The dirt road curved through tall trees, over a hill and then down, opening out to reveal the small home made of stone, smoke curling out of the chimney, which jutted out of the red brick roof, striking against the gray sky. Sarah cut the engine when she pulled into the drive and exhaled. In doing so, she realized she had been holding her breath, and wondered why. Her heartbeat rose at the sight of the house, a mixture of excitement and dread pulsing through her veins. All throughout the night, Sarah contemplated how this day would go. She conjured up conversations in her mind, reviewing what she should say, how to go about it all, and how Craig might respond.
She spent her morning anxiously making mincemeat pie, praying to the universe that they would taste all right, and cursing herself for attempting such a dish when she could just have easily gone for something she knew how to make and, more importantly, had some concept of how it should taste. Something easy, something familiar to her American palate, like apple or pecan pie. She wasn’t even sure Craig liked mincemeat pies. Had she actually ever heard him say anything about the dessert, or was she just playing to stereotype?
“Are we gonna go in, or are we just gonna sit here and freeze to death?” Sarah’s ten-year-old daughter, Juniper, said from the backseat, cutting through Sarah’s anxiety as she often did—almost as often as she was the very cause of it.
“Sorry,” Sarah smiled at her daughter.
They made their way to the front door, Sarah clutching the tray of pies close to her chest, careful not to crush them. Before Juniper had a chance to knock on the door, it swung open, and Craig stood before them, hugging a jacket around himself as he smiled and stepped out to greet them.
“Happy Christmas, ladies!” Craig pulled Sarah into a hug. They kissed one another on the cheek as they embraced, and Sarah could feel all the things she wanted to say melt away as she held onto him, trying to express her sympathy through the strength of her hug. Inside, the house smelled of firewood and cardamom. Craig took Sarah’s and Juniper’s coats, saying,
“Make yourselves a’ home on the sofa there. I’ve got a wee fire goin, so it should be nice and cozy. Tea?”
“Please!” Sarah said, sinking down onto the couch, closing her eyes, propping her feet up on the wooden coffee table, and letting out a long sigh.
“Ye all right?” Craig chuckled.
“Oh, fine, just the holidays, you know,” Sarah said.
“Oh, aye,” Craig’s brow furrowed, not believing her.
“She’s been having a three-day-long meltdown about those weird pie things,” Juniper said, reaching for her mother’s smartphone in search of a game to play.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Sarah laughed, trying to downplay her stress.
Juniper looked over her shoulder at Craig and said, “Last night she was crying while drinking a glass of wine and listening to ‘Sunshine on Leith.’”
“That didn’t have anything to do with the pies. That song makes me emotional.”
“This morning she started crying because she thought she didn’t make enough dough. While they were baking, she was pacing the house saying she should go for a walk, but she also shouldn’t leave, and when they came out she was too afraid to try one.”
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Craig massaged Sarah’s shoulders. “Shall I try one right now?”
“Please don’t,” Sarah said.
“Oh, one question though, did ye make ‘em with meat?”
“Okay, see, I read this blog—the lady was from the UK, or maybe she was Irish, I don’t remember, but in any event, she’s from this side of the Atlantic, and she said that’s not really that common anymore, so I didn’t, but—”
“That’s fine, that’s fine. And you’re right, by the way. I was only checking because my Callum’s a vegetarian these days.”
“Is that right? How does he find anywhere to eat around here?”
“He disnae; he has tae pop over tae Edinburgh,” Craig said, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder as if to indicate Edinburgh was that way, just through the door. There was an opening, Sarah thought, to say one of the thousand things she wanted to say. She came close, too. The words formed themselves on the back of her tongue, her brain arranged them in the appropriate order—it is so good to see you smiling and laughing and cracking jokes after everything that’s happened—but saying those words would be counterproductive. In bringing up “everything that’s happened,” she would only remind him of the darkness. So, instead, she simply laughed at his joke and watched as he went into the kitchen to make tea.
A pair of fuzzy pink slippers, conspicuous among the mens’ shoes and coats, sat in front of the cupboard by the fireside. The vivaciousness of them suggested youth, a teenage girl kicking about her house in them, perhaps in a matching robe, dreaming about life outside of her happy little home. Thinking, at age sixteen, that she had it all figured out, that she had experience and knowledge enough to make it in the world, better than her parents before her, that she had time. That was, of course, the folly of every person who ever drew breath. When time robbed Emma Campbell of the rest of her life, though, the people left behind were the ones who had to pay the highest price. Perhaps she was lucky, in the end, that she didn’t have to stay behind and witness the fallout.
Grief affects everyone differently, and it refuses to follow the neatly-constructed path that psychologists and caregivers have attempted to create. Some people dealt with it in healthy ways. Craig started painting, watercolor scenes of boats, cityscapes, his daughter in rainbow colors. He spent time in his garden, and in the kitchen, cooking and baking enough to feed a village—then he would take the extra food to the local church to hand out to those in need. Callum, only a two years older than Emma, spent more time away from home, throwing himself into his exercise regimen, running and cycling all over the country. He climbed munros, he took his girlfriend to the movies, he threw himself into his studies in preparation for uni, and whenever he drove, he avoided that turn in Glasgow that claimed his sister. He couldn’t stand to be home, where he had to pass by her bedroom on the way to his own, her door closed and the light off, no music blaring through the walls, no laughter peeling through the air as she had a natter over the phone with her boyfriend late into the night.
Carol, Craig’s wife, found solace in the bottle, and then, when that proved insufficient, she fell into the arms of the paramedic who had been there to see Emma draw her final breath, wrecking her marriage in the process. That was how Sarah viewed it, anyway. Perhaps she was unfair to Carol, and of course she couldn’t fathom the pain Carol felt. But then she looked at her dear Craig, broken by that woman so soon on the heels of that initial heartbreak, and she could feel nothing but incomprehension and disdain.
Your wife had no business doing that to you, Sarah wanted to say. It was horrible of her to betray your trust and then leave you like that. I know she was grieving, but that’s not the way to deal with it. You didn’t cheat on her, did you? Callum didn’t dive off the deep end in any way, either, and I know for a fact both of you were—are—just as devastated as she was—is.
These words flew through Sarah’s mind in rapid succession, no doubt a conversation she had practiced with herself in the shower, in the car, tossing and turning in her labored attempts to find sleep. As happened just as often, however, she lost her courage to voice these thoughts, smiling silently as she accepted her cup of tea from Craig, who added a log to the fire before joining Sarah on the couch.
It isn’t my place to say those things, anyway. What right have I to attack his wife? I don’t know anything about it, and it would only upset him.
“Where’s Callum?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, he’ll be out for a wee jog. Should be back soon, though,” Craig said, glancing at his watch.
“Jogging in this weather?” Sarah raised her eyebrows.
“He’s a right madman,” Craig laughed. “So, how have the students been treatin’ ye?”
“Fine, fine. No complaints. In fact, I was offered the chance to stay and teach the same course again next year.”
“Oh, really?” Craig asked, the excitement in his voice bringing a smile to Sarah’s face.
“Yeah, so I guess I must be doing something right.”
“I hope you said yes.”
“I said I’d have my answer after the holiday,” Sarah took a long sip of her tea, savoring the warmth as it filled her body. “I would’ve said yes in a heartbeat, but I have Juniper to think about.”
“D’ye like Scotland, Juniper?” Craig turned to Juniper, who was lost in her mother’s cellphone, happily ignoring the adults in the room. She glanced up from her game, looked from Craig to her mother and back, then shrugged.
“It’s fine, I guess,” she said.
“It takes a lot to impress her one way or the other,” Sarah said with a chuckle.
“Reminds me of someone I know,” Craig said, a knowing twinkle in his eye.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Norway, 1999!” Craig said, leaning forward with emphasis. Sarah sipped her tea to hide how she still smiled in response to his trilled “r.” Craig continued, “There we are, stood in this amazing Scandinavian landscape like nothing you’ve ever seen, we’ve got the Northern Lights above us, we’re all in a right state about it, and you’re just stood there with a blank face. Ye give us a wee shrug and say, ‘meh, I dinnae see the fuss.’”
“I don’t think I said dinnae,” Sarah replied. Craig chuckled, shaking his head as he drank his tea. Sarah sunk back into the couch, a sleepy smile on her face. “That was a magical trip, though, wasn’t it?”
“Aye, so it was. I always said I’d go back. Never did, though.”
“You always could,” Sarah said.
“Maybe,” Craig shrugged. He gazed into the fire and sighed before saying, “I don’t think Callum would come with, though, and I dinnae fancy bein’ away from him, really.”
“Yeah. I get that,” Sarah said, sotto voce. She thought maybe now was the time to express her sympathy, not to say anything against his wife, but only to say how sorry she was about Emma. Before she could formulate the words, Craig cleared his throat and turned to Juniper.
“Are ye hungry, darlin? We’ve got some treats.”
“Should we try mom’s weird pie things?” Juniper asked.
“Not if you insist on calling them my ‘weird pie things,’” Sarah said. Craig and Juniper went to the kitchen to try Sarah’s mincemeat pies, leaving Sarah to ruminate on that trip to Norway to see the Northern Lights. 1999. A lifetime ago, it seemed. Before life got so complicated, before spouses and children, breakups and jobs and responsibilities.
Sarah, a college student in her native New Orleans, and Craig, a college student a thousand miles away at the University of Glasgow, both studied linguistics. They both longed to travel, and neither would be satisfied with knowledge gleaned solely in their respective hometowns—or even home countries. There was too much of the world to be seen and experienced to remain in one place. Both of them, perhaps, had been grasped with the romantic immediacy of youth. If not now, when?
So, they both signed up to spend a semester studying Scandinavian languages at Uppsala University in Sweden. They were both accepted, and, in the fall of 1999, Craig Campbell and Sarah Allison met and fell into a quick friendship, eagerly trying out their Swedish on the locals, who often insisted on speaking English instead. All those years ago—a century ago, Sarah thought with a wry chuckle—she had loved him, but never said a word. It’s only a crush, she told herself in the beginning, being no strong believer in romance—and certainly no believer in love at first sight, which she considered pure Hollywood drivel. You’re enamored of his accent; you think he’s handsome, but you don’t know him that well, so it doesn’t mean anything. You love how much he loves to learn, how much joy he takes in absorbing information and practicing it. You admire his love for other people, and wish you could be the same. Though, you do fit right in with the Swedes in that regard. Love from a distance. Craig is a wonderful man, and you are lucky to call him a friend. Don’t ruin it by trying to make anything more happen.
As always, she had held her tongue. She often told herself it was only because she knew he was already spoken for. If only she had said something then, maybe…
Her thoughts broke with the door swinging open, 19-year-old Callum bursting in, panting with satisfaction, a tired grin on his face.
“Hiya, happy Christmas,” he said as he peeled off his hat, and gloves.
“Merry Christmas. How far did you run?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, no far. Only about twenty kilometers,” Callum kicked off his muddied running shoes and plopped down on the sofa.
“Your father was right; you are a madman,” Sarah said as she mentally converted kilometers into miles. Things such as that were becoming increasingly automatic, signs that she was adapting to life here, that maybe it could be her home. Callum laughed, and Sarah was struck by how closely he resembled his father. Craig and Juniper returned to the living room with a tray of the mincemeat pies.
“They’re delicious,” Craig said.
“Oh, thank God,” Sarah said. “Do they taste like ones your grandmother would make?”
“No,” Craig said after a moment’s consideration, carefully chewing a bite of a pie. He cocked his head and smiled at Sarah, the typical soft kindness reflecting in his eyes, just masking the sadness that crept into his features over the last few years. “But that’s no a bad thing. They’re delicious in their own right.”
“A hope they dinnae taste like the ones my gran makes; her cookin’s shite,” Callum said, leaning forward to grab one of the pies.
“Oi, you!” Craig lightly slapped Callum’s arm. Callum laughed as he took a bite of the pie, shrugging by way of apology.
At the end of the day, Sarah and Juniper prepared to go home, taking with them various leftovers. At the door, Sarah gave Craig a warm smile and a tight hug. She kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for inviting them over.
“Of course. Thanks for coming. A sort of hate this time of year, tae be honest,” Craig said, folding his arms and leaning in.
“Holidays are tough,” Sarah said, feeling like an idiot.
“Aye. Maybe—nah, never mind.”
“No, what? Maybe what? You can say anything to me, Craig, you know that.”
“Yeah, I do. Thanks. I was just thinkin’ maybe, if ye didnae have any plans, ye could spend New Year’s Eve here?”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t have plans.”
“I’d like that. Callum’s gonnae be away with his girlfriend, so I was worried —“
“I’ll be here,” Sarah said.
“Wonderful. And—sorry—but would ye mind comin’ tae church with me that evening?”
“Oh, I’m not really religious,” Sarah said.
“No, neither am I, but it’ll be Emma’s anniversary, so I wanted tae go and then visit the grave. I dinnae mind doin’ it on my own, so it’s no a problem if you’d prefer no tae come,” Craig said.
Of course. Emma died on New Year’s Eve. How could you forget that?
“Nonsense. Of course I’ll come,” Sarah said, placing a steadying hand on Craig’s forearm. “I’ll bring flowers.”
“That’d be lovely. She always wanted tae meet ye, actually,” Craig said.
“Oh, well, she always wanted tae go tae America. She knew I had an American mate, so she was always goin on about wantin tae go and stay with ye. I kept saying maybe, one of these days, somewhere down the line…” Craig shook his head and lowered his gaze to the ground.
“America’s overrated,” Sarah said, for lack of anything else to say. To her relief, Craig laughed and said,
“Aye, so I kept tellin’ her!”
The old friends smiled at one another, Sarah hoping that her eyes conveyed everything she couldn’t bring herself to vocalize—that she loved him still, after all this time, and that she worried about him, and that she would happily forfeit her life in the USA for life with him. All she needed was her daughter, but she could leave the rest on the sunny side of the Atlantic, and would—all he needed to do was say the word.
“I’ll see you on New Year’s Eve, then,” she said.
“Hej då,” Craig bid a Swedish farewell.
“Hej då,” Sarah said. They hugged once more, then Sarah turned on her heel and went to her car. As she drove away from the Campbell home, she looked in the rearview mirror and saw Craig still standing on his doorstep, watching them drive away. She sighed a contented sigh, turning her focus back to the road ahead, the pavement sparkling and slick from an earlier rain. Her mind was made up. She would stay in Glasgow for the 2020—2021 academic year, and she wouldn’t let another year slip by without telling Craig the extent of her feelings. Come what may, he deserved to know.