Originally written on April 3, 2013
Lillian sat on a park bench near the pond’s edge. She looked over the water weeds, scanning the clear pool and its sandy floor.
She didn’t want to be there. Her and Sam’s favorite park spot was new and strange without him. The bench’s color seemed dull. The wood planks had more splits now. It’d only been five weeks. Sam had been dead for five weeks.
Today, Lillian would complete the last task on the to-do list he left for her should he die. His dog tag hung heavy around her neck. Each task left her with less of his things to remember him by. She was handing over memories at this point.
That’s what he wanted though- for her to suffer the least amount of pain possible. He hadn’t considered the fact that an empty house could be just as painful as a house full of reminders, if not more.
The water’s serenity called to her, insisting that it could calm her. She slowly rose from her seat, careful not to jostle his dog tag, and walked towards the pool. As she stepped down onto the embankment, the canopy of leaves no longer covering her, Lillian felt the warmth of direct sunlight. Gold strands highlighted her brunette hair. A gentle breeze rustled the trees. A small grassy island with one tall tree rose from the pond’s core. Beneath it, violets speckled the mound. Dog tags of fallen soldiers hung from every tree branch. The first ones dated back to World War I. Since then, the lower branches became clean slates for more. Somewhere, on one of those branches, would be Sam’s final resting place.
Lillian wanted to feel the cool, clean water. She hoped it would douse her emotions, extinguishing the heat beneath her skin. She slowly inched across the crumbly dirt to the sandy shore. The sand was wet and gray, but hardly any pebbles clung to her shoes.
Her fingers slipped beneath the surface in a smooth, fluid motion. It was refreshing, comforting. But no ripples moved across the top. There wasn’t even a small pop of water slapping together.
As if the darkness of Sam’s death had been swept away, Lillian’s wedding ring appeared brighter underwater. The diamond had been dull ever since the news of his death. Now, the gem flashed at her.
A school of minnows snuck out from beneath the nearby cattails, drawn towards the beacon. The small fleet swam to her open hand. They were hesitant to approach her at first, but then a sure-fire determination overcame them. They pecked her fingers with their “O”-like mouths, giving cleansing kisses. Two small fish revolved around the wedding ring. The jewel illuminated with each touch of their lips.
Lillian smiled. Sam had always come to see the minnows. The two of them would assign personalities and stories to each of them, and they would sit on the shore, watching the minnows’ lives unfold.
Lillian withdrew her hand from the water. Again, just like it had entered, there were no splashes, no ripples, and her hand was hardly wet as it came out. She wiped her hand dry on her jeans, cautious not to scratch her polished diamond ring.
Down the stretch of shoreline, a short wooden dock bridged the gap between the pond and the park. Green water weeds encased the cracked and split support beams. An aged rowboat bobbed close to the pier. The boat’s bow pointed to the island and the shining tree’s trunk.
Lillian stepped up onto the creaky wood planks, causing the boards to moan. With each step along the dock, the echoes became more high-pitched. Sam’s dog tag turned in her shirt as she neared the end by the boat. Lillian felt pulled to look towards the park again.
Glancing over her shoulder, Lillian saw a young girl standing, smiling, at Lillian from the opposite end of the dock. She was maybe five or six-years-old. Her frilly lavender dress had a thin black belt that hugged her waist. The breeze tugged the flowing bottom half towards Lillian and the island. The girl’s frosty blue eyes looked like Sam’s.
“Hello,” Lillian said warmly, though put off by the girl’s presence.
Lillian knelt down, putting herself at the girl’s eye level. She scanned the park, looking for any cars, parents, or school groups. No one was there.
“Hello,” the girl said, returning Lillian’s warmth as she swung her dress from side-to-side.
“Can I help you?” Lillian asked, glancing afterwards for the girl’s origin once more.
“Can I come?” the little girl asked. “To the tree?”
Lillian’s instincts said to bring her along. Sam’s dog tag burned against her skin. She reached into her shirt and plucked it out, the silver igniting in the sunlight.
The girl looked at the dog tag, how close it stayed to Lillian’s heart despite the breeze. All the others that shimmered in the island’s tree then caught her eye.
Lillian noticed that the small seat near the boat’s bow would seat the girl perfectly.
“Sure,” Lillian replied, gesturing towards the boat’s front seat. “You can sit up front.”
Lillian smiled at her as she walked up the dock and eased into the boat. She thought she heard a, “Thanks, Mom,” but the girl’s pleasant grin made no signs of just speaking. She wasn’t waiting for a response from Lillian either. She simply patted the seat across from her for Lillian to sit on.
Lillian boarded the boat. Even with the girl shifting to make room for her, the boat did not rock. It sat still the entire time. As Lillian sat down, the young girl handed her a paddle.
“Oh, thank you,” Lillian said, and slid the oar into the water. “My name’s Lillian. What’s yours?”
The little girl put her oar in the water and looked at Sam’s dog tag again. Then, casting her head over her shoulder, she looked at the layer of them covering the tree’s leaves. They were gold from the sunlight reflecting off the silver.
“I don’t have one,” the girl said plainly.
“Don’t have one?” Lillian asked, her rowing briefly interrupted. “What do you mean you don’t have one?”
The young girl didn’t stop paddling, which unconsciously made Lillian keep rowing. Though they had just started, the boat was almost to the island.
“Mommy hasn’t named me yet.”
“Hasn’t named you yet?” Lillian asked, bewildered. “You need a name! How old are you?”
The girl shook her head.
“Don’t know that either. Neither does Mommy.”
A mother who neither named her child or knew its age? She couldn’t believe it.
“Well, what name would you like?”
The girl bit her lip as she squeezed the oar, thinking it over. She shrugged her shoulders and resumed rowing.
“Whatever Mommy likes. Something pretty…”
Lillian churned the rippleless water with her oar. She wanted to meet this mother and shake some sense into her. If Lillian had a daughter, she’d probably name her Belle.
“Belle,” the girl said, looking over her shoulder at the nearing island shore. “I like Belle.”
Lillian stopped rowing, the girl’s words startling her.
“That would be a nice name, wouldn’t it?” Lillian replied. “I’d probably name my daughter that.”
The young girl smiled.
“She’d like that.”
The boat’s bottom scraped against the island’s shore, its pebbles pecking against the floorboards.
“We’re here,” Lillian announced, giving a huff of disbelief as she looked up into the shiny branches.
The two piled the oars at their sides. Lillian helped the young girl out of the boat and onto the island’s lawn.
Now, the two stood beneath the silver-speckled tree. Dog tags covered its branches like tinsel. Hundreds hung from the bottom limb alone. At the tree’s base, floral arrangements, pictures, and teddy bears encircled the trunk. One mangled tire rim lay propped against the bark with three soldiers’ names written around the center. The memorials were beautiful, but each represented a life cut short.
A medical helicopter fluttered by in the distance. Lillian tensed at the choppy noise of the propellers. She imagined Sam in his helicopter, flying his comrades back into base after a night of refresher exercises. She was told that the missile hit as his helicopter came over the dry mountains of Afghanistan. His camp was in sight.
A small hand squeezed Lillian’s and saved her from the terrible scene, a scene she had imagined repeatedly for weeks. The thought was a grenade that would detonate anywhere, triggering crippling fear and grief.
Tears ran along the curves of Lillian’s cheeks. She felt that she cried more than she blinked anymore, or at least she was more conscious of it. Her fumbling fingers gently caressed her wedding ring.
“You’re leaving his, right? His dog tag?”
Lillian wiped her eyes with her sweater’s sleeve. She stood up straight and sighed, trying to expel this wave of sadness; it was routine now.
“Yeah,” Lillian replied, glancing at all the silver in the branches. “That’s the plan.”
“What about there?” the girl asked, pointing out over the water.
Above the water, a narrow but firm limb bounced in the breeze. There was a hook in the wood that would hold Sam’s dog tag in place. It was the perfect spot.
“That’ll be perfect.”
Lillian slipped off her shoes. She clasped them together in one hand and propped them against the tree. The toes pointed up towards the leaves, leaning against each other with the heels spanned out. The little girl hugged the tree to her side, watching Lillian wade into the pond.
Surprisingly, the water wasn’t cold, and the sand was smooth beneath her feet. A conveniently-placed sandbar sat directly beneath the niche meant for Sam’s tag. When Lillian stepped onto the submerged mound, the branch was in better reach. Then, it leaned closer to her.
Lillian took a deep breath. The time had come to give away yet another part of Sam. He had asked to be put in this tree if it ever came to it. And now that it had, Lillian hated having to fulfill his request. By now, it felt that all she had left was her wedding ring. He was leaving her with nothing but her ring, their memories, and a scrapbook filled with Kodak pictures. He had plans for every physical item he left behind, and almost all of them involved taking them away from her. Lillian had fought with Darlene, Sam’s mother, over who was keeping his memorial flag from the funeral. Not having the energy that day, she forfeited it to his mother.
“Okay, babe,” she said, looking up at the sunlight breaking through the tree’s leaves. “Time for one last good-bye.”
A warm breeze swept through the park, making the dog tags jingle. Lillian felt colder at the thought of leaving Sam on the tree, of leaving the park alone.
“You gotta stop doing this to me at some point,” she said.
Her chin dropped to her chest to contain the tight lump growing in her throat. Sam’s dog tag shined as it stared up at her. A moment passed where Lillian did nothing but stare at it. Then, she nodded and reached for the metal clasp at the nape of her neck.
The clasp came undone easily, as if it had only been held together by string. The tag hung close to her chest as she pulled the necklace off. She kissed the polished metal and watched the sunlight soak into the fogged impression her lips left behind.
“It’s okay,” the girl called from beside the tree.
Lillian had forgotten that she was there.
“I don’t want to leave him here,” Lillian whispered. “I don’t want to be alone.”
The little girl leaned closer to the tree as if someone whispered into her ear from behind it. She nodded, showing that she understood whatever was being whispered to her and pushed away from the trunk slightly.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be alone!” the girl called cheerily.
Lillian needed to believe what the girl said. She knew it. She felt it.
She raised her arms above her head and clasped Sam’s dog tag onto the branch’s knot. Her ring burned like a small white star now. As soon as the clasp locked together, light washed over the silver tag, turning it gold.
“You guys take care of him, okay?”
The tree jingled again as another soft breeze blew through the park.
Lillian waded back to the island’s shore and stepped onto the dry grass. Petite purple violets absorbed the little water left on her feet. As Lillian reached down for her shoes against the tree, a lone violet had sprouted between the heels. It was the tiniest violet she had ever seen, but its color was the brightest purple. She stared at it for what felt like hours. Violet. Violet would be a pretty name, too.
“I like Violet. I like it a lot,” the little girl whispered.
Another gust, this one was stronger than the others, came through the park, making the girl’s whisper louder.
“What?” Lillian asked, confused by the girl’s statement.
When Lillian looked up, the little girl was gone. Her bold purple dress was nowhere to be seen on the island or in the water. She was gone.
“Little girl?” Lillian called out, turning to scan the entire park. “Little girl!”
There was no trace of her.
A queasy feeling grew in Lillian’s stomach. Oh God, not again. She had spent the previous morning bedridden with nausea. She figured that the grief-influenced exhaustion had finally caught up with her.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be alone!”
The little girl’s words resonated in her head. The nausea surged, making Lillian dizzy. She pressed her hand against the tree to stabilize herself.
Lillian hurried back to the boat, took one more glance around for the girl, but didn’t see her. A miracle, an angel, that’s what she was. There was no other way to explain it. Lillian began to row back towards the old dock. From there, it was a quick walk to her car. From there, it was a five-minute drive to Walgreens.
Standing at the foot of her bed, Lillian watched the plus sign appear on the pregnancy test’s screen.