else. (a story)

She felt the edges of the paper crumpling in her warm hands. It seemed to mean less to her now that she had it. Now that she was officially an educated woman.

“Still want to go?” he mumbled, almost grunting gently and waving to the old woman in the front room as the screen door creaked and slammed behind them.

“I’m going, Frank. We’ve been through this.” Though she spoke gently, she didn’t even look up at him this time. She could hear him heave a sigh that seemed to fill the state of Louisiana with the smell of chewing tobacco and last night’s whiskey.

But Claire breathed deep anyway. The wind like a heater on the side of her already glistening forehead, she inhaled a millisecond of panic that evaporated before exhaling again. Frank picked up two of her suitcases with one hand. She watched him turn her hatbox on its side, place it firmly between his waist and his left elbow and reach for a third suitcase.

“Well, let’s get going.” He spoke with no emotion, which was nothing new to her. Still, it stirred her inside, and she missed him already. She knew he was not emotionally unavailable. She had seen him with his wife, warm and sincere. There was a feeling person in there somewhere…

She unbuckled one of her bags and placed her sheet of paper inside of it carefully, straightening out the edges she had previously crumpled up without care and remembering why it had mattered to her again. Putting on her flimsy straw hat and picking up the two remaining bags, she followed him down the front steps of her now former teacher’s home. And without looking back, she and Frank started the long mile to the train station, kicking up dust the whole way.

“How long before you come back?” he asked after a long enough silence for their slightly strained breath to become consistent noise.

She looked up at him, feeling that second of panic in the pit of her stomach again. She swallowed quickly and widened her eyes so the sneaking tears would retreat back into their fortresses and said, “I don’t know, Frank.”

He let out a wheezy chuckle, “And why do you end every statement with my name?”

“I guess I’ve determined that if we’re going to continue in the same conversations over and over again I might reciprocate the repetitive nature –” she took a deep calming breath, knowing her tendency to easily lose her temper. It was quiet again for a millisecond before Frank let out a burst of yet more wheezing laughter and said,

“You funny creature! Was I supposed to catch a single word you just said to me –”

She kept her smile at bay as long as she could before letting her laughter loose into the trees on either side of the dirt road where they were walking. The sound of both of their laughter filling to the brim some unknowable void seemed to glisten shortly, then disappear into the woods. And just as she’d suspected, as the laughter died down, she felt her throat tighten, closed her eyes and turned her face away from Frank. The newly risen sun warmed her already flushing cheeks and her liquid grief, marbled with nostalgia and a strange sense of moving on rose in waves and trickled down either side of her face quietly. It was odd not to be overwhelmed by it. She almost welcomed the relief of each wave, though she’d been irritably avoiding it all morning. Out of the corner of her left eye, she could see Frank watching her and let another wave roll. Taking a deep breath, she turned her head and found him, though not smiling, surprisingly pleasant-faced. She imagined that’s exactly how John would’ve looked if he were with them. He and Frank so easily took on the same expressions.

If John were with them, none of this would be going on.

She wouldn’t be going anywhere this morning but that old oak tree in front of the Methodist church, wearing her young grandmother’s white lace gown, newly altered to fit her, and the dark sapphire ring that belonged to John’s grandmother — Frank’s mother — on her left hand.

But Claire was wearing a blue dress that belonged to her grandmother’s housemaid, Eloise, who was the last of her family to pass away when she was fourteen. Her flimsy straw gardening hat covered her anything but glamorous hair. She was not dressed for the beginning of the rest of her life. She was dressed for the rest of her day on a train.

And John was not here.

“He would want you to go,” Frank said gruffly, clearing his throat and furrowing his eyebrows as he looked at her. His eyes relaxed for a second before he looked back at the road and picked up the pace a little. She watched his face for awhile. His patchy black beard was speckled with silver and white. His eyes were round like John’s, but darker, deeper brown. Almost black. And in one magical second, she could see John’s face, should he have lived to grow old, in his father’s.

“Yes,“ she heard her voice saying before she’d really prepared herself. “You’re right. He would want me to go. He would — he’d want me to do something with my life.”

“No,” said Frank quickly, stopping in the road. “Your life is….something.”  His voice cracked slightly and he was starting to stutter, which was more than she could take, as Frank was never emotional. She had stopped and turned slightly to watch him search for what he wanted to say while keeping a grip on the luggage he was carrying. “He would want — he’d want you to go, yes – and… he’d want you to go.” They walked on.

********

They were silent until they’d gotten right up to the station. Frank placed all of her luggage carefully beside her and went to speak with the attendant at the window. She let her hair down — turning wavy in the early morning humidity — and pulled it back into a low loose bun, putting her hat perfectly on top just in time for a gust of hot wind and dust to blow it off her head. Immediately, Frank chased it shortly down the dirt lot in front of the station and yelled back at her laughing, “Sure you want to wear this today?” She feigned a small grin and began moving her luggage around to find somewhere to put it for the ride. With her back to him, Frank saw her reach for the top of the hatbox, her shoulders lifting slowly and releasing as she raised her head, staring forward.

She let her hand rest on the top of the box before she looked down and carefully reached around the rim to open it. Once she did, she looked forward again, her face stoic as ever. Frank had moved close enough to see the sun sparkling off of something small on the top of a messy pile of folded papers. He inched closer quietly and with an unintentional limp — her hat looking minuscule in his large hands as he folded and twisted it.

They stood there, frozen as a picture, for what seemed an eternity. Frank wondered if she’d take that ring out or touch it at all.

Before they left that morning, Frank’s wife, Molly, had told Claire that this would be good for her, that this is something hopeful. Something more. But Claire was feeling the frustration of that all over again standing there in the blazing morning sun, the embroidery on her dress scratching her shoulders and her heated hair starting to burn her scalp. John wanted something more for his life. For their life together. And she was perfectly satisfied to have the life that Frank and Molly have. Frank at the sugar mill. Molly teaching Sunday School and organizing home visits with the Methodist church. Two kids. Modest living. It was beautiful to Claire. Normal, even.

But John was only working at the mill to pay for the wedding. They were going to move to Baton Rouge so he could go back to school. He wanted to teach history. He wanted to travel. He wanted to show Claire all the things a “girl like her” could have and be in the world.

“This just isn’t it for us,” he had said. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be something more than my parents have… just — just something else.”

This was it. This was going to be her something else. And she wasn’t sure she could call it good. Yet. She would, however, call it expensive. Because so far this good, this hope, was the most demanding thing she had ever come to know. It cost her John. And it cost Frank and Molly, John. And it better damn well be worth it.

“I’m not going to cry anymore, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said decidedly, startling Frank a bit with her sudden voice. “I just — I haven’t figured out what I’m supposed to do with it.” He moved closer in, handing her the runaway hat. She thanked him before looking up, unsure of what kind of emotion, if any, his pregnant silence was holding. He made no noise at all. “Do you want it back?” she asked, finally, barely sure she would even be able to get the question out at all. “I mean, I know it was your mother’s. Maybe Liza would want it when she’s older or Molly might –”

Frank was looking at the ground, one hand pressing the crease of his nose and furrowed brows, the other held up to indicate it was time for her to stop talking.

“I’m sorry, I just–”

“I’m only gonna say this once,” his deep voice interrupted. “So listen sharp, right?”

She nodded, waiting for him to look up at her with reproach and scold in his eyes. The same way he’d looked at her and his son when John announced their engagement at the birthday dinner Frank and Molly had thrown when she turned seventeen last year. She remembered helping Molly wash the dishes in silence after dinner, and watching Frank and John having a serious conversation on the front porch — both without fighting but certainly stern from both sides. She’d never been more entranced by the dynamic of a normal family. And she’d never seen the two of them look more alike.

The way Frank’s face looked just then, as she’d been opening up that hat box — he looked just like John, again. And she felt the edges of her heart start to crumple and rip, as if someone was cutting open and peeling back tissue around a healing wound.

Frank’s eyes grew less harsh immediately upon seeing her expression turn from a guarded inquisition to something more young and vulnerable. She felt her face flushing again and with all attempts to the opposite, her eyes were welling up with tears as her left hand slipped into the hat box and ran her fingers across the ring that was still sitting atop the pile of papers.

He reached out, stepping closer to her quickly, and took hold of her hand inside that hat box. Bringing the ring out with it, he took her hand in front of his chest and took in a fast, deep breath, trying to keep his tears from overwhelming her. But it was already done. They were already streaming down his face. She’d never seen Frank cry. Not at the funeral. Not even when he told her what happened to John at the mill.

“This,” he said between sobs, “was John’s gift for you.” He placed the ring carefully on her right ring finger. It felt heavy on the opposite hand, and she was overwhelmed. No one had ever been particularly affectionate with her except for John. And he had barrier after barrier to overcome. But when he did, when he held her or did so much as brush her hair out of her face, she could feel her heart exploding a little, as if it was something she would never admit to desperately wanting to feel. And it made her all the more afraid of losing it. She wondered if Frank could tell how her heart felt from where he was standing. She wondered if it would be safe to show him, if she could figure out how.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tube of lipstick, which made her laugh and reach up with her left hand, as he was still holding her right, to wipe tears from her face. “This –” he held it up in front of his face trying to read the label on the side. “Well, I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean, but it’s your gift from Molly.” He handed it to her, letting go of her right hand, and they both laughed a little as she took the top off and twisted the bottom until a bright red column appeared. “She said it’s for good luck. She wore it on her wedding day,” he took a quick breath in again and wiped his nose with his sleeve. “She uh,– she said she wanted you to have it on yours.”

Claire looked up at Frank, smiling brightly with the last few tears trickling down her face. His eyes were tired, and for the first time she felt like they were the same. Their grief, their hope, their determination to move on. It really was the same. He reached out and put both of his giant callused hands on either side of her face, catching some of her loose hair around her ears.

“This is your gift from me,” he smiled suddenly, leaning in to meet her eye to eye. “You, Claire Walker, are the bravest that there is.” She let another sound burst all the way from her chest and what she felt sure was the overflow of her tired, filled-up heart. Not quite a laugh, not quite a cry, though it came with tears, she reached up and took each of his wrists with her hands. The sun was sparkling off of the ring on her right hand and washing the picture of them with a bright white. “Now,” he said in a near whisper, squinting slightly then kissed her on the forehead. “Now you go find out why.”

A fresh breath filled her lungs and rather than swallow a lump in her throat, she sighed deeply with relief. With an air of unburdening, she nodded at him.

“Molly’s sister will be waiting on you at the station once you get to Chicago. She’ll know you by your dress,” he put the top back on the hat box and patted it gently. “And by this.”

“Okay,” she whispered. She straightened up, ready to take back on the aura of independence that she’d been mastering for four years now, despite John’s best efforts to crack her. She would never be given the opportunity to let him know how he had.

But Frank knew. He laughed as he pushed her hair back behind her ears and said, “You are a funny little creature.”

He winked, waved slightly to the attendant at the window of the station and turned back to the dirt road. She looked down at the ring on her right hand, twisting it with her thumb and fingers on either side. Watching Frank kick dust up behind him as he walked back towards town, she remembered the night John had brought her in to the birthday dinner his family was giving her. She knew he was going to announce their engagement, and she remembered the panic of not really knowing how to behave around families that seem to stay living together. Or stay alive at all. John had called her a “funny little creature” that night, too. And she could see Frank and Molly in the kitchen as they’d gotten to the porch of John’s house. Molly was straightening Frank’s bow tie, and his face was soft as he looked at her.

She smiled, watching Frank walk away. She took the top off of Molly’s lipstick, smeared the bright red onto her lips and straightened her shoulders again.

“It starts with you,” John had whispered to her that night on the front porch, before opening the front door. He’d soaked her heart with all of his dreams for their future — for their something else — “It starts with you for me, Claire. Because you are not afraid.”

And she wasn’t.