I sat back then and listened to the eulogies given by Nathan’s family and friends; each person passed by his coffin afterward and dropped a rose inside. I closed my eyes; from all the way up the back, I couldn’t see Nathan in that box unless I angled my face the right way. Mum and Harry had closed caskets. I don’t think I’d have coped with seeing their faces, so still, so devoid of life. Just seeing Harry’s tiny coffin beside Mum’s was enough to haunt me forever. It seemed funny how, no matter how big you thought someone was in life, when you lay them down, with six sides wrapping them tightly, they just look so small. It wasn’t right to see a coffin that small.
David moved his hand onto mine and squeezed firmly. “Just don’t think about it, Ara.”
I turned my head to look at him; he kept his eyes forward.
“Nathan was, and will always be a well-respected and much loved friend.” I tuned in to the voice of Emily, standing up at the front, reading from a stack of palm cards. “He was there to give advice or a quick word of encouragement to anyone—be they a jock, a chess geek, a cheer girl, or even a kid he didn’t know.
“Nathan was the guy we all expected to see graduate with honours, make the national football league, marry the prom queen.” Emily smiled then, looking down. “Death is sad in any case, but when it comes so suddenly and takes the life of someone who had so much to offer the world, who never had the chance, it truly is tragic.” She stepped down and placed the cards inside the casket. “We’ll all miss you, Nathe. Rest in peace.”
David’s hand tightened on mine, and a single cool drop fell between our palms; I looked up and saw him nodding, breathing out slowly through parted lips.
He sniffed and shook his head, wiping a line of moisture from his chin.
The grey sky opened up as we stepped outside the church, and the cool breeze eased the trapping tension of my own sorrows—sorrows I had no right to bring with me to the farewell of another. Small droplets of rain began to sprinkle over the black hearse while David and a group of boys from the football team carried the pine box and slid it into the back.
“You okay, honey?” Dad whispered in my ear.
“I could take her home?” David offered quietly, popping up beside me.
“I’m fine,” I scolded, moving swiftly away to stand among the crowd.
David walked by the hearse with the other pallbearers, leading the procession line through the church gates and into the cemetery. Each headstone we passed displayed names, dates, flowers, some even pictures of those who laid beneath—every little detail showing the life they once belonged to. I closed my eyes and let the darkness narrow me in, the sobs of huddled mourners around me guiding my blind footsteps until a hand grabbed my arm. My eyes flashed open to David’s face. “Don’t walk with your eyes closed,” he said, “It’s dangerous.”
Hmph! I tucked my cold, shaking hands into my elbows, and David walked away—back to his place beside the black car. When a loud grumble rolled across the darkening sky, everyone looked up—squinting against the white sun until a cloud shadowed its glare. Icy patters of rain came down again, and little black umbrellas popped up all around me. I folded over ever so slightly, remembering how the uninvited rain ruined my last chance to farewell my family—how it blinded me, made me so cold and so wet I had to fight with myself to stay. I hoped it wouldn’t do the same to Nathan’s family.
“Are you okay, dear?” A skeletally-haggard old lady reached her hand toward me.
I nodded, taking a step away when a long, firm arm scooped my waist and pulled me under the shelter of a black canopy. “She’s fine.” David’s silky voice hummed through the top of my head. “She’s with me.”
“Okay.” The old lady smiled at David, but when she looked at me, her eyes narrowed.
“Aren’t you supposed to be up front?” I asked, craning my neck to look up at him.
He winked at me, a smile warming his face. “I thought you might need some shelter.”
I pushed his arm from around my waist. “I was fine. I don’t need you to shelter me.” Only I did—so, so badly it hurt just to stand this close to him.
“Oh, um. I’m sorry.” He placed the umbrella in my hand, squeezing my fingers around the handle before stepping back into the rain.
“Wait, David—” I reached out, but he strolled away too quickly, disappearing into the mist as the congregation dispersed suddenly, forming a semi-circle around a hole in the ground.
I scanned the crowd for my dad or Vicki, finding them beside the priest.
The rain came down harder then, making my ears feel blocked with its noisy pattering. Droplets of cold water splashed up onto my shoes, wetting my toes, while we stood around and waited for the boys to position the pine box above the ground.
The priest readied himself, straightening the cloth over his shoulders while an altar boy tipped and swayed, standing on his toes to keep an umbrella over the man. “Friends and family—”
The rain stopped abruptly and all eyes cast to the heavens for a moment as umbrellas closed, like flowers at dusk, all around me. I leaned the umbrella David gave me against a nearby headstone and folded my arms over my chest.
As the priest began again, Dad wrapped his arm around Mrs Rossi and cast a quick glance at me; I smiled reassuringly. On the outside, I knew I looked strong, but inside, my heart was pouring like the rain passed, and my arms felt weak, like the blood was too thick to pump smoothly through my veins. The pressure of all the grieving people was starting to penetrate my emotional wall, and when I looked at Nathan’s mother—crying her heart out for her only child—the memory of Harry came flooding back to the surface with vengeance. My hunger gave way to the green ogre, making my chest quiver as I fought to suppress the grief. But it was just no good—all I saw was myself, in place of Mrs Rossi. I remembered how much it hurt to say goodbye. I knew what she felt, knew I couldn’t help her, because nothing anyone said would ever make the pain go away.
The repressed grief burst out of me like an uncontrolled gust of rain-laced wind; I folded over a little more, shaking, and thunder cracked overhead, a flash of lightning giving the coffin a white glow—the last light it would ever see. Looking up through swelling tears, I focused on the tall, familiar man standing near the priest with his hands clasped in front of him.
“Mike?” I said, taking a step toward him; he didn’t hear me. I followed his gaze, and my heart shot into my throat, falling straight back down into my gut when I saw two coffins, side by side; one white, small, the other long. I wanted to fall to my knees between the open graves, to touch them one last time—have longer to say goodbye, but Dad stepped up and whispered in my ear as they lowered them into the ground, “They’re together up there, Ara.”
I jumped back and looked across at Dad, still standing beside Mrs Rossi.
“It’s just us now,” his voice played in my ear.
I looked back at the boxes containing my entire family as the priest spoke over the smallest one. “Can I please go with them, Dad?”
He didn’t respond. Because he couldn’t. He wasn’t even really standing beside me.
“As we lay this child to rest,” the priest said, “may the angels greet him in Heaven. Father, for you are the all forgiving.”
But what if there was no Heaven? What if Harry was lost out there somewhere—alone, crying for me, and I never came to him?
He was too small to be all alone—too small to be gone. He shouldn’t have been there. He should’ve been safe in his bed.
I wiped my face, smudging the rain into the tears while I watched Mike sprinkle a handful of soil over the coffins. Then, he looked at me, and my heart stopped beating as our eyes met.
“Mike?” I called out to him, but he just shook his head, unable to speak through his tears.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The words of the priest filled my ears; they sounded too real, like I was still there.
My mind snapped back to reality. People sobbed hysterically around me, and Mrs Rossi fell into my dad’s chest, hiding her face.
Lost in the unbelievable realism of my memory, I hadn’t felt David place his arm around me. His voice, saying my name, echoed in the distance of my memory. I looked up at him for long enough to see extreme concern behind his eyes.
“I’m okay,” I said, letting my gaze drift back to Nathan’s box.
As it slowly lowered closer and closer to the ground, I thought about the empty space—the horrible moment which brings everything into reality the minute you leave the funeral and walk into that vacant house. Before they’re gone, before you bury them in the cold, hard ground, everything seems surreal, like they’re just on a shopping trip or somewhere in the house where you can’t hear them. But when their flesh touches the earth and settles in its final destination for all eternity, it takes with it the cloud, the safety of the cage that hides you from believing they’re never coming back.
When Nathan’s mom got home, she’d fall apart. She’d cry until there were no tears left and it would still do her no good. Nathan would never come back—Harry was never coming back.
My shaking hands turned to ice. David’s grip tightened around me.
All the things they’d miss out on; it was too much to bear. Nathan would never finish high school, Mum would never see me get married, hold her first grandbaby and—I swallowed hard, pressing my shaking knees together—Harry would never go to school, never paint his first picture, never learn to walk. He never even got to have a birthday party.
The oxygen around me felt over-used. My head rocked back and forth inside, and as the shivers ran from my hands, up my arms and into my chest, I heard a quiet gasp—and everything went black…
…Grains of sand fell through a narrow passage in a glass jar and hit the base with a soft pattering. The ground swayed gently beneath me, and the frosty rushing of my whole world felt calm now, closed in by the warmth of the summer sun. It was just David and I, watching the rain fall onto the leaves above us—staying perfectly dry in the hidden clearing where I had my first kiss.
But as I felt the rain on my skin suddenly, I looked up to an open grey sky and the nostril hairs of a man, his breath brushing my fringe. “Dad?”
“Shh,” he whispered into my head. “It’s okay, honey. I’m taking you home.”
“I what?” I rolled my head to the side and looked around the church parking lot. “I fainted?”
“I should have known better. It was just too soon,” Dad said, more to himself.
“You’re going to be okay, Ara,” Vicki said from beside Dad, holding an umbrella over me while she dripped with rain.
I touched my hand to the back of my neck and pulled out a piece of grass. “Did I hit my head?”
Dad nodded. “David caught you, but he was a fraction of a second too late.”
“He only stepped away from you for two seconds to place a rose into the, er…and you fell,” Vicki added.
“I must admit, though—” Dad half laughed, “—he made it to your side quicker than I’ve ever seen anyone move. I almost didn’t see it myself.”
“So, he didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to Nathan?”
Dad whispered something softly to Vicki—something ending in the word David. My ears pricked up.
Dad’s head moved slowly to look at Vicki again.
“Ara, why would he be mad with you? You didn’t mean to pass out,” Vicki said.
They wouldn’t understand, so I said nothing else. Dad placed me in the backseat of the car and the door swung open on the other side. “I’m fine, Vicki, you can sit in the front with Dad,” I started, but my eyes fell on something magnificent. “David?” And that was it. That was the final straw. I buried my crumpling face in my hands. I wanted to tell him to go away, but his arms, as they fell around me, pulling me into his cool, firm chest, held me so tight my body couldn’t shake. Even the soaking rain, making his suit icy cold against my face, didn’t bother me. I just needed him so badly.
“Shh, sweetheart.” He stroked my hair, whispering into the top of my head. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
“Don’t say that.” He slid down in the seat a little more and wrapped his arms tighter around me. “You mustn’t say things like that.”
“Dad?” I lifted my head, speaking a little louder to project my voice over the heavy pounding of rain. “I’m so sorry—did she see? Did Mrs Rossi see?”
“Ara, honey. Mrs Rossi’s more worried about you, okay?”
“Oh no.” My head shook against my hands.
“Ara, please stop crying?” David asked softly, brushing my hair from my face.
He smelled so good and he was just so sweet. That rich, orange-chocolate scent, the scent that could only be David’s, matched his gorgeously gentle personality so well.
My sobbing stopped short for a second when a loud rumble emanated from the ogre within my belly.
“Ara? Did you eat breakfast?” Vicki asked in a high-pitched tone.
David’s chest sunk as he breathed out deeply, pressing his cheek against my forehead. “No, she didn’t. Silly girl.”