I had the website for the campground open and was trying to figure out what I needed to do to cancel our spot. I felt bad because we had put in the reservations well over a year in advance, but there was no way we’d be able to make it.
“What are you doing honey?”
I hadn’t heard Nancy enter the room. Her face was puffy and pasty pale. She didn’t have a wig on.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You were going to cancel the reservations, weren’t you?” she asked.
“Well, since you asked, actually I was,” I said. “You know that there is no way we’d go without you. I’m not going to leave your side.”
“I know, honey, but you won’t have to worry about that. Go.”
For a second a surge of joy went through my mind. She was going to be better! She’d be able to come. But then a dull realization descended on me of exactly what she was saying. I got up and took her in my arms.
“Please promise me that you and the boys will still go. Please?”
I looked into her pleading eyes. A tear fell onto her face. I couldn’t help it.
“We will go,” I said. “I promise. No matter what, we will go.”
She smiled. “Good. By then you’ll really need to get out of the house. Can you help me back to bed?”
I walked her into the bedroom and tucked her in. She smiled up at me.
I forced myself awake. I was not going to relive what came next, the next few days and weeks. I wasn’t ready or strong enough.
I got up and walked to the dying embers of the fire. I tossed a little wood on and blew the coals until it flamed up again. I sat down, back to the boys, and stared at the fire and thought about the day. I could imagine Nancy sitting across the fire from me, watching the boys.
“I’m so proud of the boys,” she said. “They look good.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s been tough on them, but they’re resilient.”
“I think this trip has done wonders for them,” she said. “Derek is turning into a fine young man. Just think, he’ll be in High School in the fall. And Jason will be in Middle School. Our kids are growing.”
“Yes, they are growing. I just wish to God that you were here to see it…”
I looked up from the flames at the empty spot where I had imagined her. With the shimmering of the heat I could almost make her out, but I was stretching my imagination. The void on the other side of the fire echoed the one in my heart. I looked back down at the fire and my mind went back to the day.
The boys had grown a lot, and not just in the weeks and months since we had lost Nancy, but in the hours that we had been forced to walk down the mountain side. Each found strength in their own way. I only wished it was as easy for me. Sitting alone in front of the fire I felt weak and vulnerable.
I let my mind wander. I could hear something moving in the woods and the quiet breathing of the boys. The fire snapped and popped. I closed my eyes and listen to the Universe, catching my bearings.
The frogs seemed to be singing just for me. Thinking of Teddy and our frogs, I got up and walked away from the fire. The ring of light was soon just a glow behind me as I walked deeper into the clearing. Listening to the frogs in the distant trees I looked up at the crisp stars. Did wishing on a star ever help? I felt unusually lucky, as if somehow a glowing mantle had fallen on us and kept us out of harm’s way. Thinking of the car I knew that it was lucky that we were even alive. Was there something behind that luck? Did Nancy really help stop the car in time? Did she really make Jason get out before it fell? Has she been watching over us?
I felt her behind me. I didn’t dare turn to destroy the illusion.
“It will be over tomorrow, at least this part of it,” she said. “They noticed you didn’t show up at the campground. They called our landline and your cell. Obviously nobody answered either. They sent an email. Again, no answer. A ranger wondered if you’d taken the wrong road and hit the wash out. It seemed possible. They called the police. Tomorrow morning, as you’re cleaning up after breakfast, you’ll see the cruiser coming up the road to find you. This part will be over.”
I knew that she was telling the truth, even if I didn’t totally believe she was there.
“People will call it a tale of survival,” she said.
“Little will they know how right and wrong they would be,” I responded. “This adventure was about our survival, but not from the elements. It forced us to survive as a family.”
“It is exactly what you needed.”
A shooting star streaked across the sky.
“Did you make a wish?” her voice said.
“Yeah, but it’s too late for it to come true.”
I could feel the smile on my back.
“My wish came mostly true,” she said. “I knew what you being out together would mean. The boys are doing so much better. Maybe if you realize that, my wish will come totally true.”
I turned to see her, but the illusion faded and nothing was there. The frogs sounded louder in the silence, the stars brighter.
I walked back to the fire and sat facing the boys. It was dying down again, just a pile of glowing embers. I thought of the ghost stories that I told as a child over the campfires of my youth. I didn’t need ghost stories any more, my past haunted me. I watched the flames, my mind nowhere in particular.
A few minutes later I discovered that I had been crying, I’m not sure for how long. It was a sad cry about Nancy and a scared cry about the future. But it was also a happy cry about the boys, and about the last two days. I felt such a relief that they were handling it so well. I knew there would be rough days. I knew there would be anger and tears. But I knew the worst was past. We had survived.
I felt a hand on my shoulder again. I felt her comforting me. I turned and saw her through my tears, glowing the way Teddy had described.
She bent down and kissed my forehead, just like she did with Teddy. I felt something change. It was an early change, in the first pre-glow before the dawn stages, but I felt it.
She was gone and only the dying embers were there to keep me company. I watched the sleeping boys and found strength in them. I got up and walked over to the boys and watched for a minute before sliding back under a sleeping bag. I closed my eyes.
I felt a presence by the fire as someone watched us over the embers, a beatific smile on her face. Peace descended on my mind and I slept, more soundly and untroubled than I had for a very long time.
— — — — —
I hope you enjoyed this five part story that began back with the bit of Flash Fiction, Over the Embers.