December 10, 2017

Fiction by Jenny Sturgill: "Memories"

Jenny Sturgill is a nurse living in Louisville, Ky with her husband. When she is not writing she enjoys cooking and gardening. She's had stories and essays published in The Kentucky Explorer, Ky Story, Indiana Voice Journal, The Pink Chameleon, Enchanted File Cabinet, Page&Spine, Longstoryshort, Edify Magazine, and numerous more. She is also the author of Against the Wind: How I survived my life with Grandma.



     Raymond opened the door to his basement and peered down the steps into the darkness. The scent of mold hit him in the face. He felt around, found the light switch, and flipped it on. Squinting, he waited until his eyes adjusted to the bright light and stood there, dreading to go down to sort through the mess. Pools of water left from the flooding reflected the light from the cold dark gray concrete. Even though it was in the 80's outside he shivered against the damp air. The skies had opened and dumped three inches of rain on the community, too much for the storm drains to handle. The basement had flooded many times, but this time it was deeper. Deep enough to get to the box he'd so carefully placed up out of the water's reach. He eased down the steps swiping at a spider web that hung from the ceiling.
    It had taken several days to pump all the receding floodwater out. Raymond stood by the stairway and surveyed the mess before him.  Mostly he cared about the soggy box on the chair on the other side of the basement. He wondered if anything in it could be salvaged. Sighing he walked over and stood by the chair. How long had it been since he had looked in it? What would his wife, Jane, think if she knew that his heart really belonged in this box? He lifted the top flaps, peered inside, and stared at the glossy eight by ten photo of Emily. Lifting the gold framed picture out of the water soaked box he turned up the corner and let the water run out of the frame. The glossy picture had wrinkled from the dampness. Emily's dark brown eyes looked back at him with that youthful brilliance he remembered from high school. It had been a long time since he had opened the box and looked at her lovely face. His heart ached suddenly. He placed the picture on the top of the box, and careful not to let the contents fall through the bottom, he wrapped his arms underneath, carried it over to the foot of the stairs, and set it down on the floor. He sat down on the first step, sighed, removed the picture from the top, and gingerly placed it beside him on the stairs. Just then he heard the basement door open. He felt a tinge of guilt and quickly shoved the picture back into the damp box that held his high school treasures. His wife of thirty years stood at the top. "Hey, Ray," she called down. "What are you doing down there?"
   "Oh, nothing.  Just going through some old boxes that got wet." He hoped Jane hadn't detected the tremble in his voice. Clearing his throat, he turned around and shot her a forced grin. "Just some old papers I should have gotten rid of a long time ago. I'll be up in a little while. Ok?"
    "I'll fix lunch. Don't stay down there too long in that dampness. You know how your allergies act up when you get around mold." Softly she closed the door, and he heard her footsteps go into the kitchen. He turned back to the box and opened it again. His eyes fixed on the soggy letters under the picture. Removing the picture and placing it on the stairs beside him he reached in, took out the letters, and placed them on his knee. Some of the letters was stuck together with the wetness. He carefully  pulled one apart and began to read. His heart pounded in his chest as he read the words written long ago from the love of his life. He'd dreamed about her often only to awaken and find it was just a dream. A lump formed in his throat as he read her words to him.
     My Dearest Raymond,
          I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the dance. The way we held each other made me realize how much I love you. Perhaps it has taken me too long to realize it, but you are truly the one for me. The day would not be complete without you. You are my smile, my tears, my laughter, my heart, my soul, my love, my life.
        You are my everything. I never want to be without you. I want to grow old with you by my side. I love you now and forever...Then the page tore and he couldn't read any more. He opened another, took out the pages, but the paper shredded in his hand. As hard as he tried he could not make out a single word; the water had smeared every precious line. A knot formed in his stomach as he realized that nothing from the box could be salvaged. His high school diploma, his tassel, his year book — all would have to be destroyed, especially all the pictures of him and Emily. But how could he part with the picture of Emily and the stacks of letters she had written him? Gingerly he placed all the things back into the box, all except the eight by ten picture of her. He picked up the picture and looked into Emily's eyes. Through blurred vision he remembered the last time he had seen her.
     It had been at their high school reunion. He had walked in as eighties music blared from the speakers. Making his way through the crowd he spied his class gathered around a table draped with white tablecloths. He spotted his friend Joe sitting across the table from a girl who had her back to Raymond. Slapping Joe on the back he'd said, "Hi, old buddy." Joe quickly rose to his feet and they shook hands and embraced. Over Joe's shoulder Raymond recognized Emily sitting there. His heart speeded up and he felt his cheeks grow warm.
  "Have a seat Ray, you remember Emily from our class?" Joe gestured to the girl sitting across from him and the empty seat beside her. Raymond nodded, quickly pulled out the chair beside her and sat down. His knees felt weak and he laced his fingers together to keep them from trembling. He couldn't believe it was Emily, his love, sitting beside him. They looked into each other's eyes. Their expression frozen in a single moment in time. He wanted to speak but the lump in his throat was too big instead he swallowed hard. Their arms brushed and he felt the tingle of goose bumps rush up to his heart. She still held that appeal she'd always had. Her pale skin was still velvety and without a wrinkle even though it had been many years, and he longed to touch her cheeks with his fingertips.  The others at the table faded away and it was just him and Emily sitting there side by side. The sound of her voice made him feel eighteen again. She seemed at ease and talked about her marriage and their two children. She reached into her purse and pulled out a smiling picture of the four of them.
    "A nice looking family! Beautiful children." Raymond felt the sting of jealousy and told her about his marriage to Jane. They had three children, one boy and two girls. He let his gaze fall to the table. He wondered if she was happy and wanted to ask her, but he thought he had better not open that discussion.
    "Jane and I have been married twenty-two years," he said instead. "She's a teacher at the elementary school here in Hudson." He went on to tell her that he had graduated from college and taken a job as a bank manager, and that he'd been in the same position since graduating. "I guess I'm a creature of habit." A nervous silence hung between them as the servers placed their plates on the table. They were quiet for awhile as they ate their dinner. Then they chatted about old friends and wondered about classmates that they hadn't seen in so many years. Soon the reunion was over. Emily rose from her chair and reached her arms around his neck for a quick hug. Raymond swallowed back the emotion he felt. It was clear that she had decided to move on with her life. She let go and held his hands in hers.
    "It was good seeing you Raymond, take care." Emily's smile traveled up her cheeks to her eyes and her touch seemed to come easily. She turned and walked away. Raymond watched her long blonde hair bounce down her back and the way her skirt swished against her shapely legs. He exhaled hard, wanting to run after her and tell her he was sorry for the things he'd done when they were young. He wanted to explain that he had to marry Jane. He had to, it was just a drunken one night stand but she was pregnant and he was responsible. What else could he do? But instead he stood and watched her go. She turned and waved, he smiled and waved back.
  The basement door opened and Jane called down. He jumped as the memory broke apart.
  "Honey, lunch is ready. I fixed your favorite; open faced roast beef sandwiches. Come on now before it gets cold. After lunch I'll come down and help you sort through those things." Her voice was soft and tender.
  Raymond stuffed the picture and letters back into the damp box, climbed the stairs, and went down the hallway to the bathroom. As he walked back up the hall he saw Jane coming up the basement steps. Their eyes locked and Raymond felt his heart catch and tumble to the floor. He sucked in a slow breath, and an awkward silence stood like a wall between them. Had she looked inside the box? Did she see the picture? Did she read his letter? He tried to read her face and found her gaze held a deeper look than he'd ever seen before. He ran his hand through his hair. "What were you doing down in the basement. I thought you said lunch was ready."
    "I went down there to get a jar of canned peaches for dessert." Looking down at her hands, she averted her eyes and went into the kitchen. Standing at the stove, she took a settling breath, pushed her shoulders back, and stood up straight. She spooned the gravy and roast beef over slices of sour dough bread. Raymond took his favorite chair at the table and a pit formed beneath his heart. She placed the plates of roast beef in front of them and took her chair on the other side of the table. He braced himself for her blow. "Remember the kids are coming over tonight for dinner," was all she said. "We should try to have the basement cleared out before they get here." She sighed. "I've missed them since they moved across town." She sat up straight, offered up a smile, and placed her hand over Raymond's. He felt a stab of guilt and a layer of perspiration broke out across his brow. He wiped his face with his napkin.
  "I'm glad Joseph made it through his bout with Limes disease. That was a touch and go situation. I shudder to think of how that could have turned out. It was one of God's miracles. Good thing we had each other to hold us up and get us through." She gave his hand a slight squeeze. "Shall we give thanks?" She drew a sharp breath and lifted her chin. Taking his other hand in hers she bowed her head. Raymond's throat was dry and it was all he could do to sit there.  He wanted to jump up and leave the room. He shifted in his seat. Instead he bowed his head. Emily's face flashed in his mind again and again.
    "Dear Heavenly Father, bless us so that we may never surrender to whatever challenges come our way. Fill our hearts with love for each other, and may you make each one of us realize each other's worth. We seek for your mercy and blessing that you may allow us to spend the rest of our lives with each other. Lead us not into temptations. Guide us wherever we go. Always put us in each other's heart and mind. Thank you for this food and for letting us keep Joseph. We just praise you. In Jesus' name Amen."
     Her words were the faintest whisper across his soul and her voice was thick as if she wanted to cry. He slumped as her words ripped their way through his heart. Looking up, he swallowed the lump in his throat. A realization dawned in the deepest parts of his heart that he truly loved this women sitting opposite him. The woman who had stood by him all these years through good times and bad. Tears glistened in his eyes.
     Jane searched his face curiously, "What's wrong, Ray?"
     "It's just that...that I love you so much." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat.
      Jane stood, leaned over, and planted a feathery kiss on his cheek. "Now eat your lunch before it gets cold." She sat back down in her chair, picked up her fork, and took a bite of roast beef.
       They ate, talked about the kids, what a mess the basement was in, and how in the world they were going to get it cleaned up. They finished eating and went down the stairs to the basement.
     "I'll get this one." Jane bent over to pick up his box.
      "No I'll get it." Raymond touched her arm, picked up the box, and carried it out to the dumpster. He lifted the box over the top and watched it fall to the bottom. Emily's picture rolled out and landed upside down. For an instant a sinking feeling filled him, as if the wind had been knocked out of him. A glimmer of gold twinkled in the sunlight and he stared down at his wedding band on his left hand for a long moment. Gently he twisted it on his finger, smiled, and headed back inside to be with his wife.
Jenny Sturgill

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