They tell me it never happened. They say it couldn’t have. Some call it a dream. Others say I’m a romantic. But I know what they’re thinking: I’m crazy. Touched by grief. Making up stories to ease my pain.
But I have no grief. Not anymore. And my pain is only a single note in the symphony of my peace, for I know what’s true. I was there that day. I watched her hand reach toward him. I heard his voice in the darkness. I saw their love. Paul and Maddie. So call me crazy if you must. But I know the power of love. I’ve glimpsed its mystery. I’ve witnessed its light.
If you doubt, come with me. Step through the shadows of time to when it began. A cold night. Dark. And beyond the night…well, come and see.
Paul gripped the steering wheel tighter as the Ford Pinto curved along the mountain road. Rain fell in heavy sheets, slamming against hood and pavement. The swish of the wipers played a dissonant beat to the drum of water on metal.
This is mad. We should turn back. Paul glanced at his wife, sleeping in the seat beside him. Maddie’s breathing remained steady, her eyes closed. A deep snore drifted from her open mouth.
Paul smiled. Maddie hated it when he told her she snored. “It’s not snoring,” she’d say, “just strong breathing.” Strong enough to be heard over the rain. Of course, she’d never believe him. One day, he’d record it, if he dared. His smile melted into a low chuckle. She’d never forgive him for that. At least not until he brought her a Hershey’s bar—with almonds. The chocolate was no good, she insisted, without the almonds.
The rain quickened until the sound became a thunder on the rooftop. Paul leaned forward and squinted into the darkness. The car’s headlights formed circles of yellow, reflecting off the rain in countless shards of light. He rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t see the lane divider or the white line along the shoulder. Or the road that lay beyond the million falling diamonds blinking in the brightness.
The snoring stopped.
“Are we there?” Her sleepy question rose above the roar of rain.
“Not yet.” Paul’s knuckles whitened on the wheel. “We’re going to be late.”
“Told you so.” The humor in her voice relaxed his grip. He peeked over at her. A few curls of russet hair gleamed in the faint light. A smile touched her lips, curving into that funny half grin that he loved so much.
He reached over and brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. “Go back to sleep, smarty-pants. I’ll get us there…eventually.”
“It’s too loud in here to sleep.” Maddie raised her voice to a mock shout. “This rain is like listening to a bad rock band.”
Paul slapped a tape into the player on the dash. “You just need the right music, that’s all.”
Maddie groaned. “Not that old tape again.”
The strum of a guitar clamored against the rumble of rain. A second later, voices picked up the story of Puff the Magic Dragon just as Jackie Paper came no more. Paul sang along, adding another off-key note to the cacophony of sound.
Maddie reached for the volume control. “You know that song’s about marijuana, don’t you?”
“Urban legend. Can’t be proved.” Paul tapped his fingers on the wheel in time with the song’s beat. “Besides, our daughter agrees with me.”
“Mandy’s only five.”
“Exactly. No one knows more than a five-year-old.”
Maddie chuckled as Paul sang even louder. He belted out a full stanza before she sat up straight and pressed her hand against the side window. “Turn it down, Paul.”
“Aw, just because you don’t like Puff.”
“No, really.” She leaned over and squeezed his arm. “Listen to that rain. It’s coming down so hard the windows are shaking. Maybe we should pull over.”
Paul ground his palms against the vinyl of the steering wheel. “The road straightens out just ahead. Besides, ten minutes and we’ll be there.”
He downshifted as the Pinto approached a turn. “Nope. Might be fifteen.”
The car lurched around the bend. The tires hit a pond in the road, sending a spray of water across the hood and windshield. The wipers whooshed it away, revealing, for the briefest moment, a deer standing in the circle of the headlights.
The creature froze. Still. Wide-eyed.
Paul shouted. Brakes squealed. The Pinto swerved right. He jerked the wheel left.
Tires skidded across gravel as the car spun off the road into the trees. Branches slapped the sides of the Pinto, scraped across the windows in a blur of water, leaves, and glass. He threw his arm across Maddie.
The trunk of a pine flashed in front of him. The car hit. The steering wheel slammed into his chest. The dash rushed toward him, carrying with it a small square of color.
With sickening clarity, the colors took shape, and he recognized the Polaroid photo he’d taped there days before. A little girl in yellow pigtails. A crooked half-smile. And words scrawled beneath in childish script. Words he did not need to read to remember.
Drive Carefully Daddy.
Darkness rose from somewhere within her. Blackness, like a great, choking wave. Immersing her, drowning her, until she couldn’t breathe under the weight of it. It flooded her mind, spilled down her back, and submerged her limbs in icy heaviness. She fought against it…and failed. Deeper. Darker. Until her world was nothing but a black river, crashing in currents of pain.
Help me… The words squeezed from her, unspoken yet real. They became a silent cry, like mist above the water, shimmering, then gone. Did anyone hear? Did anyone know? Was there someone listening out there beyond the darkness? Help me. Don’t leave me alone. Please…
Time wavered. Stillness breathed. In. Out.
Then a voice dipped into the blackness. A single word, spoken from a world beyond her own. It came like a slender ribbon of light, rippling over the waves. “Maddie…”
One word. And in it, hope.
I am not alone.
The water receded. A little.
“Wake up. I’ve come to take you home.”
The blackness shivered, broke, then settled into a familiar gray. Her breath came again, steady and comforting.
“Can you hear me, Maddie?” The voice caressed her, embraced her in its gentle warmth.
I hear you. The answer formed in her mind but refused to be spoken. Stay with me.
“Come to me. Remember.”
Silence. Dreaded, awful silence.
Please… Don’t leave me… You promised…
The dreariness of the hospital room pressed into Paul’s consciousness more heavily than the Monterey fog pressed outside the window. Damp. Gray. Cold and unwelcoming. A moment, a lifetime, before he had laughed and loved, hoped and dreamed. But all that had tunneled into this one image—a flickering fluorescent light, the reek of antiseptic, and the woman he loved in the bed before him. His vision blurred.
The word fell and was lost in the buzz of the light, in the steady beep of the EKG machine. For so long he had sat here, with doctors and nurses going in and out, taking her blood pressure, scribbling on charts. He’d almost lost track of them all, as the day faded to twilight. As shifts changed. As visiting hours dwindled. But no one would ask him to leave. Not tonight. Because Maddie was doing much worse than anyone let on.
It was going to be a long night. And there was no way he was going to leave her.
So he sat here, watching the liquid drip incessantly through clear tubes, watching Maddie’s chest rising, falling. And the fog blotting out all hint of the California sky. So long, yet nothing changed.
Outside the room a gurney squeaked, an intercom rumbled, footsteps hurried past and faded. Outside, the world went on. But here, in this tiny room, life teetered on the edge of darkness.
How had it come to this? To a hospital bed, a frayed chair, and an ocean of silence between them? All the years. All his love. All the memories of a lifetime past. All captured in this one woman, pale, shriveled, so different from the vital, lively girl who shared his heart.
She lay there with her eyes closed, her breath ragged, her lashes dark against sunken cheeks. A single lock of hair, damp and dull, curled over her forehead. Tubes lined her cheeks, her arms, trailed over her chest. Rising. Falling. Breath rasping from lips once red, now the color of ash. Why did it have to be like this?
Did he speak aloud? No one heard. Did she? Could she? Paul leaned forward. He reached toward her. If he could just take her hand, pull her back from the dark place where she’d gone. But he couldn’t touch her. Not yet. She was too fragile, her life hanging by too thin a cord. “Wake up. I’ve come to take you home.”
But Maddie didn’t stir.
“Can you hear me, Maddie?”
Was that a sigh? Did her finger twitch? A shiver ran through him.
“Come to me.” It’s time. Come out of the darkness. Remember. He waited. A second. An eternity. Almost. Almost he had reached her. A pen clicked. Shoes squeaked. Paul straightened.
A nurse in hospital blue hurried to the far side of the bed. “Blood pressure check.”
Paul stood and moved away from the chair. “Not again.”
The nurse pursed her lips and didn’t answer. She just checked the levels of clear liquid dripping in the tubes, tapped the band around Maddie’s arm, then glared in his direction.
The nurse stabbed her pen at him. Her forehead bunched.
Paul jumped to the side. “Oh. Oops.” He had been standing in front of the EKG machine.
“Blood pressure’s good.” With brisk efficiency, the nurse reversed her pen and wrote something on her clipboard. Then she turned and paused. For a brief instant, her hand brushed Maddie’s. Her voice softened, as if she knew, understood, how hard this night would be.
“Hang in there. Won’t be long now.”
The words twisted through Paul’s mind.
She clicked her pen again, shook her head, and rushed from the room.
Paul stared at the place where the nurse’s fingers had touched Maddie’s hand, so white against sheets that were whiter still. And her skin so thin that it seemed translucent. Delicate, frail. Yet, the freckle just below her left thumb was still there, reminding him that some things don’t change. Some things are forever.
Warmth flowed through Paul. Perhaps, just once, he could kiss that freckle again. He’d done that, for the first time, years ago. Her hands were strong then, young and tan. But the freckle was still the same. He smiled. The kiss had been a joke, really. A prank done in passing. Yet he remembered it still. A simple gesture that changed everything. At least it had for him.
“Do you remember?” He spoke, knowing she couldn’t hear him, knowing she was still too far away to understand.
“It rained that morning, before the sun came out.” Only the steady beep of the EKG answered him.
His voice lowered. “Come, Maddie, remember with me. Remember the day I fell in love.”
Palo Alto, 1973
Paul smashed his racquet against the small blue ball. The ball thwacked into the front wall and zoomed toward the back corner. Maddie raced left, her racquet extended. She slowed, pulled back, and swung.
Paul squatted, ready.
Air swooshed through the strings as Maddie’s racquet missed the ball by a good three inches.
Maddie’s shoulder slammed against the wall. The ball dribbled into the corner.
“You all right?” He wiped his brow with his wristband. “That last chem exam gotten to you or something?”
“What do you know about exams?”
He grinned. “Not much anymore, thankfully. It’s been a couple years.”
Maddie grimaced. “Well, maybe if I had some fancy research job in a big pharmaceutical company I could joke about exams too.”
Paul bounced the ball with his left hand. “I’m telling you, money’s in research these days.”
She rolled her eyes. “Blah blah. I think I’ll stick to being a doctor…someday.”
Paul chuckled. “I’ll mix ’em, you fix ’em.”
It was an old joke. And not a very good one. “Just serve, would you?”
“You sure you’re ready?” He bounced the ball again.
“Here goes.” He slammed his racquet into the ball. It hit the front wall and whizzed toward her. She swung. And missed. Again.
“Your game.” Maddie twirled her racquet, then let it dangle from her wrist. “What’s that? Four games now?” She scowled.
Five. Paul shrugged. “Who’s counting?”
She put her hands on her hips. “You are. And don’t pretend you’re not.”
Paul grinned, then sauntered over and picked up the racquetball. He popped it onto his racquet, making it dance there with small, precise bounces. “You wanna go again?” He tossed her the ball.
She let it drop. “I already owe you a pizza, a movie, popcorn, and a Coke. At this rate, I’m going to go broke.”
“Normally, I’d say it’s just bad luck. But…”
Maddie glared at him. “Go ahead, say it.”
“Well, you gotta admit your game’s off today.” His voice turned to a whisper. “Really off. Can’t blame that on a summer class.”
“So, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. It’s like the ball just vanishes before I hit it.”
Paul reached over and tousled her hair. He loved doing that. Her loose, short curls stood straight up when he did it just right. “Didn’t I tell you? That’s a new trick of mine.”
Maddie chuckled and punched him in the shoulder. “Come on, let’s quit while I’m behind.”
“Stop rubbing it in.”
Paul slung his arm around her shoulder and turned her toward the glass wall behind them. A blonde in red hot pants crossed on the other side of the glass. The blonde was so different from Maddie. Where the girl was tall and slender, Maddie was, well, medium. Five and a half feet tall, not slim, not stocky. Somewhere in between. Athletic and built for racquetball. Usually, anyway. Just not today.
He paused. “She’s new.”
“You mean you haven’t asked her out yet? Looks like I’m not the only one whose game is off today.” Paul scooped the racquetball off the floor with his racquet. “The day is still young, my friend.”
Maddie shook her head. “What happened with the girl behind the soda counter?”
Paul opened the court’s door for Maddie and stood back as she slipped out in front of him. “I think she found me too suave and debonair.”
“Oh, yes, you’re very swave.” She purposefully mispronounced the word.
“All she did was giggle and talk about the Bee Gees. It was like she was fourteen.” He pulled out a towel from his gym bag and wiped the back of his neck.
“She’s nineteen. And everyone knows she’s a huge Bee Gees fan.”
“Well, you could have saved me a bundle on dinner if you’d told me before. I count on you for these things, you know.”
Maddie slipped her racquet into its case and dug around in her bag. “Poor baby. I thought you said all girls eat is salad anyway. How expensive could that be?”
“Speaking of food, I’ll take my pizza first, then the movie. The new 007 is out.”
Maddie groaned. “Not another Bond flick.”
“When you win, you can choose. Tonight it’s…Bond, James Bond.” Paul faked an English accent.
“Bond is supposed to be Scottish.”
Maddie cringed at his joke.
“You aren’t still crying about their replacing Sean Connery, are you?”
“It’s not a replacement, it’s a downgrade.”
“Your date is leaving.”
Paul glanced over to the blonde. She was sipping pink liquid through a straw and moving toward the back door.
He stretched out his arms and cracked his knuckles. “Okay, watch the master work.” Maddie sighed and rolled her eyes.
Paul strolled over to the blonde. She was pretty, he supposed. But a little thin. And her eyes didn’t sparkle. She looked, well, bored. And boring. He could turn around now and forget it. He wanted to, but Maddie was watching. So he straightened his shoulders and sauntered up to the girl. Three minutes later, he walked back to Maddie. “Friday at seven. Easy as that.”
“Hope she’s a salad eater.”
“She is. I asked.”
Maddie laughed. “I don’t know how you do it. Next time, get a date for me, will you? I haven’t been out in six months.”
Paul ran his fingers through his hair. “You find the guy.”
“Okay, how about him?” Maddie shot a glance at a man heading toward the weight room.
“Nah, too short.”
“That one?” She pointed to a guy at the check-in counter.
“Clearly he’s obsessed with his body. You don’t want that, do you?”
“Well, how about—?”
“No. No. No.” Paul jabbed his finger toward the remaining men in the room. “No one here’s good enough for you.” He cleared his throat, fighting to hide the strange dryness in his voice. “Besides, with that wicked backhand of yours, you’d scare off all these namby-pambies anyway.”
Maddie raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, my backhand sure was scary today, wasn’t it?”
“Admit it, you just wanted to see old Moore-baby.”
“You be good, or next time I’m going to find the most syrupy-sweet romance playing, and I’m going to win.”
“You hate those movies.”
“Yep. But not as much as you do.” Maddie grinned and batted her eyes at him.
Paul threw his hand towel at her. She reached for it midair but missed.
“I give up. My place, one hour. You’re driving.” She grabbed her bag and started toward the door.
“I’ll order ahead. Pepperoni.”
“Good.” She paused at the door and glanced back at him. “I’m starved.”
Paul slung his bag over his shoulder. “I thought girls only ate salad.”
Maddie pulled open the door and flung a final comment over her shoulder. “How dare you call me a girl.” She marched outside.
Paul laughed as she disappeared from sight. He stooped over and picked up the hand towel. He frowned at it, then stuffed it into his bag. Something glinted at him from the floor. Maddie’s keys. He grabbed them and trotted toward the door.
Maddie stood outside her car with one hand digging through her bag. The summer sunlight glinted off her reddish-brown hair, making it look on fire. Or maybe it was just her mood. Even from a distance of a hundred feet, Paul could see her muttering to herself. He snuck up behind her and dangled the keys in front of her nose. “Missing something?”
She snatched them from his hand. “I seem to be missing everything today. First the ball, then the towel, and now this. Everything just disappears right before my eyes.”
Paul spread out his arms. “Everything but me.”
“What luck, huh?”
He smiled at the dry humor in her voice.
She shook her head and attempted to insert the key into the keyhole. It slipped to the side instead.
He plucked the keys from her hand and slid the right one into the hole. “Good thing I’m driving tonight.” He opened the door, took her hand, and helped her in. “Your ride, m’lady.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Would hate for you to miss the seat.” He grinned, lifted her hand to his lips, then kissed it. Right on that little freckle.
For a moment, neither moved. The shock of something strange and new flowed through him. Their eyes met. And he noticed in hers deep golden flecks against the brown, flecks that he had never seen before. He dropped her hand.
And there it was. An ordinary moment in what would be a lifetime of ordinary moments. A moment that nonetheless touched the edge of eternity.
Maddie quirked her lips into a smile and looked away. “Suave. Very suave. And I’m not even blond.”