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Chapter 1

Chapter 1

What can a woman do after she comes home from lunch with a friend to discover that her husband of 20 years has committed suicide? His last words to her as she left for lunch were, “I love you more.” The basis for the story is true--a slow progression from holding unbearable feelings within a ball of ice to a gradual thawing that allowed the pain to seep out. With the release of pain came an introduction to new emotions, some of them awkward. During that process the woman becomes a different version of herself, one who might never have been realized otherwise.

1

Literary fiction


author-small

MF Holton (United States)


She hadn’t been inside the barn for over a month. His barn. He had planed each raw cut plank, sticky with sap. Hoisted beams from a teetering makeshift pulley. It was during the summer, his happy time, that he planned the stairs leading to the second floor and made each step unique in grain and hue—oak, maple, black walnut, rare elm, poplar, purple heart, and lowly pine. She couldn’t see the steps from where she stood outside the door. The multi-paned window was to her left.
She paused, frozen in place, unable to reach for the metal door latch, echoes of police sirens in her ears.
A Carolina wren warbled from the red maple that shaded the East side of the barn. “You can do it, you can do it” it seemed to say.
“Not today,” she told the wren as she turned back to the house.
#
A week later she found herself in front of the barn again. She needed a screwdriver from the tool chest under his workbench—the workbench whose worn pitted top was hidden by coffee cans filled with nails, above which dozens of hammers marched in descending size.
She peered through the dusty window and saw the oversized plastic cup he had filled several times a day with ice and water and half a lemon.
She turned away. She would borrow a screwdriver from Joe next door.
#
The ball of ice in her stomach fueled the rote action each morning of getting out of the bed that was too big, one side cold. Like Novocain, the ice had numbed her during countless hugs from friends and strangers and the accompanying “I’m so sorrys.” But the whispers of “How could he?” penetrated to a deeper dark place where they leered and lurked.
Her cell phone rang. She waited to see caller ID and let the new tune she programmed, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, play out. It was assaultive like some calls.
Not that she didn’t accept calls. Last week she went to a potluck in the neighborhood. Her neighbors looked out for her. She knew she should accept social invitations no matter how difficult. After the initial awkwardness, people talked of other things. Life went on.
#
“How are you doing?” Kind eyes above a bushy beard watched her closely.
She sat motionless on the sofa across from his desk, tissues within reach. “You know what his last words to me were?”
Not waiting for a response she continued, “He said ’I love you more’ as I was leaving for lunch with my friends.”
“He loved you dearly. He told me that.”
“So how could he….”
The ball of ice inside grew to a suffocating size and muffled his words so that only a few penetrated to her consciousness. “…delusional…clouded reason…repetitive obsessive thinking makes ruts in the brain…his only way of escape…”
“But, if he loved me…”
“…mental anguish ... unable to cope…”
Waves of colliding emotions attacked the ice leaving it chipped, a major fissure through its center.
#
The morning sun worked its way through the tall oaks standing sentry over the house and sent a soft dappled light to the bird feeders outside the sunroom. His rumpled armchair, where he had sat for most of his last two months watching the birds, was painfully empty.
She lowered herself slowly into his chair, imagining his lap beneath her, strong arms holding her tight while his low gravelly voice whispered nonsense in her ear. That image was quickly replaced by his more recent drawn white face. Fearful eyes. Layers of coats to ward off imaginary cold.
He wasn’t perfect, she thought, but we belonged to each other—more than I’ve ever belonged to anybody.
The weight of that thought settled in like an unwanted guest that beckoned others. Was it worth it? This belonging to each other business? I held him each night assuring him it would be better as soon as the new medicine kicked in. Yet he deceived me because he knew all along he was going to leave. While he plotted to negate our contract without my permission, he claimed he loved me--right up to the end!
She put her head in her hands and wept tears of melted ice, mixed with great gulping sobs, unlike any she had allowed herself before now.
#
The next day she walked around the lake with her quick pace. He, when he had walked with her, strolled and looked at Nature, stopping to inspect a hornet’s nest or chat with a dog walker.
She had time, after the walk, to weed the garden and plant purple pansies. Purple was her favorite color, but he hated purple pansies. She usually planted yellow ones because they both liked yellow.
For the first time in months, she sat on the front porch with a tall glass of lemonade and felt a flash of joy as she looked at the bobbing purple faces lining the walkway. It was a foreign feeling, that sudden flash, and a wave of guilt followed it.
Where did that joy come from? she wondered. Where was it hiding? Who gave it permission to come out?
“I love you more,” his words came into her mind. Not only had he said them to her on that terrible day, but he had written them inside a lipstick heart on her bathroom mirror. She left it for a long time, letting it distort her reflected face.
The police said he had their wedding picture next to him. In the barn. The last thing he looked at.
Maybe he did love me more. He knew he held me back. He, because of his illness, prevented me from doing things I wanted to do. He thought he was doing me a favor by…
Tears gushed. “No, please, no! Why didn’t you talk to me? I’d rather have you! What have you done!”
The forgotten lemonade left a sweat ring on the porch table.
#
It was time. She walked slowly and steadily towards the barn. Not like she did the day she found his note on the counter when she returned from lunch. “You were the love of my life,” it said. Past tense.
Then she had run, heart beating wildly, her mind refusing to believe what she suspected, until she reached the barn door and saw the sign in his haphazard scrawl.
Cammy,
Don’t come in if you are alone.
She considered ignoring the sign for half a second. Reason ruled. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and dialed 911.
Sirens. They still haunted her dreams. Uniforms took over her space. Made her stay inside the house. Asked the same questions over and over. She escaped within a frozen bubble of numbness.
Now she lifted the barn door latch. The door creaked open. Musty air, trapped for months, escaped tinged with the smell of sawdust and stale cigar smoke. She stepped inside.
Broken antique furniture, waiting to be repaired, stood patiently gathering dust. His mother’s wobbly Queen Ann side chair with a cross stitch seat in faded colors leaned towards a mongrel chest of drawers with not much to redeem it. He collected anything and everything. No person or object was too lowly for him to care about.
She closed her eyes momentarily, overcome. Thinking about his kindness. Turning, her eyes blurred with tears, she almost tripped over a box of miscellaneous tools. Picked up at a yard sale, most likely, and covertly taken to the barn so I wouldn’t see it.
“We have too much stuff,” was her mantra and her despair as he became less able to deal with it all.
Standing absolutely still, she waited to hear something, anything. Except for a slight ringing in her ears, all was quiet.
“Ron,” she said, “Are you here?”
Silence.
“Where are you?”
Nothing.
In a softer voice she said, “I miss you.”


Competition: The Pen Factor 2016, Round 1

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