This story is by Sherrie Stewart and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My Fall Love
Phyllis stared across their cove at the reds and golds ablaze from the afternoon sun. A cool breeze came off the lake and brushed loose, brown curls away from her bruised face. She watched the water dance with the colors and memories of her fall love.
Paul brought her here for the first time to admire the fall foliage one crisp afternoon twenty-two years ago. They made love on a blue plaid blanket under Grandfather Oak, as Paul named him, near the crest of the hill. He proposed to her there, and they built their house between the strength of that massive tree and the soothing sounds of the lake.
She felt his footsteps behind her and his arms wrap around her waist. He nuzzled the hair at the back of her neck.
“I still love our lake. Even after all these years, I love our place, and you,” she told him. She thought she heard Paul whisper something, but couldn’t quite make it out because a brisk breeze came to her and pushed his words away.
The two had worked together through those early years to make these few wild acres surrounding the south shore into their place, their home. They designed the house together, negotiating each particular placement, sometimes for days. Paul wanted the front of the house to face east because of his Navajo heritage. He insisted that the front door open to the rising sun, Grandfather Oak stand on the south to protect and shade them, and the front of the house be skirted by an inviting, wide plank porch . She demanded that the kitchen be yellow and look westward over the lake through wide windows. In the end, that house became their home, their place.
Paul’s porch faced the east and held solid oak chairs, a small table, along with a slatted porch swing. He assembled and sanded the porch planks and furniture from a nearby sawmill’s rough hewn oak boards.
“Oak lasts forever,” Paul had told her with pride as he oiled the wood. “Others will sit here long after we’re gone.”
Phyllis could scan the slope down to the lake from the over-sized window topping the kitchen sink. She thrilled at Paul’s idea of sliding glass doors leading onto a deck from the breakfast nook. The lake came to life each morning over her cup of sweet and light coffee.
This morning she had watched the shadows shrink and the first morning rays touch the tops of the red oaks, then light on the golden maples and white-barked birches. An owl hooted as it roosted for the day. Blood-red sumac still wet from yesterday’s rain carpeted the open areas. Phyllis stepped out onto the deck and breathed in the crisp air, but she noticed that twinge of falling, dead leaves that always marked the end of her favorite season.
After the glow of autumn faded, the snow would fall. The lake froze over. Their cove transformed into the scene from a greeting card with snowmen, ice skaters, and shimmering icicles hanging from the edge of the roof. Spring brought tenuous sprigs of green peeking through the melting snow and then a flurry of pink and purple petunias planted in pots placed just so around the deck. The hum of insects and fresh-mowed grass signaled summer. She waited through the heat, escaping to kayak along the shore in the cool caverns of overhanging branches or to flop into the warm water from the far end of their boat dock. But her soul ached all year long for autumn.
Warm colors, sparkling wet from the rain, and cool breezes of Indian summer invited her away from a cup of hot coffee and down to the edge of the lake this afternoon. Paul had followed her like a puppy, smiling that vacant smile, then pressing his face into her hair. They stood like that for a long while.
“Let’s go for a swim,” she told him and took him by the hand. He gripped her fingers like a child and bounced along beside her to the edge of the water. He stopped abruptly and tried to kick off his shoes, but she urged him to follow her.
“No need,” she encouraged him. “See, I’m not shucking my shoes.”
Phyllis shivered, but she kept going. The solution hadn’t occurred to her until they stood there together facing the lake. It appeared when the cool wind washed across her face and two white clouds floated westward across the watery reflection of the blue sky. The answer came to her from their cove.
She remembered how it had started, how it rained for the past two weeks. She had been washing up the breakfast dishes that morning when it began. Outside, the heavens cried. The drops came slow and soft. Paul called this kind of rain ‘feminine.’ No thunder rolled across the sky. No lightening flashed to make her jump away from the window. Like the raindrops, the tears leaked unnoticed from the corners of her eyes, spilling into the dishwater. Then, as if on cue, her pain erupted in sobs, and the sky opened up. Torrents of rain smashed to the ground, a drowning rain, as if the angels felt her anguish and cried along with her.
“Come on, honey, we’ll go for one last swim together.” Phyllis knew that all the summer renters had scurried back to their city lives, kids shuttled off to school, and the boats all stowed away. She glanced at their dock with their twin kayaks unused for the past two summers.
“One last swim, my love,” Phyllis whispered.
What would she do? What SHOULD she do?
Phyllis asked herself these questions hundreds of times over the past two weeks. She and the sky drizzled and deluged day after day. The lake became a grey looking glass.
The doctors had told her that Paul would never get better. His mind and memories had deteriorated so quickly. Unusual, the doctors had stated, but they had no idea of how long before he would become incapacitated.
Then, that morning two weeks back, he had asked, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but do I know you?” as she placed a favorite fork into his hand at breakfast. But it hadn’t been his words as much as the perplexed look on his face that shocked her. Incredulous, she stood paralyzed. Things hadn’t changed for her until that moment. They still lived together, ate together, slept together. They had always resided in each other.
The changes in Paul had been minuscule, but their life shifted according to each tiny step along the path of her husband’s illness. He took a medical retirement from his job as a civil engineer for the federal government two years back. She switched from full time to adjunct teaching at the local college. Since there had been no children, Phyllis had told herself that they only needed their home and each other, that tightening the financial belt only challenged her homemaking skills, and that she could deal with anything as long as Paul’s health remained good. She had been so wrong!
These past two weeks had pushed Phyllis to the edge of insanity. One minute, he knew her. The next minute, he didn’t. In the morning light sitting on the porch, he patted her arm or nuzzled her hair in the same old way. By afternoon as the setting sun cast black shadows across the lake, Paul tried to bite or slap her. Paul had never raised his hand to her in the past.
What should she do? What COULD she do?
If she called the sheriff, would they arrest him, put him in handcuffs, and haul him away like a common criminal? Not her Paul. She couldn’t let that happen.
If she called his doctor, which she had done three times and hung up before he came to the phone, they would come with a straight jacket, bind up her Paul so he couldn’t move his hands that created so many daunting, hydro-electric dams, and shove him into a padded cell to live out his years. Not my Paul, her mind had screamed at the rain gushing down the sliding glass doors.
“Cold,” Paul told her as they passed the end of the boat dock in the chest-high water.
Phyllis held his hand and urged him on. They swam together through the cove and toward the middle of the lake.
“Paul, my fall love, they would treat you like a caged animal,” she tried to explain through blue lips. “My life is worthless without you.” She clung to his hand as they treaded water, grew tired, and then became numb. The dark, glassy surface enveloped the two of them.
That evening, Sheriff Washburn got a call at home. His night-shift deputy reported finding Paul Begay sitting at the edge of Mirror Lake’s north—end boat ramp , soaking wet, suffering from hyper thermia, and mumbling something about ‘my fall love.’