Death was a part of life. Stefan had learned that at an early age when he’d lost his older sister. More than his own grief—short-lived due to a lack of real understanding combined with child resilience—the grief his parents experienced left a lasting impression on him. Even after she’d been gone for years, the mention of her name at the right moment called back the despair of losing their first child, and the fear of losing the second as well. The fear had lessened a bit, as Stefan had grown older, stronger, more capable of taking care of himself. It had come back when he’d become a police officer. He could die any day, they knew, and every time they saw him could easily be the last.
Stefan wasn’t so concerned with the possibility of his own death while on the job. What he had struggled with when he’d first started out was all the death that surrounded him. Victims found already killed, hostages who could be killed at any moment, criminals who needed to be killed before they could kill others. It was almost too much for him at first, just a kid straight out of high school, but he’d gotten a decent hold on it, eventually. It was a good thing, too, or he never could have become a homicide detective. Death wasn’t just a part of life now, it was his life.
The worst kinds of death were always those that were unexpected, untimely, unfair. While all three factors were open to debate—especially in the eyes of the perpetrator—Stefan found that most murders fit the bill. He had to learn not to think about it, at least not on the level where thinking gave way to feeling. He couldn’t handle that. Who could handle that? As he worked through the details of the case, he thought of it as just that—a case. Not a person full of life one moment and robbed of it at the next. He could say it was a shame and mean it. Refer to the killer as a son of a bitch and mean that, too. But it was in a general sense, the same kind of reaction he’d give something he heard on the radio or read about in the paper. It wasn’t personal to him, and he couldn’t let it be, because a case or two nestling into the emotional centers of his mind would turn into all the cases. There’d be no end and he’d lose his mind—and worse, his job. He was sure of it.
He was concerned for a while that this emotional blockage would become too natural to him, and that he’d have difficulty feeling grief even when it was personal. How wrong would it be if he lost a close friend, kind neighbor, a parent, and didn’t feel anything? This worry had been assuaged at grandpa Bekowsky’s funeral. The context, he realized, made all the difference. Surrounded by his family, inundated by stories from his childhood, reliving memories with like-new intensity, he felt the loss, felt it deeply, and had no trouble showing it. So it came as a surprise to him when at the funeral of his former partner and good friend Cole Phelps, he felt nothing.
When he thought about it later, he realized the context had been confusing. A funeral, yes, but he had been surrounded by cops, inundated with cop stories, and even the memories were mostly just him and Phelps being cops together. He was in a work state of mind, where even Cole’s death—unexpected, untimely, unfair—was just part of the job description. He didn’t like it. It felt about as wrong as he would have expected. Was it enough, maybe, to feel bad for not feeling bad? No. Cole deserved more than that.
It was a few weeks later, and Stefan was out working on a case with Rusty. It was late afternoon, almost evening, and they were way overdue for a lunch break. Rusty picked the spot, not really thinking about its proximity to the veteran’s cemetery. He and Stefan both noticed at the same time, though neither of them mentioned it as they got out of the car and entered the diner. Once they were seated, Stefan found his eyes continually drifting toward the window, in the direction of the cemetery. It didn’t take long for Rusty to notice.
“Bekowsky,” he said, and when Stefan looked at him, Rusty tossed him the keys. “Go.” Stefan only stared at him for a moment, the keys in his hand. “If you take too long I’ll grab you something you can eat in the car. Now get over there.”
When Stefan reached Cole’s grave, he saw that it had been recently visited. A bundle of flowers lay on the grass, tied together with a bit of string. They weren’t anything fancy. Just dandelions. His daughters must have left them there. Young girls with their lack of understanding and their child resilience. They’d probably recover from the loss before Stefan even began to feel it. He suddenly felt very empty-handed.
He didn’t know what else to do, so he sat on the ground, looking at the gravestone, not really reading the words. Those words weren’t Cole. They were hardly a summary of Cole. No, Stefan could summarize him much more accurately. Someone who was better than him at everything—or at least better at looking like he was better—but still as kind to him as Stefan could have asked of a partner, of a friend. Someone for whom good enough was never good enough in his own case, but who could accept that Stefan was trying, really trying, and that sometimes good enough was the best he could do.
Stefan shook his head. He’d called Cole his protégé, finding it so amusing that he could apply the term to someone older than him. In truth, he couldn’t. He hadn’t taught Cole anything more than he could have learned on his on his own, and it wasn’t long before Cole had surpassed him, moved on, left him behind.
He’d done it again. Moved on. Left him behind.
He felt it then. Icy cold fingers creeping around his heart. Wrapping tightly. Squeezing. Crushing. There it was. Loss. Despair. Grief. For Cole. Because Cole deserved it. Because he was a friend. Because Stefan wasn’t a friend if he couldn’t cry like a child at his sister’s funeral. So he did.
When he returned to the diner, Rusty was waiting for him with a brown paper bag which he traded for his keys. If he knew that Stefan had been crying—and it didn’t take a detective to see that he had—he didn’t say anything. Death was a part of life, and Rusty had his own ways of dealing with it; let the kid have his.