This story is by Amy Hepp and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Matt leaned his tall frame against the door jamb watching Josie pack her gear and roll her sleeping bag. “Do you need to go?” he asks.
Josie zipped her backpack and sighed. “You know what this weekend means for me. Can you water the flowers and remind Brian to be home by curfew?” Josie dropped her voice low. “I think he and Lily are doing more than homework when he goes to her house.”
Eighteen years ago, Josie cradled Eli’s baby in her six-month belly and watched the snow fall out the front window on the cold, dark January night. The doorbell interrupted her thoughts, and she opened it to two Minneapolis police officers who informed her of Eli’s death in the car accident, which changed her life forever. Her world collapsed until Matt coached her son, Brian, in preschool soccer three years later.
Josie wrapped a hair tie around her long, black hair and pulled it into a ponytail before slinging her backpack over her shoulder. Matt put his hand on her shoulder as she walked by him. “Be careful. I’ll miss you.” Josie looked up at his hazel eyes and he bent down and kissed her with soft, wet lips until her body slacked and she opened her mouth to him. Her belly warmed, and her core softened, welcoming the kiss. Matt groaned and pushed his body into her until their pre-teen daughter, Rachael, emerged from the hall bathroom and rolled her eyes.
“Ew. Gross. Just stop.”
Matt chuckled, and Josie touched her burning lips. “Rachael, get dressed for soccer. Dad is driving you today,” said Josie.
Josie loaded her gear into her car and pulled it out of the driveway as Matt stood with his hands in his pockets and watched her drive away.
One hundred miles and several granola bars later, Josie got her lake permit and rented a solo canoe from the outfitter store. The store manager helped her load the canoe, and she pushed off the shore with her paddle. Steering through the calm lake and breathing the clean air allowed the noise of life to disappear. Cotton candy clouds floated across the blue sky, and the cacophony of birds dominated the conversation overhead. The loons welcomed her back to the lakes of the Boundary Waters. The tightness in her chest lessened and her shoulders relaxed while the warm sun hit her face. After an hour of paddling, the campsite appeared through the trees and Josie pulled her canoe onto the small beach and set up camp. She unloaded her gear, pitched the small tent, and tied down her canoe. After collecting kindling and tinder to light a fire, she filled a small pot to boil water for dinner. With the camp chores complete, Josie sat on a log and stoked the growing fire. Inhaling the scent of wood smoke brought back memories of canoe camping trips with her first husband, Eli, to the Boundary Waters. She stared into the flames, hoping his smiling face would appear in the fire. After an hour, Eli’s ageless face emerged.
“Hi, Eli. Happy Anniversary. I miss you,” said Josie.
“Hey Sunshine. You look beautiful as always.”
Josie smiled. “I’m aging.”
“Never. How are Matt and the kids?”
“Matt is wonderful. He works hard and helps with the kids. Brian is seventeen and dating a sweet girl named Lily. Rachael is twelve and the hormones dominate her life. We drove to the ocean and spent a week on the beach this summer.” Josie sighed. “My dad passed away after the holidays.”
Eli’s head tilted. “I loved your Dad.”
“He loved you, too.”
“I can’t believe our son is seventeen. I bet he’s a handful.”
“Our son is a typical teenager. He pushes the envelope, but gets good grades and is looking at colleges.”
“I remember when you told me about our pregnancy on our last canoeing trip.”
Josie smiled. “You became insatiable after I broke the news. You stripped me naked in front of the fire before pulling me into the tent.”
“The mosquitoes feasted on us! Do you remember the canoers who stumbled upon us skinny dipping?” asked Eli.
Josie laughed at the memory and tossed her shiny black hair behind her shoulder. “You carried me out of the water and ravished me on the beach as soon as they paddled away.”
“They might have been out of sight, but I think they heard you. Are you still a noisy lover?”
Josie blushed. “None of your business, Eli.”
“I hope Matt worships you.”
“Oh, he does. . . I am a lucky woman to have found love twice in my lifetime.”
The fire turned to embers, and Eli’s face disappeared. “Wait!” yelled Josie. She sighed and doused the hot coals before retreating to the tent. She zipped it closed and snuggled in her sleeping bag.
Saturday morning fog covered the lake, and she sipped her coffee on the beach until the sun burned off the white curtain. Once the temperature rose, Josie stripped to nothing and relished the cool lake water against her skin. She dressed, ate oatmeal, hiked through the woods, and read her book on the beach, waiting for day to become night.
After dinner, the orange sun fell behind the trees while she built a pyramid of wood and lit the kindling in the fire pit. As the fire grew, darkness blanketed the campsite, and she hugged her knees, staring at the flames. Hours ticked by and her mind drifted to Matt and the neighborhood cookout planned for next weekend and their debate about whether to purchase Brian a car. She replayed their lovemaking from the other night and throbbed when she remembered waking up in the middle of the night to his hands caressing her breasts and his arousal pressing against her thigh.
Josie rubbed her eyes after midnight, watching the hot flames lick the cool air until Eli finally appeared.
“Eli, you’re fading.”
“I know, Sunshine. It’s been a long time. Live your life and cherish our memories. See you on the other side.” The flames faded to embers, and Eli’s face disappeared for the last time. Josie swiped a tear and climbed into her tent.
“I will always love you, Eli.” She whispered.
Bikes scattered across the front yard welcomed her home. She dropped her dry pack and sleeping bag in the foyer and went in search of Matt. Brian and Rachael sprawled on the living room couch. “Hey, Mom. Brian is hogging the remote.”
Josie entered the kitchen to find dishes piled high in the sink, flour and sugar strewn about the island, and Matt licking a chocolate covered wooden spoon. She wiped a smudge of chocolate off his cheek with the back of her thumb and fed him the sugary goodness. Matt suckled her thumb and her core softened in response.
Matt set the spoon on the countertop and brought her lithe body to his bulky one. He kissed her and shared the chocolate taste while threading his hands through her silky hair. She pressed her body against his and panted after they parted.
“Did you see Eli?”
“Yes. My memories are fading, but the Boundary Waters is still a special place to me. He told me this was the last year I’d be able to see him.”
Matt held her tight and whispered in her ear. “I know, Sunshine.”