Drama Fiction Sad

He woke just after sunup, blinking at the golden light above the curtain. How had he managed to sleep through the night? With a grunt, Lee swung his legs out of bed. They seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. He glanced at his bedside clock. 7:10 a.m. Christ, he hadn't slept this late in how long? Four months? He sat on the edge of the bed, cradling his head in his hands.

After a moment, he rose unsteadily to his feet. At 65, you expect a bit of a wobble in your step, but this was ridiculous. He leaned against the wall to get his bearings. A tumble would be disastrous.

Head cleared, he proceeded down the hall to the bathroom, where he pissed without shutting the door. It was a habit he'd only recently developed. Lee could hear Kristy's voice: I don't want to see it, and I damned sure don't want to hear it! He smiled, thinking of her eccentricities. Now he heard only a quiet house, a couple of ticking clocks, and the dog's peaceful snores.

Lee dried his hands on a towel, staring into the mirror. He saw deep lines etched into a haggard face. He needed to shave -- the stubble gave him an ogre-ish appearance -- but for now, he would stick with copious amounts of coffee.

He shuffled into the kitchen to put on a pot. His gaze wandered to the small garden outside. Kristy had tended the plot last year, but from now on, it was his responsibility. Lee thought he might be able to salvage something, a few peppers and tomatoes. It might do him good to round up her old tools in preparation for the season.

Coffee in hand, Lee sat, deciding to let Bella sleep a while longer. She was curled in her bed underneath the table, far from the drafty vent. Kristy had nursed her through cancer two years ago; now, like the garden, she was Lee's responsibility. He chuckled as Bella "barked" in her sleep, probably at some phantom squirrel. The coffee hit his system like rocket fuel.

He stared at the green awning that sheltered his car. Ordinarily, he would be in his little red Ford right about now, prowling the back country. Driving was how he fought his insomnia, or at least coped with it. The vibration of the wheel forced him to concentrate rather than dwell on the past six months. He might get up at 3:00 a.m. and drive all the way over to Tulsa and back. He had nothing but time.

Weirdly, his routine had been interrupted. He'd gone to bed at the usual time, around midnight. Was this something new? Had his internal clock reset?

Maybe it was the change of seasons. Winter clung on in the form of blustery winds and cold rain, but now spring had taken hold. Lee saw splashes of yellow and red in his overgrown yard; the grass needed mowing, and the garden sported small green shoots. Lee Cunningham felt oddly … motivated.

He poured another coffee, hearing Bella stir. She barked at thin air -- drawing a stern rebuke from Lee -- then ambled over to her water bowl. Lee returned to his window seat, thinking he had turned a crucial corner.

Around him, the house settled comfortably. It was a good house with strong bones, built on the side of a hill overlooking Wiley's Cove. Kristy's great-grandfather, Arthur Wiley, had founded the town in 1837. His grave was only a few rows over from Kristy's. Lee had interred his wife apart from her ancestors, preferring to grieve away from all those rebels. He had placed a bench there so he could sit and talk for as long as he wanted. Today, if the weather held up, he would pay her another visit. There were things he wanted to say.

Bella barked orders, and Lee grouchily poured kibble. She still seemed lost without "momma:" irritable, confused, up-ended. Lee didn't know whether to pity the animal or empathize with her.

Lee sat on a stool to tie his sneakers. The road called to him, as it had done every morning for the last 40 years. He ran 10 miles a day rain or shine. If he was jogging along and felt his heart explode, he would quietly thank Jesus and expire. The neighbors could take care of Bella. He would go to his reward without the slightest regret.

Lee spent a few minutes straightening the house (careful to keep the floor free of clutter) and talking to Bella. She needed extra assurance he would come home, or else she'd wet the floor. Lee needed the pep talk as much as she did.

The sun was all the way up, freeing the yard of shadows. Lee smelled rainwater and grass; birds chattered in the hedges and trees. This was Kristy's favorite moment, that first brush with spring. He always came home to mud boots, gardening gloves, and tools scattered in all directions. Together they put in hours of work, patting down and watering the seeds. It was their "thing."

Heart fluttering, his eye wandered to the shed he'd built off the carport. Might Kristy be in there, applying paint to canvas? Her inner artist always came out in spring. Shaking his head, Lee struck out.

He jogged the same route every day: west on Cash Lane, past Gilbert's Lumber Yard and the city cemetery, then angling north on Rail Road (alongside an abandoned Union Pacific line) toward Witt Springs and Long Creek. It was a strenuous jog through bucolic country. Even in inclement weather -- a regular feature around here -- the road was as safe as a bank vault.

Feet clopping, Lee passed the cemetery, glancing at the spot where Kristy was buried. He figured he would stop to pay his respects on the return trip. He knew she knew that he would. Lee stopped every other day or so; it was routine.

He took the long, looping road, admiring the work being done on Mrs. O'Neill's house and the improvements to Vic's Body Shop (they were adding garage bays to accommodate more business). Except for one old-timer in a sputtering pickup, Lee saw no one. Folks generally waved when they saw him. He had eaten free for a month after the funeral; they kept bringing him food.

Chest pounding, he climbed Biddle's Ridge, taking in the sweeping views. Purple hills edged the southern exposure; to the north, green forests stretched into Missouri. High overhead, a hawk pinwheeled. Breath booming, knees aching, Lee began his descent.

By the time he reached the bottom of the ridge, he was dripping sweat. What he called roadwork, Kristy had called slow-motion suicide: nine miles a day, no matter what. He planned to shower and shave when he got home, then move forward with his day. That included taking Bella for a walk. He had reason to believe they were both waking from a long, joyless hibernation.

On the way past the cemetery, Lee decided to keep going. It was a snap decision. He would feel better after he cooled off.

He pounded up Pleasant Hill to his driveway, where he finally stopped to do some stretching. His heart hammered between his ears. Sweat ran in cold rivulets down his sides. He heard Bella barking from the porch. She didn't often bark so loudly, or urgently. Lee paused, taking in the house and grounds. Nothing appeared amiss. What was her problem?

He ambled slowly toward the house, wishing now that he'd stopped to visit Kristy. She was up there all alone. Christ, what the hell was wrong with him?

Bella kept up her maniacal yapping. He could see her small brown nose pressed between the porch slats. Lee tiredly waved in greeting.

Rather than slice across the yard toward Bella, he found himself angling toward the little green shed. His hand trembled as he carefully inserted the key into the knob.

The studio always smelled of Kristy. It was a combination of scents he would have recognized anywhere: hand cream mixed with lavender and tobacco (she still occasionally smoked, out of long habit). It also smelled strongly of acrylics and oils and old books and fresh canvas. Her easel stood in one corner, where Lee was determined it would remain. The painting was still clamped in place, her materials still carefully arranged on the tray. Lee had even left her water jar untouched, as if she might return any moment. The artist, he thought, one hand resting on the doorknob. Who was to say that she wouldn't be back? Or that she wasn't here now?

He lingered a moment, still clinging to the door. A shadow flitted across the room -- probably a tree branch outside the window. He moved toward the easel, taking deliberate steps. He tried not to get a thing out of place. Kristy had loved her studio, loved him more for building it. Flowers and landscapes were her favorite subjects, though she had once painted her father's portrait. Lee liked her landscapes better.

He smiled down at her final work-in-progress: a spectacular sunrise she'd painted from memory, the white orb illuminating a sandy stretch of Long Creek. They had camped there once years ago, when they had their whole lives ahead of them. Lee stared into that white sun, smelling his wife's hair, hearing her voice. He felt pressure in his chest. Bella's barking seemed far off, less urgent.

Lee's vision filled with tiny white spots, reflections of Kristy's sun. Breathless, he offered up a quick prayer.

His body hit the floor, upending the paints, knocking over the easel. Bella fell silent.

March 19, 2021 17:31

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