Black. She could feel it. Her eyes fluttered opened.
Why, I thought I opened my eyes. She blinked a second time. The black was the same. I must turn on my lamp. Whoever shut my blinds so tight? I thought Margaret left before I went to bed.
She had been feeling weaker than usual. But what could she expect after nine decades. More dinner parties and celebration festivities?
Maybe Margaret had come back. I do wish she hadn’t closed all my blinds. I can’t see!
At Chicago O’Hare airport, the soldier grabbed his cellphone before the first ring stopped. “Hey? How is she?”
His sister’s voice trembled. “Mike, she’s failing fast.”
Putting the cellphone back in his pocket, he picked up his duffel bag, and jogged to the assigned waiting area. All the seats were taken by passengers waiting for a full flight.
Okay, Lord, I’m asking like I’ve asked so many times this year. Please… this time?
The sky beyond the thick steel-encased windows was growing darker, threatening storms.
It’s almost night. Of course it’s getting darker. He leaned against the wall and turned his eyes from the window.
The morning had dawned bright with sunshine and clear skies when Mike caught his flight after his first layover in the United States. He would be home before midnight. Finally. His first tour of duty in Afghanistan had been a long and rugged nine months.
The phone call home turned his excitement to agony.
The black pressed in on her. She reached for her lamp, but her arm had nowhere to go.
Am I paralyzed? Movement in her legs was also completely restricted. She couldn’t turn or raise any of her limbs. Her head was trapped in the darkness.
Am I blind? Help! No voice. She could only hear the sound of her breath.
He had promised his grandmother he would return. She had been worried about losing him. Mike understood why, after all the stories she had told him over apple pie and milk, about her husband who had never returned home from the war.
“Gramma, I’ll be back before you know it! You wait and see. I’ll come back with stories of my own!” Mike did have stories to tell, but when he sat with his grandmother eating her warm pie, the tales he would entertain her with would be far from the horrors he had seen.
“My stories will be good ones. Keep the pie in the oven!” His grandmother beamed, her tears making sparkles in her crinkled cheeks.
His plane taxied along the runway like a slow-moving hearse. Its flashing lights and lumbering shadow were all he could see as it took off into the ominous sky.
Hold on, please. I’m coming!
Muffled sounds moving beyond the darkness startled her. Do they see my eyes? Furiously, she fluttered her lids.
More muffled sounds, but no movement.
Breathing became difficult. Even opening and closing her eyes took away energy. Her heart pounded against her chest.
Can’t they hear my heart? Please don’t let my heart give out on me! The black entered her head, stifling her breath.
“Taxi!” Mike threw himself and his duffel bag into the vehicle and yelled out his address. Handing the driver a wad of money, he growled, “Get there.” It was when the cab had already turned the block after dropping him off that he realized he’d probably given the driver a handful of Afghani bills.
He crashed through the door thankful it wasn’t locked. “Hey! I’m here! Where are you? Gramma! I’m home!” He could smell her pie baking in the oven.
Margaret appeared from around the corner. She hugged him hard, too hard. “She’s in there.” His sister pointed to the casket next to his grandmother’s rocking chair by the window.
He was too late. “NO. NO. NO. I promised her!” Tears streamed down the soldier’s face onto his Army fatigues, the only undamaged ones he owned.
The darkness thickened in her throat. If there are voices, someone is near. Dear God, bring them to me. If only Michael was home, he would rescue me. Every breath was desperate.
“Move!” Mike swept his family away and fell on the casket. “Why did you close her up before I could see her? Open the box!” He tore at the mahogany barrier separating him from the one who would save him. How could he blot out the atrocities he had seen without making up stories about travels to magic lands to tell the one person in the world who would listen to him through a whole apple pie? Only his grandmother could save his tormented mind.
Michael! Had she heard him? The name she cherished took her last breath.
Suddenly light surrounded her, too bright to see through. Warm and welcoming, the fragrance of cinnamon and apples comforting her, she closed her eyes. She felt herself being lifted and held just the way her John had done before he left for war. She nestled into the strong arms and let her head fall on the chest beating with the heart of her beloved, and breathed.
The solder cradled his grandmother “I have stories to tell you, he whispered, and they are all good.” Together, as the apple pie from the oven cooled, they rocked in her chair until the night broke into day. The stories of the world he had seen were wondrous and very, very good.