A person in winter clothing looking at a sunset alone tells a story of grief and loss

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

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