by Denis Cloutier
Ellen had been married to Richard Miller for twenty years and three months on the day he died. He’d been losing his battle with cancer for the better part of a year and she’d been by his side, supporting him, through all of it. When dawn came on that last day, she was sitting by his bed, impervious to the acrid smell of unwashed bedding, sweat and stale food she inhaled with each breath. She’d lost track of the time but knew it was morning because the closed window curtains glowed from the light outside. She stood to open the curtains, but then thought better of it and sat back down. She didn’t want to disturb their twin teenage daughters who had come home from college for these last few days and, worn out with grief, were now sleeping in chairs they had dragged into Ellen and Richard’s bedroom. Leaning against the bedrail, Ellen reached for Richard’s hand, folded it in hers and rested her eyes. She hadn’t felt herself falling asleep, but she’d been miles away when he tightened his grip on her hand, triggering a jolt that brought her back to his bedside.
“I’m here, my love,” she whispered, bringing her face closer to his.
After days of lethargy and confusion, he was struggling to cut through the fog. His eyes jumped about as he tried to focus, like a drunk striving to appear sober. He opened his mouth to speak, but his voice faltered. She leaned over him, turning her head to put her ear near his lips. She held her breath, wanting to be sure she heard him, hoping to hear him say he loved her one more time. He said something, she thought, before he sputtered, then coughed. Perhaps he cleared his throat. She might have missed the first word he tried to say, she wasn’t sure. With her head turned, she hadn’t seen whether his lips had formed a word when a muted, guttural noise rose from deep within him. Then came two words she clearly heard: “Tell her.”
She waited for more, but those two words had been expelled on the air of his last breath. Nothing more followed. She sat back down and looked at his face, already slack. He had been fading slowly over the last several weeks, his decline a series of little losses that were nearly imperceptible from day to day. Yet when life finally left his body, it went instantly and completely. Nothing but a shell was left where her husband had been only a moment before.
She sat in the dank room and slipped her hand out of his, her grief blunted and confused by his last words. She’d heard the two words distinctly enough, but the mystery was in the message. Who was the woman he was referring to? One of their daughters? No, they had no secrets. Someone else? Who could it be? And what was she supposed to tell this woman? Or, she wondered, remembering that guttural noise, was there something that she wasn’t supposed to tell? Ellen tried to replay in her mind the sound that preceded his last two words. Had that gurgling exhalation actually been another word? “Don’t.”
Ellen pushed her questions aside and stood to look at the faces of her sleeping angels, one curled tightly inside the confines of the upholstered chair frame, the other with limbs sprawled, spilling over and out from the cushioned seat hidden somewhere beneath her. Ellen dreaded having to disrupt their dreams to tell them that this moment had finally come. She went to window and closed her eyes as she drew back the curtains, knowing the light would awaken their daughters and wordlessly deliver the message she couldn’t bear to say aloud.
Family and friends descended upon Ellen over the next several days. Rituals for the dead filled her daylight hours and pills that had been prescribed for Richard carried her through the nights. She never told her daughters about their father’s last words. She stowed those words and the questions they elicited deep in the recesses of her mind, weakening their power by consciously refusing to acknowledge them. On the sixth day following Richard’s death, when Ellen allowed herself a moment to think about what he’d said, enough time had finally passed that she was able to dismiss his words as the murmurings of a man infused with morphine. They didn’t cross her mind again until two weeks later, after the girls had returned to school, when Ellen found the key to a safe deposit box she never knew her husband had, drove to the bank and opened the box to find a photograph with the words, “August 5, 1995, Burlington, Vermont,” written on the back.
Ellen had stayed in the bank’s vault a full hour that day, sitting on the floor after her legs had buckled, holding the photograph in her hands. She hadn’t known that he’d been married before. But there he was in full color, standing tall and proud on the steps of a church, his arm around his bride’s waist. The groom in the photograph was a younger version of the husband she had married, but there was no denying that he was the same man. And while the photograph raised new questions that she wasn’t at all sure she wanted answered, she could now make some sense of his last words. This had to be the woman. And the message, she understood, was the news of his death. He had asked her to tell, or perhaps not to tell, this woman in the photograph that the man she once married was now dead.
As soon as she returned home, Ellen pulled out her laptop and started searching. It took longer than she’d expected to find the information online, mostly because her trembling fingertips kept pressing the wrong keys, but also because she hadn’t anticipated her husband having a different name back in 1995. Once she identified the newlyweds in the photograph as Paul and Lorraine Tanner, the rest of the dots were easier to connect. A wedding announcement from the online archives of the Burlington Times stated that the groom was employed at a local lumberyard and that, after a brief honeymoon, the couple was returning to Burlington to live in the home they’d purchased on Bayside Road. Only a year after the wedding, Paul Tanner’s name appeared in the news again, this time under a headline announcing that a local man was presumed dead following a boat fire on Lake Champlain. The scorched hull of Paul Tanner’s Stingray had been found adrift on the lake, but his body was never recovered. The newspaper also reported that Paul had testified before a grand jury a few weeks earlier, and two of his fellow employees at the lumberyard had been indicted on charges of smuggling opioid pharmaceuticals into the States from Canada. Although the cause of the fire aboard Paul’s boat could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the local press had no trouble speculating that Paul’s death had been murder. Revenge.
It wasn’t, of course. Paul Tanner hadn’t been aboard that boat when the blaze erupted. He was already on his way to a new life in Des Moines, Iowa. Ellen didn’t know if he’d been enrolled in the federal witness protection program or if he’d bought what he needed on the black market, but when she met him in Des Moines only weeks after the boat fire, he had a new name, a corresponding social security number, and an Iowa driver’s license. He had found work with a construction company and was celebrating his first paycheck at the Iowa State Fair. After seeing Ellen give it her all in the Skillet Toss competition, he had introduced himself as Richard Miller and asked her to dance. They married four months later. When they learned that Ellen was pregnant with twins the following spring, he made a down payment on a home in the suburb of Altoona. In a matter of months, he had a job, a wife, a home and children on the way, all the pieces of a life that anyone would think had taken him years to assemble.
While Richard Miller had been forging ahead with his new life, the widowed Lorraine Tanner had stayed put. She was still living in the Bayside Road home they’d bought as newlyweds, and Ellen couldn’t find any record of a second marriage. She discovered an announcement of one big change in Lorraine’s life, however: the birth of a son. By Ellen’s calculation, Lorraine would have been only a few weeks pregnant at the time of the fire. Had Richard – or Paul — known he was going to be a father when he left Vermont? Did he ever learn of his son? Had he ever met him?
And what exactly had Richard expected Ellen to do now? Was she supposed to find this woman and tell her that her husband, the one whose death she’d already grieved, was dead once again? That he had replaced her and their son with a new wife, new children, and a whole new life for himself, as if she had meant nothing to him? Why would he be so cruel as to want her to know that?
The question made Ellen’s breath catch. Was it because Lorraine already knew? Did she know he had survived the fire? Had she been involved in his decision to fake his death in order to perhaps save his life? Had they had been in touch over the years? Was that why Lorraine needed to be told, so she would understand why she wouldn’t hear from him again?
Ellen rubbed her face and thought of that guttural noise. Maybe Richard’s last request had been that Ellen not tell Lorraine. Perhaps Lorraine truly believed that he died on that boat. She might have no idea of the life he’d made with Ellen. Maybe his final words had been a plea for Ellen to keep his secret, to leave Lorraine in peace, to protect her from learning the truth about what he’d done.
Ellen turned off her laptop, not wanting any more information. The day had ended hours earlier and her head was pounding, wrought by questions she couldn’t answer, questions she didn’t even want to ask. She didn’t know whether her husband wanted her to tell this woman he was now dead, but she was beginning to realize that what he’d wanted didn’t matter to her anymore. Silence wasn’t an option. She knew herself well enough to know that every day she didn’t tell this woman the truth, she’d turn herself inside out with worry over whether she should change her mind. She couldn’t bear that. She had to tell her. If the truth hurt, then so be it. It wasn’t her job to protect this woman from the truth.
She started writing, pen to paper, the old-fashioned way. In a letter to Lorraine, Ellen described the Richard Miller she had known. She told her how they’d danced at the fair that first night and how she knew from the way he’d held her that they were meant to be together; that their engagement had been short, but their twenty-year marriage had not been long enough; that he’d been a good husband and an exceptional father to their two daughters. She wrote about the two family vacations they took every summer – one always a new adventure and the other always the Iowa State Fair, where they’d dance again in celebration. She wrote that he’d never given her any reason to suspect that he ’d been married before, that he’d never talked about Lorraine, never even mentioned her name in all their years together, not when reminiscing about his past, not in casual conversation, and never, not once, by mistake in bed.
Ellen paused, stunned by the vengeance pouring out of her, the pain she was willing to inflict on this other woman. She knew she was trying to stake her claim, to keep him hers and hers alone, even in death. It was selfish, perhaps even juvenile, but writing this letter reminded her of what she’d thought they’d had, and something inside her needed that now. Besides, it was all true. It was her name, “Elle,” that had escaped his lips whenever they held each other. He used to make her feel like she was the only woman he’d ever loved. She had invested a lifetime believing that.
When she finally put the pen down, morning had come and she had eleven pages. She folded the letter, sealed it inside a manila envelope and addressed it to the woman on Bayside Road in Burlington, Vermont. She didn’t start to have second thoughts about mailing the letter until she couldn’t find any postage stamps. She searched the junk drawer in the kitchen. No stamps, but she hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true. She searched her purse. No stamps, but this woman wasn’t responsible for what he had done. She searched her desk. No stamps, but she was only doing what he had asked her to do. Then again, maybe he’d asked her not to do this.
Damn it, she thought. She would not, could not choose silence. The post office would be opening soon. She grabbed her keys, clutched the manila envelope under her arm and drove into town to buy stamps. She felt her temperature rise as she approached the post office, but she didn’t slow down or put on her turn signal. She drove straight past the federal building, shaking her head as she checked her fuel gauge. She hadn’t even packed a bag.
She drove for twelve hours, spent the night at a roadside motel, and arrived in Burlington early the next afternoon. Once in town, she located the house on Bayside Road and drove past it three times before pulling into the parking lot of a convenience store on the corner. Clutching the envelope, she got out of her car and sat on a bench outside the store. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she needed to keep an eye on the house while she figured out her next step. An hour passed as she sat there, staring at his old house, imagining his life before they met and all the things he’d never told her.
She was using the manila envelope as a visor to block the slanted rays of the late afternoon sun when she saw a sedan pull out of the Bayside Road driveway. She watched the car coast down the road to the store, turn into the parking lot, and pull into the empty spot right beside her. That was the last thing she remembered before she fainted.
“Easy does it. Take a deep breath and I’ll help you sit up.”
Blinking her eyes as though trying to wake from a bad dream, Ellen realized that it was her husband’s first wife who was helping her, comforting her.
“An ambulance is on the way. You’re going to be just fine.”
“I am fine,” Ellen said, pulling her arm out of the woman’s hands and dragging herself back onto the bench. “And I don’t need an ambulance.”
“I’ll leave it to the EMTs to decide what you may or may not need.” Lorraine said, putting one hand back on Ellen’s arm as she leaned away, stretching to pick up something on the ground. “You dropped this,” she said, as she scooped up the manila envelope.
“Don’t touch that!” Ellen said, her voice sounding, even to her own ears, like that of a woman losing control.
“All right, it’s okay,” Lorraine said, her eyes focused on Ellen as she passed the envelope to her, never seeing the name and address printed on its front.
When the ambulance arrived, Ellen refused any treatment. “I’m fine, really,” she insisted, holding onto the envelope. “I drove all day without stopping to eat. I haven’t had much of an appetite since my husband passed a few weeks ago. I’ll go in the store and get a candy bar and I’ll be just fine.”
Unable to persuade her otherwise, the ambulance crew left. Lorraine was still there.
“I heard you tell the EMTs about your husband,” Lorraine said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
How many times had Ellen heard that phrase over the past three weeks?
Lorraine continued. “I’m a widow, too. It’s hard, I know.”
Ellen didn’t say anything.
“Candy isn’t enough,” Lorraine said. “You’re coming to my house. It’s right up the street, five houses down. A hot bowl of soup is what you need.” Lorraine nodded her head to confirm that the matter was decided and stood up. “Unlike the EMTs, I’m not going to accept no for an answer.”
Ellen knew she shouldn’t go. What good could come from going to this woman’s house? From walking into Richard’s former life? She started to argue, but realized that she was still trembling. She let Lorraine help her get to her feet. Ellen appreciated the way Lorraine took charge, the way she didn’t ask questions or offer options; she just told Ellen what to do. Right now, that was exactly what Ellen needed. Ellen went to Lorraine’s car, the manila envelope tucked tightly under her arm.
Walking into the woman’s home, Ellen took in the living room’s outdated decor: the plaid upholstered couch, an overstuffed recliner, a knotty-pine coffee table and beige wall-to-wall carpeting. The room probably looked exactly as it had when he’d lived here more than twenty years ago. Did he use to sit in that recliner? Put his book on that coffee table? Had Lorraine preserved the room just the way he left it in case he came back, so they could resume their lives together as if nothing had happened? Had she been waiting, hoping he might return to her one day? Or had she just never been able to let go?
There was a framed wedding photograph on the fireplace mantel, a different photograph than the one Ellen found at the bank. When it caught Ellen’s eye, she was drawn to it like metal to a magnet. She went to the fireplace, put the manila envelope down on a chair and picked up the frame. In this picture, they were in each other’s arms, dancing at their wedding reception. He was smiling. Not a wide, mouthy grin, but a serene and peaceful smile. She had seen that smile before, and seeing it now, like this, hurt like hell.
Ellen was blinking away tears when Lorraine stepped closer to her, drawn in by her own memories.
“He loved to dance,” Lorraine said.
“Yes, he did,” agreed Ellen.
Lorraine’s focus shifted from the photograph to Ellen.
Ignoring Lorraine’s stare, Ellen nevertheless offered an explanation. “It’s obvious from the photograph,” she said. “He looks so young.” Ellen continued to stare at the photograph, transfixed, her knuckles white from her grip on the frame. They stood there, silent, for what must have been several minutes before Lorraine, unsettled by Ellen’s reaction, gently removed the photograph from Ellen’s hands and returned it to its place on the mantle.
“Come to the kitchen,” Lorraine said, ushering Ellen out of the living room. “I’ll warm up that soup.”
They didn’t talk while Ellen ate. Lorraine occupied herself with a mug of coffee. When Ellen’s bowl was empty, Lorraine poured her some coffee and started the conversation.
“I won’t lie and tell you it’s easy. It’s been twenty years for me and I still miss him. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. A friend of mine once said that losing a husband through divorce is like being a widow. All marriages end by either death or divorce, she’d say, and she saw little difference between the two. She was divorced, of course, and had no idea what it’s like to bury your husband. I would’ve given anything in the world for Paul not to have died so young, for him to have lived, even without me. He deserved that.”
Ellen’s eyes bored into Lorraine. Was this woman asking to be told? Did she already know? Or was it that she couldn’t begin to understand the pain that the truth would deliver?
“It’s the little things that trip you up,” Lorraine continued. “Things like nicknames. My husband hated my name, said it sounded like the name of old lady. So he just called me by my initial, ‘L.’ One day, a neighbor called me ‘L,’ just like Paul used to, and I burst into tears. The poor man, he had no idea what caused me to cry like I did.”
Ellen choked on her coffee. “He called you ‘Elle?’” she asked.
“Yes,” Lorraine said, her eyes moistened by the memory, even after so many years.
“That’s what he called me, too,” Ellen said.
Lorraine’s eyes jumped to Ellen’s so forcefully that her head followed.
“My husband, I mean,” Ellen said, shifting in her seat.
“Yes, of course,” Lorraine said too quickly, out of politeness. And then, in a tone that suggested that questions were starting to rise to the surface, she added, “Your husband.”
At a loss for how to find their way out of an uncomfortable moment, the two women hid behind their coffee mugs. When the coffee was nearly gone and neither woman had figured out what to say next, the silence was mercifully interrupted by the sound of heavy steps bounding down the stairs. Seconds later, a young man wearing the boots responsible for the distraction entered the kitchen. Ellen knew who he was before the introductions were made. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.
“I’m sorry,” Ellen said, realizing that she was making the young man uncomfortable. “It’s just that you look so much like your father.”
“That’s what my mom tells me. You knew my dad?”
Yes, he slept in my bed for twenty years, she thought. But she shook her head from side to side and said, “No, I just was looking at your parents’ wedding photograph.”
She could feel the heavy weight of Lorraine’s eyes on her.
“Wow, you’ve got supernatural vision to see any resemblance based on that grainy photograph, but, hey, I’ll take the compliment. Mom always said he was a handsome guy.” He smiled his father’s good-natured smile and gave his mother a kiss on her cheek on his way out. He didn’t make it to the front door before they heard his voice again.
“Hey, Mom, what’s this?”
He was back, holding the manila envelope in his right hand.
Ellen tasted the bile surge in her throat and covered her mouth with her hand.
“That’s Ellen’s,” Lorraine said, noticing — for the second time that afternoon — Ellen’s reaction to that envelope being in someone else’s hands.
“Well, it’s addressed to you,” he said and placed the envelope face up on the table in front of her. He didn’t seem to notice that neither woman moved. “I’ve got to run, Mom. I’ll see you tonight.” He turned to go. “Nice to meet you,” he added with a nod to Ellen, and then left the two women in the kitchen and went out the front door.
Lorraine sat at the table and stared at her name on the envelope. Not many people called her “Mrs. Paul Tanner” twenty years after Paul’s death. She lowered her coffee mug and placed it carefully, noiselessly on the table before picking up the envelope.
“What is this? Why is it addressed to me?” she asked, without looking at Ellen. “You don’t know me.”
It was too late for Ellen to do or deny anything. She could tell from the look on Lorraine’s face that the pieces were already sliding into place. They sat there, silently, long enough for Lorraine to think through all that had happened that afternoon, everything that had been said, and everything that hadn’t. When she was ready, Lorraine lifted her head in Ellen’s direction, as if she intended to look her in the eye, but didn’t. Her eyes stayed fixed on the envelope in her hands. In a measured voice, one in which she didn’t release her breath as she spoke, she asked, “Did he tell you about me?”
“I’m sorry,” Ellen answered, unwilling to twist the knife. “I should go.”
“Wait. Please.” Lorraine took a deep breath and closed her eyes, as if wishing she would awaken somewhere else when she opened them.
Ellen waited. She wanted to run, to hide, to scream, to cry, but she stayed, obediently seated and silent in her chair.
“I need to know … ” Lorraine started, but her voice trailed off. She swallowed and summoned it back. “I just need to know,” she said, reaching deep inside, “Was he was happy?”
The two women did not look at one another.
“I think so, yes.” Ellen said softly. She kept her gaze on the table. “But even so,” she added, “he wanted me to tell you.”
Lorraine nodded, then stood, the envelope heavy in her hands, her eyes vacant. She waited for Ellen to get to her feet.
Ellen rose. She walked behind her chair and pushed it in against the table. Without taking a step toward Lorraine, Ellen reached forward and gently eased the sealed manila envelope out of Lorraine’s hands, and took it with her when she walked out the door.
About the Author:
A graduate of Dartmouth College and Columbia Law School, Denise Cloutier lives in Goshen, Connecticut. Her work experiences as a lawyer, bartender, investment advisor, caregiver, call-center supervisor, substitute teacher, and collegiate women’s rugby coach provide ample inspiration for her fiction-writing.