The days after Peter’s death filled Louise’s home with a constant chatter of family and friends. She endured countless hugs and kisses. Her refrigerator was packed with casseroles. The envelopes stacked on the small table near the front door were filled with condolences of a life snuffed out far too soon. Young men aren’t supposed to die from heart attacks, she’d hear them whisper. Louise watched all of this in a blur. She participated. She hugged and comforted people that also loved Peter. She thanked neighbors for casseroles and cards. And then one day, Louise couldn’t even remember which day exactly everyone left. She was left in a panicked silence.
Louise walked barefoot from room to room. Peter was everywhere but nowhere. His dirty laundry was still in the hamper. She couldn’t wash away his scent. His shaving cream and razor were still perched on the sink in the master bathroom. Their adventures over the last 12 years were peppered around the house in frames. The soles of their shoes had walked the soil of many countries together. Louise, still wearing her pajamas in the setting sun, glanced at Peter’s running shoes next to the front door. She tied her robe tightly, covering her shorts and tank top. She unlocked the front door, picked up Peter’s running shoes and threw them out the door. Slamming the door and locking it, Louise went to bed with tears streaming down her cheeks. She was done with this day. She was done with all of this.
Louise’s cell phone ringing woke her up. The clock read 8:30. How long had she been asleep? She knew it wouldn’t stop until she answered it. Her older sister, Meredith, was persistent.
“What took you so long to answer the phone?” she asked.
“I was sleeping.”
“It’s 8:30 on a Saturday night.”
“Is it Saturday?”
“Lou, I’m coming over.”
“No. I’m sleeping.”
“I’m worried about you. Peter wouldn’t want you to be like this.”
Louise stiffened at the sound of his name. “Don’t,” she whispered.
“It’s been months, Lou,” Meredith said quietly.
“It feels like it happened this morning,” Louise said.
“I know it’s hard…”
“You have no idea what I am going through,” Louise snapped.
“I’m trying, Lou.”
“What can I do? What do you need?”
“I need him.”
The silence again.
“I’m coming over.”
“I will be over in the morning. The girls want to see you.”
Louise ended the call. She pulled the white duvet cover over her shoulders and dragged the pillow that Peter used nightly under her chin. The silence of the house engulfed her and soon she was gone.
Meredith arrived at 9 a.m. with bagels, cream cheese, orange juice and her two daughters, Ella and Grace. Meredith scrunched her nose when Louise answered the front door.
“How long have you been wearing that robe? And when was the last time you washed your hair?”
“Hi to you, too, Meredith.”
“We found these on the lawn,” Meredith said as she plopped Peter’s sneakers next to the front door. Before Louise could protest the sneakers, her young nieces passed their mother.
“Hi Auntie Lou,” the little girls sang.
Louise pulled them both into a hug. “My girls,” she said. “How are you both?”
“Santa is coming, Auntie Lou,” Grace said as her blue eyes grew wide in excitement.
“Is he?” Louise asked. She glanced at Meredith.
“Where are your plates?” her sister asked.
After the girls finished their bagels Meredith turned on cartoons for them to watch on the television.
Louise sat at the kitchen table nibbling her bagel.
“Juice?” Meredith asked.
Louise nodded and pushed her empty glass towards her sister.
“Did you seriously not realize Christmas is in a couple of days?” her sister asked as she poured the juice into the glass.
Louise shrugged. “I guess I lost track of the days.”
Meredith sat down across from her sister.
“Mom, Dad, me. We are all worried about you.”
“So, Mom sent you over?” Louise broke off a piece of bagel, but didn’t eat it.
“No. The girls wanted to see you.”
“Sure,” Louise mumbled.
Meredith sighed. “Have you been to see Dr. West?”
Louise shook her head.
“He doesn’t understand.”
“He is one of the best grief therapists in the city.”
“He doesn’t understand what it is like to be a widow at 34.”
Meredith rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. “I don’t know what it feels like to lose a husband, but I have experienced loss, Lou.”
“You are so lucky to have Jason and the girls.”
“I had a miscarriage.”
“Three months ago.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“That’s because I didn’t tell you. I want my sister back. Let me try and help you.”
Louise felt tired. “It’s not the same.”
“Where are you going?” Meredith asked.
“To bed. Lock the door on your way out.”
Louise woke up hours later to the deafening silence. She walked barefoot from room to room. “Peter?” she whispered. She closed her eyes but there was no response. Just silence. She sat against the front door holding his sneakers to her chest. “Peter, tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
The snow twirled outside her office window. Louise sat at her desk with her chin propped in her hands. The streetlights were starting to come on in the late afternoon. Her only feeling of normalcy came while she was at work. For eight hours a day Monday through Friday she was just Louise Miller. She wasn’t poor Louise. She wasn’t Peter’s widow. She wasn’t suffocating in silence. She did her work. She illustrated books for children. She transported herself to faraway lands. It gave her a legitimate excuse to check out of the reality of her life.
“Hey, a few of us are heading out for drinks after work,” Marisa said. “Want to come?”
Louise sat back in her chair and smiled. She shook her head. “No, thanks. I need to finish this assignment. I’m on a deadline,” Louise lied.
“Are you sure? It’s Christmas Eve.”
The office was silent not long after Marisa and a few chatty co-workers left for the bar around the corner. It was nearing 6. Her mother had already called confirming dinner at her house. Louise needed to go. She slipped off her heels and slid into her boots. She buttoned up her wool coat and covered her wavy dark hair with a knitted beanie. The cold air felt refreshing on her face as she walked towards the bus stop. The snow crackled under her feet on the covered sidewalks. The city bus slushed past her as she neared the corner. The doors swung open and Louise spotted an empty seat next to a woman a few years older than her.
“Hello,” the woman said with a smile.
“Hi,” Louise muttered.
“Isn’t the snow beautiful?”
“Yes, it really is,” Louise admitted.
The bus bumped along the street.
“Have any Christmas plans?”
“Um, going to my mother’s house for dinner.”
Louise rubbed the fogged window with her fingertips.
“Well, since you didn’t ask, I will just tell you I am heading over to the SPCA on 18th Street tonight for an adoption clinic. Have you been there?”
Louise shook her head. “No.”
“Well, my son, Clayton, has been asking for a dog and I’ve kept having to tell him no. I needed a steady job. Things are good now.”
Louise forced a smile. “How nice for your son.”
The woman tilted her head. “Are you against Christmas or just good stuff?”
Louise felt her cheeks flush. “No, I like good stuff.”
“I hope so. There’s enough negativity in this world that if you aren’t careful it can swallow you up.”
The women sat in silence. At the 18th Street stop the woman smiled. “Merry Christmas.”
Louise watched her from the bus window as she walked up the block towards the SPCA. The bus had gone a few blocks when Louise noticed a brown leather purse under the seat next to her. She glanced around. A woman was talking on her cell phone about candied yams. A man listened to an iPod. A woman flipped through a magazine. No one claimed the purse. Louise’s heart sank. She unzipped the main pouch of the purse and pulled out a wallet to confirm from the license photograph what she already knew. She signed. At the next stop Louise got off the bus and started walking in the opposite direction of her mother’s Christmas Eve dinner.
The SPCA was housed in an unassuming brick building. Someone feeling festive had strung a strand of multi-colored blinking lights around the entryway. When Louise opened the door she was greeted by the deafening sound of barking dogs as the adoption clinic was in full-swing. Play pens with various types and sizes of dogs were placed all around the large room. They barked and wagged their tails. They played with toys. People in the market for a dog milled around the play pens seemingly taking inventory. In the corner of the large room was a reception desk. A woman sat behind it filling out paperwork.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for a…”
“Let me guess, you are looking for a dog?” the woman said nonchalantly.
“Then you are in the wrong place, lady.”
“I’m looking for a woman. She left her purse on the bus. She said she was coming here tonight.”
The woman behind the desk raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know anything about that.”
“Can I leave her purse with you in case she does come here tonight?”
“Let me check with my supervisor.” The woman got up and went through a back door. Leaving it ajar, Louise could see piles of empty cages. A shadow moved in a far cage that caught Louise’s attention. She inched closer to the door to get a better look. In the last cage was a straggly dog. He looked defeated and tired. He rose his head off his paws at the sight of Louise. His tale slightly wagged. The woman walked back towards the door and Louise quickly backed up.
“So, we can’t keep that purse. It’s a liability.”
“Um, why isn’t that little dog out here with all the others?”
The woman looked over her shoulder. “He just came in a few days ago. He’s a runner. Fast little dog. They had a hard time catching him.”
“Could I see him?” Louise heard herself saying.
The woman shrugged. “Sure.”
Louise followed the woman past the rows of empty cages. When they stopped in front of the dog’s cage Louise kneeled. She put her fingertips through the cage and the dog sniffed and then licked her fingers. “Hi,” Louise whispered.
The woman didn’t look up from the clipboard in her hands. “Pete.”
“We’ve named the dog Pete.”
A smile crossed over Louise’s pursed lips. The dog nuzzled Louise’s hand with his head.
“Time to go home, Pete.”
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