Always

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Noah tried to force tears into his eyes while he watched the crowd of people gather around the fresh grave. He wanted to feel the moment with the weight that it deserved. Surrounding the raised casket were Angelica’s family and closest friends. Even from this distance, Noah could spot the sorrow that ached across their faces. He felt like an intruder, lurking in the shadows. A young man in the front row pulled the woman next to him closer as she wept openly. Her large black hat concealed her eyes, but Noah could see streams of water glistening in the sunlight as they cascaded down her cheeks. Her sobs echoed through the cemetery, reverberating off the trees meant to guard her grief. “Angie’s children,” Noah muttered, finally spotting her resemblance through their misery. Saying the words caused a smile to creep across his face.

With everyone seated the minister positioned himself at the forefront of the group, clearly prepared to say a few words. He began, “Friends, family, loved ones…we now lay Angelica’s body to rest. Let her find the same peace beyond that she found here on Earth.” The minister’s speech carried through the graveyard with a crispness that made Noah feel intimately involved despite being removed by fifty-some-odd yards. A strong gust of wind soon raged through the surrounding trees, making sure the moment of closeness was short lived. There was still solace to be found in the rustling leaves overhead, but Noah wouldn’t allow his thoughts to be washed clean, not now. Death demanded discernment, just as regret required remembrance.

The longer Noah lived, the less sense life made to him. It wasn’t fair for Angie to be the one going into the ground while he continued to wander Earth’s surface aimlessly. All of these faces mourned Angie, but no one would remember Noah, especially now that she was gone. Each time Noah asked, why?, he only managed to become more frustrated with the universe, or God, or whatever extraterrestrial beings thought it funny to bestow self-consciousness onto him. He had vanished to protect Angie, yet here she was being buried all the same, so what good was it all for? She had lived a long life, but Noah would never know if she ever found true happiness. He slammed his fist down into the unfinished edge of the tombstone, knocking a chunk of stone free. “Please forgive me,” Noah whispered, still unable to cry.

This wasn’t the first time Noah had been an onlooker at the cemetery. The plot next to the Angie’s was Martha Galloway’s, Angie’s mother. Angie resembled Martha in every way, so much so that Noah wondered how much of a part he played in Angie’s conception. Blue eyes, auburn hair, they even had the same small gap between their front teeth. Having to keep away from Martha was difficult enough, but leaving Angie was what Noah blamed for turning his heart so black. Martha would have understood why he had left, even if she didn’t support his decision. Angie was only a little girl at the time though, and Noah knew that a child would never be able to forgive her father for leaving, regardless of the circumstances. Imagining Angie tormented by his abandonment, feeling unworthy of love, provided Noah with the appropriate amount of agony he thought he deserved.

When the crowd stirred near Angie’s grave, Noah was shaken out of his introspection. It was time for him to get closer so that he could say his goodbyes without being noticed. Fueled by the immediacy of the situation, Noah sprung to his feet and squared his shoulders with the trunk of the large oak tree in front of him. He watched everyone as they walked passed the casket before returning to their cars. Noah could faintly see jaws moving as some of the bereaved uttered their farewells under their breath. Others gave diffident waves to Angie’s casket or blew kisses. Many of the men could be seen tucking their lips behind their teeth to stifle their emotions. The women’s sorrow flowed more freely, but they too were quick to wipe away their tears before their makeup could smear. Seeing all the lives saunter by that Angie had touched caused Noah’s chest to fill with pride that he deemed he was unfit to feel.

As the flags attached to the funeral cortege waved goodbye, Noah cautiously removed himself from cover. He craned his neck around, making sure no stragglers were left behind to see him. Keeping his head on a swivel he briskly moved towards Angie. It was the closest that he had been in over sixty years. The casket, that seemed to be levitating above the ground earlier, was now fully submerged in the depths below. Clumps of dirt had fallen across the lid, but the stained wood was still largely visible. Noah crouched to get as close to her as possible.

Even though the conversation was bound to be one-sided, finding the words proved difficult. Noah wondered what he could possibly say after all of these years, and then it all became so obvious.“I’m so sorry,” he started. “I should have been there, for both you and your mother. I got by for so long telling myself that — even though being away from you was hard — it was the right thing to do.” Noah paused for a moment, noticing he too was gnawing on his lip instinctively, like many of the men who had just left. 

“I’m not sure what your mother told you — we never spoke after I left — but I know you probably wouldn’t have believed her even if she did tell you the whole story. If you’re here now, then I guess you can see my reason for leaving, but that doesn’t make me any less of a coward. I used to blame my…affliction, but that was an excuse. If I had any courage I would have stayed. Maybe we could have figured it all out together, as a family. At least then you wouldn’t have been so confused or alone. That’s why I still don’t expect you to forgive me, and I’d never ask you to when I can’t forgive myself.” Noah paused for a moment to contemplate whether he would ever be released from his torment. 

“I love you so much, and I w—” his voice cracked and Noah scoffed, happy to feel water boiling against his eyes. Maybe he was human after all, if only for a moment. “I wish I could have known the woman you became. Seeing all these people here today made me so proud of you, that you were able to fill so many other lives with love — you probably got that from your mother too. Tell Martha I’m sorry — if you see her up there,” he blinked tears. “I regret so many things, sweet pea—you could fill a book with all my screw ups—but you and your mom…getting to meet both of you was the best thing I ever did. Sleep well, honey. I hope I’ll still get to know you one day.” I love you, I love you, I love you, he thought before he stood up.

Noah straightened his legs and began to turn, only to see a man holding a shovel yards away. Exposed and vulnerable he froze, his feet rooted to the ground.

“Sorry,” the man said. “I saw the cars leave and came over to finish up everything, and by the time I noticed you…well, I’m just happy you were there to keep me from falling in. Please forgive my old eyes.”

The elderly gentleman’s ingratiating tone had succeeded. Noah pulled a tissue from his inner jacket pocket to wipe away the tears that had flowed like tributaries down his face. “No, don’t worry about it. I thought everyone had left too.”

“You going to be all right, son?” the man asked. 

“No,” said Noah, “but I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, at least for now.”

The older man took a few steps towards Noah and stared into the grave with him. He wore overalls and a mesh John Deere cap. Hair protruded from the top of his dirty white undershirt, his ears, and his nostrils. He smelled of musky sweat, but it wasn’t sour or unpleasant, the scent was earthly. Noah felt closest to the elderly, they were the closest thing he had to a kindred spirit, even if they looked withered standing next to him.

“I take it she was a good one,” he said with sympathy in his voice.

“Yeah, the best one.”

“Then that’s really too bad. It’d be nice if He left us a few of the angels every now and again, keep us scoundrels in line.”

Noah gave a short sincere laugh as he continued to dry his eyes.

“You mind me asking how you knew her?” the old man asked.

The question caused Noah’s muscles to tense. He wanted to tell the old man that she was his daughter, the greatest thing he’d played a part in, but he didn’t want to confuse him. “Grandmother,” Noah replied. Feeling as though the lie disgraced Angie’s memory his insides coiled with pain.

“Sorry for your loss, son” the old man said, looking remorseful. “My name’s Runt, I’m the caretaker around here. She’s in good hands, you have my word on that.”

“Oh, well, thank you — er — Runt. I’m Noah.” Though the man’s nickname made him uncomfortable to say aloud, it also had an endearing quality. They shook each other’s hand.

“Got a few of my own buried down that way,” Runt motioned to the northeast end of the cemetery. “Makes me happy that I still get to see them just ‘bout every day. It’s a bit morbid, I know — especially when you get to be as old as me — but remembering them…it’s sad, but it also reminds me of how lucky I was.”

Noah didn’t know how to respond. In all likelihood, he had seen more come in and go out of this world than Runt had, but if counting bodies was a competition Noah would rather not be the undisputed champion. “Everyone always says that death puts everything into perspective, but it only really seems to shed light on how much of a bastard you were while they were here. I should have been there more, spent more time with her.”

Runt seemed slightly offended by that notion. “I doubt you’re a bastard, son. Bastards don’t feel as miserable as you do.” Runt reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Behind his driver’s license were pictures that he began to spread out in his hand like playing cards. “These are pictures of my children when they were little. You see them so much when they’re young, us parents take it for granted. Then when they’re grown up, they take you for granted. Life’s timing can be cruel. Now, I’m lucky to see them around the holidays, they’ve got such big lives of their own. My point is, I bet your grandmother cherished the moments she had, not the ones she didn’t.”

The words that were meant to console Noah only made things worse. Not only had he not been there for Angie as a child, but he had somehow managed to deprive her the right to ignore him as an adult. He choked on his tears and began to sob.

“It’s all right, son. She knows, and she’ll always know.” 

It wasn’t Runt’s fault that his words had the opposite intended effect. “Thank you,” Noah told him, genuinely appreciative of Runt’s efforts. After a deep sigh he managed to control his agony long enough to say, “I’ll get out of your way, you’ve probably got work to do.”

Runt laid his shovel down before saying, “You take your time here, I have a few other things to do anyway. I’ll see you around, Noah. Take care of yerself.”

“You too.”

Runt left Noah alone at the grave, but now with the added pressure of saying something else to Angie. The problem was that there weren’t words to atone for all the harm he had caused. When his throat went try Noah clenched his teeth, biting so hard he wondered if his teeth would crack. I’m a reckless animal, he thought, that’s all she’ll ever know. 

Then, for whatever reason, Noah’s self-loathing halted. He didn’t have pictures like Runt, but nonetheless, stills of a young girl in a blue dress flashed into his mind. Noah closed his eyes tightly, allowing a projector to shine images of Angie on the backs of his eyelids. He remembered the young girl that used to walk with him down the dirt driveway to retrieve the mail in the morning. He could feel her tiny fingers in the palm of his hand, her nails gripping into him like tiny toothpicks. Angie’s curious eyes were always glancing up at him, even when he wasn’t looking at her tiny freckled face. When he’d return home from work in the evening, she would sprint to the door to greet him. Noah would lift her up to the ceiling as she squealed with laughter, then he would hold her in his arms. She always squeezed his cheeks when he came home to make sure he wasn’t an imposter, then she’d wrap her arms around his neck and give him a hug. In the evening he’d bounce her on his knee and Angie would tell her about what had transpired during the day. Sometimes she had stories to tell about the animals she found and chased through the garden, other days she’d ruin the surprise dessert she helped Martha make for dinner. Noah could never change how she remembered him, but he knew exactly how he would remember her. 

Noah pressed his fingers to his puckered lips and kissed them before firmly resting his hand on Angie’s tombstone. “You’ll alway be with me, princess.” he said, then he turned and walked away. It wouldn’t be a difficult task, but he knew Angie would remain immortal as long as he carried her with her. Firmly tucked inside his heart she would remain, now and forever.

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