This story is by Linda L. Moore and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Every morning, in the weeks following Tucker’s death, Sunny treaded the gravel road shaded by tall trees standing like sentries to her rural route mailbox. She’d wait for Hank, the town mailman, to pass, then open the yellow mailbox and reach in, hoping the pink, green and yellow envelopes would stop coming. She stacked the dozen or so cards upright, unopened, in a wire bread basket. What would they say other than Sorry for your loss? To Sunny, her husband’s death felt more like a liberation than a loss.
She had reached her breaking point after too many years trying to salvage a marriage to an alcoholic. Romantic nights sitting under the stars warming themselves by a crackling fire ruined by hurtful obscenities tossed flippantly in her direction. Friends no longer came to visit because his unfiltered opinions were too much for their sensibilities. Planned date nights cancelled when she’d find him passed out behind the garden shed.
One day as she stood over him, sprawled face down in the leaves and dirt of the forest floor, as if whispered to her from the Aspen trees, and cajoled from the raven cawing nearby, she got the idea to twist fate.
Tucker’s death certificate categorically called his accident death by misadventure. “Now there’s a turn of phrase if I ever heard one,” Sunny snickered.
Evidence now ashes. Another ladder exposed to the elements still leaning against the garden shed. She hadn’t known which one he would choose, so using a rubber mallet, she’d taken out her anger on both ladders, beating the weathered rungs until they could be wiggled loose with her hands.
Without a hint of remorse she burned the ladder he fell from and heaved the chainsaw into the coffee-colored tannic river. She could still see the pale-faced paramedic picking up Tucker’s severed hand and setting it alongside his body on the stretcher.
“Looks like you’re getting a visitor,” Hank said, and, with a practiced glance, handed her a postcard, “from Mexico!” Sunny hated small town Nosy Nellie’s. She cocked her head to the side and swiped the postcard from the mail carrier’s pudgy hand.
She knew only one person who lived in Mexico.
Dear Dad and Sunny (Mom)
I’m on my way home. It’s been too long and I won’t be able to live with myself any longer if we can’t fix our past. I am sorry that I hurt you. I hope we can be a family again.
Your daughter, Soleil
Hurtful words cracked the father daughter bond years ago after an argument resulted in Soleil leaving the country. At the time, Sunny was just learning how to be a stepmother and wasn’t close to the indignant and often moody eighteen-year-old. She’d begged Tucker to reconcile; to at least be the better person and apologize. Unable to bear a child of her own, Sunny resolved she had no vote in the courtroom of Tucker vs. Soleil. Tucker’s confusion and anger spiraled into meanness, depression and drinking. Sunny’s dreams of the ideal marriage and a family with his daughter, and even the possibility of grandchildren, faded with the years.
The tone of the postcard, Sunny thought, hinted that the rebellious girl may still reside in the woman. But if I tell her he’s dead, she won’t come. Sunny formed a plan that began with writing a letter to Soleil as if it were from Tucker.
Soleil arrived three months after Tucker’s accident, and Sunny hoped her charade could last through the weekend when she planned to tell Soleil about her father’s fatal fall. But now, she needed to rekindle the relationship with her estranged stepdaughter. They greeted each other warmly with slight hugs of strangers.
After the usual small talk about the trip and the weather, Soleil wondered why Tucker wasn’t there to greet her.
“Typical Tucker,” Sunny clipped, “decides he’s going on a fishing trip to give us some time to get to know each other again.”
Sunny couldn’t tell if Soleil felt relieved or hurt. Soleil masked her emotions well, even as a teenager; it unnerved Sunny and she’d find ways to prod her into reacting.
They sipped lemonade from sweating glasses on the deck overlooking the crooked river that bordered the property. Sunny’s thoughts wandered to the chainsaw buried by now in sediment of the riverbed – not implicit in Tucker’s murder but a bloody reminder.
Choosing her words carefully, Sunny told Soleil about Tucker’s alcohol abuse, “I do have to warn you dear, when you left, he started drinking. It started with him going on a bender every year on your birthday, but it became progressively worse. I didn’t let on in the letters, because,” she paused, “well, I thought you might not come.” Sunny watched Soleil’s body stiffen and her brow furrow. She looked frightened or was she angry, Sunny couldn’t tell for sure. “Clearly, your fall from grace hit him hard.” The words were the prod she needed. Soleil’s eyes filled with tears and her shoulders shook.
“You’re home where you belong.” Sunny smiled and gently touched Soleil’s arm. That gesture seemed to soften Soleil, and she opened up about her life in Mexico.
As the women laughed easily and shared stories that brushed the surface of their lives, Sunny walked Soleil around the property full of nature’s bounty. She pointed to the song birds, led her through the raspberry patch, and showed her which cherry trees were ripe and ready for plucking. “They’re Tucker’s favorite!” she said, forgetting for a moment that he was dead. Funny, she thought, the loving and tender things she remembered to share about Tucker with his daughter. Sunny so wanted to have timeless love in her life and feel the love and admiration of a daughter.
Sunny awoke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and sunlight streaming through the bedroom curtains. She thought of Soleil and her soft laughter, the way she flicked her long chestnut hair when it fell into her dark brown eyes, how she was quick with a smile that eased Sunny’s worries about reconciliation. Sunny tried on the phrase “This is my daughter, Soleil,” silently to herself.
Sunny took a mug from the cabinet and poured her coffee, then sat at the breakfast table. She congratulated herself for remembering to hide the basket of condolence cards. All that remained were the letters from Soleil. Alongside the wire basket she noticed a handwritten note.
“Good morning, MOM! I’ve gone to get started picking cherries to make a pie for Dad! Join me when you can!”
Sunny dropped her coffee mug and slammed open the screen door, running as fast as she could, feeling cold wet grass under her bare feet. Her legs wobbling, barely able to carry her as adrenaline rushed into her muscles, gasping when she saw that the old wooden ladder was gone. She cursed herself for forgetting to replace it. Her heart pounded in her ears so hard she couldn’t hear her own voice.
“Soleil! Stop! No!”
Sunny watched in horror as the rung where Soleil stood snapped. As she turned toward Sunny, the ladder slipped away from the tree. Soleil’s arms flapped like bird wings as she struggled to catch her fall. The sound of cracking bones followed by the thud of her stepdaughter’s body, was worse than anything Sunny had ever heard. The full basket tipped as blood red cherries scattered in the green grass.
A raven swooped down to peck a cherry, cocked its head toward Sunny and cawed loudly.
Sunny didn’t believe in karma, yet if there were such a thing she’d rather be dead than dig herself out of the rubble inside her shattered heart. Nothing really mattered to her unless it involved turning back the clock.
Black became the color of her mourning.
Her blonde hair now matted and dyed black, her mascara smudged, a badge of anguish. She didn’t care how she looked or notice the sharp pokes of the gravel into her bare feet as she walked to the once yellow mailbox now painted black. As fate would have it, Hank pulled up as she reached the mailbox and handed her an oversize postcard. “Hey, Sunny! I see there’s a sale this week at Duane’s Hardware.” Nosy Nellie, she thought, cocking her head to the side as she waved him off.
“I need a ladder,” Sunny said to the pretty clerk wearing a yellow polo shirt embroidered with the logo – We Build Dreams.