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Pru was panicked. Holly sounded scared – she was just a little girl trying to figure it all out. Pru imagined what a dark, lonely, and scary place it must be for Holly and Shannon without their mother. She wanted to get to Holly quickly so she could hold her, comfort her, and let her know she’s loved and not alone.
Pru pulled into the driveway. The house was eerily dark. She couldn’t see any lights inside of the house. Maybe everybody left. Perhaps Holly didn’t tell them Pru was on her way. Maybe Holly wasn’t calling from home, perhaps she was somewhere else.
Pru rang the doorbell and as she stood there waiting, she looked around for signs that someone was home. Pru twisted the door knob. It was locked. She leaned around the hedges to peer through the window. Nothing. She stepped back. She rang the doorbell again. She looked for the key Richard kept hidden in a faux rock. The rock wasn’t there anymore.
The clouds finally broke and the snow began to fall, some resting on her eyelashes. The wind was high and cold. The porch light came on and she saw someone peeking through an aperture in the curtain. It was Shannon. Pru waved and smiled but Shannon didn’t reciprocate.
“Open the door, honey,” Pru said but Shannon continued peeking through the curtains. “It’s okay, sweetie. Open the door.” The girls weren’t allowed to open the door. Only the adults could answer the door.
Shannon walked away from the window. Pru banged on the door while shouting Shannon’s name. The neighboring dogs barked more purposefully. The neighbor across the street turned on his porch light. Pru saw him looking through a finger-raised panel of the blinds. She smiled at him. He dropped the panel but the porch light remained on.
She knocked on the door again while calling Shannon’s name in an exaggerated whisper. Nothing. She pulled out her phone and called Richard. Her call went directly to voicemail. She dug around her purse for her key, the one she had when she lived with them briefly. She didn’t have it. She remembered that she returned it the day she moved back into her condo.
Then she heard a click at the door. It was Holly. She opened the door and let Pru in. Without saying one word, Pru scooped Holly into her arms and hugged her as tightly as she could without hurting her. Holly began to cry while hugging Pru’s neck.
“Where’s daddy, honey? Where’d Shannon go?” Pru walked through the living room and into the kitchen looking for Richard. She continued through to the den, stepping over dolls and toys, crayons and papers all over the floor. The den was dark and cluttered. She felt around the wall for the light switch and clicked it on. She saw Richard sitting on the sofa staring into space. She knelt to let Holly down but Holly wouldn’t let go of her neck. She buried her face deeper into Pru’s neck, clinging as if her life depended on it. Holly was heavy. She was nine and nearly as tall as Pru.
“Come on, honey,” Pru said as she tried to pry Holly’s arms from around her neck. “It’s okay. It’s okay. You can let go now.”
Holly held on even tighter, stronger. Pru stood up again, hoisting Holly onto her hip, and walked around to face Richard. He was sitting with a half empty bottle of liquor between his thighs. Several streaks ran down the sides of his cheeks where his tears had dried on his face. With Holly clinging on one side, she reached down with her other hand to touch Richard’s shoulder.
He didn’t respond. He just sat there staring into the barren fire place as if Pru hadn’t been standing there. She reached for the bottle between his legs and carefully removed it then sat it on the coffee table. She looked around the room then looked back at Richard.
“Richard, where’d Shannon go?”
He didn’t respond but his bottom lip began to quiver. She shifted Holly’s body so that she could sit down next to Richard. She sat on the edge of the sofa, almost knee-to-knee with Richard. She put her hand on his knee, looking him directly in the eyes. She saw one lone tear drop from his eye, landing on his cheek.
She whispered to Holly, “Go get Shannon for me.” Holly shook her head.
“It’s really important, sweetheart. I need you to go get Shannon while I talk to daddy. Okay?”
Holly climbed off of Pru’s lap and ran upstairs. Pru shifted her body to face Richard. She put her hand on his shoulder with the other on his knee.
“Richard, Holly called me.”
She moved her hand from his shoulder to his face, being sure her hand kept contact with his body. She cupped his chin in her hand to turn his face towards her.
“Look at me, Richard,” she paused until Richard’s eyes met with hers, “Holly’s scared. She needs you right now more than ever. You can’t check out on the girls like this.”
He looked away with his eyes at first, then gently moved her hand from his face and held it tightly within his. Holly had returned with Shannon. Pru ran her free hand down the back of Richard’s head, gently, consolingly.
“Are you girls hungry?” Pru said with a deep sigh. Both Holly and Shannon nodded.
“Well,” she tapped Richard on his knee after she pulled her hand from his and held her hands out for each of the girls, “come on, let’s go find something to eat.”
She grabbed their hands and looked back at Richard as they walked to the kitchen.
Shannon perked up. It was obvious that she had been crying earlier, too. Holly sat quietly with her hands in her lap, chin-in-chest, solemn. Pru pulled Holly’s hair from her face and kissed her cheek.
She found a casserole in the refrigerator, the dish looked like it was from Ann’s Wedgewood set. Pru knew Ann helped out quite a bit and wasn’t surprised to see one of her casseroles there. She put the casserole in the oven to heat it up along with the dinner rolls she retrieved from the refrigerator. She let Shannon stir the pitcher of punch.
When everything was ready, the three of them sat together at the kitchen island, eating what might have been Ann’s cooking. When the girls seemed settled, enjoying their food, Pru took a plate to Richard who was resting his head on the arm cushion with his eyes closed.
After dinner, Pru got the girls bathed and ready for bed, tucking them in snuggly under the covers. Shannon handed Pru The Witches Watch to pick up where she left off. It was a five hundred-page book of which Pru had read to them three hundred. She was astonished that Shannon remembered exactly the part, describing the scene in magnificent detail. After all, the last time Pru read that story to them, she was still living with them.
Holly closed her eyes and listened as Pru began, “walking slowly through the forest of trees, whose strong roots gathered like children holding hands. The sky was black, salted by twinkling stars, like rain misting in heaven.” Twelve pages into the story, both girls were sound asleep. Pru kissed each of them on the cheek, turned off the light and closed their door when she left their room.
Downstairs, she cleaned the kitchen and picked up the toys in the den. She glanced out the window pensively, watching the snow flurries. When she saw her car becoming covered with snow, she grabbed her keys to park her car in the garage. When she returned, Richard still hadn’t moved from the sofa, his plate of food was untouched. Once the den was tidy, Pru lit a fire in the fire place. Not sure what to do next, she sat silently in the chair adjacent to the sofa where Richard was lying.
There was something comforting in the silence. Two people who lost the center of their lives, choked by grief, as they remember Val on her first birthday since her death. Pru empathized with the massive pain that crippled Richard. Although she wasn’t certain what would happen next or what to do next, she knew the one thing she could do was just sit with him so that he’d know he was not alone. Then out of the silence, he finally spoke.
“Sometimes, I don’t think I know what I’m doing,” Richard said as he sat up and stared into the fireplace. “My girls, Pru. I do my best but what do I know about raising girls?”
“The same as any person. You learn as you go. Just follow your instinct,” Pru said, tilting her head slightly to one side, her eyes sympathetic.
“What about when they hit puberty? Hell, Holly’s knocking on puberty’s door.” He paused considering the future.
“And boys,” he fretted at the thought of it.
“Richard, you’ll just have to cross that bridge when you get to it. You can’t be worrying about what’s awaiting you a few years down the line. Just take it all one day at a time.”
She patted him on the knee as she walked by to go to the kitchen.
“Want some coffee?”
Richard nodded and for the first time since she’d been there, he got off of the sofa and followed her to the kitchen. She pulled out the half eaten pumpkin pie. He grabbed two dessert plates from the cabinet and slid them across the counter to Pru. She smiled at him.
“You know, Val liked to serve you.”
She cut the pie and put a slice on her plate.
“— and you got used to it,” she said as she slid his empty plate and the pie across the counter to him. “Here’s the knife. Cut your own pie,” she said with a snicker.
“She did not serve me.”
“Yeah, she did. You’d show up at the table and sit down, waiting for your plate to magically appear in front of you.” Pru winked at him, “she liked it though. It was her way of demonstrating her love for you.”
Richard’s smile slowly faded as sadness seeped to the surface. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger trying to hold back his emotion. Then the sadness turned into anger, in an instant.
“I received fifteen phone calls today,” he added emphasis to fifteen then repeated it, “fifteen, Pru.”
“People are just concerned. They’re well-meaning.”
Now, she was glad that she hadn’t called. She was glad she accepted Jessica’s advice not to call.
“It’s all the goddamn well-meaning people that are making getting over this longer and harder for me.”
“Getting over this? Richard, you didn’t break up with your girlfriend or lose a job – those are things you ‘get over.’ You lost your wife. You don’t just get over something like that. Is that what you’re trying to do? Get over her?”
He paused, looking down at the countertop, fidgeting with the knife Pru slid to him to cut his slice of the pie.
“And people are making it difficult for me. I’d much rather they just give their condolences and let it rest,” he continued. “It is nine months later and I still hear ‘she’s in a better place’ or ‘it’s all part of God’s divine plan’ or ‘you were so lucky to have found love’.”
Pru was about to speak when Richard looked at her, his facial muscles had softened, his eyes were less furious.
“I know they are well-meaning,” he said. “But all the damn platitudes infuriate me.”
“Why, Richard? No one knows what to say in these circumstances. We all want to show our love and care, but —”
“Talking about Val hurts, Pru. It hurts like hell. I don’t want to think about her. It makes me remember,” he paused.
“I know,” Pru said so softly that Richard didn’t hear her.
“It makes me remember all of the pain she was in and that there was nothing I could do to help her feel better. Nothing I could do to make her comfortable. Nothing I could do to keep her — alive.”
He slammed his fist onto the countertop. Pru shuddered. She wanted to say all the things that he said infuriated him: ‘she’s in a better place,’ ‘it’s all part of a divine plan,’ ‘you were so lucky to have found love.’ What was there left to say?
“I just can’t believe she’s gone.” He buried his face into his hands. “I know I’ve got to face that she’s gone but it’s so hard when everything around me reminds me of her, especially Shannon. Those eyes. Shannon has her eyes.”
And her smile, Pru thought but didn’t dare say aloud. She reached her hand across the counter to his. Her small fingers rested atop his.
“I started accepting more flights just to get away from here,” he admitted, looking up at Pru to read her reaction. She dropped her head, not wanting him to see the sadness that had crept upon her. But he noticed.
“I’m sorry. I’m okay, really,” Richard assured her.
“Then, why do I feel like I should hide the razor blades?” She smirked.
He chuckled. “You’re such a good friend, Pru. More than that,” he said holding her hand that was still outstretched across the counter.
“You are like family to me,” she paused, “hell, you are my family. I’ve known you nearly all of my life.”
“She’s gone, Pru,” he said, his bottom lip quivered. Tears glinted in his brown eyes. With his face in his hands he repeated quietly, “she’s gone, she’s gone. . .”
“Yes, she’s gone,” a tear streamed down Pru’s face as she comforted him. She wiped the tear with the back of her hand. She picked up the coffee pot and walked around the counter to pour him a cup.
He grabbed Pru’s hand, looking up at her through tear filled eyes as she stood beside him. Pru sat the pot on the counter and hugged Richard, pulling his head to her chest. He held her tightly. Pru, feeling his pain, allowed the tears to fall from her eyes, too.
They held the embrace long, comforting each other. Richard still mumbling, “She’s gone. She’s gone…” Pru repeated, “I know. I know.”
(c) 2013 Michele Kimbrough