APRIL WINNER- AMBER’S PICK Sunday Afternoon By Rachel Oberg

Throwback Thursday! Let’s Throwback to last Friday, when I should have been posting this amazing story. It’s a great short story worth waiting for, though, so I think that’ll make up for it.

I present to you my pick for winner of the April submission period – Sunday Afternoon by Rachel Oberg. I dare you to read this and not be immediately a) compelled by the story and b) hungry! It’s such a descriptive and captivating piece. Like most good short stories, it’s a complete tale of its own but it’ll leave you wanting more.

 

Sunday Afternoon

By Rachel Oberg

The smell of garlic burning brought her out of her daydream. She swore and clicked off the flame. She dumped the scorched garliac into the compost, wiped out the cast iron skillet and set it back on the stove. She minced a few more cloves, setting aside their papery skins to use in veggie stock. The carrots were in the oven already, soon to be browned at the edges, sweetened by honey, with a touch of salt and pepper and a sprinkle of cayenne. The bread had come out just before the carrots had gone in. When she leaned in close she could hear it crackling as it cooled. She inhaled and closed her eyes.

Freshly baked bread took her back to childhood. Mom pulling out the fresh loaves of her signature bread, ready to be slathered with butter (or margarine, it was the 90’s). It took her to early memories, hazy enough that they could have been a dream. Oma’s hands showing how to shape the Zwiebach buns, her little hands trying to mimic the motion. Praise from Oma, her gentle voice encouraging her young granddaughter as she learned a generations old recipe. Her eyes flitted over to the framed recipe on the wall. Written by Oma’s hand. She would make them again soon aided only by memories this time. She couldn’t call Oma to help over the phone. She missed that.

She turned the stove back on and added a bit more oil. She loved the way it rippled when it got hot. She added a big pat of butter and then another and watched as they sizzled and began to brown. She threw in the garlic and the smell wafted up to her nose. She breathed deeply. The garlic just needed thirty seconds. This time it wouldn’t burn. She added some white wine and turned the heat down to low. It would reduce into a simple sauce, perfect to coat the homemade pasta she’d spent the afternoon rolling and cutting. She didn’t mind. That kind of work was good for the soul.

She opened the screen door and the dog shot past her. Hopping and barking at the tree where he’d seen a squirrel earlier. Then running over to her husband at the barbecue. She smiled. She bent over her garden box to see what was growing. The beans had popped up, some squash plants were flowering, and the tomatoes were getting tall. She snipped off some garlic chives and plucked a big handful of basil leaves. The smell was intoxicating. No wonder the bees wouldn’t leave the basil flowers alone. She walked over to the barbecue. Her husband pulled her over and hugged her tight. He smelled like campfire. “Chicken’s almost ready” he said. She smiled and called the dog to come back inside and keep her company.

She washed and dried the herbs, chopping them with her sharpest knife. They’d be passed around the table for people to sprinkle on the pasta as they wished. The salted water was boiling. Huge rolling bubbles, sometimes jumping over the edge of the pot and making the flame sizzle. She added the pasta, stirring so it wouldn’t stick. It would only need a minute. She tasted the browned butter sauce. It had reduced nicely, but still needed to be seasoned. Just salt and pepper this time. She added a bit of the starchy pasta water to the sauce before draining the pasta, then added the pasta to the skillet. She stirred it gently then tasted it. She sighed. It was good. She took the carrots out of the oven. They needed a pinch more salt. The best way to bring out the flavors of a dish.

She pulled the parmesan cheese out of the fridge and scraped it along the grater, transparent curls falling and melting over the hot pasta. The dog ran over, eyes begging for a taste. She laughed and tossed a chunk of the rind that bounced off his nose and fell to the floor. Her smile widened as she shook her head. As she sliced the bread she heard children laughing outside. Not hers. Maybe someday. Her heart ached a little at the thought. For now, this was enough. She walked to the stove and took another taste of pasta. The cool breeze through the open window mingled with the smell of the sauce. They were like refreshment to her soul. She heard voices outside. These she recognized. Their family away from family. The doorbell rang. She took a breath and walked over to open the door.

 

Rachel grew up in Ontario, Canada, but now resides in Southern California with her husband and dog. She loves everything to do with food (except doing the dishes), could spend all day reading Lee Child novels, and is obsessed with eating French baguettes and croissants.

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THE SECOND FEBRUARY SUBMISSION WINNER: A Christmas Star Wish by Vanessa Martin

 

 

 

 

Below is our second published piece from reader submissions! This week (and only a day late) is Amber’s Pick. It is a fictional children’s short story written by Vanessa Martin.

The reason I picked this piece is ultimately because of the sweet message. Even though it may be hard to get into a Christmas mindset in springtime, once you read the story you’ll be able to feel the chill in the air and the lure of hot chocolate and twinkling lights. I also liked the originality of the two main characters. So here it is. Enjoy!

A CHRISTMAS STAR WISH

By Vanessa Martin

Franklin the Ferret sat all alone in his cage, watching the people walk by. No one ever stopped to hold him or even to talk to him. And if they did look at him, they sometimes would make a weird scrunched nose face. He didn’t understand what was wrong with him. He was friendly, he never bit anyone, and he enjoyed being cuddled. Most ferrets never wanted anything to do with people and some would even nip at their fingers, and those ferrets were always adopted and taken home. But not him!!

Franklin didn’t know why the people were afraid of him. What was so wrong with him that everyone just ignored him?

Well, you see….when Franklin was born, he was born with half a right back leg and he was also blind in his left eye. All the people wanted the animals that were perfect and since he had a handicap, per se, no one wanted him. As the Thanksgiving holiday went by and Christmas grew very near, Franklin would sit all alone looking out the window beside his cage. He started making wishes on the brightest star in the sky, for a family who would love him and want to take him home with them. He wished and wished and wished, and nothing ever happened. No family came and all the people would still walk on by without a glance.

What Franklin didn’t know was that his wishes were heard. They were heard loud and clear at the North Pole by a few of the elves, so they went and told Santa. Santa Claus could see everything happening in the store where Franklin lived and knew that he had to make Franklin’s wish come true. Santa wanted to make sure that Franklin knew and felt the miracle of Christmas. But with Christmas only two days away, he knew he would have to act fast.

***

On the other side of the city, an eight-year-old little boy named Justin sat watching his brother and parents decorate the tree for Christmas. Justin couldn’t participate or get too close because of his wheelchair.

There were only two days left before Christmas and he just wished it was already over. He didn’t believe in Santa anymore-not that he ever had. Getting tired of watching his family do something he couldn’t do made him more depressed. So he turned his chair around to face the window where he could see the snow falling. Glancing up toward the sky, he noticed that the brightest star in the sky was sparkling very intense that night. He just stared at it, too scared to make a wish. Because all the other wishes he had asked for in the past, had never came true.

He always wished that he could walk and play like all the other children, but those wishes never came true. And since he couldn’t walk or see very well, the other kids just made fun of him.

Justin was still hesitant, but he went ahead and made one last wish. Justin wished that he would find someone who could understand what he was going through. Someone who would be there with him through everything that came his way. After making his wish, he turned around and told his parents he was going to go watch one of the Christmas specials that was playing on the television that evening. As he rolled his chair to the next room, he started feeling mad at himself, but also sad at the same time. He didn’t know why he even made a wish; it wasn’t as if anyone would hear it.

What Justin didn’t know was that his wish had made it all the way to the North Pole where a pair of little ears heard it. The elf knew he had to bring this to Santa’s attention. Because no child should ever feel sad at Christmastime.

***

The little elf ran all the way to the woodshop, where Santa was doing inventory for his trip the next night.

The elf spoke so fast that Santa had to tell him to slow down. Once Santa heard about the wish, he looked through his magical snow globe into Justin’s house and could see the tiny little boy with real thick glasses and braces on his legs, sitting in his wheelchair. He could hear the sniffling sounds that were coming from the little boy as he sat watching television, trying not to let any tears fall.

Santa knew right then and there exactly what he was going to do. He could make two wishes come true that holiday season, one for a brave little boy and the other for a furry little animal. He was going to bring Franklin and Justin together.

***

The day before Christmas, Santa walked into the pet shop and went directly to Franklin’s cage, who was watching the people walk by. Santa asked Franklin if he would like to be part of a real family for Christmas. Franklin told Santa that was what he wanted more than anything in the world, and Santa told him that he had heard his wish the night before. Franklin couldn’t believe what was happening. He jumping up and down in his cage with joy. He was finally going to have a family.

Later that evening, Franklin sat beside Santa in his sleigh, all set to meet his new family. He could barely contain his excitement. He watched as Santa made his rounds; all the while Franklin didn’t make a peep. They were almost finished when Santa told him to get prepared.

Santa landed his sleigh on top of a shingled roof and held open his bag. He looked at Franklin and said, “This is your new home. A little boy named Justin lives here. Like you, he has trouble seeing and walking. And I know you will become great pals.” Franklin jumped into Santa’s bag, ready for the trip down the chimney.

Santa filled the stockings with care then ate a few nibbles of cookie and drank a bit of milk, before turning to Franklin and telling him it was time to go under the tree. Franklin jumped out of the bag and into a small cage that had magically appeared when Santa nodded his head. He said good-bye, put his finger to his nose then disappeared back up the chimney.

***

The next morning, Justin made his way to the family room and saw all the presents under the tree. But the one present that caught his eye was a little cage with a bow on it. He rolled his chair over and looked down into it. Looking back at him was Franklin, with his one good eye and his one blind eye. Justin also noticed that the animal only had half a right back leg. Justin yelled out to his mom and dad to come see what was under the tree. They both stood there, shocked, because they knew that the present had not been there last night when they went to bed. The father plucked a card off the top of the cage, while the mother opened it up and took Franklin out. She gently laid him in Justin’s arms and the little boy sat petting him, listening while his father read aloud.

Dear Justin,

I wanted to let you know that your wish was heard loud and clear—all the way to the North Pole. I knew that I had to do something to restore your belief in Santa and show you the Miracle of Christmas, and I hope I have. I would like to introduce you to Franklin. He needs a special friend and I thought of you and how good of a friend you would be. I wish you and Franklin a lifetime of fun and love for one another. Oh and by the way, Franklin really likes apples and to snuggle up on your lap while you pet him.

Love,

Santa Claus – the big guy in the red suit

His parents couldn’t believe what they were hearing or seeing. They both looked over at Justin petting the ferret lying on his lap. And for the first time, in a long time, he was smiling more than he ever had and when they looked down at Franklin, they didn’t know what to think because it looked like Franklin was smiling, too.

From then on, both Justin and Franklin never stopped believing in Santa or that wishes come true.

***

So remember, if you ever have a doubt, that Santa Claus is real and the Miracle of Christmas is very powerful. And if you ever make a wish around Christmastime, on the brightest star in the sky, you can believe…it was heard.

 

 

This is Vanessa Martin’s first children’s story, but will not be her last. She’s working on her first mystery/suspense novel as you read this. Vanessa Martin is 42 years old and lives in Ohio. She loves to read, cook, and write. This story was written for her seven nieces and nephews.

How Long Do You Wait? by Amber Donahue

How long do you wait?

I haven’t exactly asked anyone, but nobody’s offering up advice. There aren’t any helpful Pinterest links or Buzzfeed articles. There’s no “7 Things You Must Do When Your Boyfriend is in a Coma (And 3 Things You Must NEVER Do).”

So I’ve been winging it. And it’s exhausting.

Work has been super accommodating, which is great but also makes me feel a little guilty that I’d been applying elsewhere. I’d never even got a callback, let alone an interview, and what had seemed like a bummer at the time turned out to be a blessing. I can’t even imagine having to process Percy’s accident with a new job where you’re learning new things and can’t take any days off. As it is, I’ve been able to change my schedule as needed, which has been a lifesaver, and I’m finally back into my regular hours.

I have a new routine, which is at once comforting and disturbing.I sleep at Percy’s during the week, and I walk Clarence in the morning and the evening. I visit the hospital before work and bring coffee for the nurses (at first because I had no idea how else to show my gratitude, but now it’s because we’ve become friendly), and I stop by again after work until visiting hours are over and I have to get home to walk the dog. On the weekends, I stay at my place, popping over to Percy’s only to walk and feed Clarence. Most of my clothes, my laptop, my slippers, my dirty laundry – most of my stuff is at Percy’s.

We weren’t at the living together stage – in fact, there’s a question as to the status of our relationship on that night – but I basically live there now. It helps that his apartment is nicer and that Clarence is fun and there are no roommates. Not that I hate my roommates or anything – they’ve been incredibly supportive throughout this whole thing, and even if they hadn’t liked Percy, who wouldn’t appreciate me paying rent and utilities and not living there much?

I am starting to wonder about the future, though.

How long do I pay for his apartment? His student loans? His cell phone? His car insurance? I mean, he wasn’t at fault for the accident, but I don’t want him to have a coverage gap. His car registration is up in two months. I’ve put his Netflix, his Hulu, his gym membership on hold. I’ve paid the minimums on his credit cards. I’ve spoken with his boss, Terry, and have monitored his online bank accounts, carefully watching his paychecks full of sick days roll in every other week. I don’t know how many sick days he has left, but I know at some point disability comes into play, at least I think it does. I haven’t done much research yet. And the other guy’s car insurance, that’s a whole mess I’ve been trying to sort through. I don’t know if that covers loss of income, too. I doubt it. It’ll probably barely cover hospitalization.

I’ve kept myself busy making spreadsheets and lists. I’ve reset passwords. I’ve written to utilities and talked with his landlord. It’s weird how quickly you can just sort of take over someone’s life.

His parents are dead (he lost his mother to cancer when he was ten, and his father died two years ago of a heart attack), but his friends and some co-workers visited the hospital at first. Especially because it was right around the holidays, and everyone was full of energy and kindness and high spirits. But as the days turned into weeks, then months, their visits slowed down and disappeared altogether.

I can’t blame them. There’s nothing more useless-feeling than visiting someone in a coma. You just sit there and talk to him, and he looks like he’s just pretending to sleep, but there are tubes and cords and IVs and beeping, and nobody’s that good of an actor. So you just have a crazy one-sided conversation about mundane, trivial shit that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

But what else are you supposed to talk about? How irresponsible it is that a 33 year old single adult with no children and no family didn’t have a living will? I mean, I don’t either. It’s not something you think about in your early thirties unless you’re diagnosed with a disease, or maybe if you have kids. Percy didn’t have either, so why would he have a plan for something as happens-to-other-people as a car accident leading to a coma?

He wouldn’t.

So I’m stuck trying to figure out what he would’ve wanted.

I visit the hospital every day. And every day, the doctors tell me nothing’s changed. I can easily read the subtext beneath their updates. ‘The longer things stay the same, the more likely it is that he’s not coming back.’ And then the follow up ‘and even if he does come back, he might not come all the way back. He might not be the same.’

But I don’t want to think about that, so I focus on reading Yahoo! News articles aloud to Percy. God, he hates Yahoo! News. It’s always been a thing with us. I’m not defending their journalistic integrity, but I find myself strangely drawn to their stories.

Growing up, my mom used to say that I marched to the beat of my own drum. Percy always jokes that it’s a drum machine. I never truly understand that joke, but it cracks Percy up so I play along.

Now that it’s been over three months and the initial craziness of the situation has faded slightly, it hits me how much I miss him. I mean, we’d been dating for five months, and we’d fallen pretty hard for each other. We’d even joked, on more than one occasion, that we should just elope in Atlantic City one weekend. And then at the office on Monday, it’d be like “What’d you do this weekend?” and you could be all, “Oh, not much. Did some laundry, got married, went to a movie.”

Percy even talked about our children. He used to say it so matter-of-factly, like they already existed in our future. The timeline was already written, a foregone conclusion. Three kids, two boys and a girl. We’d talked about what names would be good – growing up a “Percival” meant he was intensely passionate and defensive about names – and where we would want to raise them. We never came to any conclusions on either topic (no child of mine is going to be named Jeremy), but it was always fun to discuss.

I knew he wanted a future with me. But I wasn’t sure, until that fight – our first real, major argument and it was so stupid– I wasn’t sure I wanted that future until it was taken away from me.

I mean, I’d already been pretty miserable, playing out the different scenarios in my head well before I received the phone call about the accident. We hadn’t talked for two days and it felt so… wrong. I felt like a piece was missing, like I was just “off.” I tried to picture how the days and years would play out. Would I ever feel normal again without him? 

The phone call just cemented what I’d already known in my heart: I was head over heels in love with this man. He annoyed me to no end, he teased me, and sure, at times I hated him a little, but my God did I love him. I loved that he could tell how I was feeling and what I was thinking with just one glance. I loved how he would wake up early to make coffee for us, even though he could’ve just set the timer on the coffee pot, just because he liked to slip back into bed, all chilled, and have me warm him up. I loved the look of concentration on his face when he was hard at work – setting up the new Playstation, making a special recipe, wrapping a present.

I loved that he’d made me a little corner of the bathroom countertop. He was very attentive, much more than I ever was, and so he’d even stocked it with brands I actually used. I loved how he’d whisper corny jokes in my ear and dare me not to laugh. I loved that he was thoughtful in bed, and good, too. Thanks to my series of previous boyfriends, I already knew how rare that was. But he was thoughtful and caring in all aspects of his life. He was good with Jenna’s kids, and Clarence was like a member of the family (not in a creepy way, though. He’s a very sweet and well-behaved dog). I loved how long it took him to pick a movie to watch on Netflix. I loved how Percy would give me a little wink from across a crowded room. Or that look he’d give me when he wanted to know if I was okay. I loved…him.

It’s been three months, six days, seventeen hours, and a handful of minutes. It feels like a lifetime, and it feels like just a moment.

Now I’m lounging on Percy’s couch, Clarence curled up at my feet. The TV’s on, but I’m not watching it. Instead, I’m trying to think of the last time we spoke – before the fight, because sometimes the flight is the thing that I remember most clearly. Five months without a single disagreement, and then a yelling match right before a coma. It isn’t fair.

I can’t remember.

When I get like this, I call Percy’s phone (which of course is sitting, silenced, on the table next to me) and listen to his voicemail greeting. It’s not like it’s profound or funny or anything – just a simple “Hey, you’ve reached Percy. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” But it’s a comfort to hear his voice. The friendly drawl. The flustered way he rushes the “as soon as I can.”

I also have a stupid video taken during a night out with his friends. That one hurts more than helps, so I don’t watch it much anymore. It’s just a stupid karaoke night, but his friend Kyle takes the phone for a minute, and he catches this shot of Percy and me, just the two of us, beaming at each other like drunken idiots, and Percy reaches over almost all the way to kiss me, and then I kind of have to hop up to complete the kiss (because Percy’s so much taller than I am), and he grabs me and holds me up, and I bust out laughing but we’re still kissing, and laughing, and it just hurts.

It seems so long ago. It seems impossible.

Clarence starts to whine at my feet, a clear indication that he needs to go outside, and I begrudgingly get up from the warmth of the couch. I check my phone, and it’s much colder outside than I thought. Figures. My only warm clothes here are my flannel pajamas, and there’s still in the dirty laundry pile.

I stand for a moment and stare at Percy’s coat rack. He has that nice warm peacoat, and it probably even still smells like him.

Gingerly, I lift it from the hook and slip it over my shoulders. It’s heavy, but comfortable. It comes down almost to my knees, but I’m instantly enveloped in warmth and Percy’s cologne and body wash and nothing else matters.

I shut off the TV, clip on Clarence’s leash, tie a clean waste bag around it, and grab the keys.

It’s cold out, cold enough that my breath is almost visible. I shove my hand holding the keys into the warm pocket of Percy’s coat, and I hit something. My fingers automatically release the keys in the pocket and grab the object, pulling it out.

Clarence trots along ahead of me, carefully maneuvering down the stairs to the sidewalk. He tugs at the leash when he realizes I’ve stopped on the third step down.

It’s a box.

The kind of box that cheesy Hollywood movies and jewelry store commercials have taught me all about.

I stand there a moment, Clarence tugging desperately at the leash in my one hand, and me holding an engagement ring in the other.

Do I dare open it?

I carefully wrap my hand around the box and shove both back into the pocket. I walk down the stairs behind the dog, feeling funny.

It feels like snooping. My first month or so “living” at Percy’s, I felt like I was snooping all the time. We’d been dating for five months, but I hadn’t had any need to dig through his drawers or under his bed or in his nightstand. Not until the coma. It still felt like snooping, when I was trying to find his little notepad with his passwords, or change his bedsheets, or find his landlord’s address, but it felt like necessary snooping. Did I find some things that he probably never wanted me to see? Definitely. But he’d understand.

But this, this is something different.

As we round the block and Clarence stops to do his business, I wonder briefly if maybe the ring isn’t for me after all. Maybe a previous girlfriend? Maybe he’s holding it for a friend.

But we’d had the exes talk, and there was no mention of a recent relationship serious enough to warrant a ring in a winter coat. And any friend he was holding it for would’ve asked me about it when Percy went into the coma.

No, it had to be for me.

In the many hours since the accident, I’d wondered thousands of times whether he had wanted to get back together. Whether we were even “broken up” or were just giving each other time to cool down. Whether we would’ve realized how stupid it was to fight about where to go on vacation, and who always gets to pick what we do.

Whether we’d just be happy that we get to go anywhere and do anything together.

I like to think so. And it looks like Percy did, too.

Now, more than ever, I want to talk to him. I want him to wake up so I can tell him everything that’s been going on, and how sorry I am, and how much I’ve missed him.

By the time Clarence and I walk up the stairs back to Percy’s apartment, I’ve made up my mind. I’m not going to open the box. I’m not going to look at the ring he bought for me. It’s going to sit in the pocket of his peacoat. Waiting.

Because I want to be surprised. I want to hear him ask the question. I want to wait for him.

But how long do you wait when you realize you would’ve said yes?

Light Year by Sarah Hohman

It had been too damn long.

The thought kept pounding through Jill Silver’s mind as she struggled up the small but surprisingly steep hill. The ground was frozen solid beneath her feet, but there was no snow yet to blanket the gray world in a layer of soothing white.

As she reached the summit of her own private Mt. Kilimanjaro, she paused for a moment to look around and take in the natural beauty of the valley she was now master over. Stretched out beneath her, almost to the ends of the known world, was an ocean of barren brown trees mixed in with sporadic explosions of dark evergreens, their bare branches reaching for her like hundreds of eager servants bowing to her every command.

Growing up, she used to pretend this hill overlooked Narnia itself, where the White Witch had made it always winter but never Christmas. Or sometimes, she would imagine it was Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, or King Arthur’s Camelot. She would spend hours up here alone, having grand adventures no one else would understand, not as a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by the hero, but as an equal and a warrior in her own right.

Today, that same feeling came swelling back in full force.

No question about it, she decided firmly, contentment settling over her body down to her blood and bones. It had simply been too damn long since she had been home.

Since they had been home, she realized, for some reason suddenly remembering she wasn’t alone on the journey this time.

Pulling her coat tighter around her body, Jill turned around to see what was keeping her sister. Maggie was just coming up over the crest of the hill, looking miserable.

“I just fell fifty times coming up this stupid hill,” Maggie grumbled as she drew closer, shouting to be heard over the howl of the wind. “No big deal.”

Maggie wiped her now mud-encrusted gloves off on her jeans while also taking in the view, though she was clearly far less awed and impressed by it than was her sister. Jill’s eyes fell on a good-sized fallen tree branch on the ground nearby, a perfect sword. It took every ounce of her will to not pick it up and start slaying dragons right then and there.

“At least Chicago has proper heat,” Maggie muttered. “And public transportation. And Uber.”

“Come on. Let’s go, Complain-y Pants,” Jill teased gently, nodding towards their destination just a few yards beyond. “It’s right over there.”

Maggie looked where she was indicating, the frown deepening on her face. “I know where it is. And I’m not a Complain-y Pants.”

“That’s what Mom used to call you when we were kids.”

“No, that’s what Mom used to call you!”

“Either way,” Jill shrugged, pushing ahead towards the large slab of granite marking the spot on the ground. “Would her majesty like to clean herself in a royal finger bowl before we continue? There is a dress code for this event, after all. ‘Formal Attire’, I believe the invitation said.”

Maggie immediately stopped fussing with her gloves, frowning sternly at her younger sister. “You’re not funny.”

“Oh, I am hilarious.” Jill waved her sister’s glare off carelessly, turning back to face the onslaught of icy wind. “Keep moving. Mom will appreciate my jokes.”

“She never did when she was alive.” Maggie’s words were almost lost, carried away by the infinite howling around them.

Jill simply snorted in reply, unperturbed by the mild jab. “That’s just a lie, and you know it.”

Now Maggie was smiling, too, as the shared memories began coming back.

Cold days, colder nights.

Sledding.

Hot chocolate.

Snowmen.

Typical Vermont childhood, almost idyllic in its simplicity.

The women pressed on towards their goal: an old elm tree, standing tall and stark against the barren world around it. Beneath the tree, under the protective branches that seemed to reach out to embrace it, was a single gravestone.

Jill reached it first, but Maggie was only a step or two behind. She slipped her gloved hand into her sister’s as she came alongside her, both of their eyes locked on the name on the grave before them.

MARGO GRACE SILVER

For an endless moment, neither of them spoke. Their lips parted in silence, but nothing needed to be said. Jill squeezed Maggie’s hand reassuringly. Maggie smiled and returned the gesture.

It would be obvious to anyone watching the scene that the two were sisters, even through the disguise of winter attire. They both shared the same soft blond hair sticking out from under their hats and the same sparkling brown eyes that wrinkled in the corners when they laughed and flashed with the fury of Hell itself when they were angry. They both shared their father’s thoughtful expressions and their mother’s surprisingly husky laugh and sharp wit. And in this moment, they both shared the same look of utter loss and heartbreak.

Jill spoke first, addressing the tombstone directly.

“Hi, Mom,” she whispered, finally dropping Maggie’s hand and giving a small wave. “We’re here. Sorry it’s been a while since we’ve stopped by.”

“A year,” Maggie corrected her without any real malice in her tone. As always, she simply had to keep the record straight. “It’s been a year since we’ve stopped by. To be exact.”

“It’s been a year for you,” Jill countered instinctively, that old knee-jerk argumentative streak rearing its head. “I’ve been home almost every weekend.”

“Yeah, to help Dad out. You haven’t been up here to see Mom in a year. Since we came together last time. Dad told me he hasn’t been since then, and I know you wouldn’t come here alone. None of us would.”

Jill opened her mouth to argue further, but closed it again when she realized her sister was right.

Damn her.

“Sorry it’s been a year,” Jill amended begrudgingly, turning back to their mother’s grave. “Dad’s going to come later to see you, don’t worry. We demanded he let us come first. Alone. You know, girl time.”

“We miss you,” Maggie added quickly, as if she had to get the thought off her chest before she exploded. “You’ve been gone for three years today, and that’s just too long, Mom.”

“Too damn long,” Jill murmured in agreement.

Both of their voices were beginning to crack, though neither of them acknowledged it. Inhaling deeply, Jill searched her mind and heart for everything she had kept bottled up for 365 excruciatingly long days.

“There’s so much going on I want to tell you about,” she said finally. “I’m going to be graduating soon, and I can’t believe you won’t be there to see it. God, I can’t tell you how many times I reach for my phone to call you, and sometimes I even dial–”

“You still dial her?” Maggie asked, surprised. “I thought I was the only one.”

“Every once in a while I will,” Jill admitted, wiping a frozen tear from her cheek. “I’ll scroll through my contacts and see her picture and click on it… I don’t know if I forget, or if I just want to forget… but I always drop the call before it connects. I don’t want to know who has the number now. If anyone does.”

“Don’t worry about it. I do the same thing.”

The women smiled at each other, a moment of sisterly bonding passing between them. Jill relished it. They hadn’t bonded like this in so long. After all, it hadn’t just been a year since she had been back home. It had been a year since she had seen her sister or her father.

Even as she had the realization, she couldn’t believe it.

There was ten years of age difference between them, Jill was twenty-one and Maggie was thirty-one, but that had just always made Maggie seem like a second younger, cooler mother to Jill. Growing up, they were inseparable until Maggie went away college. Even though they had their moments of petty sisterly squabbling, the love had always run deep between them. But now, Maggie lived in Chicago with her husband and new baby, and Jill attended college in Boston. There was a world between them, or at least half a continent. And now their mother was also gone, which somehow meant staying close was harder than ever. They had lost the adhesive that bound them together as a family.

“I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch this year,” Jill murmured. “School is crazy. And then I had that internship over the summer–”

“I understand,” Maggie cut her off, refusing to shuffle all the blame to her younger sister. “You’re not the only one capable of making a phone call. I could have made more of an effort… I should have made more of an effort. But, with Kyle and now Sienna… well, you know how it goes.”

Maggie sighed quietly and let the thought just drift off into the ether, regret bridging the distance between them.

“Yeah, I know how it goes,” Jill finally agreed without much enthusiasm. Her eyes were drawn away from the tombstone for a brief moment, resting instead on the bare branches. In a few months, they would be covered in buds and fresh green life, but for now there was nothing around them but gray, cold death.

Finally, she looked back at her sister. “Remember when you would get me into R-rated movies?”

Maggie laughed. “Of course I remember. Mom and Dad freaked out when they found out. Tried to ban us both from all movies for the rest of our lives.”

Jill laughed, too, and for a moment they both could hear their mother echoing through their voices. “Yeah, that worked out real well.”

“I haven’t been to a movie since.”

“Me, neither.”

Maggie rubbed her gloved hands together rapidly, trying to produce some warmth. Her breath spread in a white cloud before them, reminding them of how cold they were, as if they could possibly forget.

“Let’s get back home,” Maggie suggested. “Mom will understand. She always said we’d catch our death of cold if we stayed up on the hill too long.”

“Okay,” Jill agreed, though she hesitated before actually moving. “I don’t want it to be another year before we see each other, Mags,” she said finally, her voice hushed and serious. “I don’t want it to be a year before we talk again.”

Maggie had already turned back to go down the hill again, but she paused when she heard her sister’s words. She slowly turned back around, unsure of what to say.

“Of course it won’t be another year,” she assured Jill, without much confidence.

“We said that last year at Christmas.”

“Did we?”

“You know we did. We promised to Skype, to Facebook, to see each other over the summer.”

“I know, I know,” Maggie agreed sadly. “We suck.”

“I don’t want to suck,” Jill told her firmly. “I want to be sisters. Like we used to be. I still need you, Mags. I don’t care if you’re thirty and old and you have a kid or whatever. I still need you to hug me sometimes and tell me everything is going to be okay. Okay?”

Maggie opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. She finally grabbed her sister up in a warm hug, a hug that could make them forget winter for that brief moment.

“You will always be my sister,” she whispered through the wind. “And I will always be here for you. And it won’t be another year. It can’t be another year, because that’s just too damn long.”

Jill nodded in agreement, burying her face in her sister’s shoulder. “Too damn long.”