He watched the coffin being lowered into the ground, and he felt a part of his soul being ripped from his body and descend with it.
Cheryl (Heather, he reminded himself, it had been nearly nine years since she had decided to be called Heather) stood beside him, shaking like a leaf and weeping quietly. In some dim recesses of his mind, the parts that weren't completely consumed by grief, he was glad she was crying; she had been nearly catatonic for the last week, staring off into space, forgetting to eat until he forced food on her, wandering the house in a daze at odd hours. At least the tears showed she was still human, still present in her own mind and body somewhere, and that she understood. That was what had frightened him the worst, the idea that she didn't understand what was going on and was denying the reality of the situation. He knew the danger of that kind of thinking, he knew it firsthand. Thinking like that, refusing to accept what had happened, was so damn attractive to that place, so powerful.
Of course, he wasn't innocent of those dark thoughts either.
The reverend, some hired suit that hadn't known them and now never would, blathered on, something about the Valley of the Shadow of Death and fearing no evil. He knew that this was typical funeral jargon, had heard it all before and would undoubtedly hear it again, and he wondered idly if it ever actually comforted anyone. Besides, whoever had written it had never been in the presence of real evil. Death didn't walk in a valley and have a partnership with evil; death lurked in poorly-lit corridors, haunted foggy streets, appeared suddenly on rooftops, and made itself known with a burst of radio static and the stink of blood and rust.
He started; someone, probably the hired suit, had put a rose in his hand. He stared at it stupidly, so lost in his thoughts and his grief that he had no idea what he was supposed to do with it. Then Heather, holding her own rose, took a step forward and dropped it into the open grave, where it bounced once and then rested across the top of the coffin. Her other hand, still clutching his wrist with a strength born of desperation, tugged him forward. He held his own rose out over the grave's edge and released it. He watched it fall, rotating once in the air before it came to rest next to her rose.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," the hired reverend intoned, and tossed a handful of dirt in after their roses. He frowned, watching the dirt splatter across the roses and mar the shiny surface of the wooden coffin. That wasn't right, it wasn't right that it had to be so dirty, so… final.
The reverend stopped talking, and he was dimly grateful that the man had finally shut up and he didn't have to tune him out any longer. Then Heather started sobbing and clutching at him, burying her face in his shoulder and holding onto the back of his suit in a tight grip. Mechanically, he put his arms around her, knowing that he should comfort her but not sure how, not sure how to comfort someone else when his own grief seemed so insurmountable.
"Oh, J.D.," she wept, her words muffled against him. "Oh, J.D., what are we going to do without him? What are we going to do?"
James Sunderland had no idea how to answer her, and so he held her as best he could while he stared down into the grave, his tearless eyes riveted to Harry Mason's coffin.
He was in the basement, the basement that had been converted into a workshop over the years. It was full of tools, bits of wood and metal, and smelled pleasantly of sawdust and oil. Harry had called it James's Man Cave, he remembered, and he felt a spike of grief so strong that it was physically painful. He closed his eyes, wishing he could cry, wishing the tears would come because then the loss would feel real, but at the same time fighting against them because crying would make it final. If he cried, he would be admitting to himself that Harry really was gone. Gone like his mother, gone like Mary… gone like almost everyone else he had ever cared about, turned into dust and bones.
He opened his eyes and looked critically at the mess on his workbench. The antique radio lay in pieces in front of him, its various components carefully sorted out into piles and organized according to what order they would be put back together. James had taken the radio apart more times than he could remember over the years, and even in his immense, overwhelming sadness, his hands knew what to do to put it back together. The old, familiar motions lulled him, soothed him, distracted him just enough that he didn't really have to think but didn't really have to feel either.
He turned around. Heather stood at the top of the stairs, holding an old photo album. Her hair was a mess and her eyes were red, but at least she looked alert, present in her own body and mind again. He noticed that she was wearing one of Harry's old running shirts, which billowed and sagged around her small frame, but he decided not to mention it.
James tried to force a smile, but stopped when he realized it probably looked more like a grimace. "Yeah, Little Bit?"
She clutched the album to her chest, using both hands to hold it like a sacred offering, which, in a way, it had become. "Can I come sit with you for awhile? I… I'm feeling…" her voice hitched a little, "I'm feeling kind of lonely."
He gestured for her to come down the stairs. Wordlessly, she rushed down the stairs and sat next to him on the bench. He carefully pushed some of the radio parts out of the way, and caught her significant look. James glanced at her shirt and then raised one eyebrow at her. She flushed a little and looked away, the implication clear: I won't ask about the t-shirt if you don't ask about the radio.
She set the album on the workbench and opened it carefully, reverently. She flipped to a spot about one-third of the way through, and James realized that she wanted to see the pictures that had him in them; the first part of the album was devoted to photos taken before he had joined the family. He wanted to be flattered, but he also suspected that she had already poured over the early pictures of herself and her dad.
Heather turned the pages silently, slowly, looking hungrily at any photo that featured her father and spending much less time on the photos that were only of her. She stopped at one in particular and pointed it out to him, and James gave up all pretense of working on the radio. "Do you remember this?" she asked, trying to smile, although her voice betrayed the tears lurking just behind her eyes. "That was your first Christmas with us."
James nodded, feeling slightly embarrassed. "Our first Christmas in this house."
"You got me a camera."
"And you used it to take that picture." They studied it together. It showed James and Harry sitting next to each other on the couch; Harry was holding a cup of coffee and laughing, one arm slung around James's neck, who was trying to avoid having his picture taken and looking vaguely surly. One of James's arms was in a cast; he'd fallen off the roof several days before while trying to help Harry put up Christmas decorations, and all three of them had gotten to spend several hours in the local ER and then the night in the hospital when a storm closed the roads.
She turned a few more pages, then skipped several more that only had pictures of her on them. She paused on a page that wasn't a photo at all but a newspaper clipping. Lightly touching the page, she whispered, "Dad was so handsome in a tuxedo…"
"He was," James agreed, staring at the clipping with her. It was taken about five years ago, when Harry had won a literary award. Nothing huge, but not exactly small either. The photo in the clipping showed Harry accepting the award and smiling out at the camera, looking nervous and a little self-conscious. James remembered that night for a reason that he could never, ever share with Heather; that night, in their hotel, was the first time he'd let Harry top him. It had taken five years of gentle coaxing, talking, and working through his hang-ups, but he'd eventually been able to give to Harry what had once been taken from him, and his only regret was that it had taken him so long. Harry had been so tender, so considerate and patient with him, and he had never been able to give him anything back. All he had done in their ten years together was take and take and take.
Heather looked up at him. "Are you okay?"
James blinked rapidly several times, his eyes hot but dry. The tears still wouldn't come. "I'm fine," he told her, a little sharper than he intended.
She looked at him for a little longer, then shook her head. "No, you're not," she said simply, and started turning pages in the album again.
They looked at the photos in silence for another half hour, both of them hungrily studying the pictures of Harry, both lost in their own private reminiscence. Finally, Heather turned to the last page, which was her own high school graduation photo.
Taken only two weeks ago, it showed all three of them, Heather standing between the two men in her life and beaming, her rolled-up diploma in one hand. Harry had one arm around her waist, and his face was alight with pride and love. He looked older than in the early photos; he had some fine lines around his eyes and swirls of silver in the dark hair at his temples, swirls that he thought made him look old and that James thought made him look distinguished. James himself had one arm around Heather's shoulders and was also smiling proudly. He looked older too, his blond hair starting to fade to silver in a few spots and his muscles no longer as defined as they had once been. All three of them looked exceptionally happy. It was a beautiful little photo.
A tear splashed down onto the page. Heather's shoulders shook with quiet sobs as she ran her hand over the photo, covering herself and James so that only her father smiled out at her. Awkwardly, James put an arm around her, slightly envious of her ability to let it all out and give voice to her grief. She turned into him and wept on his shoulder again.
"It's not fair," she moaned. "It's just not fair…"
"It never is, Little Bit. It never is." He hugged her close, comforting her as best he could, which he suspected was a poor substitute to the kind of reassurance Harry could have given her if their roles had been reversed. Not for the first time, he wished they were.