That beautiful place in the Catskills should have been the last place to die young.
It took a lot out of Jeff each time he passed that picture of Fern hanging on the wall. It hadn’t even been three months since her death, so it was still okay to mope…right?
The picture wasn’t at fault. Jeff was. For one, he hired the wedding photographer. They did a stellar job at making the gorgeous Fern look even more like the most beautiful bride in New York state. She looked even more like the woman that a stammering loser like Jeff didn’t deserve.
It reminded him of everything he didn’t do for her. He stored away the photo of him because he looked slovenly in comparison. He couldn’t be an equal groom that matched her red-haired beauty. And the last three years showed how little he could be anyone that Fern deserved.
Well, stage 3 ovarian cancer wasn’t his fault. But plenty of other things were. Jeff was always late with getting her to chemo appointments. He failed to take time off work when she was in the hospital, or when she couldn’t bear crushing loneliness. Fatigue and nausea and not feeling her extremities was beyond enough on their own. And when he did take leave, it was once hospice was Fern’s final destination.
And even without that, spending one terrible night under the sheets with Marlene from high school was enough to make Jeff a bad husband. He never told Fern. It happened only a few weeks before her death anyways. But it also meant that he never said sorry.
What a screw-up. He couldn’t even say those two words. I’m sorry.
Unsure of what to do next, Jeff took a side trip that he hadn’t taken for a long time. It was off the main paths, but still clear enough for a stroll that lead to an ivy-covered stone well. The “Green Man” decal on the top looked back at him with disappointment.
He used to throw pennies in there all the time to make wishes, before the town put an end to that. Too much hope for the hopeless, and too much copper in the groundwater too.
If you were around for another day, I’d say that I’m sorry.
Jeff’s criminal record was perfect, without even a parking ticket to his name. He would not be the man to get caught throwing copper into the well.
I wish I could say that I’m sorry.
Jeff dug in his pockets. It was 2016, who paid in cash and got change out of it? Even credit cards seemed to be facing their demise, with Apple Pay and its competitors
But he was in luck. Jeff bought a pint of raspberries from a local farm the day before, in cash, and getting five cents back in change. He still had that one lone nickel on hand.
I’ll bear whatever happens if I can just say it to your face.
Thankfully, for the sake of Jeff’s wish, there wasn’t a ban on nickels in the well.
Although a rational adult, Jeff waited all day for some sort of result. He thought he’d see the face of a dead woman again. Her pale skin and emerald green eyes; if Fern was there, he wouldn’t miss her. But Jeff’s luck didn’t run out. He probably didn’t had a shred of it. No apparitions, and not even one ginger on the street he could squint at and pretend with.
Dejected, Jeff got to bed that night and prepared for another dreary day.
Dreary days for Jeff tended to start out nice, and that morning was no exception. On Thursdays, he took a walk downtown to get a plain cappuccino at his favorite café. It started during some of the darkest moments of Fern’s demise, and as much as it could have reminded him of the sickening drip line to her arm, it didn’t. Coffee was forever good.
He passed by a table, with a single young woman reading her copy of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. How interesting. Fern enjoyed Nabokov on occasion too.
Then it hit him. This woman’s stunning red hair. Sure, she kept it tied in a side-braid rather than a bun, but it matched the shade perfectly. Jeff slowed down to get a closer look. He hadn’t ever seen someone so much like Fern. Sure, this one’s nose turned up a little more, and she couldn’t have been older than 25, but she could pass as a hypothetical sister of Fern’s with ease. Maybe she had been at a family reunion before and Jeff just never noticed.
Twenty feet past, and Jeff couldn’t walk any further away from her. It had to be the well! And nothing in the common lore said that it gave second chances.
He took the seat across from that strange doppelgaenger, fidgeting his hands under the table.
“H…hi,” he said, his voice shaking. She looked up at him.
“Are you from this area? I was just about to try and ask someone about the best place to find lunch,” she said.
“I…I am.” Jeff clenched his jaw, fumbling around with words in his head. “Listen…this sounds weird, but you kind of look like someone…someone I loved.”
“Oh…uh…I have a boyfriend back in Empire City,” she said. “Sorry.”
“It’s not that! I…well, I did something bad to her. And I never got to say sorry.”
“Well, that stinks.”
“I guess…I think this is the only time I’ll ever get to now. I cheated on her when she was sick, and…and…I didn’t like it anyways. I felt terrible. She must have too, and I just want to say I’m sorry! I can’t…I don’t…”
“I know I’m not her, but I’d forgive you,” the woman said. “I don’t like grudges. Did she?”
“…I doubt it.”
“I bet you guys will meet again like nothing happened.”
And with those words, Jeff watched her leave her open book and walk away. It would have been nice to say “into the aether”, but she instead joined the line inside the café for a drink. But it felt like an anvil was lifted from his sternum. And all it took was one random redhead, passing through town on her way to Empire City. Peace was there, perhaps. He did have another few decades left in him, barring the worst. That was enough time. And wherever Fern was, she had plenty of time to make the same peace he could.
Maybe she was angry. Or maybe, she was still unaware and as nonchalant as any human girl. Maybe she knew and was waiting for Jeff anyways, with a smile and Nabokov and just a few minutes to wait for a cup of tea.
A/N: Final word count:
Some might say I have an unhealthy obsession with writing about widows/widowers and you are correct! It’s a compelling kind of character to write, and an easy way to project my own feelings when I have to mourn someone or something.
- The screenshots are not mine, as per the month’s theme. Thanks to whoever, though!
- Is the face on the well a Green Man? I think you could make the case. And it was a distance shot, so you can pretend easier if it isn’t. 😉
- Bend Sinister: because referencing Lolita would have been too easy. And a little weird.
- Blah blah I have no idea if the original screenshotter wanted the woman in the picture and the woman at the café to be the same person. It sounds a little mean, but I’ve met a lot of unrelated redheads who look alike anyways.