulders. Dionne and two others approached Jeanie and put in their own efforts towards entertaining the baby.
Sheila looked on with a sense of wonder. She didn't even like babies, but for the first time in what felt like forever she thought she could see a future past this moment. Crissy's laughter sounded sweet in her ears, Woof's outrageous attempts to amuse the baby were actually funny, and Berger's hand felt warm in hers.
That night she went home and cried harder than she had since that first day, because Claude should've been here for this. Claude loved kids, was great with them in a way Sheila had never been. He deserved to have this.
When she finally left her room, she found Berger spaced out on the couch, a smoked joint snuffed out in the ashtray, the picture of them and Claude clutched to his chest. He barely noticed her as she lay down next to him, but as she drifted off to sleep she felt his arms curl around her and his lips press against her hair.
The next morning, she woke up to Berger grinning at her lasciviously, his hand sneaking towards the waistband of her jeans. She raised an eyebrow at him and giggled as he began kissing down her neck, tangling her fingers in his hair.
She wasn't sure things would ever really be okay again—but this was close enough.