By Sharon Frame Gay
Abby saw the news on Facebook. Todd Conway died last night. The funeral will be held Saturday at The Church of the Woods in Deer Ridge. In lieu of flowers, mourners are asked to donate to the Heart Association.
She pushed back from the computer and stood up, paced in circles, sat down again, tried to find her breath.
Todd gone. After all these years. Her first, and if truth be told, only love. The first man to enter her body, weave fingers through her hair, peer into her eyes until he knew every striation in the iris, every stroke of the hand that made her pupils dilate.
The man Abby was meant to be with for the rest of her life.
Only it didn’t work out that way. It was supposed to work out that way, damn it, but Todd paid no attention to the law of the Universe and broke her heart instead.
She sat back in her chair, touched the screen with a finger, read the rest. Sal Higgins, an old high school friend, related that Todd keeled over at the local A & W while waiting for his burger and shake. A swift and massive heart attack. Sal saw the whole thing. Said when he fell, he still held on to the shake, and it landed perfectly on the floor, not a drop spilled.
Abby and Todd were high school lovers, sewn together in the tight knit community of a little town in Iowa. In the soft cocoon of their small school, they had already finalized life’s plans, and to Abby the cool metal of Todd’s high school ring on a chain around her neck was as much a done deal as the sun rising in the East. They breathed the same air, knew the same people. Before long it was difficult to know where Abby left off, and Todd started. For four years, their love reigned supreme, cast in a tableau with other young lovers whose only ambition, it seemed, was to merge, marry and breed.
There was the usual small town high school pregnancy scare. Abby walking the corridors of school with her girlfriends surrounding her, belly bloated beneath the zipper of her jeans. And Todd had his warriors – fellow jocks who huddled with him on the football field, whispering and conjuring up frightening images of baby blankets and swollen wives. Todd was with her a week later when Abby felt sick and ran into the women’s room at Henson’s Dollar Store, found blood in her panties. He stood outside the door and heard her let out a whoop, and later told her he nearly fainted with joy.
Was that the first clue? Was he already feeling the loops and threads tighten? Or was it later, when they both went to State University together.
Sal said on Facebook that his wife Loren was with him at the time. Thankfully their kids were at softball practice. Abby’s cousin Brad, the local cop, was first on the scene and performed CPR, but Todd was already gone.
Comments poured in. Old friends said they were coming home to Deer Ridge for the funeral. People already making plans to meet at the local steak house on Friday night. Abby could almost feel eyes shifting towards her through the internet, wondering. Would she be there?
Abby would never forget the day Todd broke up with her. It was early spring. Their junior year at State. He asked her to skip classes and go out to the lake with him.
The air was chilly, blowing frothy waves up against the shore. They sat atop a picnic table, huddled under an old quilt. Abby reached over, stroked his thigh. He took her hand, held it still. She looked up, puzzled.
“Abby, Babe, I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it. I need to move on. It’s not that I don’t care about you, but I don’t think I love you enough. Not in the way people are supposed to love each other if they’re going to be married. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.” Todd looked away, tears in his eyes, his hand shaking.
As many times as she tried over the years, Abby could not remember the rest of the conversation, what the sky looked like, what she said, nor the drive home. What she remembered were the years after that, the years where she shut herself off from romance, watching friends marry and have families, but she remained apart, bemused, as though one foot were in this world, another in a world she only dreamed about.
Her downward spiral was a thing to behold. Never had a jilted lover grieved so much. Abby dropped out of college, lost weight, grew shaky and unbalanced, did things to herself that was wrong. Tiny cuts at first, then larger slices. Cut her long hair into spiky tufts that looked as meager and lost as her legs in faded jeans.
She fantasized that Todd would come back to her. Everything she did, she did with Todd in mind. How would that impress him? Would he like the new color in her hair? Her small successes from time to time? Todd was the unknowing muse to decades of sorrow and regret, and the need for revenge. Oh yes, revenge.
In her mind, Abby dreamed of this day. Dead Todd. Closure to the story. Abby standing over his grave, a sorrowful look on her face as she turned and walked away, back to a family, career, proper place in the community. In her imagination, her life was a success story, his that of a slow bloomer crushed beneath the foot of adult life. It seemed to Abby that his existence held her soul in thrall. Todd had died so many times in her tortured thoughts, that hearing about him now, truly gone – seemed like an anti climax.
As luck would have it, Abby was in Deer Ridge years ago for Todd’s wedding to Loren. It wasn’t planned. Just a quick trip back home to visit Aunt Edith and help move her to a senior living apartment. Bells rang out from the church around the corner. Abby saw all the cars, the back of a bride as she walked up the steps, veil flowing in the autumn breeze.
“Who’s getting married, Aunt Edith?”
A long pause. Then, “Why, I believe it’s that Conway boy and Loren Taylor.” Aunt Edith gazed nervously down at Abby’s wrists, the scars still pink against her skin.
“Oh,” said Abby, turning away before Aunt Edith saw the tears springing up. She fluffed a pillow, threw it in a plastic bag, tossed it in the corner marked for the senior home. “Shall I pack up the kitchen, Aunt Edith?” She smiled at her aunt, trying to remain calm, as she spiraled down a dark drain, swirling in agony, fighting the urge to run down the street screaming.
Loren. Two years behind her in high school. Abby knew her. In a town this small you knew everybody. What happened after high school, Abby had no clue. Did she also go to State? Stay here in Deer Ridge? Unite with Todd after college? Abby wanted to know everything. Every nuance, every moment and detail about Loren Taylor. She strained her memory, conjured up football games and study halls throughout the years, peering into the past to see if there was already a signal, a sign, a toss of the head, a note passed in English class.
In the end, though, it still boiled down to just one thing. Why was she chosen? Why did Todd wait for Loren at the end of the aisle, lifted the veil from Loren’s face, brought her home to their wedding bed and cherished her body again and again, giving them children, a home, a purpose.
As if in answer, Abby saw on Facebook that Loren addressed the comments friends had left on Sal’s page. The heartbroken widow found time to commiserate with all the sympathetic friends.
“To all my dear friends, please know I have read the comments from every one of you, and am sending you a big hug. Todd was the most wonderful husband in the world. He was the best father any child could ask for, and the light of my life. My first and only love. XOXO, Loren”
First and only love. Abby was stricken. That was HER position in the galaxy. Todd was HERS first, her first and only love. How dare Loren step in, a latecomer in Abby’s mind, and grab the title.
Abby poured herself a stiff one, sat in the worn chair out on the porch, watched kids walking home from school. Felt the haunting, familiar ache that she never married, had no children. She rattled the ice in her cup, toasted the sky, took a sip, then another. Walked back into her lonely apartment.
Should she go to the funeral? How awkward would that be? Wear black like Loren, or a simple linen dress? She’d wander in at the last minute, sit in the back pew, keep her head down, ignore the intake of breath and curious stares from friends. No, it would be a mess. Nobody in their right mind would expect her to come. Especially after what happened five years ago.
Abby had come home that year for Christmas. She was gazing in shop windows at the last minute, looking for a scarf for her mother, when Todd was reflected in the glass behind her. She turned, startled, and he smiled that same old smile that she had known since second grade.
“Abby” he said, and her chest loosened as though constricted all this time.
He held out his arms for a hug, stepping forward. She smelled the wool in his jacket, the aftershave, saw the crooked front tooth she knew so well, the tooth she had traced with her tongue over and over for years. A bit of gray in his hair. The gold band on his finger.
Then she burst into tears. Ugly tears. The kind that comes out in ragged sobs, snot running down her face.
Like a person possessed, she chanted. “Why, Todd? Why? What was wrong with ME? Why didn’t you love ME?”
He stepped back, shocked. People slowed, then stopped and stared. And still she continued to cry. It was as though the sky opened, a cloudburst of heartache, raining down on Todd, the sidewalk.
Carrie Anderson, an old classmate, approached her from the crowd, speaking softly, put her arms around Abby and held her close while Todd, mystified and embarrassed, walked away, the echoes of Christmas music in the background.
Later that night in bed at her parent’s house, Abby stared at the ceiling. This was all her fault, she thought. Todd was always good to her. He did nothing wrong. She had no place to set her grief. No blame to smear on his memory. He simply didn’t love her. All she had were questions. Questions that would never be answered.
Perhaps that is what made it the most difficult. There was no drama. No cheating heart. There was simply no more. Then came Loren. The kids. A life. And while they built a family together, Abby went to live in the big city, found a drab apartment two blocks from work, trudged home every night to the silence that only a lonely soul can hear.
She had never wanted anyone else. Abby seldom dated, never let a man get too close. Her body still hummed from Todd’s touch, and she guarded it, kept it sacred, lighting a candle in the farthest corner of her heart and keeping the flame alive with memories.
Abby had tried therapy, tried expanding her horizons, but nothing seemed to bring her out of the abyss she dove into long ago. It was painful. It was sad. She plucked at the threads of her thoughts over and over again, feeling shame and heartache. And a vast yearning. With effort, Abby reached over and turned off the computer. Held her hand above the mouse, poised to pounce on Facebook again, changed her mind. Turned away and walked into the bedroom. There, she took off her clothes, stared long in the mirror, ran her hands in ripples over her body where Todd once touched her, hung her head and wept.
Two months later, Abby stood in the Deer Ridge Cemetery alone. It was easy to find Todd’s gravesite. The soil was still fresh, bald, the tombstone newly chiseled. Flowers dotted the site, bright against the October sky. Abby set a single red rose right next to the headstone, traced his name with her fingertips.
How ironic, she thought. She was the one who should have died, suffering a hundred lifetimes of loneliness and heartache. Yet here was Todd. He went first. He wasn’t supposed to go first. He was supposed to yearn for Abby until they were both ancient, then fall to his knees in grief when he heard of her passing, filled with regret.
But Todd didn’t fall. He didn’t regret. He did not yearn. He merely died.
Abby peered around, then bent to the headstone, kissed his name with her lips. The granite felt cold and final. She turned away, walked back towards the rental car, stared down at her shoes, scuffed, the laces untied. She thought of home, back in the city. She’d been thinking a lot since Todd died. Perhaps she’ll paint the old walls, buy a new sofa, maybe even adopt a cat. Get those boots in Macy’s window, replace these worn out shoes. These worn out thoughts.
Looking back at the cemetery, the grave was stark and jarring in the afternoon sun. A maple leaf, fiery orange, sailed in the autumn breeze, landed near her feet. How beautiful the leaves are, thought Abby, as the trees set them free. She reached down, picked up the leaf, held it to her heart. Watched it quiver with each beat. Then let it go.
About the Author:
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. She has been internationally published in over fifty anthologies and magazines including BioStories, Gravel Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voice Journal, Crannog Magazine, and others. Her work has won prizes at Women on Writing, The Writing District and Owl Hollow Press. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. You can find her on Amazon Author Central as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer.