Relatives slowly drifted out of the funeral reception into their own sunny lives. When the last suburban carrying toddlers and grandkids rolled down the street, Ruel Johnson clicked the door shut and twisted the locks with unchallenged sourness.
He slumped into a tattered gray armchair, the red recliner next to him vacant. A lump hit his throat like a meteor as he realized that his ninety-nine-year-old wife would never fill it again.
With tears threatening to escape, Ruel stood and wandered into the studio. Her studio. Elizabeth had always been the artist, whether she was painting vast landscapes or performing a sonata on the guitar. He’d sketch occasionally, but not as devotedly as her.
After she’d been admitted to the hospital, Ruel hadn’t had time to do much besides grasp her withering hands, and the room had accumulated a layer of dust. The guitar’s strings had begun to turn an awful brown color, and Elizabeth’s most prized paintings were marred. From the splotched window to the littered floor, the room shamed her.
“This won’t do,” Ruel muttered as he tested one of the dirty piano keys. Finding the paper towels and furniture polish, he set to restoring the room to its former glory.
He wiped the blemishes off the window until he could see his wrinkled face and graying hair. But as soon as he beheld himself, he envisioned his wife beside him, singing “Danny Boy.” He dropped the cloth, and with it a tear.
“Oh, Elizabeth.” Ruel surveyed the room, an ocean of memories flooding his mind. “What now?”
Goosebumps spread down his arms. Who could that be? Hadn’t he banished all the noisemaking relatives? He hoped it was the mailman, who’d leave when he didn’t answer.
At the second knock, Ruel glanced out the window. A minivan was parked on his curb. The driver was young and had a phone pressed to his ear. With a grunt, Ruel pulled himself and his aching joints down the stairs to the entry. “Go away!” he shouted.
Several blue outfits were visible through the window, but nothing more. One had her eye plastered against the glass, peering at him through the blind’s slits and smudging the pane. Another ear-crashing RAT-TAT-TAT followed.
“I said go away!” Surely reiteration would deter these blue things.
This time he ventured to open the door. Five youths, the oldest looking about eight, bounced along his front stoop. Two swung back and forth on the duet of white rocking chairs. One clutched a handful of flyers, which she thrust at Ruel. “Can you come to our choir performance?”
After staggering back, he growled and snatched one of the papers. It was pink—Elizabeth’s favorite color. With a scowl, he stuffed it into his pocket.
“No.” The only person he wanted to see dancing was Elizabeth, and she was in heaven dancing for the Lord.
“Please? We need money for a fundraiser.” The girl tiptoed closer, and a whiff of youthful perfume stung his nose.
He sneezed. Obviously they were amateurs. All they could do was hum a tune or scream songs as loud as their mouths would allow. Unfortunately, children never understood the word no. Instead of repeating himself again, he snapped, “Go away, you annoying girls!”
Her eyes widened and a trail of tears strolled down her cheeks, dripping onto her clipboard. The paper wrinkled like a caterpillar. Before the wailing began, Ruel waddled back inside his house and relocked the door.
Pressing himself against the ever-fading walls of his residence, he watched the blue shirts disappear. He ran a hand through his hair in an attempt to brush away a twinge of guilt. The girls didn’t deserve his bluntness, but he had nothing else to give.
When a low rumble told him that the minivan had driven off, Ruel marched back to the studio. He faltered as he entered the room, rubbing his palms against his forehead. His reaction earlier was perfectly reasonable, wasn’t it? But why did his heart pound against his chest like judgement drums?
Once he regained his breath, Ruel headed to where he’d left his cleaning cloth, but pain prickled up his foot. He stumbled away from the bone on the floor. Though he wore shoes, the object still hurt.
“Jigsaw!” he grumbled, picking up the gnawed rawhide.
The old beagle peeked around the desk, wagging his tail sheepishly.
Ruel stomped over to the dog, intending to strike, but at the last second he recoiled. Tears welled up once more. How had he come to this? First the choir girls, and now he’d almost lashed at his dog? Where was Elizabeth? He needed her.
His head pounded as his trembling fingers fondled the dog’s ears. Oh, what would Elizabeth have said if she’d been there?
Returning the bone to Jigsaw, Ruel scanned the wrecked floor. “She’d call it a mess, that’s for sure.”
As he stooped to retrieve the rag he’d dropped earlier, he struck his head on the windowsill and crumpled to the ground.
“Elizabeth, I miss you so much.” He curled into a childish sitting position, burying his eyes in his tattered jeans.
He stayed crouched until his ancient joints began to ache. He stretched out, and his shoes bumped the oak desk Elizabeth had spent so many hours at, painting portraits or composing variants of “Ode to Joy.” She’d never sat in a chair, and Ruel had always wondered what she’d used the space between the drawers for.
He crawled across the carpet and dragged out a heavy wooden chest from beneath the desk. He fingered the leather strap around his neck that held a key-shaped pendant—Elizabeth’s favorite necklace. He inserted the key into the chest’s lock, and it fit. A grin threatened to ruin his grim expression.
When he removed the key, he swept his hand over the curved, notched lid before opening it. Perhaps the chest stored paints or tools for any amount of Elizabeth’s hobbies.
“But why lock it?” The question twanged like a guitar chord as Ruel thrust the cover open.
His heart stopped.
Atop a stack of papers lay a sketch of a rose that he immediately recognized. Hands shaking, he unfolded the handmade card and read the inscription that he’d written seventy-eight years ago when Elizabeth was twenty-one. Happy first anniversary, Elizabeth. As the rose grows annually, so does my love for you.
“You … you kept it all this time?” he asked, eyes to the heavens. The memory of sketching the flower was even more vivid than the lines that constructed it. When his hands were young and his mind adventurous, he’d bought two tickets to Romeo and Juliet, which he’d tucked within the folds of the card.
His fingers moved to the memento underneath the rose sketch. On it was an inking of a baby grand, regal and smooth, signed RJ. Inside he’d scrawled, Happy second anniversary, Elizabeth! Every word from your mouth is music to my ears, but buy yourself a piano with this money anyway.
The same baby grand towered before Ruel, a reminder of Elizabeth’s smile and her explanation for standing while she played the instrument: “Sitting for too long is bad for one’s health.”
This time the grin broke though Ruel’s cracked lips. No wonder she had cheated death until ninety-nine.
He chuckled at the next sketch. A beagle puppy with eyes full of love sprawled on a round rug, tongue flopping and slobber dripping. Eagerly, he flipped to the interior of the card. Happy third anniversary, Elizabeth! You’re plenty bouncy and cute for me, but I know you love puppies. Hopscotch awaits you in the basement.
Hopscotch had nibbled the corner of the card, further authenticating it. Day by day the dog had curled up at Elizabeth’s feet or traipsed around the house as she cleaned every corner. Hopscotch had been worth every second of trouble once he outgrew his puppy years.
Tears rolled freely down Ruel’s cheeks as he withdrew the fourth card. A house with a car in the driveway embellished the front. Again, a laugh burst from his heart, echoing in the acoustics of Elizabeth’s many guitars and baby grand piano. “Elizabeth! Who would I be without you?”
Hours later, Ruel had filed through all the cards, memories ricocheting in his mind from each drawing. Images of cribs, Hawaii, and Carnegie Hall crowded out the grief that had overcome him.
The last card depicted two white rocking chairs on a patio, and as he added it to the stack of sixty-eight sketches, he uncovered a black leather book at the bottom of the chest. The Bible, embossed with Elizabeth’s initials, had been presented to her on her eighteenth birthday. For eighty-one years, the Bible had accompanied her to church, the hospital, her bedroom, and her red chair as she sipped sweet tea before the day began.
Ruel gently lifted the worn Bible. A few of the pages were falling out, and the ribbon was frayed. His cold hands warmed while the book rested on his lap.
Gulping down the knot in his throat, he thumbed through the noted pages until he reached the spot where the braided bookmark rested. Ephesians 5:19–20 had been highlighted and underlined and outlined multiple times.
“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Ruel turned the page to see whether the following verses were marked.
A gasp escaped his already sore throat, for a photo was nestled there. Vivid with color and light, it bore into Ruel’s eyes. It was a recent picture of him and Elizabeth sitting on the bench in their backyard. He studied every detail of his wife’s cheerful countenance.
Binoculars rested on her rose-colored dress, and her hair was tied into a messy bun. She was pointing to something outside the photo’s frame. But he knew what it was. A bald eagle had landed on the dogwood.
Her other hand clasped Ruel’s. Joy emanated from her laugh and the beauty of her evergreen eyes. As always, they sparkled in the sunlight and matched the dense foliage behind her.
Light passed through the photo as he held it up, revealing ink on the back. Ruel frowned. Who would dare write on his beloved’s photo? But as he flipped it over, he recognized Elizabeth’s looping handwriting, which was fun to read with its unexpected twists.
Throughout the years, you’ve shown your love in every way possible, whether through puppies, pianos, or backstage passes. I’ve cherished every gift, every moment with you. Now that I’ve been diagnosed with a fatal disease, I’m afraid I will no longer have any use for them. Thankfully, earth doesn’t follow us to heaven.
You’ve asked me many times which present was my favorite. I never answered, and that’s not because I wished to avoid hurting your feelings or keep you guessing. It was because my favorite gift was you. Every day you’d drink coffee (no matter how often I told you it was unhealthy) while reading the newspaper or sketching, and you’d be here in my studio. You were always by my side, and that is my favorite gift from you.
Now that I can no longer receive that gift, I want you to bless me with something else. You could call it the seventieth sketch, though I doubt you could draw this one: don’t be grumpy.
The bluntness of Elizabeth’s command halted the sweet music of her words. Don’t be grumpy! When on earth would he be grumpy? To find the answer, he scanned the words.
Please don’t let the bitter taste of my leaving this earth make you sour. Live for the Lord with rejoicing and singing, as I have committed my life. I love you.
Ruel caught his breath. Had he not refused to support the choir girls’ dancing and singing? Had he not nearly slapped his beloved Jigsaw? He scrubbed his hand against his face, then placed the photo on the desk.
As sweat trickled down his back, he tapped his nails against the wood. So what if he acted grumpy? He snorted. Elizabeth’s request was rather insulting, to be honest.
Insulting … but true.
What was he supposed to do? His heart was racing a million miles an hour, and he had no Elizabeth to calm him. He paced the room, kicking at the walls.
“Elizabeth!” he cried and kicked the door, leaving a black scuff mark from his shoes. Great. Another smudge to clean up.
Now he had to deal with guilt? With a scoff, he leaned on the desk. He’d much rather resume tidying the house.
After a nod to himself, he grabbed a rag and dropped it.
“Curse these old hands.” When he bent over, a wad of paper fell out of his pocket. Instead of the rag, he picked up the paper with curiosity.
Unravelling the crumpled ball, his eyes widened. The fundraiser. Curly letters and a flurry of musical notes that made him cross his eyes covered the flyer. He must’ve shoved the invitation in his pocket absentmindedly. He shrugged, intending to toss it into the wastebasket. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Over and over again, he read the childish calligraphy. He stared at the crooked eight-notes. He tried to ignore the crinkled lines that obscured everything.
A sick feeling gripped his gut, and a tear splashed onto the paper.
Lights dimmed and music hummed, and for a moment Ruel feared he’d missed the performance. But as he stumbled into the concert hall, he realized it had only just begun. Sliding into a foldable chair near the back, he gazed down the rows of people to the black-robed singers. After years of hearing music, his foot thumped to the beat, but his muscles failed when the melody began.
“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee! God of glory, God of hope!” The choir’s undeveloped voices rang out pure and true, and when the leader saw him, she smiled wider and sang louder.
Regret now washed over by love, Ruel murmured beneath the music, “Elizabeth, please accept this as your seventieth sketch.”
When D.G. Snapper first began writing, she was supposed to be typing up a historical fiction story for school. It ended up being a fantasy starring a dog and a dragon. Since then, she’s been writing more than she reads. She’s written one fantasy YA book, and is currently working on a sci-fi novel. Recently, she has become interested in poetry, writing random verses about maple trees or pens. Her greatest desire for writing is to glorify God and to make a difference in someone’s life. Besides writing, she enjoys sketching, playing the guitar and piano, making people laugh, creating music playlists for every facet of life and video-gaming with her siblings.