A couple years ago, on a blog far, far away, I invited readers to send me a word or phrase that I could use as the basis for a short story. Readers sent me words like “cheesecake” and “dragonfly” and “rick-rack.” I wrote a story for each. But there was this one reader who thought it would be funny to send me more than one word. Here was her list:
- pus-oozing scabs
- maggot-infested corpses
- lightning bugs
- Hello Kitty band-aids
- Silver Queen corn
- a kite-flying windy day in March
- chocolate cake
- sargassum tea
- Hershey’s Kisses
- flying monkeys
- a white tiger
- transistor radios
I told her I could write a story that included them all. And so I did.
* * *
Not Enough Sky
I am watching her sleep.
It is a restless sleep. She has been like this for two weeks.
It began the night after she got that letter. Elle had tried to hide her reaction from me, but in an unprotected moment, I saw the life drain out of her, the air sucked from her lungs, and the hope ripped from her heart. It took extraordinary courage and strength to force an almost-believable smile to her face when she finally said, “It’s from my old college roommate.” Then she got up from the kitchen table and shuffled outside in pajamas and slippers to sit on the porch swing.
My pj-girl sat there in the brisk morning air for more than an hour. I wanted to follow her. To sit next to her and put my arm around her and hold her in whatever sort of silence her heart needed.
But somehow I knew that would be too much.
Later, after the sun fell behind the hills, we sat in the den together, reading. I brought her a glass of red wine. She stared at the same two pages for at least forty minutes before slipping away to bed. It was a book by Anita Shrieve. I don’t remember which one, but it had a silvery-blue cover that reminded me of winter.
She is waking up now.
She has been crying. The moonlight paints pale blue trails down her cheeks.
“You were having another nightmare.” I wipe the blue away with the back of my hand.
“What was it this time? Maggot-infested corpses?” I say this with a smile, hoping to soften the edge between asleep and awake.
“Pus-oozing scabs?” She brushes my hands away from her face.
“Stop it. You’re making fun of me.”
“No, I…I’m sorry, Elle. I don’t mean to.”
She swings her feet over the bedside and sits there with perfect posture, staring out the window.
“Go back to sleep,” she says. I hear fresh tears in her voice.
I don’t argue. Not this time. I lie on my back, look over at her silhouette.
She is a ghost.
* * *
Elle takes a long sip of her coffee.
“Okay, then what about tiramisu?” I ask. She, sputters, nearly chokes. “You used to love tiramisu. It’s been years since you had it…”
“No, I don’t want dessert.”
“Elle…I wish you would…”
“No, David. Not tonight…”
“David…I can’t. I just can’t.”
I reach my hand to hers. She flinches as skin touches skin, but does not pull away from me.
“Will you ever want to talk?”
“I don’t know,” she says. And now she retracts her hand, bringing it up to join the other in cradling her coffee cup. She starts coughing. A deep, throaty cough.
“Maybe we should trade that coffee for sargassum tea,” I say. She finds a smile and for a moment I see the Elle I chased along the beach two years ago during our 10-year-anniversary getaway. She’d threatened to make sargassum tea right there on the shoreline and force it down my throat.
“I don’t want you coughing up your lungs this week,” she’d teased. “I need you healthy so you can make love to me every morning and every afternoon and every night.”
I didn’t need the tea. The promise of passion in her beautiful brown eyes healed me faster than a Hello Kitty band-aid could wipe way little Haley’s tears after a tumble.
On the way out of the restaurant, I grab a couple Hershey’s Kisses from the crystal bowl by the door. I’ll place one on her pillow tonight.
She really did want dessert.
* * *
We are celebrating Haley’s seventh birthday. It is a kite-flying windy day in March.
They are standing together atop a hill, staring at the darting and diving colors.
“Look, mom…flying monkeys!” Haley points and laughs. It is an inside joke between mother and daughter. But I think I know how it came about. I wandered in late from work one evening to the cackle of the Wicked Witch of the West accompanied by the sobs of a frightened six-year-old coming from the family room. I didn’t hear what Elle said to her, but it wasn’t much later when Haley’s high-pitched giggles skipped around the house, brightening every room.
“How many ears of corn do you want?” I shout.
“Just one for me, daddy,” Haley calls back.
“And one for me,” Elle adds. “Unless it’s Silver Queen.” She blows a kiss to me. Perhaps she winks.
“Sorry, ma’am, we’re all out of Silver Queen,” I say in my best southern accent. It’s not a very good impression, but Elle laughs anyway at our own inside joke.
* * *
Haley is asleep in her bed, arms wrapped tight around her new best friend, a white tiger. When she announced his name to us after tearing through the wrapping paper and giving him a breathtaking hug, Elle turned whiter than the stuffed animal.
“William,” Haley said, “I’m going to call him William.”
We are sitting on the bottom step of the back porch. The neighbors’ bug zappers sizzle and crackle like poorly tuned transistor radios.
Elle reaches into her pocket and removes a folded-up letter. The letter. She holds it for a moment, turns it in her hands, then gives it to me.
“Look…the lightning bugs are out,” she says. Her voice is steady.
I hold the letter in the sliver of light coming through the kitchen window. I am afraid to read it…
I have some sad news. There’s no easy way to say this, my good friend.
William died yesterday.
He was driving home from work and someone ran a red light. He was killed instantly. We’re all stunned. Lisa is a wreck, as you might guess. I can’t even imagine it, losing my husband like that. And the kids…oh my, they’re all so sad. I haven’t stopped crying.
I knew about your letters. I found out quite by accident and confronted William. I hated him so much then. Do you know what it’s like to hate the brother you’ve looked up to all your life? Then I made him tell you a lie, Elle. I made him write that last letter all those years ago. I made him promise never to write again.
I had to, Elle. I love you and David too much…
I stop reading and fold the letter. I hold it out for Elle.
There is a sudden silence. The night waits.
She takes the letter and slips it into her pocket.
The stars are brilliant tonight. They remind me of something Elle told me on the beach after we’d made love to the gentle rhythm of the midnight waves. “There’s not enough sky to hold all my love for you,” she said.
In the stillness God has granted, I take her hand in mine.
The crickets tentatively resume their chorus. The wind blows music through the hanging glass chimes.
LIghtning bugs dot the yard.
Slowly, patiently, the night returns.
And morning will follow.