A few weeks ago on social media, I asked for suggestions for blog posts, as I’ve been focusing most of my attention lately on the series I’m writing and seem to keep coming up with blanks whenever I come to do updates here. And I think I finally figured out why. Death and my own mortality have been weighing on me heavily the last few years. Watching my grandparents near the end of their lives, two people I’ve always thought of as immortal, created an emptiness I didn’t know how to fill.
When in the last few months serious health concerns with other family members surprised us, it opened that void even further.
It took that post on social media, and a friend’s suggestion to write another short story, for me to realize why I had been drawing a blank in regards to everything else. I found that I had no desire to talk about social issues, or even my life, because I had another story besides the Morrow sisters brimming in my head, just under the surface.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to write something that honored the kind of love my grandparents have for one another. The kind of love that still has them holding hands in their eighties and brings light to their eyes when they remember their beginning. To be able to have witnessed that growing up, I think, is what instilled my love for romances, as my grandparents are the quintessential romance story. Though Annalise is not in any way an account of how they’ve lived their lives or the people they are, I hope, in some small measure, I’ve been able to capture the way that they’ve loved.
Let me know what you think in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.
He’d clutched her hand as the life wheezed out of her, that one final moment between agony and nothingness. Just as he’d held her hand the entirety of her torture. He’d never known how long a human body could hold out under extreme duress, but he had his answer now.
Four years, three months, two weeks, and five days to be exact.
He pocketed his watch and waited for the doorbell to ring, staring at the bed in which she’d died.
Despite her wishes, her death hadn’t been valiant. She’d barely gone out with a whimper—not close to the bang she’d wanted, begged, pleaded to make.
Kill me now had become her daily chant the last few years. Use your daddy’s shotgun, something he’d learned to tune out as poison ran its course through her body. As selfish as it made him, a life without her, after having lived in her light for so long, had been beyond him to give.
His thin shoulders shook from the weight of her cries. Even absent, there was no relief.
She was gone.
Emptiness settled in his bones.
He’d never wanted to be her tormentor. Would have run the other direction in his twenties if he’d known what his life had in store for him. Straight into the barrel of a locked-and-loaded gun. And back then he’d foolishly believed he was strong. Strapping shoulders, thick neck, arms that had gotten him into more than one whorehouse on the waterfront before he’d turned fifteen.
A lifetime ago.
Back when his bay town had been no more than a speck on the landscape of New England.
Back before he’d met the woman who would change everything for him.
His love of the written word had given his parents false hope he’d leave the family legacy behind as they had, continue his education, be more than them, or at the very least a farmer by their side. But much to their dismay, the ocean had called him.
At sixteen, he’d left school to work on a boat from sunup to sundown next to his grandfather and uncles. His dreams had been simple then. No wife. No kids. Just him, his shipmates, and the open sea. To be landlocked on his parents’ farm was a sentence worse than death for a sailor like him. Even now, fifty years from the water, his legs still rocked with the motion of the waves when he moved.
Fifty years since he’d stepped foot on a boat.
He scrounged through a drawer, looking for the photo hidden long ago. The love affair he’d been forced to silence. Even back then, she’d made him a killer.
He shrugged off the all too familiar anger of the last three days. How could he blame someone for being gone when they’d been too good for the world to start with?
The photo, bent from age and handling, teased his fingertips, and he shoved his hand further into the drawer, grabbing hold of his prize in triumph. Undergarments flew to the floor as he removed his hand with a flourish.
The ache began in his heart and seeped out his eyes.
With tender adoration, he caressed the worn picture that bore as many lines as his own weathered face.
The one his grandfather had passed down to him on his twentieth birthday.
His first true love.
How different would his life have been had he been allowed to continue his romance? If he’d left that day with the others instead of sleeping off too much ale the night before? If he hadn’t staggered into the diner for the town’s guaranteed hangover cure.
Sadness gripped him so tight he sunk onto the bed where death still clung to the sheets, wrapping him in a merciless hold.
Death and memories.
He shut his eyes and welcomed the embrace. Let them both claim me.
“Well aren’t you a sight for sore eyes? All grimy and … smelly. McGavern, you are a real treat for the ladies, all right.”
“Can’t you just for once, shut your trap, June?” The cool bar of the empty diner called to him, and he laid his aching head on the surface, plopping onto the nearest stool.
“Aw, someone can’t handle his spirits. Don’t you worry, ole’ June’ll take care of you.” She leaned down to pat his ear.
Thank Neptune! At last the woman found her sense.
A death shout cracked next to his ear. “Order up. One Mornin’ After Special.”
“Dammit woman!” But his curse sounded paltry croaking from his dry throat.
June agreed. Her cackle followed her, the swinging double doors to the kitchen swallowing both her enormous form and the sound once she entered.
Ever so slowly, he wrapped his arms around his head. Without containment, it would surely explode.
How many drinks had he had?
About four times as many women he’d bedded. And it’d been a good night.
His smirk was cut too short when The Waverly’s door opened with a bang. Heels clicked a path straight into his skull on the uneven floor.
“No good … good for nothing … humph.” Righteous mumbling landed at the end of the bar. A voice too prim-and-proper for Cape Roy. “Lying, cheating, sea captain scoundrel! If I ever see him again, well, I’ll, I’ll string him up. And you, sir, you look just like him.”
Shit. A girl from last night? Truthfully, he didn’t remember the third. Or fourth. Much.
He braved opening one eye.
Filtered sunlight screamed his mistake. Dirt crusted windows did nothing to hide the mid-morning glare. It splintered his skull from every angle.
“Never trust a man whose feet aren’t firmly planted on solid ground. That’s what Momma always used to say. She’d roll over in her grave if she could see me now.” The piety in her voice faded into soft cries. Little hiccups that spoke more of pain than the wail of a young widow.
He sucked in a breath and forced himself to turn toward the woman.
Heaven greeted him. A heaven he’d never seen in the likes of Cape Roy before.
An angel in a navy blue dress that fell to her ankles complete with fur at the neck and waist. In the dead heat of summer. Her sobs rippled the fabric like waves. A different kind of sea calling to him.
Hair the color of twine escaped the many pins atop her head and fell in rivulets to the top of that ridiculous fur.
She caught him staring and sniffled daintily, inching as far away as she could on the narrow stool. “Don’t you dare judge me. I bet a man like you leaves broken hearts up and down the coast. Different port, different promise, right?”
The need to defend himself brought his head all the way up. What right did she have to judge him? He’d had his fair share of women, but they were always willing. And they damned sure knew the score. Well, most of the time. When he wasn’t too boozed up to tell them. “What makes you think you know me?”
A full bottom lip accentuated a small overbite. The urge to suck that pinkness between his teeth said that she might be right.
“Clearly you’re a fisherman.”
Something about the way her lips curled around the word, as if it were an insult just by utterance, had him strangely wanting to deny his very essence. “Now who’s being judge?”
She crossed her arms under an ample chest, an eyebrow lifted in question.
With discipline only the sea could teach, he kept his gaze focused on her face. “You’re quick to assume I’m a fisherman.”
“A logical assumption given your attire.” She waved at his dirty coveralls and rubber boots.
He let his sneer equal hers, irritated more than he should be considering she was right. “What other attire would you expect in a fishing community?”
“Proving my point.” Her nose tilted in the air with enough disdain he moved closer, letting her see the play of muscles in his biceps and thighs as he shifted. Her eyes widened, but it wasn’t fear that poured off her.
He leaned close to whisper in her ear. “How, exactly is your point proven?” Cinnamon tickled his senses, making him want to taste her neck where the scent had been dabbed.
A soft sigh escaped parted lips. “Well fishermen do make up a fishing community, don’t they?”
Laughter caught him off guard, rumbling from deep in his chest, and reminded him his head had seen better days. Naivety and feistiness. His siren song. “And what about the bankers, the butchers? Do they have their own communities as well?”
Pink heightened rouged cheeks, an adorable contrast to her harrumph. “So, Mr. Non-fisherman, tell me what you do then, seeing as how you don’t fish?”
Not a chance, little lady, you’d hightail it out of here faster than an adulterer in a whorehouse. And damned if he didn’t want her to stay. He silenced the voice that added ‘forever’. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself first? That way I don’t make the same mistake and judge you based on your appearance.” He waved at her abundance of fur.
Shyness more natural than her bold statements cast a demur tilt to her head. “And what’s wrong with my appearance?”
“Nothing a smile wouldn’t cure.”
Sure enough, two dimples peeked out at the upturn of her lips, and all his ailments were cured.
“Hurry up, Jonas. There’s a grumpy sailor waitin’ on me.” June’s voice broke the spell and caused a cold sweat to break out on his arms.
As soon as the rude matron returned, she’d out him, and Miss Sad Eyes would disappear for good. He held out his hand. “Come on. This place isn’t classy enough for a woman like you. I’ll make you a deal. You tell me about yourself, and I’ll buy you breakfast.”
Her gaze strayed to the window and the sunlight streaming in. “You mean lunch, mister. But no thanks.” At the immediate droop to his shoulders, she turned, facing him fully for the first time, laying one hand lightly on his arm, and one protectively over her rounded belly. “You don’t understand. I’m damaged goods. You don’t want anything to do with me.”
Half an hour ago he would’ve agreed. “How far along are you?”
“Roughly four months. And newly single as of this morning when the man sworn to love me ran off on the closest ship.”
Rage the likes he’d never known threatened his ability to reason. “Your husband left you? Pregnant?” He stood up so fast, he knocked over his chair, and her in the process.
She didn’t put up a fight, just slumped to the ground. “Seems I’m nothing more than the town trollop, giving it away for a promise instead of a ring.”
Broken sobs ripped through him as if they’d come from him. He helped her to her feet, offering comfort in a brief embrace.
“He told me to meet him here in port, we’d wed. And I was the fool that believed him. Sold everything, moved away from home, all to find out it’d been just another line he’d given to yet another girl.”
“Do you love him?” For some reason he couldn’t explain, the answer mattered more to him than anything ever had.
Self-deprecating laughter broke through her cries. “Wanna’ know the worst part? No, I don’t think I do. Momma had just died when I met him, and I…”
When she didn’t finish, he tucked her hand in the crock of his elbow. “Well, then. Now that that’s settled, I do believe I owe you lunch. And you owe me your story.”
“Didn’t I just tell—?”
“Nope. That was some unlucky bastard’s story of a lifetime of missing out. I want to hear yours.”
Eyes the color of whiskey held his command.
“McGavern, don’t think you’re getting away without paying.” June ambled out from the kitchen, as fast as her weight allowed.
If he didn’t want to lose the woman at his side, he needed to get her out of there now. “Put it on my tab, Juney. You know I’m good for it.” He tipped his hat at the matron’s flounce and guided his date to the door. Her steps were hesitant, but they kept up. It took them rounding the corner for his heartrate to calm. When they were safe enough away, he pointed to the restaurant on the next block. “Let’s start with your name.”
After a three hour lunch had stretched into an evening stroll, he’d dropped her off at the boarding house with a promise she’d meet him the next day.
That night, he’d gone home to his parents’ farm and never looked back.
Not when they’d buried the two year old son he’d raised as his own.
Not when they’d buried their eleven year old daughter.
Not one damned day in fifty years.
The day he was to cremate his Annalise.
A knock on the door roused him from the bed they’d lived and loved on those fifty years. In the shuffling gait he’d grown accustomed to since entering his seventies, he slowly advanced to the door. The car service was early, but what else did he have to do but wait. It hardly mattered if it were in their home or at the undertakers. Every minute for him from here on out would be spent waiting. Waiting to die. Waiting to be reunited with his family again.
A man dressed in a business suit met him at the door. Fancier than he’d expected from the local cab company.
He reached for his jacket ready to go when the stranger held out a letter.
He nodded, taking the offering.
His elongated chicken scratch made the man’s foot tap an impatient beat.
“Have a great day, sir.”
Without a reply, he shut the door in the man’s face. A looping cursive addressed the envelope.
Multiple paper cuts sliced the tips of his fingers as he tore it open with trembling hands. A legal document fell out first. His poor eyesight made it hard to read the fine print, but the bold words DEED OF SALE were clear as day. As was the picture of a twelve foot schooner with the name Annalise printed in fire red on the side.
The accompanying note shook in his hands.
It seems I’ve waited all my life to say to you what fear and social stigma
didn’t allow me to that first day at The Waverly. But now my body is free, and
this world has no ties for me other than the one you have on my heart. Your
love gave me wings and as selfish as it makes me, I can’t for one minute regret
that my love took yours. In your arms, I’ve lived a million lives, and even though
my time is over, I selfishly want more. So this time, my love, we live your life.
This time, it’s your story that deserves to be told. I’m finally ready, sailor. Take
me on the voyage of my life.
Your lover forever, A
Of course people in Cape Roy had talked about his past as a fisherman, and she’d come to find out while he’d been courting her. He’d almost lost her that day, until he’d shown her the ring and the deed to a small acre of land on his parents’ property he’d purchased the same day he’d sold his boat. The day after he’d met her.
Years later, he’d found the photograph she’d kept of The Whitney in her nightstand. Fearing it’d strike another argument and she’d leave for good, he didn’t ask her about it until the cancer had consumed most of her. As he’d bathed the woman he loved as part of their nightly ritual, she’d confessed.
“I needed the reminder, when life got hard, of everything you gave up to be with me.”
Her words had spoken of such remorse, he’d immediately dug in his own drawer to find the equally worn photo he kept.
His answer had been as easy then as it had the day he’d made the decision. “My reminder of everything I’ve gained.”
He pulled that same photo out of his wallet now.
Light splintered through the window, a break from the month’s endless clouds, much as it had that first day, haloing the portrait he’d had made of her in her twenties, a young mother of two, with nothing but hope in her eyes.
Impossible, but that same hope stirred in him again. “Better get your sea legs, Mother. I’m about to show you the world.”
(c) Sierra Kummings 2015