by Bill Fullerton
After it was all over, after the last hymn was sung at the church, the last prayer spoken at the grave side, the last condolence given, Mike Cahill came home, hung up the suit he’d need for Willie’s funeral the next day, lay down, and fell into a fitful sleep.
Flames and smoke boiled from the windows in the back half of the old, cross-shaped, wooden church. Framed against the stormy, night sky, the fire so dominated their minds no one noticed the parking lot was empty. All they knew was Willie’s family might be inside.
The car skidded, slowed, then came to a jarring halt, its left front tire wedged in a drainage ditch swollen with rainwater. As Willie struggled with the passenger door, Abby Marshall looked over at Mike, her fingertips touching the face of the life-long friend who had, just minutes earlier, become so much more. “I’ll always love you,” she said, pushing away a lock of his wet hair.
“And I’ll always love you.”
As their lips met, the door swung open and Willie started clambering out. Abby turned to watch, breaking the kiss. When she looked back, her expression had changed. “Come on,” she said, scooting away from him toward the open passenger door, “we’ve got to make sure everyone’s okay.”
Mike opened his door, stepped out into the dark, rainy night, and stumbled into the same ditch that imprisoned his car. The fall cost him a sprained ankle, one shoe, and time.
He struggled out of the ditch and hobbled around the back of the car. The rear of the church was in flames, but the sanctuary appeared untouched. In the illumination from a long flash of lightening, he saw Willie trying to open its double front door.
As he limped across the gravel parking lot, his old friend triumphed, and then hurried inside. Moments later, Abby reached the open doors, and paused to look back. When she noticed Mike's limping, she started to come for him, but hesitated and glanced inside the church. Fear for Willie’s parents overcame her concern for Mike’s limp. She motioned for him to hurry, and dashed into the sanctuary.
Later, was it a moment, a second, a lifetime, he’d never know, the old wooden building seemed to groan in mortal agony. Unseen, the fire had spread into the cluttered attic. Flames started shooting out of holes which blossomed on the roof. Weakened by this new assault, it began collapsing around the now useless main support columns.
The building shuddered. The walls began falling in after the roof. The once proud building was becoming a giant bonfire. Mike heard Abby scream, maybe his name. But her voice was lost in a wave of noise, heat, and flying embers as the roof and walls disappeared into the flames.
The blast of scorched air knocked him down. At first he just lay on the wet gravel unable, unwilling, to comprehend what was happening to the church, to his friends, to the woman he loved, to his world.
From somewhere came a desperate, animal-like cry. “No. No. No!” He was up, racing towards the flames.
It was dark outside when he woke to the sound of his voice. “No. No. No!”
At the grave, he stood and stared, trying to make sense out of what had happened. But his mind wouldn’t function.
With mechanical motions, he moved flowers aside until raw, newly-turned, red clay earth came into view, then he knelt and put a hand on the grave. But that wasn’t enough. He lay down, rested his head on the mound and let the cool soil absorb his tears.
And then Abby was there beside him. They kissed and touched and talked about what might have been and what once had been. The time when they were kids and went fishing with Willie and caught all those little fish. The high school game when she missed that crucial free throw and cried for days. The time, back in the spring, when they first kissed. This summer at the lake when he knew he’d always love her. Last weekend when she screamed “Yes!” jumped into his arms, and agreed that from then on, whether anyone else knew or approved, in every way that counted, they were married. And their last kiss, when Abby said she’d always love him. Those were their times.
A pale light defined the tops of the pine trees on the east side of the cemetery. Mike was alone. Though stiff and damp with dew, he felt rested and at peace. He must have slept. But there’d been no nightmares, just Abby. A blanket covered him; the same old Navajo they always used when camping out at her grandmother’s farm.
He forced his body into motion. Once on his knees, he folded the blanket, then placed his palm back on the earth above Abby. “I’m glad you didn’t have to spend the night alone. And, well, I guess, now we can say we spent at least one night together as an old married couple. I know, another one of my bad jokes, but it’s early.”
He closed his eyes. This time his mind produced a mental image of Abby: tall, slender, and impossibly beautiful. She was in his arms, smiling into his face and saying, “That’s us, already an old married couple.”
“There’s supposed to be a time and place for everything. I don’t know about that, but it feels like this is my time to leave.” He leaned over, kissed Abby’s grave, and whispered, “But till we meet again, never forget we are an old married couple, and that I’ll always love you.”
Bill Fullerton writes:
"At one time or another I've been a country grocery store clerk, oil field roustabout, infantry soldier, graduate student, paper pusher for the government, out of work, and a newspaper columnist. I'm still grinding out sports and general interest pieces, both print and Net, while trying to add published novelist to my resume.
"I have a B.S. from LSU and a Master's degree from Louisiana Tech, and have had academic work published. In addition to USADS, my fiction has appeared in Rose and Thorn, DeadMule.com, New Works Review, Chick Flicks, Nibbler, and Long Story Short. After picking up a Combat Infantry Badge and Purple Heart in Viet Nam, I lived in New York City from 1970-1972, the setting for my first novel, A Brief Affair.
"Although born and raised in Louisiana, I'm currently out-stationed with my family in Austin, Texas, where I've just finished my second novel, We Danced to Ray Charles, a coming-of-age, mainstream story, set in a small Southern town in 1968."
Visit Bill’s blog at Bill’s Bilge.
[Note from Ye Editor: And for another great story, be SURE to CLICK HERE to read the story about Bill Fullerton written in 1969 by William F. Buckley, Jr., in the National Review.]
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For more fiction at USADEEPSOUTH, try these stories by Joe Lee:
Take a Tip From Me and The Temp
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