Independence Day ushered a steady stream of frantic humanity towards the fairgrounds. Jason maneuvered past frazzled mothers corralling sticky toddlers and slipped into the small-town carry-out.
He leaned against an old soda cooler casting furtive glances at the front counter. He exhaled relief, Courtney hadn’t noticed him. Good. He didn’t know why he was here anyway.
He watched her grant weary smiles to last-minute customers, and memories surged. How many times had they worked this holiday together? When he longed to flip the sign, lock the door, and embrace under exploding skies.
Now Courtney worked alone.
Her fault, she wanted it that way. He shoved nostalgia aside and watched the carnival lights glint outside. Their twinkling dance lured all but one customer away.
“Hey, doll.” Drunk eyes traveled a lazy trail down Courtney’s body. “When you finish here you should come home with me.”
Courtney smirked. “I doubt my husband would appreciate that. He’ll be right in to lock up.”
Her bluff drew a cynical smile from Jason. Last he heard, she didn’t much care what her husband appreciated.
Grimy hands darted across the counter and captured Courtney’s wrist. “He won’t mind if we get friendly.”
In weaker moments Jason allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to see his wife again after so much time. Not once did he envision standing in the shadows while some drunk pawed her.
He cursed, and two heads wrenched in his direction. Irritation drove him forward.
“Ready to lock up, sweetheart? Or should I give you two a few more moments alone?”
Courtney’s eyes widened, her shock palpable. The drunk staggered off as she took one uncertain step toward her husband, swayed, and crumpled to the floor.
Jason’s conscience blistered. He knelt beside his unconscious wife. What had he been thinking? Courtney whimpered, and he drew her head onto his lap. His mind raced. He should just leave. Leaving was easy. He could do it again and be safe, far from Courtney’s untrustworthy heart.
“Jason?” His name floated over her unconscious lips—ages since he heard it. Even longer since he heard that plaintive, seductive tone.
Blood heated his veins, resurrecting memories of other summer nights. Nights she had whimpered his name. His eyes fixed on her mouth. Familiarity and need drew his head down, but reality hit him like a train and he jerked away.
His swift movement shook Courtney awake. Jason watched her eyes focus on his face.
He pulled her onto unsteady feet and thrust her towards the door. “We need air.”
Jason led Courtney into darkness, illuminated by children’s swirling sparklers. Wispy trails of sulfur-scented smoke ebbed and flowed throughout the excited crowd.
Jason stopped at a carnival booth to order a bag of toffee popcorn. He handed it to Courtney. Her favorite. He hated that he remembered.
A tentative smile tugged her lips. “Our secret place is empty…if you want to sit down.”
Darkness, fireworks, and toffee flavored lips. Hardly a recipe for sanity but Jason recognized the peace offering and assented. They ambled towards the old copse of trees and sat down behind a thick wall of foliage.
“I’m glad you were here tonight, Jas—”
“Don’t mention it,” he interrupted. “You could have handled that guy yourself.”
She shook her head. “It’s not that.” She glanced down at trembling hands. “I wanted to see you. One more time.”
“For what? Permission? Justification? My blessing to move on?” Jason glared at the darkened sky.
“For forgiveness. I was wrong.”
Wrong? That one word shattered his defenses with unexpected force. He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her onto the soft grass, willing her gaze to meet his.
When their eyes locked, he saw vulnerability.
Low strains of music sounded in the distance as truth thundered through Jason’s consciousness. She loved him. Still. Her soft hand caressed his face, and the humble gesture left him spinning.
He should leave. Leaving was easy. But Courtney’s soft, sugary scent invited him closer.
Fireworks exploded above and between them as he lowered his lips to hers. He could leave, but he’d take the fireworks. Every time.
November 6, 1864
I cannot express the horror of two days past. Gales swept down on us with hurricane force and shook the house so that we feared for our safety.
Father climbed the spiral stair every hour, faithfully winding the light, while Mother and I knelt together to beseech divine intervention for his safe return.
The chaos erupting from Lake Superior’s frozen depths has since abated and I search her shores daily. A wild assortment of tragedy lies in haphazard piles between mossy stones. Broken bottles, fragments of furniture, an infant’s swaddling bands. I nudge driftwood aside and pull at the soft pink strips. The night of the storm flashes through my mind.
It was late into evening when a sound rose above the relentless pounding shutters and thundering waves. At first, we imagined it was wind, howling from the shore. For half an hour, we listened to the terrible keening. Mother clutched my hand in her own while fingering a rosary in the other. Each bead she touched sent a prayer toward heaven.
We were huddled in the middle of our warm kitchen when Father burst through the door, cloaked in rain and illuminated by blazing lightning. Mother jumped from my side to secure the door, only to draw back aghast when she saw the man Father pulled behind him.
The keening grew louder. The cries of an anguished soul.
I was stupefied. Who was this washed-up stranger thrust into our home? Father says every sailor understands the power of this majestic, inland sea. They live in awful fear of Superior’s might. And those who don’t, play careless with their souls. As I rushed to clear cups, plates, and crumbs from our table I saw with terrible certainty the naked truth of his words.
Father lifted our stranger onto the makeshift bed. He cradled the man’s damp head in his calloused hands, gently examining the lacerations that stretched from temple to chin. I could hear drops of blood, in steady rhythm, splattering the floor below him.
Mother and Father worked together applying salve and bandages to his battered body. Upon reaching his hand, Mother tugged at a slip of delicate fabric peeking through his fingers. Finger by finger she pried open his hand.
Tears sprung to her eyes when she freed the scrap. Father’s quick gasp aroused my curiosity and I spied a miniature gown, the size an infant would wear, hanging in limp folds from Mother’s grasp. The man’s cries grew in intensity, his body heaved toward his treasure nearly toppling the table in his desperation. Mother reverently closed his hands around it again and began to croon a familiar melody. A lullaby.
My parent’s eyes met over their patient’s writhing body and Father nodded toward the man’s other hand. Three fingers of a sodden glove escaped another white-knuckled grip. The glove was fine silk, the type ladies of fashion would wear. I pictured it gracing the hand of a beautiful woman, and the horror of reality washed over me. Where were they, this woman, this child?
Gradually, as his moans subsided, he mouthed out one last word. “Lost.” He groaned it as if that was all the reality he had left. When he slipped into merciful sleep, silence descended like a shroud around him. I suppose, when our minds cannot handle such terror, our bodies allow us to sink into oblivion. If anyone needed respite from reality, it was this man.
Father left his side and pulled us into a close embrace. I felt the violence of his emotions through his heaving sobs. We were safe. The lucky ones.
Our stranger never awoke and I wonder in my heart if that was the Lord’s compassion. Since then, I have walked the stony shoreline day after day. Mindless of the wind and rain that push me back, I watch and I wait. I owe that to our stranger. Perhaps, one day, the cold and lifeless bodies of his family will wash ashore. More likely, they are well and truly lost in the heart of our unforgiving sea. I understand now to respect her power. Those who don’t, play careless with their souls.