I turn my collar up against the pouring rain. I don't feel the water running inside my coat, but I don't seem to feel much of anything. Maybe I just don't want to.
I pull my eyes away from the darkness hiding beneath the clean white lines of the casket, and stare into a future beyond the sea of sad faces. They will all go home, and I will be alone, more alone than I have ever been. I turn my heart away from the pain I see reflected in their eyes.
I can't let that pain get too close. It looks hungry, and I don't think I can survive if it climbs inside. It will eat my soul.
This place seems nice. I think she'll enjoy this hillside, and its beautiful sweep of lawn. I guess I will get used to the view. Not sure what else my life will consist of from now on, but I will keep this place—her place—cared for.
Oh, Ree... the green lawns remind me of that day I finally asked you. Remember?
The late summer sun was shining in the cloudless sky. I pulled my sunglasses over my eyes and watched her walk toward me. I felt a lump in my throat, and realized I couldn't swallow. The sunshine wasn't enough to take the slight September chill out of the air, but her smile was all I needed to warm me from the inside out.
Marie Holter. Sweet Marie. Her youngest kid sister calls her Ree-Ree, and I have a feeling Ree will stick. I still can't believe you are here with me. I'm not sure if I found you, or you found me, but I thank God that we found each other.
My nerves threatened to get the better of me. I turned and sat down in the grass. Reaching over, I grabbed a soda from the cooler and opened it as her shadow fell across me.
"I grabbed a big beach towel, instead of a blanket." She shook the largest towel I had ever seen out, and spread it on the grass. "I think lunch will fit on it though."
"Uh, yeah. I'm pretty sure Thanksgiving Dinner would fit on it." Her smile was dazzling.
I started to get up, but she pushed me back onto my butt, climbed across, and straddled my lap. Her arms interlocked behind my neck as she wrapped her legs and those impossibly tight blue jeans around my waist. The smell of her shampoo was driving me insane, and the closeness of her mouth to mine made me dizzy.
"Speaking of Thanksgiving, you better not even think about making any other plans this year. Last night at dinner, Julie asked me if you were coming to the Holter Holiday Hijinks. My mom grinned, and Daddy tried his best to look as if he couldn't care less, but it got really quiet, you know? I mean, even Becca closed her yapper and stared at me."
I reached up and pushed a runaway strand of hair behind her ear. "What did you say?"
"I said that not only would you be there, but I was thinking about having you carve the turkey. You should’ve seen it. Daddy's fork actually stopped halfway to his mouth and my mom spit her wine across her plate. It was the funniest thing ever!"
"Great. Now your dad is going to glare at me even harder the next time I see him."
"Don't be silly. Daddy’s a pushover." She took my face in her hands. "Now, do you wanna keep talking about my family, or can I distract you?"
She leaned in to kiss me, and then threw herself sideways, pulling me on top of her, and rolling us both onto the towel.
Nervously, I slid my hand into my coat pocket. The little box was still there.
Whew. That was almost a disaster, my Ree-Ree.
The time had come, and suddenly the great speech and romantic flourishes I had been practicing were gone. My tongue felt too big for my mouth and I wasn't sure if I could even form words correctly any more.
"Hey, I need to ask you a question."
She must have heard something serious in my voice, because she got the cutest worried look as I sat up. It wasn't until I got on one knee and reached in my pocket that her eyes softened, and then grew large.
"I know that you still have your senior year to finish, and that I don't have much money, or a good job yet, or stuff that makes me worth what you deserve, and I know that Jacobs is kind of a boring last name, and that your family may not even like me, but... well... I..."
She smiled that sweet, sweet smile, and reached out with her finger, placing it against my lips.
"Shh. I’ve been waiting since you started carrying that ring around for you to ask me. Just relax, then calmly and quietly, ask me whatever it is you were going to ask."
I was in shock. She knew about the ring!
She sat back down, folded her legs under her to the side, batted her eyes at me demurely, and folded her hands together.
"Okay" My voice sounded like a rusty tin can being dragged behind a car. I couldn't remember what I was saying a few seconds earlier. I knew I’d planned this whole thing out hundreds of times in my head, but I had nothing. "Uh ... Marry me?"
I'm such an idiot. That was the stupidest proposal ever!
Her expression as she sprang into my arms was almost as welcome as the words she whispered in my ear. "Yes, and I think Jacobs is a lovely last name."
Most of the people who are here have umbrellas. Black umbrellas. I suppose that's normal for funerals, but we only own a red one. We share it. Well, we used to share it; I guess it's just mine now.
I left it at home.
I can see my daughter, but she won't meet my eyes. I know she hurts. She and her mother were close in a way that she and I never have been. I love Tonya with every fiber of my being, but she and Ree shared what felt like a psychic connection, at least to outsiders like me. When she scraped her knee as a child, I would always kiss it better, but when she got her heart broken or was filled with pride at an accomplishment, her mother was the one she ran to.
I can't kiss this one away, Tonya. I wish I could.
The minister says something, but I can't quite hear his voice. Just a droning sound under the patter of raindrops on stretched black fabric. I notice the tarp that covers the dirt from the hole. I don't want to think about that hole.
What was it you used to say, Ree? "Never dig a hole you aren't prepared to fill?" Something like that.
As I watch Tonya lay her single red rose on top of the white box that now holds the remains of my heart, I can't help but think about the day she told me that the two of us would become three.
We walked along the side of the road, as snowflakes fell around us. The world was soft, and the trees wore their new white mantles like fine jewelry. I could tell there was something on Marie's mind. She was unusually withdrawn; it wasn’t like her to be this quiet.
"Hey, Ree, want to have a snowball fight? I bet we could find some great hiding places in the woods."
"No. James, I need to tell you something."
My heart leapt into my throat. James. Not Jimmy, or Jimbo, or even Jim - but James. This was serious. I stopped and reached for her hand, but she grabbed mine first. Squeezing it tightly, she pulled me along with her.
At least you grabbed my hand. I know we will get through this, whatever it is.
"Please, keep walking with me."
My mind began to run through scenarios, each more devastating than the last. Was it the house? A shutoff notice for the power? The dog... was Max okay? He was a 65 pound mix breed who ate twice his weight in kibble each month, but I knew she loved the big lug even more than I did.
"Marie, what's wrong?"
"I know that you’ve been saving money for a trip to Vegas." She wouldn't look at me, and I began to worry even more. "But I don't think we can afford it."
Is THAT all this is? Oh you silly woman!
Marie had a good job waiting tables at a family restaurant here in town, and even though my teacher's salary wasn't a lot, it was more than enough for us to take a trip to Sin City during Spring Break next year.
"Sure we will, babe. I have enough put away for us to..."
"Not with another mouth to feed, especially after they make me take a few months off."
We continued to walk along as my mind processed what she said. The realization she was telling me she was pregnant broke through my thoughts like sunshine on a gray day. Everything gained color and clarity. The world became a different place, and for a moment, I was unable to speak.
"James." She was staring down at her feet as we wandered along the snowy road. "Say something, please. You’re scaring me."
I stopped her and pulled her close. I used my teeth to remove the glove from my right hand and reaching forward, I lightly took her chin between my thumb and fingers. I gently eased her face up to mine, and found her beautiful eyes brimming with tears.
"Hey." I wiped my thumb under her eye, and rolled the tears away before they could run down her cheek. "Do you love me?"
"Of course I do!" I could hear consternation and a little fear in her voice.
"And do you trust that I love you?"
She nodded slowly.
"Then stop crying, and let's celebrate." I reached down and lifted her up. Her legs found the familiar spot around my waist, and she linked her hands behind my neck. Spinning us around and around, I yelled, "We're having a baby!"
Her tears became that gorgeous smile I love with all my heart, and she leaned her head
back as we spun and shouted along with me. "A BABY!"
Max, it looks like you’re going to have to share us, bucko.
My heart felt like it would overflow. The snow no longer even felt cold.
I stand here and listen to the sound of nothing at all. Everyone else is gone. I'm sure that Tonya is serving cake and coffee at the grange hall by now, but I can't make myself leave just yet. Truth is, I’m terrified. Not of death, but of life.
I never realized how hard it would be to even think about living without you, Ree.
The rain has turned cold, and the sun is much lower in the sky than it was when the service began. I can see the workers; they’re waiting for me to leave. I know they have a job to do. They have to bury my wife.
Those words sound alien in my head; I remember us laughing together, just the other day.
It occurs to me that it wasn’t really days ago. The truth is, it’s been over a month since we had laughed, or even spoken to one another. Over a month since that horrible day she was admitted to the hospital.
At least I know you faced the end with faith, my love. I suppose that's how I will manage to make my way through what's left of my life...
(c) 2016 - dustygrein