One week ago – to the day – the son of my heart took the love of his life for a bride and they were married before God, family, and friends. With majestic mountains and… More
Hey, so I’m going to admit this right up front … I’m not much of a blogger. I suppose that’s something I should aspire to improve on. Maybe. In my other spare time. Along with updating my FB page (and the list goes on). Most likely, I’ll just stare at the above picture, drooling over the cappuccino and panettone bread! (Anybody got a great – and by great, I mean easy – recipe?)
Seriously though, if I’m going to sit down and write, I need to push on with my current novel, The Raven’s Breath – second in the North Star Chronicles. Besides, if I leave my characters alone for too long, there’s no telling what mischief they’ll cause. (You think I’m joking!)
I’ll try and stay in touch along the way, but if you don’t hear from me, feel free to check in!
If you’re looking for writing advice, don’t forget to check out my tab, Targeting Writers. When I find interesting blogs with helpful tips, I’ll stick them over there.
Also, if you’d like to read my short stories, there are links to each one on My Books tab that make them a little easier to navigate! 🙂
The sun hadn’t completed its ascent over the neatly tiled roofs yet, and here I was, faithful as ever, waiting in the pre-dawn gray of a February morning. I was powerlessly bound to my ritual these past few weeks, this greeting the light of a new day. I pressed my forehead to the windowpane, seeking cool comfort from the thickly frosted glass. Sighing at the instant numbing to my brow, I desperately wished that for once my heart could be remedied as easily. It was a wish that never came true. The aroma of strong coffee lured me away from my post at the window seat; a place that had inadvertently become more familiar to me than my own bed.
It was not the first time I found myself replacing the second mug back onto the cupboard shelf; old habits die slow. Die. Hard as I may try to avoid thinking or speaking that word, the more it pops in and out of phrases. A haunting reminder – as if I needed reminding.
Coffee in hand, I shuffled past the silent rocker, sending it into a creaking rhythm as I snatched the heavy woolen plaid from its intricately carved arm. Fumbling one-handedly with the dead bolt, I yanked open the front door and muttered an oath as the scalding liquid sloshed over the brim and onto my tender flesh. I paused at the doorway as the icy blast hit me full in the face, taking a moment to reconsider. I was preparing to make a hasty retreat when a single word hit me with more force than the biting wind: COWARD!
“No!” I countered harshly, screaming at the wind . . . the ice . . . the quickly retreating shadows of night. Anything that would pretend to listen.
“No,” I repeated again softly, wiping the steady flow of tears away with an open palm. “You can’t stop me, not today. I’m coming out, like it or not.” It would be the first time in nearly a month since I had crossed the threshold, and I lifted my chin in defiance. Well, nobody said it would be easy, and to pretend otherwise would be ludicrous.
I eased myself precariously into the porch swing, taking great pains to secure the plaid around my body in cocoon fashion before taking a sip of the intoxicating brew. Ahh … coffee with Scottish Heather Cream. I closed my eyes, sighing as the heat slowly warmed its way to my center, leaving me feeling cozy despite my artic surroundings. Lazily, I allowed my mind to wander back to the first time I tasted of the creamy liqueur, undiluted and deliciously addicting.
~ ~ ~
Kevin had brought a bottle back from Scotland after being stationed on temporary duty in Great Britain. From the look on his face, one would have thought he had discovered pure gold, not a commonplace mildly inebriating beverage. The humor in the situation was the simple fact that Kevin did not drink. Ever. Not alone, not socially, not in times of sadness or celebration.
Oddly enough, he happened by an establishment on the streets of Fort William while samples were being freely dispensed and, on a whim, accepted the proffered drink.
A trace of a smile curved my lips as I recalled his sputtering attempt at an explanation for this most uncharacteristic compulsory act. After a few poor excuses and much shuffling of feet, he suddenly changed horses in mid-stream and opted for an entirely new tactic. Straightening to his full height – an impressive six feet two – and deepening his voice an octave or two, he winked conspiratorially before beginning again.
“Weel, there I was breathin’ the fine Scottish air in the shadow of Ben Nevis himself, when a comely lass with flowers in her hair and a bosom that would melt yer heart came upon me oot of the blue. I thought to m’self, surely one as fine as she must be of the faery folk, and t’would be a shame to refuse that which she is offerin’ me. So, may the good Lord hae mercy, I took a wee drink.”
I had gawked for a second or two before bursting into a fit of laughter at the poorly attempted brogue he was obviously so proud of. All the while, he stared indignantly down his nose at me with a frown firmly in place.
I snorted at his pinched expression.
Unable to maintain the façade any longer, Kevin succumbed to my infectious laughter, and we soon had tears of mirth streaming down our faces. It was then that he had swept me into his arms and onto his plaid, laughter fading with each breath. We made the sweetest love that my eyes filled with tears of an entirely different nature.
And that had been the last time.
I clung tightly to the black, purple, and green hues of the Black Watch tartan; my dear Kevin, ever the gentle rogue. He had been recalled that very night to perform the mission of heroes. The kind that many dream of, but seldom get the chance.
The difference is, in dreams, the hero always comes back.
I watched in stony silence as the uniformed man strode purposely through the gated entry and up the steps, an emotionless mask set firmly in place. In the way of a disciplined soldier, his eyes veered neither left nor right until he stopped directly in front of me, and then they looked down and pierced my very soul.
I recognized the man, of course; from parties, barbeques, weddings, and . . . funerals. Abruptly the mask shifted, then shattered to pieces, and I found myself being pulled against the cold metal of a decorated chest. I pounded relentlessly for all I was worth until, exhausted, I could do nothing but sob uncontrollably.
God bless him, he never let go.
When all was said and done, I was left holding a meticulously folded flag and a trace of echoes resounding in my ears: Top secret. Line of duty. With Honors. Always remembered. Sorry. So Sorry.
~ ~ ~
I blinked and looked down at the flag. It was gone. Of course it was; that was over a month ago. It was a well-worn path that I had traveled down, the destination as familiar to me as the journey itself. A bitter trail of tears that leaves the soul empty and despondent.
Through my watery veil, I marveled as the rays of sun lit the frosty snow on fire, consuming the shadows in a warm embrace. I was suddenly reminded of a scripture my mother used to quote, although I could only paraphrase the sentiment in simplest form: God will never put more on a person than they can endure. I thought of her, and then of my father; at least he had lived long enough for them to raise a family together.
Before he died.
That verse had been my mom’s stronghold ever since. And now, on a mid-winter’s dawn, I adopted it for my own as well.
It started as a low hum, undistinguishable in words, but as familiar a rhythm as my own breath. The strong steady cadence of a soldier’s morning routine; the backbone of military training, the uniting of a core. I watched in silence as the undulating mass of bodies circled the parade grounds, rounded the bend, and row by row, drifted out of sight.
It was time for me to leave as well.
I stayed a moment more, knowing this would be the last time I did so, taking in the progressive motions of a military base awakening to a new day. Personnel had been gracious enough, giving me ample time to recuperate from my loss, pack up, and move out. But it was time. I looked around the officer’s quarters and the nondescript structures that had been home during recent years.
Home. My mom still lived in the same home we grew up in, nestled snugly against the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana; a place I hadn’t been back to in a very long time.
I stared down at my cup, now cold from neglect, and rose to dispose of the contents over the porch rail. It was just as well; I shouldn’t be indulging anyway, not in my condition. I had found out this morning on a whim, a mere chance . . . a prayer, really: Pink is positive, simple as that.
Simple and yet profoundly powerful.
A reason to go on.
Once inside, I walked directly to the phone and stared at it for countless minutes before punching in the familiar sequence of numbers. The voice on the other end sounded like an angel, and I trembled at the tender rush of emotion that filled my heart. I pressed a hand to my stomach and whispered the first words to my un-born child.
“We’ll make it together, my little one,” and then louder into the receiver.
“Mom . . . we’re coming home.”
“Check out the geezer in the high waters and orthopedics. I bet he breaks a hip before the night’s out! Better yet, ten bucks says he makes a play for one of the hotties at the punch table.”
Muffled laughter rumbled across the table as several soldiers fought to keep their drinks from spewing out of their mouths. Most succeeded.
“Ewww!! That’s disgusting!” squealed a voluptuous blonde wearing a thick slab of Electric Pink lipstick. “Private Hayes, look what you’ve gone and done – this is a brand-new dress!” Holding the silk bodice away from her skin, she threw him a baleful glare before tiptoeing from the table in search of a place to wash.
“Not anymore,” whispered the leggy redhead still seated at the table. With a saucy grin, she tossed her long, thick hair over her shoulder. “Now how’s she going to return it?”
“Man, wouldn’t want to be you, pal.” The highest-ranking G.I. at the table only had two mosquito wings on his collar, but it gave him immense satisfaction to lord it over the other buck privates. Driving his point home, he delivered the crushing blow. “No chance of scoring tonight.”
“Shut up, Phillips.” The spewer kicked the table leg and crossed his arms. His eyes wandered towards the latrine, calculating the possibility of his date actually returning.
The redhead seemed to find his sense of humor amusing, so Phillips thought he’d give it another go. “Watch this,” he whispered to Red. “Hey, Noah! Where’s the flood?” he called out, waving away her half-hearted protests. “Don’t worry, he can’t hear me … can you, Gramps?”
When the elderly man in the cardigan failed to respond, Phillips widened his grin. “See, I told you.” Taking another swig from his glass, he pulled his fleshy lips up and over his teeth, smacking them in a ridiculous effort to mimic a toothless set of gums.
Bored with the one-man show, several troops left the table in search of better amusement. But the redhead stayed, and that was enough to keep Phillips.
“Deaf as a stump,” Hayes agreed, trying his hand at the sport.
Phillips rolled his eyes. “It’s deaf as a post, you idiot! Don’t you know anything?” he goaded, flexing his jaw and giving Red a wink. They didn’t arrive together, but he was trying his best to make sure they left that way. “Hey, here’s an idea – let’s ask our silent pal, dummkopf, what he thinks.”
Three pairs of eyes turned to stare at the quiet, broad-shouldered private on the far side of the table. His honey-brown hair was buzzed close to the scalp, accentuating the solid, angular planes of his face. “I wouldn’t know,” he muttered, swallowing self-consciously.
“He talks!” Phillips patronized with a sweeping motion of his arm. Casually, he let it drop over Red’s shoulder. When she didn’t pull away, he knew he had her; hook, line, and sinker.
Rising to his comrade’s defense, Hayes spoke up. “Cut it out, Phillips. You don’t want to mess with him. His people are like Vikings, or something. Aren’t they, Jansson?”
“A Viking … how romantic.” Red’s overlong eyelash extensions fluttered provocatively against her cheek as she leaned towards the blushing soldier.
Tactfully avoiding the overt flirtation, Jansson frowned. “Born and raised in Minnesota. Apple pie, baseball … and the red, white and blue,” he said, smacking the flag on his right arm. “And proud of it.”
Phillips let out a low whistle. “Dang … that’s quite the speech, son. You got it down pat!” When that failed to produce a response, Phillips let his eyes wander around the room restlessly. “When’s this thing supposed to start anyway?”
This was his first USO show and, so far, he wasn’t impressed. The brass got all the front tables, basking in the glow of the halogen bulbs and drawing more attention than they deserved.
“I suppose we’ll have to listen to the lot of them pat themselves on the back before the entertainment starts,” Phillips grumbled, momentarily forgetting he was trying to impress Red. “In the meantime, they could at least give us something besides watered-down punch to whet our whistle.”
As if on cue, an elderly waitress appeared by his side. Her dress green skirt suit was bulging at the seams, and more than one button was left undone in compensation. A matching garrison hat was pinned tightly to her head, allowing one strategically placed curl to loop onto her forehead, just shy of center.
“What can I get you boys and … miss?”
Back in the day, they had other words for young women dressed and painted in such a colorful manner. But this was a different era. There had been a number of revolutionary coups in the world of fashion since her time, all chanting the same mantra: Out with the old, in with the new.
Phillips gave a nudge under the table, raising his brows significantly at the woman’s nylons, wrinkled and pooling slightly at the ankles. Red put her hand to her mouth, concealing a sly grin.
“Two of whatever beer you got on tap. Please,” he added, remembering Red.
The waitress held her tray up a little higher and tilted her head towards the coffee pot in her hand. “No brew tonight, but can I interest you in a donut and Cup of Joe?”
Phillips shook his head. “Uh, yeah … we’ll pass. Donuts to the hip and dishwater drip is the last thing we want,” he said, giving Red’s hips an appreciative glance.
The waitress followed his eyes blandly. “Kind of missing the point, aren’t you?”
“I would like a cup, please, ma’am.”
The woman turned towards the lone soldier, giving him a radiant smile. “Well, at least someone gets the theme of the night. “Donut?” she offered, never breaking stride as she poured the coffee and balanced her tray.
“So, what’s the theme all about, anyway?” Red asked, commandeering the soldiers’ attention. She had mentally eliminated Hayes as a buffoon, but the silent Viking held a certain appeal and Phillips had a quick, if not callous, wit. If she engaged in conversation with the woman, it just might buy her time enough to decide which of the two she would pursue. Red chewed her lip and tried not to squirm as the woman gave her a critical appraisal.
“And why not? My feet could use a rest!” Pulling up a chair, she joined the table, pretending not to hear Phillips’ groan. “Where to start?”
Red took charge of fielding the questions. “You’re wearing a uniform, were you in the Army?”
“Wearing a uniform?” The woman let out a laugh. “That’s one way of putting it.” Chuckling, she added, “Squeezing the stuffing out of me is more like it and to answer your question, no – it’s part of the theme. Unfortunately, this was made for someone like you.”
The observation could have been a compliment. Or not. Red forced a patently false smile. “I’m not sure I’m built for soldiering.”
“No, you most certainly are not,” Phillips murmured, letting his eyes roam at will. It was meant to flatter, but somehow, he had managed to invoke the disapproval of everyone at the table except Hayes, and he didn’t count.
“I, myself,” the woman continued as if Phillips hadn’t opened his mouth, “am … was,” she amended, “a farm girl from a little town in Nebraska called North Platte. Don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it?”
Red shook her head, but the lone soldier answered with enthusiasm. “I come from a family of farmers as well. Four generations of corn farmers!” That earned him an eye roll from Phillips, but the waitress beamed with approval.
“Corn-fed boys have the strongest hearts,” she praised, causing him to blush for the second time. “My daddy and uncle grew sugar beets. I had never seen mountains up close, but when I was younger, I naturally assumed they were made out of sugar beets. Just piled higher.
“Oh, good grief! ”
The woman’s casual honesty put Red at ease, and this time her protests were genuine. “Knock it off, Phillips! No one’s forcing you to stay.”
The table went silent. For an awkward moment, Phillips considered choking down humble pie, but Red had raised a brow in challenge, and that was the last straw. With a derisive snort, he pushed away from the table. “Let’s go, Hayes, we’re outta here.”
Hayes shrugged apologetically before scrambling after Phillips.
“Good riddance, I say! Now, where was I?” the woman questioned the remaining two. “Oh yes … North Platte. An insignificant town altogether in every way possible – except,” she emphasized, holding up a finger, “when Christmas of forty-one rolled around. That’s nineteen forty-one. World War Two, in case you’re wondering,” she said with a wink. “Let that sink in for a moment!”
The soldier nodded significantly with undivided attention.
Self-conscious that she hadn’t actually known it was World War Two, Red ducked her head.
The waitress continued with her story to spare her further embarrassment. “Anyway, some of our home boys were scheduled to pass through by train on their way to the front. Those of us left behind – practical farmers that we were – did what we did best. We cooked.
“You … cooked?” Red asked, perplexed at such a notion. “Why?”
For a moment, the woman paused, her eyes brimming with tears. Then, with practiced determination, she gave the most logical and concise reason she could come up with. “Because we knew our boys were going to go hungry for a long, long time and right then – in that moment in time – the one thing we could do was feed them. So we did!”
“What did you feed them?” the soldier and Red asked in unison. They turned towards each other as sheepish grins spread across their faces.
Pleased that she had intervened on Red’s behalf, the waitress became animated. “Anything and everything we had stashed away in our larders! Fried chicken, ham, pickles, eggs – you name it. Bread, popcorn balls … even a birthday cake that never made it to the party!”
Red’s eyes grew round. “Let me guess … you also served donuts and coffee?”
The waitress chuckled. “Every time. Now you’re catching on! A Cup of Joe … To Go, we called it. And here’s the kicker – as it turned out, they weren’t even our boys!”
“Whose boys were they … Janie?” Red asked, leaning closer to read the name tag.
“Some other mama’s boys. Somebody’s brother, daddy, nephew. They all had a story, and an appetite! We fed them, gave them magazines and even …” here Janie lowered her voice to a whisper, “cigarettes. Then we sent them off with a smile to take with them.”
“Those were well-stocked larders,” the soldier noted pragmatically.
“Well, we didn’t have all that the first time,” Janie admitted, slapping his arm lightly. “But they kept passing through our grassroots canteen throughout the war, so we kept meeting them at the trains. Most, we never saw again.” Her eyes grew soft as she glanced across the room. “But some we did. Like my Joe.”
Following the trajectory of her gaze, Red’s eyes came to rest on the man that had been the object of their ridicule earlier. Abashed, she put a hand to her chest. “He’s … your Joe?”
“My one and only,” Janie replied proudly. Reaching for her tray and coffee, she stood.
The private jumped to his feet and saluted smartly. “Thank you, ma’am, for your service!”
Janie’s smile widened. “You’re most welcome, soldier. Miss. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and pour a Cup of Joe.”
It was the shiver of a late April chill that woke me in the in-between hours; just before the stars released their grip on the night sky and gave way to the brilliance of the eastern sun’s first rays. It was Maggie’s favorite time of day.
How often in those first years of our marriage did I stumble downstairs to the kitchen in the early hours, bleary eyed and in desperate need of strong coffee, to find her sitting quietly at the kitchen table, cradling a cup of steaming herbal tea? Her mind would be miles away – I could see it in the depths of her eyes – and then she would smile; a smile meant to cheer me, if not herself. I had tried to be a dutiful husband, offering my company and companionship, but looking back, I’m sure that my doleful presence provided neither. There are some places in a woman’s heart, I have learned, that a husband simply cannot fill. Much to her credit, she never spoke words of restlessness at the time.
I knew there was no point in reaching for her now, she wouldn’t be there. I had long since been accustomed to waking to an empty bed; it was enough that I knew where to find her. She would be where I had first found her . . .
~ ~ ~
The morning mist mingled with hard-earned sweat, plastering my unruly hair against my forehead, and I swiped incessantly with the palm of my hand to keep the dripping strands out of my eyes. I had just purchased a cottage on the northern Oregon coast, and had taken up the routine of jogging along the beach during my seasonal stay. The life of a teacher may have its ups and downs, but summer holidays more than compensated for it all. My time to take Maya and escape suburban living . . . just me and my faithful dog; I was young and carefree then. And lonely. I just didn’t know it.
It was Maya that discovered Maggie to begin with, and for that singular reason I will forever be in her debt! We had the beach to ourselves that particular morning, and I watched with envy as she raced up and down the sand, running circles around my slow, but steady, strides. I chuckled at her antics, wishing I had half of her energy; it would take a good week to build up my wind again, and my lungs were brutally protesting my abuse of their capabilities.
I gave in at last – although, truth be told, I had little choice in the matter – and slowed to a walk. Maya panted in delight as I found the sensitive spot behind her ear and scratched vigorously, shaking loose the sandy clumps and bits of seaweed that had lodged close to the roots of her Irish coat.
“You know,” I scolded affectionately in a tone that cushioned the brunt of my words, “it will take all afternoon to coax the sheen back into these sodden, red tresses of yours.”
Warming to the ever-increasing pace of her wagging tail, I switched to my ‘doggy voice’, which sounded positively idiotic to my own ears, “Yes it will . . . oh, yes it will . . . that’s a good girl, Maya!”
I glanced about self-consciously, assuring myself that there was indeed nobody else about to hear my one-sided conversation; relieved, I walked on.
Hopelessly delighted to receive such unexpected attention, Maya darted ahead to scatter a handful of seagulls that had clustered around something unidentifiable, yet by all accounts, worth their while. She derived complete satisfaction from stealing treasures from the scavengers, and their affronted squawking echoed against the force of the rolling waves. I mentally prepared myself to accept whatever disgusting tidbit she would retrieve as a token of affection for me, and hoped the stench of it would not overpower my already fragile insides.
It was not the gulls’ prize that held her attention though, for instantly she assumed the poise of a true Irish Setter, nose and tail polar opposites of each other, fore paw curled to her breast; she was on to something. Seconds later, Maya was in a full sprint, rounding the rocky outcropping and leaving a spray of sand in her wake. I was left to follow – or not.
Dutifully, I followed.
She was beautiful; that much I could sense, even from a distance. It wasn’t so much her looks, I could make out no specific details, but the way she carried herself . . . the way she allowed herself to be engulfed by the uncultivated surroundings of the cove; she just . . . fit. It was my first glimpse of Maggie, and a picture that will forever be imprinted in the archives of my memories.
Whatever breath I had regained left me in an instant, and I stood staring like a schoolboy; God help me, I did. I took it all in. The unseen fingers of a light breeze played with her golden curls, curls that hung down her back and danced with every movement of her delicate head. The shape of her long, straight back beneath the wool of an oversized cardigan, the molding of her ankle-length skirt around the gentle curves that whispered, ‘ woman’ to the man inside of me, and the musical ring of her laughter as Maya chased down the rocks she had been methodically skipping.
To this day, Maggie has never lost her laugh.
And that was it for me – and for her as well, when she’s honest enough to admit it. We fell for each other fast and hard, but our love was as strong as the rocks that sheltered our first embrace. There is a popular saying going around these days, but my Maggie and I were practicing it long before it became a wall plaque; it goes something like this: ‘Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often’. Words to live by, and we did . . . along with a saying of my own, ‘Kiss Slowly’.
We spent the entire summer together hiking the craggy countryside by day and beachcombing, hand-in-hand, by moonlight. Maggie became my wife that fall, beneath the steeple of a pristine white oceanside church overlooking the cliffs. No music played, no voices raised in song; Maggie said it would drown out the melody of the sea. I think it was the Ocean Song that put the salt in Maggie’s blood forever; while she and I spoke solemn vows between us, she had a silent understanding between her heart and the sea. Both proved to be binding, in their own ways.
The roll of the waves and fall of the tide never left Maggie, and every year for the next four years we returned to the sea to spend our summers . . . and lose ourselves in each other. On the day our precious daughter was born, I presented Maggie with a gift: it was a key . . . the key.
The key to our summer cottage.
It would be our permanent home from then on. A place for us to raise our family; a place for Maggie to live without leaving part of her heart behind. A place that had never stopped calling her.
~ ~ ~
So I lay here, listening to the gentle roll of the morning surf followed by the splashing of waves against sand and stone; it was there – on that tranquil stretch of shoreline – that my Maggie would be.
Children were born and raised; the love between her and I aged with slow precision to a perfect, ripened blend; but the passion Maggie held for the sea never waned. You see, she hears its voice, and when the sea calls, Maggie answers; I expect she always will.
This wasn’t my idea, I reminded myself doggedly, and if I wanted to break down and have a pity party within the sanctuary of my own vehicle, who was there to stop me? Holding back the tears was futile, so I let them trickle down my cheek, and drop noiselessly into the folds of my cowl neck sweater. The wipers were a steady metronome, but my world remained a blur.
Mercilessly, and quite out of control by now, I subjected our Newfoundland to my monologue of woes, bearing my soul and sparing no details. For once, she seemed utterly disinterested in my affairs.
Call it a sixth sense, an acute perception to my fragile state of emotions, or whatever you will, but I was upset at life in general –specifically my dog – and she knew it.
The two hundredth mile into our road trip had revealed a shocking and most unwelcomed disclosure, which had somehow remained hidden throughout our past, blissful years of dog ownership . . . Shadow was car-sick! Although I had just managed to pull the Jeep off the road in time, all was not well between us.
Tension was in the air, and we eyed each other covertly. Sighing heavily, Shadow leaned her sagging jowls against the coolness of the window glass, creating a foggy film around her nostrils that grew with each exhalation.
~ ~ ~
The chance for a new dream. The next chapter in the story of our lives. How long had it been since my husband had whispered those words to me in the dark? It had sounded so romantic at the time; so promising and full of hope! Oh yes, he had set the stage well. Appealing to my sense of adventure and nomadic spirit, I was a captivated audience from the start. His words held me, and I would have followed him off the edges of the map, had it been possible.
We diligently researched our options and inquired into every possible aspect of our new lives, and when the practicalities threatened to squelch our exuberance, it was then that we dreamed!
We passed the winter this way, taking little notice of the storms that raged beyond our walls. Lying together at night, my world was a cocoon of warmth and security; my heart confidently anchored in our future together.
~ ~ ~
As the saying goes, “That was then, and this is now.” How much had changed over the past ten years! I learned firsthand the meaning of trade-offs, compromises, and those notorious back burners where dreams sat simmering. A glance in the rear view told me that two of my trade-offs had fallen asleep in the backseat, heads knocked together in silent slumber with mouths sagging open. My boys.
~ ~ ~
Twins. One word, two heartbeats. That’s all it took. Our plans came to a screeching halt that day at the doctor’s office. I remember having the distinct feeling of déjà vu; an acute sensation of . . . falling.
As a girl, I had attempted to jump my pony over a fallen tree; it was low enough, and she seemed game. Moving at a brisk canter, I raised myself up in the stirrups, leaned over her neck, and readied myself. I could feel the muscular hindquarters bunch up in preparation, and the moment of anticipation as her front hooves left the ground.
To this day, I’ll never know why she decided to balk, but I’ll never forget the helplessness of being caught up in forward motion and suddenly . . . falling.
~ ~ ~
It must have been gradual, but it seemed as though the sky suddenly dimmed, and a curtain had been pulled shut. The day had been drab and dismal with little difference between the hours, other than the various shades of gray. I had hoped to make it through the Coastal Range before dark, but that was obviously not going to happen. I did not relish the thought of driving half blind through unfamiliar territory!
Thankfully, Shadow’s stomach had stabilized and the boys had kept themselves content and occupied throughout the trip with their DVD players. I smiled as cries of “All for one, and one for all!” rang out in stereo behind my seat, knowing that my children would battle as heroes in their sleep this night.
~ ~ ~
“I think it’s time to make that move.” Just like that, out of the blue! I had been in the kitchen, stirring the pot of spaghetti sauce, when my husband of fifteen years nonchalantly announced that he wanted to resume our plans of so many years ago.
I scorched the sauce and burned the pot black that day. A number of rebuttals came to my mind at once, nearly choking me, and I stumbled over each and every one. Looking back, there must have been little to my tirade that actually made sense, but Alex listened patiently, his tall, lanky frame leaning against the archway. Spent, I sputtered to an undignified halt, letting my words trail off into an awkward silence between us.
His face registered calm, but the furrowing of his brow belied his façade; he was trying to hold it all in check.
“I thought you might have been pleased – you know, that second chance we never thought we’d get.” He had not waited around for my reply.
I puttered around the house after he left, occupying myself with menial tasks, but I was forced to admit that no occupation would restore my sense of peace and tranquility. Eventually, the chaos in my mind won out; I knew what had to be done.
~ ~ ~
It was on the descent, this last stretch of the journey, that I truly developed a renewed sense of appreciation for my husband. Ironically, I never saw it coming. Here I was, driving halfway across the country with two kids and a puking dog, while my husband is . . . well, while he’s . . . it struck me then, and hard!
I get the smooth ride, a mapped and detailed route [courtesy of my droning, but accurate-to-a-fault, GPS co-pilot], and the company of my precious sons and their dog, emphasis on their! Here I cast a dubious glance in Shadow’s direction, but she looked so bereft and dejected that I relented with a sigh. Reaching over, I gave her ear a vigorous tousle and was instantly rewarded with what could only be described as a blissful, doggy smile!
I considered then how Alex had made two previous trips, driving and pulling various types of rental vehicles. He had set forth ahead solo, blazing a trail, and ironing out the wrinkles along the way. And he did it for us.
While most men his age were in a full swing mid-life crisis or rapidly heading in that direction, my husband remained a devoted family man. Alex thrived at being the visionary of our little clan, and industriously occupied himself with mapping out our future. Literally.
~ ~ ~
Hiding out on the open prairie has its own set of difficulties, so I had little trouble finding Alex once I set my mind to it. He was sitting by the trout pond, in plain sight, industriously chewing on a blade of grass; he had to have known that was the first place I’d look. Quietly, I sat down behind him, letting my head rest gently against the plaid that stretched between his shoulder blades. My cheek rose and fell to the rhythm of his breathing.
“Is it possible to just pick up and start over?” I asked, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
“I’m willing. For you.”
“For me? But why – why now?”
“You told me you wanted to live by the ocean or in the middle of a forest . . . like the cottage in Sleeping Beauty,” Alex stated at last.
My head snapped up. “I told you what??”
“An ocean or a forest,” he repeated solidly. “Those were your words.”
“I . . . no! I never said that!” I protested, scrambling around front to better read his face. The man was dead serious!
“You did,” Alex insisted, “on our third date when we jumped the horses over the straw bales and raced around the corn maze! I distinctly remember.” Alex lowered his eyes and then met mine full on. “It was the night I first kissed you,” he said softly.
As if I needed reminding of that! We had ended up riding double and leading my horse on a very meandering route home.
“Well, I’m sure I didn’t mean it, literally,” I countered. “I probably thought it was a romantic notion . . . under the circumstances,” I added, brushing a speck of dust from my pants.
A roguish grin flashed across his face, and I allowed a small reminiscent smile to soften my features. I could feel my defenses shifting ever so slightly, but I was not about to let my mind get carried away with flights of fancy! Still, I glanced around, wondering why the wide open landscape surrounding us suddenly seemed so . . . lacking.
Meeting his gaze once again, I stated firmly, “I am no longer a young girl lost in a fairy tale, and my dreams are different now. I am content.” My words were everything they should have been . . . resolute, persuasive, and heavy with the double weight of duty and conviction. I wondered then, why was I having trouble believing them?
Alex was silent for several moments and I half expected him to call me a liar at any moment. “So you don’t dream anymore,” he sighed, fingering a strand of my hair before tucking it behind my ear, “that’s a shame.”
“It’s not that I don’t have dreams! They’re just – I don’t know, tucked away I guess . . . somewhere. ” My words trailed off, leaving me feeling restless and fidgety.
“Ok then,” he allowed, lying back and pulling me down to nestle against him, “tell them to me.”
~ ~ ~
The rain stopped the moment my tires turned off the pavement and crunched onto the gravelly drive. Ranks of towering pine flanked me on each side, boughs bent and dripping with rainwater. The stalwart giants would have been imposing, and even slightly ominous, had it not been for the glowing beacon of a porch light, beckoning me the last hundred yards.
As soon as I stepped out of the Jeep, the poem became clear. Inhaling deeply, I filled my lungs with the pungent tang of earth and all things green and growing. Drifting through this intoxicating blend of nature, I detected a feral saltiness that permeated everything it touched. Was it my imagination, or did I hear the distinct crash of a breaker against rock in the distance?
~ ~ ~
“Come, come away with me, and put my love to the test . . .
Come, oh come away with me, and we’ll dwell in the Saltwater Forest
Yes we’ll dwell in the Saltwater Forest . . . ”
That was the last letter I received. Cryptic, intriguing; very Alex! Those words were going through my mind as I took one last backward glance at the amber waves of grains before my boot hit the accelerator with a sense of purpose. The boys shrieked with delight at the trail of prairie dust in our wake, oblivious to the reluctance that I had battled and conquered; for the most part.
~ ~ ~
And then he was there, the love of my life, walking towards me. Impulsively, I sprang into his open arms and kissed him, lingering and appreciating the feel of being together.
“I missed you, Alex!” I said in response to his unspoken question, and was instantly rewarded with one of his beguiling smiles.
“Yeah, I missed you, too,” he whispered softly. “Welcome home.”
From what I could see, the cabin needed painting, the porch rail tilted precariously, and a woman’s touch was sorely lacking throughout, but it was enough. Enough to make a heart dream again.
Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood … ”
Sensing another presence in the room, I turned from my daughter’s bedside. My wife stood there in the doorway, arms crossed, casually leaning against the frame. The hallway sconces back-lit her silhouette and I admired her attractive shape as she strolled into the room.
I continued reading to the slumbering form. “As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow.”
“You know she can’t hear you, right?” my wife asked, snuggling up behind me on the chaise lounge. Resting her chin on my shoulder, she wrapped me in a warm embrace.
I smiled. We had been through this before. “Not true,” I answered, stroking the ridges of her knuckles.
“The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, ‘If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.’”
My thumb rubbed against a hard object. Glancing down, I noticed that in addition to her durable tungsten carbide wedding band, my wife was wearing her engagement ring. The two were utterly mismatched and she rarely wore them together, except on special occasions.
I fingered the cluster of diamonds, admiring their brilliant inner glow. I had selected the ring from a private jeweler’s elite Fairytale Collection, promising that it would be the beginning of our happily ever after together.
Heather, pragmatic to a fault, had actually laughed at that part of my proposal. I was mortified.
Despite countless rehearsals, my words, usually so eloquent and polished, lacked the poetry that I had envisioned and my cheeks had burned until the fear of rejection nearly paralyzed me.
Then, in a show of extravagant mercy, Heather folded her arms around the back of my neck and pressed her beautiful mouth to my own. I was too dizzy to remember much of what happened next, but I can still hear her words in my ear as I did that day. “My love, you are a hopeless romantic.”
And then she said yes.
Six months later, amidst the clatter of cans and the hastily scrawled letters JUST MARRIED hanging precariously from the bumper of my Subaru, Heather and I left the hustle of urbanization in the rearview mirror.
My transition was a no-brainer. I said goodbye to my editorial desk job and hello to the lifelong dream of becoming an independent author in the matter of a heartbeat. It took Heather, professor and mathematician extraordinaire, even less time to decide.
A month following our exodus found us comfortably cocooned by a forest of conifers at the end of a washboard gravel road. Deer and turkey abounded; people didn’t.
Our newly-acquired property bordered USFS land on one side and dropped abruptly into Lake Pend Oreille on the other. We were living the north Idaho dream and loving the seclusion of mountain living, made all the more doable by our weekly trips to Costco and addiction to locally-roasted coffee.
~ ~ ~
I felt Heather’s body expand and then contract with a sigh as she whispered now. “I remember the first time you read that story to her. She was sleeping then, too, and I thought you were … ”
“Crazy?” I ventured before she had a chance to supply an adjective that was less flattering.
Heather moved against me, chuckling. “Maybe just a little,” she conceded. I felt my body tremble as she traced my ear lightly. “But mostly,” she said, kissing my neck, “I thought you were … charming. Now, keep reading.”
Slightly disoriented, I continued obediently. “Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood.” I reached down to stroke a thin wisp of raven-black hair from our little girl’s cheek, following the path of a wayward curl.
“And therefore they called her Snow-White. As soon as the child was born …” my voice broke and I tried again. “As soon as the child was born the queen … the queen … died.”
My eyes drifted to the window. The panes were frosted around the edges and thick clouds obscured both moon and stars. Squeezing Heather’s hand meaningfully, I brought it to my lips. “I remember, too. It was the night I almost lost you both.”
~ ~ ~
A frigid gust of wind followed Heather into the house as she stormed through the door. Removing the snow-covered balaclava, she gave her head a vigorous shake. A sudden-onset blizzard – the one they predicted would skirt to the north and miss our neck of the woods entirely – was hard on her heels. I stood by, anxiously waiting to lock up and batten down the hatches.
Despite my protests, Heather insisted on walking to the barn each and every night to check on our menagerie of animals, no matter the weather. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would stay my wife from the swift completion of her appointed rounds. She would have excelled as a Postal Service worker.
Taking in the sight of her roly-poly figure, I couldn’t help myself. “Hey gorgeous … want to build a snowman?”
The joke had become a favorite of ours and usually sent her into a fit of estrogen-induced giggles, but one look at my wife’s face sent the blood draining from mine. “How long?” I croaked.
Wide-eyed, Heather stood staring at me, her mouth slowly forming an elongated O. Time stood still, drawing out into – well, a pregnant moment – until a slight, audible pop echoed in the space between us. With a reflexive jerk of her head, the breath she had been holding escaped in a rush … along with the fluid that her body had been retaining for the past thirty-four weeks. She brought a hand to her belly. “Not long enough.”
This can’t be happening. The baby is early. The roads are impassable. What should I do? We’re going to have a baby! Why won’t my legs move!?
“Sweetheart, everything is going to be fine,” someone said in a voice that sounded strangely like my own. “Our little princess is on her way.”
~ ~ ~
At the moment, a wrinkle was starting to form across our little princess’s forehead, scrunching into a frown with the puckering of pink, pouty lips. Leaning over my shoulder, Heather blew gently into her face and, as if by magic, the creases smoothed out.
Heather nudged me out of my sentimental retrospect. “But I didn’t die, did I?” When I failed to answer, she pressed, “Hey – I didn’t die.”
I shook my head, too choked up to speak. A year wasn’t long enough to diminish the debilitating fear I had battled that night.
My wife, on the other hand, had recovered beautifully and derived a most irrational pleasure in the retelling. “I’ll never forget how Doc Gallaway came to our rescue! Riding in on his mighty black charger to save the day … that has got to qualify for some kind of a fairy tale, right?”
“You know, your childhood was seriously deficient,” I chided. “An old, retired, neighbor vet driving in on a black Polaris hardly constitutes a fairy tale. But I guess you’re right,” I admitted. “He did, most definitely, save the day.”
“Well, a fairy tale-deficient childhood is certainly something this little girl will never have to worry about – not with you as a father. Now, skip to the ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’ part!” Heather commanded in a tone that, I assumed, was supposed to be menacing.
Amused at her attempt, I turned the page. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?”
“Mmm … I love the way your voice sounds there.”
“Uh … excuse me?” I asked, baffled.
With a mischievous grin, Heather crawled around to nestle comfortably in my lap. “Yeah, you know,” she said, arching a finely tapered eyebrow, “when you try to be dark and sinister. I love that!”
Reaching up, she ran her fingertips along the stubble on my jaw. I could feel my eyes grow heavy and my neck flush hot. I could also feel myself blushing.
“Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t want to be married to a villain or anything!”
I struggled to open my eyes and murmured huskily, “Well, that’s a relief, because I kind of fancy myself as one of the good guys.”
Heather drew herself up, suddenly serious. “You are so much more than a good guy … you’re like … a hero.” Grabbing my shirtfront in both fists, her eyes bored into my own. “You’re my hero!”
Kissing me hard, she gushed more embarrassing praise, though I was sure there was more than a hint of sleep depravity driving her words.
“You have turned my world upside down – in the best of ways!”
“Heather, I – ”
“No, I’m serious. You have opened my eyes to beauty … wonder, and – yes! – the promise of a happily ever after that I never even knew was possible before I met you. Just look what we have created!” Following her downward gaze, I sat holding my wife while we watched our little princess slumber.
Sitting there in the dark – it could have been minutes, or hours – it seemed like an eternity before I mustered the courage to speak. “Do you know why I read fairy tales the night she was born?” I asked tentatively.
It wasn’t until I asked the question a second time that I realized Heather had fallen asleep in my arms. I sat quietly, content, but after a time I felt compelled to speak. I needed to say the words. Aloud.
“I was afraid … more afraid than I had ever been in my whole life.” It was awkward, but I just sat there, whispering into the silence. “Words. Physical strength. Determination. None of them were of any use to me that night,” I confided, releasing a stream of confessions.
The wind kicked up and I jumped at the sound of a branch tapping against the window. I felt stupid and exposed, but couldn’t stop talking.
“All night, as your life balanced precariously on the edge, I sat by your bedside and there was nothing I could say or do to bring you relief … or comfort. I have never felt so emotionally depleted in my entire life.”
At the memory, my breath faltered. “I was stripped bare and rendered completely … helpless.”
“And so I read. I read all my hopes and dreams for our daughter’s life … for our life. I read of struggles, of battles, of rescues … of tales with happily ever afters because above all, I needed you in mine.”
Heather stirred and, looking down, I saw that her cheek was wet. Caught in the reverie of pensive introspection, I sat staring, confused. When another drop splashed her face, I became aware that my tears had been falling.
Feeling the gentle brush of my hand against her cheek, Heather’s eyes fluttered open and she said dreamily, “Hello there, charming.”
Dashing a hand across my own eyes, I swear my heart swelled in my chest. Literally. “Hello there, beautiful.”
Stretching, Heather groaned. “Were you saying something?”
Kissing the top of my wife’s head, I allowed myself a small smile. “I was just telling our little princess about the night she came into this world. How it was dark, like tonight … but with the glimmer of snow falling white.”