This story is by Stephanie Rawling and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Toad was a man, a reserved man, of burly stature and a steely stare. He lived a hard life and found himself alone in a ramshackle house, on a dead end street at the edge of town.
Every day, Toad, the man, would walk the same three miles into town. He would stop at a little bakery on the corner of Adams Drive and Belvedere. With a fresh coffee and today’s paper tucked under his arm, he would make his way down Park Lane, and open the Toad & Brooke for the day.
He would sip on his coffee and browse the daily paper until 10. Maybe once or twice he would look up at a rap or a rattle at the door, not entirely disappointed to see it was only a gust of wind. From 10 until noon he would see to the stock, then pause for a break and eat his meager lunch. After his lunch of cream, crackers, and carrots, he would clear the books, shelf by shelf and dust the entire store until it gleamed. Then, long after the sun had set, Toad would finally trek home late in the night. He traveled alone with only the glow of sparsely street lamps to light his way. This lonely life was Toad’s choice.
Today was different though. Toad woke up with a purpose this early October morning. A particularly hard morning, Toad strayed from his usual routine. Something inside of him stirred, compelling him to visit the cemetery on the hill. A feat he hadn’t performed in many years.
He stopped at the florist on Pine Street. A bright yellow shop, filled with color and warmth, the Whitebridge Boutique. He opened the door, greeted by the streak of a calico cat fleeing Jackie’s wrath.
“I better not see you in here again!” Jacqueline shouted out the door after the blur. “Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Albright. You didn’t trip over that cat did you dear?”
“No worries, Miss Jackie,” he muttered. The flower shop offered a warm sanctuary from the chill of October air.
“I don’t see you often Mr. Albright, what can I do for you this chilly morning?” Jacqueline asked. She stepped up on a ledge hidden behind the counter to bring herself eye-level with Toad. She was a petite cheery woman, perhaps just an inch shy of five feet, in her early twenties and could often be found looking after her mother’s boutique.
“Have any sunflowers? Brooke’s favorite.” Toad didn’t smile. He never smiled, but he seemed slightly less shrewd today than his usual, stone-faced self.
Jacqueline beamed, “Of course we do! And they’re just hitting the end of their season, how many would you like?”
She fluttered around the shop and pulled together six sunflowers of average size, and wrapped them in brown paper. Jacqueline tried to coax a few words out of him while she tallied the total on her calculator, but Toad’s mind was elsewhere.
“Here you are, that’ll be $18.63 with tax.” She placed the bouquet on the counter in front of Toad.
Toad handed her a twenty. “Keep the change, Jackie,” he said gruffly and turned out the door.
“Thank you Mr. Albright!” she shouted after him.
It was the happiest day of his life. Brooke had accepted his proposal. They would be life-long partners. They had saved up, agreed on a smaller wedding in the countryside, close to home. They had planned to spend their honeymoon preparing for the grand opening of Toad & Brooke.
Sunflowers towered over the altar where Toad and the officiant waited. A harpist played the wedding march and Brooke processed down a path strewn with flower petals. Anticipation grew with each step. Closer and closer, but something seemed off. Brooke’s steps were slow and faltering, she collapsed.
Toad made his way to the Toad & Brooke. He placed the sunflowers in a vase by the register and continued about his usual routine. At half past 11, he stopped working, his attention drawn to the ruckus at the door. He didn’t see anyone there, but the noise was too persistent to be the wind. He strode to the door to find a calico cat, the same cat, in fact, that he had seen earlier at the Whitebridge Boutique.
He opened the door and the cat strolled in; she paused to rub against his leg. Toad knelt down to scratch her chin, his old bones creaked as he moved. The years had not been kind to him, nor to the cat, it seemed. She wasn’t a young cat; malnourished, a stray perhaps, and areas of her fur were so badly matted, sores had begun to form. He pulled some burrs out of her coat and grunted as he ambled to the counter. Toad rummaged through his lunch procuring a small container of cream. He opened the container and offered it to the tortoiseshell.
While the feline lapped at the cream, Toad tarried about the store. Each bookshelf, each display, he cleaned with a fervor he hadn’t felt in years. This cat, this kind deed, rekindled a passion in him. The store came to life around him, revealing aspects of Brooke he had long since forgotten.
Brooke was ill, very ill indeed. The doctor in town referred them to a hospital in a big city far away, where they estimated she had only months to live. Her illness eventually took her, but not before leaving their souls shattered. Toad’s promise to Brooke that he would open the Toad & Brooke was last promise Toad ever made. When she passed, the bookshop, their dream, was all he had left.
Toad poured his heart and soul into his store, embodying the essence of his wife within the walls. The blue and yellow stained glass window in the door had been a wedding present from Brooke’s sister. On clear days, sunlight would stream through, casting patterns across the floor. The bookshelves were recycled walnut and mahogany; leftovers Toad would bring home from odd jobs as a younger man and fashioned bookshelves for Brooke’s rapidly growing collection. A steel spiral staircase ascended to the second floor. Brooke would have loved to sit on the landing, watching over her store, greeting everyone who came through the door. Last but not least, the antique crystal chandelier, a little worse for wear, cascading down from the ceiling landing perfectly for the afternoon sun to catch it, projecting rainbows throughout the store. Brooke had rescued it from a cinema that was closing its doors, much like she had rescued Toad all those years ago.
The calico meowed, waking Toad from his reminiscence. He gasped, clutching his chest. He stumbled over a bench set out for customers and caught himself roughly before he landed on the ground. Toad grimaced as he pulled himself upright. He brushed his hands off on his pants and stumbled awkwardly to the counter. He packed up the empty container and stroked the feline. She paced along the counter and meowed again. Toad’s gaze fell to the sunflowers by the register. He reached out slowly and pulled a single flower out of the vase. He inhaled the earthy aroma and limped toward the door.
The cat ambled up Pine Street. She would stop long enough for Toad to catch up and then continued up the hill toward the cemetery. The last time he made this trip, was the day of Brooke’s funeral.
The pallbearers dragged their feet through ankle-deep leaves that had collected on Pine Street. The town had gathered at the cemetery for the service. The pastor, the same man who was to officiate their wedding, offered his sympathies to the family and gave the service. Brooke’s mother squeezed Toad’s hand jolting him awake. The service had ended. Toad had been in shock. He hadn’t heard a word.
Toad made his way through the rows of markers and hobbled up to his wife’s headstone. The stone was discolored from years of neglect and covered in moss and mildew. He took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and softly brushed the headstone clean enough to read.
Brooke Albright, April 20, 1952 – October 12, 1977, beloved wife, ‘Be the light in the darkness that brings hope.’
The sun dimmed as it fell beyond the horizon and the pain in Toad’s chest increased. He dropped the final flower at her headstone as he collapsed onto the ground.
Toad reached out for the calico as he lay gasping for air. The cat sat beside him for a few moments as the last life drained from his eyes. She let out a soft meow and with a flick of her tail, wandered off into the night.