The end begins to feel too far away.
Every second is a last second, nothing to be gained back again, but Richard can't help wishing for it all to go a little faster, for the end to just be over so he can start whatever comes after. Her hand is warm and dry, fingers tucked in against his palm like a thousand times before.
But her breath is not right, and the light beneath her skin is wrong. Shadows have moved in.
He watches her last breath fall light and free into the sterile air of the hospital. Her chest doesn't rise again, but he grips her hand anyway, wanting to pull her back with will. When he rests his head down against her shoulder, his face is wet with tears.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, because he didn't really mean to wish her away like that. (Now it's too late to take it back.)
He can feel people watching him, the whole day, and he hates it. He hates being the centre of attention. It was how he found Alma, really – them both trying to fly so low beneath the radar they crashed into one another in the library and tangled.
He stares at the floor of the church and tries not to think about all the things that are wrong.
Alma hadn't wanted much. She had specifically not wanted a lot of things, but who is he to deny Bill and Verna their choices in these final moments with her.
I'm sorry, he thinks, but the thought is swept out again as he tells himself she can't hear his apology. She's in a box just a few feet away, a box that looks too small to hold her, but she can't hear him. She doesn't know he's there.
He can't feel her anymore; she's gone.
He keeps his eyes on the floor and he tries not to think about all the eyes watching him.
He couldn't get the funeral right – couldn't stand up for what Alma had really wanted, so how is he going to stand up for his daughter at all? Fatherhood has been bruised and thundered by the cancer; every shining moment with Mary Anne competing with the grief and heartache over Alma.
He wants to do it right, but he has no idea how. Mary Anne is all he has left now, and he's all she has. It makes it hard to swallow; fear sticks in his throat and all he can do is sit and think of questions he never asked Alma – things she knew and never told him.
He doesn't want to let Mary Anne go – not at all – but he can't figure out how to look at her just yet; he can't figure out how to focus all of his attention on her.
When Verna says he needs to get back on his feet first, he can't help but think she's right.
So he lets her go, and he thinks he should be committing every detail of his daughter's face to memory, lingering over his farewell with her because every moment is precious. But he just touches her cheek with his finger, thinks I love you, sweetheart, and won't watch as Verna carries her away.
The house is big and empty, and he can still see Alma's fingerprints in places. He smears them away with his thumbs, and then he takes a cloth out from beneath the sink and polishes everything until it seems like there's nothing left of her at all, no surface left the way it was when she last touched it.
He strips the bed and refuses to sleep in it; he dozes in the armchair in front of the empty fireplace as the nights drag on.
He starts to talk to her sometimes, but not out loud.
Do you think I've done the wrong thing? he asks, and he listens to the clock tick above the mantel and he hates the silence, and he hates, hates that he can't feel her. Hates that she hasn't given him some sign that she is still there, somehow, like he had always believed she would be.
He can't believe it now, because he knows she'd be trying everything to let him know she's there, and there's nothing. Nothing.
He would give anything to be haunted.
He went to church every Sunday with Alma, but he can't stomach it now.
The creak of a pew or the soft ruffle of bible paper is enough to bring the stifled air of the funeral back into his lungs. He can feel the weight of sorrow and judgement across his shoulders.
He can't bring himself to believe it would make a difference, anyway. He can't even pretend to feel her disappointment or her worry.
He tries so hard sometimes. He keeps his eyes open and tries to catch movement in the corners of the room, a second reflection in the bathroom mirror, the scent of perfume in the air. He tries to fool himself, just for comfort, just for a moment of faith, but he can't.
Verna doesn't want to give him his daughter back.
He's not sure he has a right to argue for her. What good is it anyway, him just a shell and trying to fumble his way through his own life without the worry of another soul here with him.
He can't possibly give her what she deserves.
One Saturday morning he wakes up with his face buried in Alma's pillow, and he can still smell her shampoo there, deep down, and the clean smell of the night cream she would rub into her hands and face before she reached for her book each night.
He lurches back to his side of the bed and curses himself for tossing and turning so much.
And then he throws her pillow to the other side of the room, hating it as much as it's possible to hate something so simple and useless.
He puts her pillow back, later. Almost apologises to it, but catches himself and feels foolish. He smooths the cotton slip under his palm and wonders how he will ever explain that scent to Mary Anne, that night scent that kept so close to the curve of her mother's cheek.
His throat tightens at the thought of having to explain anything to her.
He could evade it, if he wanted to. (But he doesn't want to.)
He's afraid of winning her back. He'll not just be a widower, he'll be a single father, and he doesn't know any other single fathers, not a one.
He was ordinary when he had Alma. He can't hide behind ordinary anymore.
It's been so long that Mary Anne is far heavier than he thought she would be, her wispy hair darker and curling at the ends.
She fusses and cries almost all the way home. When she finally falls asleep, a frown marks her brow, a little crease across the bridge of her tiny nose, and he doesn't know how to make it go away. He's not sure how to keep her happy.
When he puts her to bed in the pink and white room with the curtains chosen by Alma, he feels overwhelmed to the point of hollowness. There's an ache behind his eyes he can't dismiss as he looks down into the crib, Mary Anne's chubby little hands clutching at the air.
He strokes her cheek gently and she smiles an achingly-familiar smile up at him, eyes dark and shining. He feels his heart lift in his chest, his next intake of breath sharp and clean as something real, something found settles there.
He has just been looking for her in the wrong places.