Winter’s Dragon

Some days are just plain harder than others.

I always thought I knew that. All books warn about it. Everyone and their brother and sister and obscure relatives swear by it. But nothing ever prepares you for the actual living of it. Nothing.

The weather had been turning colder and colder still over the last several weeks. Branches that had been previously adorned in fiery gowns of leaves little more than skeletal hands with bony fingers reaching out to clasp the unwary. The sky was less blue and more blue-gray, and clouds rode low in the sky, pregnant with snow. Even the air tasted different. Gone was the richness of warmth and heavy sweetness of decay. A crisp, clean bite of razor sharp icicles replaced it.

Winter had come. My first winter without you.

I had been so thorough, so complete. After you had gone, I went through everything in our home in a meticulous spring cleaning that the house had never seen and one that would have made you, finally, proud. I thought I had removed every trace of you there was. I even found that missing sock. The one we always used as proof that gremlins do exist. I guess we had been wrong about that one.

The day had been going more or less okay. I hadn’t cried once. Even when our song came on the radio while I was washing the morning dishes. That was a first. It took nearly ten months to get to that point, but I got there. Go me, right? I didn’t have work that day, but I wasn’t scared like I’ve normally been. Being alone was no longer as frightening as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I was still uncomfortable with the thought and there was no way in hell that I was going to stay home the whole day. But I wasn’t frightened out of my mind. I hadn’t called Mom, or Stacy, or RJ for protection from the day, either.

In fact, I had a plan. And it had been such a good plan. I was going to pull out all the winter clothes and switch everything out. Then, I was going to go for an afternoon walk in the park, stop by the Coffee Hut Cafe, and finally finish reading Dante’s The Paradiso. I know you always bet that I never would finish that series. That was why I was finally finishing it. You would have loved them. I would have loved to read them to you. Plans and dreams we never got the chance to fulfill.

But the point is, I had a plan. I knew how I was going to spend the day. I was going to spend it alone, and I was going to be okay doing it. Not great. Not happy. But I was going to be okay. It was supposed to be this big win that I was going to take to Josie when we met on Friday in her little therapy office and drank peppermint tea together. I was going to be able to tell her all about how much I was really starting to heal. Today was going to be the irrefutable proof that life would continue; past you, past us. That I was going to be okay.

Then you had to go and mess it all up.

Just like you always did.

Even now, you manage to come in and mess up all my carefully laid plans. You always twist me inside out and upside down until I have no idea which way is which. Every preconceived notion that I have any amount of control becomes smashed around you. Still. Even now. Shouldn’t there be some sort of law or rule against that? That after so many months I get a pass and get my life back? You shouldn’t be able to haunt me like this. You’re not even here anymore. And somehow you still do.

Go figure.

This time you intruded in such a familiar way. I found my favorite green winter jacket. You know the one. I decided that today, with my almost perfect plan, was a perfect day to wear that coat. So I slipped it on and immediately I felt myself smile. I had another win for Josie. She has this crazy idea of me tracking my smiles throughout the week. Says it would be good to bring “self-awareness” to the things that still manage to make me happy, and to remind me that I can still smile, even without you. Considering that I have only tracked about eleven smiles in the last two and a half weeks, maybe her idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Either way, I had another win for her. Boy, was she going to be proud of my progress this week.

That was when I slipped my hands in the jacket pockets.

I swear, I wasn’t trying to ruin my day or start anything.

Actually, I was checking myself out in the hallway mirror. Don’t tell anyone. But there I was, getting all set to admire how the jacket still fit, brought out the color of my eyes, and managed to make me feel like a fashion model about ready to take on the catwalk. And that’s when I felt it brush the skin of my left hand. Against the back of my knuckle I felt the gentle press of small rounded hard bumps. What the freak?

My hand closed around the tiny object, pulled it out, and could only stare.

Sitting in the palm of my hand were two, tiny, entwined, pewter dragons; one with wings partly unfurled as if about to take flight. Their eyes sparkled in the late morning light; one blue, the other green. Your eyes. My eyes. Our eyes. These were the dragons I had admired at the fair but had passed on because, well, cost. They were expensive just in a normal store. Put them at a fair and the price went to beyond ridiculous. As much as I liked it, I enjoyed being able to eat more.

And you had gone and gotten it for me anyway.

That was just like you. You always paid attention to the things I admired. Then you would go back, buy them, then hide them for me to find later. Just like this.

But if that wasn’t enough, my right hand touched the folded edge of paper. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to read the words in your handwriting. I had been so careful to remove you from this house. Not because I didn’t love you. I did. I still do. I just also know that it was the only way to keep me from going insane. Finding yet another reminder of you here, like this, on a day that was supposed to be okay; it just wasn’t fair.

Helpless, I pulled out the paper and unfolded the note. It took a few minutes before I could read the scrawled handwriting through the blur of tears filling my eyes. It was always hard enough to read your writing normally. Tears made it near impossible.

Reach for the blue, blue skies
Soar high, soar far, soar free
Conquer and claim all you survey
While reaching
For the blue, blue, skies

How? How could I fly when you were gone? You were my wings.

The floor met my knees with a solid thunk. Some part of my brain registered that surely that must have hurt. But in the midst of the breaking off of yet another piece of my soul, physical pain was just plain inconsequential. I clutched that small figurine to my chest, pressing it firmly against my skin as if trying to absorb it through my skin into my body. Who knows. Maybe I was.

I knelt there, weeping, lost, and broken as the sun was chased by the dark shadows of night across the floor.

Today was supposed to be an okay day.

But I remembered then just how much I still miss you.

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest

A Bottle of Wine

“Screw you, too!” I screamed to the slamming front door. Even knowing he wouldn’t hear me, I couldn’t help but add a resounding, “Bastard!”, punctuated by the throwing of a coaster.

It hit the wall with a dull thud, causing a picture to fall and crack sharply on the hardwood floor.

“Gahhh!” My hands clenched, nails digging painfully into the skin as I fought the urge to throw another coaster. Marco was gone. Again. Unless I wanted more of a mess to clean up, throwing another coaster wasn’t going to get me anywhere. No matter how satisfying it was in the moment. I fought my fury to bring in what was supposed to be a deep, cleansing, peaceful breath into my body. What I got was more like the snort of a raging bull. My grandmother had tried to warn me about Italians and Irish mixing in marriage. And like a good, stubborn Irish lass, I ignored her.

I had to do something with all of this pent of energy. While it might be spring in the Lower 48, here in good old Alaska, it was Slush Season. Which meant taking a walk was out. And my dearly, beloved husband had just driven off with the truck, leaving me stranded to the confines of our happy, little home. Cleaning, it was.

I started with the more recent mess. An assortment of various items now lying haphazardly about the floor. A silent testimony to the trail this latest fight had taken; TV remote, plastic cup (thankfully empty), paperback novel, coaster, and picture. Thankfully, the glass hasn’t broken and the frame was still more or less intact. I pushed the edges together and hung it back in its spot, trying hard not to look at our smiling faces. I didn’t want or need a reminder that there had been times when I wasn’t this angry at my husband or he at me.

Done, I looked about the house. It was clean. Every room had been deep cleaned within the last week and a half. Friends joked about cabin fever, spring cleaning, and my bordering obsession with becoming a clean freak. If they only knew the truth. What else was there?

Attic. We had an attic space. And since I couldn’t remember the last time I had been up there expect to shove more junk in it. I felt confident that that should last me at least the rest of the day. If I was lucky, it would take me two. With the way things had been going, I would need it. Sad thought, that.

Armed with a roll of trash bags, dust rags, medium sized plastic storage boxes, can of Pledge, phone, phone charger, and blue-tooth speaker, I made my way to the small attic storage space we had carved out of the whole attic when we first moved in. I flicked the light and the singular bulb, hanging from its cord flared to life. Marco had promised to put in a proper light fixture years ago. Just another empty promise among thousands. Irritation and anger flashed again, hot and ready.

Cleaning. I had to start cleaning.

I threw myself into the project with a vengeance that would make even the hosts of those hoarder TV shows proud. Nothing was safe. Every item and scrap was scrutinized, tossed, set aside for donation, or cleaned within an inch of its metaphorical life. Hours passed and slowly, the anger drained. But still I kept cleaning, working my way back through the layers like some archaeologist seeking long lost treasures of the past. Though thus far, most of what I found needed to go into the trash. What had possessed us to hold onto this junk anyway?

That was when I found the box. Tucked away in a large U-haul box of various relics was a medium sized cherry wood box with vaguely Celtic designs carved on the front. The last time I had seen this was right after our honeymoon. Frowning, I undid the simple faux gold snap and opened the lid. Nestled inside were four envelopes and behind those a bottle of merlot from 2009, the year of our marriage. If this was what I thought it was…

I checked the envelopes. Sure enough two were addressed to Marco and two to me. One of the ones addressed to Marco was in my handwriting. Of my two, one was from Marco and the other from his sister. This was our Make-Up Box. On the day of our first big fight we were supposed to open this box together, read the letters, and drink the bottle. I think we missed the deadline on this one.

I almost shoved the letters back in and re-latched the thing. I was almost ready to rebury it. Almost.

Instead, I picked up the letter from Marco’s sister and opened it. I wasn’t ready to read Marco’s words. Not after what he had just screamed at me before he left.

Well, if you are reading this, congratulations. You are now well and truly married.

Trust Joanna to open a letter of this nature like that. I felt myself smirk. She always did know how to talk past my strong emotions, which was why she was my best friend.

Truthfully, though, I am sorry that you are fighting so badly that you’ve had to go to this. But from a woman who has been married for a few years herself, trust me when I say, every marriage gets here at some point or other. And it’s not until you’ve hit this point that you come to realize just what your marriage is made of and if it’ll last or not. Knowing you and knowing my brother, you’ll make it and be okay. If anything, because you both are two darn stubborn to call it quits. You know you are. So just might as well admit it now and move on.

Admit it yet? Good.

Now I know my brother can be worse than a stubborn mule. I did grow up with him after all. But I also know how crazy in love with you he is. And we both know how horrible he is with words and expressing those things we call emotions. Come on. You do remember how he proposed to you, right? Right? Exactly. He loves you. He just gets so twisted up in his frustration that everything but what he needs to say comes out instead. You’ve got to remember that about him. And about you, too. Yeah. You do it, too.

So do both of you a favor. Shut up with the words. Drink the wine. Remember that you actually like each other most of the time. Trust that this too will pass. And it’ll be okay. Promises and pomegranates.

I closed the letter, letting it fall in my lap. She was right. Marco stunk when it came to dealing with emotions. He proposed in the middle of a grocery shopping trip for goodness sake. And when he was frustrated or hurt, he raged like a bull.

Not that I was any better. There had been plenty of times this last fight when we could have stopped. But I had said something, or rolled my eyes, and kept it going. I was just as guilty as he was.


I opened his letter. Scrawled in the middle of the page with his heavy hand were two words:

I’m sorry.

I don’t know how long I sat there crying. But eventually, I heard the front door open. Marco was home.

Time to set things right. I stood up, clutching the box and its contents to my chest, and made my way out of the attic. “Marco?” I called out, voice thick and rusty.

“…Polo!” he called out in return. Was it just me, or did his voice sound thick, too? Either way, he must not have still been angry. He wouldn’t have answered that way otherwise.

Maybe Joanna had been right. Maybe we would be okay. If could both just shut up instead of insisting on winning every time. If we could just remember how much we did like the other. How much fun we normally had together. If we could just…

“I think it’s time for a bottle of wine.”