The Promise

cat in distanceKatherine lay listening for the creak in the floorboards that would betray his arrival.   She imagined how lonely it must feel to walk into the house at that hour, a wakeful intruder tiptoeing into the time meant for sleep as if he didn’t belong.

She left dinner for him, in the oven to keep warm.  He’d eat and have a drink to unwind and then climb the stairs as quietly as he could so as not to wake her…but she was rarely asleep.  She no longer waited for him downstairs, understanding that he needed time to let go and shed the darkest parts of his day.  Joe was the third generation to serve on the force, a dedicated cop that cared and still believed he was making a difference.  He loved his job but he loved Katherine more and he made a point of protecting her from the worst parts of it. In turn Katherine granted him the space he needed at the end of the day to soften and open himself to her.

She heard it then, the creaky floorboard just outside their bedroom door, and she turned to face him, curling her arm under the pillow beneath her head.

“How was your shift, Sweetheart?”  She spoke softly and adjusted herself in the bed, pulling the blankets up around her, a chill in the air.

“Oh Kath, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s ok,” she whispered, “you didn’t.”

She watched him undress, a silhouette in the moonlight at the side of the bed.  The smell of him, a hint of musk and spice muddled with the sweat of the job, filled the room and she breathed it in as if trying to capture his essence.  She’d missed him.

Joe stepped into a pair of sweatpants and stood at the window.  Kathy was used to his moods, having known him since he’d moved in next door when they were ten, and by now she could almost read his thoughts.  He was restless.  Something was troubling him, although she knew he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

“You’re not ready for bed.  C’mon,” she said, slipping from beneath the sheets and reaching for the sweater she’d left on the chair.  “Let’s take a walk.”

They finished dressing in silence.  As she reached to place her hand in his, she stopped and thought better of it.  He needed more time.  Together they slipped out of the house and into the quiet darkness, walking slowly and putting distance between themselves and what came before.  Thin tendrils of smoke curled from several chimneys along the street, filling the air with the aroma of wood fires slowly burning themselves out, unattended at this late hour.   As they reached the end of the lane, the iron gates of the cemetery stood in front of them and they followed the fence line to the gap near the tall oak and slipped inside.   A thin feline figure, with fur the color of smoke and shadows, slipped in behind them.

The cemetery was a comfortable place for them.  As children they played among the headstones under the heat of the summer sun and dared each other to sneak from their bedrooms and come here late at night. By the time they were teenagers, the cemetery felt as if it were their own and there were many private moments shared here in the dark.  From the top of the hill, they’d watched countless falling stars streak across the night sky, wrapped in blankets and little else.

Kathy had accompanied Joe on walks like this one many times over the last few months.  He was struggling with recent events, and at first he’d come home and simply sit at the foot of their bed for hours as if nothing and everything were wrong all at once.  Her heart ached for him and she longed for the man he once was to return to her.  But she was the wife of police officer and she knew how these things went and that she needed to be patient while he figured it all out.  Just be there for him, she reminded herself.  She’d guide him toward peace, but ultimately she knew he’d have to find it on his own.  They walked a little further up the hill and along the path before heading home, the scrawny black cat watching them from behind a headstone, the only witness to their midnight stroll.

The next morning, Kathy woke gently as the sun filtered in through the bedroom window.  She kept her eyes closed, not yet ready to give herself to the day, and she reached her hand across to Joe’s side of the bed, hoping to find him there.  The sheets were cool and smooth beneath her touch… he had been gone for some time now.  She opened her eyes, no longer hoping, and sat up to greet the day alone.  He’d be back tonight and she’d try again.

In the kitchen, Kathy made herself a cup of coffee and picked at a streusel-topped muffin that smelled faintly of cinnamon, not really hungry yet.  Through the window she noticed an orange and white tabby curled up in Joe’s chair on the porch and she wondered where it had come from.  There seemed to be a growing number of cats in the neighborhood lately and Kathy hoped that wouldn’t mean fewer birds in her backyard.  A welcome distraction, Kathy enjoyed tending to the feeders and watching them peck and splash and preen in the birdbath she’d placed near the front steps.   The cats, on the other hand, simply slept or prowled at best and kept their distance from her.  She opened the door and shushed the tabby from Joe’s chair.  It raised the fur on the back of its neck and hissed at her before slinking off behind a shrub.  Across the street, the bony black one watched and kept its distance.

That night, like so many before, Kathy and Joe strolled silently toward the cemetery.   What had once been their safe, special place was beginning to fill Kathy with the uneasy feeling of something left undone.   The ginger cat from earlier was following them now and another one, scraggly and grey, appeared at the end of the lane.  As the couple slipped through the gap in the fence, their feline companions leapt gracefully up and over and into the graveyard.  The further they walked toward the top of the hill, the more followers they collected.  At first silent, the cats now mewed for attention as they twined themselves between Joe’s legs.  He shooed them, silencing their cries and placing some distance around himself.  They circled, staking out claim in the shadows cast by the headstones.

Removing his jacket, Joe placed it on the ground and gestured for Kathy to sit.

“Wait, Joe.  Not here.  Let’s walk a little further.”  She knelt down and picked up his jacket and handed it back to him.

Joe followed her as she walked toward the open space claimed long ago as their special spot.  He didn’t recognize it at first, a lone headstone breaking the grassy expanse he was expecting.

“What the hell?”

They stood in the spot where they’d first tasted passion, yielded to the temptation of teenage love, and memories of that night and the many that followed came flooding back, tinged now with sadness as realization slowly began to creep around the edges of Joe’s awareness.

“Kath…someone’s in our spot.”  Incredulous, the disappointment was thick in his voice as he stood before the stone.

“This was our spot, Kath.  Ours.

Kathy remained silent as tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her face, unable to contain herself any longer.  The cats moved in close now and jockeyed for position at Joe’s feet.  He swatted at them in anger and frustration but they would not be deterred.

“Joe.”  She said his name softly, with a calm that grabbed his attention away from the cats and drew his gaze into the deep pools that were her eyes.  They sparkled in the moonlight, brimming with tears and he grew more confused.  She was crying now – small, fragile sounds emanating from deep within her – crying and waiting for him to understand.  He looked away, dropping his eyes to the headstone and read his name.  The letters were carved deep into the rock, bold and permanent.  Joe fell to his knees and leaned against the cold, hard stone in utter disbelief.

Kathy took a deep breath and knelt down beside him.  She reached to comfort him, placing her hand between his broad shoulders, but it merely passed through the air with nothing of substance to rest upon.  She steeled herself…she couldn’t fall apart just yet…he still needed her.

“How?”  His voice was weak and trembled as he spoke.

“On the job, Joe.  It happened on the job.”  She swallowed hard and slowly revealed the truth of the last few months, gently helping him come to terms with his own death.  They stayed there, in their special spot that night, together one last time.  Now that Joe knew the truth, he could move on and find peace and Kathy knew that meant the end of what little she had left of him.

The next morning, Kathy woke alone in her own bed as she had every morning since Joe’s death.  The permanence of it weighed heavily on her mood and she missed him in a way she was not prepared for.  The house felt cold and empty now and she dressed quickly, intent on distancing herself from the shell of their former life.  She would spend the day at the beach, its surf soothing her frayed edges, losing herself in the vastness of the sea.   The waves too icy now, it was the wrong time of year to give herself over to the gentle ebb and flow of the water, but she could sit at its edge and listen to its call and breathe in the salted air.  For Kathy, the ocean had always possessed a special magic and she would go there in times of need, finding solace in the sand and the rhythm of the tides.

Time slipped away unnoticed that afternoon, Kathy’s mind lulled into a blissful state of oblivion by the crashing of the waves and the cries of the seagulls.  A brilliant blaze of pink and orange spread intensely across the horizon before yielding to the moon, full and rising quickly to take its place among the stars.  She dreaded the long drive home, toward a house empty of all that mattered to her and wondered how she’d find the strength to move on.   In fact, the road passed quickly beneath her, a blur of yellow lines reflecting against the backdrop of asphalt, unending and hypnotic in the dark of the night.

Arriving home, she sat in the car and gathered the courage to go inside.  The black cat, lean and lanky, sat watching from the shadows.  When finally she slipped her key into the lock and opened the door, the orange and white tabby streaked past her and into the house.  Where had it come from?  She was startled and angry at the intrusion and it felt good.  Anger was so much easier than hurt and she allowed it to rush through her as she hunted the cat down throughout the house.  At the top of the stairs, Kathy stopped dead in her tracks.  A dark figure sat on the bed, a silhouette in the moonlight.

“Hi, Kath.”  He spoke slowly, his gentle voice strong and deep.

“Joe?  I thought…”

“I can’t leave you, Kath.  I can’t do it.  We made a promise, remember?”

She crossed the room and sat next to him on the bed.  She longed to touch him, to curl up beside him and feel his breath on her neck, the weight of his arms around her.   Instead, she wrapped herself a little more tightly in her sweater and pulled her legs up under herself on the bed.

“Joe.  That was a long time ago.  We were kids.”

“Maybe so, but I meant it… we both did and you know it.  None of that til death do us part stuff.  Remember Kath?  Death doesn’t end us.  You promised.  I promised.”

He was right.  They had promised.  They promised on the hilltop, that very first time, and they’d meant every word…nothing would ever part them, no matter what.  But they were young and death seemed distant and unimaginable in the way that it does to the young and Kathy knew that despite the promise, she couldn’t ask Joe to linger in the space between life and death while she lived on.  Still, it felt good having him here again.

“Joe.  Listen to me.  I love you and I know you love me.  But you can’t stay here.  I don’t want you to.  Well…I do but I don’t.  Joe…don’t you understand?  If it were me, you wouldn’t want that for me and I don’t want that for you.  I love you too much.”

“I’m not leaving you, Kath.  I can’t.  I know what’s out there in this world.  I’m a cop and I’m your husband and it’s my job to protect you.  You’re all that matters to me, Kath.  End of conversation.”

She hated it when he put his foot down that way.  He so rarely did, but when she heard those words — end of conversation —  she knew there was no arguing with him.

In the weeks that followed, Kathy watched as Joe struggled to interact within the confines of his new reality.  His presence, as they learned, was dependant on nightfall and he could do little beside watch over her as she slept.  There were long conversations and tender, quiet moments but the aura of gentle strength that had always surrounded Joe seemed to be fading and it pained Katherine to watch him will himself back to her each night.

The struggle was not Joe’s alone.  Drawing a bath, thoughts of their so-called life together now swirled inside Kathy’s head as the tub filled slowly with water and steam billowed up around her.  It was early yet, but she wanted this time alone…needed this time alone to make peace with herself and with where things stood.  As she peeled off her clothes, she reached for the little orange bottle with the white twist off cap that sat on the side of the sink.  Dr. Gessman had prescribed the pills to help her sleep just after Joe’s death.  She’d refused to take them, not willing to forgo Joe’s nightly homecoming.  Tonight, though, she needed help…she needed to let go and accept that things would never be the way they were.  She wanted to sleep and forget it all even if just for a little while and she swallowed two, and then two more, and another five before slipping into the warm bath and drifting off.

A note awaited Joe when he arrived that night.  Meet me at our spot, it read.  The aroma of fresh apples lingered in the air…the bubble bath he’d given her last Christmas.  But the house was dark and quiet and the note was all that waited for him in the bedroom.  The ginger tabby, having followed him inside, pawed at the bathroom door as Joe drifted past and back down the stairs.  The cat hurried behind him and out into night, the two of them making their way toward the cemetery.

Katherine sat at the top of the hill, gently stroking the smoky black cat that lay curled upon her lap.  A white Persian circled close by, its fur illuminated in the moonlight.  It was Kat’s smile, though, that he noticed first, having realized just then how long it had been since he’d seen one dance across her lips.  The faint smell of fresh apples permeated the air around her and she glimmered ever so slightly as she reached out her hand.

Grasping her long, delicate fingers, Joe helped her to her feet.  She said not a word as she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him…gently at first, and then deeply.   A long-forgotten though familiar spark ignited somewhere deep within Joe’s soul and burned brightly as they embraced.  An uneasy feeling grew alongside his passion and he pulled away to look at her.  She was beautiful, more beautiful than he’d ever seen her before.  And he might have been distracted by that a little too long because by the time he remembered what he’d started to fear, the thought drifted just out of reach and left him vaguely confused but oddly at peace.  Seeing his struggle, Kathy touched a finger to his lips.

“Shhh,” she whispered.  “We promised.  End of conversation.”

Joe watched in awe and disbelief as she grew more beautiful still.  A warmth embraced him and he realized he had been cold but it no longer mattered and he, too, began to glimmer.  Overwhelmed by emotions he had no words for, Joe surrendered and was enveloped by a peace that defied description.

As the lines between them blurred, the edges of their existence, now golden and sparkling, danced off in tiny pieces like fireflies into the night sky until all that remained were shimmering wisps that dissipated quickly in the crisp autumn breeze.  The bony black cat stretched then leapt down from the headstone upon which he had been perched and followed the others in a slow precession from the graveyard.  The night was young and surely there were other lost souls to be found.

© Kelly Rainey and, 2015.  


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