“Molly get down,” I grumbled. Molly, our four-year-old Alaskan malamute mix, had a habit of climbing into the bed after Maria got up and left for the day.
My wife was a nurse, starting her shift before dawn on most days. Lately she’d been a little off, but women went through mood shifts all the time. We’d been married seven years. We met when she was in nursing school still. It wasn’t one of those love at first sight situations, but it was a hardcore like. I met her at the public library of all places. She was in the library studying and I was in there doing research for my second book.
I was a horror novelist. I started writing when I was twelve and knew instantly horror was my genre of choice. My dad had me hooked on the ridiculously stupid eighties horror movies. My first short story was about a boy, me, because I was twelve, running from a masked murderer. I watched way too many Jason movies.
I saw Maria’s big brown doe eyes and couldn’t stop myself from going to talk to her. She also had the prettiest smile I had seen in a long, long time. When I talked to her she seemed shy at first, but quickly warmed up. She was intrigued by the fact that I was horror writer, or a writer in general.
We had a fairly quick courtship. We were together three months before I proposed, and we were married within nine months.
Of course Molly didn’t move when I told her to. She decided since I was awake she would move over closer to me to nuzzle into my back. I loved the little shit. Maria and I got her when we found out Maria couldn’t have kids. Her mom thought it would be a good idea for us to have something to take care of since Maria wanted a baby so bad. We discussed adopting, and even finding a surrogate mother, but Molly sufficed.
I stretched, trying to push Molly away, but she took that as an opportunity to climb on me and rub her fuzzy face all over my chest. We spent most of our time together since I worked from home so she pretty much became my best friend, other than Clancy and Bobby. They were both dicks though, so Molly was the only one I claimed.
“Damnit, Molly,” I chuckled when her whiskers tickled me. I pushed her off to get up from the bed. She rolled over to watch me move around the room, trying to find something to wear, not that I needed something fancy. My office was three rooms away. I assumed Maria let her out to take a piss before she left so I didn’t worry about it. I had been contemplating getting her a doggy door, but she always had someone home to let her out.
I found a clean pair of jeans and an old Bruce Springsteen shirt before I went to the bathroom to turn on the water. As it warmed up I brushed my teeth. I was getting ready to shave when the house phone rang. Maria was usually the only one to call the house, and she rarely called so soon after leaving so I grabbed a towel to dry my hands as I walked out to the room to answer the phone.
“Hello?” I answered, looking out the window next to the bed.
“Eric, is that you?” It was a very distraught Amy Ludwig, a doctor friend of Maria’s, who worked in the same ER as my wife.
“Yeah, Amy? What’s wrong?” I had a bad feeling about the call.
“Are you sitting down?”
I wasn’t but I quickly moved to sit on the bed. I knew Molly could tell something was up by the way she rested her head on my thigh.
“I am… Amy, what’s going on?” I almost didn’t want the answer to that question.
She sniffled, which was big. Amy wasn’t the most emotional person because of the work she did. There was no room for attachment.
“Eric, I… Maria was brought in by ambulance this morning about an hour ago–”
I dropped the phone. I didn’t know if Amy noticed, but it made a very audible thud.
Why the fuck would she be brought in by ambulance?
I picked up the phone again. I had no clue how much time had passed but I could still hear Amy sniffling.
“What do you mean she was brought in by ambulance?” I asked quietly. “She’s okay, right?” Not being okay wasn’t an option.
“She was unconscious when she came in… severe head trauma… heavy blood loss… airbags failed… neck broken…” It was all spotty thanks to my pulse thudding in my ears. “I tried… I tried to revive her. She went into cardiac arrest and I couldn’t get her back…”
“What do you mean you couldn’t get her back!” I yelled, making Molly jump. “You’re a fuckin ER doctor. It’s your goddamn job to get my wife back to me!” I knew it was irrational to yell at Amy; all I could hear was that my wife was gone.
“Believe me, I tried,” Amy replied calmly in that fuckin’ doctor’s voice of hers. “We worked on her for more than fifty minutes–”
“What happened? Why… what caused the… trauma?” My body was starting to go numb.
“Car accident. She went off the road and hit a tree,” Amy told me.
That didn’t make sense. The roads weren’t slick. It hadn’t rained in over a month. Unless she swerved… Amy wouldn’t have that information. I was sure the cops would show up anytime.
“Where… sorry, you probably don’t know… Amy, she’s really… gone?” The numbness was taking over. I could barely feel the phone against my ear. Everything felt cold, like I was looking down at myself. I couldn’t explain it.
Then the doorbell rang. Molly’s head perked up
“Police should be there soon,” she said.
“I think they’re here,” I replied. “I have to go.” I got up to walk toward the stairs. I took note of the water was still running in the shower, but that was the least of my worries.
“If you need anything…”
“I know. Thanks, Amy.” I hung up as I walked down the stairs with Molly hot on my heels. I took a deep breath before I opened the door. Two uniformed officers were standing there. “Hello, officers,” I greeted them quietly.
“Yeah, you guys wanna come in?” I offered. I already had the shitty news.
“Please,” the officer nodded. He and his partner stepped inside when I let them in. They followed me to the living room. “I’m sorry we don’t have better news for you. This morning we were called out to Tremont Lane to respond to a traffic accident involving a navy blue Honda Accord belonging to Maria Cooper-Northman that went off the road. Your wife’s vehicle struck a tree and the airbags failed to deploy. She was extracted from the vehicle by fire and rescue, and taken to St. Catherine’s by helicopter. Mr. Northman, I’m sorry to inform you that your wife succumbed to her injuries. She died approximately twenty minutes ago.”
I knew it was coming, but it still hit hard hearing it a second time. I rubbed my face a few times. Molly walked up and nudged my arm. She was a smart dog; she knew when something was wrong.
“I… was… My wife is…” The tears finally started to trickle down my cheeks. I wasn’t sobbing but the emotion was overwhelming. “I have to call her mother,” I sniffled, wiping my cheeks. I knew I would have a million questions. I couldn’t think of one.
“We can make notification if you’d like,” the officer offered.
“She should hear it from me,” I replied. “Do you have anymore information about the accident? Was there anyone else involved?” I needed as many details as I could get.
“Mr. Northman, do you have any reason to suspect your wife may have wanted to end her life?” the other officer asked. It was more like an accusation to me.
“What?! No,” I growled. She had been in a down mood in recent weeks, but she wasn’t suicidal.
“Are you sure?” I swear I heard that asshole snort.
“Yes I’m fucking sure. What the fuck are you asking that for?” She had a goddamn accident and they’re asking about fucking suicide.
“Mr. Northman,” the non-dick cop said, “We’re asking because there’s no evidence at the scene to suggest your wife tried to avoid the collision.”
“What… so… you’re saying she… what are you trying to say?” I was a horror writer; I knew exactly what he was trying to say. Hell, one of my books a character tried committing suicide by… no. Maria was not suicidal.
“Right now we’re still investigating. The medical examiner will give us his report and that will help determine what happened,” he said.
“We’re going to need to have a look around here,” the other officer said and his partner gave him a dirty look.
“What the fuck do you need to look around for?” They had no reason to look through our things. My wife had just died. I didn’t need anyone snooping around.
“It can wait,” Not-A-Dick said.
“I just… I need to call her mom,” I repeated. The numbness, fear, and hurt were battling within me. I had no idea what was going on.
“We will need to speak with you some more but I understand you have arrangements to make. Here’s my card. I’ll be in touch once we get the results of your wife’s autopsy,” he promised. Detective Pryor was the name on the card.
“Thank you,” I nodded as I took his card. The officers started toward the front door, so I followed behind them. It was surreal to think my wife would never come home. It wasn’t right. Not at all.
The officer reminded me one last time that he’d be in touch as I closed the door behind them. I locked it and headed back up the stairs to turn off the shower. I had to call my mother-in-law. It was going to be the hardest call I ever had to make. It wasn’t fair. My wife was only thirty. She was too young to be gone. We had our whole lives ahead of us. How in the fuck was I supposed to go on without her?
“Mama,” a little voice whispered. Willa had awful morning breath but she was a fantastic alarm clock. “Mama eyes open please.”
I couldn’t help smiling at her request. Not much made me smile in the last few weeks. Willa was my saving grace. Without her I probably would have gone off the deep end, but I couldn’t afford to fall apart.
My eyes opened and there were her dark brown ones. Her curls were wild and sticking up all over the place. They were dark like her eyes; like her daddy’s. She was the spitting image of Alcide.
“There you are!” My baby cuddled close to me. “Where’s Daddy?”
My heart seized.
Willa still had the memory of a goldfish, so I had been telling her several times a day for the last nineteen of them that her Daddy had gone to heaven.
“Baby, Daddy went to heaven, remember? His brain got sick and he died,” I told her. My mom suggested I tell Willa he was sleeping but that was a horrible idea. Sure it had looked like he was sleeping in his coffin, but I didn’t want Willa getting confused about what death was.
There was no good way to explain a stroke to a toddler.
I could barely comprehend what had happened. Guys his age weren’t supposed to die and they definitely shouldn’t be dropping dead from a stroke. Alcide was only thirty-six. We were both Army brats until his dad retired and got into logging. My dad and his had met in basic training over at Fort Sill. Dad was from Louisiana and Jackson was from Mississippi. When Dad decided to retire, Jackson offered him a job at the logging camp. Al and I were sweethearts from the time I was fifteen. He was my first love and the only man I ever wanted.
My baby girl looked at me with sad, confused eyes. “I see him tomorrow?”
“No, baby,” I answered. The way her little lip trembled broke my heart.
“I want Daddy,” she sobbed.
Those tears were killer.
There was no comforting her either. I tried but I wasn’t who she wanted. If I was lucky, she’d be okay with Papa holding her for a while. Jackson was staying with me for the time being. It was mutually beneficial for us. I got help with Willa and he got to have a piece of his boy close to him.
I rolled out of bed and scooped up my sobbing daughter. Her tiny body wrapped around mine while she cried. I carried her out of the master bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen. Jackson was sitting at the island he and his son had built together. Alcide grew up to be a contractor and had built us our dream home. It was a fancy log cabin out in the woods. A gravel road led to our plot of land and we had a gorgeous view of the nature surrounding us. George, my retriever/beagle mix dog, came trotting over to check on his baby. If anyone loved Willa more than her dad and me, it was George.
“Oh, come here, Princess,” Jackson cooed, reaching out for Willa.
I peeled her off me and she went willingly to her grandpa. He was so good with her. Jackson never got impatient and he would play any game she wanted, whether it was tea party with her teddies, reading her fairytales or even beauty parlor. That big ol’ lumberjack had painted that squirming toddler’s toes at least a dozen times. He never complained and it was obvious he adored her.
“Want… Want Daddy,” she said through her tears.
“I know you do,” he replied sympathetically, rubbing her back. He didn’t try to explain where Alcide was. He simply tried to comfort her.
“Have you eaten yet?” I asked Jackson. He was usually up with the sun, just like his granddaughter.
“Just my coffee and some toast,” he told me. “Willa had some Cheerios, but not too many.”
“Willa, do you want some banana pancakes?” I asked. She could be easily distracted sometimes. She loved banana anything.
“Uh huh.” Those curls bobbed up and down.
“Maybe once you’ve had breakfast we can get dressed and take George to the park?” Jackson offered Willa.
The curls bobbed more. George whimpered at Jackson’s feet.
I started to pull ingredients out of the pantry while my daughter calmed down. She let Jackson wipe her nose and then she was off to play with her furry big brother.
“How are you holding up?” he asked once Willa was out of earshot.
“I’m okay.” I was able to get out of bed. That was good, right? Not that I could afford to stay in bed. The plan was for me to stay home with the baby. We were about to start trying for another when Al died. I couldn’t afford to not work and I had to figure out what to do with the construction company he was co-owner of.
“You know I’m always available if you need to talk,” he reminded me.
“I know, and I appreciate it. You’ve been so helpful the last few weeks, Jackson. I really have no clue how to repay you,” I said sincerely.
“Sookie, you’re family. This is what we do. Plus, it’s helpful to for me being around you girls, especially Willa,” he said.
“I know, I just… Thank you.” I didn’t know how to express my thoughts. Eventually he would go back home and I would be on my own. I knew that day was coming since he had a company of his own to get back to.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart,” he replied with a warm smile.
“I uh, I think I’m going to go through Alcide’s things today.” I had been putting it off but it needed to be done and I didn’t want to be one of those widows that couldn’t let go of her deceased husband. In ten years I didn’t want to be sorting through plaid shirts that had gone untouched for a decade.
“That’ll be good,” he nodded. “Do you know what you’re going to do with the things you don’t keep?”
“I’ll donate what no one else wants,” I answered. “I was thinking of maybe taking a few of his shirts and turning them into a quilt for Willa. Think she’d like that?”
“Are you kidding me? She’d love it,” he chuckled.
“With the winters here I figured it would be a nice way to keep him close to her.” I started to measure out ingredients while the griddle heated up.
“That’s a sweet thought, Sookie. She’s really going to love it when she gets old enough to understand where it came from.”
“Hopefully it lasts that long,” I smiled. I wasn’t ready to take off my wedding rings yet. Those were staying on for a while.
George started barking his head off, a sure sign the mailman was out at the mailbox. We were the first house on his route, so he was here early six days a week.
“George, that’s enough,” I said firmly, but he had never listened to me the way he did Al.
“George,” Jackson growled the same way Alcide did. George quickly shut his trap.
I got the pancakes cooking and topped Willa’s with a little peanut butter the way she liked them. She was getting pretty good at feeding herself considering her age. Her second birthday was coming up in three months. It was hard to believe so much time had passed already. It seemed like only yesterday she was coming home from the hospital. She was such a sweet baby, always smiling and she only cried when she needed something.
“Can you cut these by yourself or do you want Mommy to?” I asked Willa once she was strapped into her booster seat.
She was a pretty independent kid so usually she wanted to do it herself.
“I do it,” she answered.
I plated up some pancakes for Jackson and then myself. Willa did pretty good with cutting hers on her own. Her bravery, courage and curiosity were a blessing and a curse. I loved that she wasn’t afraid of trying new things but it was sometimes nail biting that kept me from swooping in to stop her or overprotect her. Like any other mom I didn’t want my baby to get hurt but I constantly reminded myself that I was robbing her of learning opportunities if I didn’t let her do things on her own.
Bumps, scrapes and bruises were a part of childhood but I wanted to keep it to a minimum. Alcide used to laugh at me when I’d suggest bubble wrapping Willa. He understood where I was coming from an one time he actually did it while I was upstairs taking a bath. In toddled my baby, giggling as she bumped into the vanity on her unsteady feet. Alcide had taken pictures of it and there was one of the two of them together from that day on his nightstand.
I tried not to think too much about the fact that Willa wasn’t going to remember how terribly she missed her dad. She wasn’t going to remember going to construction sites or helping him drive machinery. She was going to forget that he got up with her while she was teething and spent hours rocking her or pacing and that he would sing ‘Sweet Child ‘O Mine’ to her over and over again. There were thousands of little moments in her short time with him that she was going to forget. Al had given me a hard time for taking so many pictures and videos but I always thought to myself that I never knew when or where it might come to an end.
What I never seriously thought was that one of us was going to die. I knew it was possible. Car accidents happened, Al had a history of cancer in his family; it was what killed his mom. Cordelia Herveaux had been diagnosed with stage III pancreatic cancer that metastasized quickly. She had lived long enough to meet Willa, but she was gone four days later. It was a bittersweet time for all of us. Cordelia wasn’t my mom but I had known her most of my life and she loved me like a daughter. She was so excited to be a grandma and she was in love with her granddaughter. Willa was her namesake, after all.
After breakfast I cleaned up the kitchen while Jackson took Willa upstairs to get her dressed. Getting those curls tamed was up to me. She wouldn’t let anyone else comb her hair. It was understandable since the men weren’t very gentle about it. Both Alcide and Jackson had curly hair, but Jackson’s hair was much shorter and thinner. Al’s hair had grown out to just above his broad shoulders and was thicker like his mom’s had been.
Willa came running downstairs in her favorite Hello Kitty dress. She had picked herself the last time Grammy took her shopping. My mom spoiled her rotten and blamed my brother for not producing more offspring for her to share the wealth with. Whenever Jason complained about the frugalness of our childhood Mom would always say, “We were saving for grandchildren, darling.”
“You look so pretty!” I dried my hands and scooped up my toddler. Willa squealed with laughter when she got kisses on her face and neck at warp speed.
“No more, Mama!” she cried out after a minute.
I stopped the assault and took her to the bathroom to comb her hair.
“Did Papa change your diaper?” I asked.
“Uh huh,” she nodded.
Of course Willa fidgeted while I combed her hair out but it was worth it in the end. Wetting her hair reset her curls so they were springy as all get out. Jackson came down and I packed up some snacks and filled two of Willa’s cups with ice water for her. I helped him get the kid and the dog situated in the truck and then I waved at them as they drove away.
When I got back inside I went to the kitchen. It was barely ten o’clock but I grabbed a wine glass anyway. I was a thirty-three-year-old widow packing up my dead husband’s belongings. If that didn’t call for a glass or three of wine, I didn’t know what did. I tried to ignore the fact that the wine I was pouring came from the last trip Alcide and I took down to Sonoma for our tenth wedding anniversary. It was our first trip away from Willa for more than a few hours. I fell in love with a specific Bordeaux and we came home with a case of it. That was when we decided to try to get pregnant again.
It was a blessing and a curse not to have gotten pregnant again. The selfish part of me wished I had but deep down I knew it was for the better that I hadn’t. I took my anniversary wine and a roll of trash bags up to the bedroom with me and started the task I had been dreading. I had to start small, so the socks were first to go. The boxers followed, except for two pairs I had slept in on occasion because for some reason Alcide got crazy turned on by me wearing his clothes.
He was buried in the only suit he owned. It was the same suit he wore for his mother’s funeral and our daughter’s christening a few weeks after that. Two glasses of wine in I started wondering if it was disrespectful to put his things in trash bags.
Did it mean I thought he was trash?
Was I throwing him away?
“You’re going to end up on Hoarders if you stop now, Sookie,” I muttered.
Standing in the closet was overwhelming for me. I was surrounded by so much plaid and denim. I could smell his aftershave and if I closed my eyes… I fell sideways into the wall of his shirts and clung to them. I’d lost count of how many private breakdowns I’d had in the last two weeks. Most of the time I held it together pretty good but I had my moments. I wasn’t made of stone.
After I pulled myself together, I exited the closet. It was okay if I wasn’t ready for that step yet. I didn’t have to do it all at once, right? Little by little was okay. So I tied off the bag of socks, boxers and undershirts to take it down to the garage. I stopped at the office and contemplated what to do there. Al had lots of papers that were important to the business that I didn’t want to indiscriminately throw out. I made a mental note to buy banker’s boxes so I could pack them up and give them to Patrick – Alcide’s partner – to look over.
I sat behind the desk and started to rifle through the paperwork and stopped when I came to a key that was tucked into a random folder. I knew there was a wall safe in the office that was hidden behind a large print of one of our wedding photos. Alcide and I had participated in a German wedding tradition of sawing a log together and it was his favorite picture from the day. We were both so happy that day.
I carefully took the picture off the wall and set it aside. There wasn’t a key slot anywhere and the lock on the safe was digital. Our wedding date seemed too obvious a choice of combinations but I tried it anyway. No luck with that. I tried my birthday, his mother’s birthday, the first time we had sex… Of course it was Willa’s birthday that popped the lock.
The safe door swung open and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find inside. I reached in and pulled out a stack of envelopes. The deed to our home was in there, along with a copy of our marriage certificate and Willa’s birth certificate. Insurance policies were there too. We had taken out additional insurance after Willa was born. The money would go into a trust for her to collect on after she turned twenty-five.
I set the insurance papers aside to deal with those later and started to look at the envelopes. His name was handwritten on the front of them and the writing was obviously feminine. She even dotted the ‘i’ in his name with a heart. I knew it wasn’t his mother’s handwriting and it sure as shit wasn’t mine. I pulled a card from the first envelope and felt my stomach turn as I read it.
The heart knows when it has found its always…
I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have you in my life.
All my love is yours… forever.
You’re everything I never knew was missing in my life, baby.
Every day I love you more.
I can’t wait until it’s just you and me.
See you tonight xoxo,
What the fuck?
It didn’t stop there. There were almost two dozen similar cards in the stack. Who the fuck was Maria?
I dropped the stack of cards when I came across a photo of my husband on a beach at sunset with a bikini clad woman who had perky boobs and a flat tummy. They looked at each other like they were in love. My stomach turned and I stuck my head in the nearby trash can. I recognized the woman.
Maria was one of the nurses who had been in the emergency room the night Al had his stroke. She had walked in the room and right back out when she saw me. That was my husband’s mistress? Alcide was cheating on me?
No, it couldn’t be.
Al would never.
Maria was obviously nuts and Al was probably saving that crap as evidence of her delusional obsession with him.
When I stopped puking I packed up the cards, pictures and other stuff that I assumed was related to her and then grabbed my cell phone and car keys. She could have her crazy ass love letters back. I didn’t want them in my house but I wanted her to know I thought she was a scumbag. Yes, I was going to give her a piece of my mind.