A sixty-year-old hand clapped Garrett’s shoulder.
Garrett didn’t turn from the freshly filled grave to look at his younger brother. He looked up into the trees, trying to hear the birds chirping on the hot Saturday afternoon. A storm was building on the horizon. The weathermen had predicted it would arrive after one in the morning.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Jimmy, said.
I should have been with her, Garrett thought. I should be with her now.
“You couldn’t have known Crystal would have a heart attack.”
Sweat dripped down a wrinkle on Garrett’s face and he shrugged Jimmy’s hand off.
Jimmy shuffled, backing up a step. “Okay.”
Garrett turned and looked at his baby brother’s brown hair, now almost all gray. “When did we get old, Jimmy?”
Jimmy smiled sadly, his eyes crinkling. “We didn’t do it on purpose. I think it snuck up on us.”
Looking into his brother’s eyes, Garrett saw an old, old man. “Do I look as bad as you?”
Jimmy’s smile grew. “You’ve got eight years on me. You look ten times worse.”
For one moment Garrett smiled, then he turned back to the dirt mound on his wife’s grave. “I can’t go on without her, Jim. Next year we would have celebrated fifty years. She wasn’t even old yet and as pretty as the day we wed.”
Silence filled the open sky and Garrett blinked back tears.
“Come on. I’ll take you home. Candace has dinner waiting, and I’m sure your grandkids want to see you.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well, you can’t stay out here in this heat.”
Maybe I can. He didn’t move.
Jimmy sighed. “Garrett, staying won’t bring Crystal back.”
Maybe not. But if he stood in the scorching sun long enough, he might join her.
“Let’s go, Garrett. I can bring you back tomorrow.”
Garrett rubbed his wrinkled face with hands that weren’t as strong as they used to be. He stared at the fresh dirt. “No, Jimmy. I won’t need to come back tomorrow.”
Jimmy directed Garrett back to the sedan. “How long are your kids in town?”
“Candace and the kids are staying for another week. Doug has to head back after the weekend to get back to work.”
Jimmy nodded and unlocked the car doors. He slid into the driver seat and started the engine.
Silently promising Crystal that he wouldn’t be long, Garrett grabbed the handle and eased onto the leather seat.
At the house, the table was set for six, but there were chairs for seven. Crystal’s seat waited for its owner who would never return.
Garrett almost left at the sight, but Candace wiped her hands on her dark apron and wrapped him in a hug. “Hi, Daddy.”
He returned the hug and petted her silken blond braid, but couldn’t make his tongue respond. Candace guided him by his shoulders to his chair at the table, irritating his pride, but he said nothing.
Candace’s dark-haired girls, four and five year old Samantha and Danielle, filed silently into their chairs, sitting high enough at the table only because of the phone books on their seats.
Doug busied his hands with filling everyone’s plates with the steak and mixed vegetables. Once all the plates were passed around, he busied his napkin with wiping the food out of his sandy beard.
Candace kept her eyes lowered. Once or twice Jimmy tried to strike up a conversation about the kids’ spouses or work or lives. He received quiet, short answers that didn’t lead anywhere. When he turned to Danielle and Samantha, even they weren’t talkative.
Garrett pushed his food around on his plate.
Crystal should have been there. Her soft smile would have brightened anything. She always knew exactly what to say to start family conversations. She had a secure gentleness that put everyone at ease.
One of the lights above the table burned out, dimming the room.
Candace turned to her. “Honey? Are you okay?”
Danielle looked up at her mom, tears brimming in her bright blue eyes. Her chin quivered and she looked at Garrett, her wide eyes asking him to bring Grannma back.
A knife twisted in Garrett’s heart. Grannpap couldn’t fix this problem. He couldn’t stop his own hurt.
Samantha wiped her nose, not looking up.
Candace beckoned to her girls and held them in her arms.
Garrett scooted his chair back, scraping the feet on the linoleum.
Five pairs of eyes turned to look at him.
His chest was empty, like someone had ripped his heart out. He stood and escaped their painfully compassionate gazes to his room as quickly as his old hips would allow and locked the door.
That night, Garrett stayed in bed until well after Doug turned off the TV and the soft sounds of crying upstairs quieted. Jimmy had come to the door earlier, but when Garrett didn’t answer, he left for home. Everyone was asleep.
The wind blew against the house and rustled in the trees outside.
Garrett checked the clock. It read 1:37.
He slid out from under the covers of his double bed and reached to his bedside table, nearly knocking over the old picture frame with his and Crystal's wedding portrait. He picked up the picture and pulled out a .22 pistol from the drawer.
That’s all it would take. One quick shot to the brain at point blank range. Then he would go see Crystal. He wouldn’t have to live another day without her. The pain that threatened to smother him would stop.
Thunder crashed and the rain began. It pattered against the bedroom windows and ran the panes’ length in streaks.
He cradled the gun. The clock flicked another minute. He turned to the tidy, empty half of the bed. Someone had made it earlier and he hadn’t been able to bring himself to fold the covers back.
Another roll of thunder filled the room.
He could time the lightning and his family might not even hear the gunshot.
Why had the worst happened? There had been no warning. He hadn’t even been nearby to call for help. Of all the worthless things, he had driven down to the pharmacy to pick up one of her prescriptions. When he got home he found her already dead, collapsed on the living room floor, duster nearby, her silver hair wrapped in a floral handkerchief.
A tear splashed his arm. He hadn’t even noticed he couldn’t see. He cleared his throat and set the photograph down to wipe his eyes. The pistol remained in his other hand. He stared at its shape in the dark room.
The minute on the clock shifted again.
Thunder rumbled long and low, reaching the windows and rattling them.
Garrett sighed. He was a coward. He couldn’t face living without Crystal, but he wasn’t sure he could pull the trigger, either.
He stared at the picture again, soaking in every tempting curve, every silky curl, every soft feature. Her silly grin from that day hadn’t dimmed over the years. She had always been there for him through everything. Their financial hardships, colicky children, the miscarriage, storms, broken bones, lost jobs, everything. She had been the support he needed, and he had done his best to comfort her.
“I miss you,” he sobbed.
Lightning flashed, followed by a loud thunderclap.
He set his jaw and raised the pistol to his head. “I can’t live without you, Crystal.”
The rain danced on the windows.
Tears streamed down Garrett’s face.
A bright explosion shook the house, nearly deafening Garrett. He froze.
The bedroom door crashed in and a dark bundle with long hair dashed to his side bouncing the mattress. Tiny warm hands wrapped around his waist.
Garrett looked down at the top of Danielle’s dark head and released his breath.
His granddaughter was quivering.
He set the gun in the still open side drawer and wrapped his arms around her. “What’s this? What are you doing up?”
“I’m scared, Grannpap.”
“Why? It’s just a little thunder.”
“It’s so loud.”
Another clap of thunder shook the house and she clung tighter.
Seconds later, Samantha came crashing into the room and landed in Garrett’s lap.
He held his girls close, shushing them, trying to speak softly, but they wouldn’t leave.
“Don’t go, Granp,” Samantha said.
Garrett twitched in surprise. “What do you mean, Samantha?”
Danielle piped up, “You won’t leave us, will you?”
The hollow in his chest weighed him down.
“Mommy says you’re very sad,” Danielle’s muffled voice came from his side. “And you might not want to stay here anymore.”
Garrett cocked his eyebrow. Candace was a little too smart for his good.
Samantha snuggled closer. “When will the thunder stop?”
Garrett sighed. The warmth of his two granddaughters soothed his aching heart.
“Please, can we stay with you tonight, Grannpap?” Danielle asked.
He looked at her.
Her blue eyes shone even in the dim room.
He glanced at the pistol and sighed.
Samantha pinched his stomach with her worried fingers. “Please let us stay, Granp.”
The rain let up and a wave of rolling thunder washed through the house.
Garrett sighed again. Not tonight, Crystal. I guess I’m still needed here.
Danielle wasn’t shaking anymore but she held on just as tight. Samantha was already asleep against his stomach.
“All right. You can stay. I’m not going anywhere.”
Danielle let go and crawled under the covers.
Garrett shifted the sleeping Samantha who stirred enough to nuzzle his arm and curl up where he set her on the bed. Both girls spent the night resting a hand or head on their Grannpap.
And Grannpap closed the drawer on his side table and set the wedding picture back up in front of the clock without checking the time.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.