This story is by Justin Neff and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
How pleasant the midday sun felt on Roger’s skin. After months in a hospital bed, weeks in rehab, and days getting the paperwork sorted out, there were times he questioned if he’d ever feel anything beyond painful indifference. There were times, usually in the taunting silence of night, when Roger questioned if the effort, if any of it, was worth it. I could just close my eyes and sleep forever a dreamless sleep. Now, as rays kissed his upturned cheeks, Roger smiled at what he’d overcome. Another victory. Another notch in the belt.
Gloria pulled around and helped him into the front seat of the van. As his wife of thirty-five years jostled and cursed at the wheelchair with the anger of a younger woman, he let his head fall back and inhaled the new car smell. Gloria had picked the van out herself. With screws in his arm and steel rod in his leg, the doctors had recommended a van. All his life he drove BMWs too fast, but now he sat shotgun in a minivan his wife had picked out.
Part of him, the part still drenched in self-importance, was disappointed his kids weren’t there with flowers and a cake and a banner that read “BEST DAD EVER.” But they’d visited plenty in the hospital. Grandkids, too. Even Rick. Even after all the things he’d said to his son over the years, Rick still showed up. What a good kid. All of them, really. Even before the accident, his three daughters had been his everything. They wanted for nothing. Material. Attention. Of his countless flaws, an absent father to his daughters he was not.
The back opened and Gloria flung the wheelchair inside. Roger felt in his pocket for the bottle of pain meds, tempted to dull the ache that scraped its sharpened claws up and down his now fragile spine, instantly wondering if he’d ever swing a golf club again. But Roger stopped himself, not wanting to dampen the feeling of freedom that swelled from his stomach. Be here, he told himself. For the first time, be here. This, all this that lies before you, is the mere start of a second chance. Hell, more like his third or fourth or tenth. As the doctors told him again and again, after a car accident like that, and the amount of alcohol in his system, there had been no logical reason why he survived. Maybe that’s why the sun was brighter: the chance of redemption.
A wave of warm and lilac-scented air poured in as Gloria climbed in the driver’s seat. Sweat lined the top of her forehead and she put her hand to the bridge of her nose to collect herself. Using more effort than expected, Roger placed a frail hand on her thigh. She looked at it, then at him, then started the van.
“After that bill, you’d think someone would help with the wheelchair,” said Gloria. She put the van in gear and pulled from beneath the hospital overhang. He pulled back his hand, feeling an unfamiliar energy emanating from his wife.
They drove through the shrinking farmlands of suburbia in silence. Outside the van, tired, late summer fields wilted below the heavy sun. Browns and golds and angry reds swam together and created a vibrancy Roger had never seen. Or had at least ignored. What else had he missed? What else had he put ahead of what really mattered? Not this time, he thought. I have been born again. He closed his eyes in triumph.
He must have drifted off, because when his eyes opened, they had stopped and long shadows painted the land. Gloria sat silently beside him, transfixed on something beyond his vision.
“Where are we?” he asked, shifting upright in the seat. His back screamed and stars danced before his eyes. He looked around. They were in the parking lot of a cemetery he didn’t recognize.
“I need to show you something,” Gloria said. She slowly turned to face her husband. Sadness and fatigue created darkened half circles below her eyes. Roger stopped a gasp from escaping his mouth. She’d aged. Oh, how she’d aged. In her youth, she’d been the most coveted object he’d ever seen. He needed to have her. Not just for himself, but for others to bear witness. And he succeeded. With attrition and guile and the promise of a noticed life, Roger had gotten her. And once they were married, he treated her like a possession to be admired. No flaws. No bad days. No hair out of line. He took great offense that she aged, as though she denied him his own immortality. He turned to others to fulfill his desires. Afterwards, Roger would whisper beneath the sheets the same empty promises he used to tell Gloria. But that was the old Roger. New Roger, the one borne from the ashes of almost death, would welcome each wrinkle, attaching each one to a memory they shared.
Yet he still looked away, frightened by the intensity of her eyes.
“Hon, I’m tired,” he said.
“Do you believe in us?” she asked.
Out of pure nervousness, Roger laughed. His wife wasn’t one to ask hard questions. Gloria made Christmas hams and organized bake sales for the church. She changed the channel when the news talked about genocide and corruption. She ignored the perfume on his clothes after yet another nighttime business meeting. He hadn’t married her for hard questions; he’d married her for her beautiful obedience.
He began to reach his hand towards her thigh. “Hon, I’m…”
“Is our future worth anything?” she shouted, instant rage echoing throughout the van’s sleek interior. Her knuckles whitened against the steering wheel. “For over half my life I’ve been nothing but a piece of furniture to you. To be used. To be ignored.” She looked straight ahead. “So don’t come back from the brink just to touch my fucking leg.”
The sun had shrunk to a fuzzy orb on the distant horizon by the time Gloria had gotten Roger into his wheelchair and pushed him through the gothic fence opening. Gravestones and modest plaques stretched in all directions beyond the hardened footpath. Roger flinched at every bump in the ground. Gloria said nothing, but breathed heavily.
A film of grime covered Roger when Gloria stopped the wheelchair at a shortened fork in the cemetery path. She let go of the handles and put her hands on her lower back. The air smelled of dying memories.
“Why are we here, Gloria?” asked Roger. Fear wasn’t the right word for what trembled behind his eyes. Fear was reserved for sounds in the night and misshapen moles on his back. Fear could be confronted and solved. This was something deeper. Something that dared to be controlled.
“Will you be honest with me, Roger,” Gloria said, lifting her chin to the disappearing light of day. “Let’s me and you just be honest with each other. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” answered Roger, not sure if he was being honest. “More than anything.”
“Good. That’s good,” said Gloria. She found a patch of grass and sat across from her husband. “Do you love this family? The life you and I created, however flawed it may be. Would you do whatever is necessary to salvage it?”
Roger tried to push himself closer, but the wheels were stuck behind clumps of grass. “Nothing else matters. Gloria. Nothing.” The truthful power of his words brought tears to his eyes. To be given the gift to watch his daughters conquer the world swelled inside. Even with Rick. He’d be better. “Whatever you ask.”
Gloria leaned back on her straightened arms. Slices of coolness swirled within the fading summer heat. “The girls aren’t yours,” she said flatly, running an open palm along the grass behind her. “Their father is below me. Even now, I can feel his love through the dirt.”
Roger tried to speak, but a dryness beyond anything he’d ever experienced glued his mouth shut. Gloria closed her eyes and gently lowered her back to the flattened earth. “I come here often. To imagine the life I should have lived.”
A powerlessness of body and soul fell upon Roger like a weighted blanket. He tried to think, speak, move, but could do nothing. So he sat. Obediently. Did this dead man whisper to her below the sheets?
With darkness closing around them, Gloria closed her eyes and hummed sweetly. After many moments she said, “I am your wife.” She brought herself up on her elbows and smiled with such unleashed relief that years melted off her face. “And from this day forward, you will treat me like a queen.” Gloria rose to her feet and walked to the back of Roger’s wheelchair. She lowered, the flesh of her lips brushing against his skin, and sang wispily into her husband’s ear, “Or I will fill you with all the secrets of our life.”