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Her heart leapt, fluttering and gaining strength at the whisper of her name. Hannah Schmidt shifted and stirred under her quilt. "Jacob?" His name came to her lips like a repeated prayer. "Jacob."
She sat up and looked around the small, unadorned room. Shadows hung like curtains, heavy and oppressive, leaving the room dark as the soul. She held her breath, waiting to hear the voice again, but it didn't come.
After a few minutes, she shoved off the quilt and sat on the edge of her single, narrow bed, her back rigid as she listened to the house settling around her. Dat's snores rose upward through the floorboards in a low, rhythmic rumbling from her parents' downstairs bedroom. Her little sister, Katie, slept down the hallway, and in the next bed Rachel, her older sister by two years, slept peacefully, her dreams probably filled with details of her upcoming wedding. The thought twisted in Hannah's stomach like a knife, the smooth edge slicing away at her own unrealized dreams.
Lifting the green shade covering the window, Hannah stared out at the night blanketing the countryside, the frost forming along the rows of dried corn stalks and empty fields. Its coolness seeped through her nightclothes and raised chill bumps along her skin.
Hannah. The voice whispered in her head again. Come to me.
The tightness in her chest eased at the sound of the now familiar voice. The first time she'd heard the whispering, she'd jumped, looked around, searched for the source. Was it on the wind or in her head? Was it her imagination or something more? Someone calling to her...maybe even from the grave? Jacob.
Now, the voice called, and she obeyed.
She dressed quickly, her fingers fastening the straight pins with practiced precision, and she moved across the room and knelt in front of the cedar hope chest. Lifting the lid, she pushed aside a quilt she'd begun making when Jacob left on his cross-country trek, every stitch purposed with the belief that they would lay beneath it together as husband and wife, but the seams remained unfinished, the quilt squares unattached. At the bottom of the chest was a flashlight and a slim, hardcover book, both of which she laid in her lap and tucked her apron around in a makeshift pocket, securing the ends of the apron in the waist, then she closed the lid without a sound and slipped out of the room.
Careful on the stairs, she avoided each step that creaked and groaned. Dat's snores grew louder as she descended. Stealing through the kitchen past the wooden slab table, the lone calendar on the wall set to October, the propane-fueled refrigerator, she came to a drawer and hesitated only a moment before tugging it open slowly and quietly. She selected a carving knife, the blade sharp, which pricked her dress material as it clinked against the flashlight in her apron, the heavy handle knocking against her belly.
When she stepped outside onto the back porch, the coolness of the night made her shiver, but she tiptoed down the steps, careful not to make a sound and awaken her grandfather, who lived in the smaller attached house. The ruts of the gravel drive guided her toward Slow Gait Road, and her footsteps crunched too loudly in the stillness. The cooling air brushed her face like a caress. She should have worn her coat, but it was too late to go back. She didn't want to be late in case he was waiting for her.
Darkness shadowed her and with it came uneasiness. On her father's farm, she felt safe, but stepping beyond its boundaries gave her an eerie uncertainty. But nothing would hold her back. At the end of the lane, she pulled the small flashlight from her apron and continued down the dirt road, the beam of yellow light arcing over the bits of dried grass and buggy wheel tracks. Overhead an abundance of stars, like angelic hosts, peeked through the parting clouds to watch over her.
At the juncture in the road, she detoured across a field, passing a giant oak and three small bushes that, come next summer, would produce blueberries, and she took a path she'd traveled often. She came to a wooden fence and hoisted herself over its rails. The knife, still buried in her apron, clunked against the wood and the point jabbed her hip. Hooking her leg around the top rail, she grabbed the knife and held it with one hand while she clambered down the other side.
She had never felt more alive, her heart palpitating, every nerve vibrating, her ears sensitive to every crunch of footstep, every rattle of leaf in the wind. She listened fiercely for his voice, his direction. She watched for any shadow, shift, or sudden appearance.
The circle of light from the flashlight bounced jerkily with each step, then settled on the solid granite tombstones, small and plain and jutting out of the field, many leaning from the weight of years. She walked among them as if those buried there were only sleeping and whispered hello to friends and relatives, even Grandma Ruth, sliding her finger along the top of the stone as a gentle greeting.
When she was a young girl, she had come here for her friend Grace's grandfather's funeral and wondered what it would be like to speak to these souls now that they had moved on from this life. Was their pain gone as the Bible promised? Every tear wiped away by the hand of God? Or were they only asleep, nestled in their caskets, awaiting a holy touch or a sacred trumpet blast?
She had imagined lying several feet under the topsoil, nestled inside her own casket in the dark, hearing the footsteps of friends and loved ones overhead, hearing their whispered prayers, their questions and confessions. Of course, Dat said all of those buried here were not really in this place because their souls had moved on. And yet...still...even now, she wondered.
One day after Jacob had returned from his journey to New Orleans, his determination to be baptized fierce, his devotion equal, she had mentioned these wonderings to him. He hadn't dismissed her questions exactly but had only said, "There's much we don't understand, Hannah."
A week later, he had joined the company of the dearly departed.
Now, with her path direct and certain, she moved toward his grave.
But a noise from behind stopped her. Was it a cricket lamenting the end of warm weather? Surely by this time of year the crickets were long gone. Had she heard something else? Her ears strained, her heart yearned. She glanced back and swung the light around, arcing it over the grave markers. The emptiness of the field beyond proved her foolishness. Of course, Jacob wasn't here. It was impossible. But maybe...just maybe she'd hear his voice again.
She knelt beside the granite in the thick, dry grass and planted the butt of the flashlight at the base of the marker. Pale yellow light slanted upward across the carved name: Jacob Fisher.
Leaning against the stone slab, she pulled the small book from her apron. Jacob had given it to her years ago and had often read to her as they sat in the barn's loft or beneath the shade of an elm or along the creek, their feet submerged in cool water. The cover was worn, the edges slightly frayed, and her hand trembled as she turned the thick pages. The poems spoke of love and loss and echoed what was in her heart. She began reading aloud the words that had become so familiar to her: "Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years, Who each one in a gracious hand appears To bear a gift for mortals, old or young..."
Her throat tightened, and she paused. Living without Jacob made her life feel empty and incomplete, like a well gone dry-no longer useful, no longer worth anything. A wind stirred the brittle grass and the hair at her nape, drying the sweat from her vigorous walk and giving her a shivering chill. Again, she glanced over her shoulder, not from fear but hope. One day she would turn around and find him standing there, watching her, smiling at her. He would somehow come for her.
Oh, come, Jacob. Come back.