Kimberlee EsselstromOur eyes met after seeing the dark brown twig on the light beige carpet. Daniel picked it up.
The first words out of my mouth were gibberish—my grandmother’s favorite word.
“I bought two chocolate bars—neighbor girl bringing my change—going for a run—pork loin marinating—put it in the oven?” Gibberish flowed like beer at a high school party. I dashed up the wooden staircase.
The shoelace snapped when I pulled on my ancient Adidas. A knot formed in my stomach as I tied the frayed ends.
Daniel’s silhouette filled the bedroom doorframe. He set the leafless inch-long shoot on the dresser next to my wedding ring. “Running on the trail?”
“You caught me.” My temples throbbed. “I know it’s not safe. I’m sorry.”
I descended the stairs two-by-two sensing Daniel’s steel-blue eyes pierce my shoulder blades. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
The doorbell rang as I stuffed my arms into my track jacket. I opened the door to the neighbor girl, no longer in her school uniform. She wore a princess t-shirt and jeans. “Here’s your money.”
She displayed a goofy gap-toothed grin that made my heart ache.
“Your house is cleaner than mine,” she said. Her brown eyes peered past my waist.
Not just clean, I thought. Sterile. We had no children to scatter Legos or leave Cheerios between the cushions of the couch. The expansive living room housed five items of furniture with simplistic Scandinavian designs. The twig had stood out like a lit Christmas tree.
I took the warm coins and crumpled bills from the girl’s moist hand and placed them in a bowl on the hall table. Her thick braid swayed like the tail of a pony as she pranced back to her yard. She turned and waved. I nodded and began my run.
My feet pounded a rhythmic pace as I considered my options. Confess or wait? For three long years I had stuck with the plan. Yet, one day each month I broke one of our rules. The secret was safe, until today. Daniel, a Hercule Poirot wannabe, would unravel this mystery using the twig as evidence. The fresh start we agreed to would be spoiled.
I jogged past rows of houses identical to mine—nothing like the character-filled farmhouse of our former life.
That first year of wedded bliss was exactly that. I learned to cook on a massive cast iron range. I grew vegetables and herbs. In the time it would take our child to go from the cradle to Kindergarten, my garden would be certified organic. Each morning, I plumped pillows and straightened rumpled quilts that covered our antique four-poster. I breathed in Daniel’s scent, reliving the love we shared the night before.
A minivan hauling pint-sized soccer players spewed gas fumes in my direction. Did Daniel still check the mileage on my car?
Our first week in the new development brought a parade of well-meaning women who traipsed up my sidewalk carrying welcome-to-the-neighborhood coffeecakes and fruit platters. I shooed them and their children away. I kept shooing. They stopped coming.
Three years later, I startled when the doorbell rang. So lonely, the neighbor girl could have sold me dead plants.
Back home, I grasped the railing to stretch my hamstrings. A familiar smell filled my nostrils, the same acrid odor that permeated my nightmares. I flung open the front door. Smoke billowed from the kitchen while detectors chirped.
Oh God, not again.
I swiped my arms through a thick haze only to discover a moon rock roast in an overheated oven.
“Daniel!” I raced up the stairs.
My husband’s stocking feet tangled in the white duvet. He rolled over and unclenched his hand. The twig left a crimson line on his palm. “I know where this came from.”
Why was he in bed with his suit on? The last time I saw Daniel cry . . .
I sat on the edge of the bed.
Daniel propped himself against the padded headboard. “This is the rose bush we planted when she was born.” He straightened his wrinkled tie then reached into his back pocket. “We both broke the rules.” He pulled out two photos. “I can’t let these go.”
The first photo was my farmhouse garden in full bloom.
Daniel ran trembling, burn-scarred fingers through his hair. “I go there too.” He held the second photo. “In my dreams I save Emma.” He stroked the worn edges of the last picture we had taken—Emma asleep in her stroller next to the rosebush.
That night, faulty wiring changed our lives.
My breath was loud and quick.
“We still own the land.” Daniel put the photos down and grabbed my hands. “Let’s rebuild.”
His tight grip made my fingers tingle.
“Not just the farmhouse—our life.” Daniel cleared his throat. “We were fools to think we could wipe the slate clean. This barren existence will never fill the void our Emma left behind.” He looked at the disheveled bed, then at me.
I was sweaty from my run and my windblown hair fell out of its band.
He tousled my bangs. “Life’s supposed to be messy.”
Shock, and then overwhelming relief left me speechless. But only for a minute. For the second time that day, the gibberish flowed.
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