Homecoming

In case you were curious, science fiction and fantasy aren’t the only kinds of fiction I write.

Homecoming

Mollie studied the table one more time, desperate that everything be perfect. She’d been waiting two years for Jeff to get out, and today was finally the day.

Her to do list was in the living room, but she knew it by heart. The table was set with her grandmother’s bone china and silver. The new cut-crystal tumblers looked good, even if Jeff would be expecting wine glasses. The tulips in the matching vase were fresh from the yard. The breadbasket was filled with buns from the bakery in town. Candles sat on the table for the first time since Jeff had been arrested, ready for him to light when he came home.

Mollie walked into the kitchen. She wasn’t sure it had been this clean when she and Jeff had bought the house almost twenty years before. The steaks, rubbed with oil and salt, were in the fridge next to a cucumber salad, which was waiting to be tossed. Sliced mushrooms were ready to be sauteed. Asparagus, picked from the garden this morning, sat in the steamer on the stove. The potatoes were pricked and in the oven.

Her strawberry-rhubarb pie had turned out well. It was cooling on the counter. Mollie turned the pie so the sugar on the crust caught the dull light from the window.

Mollie looked out at the grill, sitting on the deck. Its cover was already off, the fresh propane tank hooked up. She squinted at the clouds, dubious, but the weather looked like it would cooperate. The forecast said heavy rain before morning. She was hoping it would hold off a little longer.

She worried about the roses. If it rained hard tonight, it might be a couple of days before the ground was dry enough for planting. She turned reluctantly away from the window.

Upstairs, Mollie looked hard at the bedroom walls. She’d painted them a light yellow winter before last. They’d needed paint for years, and she’d decided not to wait anymore. She liked the color, but she wasn’t sure about Jeff’s reaction to the walls and matching bedclothes. At least everything was tidy.

She stopped in the hall outside Tony and CeCe’s bedrooms. CeCe’s was the cleaner of the two, but it still contrasted sharply with the rest of the house. Mollie had swept the dust and cobwebs from all the other unused corners of the house, but she hadn’t had the energy to tackle these rooms. She shut the doors and went back downstairs. Her footsteps on the wooden stairs rang hollowly.

Mollie hoped today would fix that. She was so tired of living in an empty house.

Stepping into the living room to pick up her purse, she froze. How could she forget the most important thing? She moved the hinged silver picture frame, polished to a soft glow, from the mantle to the buffet in the dining room. Jeff’s picture was in the center frame, and CeCe and Tony looked out at her from their seventh and ninth grade school pictures.

It was only right that the kids be there when their father came home, Mollie thought as she got into the car and pulled out of the garage. Without the pictures, it might never have happened.

She swatted at the thought, trying to bat it aside. She didn’t want memory to intrude today. She already had too much to deal with. Still it came, hard and sharp, pushing aside all her plans. Her knuckles went white against the steering wheel as she unwillingly relived the shock she’d had when she’d heard about the accident.

Jeff had been at his monthly poker night. He’d promised to bring the kids home from the last dance of the school year, using the Suburban to play chauffeur to a pile of teenagers from across the county. She’d gone to bed early, reveling in the decadence of a full evening of freedom and the sweet scent of chokecherry blossoms drifting in on the breeze.

The doorbell had dragged her into consciousness–but not for long. She’d opened the door to find two nervous uniformed deputies. When they told her why they were there, she passed out.

“Mrs. Curran? Mrs. Curran, please talk to me. Are you okay?” The voice came from far away.

The floor felt hard and cold as consciousness crept back to her, but that wasn’t why she shivered. Mollie resisted waking up.

“Mrs. Curran?”

The deputy sounded ridiculously young, almost as young as…. Mollie opened her eyes. “I’m–I’ll be all right.”

“Can we help you up?” Both deputies crowded over her, all anxious eyes.

Weren’t sheriff’s deputies supposed to be prepared for this? Mollie suppressed an urge to laugh at the pair of them. Laughing wouldn’t be right if…. She gasped for air. “Please.”

They helped her to the couch in the living room. “A glass of water?”

“No, thank you.” Mollie’s hands didn’t feel quite steady. She didn’t want to spill.

The deputies still looked ridiculously uncomfortable. She hoped they didn’t have to do this often. They fluttered their hands from belt to chin to behind the back, to holster, briefly folded, scratching at the head, and on, never settling for more than a moment. With British accents, she thought, they’d make a great Laurel and Hardy.

More to stop the laughter she was afraid would come than because she wanted to know, she clutched her robe around her and asked, “What happened?”

Laurel, the taller deputy, who’d stood back as his partner blurted the news, cleared his throat. “The Suburban went into a ditch off County 22. It rolled going down, and the passenger side was crushed.”

Hardy, almost as young as he sounded, stepped in gently. “We think the kids were killed instantly.”

Mollie felt that should mean something, but she was numb. She wondered whether the other parents getting this news tonight felt anything. “How many were in the truck?”

Laurel glanced at Hardy, who nodded briskly and trotted out. “There were two kids in the Suburban. Should there have been more?”

“I hope not.” She looked at the clock. It was almost two. “When did it happen?”

“A bit before one. We think.”

She sighed. “No. The dance was over at ten. That was plenty of time to drop off the other kids.”

“Your husband was giving rides to other kids?”

Something in his tone made Mollie look up. He had a notebook out and was frowning at her.

“Yes. Jeff was–” Mollie gasped. “Jeff! You said he’d be okay. What happened to him?”

“He’s resting comfortably in the hospital. It looks like he escaped with just a few cuts and bruises, but they’re keeping him for observation.”

Mollie stood up. “Can I see him?”

He started the dance of the hands again. The notebook and pen made it even more absurd “I don’t…uh…think that’s…uh…wise right now.”

“Why not? What’s wrong?”

“He’s…” He coughed. “He’s pretty well sedated right now.”

He wouldn’t look at her, and at last, Mollie felt something. A cold knot of suspicion formed just under her ribs. She had trouble sucking in enough air to ask the suddenly all-important question.

“How drunk was he?”

The look in the deputy’s eyes was far kinder than his words. “About twice the legal limit by the time we got him into the ambulance.”

It wasn’t enough to lose the kids. Jeff had…he had…. She felt light-headed again.

It was only the start of the nightmare. She had to come up with the names of children whose parents were about to get unpleasant midnight visits. Then she had to answer questions about Jeff’s drinking. Some of them were questions she knew she should have asked herself years before.

After that came the long trip to Lafayette, the county seat. Riding in the squad car, she fought to keep from hoping. It was harder than she could have dreamed. She reminded herself that if they weren’t her children waiting in the morgue, some other mother would have to live t
hrough this.

It was cold in the basement of the sheriff’s offices. Sitting in the observation room, she could hear sound echoing harshly from the hard surfaces on the other side of the window. Waiting, nothing felt like it could touch her, and Mollie blessed the thin film of unreality between her and the world.

They apologized before asking her to look at the bodies. It was CeCe and Tony, but they looked so horribly, horribly wrong. She fainted again.

They made her call someone to come get her. She couldn’t think of anyone but her mother, although she really didn’t want to face her right now.

Mom was decent, though, after the one habitual crack about how she’d always said Jeff wasn’t good enough. She stopped when Mollie didn’t argue. She was quiet through the drive back to Mollie’s to pick up a suitcase and on the long trip to Braselton, where Mollie had grown up. There, she made Mollie a cup of cloyingly sweet chamomile tea and dosed her with Ativan. Finally, Mollie slept.

Mom decided Mollie needed a hero, and she appointed herself. She didn’t look the part, with her constant cigarette and her teased hair an unnatural shade of dark red. She was remarkably effective, though.

She stood alone on the front step and berated the media who set up camp on her lawn. She called them vultures and ghouls, challenging them to go find some real news to report. This would only be news, she told them, if CeCe and Tony were to suddenly be available for interviews. Since her vocabulary was completely unsuited to either print or broadcast, they soon disappeared.

The sound of her voice drifted back to Mollie through the open windows, and Mollie was hit again with that horrible urge to laugh. She stifled the impulse, afraid laughing might open a door to other feelings. She squeezed her ribs with crossed arms and rocked, willing herself to hear nothing, understand nothing.

Daytime was easiest. Mollie could listen to the bustle of traffic going to work and returning, watch the sunlight travel the length of the room’s floor, and tell herself she’d survived another day.

The nights though…. Mollie tried not to be awake at night, but sometimes the drugs failed her. Then she lay alone in the timeless dark. She couldn’t set aside memory and feeling for later when night promised to go on forever. When it hurt more than she could stand, she buried her face deep in her pillow to scream. She didn’t want to wake her mother.

While Mollie huddled in the room that used to be her bedroom, Mom handled calls from the relatives who meant well but wanted to hear all the details. She made the funeral arrangements, only asking Mollie to sign the papers.

She refused to pass along the papers from the bail bondsmen that said Mollie agreed to put the house up as collateral to spring Jeff from jail. Jeff must have arranged his own way out, because she sent him away when he showed up. After that, the slamming of the phone, which had dropped off as the reporters gave up, became more frequent again.

Mom stuck tightly to Mollie’s side at the funeral, glaring at anyone who threatened to add to her daughter’s pain. Mollie drifted through the service and the brief reception afterward. She nodded at well wishers and briefly accepted hugs and condolences, not really noticing who she talked to.

Then Mom was suddenly tugging hard on her elbow, trying to steer her. Mollie didn’t have time to react before Jeff stood in front of her, determined to have his say. She resigned herself as he opened his mouth.

“Mollie, I have to talk to you. Please listen. I’m so sorry. I….”

Mollie looked at him and listened to his frantic words, but she couldn’t make them mean anything. She only knew that he was talking and the whole room was watching them. She couldn’t even make herself care about that.

Eventually Jeff must have seen that something was wrong, because Mollie realized he had stopped. She let her mother lead her away.

Mom told Mollie when Jeff pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter. Mollie decided against going to the sentencing hearing. She didn’t have anything to say that her absence wouldn’t say for her, and she was afraid to face the other parents whose children’s lives Jeff had risked. She didn’t think they’d direct their anger at her, but something told her it wouldn’t be good to spend much time in its presence.

She did go to court to finalize the divorce, since Jeff was in prison by then. He didn’t contest it, even though the lawyer Mom retained made an aggressive property division request. Mom said it was because Jeff knew he’d never find a sympathetic judge. Mollie wondered whether there might be more to it, something closer to remorse, but she didn’t suggest it.

Mollie didn’t know how long she would have been content to hide from the world if it hadn’t been for the check. Mom was so good at handling everything.

She walked into Mollie’s room one day and lay the check in front of her. Mollie didn’t understand what it was. She was too tired to want to puzzle it out, but Mom stood there, looking proud and waiting for Mollie to say something.

It was obviously a check, but it came from a company Mollie had never heard of. She couldn’t figure out why they’d make a check out to her, much less one for…. Mollie blinked. That was a ridiculous number of zeros. Numbers like that belonged on one of those big prop checks in the ads, not on little scraps of paper.

She looked up at her mother. “What’s this?”

“It’s your settlement check.” Mom beamed.

“Settlement check?”

Mom’s smile dimmed a little. “For the accident. Patrick Connors’ insurance company settled the wrongful death suit.”

“I don’t….” Mollie thought hard. She didn’t remember authorizing a suit, but Mom had asked her to sign a lot of things in the past few months. She’d explained most of them at the time, but Mollie usually hadn’t listened.

There could have been a suit. Pat was Jeff’s best friend, and the poker party had been at his house. That much made sense–or more sense than the number on the check.

Looking at the amount, Mollie felt nauseated. She didn’t want money. She wanted the whole thing to have never happened.

“Mollie, are you okay?” Mom looked worried.

Mollie was sorry for taking away her triumph. “I…I’m fine, Mom. Thank you. You’ve taken very good care of me.”

After that, Mollie read anything Mom brought for her signature. The simple act was terribly difficult. She felt that she’d stepped out of the world the night of the accident. It had flowed on without her. She couldn’t get up to speed, and stepping back in was bruising.

At least catching up gave her a goal. She started doing small things, taking walks and washing dishes.

There were still times when she just couldn’t keep up. She rocked in the day and screamed at night. But these occurred less frequently as Mollie discovered that she could do mundane, everyday tasks without allowing the whole world to crash in on her.

She waited until after Christmas to move back home. Mom fussed at her through the long drive, but Mollie wouldn’t let her do more than drop her off at the other end. An audience wouldn’t make this easier.

Mollie hyperventilated as she unlocked the front door, but stepping inside wasn’t as hard as she’d feared. The pile of shoes and jackets that she expected to see by the door, the clutter of her family life, wasn’t there. Someone had cleaned while she was gone. The place was so tidy it looked like someone else’s house.

Mollie hoped that whoever it was had gotten one of the thank you cards Mom had given her to sign. The strangeness of the clean house gave her the little distance she needed right now. The panic she felt when she approached certain parts of the house–the kids’ rooms, Jeff’s closet in the bedroom–told her how foolish she’d been to think she was ready to
come home. But now that she was here, she was staying.

Mollie debated going back to work at the bank, just to give herself time away, but she didn’t think she could face all those people who had known her before. They’d be as kind as they could, but they’d want to know how she was doing, and they’d have a thousand other questions she wasn’t ready to ask herself yet, much less answer.

She gave her notice instead. If she got tired of living off the settlement, she’d find a job where fewer people knew her. She hid upstairs when her manager dropped a box of her stuff off on the front step.

When she had to close her eyes to get down the hall, Mollie considered moving. She decided against it. If she wasn’t ready to face the accident, she wasn’t quite ready to leave all signs of her past life behind either.

The seed catalog came when Mollie needed it most. She didn’t know how she’d gotten on the mailing list, since she’d never had a garden. The yard was all lawn and trees. It had been Jeff’s domain. Still, she wasn’t going to question anything that promised an end to winter and a chance to spend time outside the house.

She wiled away the claustrophobic hours until spring planning a small bed and a tiny vegetable garden for the back yard. She bought graph paper and plotted out bed after bed. She never ordered plants, afraid she’d change her mind about what she wanted before they arrived.

On the first warm, dry day in March she was back in Lafayette, walking out of the garden center with a shiny new spade in her hand. She even had some new ideas after finally seeing the plants in person. She went home to tackle sod.

The next day she stayed in bed, her middle-aged back a mass of aches and twinges. Still, she thought when moving made her wince, strictly physical pain was a nice change. She was back outside two days later, digging up more of the turf that Jeff had worked so hard to establish.

Gardening saved her. She loved the quiet, the weirdly right smell of dirt and bug spray. The trees surrounding the back yard gave her plenty of privacy from the neighbors. She liked the imperfect symmetry of the annuals she finally planted.

In Lafayette, where no one recognized her as a local tragic figure, she was able to have long esoteric discussions with the garden center staff about the best types of edging and sprinklers and the right brand of compost for tomatoes. It almost felt like being human again.

One stormy afternoon in August, when she was stuck inside, she decided it was time to tackle the box from work. It was still sitting inside the front door, where she’d left it after Kara dropped it off, and it kept getting in the way. She felt that if she could reclaim two hundred square feet of yard from grass, she ought to be strong enough to clear out one simple box.

She wasn’t so sure when she opened it. Someone at work had packed it for her, so she wasn’t prepared for what was inside. Sitting at the top of the box were the pictures from her desk, one of Jeff and one of each of the kids. Family pictures were one of the things she’d avoided all winter, but these she saw before she could panic.

It was a bittersweet moment. They brought back memories of how she’d talked about her family at work, nearly bragged. She’d been so proud–of all three of them.

The panic stayed away.

She spent some time over each picture, refreshing every well-known detail–CeCe’s crooked smile and deep blue eyes, Tony’s strong chin and his cowlicks.

Then it was Jeff’s turn. She expected anger when she looked at him, but what she felt was more complex. Even the accident couldn’t entirely obliterate the feelings of seventeen years of marriage. There was anger, but it was jumbled up with too many other emotions to sort out.

She put the pictures in their tri-fold frame on the mantle. There wasn’t really anything else she wanted from the box, just logo gear from the bank, the extra nylons she’d left in her desk for emergencies, and a few cartoons that weren’t funny outside of work. She threw it all away.

She made herself look at the pictures every day when she came in from outside, when she felt strongest. It was good to see the kids, good to know she could look and remember without collapsing again. She couldn’t get them back, but she could at least start to reclaim the happier memories.

She started spending time with the photos, talking to the kids, discussing garden plans. It made the house feel less lonely, even at Christmas. Once or twice, she found herself waiting for answers. She had to remind herself they were never coming back.

It was spring again before she realized that, while CeCe and Tony were gone forever, Jeff didn’t have to be. Not unless she wanted him to.

She shoved the pictures back onto the mantle and all but ran outside. Her heart was pounding.

She walked over to one of the flowerbeds and, with shaking hands, started to weed. She slowly let herself think about the idea.

Why was it so frightening? He hurt us, he hurt them, he’ll hurt us, babbled a little voice in her head.

She pulled more weeds, took deep breaths and waited for the litany to stop. Doesn’t being alone hurt? He hurt us…

As she weeded, Mollie kept dropping questions into the well of her mind, each one creating the same rippling terror. Would it be better to be with someone who couldn’t understand what she’d been through? Would the kids want them to be apart? Would it help them if she kept him away? Had he meant to hurt his own children? To hurt her? Didn’t she have some responsibility for what had happened?

The answers were always the same: he hurt us, he hurt them, he’ll hurt us….

How? What did she have left that he could take away?

She almost laughed in the silence that followed, but it wasn’t that kind of victory.

Walking into the prison the first time was the hardest thing Mollie had ever done, harder than walking into the morgue. She was afraid the prison doors were going to slam behind her, telling her that what she was doing was criminal.

Jeff cried when he saw her, just put his head in his hands and bawled until their time ran out. Mollie realized she had to be positive she could follow through before coming back. Raising Jeff’s hopes, only to smash them by sending him away, would be crueler than she’d considered being even in the darkest moments after the accident.

She’d worked it out in the garden. She was expanding, putting in perennials and adding some taller flowers for contrast. She put in a row of sunflowers along one side of the vegetable garden, a clump of foxglove in the center of a new tiered bed, and a patch of delphiniums along the back fence. She enjoyed watching them grow and reach for the sky.

It was two months before she was sure enough. She still didn’t think he could hurt her, but she’d prepared herself for the possibility. She thought she knew what she was capable of, what she could and couldn’t live with. She’d even told her mother–and sat silently through the tirade that followed.

She had some hard words for herself over her decision too–she was afraid it was the weak thing to do, a surrender to loneliness–but it was made. The kids looked, if not approving, then at least accepting.

Jeff controlled himself on her second trip, making things easier. His desperation was visible, though. Mollie thought he was checking himself to avoid scaring her away again.

They didn’t have a lot to talk about. Jeff didn’t hear much from anyone outside, not even his family, and Mollie hadn’t seen anyone in so long she didn’t have any news.

Glancing nervously at the clock after a long silence, Jeff blurted out, “This reminds me of our first date.”

“What?” Mollie looked around at the sterile concrete walls, guards in dark uniforms, and the hunched shoulders of other prisoners. Off to her left, sh
e could hear a woman crying quietly. She couldn’t think of anything less like the amusement park they’d gone to.

“Don’t you remember all the standing in line we did, waiting? We had no idea what to say to each other.”

Mollie nodded as it slowly came back to her. “What I remember most is how neither of us was willing to admit we didn’t like roller coasters.”

Jeff smiled. “We went on that thing, what, five times?”

“Something like that. I still don’t know whether it was the roller coaster or the cotton candy that made me sick.”

That set the tone for future visits. They always talked about the distant past, good times while they’d been dating and their first couple of years as newlyweds.

They never talked about the future, and by an unspoken mutual agreement, they never talked about CeCe and Tony. The closest they came was at the end of each visit, when he told her he was sorry–not for what, only that he was sorry.

Mollie didn’t know why he kept silent aside from the apology, but whatever his reason, it suited her fine. She wasn’t ready to talk about the kids, not to Jeff.

Still, by Christmas, the idea of Jeff coming home had seemed natural. In March, the date of his parole had been set, and Mollie had started her serious preparations.

Now that the day was finally here, Mollie was nervous, even though everything was as ready as it could be. She told herself she was being silly. She’d known Jeff for almost twenty-five years, had spent more of her life with him than without him. She stayed nervous.

Jeff looked uncomfortable too, when she picked him up from the release center. They were both quiet on the ride home. Mollie wanted to say something, set the right tone, but she couldn’t think of anything.

It was Jeff who broke the silence once they were in the house. “Wow! This place looks great. I didn’t expect…well, it looks just great.”

He kept talking about how good the house looked and how nice it felt to be home. He complimented her on the yellow bedroom, the nicely made up dining room table, and the choice of food. When he walked out onto the porch to start the grill, he shouted her name.

Mollie ran out to find out what was wrong.

“Nothing’s wrong.” Jeff shook his head. “It’s the gardens. They’re amazing. You never told me you liked gardening.”

“I, uh, thanks.” Mollie caught her breath. It hadn’t occurred to her that Jeff might not like the gardens.

“What’s that?” Jeff pointed over the railing at the new raised bed, a neat twelve foot long oval of empty black dirt penned in by two tiers of green timbers, and the plants sitting in pots around it.

“It’s a rose garden.” She’d prepped it over the last week when she wasn’t cleaning. She’d dug and mixed compost and fishmeal deep into the soil. It had been a good substitute for thinking, but she could hardly tell Jeff that. “The roses came this morning. They were late.”

“Boy, you’ve been busy. You’ve hardly left me any grass to cut back here.”

All Mollie could think was that without the kids, they didn’t need a big lawn anymore. Again she kept silent. This might be harder than she’d expected, although Jeff seemed to be settling in.

Dinner was easier. Her grandmother’s china had been a wedding gift, and it set off another round of do-you-remembers. Jeff didn’t even ask about the lack of wine glasses on the table, although Mollie saw him look to where they sat in the buffet.

She never saw him look at the pictures.

He helped her with the dishes, drying them and putting them away. Then they moved into the living room. He took his usual chair and she curled up in her corner of the couch.

For the first seventeen years of their marriage, this had been their time, even after the kids were born. They’d talk over their days, complain about work, make plans for the future.

Mollie didn’t know what to say. There was too much to talk about and too many subjects to be avoided.

“Ah.” Jeff settled into his recliner. “This really is the most comfortable spot on earth.” He picked up the remote from the end table. “Just where I left it. Didn’t you watch any television while I was gone?”

“I put it back this morning.” She smiled. “You can watch if you want.”

He met Mollie’s eyes, and she knew he was thinking the same thing she was. It would be better not to try too hard to entertain each other. Besides, watching television would make things feel more normal. He turned it on.

Mollie grabbed one of her catalogs. She wanted to try planting bulbs this fall, but she hadn’t decided what kind or how many. As she debated a front lawn peppered with grape hyacinths versus clumps of oriental lilies scattered among the perennial beds, she kept half an eye on Jeff.

The chair might be the most comfortable he’d ever sat in, but he was twitchy. He shifted every couple of minutes. He drummed his fingers on the armrest. He flipped channels faster than she’d ever seen him, and she didn’t think it was because almost three years in prison had made him a more discriminating viewer.

Her courage failing her, she pretended not to know what was making him edgy. She buried her nose further into the catalog, but she couldn’t concentrate.

After about the eighth time she caught Jeff out of the corner of her eye, looking at her mournfully, she gave up. “What’s the matter?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it. He shook his head.

“Go ahead. Tell me.” She sighed. “You’re going to have to say it eventually.”

He looked startled. “I was, well, I was thinking…”

His eyes were wide, and Mollie realized that he must be almost as scared as she was. “Thinking what?” Her voice held a gentleness she didn’t entirely feel.

“I just, uh…. Do you know what would make this perfect?”

CeCe and Tony? She didn’t say it. “What?”

His mouth worked, but no sound came out. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He let it out. He took another. Mollie was ready to scream with tension.

“A little glass of whiskey.” The words rushed out. “Just a tiny one, you know, like you used to fix me back when…before.” He opened his eyes and looked for her reaction.

She couldn’t face him. She closed the catalog in her lap and studied the cover, trying to think. She’d made her plans, but now that the moment she’d been half expecting, dreading, was here, she didn’t know what to do.

She wanted to scream, “Haven’t you learned anything? Didn’t prison and treatment and killing our children make any difference to you?! Are you really so ready to risk the one thing you have left?”

Instead, she tried to remind herself that she had no reason to be unprepared for this. She’d understood about Jeff and alcohol for most of their married life. She could hardly have forgotten about it since the accident. She’d told herself she was prepared to deal with this.

Forcing her emotions back down where they wouldn’t show, she stood up. “There’s a bottle of Windsor in the kitchen. Why don’t I pour you a drink?”

The walk to the cupboard seemed interminable. Part of her was yelling, telling her she was making the biggest mistake of her life. It wanted her to keep walking, go back and shake Jeff, anything but pour that drink. She ignored it.

She’d bought the whiskey last summer, but as a compromise with herself, she hadn’t decanted it for Jeff the way she used to. She opened the bottle and swirled the liquor inside before pouring three fingers into a lowball glass.

She held the glass up to the evening sunlight coming in through the window. The tawny liquid looked so harmless and inviting.

She carried it back and wordlessly set it next to Jeff. He was sweating. She wondered whether he’d also been thinking she might leave. Then she went back to her catalog.

“Whoo!” Jeff shook
his head after the first sip. “No matter how well you think you remember, that first sip always has more kick than you expect.”

Mollie smiled politely. She debated getting both hyacinths and lilies. Maybe some daffodils, too.

Jeff relaxed after a couple of swallows, looking cheerful as he settled on watching a baseball game. When he finished the first drink, Mollie got up without being asked and refilled the glass.

The first sign something was wrong was Jeff rubbing his eyes and squinting at the television. Mollie didn’t think it was the whiskey. Even after three years without it, she didn’t doubt Jeff could hold his liquor better than that. She’d never seen him do more than speak very precisely when he was drunk. She went back to the catalog.

When Jeff closed his eyes and leaned back, Mollie was relieved. She’d been hoping he would just drift off to sleep. It was the best possible end to the evening.

It wasn’t to be, though. Soon, Jeff was awake again.

“Mollie?” His voice was weak.

“It’s okay, Jeff.” Mollie didn’t want to look at him.

“Mollie, I don’t feel so good.” Jeff belched. “Think I’m gonna be sick.”

She grabbed the bucket she had standing by. Jeff fumbled at the handle of the recliner but didn’t have the strength to move it. She had to help. She put the bucket between his knees.

He leaned over and rested his forehead on the far edge of the bucket. “Mollie? My head hurts.”

She leaned down and smoothed his hair. “I know it does, dear.” She reached for his left wrist where it loosely gripped the bucket. His pulse was getting slow. “It’ll all be over soon.”

“I’m sorry, Mollie.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “I didn’t mean to.”

Mollie sat back down on the couch. “I know, dear. You never did.”

In the end, he died as quietly as she could have hoped. She wasn’t even sure how long he’d been dead when she checked his pulse for the last time.

The sun had gone down, but she decided to wait a couple of hours just to be safe. She’d only worry about the body tonight. Even in loose dirt, that was plenty of digging.

The weather had cleared up enough that she’d wait until morning to plant the roses. She wanted to be able to read the tags and get everything in the right place. The border would be alternating Anthony Meillands and Saint Cecilias. In the middle, over the body, would be half a dozen Peace roses.

Then it would be time for more planning. It was really time she figured out what to plant where the foxgloves used to be.

She thought it should be something Jeff would approve of. She’d been so glad he’d liked the gardens.

Comments

  1. says

    I couldn't do it. I got to the cops, then stopped. Ever since I had kids I can't go there. I did skip to the end and even that was exquisitely painful.

  2. says

    Thanks, ByteReader.I understand, Cyberlizard. This one makes me flinch, too, even though I wrote it. So you know, the middle is basically about putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

  3. says

    I should have seen it coming before "harmless and inviting", but that's where the alarm bells really started screaming. There was a ton of foreshadowing that I had to go back and reread. Wow… This one HURT.I can't say this enough — brilliant story.

  4. says

    I second that, Greg, though not just because of the shared story title — at first I thought your comment was snark, then I thought more about it. There's no sci-fi elements in this piece, but Stephanie's writing style does vaguely remind me sometimes of Bradbury, and other great sci-fi writers that I'm sure she's likely read, like Heinlein or Asimov. Not much, just enough bleeding through in the scansion to make me feel like I'm reading one of those timeless stories by one of the greats.Who knows, in a handful of years perhaps we'll be referring to Bradbury, Asimov and Zvan.

  5. says

    Excellent. I have been reading voraciously all summer and this is the best writing I've read by far.It wasn't until the second time through that I caught the foxglove reference.Brilliant.