She stood alone by his grave, as he would have wished. No other mourners bore witness to the box being slowly lowered into the ground. No flowers proclaimed his passing.
St. Anne’s was holding a memorial service on the other side of town, presumably so the good citizens of Serenity could say their last farewell to the city’s now-deceased manager. They’d begged her to come, but he wouldn’t have wanted them to gather in remembrance. Out of respect for his wishes, she’d politely refused their impolite insistence. When she drove by the church, large signs announced their service for him, the way the corner grocery store announced a sale on toilet paper. The only difference was: the store was at least sincere in their sentiment, and toilet paper at least served a purpose. There was no purpose in a memorial service given by the upstanding citizens of a town that had driven her husband to an early grave.
Long after his coffin was covered with freshly turned earth, she remained staring at the place where her heart lay buried, feeling like she could only leave the place if she consented to leave the best parts of her behind. It wasn’t something she was willing to do. She wasn’t sure if it was ever something she’d be willing to do.
They’d only been married a year when the call came.
Scott collapsed during a city council meeting. The heart that beat so loudly against her ear as she lay drowsing against his chest had betrayed them both. As he stood fighting for his principles, the traitorous organ had given up the fight.
All around him stood men who should’ve been able to help—four councilmen alone on the volunteer fire department—but try as they might, they couldn’t bring him back. They worked on her husband all the way to the tiny hospital, but Scott was already gone.
She was gone seconds later. Alive but not. Driven immediately into a state of such utter despondence, she barely registered when the city’s ambulance director offered to ease her pain with something from his kit. For an instant, she considered slipping into the unfeeling sleep he offered, but in the end, she refused. She never believed in better living through pharmaceuticals, especially not when it came to clouding her mind or her emotions. In the end, she didn’t need their elixirs anyway. Her whole being did an excellent job of numbing itself.
She wandered through the coming days doing exactly what needed to be done. Arrangements made, family contacted, her husband laid to rest in the tiny plot she picked out for him. Everything was finished.
Still she couldn’t move.
The wind whipped up out of the north, splaying her long brown hair across her face. Despite the heat of mid-summer, chill claws ripped through her light blouse. In her mind, she could see the first few flitters of snow drift to land on his grave and disappear against the warm earth.
Still she didn’t move.
When a hand gently touched her shoulder, she shifted only slightly, turning her head to look into a face worn by the wrinkles of time. One of the few faces in Serenity she could consider a friend, and the only one who came to honor her husband in the manner she chose. She acknowledged him with a nod and turned her eyes back to where Scott lay.
“He’s gone, Jillian. It’s time to go home.”
She nodded again, wanting to scream about her inability to leave, but unable to make words form in her raw throat. The old man took her hand, and gently pulled her away from her heart.
Lost in her own pain, Jillian didn’t notice the old man gently help her into his car. She didn’t think to ask about her car, sitting cold and alone along the tiny cemetery road. She didn’t see the flowering gardens now gracing the homes they drove past, nor her own neglected lawn as the car pulled to a stop.
The best part of her was still standing in the cemetery staring at the rectangle of brown where her heart now lay.
The old man helped her into her house, no longer a home without Scott’s life within its walls. He turned on the lights, and fixed her a strong drink. Along the edges of her mind, she could hear him talking to her, and she could hear herself answering, but none of it seemed real. When he let himself out, she stood staring after him long into the night.
Somehow she must have made herself to turn out the lights and get into bed. Somehow she must have gotten herself to sleep. As she lay unblinking in the glow of dawn, she unsuccessfully tried to remember doing either. The light shown brightly through the pretty drapes she’d picked out to cheer their daily awakening. She shuddered at the sight of those drapes, and longed to pull the covers over her head to hide them from her sight.
Instead, she forced herself to look at them, and to remember they were part of the life she had lived before.
Dragging herself from the bed she shared with Scott, she realized she still wore the same outfit—black except for where the cuffs of her pants were lightly dusted with earth. If she’d had an entire wardrobe of black, it wouldn’t have been enough to reflect the gaping hole she felt inside herself.
In the back of her mind, she could hear her husband’s voice, “Life goes on.” If it had been anyone else’s voice, she would’ve spit in his face, but Scott could always get her to do things she’d rather not do. Their entire marriage had been a series of new adventures. His try-anything spirit gently coaxing her bookish self to stretch for the heights.
For the first time since that horrible night, she smiled.
After all, he had been the only one in the thirty-six years of her life to coax her on one of those damned motorcycles. She was afraid it would kill her, but she survived the experience. She’d been afraid it would kill Scott, but he survived riding on that hellish thing, too. If only he could’ve survived one stupid meeting.
Scott was the strongest man she ever met. Never took a sick day; shrugged off injuries like they didn’t exist. Whether he was climbing Longs Peak or brushing a rattlesnake out of her the path with a stick, he did everything like he was going to live forever. Looking back, she realized he sincerely believed he would never die, and as foolish as it seemed now, she believed right along with him.
He never saw death coming. Until it came and wrecked them both.
For days after the funeral, she went through the routines of life, without actually living them. She got up every day, she dressed herself, she ate, and then she went to bed. Everything else was a useless blur. When the food ran low, she ventured out into the town. That was her first mistake.
Walking through an aisle of the town’s only grocery store, she was reaching for a loaf of Scott’s favorite bread when voices drifted to her from the next row over.
“I hear you’re having a devil of a time finding yourself a new city manager,” said a man she recognized only as one of the farmers from outside the city. “Too bad about Underwood...”
“He was a pain in the ass,” said Jerry Powden, one of the city councilman who was present to witness her husband’s death. Scott never talked much about the meetings she was never encouraged to attend, but she knew enough about those monthly events to know about Powden and his drive to make her husband’s job harder with every vote.
She gritted her teeth and tossed the now-crumpled loaf into her cart. Whatever the bastard said was no longer of any consequence. He couldn’t hurt Scott any more, and as soon as his affairs were in order, she would never see Serenity again. If the city council wanted to run the town into the ground, so be it. As she turned to push her groceries away from the offensive conversation, though, Powden’s next words stopped her cold.
“It was the best thing for everyone when he keeled over like he did…”
“That’s a sick thing to say…”
“Screw it. It’s not like anyone gives a damn one way or the other what I say about him now. His dying like that saved us all a lot of trouble. Not that it matters anymore, but we were getting ready to fire him anyway. We had the votes. Live or dead, he wouldn’t have been around bothering us for much longer anyway. And if you ask me, I’m glad it was dead.” Powden chuckled and the sound dripped like acid along her nerves. “At least dead, he can’t whine about ‘wrongful termination’.”
For the first time since that horrible night, Jillian felt. Suddenly, she felt far more than she ever wanted to feel again, and what she felt was hatred.