It was dark. Very Dark. Her eyes were open, or were they? She couldn't tell any more. The clock ticked in the hallway and chimed the hour, then the half hour. Sleep was elusive tonight. Her mind had been racing for what felt like days, though it had been mere hours. She took a breath deep into her lungs filling them slowly and allowing her shoulders to drop deeper into the mattress. She sighed.
It had been a shock to see him. She was running errands in town, trying to get back to the kids before the bus dropped them unceremoniously onto the dirt road where they lived. She had one last stop at the post office and then a mad dash to that destination, and dinner, and chores. One last thing to do...
As she opened the heavy door to the cinder block building he had almost plowed her over. He had his head down looking at his cell phone screen. She was juggling her purse, her letters, her keys and fumbling for that ridiculously heavy door.
"I'm so sorry!" He had almost shouted at her in embarrassment. He bent to gather the items she'd dropped there on the sidewalk. In an instant her mind screamed recognition at her; him down there on the cement, one knee bent as he picked up her things. In a flood of emotion she knew who he was, though it had been years. The rush of it hit her in the chest, tumbling her over and over, spinning in the massive wave of it, rolling her under the surface of time and drowning her heart all over again. It was him...
He was still a big man, still fit and trim. He wore a shirt and tie instead of a uniform but it was still him. His movements were quick and precise - confident, those of a military man with subordinates to command. He was standing now, looking ridiculous with her purse in his large hand. He had met her eyes and smiled. He was talking but she could hear nothing over the rushing of blood pounding in her ears.
"I really shouldn't be allowed to have this thing!" He gestured with his hand that still held the cell phone. He held her bag out to her a little closer and in an instant she was back above water, standing on the sidewalk in front of the post office. She tried to smile and took her purse from his grasp. He had neatly tucked the mail items in the side pocket and dropped the keys in the unzipped opening.
"Thank you..." she'd managed to croak out as he'd turned and started toward the parking lot.
"So Sorry!" he called back, one arm extended in a motionless wave. And just like that, he trotted back out of her life. He hadn't recognized her. She turned to enter the door that had just knocked her backwards and the reflection told a story she knew all too well. The last two years had aged her, she looked nothing like he'd known of her twenty years ago. The lines in her face alone had altered what he must remember, if he remembered anything at all. How is it time treats men so differently? How do they stay exactly the same?
She wandered through the rest of the evening like a zombie, made the bus stop just as the yellow beast pulled up in a hiss and a squeal. She had trudged through the chores of her night, mind racing then stalling into free-fall as memories flooded back. She made dinner for her children and sat on the worn couch as they fought for control of the remote. Nothing seemed to penetrate to her. She was still rolling in the deep waters of an ocean far away. Tossed by the curling current of a past long gone, opportunities missed, love tragically lost to the churning sea.
She clicked on the light at her bedside. The box was drawing her back to him. It was a form of torture she knew, but the draw was too great. She pulled the small cedar box from the corner of her closet shelf. Holding the dusty chest close to her body she made her way back to the rumpled bed. It left its imprint on her shirt, but she didn't brush it away. She drew a heart in the dirt with her finger and opened it slowly...
The ring gleamed up from the box, winking in the scant light ever so slightly. She reached out and put it on. It slid home easily and she smiled at the comfort of it, there on her bare hand. The photo was still there, in its cardboard frame. Two young faces smiled up at her, so much hope in their eyes, so much promise. A tear coursed down her cheek. The pain of it was exquisite, stealing her breath from her and depositing a deep ache in her heart.
She set the photo by her side and began to read the letters, removing them from the lavender ribbon tie. First one then the other, his voice silky and smooth spoke deep into her heart again. A faint scent of his cologne still lingered in the grain of the box and it wafted up to her, transporting her farther into the past. The last letter lay open before her. The final words slinked up her torso and burrowed into her aching heart, "I will always love you, Johnathan."
The sun was beginning to break over the horizon and fill her small room with pink light. The kids would be up soon. She tied the ribbon around the letter packet, making sure the order was still correct. She stared one last time at the photo of herself standing next to him, turned slightly inward towards his broad chest, smiling the smile of the newly engaged. It was no wonder he hadn't recognized her. Her brightness had faded, she was lined and dull and lifeless now. Even the green of her eyes had changed, now a muddy green-brown. Time had been cruel. It was not done either, it seemed.
She laid the photo in the box and stretched out her hand to watch as the light caught the diamond and sent luminescent rainbow prisms all around the room. He had always known exactly how to love her. A smile crept slowly across her lips as she remembered the way he'd handed her back her bag, things tucked neatly away, always more organized than they'd started. She wondered if he had a wife that benefitted from that talent. He must, she reasoned, he'd waited so long for her answer, his desire to be married so great within him. She slipped off the ring and laid it carefully on the folded frame.
She closed the lid to the tiny cedar chest and wiped away the dusty heart with her sleeve. She could hear the children stirring with their morning routines and they would need her soon. The box went back upon the high shelf and as an after thought she pushed it from the edge until she couldn't see it anymore from where she stood. There was a finality to it now. He would never be back.
Her drive to the bus stop and the chatter of her children droned on as she recalled the hasty decision. The fear she'd felt over his deployment and the argument they'd had before he left; she could recall them word for word, even twenty years later. Fear of losing him before she even had him had made her angry, livid to her core. She had ignored his calls, as if her temper tantrum could change the way the hulking military machine rolled on over their plans to be married. She had hoped in delirium that somehow he could change it, make it not so, not yet... She had been so very foolish. Weeks later she finally wrote him back, sealing the ring up in a final envelope to reach him where he was, so very far away.
It had been surprising to get it back, carefully wrapped in a velvet sack and protected from prying hands. She realized that it was a miracle he'd gotten it at all. The letter that accompanied the jewelry was simple and to the point. She could tell she'd crushed him. And yet, those last words... Giving her back the ring was a statement of who he was, who he would always be. She had dropped it in that box and not looked back for twenty years.
For twenty years she had been a ranchers wife, safe and secure in a small rural community not far from where she grew up. From where they'd met. The military base had closed up long ago, budget cuts moving the men on to other places, bigger stations and larger cities. Its presence so many years ago still drew some of them back. The beauty of the mountainous terrain was hard to get out of your blood once it sunk in. She had lived a very good life, loved a very good man and had two beautiful and talented children. It had been safe and fulfilling, until...
Her husband was killed on a highway not ten miles from the barns where his rig had picked up the last of the cattle for transport. The big bulls had shifted at a critical moment, the patrol man had guessed, and sent the rig into a unrecoverable slide over black ice during an early storm. In an instant all the safety she had coveted was ripped from her, leaving her exposed to the frigid air that January. Standing at his open grave she had stared at the box below while the wind whipped her hair and stung her cheeks wet with tears that wouldn't stop. It was so unfair that she couldn't drop into that abyss with him, leave behind the living for others to do. But she couldn't. She didn't. She lived on.
She pulled back into the dirt drive of her small home and watched as a fox trotted purposefully across the pasture, tall grass hiding all but his black tipped ears and an occasional glimpse of his tail. She stepped from the car and walked the path past the vegetable garden now in full riotous bloom, to her back porch. There, she stopped short and sucked in her breath.
Taped to the door was one stunning red rose and a folded note, her name neatly written in red ink. With shaking hands, her breathing coming in spurts she couldn't regulate, she reached for them. The note read simply, "Always means always... Johnathan."
She sunk to the greying planks of the porch, tears streaming down her face dropping like rain on the old wood. She didn't hear him approach her. She felt him. He had not only come back, he had never left.