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Caroline Evans’s dream was not a nightmare, and as it began evaporating into the morning light, she tried to cling to it,
wanting nothing more than to retreat into the warm, sweet bliss of sleep where the joy and rapture of the dream and the reality of her life were one and the same.
Even now she could feel Brad’s arms around her, feel his warm breath on her cheek, feel his gentle fingers caressing her skin. But none of the sensations were as sharp and perfect as they had been a few moments ago, and her moan—a moan that had begun in anticipation of ecstasy but which had already devolved into nothing more than an expression of pain and frustration—drove the last vestiges of the dream from her consciousness.
The arms that a moment ago had held her in comfort were suddenly a constricting tangle of sheets, and the heat of his breath on her cheek faded into nothing more than the weak warmth of a few rays of sunlight that had managed to penetrate the blinds covering the bedroom window.
Only the fingers touching her back were real, but they were not those of her husband leading her into a morning of slow lovemaking, but of her eleven-year-old son prodding her to get out of bed.
“It’s almost nine,” Ryan complained. “I’m gonna be late for practice!”
Caroline rolled over, the image of her husband rising in her memory as she gazed at her son.
The same soft brown eyes, the same unruly shock of brown hair, the same perfectly chiseled features, though Ryan’s had not quite emerged from the softness of boyhood into the perfectly defined angles and planes that had always made every-one—
men and women alike—look twice whenever Brad entered a room.
Had the person who killed him looked twice? Had he looked even once? Had he even cared? Probably not—all he’d want-ed was Brad’s wallet and watch, and he’d gone about it in the most efficient method possible, coming up behind Brad, slipping an arm around his neck, and then using his other hand to shove Brad’s head hard to the left, ripping vertebrae apart and crushing his spinal cord.
Maybe she shouldn’t have gone to the morgue that day,
shouldn’t have looked at Brad’s body lying on the cold metal of the drawer, shouldn’t have let herself see death in his face.
Caroline shuddered at the memory, struggling to banish it.
But she could never rid herself of that last image she had of her husband, an image that would remain seared in her memory until the day she died.
There were plenty of other people who could have identified him at the morgue. Any one of the partners in his law firm could have done it, or any of their friends. But she had insisted on going herself, certain that it was a mistake, that it hadn’t been Brad at all who’d been mugged in the park.
A terrible cold seized her as the memory of that evening last fall came over her. When Brad had gone out for his run around part of the lake and through the Ramble she’d worried that it was too dark. But he’d insisted that a good run might help him get over the jumpiness that had come over him in the last couple of weeks. She’d been helping Laurie with her math homework and barely responded to Brad’s quick kiss before he’d headed out.
Hardly even nodded an acknowledgment of what turned out to be his last words: “Love you.”
The words kept echoing through her mind six hours later when she’d gazed numbly down at the face that was so utterly
expressionless as to be almost unrecognizable. Love you . . . love you . . . love you . . . “I love you, too,” she whispered, her vision mercifully blurred by the tears in her eyes. But in the months that had passed since that night more than half a year ago, her tears had all but dried up. Sometimes they still came, sneaking up on her late at night when she was alone in bed, trying to fall asleep, trying to escape into the dream in which Brad was still alive, and neither the tears nor the anger were a part of her life.
Caroline wasn’t quite sure when the anger had begun to creep up on her.
Not at the funeral, where she’d sat with her arms holding her children close. Maybe at the burial, where she’d stood clutching their hands in the fading afternoon light as if they, too,
might disappear into the grave that had swallowed up her husband.
That was when she’d first realized that Brad must have known he’d be alone in total darkness by the time he finished his run around the lake. And both of them knew how dangerous the park was after dark. Why had he gone? Why had he risked it? But she knew the answer to those questions, too.
Even if he’d thought about it, he’d have finished his run. That was one of the things she loved about him, that he always finished whatever he started.
Books he didn’t like, but finished anyway.
Rocks that looked easy to climb, but turned out to be almost impossible to scale. Almost, but not quite.
“Well, why couldn’t you have quit just once?” she’d whispered as she peered out into the darkness of that evening four days after he’d died. “Why couldn’t you just once have said,
‘This is really stupid,’ and turned around and come home?”
But he hadn’t, and she knew that even if the thought had occurred to him, he still would have finished what he set out to do. That was when anger had first begun to temper her grief,
and though the anger brought guilt along with it, she also knew that it was the anger rather than the grief that had let her keep functioning during those first terrible weeks after her life had been torn apart. Now, more than half a year later, the anger was finally beginning to give way to something else, something she couldn’t yet quite identify. The first shock of Brad’s death was over. The turmoil of emotions—first the numbness brought on by the shock of his death, followed by the grief, then the anger—was finally starting to settle down. As each new day had crept inexorably by, she had slowly begun to deal with the new reality of her life. She was by herself now, with two children to raise, and no matter how much she might sometimes wish she could just disappear into the same grave in which
Brad now lay, she also knew she loved her children every bit as much as she had loved their father.
No matter how she felt, their lives would go on, and so would hers. So she’d gone back to work at the antique shop,
and done her best to help her children begin healing from the wounds the loss of their father had caused. There had been just enough money in their savings account to keep them afloat for a few months, but last week she had withdrawn the last of it,
and next week the rent was due. Her financial resources had sunk even lower than those of her emotions.
“Mom?” she heard Laurie calling from the kitchen. “Is there any more maple syrup?”
Sitting up and untangling herself from the sheets—and the turmoil of her own emotions as well—Caroline shooed her son out of the room. “Go tell your sister to look on the second shelf in the pantry. There should be one more bottle. And you’re not going to be late for baseball practice. I promise.”
As Ryan skittered out of the room, already yelling to his sister,
Caroline got out of bed, opened the blinds, and looked out at the day. As the smell of Laurie’s waffles filled her nostrils and the brilliant light of a spring Saturday flooded the room,
Caroline shook off the vestiges of the previous night’s dream.
“We’re going to be all right,” she told herself.
She only wished she felt as certain as the words sounded.