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by James Hartman

Under the quiet, overcast sky the wooden table you drape a blanket over is cool. You cough several times in between your puffs on the Marlboro dangling from your mouth, but that doesn’t stop you from grabbing another when it is finished. After lighting up a fourth, or fifth, or sixth (you’ve really lost count), you pull out the three carefully wrapped peanut-butter sandwiches from the basket. Two for him because they’re his favorite. Then pluck the bowl of strawberries and the baggie of baby carrots, also his favorites, and arrange them, along with the sandwiches, in a neat circle. Pour Merlot in the two wine glasses given as a wedding gift 27 years ago. You must have prepared this ritual over three hundred times, yet you don’t tire of it. Surprises are priceless, and he loves them, and you crave the look on his face when he receives them.

Remember when he kissed you awake this morning on the tip of your nose? Whispered across your cheek? He mentioned the appointment, said it won’t take long, just a check-up. But you pretended to be asleep, didn’t allow any eye-flutter or lip-flicker to betray your serenity. How attuned, though, you were to his movements around the room. Giddy he was, tickled with excitement, hope even. He opened and closed doors with enthusiasm. He hummed your wedding song: Sometimes we’ll sigh/Sometimes we’ll cry/And we’ll know why/Just you and I know true love ways.

Check your watch. You smoke two more cigarettes, the second not as satisfying as the first, so you open a brand new pack and light a third. After putting the basket on the edge of the table you back away. Surprises.

On the porch swing, hands folded in your lap, your toes brush the floor as you sway. The front door creaks, yet you remain still. This, too, is your routine, to stay on the back porch until he finds you. Anticipate that face: his parting lips, the hiccup of breath, his eyes a happy bloom of blue. It always takes some time for his face to thaw into his goofy-big smile, for him to devour you into his firm chest and laugh the tickling way he does into your hair, then kiss the tops of your ears. But when he does every cell of your skin shivers, like he is a drug you must soak your whole body in.

He doesn’t appear. You wait. You wait more. You eventually stop swaying. Still no wooden murmur of footsteps, you walk inside. He is leaning on the kitchen counter, his face turned at an odd angle. For the next minute you are unaware of anything except for this hot tingle sprouting on the back of your neck. Words like cancer and stage three and second-hand smoke float from his mouth to the ceiling and swirl there, suspended.

“I’m tired,” he turns, unsteady on his feet, and limps down the hall.

Now fire swarms your face, and you stumble outside for air, where the breeze rages to a gust. Your bones groan, your lungs choke. You are older than just 72. You are ancient. Fingers twitch for your pocket. Breathe in all your nicotine relief while your eyes descend on the yard below: the ruffled blanket, the basket shipwrecked on its side, the shattered wine-glasses. Strawberries are broken hearts scattered in the grass. The wine, like blood, drips off the table. Though you shut your eyes and cover your ears, the wind still screams what is to come.

A recent graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University, James Hartman lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife and their two dogs and two cats. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, On the Rusk, and Gravel. He has finished his first novel.