This story is by LJ Newlin and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A gentle mist hovered above the lake as the sun crest the treetops. A fish flopped out of the water, somewhere to her right, searching for its morning meal. Lea took a sip of her hot coffee, warming her hands on the cup as she stared out at nothing in particular. The cabin sat a few feet from the shoreline, with a deck that extended almost out to the waterline. As she turned to go in, her eyes fell on the sign above the sliding glass doors, ‘Welcome to Camp Happily Ever After.’
“Yep, our little slice of heaven,” Lea said with a warm feeling of peace.
A voice called from inside, and she hesitated at the sliding glass door to appreciate her young, lithe figure reflecting back. She stepped inside to see the love of her life behind the kitchen counter pouring his cup of coffee.
When he saw her, his smile lit up the room. “There she is, the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Charlie hobbled through the front door. Now, nearly crippled by arthritis, his marathon days were long behind him. Rufus, his old cattle dog lagged a few feet behind. Suddenly the dog pushed past him, heading for the kitchen.
“Alright, alright, I’ll get your treat.”
He flung his jacket on a hook. By the time he made way for the kitchen, he could hear Rufus crying in the other room. His chest tightened and his brain froze with horror at the sight of his wife of fifty years motionless on the floor. A pool of blood expanded around her head. Rufus tracked bloody paw prints as he paced back and forth, anxiously kissing her face and then nipping at her hand, attempting to get a response.
Hours passed before the hospital staff allowed him to visit his wife. The prognosis wasn’t good. She had a stroke that caused her to lose her balance, hitting the countertop with her head on the way down. They placed her in a medically induced coma until they could determine the next course of action.
Charlie pulled a chair close to the bed, took hold of her hand, and wept.
“Hey, little girl, the love of my life, my bride, you know you’re not holding up to our bargain. I’m supposed to go first. You know I’m useless without you. You’re the strong one. You’re the thread that has kept this family together all these years, I just show up where you tell me to.”
A nurse entered the room to check her vitals. Charlie, looking like a lost little boy, asked, “Can she hear me, or am I just talking to myself?”
“There have been those who came out of their comas, proclaiming that they heard everything. It certainly wouldn’t hurt for her to hear a familiar voice from a loved one.” The nurse said reassuring him.
His old wrinkled hands enveloped hers, and he kissed them softly. As he inhaled and exhaled deeply, tears rolled off his cheeks onto their hands.
“It all went too fast. I haven’t had enough time with you. Fifty years isn’t enough, damn it!… Hey, do you remember when we first met? That was one of the best days of my life. You worked in the office and I next door. I’d terminated my military career and took the first job that offered employment. You were the prettiest little thing that ever shot me down. Engaged, yeah right, there was no ring, but I wasn’t going to let you slip through my fingers then, and I won’t let you do that now.”
Charlie fell asleep to the beeps, clicks, and the shallow breathing of his beloved. There had been very few nights they had spent apart over the decades, and he was going to be damned if it started tonight.
Days, then weeks, went by with Charlie at her side. The hospital staff put an end to him sleeping in the chair. They said, “Charlie, you’ll be no good to her if she wakes up to find you all worn down with worry and lack of sleep.” He acquiesced after they turned down his request to have a bed set up next to hers, but every day he regaled another story of their lives together.
“Remember, the day after your retirement, we finally took our trip to Europe? Thirteen countries in thirty days, and we made love in all of them. Yeah, there were the museums, the Mozart concerts, steins at the beer gardens in Germany, and the wonderful foods in Prague. I didn’t think it was possible, but I found I loved you even more. How it delighted me to see you so giddy when we found all the Impressionist Art at the Musee d’Orsay. When I traveled to Europe as a young man it was nice but such a lonely experience. I think I was always meant to see it with you, through your eyes. You were such a trooper. You were magnificent, my better half, my light, my…my… oh, come back to me.” Charlie wept. “I long to dance with you to some sappy love song, holding you close while we slowly turn in circles to the music.”
The machines hooked up to her body all started to beep with lights flashing. Charlie sat back as nurses and doctors attended to her at a frantic pace.
Lea twirled around playfully, coaxing her love to come to her.
“Come wrap your arms around me. I love our life, our memories. I love this place, However, did you find it?” Lea took his hand and twirled under his arm.
Lea stared straight ahead, “Do you hear that? What’s going on?”
“I hear voices calling me. A clamor of noise, so much chaos, and for a moment I thought I saw you, but you’re here.” Lea snaps out of her trance. “Huh? It stopped. Come on, let’s go for a walk along the shore.” Lea stopped for a moment, sighed, and gave her love a sweet smile. “I loved our life together. No regrets.”
The nurse found Charlie standing outside his wife’s room. His back was pressed up against the wall taking slow deliberate breaths, praying the 23rd Psalm.
“Charlie, sorry to bother you, but I thought you should know that your wife has hours not days. Perhaps it’s time to say your final goodbyes.”
His breath became ragged and tears welled up in his eyes. The nurse, seeing his distress added, “I’m sorry but if it is any consolation, know that your wife isn’t in any pain.”
Sitting next to her, and lovingly holding her hand, he whispered, “God, when she goes, can I go with her? Please? I know, I know, your will, not mine. I can’t imagine how you could use me. It’s just that this earthly body is all used up. The kids and the grandkids are all grown up and moved away. The only things I have are my bride you gave me and that old dog. ” Pressing his cheek to her hands, he hummed the first song he ever sang to her, Michelle by the Beatles.
During the quiet of the night, the cacophony of beeps and alarms filled the room with a deafening noise. Before anyone could reach her, it changed to a single steady tone. Flatline. When the nurses came in, Charlie shook his head no. No to further intervention.
A nurse came over to turn all the machines off. She turned to him and said, “You can stay until they kick you out. You hear? I won’t let anyone come in to bother you.”
Lea stood in shallow waters, allowing the gentle waves to wash over her feet.
“Remember the story where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet? This may sound a little crazy, but this water feels like that, like God is washing my feet. Am I going mad?”
“No, you’re just going.”
“Do you remember the song, Wayward Stranger?”
“No, no, I hear, ‘Michelle, ma belle.These are words that go together well,’ our song. No, I’m staying, I’m staying here with you. Let me stay?”
“I have no say, my love.”
“There’s that sound again.” Lea takes her hands and covers her ears. “Make it stop! What’s happening? Now it’s just one long tone…”
Her visage was fading as she rose towards the sky. Lea called out, “Charlie, I will love you forever and ever.”
“Oh Lea, I’m not far behind.”
The shift nurse noticed that Charlie hadn’t moved in quite a while. It was possible he was sleeping, but considering the circumstances, she thought she better check. She confirmed that Charlie passed. When they pried his hand away from Lea, they found a folded-up piece of paper. In Charlie’s shaky handwriting were the following words, earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal, now we live the true happily ever after.