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"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

Howard picked the familiar phrase out of the preacher's drone, then gently let the rest of the words fade away. It was a pretty day for a funeral; Mary would have said that if she was here: "At least they had a pretty day for the funeral," she would have said. It made him feel a little better, knowing she was being buried on a day she would have approved of.

She hadn't approved of much, there at the end. Not the way her body had wasted away, eating itself up. She hadn't approved of that at all. Nor the way her family had taken care of her, him and Lanea, though they sopped up her messes and sponged up her dribbles without a single word of protest, with love in their hearts; still, she hadn't approved. There was really nothing much that made her too happy, there at the end.

It had been years since she'd approved of him, really. Years and years, maybe. He figured it had started when they realized he was sterile, and would never be able to give her that baby like she wanted, that baby that would be a physical manifestation of their shared love. Although he had been willing - more than willing, happy - to cough up two years' worth of pay so that she could clone herself - herself, since she'd wanted a girl; this was her deal from the beginning - and if putting himself in that kind of debt - him, who hated debt! - wasn't a physical manifestation of his love for her, why, he didn't know what would be, that's all.

But that wasn't good enough for her. Seemed like after that she was always finding fault. Seemed like nothing was ever good enough for her. If she wasn't picking at him, she was picking at Lanea, which was really outrageous, really it was - Lanea was the sweetest, dearest child in the world. Whenever he saw Lanea, he remembered why he had so loved Mary, all those years ago; that sweet smile that looked up at him in adoration, as if he could conquer the world; that soft skin, and gentle hands, so like Mary's back in their early years, before age and spite and disease had eaten her up. Why, he might have left Mary years ago if it hadn't been for Lanea, there as a constant reminder of the way Mary used to be, the way she used to make him feel. There at the end, when Mary was so ravaged, he hated being near her; it made him feel so old. But when he was with Lanea, it was as if Mary was still young, and he had his whole life still ahead of him.

Even now, standing by Mary's coffin, near the six-foot hole that would soon enwomb her muffled, layered corpse, he knew she wasn't really dead. The harpy was dead - that wretched, decaying, disapproving fishwife was no more; but his dear, sweet, lovely Mary, the woman-child who held his youth and his dreams in her soft, firm, gentle hands, was still here at his side.

The eulogy had ended. Howard turned to his daughter, and put his arm around her shoulder. "Come on, honey. Let's go home."

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