He tipped his hat and winked at the clerk as he walked through the door. She nodded in return and gave him a genuine smile. It lit up her face and filled his heart with gladness.
Once upon a time, the smile would have been a swoon and he might have asked her for a date. But not today. His youthful looks had gone the way of the radio and now the girls thought he was cute, instead of handsome.
It was no matter. He had lived a full life, his beautiful bride by his side and today, when he entered the pharmacy it was to pick up the medicines which kept her heart beating strong and true. Still, he couldn’t help but smile at the young ladies. He couldn’t stop chatting with the young men. He had so much love to give to everyone around him.
There’s a deep place in my heart where we are forever frolicking on the wild shoreline. You are wearing the blue hat you bought at the beachside shop and your crooked smile catches my heart in my throat. I reach out to you, laughing and you pull me into your arms and into the waves.
The memories flash on the back of my eyelids, like snapshots of our life together. Soon, I will join you in the great beyond. I smile as I feel you moving closer… And then you take my hand and pull me into the waves.
Somewhere deep in my subconscious is a nagging doubt. When it rises, I fling it to the furthest corner of my mind, where it rots and festers. I don’t care. I’m well-versed in denial.
“What are you thinking?” you ask, snuggling more deeply into my arms.
“Nothing. Just… I don’t want this to end.” You smile and let out a contented sigh. I kiss your naked chest and we fall back into silence.
I hate silence. It allows the subconscious to come alive…
The thing in the corner has become corporeal in our room. I hear it rustling but I’m afraid to look. It whimpers but I keep my gaze steadfastly on you. You don’t seem to notice anything.
I pull you tighter to me and pepper your skin with kisses. I’m determined not to ruin our time together. I push the horror away while we make love again.
“I love you,” I say into the silence of our post-coital relaxation. You don’t answer.
“Hal… ” Still nothing. I turn to look into your eyes but they’re gone. Replaced by dark empty holes. There’s growling from the corner.
“No! I won’t look!” The growling becomes fiercer but now it’s emanating from you.
“Hal!” Your face is demonic and I’m actually terrified of you. I jump from the bed and run to the door, flying through it without a second thought.
I’m in a white room lying on an examination table. Everything is clinical and sterile. My mind scrambles to pull it together and then I remember. I reach up, desperately feeling my head. One by one I rip the electrodes and leave them dangling from the mechanism. The attendant’s face is filled with bemused sympathy.
“You said it would be like dreaming!” I accused.
“It was a nightmare!”
“The whole thing?”
“No… ” I feel the adrenaline releasing its grip. “No. Not all of it. But still.”
“You wanted the widow’s package. We gave you that. Tell me what part went wrong.”
“I think I knew… I knew it wasn’t real. My subconscious broke through.”
“Maybe you just feel guilty about the way you treated me when I was alive.” Before my eyes the attendant’s face becomes yours.
“No.” I whimper, “Hal, no. I meant to be a good wife. I just got frustrated.”
“You were a terrible wife. You made my last days hell.”
Once again, I run for the door and wake up in the sterile room, pulling the electrodes off in a panic.
“Are you ok?” the attendant asked.
I sit blinking into the whiteness, still feeling your wrath and love, neither of which I can ever access again. It breaks me and for the first time since you died, I cry.
The attendant leaves and is quickly replaced by the therapist. “Yuli,” he said gently, “it’s time to face your fears so you can mourn Hal’s death in a healthy way.”
“Is that what this exercise was about?” I sob.
“Yes. You’re ready. It’s time to talk about Hal.”
I nod but keep sobbing. How can I tell him how horrible I was to you? How could I admit the things I had thought and said in our final days together?
“I… I loved him but we were fighting. I was so mean.” I cover my face with my hands.
“I see. That’s why you haven’t been able to mourn…”
“I don’t want to think about it. I hate myself too much.”
“And Hal? How did he feel about you?”
“He loved me and I hurt him because I was angry.”
“And he’d want you to suffer like this?”
The question stops me cold. Would you want me to suffer no matter how horrible our last fight was? I shake my head. “No. Hal wouldn’t want that.”
“Good. That’s a starting place. Let’s step into my office and we can begin the process of making you whole.”
I nod and follow, not because I want to let you go but because I want to remember you clearly. For the first time, I feel your presence with me and realize you’ve been here all along.
She had to do everything just right. She picked the exact right outfit, put on the exact right makeup and styled her hair beautifully. She wanted to be sure to have the perfect pictures for their wedding announcements.
She looked over at Glen. He was smiling like an idiot, as he drove them to their appointment. She didn’t mind. As long as he got it out of his system in the car.
Glen wasn’t perfect, but she had helped him dress better and he was good looking… with the right haircut. More importantly, he knew all the right people, worked in the right business and drove a classy car. Jenna felt she couldn’t possibly have done better.
Their kids would have everything. Good genes, enough money for whatever they needed and access to the best possible schools. She was already researching which preschools would give them the best start. It was never too early to schmooze the right people.
Her life was going to be great. So what if she didn’t really love him? Jenna didn’t believe in that crap anyway. She believed in appearances, social standing and a comfortable lifestyle and Glen could give her that.
The car stopped and he opened the door for her, holding out his hand. “Ready to announce our love to the world?” he asked sappily.
“Of course, Darling. I want everyone to know how much I love you.” She took his hand and stepped out of the car. She couldn’t wait for her new life to begin.
“Babe, for real. This isn’t that hard. I love you and I’m going to be here for you for as long as you need.”
“I don’t want you to watch me get sicker and sicker. You have your own life to live.” Her eyes were filled with tears and he felt his own fill up in return. He was scared. He couldn’t lie… But he definitely wasn’t going anywhere.
“I’m staying by your side because to do anything else would be more painful than I could bear. I’m not leaving and frankly, you’re too weak to make me, so deal with it.”
She opened her mouth as if to protest but she never got there. She slumped forward, sobbing and he engulfed her in his arms.
“Oh, Darling. I’m scared too but we’ll face this together, ok?” She nodded into his shoulder and he kissed her head. Whatever the future held, he would be there.
We built this place together… With our bare hands. Every board, nail screw and wire contains our blood, sweat and tears. It was a project of love, creating our home, our lover’s nest.
Tonight, I lie in your arms, feeling the beat of your heart, listening to the creaking of our home, as it settles for the night. The rain falls, creating a harmony of sounds on the roof and you pull me closer. I sigh contentedly and drift into sleep. A moment as perfect as this can only be earned.
It was a beautiful day and her skirt was hitched above her knees to let the sun warm them. For once her hands didn’t worry her hems or her hair or wring themselves together in distress. She appeared relaxed and happy, sitting on our picnic blanket, her face turned toward the sky.
“Let me braid your hair, Nellie.” Her hazel eyes were green today, to match her dress, and when the sun caught them, they were like deep emeralds. I wondered if mine did the same.
She smiled, in her gentle way, “Ok, Ethel.”
I nudged over on the blanket, positioned myself behind my sister and began running my fingers though her hair to work through the tangles made by the wind. She tilted her head back and sighed as I began braiding.
Her hair was golden with hints of fiery red, which caught the sunlight and mesmerized me with their boldness. I wondered if Nellie might have been less reserved if her hair had been as bold as her highlights. Perhaps she would have been braver, less nervous… Perhaps people wouldn’t assume her quiet nature was a sign of a simple mind.
“Nellie, does it bother you, the way they treat you?”
“Other people, your teachers in school… Mother and Father.”
“It makes me nervous. That’s why I don’t talk.”
“You talk to me.”
“Because you’re my sister, Ethel… And you don’t act like I’m stupid.”
Her face clouded for a moment. “How do you know?” she whispered.
“Because you are smart. We talk about all sorts of things and you help me figure out my problems all the time.”
“Mother says my illness affected my brain.” It had been hard enough to hear her when she whispered, this time she was barely audible. It was clear this was biggest fear and shame.
“Look at me.” Nellie, her hair now falling in a perfect plait down her back turned her body to face me, her eyes filled with tears. “You are not stupid and your brain is just fine. Mother doesn’t know everything.”
“But, Ethel, she…”
“She doesn’t. I promise.” Nellie didn’t look at all convinced, so I reached in my pocket and pulled out my darkest secret.
“Ethel… You… You…”
“Shhhh. They’re Mother’s pearls. I borrowed them for the NCO dance last night. She has no idea. I snuck them in my pocket and put them on after I got there.”
Nellie’s eyes were wide. “She’ll kill you.”
“She won’t. I’ll slip them back intro her jewelry box when she goes to do the shopping today but for now…” I reached out and set them on top of Nellie’s head like a crown. “I dub thee ‘The Smartest Girl at Our Picnic.'” Nellie giggled and her cheeks turned pink.
“Thank you, Madame.” She bowed slightly from the waist.
We fell onto silence for a while and I watched the as the pink drain slowly from her cheeks. Eventually, Nellie spoke into it tentatively, “Ethel, are you and Roger getting married soon?”
“Yes. He says he will be asking me before he goes overseas.”
“Oh.” For a short syllable, her “oh” might have been the most heartbreaking sound I had ever heard.
“I already told Roger you’ll be moving in with us and he agreed. I told him I would never go without you.”
“Oh, Ethel!” Suddenly all I could see was green as Nellie engulfed me in an enthusiastic hug.
“You’ll say yes then?” I managed to choke out through my tears.
“Yes! Of course! I would rather live with you than Mother and Father any time.”
“Then it’s settled.” I smiled, taking in her disheveled appearance, including Mother’s pearls hanging lopsidedly from her left ear. She pulled them off and handed them back to me.
“I don’t need these anymore.”
“I know. You didn’t really need them anyway. You were always enough on your own.”