Sharon thumped down the carpeted stairs, each step weighted so that she wouldn’t appear to be sneaking up on Margaret. “No need to tiptoe,” her wife had admonished more than once, but these days Sharon couldn’t tell if Margaret were awake or asleep or…
Night air, cool against her arms, alerted her that the sliding door had been left open. Margaret’s ‘power buggy’ crouched at the far edge of the back porch, empty. Margaret was nowhere in sight.
“Oh, no.” Sharon rushed down the remaining steps, across the room and through the door, nearly tripping on the metal sliders. The porch light revealed only a few meters of lawn, while in the darkness beyond, nothing could be seen but the scattered glow of a few windows across the lake.
“Margaret!” she yelled into the night. “Don’t you dare!” She vaulted over the wooden steps, almost slipping on the damp grass.
In moments, she had crossed the lawn to the lake. A dim shape, prone on the bank, interrupted the shimmering edge of water.
She fell to her knees, skidding in the muck, and grabbed hold of the figure.
Margaret, her elbows barely in the water, turned onto her side. “Feel it,” she said, raising a hand covered in mud.
“You scared me. I thought…”
“I know what you thought.”
“Look at you. You’ve ruined your dress, crawling across the grass.”
“You know that doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t say that. Please don’t.”
“Then join me. I’ll bet you’ve never stuck your hand into the mud of our little lake.”
Sharon looked down at her jeans, her knees already having furrowed the bank. “Well, I’m in it, now.” She touched a hand lightly to the damp surface.
She took a deep breath through her mouth and abruptly leaned forward squishing both hands into the mud.
“There you go. Another experience added to our time together.”
Sharon stiffened, straightening her arms.
“Oh, don’t fight it, Sharon. Be grateful you’re alive to feel the muck.”
“But I am.”
“Then you must be curious what it would be like on your face.”
“That I’m not.” Sharon lifted her hands, holding them to her side, so as not to touch her blouse.
“Oh, but you are.” She raised a hand, coated in mud, and reached for Sharon’s face.
Sharon pulled back.
“Come on, feel what it’s like.”
Grimacing, Sharon leaned forward.
Margaret cocked her head, the way she did when she was curious, and made two circles of mud on Sharon’s cheeks. She leaned back to observe her work and laughed.
“You’ve made me a clown?”
“It’s only funny because you’re so not a clown.”
Sharon sighed. “I wish I were. Sometimes you’ve needed a clown.”
Moonlight gleamed on the wavelets pushed forward by the rowboat, and the oars made a hollow sound when Sharon laid them in the bottom of the boat. From shore, the scent of pine wafted on the moist air.
It would be cleaner, she thought, to weight the box and drop it over the side. But Margaret would not want to be contained. She would want to join with the lake, even the mud. She had joked about being fish food.
Placing the box in her lap, she slid the latch and raised the lid. When she lifted out the bag, it was heavier than she expected, and filled with a substance more like grey sand than ash.
Next to her, scissors lay on the bench, and paper towels. She cut open the bag. If she held it by the bottom, she could empty it all at once. But the thought of just — dumping Margaret into the lake appalled her.
Holding the bag over the side, she slipped a hand inside and scooped up a portion of the cremains. They trickled through her fingers like sand in an hourglass, like the shadows that abandoned her.
“I’m not much on ceremony.” Her voice was rough, and she cleared her throat. Then she turned her hand so that the rest fell into the water.
She reached again into the bag and again until it was empty. But the finer particles did not sink. They floated on the surface, spreading as if to seek out every corner of the lake. Some clung to the side of the boat. Messy. The way Margaret would have liked it.
She turned the bag upside down, shook it, then folded it neatly and laid it in the bottom of the boat.
With her clean hand, she pulled a paper from her jeans pocket and unfolded it. Words. Beautiful words. She’d spent days with a thesaurus. But the moon did not cooperate, and in the dimness the page was blank but for the smudge of ashes left by her thumb.
Her gaze fell to the paper towels. She’d brought them in case there was a mess. Her right hand, covered in gritty silt, she could swish in the water and dry with…
But instead, she let the page drop and then pulled her sweater over her head and tossed it into the bottom of the boat. Releasing her belt, she pulled off her jeans, her sneakers with them. The wooden bench was rough against her buttocks and the breeze cool on her breasts.
Leaning forward, she fumbled again in her jeans pocket to retrieved her final tribute. No words were needed. It was a round, red, clown nose.
Carefully, she stood, and put the foam-rubber ball on her nose. She spread her arms. The rowboat wobbled.
“Margaret, I’m not good at this.”
She bent and grabbed the gunwale and with a sweep of her other arm, vaulted over the side.
“Agh!” she cried from the frigid water as her head broke above the surface. The boat rocked, and the nose floated beside her.
“You didn’t think I’d do that, did you?” She grinned, drawing her hand down across her face. The grit felt good against her skin.
Then she reached for the nose and put it on again.
Gerald Warfield came to fiction late, starting out writing how-to books and textbooks. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop (2010) and a winner of the Writers of the Future (2012). His short stories have appeared in Metaphorosis magazine, Perihelion, and NewMyths.