Things are as they should be. A warm summer breeze. Flowers blooming, lavender transforming sad colored hills to rolling waves of rich purple. Birds calling into the warm autumn air. His hand cradling hers. The warmth of her fingers intertwining with his.
Her perfect smile.
His steadying silence.
They sit beneath a willow tree. Tracing the outlines of each other’s features, first with their eyes then with their hands. There is no taking for granted here. No young lovers letting the world blow by in blissful ignorance. This memory will have no spiteful hindsight, no “if onlys” or “remember whens” or “why didn’t we’s.”
This is a memory best lived but oft remembered.
The stale ticking of their old clock greets him when he opens the door. No dog, no cat. Save for the smiling faces in the pictures on the wall, the house feels abandoned. He doesn’t drop his keys in their bowl, nor does he rest his cane in the corner—he won’t be here for long.
Inside the study, he begins the long process of taking down their pictures. He treats them with the tenderness of a child holding a broken bird. Large, strong hands once young and steady now shake as he reaches up for each frame.
He takes them from their frames and places them in the manila envelope without taking the time to look at them.
That would be cheating.
The house feels even more naked, now that the photos have been removed. Walls barren save for the clean squares and rectangles of brighter paint that signify something was once housed here. A tower of discarded frames stands tall in each room. Acting as a pyre or tombstone to the memories they once held.
He waited for the buzz of his phone in his pocket, thankful it hadn’t happened yet.
They’re hard to find this time of year, he has to drive to the other side of Acorn Peak. Their old Caprice Classic angles against the curves more like a boat than a car. The thing is older than their marriage, but not in better shape, despite the meticulous care he’s given it. Cared for it like a father might a son. But more so, in the absence of a child.
He pulls off the gravel road, swings the door open slowly, and gets out even slower.
It’s too early to see their color. Despite that, he takes them by the handfuls. Kneeling down is hard, he rests against his cane again and uses old, crooked fingers to pinch and pry them off their stocks.
For a moment he thinks he feels his phone, his breath catches in his throat, he freezes and waits for a second ring but it never comes.
Walking back to the car is slow and made painstaking from all the kneeling and walking. He doesn’t slow his gait, or even grimace against it. It would feel selfish compared to what she’s going through.
The Caprice rumbles to life, pictures and the rich scent of flowers in his passenger seat.
The sun kisses the horizon by the time he gets back to town. David Johnson from Dave’s Sports recognizes the Caprice coming down the road and waves. The driver smiles and waves back, then pulls into the small, pothole filled parking lot of the sport’s store. They exchange a handshake. Dave, being younger and kind, helps the old man up the curb and opens the door for him. The old man takes the help with easy grace and thanks David for his troubles.
He makes his way to the hunting section of the store. Save for the exchanging of pleasantries, he hasn’t set foot in this store for a purchase in nearly a decade. Not that there wasn’t need, rather there was no longer the ability.
He finds what he’s looking for, a series of callers hanging from pegs beneath price tags.
David turns the corner of the aisle and asks him if he’s found what he’s looking for.
“Yes,” the old man says.
David asks which one he’d like.
“All of them.” He responds. “One of each please, David.”
David grabs a nearby basket and takes one of each and drops them in without question.
At the check stand, he rings him up. As David waits for him to pull out the cash, he asks if he’s going hunting.
“You could say that,” the old man says. He pays David with money and a smile, and thanks him when races around the counter to hold the door again.
Back in his car, he feels his phone vibrate against his leg, feels hairs stand up on his neck, his heart beat against his ribcage.
He answers it.
A woman on the other line asks the question.
“Yes, this is Mr. Sheridan.”
She tells him to come down immediately. She tells him it’s about Mrs. Sheridan.
The stale beeping of the machines greets him when he opens the door. No nurses, no doctors. There are no smiling faces here, not on the walls, not on him nor the woman in her bed. Yet he rests his cane against the wall, takes out his wallet, his keys and cell phone and places them next to her bed. He pulls up a chair, his chair, and slides it close to the bed with steady patience.
He takes her hand as he takes a seat. Her fingers are cold intertwined with his, but he doesn’t flinch.
She moves her head weakly towards him and opens two heavy eyelids. As always, he does his best to smile, though his trembling lips make it hard. He cannot show it, it doesn’t feel fair to show pain. To contrast his struggle against hers.
“I’m here,” he tells her.
It looks like she nods, but it’s hard to tell.
“I’ve brought you something.” He says and reaches into his bag.
“Do you remember…” she whispers.
He smiles, this time it’s easy. “Yes.” He whispers back. “I do.”
The old man over turns the manila folder next to her. Pictures come tumbling out.
He takes the first and shows her. Holds it close while he holds her hand. Then he pulls out the second. And the third. Then the fourth, and so on.
“What is that…” she whispers, eyes searching the room.
He reaches into the bag and pulls out the flowers.
“It’s too early,” he admits, “They don’t have their color. But they smell just the same.” He takes a few and rubs them between his hands, letting her smell the rich scent of lavender before permitting himself the same. When she smells them, the corner of her mouth curves upward, slightly, almost imperceptibly. He stays strong, for her. He hopes she doesn’t see the tears swimming in his eyes.
“Do you remember…” she whispers.
“I do. Do you remember the birds?”
She closes her eyes, looks as though she’s falling asleep, but he knows she’s recollecting.
He takes his time to pull out the bird calls one by one. Sighing air into the mouthpiece, bringing the sounds of their rich world into the sterile hospital room. She keeps her eyes closed, but her eyebrows rise and fall sweetly with every new call. For once, the room isn’t filled with the clicks of her respirator, nor the beeps of the EKG machine, but instead the sweet call of a finch, the harsh call of wild turkey, the energetic call of quail, and more.
Her lips move, but nothing comes out.
He moves his ear close to hers, feels her warm but fleeting breath on his neck as she speaks.
“Tell me again…”
The old man takes her hand in both of his and smiles warmly. He begins as the beeps begin to slow.
“Things are as they should be.” His voice cracks, no more need to hold back, “A warm summer breeze. Birds singing sweetly. Lavender turns our hills a deep and vibrant purple. My hand in yours, yours tangled in mine…”