This story is by E. J. van der Velde and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Light and dark shades of green alike layered the patchwork hills outside, their beauty striking in a day washed clean by last night’s storm. She stretched in unison with the sound of the bleating sheep outside and reluctantly rolled out of bed, her bare feet landing firmly on the cold lino.
In the kitchen her mother stood by the sink facing the window, her hands clasped tightly around her favorite ceramic coffee mug, as she did every morning in an attempt to warm her hands. Fay noticed steam had long ceased rising from the mug, her mother’s eyes lost in nothing, her thoughts darkened by the incessant shadow of torment. Gloominess tended to follow her mother each time her father went away on business. Fay supposed she felt lonely. She walked quietly back to the bedroom to get dressed and made her way to the garage.
She looked at the neatly stacked boxes and as she lifted one down to the floor, there was a light knock on the open garage door.
“Now what is such a good-looking woman doing in a dusty old garage?” Robert said with a smile as he closed the door behind him and walked toward her.
“Hey you,” she smiled back, “I’m just getting some old pictures out to cheer mom up”. Fay appeared more petite still beside his towering stature, the contrast only enhancing her attraction to him.
“Your dad away on business again?” he asked as he pulled her in close. She could feel the tip of his erection pushing between her breasts. He leaned over, combing one hand from the nape of her neck up to the back of her skull, his fingers entwining her hair like salmon swimming upstream. The other hand, guided by his middle finger gently traced a line up her leg, then inside her skirt, over the inside of her thigh, barely touching, leaving her yearning for more. His lips were wet and soft and touched hers with a gentleness that made her want to surrender every part of herself. She gasped for air, her body pleading to be touched. He dropped his jeans to the floor and brought her to her knees, taking her hips in his hands from behind and as his hard length slowly filled her, she groaned.
The local children used to walk for miles to play together, taking shortcuts through streams and fields, their clothes muddy even before they started their game. Sometimes they would retrace their steps returning almost halfway home again when hiding from those seeking and vice versa.
Although he was much skinnier back then, Robert had always been tall and could often be found hiding in a tree where the others daren’t climb. Fay on the other hand was skilled at lying flat between the tall grass, or even stowing her small frame away behind rocks not much bigger than the first lambs of spring.
As an adult, however, the same countryside that had given her beautiful memories as a child had in her adult life given her a distaste for its people and their cruel gossiping ways. Perhaps this tendency was driven by nothing more sinister than simple boredom, but the inclination to judge quickly and sympathize slowly meant its people were bound by invisible chains, living their lives within the boundaries set by others’ expectations.
Fay stood, straightened her skirt, and fixed her hair. Robert had held her afterward for longer than was comfortable, but she had stayed in his arms willingly this time. She needed it today but did not want their pursuit of sexual gratification to be complicated by either one catching feelings for the other.
“See you around then?” he asked rhetorically, closing his belt.
“Yeah sure. See ya” she said awkwardly.
She did not return to the cardboard box in the garage until several days later – GUNTHER’S STUFF – was written on one side in large black letters, and though the letters were all capitalized she was sure it was her mother’s handwriting. As she kneeled on the concrete floor, she winced where her knees had borne the brunt of her sexual encounter earlier in the week.
She looked down into the box at a mound of papers and photographs scattered haphazardly. Given her mother’s usual orderly and systematic ways, she thought it odd for her to have packed her father’s belongings away so carelessly. She sighed and started leafing through photographs of her as a child one by one until she came upon a letter. It was handwritten and had gained a yellow tinge over the years. The paper’s texture was coarse, as though it had been wet at one time. She immediately recognized her father’s penmanship:
My lovely Anna, I hear your voice as I sleep. Your dreams are dreams within mine; do you see? I hear you in the rustle of fallen autumn leaves, and I listen. For it is heard only once. As a whisper carried on the soft breath of a child, lost in the darkness.
Fay’s mouth was open but made no sound. Countless questions swamped her brain… What the fuck is this? Who is Anna? What century did he think he lived in writing like this? Her eyes skipped to the end of the page.
Anna this child must not know, you must raise him as the fruit of your marriage with your Christopher. We cannot bestow such disorder upon our families. We must not speak of this with anyone for it is the moment at which a fish opens its mouth, that it is caught.
Wait. What? Anna and Chris are Robert’s parents. Fay sat staring blankly at the letter in her hands. Her breaths were short and fast, her stomach twisted into a tight knot. So, he’s my fucking br-Her thoughts were cut off by her phone vibrating in her pocket. She answered. Silence. Then, “Fay, I have some bad news. It’s Robert.”.
She peered into the cold silent room, pausing in the doorway. Her heart was racing now, thud – thud – thud, growing louder with each beat. A balding man in a black suit gently ushered her forward, his smile so tender it did not quite reach his kind eyes. She stared at the ugly brown carpet with its offensive bobbles glaring back at her.
“M’am, excuse me, I know this must be difficult for you. Come on through in your own time”.
She looked up into his eyes over the fog of her warm breath and felt a sense of familiarity, like greeting the father of a best friend she had grown up with. He quietly moved away and stood on the far side of the room, his chin resting on his chest. His posture reminded her of a guilty dog’s insecure stance following a scolding for bad behavior. Her feet refused to move, anchored to the floor by the weight of denial, hesitant to cross the threshold. As long as she stayed on this side, she was still something to someone.
The coffin cast a somber shadow in her direction, forging a dark diagonal path to her feet as though inviting her to walk the plank to her own demise. She slowly lifted her head, her eyes guided by the dark trail until met with the large pine box within which he lay. She squinted against the light from the lamp which stood behind it as her eyes adjusted from staring at the dark floor.
Thud – thud – thud.
In spite of her head being resistant and unprepared, her feet began shuffling towards the light where death lay awaiting her visit. Led by short puffs of warm breath, she approached the open coffin and as his face came into view, a chill shot up her spine and lingered on the back of her neck. Nothing had prepared her for this moment. His head was distorted and his face bloated. Even through the embalmer’s thick layer of makeup, the yellow, green, and blue blotches on his skin stood out. Once so handsome and defined, his face had been transformed into a vast swollen bruise.
“We think he died sometime on Tuesday night” the policeman’s words echoed in her ears following today’s brutal news.
With her gaze fixed firmly on his face, she considered the difficulty of the embalmer’s task. How do you make a three-day-old corpse look like it’s alive and sleeping peacefully as opposed to having entered an advanced stage of human decomposition? She thought of how his nose and mouth would have been stuffed with cotton wool to prevent gases and fluids from seeping out and insects from entering.
Looking down now at death itself, she was full of regret, questioning everything. Perhaps we could have been great together.
She placed her palm on her lower abdomen as tears rolled down her cheeks. What now, little one? What are we going to do now? This was not exactly the “Happily Ever After” she had hoped for.