Flash Fiction Friday
a very, very, very short story
Amber Lea Easton
Dark, scarred bricks rose up from frozen earth with dormant ivy vines covering them like gray brittle lace. The walls stood tall against howling wind. Low silver clouds rolled and swirled across the sky.
The forecast called for snow. Good thing he decided to come early today.
Simple things like walking weren’t easy these days, not since the stroke, but he managed to get around as best as he could. Cold, crisp air heavy with the smell of snow filled his lungs and reminded him that he still moved amongst the living.
He pulled the coat tightly around his chest, the cap low over his forehead and shuffled toward the building, steps true despite the stiff leg. The doctors, physical therapists, all of them had said he wouldn’t be able to walk again—he had ignored their infinite wisdom.
Well, he’d never had much faith in the medical profession, to be honest. Ninety-two years old and he still walked the earth under his own power. Maybe a little slower, true. Yes, age bent his back, his speech slurred and his mouth was a bit crooked these days, but the sparkle in his blue eyes hinted at the sharp mind beneath the gray hair.
He pushed open the door to the Odd Fellows Home, his wife’s home for close to a decade.
“Hey, Bill. Good to see you.” A nurse stopped in the hallway, a bright smile on her chubby face. She fidgeted with a pen in the pocket of her blue smock while her eyes scanned him from head-to-toe. Her nametag said Mary Jo.
Always sizing me up, she is. Probably wondering how long it'll be before I'm either maggot food or in here, too. Bill laughed at the private thoughts.
“How is she today then?” Speaking proved difficult since the stroke, but he did it well enough to be understood.
“She’s awake. That’s something.”
“Good mood or bad?”
“Not bad.” The nurse squeezed his arm before moving down the hallway.
Bill’s wife, Pearl, suffered from Alzheimer’s for over a decade. In two months, she’d celebrate her ninetieth birthday. Bill still lived at the farm where they’d raised their four children, where they’d laughed with friends, where their grandchildren had played. He’d tried to care for her himself for a long time. Hired at-home nurses, twenty-four hour care. He’d promised never to put her in a place like this.
Oh, how he’d tried to keep that promise.
Even after the violent outbursts began, he’d tried to keep that promise.
But then it had all come tumbling down. Once she’d locked him out in the sub-zero temperatures during the middle of a harsh South Dakota winter. She hadn’t recognized him any longer, had thought him a stranger, and been terrified.
He could have frozen to death in the time it took to get back inside his own home.
That’s what had hurt the most--the fact that his wife hadn’t known him any longer.
He shuffled toward the room at the far end of the hall. Brightly colored paintings of Christmas trees and Santa Clause decorated the wall, done by local school children.
He hesitated in the doorway at the sight of Pearl sitting in the green recliner near the window. Guilt smashed up against the love.
My bride for nearly 70 years now...still as beautiful as the day I met her. Sure her hair is white now when it used to be strawberry blonde, but I look at Pearl I see the feisty young woman I fell in love with, the woman with the quick laugh and snapping blue eyes. The woman—the only woman—I’ve ever loved.
“Hello, ma,” he said, taking a seat on the bed next to her chair. “It’s a nasty day out. The wind is blowing something fierce.”
Gently, he lifted her hand and rubbed her favorite rose scented lotion into her delicate translucent skin that clearly showed criscrossing blue veins. He hadn’t realized he’d missed that smell of roses until she hadn’t been able to pamper herself any longer.
“Hi.” Pearl finally noticed him with vague recognition in her eyes. Seventy years of marriage leaves a lasting impression, even in the path of Alzheimer’s.
History reverberated through the air like a million little shockwaves. There were many things he missed talking to her about, little things like the weather and big things like grandchildren.
“Did you do the chores today?” she asked him with an innocent, loving smile.
“Sure did. Need you to gather the eggs, though.” I can’t tell her that I sold all the cattle this autumn. I simply couldn't handle them anymore, not that I'd wanted to admit it. I wonder what she would say, though, if she knew.
He patted her hand and held it against his knee.
“Those damn boys were fighting behind the barn again last night. Always fighting those two and getting into trouble. You need to knock their heads together, Bill.” She shook her white head and laughed a minute before the blankness reclaimed her eyes.
They’d had four children together. Two boys and two girls. Harold and Clifford had always been into some type of brawl.
Bill laughed, too, at the memory of his two sons duking it out and smoothed his finger over the top of the raised veins on her hand. She used to shoot a cap gun into the air to get the boys’ attention. That usually put an end to whatever scuffle was ensuing at the time.
That’s my Pearl, my bride. Forever feisty. I think the boys were more intimidated by her than me.
“I miss you at the house, ma,” he said.
A vague smile flittered across her lips, but her eyes remained distant. She’s not present anymore.
He lingered in the room, wanting another glimpse of the woman locked inside the elderly body. He wondered what went on behind those eyes and imagined a constant replay of years past.
I’d like to believe she’s remembering me as a handsome young man with a full head of dark hair. I’d like to think she’s trapped in a time when we had a house full of children and friends stopping over for dinner and card playing.
No words were spoken for a long time. He kept rubbing her hand, his own memories taking center stage. He knew that their time on earth wouldn't be long, not when the one hundred mark loomed in the near future. He worried about the what-ifs—what if he died first...would she know? Would his grown children and grandchildren visit her and keep her company? These thoughts weighed on him more and more with each passing day.
He'd made a promise to always take care of her.
His first thoughts after wakening from the stroke were of Pearl.
All his thoughts were usually of Pearl.
“I love you, ma.” He kissed her on the forehead and squeezed her hand one more time before standing.
“That’s nice,” she said with a fragile smile hovering on her mouth. For a moment, an old familiar light gleamed in her eyes.
Tears blurred his vision when he turned from his wife. It was time to go. There were still some chores to be done, even with the cattle gone. Still some sheep and dogs to care for. Still things to do and a life to live at ninety-two.
Mary Jo waved from the nurse’s station. He noticed the way she looked at his shuffling steps.
You won’t be seeing me in here any time soon, he thinks with a crooked smile. Pearl isn’t the only feisty one in our marriage.
Fierce wind slammed the door closed behind him once he'd stepped onto the sidewalk. Snowflakes blew horizontally across the parking lot. Cold seeped into his bones. He grinned and rubbed his hands together. Breath formed a cloud in front of his face.
Images of a laughing redhead throwing a snowball at him from decades ago washed across his memory. He could hear the sound as vividly in this moment as he did then. The teasing lilt in her voice, the dare lighting her face. God, he'd loved her his entire life—seventy years out of ninety-two.
He'd made a promise and, if there was one thing this old son-of-a-bitch did well, it was keeping a promise.
He looked back over his shoulder toward the windows of the nursing home. Well, he hadn't been able to keep all of his promises.
When what felt like ice shards whipped across his face, he fumbled with his keys and hurried across the parking lot. He welcomed the biting wind and the harsh cold air rushing into his lungs. Today, he lived. He loved. He had things to do.
He revved the engine of the Chevy truck, turned up the radio, and sped out of the parking lot in the midst of the storm, and promised himself he'd return tomorrow.
He hoped it would be a promise he could keep.
*dedicated to my grandpa Bill and my grandma Pearl, now both gone from this earth but still so very close to my heart.
Amber Lea Easton is a multi-published author of romantic thrillers, contemporary romance, women's fiction, and nonfiction. In addition, she is a professional editor and mother of two extraordinary human beings. She currently lives in a small cabin high in the Rocky Mountains where she is completely aware of how lucky she is. To find out more about her books, please visit http://www.amberleaeaston.com.