Thirty-six Months Ago
The first time Matt asks Claire to marry him, she says no.
The answer is the same the second time. And the third time, too.
“We’re too young,” she says, following quickly with, “It’s too soon; maybe when we’ve been together for a year.”
The qualification is a sharp jab in the chest, knocking the wind out of her, but Claire sticks to her guns. What chance do two twenty-six-year-olds who can hardly take care of themselves stand in a marriage, she rationalizes.
Her protests, her logic, her insistence on being practical do little to faze Matt, who laughs off her pragmatic view of the world.
“I’m not going to stop asking,” he says. “Hell, maybe I’ll sweep you so far off your feet, you’ll be the one asking me.”
She laughs along with him, although a knot lodges in her chest. It feels vaguely like regret. It’s not that she doesn’t love Matt – if anything, it’s too much. Everything about him is too much – the way he makes her laugh so hard her sides hurt, the arguments (her word, Matt calls them debates) about the movie they just saw. He turns her around, nudging her to see things differently.
Not that she admits that readily…because he’d never let her live it down. Matt is as good as his word, and he keeps at it – cracking out one harebrained scheme after another, each one designed to break down Claire’s resolve. He sends boxes of candy conversation hearts – the chalky-tasting ones that elementary school children give out – to her office on Valentine’s Day, along with a giant, homemade card (her name looks strange in his masculine scrawl). He borrows her car after a nasty late-winter storm, washing the salt and grime away. When she gets in the next day, Claire finds that the glove box is filled with rolls of quarters for her to feed the parking meter (she rarely, if ever, has change).
When the weather gets warmer, Matt stands outside her apartment building on Tuesday nights, after she’s returned home from her second job teaching a children’s art class. He shouts and whistles until she lifts the sash so that he can look up at her. Once Matt knows she’s there he plays songs on a vintage boom box or recites silly poems while Claire leans against the old wood casing and listens. One night, he recites dirty limericks, and they both laugh so hard they cry.
When Matt runs out of songs and stories, he decides to go the Cyrano route, scaling the old tree that flanks the north side of the building. The long, thick branches stretch across to her window, providing the perfect perch for a moonlight rendition of something epic and memorable. Unfortunately, Matt is more city than country and never stops to think about the effect of rain on tree bark. When he leans out away from the trunk, he loses his grip on the branch that supports him, tumbling ass-over-teakettle onto the wet ground below.
One minute, Claire’s aware of soft clinks against glass – and then in the next there’s a strangled cry. She raises the window just in time to see Matt topple from the tree, his left hand still extended toward the tree. She’s out her front door before he touches the ground.
Even though she’s not there to see him land, Claire can feel the impact deep within her chest as Matt’s body hits the ground, and it aches with a brutality that shocks her. It’s a phantom pain; one that she hopes she’ll never know again.
Claire flies down the steps, her heart racing in time with her thoughts – a muddled mix of fear and hope and panic and prayer.
She doesn’t stop to think about the paint that streaks her long, faded work shirt, or the fact that her hands smell of turpentine. Those are practical thoughts; she’s normally a practical girl, but this is different, and she can’t take the time to stop and think. All that matters is reaching Matt, and making sure he’s okay.
He has to be okay.
“Matt? Matty?” Claire calls desperately as she rushes across the wet grass, the blades slippery and slick under her bare feet. He’s on his back, his long legs and arms spread wide as Claire drops to his side. Her hands fly from his face to his neck, probing for a pulse, then to the slow, even movement of his chest, and then for blood. “Matt, stop screwing around! Look at me!”
After what seems like an eternity, he finally opens his eyes. In the soft glow of the lights from the apartment building, they are the deepest, darkest sapphire-blue that Claire has ever seen, a few shades darker than they look in the daylight, and she struggles to put a name to the hue.Midnight, navy, indigo – the colors streak through her mind. Not a single one of them is right…
For just a moment, Matt gazes up at her, his eyes steady and wide. Then slowly, ever so slowly, the corners of his eyes begin to crinkle. He’s laughing.
“So all I had to do is fall out of a tree to get you to come running?” he says. The words come in short, staccato clips between laughter and gasps of air. “Why didn’t I think of that before? Here I was, trying to be all romantic when all I needed was a little Three Stooges!”
“You’re insane,” Claire says, pushing on his chest in exasperation. She tries to pull back and put space between them, but Matt catches her by the wrist. She doesn’t put up a fight, because that would mean pulling away from an unharmed, albeit annoyingly good-humored Matt. She’s locked in place, riveted by the color of his eyes. She lives her life recreating images, manipulating nuances of color tell a story, and yet this is something so unique, almost fleeting. It’s something so…
So incredibly Matt.
It’s like she’s never taken the time to truly notice or appreciate him until now.
As if sensing an opening, a chink in her armor, Matt props himself up on his elbow, still holding on to Claire like he’s afraid she’s going to run away from him yet again. “I’m crazy about you, Claire, and I’m not going to stop. Quit being practical. Marry me.”
“Practical would be marrying you. We’ve discussed this before.”
They have – ad nauseum. Claire wants to chase her dreams, to sell her paintings and leave an indelible mark on the art world. She and her friends left art school on fire. They’re all married now, busy with preschool, carpools and dance classes. All the hard work they put into school, the dreams of hanging their paintings in The Met, The MoMA, have been replaced. Now their talents appear once a year in elaborate, vivid holiday cards. They gave up their goals and bought into the American Dream. They’re happy, but will they wake up someday with nothing more than a parade of holiday cards to show for their years of hard work?
The mental images that Matt spins are beautiful, full of adventure and hope. If she gives in, will she still be herself, or will she fall prey to a new set of dreams and leave her old ones behind? Should she?
Matt is quiet, still waiting for Claire to meet him halfway. All the gestures (big and small), the silly, hopeful antics have been his way of proving there is nothing practical about them, and that marriage won’t undermine her dreams. When she doesn’t speak further, he lays out the breadcrumbs, slowly coaxing her forward.
“A fairy tale would be good for you,” he says. It’s like he’s reading her mind, anticipating her arguments and countering them before she can start. “You’re so focused on succeeding, but at what cost, Claire? Do you really think that shutting everything out will keep you the distractions away?”
“All work and no play means a really boring life. You need inspiration. You need magic,” Matt pauses, the corners of his mouth quirking up into a smile. “You need my kind of magic.”
The images run riot in her head…a giant tree with a dark boy sitting in the limbs, his long legs dangling. Then the boy is lying on the ground with a girl standing over him, her pale hand on his cheek. He’s color – his clothes, his cheeks, and his eyes, full of life and magic. She’s a wisp of dried grass waving in the wind, gold, brown, white. He’s what holds attention and draws the eye. Not her.
Claire’s caught in between – she wants to run upstairs and sketch it out, but she can’t leave him here. She doesn’t want to leave him, ever.
She could bring him with her, upstairs, but that scares her even more.
“Right,” she says, trying to pull free again. “Inspiration has struck. I’m going to run back upstairs and draw a guy falling out of a maple tree.”
It’s not a lie…but it’s not the truth either.
“You said maple. It’s oak. Where else do you think all the acorns come from?” He scoops up one of the tiny, light brown nuts and chucks it at her. It bounces harmlessly off Claire’s shoulder and falls into her lap.
“Is that what you were throwing at my window?”
“What’d you think it was?”
The acorn she picks up off her lap is tiny and perfectly shaped. Claire steps on them every day, their shells crunching under her feet like bugs. Up until now, she’d considered them a nuisance, something to slip on when she wasn’t paying attention. This time, the slip and the acorns have her attention, and she doesn’t think she’ll ever see them the same way – what else has she missed?
“Whatever,” she says, maybe a bit too brusquely. “It’s just a nut.”
Blood drips from a small cut above Matt’s left eye, and the blood is ruby red before it mixes into the darker hair of his eyebrow. There is color everywhere, swirling together to create new images, ones that Claire must capture. They’re already piling up in her mind, one after another, vibrant and alive.
“It’s not just a nut, you dork,” Matt chides her. “Oak trees are magic. Didn’t you pay attention during story time at that fancy private school of yours?”
Artists are assumed to be flighty and overreact, but Claire isn’t, she holds everything deep inside. She’s spinning now, control slipping away as the ruby of Matt’s blood, the sapphire of his eyes and the emerald of the grass that frames his prone body fill the safely neutral spaces of her world. The colors change her in ways that words never could.
She’s flying, set free by a fall from a tree.
“And what, pray tell, will an oak tree do for me?” Claire asks. She takes long, slow breaths, struggling to slow down her heart, which still hammers painfully in her chest. Matt is holding her wrist. His fingers are warm and surprisingly dry after his fall from the tree.
“Oak trees are strength,” he says. His grip is firm and sure. “They symbolize protection.”
“So you feel the need to take care of me?” The scarlet of his blood is echoed in the rush of vermillion that floods her cheeks, fiery hot.
“Hell no, woman!” he says, laughing again. “I’m going to lop off a limb and build a big box for you to store your millions in. You’re going to take care of me!”
This time, they both laugh. Claire doesn’t pull away when Matt releases her wrist. He sits up, leaning forward to press his forehead against her temple. She can smell him: aftershave, cinnamon gum, and sawdust. No one else in the world smells like this, only her Matt.
“Marry me, Claire. I’ll carry your box of silly stick paint and do the laundry, and I’ll keep you inspired. We’ll be magic. I promise.”
He weaves a beautiful picture, one that unfolds clearly in Claire’s mind, full of color and life and promise. Deep down, where all those feelings churn in her stomach, she craves the balance that Matt brings – joy to her focus, courage to her tenacity. Before him, there were parts of her that never existed, there are qualities in herself she appreciates now. Without Matt, there is no Claire, at least not the Claire who sees the world right now, awash with color and endless inspiration.
“You promise you’ll build me a box?”
He laughs, and his breath is warm against her cheek. “A great big one, with enough room to hold a ten-inch stack of twenties.”
She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. When she leaps, Claire is surprised by the gentle descent, and the warmth that engulfs her when she finally speaks the words.
“No, I won’t marry you. I want you to marry me.”
Much to her surprise, there’s silence – a very long, pregnant pause. Claire opens her mouth to speak, ready to smooth over the awkwardness with some silly joke, but Matt beats her to the punch.
“Really?” He’s wide-eyed, amazed and delighted, and his enthusiasm is so palpable she can almost see it.
“Yes, really. You’re gonna be stuck with me ’til we’re both old and gray, bud.”
Matt pulls her into his lap, kissing her eyes, her nose, her cheeks and finally her mouth. It’s not their first kiss, nor will it be their last, but it’s magical nonetheless because of what it means.
“You’ll never be old and gray to me, Claire.”
Thirteen Months Ago
Matt makes good on his promise. For almost two years, they are happy. After a short engagement (ten months, which shocks Claire’s mother), they are married in a ceremony that’s as unconventional as it is brilliant. Claire’s dog, an ancient Labrador, is the ring bearer, her three-year-old niece Ella, the flower girl. Their wedding “cake” is five layers of doughnuts, frosted in brilliant jewel tones.
“It’s a good thing you don’t believe in fairy tales,” Matt teases her as they dance under the stars. “‘Cause I don’t think this quite falls within the traditional scope for happily ever after. True love’s kiss is supposed to be the first one. I think we were both drunk.”
She laughs as he spins her around, the hem of her dress flaring out in a circle. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve already slept with the groom too.”
“Tramp,” he says, and then kisses her. They’re both laughing, and the world is light and airy, the perfect way to begin a life.
“I prefer ‘harlot’, thank you very much, Mr. Evans.”
“You’re very welcome, Mrs. Evans.”
When they come back from a week in the islands, they put a down payment on a loft in the city. Matt has grand plans to knock down walls, to hang special lighting for Claire’s pictures, and to build great shelves for all his books. When she isn’t at her tedious day job, dealing with dictation and legal filings, Claire can be found painting in the far corner of the loft, where the light is the strongest. She piles her long, honey-colored hair high on her head and wears one of Matt’s old shirts as a smock. He’s never too far away, poring over documents from work or reading a book. When one of them goes to the kitchen to get water or shifts from the living area to the bedroom, there are kisses that turn into distractions, but that’s okay.
They are happy, just like he promised, and the pure bliss fuels her inspiration. Her first painting in their new home is a giant oak tree, filled with vibrant red and blue lanterns. A small, dark-haired boy sits high on a limb, his long, thin legs dangling lazily over the side. When she signs her name– Claire Evans, her new name, not the one she was born with, Claire adds a small, stylized acorn to the tail of the S. It becomes her own personal brand, a little quirk that helps her stand out in a sea of artists.
People who purchase her paintings call it whimsical, something fresh and different. Only Matt knows what it represents: a seed that will grow into something more.
Ten months after they are married, Claire has her first show. It’s at a small art gallery in Tremont, and her fairy tale paintings, filled with all kinds of ethereal images, blend seamlessly into the open spaces and distressed wood floors. People float around with glasses of wine, commenting on the dreamlike quality of her work and the happy, hopeful air that infuses each and every canvas.
They buy every painting, and there is talk of commissions. Another show is booked and an interview with the local paper scheduled.
Claire is on her way.
The next morning, Claire rolls over, and her foot strikes something hard. It’s a heavy box, the burled wood glossy. Matt grins as she opens the lid. The lining is blue velvet, the kind that comes in tiny jewel boxes, but instead of diamonds and platinum, the box is full of play money. There are other treasures too, pilfered from hiding places around the loft: one of the remaining boxes of conversation hearts; photos and notes from their whirlwind courtship; and the little acorn Matt threw at her the night that changed everything. Wedged into the lining of the lid is a photo from their wedding – Matt at the reception, holding a sleeping Ella. His hand is pressed flat against her back, and he’s smiling. The box is full of color and life. He is her life.
“You made this?” she asks, her hand caressing the glossy surface of the box.
“Yep, all by myself.”
“The maple is nice.”
“Hardy har har,” he teases. They both know it’s oak. “I’ve got mad skills at woodworking. Maybe some furniture next?”
“You know it. I think I’ll build all of our kids’ furniture. You can’t be the only artist in the family.”
“No, I’m the artist,” she teases. “You’re the magician, remember?”
“At least you didn’t call me a fairy,” he says, climbing out of bed. “Coffee?”
When she’s alone, Claire runs her hand over the box again, loving the cool surface against her warm skin. Someday soon, she tells herself. Matt loves her niece, and he’s made comments in passing about having a little girl just like her, and a little boy too. Now that Claire is on her way, it may be time to start thinking about what comes next.
This year, she looks forward to the Christmas cards, the stories from her friends about their new lives. Life changes in strange ways – she’d closed herself off to that for too long. Fortunately, she’s wiser now, and she can appreciate the balance they’ve struck.
Just like Matt promised, the magic is all coming together, and she’s not afraid of what might come next, because he’s with her, and he makes her a better person.
Claire slides the box under their bed, content and sleepy.
Four days later, Matt is dead, and the world comes crashing to a halt.
Eleven Months Ago
Color and light hurt too much. Claire pulls the shades and hangs sheets over the windows to block out the sun. The magic is gone from her world. She doesn’t need illumination to see that.
Black, grey, washed-out browns leached of any warmth. That is all she sees.
It’s all she can handle.
Six Weeks Ago
The sky over the lake is the softest shade of robin’s-egg blue with only a few scattered gauzy clouds. From behind a pane of glass, the scene is warm and inviting, but the reality is anything but. While the calendar says it’s spring, the wind that whips in off Lake Erie is cold, carving easily through Claire’s thin sweater and jeans. She hasn’t paid the temperature any more attention than she has the chunks of ice that still float on the lake. Reality is an abstract concept, something distant and easily forgotten.
For the first six months after Matt’s accident, Claire lived in a sort of fugue state, going through the motions, but little more. She avoided her family and friends. Her paints were forced into a giant trunk and shoved in the back of the closet. She still lacks the courage to throw them away.
One night, in a near panic, she calls her brother, Rob, and begs him to come take all of her paintings down. When he arrives, Claire is curled up on the couch, her face buried in her hands.
“Just make them go away,” she begs. “I can’t look at them anymore. I don’t want to see…”
He makes them disappear without a word. A few waves of the arm and they’re gone from sight.
After a week of bare walls, Claire finds a stash of black and white architectural photos pressed between the leaves of a book. They are detail shots of old, abandoned buildings – that capture the lost craftsmanship of another era. Claire buys inexpensive black frames for them and fills the blank walls.
They do not fill the emptiness.
When Rob comes to the loft again, he is clearly surprised by her choice.
“They’re so bleak, Clarabelle,” he says, using her childhood nickname. “What in the world were you thinking?”
Claire simply responds: “I get them.”
She can’t very well tell Rob they are empty inside, just like her.
In the months since Matt’s death, she’s gone through the motions, working, eating, sleeping, only the necessities that guarantee subsistence. Her brother’s constant presence – showing up with food, with movies, sometimes with Ella in tow – is the only thing that keeps Claire tethered to the world. It’s a passive sort of blackmail, for Matt loved Ella like she was his own. Turning her back on the little girl would be a betrayal to Matt, something Claire will never do.
“You lost your husband, but Ella lost him too, and she’s afraid you’ll go too,” Rob tells her after Valentine’s Day. She’s been buried in herself, missing events and turning everyone away. “You’re fading from her, Claire, and she’s terrified.”
It’s just enough to pull Claire out of her shell, and force her to keep moving. For Ella, for Matt.
“Auntie Claire, Auntie Claire, wake up!” Ella’s sharp, high voice punctures the haze that clouds Claire’s mind. The little girl jerks her out of the world she lives in these days, the cold, numb isolation of her mind. It takes Claire a minute to recognize her surroundings – the Tudor architecture, the long L of the house, the three-car garage. She recalls the elaborate patio that Matt helped to design in the backyard, and the lake just beyond. For a brief moment, Claire is confused, trying to recall how she got here.
The chunks of sidewalk chalk that litter the drive pull her back to reality with a nasty jerk.
Claire hasn’t touched a paintbrush or a pastel since…since before, but even with the passage of time, the pain is still sharp. She sits on the drive, her limbs cold, her heart empty as spring erupts around her, full of life and hope. The sun is high in the April sky, washing everything out. It leaches the color from the daffodils, the crocuses, and the tree buds. Amethyst buds are lavender, the tender green leaves washed-out and feeble. Even the soft pink of the tree buds are almost white. Once upon a time, these were the colors from her paintings, the palette with which she dreamed up new worlds. The flowers are foreign, unrecognizable, drained of all inspiration. They’re already dying, on their way to death, just like her dreams.
“I finished my drawing, Auntie Claire, catch up!” Ella proclaims. She’s sitting next to Claire on the drive, her small hands covered in chalk. A few flaxen strands have escaped from her pigtails, falling down into Ella’s big brown eyes. She looks like Rob’s wife, not a Banks.
But I’m not a Banks anymore, Claire thinks, and the pain rips through her again.
“Sorry, kiddo,” Claire apologizes, her voice thick. “I was just dreaming.”
Claire rubs her eyes with the heel of her palms. Heavy thoughts hover around her, pulling at her and threatening to sweep her away. She needs to pull herself together.
“What’s next, Ella-Ella-bo-Bella?” she asks, trying to shake off the gloom that wraps tightly around her.
“You’re my fairy godmother, make me a unicorn!” the little girl cries. Ella refuses to accept that there is a difference between a real godmother and the magical type, insisting that anything Claire draws can and will come true. She and Matt created an illusion for the little girl, one which has her convinced that magic, true love and happily ever after are real.
Crude chalk drawings line the wide pavers of the drive, along with a hopscotch grid and numerous variations of her name in short (Ella) and full version (Ella Catherine Banks). The chunks of sidewalk chalk have all worn down to tiny, broken stumps and litter the drive like broken seashells.
Matt had been obsessed with seashells, their shape. He’d seen structure and form, whereas Claire only saw the shades and elegance…they’d viewed the world in such different ways, and that is why they had worked so well…up until there was nothing left for her to work with.
Hesitantly, Claire picks up a chunk of white chalk and rubs the edge quickly against the rough paver to form a sharp edge. Then, with slow, hesitant motions, she begins to outline the shape of a horse: the back, the flanks, the long, elegant neck and head. Ella is quiet beside her, watching in rapt silence as the fantastical animal comes to life.
With the outline in place, Claire slowly begins to color the body, using her index finger to soften edges and blend the chalk. With subtle shading she creates the illusion of depth and detail, brings dimension out of nothing. Claire searches the discarded chalks, looking for something to create further depth. She’s surrounded by chunks of pink and blue, but she can’t bring herself to touch them. She needs something neutral, something cold.
Colors are too much a part of the memories. They hurt too much to touch.
“Give me a sec, will you, Ella-bee?” Claire stands and wipes chalk dust on her thighs. “I need something.”
Leaving the little girl to draw, Claire disappears around the side of the house. At the edge of an elaborate patio is a large stone grill. Her sister-in-law wanted gas, but Rob insisted on charcoal – some testosterone-filled insistence about optimal charred meat. There are still a few chunks in the bottom of the grill, solid enough to perform the function Claire requires.
She returns to the front, and kneels down next to Ella to shade the flanks and mane of the horse. Ella leans against her side, equal parts fascinated and disgusted by Claire’s choice of drawing implement.
“You can find…” Claire starts, but stops short. “You can find materials anywhere, Ella. You just have to know where to look.”
She fills in the unicorn without another word, blending the dark gray with the white. She draws tack – a simple English saddle. While the tack indicates domestication, the turn of the unicorn’s head, its nostrils flaring, betrays the beast’s true nature. No mythical creature can ever truly be tamed, no matter what Ella’s beloved stories say. Domestication…domestication breaks the spirit and ruins the animal, even the most mythical of beasts.
A long shadow drifts across the drawing, blocking out the sun. Without the light, Claire is cold, inside and out.
“That’s quite the drawing,” Rob says over her shoulder. “You’re lucky to have such a talented aunt, Ella.”
“I’m going to draw like Auntie Claire someday,” the little girl says. Her declaration is confident, her attention riveted on the stick figures that dot the pavers. “Until Prince Charming comes along. Then we are going to get married and live happily ever after, just like Auntie Claire and Uncle Matt.”
The little girl means well, but Ella can never begin to comprehend how deeply her words cut. Claire is up, fleeing for the safety of her home before her brother can say another word.
Three Weeks Ago
“You’re brooding again.”
Rob towers over his sister, his cologne and his deep voice filling her loft the way Matt’s used to. Claire closes her eyes and breathes deep. The scent is wrong, fruitier, without the presence of cinnamon or wood. The couch, the bed, his clothes, they’ve all lost the scent that is Matt. Claire realizes that she can’t really remember the smell, just the vague notion of how it once was.
It’s like losing him all over again.
Rob’s knees pop as he kneels down in front of her, a byproduct of his years as a catcher. She remembers warm summers, sitting on a bright red blanket watching him play. Before Matt, Rob was her hero, the knight who fought all her battles. He’s still trying. “Claire, look at me.”
He doesn’t say please, nor does he frame it as a demand, and he’s not going to leave.
“You’re not sleeping, kiddo.” Rob brushes her hair back, away from her face so she can’t hide. “What’s going on with you?”
She turns away, barking out a single, dry laugh. It’s a mixture of tsk, a snort and a loud expulsion of air, the sound their grandmother used to make. The woman had been miserable, angry and cold, terrifying Claire as a child.
I’m only twenty-eight, Claire thinks. I’m too young to become her.
“Don’t give me attitude,” Rob warns. “I love you, but that doesn’t mean I have to put up with this wallowing. Matt’s dead, Claire. He’s been gone for months –”
“Eleven and a half.”
The silence in the open room is jarring, engulfing them in something profound and boundless. Claire’s grief is infinite, but her ability to remember is not. How can she mourn what she can no longer recall?
She can’t hold on to the memories – and things are beginning to fade. The further away she gets from Matt, both in time and distance, the less she can remember.
It breaks her heart.
“He wouldn’t want you to stop living,” Rob says. His voice is low and gentle. “We all loved him, Claire. Matt was my friend, my brother, and I lost him too. It hurts every day, but I can’t stop living because Matt did.”
Rob stands, his knees popping again, and Claire drops her head. Her long hair falls across her face, striping her vision with caramel and chestnut and all the shades of yellow and red she doesn’t want to name.
Loud noises puncture her sanctuary – thumping and banging against drywall, and then the screech of a hanger. Through her veil, Claire watches as Rob carries a large canvas across the room.
“Put it away,” she begs, horrified and repulsed by what her brother is doing. “Please, Robbie, I can’t.”
But he doesn’t listen, moving past Claire to the half wall that divides the living area from the bedroom. He pulls down the cluster of photos, tossing them onto the sofa without so much as a backward glance. The frames crash against each other and there is a high, musical peal as glass cracks. She can see the damage in her mind, fanning out into a web of destruction.
“You can’t hide forever,” Rob says gently. He lifts the frame, positioning it flat against the wall. The heavy-duty wire at the back catches on a picture hook, and the top of the painting tips forward to catch the soft golden glow from the track lights overhead. The colors burst to life, forest green, umber, crimson, cerulean and gold.
Claire turns away, but the image is already burnt in her mind: the faded blue shoe, frayed around the edges from wear. The cargo shorts with the rip at the knee. She’d painted a much younger version, but it is still Matt, sitting high up in their tree. He hasn’t changed. He never will.
“Ella’s birthday is in three weeks,” Rob says. She wants him to go away, to leave her alone and stop torturing her. “We’re having people over to the house on Saturday. Her party is on Sunday. I left an invitation on the entry table. She loves you, Claire, and she doesn’t understand why you stay away. You lost Matt, but she’s losing both of you.”
The dark rubber soles of his moccasins squeak against the wood floor as he walks away, leaving a broad path of destruction and chaos behind him.
Fifteen Days Ago
The picture still hangs on the wall. Claire doesn’t have the emotional strength to take it down, nor does she have the will to look away.
So many things are woven through the painting – little symbols, reminders of what is no more. Matt’s shoes, the battered All-Stars, still sit in the back of their closet. Her younger version of him has a scar over his left eyebrow, even though it came years later when he fell out of their tree. The boy is small, seven or eight years old, and full of light and hope. He’d been her way of projecting all the youthful exuberance and light that had radiated from her husband.
“I miss you, Matty.”
The loft is too big and too open to contain her words. They float away, leaving the emptiness that is her life. Matt’s clothes also still hang in the closet, and his books are on the shelf, but he’s no longer here.
He’s gone, and he’s not coming back.
“We were supposed to get old together,” she says as the tears slowly start to well up. They soften the features of the boy, and without the clean, strong line of Matt’s nose, he could be anyone.
They were supposed to move to the suburbs, have kids, rent a big mobile home and drive cross-country. Matt was going to build them a house, somewhere close to Rob’s house on the lake, one that he would design and she would decorate.
They never made it that far.
“I don’t want to forget you, but I am,” she says to the empty room. “It’s a bunch of stupid little things, but they’re leaving me, and I don’t even realize it until I can’t remember them anymore. I don’t want to lose what I have left of you, Matty. I can’t forget you.”
The sun hangs low on the horizon, the sky streaked with red and fuchsia clouds. It sets the room on fire, the walls awash in color. This is why they fell in love with this place.
“It’s a little jewel box,” Matt had said their first night here. “We should get a big blue velvet couch and put it in the middle of the room, and you can be the ruby in the center.”
He’d given her a plastic ring not too long after that, the paste gem a garish scarlet red. It’s in her oak box, stored away along with so many other memories she holds dear.
Claire scrambles to her feet, her body moving by instinct. In the back of the closet, along with all of her hidden canvases is the locker with all her art supplies. She pulls it loose, ignoring the tennis rackets and ski poles that fall on her in the process. She’s a woman on a mission, driven by desire and desperation.
It’s not that different from the way she ran down the stairs when Matt fell out of the tree.
She works quickly, using a pencil to outline the shadow and light as they reflect across the flat surface of the living room wall. She jerks the remaining photos down, no longer willing to accept that their ruin will be hers. They land on the sofa or the floor, and the glass breaks, but Claire doesn’t stop. Her hand moves as if driven by an unseen force, each stroke becoming easier.
When the light is too low to see the outline, Claire retrieves a floor lamp from the corner, jerking the shade off. The wall is filled with silver lines – the framework for the first painting she’s created in months.
At one in the morning, Claire is exhausted, her hand aching from clutching the pencil so tightly. The room is a mess, furniture pushed to the side, kitchen chairs scattered here and there, acting as makeshift stepladders. She’s turned the wall into a giant canvas, a twenty-one-by-twelve-foot stretch of her first memory here in the loft. It will be her way to hold on, to not lose those memories that she holds so dear.
And for the first time in months, she actually sleeps.
One Day Ago
The phone rings, a hollow, mechanical shriek that bounces off the empty walls. Claire ignores the intrusion, only pausing long enough to scratch her nose with the back of her hand. She’s cast the entire sky on the wall, replicating the brilliant hues of the evening sky. There is the silhouette of an oak tree – their oak tree – and a man lying on the ground underneath it. His long legs are stretched out to cross at the ankles.
She’s lived this way for weeks, only stopping to eat, sleep or go to work. Discarded takeout containers and pizza boxes pile up in the kitchen until she takes them to the trash chute. She closes out the rest of the world, her attention riveted on one task: capturing every little facet of her life with Matt.
The phone begins to ring again, once, twice, three times, before cutting over to voicemail. Claire would shut off the ringer, but Matt was the electronics genius in the family, and she has no clue where the instruction manual is. The handset lost its charge a long time ago, but the base contains a built-in speakerphone, which continues to ring incessantly.
There is a break between eight and nine-thirty, and then the calls start again, over and over, with almost no break between the first call and the next. It grates on Claire’s nerves and ruins her concentration. No one will ruin this for her. It must be done right.
Throwing her brush down on a pile of rags, Claire spins and grabs the phone base off the desk. There are splatters of paint across the antique wood surface and a ring where turpentine has eaten away at the varnish. A drop cloth covers the phone base.
With a rough tug, she pulls the power cord free from the outlet, and the phone dies mid-shrill. All the calls will go to voicemail now. She’s free to keep working. With a constant rotation of music filling the silence, she’s oblivious to life as it progresses. People may clomp up and down the hallway, cars may honk outside, but none of that exists here.
Claire paints through the night, bringing in more lamps and liberating them from their shades. With the bare bulbs approximating sunshine, she fills in what is becoming a mural, embedding all the memories too precious to let go: kites in Edgewater Park, the red oak leaf and soft coral rosebud that Matt wore as a boutonnière at their wedding, and clusters of “marry me” conversation hearts. The colors blend together seamlessly, despite the odd shapes and sizes. She has created a summary of their life – the memories and vignettes that she will always hold dear. She’s made it impossible to forget.
At six a.m., she finally puts her brush down and stands back to study her work. The entire wall is filled with the story of Claire and Matt, starting with day one. Others have crept in as well: Matt with his arm around Rob or curled up on the couch with a sleeping baby Ella on his chest.
This is how she remembers him, her shining, happy Matt. She can’t hold on to everything, but this part of him will always be here.
“I miss you,” she says to her husband. This is the dawn of her 366th day without him, and she can finally accept that he’s not coming back.
Tired but exultant, Claire quickly washes her hands and grabs her wallet, ravenous and hungry for company too. There is a little diner down the street, where she can read the paper and eat breakfast. Then she’ll come back and start to clean up. She’s lighter, freer than she’s been in months.
When Claire opens the door, the newspaper lies in its usual spot on the door, but it’s not alone. A small white envelope lies on top. The paper is cheap, and there’s no salutation. Claire picks up the envelope and pulls open the flap, curious.
Three Disney princesses stare up at her, their perfect hair and elaborate party dresses a stark contrast to Claire’s messy ponytail and paint-streaked shirt. The header cuts through Claire with its invitation to “A Royal Celebration.”
She opens the card slowly, afraid of what she’s going to find inside. A loose sheet of paper, the edge jagged from where it’s been ripped out of a notebook, flutters to the floor. Claire stoops to retrieve it, ignoring the date and time on the invitation. Ella’s birthday…she’d been so worried about being late last year, and then, when the policeman showed up at her door, they never made it. Matt died on Ella’s birthday, and she’s been so caught up in her grief and holding on to him that she’s lost sight of everything else.
They didn’t have the party yesterday out of respect for Claire and memory for Matt, but today is another day. There are four short lines on the note, the bold writing familiar. She bought him the expensive fountain pen when he graduated from law school, and he always fills it with deep, midnight blue ink.
I’m not going to let you hurt my daughter because you’re too scared to go on living. We all understand you are hurting, but it’s been a year, Claire. Ella loves you, and she’s lost so much. You have too, and if you don’t wake up, you are going to lose even more. Come back.
Claire runs her finger across the card face, trying to find forgiveness in Cinderella’s smile, Ariel’s big blue eyes. They all blur together as the tears start to build, and then all she can see is Ella, her small, round face so full of hope and excitement.
Rob is right – Ella deserves better. They all do.
“We’ll have a little girl like her, someday,” Matt had promised.
A single tear drops onto the torn paper, staining her name before streaking down to the edge. The tear is stained blue with ink, a few shades lighter than the words that rip her apart. The blue is a perfect mirror to Matt’s eyes and the color she could never name.
Ten Hours Ago
It’s too early to call Rob, but Claire is desperate to do something. She paces back and forth, kicking discarded tubes of paint out of the way with little care for the mess they leave on the floor. It’s not until she turns and catches a smear of purple paint, and the mural that has consumed the past few weeks of her life, that a concept truly takes hold.
A fairy tale would be good for you…you need magic in your life.
The birthday invitation lies on the coffee table, face-up and full of promise. Cupcakes, tea, princesses and magic…maybe there is a way to make amends after all.
Deep in the back of the closet, there is an old metal tackle box. It used to hold her father’s fishing gear, but Claire uses it to carry her pastels. She loves the little chalk sticks, collecting different hues and compositions the way some people pick up marbles or tea cups. The ideas, long and dormant, are bubbling up inside her now, so vivid and bright that she has to move. If she doesn’t she might forget, and she cannot forget. She won’t.
It only takes ten minutes to get to the little tea shop where Ella will be having her princess party. It’s nestled in a small square and surrounded by antique and other little novelty shops. There’s a neat fence framing the patio, a paved rectangular area large enough to hold a handful of small, wrought-iron tea tables and a large, black glazed planter filled with vivid purple boxwoods.
There is color and light everywhere. It fills the courtyard and brings the world to life.
Given that it’s a Sunday, most of the shops won’t open until noon, and the birthday invitation read one p.m. That leaves Claire a little more than five hours to work her own personal brand of magic, fueled by Matt’s promises of inspiration. Her mind is filled with chubby legs and big, toothy smiles, but for once, they’re not of a child that will never be, but the only child she knows, the only one that she loves with all her heart.
Claire places the tackle box on the ground and then sets about her work, shifting tables and chairs into a symmetrical arrangement on either side of the neat black lacquered door. Once the furniture is in place, she pops the lid on the box, which creaks from disuse. The top trays are littered with broken and half-used pastels in jewel tones, whites, pastels, every possible hue and shade. In the bottom of the box are fresh crayons, still wrapped with blunt edges. Burgundy and emerald green, cobalt blue and amber. There are sixteen different shades of purple, from lightest lilac to dark amethyst, and it reminds Claire of the way Matt used to tease her.
Some women buy shoes. My wife? She buys pastel sticks in bulk. Or, Claire can’t resist a good deal on overpriced chalk.
She’s purchased over one hundred different shades from different manufacturers over the years, but she’s never been able to replicate his eyes. Blue with just a hint of gold and violet. Some perfection is simply not meant to be captured, she’d thought once upon a time.
Life can’t be contained. It must be savored and appreciated. Locking it away on a shelf, painting a picture, it captures parts, but not the whole, because it’s merely an impression.
She pushes aside the memories that swirl around her and scoops up a handful of pastels. The sun is high enough in the sky that the shadows are long gone.
Claire starts with the base, drawing a long, red runner that leads from the front door to the edge of the patio. With the pastel turned on its side, she quickly fills the long strip, wearing down four crimson sticks and tearing back one of her fingernails. There are Band-Aids stashed in the box, but the tape will make her clumsy, so she continues on, ignoring the pain.
It’s the one skill acquired over the last year that she welcomes.
Next is elaborate scrollwork around the tables, drawn in emerald green and brilliant fuchsia. The corners overlap, creating brackets for elaborate E’s, drawn in a fanciful, swirling script. Perfect little rugs for the princesses as they dine in their fantasy world, as laid down by Ella’s own fairy godmother.
The sun is high overhead by the time Claire finishes with the scrollwork. The warm weather is luring people out of the little diner a few doors down, and they stop to watch her work. The lights are on in the tea shop behind her, the sign flipped to indicate they are open.
Rubbing her dusty hands against her thighs, Claire stands and steps gingerly over the red rug border, onto the bare cement that now looks like a broad path of ermine. A woman meets her at the door to the shop, a wide, welcome smile lighting up her face.
“Hi,” Claire says. Her voice is rough and rusty from disuse. “I’m Ella’s Aunt –”
“Auntie Claire, the fairy godmother,” the woman says. She pushes the door open, using her foot to force a small wedge under the door as a holder. “I just spoke to your brother. They’ll be here in about an hour. Would you like something to drink?”
“Water would be great,” Claire says. She’s not sure how she feels about this stranger talking to her brother. Did she call Rob, asking what the hell was going on? Did she think Claire is someone hired for Ella’s party? What did Rob think when he heard there was a strange woman out front, drawing on the pavement?
The woman passes Claire a large bottle of water and a few napkins. “Wrap them around the base to soak up the condensation. I’d hate to see your beautiful pictures ruined.” She glances down at the chalk drawings with a smile, murmuring “So incredibly beautiful,” before leaving to tend her own culinary masterpieces.
With the sun hot on her neck and back, Claire finishes her work, etching lavish golden suns in each of the four corners of the patio. The spaces in between are filled with all sorts of stylized icons: vivid red hearts, silvery half-moons, and deep purple jewels. They’re strung together on boughs that bear clusters of acorns and spiky oak leaves.
It’s only when she steps back to admire her work from a distance that Claire can truly appreciate the masterpiece she’s created – an elaborate chalk carpet, filled with all of Ella’s favorite things. The scrolling sets off the iron tables, pulling them into the design as opposed to making them stand out. It’s like something out of a children’s book, or even a fairy tale, and the sheer beauty of it wells up inside of Claire. The pride mixes with pain, sharp and sweet at the same time. She wants to stay, but she’s filthy and exhausted. There is no place for her here like this, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for her in Ella’s happy day.
In a dark, midnight blue, the closest hue she could find to Matt’s eyes, she scribbles a quick note in the corner, somewhere she hopes Rob will see.
Ella, Happy Birthday to our sweet girl. Love, Your Fairy Godmother & Uncle Matty
For the first time since he died, Claire doesn’t hesitate to sign her husband’s name. Moving from the loop of the A to the T is an awkward motion, and it trips her up for a second, but she doesn’t allow the guilt to pull her down. Happily ever after is a finite concept, but believing in magic and living is not.
Matt would be proud of her.
Two Hours Ago
Back at the loft, Claire peels off her clothes and turns on the shower. The hot water beats down on her back, and the soap turns a dark, mottled gray as she scrubs away the oil and chalk from her morning’s labor. When there is no warmth left, she wraps herself in Matt’s old plaid robe. She’s tired, but there is something to do first.
Claire pulls the oak box out from under the bed and slowly lifts the lid. She spends a few minutes gently poking through the contents, smiling through the tears as she remembers her husband’s laugh and the way he made her feel. Then she slips Ella’s birthday invitation into the box next to the picture of Matt and Ella at the wedding, and closes the lid. Tired and content, she curls up on a chair in front of her mural, and falls fast asleep.
Sometime, Not Long From Now
The rumble of thunder is what wakes her up. The windows are streaked with rain, and the sky over the lake is a dark, ominous gray. The clock on the wall reads four p.m. Claire’s meeting one of her art school friends for dinner, and she really should get up, but the beauty of the storm rolling in off the lake is captivating. She lies in bed, watching as the heavy clouds hover over the water, choppy with whitecaps. Images swirl in her head – magical, breathtaking stories that demand to be told. She loves being back in this space, and has incorporated the darkness with her work: it is inspired in a new way; darker, yet more hopeful too.
If Matt were here, Claire knows he’d say “I told you so.” She would agree.
When the storm passes, Claire slips out of bed and showers while her mind floats in another place, one filled with castles and unicorns and a huge, silver moon shining down over a little girl’s bedroom. When Rob called her to say thank you and to apologize for his note, Claire had brushed it aside, eager to spin her idea of magic in Ella’s room. Whether he was shocked by the about-face in his sister or simply happy to have her back in the land of the living wasn’t something Claire worried about, and after a few minutes, Rob let it drop, moving on to other things.
Someday, somewhere, they will need to talk about what happened, but for now, it’s enough.
Claire’s grabbing her bag and ready to walk out the door when the phone rings. She wants to ignore it, but something inside her cries wait. She scoops up the handset and hits the talk button.
“Hey,” Rob says. He’s out of breath, and his words tumble quickly through the line. “Have a second?”
“I’m on my way out the door…”
“It’ll only take a second. I sent you an email.”
“Okay…” Claire says, drawing out the word. “What gives?”
“Just go look.”
She follows Rob’s instructions, nudging the mouse to bring her computer out of sleep mode. With a quick flourish of the keys, her password is entered and Claire is staring at an email from her brother.
“There’s just a link.”
“Click,” he commands. “Trust me.”
Mousing over the link, Claire clicks and waits. Her browser pops up, loading the page for a local classifieds forum.
She’s about to say something snarky, but when Claire reads the title, any smart comment is long forgotten.
Chalk Mural Fairy Godmother, Rocky River
I watched you draw today, and after I sat in the sun, admiring the beautiful work as a bunch of lovely little girls ate cupcakes and laughed. I am only sorry that rain had to come and wash your wonderful creation away. There is so much beauty and hope in the world, and I lose sight of that sometimes. Thank you for reminding me to have faith, and showing us all that there is truly magic out there if we can only allow ourselves to see it. You are truly a fairy godmother. Bless you.
Claire sighs, and the fire wells up inside of her again, threatening to consume her from the inside out. It’s not as painful as it once was, and there is a hint of something else there. Satisfaction, maybe even pride.
“You know what he’d say if he were here,” Rob says, his voice husky.
She laughs, and it’s strangled, choked by tears, but filled with lightness too. “Yes, my husband was great for I told you so’s.”
“You make lives brighter, Claire. I’m glad you’ve come back.”
She doesn’t wipe away the tears as they start to fall, splashing on the keys and the back of her hand.
“I love you, Clarabelle.”
“I love you too, Bro.”
Love and magic, she realizes, are not finite concepts, things only in the here and now. Matt may be gone, but he’s brought so much into her life, and the best way to recognize that is to go on, to keep living, and to see the world and all the brilliant colors that exist in it. She must move forward, and it’s her choice as to what comes with her.
Claire hastily hits Print, waiting for the printer to stop its buzzing and whirring before she shuts down the computer. When she comes home, she’ll fold up the piece of paper and slip it in her oak box of magic, where it belongs.
Wiping the tears from her cheeks, Claire takes one final look around her home. The oak tree she painted is dark, and Matt’s legs are impossibly long where he’s stretched out underneath. It’s just like the night he fell, pulling her with him and changing her world forever.
“Thanks, Matty,” she says, and Claire really means it. There is magic in her life, and it’s thanks to him. She had her chance as the fairy tale princess, and now it’s time for her to be a fairy godmother and help others find their magic. She can’t always play the lead role, and her time in the spotlight has passed. Now she needs to be the strong one, the magical oak who helps other people. It’s taken so long to understand, but that’s okay. Claire understands now, and that’s what matters.
More importantly, it’s what Matt would have wanted.
Heather Hall lives on the west side of Cleveland, where she divides her time between a career in business consulting, the dream of being a writer full-time, and the daunting but rewarding task of being mom to a seven-year-old boy. She cheers tirelessly for the Indians, roots for the Buckeyes, and always has hope this this season will finally be ‘the one.’