No one dared speak the word suicide aloud. Not here, graveside, but Eddie sensed the weight of it in the chill air—pressing at the neck and shoulders of his dress uniform. Accusation seemed to hover behind the sympathy in every set of eyes, gathering together in his mind like a tangible mass. Under the tight band of his cap, Eddie wore his combat face. Jaw straining forward, lips tight but parted, breath soughing through the gap, and nostrils flared. Skin tight with tension, eyes dead, yet hyperaware. Because this felt like a war zone. An emotional one. Guilt, horror, incomprehension… He was disoriented physically, too. His eyes felt like sandpaper, as if he remained in the arid desert. His ears still strained for the crunch of rock under the enemy’s tread; his hands constantly sought the solid rigidity of his weapon; his chest ached for the comforting press of body armor laden with ammunition and gear. There hadn’t been time to acclimate. He’d been called to the commander’s tent, told his wife was dead, sent to pack his gear, spent a sleepless night awaiting transport… Fucking wrong on so many levels, he’d struggled to process the news. Kathleen dead. By suicide. Her family had pushed for a fast service near their hometown on Long Island—a plot already reserved. Hours blurred, and now, suddenly, here he stood surrounded by mourners and headstones. He was unable to focus on the minister’s murmured words of condolence, attuned as he was to both his body and the press of people from a cavalcade of cars arriving behind the family at the cemetery. Kathleen’s employers were in the lead—the mayor of New York City, somber and dressed in a black suit, and his wife, a tiny thing in a tailored black skirt and jacket, wearing a hat with one of those nets you only saw in movies. Next came a classy auburn-haired woman, gripping the hand of a young man, both faces pale. Then a few more staffers, he assumed, all ages, eyes downcast. There were some old pals from the early New York days. People he hadn’t seen in years, ones Kathleen hadn’t even bothered to send him news of after a while. Surely, too, some of Kathleen’s current friends. He wouldn’t know. A white plastic chain held back numerous people wearing ribbons pinned in loops to their chests. They picked apart white bouquets, passing the flowers along their ranks until everyone held one. Lesser staff from the city offices? Or friends from some cancer support group? It hardly mattered. Slinking around the far reaches were the newspaper photographers. Kathleen had worked directly for the mayor’s wife, as her personal assistant. She’d also been part of some marketing campaign for the mayor, in which she’d been dubbed the Face of New York. Eddie could only assume that anything that happened in the mayor’s office made news. The suicide of a well-known staffer would make it front page news. Although the reporters were attempting to be discreet, Eddie still found it distasteful and intrusive. Throwing them out would only make more crap news, however, so Eddie focused on pressing his soles into the soft ground. Feeling the earth. American soil. He tried not to see Kathleen’s family: her mother especially, looking stricken, her father, so deathly pale that Eddie was afraid he’d keel over. Both faces bloated from crying and hollow-eyed from lack of sleep. Grief and shock. Cousins, aunts, uncles, too—weeping, frowning, stoic. Yet Eddie felt no solace from the presence of Kathleen’s clan. One foot in the door for this morning’s viewing, and Eddie had barely hugged Kathleen’s parents before blurting out, “Why didn’t you tell me Kath had cancer?” “Don’t you dare walk in here and blame us,” her father had said, shocked. “We had no idea you didn’t know.” “I would have been here if I’d known.” Eddie had wanted to tear his hair out. It was so obvious—he would have put in for a discharge immediately and come home. “Why didn’t she tell you?” Kathleen’s mother had asked, accusation causing her voice to shake. “What went on between you two?” Dammed if he knew. He’d thought that despite the distance, he and Kathleen were all right. Or at least that they would be, later, when they had time to reconnect. So no, Eddie felt no comfort from Kathleen’s family. Anger? Hell yes—mostly toward Kathleen. Along with disbelief, confusion, and guilt—although he hardly knew what for. The words of the service washed past him, pushed aside by his efforts to control the riotous emotion threatening to overwhelm him. He was strung tight, on the breaking point, like a hair trigger. Luckily, his best friend, Aiden, stood shoulder to shoulder with him, a brother in spirit, as always. Aiden’s mere presence held him up, kept him steady—much like his combat team. Support intrinsic, words unnecessary, strength in spades. Eddie stood ramrod stiff in his uniform and made a concerted effort to think of the lives he’d saved. From the idiotic young soldier, too frozen with fear to return fire or even duck, to some future gaggle of Middle Eastern shoppers who frequented a terrorist-targeted marketplace. Not the one in the ground. The life he hadn’t saved. Not because he hadn’t been able to, but because he hadn’t known he’d needed to. He should have, though. She was his wife. Aiden’s hand settled on his shoulder, the weight an alert. Eddie blinked and came to. Stepped forward and reached for the short shovel held out to him. On autopilot, he bent, sticking it in the mound of earth. Dust to dust. He tipped it, dirt thudding and sliding off the shiny curve of the coffin. Loud, messy sobs erupted and grew—machinegun fire to his soul. He clenched his teeth so hard they hurt, and had to stare at his fingers to make them uncurl from around the shaft of the shovel. He passed it on without making eye contact and marched back to his place, but not before catching sight of the mayor taking his wife’s arm. The wails were hers, Annette Thompson’s, Kathleen’s boss. They must have spent a hell of a lot of time together, Eddie thought, and flinched before he could stop it. From the corner of his eye, he saw the mayor leading his wife away, toward the limos, looking both grim and embarrassed. She keened and convulsed with sobs, and he supported her slight frame. As they passed the roped-off section, where so many people wiped their eyes with handkerchiefs, one of them patted Mrs. Thompson on the arm. She howled, grief palpable in the wail.
The same reverberation came from his own wounded heart.