THE PINES • by Madeline Gressman

The fire had been burning for eight hours, but the earth was still not soft enough. Just as Harold predicted.

It had been an unforgiving winter: sub-zero temperatures for months, ice storms, and buckets of snow. It had taken Harold a full day to uncover the grass before even starting the fire. And now, every hour or so, he’d pull on his parka and boots and come outside to prod the earth with his spade.

It wouldn’t be long now, Harold estimated. He knew from fixing the water pump last winter that after the first few feet of earth thawed, the rest would be softer clay. For these last few hours, Harold thought it might be nice to wait beside the fire.

A folded chair in hand and the leash of Marmalade in the other, Harold faced the cold with his chin tucked in his scarf. Marmalade, unfazed by any weather, romped towards the pine trees that haloed the yard with her leash trailing behind her. She never went too far, but Harold liked being able to step on her leash at a moment’s notice to bring her to a halt if needed. It’d saved her life from a snowmobile twice already.

“Hush!” Harold scolded as she yapped at a squirrel in one of the trees. He kept one eye on Marmalade as he peered down at the fire.

Four feet of snow elevated Harold above the flames. Before allowing himself to sit, he lowered himself down into the hole to place two more logs in the fire. His body was exhausted and he thanked himself for taking the time to carve makeshift stairs into the hole’s walls as he climbed back out. Both of his knees cracked as he settled into the rough red fabric of his chair.

The sky slowly turned purple, then indigo. Harold thought it was fitting for a night as bone-chilling as this one would be. As a shiver ran through his body, his stomach gurgled — he hadn’t eaten much since he started clearing the snow yesterday morning. Giving in to his hunger, Harold slipped back inside.

Eating in the cabin made Harold uneasy, so he carefully stacked a box of Saltines, a jar of spicy mustard, and a can of sardines in the crook of his arm. He was careful to keep the balance of each as he made his way back out to the hole and settled into his chair.

“Wait your turn,” Harold grumbled, pushing away Marmalade’s prodding snout. She watched carefully as he spread a cracker with mustard and plopped a fish on top. Heidi hated when he ate sardines. She couldn’t stand the thought of eating a fish whole.

Impatient, Harold rose and poked the ground again. It had a little bit of give, but not enough. He’d have to keep waiting.

Heidi and Harold had moved out to this cabin after they retired. Both of them had tossed up the idea of moving south, somewhere warm and pleasing to their old bones. But just like Harold, Heidi was more comfortable in the cold. The heat made her nervous and claustrophobic.

The two (plus Marmalade) lived simply in the winters, sitting close to the fireplace and each other with a book in their hands. Once a week, Harold would drive them into town. He’d gather groceries while Heidi would peruse the library for enough entertainment for the both of them. Usually four books each (Harold loved mysteries, while Heidi preferred nonfiction) and a DVD or two would be more than enough.

Heidi had had a good life. Long. Warm. Loved. But when Harold had brushed his hand against her forehead before she died two nights ago, she said something that would twist in his mind for the rest of his life.

I wish I had let myself be happier.

Harold put a gloved hand over his eyes, trying to keep himself together and focused on the task ahead. So far he’d been successful in thinking of nothing else but digging this hole. But now, Harold couldn’t help his mind from wandering back to Heidi’s words.

He would never know what they meant or what Heidi had been unhappy about. At first, he considered whether she regretted never having children. But Heidi had made it clear from the moment they met in high school that she wasn’t interested in being a mother. She was more satisfied with their string of Labradors over the years. Marmalade was their first yellow.

“C’mere,” Harold said to Marmalade. She was patiently waiting for her turn to snack. At Harold’s call, she rose to her feet and wiggled with excitement. He tossed her a few Saltines, which she devoured in seconds.

Heidi always summarized every book she read for him. She loved telling him about what she’d learned, from the history of the color pink to real-life detective stories to the biography of Jane Goodall. He wondered now if she’d ever wanted a life like one of those people she’d read about, instead of the life they pieced together along the way.

Working in the oil fields hadn’t been easy. He’d often had to be away from Heidi, who taught second grade for over 40 years. But his job gave them the money that teaching did not. It gave them the cabin that kept them wrapped in comfort for so many years and became their home — a home that would now be starkly colder without Heidi. But Harold had no desire to leave. Not if he couldn’t bring Heidi.

I wish I had let myself be happier.

After an hour of wondering, the ground finally gave way and Harold extinguished the flames with a bucket of warm water. Then, he began digging as Marmalade kept watch.

By morning, Heidi would be buried exactly where she had stood with her arms outstretched the day they first bought the cabin 23 years ago. Here, she had said. Let me rest with the pines.

Madeline Gressman is a copywriter and fiction writer based in New York. Her stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Short Fiction Break, The Write Launch and more. She is currently working as a copywriter specializing in bringing brands to life. In her free time, you can almost always find her writing itty bitty stories, trying free samples, and obsessing over crime shows.

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