Short Story Contest Winner: Promise Me This - Maddie Cowan
I could have taken the road through town that leads to our front door, but tonight my feet crave a different memory. The moss, an old friend, hugs my toes, damp under the August moon. Misplaced roots have taken residence beneath my feet, a wrong step and I would probably meet them with my face. But I know these woods too well, its ebbs and its flows, to stumble over the roots that have grown since my departure. For beneath them lies the trail we walked thousands of times, worn permanently by the tread of our love, from its birth in spring to the last maple leaf falling to the ground to be submerged and fossilized by the weight of heavy snow. Carefully, I step around the anthill, bustling in the weaning hours of summer. The ants march on. I am hardly a distraction, a giant lazy nuisance to their size-defying work effort. A squirrel chirps loudly from above, demanding my attention, I imagine. I look towards its canopy, but the thickly woven sprouted leaves block the moon, the chirping rings on in the darkness.
Placing my hand on the moss along the tree’s trunk where my squirrel friend continues to chatter, the rough bark gives to sweet moss, a cool relief spreads across my palm. The dampness of the moss is stickier than the floor beneath my toes. I pull my hand close to inspect the substance and find my fingertips coated in sap. I rub my fingertips against my thumb, warming the sweet mess against my skin until it returns to liquid. It’s been too long since I’ve had the sensation of warmth against my fingers. I sit against the trunk and dance my fingertips against the top of my thumb until a monarch finds me, surveying the sweet nectar on my skin. I watch its little wings flutter, hovering inches from my outstretched hand, and wonder if it can see me or if the smell of maple sap is enough to draw it close. We wait for the other to move, but my patience proves too powerful. The fluttering insect drifts towards the garden gate, searching for an easier source from which to pollinate. My eyes follow the sound, my gaze landing on the picket fence at the edge of the forest. Brushing the sap from my hand onto a damp leaf, I rise to my feet and follow the butterfly, listening closely for its directions in the dark. I can smell it before seeing it, lavender and florals clashing in dissonant harmony. The thickness of the trees eases, the darkness broken by streams of moonlight guiding my feet. Threading in and out of the beams of light, the buzz of bees feasting grows closer, the crickets and frogs greet me as I step from the treeline.
I swear you love animals more than people, she joked. You aren’t wrong, I admitted. But…why? she asked, her face softening. I don’t know, I drifted off. Yes, you do, please? It’s silly, I started, but I couldn’t avoid her pleading eyes. Animals don’t laugh at my dreams, they just…keep humming. What do you dream about? she asked. Genuine curiosity had replaced her plea. I blushed, embarrassed, but told her anyway. One day, I want to live in nature, with nature; I want it to encompass my home and my being; I want to be one with it. Nature doesn’t grieve with the cycle of life the way humans do; it keeps growing. Even after a wildfire, the earth above appears devastated, but the soil below is now more fertile, more life-giving…that is the cycle I want to be a part of. Animals don’t laugh when I tell them that. But, I realized, she wasn’t laughing either. She tipped my chin up towards hers until our eyes met. That isn’t silly at all. Then, she kissed me.
A gasp escapes my lips. Sunflowers tower over the garden gate, leaning towards the pond, anxiously awaiting the sun's return. I trace the stem of the tallest flower, rising to my toes to kiss its lips.
She brought me sunflowers on our third date. They came from my garden, she beamed. How big is your garden? I asked, my brown thumbs itching the base of the bouquet of sunshine. Oh, it’s small, she squirmed, but I dream about having a huge garden one day. She smiled, and I believed one day she would. I’ll help, I added, shaking my head. I’m not sure how much help I’ll be, but I take instruction well. She smiled wider than the sunflower whose spine stretched well above her.
I release the yellow giant from my hand and walk across the smooth stones to the gate. I rub my thumb over the base of my fingers where the stones sliced my palm as she paced, trying to decide on the perfect placement. But now, the grass welcomes the stones as family, growing between each step. I stop at the gate, listening. The pond sloshes a few feet away, the cricket choir has grown louder, and the frogs compete for top billing. But through the chaos of the forest sounds, I hear the gentle flutter of my friend and smile. I push the gate open against the indentation left behind by the missing garden latch; the hinge squeaks in protest. I step inside, an unnecessary action in my current state, but my desire for nostalgia is greater than my logic. Carefully, I close the creaking gate behind me. Lavender, basil, lemongrass–the overwhelming aroma strikes, my knees buckle, and a churning sensation lingers where my stomach used to be. A metal bench glistens in the moonlight, an invitation I gladly take. Bees and butterflies alike have discovered the lavender bushes next to me, seeds the last time I touched them, now as thick as a small tree trunk. The insects gather excitedly, chattering about the floral goodness. The lemongrass has taken over the entire plot next to the lavender.
We have to plant lemongrass, she told me. What is lemongrass anyway? I asked, sure she rolled her eyes at my ignorance while I paced cluelessly behind her through the garden center. It’s great for keeping mosquitoes away, she exclaimed. So is lavender, a bored attendant chimed in from across the aisle. See? she shouted excitedly. She grabbed the packets of seeds and skipped to the raised garden bed kits. What about this one? She stopped next to the smallest box on the highest shelf. I raised an eyebrow. I thought your dream was to have a huge garden? Well, yeah, it is…she stammered, dragging the toe of her sneaker across the concrete floor. Here, let’s get this one. I grunted, picking up the biggest planter box from the bottom shelf. Really? Her smile drove straight through the back of my head. Really, I agreed, sliding the box under our packed cart.
Beyond the lemongrass, shadows swallow the rest of the garden. I leave my bench to follow the moonlight to the other side of the fence. The wildflowers bloom without apology, taking up all the space we gave them and then some. They’ve grown impressively over the top of the picket fence, a few white ones I’ve forgotten the names of are trying to rival the sunflowers in stature. A glint of gold by my bare feet calls to me. I crouch below the wildflowers, and I squint to make out the small, foreign plaque. For G, may you grow wild like our love. R. My eyes sting, the ache I’ve shoved down rises rapidly. I kiss the small piece of metal gently. I force myself to my knees, pressing my palms into the earth to bring my shaking frame to standing. From here, parallel to the kitchen window, the reflection of the moon in our little pond beckons, and I obey, walking from the garden, closing the gate gently once more. The stones are gone, and the grass beyond the fence tickles my shins, the crickets jumping from their hiding places to greet me. The water is cool on my toes, and I watch as my feet disappear below the surface.
Our first summer here was record-breaking heat, and we were desperate for refuge. We borrowed a machete from the garden shop to cut through the grass that had grown so high above the back porch rail we had wondered if the pond in the distance was a mirage. We carved a path from the porch and took turns sprinting fully clothed into the refreshingly tepid water. Then, unclothed. The frogs joined in on the fun, splashing and croaking in time with our laughter.
Here, let me help you out, I whispered, digging a groove through the dirt, unaware of the approaching footsteps. Who are you talking to? I jumped. Sorry, she laughed, I didn’t mean to scare you. I just finished up lunch and was going to call you in, but you looked so focused. So…who are you talking to? Heat pumped through my cheeks. You’ll think it’s silly, I muttered, tracing a circle through the dirt. Try me, she challenged, her shoulder bumping mine as she sat down against me. I was talking to the minnows, I whispered. The minnows? I swore I heard her stifle a laugh. Look, I pointed to the puddle in front of me, isolated from the rest of the pond. She put her hand on my shoulder, peering into the puddle full of orphaned minnows. The pond has receded from the drought and these little guys got stuck, I explained. I was digging a little waterway for them when you came over. She let out a soft laugh. She walked away, and I kept chiseling at the dirt with my tiny stick. But then I heard the grass rustle behind me. Here, I turned around, her gardening shovel inches from my nose. Thanks! I beamed. I tossed my stick over my shoulder into the pond; it hardly made a splash. I swiveled on my heels and dug the trench deeper until water rushed into the puddle. As the first minnow bravely swam through our channel, her breath was on my neck. I stood up so quickly I nearly sent her barreling backward. I caught her as she stumbled. I love you, the words somersaulted from my mouth. A sheepish grin spread across her face. I love you, too. We watched as the rest of the minnows swam back to the pond, one-by-one until the puddle was empty and the sun had begun to set.
I make my way back up the path we carved, the low grass dry and patchy. Lying in the far corner of the porch is a heap of unfinished and broken furniture.
We’ll store it out back until I can fix them, she said. Oh yeah, and when will that be? I asked with a smirk. And without a moment to pause, she responded, as soon as you figure out how to hold a hammer without smashing your thumb. We burst into laughter because it was the truth. I never learned how to build furniture, but I learned how to paint walls without dripping on the floors she put in, mend a leaking faucet, and polish floors until they shined. After just one dirt-covered spring, I could nurse a dying plant back to life. I tended to the home she built until she had to tend to me.
Light glows softly through the kitchen. The dining room table we salvaged from the library dumpster sits deserted in the shadows below the window. A coffee mug sits dirty in the sink even though it’s well past nightfall. A single spoon is perched over the ledge of the sink, waiting to be rinsed and reused. The shelves that used to lay slanted and empty along the decrepit kitchen walls are now level and lined with garage sale mugs and mismatched china. The single light from the living room flickers slightly, a shadow moves above the refrigerator. What the…? New wooden slats frame the far wall of the kitchen. I pivot slightly, and it registers, the spiral stairs are gone–she has built new stairs, just like she promised. The shadow moves again, then a foot appears. A letter in one hand, her overalls drape over her socks, she walks down the new stairs and disappears into the living room.
When are you coming to bed, I whispered sleepily, shuffling into the dining room after waking up next to an empty pillow. In a minute, was all she replied–a lie. Ever since we had gotten the news from the doctor, she refused to sleep next to me, worried she would crush my fragile lungs. Instead, she knit by candlelight until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer, and she crashed on the couch or face-first into her pile of yarn. Please, I pleaded, loneliness tugged at my tired fingertips. She looked up; her rich blue eyes had gone gray and cold. I can’t, she exhaled. I stood in the doorway, taking in the yarn scattered across the table, and took the deepest breath I could manage. Okay, I cleared my throat and walked over to my empty chair. Will you at least teach me how to knit a pair of socks? My feet are freezing. She managed a soft chuckle, warming my toes instantly, but I didn’t tell her that. She handed me a pair of needles and a ball of yellow yarn from the basket at her feet.
I walk around the opposite side of the yard, the permanent shade outside our bedroom window keeps much of anything from growing on this side of the house, but the grass is always cool. By the time I reach the front porch of our small cottage, my toes are red, and the hem of my hospital gown is damp. But it isn’t the grass that has my feet frozen anymore; it’s the sight of the two hand-carved, mahogany rocking chairs beneath the living room window. I amble up the steps, careful to avoid the squeaky first floorboard–not that I think she, or anybody, can hear me, but I tread lightly regardless. The rocking chairs sway lightly in the breeze, a haunting reminder of their emptiness. The first chair is worn slightly in the middle–this must be her chair. The screws that once protruded, leaving a star-shaped scar in her palm, are now flush. I run my fingers over the left armrest, a dark brown circle left behind by her morning coffee. The right armrest has a light groove worn into the stain.
You are going to rub my skin raw one of these days. I trapped her anxious right thumb beneath mine. She tried to pull her hand away, embarrassed by her nervous habit, but I held on tighter. I can’t help it, she laughed, my dad was a handyman and wouldn’t let me rest until every project on his list was done. She pressed her fingers tighter around mine. The sawdust must have gone to my brain and made it restless, she smiled, unaware her left thumb was twirling at her side.
A harsh beam of light from the living room draws a line in the porch between the chairs. I was in charge of cutting her grandmother’s fabric into curtains while she built shelves in our attic, so naturally, I measured wrong and there is a permanent gap in the sheer white curtains. Well, she managed between gasps of laughter, good thing we live in the middle of the woods.
I peer into the lit room and take her in. Her hair is speckled with gray, even though it’s only been ten years. Her hands quiver as she moves papers and photographs from the floor into a wooden box in front of her, feet tucked neatly beneath her knees. I glance down at my hands, unwrinkled, unchanged. I shove the guilt and jealousy aside and peer back through the curtains. She holds a photograph in her hands, hovering above the box. Her lips tug upward slightly at the smiling women in the picture who were ignorant of the preciousness of time and disgustingly in love. Wiping one hand across her cheek, her mouth tight and small, she places the photograph in the box with the others. As she gathers the last of the papers and other small objects I can’t make out into the box, I glance around the room. The fireplace before her, the flames dwindling, is covered in stones we found around the pond. Shelves fill in the rest of the space around the fireplace.
Will you please find a bigger ladder, I managed, holding the metal sides as she screwed the top shelves into place. Would you stop worrying about me? She laughed. The ladder shook beneath my sweating palms. Okay well, you’re not the one that has to watch helplessly as you fall to your death, I mumbled dramatically. You’re right, she agreed, climbing down the ladder with the level in one hand, screwdriver in the other. I’m sorry for scaring you. She kissed my lips softly and I forgot why I was angry.
A green couch sits against the wall across from me, velvet, clean and unfamiliar. Like the woods, it suits her. Past the couch, a few trinkets lay on a small wooden table, a few fuzzy polaroids, a crystal of some sort, and a tiny lamp we bought for a dollar at an estate sale in town. It used to cast a glow through the slits of the metal stairs, splitting into disco light beams in the kitchen, the wrought iron stairs spiraling up through the ceiling into our attic library. But now the stairs are gone, replaced by stairs against the front of the house that I still cannot see, and the light expands uninterruptedly. The spiral stairs, like everything else, are a memory.
Don’t go up there, I begged, it might be haunted. You can’t be serious, she laughed, grabbing onto the iron handrail. But it’s dark up there! And dangerous! I pleaded. She turned around, waving her flashlight in my direction in response. I sighed, shaking the fear from my head. The steps shifted slightly under our combined weight, so I paused until I saw her disappear into the dark hole in the ceiling. I wound my way around the metal stairs and up into the darkness. My eyes struggled to adjust and just as my pupils had started to shift, her flashlight clicked on, a harsh beam of light cast at my feet. Okay so here’s what I’m thinking, she started, swiveling the light towards the front window. We’ll build shelves on this wall, filling in the A-framed space around the window. I followed her toward the front of the room, careful to avoid the hole through which I had just come. I watched as she swung the light around the wall, pointing at all the places where she wanted to work. We have enough books to fill some of the shelves…I heard her trail off mid-thought. I reentered the conversation at the mention of books, a subject to which I could actually contribute. We have enough books for probably three shelves, she continued, unaware that I had drifted elsewhere and had returned, but if my guess is correct, we’ll probably have around ten shelves to fill. What about garage sales? I asked. People are always selling off old books for just a few cents. True, she agreed, we could buy enough books to fill the top few shelves mostly for display, then fill the reachable shelves with books we actually want to read. A chuckle escaped from her mouth and sent a shiver of pleasure running down my legs. We bought four boxes of books from three different garage sales, but there was still empty space. We arranged the books in different shaped stacks to fill up as much space as possible, then lined the walls with all the Christmas lights we owned. The next morning I flipped on the lights, set my coffee on the rickety nightstand we found at one of the sales for five dollars, and tucked myself into the overstuffed yellow chair my grandmother had left for me. The fairy lights gave me enough light until the sun rose and illuminated the room. Once it became too warm in my little greenhouse, I walked downstairs and started my day. The lights went on in our fairytale library one month before I got the news. Quickly, the stairs became impossible to ascend, twelve steps taking ten minutes to climb. It could be nothing, my doctor said, but that seems pretty out of character considering your age. We will take some tests just to be safe. I got the call the next day. I kept to my routine until I couldn’t climb the stairs anymore without feeling faint. Here, let me help you, she offered me her back, ushering me to climb on. No thanks, I shrugged, heading for the table instead. She grabbed my arm and slung me around her back. Please, you don’t have to do this, I cried softly. She grunted some kind of acknowledgment but started to climb the stairs anyway. The stairs were cramped for one person, let alone two. We made it about halfway before she clutched the railings and dropped one knee for balance in defeat. It’s okay, I whispered in her ear, it’s okay. I’m going to build you new stairs, she promised me while I was crying on the pillows that were supposed to go on the couch we couldn’t afford. She piled the pillows and all the spare blankets into a lumpy mound against the empty wall next to the fireplace and brought down a stack of books. The lighting was all wrong in the living room; the shadows of the morning light were more distracting than they were welcoming, bouncing around the room in beams of chaos. I picked up a book and watched her over the pages instead as she moved through the kitchen, cleaning and fixing and tending. I watched her until I couldn’t anymore. The morning after I was admitted to the hospital, I woke up to fairy lights strung across the room and a stack of books on my bed. It isn’t your library, she claimed. It’s perfect, I whispered.
The door handle jiggles, and my eyes jerk up–the rug is empty, the box gone. The door hinge creaks, and I leap into the corner of the porch, hidden from the glare of the living room or porch lights, then laugh at my stupidity under my invisible breath. Ryann emerges with the wooden box tucked under her left arm. Her rings catch in the porch light, a disco ball on the wall of the house. I hold my breath until she locks the door and turns towards the driveway. Orange and yellow waves cascade down her back like a midwest sunset; her boots fall heavily from the last step, hidden by the flow of a blue floral gown that glides over the dewy lawn. Lavender follows her through the breeze, but there’s something else too, something familiar yet…salt. Tears.
I fall in pace behind her, the pine trees rising into the darkness. These woods welcomed us home for so many years like a hug, but now they are a tunnel, closing in around me, pushing me away from a house that is no longer mine. I quicken my pace; she’s already turning the corner down Main. The trees grow farther apart, and the houses close in on one another as the white side of the church grows larger. A stray cat darts across the road between us, emerging from the tight bushes that line the white brick. It pauses and sniffs in my direction, its green eyes catching the reflection of the street light above it. The cat appears to be looking through me, so I turn my head around, but there’s nothing, no rustle or cause for concern. I turn back to the cat, but it’s gone, swallowed by the darkness. I catch sight of blue fabric before it disappears beyond the church, towards the rest of town, and once again pick up my pace, even though it would be impossible for me to get lost on the sidewalks I could retrace in my sleep. I pause at the cathedral-like wooden doors to the church we never went to, but always dreamed of getting married in. The doors that would have never opened for us in our lifetime, but ones we dreamed of walking through hand in hand no less. She is weaving in and out of lights ahead of me, slowing below the neon lights of the empty diner. I watch her shift the box to her left hand, reaching her right hand towards the window, towards our booth. I watch her remember. My foot catches on the sidewalk, and I stumble, catching myself on the bench in front of me. I quickly realize I may have just exposed myself, but she’s still staring through the window, still remembering.
Ouch! I yelped, tripping over the crack in the sidewalk I had forgotten to step over. Her hand grabbed my forearm; my body hovered above the cement. I managed to get my feet underneath me and stood back up. Thanks, I muttered, my eyes glued to my clumsy feet, but her hand didn’t move. I lifted my gaze to her fingers; their grip loosened slightly, but still firm. I traced the line from her arm to her face with my eyes. Her smile softened as I met her stare, but her eyes narrowed. She filled the gap between us with her body, sliding her fingers from my forearm until they were interlaced with mine. I slid my other hand around her side, her cotton flannel bunched between my fingers. Her thumb grazed against my cheek, wiping away a crumb from the pie we had just shared, moving across my face until it pressed against my bottom lip, pulling my mouth apart slightly.
The stomp of her boots echoes through the empty streets–she has left the window, four businesses now separate us. Briefly, I glance at the crack in the sidewalk, gaping, and thank it quietly. The closed sign over the diner illuminates our booth in red. So much has changed in ten years, but the slight tear on my seat is still there. The worn patches of tan leather sit mute in the center of the seat; the untouched shine of the booth’s edges holds onto the reflection of the red light.
Nate nodded toward the empty booth as the bell chimed above us. Hi Nate! She sang over the shouts of neighbors arguing about the upcoming mayoral election, bouncing into the booth. I returned Nate’s nod when he set down two mugs and the pitcher of coffee. The usual? As if he needed to ask. Of course, she smiled at him, then winked at me as he walked to the kitchen.
I can smell the disinfectant through the double-pane glass, a pit of nostalgia growing in my stomach, an ache for a bitter coffee and mushy oatmeal if it meant one more moment across from her. I blink quickly, walking back into the shadows. Cement consumes the block of storefronts, the forest a shadow surrounding the quiet mountain town. On this section of Main Street, the only greenery is the poorly maintained shrubs lining a few homes and storefronts. Some of the fabric awnings are also green, like the one over True Tales.
Who's ready to spend too much money on books? I asked, ushering her inside. You! She shouted. Lana looked up from the counter at the sound of our laughter, books littered in stacks before her. Hey girls, she smiled and added knowingly, don’t have too much fun. She turned and walked into the backroom, leaving us free to browse the empty store. What’s your favorite book of all time? I returned the book I was flipping through to the shelf, then faced her. Childhood favorite or, like, adult book favorite? She asked, her right eyebrow arching above the other. Either, I responded with a shrug. Both, I changed my mind. Okay, she started, childhood is easy–Cinderella. My bottom lip pushed upward, the rest of my mouth scrunching into a frown of surprise. Really? I asked. Yeah, why? She crossed her arms, a blend of amusement and offense muddled across her face. I mean, I stuttered, don’t get me wrong, it’s a classic for a reason, but, I hesitated, the princess and fairy godmother and male savior complex of it all don’t seem much like you. She frowned, but then an idea pinged behind her eyes, her mouth turned upward into a smirk. And why’s that? A test, I thought. You’re just so tough and practical, I twitched, so the whimsical princess stuff just doesn’t seem like you. You’re right, she said, I am tough and practical. But I’m also a hopeless romantic, she added before walking away leaving me dumbfounded. I never found out what her favorite adult book was.
She turns at the roundabout. One of the gazebo lights is burnt out, casting a dim, romantic glow over the small tourist attraction. I spot the library before I spot her, the clock tower swallowing her shadow.
Doesn’t the ringing bother you? She asked, four chimes clanging above us. Not really, I shrugged without taking my fingers off the keys. She swung her legs around the desk towards me. What are you working on? She glanced at the screen. Just a project for the law school. Since when did you become a lawyer? She asked. I’m not, I laughed, imagining the thought of having to argue with people for a living. Sometimes students at the law school ask us to do some research for them–it’s a pretty common request for librarians. Huh, she leaped from the desk, I guess you learn something new every day. I smiled into the screen as she walked towards the contemporary romance section behind me.
She reaches the steps, and the clock strikes eleven, but it doesn’t chime. I stop beneath the ancient pine on the library lawn. The wooden doors rise like giants behind her. I remember the first day I saw her walk through them.
I was stacking an overflowing cart of returns; my arm stretched towards the top shelf just out of my reach when she came in and walked towards the front desk. Terry was on her lunch break, so I grabbed the hem of my blue floral gown and walked over to the empty desk. Hi, how can I help you? I asked, trying to ignore the lavender cloud hovering around her. Yeah, hi, I’m Ryann O’Connor. I’m here to pick up a book I requested. Her copper curls hung around her face, falling from her shoulders as she leaned forward. Yes, sure, I stuttered, turning towards the stack of reserved books. O’Connor…found it. I flipped the book over, The Art of Drywall. Interesting choice, I joked, handing her the book. Our fingers touched as she took the book, electricity racing through my arm. She laughed, Thanks, I just love drywall, you know? My fingers itched at my side, tingling. Well, of course, I joked, don’t we all? I’m building a house, she offered, shifting the book under her arm, or I’m rebuilding a house, I should say. Oh yeah? I asked. Yeah, it needs a lot of work, so I’ll probably be in here a lot. I’m pretty handy, but I would rather know what I’m doing before I end up with a slanted wall or a leaking roof. Well, sure, I gestured towards the shelves to my left. We have everything you should need, you know, to learn how to build everything. If you need help, I’ll be here, I suggested. I mean, I’m here to help with the books; I can hardly hammer a nail. She laughed, and my heart stuttered. We can help each other then, she offered. The air left my lungs at the thought. Thanks for this! She shouted as she opened the door. Anytime, I whispered. She came back every day after that.
She sets the box down next to her on the stairs. She pulls the same white envelope from the top, unfolding the letter I wrote her ten years ago tonight.
My love, my butterfly. My body is fading, each breath heavier than the last, but for you, I hold on. My body is fading, but our love never will. It’s on the floor we carefully laid beneath us. It’s in the windows we broke, the blood we spilled to get the view of the pond and trees just right. It’s in water where we used to bury our aching toes. Our love is in the sunflowers that will one day take over the garden we planted together. Our love is in the trees that protect our home, where we hid so often from the summer heat. Our love is worn into the pages of the books we kissed behind. Our love spills through the streets of this town we’ve walked so many times, fingers intertwined.
Tonight you said something that filled my soul with love but my heart with an ache I can’t shake. Through a river of tears, you told me you would never love another soul so long as you live on this earth. And knowing you, this was a promise–the sweetest, most heartbreaking promise.
Instead, my love, promise me this:
Remember our love in the little things–that’s where I’ll be.
Remember our love in the home we built–that’s where I’ll be.
Remember our love in the garden we planted–that’s where I’ll be.
Remember our love in the woods we walked–that’s where I’ll be.
Remember our love in the reflection of the moon in our pond–that’s where I’ll be.
Remember our love in the pages of the books that line our little attic library–that’s where I’ll be.
Promise me this–if you’re still remembering after ten years, you will pack up my things and take them away.
Promise me this–if you’re still remembering after ten years, you will love again.
Tonight I’ll hold your hand one last time, spin your ring between my fingers, trace the star-shaped scar on your thumb from that silly rocking chair we can’t put together. I’ll rub your callused palm one last time.
Tonight I’ll watch your eyelids flicker until the weight on my lungs closes mine.
Forever and always,
Ryann pushes her hands into her knees to stand, then tugs at the waist of her dress until the hem falls back to her ankles. She carefully places the folded letter into the box and closes the lid. She carries the box around the side of the stairs where the fence is broken, the place where we used to hide letters or books for one another. Rising once again she brushes the dirt from her dress and turns quickly on her heels, back towards the gazebo, towards the diner and the sidewalk crack and the church and our home…her home. She pauses for a split second, her boots slowing as if she too is stopping to remember. I hope she’ll turn around, I hope I’ll wake up, and this is all a dream, and I’ll be home, on our new couch, in front of our fireplace, reading our books, our legs intertwined. But she turns the corner instead–no glance, no dream. She remembers her promise, and she turns out of sight.
I step towards the stairs, peering through the broken wooden fence below. Most of the box is hidden, a carefully thought out place for something you don’t want to be found, but the lamppost illuminates a small circle on the lid. I gently reach my hand through the slit and wipe the dust away–Gracie. I trace my name, burned into the wood. A lump rises into my throat; a ladybug crawls across the charred letters. I run my finger over the foreign box, but why does it look familiar? My finger hovers over a dark piece of wood–the chairs, the porch, the kitchen floor. I grab the iron handle–the stairs. I slide the garden latch, and the box opens. The letter blankets the contents inside. I rub the corner of the envelope between my fingers as I set it on the open lid. I pick up a smooth pebble from our pond, perfect for skipping across the glassy water. I set aside the pebble and pick up a yellowed receipt from Nate’s Diner–oatmeal, coffee, and one classic breakfast special. Next is the photo of us at Coney Island–it was the only trip we took together. Then it’s the copy of Cinderella I bought Ryann for our last Christmas together. I open the cover–The search is over; it’s mine, the glass slipper is mine scribbled in my chicken scratch. The real estate clipping ripped from the newspaper Ryann brought to the library when I asked what her new house looked like- SOLD AS IS circled with ten exclamation marks next to it and one of Ryann’s goofy smiley faces in the corner. A tiny sunflower seed sits on a hand-knit coffee coaster. The lump surges into my mouth, forcing my lips apart. At the bottom of the small box lies a hand-sewn satin heart. I pick it up carefully, running my fingers along the lace trim. I turn it over in my palm. Stitched into the center of the heart is a small, orange butterfly.
We passed Emmy’s Gowns on Main; Ryann halted, my fingers left empty. I turned to find her staring at a wedding gown that hugged the hips of the mannequin that wore it. You know, I always wanted to get married in a floor-length lace gown, Ryann stated plainly. I choked on my coffee. What? she asked. It’s just…I trailed off. She crossed her legs in disdain; her overalls cuffed at the top of her work boots rubbed together. Her arms crossed over her backpack straps, her lips pursed. What? She asked again. I’m sorry, I blurted, unsure of what I was apologizing for. Well, she uncrossed her legs, her arms still skeptical, what kind of wedding dress would you like to wear? My eyes rose back to the store window; I couldn’t let her see the tears welling in my eyes. A satin one, I whispered, as Audrey Hepburn wore. The long sleeves, gloves, and slicked-back hair. I don’t know; I just think it’s so elegant. I looked down to see her fingers weaving through mine. Lace and satin, she muttered as we turned away from the storefront, sounds like a gay ol’ time. We laughed all the way home.
I laggardly place the items back in the box, the letter tucking them back to sleep. The latch clicks shut on Ryann’s memories. Something rustles in the bushes behind me. Wings unfold near my shoulder, the black outlines camouflaged by the night sky, the orange patterns on its wings barely visible. I watch it flutter softly, settling into a clump of purple flowers. Its wings sigh– open and soft.
I’ve always loved butterflies, I mentioned absentmindedly as we walked through the garden center, a cluster of monarchs flying in circles around the perennials. They’re beautiful, she paused, watching them dance in the air. My gaze drifted to her hair, her white t-shirt tucked into her black Levi’s, and down to her worn Doc Martin boots. You know, I hesitated, you kind of, you know, fit with them right now, I finished, my eyes drifting pointedly up and down her body. She looked down and laughed, bright like a song, scattering the butterflies.
“My butterfly,” I whisper to the tiny insect sleeping amongst the flowers. I lift it gently from below its wings, detaching it from its perch. It clings to my finger, but then it raises its wings and flies behind me, towards home, towards her.
I rise slowly from the grass, ignoring the dirt on my gown, and look at the clock tower. It should chime a warning, five minutes until midnight, but it ticks along silently. Now, I cannot ignore its call–the call of the earth summoning me. My heart leans toward the echo of her footsteps, but I turn away, down the road that leads from town, the road I avoided when I came here tonight. I walk in and out of the street lamps until the fog swallows me from sight, the wind sweeping the sound from my footsteps until I return to memory.
Maddie Cowan (she/her) is a reader by desire and a writer by necessity. She is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at Bennington. She spends most of her time daydreaming (a fancy word for procrastinating) in her sunroom (aka her office) in Western Massachusetts. She is married with two children and Jules, their giant German Shepard.