Saving forever, p.2
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       Saving Forever, p.2

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  I'd never been particularly talkative. I'd always been far more comfortable with a tool in my hand and wood on the table than interacting with people. Britt had found a way through my shyness, but it had taken her months to do so. And even then, when she'd gotten me to ask her out and we'd started dating, I'd never been the kind to just blurt out whatever was in my head. She used to joke that most days she could count the number of words I spoke on the fingers of both hands, and that wasn't far from the truth.

  I'd spent a long hot day spent in the workshop, roughing out the basic shape of the bar. Kirk and Max wanted something big and badass and handmade, and that's what I would deliver. I'd hauled several huge lengths of oak into the shop, what amounted to thirty feet of solid oak. The idea I had was three separate sections making a U-shaped bar, each of the three sections hand-carved from a solid piece of oak. Each side would look different, but it would all tie together somehow. I didn't have any particular designs in mind, but that was just how I worked. I started with an idea and let the wood tell me what it needed to be. I was days away from any kind of actual design work yet, though. For now, I had to get the giant logs into some kind of shape that I could work with.

  By the end of the day I was exhausted, covered in sawdust, dripping sweat, and looking forward to a slow and leisurely swim home. I parked my truck, stripped down to the swim shorts I wore under my jeans, stuffed my things in the bag. I was lost in thoughts of the bar, of what I'd have to do the next day, so I wasn't paying attention to the beach.

  I nearly tripped over her. She was lying on her back, hands folded on her stomach, huge black sunglasses covering face, wearing a purple one-piece swimsuit. She had a book lying face-down next to her head on the beach blanket and a bottle of water on the other side. I froze as soon as I saw her, my bare foot scuffing, kicking sand onto her blanket and against her thigh.

  She tipped up her sunglasses, and her jade gaze pinned me in place. I should apologize. I formed the words in my head, spoke them aloud in my mind. I'm sorry. But nothing came out. My mouth opened, but I couldn't make any sounds emerge. Stupidly, I just stared down at her, blinking, stunned by the vibrant shade of the green of her eyes. She seemed to be waiting, lying there staring up at me, sunglasses on her forehead, a faint frown pinching her brow and pale pink lips.

  I clenched my fists, shook my head, and trotted into the water, diving in without hesitation. I stayed under as long as I could, kicking hard and pulling at the water, not surfacing until I was past Mr. Simmons' rarely used Sunfish sailboat, anchored a good hundred feet or more from shore. I cast one brief glance back at the shore, saw her standing at the water's edge, a hand shading her eyes. Looking for me?

  Embarrassment at my caveman behavior shot through me, and I did a few crawl strokes, and then dove back under, gasping a deep breath and kicking beneath the surface until my lungs burned. I surfaced, ventilated, then oriented myself by looking for the arms of the peninsula and the mainland. Then I dove back under. The next time I surfaced, the beach was a faint line behind me and she was out of sight. I was panting and my arms shook, and I had to roll onto my back to catch my breath. I kept kicking, kept moving homeward, thinking of her. Those eyes. What had she been thinking? Her expression hadn't given anything away, except maybe curiosity. But how could she not be curious? I'd just stood there like a buffoon, after kicking sand on her. That swimsuit. God. It was a one-piece, but it was the kind that hugged tight in all the right places, cut high around her hips and low between her breasts, with little cutouts at her sides.

  I rolled over to my stomach and kicked into an easy crawl, pushing images of blonde hair and green eyes and fair skin out of my head. By the time I got home, I had to pull myself onto the dock, trembling and weak, and I nearly fell asleep there with the late-evening summer sun warming my skin.

  I made myself get up and go inside. I showered off the lake water, then went out to my workshop. I didn't have the energy to work that night, but I made myself go out and look at it. The Sculpture. Her. Britt, in that last moment. I stood in front of it, staring at the lines, at her hands clutched into fists. I'd started there, with her hands. The way she'd held them in front of herself, the way they'd trembled. As if holding on, so desperately. On the sculpture, her face was blank. I couldn't bear to carve the expression that had been on her face that day. Not yet anyway. I could see it, though. I could feel the chisel scraping the wood shavings away from her eyes, from her mouth. I was nearly done. I had to finish her legs and feet, and then I'd have to start on her face. Maybe once I finished, I'd find the strength to speak again.

  I left her there----the carving of Britt. Even with her unfinished face, I could feel her staring up at me. The way she'd stared up at me that night. I turned off the light and closed the door to my shop, drank a beer and watched TV until I felt sleepy enough to go to bed.

  A week later the girl was there, on the beach, just past dawn. This time, she was dressed in running gear, and even from fifty feet off shore I could tell she'd been running hard. She was bent over at the waist, hands on her knees, panting, ponytail hanging down by her face. I made my way slowly up to the beach, kicking the water louder than necessary so she'd know I was there. She heard me, straightened, hands on her hips.

  Jesus, those hips. I brushed my hair back, stopped ten feet away from her, the water lapping at my calves. She was glistening with sweat, and each deep, gasping breath stretched the white material of her sports bra. I forced my eyes to hers, and again she kept her expression carefully neutral. But I could see the pain in her face. Not physical pain. Something deeper than that. The same pain that had informed the way she'd played the cello that night.

  I moved past her, waving once, giving her a polite smile this time. It was something. It was communication. Almost.

  Once I arrived at the winery, I helped the guys tend to the vines for a few hours, then went into the workshop and finished the rough shapes of the bar pieces. She was on my mind all that day as I worked, the careful neutrality of her expression, as if that vulnerability I'd seen the first time we'd met had been an accident, something she hadn't meant to let me see. I kept pushing her out of my mind, and she kept working her way back in. As I ran the hand-held planer across the oak, I wondered if she was waiting for me to speak, or did she think I was a mute, or just rude. I wondered what her story was, why she was here, appearing so suddenly. Maybe it was just vacation, a couple weeks in June spent alone on a remote beach.

  Most of all, I wondered why I couldn't get her out of my head.

  The next day was rainy, so I took the boat to the mainland instead of swimming. Work on the bar had progressed to hammer and chisel, working lines into the facade of the rough rectangle I'd made. I was seeing stylized grape vines for the front, carved in high relief so that the whole front--seen when visitors first walked into the tasting room--was a row of vines seen from close up, so each cluster and each grape was visible. It was slow, painstaking work, and I was antsy and restless by the time I'd made enough progress to call it a day. The skies had cleared to a flat lead-gray cloud cover, so I laced up a pair of running shoes and set off across the peninsula wearing nothing but the shorts and shoes, intending to follow the road north to the lighthouse park at the tip of the peninsula, and then cut down southward back to the winery, a path that would amount to a five-mile circuit. I was lost in a running trance and not seeing the road when I came up behind her. She was keeping a punishing pace just south of the lighthouse, her feet slapping lightly on the pavement, the West Arm waters rippling dull blue in the distance, her ponytail bobbing. She had a tiny iPod strapped to her left bicep, earbuds in her ears, wearing black skintight shorts and a green sports bra. I always ran in silence, using the rhythmic pound of my feet to hypnotize myself.

  I moved abreast of her and she started, glancing sideways at me, and then turned her attention back to the road. She matched my pace, and we ran together without speaking. After maybe half a mile, she sniffed, wiped her wrist across her brow, ran a f
inger underneath her eyes. Was she crying? I sneaked a look, but all I saw was sweat. I blinked a trickle of salt out of my eye, and glanced at her again. She had her head down, and she was blinking hard, I could see the sharp angles of her clenched jaw. Hear the ragged rasp of her breath. She jerked herself upright, and her eyes were pained, wet, but no tears were falling.

  She shot a look at me, dashed the heel of her palm against her eyes, and pushed herself even harder. I matched her, running beside her. I didn't have the words to ask her what was wrong. I didn't even know her name, but I could run beside her. I kept my eyes forward, breathing even, a good two or three feet between us. She glanced at me once, but I kept running.

  Inhale...step, step; exhale...step, step; inhale...step, step. Don't think about the distance yet to run or the ache in my calves. I even found myself hoping she'd slow down a bit, because this pace was a killer. My lungs were burning already, and we still had almost two miles left in my circuit. I had no idea how far she was planning on running, of course, but with this kind of pace, it couldn't be too far. Either that, or she was in such good shape that I'd have to let myself fall behind.

  I watched her foot hit a stone and slide out from underneath her. She stumbled, and my hand shot out, grabbing her arm just above the elbow. Her skin was soft and damp and sweat-slick. I righted her, made sure she had her balance and wasn't hurt before I let go.

  "Thanks," she huffed. I just nodded. She ran a few more paces and then looked at me out of the corner of her eye. "You don't...talk much...do you?"

  I shook my head.

  "Can't, or don't?"

  I just shrugged. She waited until it was clear the shrug was the only answer she'd get, and then she frowned at me, huffed, and put on a burst of speed to get away from me.

  I didn't know how to answer her. Both? Neither? I was physically capable of speech. I just...couldn't. Dr. Brayer, the therapist I'd seen in the months following Britt's death, said my ongoing silence was a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. She claimed I'd eventually talk again--I just needed time to heal.

  Sorry. The word bubbled up in my throat, and died. I let her run ahead of me, cursing myself.

  After another mile or so she turned left, back toward the beach and her house. I kept running until I returned to the vineyard, collapsing against the railing of the porch, panting. When I caught my breath, I walked through the rows of vines, weaving my way up the hill overlooking the West Arm. I stopped there, watching the azure waters ripple and shift, thinking yet again of the girl. Of the tears she'd fought, of the way she'd powered through them and kept running. What had the power to make her cry that way? What secret sins or sorrow haunted her? I wanted to know, wanted to erase them for her. It was a stupid desire. I had my own secrets, my own ghosts rattling around the haunted bones in the closet of my past. I couldn't manage a simple hello, so how could I think to help her? Yet the strange urge remained.

  "You're more broody than usual." My younger brother, Tom, spoke from behind me. I turned and lifted one eyebrow. He came up beside me, leaning on a post. "You only come out here and stare at the water when something is really eating at you. I mean, there's always something eating you, but when you come out here and stare...it's something new."

  I scuffed at the close-cropped grass with the toe of my running shoe. Tom knew me all too well.

  "It's been a year, bro. I miss the sound of your voice. I miss talking to you. Or rather, hearing you talk to me." Tom was the blunt one, the brother willing to just come out and say what was on his mind, in exactly so many words. "How 'bout you just...start simple. Something like, 'Whassup, Tom?' That's it. Two words. Or is it three? Two, I'd say. I think of 'whassup' as one word."

  I shook my head at him, snorting at his rambling nonsense.

  "No? Nothing? Say my name, then. One word. Three letters. T-O-M." I just glared at him. "Fine, then. Let's play twenty questions. Are you brooding about work?"

  I shook my head.

  "Are you brooding about what happened?"

  Those two words--what happened--were code for Britt's death. I shook my head, turned away from him. I hated this game. He was always trying to get me to talk. Trying to joke me out of my silence, as if it was mere petulance on my part.

  "Is it...someone new?" I didn't nod, but I didn't gesture in the negative, either. Tom seized on the lack of response. "It is! Holy shit, Carter! You met someone? For reals? Who is she?" Tom paused, frowning. "Wait a second. How does that work? Did you, like, use sign language?"

  I tilted my head back and sighed in irritation, then gave Tom a long and scathing glare before starting forward, away from my obnoxious but well-meaning brother.

  He caught up with me, moving around in front of me and stopping me with a playful shove. "That's it, isn't it? That's why you're brooding. There is someone, but you don't know how to talk to her." He nodded sagely. "That makes sense. You always were the shyest, most introverted person I'd ever met, and then when...well, you know. When shit happened, you made shy and introverted into an art form."

  It's not that simple, I wanted to say. You don't get it. How could he? Tom was the youngest, the baby. He was also a golden boy. Blessed. Everything came easy to him. He'd never experienced the kind of agony and guilt that can make a person's very soul go silent. The kind of pain and loneliness that can dry up your words, that can ruin you. Wreck who you are. Even Tom's breakups were mutual and painless. "We just went our separate ways," he'd say. "No big deal. We're still friends." How is that even possible? How much can you have invested in someone, in a relationship, if you break up and it's just...fine? How can you love someone and still be friends when the relationship ends? I didn't get it, but that was Tom. He made it work somehow.

  He clapped me on the shoulder. "I know I make a lot of jokes, Carter. But seriously, you have to move on. I'm not saying forget. I'm not saying it'll be fine all of a sudden. I'm just saying, you have to try. Just...try. She'd want you to try."

  That pissed me off. He barely knew Britt. He couldn't possibly know what she'd want. She was beyond wanting anything. Trite, pithy attributions of emotions to someone long dead held no comfort, only the mocking emptiness of wondering what if.

  I walked away from Tom, from his well-meaning words and his easy-chair wisdom. Lose part of your soul and then come talk to me, I wanted to say. Watch the woman you love die, and then come tell me about trying to move on, I wanted to tell him.

  Instead, I went home, the boat slicing though the low rolling waves, thunder growling overhead. I went to my workshop and stared at the sculpture of Britt.

  Try.

  I held the fine detail knife in my right hand, ran the fingertips of my left hand over the smooth cherrywood where her facial features would go. I closed my eyes, and I saw her. It was a memory I'd never be free of. She was in the bathtub, clad in a blood-soaked Stanford T-shirt, one hand limp on the edge of the tub, the other reaching for me. That's how she was in the sculpture. Her face was pressed against the side of the tub, her knees drawn up to her belly.

  I'd been gone when it happened. She'd begged me to stay home with her. I'd gone out anyway, determined to put the finishing touches on the kitchen remodel I was doing across town. By the time I got home, several hours later, it was too late. I'd rushed her to the hospital, too late. Too late. She was gone by morning. The doctors had used terms like "missed miscarriage" and "sepsis." They'd intimated that if I'd gotten her help sooner, they could've saved her.

  The carving knife dropped to the floor, clattering loudly, snapping the tip off the blade. I retrieved it, replaced the blade, clenched it in my fist until the trembling stopped. I let the memory wash over me, focusing on the expression on Britt's face. The pain in her eyes, the fear. Her slack lips. Her perfect nose. The tear tracks on her cheeks.

  I touched the blade to the wood, slicing away a curling ribbon. Another. A third. Each movement of my knife brought up agony in me like rising bile. I kept carving. Flat wood became Britt's mouth, her cheeks, her
chin. The dimples beside her mouth took shape. The lines of pain sliced into the bridge of her nose. I stopped before I got to her eyes. I nearly dropped the knife again. I stared at the place where her eyes would go, seeing Britt. With a deep breath, I summoned my courage and cut the wood away from her eyes. When I was finished, I stared down at the likeness of my dead wife, seeing her in the carved wood. I had to sand and polish and stain the wood yet, but it was done.

  I had to look away. Her gaze was accusing somehow.

  I stayed home the next two days, patiently scrubbing every inch with sandpaper until it was smooth, and then I polished, and then I stained. When the stain dried, I put on another coat. And again. Kirk and Max and Tom all emailed me, asking if I was sick. I lied and said I was. It wasn't entirely a lie, though. I was heartsick. Each moment I spent with the sculpture, I felt ill. Reminded. Seeing again. Feeling it all again. The hours of waiting in the hospital. The tight, pained expression on the doctor's face, the slight shake of his head. I'm sorry, Mr. Haven. We did our best, but sometimes there's just nothing we can do. If we'd gotten her earlier, there may have been a chance.

  Finally, there was nothing left to do. I stood in the workshop, a white sheet in my hands, folded in a square.

  I'm sorry, Britt. I wanted to say it out loud. I couldn't.

  I'm sorry.

  I covered the sculpture with the sheet, and Britt was gone. I wasn't healed, I wasn't fixed. I'd hoped finishing the piece would provide me with some kind of...release. But that had been a vain and foolish hope. A hunk of wood couldn't mend the damage to my soul.

 
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