Catherine stood frozen, paintbrush held an inch from the canvas and dripping blue paint on the art studio’s wooden floor. She strained to focus, but all she could think of was the last time she painted and the morning that followed.
The memories of that night came to her in brief flashes – Aaron standing behind her as he guided her in finishing up a design on the nursery walls that he had started, pressing warm kisses against her neck in between forming perfect swirls of pale green paint spelling out the gender neutral baby name, Aaron stopping for a brief moment to rest his palm against her stomach to see if the baby was moving despite the doctor telling them a million times that it was too soon for that, Aaron spinning her around and kissing her over and over until she could no longer tell where one kiss ended and the next began, until she forgot where he ended and she began.
The following morning began with them sharing breakfast in bed. He rubbed her stomach, laughing when she complained about swelling up like a balloon, even though she was not that far along. Everything was fine until he mentioned wanting to tell his parents about the baby. She rejected the idea. No hesitation. It had little to do with the fact that she disliked them as people and more to do with the fact that Aaron still had nightmares about failing as a person – failing her – because of the mental abuse he had endured growing up. He had grown angry and pointed out that her parents were not flawless either. Even when he reminded her that his parents had apologized and were trying to do better, she stubbornly refused to let them have anything to do with their baby. He had turned away, grumbling something under his breath about how ridiculous she was being. In a moment of weakness, she’d sworn that the baby would never meet them if she could help it. Saying the morning ended on a sour note was putting it mildly.
She’d spent six months since that morning, wondering what would have happened if she had done something differently. If she had grabbed his arm before he walked out, stopped thinking about herself for once and just accepted they had their differences, could she have stopped it or would she have only been delaying the inevitable? There were no right answers.
She dragged herself out of her daze and stared at the puddle of paint at her feet. Even the good memories made her sad nowadays. She and Aaron would never again hold hands, never share a hug or a kiss, never get to hold their baby and coo over how perfect he or she was together. Everything that happened between them then no longer mattered and she reminded herself of that daily to distract herself from ever thinking about the future. She did not want to think about what she would do with herself now. What could she, a twenty-four-year-old unmarried and now widowed painter who never left the house do?
Catherine tore off a wad of paper towels and knelt, cleaning up the mess haphazardly. The white pine was now tinged a faint blue. What did it matter? She would be moving out in less than a week and the family moving in to fill her place had already gushed to her about redecorating the whole place. The happy couple – expecting parents, no less – even brought along paint samples and chosen which colors would go where. It stung, knowing everything that made the place hers and Aaron’s would be gone, but she tried not to put a damper on their excitement. She even went so far as to walk them out and wave a goodbye from the front porch. Then she went into the nursery and sat there, cheek pressed against the wall and eyes closed as if she could feel Aaron there.
No. She would not think about them again or envy them their happiness. Nothing good ever came out of feeling sorry for yourself just because other people’s lives were going well. She knew that much.
Brushing a tendril of wild hair out of her face and rising to her feet, she set the paintbrush and the paper towel on the easel. She needed something to distract her. Before she could talk herself out of it, she strode into her bedroom. The boxes were mostly empty in here. Although she had already packed up the rest of the house, she was not ready to face going through Aaron’s belongings, deciding what to keep and what to donate or throw away. She bit her lip as she glanced around, trying to decide where to start. It was too much, too soon. There was no way she could do this. Who was she kidding, trying to act like she was fine?
“Quit being a baby.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, Catherine, you can do this.”
She opened Aaron’s closet door. It had been practically forever since she had last been in there. During the move, they agreed that the separate closets were their own personal spaces. She stayed out of his and he stayed out of hers. As such, she knew he had hidden many birthday and anniversary presents for her there in the three years that they had lived there. Although she hated surprises, she had never broken her promise to stay out of there. It felt wrong to now. Even after six months had passed, it still felt like an invasion of privacy.
All his clothes hung there, freshly laundered. His favorite pair of shoes were kicked into the corner. Something caught her eye and she glanced up. Perched on the edge of the shelf, too high for her to reach, was a box. She pulled up a chair to get it down. It fit easily in the palm of her hand. Leaving the closet as it was, she walked over to sit on the bed and opened it. Out spilled a handful of petals and a slip of paper about the size of her thumb.
“Call this phone number,” she read aloud. “Ask for me.”
Catherine stared at the note. It was Aaron’s handwriting, but why would he leave a note like this to himself? She dialed the phone number before she could change her mind.
“Hello, you have reached Helen’s Handfuls of Happiness. This is Helen speaking. How may I help you today?”
“Well…” She hesitated. “I was calling about Aaron Johnson.”
There was a long pause. What if she was completely wrong about this? All she knew about Helen’s Handfuls of Happiness was that it was a florist about fifteen minutes away. How would Aaron react if he were here right now and knew that she dug through something that he obviously wanted to be private? What if this Helen thought she was completely insane for asking about something so vague? Her hands started shaking. Swallowing her pride, Catherine started to apologize and claim she had the wrong phone number.
“Oh!” Helen interrupted her frantic thoughts. “He told me you would be calling.”
“Of course he did!” She sounded horrified that Catherine would ever think otherwise. Before she could ask for more information, Helen beat her to the punch. “It was about nine months ago. He came in and bought a dozen red roses and asked me for a favor.”
“A favor.” She was at a loss for words, only able to repeat what she was being told at this point. “What was the favor?”
“He told me that he and his girlfriend were expecting and that he wanted to surprise her with something special before the baby was born. He asked me to wait until you called, so that I could give you the next clue.”
“For the treasure hunt.”
“A treasure hunt?”
“Oh, no.” Helen sounded upset. “Did I ruin the surprise?”
“No, no!” Catherine hastened to reassure her. She could hear Helen rustling papers around on the other end, no doubt still wondering if she had spoiled everything. “What is the clue?”
“He said to go read your favorite quote from The Choice of the Solstice.”
“Thank you so much, Helen. You have been a big help.”
“No problem, honey.” There was a pause. “I sure do miss seeing Aaron around here. He came in to buy flowers every Friday. He was always telling me how much you loved surprises. I wish I could have made it to the funeral. My condolences.”
She drew in a shaky breath. “Thank you.”
“You take care of you and that baby now.”
It hit Catherine like a punch in the gut. She wheezed out a quick thank-you and hung up before she did or said something embarrassing she would regret. She dropped the phone on the bed.
Six months was an awfully long time to be without someone you loved. Forever was a hell of a lot longer. As far as she was concerned, she was as adjusted as she was going to get. Aaron had only been a year older than her. It was unfair and that made coping harder. She had been to see one of the grief counselors at the hospital where Aaron had been admitted after the car accident and a therapist that had been highly recommended to her. According to them, her grief had gone from healthy to concerning when she lost the baby a week later and fell into a deep depression. People told her over and over that it was common to have a miscarriage in the first trimester but it almost felt to her like she was losing all she had left of Aaron. A small part of her even thought that she deserved to feel this way – that she should feel guilty because she had wished so much for Aaron not to be gone that she stopped focusing on how grateful she should be that she still had the baby. Now that she was on antidepressants, she had been told her grief would naturally lessen with time. She was still waiting.
Enough of that. She went over to the nightstand on his side of the bed and dug through until she found The Choice of the Solstice. She and Aaron both read it so many times that the spine was broken and the pages were starting to fall out. As she thumbed through, his bookmark fell out and drifted soundlessly to the bedroom floor. A lump rose in her throat. It was something that seemed inconsequential but, in that moment, all she could think about was how he was never going to get to read it ever again.
It was this book that brought them together. She had been reading in a coffee shop one day when a shadow fell across the pages. When she glanced up, he was standing there with a bright smile and a battered copy of the same book clutched in his hands. She had never read it before. He later admitted that he never finished it before because he never wanted it to end. They finished it together.
She turned the page and there it was. Her favorite quote had been underlined before so many times that she could run her finger along the page and feel the grooves the pen had left. Someone, presumably Aaron, had highlighted one specific part that read, “I chose you. I will never stop choosing you.” She blinked away tears. Scrawled out to the side was the next treasure hunt clue, which simply said, “Look inside my favorite pair of shoes.”
Catherine grabbed them from the closet. The last time she held these shoes was when she had given them to Aaron for his birthday years ago. He put them on once and immediately declared them the most comfortable shoes he had ever worn. Of course, she knew he would love them before he even wore them. Situating herself on the bed, she quickly glanced inside them. As far as she could tell, there was nothing there. She felt around inside them. Nothing. Her heart sank for a moment. As she started to pull her hand away, her fingertips brushed against something that crinkled. Her heart soared. She tilted the shoe towards the light and smiled when she saw the shred of paper taped to the top of the inside. She gently tugged it free and unfolded it. “This is the final clue. Turn on the black light in your art studio.” Again, it was Aaron’s handwriting.
She felt hesitant now, as if finishing the treasure hunt would mean the happiness she was feeling now – for the first time in a long time – would be gone again. Part of her knew she could not stop now when she was so close but the other part of her was screaming for her to stop. Catherine had no idea where this was going. For all she knew, it would only lead to more heartache. The worry that he had never gotten to finish setting up the treasure hunt began to set in. But she had to try.
Holding her breath, Catherine walked into the art studio where the blue paint from earlier was still drying on the floor. The black light hung on the wall in the corner. It had been a present from Aaron for Christmas one year. It was perfect for adding details that could only be seen under black light to already finished paintings. Aaron had joked that it was their little secret. Nervously, she flipped on the black light. The place lit up like the Fourth of July.
Catherine’s hand fluttered up to cover her mouth. The walls had been covered before, in quotes from The Choice of the Solstice, but now certain words had been painted over to stand out under the black light. She began to piece together the puzzle in her mind. The section Aaron had highlighted in the book flashed brightly at her from the wall now. As she spun around to take it all in, she noticed the floor glowing at her feet. She stepped aside to read it. Her heart stopped.
“Will you marry me?” she whispered, reading the words aloud to herself slowly as if they might disappear. Just underneath them was another line of text. “Turn around.”
Her eyes drifted closed. In that moment, she could almost imagine turning around and opening her eyes to see Aaron waiting there. He would be on one knee, smiling that smile that made her fall in love the first time they ever met. It would be everything she ever hoped for. She turned around and opened her eyes, blinking away her tears as she gazed at the empty doorway.
The life she and Aaron had had together was done and over with. She knew that and had known it for months. But, somehow, knowing what he had planned made the load on her shoulders feel a little lighter. She walked over to the canvas she had abandoned earlier. Catherine had stopped painting when Aaron died and she lost the baby. Painting had been the only thing that made her happy anymore and she was punishing herself. What had happened was no one’s fault. Whether or not she fought with Aaron that morning, nothing could have prevented the car accident and nothing could have prevented the miscarriage. She picked up the paintbrush. For a long moment, she stood there, teetering on the edge of something practically unknown to her after six long months. Then, she began to paint, streaking blue across the canvas.
Brittany Franclemont is currently pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at Stephen F. Austin State University and has previously been published in The Piney Dark.