This story is by Christy Brown and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rochelle eased her aching body onto the red slat bench at the entrance of the park. Her husband, Marcus, insisted over and over she wait there until he arrived. Annoyed by his badgering, she contemplated moving to another bench out of spite. But blinding pain, courtesy of an inoperable aneurysm, made her reconsider.
Through bifocals, she gazed beyond the lake to what was once a clearing dotted with young saplings. It was the spot where Rochelle and Marcus had their first date. Lounging on a blanket, they stared at the stars and shared their dreams. Marcus pulled an old Ford Roadster onto the grass. His junkyard treasure was more duct tape than metal, but the radio worked. And the couple danced in the glow of the headlights until well past Rochelle’s curfew.
They discovered a shared love of dancing. No matter where they were, they moved to the rhythm as long as there was music and solid ground beneath their feet.
But the girl, like the saplings, was long gone, replaced by an older version. Unlike the oaks that stood tall and robust, Rochelle’s time was finite. Her life was in the hands of an invader lurking in her brain.
Lost in thought, Rochelle flinched when a bouquet of white lilies appeared in her sight.
Marcus gazed at Rochelle through eyes clouded with cataracts, that after all their years together, retained their playful glint. But it was his shy grin that melted her heart.
“Happy 55th,” Marcus said.
“They’re beautiful,” she said, then brought the flowers close and inhaled their fragrant scent. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
“And stand up my bride? Never,” he said as he put his hand out to her.
She set the lilies aside, then used Marcus’ hand as leverage and arose to her feet. Her knees cracked with rebellion, but the stiffness was gone from her back.
Her husband lifted her hand above her head, and Rochelle did a slow pirouette. Marcus grinned. “Ms. Dione outdid herself this time! My fine wife could stop traffic!”
Rochelle planted her fist on her hip. “Dione didn’t do anything she hasn’t done for the last forty years.”
“Then it must be your natural beauty shining through!” Marcus’ fingers intertwined with Rochelle’s while his other hand rested on the small of her back. He pressed his cheek to his wife’s and hummed as they swayed. “This brings back those Saturday nights at the dance hall. You were always the prettiest girl in the room. Not to mention the best dance partner.”
“Well, you weren’t so bad yourself. I thought I’d miss those days when the kids came. But our family dance parties in the living room more than made up for it.” Rochelle peered into her husband’s eyes. They were as clear as the sky above. A trick of the light, she thought. “Speaking of the kids, we should go. They’ll be at the house soon.”
Marcus’ smile evaporated as he lowered himself onto the bench. “Maybe we should sit a spell.”
Rochelle sat beside him and noticed her knees ached less than they had moments earlier. She surveyed her husband’s serious expression, and a knot grew in her stomach. “What’s wrong?”
Marcus placed his hand on Rochelle’s. “The kids aren’t coming.”
“But they promised.”
He frowned. “They canceled. By text.”
Something was familiar about her husband’s words. She had heard them before. But how and when eluded her. “Kesha’s going to her husband’s great niece’s dance recital.”
“And the sister of that woman Duane married has some gallery opening.” Her breathing quickened. “I forgot? I…I don’t understand. What’s wrong with me?”
Marcus squeezed Rochelle’s hand. “Nothing’s wrong with you. I think it made you so sad; you didn’t want to remember.”
Rochelle pursed her lips. “They’ve canceled before, and I didn’t forget.”
“True. Normally, you wave it off and pretend everything’s fine. Not this time. When I showed you the texts, you were inconsolable. Cried harder than I’ve ever seen.”
The memory of her children’s rejection resurfaced. She squeezed her eyes shut and hugged herself as she rocked slowly, willing her emotions to remain at bay.
Marcus laid his hand on her shoulder. “Talk to me.”
She shook her head.
She viewed her husband through glistening eyes. “I’m dying, and they don’t care.”
“Ro, They’re in denial.”
Rochelle trembled as anger and sorrow pooled in her chest. “No! Don’t you dare make excuses for them!” she snapped. “Do you remember the last time we got so much as a birthday card? I don’t! And the few times they’ve visited, they kept their noses in their phones and their eyes on the door.” Her shoulders dropped, and the tears flowed.
Marcus’ jaw tightened. He gathered his wife in his arms and pulled her to his chest. “That’s it. Let it out,” he said as he stroked her hair.
The flood gates opened, and the hurt she bottled inside spilled out. “Were—we—terrible—parents?”
“We gave those kids everything we could. They had good educations, and we supported them with every team, class, or club they joined. And look at them? They’re both successful with families of their own. Now we weren’t perfect. But as far as I know, neither of them spent time on a couch, complaining to some shrink about how awful we were.”
“Then why don’t we matter?” she sobbed.
“Maybe we did our job too well. We raised independent kids who make their own decisions.”
Rochelle’s sobs subsided. “Like the time they forged our names and cut school, so they could be on that teen dance show. Those fools showed off in front of the cameras to get on TV! Then couldn’t believe they got caught!”
Marcus chuckled. “I never said they made good decisions.”
She sighed. “I just wish they loved us as much as we love them.”
Rochelle untangled herself from her husband. When she removed her bifocals and wiped her tears, she was surprised by how clear her vision had become. She wondered if it was a strange side effect of the aneurysm or if she was losing her mind. Probably the latter.
Marcus righted himself onto his feet. “C’mon, let’s take a walk.”
Rochelle pushed herself up with unexpected ease. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Between your bad ticker and the time bomb in my brain, a walk could kill one or both of us.”
“Your head still hurts?”
It dawned on Rochelle her headache had disappeared. Her focus turned to her husband. His skin had grown smooth, like that of a much younger man. And his shoulders had broadened. “What gives? Because either we found the fountain of youth….” Rochelle gasped as the memory of unimaginable pain flashed through her brain. She gripped her husband’s arm as she caught her breathe, then looked up at him, wide-eyed. “The aneurysm. It burst.”
Marcus studied the ground. “You let out a scream like nothing I ever heard before. Seeing you like that broke my heart. All I could do is wrap you in my arms and hold tight while you slipped away.”
“You kept repeating, ‘Wait for me where we began.’ This bench, it’s where I waited for you on our first date.”
Tears welled in his eyes. “I knew I wouldn’t be far behind, and I had to be sure I could find you on the other side.”
“I’m grateful you did. I’m just sorry you had to listen to me whine once you got here.”
Marcus strummed Rochelle’s cheek with his fingertips. “You weren’t whining. You were saying your peace, so you could move on.”
Arm and arm, Marcus and Rochelle strolled down a path that ran through the park. It was like taking a trip back through time. There were pavilions where birthdays, baby showers, and receptions had been held. An open field where they captured their children’s graduation pictures and said their wedding vows. The path ended at an old wooden bridge that connected the two sides of the park.
“We had our wedding portrait taken here,” she said. “I thought they tore it down?”
“It still exists in our little slice of paradise.”
Marcus wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on her shoulder at the water’s edge. Rochelle gazed down at the reflection of two kids who found love in the park on their first date.
They watched the sun descend, and something inside Rochelle told her it was time. Hand in hand, Marcus and Rochelle crossed the bridge. On the other side, they shed the shackles of sorrow, anguish, and regret that bound them to the physical world.
Set free, their laughter could be heard throughout the park as they raced toward the sound of music and glowing headlights in a small clearing, dotted with young saplings, where they danced for all eternity.