This story is by jennifer santiago and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A thick sheet of snow blankets the front yard of a two-story farmhouse on Harpers Ferry Road.
I think of Bill drawing angel wings in the powder. Catching snowflakes on his tongue. A cardinal wearing a mask of slick, ebony feathers lands on the branch of a giant pine tree. His scarlet wings beat and bleed like an open wound against the gray sky. I listen for the call of here, here as he cries against the biting cold. But his song bears no such resemblance. His music is as vague as the memory of Bill’s body inside a flag draped coffin. The sixth-year anniversary of his death, today.
Bill would’ve loved it here. You, Logan, would love it here.
Raven trots by and the bird flies away. A blur of crimson disappearing into the air. The chihuahua gingerly navigates the gleaming powder, paws sinking into the snow. She squats to pee then leaps toward the warmth of a fire raging inside the old farmhouse. I gaze at the white-capped Appalachian hills from the front porch of our new home. Well, it was supposed to be our new home. A place to finally put down roots after so many years living in war zones. A space big enough for visits from your boys once the divorce was final.
Do you remember how we first met, Logan? It wasn’t me. It was Raven who recognized you. She tore away from her leash, sprinted down the perimeter of the embassy compound and leapt into your arms. From that distance, in the fading light, I thought Raven had found —
Bill? It can’t be.
You wore the same cliché off-duty uniform that screams military: tactical slacks with so many pockets; Salomon shoes with the all-terrain grip outer sole; tinted Raybans perched on a bare scalp. But as your silhouette took shape, the man I noticed walking toward me, cradling Raven in the Bjorn-like sling of a well-toned arm, was definitely not Bill. You had the same salt and pepper goatee, but you were taller. Leaner. Way more handsome. You smiled, returning Raven to the ground. The setting sun threw hints of peach across your cheeks, illuminating a constellation of tiny brown freckles dusting the bridge of your nose. You offered a hand and said,
“Hi! I’m Logan! What a sweet dog. You are?
This can’t be real.
“No. Just, you know, Covid. The medics catch us touching, and we’re done for. I’m Jess, this is Raven.”
How can he look so much like Bill?
I offered an elbow, the new Coronavirus custom. You pushed up the sleeve of a worn T-shirt offering an elbow back. A pulsing, blue vein splitting the crest of your bicep caught my eye as we touched. The shirt was grey. “Sawdust is Man Glitter” written in block letters across the chest. I imagined you hunched over a workbench, sawing till your hands bled. The phrase Dust to Dust emerging from the shavings.
Do you remember our last night together, Logan?
It was our first day out of quarantine. We had spent the morning making love. Your orgasm so loud, so alive, the bed roared on its frame. You asked me how I could still believe in love after everything I had been through. After losing so much to the war. After losing Bill.
“Of course I still believe. I never thought I’d get a second chance. But here you are.”
I closed my eyes and saw the bier below Bill’s coffin swaying in the wind, heard the bugle blowing Taps.
Maybe there is no such thing as a second chance after all?
“But my boys? How will you fit in when the divorce is final? You never wanted to have kids.”
Bill never wanted to have kids.
“I’ll be a hot stepmom?”
“Ha! Of course you will,” you said, smiling wide.
Outside, a calico moon began her watch as the call to prayer pierced through the dusk. In response, a crow raged against the religious assault. Screaming here, here.
“I used to think Bill would come back as a bird,” I whispered, resting my head on your chest, longing to hear the thump and throb of his heart, but grateful for yours.
“My grandmother used to say cardinals were sent as messengers from God.”
Is God sending you a bird now, Logan?
How cruel that day. How it began in bed with so much promise and ended on the floor with so much pain. I found you on your knees later that evening. I held you close as the elevator chimed on descent like a death knell ricocheting against the walls.
“This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening,” you had muttered into the crease of my neck.
“She’s dead. She’s dead.”
“My wife, Jess. My wife. I’ve got to get back to my boys.”
The elevator doors slid open. You stood up.
“I’ve got to go. I’m sorry, Jess. I can’t do this. Us. I can’t.”
I followed you down the hallway, but the look on your face made it clear I was not needed. Cold and blank of any human expression. Lashes wet around pale, blue eyes that had grown wide and dark.
“I know. I just wanted to make sure you—
“I gotta go.”
We are now both grieving. Conscripted into that same, sad club called widowhood. We were supposed to help each other through the pain. Instead, I watched you walk up the hill, toward your office. Toward the team that moved mountains to get you on the next flight to Washington DC. Far away from me.
In the quiet, damp moments between dark and dawn, in that tiny embassy compound apartment we shared, you often spoke about your home in Virginia. A place so safe, so cul-de-sac cliché, the kids could bike to school, and the neighbors all knew each other’s names. You spoke of sprawling farms where glistening horses grazed on viridian hills. You described giant cherry blossoms that bloomed in pink and purple explosions, announcing the coming of spring. You longed for a breath of country air so fresh you could almost feel your lungs regenerating with each inhale, like a reptile growing back a severed tail. So, when I left Pakistan, I headed straight there. I rented another old farmhouse just twenty minutes from your home, while I looked for a place of my own. I traced all your steps: the microbrewery where you once asked an eye-rolling bartender for anything on tap that tasted like Miller Lite; the 50s-style family diner with those table-top juke boxes where you took the boys on Sunday mornings. I dusted off the map you left behind. I followed every curve and dotted line, but nothing led me to you. Until today.
A tall, dark figure approaches the farmhouse, unlocking the gate like he had done so a thousand times before.
At first, I think it’s his ghost. For weeks after Bill died, I often saw him in the garden. Oily swallows circled overhead, calling his name as I clawed at the earth, my skin, my hair. Searching. Screaming. Pleading.
“I have a job for you,” the shadow says, shutting the fence behind him, sending a flurry of snow falling from the pine tree above.
Logan approaches. Thinner. His beard, grayer. Deep creases sitting like fresh wounds in the dark circles beneath his eyes. My heart begins to beat wildly. Wings fluttering then melting in the churning acid of my belly. He stops just inches from me. Wild, blue eyes searching mine.
“How does a full-time position as hot-step mom sound? It doesn’t pay well but has great benefits.” Logan forces a smile, scanning my face for a response.
“Are you serious? How did you even know I live here? I thought I was going crazy. I thought you were B—”
“I’m sorry. I love you. I’m so, so sorry. I’ve known for months. I just needed to make sure my boys—”
A single tear streams down his gaunt cheek, dangling from his beard like a raindrop clinging to a leaf.
“It’s okay,” I say over and over, stepping into his embrace.
“So, you’ll take the job?” He whispers in my ear.
“Yes. I do. I mean, I will.”
Raven braves the snow again to greet her old friend. She circles her front legs in the air like she’s peddling a bicycle. Bouncing off his calves.
“You! I missed you, Raven. We’re going to have to introduce you to my boys very, very soon.”
Logan sweeps me off my feet, cradles me in his arms, and steps over the threshold.
We are lying by the fire now. Our legs like roots plunging through the hardwood floors, sinking deep into the earth. Our limbs like branches flower, twist, grip one another in an impenetrable embrace. Inside the dancing flames, I watch six years of my pain, six months of yours, burn to ash.