He was first to wake, in the chill of the predawn darkness. He gazed at his sleeping bride, and gently moved a stray curl of hair from her face, and arranged the blankets around her as he left the bed.
He grabbed a dressing gown from the cupboard and wandered the french doors of their room onto the paved private courtyard. Birds fluttered into the large tree that shaded the garden, frightened from their early breakfast. He took several deep breaths and felt instantly more awake.
It was so early, and the light was so faint, he could only just make out the shapes in the garden. The early birds were the only creatures stirring, and only a few were attempting a chorus to welcome the day.
He had a strong urge for a strong coffee, as was his usual breakfast, but he resisted it to soak in the peace and quiet that the solitude offered. Shannon would be up soon, before he would be lonely in solitude, and her smile would be the only sunlight he would need until the sun made an appearance. He’d like to make her a coffee to give to her to warm her hands against the chill.
He glanced back at the sleeping beauty that was his bride. Freckles sprinkled across her face, normally covered with heavy foundation, made him smile. Her red hair lay around her, loose and long, softening her face, and reaching the middle of her back. It was spilling around her in all its glory, and it was glorious. He sat on the bed, and brushed the stray curl again from her forehead, and she blinked her eyes open.
She took a moment to focus, and then that beautiful smile touched her lips. He bent to kiss her lightly on her forehead, and got to his feet.
“Want a coffee, princess?” He murmured. She nodded, and covered her mouth as she yawned.
“What time is it?” She half sighed, not bothering to sit up straight away. He touched the curl that was threatening to fall once again over her forehead.
“Oh,” she said. “My hair must look a mess. Wait a minute, I will fix it a bit into some order.”
“Leave it,” he said softly, catching her hand. “You look perfect. Leave it. Rest a bit. It’s only 0430. The world is still sleeping.”
“Can’t you sleep?”
“I want to watch the sunrise. We still have about fifteen minutes for the big show. That’s enough time to drink our coffee, and get comfy.”
She glanced outside through the open french doors and sighed. “It must be so pretty out there. When the sun comes up.”
“Yes. It is. You stay there, all perfect, and I will make the coffee. No primping yet. I like to see you all wild and free.”
“You’re not in the office. You’re in my world now. No hair pins, no suits, just comfy sweaters and loose hair ties.”
“Yes, sir, Gunny.”
He chuckled, and went to prepare the coffee. A large strong black for him, a milky sweet one for Shannon. He added a dash of cold water to hers, and a dash of extra hot water for his. How different they were, but how perfect as well. He shook his head with mild disbelief and expertly balanced the mugs as he returned to the bedroom.
She was sitting on one of the outside chairs under the tree, wrapped in a fluffy pink dressing gown. She was smiling, focusing on the changing light, sounds, and atmosphere of the day. She was so observant, he thought, but she jumped as she noticed his approach.
“I’ll just put them down on the table.” He said, unnecessarily. The small mostly ornamental table was just the right size for mugs and some side plates. He sat down on the other chair and breathed in the morning air deeply. So much cleaner than that of the city. He loved this cabin in the woods. It was perfect for the honeymoon. Out of phone range with no tv reception or anything to distract either of them. Pure relaxation for as long as they wanted.
They drank their coffee without conversation, and then he stood and led her out of the garden gate into the wilderness outside. She nested herself on the Fall leaves and sighed.
He joined her, scanning the woods for any movement, more a habit of watchfulness than concern, placing a warm arm around her against the grey coldness.
“You don’t think anyone will see me?”
“You look perfect to me, and no one else knows we are here. Remember I told everyone we were going straight to Hawaii after the ceremony.”
“There are such things as lost hikers.”
“I’ll soon see them off.”
“I hope there are none. You will frighten the life out of them.”
He laughed. He pointed to his lips for silence, and pointed out a shy rabbit that was wandering out of hiding. She held her breath and her eyes widened. She watched as the small creature came almost into arms reach and then darted away as it suddenly realised it wasn’t alone.
“Here we go, Shannon,” he said, pointing towards the east. Golden beams of sunlight cut through the lines of straight tree trunks, and began to drench the woodland floor with golden light.
The rest of the birds woke and the silence was drowned out by brilliant birdsong, a noisy dawn chorus. It was such a contrast from grey silence to golden crescendo that the day felt even more perfect, and it had only begun.
He sat on the grassy hillside on another Fall day. All day, with his back to the cabin from all those years ago. With an uneaten picnic beside him, deep in unspoken memories. It had been so long since that honeymoon sweetness, and life had served him up a mixed platter of memories. Good, bad, indifferent.
The life he had shared with Shannon and later their daughter Kelly had been a normal family life. Complete with disagreements and misunderstandings, as well as sunlit wonder. The delights and drudgery of a newborn, the competing wishes dealing with a toddler, and then the joy of a kindred spirit as Kelly seemed to be interested in all the things he was interested in. In hindsight that was because she craved every second of his time, as deployment interrupted their lives so often and for so long. And the nights were all for Shannon.
Then the accident, then the devastation and the guilt. He knew there had been nothing he could have done, being all the way over in the Middle East, and even if he had been stateside, there was still nothing he could have done. Drug dealers had silenced their witness, despite the efforts of the US military. At least they had died instantly. A few seconds of terror and then nothing. He supposed he should be thankful for that.
Life had a funny way of giving you what you needed, if you were aware enough. As a team leader he was the father figure for several fine men and women, sharing the joy and pain of their lives just as if they were his own kids. His craving for his lost ones had manifested into three failed marriages, and one near miss, and though he still felt attracted to opinionated redheads he had grown to respect them more. He was more aware of the frailty of himself and others, more understanding of his and others weaknesses, and less likely to act on impulse. Old age would do that to a person, he thought and chuckled softly to himself.
It had grown dark in the secluded spot in the woods. Far away from care and responsibility, people would actually have to physically drive down to communicate with him. Most would not bother, since he was a man of his word. Monday was his day to return to work, and he would be there as security opened the doors, and everyone knew he would be there.
He hadn’t bothered to light the cabin for his return. He knew his way around the little house whatever the lighting situation. When he had arrived that morning he could have sworn Shannon’s perfume had greeted him as he stepped inside. He could have sworn he had caught the pitch of a little girl’s giggle. He didn’t believe in ghosts but memories could haunt you just as badly. Houses were an anchor for big memories, one of the reasons he didn’t use the bedrooms in his regular house, and slept on the lounge chair next to the tc. Keeping Kelly’s room the same as it always had been might have made his grief problematic, but she had been so full of life it hurt to think about moving her things, even after fifteen years. Or was it twenty now? He shook his head. It seemed like she had just stepped out for the day, and he would be tucking her into bed by bedtime. A forever twelve year old, never to get older, always to remain exactly as she had been.
The moon rose up into the sky. He had missed the very start of the rise, but it was full, big and magnificent, far away from the city lights. The water on the lake shimmered silver, the light rippling like something magical. Kelly would have loved it. Shannon would have snuggled against him, and murmured something about magic or luck or whatever the moon meant.
It was the anniversary of their wedding. He was the last man standing. For the umpteenth time, from the day they had been taken from him, on this day every year, he wished that he had been in the car with them. That he had died instantly, beside them. Tomorrow he wouldn’t think that way, but tonight he did. Tonight he would overindulge in cheap bourbon and tomorrow he would have a hangover and the next day, he would be good ol’ reliable Gunny. Just the way it always happened, this day, every year.