It was cold.  That’s the first thing I remember.  Cold and damp and I heard thunder rumble in the distance like a giant stumbling through the dark.  What time was it?  Hard to tell.  The sky was thick with clouds, raindrops streaked across the window.  I lay there listening to the creaks and groans of the pines that formed the windbreak at the side of the cabin, putting off the inevitable.  Jeremy had let the fire die down overnight, like he always did when it was his turn to tend it.  I let out a sigh, braced myself, then threw off the covers.  The crisp of the air moved swiftly to surround me, eking its way underneath my bedclothes as I grabbed for my robe and wrapped it tightly around me.  I pushed my toes down deep inside the fur of my slippers and shuffled my way over to the hearth.  Embers glowed faintly orange beneath the ash.  I blew gently on them, long and slow and they swelled as they fed upon my breath.  Reaching into the basket beside the hearth, I pulled small twigs and placed them over the glowing coals.  I blew again, long and slow and a little harder this time.  With a pop and a snap a twig caught fire.  Then another.  The flame danced inside the small tinder bundle, eagerly devouring it.  Little by little, I fed the flames until they grew hungry enough for a log and soon the chill retreated from the room.  It was easier to love this place when it wasn’t so cold.

I picked up the coffee pot and gave it a little shake…yes!  There was enough water left inside it for at least a cup and for that I was thankful.  Jeremy had fallen behind on his share of the chores as of late, and our water tank was nearly empty.  The kettle grew hot on the back of the stove, a tendril of steam snaked its way from the spout as I cracked two eggs into a cast iron pan.  The whites bubbled and spit and I stuck the yolks with a fork, letting the thick yellow goo ooze out across the pan.  Jeremy liked them cooked hard.

We ate in silence, letting the food fill our bellies and warm our insides. When the last of the coffee was poured from the kettle, our cups empty and our plates clear, we made up the bed and dressed for the day.  I pulled on a pair of jeans over my long-johns and doubled up with a second pair of wool socks.  Even with the fire and breakfast, it was hard to shake the chill.

“My sister’s coming today,” I reminded Jeremy.  “We should get water before she comes.”  The cabin lacked running water and our supply came from the stream at the bottom of the hill, carried back in buckets and jugs and stored in a large, white, plastic tank in a closet made just for that reason in the back corner of the cabin.  I gathered all the empty containers and put them in the bed of our pickup truck and we headed down toward the stream.  Retrieving the water took longer than I planned but by the time we finished filling the tank I was, at least, no longer cold.  The rain had stopped, leaving the smell of damp forest lingering all around us.  I breathed it in deeply, such a simple pleasure, as I scattered cracked corn to the chickens.  They scratched and pecked excitedly in the dirt and leaves as I threw the feed to the ground for them to find.  When my bucket was empty I checked in on Molly and Bill, the goats who kept our small field manageably clear and provided us with all the milk we cared to drink.  A large hay bale remained within their reach, but I’d need to remind Jeremy to fetch another for them soon.  Bill made his way toward me and I reached down and scratched the bristly hair behind his ears.  Molly, not wanting to be left out, hurried over, bleating for attention as she came.  Jeremy had not wanted goats, and now I can’t imagine us without their company.  Even he was starting to come around.  I could tell.

In this distance I could just make out the crunch of gravel under the heavy weight of my sister’s SUV.  Her roll slowed as she approached the clearing and I waved as I made my way over to greet her.

“Watch your step,” I warned as she cut the engine and opened her door.  “It rained this morning…lots of puddles out here.”  She smiled at me and pointed at her feet.  “I came prepared,” she said, obviously proud of herself for remembering that boots were always the best idea at the cabin this time of year.  I hugged her and she hugged me back hard.  Her hair smelled faintly of strawberries and my mind wandered back toward all the times I’d braided it when were kids, carefully brushing out all the knots with long, slow strokes then dividing and weaving it into pigtails.  She let me go, gently patting me on the back and giving me a sideways look as she stepped onto the path toward the cabin.

“How are you doing, Meg?  Really.”

“I’m good.  Busy as hell with all that needs to get done around here before winter hits us full on, but good.  Jeremy and I always manage.  You know that.  So how’s things with you?  How are the girls?”

Samantha’s eyes met mine with a look that seemed both disappointed and confused and she paused a moment before speaking.  I worried perhaps something was wrong with one of the girls.  But no, as we walked toward the cabin she told me how JoAnn was still spending all her free time at the stables and how she suspected it was not only her love of riding that called her there but perhaps her interest in the new hired hand.  “She is old enough now to notice a good looking guy when she sees one, you know.  And she’s plenty old enough to catch attention from him.  Jim and I’ll have to keep an eye on that.”  Jill, too, was doing well, earning good grades in school and still with her nose buried in a book most of the time.  The girls were fine.

I looked back to check I’d closed the gate on the pasture, Molly and Bill still within site.  Finding all as it should be, we went inside to warm up and visit a while.  I filled the kettle with the water retrieved only a few hours before, placed it on the stove, and pulled out the box of tea leaves from the far back of the cupboard.  “Your favorite,” I said, holding it up for show.  “Saved the last of it just for you.”

“Mmmm.  Sounds perfect.”  Sam bent near the hearth and poked at the fire with an iron stick, the flames responding enthusiastically to the attention.  She put on another log and the flames licked at it, singeing it around the edges until finally it began to glow.  Pleased with herself, she moved to the willow rocker in front of the hearth and held out her stocking feet toward the fire, warming her toes.  Still, though, her eyes betrayed her thoughts and I could tell something was troubling her.  Something she didn’t yet seem ready to talk about.

I allowed myself a rare afternoon off to catch up with Sam, feeling only a little guilty for leaving the rest of the day’s chores to Jeremy.  He’d manage.  And if not, I’d pick up the slack later.  It was good to be with Sam again; her presence filled a void that I’d been unable to define and dulled the lonely ache that I’d been carrying inside me.  It was getting harder to ignore and Jeremy, never much of a talker, had grown distant.  In fact, most days now it felt as if I barely saw him, each busy tending the needs of our home.  On the coldest, darkest nights though, we’d lay awake for hours under the covers talking about anything and everything just like we always did.  Well, mostly I’d talk and he’d listen, a formula we’d perfected over the 30 years we’d spent together.  But still his presence filled me up and helped me through the darkness.

“I want you to consider coming to stay with us, Meg.  If not permanently, then at least for the winter.  There’s just too much for you to manage here by yourself this time of year and I’m worried about you.”

I heard what she said, but only just.  It didn’t make sense and it came out of nowhere.  But she was looking at me now with those eyes.  Those eyes behind which I’d seen trouble lurking earlier, now with their focus directed squarely at me.  But why?  I didn’t understand.

“You know as well as I do that it took everything you and Jeremy had to make it through winters out here.  I just don’t see how you’ll manage on your own.”

“What are you talking about? Jeremy and I do just fine on our own.”

“Meg.  Stop it.  Please stop it.  He’s gone.  Jeremy’s gone.”  Tears streaked Sam’s face and her words fell like bricks at my feet, heavy and without meaning.  I stared at them and tried to make sense of what she was saying, why she was crying.  She reached out and took my hands in hers, squeezing gently and looking right through me.

“He’s not gone.  He’s just outside.”  I only partly inhabited my body now, and I watched myself as I spoke, my voice defiant and incredulous, my demeanor defensive.

“No, Meg.  He’s been gone since the accident last spring.  I know you remember.”

The space around me stretched oddly, contorting everything in the room.  Sam’s face melted sideways in front of me and swirled in a spiral as she spoke, her words muffled and elongated.  Everything went dark.

It was cold.  That’s the first thing I remember.  Cold and damp and I heard thunder rumble in the distance like giant waves tumbling onto a rocky shore.  What time was it?  Hard to tell.  The sky was thick with clouds, raindrops streaked across the window.  I lay there listening to the creak and groan of the willow rocker as Sam rocked beside the hearth, and then it hit me.  With all the power and weight of the world, the truth hit me.  The temporary reprieve I’d been granted by sleep had expired.  The unbearable truth existed, real and inescapable.

Jeremy hadn’t neglected the fire.  Jeremy hadn’t let the water tank run dry.  Jeremy hadn’t been here for months.  The ache of that admission ripped clear through me and tore at the edges of my soul.  The wound was deep and painful and I knew it would take a very long time to heal.  I wondered if it ever would.  I wondered if I’d ever let it.  I focused on the wonder and let it form a bubble around me, a thin shield under which contemplation protected me from the feelings ready to swallow me whole.  Is this how I’d managed the last few months?  Is this how I got here?  I let the questions dance in my mind and followed them out onto the fringes.   I let them take me far away and hoped not to return.

“It was cold.  That’s the first thing I remember.”  As I recounted the morning of Sam’s visit, Dr. Swann scribbled a note onto her long, yellow pad.  I wondered what she wrote.  I wondered how many times I’d told her this story.  I wondered where Sam and I would go for lunch after this.  I glanced at the clock above the door and watched the second had sweep smoothly around its face before noting the time.  The hour was almost up and I was anxious and ready to leave.  I picked at a loose strand in the fabric of the chair in which I sat, bored with the present topic of conversation and Dr. Swann’s incessant prodding.  I knew what she was getting at and no matter what she said, she’d never take Sam from me.  Sam was real.  Of that I was sure.  Sam and Jeremy, Molly and Bill, the cabin…all of it…all of them.  They were mine.

Dr. Swann set her pad and pen upon the table beside her chair and stood.  “All right, Meg.  That’s enough for today.”  She crossed the room, her sensible shoes quiet on the linoleum floor.  She opened the door to two men, both dressed in scrubs wearing sneakers who escorted me to a room they said was mine and waited while I swallowed two tiny pink pills from a paper cup they handed me.  This was a dance we’d done many times before and I’d learned long ago that compliance was all they wanted.  They didn’t care about Sam or Jeremy; they just wanted me to swallow the pills so they could go back to doing whatever it was they were doing.

“You’ll come get me when Sam’s gets here, right?”  The shorter of the two men, the one with the ginger stubble on his chin, shot a sideways glance at his colleague who returned it with a tired roll of his eyes before turning to leave.  “You’ll come get me, right?”

“Yep” was the only reply.  The door, heavy on its hinges, swung slowly closed behind them and I heard the click of the lock, then the squeak of the short man’s sneakers against the smooth of the floor in the hall.  My eyes grew heavy as silence fell upon the room, interrupted occasionally by snippets of conversation as others passed by my door.  I lay on the bed and listened intently for the sound of Sam’s voice, closing my eyes to focus harder on any chatter that filtered down the hall and slipped under my door.  I was tired and didn’t much feel like going out for lunch anymore.  I hoped Sam would understand.

I awoke, the glare from the fluorescent light above yellow and harsh as I reached down for the blanket that had fallen to the floor.  It was cold.  That’s the first thing I remember.

© Kelly Rainey and 500wordsandcounting.wordpress.com, 2017. 

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