The Choice By C.A. Salstrom
Friday, January 25, 2013
Rated "PG" by the Author.
An unusual choice.
The wind whipped the tree branches into a frantic dance of rage.The howling was guttural and primal, unlike the light summer’s breeze that had meandered through earlier.The skies opened and released their torment on the earth, pelting the ground with an unrelenting downpour.It was a night fit for no one and nothing.Yet, there were a few brave, or perhaps uncaring, souls that took their lives in their hands. They danced between lightning strikes, praying that they’d guess correctly where the next bolt would land.Then there were those without a choice; they were the saddest of all and to be pitied the most.They dreamed of warm, dry homes with blazing fires in the hearth and a warm cup of steaming cocoa in their hands.Perhaps these visions comforted some of the hapless individuals caught in the maelstrom.
For Sherri, there was no comfort in anything.There was only a deep-rooted sorrow taking up residence inside her.Yet the stormy night was to hold more than this torment for her.
Sherri fixed her gaze on the tombstone.It was slick and shiny from the onslaught of rain.The newly shoveled dirt was transformed into pools of mud which seeped into her shoes and stained her socks.She didn’t notice.Her tears flowed as hard as the rain.Her best friend lay under the mound of slimy mud.He deserved better than this.
Sherri’s anger flared and she spat at the stone, “What were you thinking, anyway?Jumping out of a plane?For kicks?To prove that you were still alive and vital even after forty?”
She stared at the grave expectantly.No answers came. She just knew that he was gone; for good and forever.
“No do-overs, Paul.”She whispered at his nameplate.“No do-overs this time.”
Paul had been her childhood sweetheart.He was short and stocky with flaming red hair and freckles everywhere the eye could see.He was athletic and popular despite having to endure monikers like ‘carrot top’, ‘rusty’ and even cruel ones like ‘clown boy’.His light green eyes would flash as he heard these but his smile would belie his anger. His quick temper was well-controlled around other people.But, when he was alone he would explode, taking out his anger on inanimate objects or finding other outlets for it.Like sky-diving.
Couldn’t you just yell and scream or even hit something like normal people do?
The stone still remained dead silent.
Sherri dropped her head, unseeing.Her blue eyes were filled with rain and tears.Her deep chestnut hair was saturated and plastered to her head.Her small frame shook with sobs.She still stared at the mound of dirt.Lightning flashed and thunder boomed continually.She didn’t move an inch.
It had been what seemed like an hour when Sherri felt a light tap on her shoulder.
She spun quickly spraying water and mud in every direction.
A tall, dark haired man stood in front of her.He was as soggy as Sherri felt.
“What?”Her hands flew to her hips.
“I’m sorry to disturb you.I just wanted to see if you were all right.”His voice was deep and velvety.
“Sorry.Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”Sherri’s eyes dropped.She knew there was no reason to be rude, really but he’d intruded on her grieving.What did he expect?It was a graveyard after all.
“I wasn’t expecting to see anyone else here on such a terrible night.Forgive me for disturbing you.”
“My apologies, it’s been a long day.”
He glanced at the newly dug grave behind her and nodded.“My condolences.”
“Thank you.” Sherri choked out.Tears were still burning at the corners of her eyes but the driving rain mercifully hid them.
The tall man began to walk away; he stopped, his back still turned to Sherri.He just stood there.
Sherri started at him.What was he doing?She was reluctant to ask the stranger with the melodious voice what he wanted.Even men who spoke in deep, velvet tones could be axe murders and serial rapists, right?
He slowly turned back towards her, hands raised in a surrendering pose.“I’m not trying to come off as a psycho, but you do look lost.Your feet are covered in mud and you’re as drenched as I’ve ever seen a person.I’m just a concerned by-stander.If I can help you at all, just call before I get out of earshot.”
Sherri didn’t know whether to be furious or comforted.Her dissonance just made her angry.She stubbornly stuck her chin out, “I’m fine, but thank you anyway.”
He nodded curtly and walked away.
Sherri had been jarred into looking at herself.Her shoes were completely saturated with mud.She was chilled to the bone and shivering uncontrollably.She didn’t think it was possible to be any wetter.She trudged to her car, shoes sloshing and squishing with every step.
As she drifted off to sleep after a hot shower and a warm cup of tea, she was surprised that it wasn’t Paul’s face that she saw before her as it had been since his death.It was that of the mysterious stranger in the storm.
She slept until late the next morning.It was bright and sunny and there was no evidence of the night’s thunderstorm other than the saturated lawns and gardens.The tempest in Sherri’s heart was still raging though.It was furiously storming about her loss; it burned with the stupidity and the senselessness of it all.
She and Paul had split romantically in college but continued to be close, lifelong friends.However, double dates were frequent and often their respective potential mates left feeling shortchanged as they couldn’t break into the conversations that Paul and Sherri carried on.The two of them had the ability to sense each other’s moods and feelings and could finish each other’s sentences.In many ways, they were true soul mates.
Why did we decide to split up anyway?
She knew that there’d been a reason at the time but right now, it was eluding her.All she remembered was Paul’s easy laugh and his dry, quirky sense of humour.There were the many nights of watching cult films with wonder and sometimes incredulity.There were those where they shouted at the screen or laughed at bad “B” movies.Paul would often comment, “This one’s at best a B minus or maybe even a C!”
Sherri felt a rush of love when she thought of him.It was short-lived however.Loneliness and grief pushed it to the side and took all the empty places inside her heart.
She heaved a deep sigh.Today was Saturday.They were supposed to go to a barbeque tonight.Instead, she’d gone to a funeral yesterday.
Sherri looked to her closet already knowing what she was going to do.She pulled out a deep burgundy woolen sweater and searched for her hiking boots.Rubber boots would have been more appropriate for the mud pit that she was going to visit again but she was too anxious to get on with this to go buy them.
Just as she was ready to don the apparel, the doorbell chimed.
Who on earth?
Sherri opened the door to a trio of white haired women with weathered faces, compassion radiating from their eyes and enough food for at least a month in their hands.
She forced a smile and let the church ladies in.Sherri considered herself a two-timer.She went to church at Christmas and Easter without fail.She used to do it for her mother.Yet, it had been years since her Mom had moved to Phoenix and she still continued to go.Perhaps it was habit or maybe even a latent desire to keep connected to God, just in case…
The church ladies had been her mother’s friends, but they’d taken Sherri under their wings when she was just a teenager.Friends by association she supposed.Yet, they still showed up every time she needed them.
The ladies took control of her kitchen and whipped up a hot lunch almost before Sherri knew what was going on.They stayed to ensure that she ate something too.Then they shared all of the platitudes that people use when someone you love dies.
If I hear that he’s in a better place once more, I think I’m going to scream.
Yet when the ladies said it, Sherri smiled and nodded knowingly and sadly.
The women assured her that Paul was in God’s hands.
Well, I hope that God doesn’t let him sky-dive anymore!
Then they added what everyone says.
“If there’s anything we can do…”They said it in unison, almost as if it were rehearsed.More likely, they’d just had to say it too often as they and their friends aged and they had the script down cold.
Everyone made the same offer, and Sherri supposed that most people even meant it.Sadly, grief was something that no one else could do for you.You had to live through it and hope that it didn’t kill you…or your spirit.
She hugged the three women warmly and sent them off fondly.She had to admit that she felt a little better for the company but it didn’t change her mission.It had just pushed it back a little and increased her anxiety level.
She reached for the sweater and the boots and an extra jacket to brace her against the autumn wind.Driving to the cemetery she noticed the leaves falling.They were a rainbow of colours swirling in the wind until they landed on the earth, soon to become part of it.
Ashes to ashes.
Everything around her was dying.The trees and flowers were losing their last blooms and had given way to starkness and bleakness.She sloshed through the spongy lawn that led to Paul.Much of the great mound of dirt that they had shoveled yesterday had washed away or had been flattened in the wind and rain.His grave was flat, soggy and desolate.
Sherri sat on the wet grass, feeling the cold dampness seep through to her skin.She shivered.She reached into her pocket and pulled a roll of the dainty sandwiches that the church ladies had brought her.She held it towards his stone.
“Want to have dinner with me?”She laughed.It was a cold and bitter sound.
“Yes.”The velvety voice came from the left of her.
Damn!Is he following me?
How silly was that though?He was likely grieving as well and had come to see whomever he’d lost.Regardless of his reason and her crankiness, Sherri resolved not to be rude today.She forced a smile on her face and looked at the stranger.“Hello, again.”
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be here.”He looked deep into her.
Her irritation started to melt away at the sound of his voice.
“I wanted to apologize again for intruding yesterday.Ironically, I can only accomplish that goal by interrupting you once more today.”A sheepish smile slid across his lips.“So, I guess you can either accept my apology or I have now doubled my offense…”
Sherri looked at the tall man closely.He had short, thick, jet black hair brushed back form his forehead.His eyes were a piercing ice blue.His long, straight nose fit his face well and even a sheepish smile lit up his whole being.He was handsome and had an air of class even clad in worn jeans, a polo shirt and a black leather jacket that hung open.His shoes told the story, however.Even in the slush, he wore dress shoes.Italian, maybe?Boots would not have suited him.
Sherri reached out the packet of ham sandwiches towards the stranger and struggled to her feet.“I only have these, but I can share.I didn’t think Paul was going to eat much…”
Sherri winced inside herself at the black humour.
The stranger shook his head and reached into a deep pocket and impossibly brought out his own sandwich.He pointed at a bench a few yards away.“Will you come and sit with me?”
She wanted to, but just couldn’t seem refuse the smooth, deep tones of that enticing voice.It was almost hypnotizing.She followed the man.The bench was still damp from the rain but Sherri was already wet from sitting on the mushy grass and just plopped down onto a puddle.The stranger removed an old-fashioned handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his side off meticulously.
The early darkness of a fall day began to descend upon them.The moon climbed to its place high in the dusky sky to shower its pale light down on them.Sherri was suddenly glad that she wasn’t alone.She felt an uneasiness that she’d not experienced yesterday.Perhaps her childhood fears of cemeteries at night were coming back to haunt her.
The stranger chatted; it was mainly small talk but Sherri didn’t hear his words.She was mesmerized by the musical quality of his voice.He talked until the darkness became complete and he still kept on talking.As long as he was speaking Sherri felt helpless to do anything but listen.She couldn’t move or speak.She was paralyzed physically and mentally.She felt trapped inside his voice.
Hours passed before he stopped talking.Sherri started as if she’d come out of a trance.She couldn’t remember a word he’d said and had no idea how much time had passed.
The man turned his icy blue eyes on her.“Go to Paul.”His tone was gentle but it was a clear command.
Sherry felt compelled to respond to him like a remote controlled car does to its owner.She walked stiffly and mechanically towards the grave.She had a deep tightness, an uneasiness in the pit of her stomach and it was climbing towards her heart.
She stopped in front of the remaining dirt and stared at Paul’s stone expectantly.She felt panic rising in her throat and a scream on the edge of her lips.Her lungs were incapable of taking in much air so she gasped to inhale all that she could.
She saw the familiar red hair and freckled face as her friend clawed his way through the soil.His stocky frame was struggling to be free of its prison.
Sherri stood as still as stone.She was staring at the spectacle and the specter with a mixture of disbelief and horror.
He rose, finally, covered in a thick layer of wet, clingy soil.His head was sitting crookedly upon his shoulders, probably because he’d broken his neck when he’d jumped from the plane.Otherwise, he was Paul.He looked whole and alive, no not quite alive.He looked like one of the characters in the bad cult movies they had loved to watch.
Sherri felt her limbs become loose from their paralysis.She looked towards the bench to find her dark haired friend.She was scared to be alone.However Mr. Ice Blue Eyes and his deep, velvety voice had vanished.
Sherri gulped, trying to force both air and panic down into her.
“Why are you scared?”His voice was weak and breathy and Sherri was sure his lips hadn’t moved.
“Ummm…because a dead man I love just dug his way out of a grave, I guess.”Sarcasm always asserted itself when Sherri felt most vulnerable.It was not her most endearing trait.
Paul threw his crooked head back and laughed his familiar, booming laugh.It had a faraway, surreal cadence to it.“I guess I’d be frightened too.But, you’re not scared of me are you?”
“No.” The word almost stuck in her throat.She wasn’t sure if she was being honest with him or with herself for that matter.
“Maybe a little?”Paul asked.
Sherri nodded, her eyes fixed on the ground.“Why are you here?”It came out as a whisper as she was suffocating on her fear.
“Because I have a question for you.”
“Okay.”She looked up expectantly at the light green eyes and she had a sudden urge to brush the soil out of his tangled, red mop of hair.She resisted it.
As if he could read her thoughts, Paul raised his freckled hand and tousled his hair haphazardly.
“I think you made it worse.”Sherri giggled in spite of herself.
He just smiled and shrugged, his crooked head bobbing unevenly.
“I’ve asked for you.”
“What?”Her brows furrowed as she looked toward her ghostly friend.
“I’ve asked for you to come with me, to the other side.I can take you as long as it’s at tonight.I’ve asked for you particularly.Will you come?We can be together forever, the way we should have been in life.”His voice was like the wind blowing through her.
Sherri was incredulous and her fear was completely displaced by it.“What?”
“Do you want to come with me?This is a time limited offer, you know.If you decide not to come you won’t remember a thing.You can go back to your life and I will go on with my afterlife.I just regretted that we left so much undone.I petitioned for you.I got this one time chance.It’s your decision though.It’s your life I’m asking for.”His eyebrows rose expectantly as he fixed his gaze on her.
“I can really come?”
Paul held out a hand to her.It looked solid and whole.
Sherri shivered.Did she want to go?Did she want to give up the rest of her life and have eternity with her friend?Grief spoke loudly in her head, “GO!”It was a roar.Her human, mortal side whispered in her ear, “No.”There were tears in that whisper.
Sherri’s hand shook as she held it out towards her friend and grasped his tightly.Electricity coursed through her.
“Forever?”She gasped through the pain.
The electricity dissipated and they walked hand in hand towards their future.
Her death was a mystery, the coroner could find no cause for Sherri’s.However, there were many jokes abounding in the morgue.
“It’s a good place to die.If she’d walked a couple more paces she could’ve put herself in her own grave!”
The church ladies, however, were devastated.They went to Sherri’s mother the way that they had to Sherri.You know, you can always count on the church ladies.
The funeral had been on a Friday, a full week after Paul’s.It was delayed because of the autopsy and the time it took to come back with no cause at all.Pat didn’t know what to think about her daughter’s death.She’d come back to the cemetery to grieve alone after the service.
Pat stood staring at the headstone she’d commissioned.Behind her, a tall, dark-haired man with a deep, velvety voice approached.