A Novel In Progress by Roni Delmonico

This is a work of fiction in progress. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner, unless otherwise noted. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.  Please respect my work, as you would your own. The entire work is ©Roni Delmonico and The Photographer's Palette.

As long as I have breath, I will never give up on Isabel. She first entered my life two decades ago, with the passing of my brother, Cory.  She continues to live and breathe in new ways within my imagination every day. I am in awe of where she takes me.  I will add chapters in meaningful blocks when the spirit moves. I don't ever intend to publish it anywhere but here. The complete novel may very well take me a lifetime.    - Roni

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
— J.R.R Tolkien

Prologue by Roni Delmonico

There were colorful lights ahead of her, but she couldn't remember how she got there. Everything was out of focus and she felt herself spinning in all directions, dangerously tilting sideways as her brain frantically searched for a way to catch up with her body. Her mind grasped at the distant notes of music playing in the background, but to no avail. She closed her eyes tight and blinked - once, twice, and then again.. squeezing hard, willing it all into focus. When he laid a hand on her arm, she nearly jumped out of her skin and the startled way she looked at him wide eyed and full of fear, broke his heart. She clearly didn't recognize him but there wasn't time to worry about it right now. In one swift movement, he yanked her to her feet. She lost her balance and almost toppled them both but he stood his ground as the old man stepped out of the shadows. He was carrying the ornate box carefully in both hands, heading straight for her.

"Over my dead body, old man!!" 

He glanced briefly at the water churning behind her, already hating what he had to do but knowing it was their only chance. Turning quickly toward her, he held her face in both of his hands. Forcing her eyes to meet his, he whispered with more urgency than he'd ever felt in his life... Trust me! Grabbing her around the waist, he threw them both into the water and yelled.. 

SWIM!!

Part 1: Song of the Stars by Roni Delmonico

Jack wasn’t the least bit sentimental anymore but he smiled anyway.  The years had slowly hardened him but he had to admit, standing there alone with his thoughts, surrounded by pink flowering trees in every imaginable shade, that she sure had a knack for choosing her atmosphere.  He hadn’t understood back then, why Annie would drive fifteen miles up the winding back road that ran parallel to the highway, just to go to the library across the street from the park.. when there was a perfectly good library right here in town.  He could walk to it from their home and it had recently become a regular part of his routine again.  He’d gone there often as a boy.  His mother would drop him off in front of the old one-story brick building while she did her grocery shopping for the week.  As he grew older he’d trudge up the crumbling concrete steps feigning an attitude, when in reality he loved those quiet hours and his mother knew it. She’d open the car door and shoo him out impatiently, promising to return for him in under an hour.  But it was always two, because she understood that lettuce and ground beef and apples, weren’t the only thing that a boy needed in order to grow.

At sixteen, Jack made friends with the librarian who treated him like he was an adult and let him drink coffee and read the newspaper she kept behind the desk. Her name was Marianne and she had a friendly face, punctuated by rosy cheeks and curly silver hair.  She wore her eyeglasses on a thin silver chain around her neck and when he’d ask her a question, she’d perch them on the end of her nose and look down at whatever he brought to her attention, glancing sideways at him and telling him how interesting it all was, and actually meaning it.  If he had a question about something, she’d stand beside the card catalogue, pulling out the old wooden drawers in each cabinet and patiently showing him how to search for the answers he needed, for himself.  He loved the tidy information station where she worked, with the small chalkboard she kept on the counter, the day’s events all listed chronologically according to the times they were offered.  When each one was over, she’d erase its line until, at the end of the day, the blackboard was nothing but a white smudge representing the past.

“Ironic… the things we remember”, he thought to himself.  

He shifted to the other foot, trying to decide how long he’d allow himself this reverie into his past, wondering whether he could really bring himself to sit down on that bench.  He could still hear her laughing…see the way she threw her head back with abandon when she did, feel the sunlight glinting off the water and sparkling in waves over her hair and in her eyes. She was always burning cinnamon in the house and it clung to her, infusing those around her with a feeling of comfort and warmth.  But it was cold today and the clouds were shrouding the lake in the same gray mist with which they touched the sky. And Annie was gone.  

In his memory she wore a white dress and several thin gold bangles around her wrist, that clinked cheerfully every time she gestured with her hands.  He loved how when she’d play the piano, he could always tell if she was wearing them, by the gentle sound of her bracelets against the keys.  They reminded him of wind chimes.  He counted them one night when he was holding her hand and when he asked why she wore five of them, she said simply, “One for every year that I have loved you.”  

Her ghost seemed to beckon to him then and though he never was able to say no to her, he stopped for a moment with both hands on the back of the bench, leaning… steadying himself, before moving in front of it and finally giving in.  The wood shifted under his weight, and he put his head in his hands, losing his grip as the memory of her washed over him.  Her words came back to him so clearly.  She had a tendency to overthink everything and it drove him crazy at times, even as she taught him to look at the world differently than he ever had before.  

“Do you have any regrets?”  she had asked him quietly.  He looked at her for a long time before answering her.  “No, Annie… I don’t. Do you?”

She fiddled with her bracelets like she did when she was nervous and I could see she was choosing her words carefully.  She didn’t speak for a long time but when she did, she raised her eyes to mine, tears sparkling in her eyelashes; a universe threatening to spill over and drown me in a sea of a thousand stars.  

"Yes, Jack, I do."

It was in that moment that I realized I knew her better than anyone else ever had, but that I had only traveled to the closest planet in a swirling galaxy of them. Where she existed then, was far beyond where I had yet ventured, and I feared… far beyond my reach.  

The old man watched him quietly from across the street in front of the library. He stood against the bricks to the left of the windows wearing a tattered gray tweed coat and a pair of worn black leather gloves with a hole in one thumb, tapping a gentle rhythm on the ancient ornate box he carried with him everywhere. He knew intimately what each carving meant, and the pad of his thumb followed every line, memorizing anew, their perfect placement.  His task was a burden to him…even though his load was light.  No one ever guessed at the weight he carried.  He looked so dapper and serene standing there, that everyone who passed his way, gave him a smile… one that he returned warmly and with utter sincerity.  Most of them had lived their whole lives here without ever locking their doors. They never gave a second thought to who he was or why he was there.  Nor did they care.  But they would.  They surely would.  In time, everyone in this sleepy little village would be looking to him for answers he knew they could only find within themselves.  And they would be as sorry as he was, that they passed right by him without so much as a backward glance.

The First Slow Dance by Roni Delmonico

The wind was picking up, and Jack leaned back, draping his arm across the back of the bench.  A storm was moving in.  It didn’t bother him though… he had always liked a good raucous thunderstorm and in late spring and early summer, they were plentiful.  Warm air flowed in from the west and went to battle with the cold air streaming in from northern Canada, pushing it up and out for another year. Eventually, it always won. He loved the change of seasons. They were beautiful in this part of the country and just when you were getting tired of one, another would surface, bringing a welcome change of scenery and a renewed sense of wonder. It made him feel alive… born again each spring. There was comfort in that metaphor.  He supposed that’s why spring was his favorite season. He couldn’t imagine living in a place where temperatures were constant and he didn’t understand at all why anyone would even want to. 

There were little whitecaps forming on the lake and it was churning up, slapping against the shore wall in front of him.  The spray from the water made it all the way to the bench and he didn’t relish the idea of getting soaked before the storm even got here, so he stood up and walked the short distance to the gazebo at the entrance to the pier.  He leaned against the railing, grateful to have a roof over his head for the moment, watching how the waves continued to grow and the color of the water changed from a murky gray to a light aqua that looked like it had chalk dust sprinkled into it, stirred up with a giant invisible spoon.  He knew it had something to do with the minerals in the rock.  This lake was one of the cleanest in all of America and most of the time you could see clear down to the bottom with crystal clarity.  It was a great place for sailing, but not quite yet.  Soon…

He folded his arms across his chest and turned his back to the lake, seeking shelter from the wind. There, across the street, was the library where Annie had spent so much of her time.  It was relatively small, but it was a gorgeous work of architecture and it had a little porch in front, studded with columns of multicolored stone, muted by time and the laying on of many hands.  He could still see her running up the steps on warm summer evenings. On the days he’d meet her down here, he’d often find her picking the dead flowers out of the window boxes and watering them, making sure they stayed healthy and tidy.  She knew that it was really someone else’s job to do that but she liked to imagine the look of surprise on the caretaker’s face when he scratched his head the next morning, puzzling over how the petunias seemed to magically absorb their own dead flowers overnight, several times a week.  Jack saw him catch her red-handed one day.  The man had come around the side of the building, pulling his gloves off, lost in his own thoughts.  When he saw what Annie was doing he stopped and backed into the shadows where she couldn’t see him, delighted by her thoughtfulness.  He adored her.  She often took the time to stop and chat with him out back when he was working and he began to look for her on the days she usually came.  Funny how he never made the connection between Annie and the window boxes before that, but once he did, he kept it to himself, just as Jack had done, when he had watched the whole exchange.  Truth was, it saved him a fair amount of time, and her antics allowed him to attend to some smaller things he hadn’t had energy for at the end of the day before she took it upon herself to help him.. like hanging up the small bulletin board the librarian had been asking him to do for weeks. It was covered in a flowery fabric that felt odd in his rough hands and he had been avoiding it, worried that he’d get it all dirty or tear it somehow. But the day after he’d hung it, he walked in and found it covered with pictures of her life and the people she loved, and his heart felt glad.  Jack ran his hand through his hair absentmindedly, trying to remember the old man’s name but it alluded him.  If Annie was here, she would remember…

Turning to his right, his gaze rested on the pier that jutted out into the water.   She liked to walk there at the end of the day… all the way to the very end.  The floor of the pier where it stopped, was laid with a circle of stones in a repeating pattern. Standing there, you could see the lake from all directions.  She had taken to putting her toes at the very center and pulling him close so his boots touched hers. “Toe to toe, Jack,” she’d laugh. And she made good on that over the years. Even though her nose only made it to his shoulder, she could argue with the best of them.  She had a thing about facing the church on the east bank and he would face the old mansions that lined the west bank.  She would recite the Psalm inscribed on the plaque inside the church: As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.  He had grown to love that little routine, and looked for ways to slow her down so their time together would last longer.  He liked listening to her talk about the latest books she was reading (she always had three or four going at one time) or the funny antics of the children who came in for story time.  As a teenager, she’d had a job at the library reading to them, and sometimes she’d still go in and do that, just for the sheer joy of it.  She loved kids and had an easy way with them, and they with her. 

Life had a special rhythm back then and he really missed it.  He missed the free fall feeling of being newly in love. God, they were so young and idealistic at the time.  It was raining hard now, so he moved to the table in the center of the gazebo, sinking further into his thoughts.

Sometimes they would stay out late and eat by candlelight at her favorite restaurant over at the inn. It sat beside a beautiful flower garden fashioned after a Monet painting Annie favored.  She had a cheap museum print of it taped over her bed as a little girl. Her father had given it to her for her seventh birthday.  By the time she was seventeen, the edges of the tape were worn and a little yellow but she refused to take it down.  He always wondered how the stuff still stuck to the wall.  He liked staring up at it when they’d lie side by side on her little twin bed, his feet hanging off the edge.  They weren’t supposed to, but like most teenagers, they did it anyway, whenever they could.  He would lay there and imagine her walking over the footbridge in another time period, her dad beside her wearing a big, formal top hat, a wooden cane in his hand, the gorgeous grain polished to a sheen.  The inn had installed a bridge just like the one in her poster and it spanned the lily pond with a soft green handrail.  He never told her then how he had seen it all in his head, but many times since, he wished he had. She would have enjoyed it.  

He realized with a start, that the same man who tended the gardens at the library, had also taken over the care of the one at the inn. He had completely forgotten that! He paused again, searching his memory for the man’s name.  It seemed important to remember it somehow.  It was an unusual name…that much, he remembered. Come on Jack, think!  He knew it would come to him if he gave it enough time.  His mind’s eye kept focusing on the gloves.  They always seemed too tight for him and they had a hole in the thumb. Annie used to say she’d buy him a new pair, but he stubbornly insisted that he liked his old ones just fine. “That’s it! he thought suddenly. Tight gloves ...  Titus!  His name was Titus.. how fitting. He chuckled under his breath, feeling rather smug.  

The rain was coming down sideways now and the floor of the gazebo was soaked, but he wasn’t ready to leave.  She’d grown up here… about eighteen miles from where he had.  This quaint little village meant everything to her.  It’s why he kept coming back.  He had taken her away from it eventually, to live in a small mill town to the north.  His father had left him the house and it just made sense.  Once, on a spring day much like this one, they’d gone out for a walk after a heavy rain. It was a Friday night and the air was moist and fragrant. He remembered that because she used to say it was the best night of the week; the start of a weekend that always held another adventure and would see them completely inseparable. He could still recall so many details about that night.  He thought at first that she might grow to resent him for the move, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.  Annie found everything about the neighborhood charming and she saw things he never had in all the years he had lived there. He would complain about how the old electrical wires and poles obstructed their view and she listened patiently to his grumbling until his mood was spent.  When he finally shut up about it, she had done something totally amazing... she taught him to see their world the way she did.  

She wound the green scarf she had knitted for him around his neck and linked her arm in his and they walked awhile in total silence, listening to the chatter of birds that were slowly returning from the south.  He could feel her breathing it all in, slowly, deliberately.  About a quarter mile from the house, she grabbed his hand and pulled him out into the middle of the street, wrapping her arms around his neck, swaying to her own inner music, ignoring him when he looked around to see if any of the neighbors were watching.  

Then he saw it too.  The sun was setting in a brilliance of fire and where the wires were strung from pole to pole, it looked as if they were made of molten lava. The light was reflecting on their surface and on the little lanterns in the grass beside the mailbox.  There were places up and down the street that had been repaired over the years and were worn smooth.  They meandered like glassy rivers of silver and they were reflecting the kaleidoscope of colors off the flowering trees all around them before running into the distance, disappearing out of sight.  

She laughed and pointed across from them and said, “Oh no, look! Someone’s going to get grounded when his mom comes home and sees that he failed to put the trash out again until after the garbage truck made its rounds. Poor kid.  I wonder if he’ll ever get that right.”

The following week, she’d gone out for a jog while he was getting ready for work. She’d made him late again, but he sure wasn’t complaining and when he pulled out of the driveway and looked up the road, he saw her dragging those trash cans out to the street herself. Driving slowly to meet her, he rolled the window down and yanked on her ponytail.

“You smell like tuna fish,” he said and drove off laughing after she smacked him hard.  

When he looked back at her reflection in the rearview mirror, hands on both hips, feet planted wide in the middle of the blacktop, blowing him a kiss, he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he really didn't care how late he was. He made it up to her in spades later.. and in return, she made him understand in equal measure, that he need never question moving her here.

Running his hand roughly over his face, he turned his collar up to his ears, and stepped out into the storm.  No one but Titus noticed that the water making tracks down his cheeks… wasn’t rain.   

Rain by Roni Delmonico

Jack pushed the button twice, impatient and hoping to get the light to change quickly.  It seemed ridiculous to stand there waiting when there were no cars in sight, much less people.  But he did it anyway.  He should be proud of that - living his life by the book… but sometimes he thought it just made him seem weak.  He pretty much believed that a leopard didn’t change its spots though, so he made little effort to change.  He thought it was his nature.  He saw things simply; black and white, right and wrong, worth his time.. or not.  

Maybe it was the rain that was making him so grumpy.  It was running down his neck in rivulets by now and his shoes were soaked.  It was irritating because he had at least a half hour’s drive home and he was determined to stop at the library first, even if only to peer in through the windows.  It was probably closed by now, but he crossed at the crosswalk and turned right at the corner.  When he got closer, he saw a light on in the front window and breathed a sigh of relief.  At least he could warm up a bit.  Titus probably had a fire going in the old fireplace on a day like this and he could dry out a bit.  He ran up the block and dashed up the stairs, smack into Isabel Wolfe.  

“Izzy, my god!  What are you doing here?”  

He hadn’t seen her in years, not since John had died in that wretched forest fire out west near the California border.  They’d attended his memorial service at the church across from the library a month later and he still remembered how Annie sobbed for days after.  She and Isabel had been friends since childhood, but had lost touch, when Izzy moved out to that cabin in the Adirondacks, after her husband died.  He tried to remember how many years it had been since then, but it escaped him.  She had a few more wrinkles around her eyes now, but then so did he.  There was a sadness in her that mirrored his own.  And also a grim determination.

“Jack, wow, it’s so good to see you! How’s Annie, where is she, can I see her?” she smiled.

She hadn’t heard then.  He couldn’t imagine how that was possible. It had been the talk of the town forever and he wasn’t able to go anywhere without someone offering their well meaning sympathy and a casserole.  He hated it.  

"She’s out there somewhere and I will find her!” he repeated again and again, refusing to give up hope.  Eventually, folks just left him alone.

He guessed she didn’t know yet because although she was well regarded, most people remained distant, not knowing what to say to her.  Some found her celebrity intimidating, others avoided her because her loss made them sad and uncomfortable.  She kept to herself most of the time and when she was working on a project, she didn’t read the news.  He remembered reading that in the paper, finding that somewhat ironic and thinking it was a strange way for her to exist. Annie always seemed to understand her though, accepting her need for frequent solitude as something totally normal.   

She reached out and touched his arm.  “Hey, where did you go, just now?” she asked gently.

He almost lost it then, and she decided it best not to question him further. Instead, she followed him back inside the library and they settled into some comfortable chairs next to the fireplace.  Jack was right.  Titus had a roaring fire blazing strong and the heat drifted over the hearth, warming him in spite of his wet clothes.  He looked so disheveled and out of place, curly hair dripping on the rug.  She was rather amazed at how moments of amusement would sneak up on her like this unexpectedly and offer the gift of laughter as a salve for the dull never-ending ache John had left in his wake. Looking at her, Jack felt sorry again for her loss, and understood better than ever now.. what it had cost her.

Isabel had made quite a name for herself as an author.  It was funny though, he knew her best through her artwork, some of which hung in this very library. His favorite, was a beautiful sunrise painting of a woman standing at water's edge, her hand resting on the head of the wolf sitting beside her.  He had seen it many times and when he asked her about it she smiled and said, "That's Maya..she's mine."  

The village was proud of her, she was one of their own and could visit here and remain relatively anonymous as the town closed in around her protectively.  In recent years she had become something of a recluse, living up in the mountains with her lone wolf-dog, but he had heard that she occasionally came here for months at a time to write, staying way down on the east side of the lake, in an impressive Lodge built by the offensive line coach to the Cincinnati Bengals.  The road to get down there was steep and full of crazy switchbacks.  Most people never even knew it was there; it was unpaved dirt and gravel for most of the way and unless you had a four wheel drive vehicle, you could forget about reaching your destination.  He worked in construction and had bid on that job many years ago, but it had gone to someone else and he ended up being thankful for it.

The Lodge was an astonishing feat that took years of hard work and sweat to complete.  It had been a nightmare to get the building materials down in there. He’d done some work for the company that took on the project and was friendly with several of their contractors.  In this business, it paid to have connections and he had garnered an invitation to view it when it was almost complete but hadn’t yet been occupied.  His truck took on the challenge with ease. The diesel engine was pretty useful out in these parts.  

He was really surprised by how beautiful the scenery was on the way down, dotted by babbling brooks and waterfalls and only one or two other homes built by rich owners who counted them as second homes and mostly came to visit for a few weeks in the summertime. He felt like he’d somehow fallen into a Tolkien novel… it was a world away from the village, even though it only took thirty minutes to get down there.  He knew there were some famous people who had made this trek and stayed in the Lodge, most of them big name ball players escorted by the caretaker of the property who owned a pickup truck with some power behind it himself. He thought it pretty special that Isabel was among them. She preferred being there in the winter as it was quieter and people, even in the village, kept largely to themselves.  She was extremely private and he hadn’t gotten to know her very well as a result.  Still, he liked her, and Annie had read every one of her books. There was one whole shelf in her office lined with them; there must have been more than a dozen.  He hadn’t touched them, preferring to leave everything exactly the way she had left it. He was ashamed to admit, sitting across from Isabel, that he hadn’t opened a single one.  Maybe he would now.  

They chatted easily in front of the fire and he found her well spoken and thoughtful. She talked about a recent trip to Hawaii and told a funny story about a gallery owner from Russia who regaled her with his conspiracy theories about 9/11 for an entire morning, while she waited out a passing tropical shower in the little cowboy town.  She told him about the restaurant across the street from the gallery and how she liked to sit at the counter bar that looked over Main Street and watch the old men who retired on Maui. They bought cowboy hats and boots and declared themselves Paniolos in the old tradition, strutting up and down the sidewalk proudly in their "authentic" garb right along with the real ones.  The locals rolled their eyes good-naturedly and accepted it, leaving each to his own.  She spoke of the Farmer’s Market that happened around the corner every Wednesday afternoon, guitar music played by a Hawaiian with a silky smooth voice, the girl who sold necklaces she made from beads and fishing twine and wore dreadlocks so she didn’t have to brush her hair, and the old woman who made little bird whistles by whittling them out of local wood.  

She talked about how Oprah liked it in town, coming down from her ranch high on the slopes of Haleakala in shorts and a t-shirt and big giant sunglasses and a hat, and how everyone just left her alone. And she told him every detail about the tiny Star Lookout she rented when she visited… vividly recalling everything about the coffee house at the end of the road that made her cornbread waffles and eggs benedict with the absolute best hollandaise sauce she had ever tasted anywhere, even if it wasn’t Saturday.

She had a gift for putting her listener right into whatever scene she was setting and it was easy to see why she had chosen writing as a profession.  He could picture it all easily in his mind and she made him wish he could see it with his own two eyes. She was a born storyteller and for the first time in a really long time, he realized that he hadn’t thought of his troubles once, since he’d sat down.

The fire was reduced to embers now, glowing red in the waning light.  He couldn’t imagine how that much time had passed.  The rain had stopped but the wind still howled, playing with the new leaves on the tree outside the window, making the branches bang against the pane, beating haphazardly.  The sun was coming in, stopping just behind her chair, making dappled light dance in waves over the floorboards at their feet.  The dust of a few ancient books was lit up and drifting silently in the air around her head and he wondered suddenly, if he’d ever find this particular scene in one of her novels, sincerely hoping that he would.  

Though he felt conflicted and strangely disloyal, he stuffed his feelings down, like he so often did, and asked her to dinner, with his heart in his throat.  Being here with her felt like clinging to a bit of Annie.. and he didn't want it to end.  When she looked at him he was certain that she understood that, and she accepted, with one caveat. She wanted him to come with her back to the Lodge. It took only seconds for him to grab his coat and say yes, and as he stood up, he was pleased to note that his clothes were now dry.  They decided that he would follow her in his truck, so that he could leave without her having to drive the winding road in the dark to bring him back into the village.      

Jack admitted to himself easily that he was curious about what the place looked like now that it was furnished.  However, he did not admit to himself, that he was intrigued by this woman and was avoiding his own empty house.. stalling for as long as possible.  That would come in time.  For now, he decided he’d live only in this moment and let tomorrow take care of itself.  

Both of them were quiet on the ride down, she in her own car, he in the truck.  She had the radio on and he could see her tapping absentmindedly on the steering wheel, head bobbing ever so slightly.  He wondered, as they made their way down to the lake, if he was making her nervous, but if he was, she didn’t show it.  He wished they were in the same car so they could keep talking. She was clearly comfortable on this road, having driven it many times, but he found the further down they went, the more he needed to concentrate.  He was surprised then, when they rounded the last corner and came around the bend, the Lodge suddenly directly in front of him. The driveway was steep so she signaled to him to park at the top, motioning that they would walk the rest of the way down.  

It was quiet when she opened the door and stepped inside, the only sound a gentle hum coming from the refrigerator in the kitchen. She laid the keys on the window ledge, beside a vase full of pussy willows she had cut out in the yard earlier in the day.  She ran her palm gently over the soft little mounds just once and he swallowed hard, thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. She smiled at him affectionately but there was distance in her eyes and he relaxed as it registered with him.  She wasn't interested in any romantic entanglements which was good, because neither was he.  

She led him into a beautiful room, one he had noticed from the outside because it had floor to ceiling windows and the lights were already on.  It was a turret and it gave the Lodge a chalet like feel without a lot of drama.  He liked that. Understated elegance was so rare these days.  A baby grand piano stood in the center of the room and a fine collection of wines were displayed on the wall behind it, the cooler below, fully stocked from one of the nearby wineries. She asked him to open a bottle and he poured them each a glass.  She sat down to play, and his heart almost stopped when her bracelet clinked against the keys and her smoky voice sang the first few notes of the song, tearing a path across his heart. She couldn't possibly know, but it was the song in his heart... the one he'd danced to for the very first time with Annie in the middle of the street.. surrounded by pink trees and fire.

Time by Roni Delmonico

The clock on the wall behind him softly chimed the hour. Jack counted them off in his head and could hardly believe it was ten o’clock. He didn’t move to leave and she didn’t ask him to. With only a brief reprieve on their separate drive down, they had been talking continuously now, for almost seven hours. The only other person he’d ever done that with was Annie, and the first time they had, was a disaster. He thought her parents were going to kill him. He brought her home at four in the morning and her dad opened the door looking so disappointed, he actually felt a flash of remorse. It was short lived though. They’d had a fight and he was still simmering. He had spent hours trying to make Annie see his point that night, but she had dug in her heels and he had quickly learned, she was as stubborn as he was. Neither one was willing to bend until they finally just gave up in exhaustion and drove home in silence. Her eyes were puffy and her hair was a mess and he realized too late that he had never even given a thought to what her father might think about depositing her on her doorstep like that in the wee hours of the morning. Her dad was so gentle hearted, Jack had underestimated how protective he was of his daughter. It was a week before he’d let him anywhere near her again. He would make that mistake many times in the early years… but, that was not something he cared to think about right now.
 
Isabel got up and went to the window, grabbing a blanket off the back of the chair on her way and wrapping it around her shoulders. She noticed it had begun to rain again, watching the drops slowly make their way down the window pane like little tears. She’d fought this kind of weather fiercely as a younger woman, viewing the darkness outside as disdainfully as she saw it inwardly and doing everything she could to escape it. It had cost her a lot; in wasted days, missed opportunities, financial hardship, and perhaps most painful of all… that piece of herself she spoke of, to no one. Some things cannot be fixed, no matter how badly you’d like them to be.
 
Rubbing her temples gingerly with one hand, she thought about how people often say time heals all wounds, reciting it mechanically as if doing so, might actually render it true. She’d wanted to scream at a thousand decibels if she heard it one more time after John died, but instead, she smiled at everyone, hugged them, and made allowances. People meant well. She knew they did. She didn’t actually believe them, but she was willing to concede that time would inevitably change the way she felt those wounds. It had a way of reducing the roar that threatened to overwhelm her with its bite in the beginning.. to a sting that buzzed incessantly in the background, demanding her attention occasionally, but deftly muted. She had learned in time, that sometimes the best way to fight, was to lay down the sword and get down on your knees. That humble perspective had changed the way she saw things and was a good reminder that sometimes, she just needed help. She sighed heavily, temporarily forgetting she wasn’t alone.
 
Jack had been watching the emotions pass over her face like clouds boiling over the sun. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, feeling almost as if he was intruding. He wished he could read what she was thinking. Although she was incredibly expressive, she had somehow mastered the art of revealing very little of what she truly felt. He cleared his throat softly, feeling sorry about that, wanting to spare her and bring her back to the present.
 
She walked into the kitchen and pulled a small plate out of the cabinet, opening the fridge and dumping most of its contents onto the counter next to her. She looked back at him and smiled, shrugging. She made some excuse about not having time to go grocery shopping today, but he had the distinct impression that an empty refrigerator was not an unusual occurrence and that it was a subject she preferred not to talk about, so he let it go. He nodded easily when she held up a box of crackers and a brick of some exotic kind of cheese the owner had left for her in the fridge, realizing that they had been so engaged in conversation all night, that they passed the dinner hour long ago. He was starving.

He worked beside her silently, slicing the pepper crusted salami and adding a small bunch of grapes to the plate. He found a little tangerine in the wooden bowl on the table and he picked it up, peeling the wrinkly skin and breaking it in half. It looked a bit worse for the wear but the grumble in his stomach assured him it wouldn’t matter. She put a kettle on to make some tea and arranged the cheese and crackers in a circle around his meager offering, adding two paper napkins and a small dish of olives. When he turned around, she was digging in her purse for something and made a small squeal of delight when she found it - a lone chocolate bar, flavored with little pieces of bacon. She peeled off the wrapper, broke it in half and added it to their dinner plate. Jack was skeptical but she convinced him to try it in the end and he laughed out loud when he actually enjoyed it.
 
Since they were both tired of talking, she put on some music and they ate as they listened. It was easy and comfortable, and he was grateful. He wondered, as they finished, why he had never paid attention to this woman when they were younger and she and Annie had been friends. But when he really thought about it, he supposed it made sense. Annie was larger than life even though she was tiny in stature. She had piercing green eyes and a shock of long curly black hair that framed her face in constant disarray. It somehow only added to her appeal. She was beautiful in a captivating way that made every man in a room turn to look at her when she walked in. He’d thrown one or two punches over that in the past. She was the kind of extraordinary beauty that made a woman like her, the subject of many a poem and love song.
 
Isabel was different, but no less compelling. As he looked thoughtfully around the Lodge, taking in the warm glow and the rich wood, the beautiful paintings on the walls and the towering stone fireplace, he realized that her choice of accommodations actually reflected that rather well. It was quieter and less obvious, and if you weren’t paying attention, you might actually miss it altogether. He puzzled it over in his mind, wondering why he was comparing the two women in his head.  He was still thinking about it when she got up and carried the dishes to the sink.

When she came back to the living room, he expected her to say she was tired and ask him to leave, but instead she smiled and said, “If we could close our eyes right now and jump, and land on any day in your past… what day would it be… and why?” She handed him a hot cup of tea and sat down in the chair across from him, folding her legs under her and looking at him expectantly. He grinned and settled back into his chair, knowing immediately how he’d answer that. Pulling his wallet from his pocket, he opened it wide, fishing around for the photograph that he’d kept there for thirty five years. It was faded and worn at the edges and he gazed at it for some time before laying it on the table and pushing it toward her. It had been a long time since he’d thought about it. 

“Annie told everyone it was my first love and her only real competition.”

She saw him wince slightly when he said it, but didn’t comment. He was good at hiding his feelings too. Picking it up to examine it curiously, she smiled in spite of herself.

“You know… she just might have been right.” he winked, and he settled in, to tell the story.

King of the Road by Roni Delmonico

Folding his hands behind his head, Jack leaned back in his chair, swiveling absentmindedly side to side as he talked, trying to recount all the details.

When you’re young and stupid, there can be a fine line between a woman and your car as to who might truly be considered your first love.  There are also a lot of reckless mistakes that come before you finally figure it all out. My personal lesson began one autumn night in the early 80s, after I flipped my dad’s Honda Civic over on its roof. I learned to drive on that thing, stick and all.  It looked like a bright white slice of Wonder Bread on tires and when I went to take my road test, the driving inspector frowned when he got in, barely fitting into the seat.  He yelled at me the whole time, accusing me of riding the clutch, but it was just my muddy work boots, blocking his view of those tiny Japanese pedals!  

She laughed at that, and he hoped it would happen again.

Anyway, I was going too fast around a corner that night and I hit a patch of wet leaves. The car went up the curb but those little tires and the puny suspension weren’t enough to absorb a mere 4 inches of concrete, so I bottomed out and launched the car over on its roof. My mom always said it was a miracle I didn’t die that day and that my guardian angel was definitely working overtime.  My parents insisted after the accident, that if I was ever going to own my own car as a teenager, then I would have to buy it with my own money. Their theory was that I’d be a lot less reckless if I paid for it myself rather than driving around in one of their cars, for which I had no skin in the game.  That’s what started my quest for a car of my own and I wanted it to be something far cooler than a tiny little Honda Civic that couldn’t even handle a fast curve. 

She shifted and sat cross legged in the chair, covering her legs with the blanket and picking up her tea.

“You sure you’re up for this?” he asked.  She shook her head no but her grin said yes, so he continued.

I had been working two jobs like a dog for three dollars and thirty-seven cents an hour at a garden center and an old Radio Shack store, (and I counted every dime) saving up my money week after week, clinging to the dream.  My mom dropped me off at the little library in town on my night off.  It wasn’t as nice as the one you love here in the village, but I had developed a friendship with the librarian named Marianne and I enjoyed my visits with her.  There was a weekly newspaper that came out at the time and it was something like the Penny Saver except that you had to buy it. I didn’t want to spend the money so she would save it for me behind the desk and when I came in every week I’d sit at the table across from her and look at all the ads for cars.  Because I was in high school in the 80s a lot of the classic muscle cars from the late 60s and 70s were being sold at a really good price for a high school student with limited funds. They needed a lot of work since they were between ten and fifteen years old, but I was good with cars, so that didn't bother me. Week after week I’d spend an hour or two, drooling over the ads, imagining owning one myself.  Several of the guys at school had typical muscle cars like, Camaros, or Mustangs and GTOs but I wanted no part of that mold.  I hated the idea of being glommed in with a bunch of guys I felt were just strutting their feathers, each one trying to look better than the next.  I was looking for something different.. something that exuded my idea of freedom.  

I was obsessed for weeks and I called so many different people about so many different cars that my head was spinning. I went out and looked at some of them in person, but didn’t like a single one.  They were all pretty unimpressive up close, sometimes way less interesting than the ad described or too expensive for what was being offered. I’d sit in each car with my hands on the wheel and it just didn’t feel like me.  I kept moving on in disgust and my parents were beginning to wonder if I’d just give up on the whole idea.  When you’re seventeen years old and the only phone in the house is hanging on the wall with a very short cord and you had to sit at the kitchen table and call all these strangers with everyone around you listening, it was easy to understand how they might think so.  I wasn’t very good at hiding my frustration, but I was a bull dog when I’d made up my mind about something,  and I wouldn’t let it go.  

"Still am," he interjected with a grin.

Finally, one ordinary summer night, I walked in the front door of the brick building and Marianne handed me the paper in our usual weekly ritual. I took it to a quiet corner of the library with a cup of coffee from the thermos on her desk but stopped just a minute first to joke with her.  She laughed easily and asked if she’d get a phone call from my parents after I’d been up all night.  I said, “Sure, yeah, you will and it will be a thank you because I finally finished my homework for a change.”  I laid the paper on the table and opened it up to the classifieds but I had been looking for so many months, that I was scanning only half-heartedly. The night was beautiful, crickets chirping, fireflies dancing around in the dark and I wasn’t really in the mood to be inside.  But I didn’t like the thought that I might be missing something in that paper either.

I found an ad for a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that night.  It was a convertible with manual transmission and I remember thinking, “Wow.. now, that looks interesting!” Since, I was at the library anyway, I immediately went to the card catalogue and tried to find references for the Olds, in some car books. As luck would have it, there were several.  I pulled them off the shelves and brought them back to the table, rifling through them looking for pictures and information, and after poring over them for some time, I thought, Hmm… I wonder…

My heart started to race but I was definitely playing it cool. I would usually go to the library at the end of the week, a day or two before the new issue of the paper was coming out which was good because Marianne never minded if I tore ads out of it, but also bad, because, a lot of times, all the good cars were unavailable.  I’d get my hopes up and call, feeling all excited about one of them, and it would already be gone, having sold early in the week.  I wasn’t willing to get too excited about this just yet.  I asked Marianne if I could use the phone and I called the owner and discovered that he was way out in the middle of nowhere in an area I knew little about. But he told me that car was still available and I could come out and look at it if I wanted to. NOW I was excited.  I tore up to the desk to show it to Marianne and she hugged me and wished me luck, calling out and shaking her head as I ran out the door with a wave, forgetting my bag on the chair.

I was quiet on the way home that night, working up my argument. Every night we had dinner together as a family and that one day a week after looking through the paper I’d come home from the library and I would bring up the car thing. In the beginning, I was all excited and animated about whatever new car I found in the newspaper that week and talked incessantly about it, begging them to take me to see it.  There would be a lot of rolling of the eyes, and exasperated questioning: Are you sure about this one, son?  Is it really something worth seeing?  We went through the whole ritual again at the table, until I finally convinced my dad to take me.  

I knew it was 40 minutes from our house and that the roads out there were poorly marked with no house numbers. Back then, we didn't have GPS or cell phones so I had to rely on the assumption that the person on the other end was giving me decent directions or at least some easily recognizable landmarks. After a few times getting seriously lost,  I learned to get all my maps out beforehand and trace the whole route out carefully.  We planned a trip for that Saturday morning and I brought a pocket full of cash because that’s just the way things were done.  If you were smart, you took your dad or your best friend with you to cover your back. With a thousand dollars in your pocket, you didn’t want to be alone with an axe murderer who was planning to mug you, take all your money and leave you for dead.

The car was at a farm with a barn out back and a dilapidated old farmhouse close to the road. You could tell they worked on the farm, not the house, and when we pulled in, sure enough there was this metallic gold Oldsmobile sitting there, right out front.  From a distance it looked fantastic and I was jumpin’ out of my seat yelling at my dad, “Come on let’s go, this is gonna be awesome!” But as we drove closer and pulled up beside it, dad's face grew more concerned.  You could see up close what you couldn’t see from afar.. it was definitely a fixer upper.  The top was shaggy and falling apart and it was leaking. The body had some rust on it in places but it was in relatively good shape. On the inside, the seats were okay but the stitching was coming out. It was like an old favorite pair of jeans where the denim was worn, but intact.  The seams were beginning to tear and needed to be re-sewn.  The carpet was a mess and it smelled nasty.  It needed a whole new set of tires.  But I got in that thing, and started it up and put the top down, and when I looked up, I could see blue sky and clouds and feel the breeze on my face.

After that, it was all over. I was already mentally ticking off everything this car needed from me and deciding whether or not I could give it to her. I looked over at my father and when he saw the expression on my face, he just shook his head and smiled.  I think he knew right then, that this was it… this was my car.  It didn’t even matter what the negotiations were as long as they ended up with me behind the wheel, driving toward home.  The guy could have every dollar in my pocket. I paid cash on the spot for it and that was the start of the long journey to fix her up right.

On the drive home that day, I felt it all, every bit of it; the sky over my head and the sleek lines of her body became a part of me forever.  I didn’t care too much about her color.  I knew I could change that.  She had to be red.  She had two bucket seats and you sat down low, especially for a big car like that and you looked out over her long hood that just came up like a runway at an airport. It had a couple of lines in it.. creases in the metal that went the full length of the hood so it seemed like a runway.. like you could launch it off a carrier or something.  This heavy chrome Hurst shifter came up out of the floorboards between the two bucket seats and because it sat a little far forward, it was curved like a boomerang. It came out of the floor straight, had a gentle curve to it and then came out straight again into this metal T-shifter that you wrapped your hand around.  The cold, sturdy metal made you feel like you were in command of the space shuttle or something.  It was amazing! It had a huge amount of power because it had a rocket 350 V-8 and it made a low burbling sound.. a deep rumbling grumble.   

He paused then, wondering if she was bored. She was leaning forward in her chair, hands cupping her mug of tea, steam curling into the air invitingly.  She was listening intently without a word, seeming to enjoy the details.. so he went on with his thoughts.

In my teenage brain I likened it to dating a supermodel, I guess. The car itself got a lot of attention when I was out, which I loved. She was fun to be in.. and to be around, but she had temper tantrums and was moody and high maintenance. And the only thing that tempered all that, was the fact that she was just so damn beautiful.  I worked on her that long hot summer and it took up all my free time. By the time school came around again, I was raring to go.  Our bus stop had a couple of guys and a few cute girls who waited at the corner and I decided to show off a little. I pulled up with a grin, sunglasses on, top down, full of attitude and they begged me to give them a ride.  After that, we followed the same routine almost every morning.  I’d pull up, a bunch of kids would pile in the car, we’d blast some music and off we’d go, headed for high school. If I missed a day, I never heard the end of it.  I was king of the road!  It was a great senior year and I never wanted it to end.

“I guess I’d pick that day, Izzy.  The day I picked up that car.”

Isabel was quiet for some time, staring at the photograph before finally admitting she couldn’t decide either.. Annie… or the sexy metallic gold ’71 Olds Cutlass Supreme.  Handing it back, she promised with a wink that she would sleep on it and get back to him in the morning. By now it was well after midnight and they both yawned in sync.  She stood up, thanking him for sharing such a wonderful part of his past with her and because it was so late, she offered to let him stay in the cabin next door, which was also owned by the man she was renting from.  There was an acre between the two properties and she explained that she usually just paid for both of them so that she had complete privacy and could invite friends up to visit for the weekend if she wished.  

He felt rather glad as he walked slowly up the road to the cabin by himself, that he had unwittingly managed to become one of them. And she stood at the window watching him go, already knowing her answer.

It would always be Annie.

Gone Without A Trace by Roni Delmonico

Isabel lay on her back for a long time listening to the rain and thinking about Annie. She got up briefly to grab her laptop off the table and on her way back she opened the window so she could smell the scent of dirt and pine needles floating in on the wind. The breeze was wonderful and it made the sheer white curtain flutter in the soft air next to the bed.  She climbed back under the covers and stretched out her hand, letting the fabric sweep over her palm rhythmically.  It was mesmerizing and she drifted, dozing comfortably... laptop still closed beside her, its little green light winking into the night like a tiny lighthouse on a forgotten shore.  The wind whispered in the trees and gently rattled the screen against the window frame, tapping as if to wake her and remind her of her task.  She stirred for a moment, responding to the beauty around her... but while her spirit was willing, her body was weak, and she sank only further.

She woke an hour later and ran a tired hand over her eyes.  She was still sitting straight up against the bed frame and her neck was stiff and sore.  She rubbed it for a few minutes, willing herself to wake up and focus. Opening her laptop, she grabbed her reading glasses from the nightstand and did a search for the online version of the village newspaper.  She wasn’t even sure they had one.

Long ago, she had decided to stop looking for news of the people she had lost touch with over the years.  It gave her a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, watching from a distance how old friends had formed lifelong bonds of connection. She was a widow, and she had always been a wanderer.  Hand in hand, those two things ensured that deep roots had never taken hold with her. She didn’t stay in one place for very long but she had her favorite places, preferring to spend a few months at each one and then move on.  Over the years she had formed a small circle of acquaintances in each place who were always glad to see her when she returned, and would miss her when she was gone.  Some would stay in her life for an extended period of time and others only briefly. She was content to let them drift into or out of her life at will, loving them when they were with her, but letting go easily when they were not. She saw it like the ebb and flow of the tide. It never went deeper than that and she didn’t question why.  She just didn’t form permanent attachments like some people did, not with people, or with material things. Most of the time, she didn’t give it a second thought, but she had always felt a little sad about Annie. She would have liked to have kept her close. She had tried... but she just didn’t know how.   

When they were young, they had been inseparable, but eventually time and circumstance had pulled them apart.  Month after month would go by, with each of them thinking... I really should call, but when months turned to years, the thought slowly faded away. The desire never did though.  She always wondered why with her, some things burned steadily forever, and some things blazed hot at first, dying slowly to soft embers and then ultimately cooling to an empty stillness.  John had always said that embers retained their warmth for a long time after the visible fire had gone out and that the magic could be rekindled with just a little effort, but it was one of the few things he said that she quietly dismissed without telling him. He knew anyway and chose to let it go.  His words often spoke peace to her deeply cautious heart, but her reality had always been this - cold was cold and when it was over it was over. Her walls were built for a reason:  to contain, to protect, to keep a fire from spreading, to keep hurt out.  “Isn’t that why we build a sturdy circle of stones around a campfire after all?” she’d argue.  

He’d proven her point so painfully when he left her that night, forfeiting his life to a raging wildfire that knew no borders. It would take many years for her to understand what he’d been trying to say to her that day, and many more beyond that, to forgive him. 

She typed Annie’s name into the search box and a long list of entries came up on the first page. It wasn’t surprising.  She knew everyone in this town and they loved her, stopping her on the street to talk for minutes that would often turn into an hour or more.  When they were girls, Izzy would stand back and just watch her, preferring shadows to the limelight, marveling at the way she could talk to strangers as if she had known them forever.  It was like listening to a brook tumbling over rocks in the middle of the woods, somehow peaceful and energetic at the same time.  They spent hours on the phone, and Annie usually did most of the talking, but it wasn’t until they took sailing lessons together at the marina when they were fifteen that their friendship took off, spanning a decade.  They’d stayed close even through college, drifting apart only after Annie bought the Patisserie in the village and Isabel met John, started writing, and set off for other shores.  Occasionally one of them would pick up the phone, but their conversations grew shorter and less intimate and in time, stopped altogether.  She felt an ache just then, realizing that this was a loss she had never properly mourned.  

Isabel paused on an old archived photo taken on the day Annie had almost drowned.  Having grown up on the lake, both of them knew their way around sailboats, but they were required like everyone else, to pay their dues at the marina.  One of the girls who was new to the sailing club had been falling behind the rest, struggling to remember even the simplest steps and often slipping on the deck, toppling herself and anyone standing near enough for her to grab onto. She was shy and quiet and she had a birthmark on her forehead that made her feel really self-conscious. She didn’t make friends easily, and she was often the subject of ridicule, drawing far more attention than she ever desired. That only made Annie want to know her more.  She took her under her wing that summer, drilling her over and over again, teaching her water safety, and going over every inch of their sailboat from front to back, until she understood everything thoroughly.  But the one thing she could never cure her of, was her clumsiness.

Sometimes the wind came up and a storm would blow in out of nowhere, even when it was sunny.  On that particular day, we made a last minute call to come in off the lake early. It was getting choppy and it just didn’t feel right, but before we had even gotten our bearings and turned around, the sail swung backward in the wind, knocking into Annie and tossing her overboard. It all happened so fast no one even had time to grab her.

It’s funny how heroes are born. That poor clumsy girl jumped in after her without thinking twice.  She held onto Annie for dear life, treading water and keeping her head as still as possible until help arrived.  Afterward, Annie hugged her and told her every day, that she had saved her life and told anyone in their vicinity that her friend was a hero.  That girl later joined Search and Rescue with the Coast Guard and went on to save many lives in the ensuing years.  Isabel heard that she and Annie had remained close all these years and felt that old twinge of sorrow, that the two of them, had not.

Scanning the rest of the page, she dismissed the remaining articles but opened up the most recent one at the top.  Apparently it had been a sensational story when it first came out and they had reported on it for weeks, but it had died off into anonymity when too many months passed and there wasn’t anything new to report.  Isabel sighed looking at the pictures of Jack that were associated with the story.  He looked haunted and very thin and  he clearly wished to avoid the cameras. Several of the images were of his hand as he passed another reporter and signaled that he wasn’t talking.  One even showed him grabbing the camera and throwing it into the lake.  She guessed that hadn’t gone over very well, but she read the caption and saw the lawsuit had been quickly swept under the rug when the whole village came to his defense and settled the matter by replacing the camera.  He’d been through enough, they argued, and the photographer eventually gave in.  A little further down the page there was a gorgeous picture of Annie, smiling at Jack on their wedding day.  The caption read:  

Gone Without A Trace.  

The Images I've Painted by Roni Delmonico

If a woman wasn’t careful, she could lose so many little pieces of herself through the years that she’d wake up and look in the mirror one day, and no longer recognize herself as the one staring back at her.  All those little slivers were whittled away one curl at a time, landing on the floor and piling up softly at her feet, ignored and unseen. Later they would be swept away and forgotten, as if they had never at all, been part of the original. It was the sudden, stunning realization that she might have been party to that herself, had even been the one that did much of the carving that eventually changed the face of who she was, that kept Isabel up all night. She stood in front of the mirror studying her reflection, dark shadows under her eyes.  She wondered how it was even possible that someone she once loved so much, could have just disappeared without her ever even knowing about it.

She dressed quickly and without much thought.  The sun was just coming up behind the trees and she needed to be out there.  Gathering her smallest easel and a blank canvas, along with the brown wooden case she carried her brushes and paints in when she was heading outdoors, she tossed them into a basket at the bottom of the stairs and turned the coffee pot on.  She stood at the sink wearily, waiting for it to brew and the rich smell of it made her stomach growl.  She found a muffin wrapped in plastic and wondered only briefly how old it was before putting a few pieces in her mouth and brushing the crumbs off the counter and onto the floor.  She’d deal with it later.  She could see the clouds already beginning to light up in the sky and right now, she just wanted to get out there before it was too late.  It always surprised her how quickly a sunrise was gone.  More than once, she had pulled the covers over her head and  slept “just a little bit longer” and missed it altogether.

Outside, the sounds of the morning were just beginning.  Water was lapping gently on the shore and she thought she heard an owl in the distance.  It was still mostly dark, but there were lights on the stairs that led down to the water.  It was a long, steep walk from the house to the dock and it was pretty slippery, so she gripped her things in one hand and held onto the handrail going down.  The smell of pine surrounded her and the air was cool on her face. She felt her muscles already relaxing, with the exception of that one spot on her left shoulder blade that had been plagueing her of late.  She supposed she really should have the doctor take a look at that, but she dreaded the physical therapy that would likely result so she kept putting it off for another day.  It was amazing how many things could just keep getting shoved into the background of a life, like that.  Thankfully it was her left shoulder and it didn’t effect her ability to paint.  

She set her easel up on the dock, grateful that the air was still, so it wasn’t bobbing too much.  Painting always cleared her head and she sorely needed it this morning. She would have hated to put it all away after dragging it down here. Placing the canvas gently in front of her, she pulled the small table from between the two chairs over beside her, and laid everything out, just so.  

For as long as she could remember, she had organized her life like this.  When she was writing, everything had its place on the table: the pretty zen garden to her left, with the four tealights that signaled she should get up and stretch, by winking out one at a time... the vase of fresh flowers to her right, including tiny fragrant rosebuds because she loved the smell of them... her lamp, with the bronze meandering leaves curving upward as if seeking light too...  And her headphones.  There was always her music.  She had tried working in silence a few times when she was first learning to put pen to paper, but it quickly became obvious, that when she did, the end result wasn’t as special.  Something about lyrics and music and even simple pure sounds like the ocean waves and seagull tracks she always listened to...lulled her to a space where time was irrelevant and place was only what was in front of you.  

It was the same when she painted.  All the paints were lined up neatly in rows, caps carefully closed, arranged in the order she liked.  Each one had a space in the box, like the silverware that lined the drawers in the kitchen.  Order was important to her. It made it easier for her to concentrate.  The ironic thing was, when she was busy creating something, the rest of the house was a total disaster.  The dust was an inch thick and there were little fuzzy things all over the carpet.  Books were in stacks on her desk and there were bowls full of unknown substances on the coffee table.  (It was usually chocolate ice cream, for which she had a major weakness.)  Her clothes were laying on the bed, on the floor, and on the backs of chairs all over the house.  She never even noticed... until she was done.  And then she looked around in shock at the hurricane that had apparently destroyed her house.  She giggled then, remembering the first time John had visited her at home.  The look on his face had been priceless and he told her once that his only thought was that he better hire a housekeeper.  

She put her music in her ears then, and took out a paintbrush.  Jack was watching her from the upper deck of the cabin, but he didn’t let on. He thought how she looked like a conductor stepping up to begin a symphony.  She tapped on her canvas, hands up, quietly surveying her surroundings. Drawing in a deep breath of the spring scented air she called the stillness of the morning to her and then began.  Her long hair was lifting up at the bottom corners and moving softly in the breeze. The only sound was the  swish of her brush lifting the paint and filling her canvas with color and the gentle lapping of the water against the dock.  A blue heron squawked in the distance and then silently flew low over the water, toward her.  Slowly, the pink and blue began to dance in the foreground and a small rowboat that was anchored just a few feet out, appeared like magic out of the darkness to her right.  She was lost in her own world and he sat down on the old rocker behind him to watch.  She began to sing and her voice was clear and strong.  He could hear every word across the water.

Have the images I've painted
So distorted who you are
That even if the world was looking
They could not see you...the real you

Have I changed the true reflection
To fulfill my own design
Making you what I want
Not showing you for divine

Would I miss you now if you left and closed the door
Would my flesh cry out "I don't need you anymore!”
Or would I follow you...could I be restored?
I wonder, I wonder
Will I ever learn
I wonder, would I know you, now....

It made his heart ache.

Somewhere far on the opposite side of the lake, Titus stood on the pier looking south toward them both and whispered... yes.

Free To Fly by Roni Delmonico

God, he loved mornings like this.  He’d almost forgotten what it felt like.  Lately he’d chosen to work seven days a week, getting up before dawn and staying long past the time everyone else had gone home.  The light out here seemed to come from some other world. He honestly believed he could sit in this rocking chair all day long, wiling away an afternoon with nothing more than his own thoughts and a good cup of coffee to occupy him.  When was the last time he’d felt that way?  He knew.  He knew exactly when.  He passed a hand over the scruff on his face and decided he’d just leave it.  Annie had always liked it and for years he’d kept a goatee, rubbing it against the softness of her cheek whenever possible.  She’d complain about it, but there were so many mornings he’d wake up to her running her hand over his scratchy face, tenderly.. that  he knew her grumbling was only for show.  He scratched his chin.  Maybe he’d let it grow out a little.

The sun was scattering diamonds across the water as it made its way into the sky. He guessed it was around eleven o’clock and he had already been sitting there for several hours, watching the geese swoop in for a landing on the surface of the lake.  There was a peace here that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.  It was quiet, sure.  He had spent plenty of time in the woods and he preferred that kind of silence, but this was somehow different.  It was pervasive, as if the rest of the world had frozen for a brief moment in time, allowing him to sort out his thoughts in a way that might actually enable him to organize them permanently, without leaving him behind in the dust.  He took a sip from the mug at his side, thinking of the old Henry David Thoreau quote.  

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, find that I had not lived." 

It made so much sense to him in this moment, tucked away from the rest of the world, and he could see easily why Isabel liked to write out here. The surroundings with their myriad scents and sounds were inspiring, without being intrusive. He thought he might stay the weekend and explore the woods a bit, if she wouldn’t mind.  He’d ask her later.  She had finished her painting but was still sitting on the dock far below him, knees drawn up under her chin, one hand splashing back and forth in the water, making little ripples as she moved. She was staring off into space and he wouldn’t disturb her right now.  It was interesting sitting up here in the shade of the porch, watching from a distance.  He paid attention to the quieter details, like the way she cocked her head to the side when a seagull passed over her head, squinting into the sun, or the way she giggled to herself when a fish mistook her finger for its breakfast. She was deeply connected to her surroundings, respecting them even more out here than she did in the house.  She was at ease, blending naturally with the landscape, and somehow it made him feel that way too.  It surprised him that she spent so much time alone.  He thought that people must be rather drawn to her.

Jack looked around him at the log cabin where he was staying, appreciating the quality of the build, in the daylight.  He hadn’t had much of a feel for his surroundings when he’d gone inside last night in the dark. It resembled the Lincoln Logs he used to play with as a boy, right down to its green metal roof.  Looking through the woods to his right, he could clearly see the Lodge at this time of year. Isabel was packing up her things and heading back to the house, and he stood up to wave at her from the porch.  Shielding her eyes from the sun, she waved back, shouting to ask if he’d had any breakfast.  When he shook his head no, she smiled and motioned that she’d be right there.  He went inside and rinsed his coffee cup, leaving it in the sink.  Drying his hands on the towel hanging on a hook next to the oven, he heard her footprints crunching on the gravel outside the back door. Opening it, he tried to hide his smile over what she was wearing, but he just couldn’t do it.  His face must have given him away because she looked down at herself and laughed.

“Yeah, well… I’m no fashion diva, that’s for sure,” she grinned.  

She stuck her finger in the hole in her sweatshirt, mumbling something about how all her sweatshirts looked like that because the sharp edge on her laptop rested against her torso causing friction between it, and the fabric. It drove her crazy for a time looking for anything that might be causing the small tears, but she had finally figured out that the repeated rubbing motion that happened when her computer was resting on her lap, had worn through most of her wardrobe as she wrote.  

"One of the hazards of the profession," she teased.

There was a smear of blue paint on one leg and she covered it with a hand, feeling embarrassed all of a sudden that she hadn’t thought of that before dashing over here.  She should have at least changed first! She asked him if he’d like to go down to the village to get something to eat, since her refrigerator was sadly lacking.  He agreed, remembering the sorry little tangerine he had politely swallowed last night and they decided to meet at the car in an hour.  

“Hey, how would you feel about my staying the weekend up here and spending some time in the woods?” he asked.  “I’ll stay out of your way and won’t be a bother.  I know you’re writing.”

She looked at him for a long moment and then nodded her head before walking slowly back up to the Lodge.  He was determined to make her smile today and went inside to shower and contemplate the best way to do that.  She didn’t seem unhappy really.  He just felt like she hadn’t laughed much in awhile and, when he stopped to think about it, neither had he.  He felt a sudden wild desire to change that for both of them and he knew exactly how to pull it off.  He took out his phone and made a quick phone call to the shop in the village.  He had an arrangement with a guy he’d done some work for before Christmas, and he was more than happy to help.  Showering quickly he ran up the road and sat down on the bench by the door, impatiently waiting for her to come out.  

He hadn’t taken it out in almost a year, but it was a perfect day for it.  When she opened the door, she found him standing there, a huge grin on his face.  Grabbing her hand, he yanked her outside and said, “Come on!  I have an idea! Get in the truck!”  He was already running up the driveway.

If it had been anyone else, she would have dug her heels in and demanded an explanation before going anywhere, but his enthusiasm was contagious and she found herself running after him. They made it to the village in record time, stopping briefly to pick up a few things at the deli.  When he drove in to the gas station on route 20, she leaned forward in her seat raising an eyebrow but settled back in when he pulled up to the gas pump.

“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”  

He left the keys in the ignition so she could listen to the radio.  She fiddled with the knobs until she found one she liked and closed her eyes to listen.  The sun was warm on her face and it was just nice to feel the air again.  She heard the grumble of a Harley pulling up to the pump next to them but she was so relaxed, she didn’t even bother to open her eyes.

Jack stood on his side of the truck smiling at her through the window.  She was mouthing the words and drumming the air and he took it as a good sign that she’d go for this, like he thought she would.  Opening the door, he dumped a helmet in her lap and pointed to the bike.

The next thing she knew, she was tearing off down the road, burning like wildfire and laughing into the wind.

A Box Just For Wishes by Roni Delmonico

He could feel her holding onto him loosely, in an easy relaxed way and it occurred to  him that this was a woman who knew her way around motorcycles.  He didn’t know why that surprised him, but it did.  There was a lot he didn’t know about her yet, or she him… but the more time they spent together, the more he wanted to. She was full of contradictions.  On one hand, she liked elegant surroundings, beautiful artwork, and painting.  On the other hand, she seemed to care little about how she dressed or about getting dirty or messing up her hair on a bike out in the middle of nowhere. She talked comfortably, though she preferred to write and she was pretty easy going, but with a clearly stubborn streak when challenged.  He’d gotten the briefest flash of that when he asked her if he could stay on for the weekend.  For just a minute, he’d thought she’d say no and send him packing. She’d hidden those feelings away quickly though, and politely nodded agreement. He sort of felt like he owed her one now, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that yet.    

He had driven this road a million times and he liked it so much because it was mildly challenging.. unlike a flat straightaway. Full of dips and a few curves here and there, you could give it some speed if you dared, but it demanded your focus and attention.  He liked how she moved instinctively in sync with him, leaning as he did at all the right times.  She knew this road as well as he did and was confident in his ability to navigate it. She didn’t seem to have an agenda, other than to soak up the moment she was living in and he had a feeling that this was a skill she had been cultivating for some time.  

There was a pull off, up ahead where you could see for miles around on a clear day, and today was perfect…lots of big puffy clouds and sunshine.  It should be gorgeous in the hills.  His favorite time to be out there was in the fall when everything turned brilliant shades of gold and red and yellow.  But it was pretty in the spring too, when, after a long white winter, everyone craved the color green and the trees and forsythia bushes were in full bloom, splashing color everywhere, waking up a dull and listless landscape.  He decided to stop at the turnoff first and then head for the orchard a few miles up the road.  They could find a table outside and eat the things they had picked up at the deli…maybe pick up something in the general store for dessert.  Because they had been blessed with some early warmth the past few weeks, the apple trees had gone to bud sooner than usual and should be flowering right about now.  If so, it would be a real treat to eat out there.  The smell was heavenly and he guessed she probably liked that as much as he did.  

There was a picnic table in a quieter area of the orchard and there were bees humming in and around the apple trees.  He pulled to a stop beside it and she hopped off and sat down on the bench closest to her.  Taking the helmet from her head she hung it on one of the handles and then leaned against the table, turning her face up to the sun.  

“Wow, that feels amazing,” she breathed.  “And it smells so good.  Isn’t it just gorgeous out here?”  

She felt grateful that he had gotten her out of the house for awhile.  If she had been alone, she would likely have spent the day indoors, at the Lodge and she would have missed this simple pleasure.

He took his helmet off and pocketed his keys. Coming to sit beside her, he leaned back and followed suit.  He stayed that way for quite awhile, without a word, thinking about how long it had been since he’d even taken the time to notice or appreciate what the sun on his face felt like or how the air felt soft and smelled sweet.  Life just kept on rushing, and he, right along with it.  Just for today, he’d like to put a stop to that.  He’d been running himself ragged for months, mostly trying to outrun his own feelings. But today, it seemed safe enough to slow down. He put his elbows back on the table and stretched out his legs, soaking in the warmth, letting his mind wander at will.  She left him to his thoughts, but she unwrapped her sandwich and commenced eating.  When she opened a bag of chips and started crunching, he looked over at her, one eye still closed. She held one mid-air on its way to her mouth and grinned.  “Sorry.  Need an invitation?” She held it out to him and he took it laughing.    

Sitting up and turning sideways on the bench, he asked a question.  “Isabel, how is it that you know your way around motorcycles?” 

A slow smile passed across her face, but she didn’t immediately answer.  She was lost in some memory and he decided not to rush her. Waiting patiently, he leaned forward and picked a blade of grass at his feet, popping it in between his teeth. She’d never actually seen a guy do that, and she picked one herself before facing him on the bench to talk to him. She didn’t put it in her mouth but she fiddled with it, peeling thin strips off while she gathered her thoughts. She mumbled something about preferring potato chips to grass but her joke fell flat.  She had a knack for that.  She was usually so serious that when she actually attempted to be funny,  no one even realized it.  She didn’t attempt it often.  

He burst out laughing.  She would remember that moment for a very long time. When he stopped, he squeezed her hand and she thought, “Careful, Izzy.  Hold onto your heart.”

She stood up and stretched and he noticed she put a little distance between them, but it wasn’t unkind.  She lifted her foot up and let the toe of her boot rest on the bench beside him.  She crossed her arms in front of her and hunched her shoulders a bit, relishing the feel of the sun on her back.  He leaned on his fist, watching her.  

“When I was six years old we lived on a main street directly across from my elementary school. The things I remember about that year are pretty faded now, mostly disjointed memories that are more about how I felt, then about any particular event.  I do remember a few things though, and, as always ... I remember the music.  I used to sit on the floor of the garage with my dad, who seemed like such a giant to me back then, so old and wise.  Funny, but if I count out the years, I guess he would only have been about 27 at that time… so much younger than we are now.”  

“Dad always had something playing in the background and there are some songs I still love as a result.  I remember being surrounded by motorcycle parts as he worked to create one chopper out of the pieces of many, scattered around us.  He didn’t mind if I picked them up and examined them as long as I put them back where I found them when I was done.  I always thought it was somewhat miraculous when he finished one. It was like a puzzle for him, I think. To be able to create something out of nothing, is still a gift I admire a great deal in him. He's a welder, and a good one.  I knew him from a distance as a little girl, fascinated by him as only a daughter can be, but yes…distant.  I would only really come to know him years later, when I was a teenager, but that’s a story for another day.”

“When I look back now, there are many things about that time in my life that deeply influenced who I am today.  I had a teacher at that school across the street in first grade that I still remember.  She was gentle and soft spoken and she got the attention of her classroom by whispering what she had to say, until we were under control.  I thought it was amazing that it worked, though I tried it at home with my brother and it never worked on him.”  She winked. “Most of us responded to that still, small voice.  I think maybe I'm wired to hear that way, or maybe it just happens naturally, because I have to work harder to listen. As I grew older, I carried that with me, speaking quietly when I wanted someone to really hear me.  Ever notice how people tune you out if you yell at them?  Do it enough and they never hear a word you’re saying.  But there is something uniquely intimate about a whisper, isn’t there?  It reaches in and fully grabs ahold of your heart and your attention.”  

She paused, remembering some long ago scene from her past.  A sigh escaped her and he wondered again where she’d gone, but didn’t ask.

“I keep a box at home, full of things that have special meaning to me.  It’s nothing fancy… just a cardboard box with a lid. There are old photographs and bits and pieces of my life in there, from birth to the present.  Mostly words, every word I've ever held dear. Words that are still precious to me.  Words that matter. Words that come back to me through the annals of time, to speak truths to my heart, when I need them.  I’d rather have words than a present.  To me, words are.. the present.”

Leaning forward she finished by saying, “Hold with both hands... each precious and glittering moment of your life.”  And she squeezed his hand back.  

She put the helmet back on her head then and carried their trash to the orange garbage can to the left of her.  She could punctuate a moment with her actions the way she did it with a paragraph and he knew this one was over.  Grabbing his own helmet, he tried to keep up with her as she swung onto the back of the bike and pointed toward the eastern sky.  Lightning. Great. It was still pretty far off in the distance but when he heard the low rumble, he knew they were on borrowed time. They’d have to head west to outrun it.

He could have sworn as he started up the bike and looked back over his shoulder, that he saw Titus disappearing into the trees in the middle of the orchard. He felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck as he heard the thunder boom right over their heads.  As he pulled out onto the road he noticed a small wooden box at the base of an apple tree just behind the bench, a single apple blossom resting on the top. The wood was intricately carved and he hoped its owner would come back for it.  It was very unusual. If he wasn't so concerned about those clouds, he'd have gone back for it himself.  Instead, he left it alone, and set off for the village.

In front of him, the sky was turning all kinds of glorious colors, but behind him, it was boiling black and ominous.  Two birds circled above them gracefully ahead of the storm and he had only one thought on his mind.  

Keep her safe, Jack.

Wisdom From Some Future Place by Roni Delmonico

It looked as if the storm was going to last awhile, but Isabel didn’t mind because it usually helped her to focus on the task at hand and finish without lapsing into a daydream.  If it was sunny, forget it.  She was a goner.  Sunshine just fueled her daydreaming and she could sit there all day long in front of a blank page with her wheels spinning, going nowhere. But then.. she supposed that meant that her ideas were born on sunny days, and grew up, when it rained.  Maybe that’s why she always found herself so productive when she returned to this place.  She had a good mix of both and her garden just flourished.  She liked the metaphor anyway, and decided to add it to her notes.  Might be useful in a book someday.

Jack had managed to get them back to the station just as the fat drops of rain started to fall and they made a beeline for the truck, laughing, as he had somehow ended up totally soaked for the second time in two days. He dropped Isabel at the Lodge and went up to the cabin to change and make a few phone calls. He thought he might take a quick nap too, considering the weather.  He hoped that Izzy was wrong and the storm was only passing through so that he could spend some time exploring in the woods before sunset.  He planned to head down to the dock afterward to watch the sun go down.  If it stopped raining and the clouds stuck around, it would be amazing, and he didn’t want to miss it, but he hadn’t slept well the night before. He really could use a bit of rest before then.  

Putting on some dry clothes, he rubbed a towel briskly over his hair.  Toppling onto the sofa, he pulled a cushion under his head for a pillow.  He fell asleep quickly and dreamed of Annie.  

She was standing in front of him in the center of a ballroom, dressed elegantly in a black chiffon gown with gold rings at her shoulders.  They had been dancing, slow and close, comfortable in the way onlylong time lovers could be.  He looked around in search of others, but they were the only two people in the room.  He relaxed into her, holding her hand over his heart and covering it with his own. Diamonds were dripping from her ears and onto the floor and she pulled away from him, attempting to gather them back up, but they were turning to stardust as soon as she touched them.  She looked up at him in confusion, trying to tell him what was happening.  Her mouth was moving as if she were talking, but there was no sound coming out. He kept straining to hear her, bending forward, his ear toward her mouth, but the harder he tried to get close, the farther away she moved, dragged away by some magnetic force of the universe.  All he could hear, was wind. Something was very wrong and he called out to her, desperately grasping her fingers as she slid away from him. The chandelier over his head fell from the ceiling, shattering into tiny crystals,  and scattering across the floor between them.  He turned away from her briefly, to find them rising up and surrounding him, a million shards of light. He reached out to scoop up a handful, letting the glitter slip through his fingers like sand.  She was far ahead of him now, way off in the distance, holding her arms out and calling his name.  But it was only a whisper and he was mesmerized by the stars, his feet quickly sinking into the sparkling dust as it fell from his hands. 

The thunder outside rattled the cabin and the rain pounded heavily on the roof above him, coming down sideways in sheets, but he was completely unaware.  The wind howled through the trees and they swayed from side to side, the tops nearly touching the floor of the porch.  He rolled over onto his side, one arm flung over the end of the sofa, falling deeper into the dream.  Annie was following someone in front of her, pleading with him to wait and clinging to his arm.  Every time she looked back at Jack, he seemed to fall further away and he fought hard to stand his ground, yelling for her to just let go and turn back.  The wind whipped up around her and stars glittered in her hair, her gown flowing out around her as she mouthed, “I will always love you,” smiling peacefully.  He begged her to stay, but she kept moving forward and disappeared out of sight, stars parting like a curtain and closing behind her.  She’d be visible again briefly, in the space of a heartbeat, and then she’d disappear into the darkness, only starlight in her wake.  He fought harder to pull his feet up out of the dust and started to run, but she faded and then vanished completely right in front of him. Suddenly everything went still.. placid as a winter lake, completely frozen over.  The stars exploded soundlessly…and there was only light all around him, clean, white, clear.  She was gone.  

He woke on the floor of the cabin, shaking and on his knees.  He was totally drenched…again, and he was not amused.  The rain had blown in sideways through the window and had soaked the couch and the floor but it had stopped at some point, while he was still sleeping. Millions of tiny water droplets outside on trees and furniture and wood surfaces were slipping off and plinking onto the ground, like a tiny water symphony, soaking in and releasing the unmistakable scent of earth finally quenched. Rays of sunlight were pouring through the trees, chasing shadows and lighting up the floor around him.  It grounded him and he began to relax, laying down on his stomach, forehead against the cold floor, palms flat on either side of his head. The muscles in his back were tense and taut and he looked like a wildcat waiting to spring.  Slowing his breathing a little at a time, he took in huge gulps of air at first, swallowing against the pain, fighting it. He glanced at the clock on the table and saw he’d been sleeping for two hours and the late day sun was creeping toward the back kitchen wall at a fast pace. He got up and shut the window making his way to the bathroom for some towels.  He was still breathing heavily and his heart felt like someone had stomped on it repeatedly and tried to rip it out of his chest when he wasn’t looking.  

The nightmare was always the same.  Cloaked in stardust and diamonds, it glittered with the promise of her, only to rip her away into darkness, every time.  He put his head in his hands and sat down on a chair at the kitchen table for a long time, wishing he could somehow turn back time and bring her home.  

He decided in that moment that he didn’t care how wet everything was.  He yanked his jacket from the peg by the door, a little rougher than intended.  The hook came off the wall and clattered to the floor, jangling his nerves further. He swore under his breath, slamming the door behind him, hard.  He sat down on the steps and pulled his boots on, lacing them with a sharp tug at every level.  He was so tired of feeling like this.  He was angry but he didn’t even know who to be angry at.  He couldn’t be angry with Annie… she wasn’t even here and God only knows what she was going through.  He couldn’t be angry at the woman he’d spent the past thirty hours with. She barely knew him. And he couldn’t very well be angry with a God he no longer believed in… so he turned it inward.  

Standing up, he kicked the stone wall in front of him hard, wincing as the pain hit his toes and traveled up his leg, but doing it again twice before stomping off into the woods above the cabin.  He chose the steepest embankment he could find and started climbing.  It was rocky and because it was still wet from the rain, it was also slippery.  He fell several times on his way to the top, scraping both knees and a forearm but he kept on going, ignoring how they were both beginning to throb.  His legs were burning but he pushed himself harder and faster, knowing he was out of shape.  He moved deeper and deeper into the woods and eventually stumbled into a small clearing where some kids had left evidence of their stolen adventures from the night before.  

A waterfall was roaring somewhere in the distance and he followed the sound until he stood at the base of it, finally stopping to let out a primal howl of release. He sounded like a wounded animal. A deer pricked up her ears at him, but remained still, looking at him gently through the trees and understanding instinctively that he wasn’t a threat.  He let the tears fall then, looking into her big doe eyes and weeping unashamed, until he was spent.  Only the forest looked on, the trees gently rustling in the wind, embracing him without judgement.  On the ridge above the waterfall,  a lone wolf-dog braced herself and answered him, lifting her face to the sky and howling a mournful cry in response to his own. When he stopped in surprise to look at her, she made her way carefully over the rocks, stopping at his feet, to lick his hand.  

“Maya?” he whispered, running his hand over her head. Isabel’s dog whined softly in answer.

Jack scanned the woods around him, suddenly realizing she had to be there.  And she was.  She was standing behind him, tears streaming silently down her cheeks, holding onto a birch tree, white bark against the bluest sky.   

Stay by Roni Delmonico

Stay

“We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”  Farley Mowat

There is something about a man’s face when he has dropped all defenses.  It’s a mixture of two things.. the shadow of boyhood, an age where true responsibility is yet unknown and freedom is taken for granted; where peace is found easily within the comfort of one’s own skin and belonging isn’t even a question.… and the light of manhood, where everything is exposed, naked, raw and vulnerable.  Sometimes it happens by design, as when he chooses to trust a woman enough to create a private life with her, opening places inside of him where few are allowed to tread.  And sometimes it happens completely by accident, like a rare anomaly.. a deviant orbit in a distant sky.     

Isabel saw all of this pass over Jack’s features in the span of a single moment as he stared at her across what had only minutes ago been a chasm that was miles wide.  It was a subtle shift that caused the closing of that gap, marked only by silent tears and the howling of one man, and one wolfdog. But it was one she would remember for the rest of her life and one she would come to fiercely protect.  She looked away long enough for him to brush the back of one hand across his eyes and then she turned to him and smiled, pulling a leash out of her pocket and attaching it to Maya’s collar.  She handed it to him and he took it gratefully, focusing on keeping the dog close to his side on the way back down to the Lodge.  

They chose not to speak at first, though each had unanswered questions.  Doing so, would have tested a tenuous bond that needed more time to strengthen and neither was willing to risk it just yet.  Isabel shoved her hands down into the pockets of her jeans and hunched her back against the chilly wind.  She had only been letting the dog out and hadn’t planned on straying too far from the Lodge.  When Maya took off, she’d followed her a good mile before realizing too late, that she wasn’t properly dressed.  Jack took his jacket off without being asked, and gave it to her.  It was still warm from his body and she put her arms in the sleeves, welcoming the feeling, hands lost about three quarters of the way down.  It made him smile to look at her.  She was grateful for it.

The ground was soft under his feet, pine needles laying a path before them. Maya walked beside him as if she had been doing it forever. They always say that animals just know somehow.  He was good with dogs.  When he was a boy, he’d had a German Shepherd who was his constant companion. He had learned a lot from that dog about what it meant to be a leader and it came naturally to him now. 

This dog was an Alpha female… he could feel it, no doubt. Yet she responded to his lead, suggesting that Isabel had done well in training her.  He wondered where she’d been hiding and thought maybe the old girl had been at a neighbor’s house up the road.  He hadn’t seen or heard her at the Lodge last night. He was sure he would have noticed.  Maya was aware of Isabel’s presence at every turn and she never let her owner out of her sight.  She was absolutely beautiful.. more wolf, than dog.  Her eyes were a beautiful golden amber, and she had a thick coat of gray and white fur that had been meticulously cared for.  She was alert to her surroundings, but relaxed as she padded through the woods beside him.  He already liked her a great deal.  It would appear that the feeling was mutual.

As the Lodge came into view, he noticed an SUV parked up at the top, a woman leaning against it, smoking.. a large black dog sitting obediently beside her.  He didn’t move a muscle as they approached.  Both woman and dog were looking at him, cool and level, sizing him up as he came down the drive.  He wasn’t sure what to make of her, but beneath the hard exterior, he detected a twinkle in her eye and a soft spot for Isabel when she looked at her.  When they got within fifty feet of them, he had trouble holding on to the leash.  Isabel stepped up and took it from him, unclipping it from the dog's collar and rubbing her head. 

“Ok, go Maya! Go now… go see Ollie!”  It was impossible not to smile.  The dogs were acting as if they hadn’t seen each other in years, when in fact, it had only been an hour.  He wished people were more like that.

“I was just about ready to send a search party out for you,” she scolded, dropping her cigarette on the gravel and twisting it dramatically into the ground with her toe.  “Really darling, if you’re going to invite your editor way down here to the forgotten Shire.. you could at least be present.”

Isabel rolled her eyes and turned to Jack with a grin.

“This old grump, is my editor and very dear friend, Alex Page,” she said, stepping forward and hugging her warmly.  “I’m sorry, she finally apologized… Maya ran off and I had to go catch her, Lex.  You know how she is.”

Alex softened at that.  If Oliver was her rescue baby.. Maya was her adopted one.  She always took her in when Isabel traveled and couldn’t bring her along. Ollie and Maya had been practically raised together and Maya looked to Alex for leadership when her beloved owner was away.  Izzy and Alex had been friends for years.  Isabel had been looking for an editor when she stumbled across the name G. A. Page in a publication she read frequently and in her head it sounded like Gee, a page!  Delighted, she had squealed, “That’s it… it’s fate.” What more could a writer ask for, than an editor whose name is Gee! A PAGE!!! Maybe she wasn’t funny to the rest of the world, but sometimes she amused herself in her own little universe.  She picked up the phone and called her on the spot and was impressed to find that Alex answered her own phone. She requested a meeting, expecting the run around, and instead, found open arms and an immediate invitation to her office.  Accepting happily, she spent an entire day with her, watching her work her creative magic with a few well-known authors, never dreaming that she might be one of them some day. They’d been friends ever since.  

Alex had coaxed more than one faltering manuscript out of obscurity, into blazing literary works of art that repeatedly landed on best seller lists.  Isabel attributed much of her success to this woman but Alex had always brushed that off, calling it hogwash.  She insisted that all she did was polish up what was already shining.  Isabel knew better.  In addition to being an editor, Alex was a published photographer.  She understood beautifully how important two perspectives on one subject were, making the value of collaboration something they both prized.  They had spent many a lunch date, editing a manuscript, line by line, and looking at a table full of photographs from every angle.  Eventually, their favorite restaurant had simply given them a table for eight, instead of for two, sometimes even serving them dinner, in addition to lunch.  Their success did have its perks. 

By now, the sun was beginning to go down and the three of them decided to head down to the dock with a bottle of wine.  The dogs scampered playfully down the stairs after them, enjoying the run.  In spite of everything, it had been a beautiful day, an important day and one Jack would remember for a long time.  He sat quietly beside the two women, listening to the easy way they talked, taking it all in with an occasional nod.  But he was far away in his thoughts and Isabel knew it.  As darkness approached, he stood up and excused himself, saying he’d like to read awhile before calling it a night.  The look that passed briefly between he and Isabel, was not lost on Alex, but she didn’t comment.  

He was thankful for the lights that turned on automatically outdoors at dusk, as without them it would have been tough to see.  He heard her, before he saw her, her cold wet nose, nuzzling his hand.  He intended to send her back, but Maya wouldn’t go.  When he took a step, she would follow and he thought for a moment that he’d have to walk all the way back down to the dock to return her to Izzy.  But when he looked up, she was already there on the landing and she said, “If you don’t mind, I think she wants to go with you.”  

He slept like a rock that night, his hand curled into Maya’s fur.   If he dreamt anything at all, he didn’t remember.  He woke early, when the light was just beginning to come up in the eastern sky behind the cabin.  He opened the door to let her out, grabbing a bowl out of the cabinet and filling it with water.  When he knelt to put it down for her, he saw the small envelope tucked under the door and he picked it up, curious.  Inside was a card with a picture of a wolf on the outside, signed in her delicate script.  He flipped it open with one hand while holding the screen for the dog to come back inside.  There was only one word.

Stay. 

Cravings by Roni Delmonico

Amazing the impact a single word can have.  It might even knock a planet off its axis.  Jack stared at it far longer than he intended to.  The muscles in his jaw clenched and he read it again.  He put it on the counter and sat down across the room, stiff backed, on a wooden chair. Still looking at it.  As if it were a rattlesnake and his only recourse was to smack it with a hoe.  He clearly had no experience with hoes.  Maya came and sat on her haunches beside him.  She looked at him, then she looked at the card… and then back at him.  A soft whine and a lick.  

“You just be quiet.  I’ll figure this out on my own,” he grumbled, though he did put his hand on her head, gently stroking her ears.

Stay.  

It occurred to him that if he said the same word to Maya and then got up and walked across the room, she wouldn’t move from her spot.  It wasn’t a question and it wasn’t an assumption either.  It was a simple command. For a dog.  But for a man? That word had so many implications.  It could mean many different things.  Regardless of what she meant, it made him feel way outside of his comfort zone and he wasn’t sure how to respond.  In this moment, his word would sound more like.. Go!  

He didn’t think she was asking anything of him but he wasn’t sure, and that uncertainty made him want to throw all of his things into a bag right now and hit the road.  It had been a great couple of days, but staying a weekend was one thing.  Staying… indefinitely?  

Dammit Izzy!  You’re a prolific writer!  Couldn’t you have added a few more words to that card?  Words like… “Do you want to stay another day?”  Or, “Do you think we should stay in today?”  Or, “Are you planning to stay awhile?”  Easily quantifiable things.  Anything would have been better than just one glaring, stupid, confusing word.  

Stay.  

It seemed to echo off the walls.

It wasn’t quite light yet but there was enough spilling through the trees that he decided to go for a run to clear his head.  He still had shorts on and he threw on a t-shirt, grabbing his socks off the floor and stepping into his boots.  He looked ridiculous and hoped she was fast asleep and wouldn’t see him walk to the truck like this but his sneakers were behind the passenger seat where he kept them and he wasn’t about to go hopping across the gravel in his socks.  

Half way there, she came out of nowhere.  “Morning,” she grinned.  He flinched.

“Maya, you traitor!” he growled.  “Why didn’t you warn me?”  He could swear the dog was grinning.

Isabel smiled warmly as she bent down and kissed her dog on the nose.  “How did you sleep?”  He wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or to the dog but he answered anyway.  

“Great.”   Silence.  If she could do one word, so could he.

“That’s good,” she said softly, her eyes narrowing slightly.  

Awareness was beginning to register on her face, but he didn’t want to see it.  He wanted to run.  Right now!  He sat in the front seat of his truck and pulled his boots off, exchanging them for sneakers, focusing on his feet and refusing to meet her eyes. He hopped down and took off without a word.  After a few paces he felt rude and turned to say, “Be back shortly.”  But she was already on her way to the water.  He turned away then and sprinted hard before he changed his mind.  His breath came heavy and he was reminded again, how out of shape he was.  It only made him push harder.  He followed the road they came in on, staying out of the woods at this time of morning.  He thought it wiser to be where he was relatively sure of his footing.  After a time, he found his rhythm and he let it carry him far away.  Then his thoughts turned to Annie.

His mind wandered to a time when she had called to talk to him while he was on a job in the village. She asked if they could meet somewhere for lunch, and she requested that “somewhere” might have a table on the porch in the sunshine?  She was in a great mood that day and full of mischief.  She said she had something to tell him, but that she needed to do it over an extra delicious cheese sandwich.  Preferably with bacon on it.  And could he please find her one.  On a porch. In the sunshine.  Amused, he had called around everywhere but no one currently had them on the menu.  He hated to disappoint her so he took her to a restaurant she knew well and loved, hoping that would suffice.  It had a porch.  And it was soaked in sunshine.  So it did.  She was happy.  But she was always happy.

When they sat down…she explained that she had been walking in the park that morning and she overheard two friends joking with each other.. something about magical levitations, the latest playoffs, and an extra delicious cheese sandwich.  She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop.  But now all she could think about was extra delicious cheese sandwiches and she just had to have one.  When the waitress came over she mentioned her craving to her, and in the end, she got her extra delicious cheese sandwich with 4 strips of extra delicious bacon and then handed him a little baggie with a stick that had two pink lines running through it, as she took a huge bite and waited calmly for his reaction.   It wasn’t very often he was speechless, but he picked her up out of her chair and hugged her to him in that moment, not caring who in the place was staring at them.  And he made a lot of extra delicious cheese sandwiches in the coming months.

He started running harder then.  He ran until his body gave out, and then he walked the rest of the way home.

Gathering all of his things together, he tidied up the cabin leaving it the way he had found it.  Turning off the lights, he clicked the lock and closed the door softly behind him.  Isabel watched him silently from her window upstairs, her heart in her throat, as his truck backed up, slowly and disappeared around the bend.  The last thing he saw as he adjusted his rearview mirror… was her face.

Realign All The Stars by Roni Delmonico

He felt like a coward.  He knew he’d hurt her.  He could see it as he drove away, and it wasn’t a good feeling.  He should have at least talked to her before he left.  She deserved something better than silence.  He drove north, thinking about the last two days.  It was more interesting and meaningful than anything he’d done in the last two months and he wasn’t entirely sure how that was even possible, except that before that, he’d spent every waking moment with only a hammer and a bunch of nails, working job after job, seven days a week.  

It didn’t seem like much, just little moments.  They had talked, shared a meal that was probably better suited to a pair of mice, watched a sunrise, taken the Harley out, walked through an orchard, wandered the woods with a wolfdog. They had laughed and they had cried.  But he searched his heart and recognized he hadn’t lived even a tenth of the last two days, in the last two months.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt anything at all, much less, laughed or cried.  In two days, he had come alive.  And so had she.

By now, he was nearly home.  Turning right, he made his way down to the river and pulled into the drive.  He grabbed his bag from the back seat and stumbled wearily up the porch steps, unlocking the door and dropping his stuff on the hardwood floor.  He stared out at the yard for a long time and he could hear the clock on the wall ticking.  Was it really only 9 am?  He flopped on the couch and put his feet up on the table, picking up the remote.  Passing by a number of tv evangelists, he stopped on the news.  He listened for awhile and it was totally depressing.  More fighting in the middle east.  Some expert talking about a virus he couldn’t even fathom.  A plunging Dow Jones industrial.  A baby lost in a crash not ten miles from here.  He shut it off and got up to look in the fridge. Two beers, some white bread,  a package of bologna that was turning green around the edges.  And a jar of mustard that had crusty dry bits hanging off the lid.  Really?  He slammed the door in disgust.

Wandering the house he went out to her studio and sat down in one of the rocking chairs.  Everything was still the same, just the way she’d left it. Because of the big windows, the sun was so beautiful out here.  She used to love the way the river sparkled from east to west, the whole day long, making wavy dappled light on the walls and floor.  It was her favorite room in the house.  He stared out at the water for a long time.  When he looked at the clock, it was 9:30 am.  Irritated, he took his clothes downstairs and threw them into the washing machine, slamming the lid.  He went back up to the office and turned on the computer, swiveling to his left to grab the phone.  At eye level, was a row of books, and every one of them whispered her name.  Isabel Wolfe.

Pulling one of them off the shelf, he began to read.  He was surprised to find himself interested in the story after only a few chapters.  You couldn’t really call it romance.  It was more like “life experience” from a romantic point of view.  Clearly she found some measure of beauty in ordinary things.  She wrote of simple things in a way that caused her reader to pay attention to the details that made them extraordinary to her.  No wonder Annie had loved them.  She saw the world that way too.  He closed the book and laid it on the desk, staring at it for a long time, thinking.  

The timer went off and he ran downstairs to put his clothes in the dryer.  He dumped the rest of the contents of his dresser into a duffel bag, leaving it on the bed while he showered and shaved.  He added a few things from the bathroom to his bag, grabbing it by the handles and dropping it in the office.  He chose two of Isabel’s books and laid them on top of the clothes, zipping it up and lifting it onto his shoulder.  In the other hand, he grabbed his tool belt and an old blanket.

“Quit overthinking it, Jack.  Just do it.”   

He tossed it all in the truck and took off for the grocery store.  

*************************************************  

She was wandering the aisles listlessly, feeling bluer than she cared to admit to herself and would flat out refuse to admit to anyone else.  She was wearing a pair of baggy sweats that were smeared with paint and her hair was tucked up in a messy ponytail. There was a small red basket over her arm, but she hated grocery shopping and she couldn’t decide what to fill it with.  She found a display of tangerines and smiled to herself, adding four of them to the basket along with a jar of cashews, a big bag of M&Ms, some bacon, coffee and a few protein bars.  She supposed she should put some vegetables in there so she found a zucchini and a bag of salad and tossed them in virtuously.  It would probably be limp by the time she decided to open it, but she would try.  She sighed and the old man next to her looked at her kindly, patting her arm, raising an eyebrow in question and handing her a tomato.  She laughed and accepted the gift.  She had no idea why, but she went to the deli and asked for half a pound of bologna.  She hadn’t eaten that since she was nine, but maybe Maya would like it.

It was a long drive back to the Lodge so she turned on one of her playlists.  She had several that she had given color titles and she knew she should probably choose one that was Yellow or Red, but instead, she picked “Blue.”  She wondered why she always made that choice when she was feeling melancholy and then realized that it made some kind of weird sense, if her music was the soundtrack to her life. 

So open your eyes and see
The way our horizons meet
And all of the lights will lead
Into the night with me…

Her thoughts drifted to a man and his motorcycle and she didn’t even try to banish them.  She let them ride at will over her weary heart.

She saw the truck first and her heart skipped a beat as she scanned the property.  She found him swaying gently on the porch swing that was hanging by a squeaky chain next to the front door, boots firmly planted on the ground. She cut the engine and could hear the windchimes above the whispering pines through her open window.  There was a brown bag full of groceries on the seat beside him and one on his knee.  Maya was laying at his feet chewing on a bone.  Isabel got out of the car and pulled her one plastic bag off the passenger seat feeling a little silly for what was inside.  When she slammed the door, Maya moved to greet her, but Jack leaned forward and said simply…  Stay.  

When he looked up at her, she was smiling… and something in him came undone.

It Feels Like Coming Home by Roni Delmonico

They spent the week together simply.  She opened the door and he followed her.  He smiled and she responded.  She spoke and he listened.  He ran with the dog and she walked with her.  She painted and he read.  He cooked and she did the dishes.  She started a sentence and he finished it.  They did all the things they would have normally done alone, but when they looked up across the room or down through the forest… the other one was always there.  

There is peace in living in the present… in relishing and respecting everything for exactly what it is in a single point in time, without smothering it in what came before or forcing it too early by willing the future to come sooner than it is meant to.  Isabel thought about all these things as she planted her bulbs in the woods, patting the dirt gently around each one and sprinkling it with her watering can.  Only a few of them would survive.  But it might only be a few that were needed.  Most people would think she was nuts, but she loved the idea of someone walking along and stumbling over a beautiful surprise that was unlikely to be there without a little help.  She thought of it like planting future smiles.

Jack was sitting beside her with a piece of grass in his mouth again.  She didn’t think it was weird anymore.  She would think it was weird if he didn’t do that.  He lay back and stared up through the trees without a word.  It’s a gift when the silence between two people is comfortable.  

The sky was a gorgeous shade of blue and there was a song in her heart.  

It was there in his too.

I can’t believe a month ago
I was alone
I didn’t know you
I hadn’t seen you or heard your name
And even now
I’m so amazed
It’s like a dream…..

And some things are the way they are and words just can’t explain.

Words Fall Through Me by Roni Delmonico

It was a beautiful morning and Jack had already cleared his schedule for the day, hoping to spend some time with her. But Isabel had a deadline looming and she was way behind schedule. She needed to work for awhile without distraction and he found himself with some time to kill.  Normally he would have been irritated that the weather report called for more rain, but at the moment, he was content to live with it.  He was behind schedule on a job too, but he was working outdoors and he’d have to catch up when the weather improved.  It came with the territory and he was used to it by now.  He’d been working construction for almost thirty years and the weather in this town was as unpredictable today as it was when he’d first started out. 

He ran upstairs to the bedroom of the cabin.  It was beginning to feel like home and more than once he found himself wishing it was.  Opening the duffel bag he’d brought with him, he decided it might be a good idea to finally unpack his things and he shook out the few pairs of pants he’d brought and tossed them in one of the drawers.  He wasn’t fussy.  Most of his work clothes consisted of old jeans and long sleeved flannel shirts over t-shirts.  It only took him about five minutes to put it all away and he wondered why he hadn’t bothered to do it a few days ago.  He picked up the two books he’d brought with him, and decided on one, stretching out on the bed and setting the other one on the nightstand beside him.  Switching on the light, he put his glasses on and opened to the first page of Isabel's novel…

***

I was born in the city of Long Beach, at the tail end of a stormy winter.  I always thought that was funny, because there wasn’t a beach anywhere in sight, certainly not a long one...and in California, winter is supposed to be non-existent and the sun is always expected to shine.  The real view was something a bit different from that ideal.  The hospital windows were filled with buildings and highways and a brown and dingy smog, courtesy of a world that was rushing by, completely unaware of the tiny baby girl on the fourteenth floor, arriving off schedule, apparently in just as much of a hurry.  I was a month too early but I was a fighter, even then.   And I would be drawn to waves and to storms from that very first day of my life.  I suppose you could say I was born to it, and I would seek the sound and feel of both, for the rest of my days.

My dad was a Navy man and we moved to the east coast shortly after I was born. We settled on the shores of a lake, three thousand miles away, making frequent trips to Hawaii and California to visit family. I came to think of the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii as home, as easily as I called the various lakes of New York my home and would wander my whole life back and forth between the two coasts.  When I set out at nineteen, ready to start a life of my own, I would be baptized by yet another body of water, a lake whose waves were reminiscent of the shores of both my birthplace on the west coast, and that of my father, on the island of Oahu.  Water has always been in my soul, and it would forever be my biggest comfort.      

For the first two decades of my life, I felt like a ship at sea, frequently blown off course, lost and drifting aimlessly beneath a bitter gray sky and shining light into the encroaching darkness in earnest.  I was searching for belonging and seeking safe harbor on the heels of storm after storm on the rocky coastline of my life. And I was always chasing something… a boy, an ideal, an impossible dream. But in a stroke of fate, I found my safe haven in a blinking lighthouse before I even turned twenty.  I had run aground again, ripping my hull on a scatter of jagged rocks, but when I looked up… that light was as strong a light as any I’d ever seen, and so I stayed.  I put down my anchor, I set out to repair my boat, and I stayed. 

I return to this place every November no matter where my life has taken me, driven by the relentless waves inside of me as much as I am by the waves crashing below me. I always come alone and on the same day every year... to remember and to feel. Those rocks on the shoreline are still rough against the backs of my legs as I swingthem in an arc, up and then down again, but I pay them no mind. Today, thin wisps of gray hair blow softly around my face and I reach up with one hand to hold them back, remembering this younger version of myself without animosity.  We must each make our own journey, and this one, here in this place.. is mine.  It will always be mine. With a sigh, I let it all go once again, as I have done every other year.  I will continue to do this, for as long as I am able.

There is still a great comfort in the way the waves in their soft shades of blue and gold melt together, never changing, always returning as I do, year after year without fail. A lone seagull flies overhead and his mournful cry reverberates seamlessly against the beating of my own heart. Gathering up my camera, I wander down to the water and stand for a long time, lost in thought, silently taking in the scene in front of me. It reminds me so much of the Pacific Ocean and I marvel at how the same amazing grace can exist in the changing moods of a lake way out here in the middle of nowhere. I close my eyes, whispering a fervent prayer and send it sailing on the wind into the misty sunrise, before slipping away without a sound, as if I'd never been there.

* * *

He stands in the shadow of the mighty oak tree at the edge of his property with his hat in his hands, never making a sound, despite the merciless pounding of his broken heart. He has watched me come, and he watches me go, every year now for thirty years. And when I am gone, he returns to the silence I leave behind me, wrapping it around him like a cloak until the next time…sliding quietly back into the shadows.  

I know he is there.  But I have yet to find the courage to break our silence.  

I Feel The Earth Move by Roni Delmonico

Jack read her story for another hour, pausing only once to close it and look at the book jacket again.  All Who Wander.  She didn’t call it her memoir, but it read like one.  He was intrigued as he read page after page, learning more about what she thought in that hour, from the words she had written.. than he had in the last few days, from what she had said to him as they talked.  He wondered how much of it was fiction, and how much was the reality of her own life experience; who the man beneath the mighty oak tree was, and whether the place that called her back year after year, truly existed.  And he wondered if she’d even tell him if he asked, or if like a magician guarding his secrets, she would closely guard her own heart.  He looked out the window for a long time.  The clouds were rolling in and getting thicker but there was still a patch of blue sky. He got up to pull a quilt out of the chest at the foot of the bed, settling in to read some more...

***

When I was sixteen, I thought I knew everything I needed to know.  I was always a good girl, never making waves, avoiding conflict like the plague.  I worked hard in school, got straight A’s, played the piano, sang in the choir and went to church twice on Sunday and every Wednesday night.  We played games that had me running around in circles (literally) and memorizing scripture, and once every quarter we’d go to a special communion service where we’d partake of the bread and cup, share a simple meal, and then wash each other’s feet the way Jesus did when he was wandering by the Sea of Galilee in dust covered sandals with his disciples.  I hated that.  As a girl in her mid-teens, the idea of washing a fifty year old woman’s wrinkly feet was totally gross and you could try, but you didn’t always get to pick the person sitting next to you.  I never could decide anyway; was it worse to wash a fifty year old stranger’s feet.. or the feet of the girl who sat behind me in Bible class? She had fat toes and she didn't change her toenail polish until there was only a tiny hot pink circle left in the middle of each toe.  I guess I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of the greatest becoming the least and the master kneeling in service to the servant.  To tell you the truth, I’m still trying to figure that out.

That was also the year, my parents got divorced for the second time and I thought the world had come to an end.  I was attending a Youth Conference where I had submitted my very first fictional short story and entered it in a contest, getting my first bitter taste of rejection and basically deciding that I should never write anything ever again for all the remainder of my days on this planet and even beyond into the afterlife where I was certain I was destined to be a street sweeper in front of the pearly gates of heaven. (I was very dramatic back then).  My mother came to pick me up at the end of the week and after I told her that I was giving up my writing career forever, she told me that was fine because she was giving up her marriage.  I supposed that trumped my little bit of drama for the decade.  

I rode home in sulky silence in that old blue station wagon, sitting on the bench seat that was facing backward, as far away as possible and scowling at any car that dared to pull up too close to the bumper.  When we stopped at a gas station, my mother opened her window and a giant fuzzy bee the size of a hamster flew in.  I was flailing like a mad crazed woman to get out of the car and the people behind us could not stop laughing.  I would repeat that move in the first year of my marriage, getting out of my car while it was still in gear and watching as it drove toward the lake all by itself… but I didn’t know it at the time.  “One day at a time,” I always say, and that was not a good day. 

The first time my parents divorced, I was five and my brother was three.  I remember staying with my grandmother in California while they worked it all out and we would play on the concrete in the backyard.  My brother used to dig up pill bugs from between the cracks and eat them. He’d offer to share them with me but I would turn my back in disgust and pour dirt into my bucket with a shovel and a haughty little sneer. I was too good to eat bugs.  I’d spend hours picking out the little bits of grass that would get stuck in my bucket of perfect dirt and make pies that he would eat with equal enthusiasm, sometimes adding a bug or two for good measure.  They were good for decorating mud pies.  At the end of the day, my grammy would put me to bed in a little room off the kitchen and I could hear her putter around before turning on the television, where she’d fall asleep in a chair, softly snoring.  I liked listening and would watch the fireflies dancing outside my window to the tune of it all.  My grandfather had a beautiful rose garden and he would work out there till it got dark.  I liked their quiet life.  It was a peaceful reprieve from my own.

One February morning in 1971, I was still dreaming in my twin bed at six o’clock, when it began to move all by itself across the floor toward the doorway to the kitchen when the The Big One hit.  I always called it The Big One because for me, it was.  California knew their quakes.  But it was this particular one I would always remember.  I was screaming that someone needed to come and save me from the ghost who was dragging me into the fiery pit of heck, (a good little girl of five does not swear without getting soap in her mouth) when the peanut butter came tumbling out of the cabinet in slow motion and shattered onto the floor in a million tiny pieces with gooey brown extra chunky globs stuck to the broken glass.  Everything was falling out of the cabinets as the house shook for several minutes, but I was focused on that peanut butter, all the way down.  

I later thought that divorce felt a lot like that.  Like that shattered jar of glass with gooey brown extra crunchy peanut butter stuck to all the pieces.  There was no way to clean it all up without getting cut… without bleeding somewhere.  The family I had known for five years, was somehow reduced to bloody crunchy peanut butter.  It was sticky and messy and if you stepped in it, you’d be in a world of hurt.

The family I had known up to that point did fall out and shatter that day.  It shattered into a bunch of pieces that never went back together the same way again. The peanut butter wasn’t in the jar anymore.  Some of it was splattered on the face of those ugly old cabinets.  Some of it was melting into the floor.  Some of it was still stuck in the half broken jar.  And some of it was stabbed clean through with little shards of glass that would cause a tiny little girl to collect way too many bandaids.  She liked the ones with Mickey Mouse and Barbie on them the best. 

And she still hates peanut butter.

Don't Stumble On The Waves by Roni Delmonico

The sun was making its way across the sky, but Jack had lost all track of time. He rolled over taking a drink out of the glass on the nightstand and then adjusted the pillow behind his back, turning to the next page.  He felt as if her life was unfolding before him like acts on a stage, and he couldn’t put it down.  It was as if she had taken the reader back in time, leading them from room to room through the annals of her heart.

 

My late teens would be turbulent and full of a passive aggressive rebellion punctuated alternately by long silences and more than a few slammed doors.  My brother joined the military and moved far away to a country with city names I couldn’t pronounce and food that resembled the bugs he ate as a child.  Another family would form in place of my old one, and I would drift aimlessly, feeling that I had nowhere to belong.  I left home by the time I was seventeen and by twenty two, I was married.  By that time, I had already been on my own for nearly five years and it took me some time to figure out how to live with someone else. And just when I did, he went back.  

Some men are born to the military and some are made by it.  The latter start out more like Lost Boys who just sort of fall into it because they have no idea what else to do with their lives. Eventually they find their place.  But the former… they just know.  It’s in their blood. I don’t suppose it really matters in the end, which camp you are in, to begin with.  What matters is the guy who ends up next to you and whether or not you have his back.  John fell into the first camp and he would find his own sense of belonging within a tight band of elite brothers known as the Navy Seals.  He would do his best to be there for me, but when he was called, he would go, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

For me, our wedding day would be the day I emerged from a cocoon that had never felt safe, but had bound me tightly and with little mercy. My spirit shed that old carcass with relish, lifting on new wings, like a butterfly freed.  I stretched those wings with abandon that day, on the heels of a coastal storm. It blew in on a mess of sleet and snow, covering everything in its path.  But butterflies aren’t meant for sleet and snow.  Their wings are really…far too delicate.

***

I could see the clouds moving across the surface of the water in the way I pictured a Middle East sandstorm moving across the desert.  I stood at the window reminiscing, noting the scattered debris on the beach from the warmth of my tiny cottage. I was grateful now for the small fireplace John had thought to install last summer when the weather was still warm, but at the time, I remember teasing him about it as he worked, floating around on a raft and splashing him whenever he came near enough.

 “It’s 90 degrees out here, John and you’re building a fireplace!” I mocked.  “What’s wrong with this picture?”

He pointed a finger at me, sweating heavily and squinting into the sun. 

“Mark my words, woman!  You will appreciate this come winter.”

How right he had been.

* * *

I started a fire and it was crackling cheerfully beside me now, as the waves roared in earnest just twenty feet out from the house. The hurricane had decimated the Eastern Seaboard and the damage was even worse than expected. My heart went out to those whose homes and businesses had once dotted the coastline. They were not as fortunate as I had been. Many of those structures were now washed out to sea, the historical landscape changed irrevocably.  Our little place on the shores of Lake Ontario, however, had weathered the storm valiantly, not a single plank lost. The giant oak tree stood stalwart, bending and creaking perilously, but refusing to give up a single branch to that violent storm. 

I felt a strange kinship with that tree. My eyes rested on it thoughtfully as I sipped my coffee, steam curling in ribbons and distorting my view of it into a lovely abstract idea for a painting. I filed that vision away, and determined in my heart to get started on it, as soon as I had cleared the breakfast dishes away. Sighing deeply, I felt at once, both lonely... and content. So often, I sensed these strange contradictions inside of me, confusion washing over me.  Reaching up, I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and smiled softly, thinking of him. John had always loved the habit I had developed as a child and had taken to reaching up to tuck it away for me, pausing to run a finger slowly along the side of my face.  Before him, I hadn't even realized how often I did that throughout the day.  Now, I felt him with me… every time I did.

Setting the coffee cup on the counter, I noticed how it matched the color perfectly. It was a deep blue, the color of a perfect April sky.  I didn't do these things deliberately but there was something inside of me that often sought to keep my surroundings harmonious. Looking around thoughtfully at the interior of this space we called home I recognized that somehow, I had managed to take the best of myself and the best of John and weave it all into a pattern that pleased us both. I, personally used every shade of purple and blue I could mix together in my artwork, as I was drawn to water and sky. John, however, loved bold colors that mimicked earth and fire. Pulling those things together was like composing an intricately complicated symphony full of chords that mingled in both dissonance and harmony. I loved this place and I poured my heart and soul into it, covering it securely with his. Turning the stereo on, the melancholy strains of the violin filled the house as I washed the dishes and dried them, carefully putting them away in the cabinets above my head. I admired the grain of the wood and stopped to run my hand down the face of the cabinet doors in appreciation as I closed them.

John was a music man and traces of him were in every room. Wandering to his guitar in the corner of the den, I ran my fingers over the glossy curves of its face gently, pausing to close my eyes and draw his memory to me.  Picking it up and pulling the strap over my shoulder and around my neck, I strummed the few chords he had managed to teach me when he could convince me to put the brushes down for awhile. I softly hum an old Rich Mullins tune he loved, before leaning it against my easel and sitting down to paint. As was often the case, several hours passed before I even looked up again, and my canvas was covered by a gnarled old tree dripping with vibrant blue and purple flowers.   I cocked my head, looking at it critically, lost in memories of Maui, her winding roads lined by fragrant Jacaranda trees, raining flowers down on our heads and weaving them quietly into my hair.  He used to come up behind me, kissing the back of my neck, lingering until he felt me tremble.  It worked every time.

“It’s been too long,” I say to the tree in my painting.  

Getting up from the dark wooden stool I stretched and made my way toward the windows at the back of the house. They make up the entire wall and the vast lake was nearly on the doorstep.  That view never fails to amaze me. I was surprised to find that several inches of snow were now covering the lawn. Yawning, I put a pot of soup on the stove and decide to stay home for the rest of the day. This would be a perfect afternoon to write a letter to John. The snow was still falling softly, blanketing the world in the gentlest kind of quiet.  I could hear the wind whistling in the pines and I opened the window just a crack, so I could smell them.  Someone had a fire going and it wafted in on the cold.  Closing my eyes, I soaked it all in. I would go for a walk out there later, but for now, I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and sat down on the stool at the end of the counter where I love to write.  I can see the waves tumbling onto shore and it soothes my tired heart.

Dear John,

The silence in this cottage is profound, now that you are gone. I sit here listening to the tick of the clock, wondering how many millions of them will pass before you are able to return home again.  But you always said, “One breath at a time…”

So just for today:

I will remember the beauty in the curve of fresh cut flowers. It is nearly winter now and most of them, except for the mums, have already gone by.
I will put on your favorite sweatshirt and take a walk in the snow.
I will lay aside the colors of anger for the softer shades of forgiveness.
I will listen to uplifting music and take ten minutes for a cup of tea.
I will stop trying to stick a thousand bandaids on an old wound but rather air it out and leave it uncovered to the wind.
I will bake an apple pie so I can smell it and savor the taste without worrying about calories.
I will revel in the light coming through the windows without trying to capture it.
I will breathe until my lungs have expanded to their absolute capacity.
I will read that letter that means so much to me and then I will go back and read it again. And again. And again. Until I've memorized it. Your words are a beautiful gift.
I will look in the mirror and say, you are beautiful and brave and strong, and I love you, and it is your face I will see reflected back at me.
I will be thankful that I am alive and that there are people in my life here who love me in your absence.
I will try to say it all without using a thousand words.:)
All I really need to say is this.

I love you more today than yesterday.

I chewed quietly on the end of my pen, wondering if I should add any further details but decided against it. Resting my chin on my hand I stare out the window and think back to the beginning of our marriage. John was a man of few words, but I was a woman who thrived on them. He appreciated when I conveyed my feelings to him briefly, and while the writer in me struggled with that, I had long since made peace with it. I knew he loved me and that he couldn't always find the words to say it. He was baffled by the way I could pour my emotion into the written word and in the beginning, he ran from that. Too often he was distracted before I had even reached the end of a sentence and before I really understood who he was, it would infuriate me. But he was very good at showing his love in other ways and I had learned to accept the man he was, long ago, just as he had learned not to fear my outward displays of emotion. John was not a man who sat still for very long. It was one of his biggest strengths, and it was also one of his greatest weaknesses. We had learned the dance in time and had come to respect that we each had our own unique moves that served to strengthen the bond that wove us together more tightly. It was a journey full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and compromises on both sides. Eventually we settled into a comfortable pattern and protected it as something sacred.

The sky was beginning to clear and the golden hour was quickly approaching. I was thrilled to see some patches of blue sky drenched in shades of pink and salmon that were just beginning to sink toward the horizon when I pulled aside the bedroom curtains. I really loved this time of day. The light was always so beautiful, especially out over the water. It was cold outside so I took care to dress in layers before heading out. There was something really special about the first snowfall of the season and while I was not a big fan of winter, I did sincerely appreciate it for the few weeks leading up to Christmas.

Winding my scarf around my neck, I quickly grabbed the camera from the little glass table by the door and trudged out into the snow. I could see my breath and there were tiny icicles forming on the porch railing, each one reflecting the various colors of the approaching sunset like sparkling little jewels. Those details were something I didn't often miss now that I spent so much time behind a camera lens. Photography was something I had picked up as a way to preserve ideas for future paintings but it had turned out to be as much a passion for me as the writing and painting were. Initially, it had caught me by surprise but I didn't know why now, because when I stopped to think about it, it made perfect sense.  My camera was just one more way to speak my own version of the world to others around me. 

Just down the road from the cottage, there was a little bakery that ran completely on the honor system and I headed in that direction. The local woman who owned it, lived in the big house on the bay at the end of a long dirt road. She trusted the people of our sleepy little town to be honest and leave their money in the wicker basket on the table surrounded by her homemade goods each day and in all the years she had been doing it, she was never disappointed. It was a sweet little dollhouse of a place, fashioned from a brand new shed with white paint and green shutters and window boxes that held fresh flowers on warm summer days, red and white poinsettias during the holiday months. There was always hot coffee in a thermos, with a little pitcher of cream in a bowl of ice beside it. Frequently I would find one or two other people there and we’d stop for a few minutes of our day to enjoy a pleasant conversation but today the snow must be keeping people indoors, because when I walked up, I found it empty. There was a single candle burning in a large glass jar filling the air with the scents of cinnamon and spice. I picked up a loaf of french bread that was still warm from the oven, thinking it would go really well with the soup, and a small box of chocolate cupcakes for dessert. I left a little extra money in the basket and a short note of thanks and closed the door softly behind me.

On the way back I stopped to survey the construction site of the new marina going in at the end of the street.  John and I had been adamantly against it when we first found out about it, but some of the neighbors convinced us that it would be a good thing for all. The project would bring several much needed jobs to the area. John had warmed to the idea much sooner than I had. It would house a new restaurant and several boat slips, along with docks and rentals for people vacationing in the area during the busier summer months. He believed it would be a good thing for the local economy but I remained skeptical and had adopted a wait and see attitude rather than anguish over it unnecessarily. It was beyond my control now anyway and I preferred to expend my energy in places where I could really make a difference. I grudgingly admitted to him that I loved the atmosphere of a well run marina and had, from the time I was a little girl and my grandparents would take me to the lighted boat parade in Long Beach at Christmas time, when we'd visit. I was drawn to water even as a child and it really was a festive way to celebrate the holidays.

Change was always hard for me though, and I missed the trees and wildflowers that had lined this path before construction had replaced those things with a tidy gravel road and several unsightly pieces of heavy equipment. Thankfully I had a vivid imagination and was able to close my eyes and dream of what the marina would look like next summer when it was in full swing.  For a moment I could hear children laughing, people splashing in the water, dogs barking, car tires crunching on gravel.  I felt how wonderful it was when the sun was warm on your back and on your face.  I imagined ice cream cones dripping, and lovers bending their heads together in some shared moment marked by sparkling water and sailboats. And the fireflies… oh the fireflies! I breathed in deeply at the thought of them. Every summer they returned, twinkling their way back into my heart.  The fireflies always came back. 

During construction, they had moved the neighborhood mailboxes to the other side of the dirt road and I stopped to collect what was in mine before continuing on my way. The light was waning and darkness was creating shadows all around me so I tucked the few pieces of mail into my coat and continued walking. The sun's last rays were illuminating the tall grass on either side of me and I breathed in the crisp, clean air withdeep satisfaction. Drinking everything in with my eyes as the camera dangled mostly unused at my hip, I did decide to stop and photograph one tiny snowflake that was glittering in the last light of the sun. It wouldn't be long before the first stars would begin to twinkle in an inky black sky and I didn't want to miss a moment of the magic unfolding before me. The morning snow had covered everything in a glittery curtain of ice crystals. Acres and acres of land protected by the state was now adorned in sparkling winter finery. It was divine.  I hated to leave but it was nearly dark and I still needed to bring in some wood before settling in for the night.  A small rabbit hopped out of the darkness in front of me and I scolded him quietly for scaring me as he scampered out of sight.

I walked the last half mile home thinking about how only five families remained on this street for the entire year. There was a time in my life when that might have scared me, but that time was long past. I was used to living alone now and this place was so much a part of me. I marched up the stairs to the front door, feeling pleased at how self sufficient I had become. Closing it behind me, I clicked the lock and turned the light in the kitchen on, setting the dimmer about half way so the light cast a soft glow over the living room beyond. Adding several logs to the fire I had managed to keep going all day long, I hung up my coat and scarf and settled in for another winter evening alone, careful not to forget the mail in the inside pocket of my jacket. Sorting through it, I found a few bills and a letter from John, and I couldn’t wait to read it. The sound of his voice would return to me through his words, and I would savor the letter slowly, since I knew they would be few. But if there was one thing John was very good at, it was in saying the most meaningful things, in the most succinct way possible. Tearing into the envelope, I willed myself to slow down, and was disappointed to find that it was even shorter than usual... until I read it.

My Dearest Love… I'm coming home.

And So It Goes by Roni Delmonico

Jack had often been in situations where he wished he was a fly on the wall but now that he suddenly felt like he was, he wondered if he had been wrong to wish for that.   He had been reading for another hour and thought he would stop at the last chapter, but he still couldn’t put the book down.  He got up to stretch and heard scratching at the door.  When he opened it, Maya ran in and curled up on the sofa, declaring it her spot for the day.  

“Well okay then, Maya, it’s settled!  I’ll be right back.”

He heard thunder in the distance and ran quickly across to the Lodge to tell Isabel he had her dog again.  He hoped she didn’t mind this habit they were forming.  He really liked when Maya was around.   When she opened the door, she had her manuscript in one hand, a pen in her mouth.  She had already told him she was old fashioned and still preferred to print it out and then mark it all up in red the way her high school English teacher had.

“See.. I wasn’t kidding.” she smiled.  She looked at him sheepishly, holding it up and squinting at it with her glasses on the end of her nose.   “How are you, Jack?  Do you need anything?”

“Oh, no.. I just came to tell you I have Maya again.  I was reading and she was scratching at the door.”

Looking down at what he was holding, she blushed.  He had forgotten he still had the book in his hand and he suddenly felt as if he’d been caught reading her diary. He realized then, that being with an author in person, while reading their book, was something like being allowed into the bedroom.. that sacred space where few ever walk.  The initial invitation came when she made the book public, publishing it long after John’s death, and yet he felt in this moment as if he had somehow invited himself to come in when she had not asked him to.  It wasn’t especially comfortable, but he wasn’t about to walk out now.  He was going to finish what he started.

“I found it on Annie’s shelf in the office at home, Izzy.  I hope it doesn’t bother you that I’m reading it,” he said in a tone that suggested he wasn’t going to put it down regardless.

“No, of course not.”  

She smiled warmly but if she were a poker player, she would have just lost that hand because he held the cards in his.. and she was bluffing.

He walked back to the cabin and sat down on the couch with the dog.  Opening the book, he began the next chapter, surprised to find that she had now switched to John’s perspective.

*** 

Bella had been slamming around for the better part of an hour and I was losing patience. She has always had a passionate streak and although it takes a lot to make her angry, when she was, I definitely knew it. I had anticipated that she would be upset by my news, but I hadn't expected a reaction quite this volatile. I’ve underestimated her feelings about my absence more often than I care to admit. I’m not used to emotional connections that make me this important in the life of another human being. It isn’t unwelcome but it is entirely foreign. It is an unfortunate aspect of my job that I can be called away at a moment's notice and it cannot be avoided. She is well aware of this, but doesn't always accept it gracefully. My feelings about that and for her are what have prompted my early retirement and the purchase of our small cottage out in the middle of nowhere. She felt this sleepy little town would be the ideal place for us to disappear into anonymity. I never had the heart to tell her, there is no such perfect place. Not in my world, and therefore.. not in hers.  We both learned this the hard way, some time later.

***
“Damn it all, John. You promised! You said we were done with this!”  Her shoe hit the wall above my head and my blood pressure was already rising.

She marched into the bedroom and slammed the door with a rather well practiced hand. I stood on the other side of it with my forehead against the wood, taking deep breaths and forcing my own anger into submission.  For the life of me, I didn't understand why she was making such a big deal out of it. At most, I would only be gone for a week. I can still hear her words, clear as a bell.  She was a master at commanding them.

“I am so mad at you, John… I took you at your word! I never know where you are or when you're coming back or if you’ll even come back at all!  It’s terrifying!  You have no idea what it’s like for me!” she shouted from the other side of the door. "You. said. we. were. done."  She was sobbing so hard she was hiccuping.

I knew she was mad. She was gritting her teeth and spitting out her words in clipped syllables. Never a good sign. Slamming doors was just an additional act of defiance she wielded skillfully, knowing how much I hated it.  It wasn’t like her to throw things though.  She must be really mad.

My growing frustration wasn't going to help matters and I was determined to keep a tight reign on my own emotions. I could hear her crying and entertained the idea briefly of pulling the door off its hinges, dismissing the thought as quickly as it had come. She’s strong and she’ll fight her way through this, I thought in exasperation. We’ve been separated before and she came to terms with it eventually. 

“I hate doing it to you even one more time, but this will be the last, I swear, Bella!” I tried again. “Please stop yelling and come out of there.”  She sat leaning heavily against her side of the door, scowling in silence, stubbornly refusing to respond.

I waited without a word, and when she didn't come out, I ran a hand through my hair, grabbed the keys to the Harley and pealed out of the driveway in a desperate attempt to avoid saying something I would later regret. I made a quick stop at the local gas station to make a telephone call.  It wasn’t until much later, that she would learn I had called her brother.

There was only one bar within a 50 mile radius and I headed in that direction. I was driving too fast but the speed of the bike somehow slowed my pulse and I exploded into the parking lot, gravel spraying. I found Drew's pickup truck already parked in the spot beneath the blinking tavern sign next to The Duck Inn. In spite of myself, I had to laugh. Bella thought the name and the sign were hilarious.  She giggled about it every time we drove by. 

Her brother was hell on wheels, but we had known each other since high school and I was used to it. He was loyal to a fault and he was one of my best friends. He was stationed at Hanscom but he was up here all the time.  He had chosen a base where he could be close to his sister which I had to admit was pretty admirable.   They had always looked out for each other and she had been heartbroken when he was stationed so far away. He wasn't always an easy man to deal with but we understood each other in spite of our differences and, if there was one thing I was certain of, it was this: Drew loved Bella and would be there to support her, and I really needed to talk to him about this.

I stood at the counter and ordered a beer, then pulled up a stool next to him. We sat in awkward silence, staring at the game on the large screen tv at the back of the room for several minutes without really paying attention to it.

“You're leaving again, aren't you?” Drew said without looking at me. “Where to this time?”  

The muscles in his jaw tensed and he clenched his fist tighter around the neck of the bottle right before giving in to the urge to slam it down on the counter where I was sitting.

“You know, I will never understand why she bothers to put up with this!” he hissed.

The bartender threw his towel over his shoulder and moved to stand in front of us, with a warning look. I held up my hand and fixed my eyes on him briefly. My years of training had taught me well and I managed, with some effort, to keep from striking back, doing my best to diffuse the situation before it escalated out of control. I’d had plenty of experience keeping my cool in the midst of a crisis, and though I was growing rather tired of it… it had always served me well in dealing with my brother in law.

“Listen to me. You know how this works.  I am going whether you like it or not and she does not need this from you too, so pull it together.” I spat my own words through gritted teeth, recognizing in that instant, where Bella had picked up the habit. 

I spent the next twenty minutes explaining the hostage situation on the Achille Lauro and how four terrorists had taken control of the ship off the coast of Egypt. They had killed a disabled passenger and thrown his body overboard and were now attempting to negotiate. Tensions were mounting quickly.  I had been called back in and Bella was furious. But I was leaving in morning and everyone had better just get a handle on it.

****

I was accustomed to the humming of jet engines but on this particular morning it was really grating on my nerves. I had left my music behind in my haste to get to the airport on time and it was a long trip to Italy. I got the flight attendant's attention on the way to my seat and ordered my coffee black, asking her with a grin to dump some whiskey in for good measure. She was not amused.  I made my way down the aisle, glancing at the numbers and tossing my carry on bag into the overhead compartment before landing with an irritated flop in my seat. It never ceased to amaze me how easily I slid back into the old routine. I was born to this… it was in my blood.  

The woman in the seat next to me was already snoring and I rolled my eyes in exasperation. There was an empty row behind me and I grabbed my bag and dared anyone to challenge the move. The flight attendant raised an eyebrow but when she saw the expression on my face this time, she didn’t argue. I have always had that effect on people. Most of the time I really don’t care but there are times when it only magnifies how solitary my life has become. I’m not approachable and that has never really bothered me. I don’t need anyone but Bella approaching me anyway.

Leaning back in the seat, I closed my eyes, thinking of her. She had smiled at me bravely as I boarded the plane; a tired, weak attempt at supporting me. She had finally stopped fighting.  I felt like a heel and I meant it this time. I would not do this to her again. Drew was really angry with me, but I understood it. He cared about his sister. He would get over it, just as she would. I had finished my beer and my explanation in under an hour, and asked him to look out for her while I was gone. He snarled something about how he always did that, but he did it for her, not for me.  Talk about making a guy feel like an ass.  There was nothing else I could do.  

It tore me apart to see her. She had come around eventually, as I knew she would. I had slipped back into the house quietly and picked up the guitar, taking it out to the porch, to sing. The rain had been falling for hours again… but it seemed so appropriate somehow. When it stopped, she had finally come out of the bedroom, eyes swollen and red and she sat next to me in her rocking chair, looking silently up at the stars for a long time. She wouldn’t look at me at all but I kept playing until her soft voice mingled with mine and my heart broke all over again to look at her. Close to midnight, I took her inside and she went with me willingly. 

It had been a long night and all I wanted on this wretched morning, was to be left alone to think about it. Shifting uncomfortably in my seat, I closed my eyes.

The room smelled of peppermint tea and roses.. remnants of her attempt to comfort herself after I’d stormed out earlier in the evening.  I usually brought it to her at night before bed, and she loved the routine. But she hadn’t known if I’d be back that night and, in an effort to calm down, she had eventually made it on her own.  

There were candles glowing on her nightstand and on the windowsill along my side of the bed. I was glad for it when I pulled her into my arms and felt her resolve melt away.  Tipping her face up to meet mine, I knew that if I searched my whole life, I would never find another pair of eyes that answered the questions within my own, so completely. Bending softly to her, I felt the moment she yielded. It was the exact moment I did the same.  

She described how it felt to me once, early in our relationship and then enjoyed how I squirmed in embarrassment, not yet understanding her need to put words to every experience, even those for which I felt there were none that even began to approach the way that I felt.  I turned again in my seat, looking out the window at the luggage being loaded into the belly of the plane, sinking further into my thoughts.  

I savored kissing her. I could feel her wanting begin at her eyes and work its way throughout her body as the night wore on.  She preferred to linger and I was inclined to let her, more than ever last night.  Her small hands ran gently up and down my back as I tugged my shirt over my head slowly, breaking her gaze only briefly before dropping it on the floor.  She did the same, pressing herself gently to me, her skin soft as silk. 

I picked her up and laid her down on the bed in one fluid movement, smoothing the hair back from her forehead and whispering, “I’m sorry, Bella.  I know this is hard for you.”  She lifted her arms up over her head in surrender, her eyes never leaving mine and I grasped them both in one of my own, as she opened herself to me completely.  I could feel her heart fluttering against my chest, and wished for all the world, that I could unzip all that I was, pull her in to the depths of me and keep her safe there forever.  Knowing that wasn’t possible, I braced myself above her, leaning as close to her mouth as I could get without touching her lips. I exhaled softly and whispered into her mouth, “One breath at a time, Bella, ” wiping away her tears with the back of my hand and touching my forehead to hers.  

She put her lips next to my ear and whispered a song. “And so it goes, and so it goes, and you’re the only one who knows…” She was clinging to those final moments as desperately as I was, singing her heart out as it leaked from her eyes.  We eventually fell asleep, still entwined, and I woke up a few hours later to the sound of waves and the pink light of dawn.  I watched her sleep, willing time to stop.  But time stops for no one.

“Wake up, babe… we have to go now.  It’s time.”  

She shrugged into the same clothes she had on yesterday and stood in the doorway, achingly disheveled, wearing her heart on her sleeve as she always did, the tiny hairs on her arm awash in the morning light streaming in through the window. I held her look for some time, memorizing her features and branding them on my heart.  She laid her hand over the tattoo on my chest, tracing its outline slowly.  It was the image of a wolf.  Covering it with mine, I squeezed it gently, trying to reassure her and stop my own emotion in the process.  I swallowed hard.  Time seemed, just for a moment… to stand still in the space of a single heartbeat, and then the rush came, rolling over us in waves.  One minute or ten passed.. I couldn’t be sure.  All I knew, was that I couldn’t stop it from coming.

I cannot explain to her this need to go when I am called upon, because I don’t always understand it myself. I can no more turn my back on it than I can stop breathing at will. This is my life, and accepting me, is accepting what I am called to do, no matter how painful it is for her. I had always been clear about that, and as I raced toward the Naval Air Station in Sicily, I hoped with everything in me that she would eventually come to make peace with it. Leaning back in my seat, I tried to focus on what was ahead, but all I could see was the woman I’d left behind, as she struggled to come to grips with all I had said to her. I played it over and over again in my mind, wondering if I could somehow have done it all differently. Gripping the small compass she had given me as she left the airport, I closed my eyes again in a useless attempt to erase the tears she’d tried to hide, praying it would point me safely home.

“And so it goes…” I choked under my breath.

The clouds opened up, and poured against my window, as we lifted off.  That plane would carry me far away from one storm and straight into another.

***

Jack closed the book and laid it gently on the table with a deep sigh.  Taking his glasses off and folding them, he placed them thoughtfully on top of her novel, lenses down, magnifying the word Wander. He rubbed his hands over his eyes, fingers massaging the bridge of his nose.  Maya lifted her head and laid it in his lap and he ran his hand along her back, smoothing her fur in long strokes, singing softly to her until she fell back to sleep.  And so it goes, and so it goes, and you’re the only one who knows…