“They’re here! They’re here!” Clara Sheldon put on her wide straw hat and raced onto the dock, shoving between hundreds of other eager Navy wives. Her husband was finally returning home for good! Clara peered past the young men pouring off the ship in swarms, each reunited with his adoring gal. Where was James?
Finally, she saw the ashy brown mop of hair that could only belong to James Sheldon. “Jimmy! Jimmy!” Clara waved her arms in all directions, a departure from the lady-like demeanor that she had just tried to put on ten minutes ago. James turned toward the noise and grinned widely. “I’m coming, Honey!”
Clara pushed past the strangers on Harbor’s Dock; she couldn’t wait to be in James arms once again. As she began to run, she felt her hat slipping and her heels throbbing, but everything would soon be worth it. She sensed the buzz of the crowd but could only hear one clear voice. “Clara! Clara!”
And then suddenly, Clara twitched.
Her eyelids flew open and she was awake in her bed. “Jimmy?” she whimpered. “You there?” Turning her head to the side, Clara heard a noisy crackle and felt the arthritis gripping her tight neck muscles. As she succumbed to her limited mobility, Clara slowly realized where she was. She was in her prison. Trapped. James was nowhere to be found.
Clara lay in her bed, too defeated to sit up. It was hard on her arms to prop up her body at any given time, but she felt especially unmotivated now. Clara lay still, willing her mind to go back to sleep and return to the happier memories. But instead, her mind turned to the truth.
Clara thought back to the day her husband had left her. She had woken up at the hospital, but James was nowhere to be found. She had listened to the nurses’ chatter as she tried to piece together his absence. “Her husband went off…She just couldn’t handle the stress…” Clara remembered gasping in shock, and nurses turned quickly towards her. Did the love of her life really leave her…for someone else?
After the discovery, Clara wept for days and days. For without her man, she felt so lost. Who could possibly replace her beloved Jimmy, the one she cooked for and lavished attention on every single night? Try as she might, Clara never fully recovered from the hurt. Jimmy was so mean! Didn’t he know that she would never get over him, that she would always dote on him? Their son soon sent her off to the nursing home, claiming she needed ‘round the clock emotional support. But her new residence was nothing more than a prison, locking up the remains of her shattered spirit.
Clara froze. There was a stooped, shadowy figure in her room. The face was obscured, but the clunky, old-man movements were impossible to miss as the figure approached her—it was James. But how did he get into her room? Thrilled at his return yet confused with his appearance, Clara kept every muscle still as she eyed her husband from the stealth of her covers. Gaunt and pale, he moved silently forward. “Hmph. Have you gotten tired of her already?” Clara grumbled loudly. “Don’t expect to just come running back to me after all you’ve done. I’m soooo over you.” Then she couldn’t hold in her excitement any longer. “Oh Jimmy! I’ve missed you so much. Tell me, is she prettier than I am? Why did you leave me? No one loves you more than I do. Oh, Jimmy! Talk to me, would you? Just answer me and I’ll change! You’re awfully silent, darling.”
Jimmy didn’t respond. Instead, he faded away as if he were a ghost. Clara watched him disappear, as her body felt an overpowering chill. What had she just encountered? Exhausted and bewildered, she finally fell into another dream.
Clara awoke as her nurse, Hannah, walked into the room and opened the blinds. “Good moooorning Miss Clara! You’re looking fantastic today! You know what? I should take you outside to enjoy all the falling leaves.” Clara stared blankly.
“Oh yes, yes,” mumbled Clara as Hannah help her stand up. “Such a lovely day. Yes, let’s go outside later.” Clara walked over to the window and peered outside, purposely angling away from the disturbing whitewash that characterized all the walls. It was all part of the administration’s plan to attract more 80-year-olds to the struggling nursing home. They were trying to revamp the old building, the nurses always assured Clara. It had been the same way for months, but the center remained as cozy as a psych ward.
The window was open. It was propped up just six inches or so, but Clara could have sworn that she closed it last evening.
“Oh right. Hannah? Would you do me a favor and call Robert later for me? I haven’t spoken to him in three weeks.”
Hannah glanced over quizzically. “But Miss Clara, you talked to him yesterday, remember?”
“I did?” Clara’s head snapped away from the window. She grimaced at the bleached white of Hannah’s uniform. “No, no, I don’t remember that at all. Hannah, you must have mistaken me for someone else. Honestly dear, you have got to work on your memory. I must talk to Robert.” Clara sighed. These young people really can’t focus at all, she thought.
Hannah sighed in return and smiled. “Yes Miss Clara. I will put in a call to Robert later. Don’t you worry.”
Hannah inspected Clara’s room and walked out, leaving Clara alone. Clara turned on the television and grumbled. Abandoned again with no one to talk to.
An idea sprung into Clara’s mind. She was going to find James; she was going to fight for him back. She smiled. There was so much that she needed to set right.
When Hannah came back and whisked Clara outside, Clara was in a noticeably less exasperated mood. Sitting in her wheelchair, she announced, “I’m going to get back my husband tomorrow.”
“That sounds like fun,” said Hannah. “I’d like to know more about him.” So Clara, rejuvenated with motivation, began to reveal the stories of her husband—how they fell in love, what happened when he went into the Navy, how life used to be back in the day.
“But then he left me…” As Clara trailed off, she noticed the darkening sky. It was as if the weather was telling her story too. “So I’m going to get him back.”
The trees began to shake in the wind and hundreds of leaves swirled to the ground, scratching and slipping against each other as they raced toward the earth. Clara froze midsentence, and an awful thought enveloped her. The world was dying. She was growing old too. How could she ever compete with James’s new mistress, who was probably young and bustling with gorgeous energy?
“Hannah,” said Clara as she heard booms of thunder in the distance. “Do you ever think about what happens when you grow old and die?”
“Sometimes,” replied Hannah. “But it’s not something that you can change. Life is just the way it is. So you, Miss Clara, need to stop thinking about death. It’s not coming for you quite yet.”
“I used to be so scared of death,” admitted Clara. “I’ve always thought, ‘What would I be if I weren’t me anymore? Would I be a bunny rabbit or a piece of dust? Would I know what I even was?’ It all seems so unknown.”
“I know what you mean,” said Hannah. “It’s like your life doesn’t mean anything.”
Clara continued to stare off at the rolling clouds. “When James left, I couldn’t wait to die. I missed him so much. But I just realized that I can’t die yet, not without James. I can’t leave until I’m with him again. But oh! His new lady is probably so young and pretty. I certainly can’t compare to her. I want James back though! I can’t die, Hannah!” An emotional Clara began to sob as sheets of rain started to pour from the sky.
“Hannah, I need to find him. He comes and visits me sometimes in my room. He was here just last night. That means he still cares about me. That means James still loves me right? Right, Hannah?”
That’s not possible, thought Hannah. Before a tantrum could occur, Hannah turned the wheelchair around and pushed back toward to nursing center. “I think it’s best if we go back inside,” she said. The sky was nearly black now. Hannah sighed. This poor old lady’s obsession is going to make her go crazy.
That evening, Robert Sheldon called his mother. “Robbie,” began Clara, talking into the administrative office phone. “I want to go find your father. I know where he is and I want to talk to him.”
On the other side of the line, Robert rolled his eyes. “No,” he responded immediately. “Absolutely not. Ma, do you realize how impractical that sounds? How are you going to get there?”
Clara was startled. “I’m going to take the bus sweetie. It’s only two miles away. Didn’t you hear me? I’m going to find your father. Don’t you want to have a nice family holiday anymore?”
Robert sighed. Grief had affected his mother a lot over the past year. “Mom,” he began. “Dad won’t come back for you. Trust me. I know this is hard to swallow, but I’m sorry.”
“Robert,” whimpered Clara. “How could you say that?”
“There is no way I’m letting you go Mom. I don’t want you to get hurt. Now can I speak with your nurse?”
Clara tried to hide her tears as she gave the phone to Hannah and ran back to her room. She curled up in her bed and brooded. Jimmy was so cruel. Why did he have to leave her? Didn’t he realize the pain he would cause to her? Why didn’t he ever answer his phone anymore? And why on earth didn’t he reply when she saw him this morning? And Robert! He was no better, always trying to discourage her ideas. Didn’t he want his parents to be reunited?
Wearied from emotion, Clara fell asleep early. She woke up to the noises coming from the closet. There seemed to be a rat scurrying around, which was normality at the nursing home. Yet tonight, with the obscured moonlight casting an eerily pale luminescence through the window, everything somehow seemed out of line. Suddenly, she saw the dark figure again. Clara hopped out of bed, ignoring the groan of her weakened limbs that couldn’t handle the sudden movements anymore. She walked up to the figure and shook him by the shoulders. “Don’t you realize what you’re doing to me? James, you’re driving me crazy!” she shouted. She heard a low moan. Could James finally be responding?
Clara stopped. She was grasping nothing. At that moment, a rat’s tail brushed against Clara’s bare toes. She screamed at the tickle and gasped for breath. Then she marched to her closet and threw open the door with as much ferocity as an 80-year old could muster. Clara turned on the fluorescent light and peered around. “That’s it, James.”
With a sense of purpose, Clara dressed herself in her thickest coats and crept out of the nursing home. It was five in the morning, too early for anyone to notice. Clara walked out onto the main road. A mixture of sheer determination and adrenaline minimized the stiff creaking of her knees in every step.
She had heard from the nurses that if you walked two miles west from the nursing home you would find anyone you were looking for. So Clara began to walk slowly, aching from more spots than one. It was worth a try. As she headed west, she began to cry once again. She chastised herself. Why are you so weak? Why do you keep wanting him back after he left you and never bothered return?
By the time that Clara had completed the two-mile walk, the biting autumn air had worn through her layers of sweater. She approached a barren plot of land dotted with lines of moody rocks. The sky was an ominous charcoal, dark enough that Clara could not make out the works engraved on each stone.
Clara looked around and called out James’s name. This is so empty, she thought naively. Why would anyone choose to live here? All she saw were endless, uniform rows of the same style of rock. Actually, they looked rather like headstones! Distracted, Clara shuddered. How awful this place would be to rest in. Some of these plots must have been rotting for ages.
As far as her eye could stretch, Clara saw the same repetition over and over: the headstone with dying leaves carelessly scattered over decomposing earth, casually plopping down atop plots of dead beings. Dead humans.
At once, it struck Clara. James was one of them—dead. He hadn’t left for another woman; he had left for heaven. Her dear Jimmy never came back for her because he simply couldn’t.
Dead people can’t come back. Clara’s mind cleared as her body froze. All along, she had only been hurting herself. This is what Robert had meant when he said James would never come back for her.
Clara tripped over her feet as she stumbled towards a grave. It could have been James’s, but that hardly mattered anymore. The sullen grayness of the headstone was sharply offset by the russet orange of the decaying leaves all around. Decaying twigs and logs embellished the grave where layers of assorted bouquets had once lain. The trees that once were a canopy of green up above were now stripped bare. Never had Clara seen such loneliness.
Clara felt defeated. Slowly, she began to retrace her path to the nursing center. With each heavy step, a slew of thoughts rushed through her mind. She remembered Robert’s voice, telling her that he was sorry. She thought of Hannah’s talk about death, and how it was too soon for her to die. Then she thought of James, her husband, the man who never left her until heaven ripped him away. The James that she had always remembered. The James that she wanted to have back.
Why was she even returning to the prison that she loathed?
The tears were scratching her cheeks, rendering the wrinkled skin raw. As Clara saw the approaching car’s headlights through her swollen, slitted eyes, she stepped out into the middle of the lane. The asphalt was still wet from the previous day’s storm, and even through the blurriness of her tears, she could see the messy sloshing of water as the driver slammed on the brakes. It was too late.
Clara saw large circles of red and gold flashing lights as she felt the impact of the hit. She braced herself. These lights are so lovely, she thought.
And then she left. Finally, Clara was off to find James.