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Sluggishly, Lanie reached towards consciousness. She could hear music. A guitar. Someone was singing nearby, and strumming very softly. The song simultaneously piqued her curiosity and lulled her toward that deep, nothing place, but she decided she needed to know. That voice called to her. A voice that had seeped into her soul the very first time she heard it at twelve years old.
Finally, she broke the surface of her grogginess into a dim, white room. Linoleum floors. A curtain that went all the way around her bed, secured with rails. Evening sun passed through the hospital window and shone on a big, dark-haired man with warm skin, sitting in a square chair with wooden arms, an ankle over his knee and a creamy white guitar in his lap. Eyes closed, face tipped up with a joyful grin, he played a beautiful, melody that surrounded her with warmth. On its own, the song would have been sad, except for the expression of peace and joy it brought to the man.
“And I want you to know, you couldn’t have loved me better…”
He trailed off when her bed crinkled as she sat up. His infectious smiled widened when he saw her, and she couldn’t help but return it.
“Sleeping at Last,” she noted in pleasure.
Rising gracefully, he eased the guitar to hang across his back. He was wearing a white shirt, which usually dimmed the intensity of his eyes, but today he looked so happy that nothing could erase their gleam. They were like fiery diamonds. “I’m so glad you’re alive,” he said, sitting on the bed and leaning over to kiss her.
She caressed the soft bristles of his face, then twined her fingers in his silky waves. They were longer, curling at the ends and brushing the back of his neck. His skin smelled like hibiscus, and his breath tasted like cinnamon. She sighed into his familiar warmth.
“How long have I been out?”
He brushed back one of her curls. She realized they were loose around her shoulders, but weren’t tangled. “Just a few days, my love. Everyone has been praying for you, nonstop. They miss you.”
“The storm…I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to save you.”
He smiled warmly. “You saved me, Alexandra. More times than I can count, in more ways than you’ll ever know. Being with you, loving you, has been the greatest joy of my life. A dream come true.” He shot her a self-mocking grin. “Always remember that.”
“Can we go home now?”
“Come for a walk with me in the garden,” he invited. “It’s golden hour. Everything is so beautiful.”
She tipped a smile up at him. Her relief was like oxygen. He was okay. “Of course. I’d go anywhere with you.”
He looked a little rueful. “Well, not quite. Let’s go.” Before she could stand, he scooped her up. Laughing in surprise, she nestled against him, arms locked around his strong neck, legs dangling against his stomach.
How much time had they spent together in this hospital? He carried her down the familiar hallway from the ICU. There was another empty bed with a sheet pulled up over it. Everything was quiet and still, and it felt like they were the only two in the world as they made their way down the stairs to the cafeteria, then out to the colourful courtyard.
Ben sat on the bench, then arranged her beside him. She put her ear against his chest, her arms around his body. He stroked her hair down the back of her gown, and they watched the sunset over the distant river. The far-off mountains were in sharp relief today, dark against the orange and purple sky.
“I was so scared that we weren’t going to make it,” Lanie whispered against him. “I thought I was going to lose you.”
“I know. I was scared too.”
She could feel every one of the three days that she’d missed with him. Maybe it wasn’t healthy, but other than the two months when she had run away, and the two weeks when she avoided him after the explosion, they had rarely been apart for more than a day since they’d met. If she had been told this four years ago, she would have laughed. Surely, that would feel like a prison. Surely, she would get bored of monogamy, and feel stifled by a constant presence in her life. She was surprised that it was just the opposite. She never wanted to be away from him. After what had happened with Jake, she could imagine it would be a while before she would let him out of her sight.
“You shouldn’t have carried me. You should have kept holding pressure on your wound.”
“Nothing was more important than you, my love.”
“Always the sacrificial knight in shining armour. I hope you start taking better care of yourself now. I really couldn’t take it something happened to you.” She glared at him accusingly, and she felt his body rumble as he kissed her forehead. Harumphing, she ducked back against him. “Please, Ben, let that be the last time you’re in peril. I’m serious. No more. If you made me promise not to lie to you anymore, then you need to promise not to get into any more life-threatening situations.”
“I promise,” he laughed. “Never again. My life is as safe as a peanut is from a paleo vegan.”
She groaned. “Actually, never mindk.”
He nuzzled her hair. “Sure you do. But hey, you have to go back soon. I wanted to play a song for you.”
“Can’t you just hold me?” As much as she loved his music, she craved the safety and security of his arms even more at the moment.
“Here. Let’s do both.” He lifted her onto his lap, then rested the guitar on her, reaching around. He cradled her in his right arm, and held the neck of the guitar in his left hand. As always, he started a warm up cycle, teasing her memory with familiar, almost-recognizable notes that she should know. Like musical deep dreaming. She played with his hair, wondering what he had done to it to get it so silky. Usually it felt course. Also, she noticed that the gray hairs at his temples and nape were gone. She realized with amusement that he must have finally gotten over his denial about them. But she was a little disappointed that he’d gotten rid of them. They were so sexy, especially when he had his glasses on.
Another thought occurred to her, as the strumming vibrated her stomach. “Hey, where did you get that guitar?”
He opened an eye. “It was a gift. Today is a special day. Now, hush. Or, sing along.”
And he began. It was a sweet, joyful song about the simplicity of love. She felt as though her heart would burst as they swayed gently together to the tune of, “1,2,3,4” by Plain White T’s. She laughed and touched his forearm, feeling the shift and ripple of his muscles.
“I’m so glad I found you, I love being around you. You make it as easy as 1, 2…1 2 3 4,” he sang.
Like a movie screen in her eyes, she saw all the other times she’d watched him play. The very first time her father had dragged her to church, the day after he’d bludgeoned her sisters to death. The intriguing, older boy playing, “Rock of Ages,” and then eight more months of Sundays, not minding the pretense so long as she could see him. The campfire in Somalia, when she’d finally recognized him for who he was, as he’d played “Una Flor,” bringing memories from a show that had gotten her through some dark times in her life. She’d felt the fire in her stomach as he’d played ‘Despacito” and involuntarily imagined the two of them acting out the song. The night of the baby shower, when they’d gotten lost in a starry duet of “I See the Light.” Racing from the courthouse to the church when he’d adopted Dre, bursting at the seams with “The Story” by Sarah Ramirez. His offensive, yet undeniably hilarious, renditions of “I Believe” that made the children dissolve in laughter. And, the last thing he’d played before going on that fateful boat ride, telling the children to “Never Grow Up,” and remember that Lanie was getting up there in age.
There were more. And even more times without his guitar, or just singing to the radio, or to the theme song of a show. So many of those memories were tied up in pain from before or after, but he was the soundtrack to some of the greatest, most difficult, most exciting, most heartbreaking, most amazing times in her life so far.
She could see them together in some far-off future. She would convince him to let his hair go completely silver, to match his eyes. Hers would be white and flowing, and they’d sit on the back porch of the house with her head on his shoulder, surrounded by the bursting blooms of her past, watching a sunset much like this one. Would he be playing something nostalgic, like “One More Day,” or something tongue-in-cheek, like “Jackson?” Definitely “Jackson,” she decided. When they finished their song, they’d be laughing so hard, and lay down in the grass where they’d shared their first real kiss, sixty-five years before, and reminisce in each other’s arms until the stars came out and they fell asleep, joined together in eternal slumber.
She couldn’t wait for all the songs they would share together between now and then.
The warmth from his body and the song and the memories and the fading sun filled her to overflowing, and then she realized she was singing with him, offering a harmony that blended so smoothly it was impossible to tease out one voice from another, even though the song was plucky and brisk. Matching his rhythm felt effortless, and she drummed it out on the edge of the guitar.
She wasn’t even sad when they brought it to a close, a Capella. “There’s only one way, to say, those three words, that’s what I’ll do.”
He kissed her lips. “I love you,” he whispered, only half-singing.
She grinned, and kissed him, too. “One, two, three, four.”
He pulled off the guitar, laying it on the ground, and she was about to worry that it would get dirty, but he cut her off with a kiss, and she forgot what she had been about to say. She touched her husband, and he touched her, and their hands continued the melody, and their mouths drew sweet music out of each other.
At last, he pulled away, gently cupping her elbows. The light was fading quickly, and her heart twinged. She didn’t want to go back to the hospital. She wanted to stay out here in the garden with him. Maybe forever.
“Three years ago, our devious son organized a plot to join us together,” he said, his forehead against her, his eyes and voice hypnotizing. “It was a little crazy, but Pastor Bob didn’t stop us, and we got married.”
“In a fever,” she added.
“Oh, yeah, baby.” Another long, deep kiss. “And you were the rain on my dry, parched dessert. But I should have realized that God was clearing the way, and getting me ready for the most important job in the world. Being your husband, and a father to our three amazing children. Ever since then, and even from the moment we met, it’s been a dizzying rollercoaster of fear, joy, anger, forgiveness, grief, pain, passion, and love. We hurt each other in some pretty deep ways, and we burned for each other more brightly than any couple in the world. Even brighter than Bella and Edward.”
She barked a laugh and covered her mouth.
“You are my truest love. My soulmate, and my better half. I wish I could stay, but I have to go home.”
“Stupid visiting hours,” she muttered.
“I was given an extension. But you need to go back, and get better, and be the fierce, unshakeable, compassionate and just woman that God made you to be. Believe, Lanie, that you can heal from your pain, and use it to help others. Believe in forgiveness. Then you’ll be able to come home.”
“Forgive Jake?” She wrinkled her nose.
“Forgive yourself. And accept forgiveness. Let go of the anger and darkness that’s been driving your desire to avenge and protect and defend. You can do all of that in the light, too, so much better, and so much more.”
“If you’re with me, I can do anything.”
He kissed her hand. “No, Lanie. You have to stop believing that I’m the reason. I’m only a reflection. One of many. Go to the source. Then you’ll be unstoppable. But even more, you’ll be happy. You’ll be home.”
“Is this a sermon?”
“It’s the last one you’ll get from me, I promise. But God is waiting to love you, Lanie. Whatever you think you feel for me, he feels it for you too, and the separation is painful for both of you. I really want you to remember that, okay?”
“You sound like you’re saying goodbye.”
“I am for now. I have to. Look.” He pointed toward the mountain, where only a tiny glimmer of light shone.
“I can sneak you under the blankets. They won’t notice you.”
“Right. A full-grown man in a bed that’s barely big enough for a child. As much as I want to, my love, I have to go, and you have to stay, because that’s the only way you’ll heal.” He pulled her to him, gripping her hard. Reluctantly, she hugged him back, not wanting to be complicit in letting him leave.
“Alright, fine. But you’ll be back in the morning? After you drop off the kids?”
Before he could answer, there was a blinding flash of light from the mountains, and for a moment, Lanie was astonished by swirl of light and colour, colours she’d never seen. And she thought she could hear singing. Was Ben singing? She wondered dizzily.
“Happy Anniversary, my sweet wife.” His mouth pressed to hers with aching sweetness. “I pray I’ll see you all soon.”
The light disappeared. All the light disappeared.
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~ Romans 15:13