A Short Story by Richard Gazala
[from the anthology "Trust & Other Nightmares"]
“I’ll do it if you do it,” she repeated.
Ella’s words drifted up to curl softly round Robert’s sweaty ears, like the nearly imperceptible wisps of silvery clouds caressing a nigh full moon glistening high overhead in the starless black sky.
Robert finally dropped his shovel. It bounced once noiselessly, shedding fresh dark soil onto thick green grass before settling on the ground. He inspected his bleeding palm in the moonlight. Shaking fingers grubby with moist brown earth pinched a long splinter of wood and twisted it out from the meat of his hand. He held the jagged piece close to his face, inspecting the shard with pale blue eyes bleared by lonesome years. Years laden with the oppressive guilt of an unkept promise. Through its reflection in worn varnish on the wooden sliver, the moon stared at him. The unwavering expectation he sensed in that stare made him gulp slowly, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his dry throat.
Robert looked down at Ella. “You know I’ll do it,” he whispered. The cool night breeze caught his words and carried them up into the rustling leaves of a stale poplar tree a few feet away. The tree still bore timeworn scars in the shape of Robert’s and Ella’s chiseled initials. Old love letters encased in a crooked heart carved in the tree trunk with the same sharp blade Robert now felt pressing insistently against his right thigh through the pocket of his muddy jeans.
Robert dropped to his knees next to a half-empty bottle of cheap red wine. An unsteady hand lifted the bottle to cracked lips. He swallowed desperately, savoring the burn of the wine on his tongue before it wound its way down to warm his belly. He carefully placed the bottle next to the discarded shovel. Watering eyes drifted over Ella’s frail features and the tattered lace of a drab bodice that he remembered had once been so lustrously white. He took another swallow.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked.
Ella was silent a long time before he heard her say, “I think people get the gods they deserve.”
Robert nodded slowly. “I know it’s no excuse, but I made you that promise with my loins burning and my head full of snow. Not that I didn’t mean it when I said it, but now…” Robert shrugged and rubbed his face with his palms, streaking his cheeks with dirt. “Ever since then, I shut my eyes when I see the future,” he whispered. The breeze slid across his aching shoulders and he shivered.
“I know what it is to be sad,” she said. “Watching you without me all this time made me sad. Every minute seemed like an hour, every year an eternity. I kept my promise, and I’ve cried countless tears waiting for you.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” He reached his hand toward her face. “I’m here now.”
“Yes, Robert,” she sighed. “Here again.”
A thin finger of dingy yellow light struggled through the dark night behind Robert and glinted against the dusky blade of the shovel. He turned and looked back into a small grove of gnarled trees, seeking the light’s source. The bulb of a flashlight wobbled between the trees, moving unevenly in Robert’s direction. He poured more wine onto his tongue. “Someone else is here, too.” He stood. “I’ll be back soon.”
“I know you will.”
Robert loped quietly on the balls of his feet to the grove’s edge and stopped, peering and listening. The flashlight ambled slowly toward him, winding along a rutty stone path that meandered beneath the trees. He heard the slow scrape of heavy boots and the steady click of a staff against the paving stones, accompanied by tired moans from tangled trees quivering in the pearly moonglow. He drew a deep breath through his nose, savoring how freshly turned earth perfumed the night air’s secrets.
A reedy old man emerged from the grove and stopped in front of Robert, squinting up at him. Dark, resentful eyes blazed from a gaunt face slashed with deep wrinkles that looked like scabrous fissures carved into his leathery flesh by decades of unappeased malice. Sporadic strands of limp, greasy gray hair hung from the man’s skull and tangled with a long, untamed beard to snake down the front of a loose brown uniform jacket zipped up to the neck against the evening chill. An embroidered patch on the chest of the jacket said, “Chuck.” The man leaned on his thick walking stick and caught his breath. He glared at Robert a moment. “It’s late,” the man rasped, smearing Robert’s face with the flashlight’s sallow beam. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Robert blinked in the electric light. He reached into his jeans, his fingers wrapping loosely round the smooth handle of the knife in his pocket, and shook his head. “No, Chuck. You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I work here, boy,” Chuck snarled through the gap in his yellow teeth.
Robert yanked the knife from his pocket and hoisted it high into the moonlight. “Not anymore, Chuck.”
Ella was still waiting for him when Robert returned to the poplar tree and stooped down to pick up the bottle. He felt her eyes follow his movements as he gently tipped the bottle and thin red wine quietly gurgled over the knife, rinsing away thick red blood. After scraping the blade against his jeans, he returned it to his pocket and looked at Ella.
“Do you hate me for making you wait so long?”
Her words felt like warm silk against his ears. “No. I know how hard it is to keep promises like ours, how scary. I know better than you. It’s the waiting that’s been hard on me. I knew you’d keep your promise. I just never knew when or how. I know now.”
Robert wiped his mouth slowly with his sleeve, and gulped hard. “You do?” He felt his courage waning. “Because I don’t think I can do it, Ella.”
The words came from behind him, a feral growl shredding the cool velvet of the night air. “You can do it, Robert.”
Robert spun round, and gasped. His jaw fell open and his chest clamped against his wildly beating heart as Chuck’s heavy stick smashed onto his right shoulder. Robert heard the sickening crunch of his collarbone shattering. He howled in pain and fell to his knees, his right arm dangling uselessly at his side. His eyes, wide and disbelieving, watched Chuck raise the walking stick over his head with gnarled hands. Silvery moonglow glimmered off wet blood seeping onto Chuck’s jacket from the vicious wounds gashed into his face and chest by Robert’s knife.
“A suicide pact is all about trust, boy,” Chuck whispered as he whipped his stick against Robert’s left ear. The force of the blow knocked Robert backwards. His head cracked against an ornately etched granite marker, and he collapsed unconscious into Ella’s waiting arms.
A cheerless smile twisted Chuck’s thin lips when the breeze floated Ella’s words up to him. “Thank you, Daddy.”
Chuck let his walking stick fall from his shaking hands, and picked up Robert’s shovel. “That’s what Daddies are for,” he breathed. He knelt down to gently close the scarred wooden lid of his daughter’s casket over the reunited couple, then stood and stared a long time at Ella’s headstone. His quavering lips moved silently, keeping time with his crooked finger slowly tracing the carved epitaph under her name.
It said, “All my trust in thee is stayed.”
Chuck wiped a hot tear from his cheek. “I’m sorry for making you wait so long, Ella,” he murmured as a shovelful of freshly turned earth spattered onto the casket.