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~======== * ========~The wind buffeted him, sending icy claws up beneath his shirt as he tumbled. Rain like waves of solid water hit him from the front, the back, and his sides. If felt like being shot with a thousand paintball guns, all loaded with ice water pellets. He tumbled, fire and metal disappearing in flashes.
~======== * ========~
The first week of school was always hot. Neil wore short sleeves, but really disliked wearing shorts to school, so he wore jeans with rips in the knees and thighs. It was windy this September morning, and he could feel a slight chill in the air as if winter crouched just around the corner.
"Hey Neil," said his best friend, Ryan, "I'll catch you at lunch, k? Gotta go see Mr. Donovan before class starts. Later!"
Ryan took off down the hallway as Neil headed the other direction. Reaching the tall blue locker, he spun the combination lock and opened it up, carelessly stuffing his things inside. As he closed the locker, a girl he had never seen walked toward him. She was not looking his direction, but instead scanning the numbers on the row, clearly looking for one. His gut tightened, and he felt a tingling rush as his heart beat faster. She was beautiful. Screwing up every bit of courage he had, he walked toward her. She had set her bag down and was futilely trying to work the handle of the locker to get it open. The smooth, pale skin of her forehead was furrowed beneath her light brown hair, and her lips were pursed in frustration.
"Can I help?" Neil inquired, his voice shaking. She turned bright green eyes on him.
"I got it," she said flatly.
"OK, suit yourself." he turned to walk slowly away, blood pounding in his ears. He heard her fight with the handle again.
"Hey!" she called. He turned, and their eyes met. "OK, yeah, can you help me? I hate these things."
He smiled at her and walked back. Upon reaching her, he said, "Put in the first two numbers. I won't look."
She obliged, saying, "Now what?" when done.
"What's the last number?"
He turned it to 60, then spun the dial very slowly. "Sometimes, they are just a bit off. You have to stop right when you feel a bit of resistance, like the dial hit something. There!" He tugged the latch and the locker opened. It was completely empty. She looked at him critically.
"Show me," she said, and they repeated the process, this time she entered the whole combination and successfully opened it herself.
"Thanks," she said when they were done.
He stuck out his hand. It seemed weird, but that was all he could think of to do. "I'm Neil," he said.
"Heather," she replied, taking his hand.
"Where are you from? I've never seen you here before."
"Etheridge Falls. We moved in two days ago."
"Oh, wow. Etheridge Falls is a long ways up there. You were almost to Canada," he said.
"Almost," she responded.
"Well, it was nice to meet you. If you need help again, just let me know, k?"
"Can you tell me where 252 is?" she said in a rush.
"Yeah, that's where I'm headed. You're in Honors English?"
"I guess so," she shrugged.
"So, you're a senior?"
"No. Well, sort of," she looked down, blushing, hesitant. "I'm technically a senior, but I'll be sixteen next week. I've sort of skipped a couple years."
Neil goggled at her. "Well, you're in my class, so I'll walk you there," he said faintly.
~========= * =========~
~======== * ========~
"You have to go back to the university tomorrow, don't you?"
"Yeah, but I'll be back at Thanksgiving, and Christmas break. Care for a rematch then?"
"You really want to lose again? You never win against me in Scrabble," Heather said.
"Someday I will, you watch. I'm memorizing the dictionary."
"Really?" she chuckled. "And how far are you?" she said with a smile, looking sidelong at him as they came up the walkway to her family's house.
"Uh, well," he said, turning to her as they stopped on her doorstep. "I'm up to 'K'," he said, looking into her eyes.
"That far?" she said with a small, quirky smile. "I'm impressed."
"Specifically," he leaned toward her, "I just reached 'kiss'," he said.
"Good word," she said, their faces close.
Their lips touched softly, then more insistently as he held the small of her back and she rested her hand on the muscles in his chest.
~======== * ========~Something hard hit him, then another. A third hit his cheek, cutting his lip. Despite the drops soaking him, he tasted blood.
~======= * =======~
She was more beautiful than he had ever seen her. Her flowing gown was tastefully understated but elegant, the diamond at her neck - her grandmother's piece - glinting with flashes of light. Her long hair had been intricately done, sparkling gently with the lights in the sanctuary. She proceeded down the aisle with the grace and elegance he had first fallen in love with so many years ago on a hot September day. He had waited for this moment since even before he had met her. Nothing seemed impossible now, and today, for this day, this moment, everything in life was perfect.
Heather hugged her parents, and her father walked her over to Neil.
"May God bless the two of you always," her father, James, said. "Take care of my girl," he said gruffly, choking up as he placed a hand on Neil's shoulder.
"You have my word, James," he said, then turned to his bride.
She looked into his eyes. "Did you ever finish memorizing the dictionary?"
"Not quite, but I'm still working on it."
"M, of course." She laughed, a silvery tinkling that filled his heart to bursting. They turned to walk up the steps, Ryan on one side with a wink and a grin, and Heather's sister Kim on the other side. Ryan was married two years ago to a wonderful girl named Sara. They struggled to make ends meet, but theirs was a warm and inviting home.
At the end of the service, Pastor Gunderson said, "You may now kiss the bride," and the couple turned once again toward each other.
Heather took his hand, turning it palm up. She put something into it, and he opened his fingers to look. In his hand lay four Scrabble tiles, the letters K-I-S-S. He laughed.
"I love you. Forever," he said.
"Forever," she repeated as they joined in a kiss.
~======= * =======~The darkness seemed to press in on him, water and wind from all directions. He no longer knew which way was upward. Everything was an unrelieved gray, growing dmmer with each passing second. Still flashes of lightning and roaring thunder assaulted his mind.
~====== * ======~
Heather blew out her breath through taut lips, squeezing the blood out of his hand. Her forehead was red, and sweat glistened on her brow.
"Last time, Heather," the midwife said as the contraction built.
She looked at Neil, pleading. "I can't, I can't!" she said frantically, panting and heaving.
"You can. There's nothing my wife can't do," he declared. "You got this, you always have."
"Push now, Heather!" called the midwife, and Heather screamed.
At the sound of the baby's cry, she seemed to collapse, weeping tears of joy and exhaustion as the nurses tended her and their newborn.
"Congratulations, Dad, you have a son. Would you like to cut the cord?" The nurse held out the shining scissors for him to take. "Right there, between the clips," she said, pointing. He clipped the cord, then stared wide-eyed at the tiny human before him, the small, slow, tentative movements, the miniature fingernails, the dark eyes barely opened.
"Do you have a name yet?" said the nurse with a smile.
"Ethan James," he said firmly, taking his Heather's hand again gently. He laid Ethan next to her and they gazed at him while the late afternoon sun shone down through the window.
~====== * ======~
"How is your thesis coming, honey?" he said while she pulled a four-inch brush down the wall. The drywall was nearly complete in the other room, and he would start mudding it yet tonight. But for the moment, he was taking a much-needed break, sipping on a bottle of beer while Heather put primer on the walls of the new downstairs bedroom.
"Alright, I suppose," she said without much enthusiasm.
"Hey, I know that tone. Talk to me," he said with concern in his voice. "Is it that professor?"
"No, she's fine, I can handle her. It's just, well, I don't know if I'll finish."
"What?" he asked, incredulous. "But you have wanted this for years! Why wouldn't you finish? Is something wrong?"
She looked over at Ethan, busily pounding a toy hammer onto blocks and putting the toy drill up to them, making buzzing sounds and babbling happily to himself. He smiled at them, a look of innocent joy on his face.
"Well," her tone was soft, her words measured. "I'm a little late."
"Late? Late for what?"
She just looked at him. It slowly began to register.
"Oh," he said, as the impact of what she had just said crashed over him. "Oh!" He grinned suddenly, his heart leaping. "Really?!" he exclaimed.
Tears fell down her cheeks as she nodded, a bittersweet smile lighting up her face. He embraced her, pulling her close and kissing her deeply.
~===== * =====~
~==== * ====~
He pulled into the garage about lunchtime - having taken the afternooon off - then hurried into the house. He scrambled around, a dozen tasks in his head. Almost running from room to room, he cleaned, scrubbed, vacuumed, and dusted. He prepared the meal, set the flowers out, and then rushed downstairs to the spare room. He remembered the days they had spent there, side by side, working on finishing the lower level of their house. It was truly their house, Heather's unique fingerprints all over it in decoration and style.
He pulled the large bag off the present he had made for her. It was a Scrabble board, the tiles set as if a game had been played - a specific game, in fact. The first and only time he had ever beaten her, years ago now, back in days where gray did not speckle his dark hair, and crow's feet didn't radiate from the corners of Heather's eyes. He had taken a picture of it that day, and saved it for today, their twenty-fifth anniversary. He had bought a brand-new deluxe Scrabble game, glued the pieces in the exact configuration of that picture, and had the board laminated and framed. It was a joke, to be sure, but one he knew with certainty she would laugh at. The real present, of course - a trip to Oregon to renew their wedding vows at the bed & breakfast in Ashland where they had spent their honeymoon - lay tucked into a large, embossed, foil-lined envelope, set next to the dozen roses he had bought and set on the dining room table. Everything would be perfect.
Heather, Ethan, and Ruth were due home any minute now. She had taken them up north to run the marathon up there - The Frozen Two-Six-Two, it was called. In December each year, they held the run up there. Neil was not much of a runner, he preferred bicycling to the endless pounding of the pavement. Ethan was a handsome nineteen, and Ruth a lithe sixteen year old, the spitting image of her mother at that age. They both loved to run with Heather, getting up at 5:30 most mornings to join her. The kids were in on it, of course, they were expecting his silly joke and had both shaken their heads at him when he told them about it. But it was with fondness, and they knew it was out of love.
With everything ready, he finally sat down with a small glass of Sauvignon Blanc to wait for them to arrive. Dinner was as prepared as it could be, requiring only about twenty minutes more to complete.
The minutes passed and he decided to call Heather's cell phone to get an ETA, but she didn't answer. Puzzled, he tried again, but got her voicemail once more.
The heavy knock on the door startled him, and he had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He opened the door to a pair of state troopers, their breath misting beneath fleece-lined caps in the frigid December air.
"Yes, that's me, officers, what can I do for you? Please come in where it's warm," he stood aside and gestured.
They thanked him as they entered.
"Do you own a silver Honda, license HUZ 745?"
"Yes, that's my wife's car. Is there a problem?"
"Mr. Bauer, I'm afraid I have some difficult news. There has been an accident."
Neil felt as though the floor was undulating beneath his feet. His head spun as the officer's words hit him like bricks dropped from above. "Slick patch on highway 34" and "jackknifed semi" and "crushed underneath" and "down the embankment." His heart thudded in his chest, the pillars of his world falling away from him.
"The paramedics did all they could, sir, but I'm afraid there was just too much damage. Mr. Bauer, you look pale, why don't I get you some water."
"They," he tried to speak, but his throat caught. "All of them?"
"Yes, sir, I'm afraid so. I'm very sorry."
Neil stood up, disoriented for a moment. His stomach heaved and he rushed to the sink to throw up, sinking to his knees afterward as the sobs began.
~==== * ====~The demons began screaming and cackling now, pointing and jeering at him.
~=== * ===~
The room spun, but he didn't care. It had been hours since he had had anything to eat. He clutched the bottle in his hand, sipping again. He had had too much, but she kept speaking to him. He couldn't get away from memory.
He would roll over in bed, expecting to see her. When he came in from the garage, he expected to hear them talking and laughing. But there was silence, every day, every night. Only ever silence. The house that bore her touch was dead now. It seemed to mock him, its cavernous empty rooms dim and lifeless. It had been four years.
"Get yourself some help, Neil," his boss had told him that afternoon. "Come back when you're healthy."
Screw him. What did he know about it anyway? Had he lost his family? They could all go to hell as far as he was concerned. He took another swig, surprised at how light the bottle was now.
The voice in his head told him his boss was right. He should get some help. The voice sounded like Heather.
"I don't want help," He said to the darkness of the lower level in his house. He gazed at the laminated Scrabble board, propped up against the wall in the spare room downstairs, the room they had worked so hard on together. He had been able to use the words K-I-S-S and F-O-R-E-V-E-R in that game, a stroke of luck that had made it so perfect. Tears fell as he stared at the board, remembering the lines of her cheekbones, the curve of her hip, the feel of her skin as they had made love that night. In a rage he threw the bottle at the frame, shattering the glass and spraying whiskey everywhere. Sinking down, he wailed.
"I don't want help! I want to be with you!"
~=== * ===~
~== * ==~
"Is that it?" said the cab driver in surprise.
"That's it," Neil nodded.
"Okay," said the cabbie in an if-you-say-so tone, laying the small duffel into the trunk and walking around to the driver's side door.
"I have one stop to make before the airport," Neil told him, giving him the address.
"Sure thing, buddy, your dime."
The man deftly programmed it into to his GPS and then put the car into gear. As they pulled away, Neil didn't bother to look back at the house, or the red and white realty sign in the yard, proudly proclaiming "SOLD" in large, bold letters. Fifteen minutes later they turned down a quiet residential street.
"Right here is good," Neil said. He got out, walked down to the next mailbox, and put a package in it. All the proceeds from the sale of the house, minus air fare, the cost of the room, and $5000 in cash. If his guess was correct, it would be enough to put both of Ryan and Sara's daughters through college. He closed Ryan's mailbox, then turned to head back to the cab.
"OK, take me to the airport, please."
Twenty minutes later they pulled into the dropoff at the airport terminal, and Neil got out. After retrieving his duffel, he handed the man $300.
"Hey pal, it's only 52 bucks," he protested.
"Keep it," Neil said, and walked away.
After a stiff drink he left the harried-looking young woman behind the bar a $100 tip, and put another tightly folded $100 bill in the tip jar at the Starbucks in the concourse, then found his gate and sat down with his breve, sipping on the rich, hot drink while watching the people flow by. Words reached his ears, whispers not meant for others.
"I don't know what we're going to do, Rob. You don't get paid for another six weeks. When we get there, we won't have any money for gas, food. We need diapers and formula too!" the woman behind him said anxiously.
"Honey, I'll figure something out, I promise. I'll ask for an advance maybe, or, or something."
Neil stole a glance behind him. A couple sat together, the familiar contact of real love between them. Quietly, Neil took out the bundle of cash from his bag. He separated out what he knew he needed, then wrapped the rest up tightly, pulling a rubber band around it. He scrawled a quick note on a scrap of paper and tucked it under the rubber band just as the attendant called for preboarding. Maneuvering himself right behind the couple in line, he slipped the envelope into the voluminous diaper bag while she dug around in the baby carrier and he tried to peer over the line.
~== * ==~
~= * =~
"Would you like another, Mr. Bauer?" the attendant asked.
"Yes, that would be nice," he responded.
Outside, the sun had set, and he could make out flashes of light flickering in the sky. The captain's voice came across the PA system.
"We are about to head into some rough air for a bit. Nothing to worry about, though I would like you to return to your seats until we're through this patch."
Neil complied, but as soon as the attendant had checked his belt, he unbuckled it and sipped on his drink. What did it matter anyway?
They hit turbulence about ten minutes after the captain's announcement. It intensified over the next few minutes until the plane seemed to drop suddenly and violently. Drinks and books and snacks all shifted, and the captain's voice came on again.
"I'll be initiating a climb here as we try to get over this line of storms..."
Just then there was a tremendous flash of bluish white and a deafening clap of thunder. The plane pitched hard to one side and everything seemed to tumble and roll. Orange flames lit up the cabin to the screams of the passengers. There was a horrific shriek of tearing metal, and another thunderous concussion. Suddenly Neil felt himself falling free as the plane - now in pieces - grew smaller above him.
~= * =~
~ * ~
T H E
E N D
Very skilled writing.