This story is by Sara Headley and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“I heard there was gold up in those hills,” Billy said to me, swinging the stick he picked up as we walked down the road together.
“Oh, yeah?” I said. “Do you think it’s true?” I asked, happy to change the subject.
“I dunno,” Billy said now kicking a rock with his toes. He stopped and looked at me. “What if I could find that gold, Sadie? If I could find that gold then we could run off together.” He started to stare off into the hills like he was looking for the place he would start to dig and pick into the rocky cliff walls of the hills and canyons.
“Billy, don’t do this,” I said quietly. “Please.”
“I could build us a house over there and we could live there ‘til the day is long,” he said still staring.
My throat started to close up and my eyes and nose ran. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Billy, please don’t. I can’t marry you. You know this. No amount of gold is going to change that-even if you could find it. Please don’t make this harder than it already is. I just can’t handle it,” I sobbed out.
“I’m sorry, Sadie. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Don’t cry,” he grabbed my shoulders firmly and brought me close to him and held me while I wilted.
The hills beyond the road rose up from the pastures in rolls of green and blue. The summer heat had long touched their soft peaks and now an autumn breeze blew down from them and whisped through my hair. I opened my eyes and looked up into Billy’s face. He had dark hair that brushed at his eyelashes because the cowlick he cursed daily sat at the crown of his head and never let him push it back properly. He kissed my forehead and released his hold, reaching for my right hand and began our walk again.
We walked in silence for almost a mile. It’s hard to know what to say when you can’t say what you have to say.
“Do you think there’ll be a lot of snow this winter?” Billy asked.
“I don’t know. Daddy says he seen a lot more of those birds than normal. He says that means a colder season. But I don’t know about snow. Sure would be nice,” I responded.
“I don’t like the snow,” Billy said.
“I guess it’s good for the crops,” he said. “I just don’t like the cold. Gets into my bones and I feel like I can’t breathe.”
“I know, Billy.”
He started to swing his stick again and his gait slowly became bouncier. “Why don’t we go somewhere it’s warm all winter? We could take the train as far as it goes west. I heard there’s places where the beaches meet the water and you can live right there. Just put up a hut or somethin’ and eat the fish right from the sea! Doesn’t that sound amazing, Sadie? Can’t you just see the two of us swimmin’ out in the water ‘til we can’t see the shore no more?”
“It does sound nice, Billy,” I said with a sigh.
“I wonder what folks make their houses out of in a place like that? Maybe they build them all the way up in the high trees so they could see the sea all ‘round them for miles and miles. Could you just imagine that?”
“That would be fun,” I said, letting myself go a little. “We could hang those hammocks from the trees and sleep in the afternoon with the tide to rock us in our dreams.”
“Yes, yes!” Billy started jumping in front of me now. “And I would spend my days finding the most beautiful flowers for you. I would find red ones and purple ones. And of course I would make sure you had the most yellow flowers of any lady around, ‘cause I know they’re your favorite.”
“And I would make our home the coziest place you’ve ever seen. I would sew a blanket for you that would keep you warm all the days.”
“And we wouldn’t have to wonder about snow ever again!”
I watched as he bounded around the dirt road we were walking along. He was flapping his arms wildly around and shouting about the warm beach he was imagining. My stomach dropped again.
“What kind of birds do you think are out there? I bet they have wild colors.”
“Oh, and their feathers, I can’t even think what they might look like!”
“What?” he stopped in his step, looking at me with his eyes wide and his dark bangs hanging in front of them. He brushed his hair back and it flopped in his face again. “What is it?” he walked towards me and picked up my hands in his.
My head dropped. I couldn’t look at him anymore. This was too hard.
“I’m sorry, Sadie. I know you don’t like the dreaming. I shouldn’t ‘a done that, again.”
“I know, Billy. I’m sorry, too.”
“I wish I knew why it made you so upset,” Billy whispered.
“You do know, Billy.”
The cool wind picked up again and rustled the leaves that had fallen from the trees. The breeze was so strong now it lifted my hair from my shoulders and my skirt poofed up in a wide bell shape. A small whirlwind of leaves and dust danced across the road in front of us. The rock outcropping that stood behind Billy shone bright with the late-afternoon sun, burnt reds and deep yellows shadowed by the wind-etched holes.
“Yeah,” Billy said, finally. “I just wish it could be like it used to be. We used to spend our whole days in the fields out there making love and plans. I could do that for the rest of my life. Why can’t we have that still, Sadie?”
“You know that, too, Billy.”
This time I wrapped Billy in my arms to hold some of his aching. We stood there in the road just breathing together in long drawn out breaths that were sometimes broken by the quick sobs that we let slip out.
“What do you think that other place is like?”
My quiet sobs came out louder and harder now. I let it out. Tears streamed down my face and I grabbed Billy’s shirt to keep from falling down. I think he was crying, too.
With the sun dropping below the horizon, the wind became much colder. It bit at the tips of my ears and fingers. My toes hurt. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to let him go.
“It’s getting cold,” Billy said, sniffling from the cold air and the crying.
“You don’t like being cold,” I said, wiping my face.
“I bet it’s real warm there, the other place,” I said. I looked him in the eyes behind the feathery wisps of hair. He leaned down and placed his lips on mine. I could feel his warm breath before he pressed harder and kissed me. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and let me fall into them. He held me up almost entirely now. His other hand wove into my hair, fingers twirling it into ringlets. Billy always kissed me like this. I never could keep my feet underneath me when he kissed me, so he would hang on to me. I would lose myself in those kisses, not remembering where I was or what the time was. When he lifted his head and straightened me I felt dizzy.
In the distance, I heard the train horn and the rattle of the tracks. The sound broke the spell and I turned to look. The commotion stirred the quails that were nestled in the brush by the rocky outcrop and a whirl of feathers and leaves shot up into the sky. When I turned back to see the birds, he was gone. In the corner of my eye, I thought I spied his brown vest. But, it was just a flurry of feathers and wings.
I knelt down next to the rock pile cairn I built him last year in the place he died last year. I placed another rock on top and took a deep breath.
“Goodbye,” I said. “I hope you’re warmer now that you’re in the other place, Billy. I wish I could go with you. Someday…”
I started to walk back to the house in the dusky light. I no longer dawdled on my trip. It was getting too cold to walk slowly.