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The Long Way Home

Roni Delmonico

Isabel drove in silence for an hour, welcoming the chance to clear her head.  She loved the quiet backroads and usually chose the longer way over the highway because the views were so gorgeous, and because when you came up over the ridge, the expansive lake sparkling in the sunlight would take your breath away.  She never got tired of that.  

There were several farm stands and nurseries on the side of the road and their neat little rows of vegetables and fruits and the long lines of colorful flowers in hanging pots drew her in.  She walked slowly up and down the aisles, enjoying the sights and smells and the chatter of the children chasing each other around the shop, grabbing big sour pickles out of the barrels by the cash register and bags full of bing cherries.  She stopped to choose some flower pots and fresh strawberries for herself, smiling at a tiny Native American girl who followed her around and lifted her arms, wanting to be picked up.  Her big black eyes were fringed by dark eyelashes and her straight hair flowed down her back, nearly to her waist.  She had jelly smeared across one cheek and was padding around in little yellow flip flops with a giant sunflower on each one.  She was so precious, Isabel couldn’t resist. She put her things down to pick her up.  Her mother ran over and lifted her into her arms, apologizing and wiping her cheek with a napkin as the little girl squirmed restlessly in her arms.  

“I don’t mind,” Isabel laughed. “It’s the best offer I’ve had all day. I’d be happy to take her for a few minutes while you shop.”  Her mother looked at her gratefully.  She held her arms out and the girl came willingly to her, snuggling into her neck and popping her thumb into her mouth.  

Isabel stood rocking the little girl, relishing the feel and smell of her, until she slowly fell asleep.  She thought of her son, David, now in his twenties and living in California and she missed this feeling so much.  He called her rarely these days and so often when she’d try, his phone would click over immediately to voicemail. She’d leave him a message, then hang up, disappointed.  He had no way of knowing it, other than the stories she told, but he was the spitting image of his father…and definitely, as much a man of few words, as he had been.

The one place she and John had found solace when he came home was in physical intimacy.  He was gone for weeks at a time, and though they talked less and less, they held onto each other more and more, in the darkness.  She often thought it was the only bridge he knew how to build as he fought to get back to her and she crossed it every time because she didn’t know what else to do.  She had discovered she was pregnant while he fought the Yellowstone fire and was planning to tell him when he came home… but he never did.  

She raised their son alone and when he was little, her brother would often take him for a week or two at a time.  David was like a little life preserver during a period when both were drowning and she was grateful for Drew’s presence in his life but she did not let him back into the deepest parts of her own. He eventually gave up trying.

She recalled the day David told her that college was not for him and that he had joined the Navy. She was furious that he hadn’t consulted her and she had stormed into the kitchen to call her brother, believing it was his influence that had caused her son to do this.  They had a terrible fight, and she said some things she deeply regretted.  It was unbearable for her to think of her son joining the military after all she had been through with John and she unleashed every single emotion on her brother, who took it in total silence.  Her son was all she had and Drew knew it.  He let her nail the last spike into his coffin without a word and then he quietly hung up the phone.  They hadn’t spoken to each other since. 

In the end, it had been David’s decision and no one would talk him out of it… not even his beloved uncle. There was nothing she could say to dissuade him and her anger toward her brother simmered slowly on a sea of bitterness.  First her husband and now her son.  He had taken them both from her.  Drew was a shard of every single ache in her heart and the chasm between them felt endless.  He clung to his nephew as his redemption for John and took every assignment that would put him in the vicinity of the boy. David considered him a hero.  In many ways he was, though Isabel could no longer see it past her bitterness.  Drew felt responsible for her husband’s death and he made it his life’s purpose, to stay close to David.  Neither one could face the other’s pain.

Four years later, her son had come home, a Navy pilot.  He served as an aerial firefighter just as his father had, two decades earlier. But he worked for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, three thousand miles away and wanderlust was in his blood so he traveled to wherever he was needed. She was thankful he chose to see her when his work brought him back east.  Each of them had a stubborn streak that sought to bend the other's will many times throughout their lives and their truce was a hard won victory that mother and son had battled for years. But they loved each other and they had eventually come to a more comfortable understanding of that, as he'd grown older and she'd grown wiser. He had struggled a lot without a father and it made her sad that David would never know him.  They would have had a lot of common ground.

The little girl stirred in her arms and she reluctantly handed her back to her mother, not wanting to let go of the moment.  She woke up briefly and smiled at Isabel and the ache inside lessened, just a bit.  Everyone seemed so cheerful here as the weather grew warmer and the days were getting longer.  She loved this time of year and looked forward to the special things it had to offer.  

She paused to really look at her surroundings and all the people around her who had stories of their own.  As she walked back to her car, she soaked in the warm sunshine and felt suddenly thankful for all of it, both the good and the bad.  She put the pots of flowers in the back of the car, but she brought the strawberries up to the front seat where she could steal a few during the remainder of the drive home.  They smelled wonderful and the juice dripped down her chin and onto her shirt as she headed back out to the road.  Fishing around in the glove compartment for a napkin, she wiped her face and headed for home.

It felt wrong not having Maya with her but she knew she was in good hands.  She thought about what a strange afternoon it had been.  Before today, she believed she knew all there was to know about her dog, but Maya had surprised her in ways she wasn’t prepared for when she jumped into Jack’s truck.  That was so completely unexpected and out of character for her that Isabel was caught totally off guard.  If she’d had more time to think about it, she might have flat out refused to let her go.  Somehow it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but she was already questioning what she had done and really missing her.

Maya was not her first wolfdog. John had always had a special thing for wolves, given his surname…Wolfe.  It certainly seemed to suit him.  He had gifted her with a trip to the Lakota Wolf Preserve as a wedding present and she had taken her camera, intending to carefully photograph the beautiful animals so that she could paint them later.  She had instead found herself mesmerized by her husband and the way he instinctively interacted with the wolves. When she got home, and studied the images she had taken away from that amazing weekend, every single one was a reflection of him somehow. Her favorite was an image of a wolf whose steady gaze was locked on John. It was beautiful.  She swore in that moment, that they were speaking to each other and she did not interrupt. The soft click of her shutter was the only sound for several minutes and none of them had even twitched. She felt sorry when the animal sauntered off gracefully, and wished that the magic of that silent moment could have lasted forever. Whenever she saw a wolf, she thought of him and that special gift he had given to her... a moment when time stood still.  Over the years she had painted them countless times.

The January after John died was bitterly cold but Isabel had hardly noticed it. She’d gone to the place he loved best in all the world: her grandmother’s house in the Adirondacks. Most of that time in the mountains was spent painting and listening to music alone. She barely left the property and had grown thinner by the day. She couldn't remember the last time she had actually spoken out loud to another human being and she didn't miss it. She preferred her blanket of solitude , and when her friends would call, she would sit quietly listening as the answering machine recorded message after message. The one person she wanted to talk to then, existed only in her dreams. She slept often, praying he would come and find her there. He always did, and when she would wake up in the early morning light, she’d do everything she could to stay asleep just a little bit longer.  Those few moments between sleeping and waking were so fleeting and when they were gone, she would dress and go outside, where she could always feel his presence.  He had loved the outdoors so much.  He said up there in the woods, was where he felt most alive.  

It had surprised her a lot back then…that the world continued to function as if nothing had happened; as if her universe had not come to a sudden, screeching halt before she’d even caught her breath. She’d spent hour after hour going through old photographs of their life together and she kept coming back to just one.  She had picked it up thoughtfully, images spread all around her on the coffee table, floor, bed, and easel. That one particular image of the wolf looking at John, always stood out and she had spent days meticulously painting it, doing her best to capture that element of the experience. 

In a moment of impulse after finishing the painting, she had grabbed her purse from the table by the door and taken the photograph that had inspired it with her.  She had an idea and she went down to the library to do some research, determined to learn what she had to know, in order to make it a reality.  She wanted a wolf of her own.  

There were many challenges to owning a wolfdog and Isabel knew she needed a mentor that would help her do it right; someone whose broader vision and passion for the animals were akin to that of her late husband’s.  It was very controversial and many states didn’t even allow it or they made it exceptionally difficult to own one privately.  But she was determined and her feelings were fueled by her love for John so she wouldn’t let go of it.  She’d gone out to Denver to meet a woman who was successfully raising them on a large ranch called Hughes Wolf Preserve.  She’d taken an instant liking to the owner, Linney who was very knowledgeable about every aspect of wolf behavior and care. Linney had paired her with a wolfdog she named Cheyenne and they spent several weeks on daily walks at the preserve, where she taught her everything she knew about the specialized care of these animals.  The dogs loved her and she had a magical way with them.  During that time, they forged a friendship that spanned two decades.  Isabel had gone to her again many years later, after she lost Cheyenne, and Linney had paired her with Maya.  It turned out to be a perfect match. 

She turned off the main road in the direction of the lake needing to see the old place, if only just to drive by it.  It was off the beaten path and she liked it that way.  She usually only went, one time each year, when most of the summer residents had boarded up for the season and gone home.  When she turned down the private road, her memories of living there some twenty five years ago when John had gone to Italy, flooded her heart.  

She slowed down as she passed, noting the sheer curtains at the windows and the well kept gardens around the foundation.  There were climbing roses on the porch now… she could just barely see the edge of one vine beginning its warm summer reach as she passed.  It was as well cared for and lovely as it had always been, possibly even more so now.  The waves were gently rolling onshore, tiny midges floating in the air in misty black swarms.  The Purple Martins were buzzing along catching them all for dinner and there were a pair of ducks with their babies bobbing up and down on the water.  It was still a bit early in the season so there were only a few people out on their porches, watching the lazy day go by.  There were just enough clouds to make for a glorious sunset.  Little had changed, and somehow, that made her heart feel light as she turned around and headed for home, now only ten minutes away.

She turned left when she reached the St. Lawrence River and the lighthouse came into view, winking cheerfully…  as if to welcome her home.  She didn’t see the man watching from the base of the lighthouse, quietly stepping behind it, as she pulled into the drive.  He leaned against the white structure, his silhouette dark against a colorful sky.  Raising his head, he uttered something unintelligible into the wind and then quietly walked around the fence and down onto the rocks until he was out of sight.  The waves lapped onshore with a pleasant slapping sound and the wind ruffled the leaves on the trees above his head.  He bent down and picked up one of the smooth stones at his feet and dropped it into the box, where it clattered against a pile of nails nestled into the black velvet folds of its interior.  

The voice said quietly, “It is time, Titus. Now it is time for her to go home… and you must go with her."