This is the first chapter of UNFINISHED, available from Stairway Press. Click here buy from Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Unfinished-Pat-Bertram/dp/1941071651/
Chimes penetrated the shroud of Amanda Ray’s grief. She struggled to sit up, then swung her legs over the side of the bed and cradled her belly, pregnant with pain and the weight of her husband’s absence. Tears spilled down her cheeks, but she didn’t bother to brush them away. What was the point? Such a feeble gesture would not staunch the seemingly endless waterfall.
The doorbell chimed again. She hauled herself to her feet and lumbered to the door, still cradling her belly. A man in his twenties wearing jeans and a white shirt stood on the other side of the screen. Amanda frowned. What fool had left the front door wide open? But since the screen door was latched and she was the only one in the house, she must be the fool who had not closed and locked the door. David would have a fit.
But David wasn’t here. She squeezed her eyes shut against a spasm of pain.
Resentment at the intrusion into her grief shot through Amanda, but the habit of politeness dictated an acknowledgment. “Yes?”
The young man gave her a grave smile. “I brought your husband home.”
Happiness flooded Amanda in a warm rush. She scrubbed away her tears, fumbled with the latch, and threw open the screen door. “David!”
The young man stood alone.
“David?” she whispered, the awful truth settling in her belly once more.
“I’m from Adam’s Funeral Services.” The young man held out a brass box about six inches wide, eight inches tall, and four inches deep. “The urn with David’s cremains.”
Suddenly dizzy, Amanda propped a shoulder against the doorjamb to keep from falling. “I can’t do this.” She stared at the urn through fresh tears, but her hands reached for the box. She almost dropped the urn—she’d forgotten how heavy human ashes were. Holding the urn to her chest with one hand, she signed the delivery receipt with the other, choked out a “thank you,” then stepped back into the house and shut the door.
“What am I supposed to do with you, David?” David did not answer the question. Nor had he ever answered her query. During the long last year of his life, he’d often instructed her on what to do after his death—he’d even told her to keep some of his ashes because they would bring her comfort—but he hadn’t told her where to put the urn.
She set the box on the dining room table. It looked naked sitting there. A giggle rose inside her. Maybe she should cover the urn with gilded macaroni, like the jewelry box she’d made for Mother’s Day when she was nine years old.
Poor David. He would so hate being a craft project. She gathered the urn into her arms, scurried to David’s room—the one he’d moved into last year so he wouldn’t disturb her sleep with his restlessness—wrapped a blanket around the urn, and laid it on the pillow.
She stared at the mound for a minute, unable to move, scarcely able to breathe. The pain exploded from her in a scream. “David!”
She flung herself on the bed, hugged the bundle containing her husband’s ashes, and wept.
The soft afternoon light filtered through the slats of the blinds. Exhausted by her grief but unable to nap, Amanda rose, opened the blinds, and gazed outside. The normalcy of the backyard view—the tender green leaves of the budding lilac bushes, the unmown grass, the towering poplars—seemed an affront. The world felt different with David gone, as if his absence had unbalanced the earth. She could feel the tilt—it made her queasy and a bit dizzy—so how could everything look the same?
Hoping a cup of tea would help settle her stomach, she shuffled to the kitchen, put a pot of water on the stove, then opened the cabinet and pulled out a mug.
“Did you get Dad’s ashes?”
Startled by the voice, Amanda whirled. Her thirty-year-old daughter, Thalia, stood in the doorway wearing her usual outfit—a solid black tee shirt over black slacks. She looked so much like David with her sandy hair and chocolate-brown eyes that a ghostly fist seemed to squeeze Amanda’s heart.
A sound like a shot reverberated through the kitchen. Amanda froze, uncomprehending, then she realized the cup had slipped out of her hand and shattered on the hard tile floor.
She dropped to her knees, fingered the white ceramic handle, and clutched the piece to her chest.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
Amanda lifted her head. Through her tears, she could see Thalia’s disapproving expression, but she couldn’t stop crying. She waved her daughter away, wanting to be left alone with the shards of her life.
Thalia loomed over her. “You’ve got blood on your hand.” Impatience rather than concern colored her voice. “I’ll get the broom and a bandage. Don’t move.”
Even if she had wanted to, Amanda couldn’t have stirred—she felt as fragmented as the mug and as worthless.
Thalia returned. After leaning the broom against the counter, she crouched over Amanda, daubed at the cut with witch hazel, and wrapped a small plastic bandage around Amanda’s bleeding thumb. Thalia rose gracefully and stood with hands on hips. “How are you going to cope with the rest of your life, Mom, if you can’t handle an insignificant accident?”
Insignificant? True, the mug had no sentimental value—Amanda had bought it at a discount store long ago—but it was now gone from the life she’d shared with David. One by one, dishes would break, appliances would wear out, towels would become threadbare, until there would be nothing left of that life.
Amanda heard the clatter of ceramic pieces being dumped into the trash. No, she wanted to shout, Let me do it. An image flickered in her mind. Two-year-old Thalia, turning away from Amanda, her tiny hands fumbling with the buttons on her yellow blouse, screaming, “No. Me do it!”
“What is wrong with you?” the grown-up Thalia asked.
Amanda glanced up at her, the glow of nostalgia fading. “David is dead.”
“I know Dad passed away.” A scowl contorted Thalia’s face. “Of course I know that. It’s…you’re such a hypocrite.”
The viciousness of Thalia’s tone struck Amanda like a physical blow, stopping her tears. She pushed herself upright. Face to face with her daughter, she could see the anguish in her daughter’s eyes. She’d been so concerned with her own grief, she hadn’t seen how much her daughter was hurting. She reached out her arms, but Thalia backed away.
“I saw you.” Thalia choked out the words. “You were sitting up in bed with your laptop, and you were touching yourself.”
Amanda’s legs felt too weak to hold her erect. She stumbled to the table and sank into a chair. “Oh, honey. I am so sorry. But it wasn’t—”
Thalia expelled a short, bitter laugh. “Don’t you dare say it wasn’t what I thought. You had one hand in your panties, and you were typing with the other. And you were moaning. It was exactly what I thought.”
“You interrupted me before I could finish. I only meant to say it wasn’t any of your business.”
“Not my business?” Thalia’s voice rose to a shout. “My father—your husband—was dying, and you were carrying on a cyber affair.”
“You’re right, Thalia. He was dying. I was not.” Amanda wished she could explain the need to live that had overwhelmed her and the aching arousal resulting from that need, but she did not understand why she had reacted to David’s dying in such a way. Nor could she explain why her arousal had centered on that particular man—Sam—who she’d never met except online and only late at night when no one was around.
Amanda narrowed her gaze on her daughter. “Were you spying on me?”
“I couldn’t sleep one night about three months ago, so I came to see Dad. Your door was open a crack. I pushed it open to tell you I was here, but…”
“I’m sorry,” Amanda said. Sorry Thalia had seen what no daughter should see, sorry David was dead, sorry she had let herself find relief in Sam’s virtual arms, sorry she and Thalia couldn’t comfort each other in their grief, sorry she’d failed at as a mother. “So sorry.”
“That’s not all. I came by to see Dad about a month after that, and you said…you said…” Thalia drew in a ragged breath. “You said you wished Dad would hurry up and die.”
Amanda blinked. “I said that? To you?”
“Your door was open, and you were sitting on the edge of your bed, crying. You never looked at me. You just stared at the wall, tears running down your face, and you said, ‘I wish he’d hurry up and get it over with.’”
“Oh, honey.” Amanda reached out a hand toward her daughter, but let her arm drop when Thalia made a pretense of sweeping the floor. “I was tired that night. So tired.” Tears welled up in Amanda’s eyes. “Neither of us had slept in days. David had been going through one of his bad spells. So much pain! I had to keep giving him boosters of morphine, but the stuff made him disoriented. He accused me of murdering him.”
“But you did try to murder him,” Thalia whispered. “He called and told me. So I came over and that’s when I heard you.”
“You believed him?” Hearing a hint of hysteria in her voice, Amanda modulated her tone. “You knew how Dad was at the end.” But perhaps Thalia didn’t know—she visited so seldom. Not that Amanda blamed her. It must have been hard for Thalia to see her beloved father deteriorating both mentally and physically.
Thalia glared at Amanda. “Dad was like that because you drugged him. He said he wasn’t ready to die, and you were killing him.”
Amanda propped her elbows on the table and covered her face with her hands. How had she and Thalia become so estranged that her daughter could actually believe she’d tried to kill David? Or maybe, in her pain, Thalia was striking out at the one person who would love her despite the abuse.
Thalia had gotten one thing right, though. She was a hypocrite, grieving for her husband while desiring another man.
“Are you okay, Mom?”
Amanda lifted her head and tried to smile through her tears but managed only to show her teeth. “I can’t bear that David is gone.”
“So you didn’t kill him?”
“What do you think?”
Thalia gave the floor a final swish with the broom, then took it back to the laundry room. When she returned, she said, “I think you did the best you could,” though her tone clearly said Amanda’s best hadn’t been good enough.
“I miss him,” Amanda said.
“Do you ever think you’ll marry again?” There was strange intensity in Thalia’s voice that Amanda couldn’t interpret. Did she want Amanda to marry again so she could be the sole heir to grief? Or did she want Amanda to become one of those widows who remained faithful to the dead?
“Oh, honey. I don’t know. David’s only been gone six days.”
“What about the cyber guy?”
The cyber-guy. Sam Priestly. A 55-year-old professor at Ohio State University and the director of the creative writing program. “We met at an online support group for people caring for a dying spouse. His wife is hanging on. But David…”
“I can’t see you with anyone else but Dad.” Unexpectedly, Thalia laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Amanda asked, wondering if she’d ever understand her daughter.
“Thinking about you going to singles bars. Or signing up for one of those online dating sites. Or going next door and asking that mean old Mr. Jensen out on a date.” Thalia’s shoulders heaved.
Amanda thought Thalia was still laughing, but a sob told her Thallia’s laughter had turned to tears.
“I hate remembering Dad at the end,” Thalia cried. “He was so different.”
“He still loved you.”
“I’m such a bad daughter. Dad called me four or five weeks ago and told me not to worry. He said, ‘You’re safe Thalia. I finally got the courage to do what I needed to do. The father is dead.’” Thalia brushed away her tears with her forearm. “I thought he was going to kill himself, and I didn’t do anything to stop him.”
“He didn’t kill himself,” Amanda said soothingly. “I didn’t kill him. The cancer did. It’s easier to handle grief if we have someone to blame, but there isn’t anyone.”
A final tear rolled down Thalia’s cheek. “I blame me.”
“Why? Because you stopped coming to visit? Dad was glad about that. He didn’t want you to see him dying.”
Thalia turned and ran from the kitchen. Amanda listened but heard no footfalls, only the click of the front door closing. Thalia—a big woman, almost as big as David—somehow managed to slip through life making little noise. David had been the same way. At the beginning of their marriage, he’d appear silently, making her jump. In later years, when he knew a task absorbed her, he would stomp to warn her of his approach.
“Dammit, David,” she cried out. “Why didn’t you go to the doctor?” But even if he had gone to see a physician when he first noticed his weakness and weight loss, it wouldn’t have made any difference. It had already been too late. When agony finally forced him to the emergency room, the doctor had intoned with barely concealed boredom, “Inoperable kidney cancer.”
And now all Amanda had left of her husband were his ashes.
A scream rose to her throat, but when the sound scraped past an unshed lump of tears, it came out as a whimper.