The body he was carrying was heavy. The face flopped sideways so he couldn’t see it. His arms and legs and back ached and he couldn’t breathe in enough air. Each step was impossible. Was there snow on the ground? This alerted Will for the first time that something was off. Not the shape he was carrying but the snow he was trudging through.
Wait a minute.
The figure in his arms suddenly jerked as the coughing began again. This time it was followed by blood. Will felt some of it on his face.
Where is this place?
A stumble, then stopping with knees digging into the cold ground, the body suddenly rolling in front of him. Then he saw them. All of them. All surrounding and engulfing and swallowing him.
The black graves. They were everywhere.
He realized he was searching for one to drop the body in. But where? And who was this person?
The figure lay with its face in the snow. He couldn’t make out its form and shape under the heavy winter clothes. Was it Tricia? It was heavy—too heavy to be her. Then again, he couldn’t remember the last time he had carried her like this.
He blinked and tried to get a better picture, starting to move to pull the body over and see the dead face. And just as he did—
The high-pitched buzzer beside his bed began to cry out. He quickly turned it off and then slipped out of the bed. His leaking sanity was still dripping all over him.
A quick shower and then he was leaving. Trish didn’t get out to say goodbye. There was really no need. He’d left on business trips many times before. She liked her sleep and had said goodbye last night. If she was awake, she might whisper a farewell, but he didn’t hear one. He heard the familiar creaks in the floor instead bidding him a Bon Voyage.
Someone else awaited downstairs, however.
A girl much taller than her age, more brighter than the winter weather outside, more joyful than her father could ever remember being.
“You shouldn’t be up,” he said to Claire.
“You shouldn’t be leaving.”
It was only five and they had a rule for Claire not to get out of bed before six. But of course, this was an unusual morning in a very unusual last twelve months.
“We talked about this,” he said as he felt his daughter wrap herself around him.
Then she began to cry.
Kissing the top of her head felt as natural as breathing, as normal as sipping his morning coffee, as routine as saying goodbye and starting up his SUV to go to work.
This isn’t natural or normal or routine.
“Are you going to be okay?” Claire asked, that normally fun-loving, free-for-all face now wrinkled in pain. Not childlike pain but the adult kind.
“I’ll be fine. I’m not going to be gone long.”
“Not long,” he told her.
“But how long?”
“Claire . . .”
Her hug tightened around him. He could hear those soft and low sobs.
“Listen to me. Hey—look at me. Claire–“
Wide eyes glanced up at him. Will wiped the tears and then gave her a confident smile.
“This is a good thing, okay?” he told his eldest daughter. “I’m going to be helping people. Helping to sort through the mess down there. Okay? They just don’t have enough people and they desperately need help just to start to rebuild. And that’s going to be good for us, too. You know? That means I’ll have more money to buy you guys more American Girl dolls.”
“We don’t have American Girl dolls,” Claire corrected.
Yes, of course they didn’t. They had the faux kind that Target sold. But the twins certainly didn’t know the difference and Claire had never complained once about it.
Will smiled. She just couldn’t help being a firstborn.
“Well, whatever they are—they’re just as good as American Girl dolls.”
“I don’t want an American Girl doll,” she said, squeezing him again.
For a moment, Will almost lost it.
He had to breathe in and stay strong and not let her see an ounce of fear or hesitation or sadness on his face. He let the hug stay for a while and then faced her again.
“Listen to me,” he said as he knelt down in front of Claire. “You need to take care of Mommy, okay? Not just the girls—I know you’ll do that. But take care of your mother. She’s gonna need you, okay?”
For however long I’m gone.
Claire gave him a nod while she wiped tears.
“No more crying. I’ll call you later. Daddy needs this. We all need this. It’s okay. I promise you—I won’t be gone long.”
“But how long?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a week or maybe just a little longer. That’s all. I promise.”
Questioning eyes, so innocent and unknowing, looked up at him. Yet he saw her trust. Her certainty.
“Will you call me when you get there?” Claire asked.
I love this girl.
“Yes. That’ll be the first thing I do. Now listen—you go back to bed, okay? It’s early.”
“Bye Daddy.” As always, she gave him a kiss on his cheek along with the hug. “I love you.”
Some things in this life were unknown and uncertain. But those three words were as real as anything Will Hudson had seen or heard or learned in his forty-three years.
I know you do.
“I love you sweetie,” he told her.
Smiling and making sure he really looked at her for a moment. Her lanky figure then wandered back up the stairs and into her room.
The silence of the house pulled back up its blanket. It was too early for even their Shih Tzu to bother watching him. He stroked her soft fur as she slept, then glanced around the room again. Will turned off the light in the hallway next to the garage, then waited for a moment in the darkness.
Wondering and worrying. Like every morning and every noon and every afternoon and every night. Carrying the weight of these three little lives around with him. Knowing the weight could be and should be shared but not knowing quite how to do that.
He opened the door and wondered what waited outside of it.
It was probably a good thing he didn’t know.