I walk through my empty house, a house Liam and I’d built together, side by side as partners and equals. We’d chosen and cared for every piece of raw wood and built the closest home we could afford to a log cabin.
The flooring salesman walked behind me, admiring the hand-hewn logs and pine flooring. “Wow. This is beautiful. You finished all this wood yourself?”
“Yes, thank you. It was shipped in from Montana. We wanted full log outer walls, but you know how it is…budget.”
“You did great. So, what are you thinking?”
“I need the floors refinished. Plank pine doesn’t hold well against kids and animals.”
A deep squeeze crushes my chest. I scan the natural floors, recalling a story with almost every scratch and dent. I point at a cluster of marks in front of the picture window. Long, deep scores, discolored by grime.
“That’s from a recliner we should’ve moved and thrown out long before we did.” I turn around. “And you’ll see the stains by the back door. That’s where we kept the food bowls for the cats. And a dog when we had him.” I trail off.
So many fur babies, my mind haunted by their ghosts.
The salesman, Rick, just nods and takes a photo with his phone, then we make our way across the room toward the open kitchen.
“I mainly want the scratches sanded out.” I look down at three indentations near the sink and point. “Now, something like those, don’t bother going that deep.” I chuckle, remembering back. “Stacking dishes became an art in this kitchen and sometimes the whole thing would topple to the floor. Those dents are from pots and pans.”
I shrug. “Life.”
He looks out the bay window over the sink at the crystal blue lake. Our walkout basement opens to a sidewalk, leading to a dock across the water.
“Amazing view,” Rick says.
“I love the lake. I can’t imagine how many hours I’ve wasted staring at it.”
“I wouldn’t consider that a waste. Sounds like hours well spent.”
I force a smile and nod.
We pace around the open rooms, scanning the wood for anything else to note. In the hallway, there’s a deep scuff in the finish by the basement door. It looks as angry as I was when I made it.
I swallow the tightness in my throat, and gesture at the horrible reminder. “That scuff needs to go.”
I owned that mark. A brutal scar, reminding me of the night when everything changed for me and Liam—for our family.
The memory still haunts me since it was the beginning of the end.
Slowing the truck to a stop at the top of the hill. Red and blue cutting through the abyss of darkness on that April night. I knew it was Liam. This was the road he was on the last time I spoke to him. But the lights were separated for what looked like a mile, confusing the scene in my mind. My last words on the phone to him were, “I hate you,” then I’d hung up.
I let out an ugly, lamenting sob. Why did I say that? What if he’s dead? If not, he was going to jail, and we were fucked.
Earlier that day, we’d met for a drink after work. Nothing new, no problem, right? If I could turn back time, I’d go to four that afternoon and simply rearrange the conversation. “Yeah, sure go help your buddy,” I would’ve said instead. “I’ll meet you at home.”
But that’s not what I said, and I can’t go back.
Later that night, after hours in the emergency room, we were finally home. Liam’s face was busted, his front tooth broken, hands holding a stack of traffic violations. His eyes red and swollen from tears and the weight of what he’d done. But in our home, the one we’d built together, the truth of what was at stake hit me. Filled with carnal rage, I grabbed a decorative battery-operated lantern and smashed it on the floor. The metal edge skidded across the hallway, gashing the pine in front of the basement door.
“I can’t believe you did this,” I’d screamed so loud my throat burned, tears pouring down my face. “I trusted you! You swore you were okay. You promised me!”
He tried to come to me. I threw up my hands, warning him to stay back.
“Laura, please…please, calm down, love.”
“Don’t you dare call me, love!”
I remember how my head felt like it would explode. How my body trembled all over from pure panic and raw betrayal. He’d promised me. He’d promise to never drink and drive.
Then my thoughts shifted. I could’ve prevented this. I could’ve stopped it.
“If only,” ran through my head, torturing me.
“If only, I’d gone back. If only, I’d ignored his protest that he was okay. If only, I’d not asked him to meet me at the bar. If only, I’d never started drinking.”
On and on, it wouldn’t stop like a record with a scratch, skipping on the same phrase over, and over, and over. I had to force myself to refocus on Liam.
“We’re going to lose everything!”
Grabbing a vase on the kitchen table, I threw it at the back door. Thankfully, it bounced and rolled.
“You’ve destroyed everything we’ve worked for! We’ll lose the house. What about the kids? There’s no way we’ll ever recover from this. Do you understand what could happen? You’ll lose your job. How do you expect us to pay for this?”
“I’m so sorry.” I heard his voice crack as he covered his face and sat down on the couch.
I shook my head back and forth, feeling crazy. “We’re screwed. We’re so screwed. You’re lucky you aren’t dead. You could’ve killed yourself. You could’ve killed someone else!”
“But I didn’t.” His cornflower blue eyes, looking up at me, pleading. “It’ll be okay. We’ll work this out.”
“There’s nothing to work out,” I shouted. “Why? Why couldn’t you just cheat on me? Not this! We’re fucked!”
“Please, Laura. I love you. We’ll figure it out…”
Rick lightly touches my shoulder. “Ms. Patrick, are you okay?”
I flinch, heat rising in my cheeks. “I’m sorry, there are a lot of memories here.” I wave a hand. “Let me show you the bedrooms.”
I lead him down the hallway to the kids’ rooms. Finley’s is to the right and Collin’s on the left. They’re in their twenties now, and once again, my heart feels heavy thinking of how fast time has gone. Collin’s in Ireland, getting to know his extended family. Finley’s at University in Dublin. Who would’ve thought they’d choose to go so far away? I suppose their roots called them home. I’m happy for them, jealous sometimes that they’re experiencing things I still crave, but as a parent, I couldn’t be prouder.
“As you can see, two kids and a dog did a number on these floors. There are some pretty bad spots, but nothing your guys can’t sand out.”
Rick snaps another quick photo. “Shouldn’t be a problem. Are you planning to sell?”
I shrug. “Haven’t decided yet. When my son comes back, I’ll see what he wants. He’s always wanted the place when we, uh…when I’m ready to move.”
Rick tilts his head. “Your husband?”
The words hang between us only opening the door to more questions. Rick’s face falls in confusion. I know the look—“Where?”
Instead of explaining, I pivot and walk out of Finley’s bedroom. I hear Rick following. We go back through the living room to the staircase. “Let me show you the upstairs.”
With each step, memories flood me with years of running up and down the stairs, carrying baskets of laundry, shouting at the kids—at the dog, trying not to trip over a cat laying right smack in the way, hollering for Liam—at Liam, sitting on the top step devastated by another rejection letter, practically falling down them overjoyed at the signing of my first novel. Liam making love to me right where I just stepped. I squeeze my eyes shut for a brief moment.
So many damn memories.
Moving a bit faster, my hand slides along the log rail smoothed soft from years of supporting our grasp. I turn left and go to the loft. Rick follows, assessing the room along the way. There used to be a sturdy, wooden easel and drawing table in one corner, artwork and paints stacked in another, but they’ve all been put in storage for now. Several feet in front of the North facing window, the floor is stained with ultramarine oil paint, some green and red spots, as well. The full-length windows and sliding glass door give a bird’s eye view of the shimmering lake beyond the balcony.
Rick walks to the door. “May I?”
“Of course. It’s a fabulous view.”
He slides the door open and steps out. A breeze fills the room with the smell of fresh water and pine. It’s the little things I’ll miss the most. I join Rick outside.
“What a beautiful cove. So secluded, not a neighbor in sight.”
“Yeah, it’s one of the things we loved about the spot. Only an occasional boater or fisherman comes back here.”
“Do you go out on the water much?”
“No. I love it but mostly from the dock.”
He looks around, inhaling the fresh air. “It’s breathtaking.”
His appreciation is kind, but suddenly I feel defensive. I want to tell him why I can’t stay. I resist the urge to confess all of the sins and betrayals this house has sheltered. I know it’s beautiful. I understand it’s a dream to other people who don’t know, who will never understand the pain I feel, remembering every second of the past as I’ve tried to fall back in love with something, I’d worked so hard to build and protect. No one will ever understand. Just as I can’t fully grasp what it’s like to walk in their reality.
Friends and family dismissed my fears about the alcoholism like Liam and I had a love stronger than the consequences of the disease. They had no idea how hard it was day after day, fighting a demon who refused to let him go. He’d quit for years, then the drink would inch back into our life, casual and quiet, convincing him and me that it wouldn’t become a problem again. We lost the battle every time, and we paid the ultimate price because of it.
I move across the balcony to the sliding glass door that opens to the master bedroom. I’ve dreaded this part since I made the appointment with Rick’s Flooring and Tile. I rarely come into my bedroom. The place where I’d written my first three novels, my space of solace and peace, where I’d shared my body, my passions, my everything with Liam.
I pull the sliding door open and take a deep breath as I wait for Rick to join me. I’m starting to wonder if I sell the place, maybe he should be the first person I call.
I let him go first. The room isn’t enormous, actually quite small for a master bedroom. To the left is the door to the bathroom and another for the walk-in closet. At the far end is the dormer nook and window seat Liam built shortly after we’d moved in. The window shows parts of the massive oak tree in the front yard. I’d sit in the seat for hours when I was writing. All writers need a spot to sit and let the movie play in their head before they pen the story. I’ll miss it, that much I know.
“I’d like this room carpeted. It’s not worth refinishing and I always wanted carpet in here instead of the hardwood.”
Rick’s expression was much like the one of disapproval Liam gave me years ago. Liam won that debate, but now I can do whatever I want.
Staring Rick down, I reiterate, “White, plush, carpeting.”
He gives me a nod and makes a note on his phone. Then he moves the device and looks around his feet. He’s standing where our bed used to be. I don’t want to explain, but it’s unavoidable. His head jerks up, mouth slightly agape.
“They’re cigarette burns,” I say, exhaustion hitting me at the admission.
“My goodness, you’re lucky…”
“I know,” I cut him off. “As you can see, it was a common problem.”
All around his brown dress shoes were long, black scars in the wood where Liam had dropped his cigarette in the middle of the night, falling back to sleep as it burned out on the floor. We’d had knock-down drag-outs over the habit. It terrified me all of the time. I begged him to stop, and then I screamed and yelled, hoping my passionate cries would compel him to quit. As long as he hadn’t over-indulged, he respected me and our home. But when the whiskey had him tight in its clutches, it could’ve been Mother Mary standing there and he still would’ve lit up.
He’d been cursed as a child, beginning with grabbing beers for his dad and uncles then promoted to being one of the men. Liam was a good timer who loved to tell stories. The further in the drink he went, the thicker his Irish brogue rolled. I’d fallen in love with his beauty and charm but also his accent, his stories, the way his eyes would sparkle with delight as he held the people captive. Everyone, I mean, anyone and everyone who knew Liam, loved him. This was why my concerns were always dismissed by outsiders. So, I stopped talking and started writing.
I shake my head, looking down at the burns. We’ve dwelled on this enough. The shame and embarrassment I feel is diminishing how much Liam and I truly loved each other.
“Never mind that,” I say. “Let me show you the bathroom.”
“Yeah, of course. You want it tiled?”
I go to the bathroom door and pause with my hand on the knob. “The contractor told me it was gutted.” I let go and take a step back. “Um, I’d rather you go first.”
Rick’s brow furrows. “Okay.”
I touch his forearm before I realize what I’m doing. “No one said anything to you?”
I know my expression says it, so I don’t. Rick stares, concern written all over his face.
I take my hand away and remember why he’s here. “I’d like the room done in tile from ceiling to floor. There should be a blueprint in there, showing where the window will be installed and how the new bathtub will be set. The tile samples should be in there, also.”
Rick blinks, then he pushes open the door, and steps inside.
I can’t follow him.
Years after persevering Liam’s accident and DUI, we had been arguing about how he wouldn’t read any of my work. I’d published five times, was making a good bit of money from royalties, and he wouldn’t even read my books. It honestly broke my heart. I didn’t want or need his praise. I just wanted to know his thoughts, that he was interested, to share the experience with him, for him to love my characters, too.
Six months ago, he’d looked at my computer, finally willing to read, I guess. I’ll never know what really happened. Regardless, I’d written those words for me and me alone.
When I’d realized I was pressing time to get ready to go to lunch that day, I’d forgotten to close the window on my Mac. It wasn’t like Liam had rummaged through my files, it was just sitting there on the monitor for God or anyone to read.
I came home that evening, after having a wonderful day with my dear friend and editor. I’d had a couple of glasses of wine and meandered upstairs. At first, I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t in our bedroom. I hollered his name and pushed open the door to our bathroom. He had a bottle of whiskey in one hand, a handgun in the other, and the back of his head was all over the walls.
I’ll never get that moment out of my mind, my nose. The blood, the smell. The horror.
And to think that I’d feared the sight of red and blue lights on a dark, April night would be the end of us…
Liam was a troubled man despite his front of happiness, but I’d never imagined he’d take it that far.
Later that night, when the house was quiet, I found a note by my computer.
Laura, I’m sorry, I’ve been so horrible to you. I didn’t realize how much I’ve hurt you until tonight. Please know, I loved you with everything I had. Liam
I dropped the paper. Through clouded tears, I looked at the screen. The pages were never meant to be seen by anyone. But there they were on the monitor in black and white unabashed truth. I’d poured out my soul, so raw and honest, so brutal and cruel. The words needed to breathe, to live, to get out of me, so I could move forward and begin to forgive.
I’d never meant to hurt him.
He didn’t even give me a chance to explain.
Rick steps out of the bathroom. I’m instantly sucked back to the present, but I feel like I’ve been shot out of a black hole of terror and regret.
“We’ve got you covered, Ms. Patrick.” He tilts his head the way he has the entire time he’s been here. A look of genuine concern and kindness. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I fight the sting in my eyes.
“Yes. Thank you. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
Amy J. Markstahler writes in her home near the Salt Fork River just outside Urbana, Illinois. She was awarded 3rd place in the Linda Howard Award of Excellence in 2016 for her novel Life Happens on the Stairs. Her poetry has been included in two anthologies and she is the author of two novels.