FINAL CHAPTER: Angstrom
He didn't think he would ever forget the smell of fresh soil in his nostrils for as long as he lived.
It was not a demand, not the way Peter said his name, nor a reprimand, as if he had done something wrong again. It was a soft, gentle question, as soft and warm as the breeze that grazed the tree canopy overhead, "are you awake?"
"Yes," he answered at last. His chest hurt, from laying on it rather than from grief. Truthfully, he had never been asleep- he simply lacked the energy to lift himself from the ground.
"I didn't want to come here, Walter. And Peter told me to leave you alone."
"I'm never alone."
"Are you done?" Astrid asked, watching him from a distance, "with… everything?"
"Yes." So many different bases covered, with a single word.
"Do you want to get lunch?"
Walter said nothing, wondering just how terrible he looked, to her. But what he could not stand to see on her face was the pity- Peter hid pity well, he had never loved his son more than when he had lashed out at him. But this girl, her pity was painfully honest, and Walter did not know if he could take looking into her large, dark eyes, and realizing her grief was for him.
Peter was right. He did want to be left alone.
"You're pretty dirty, Walter," Astrid said with a wry smile.
"I'm cold, too," Walter agreed. He curled onto his side to remove his weight from his sternum, and he curled his fingers into the slightly overgrown grass, finding it itchy against his skin.
"Do you want your coat?"
"No, thank you." Walter shut his eyes as he suddenly felt a wave of nausea sweep over him, "I'll be up in a bit, I'm just being lazy. Peter would have kicked me by now, ha ha." He smiled, taking deep breaths to calm his churning stomach.
"Walter, do you really think… she was killed?" Astrid asked.
Walter was quiet for a few moments, his mind feeling more precarious than his gut, "No. I know she wasn't murdered."
"I wanted answers. I still want them. But what makes life… life? I don't think I'll ever put my finger on it, really, there are far too many variables. There's death involved. And that's key, really. Nothing much can be accomplished, without it- but it often brings about a rather abrupt end, to the festivities."
"You're not making sense," Astrid admitted.
"Do I ever?"
"Is Peter sending you back to St. Claire's?"
"I don't know. Do you think I belong there?" At last Walter raised his gaze to look at her, "As a punishment? For misbehaving? It's why I ended up there last time."
Astrid was silent for a few moments. Her answer was carefully chosen. "What makes this hell any different than the one you'd live at St Claire's?"
Walter smiled- it felt strange, as he had somehow come to believe that his face had become a permanent grimace, "Smart girl. The difference is that no one would be forced to watch my idling in purgatory."
"I won't let him send you back," Astrid said, "and I won't let you send yourself back, either."
"I don't know if I should thank you, or cry."
"If you really did love Olivia, Walter, you'll stay. You'll realize that what she did wasn't because she thought you'd let her down, it was because she thought she would let you down. That if you gave up on her, you'd give up on everything again… but it seems pretty plain to me that you're not one for giving up."
"I'm laying here, aren't I?"
"But you'll get up soon enough." Astrid came to stand over him, offering her hand to him with a frown, "and hopefully shower, you mudskipper. Look at you."
Walter chuckled, taking her help and stumbling upright. He stood with Astrid in the quiet, watching the mound of earth that hid Olivia, and again the urge tugged at him to rip her from her resting place, as if she were behind a barrier that, if he waited long enough, would become impassable. But Astrid's hot grip on his dusty fingers kept him still, until at last they turned away, Walter dragging the spade up, onto his shoulder, and he sighed tiredly. He wondered how many people had wished for the same things he had.
To change things. To alter mistakes. But mostly, not to feel that perhaps their mistakes had brought them something greater.