We’ve had 40 great years together. But tonight will be our last. My wife doesn’t know yet. The least I can do is make it memorable.
I walk through this antique shop, looking for the perfect goodbye gift, and take a deep breath. The must of these old things tickles my nose. Fresh lilies sit in a crystal vase next to a case of cameos and Victorian rings. I think of her.
She is my life. It hasn’t always been perfect, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The intricate golden metalwork of the rings entrances me but the reflection in the glass jolts me back to reality. Gone are my strong muscular frame and handsome jawline. I’ve got more wrinkles than I care to admit to and a paunchy gut — thanks to her rich cooking. Too much time has passed.
She complains of her grey hairs. Her petite body has more curves now than she’d like. But her grey only reminds me of the strength of our love and the curves are but more of her for me to love.
True love isn’t perfect. How could it be? It’s messy, it’s higher than the highest mountain and lower than the deepest canyon — frequently at the same time. The world does everything it can to test if it’s for real. It takes the love of a good woman to know that. I have it and I wouldn’t change it for riches, power or even a new Silverado.
My wife says I changed her life. That’s not right. She taught me true love exists. She sacrificed her life so we could be together. She refused to give up on us when the job and the house were gone, and all we had left was love. I’ll do anything for her. Maybe, in the end, I’m being punished for loving her too much.
The store clerk conjures up a warm smile. “Mr. Johnson,” he says.
“Jack,” I say. “Mr. Johnson was my father.”
He pulls out the sterling silver case, the locket inside. It was years ago that I last ran my fingers along its smooth casing — when I first gave it to her. The memories flood back and I turn away from the clerk. Don’t go soft on me now, Jack. The locket was lost to me forever. And yet here it is. It’s perfect, just like her.
I’ve handled the arrangements. My wife is financially set — I made sure of that. Tommy, Hayden and Mason will have it the hardest. Strong woman that she is, though, she’ll keep our kids together. She’s always been our glue.
How do I tell her we won’t be together forever? I’ve been practicing for months now, but nothing sounds right.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her eight months ago when Dr. Patrick gave me the results over the phone. God, I don’t want to leave her. She’s been through too much pain as it is.
How do you say goodbye to your soulmate? How do you look her in the eyes one more time knowing it’ll be the last?
I keep my promises to my wife. But I promised to grow old with her and now I have to break that one. We met when I was young, strong and handsome, so my real question is: will she stay with me until the end?
I close my eyes. Soft classical music rolls over me in idyllic waves, the strings rising and then falling, stubbornly falling. It wasn’t like this the first time I met her — the woman who would change my life forever.
“Stay away from her.” His father slammed his bible closed.
“But, Dad, what they say about Julianna isn’t—” Jack locked eyes with his father and the air congealed. He was nineteen now, scrawny for sure but just as tall as Pastor Johnson’s six feet and five inches. One glance at those dark eyes though, and he was a child again. He tensed his arms and straightened his shoulders. Dad had cowed him before. Not this time.
Why? The question screamed behind his eardrums. But he knew better than to ask it.
The old man should be happy that he was helping the young woman prepare for the storm. Just last week, he told him for the ninety-ninth time that he needed to move on and meet a nice girl. With two years since Desiree, maybe he was right.
His father never approved of their relationship, much less their engagement. Desiree came from a world of wealth, and her parents didn’t much care for him either.
But they didn’t see what the two of them saw. They didn’t feel what the two of them felt. They were soulmates. The world tried everything to split them apart and nothing worked — until death.
No, Jack couldn’t move on, no matter what his father said. Not a day went by that he didn’t think of his Desiree.
His father opened his mouth and Jack clenched his fist. He’d put up with enough of the Pastor’s grumblings. But Desiree’s face came back to him. The sad mouth. The compassionate eyebrows. Once a week, she’d asked him to work on his relationship with the old bible-thumper.
That was the only reason he didn’t punch his father square in the nose right now. He’d promised her. She was more compassionate and forgiving than him. Therein lay only the barest inkling of the beauty that was Desiree.
It was supposed to be a romantic getaway. She’d always begged him for a trip to the French Quarter in New Orleans. They’d planned it all out: a stroll along the Moon Walk, oysters for dinner, drinks by candlelight and then a carriage ride back to a quiet cottage for an early night.
But Katrina hit.
His father turned his back on him and set to scribbling his Sunday sermon. Jack’s stomach cramped up.
This was their third small town in two years and this small pea home they’d given him wasn’t much. They’d once had family though. Sparse framed photos hung on the damp oakwood walls. They were the closest thing to a real home that remained. There was a time when he and his father were close, but those days were long gone.
Pastor Johnson was lucky, he could escape into the fantasy that was his religion but Jack had lost all faith some time ago. If there was a god, he wouldn’t have taken his Desiree away.
She was too good for this world and not a day went by when he didn’t think of her.
They met when they were only six years old. In her, he found his best friend, his partner, his soulmate. Distance separated them at times, but fate always stepped in and brought them back together. They became inseparable.
Atop the Ferris wheel the night of their first kiss, he looked into her blue eyes and grinned. “I’m going to marry you one day, Desiree.”
She laughed. It was that unique high-pitched chuckle that only she had. She didn’t say yes. But he knew she would.
He just didn’t know it would take two years. He found her and he proved he was no longer a boy, but a man. He won her heart. The ring on her finger proved all of that — until the storm came and took it away. They said ’till death do us part, but even death couldn’t stop his love for her.
Julianna was beautiful. But move on from Desiree? Never. Why was his father so hell-bent against her? He’d promised to help the young woman fix her home for the coming storm. If there was one thing Jack was, he was a man of his word.
She knew things only his Desiree knew.
It was a long day fixing her roof. Jack only wanted to step inside for a quick, cool drink. But, honestly, he didn’t know the last time he’d tasted a home-cooked meal. It was just nice to be taken care of for a moment.
He paced the fraying shag carpet of the cramped living room. He didn’t want to be alone with another girl. It just didn’t feel right, no matter that Desiree was dead and buried. It was like cheating on her memory. And maybe she was watching him from somewhere.
His father said she’d want him to move on, but he didn’t believe it. They’d never exchanged the words, but in his heart, they were very much still married. He just wished he’d gotten the chance to say goodbye. There was so much he wanted to say to her.
Julianna, in a way, reminded him of his Desiree. Jack smiled at the lovely young woman. She was by far the friendliest person he’d met in town. Everyone else was consumed with busybody activities.
Candlelight illuminated her dark hair and dark brown eyes. Her place was simple, barely above what he’d call a shack, but thanks to her it was homey. A woman’s touch — something he’d almost forgotten the importance of. He never knew a house to be a home without it.
If he were in the market for a woman, Julianna — feisty and coy as she was — would definitely make the cut. He’d had a couple too many glasses of wine, but he needed to forget the world tonight. She was just as lonely as him, up on that hill in that shack she called home. And that wasn’t by accident. Jack didn’t want to dig into her business — why the people in town treated her like a black sheep — but the curiosity ate at him.
There was a kinship between these two souls. Jack felt it from the beginning, though he couldn’t put his finger on why. It was just nice to meet someone who was genuine. Even so, he kept his mouth shut about Desiree. He was a man of few words as it was. When he spoke, it was low. It was slow.
He had a lot in common with his old Labrador, Bruno. He took that dog everywhere his truck went. He was Desiree’s dog, actually. She’d loved Bruno so much he had to come to their wedding — the wedding that never happened. The dog survived the storm when Desiree did not.
She’d called out to him in her last moments, the locket bouncing on her chest. He couldn’t afford a real wedding ring. But she said she’d treasure it forever, that it was more than enough. God bless her heart.
Bruno licked Julianna’s slender arms and she laughed. He wasn’t like that with everyone. She liked him, he liked her — and Bruno was about the best judge of character Jack knew.
He needed a real friend — someone he could talk with about everything he’d kept bottled up inside since the funeral. “How do you expect to meet someone nice if you talk about your dead fiancée all the time,” his father always said, so he’d learned to keep her inside, like a secret.
Desiree watched over him. Jack knew it was true, even though he didn’t dare tell anyone that. That time when Bruno barked at nothing the same way he’d barked when he was happy to see her. That time when the air got still and he felt her touch on his neck. They could be coincidence. But he hoped they were her way of sending him a message.
Maybe it was just wishful thinking. He never told a soul, and certainly not his father, who would’ve said it was devilish hijinks.
Jack’s watch showed 2:13am. His wine glass was empty again, for at least the fifth time. But still he kept his mouth shut, despite Jualianna’s open-mouthed laughing at his bad jokes.
She opened up to him though. She missed her family, the people who’d rejected her. She’d made mistakes, and felt there was a scarlet letter printed on her. She was stuck, and couldn’t move on until she’d made amends.
Jack leaned forward and lifted her chin. Her eyes met his. “Nobody got the right to judge you,” he said in his deep baritone voice and country twang.
She blushed, looked down and looked up at him again, her eyes searching his.
He licked his lips and admired the gentle curve of her cheeks, the soft rise of her nose, the slender pink that was her lips. No. His heart was still with Desiree. He sat back and sighed.
He’d had this recurring dream of the last moment he’d seen her. She was trying to tell him something, but what? He he’d always wake up in a cold sweat before figuring it out.
The rich tomato and basil scent of lasagna filled his nostrils. He should head back home. His father would start asking questions about where he’d been. His mind was too jumbled as it was — he couldn’t handle another conflict.
Jack pushed back from the table. “I really should be—”
The angel cards were on the table and her crestfallen eyes stopped him cold. “Just a little fun before you go. It’s the least you can let me know for being a hearing ear tonight, and for fixing my roof.” She raised a helpless eyebrow and Jack was defenseless.
He sat back down, a mocking grin on his face. They were harmless fun, just general statements that could apply to anyone.
But then she said something only his Desiree and he knew, something about the locket.
It was just a coincidence. It had to be, and with just one question, he could prove it and move on with his life.
Bruno paced back and forth, the pitter patter of his paws echoing against the hardwood floor. Jack rolled over in bed again, the first light of dawn punching through his curtains. How could Julianna have known about the locket?
He replayed his exit last night in his mind. After she said it, he had to leave. He thanked her for the evening, mumbled something about the hour and rushed out of there, his mind spinning.
He pulled the soft blanket over his head, the one Desiree had bought him. He’d promised Julianna he’d be back to finish the roof but he couldn’t go now. It was too awkward.
But his integrity ate at him. He’d broken his promise once, and been living with the guilt ever since.
He had to show up. The storm would hit town any day now and he was still a couple days away from finishing up the roof and boarding the windows. It was a bad one, the news said, the worst in decades — and Jack knew firsthand how bad storms could be.
He looked up at the hot sun and wiped his brow before pounding more on the roof. Was it true that his Desiree had been trying to reach him all along, like Julianna said the night before? He’d been under a thick cloud of depression, that was true. But so much that he couldn’t see what was right in front of him?
That was hard to believe, but the thought of his fiancée, lost and confused out there, trying to reach out to him in any way possible… It made his heart hurt. Was he suffocating her calls to him? He had a right to be sad, but that would be selfish. And how could he be selfish with his beloved Desiree?
Jack arrived early the next morning, the determination to maintain his distance clear even through the early morning haze. Julianna greeted him and he dipped his cowboy hat at her. Bruno’s whines battled the screeching katydids in the trees. Julianna put out a bowl of water for him, and Desiree’s dog paced in the shade, first slurping a generous drink, then hopping in Jack’s pickup truck and out again, restarting the nervous cycle once more.
Jack was always polite to her. He didn’t want to let on just how much their conversation bothered him. But the questions ate at him like maggots on rotting flesh.
He couldn’t hold it in any longer. He descended to her door and barely grunted a hello. “I just want to know one thing. If Desiree really did say all that about the locket, then how’d she pass.”
‘Die’ was not a word in his vocabulary, at least not when it came to his beloved Desiree. It was final. And there was nothing final about Desiree — she was very much alive, at least in memory.
The younger woman stuttered. Jack didn’t know if he’d shocked her with the question or if she was offended by being put to the test. Her eyes searched the gravel road behind Jack as if the answer lay there.
A smirk spread across his face and his shoulders relaxed. It wasn’t real. It was just a lucky guess. Part of him was disappointed. He longed to reach out to Desiree, to have just one more shot at connecting with her. But it was best this way. “I better put the tools in the truck. I’ll be back tomorrow to finish it all up.” He headed toward his pickup.
“She says she drowned. Was there a flood of some sort?” Julianna asked.
Real men don’t cry, his father always told him. But Jack’s tears of happiness flowed anyway.
So many questions he had for Desiree as he sat across from Julianna at the kitchen table. A fresh, cold glass of lemonade sat in front of him, but he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t swallow. This moment was everything.
Jack didn’t know where to begin. He wanted to seize the moment, to tell Julianna something to say to her. But the joy was too big. The words didn’t fit.
“She can hear you fine.” Julianna’s eyes sparkled and she squeezed his hand. “She says she loves you. She misses you. She’s never stopped loving you.”
“Tell her, ‘me too.’ I love you too, baby.” He took a sip of the lemonade to ground himself.
“She wants to know if you’re taking care of… Who’s Hershey?” She scrunched her eyebrows in confusion.
His hand froze and he swallowed hard. “That’s what she called Bruno.”
Julianna chuckled and Jack pulled Bruno’s face close to him. “You hear that boy? She sees you, too.”
It was a dream come true. Desiree and Jack were picking up where they left off before her death. He told her of how he was taking care of Bruno, keeping the dog always at his side. He told her he’d finish getting his electrical engineering degree, just like she’d wanted. That he was trying to be the best man he could be — in honor of her.
Jack never thought he’d have a chance to communicate with his Desiree again and his energy ran in hot and cold spurts, not knowing what to make of this new chance. Through Julianna, he laughed and he cried reminiscing with her about old times, things only his Desiree would know. There was the time he’d gone to the gym with a big hole in his crotch or their social studies teacher with the weird neck tick or the time they’d gone to Red Rock outside of Las Vegas just the two of them. Jack didn’t have to say anything. He only confirmed with his smile — and eventually his tears — the truth of Julianna’s statements.
Julianna enjoyed it too, laughing at the comments she said his Desiree was making. It was as if she loved living vicariously their lives. But it grew late and Julianna sagged in her chair. “I’m sorry, Jack,” she said from behind darkening eyelids. “I’m losing the connection. Let’s try again tomorrow after you finish up the roof?” She managed a weak smile.
The lights flickered and her radio crackled on. The sad, slow guitar of “The Thunder Rolls” came on — his fiancée’s favorite Garth Brook’s song. Chills sparked in his shoulders and that spot between his eyes tightened.
He nodded. “I—” His throat seized up and he tried to clear it. “I just want to say—”
“No.” She grinned. “Thank you. I just want to make people happy. I know what it’s like to lose someone you…” She looked away and Jack didn’t push it.
He hated leaving that evening but he needed to get back home to his father before the old pastor started asking questions.
Julianna was a fraud and Jack’s father handed him the evidence to prove it. Jack stared at the newspaper, reading and rereading the passages. He gripped the water-soiled paper in his hands and his eyes trailed through page after page. Julianna had conned so many people out of their money. They’d even brought her up on charges, but she always got away on a technicality.
Jack’s father towered over him, his hands on his hips. He took a deep breath, the room spinning around him. It couldn’t be possible. Only he and Desiree knew the intimate details Julianna had recounted to him.
“People like her knew just what to say. I told you to stay away from her. ‘Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.’ Leviticus 19.31.” The pastor’s booming voice echoed behind him, adding insult to injury.
Bruno howled as if in protest and the old pastor swatted him on the backside. “Shut up, Bruno.” The dog growled as if mumbling and threw himself to the floor by Jack’s side, his eyes ever-vigilant on the pastor.
Jack pinched his brow. He was a fool. Feminine beauty and a con artist’s fake sincerity were all it took to trick him. He was lonely. He was weak. His stomach roiled and he wanted to scream.
“You always fall for the wrong girls,” his father said. “First that fiancée of yours and now—”
Jack shot to his feet and headed for the door. Another word to disrespect his wife and he would lose control. He’d punch his father in his self-righteous nose and he’d have broken his word to Desiree again. His soul rebelled at the idea. He was honor-bound to repair his relationship with his father.
Outside, in the midday sun, Jack stewed on Julianna. The heat rose to his head and he mock-punched the peeling aluminum siding. She needed money, that he understood. But to use his Desiree, his most precious memories, all he had left of her, to con him out of money?
A cool wind blew from the ocean. True, Julianna never asked him for money. But maybe his father was right. Maybe it was only a matter of time. Maybe this was a long con. Jack wasn’t sure about anything right now except for one thing: he was giving her a piece of his mind first thing tomorrow morning.
It was the sound of his Desiree’s voice coming from Julianna’s mouth that made him stop mid-sentence.
It started when she told him she didn’t have the money to finish the house repairs. Jack did his best to control his temper there, in the heat of the summer sun, but he’d wished he’d gone with his first instinct of just leaving and not saying anything to her, ever. He felt taken advantage of — there were no two ways around that.
But he had to defend Desiree’s honor. He’d stop at nothing to do that. He swatted at the mosquitos that punished him for his rage. “Shame on you,” he said to her.
A lone tear trailed from her face even as her eyes flared angry. She opened her mouth but no words came out.
“How dare you take advantage of innocent people like that?”
“But I didn’t. It’s not true, none of it.”
Jack stared at her sideways. He didn’t want to believe her. It wasn’t just that she’d disrespected him. She’d disrespected the very memory of his fiancée. He’d miss their budding friendship, but he needed to move on with is life. He turned to walk away.
Desiree’s voice sounded behind him. “Please, don’t leave me.”
Jack’s heart stopped. He shook his head. No, it was just his overactive imagination. Rage flared in him, both at himself and Julianna. He turned to see the whites of Julianna’s eyes, and his anger evaporated.
Her elbows moved at odd angles, her head rolled back and her body jerked as if being struck by some force. “Is this a joke to—”
“You promised not to leave me behind. You promised you’d never forget me,” said his wife through Julianna.
Julianna’s dark brown eyes turned into Desiree’s crystal blues and that familiar and unmistakable high-pitched chuckle that came from her mouth.
Jack rocked back and forth, his eyes blinking and tears forming. He dropped to his knees before her and grasped hold of her hands. Somehow, someway, Desiree had come through to him from the other side. There was no mistaking that now.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Any moment that Jack could get to Julianna’s home and speak to his Desiree, he did.
He spent most of the summer helping his father at his church. If he was honest, it wasn’t just to keep the pastor’s suspicions at bay about the hours he’d spend away from him and the dinners he’d miss. No, it was also maybe to thank God for bringing him back his Desiree.
It wasn’t easy keeping the ever-vigilant eyes of the town busybodies from catching him with her. The town was small but the mouths were big. Personally, he didn’t care what anyone thought. But he had to protect his father’s job and keep the hounds from harassing Julianna.
He couldn’t thank the young woman enough. Fixing things around her house was the least he could do. She never asked for a penny. She said she kept the lights on by driving to the big city on the weekends and giving readings at the flea markets. Even so, whenever Jack could, he’d use the money he earned over the summer helping his dad to make sure her refrigerator was stocked and fresh flowers were cut. He also left sweet notes about how grateful he was to her.
Giving to her was like giving to his wife. Seeing her eyes light up at the kind things he’d do for her was like seeing his wife’s eyes light up. Whenever he saw Julianna’s dark eyes turn to his wife’s blue, it was like having her back, if only for a moment. And he treasured each of those moments.
It was like old times, and Jack thanked God every day for the chance to reunite with her. He and Julianna drew closer, too. She told him that her husband who had beat her left her the house before the old son of gun had gotten in a car crash with a tree. She told him how she longed to return to her family — but that they’d cast her aside when they learned of her angel card readings. She told him of her dream to travel the country one day, hand in hand with someone she cared about, someone who wouldn’t judge her, someone who would let her be her and support her — someone she could build a life with. There were times when she’d start to say something, but hold back and Jack didn’t push her, but it only made him want to know her more.
He showed her how to shoot his rifle, and she showed him how to cook. He showed her how to defend herself, and she showed him how to dance without stepping on her toes. Truth be told, she was the best friend he’d had since he met Desiree and he treasured every moment he had with her.
She wasn’t always able to connect with Desiree. She had horrible migraines at times that blocked her from connecting to the spirit world. Those were the times when he’d find himself massaging her temples or her shoulders as she leaned her head against his chest.
They became close, so close in fact that he realized she wanted more than just friendship. That put him in an awkward position. Not that she wasn’t beautiful because she was breathtaking and kind and funny and generous — but Jack had made a commitment to his Desiree and nothing could stop that. Nothing. Ever.
They were going to kill her. His father called it an exorcism, but if Jack didn’t do something Julianna would be dead in the church basement.
Jack and Julianna had planned on having dinner together that evening. She said she’d meet him in Beaverton since she had run a few errands in the area anyway. Not like there were any good restaurants near them. And it was the least he could do for her birthday after she’d done so much for him.
He waited for hours at the Mexican restaurant she’d picked out. At first, he just thought her errands were taking longer than expected. But it wasn’t like her to not answer her phone and certainly not like her to stand him up. Something was wrong, Jack just knew it.
Thunder rumbled and lightning struck in the distance. Jack drove up and down the main street, lit only by the occasional street lamp, to see if her car had broken down. But something told Jack to head back to his town.
He drove into the night, occasional flashes of lightning illuminating the darkness. The old country road curved this way and that, up the hill. There at the top, the steeple of his father’s church stood above the town, its weather vane spinning wild in the chaotic wind.
He sat in his truck for a while, the windows cracked open, the wet stormy air distracting him from the creeping sense of anxiety. The church was quiet, dark, shuttered. He didn’t know why he was there. He put his hands on the keys and turned.
A scream broke through the wind and lightning cracked, too close. He threw himself out of the truck, and ran up the front steps. He pulled on the door and the chains rattled on the inside.
He jumped off the side of the wide front staircase and pulled open the storm cellar. He tripped his way through the musty dark, past rows of seats in the auditorium and into bare, concrete back of the church basement.
Cloaked in his black and blue pastor’s robe, the bible in one hand a knife in the other and surrounded by other pastors, his father chanted chilling words, words Jack had never heard before.
Jack tip-toed up behind them and in the glare of a harsh overhead light, caught sight of Julianna, strapped to a chair.
That’s when he knew they were attempting an exorcism.
She screamed, and the tiny cuts on her forearms told Jack that knife wasn’t just symbolic. Her eyes met his and he knew there was only one choice.
Leave and come back in with his rifle pointed at these men. “Son, what are you doing?” his father asked.
“Let her go or I swear to God—”
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain,” his father yelled. “Especially not here.”
“If this is God, I want no part of it.” Jack went around them, the rifle still pointed at them and untied Julianna.
“Isn’t this just like you to get involved with the wrong kind of woman again,” his father said.
Jack pointed the rifle at his foot. “Say one more word about the woman I love and I swear I’ll blow your feet off.”
The old man backed off. Jack would never let him bully him again.
He draped her in his arms and carried her out of the church. He placed one foot, then the next on the narrow, rickety stairs out of the basement and into the raging storm outside. He leaned his mouth to her ear. “I’ll never let anything happen to you again. Never.”
It was his mission and responsibility to protect her. He’d stay with her as long as she needed him, no matter what it took, no matter what it cost.
Going back to her home was out of the question. Jack didn’t have much money, but he gathered what little remained and drove her to the next town. He checked her into a rundown motel off the main highway. He needed time to figure out what to do.
She refused to go to the hospital, asking him only to hold her. That he did, the whole night, staying with her for days as she slowly began to open up.
Julianna could barely speak, let alone connect with Desiree. He was concerned about the young woman’s well-being, but he also wondered if this was the end. Would he never connect with his wife again?
He wasn’t just protecting Julianna, he was holding onto what he had left of his Desiree. Julianna was his one and only connection to her and he’d guard that with his life. He had to.
This place was only temporary. They were on the run now. His father would send the cops after them. He’d press charges for bringing a firearm into the church. Julianna was ready to leave that town anyway, but she couldn’t decide between returning to her parents in Wyoming or just leaving the country altogether.
She was done doing readings for people, she said, if this was the damage it caused. But Jack couldn’t accept that. She helped people. At the very least, she gave them hope. Love doesn’t end at death. It lasts forever. Nobody could deny that now, not after spending time with her like he had.
And even if he never could speak to his wife again, he’d always remember what she’d done for him.
He didn’t want her to go, and it wasn’t just because he’d lose his Desiree again. He was responsible for what had happened to her now. He wanted to protect her. He cared about Julianna now. And it scared him.
Beads of rain tapped against the motel’s window and the wind whistled through a narrow crack in the wall. She lay on his chest and he pulled her closer. She turned on the radio, and Desiree’s song came on the air. He lifted Julianna’s chin and her eyes turned blue.
“Dance with me,” his wife’s voice said.
A lone tear trailed down the tough cowboy’s face. “Don’t ever leave me again,” he said.
She was gone now. A dreamy haze came over him when she was here, but he was back in cold reality now. Julianna lay her head on his chest, but all he could think about for the last thirty minutes was their feet shuffling across the worn motel rug to the song. Jack had closed his eyes, his left hand entwined with hers, his right hand at the small of her back, and he was back with his Desiree again.
But the power went off and, with it, the lights and radio. Illuminated only by the reflection of the wan street light, there was no doubt in his mind. This was not his Desiree that he was dancing with.
Juliana’s dark eyes searched his, and the guilt consumed him.
He broke from her and she frowned at him, her eyes downcast. “Where is she?” he asked. “Is she gone?”
“Can you get her back, just a little while longer?” His voice broke and his breath stuck in his throat.
“I can’t.” She looked away and moved toward the window, her back to him in the dark.
“You can’t or you won’t?” he whispered.
Her eyes met his, and she smiled through the tears. “We could be happy together, you and me. Why do you need her anymore? You’re the only one I trust. Ever since my son. I killed him you know. I held him under water so the cancer wouldn’t… He was suffering so much.”
His jaw dropped.
“And you let go. She told you to take the helicopter rope, to save yourself when the flood waters came. You could have saved her. You could have come back for her but you didn’t.”
“How did you…?” It was like bandage had been ripped off his wound. It stung and it felt true at the same time.
“We’re the same, you see? We understand each other. Why don’t you want to be with me?” she asked, her smile weak and vulnerable.
He found stability in the rickety desk chair, his hand gripping the cold metal edge. She’d grown too close to him. This was his fault. He could have stopped it. But she must have understood just how important his connection with her was. “I can’t do that, Julianna.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?” she asked with an edge to her voice.
“Won’t.” He crossed his arms, his face hardening.
“She wasn’t going to marry you, you know? She was going to marry someone else until he broke up with her,” she said through gritted teeth, her arms crossed.
“You’re lying.” He didn’t want to hear it, he couldn’t, though he’d had a feeling she’d seen someone else when they’d been apart all those years.
“You know it’s true.” She hurried to him and kneeled, her eyes pleading.
“I don’t care. What we had was real and nothing in the past is going to change that.”
She gasped as if his words were like stabs to her heart and sat back against the bed, her long hair covering her face.
He needed air before he said more that he regretted. “Be back,” he mumbled, and opened the door.
He never got to say goodbye. Jack stepped back into the motel room after hours cooling off, and he knew from the moment he saw Juliana’s silhouette slumped on the bed — she was gone.
Julianna opened her eyes. Those dark eyes were gone, replaced by Desiree’s blue ones. He wrapped his arms around her, his lips gripping hers, an electrical storm of emotion welling up in his gut.
“I’m sorry I didn’t go back for you, I’m sorry I didn’t—” he started. He’d given his word that he’d come back for her, but when he did, she’d disappeared, submerged beneath the dark waters.
“I told you to save yourself, to live for the both of us.”
He nodded, fighting the tears in vain, the salty drops burning his cheeks. She took his head in her hands and laid it on her lap. She stroked his head.
“What happened to her?” he asked.
“Julianna’s not coming back. She said you’d given her more love and support than anyone ever had and for that, the least she could do was give me back to you.”
Jack’s eyes met hers. A twinge of guilt tore at his gut. He couldn’t love Julianna the way she wanted.
She’d sacrificed her body, her mind, so they could be united. The gratitude, the magnitude of her sacrifice, overwhelmed him. He hoped it would never leave him.
Forty years together of bliss, of ups and downs, we had. And yet, as I stepped into the living room that evening to give my wife her final gift, my heart pounded.
I didn’t need to say a word. I pulled up the chair and opened the box for her, the locket swaddled in cloud-white cotton. Her blue eyes met mine and she nodded. “It’s okay,” Desiree said.
She walked to the kitchen drawer and pulled out a prescription bottle. I didn’t want to see the label. “We won’t suffer. We’ll just sleep and when we wake up, we can be together again on the other side.”
I took her face in my palms and our lips met for one last time. For forty years, I’d waited for this moment.
Forty years to be reunited with my one and only love.