Everyone knew it was inevitable—everyone but Avery Elkins
She smashed the television first, though she hadn’t intended
to. She had fumbled with the remote for ten minutes, trying to
figure out how to record an NBC special, and when the TiVo
brought up the screen with the list of programs to record—his
list, filled with westerns and mysteries and classic comedies—
she lost it. She hurled the remote across the room, not intending
for it to hit the center of the screen, but it did.
There was something surprisingly cathartic about the
sound. The cracking glass and sprinkling shards of glass
sounded familiar to her, like the inward sounds of her longdenied
heart, which broke into a thousand pieces every
morning when she woke up in an empty bed and went into the
bathroom, where only one toothbrush now hung in the holder.
The sound unlocked years of pain, and emotions rushed out
with such ferocity that, as if possessed, Avery lashed out at the
other instruments of torture he had left behind—the jammed
VCR that only he could coax into releasing the old family
videotapes, and the vacuum cleaner that gobbled one of his
errant anniversary cuff links, a crime for which it had paid the
ultimate price, complete disassembly. Then, soaked with tears,
she went after the real enemy.
She clicked the mouse on the computer and brought up folders
filled with letters and love notes sent from across the globe. She
read each one, lamenting over the dates in the headers, the last
one written almost eight months ago from a hotel in Chicago.
Finding it unbearable to read even a word of the text, Avery
shut her eyes against the pain but the words came anyway,
memorized words read a hundred times over, filled with private
jokes and tender expressions of long-distance longings. She
could barely breathe, and the waves of shuddering racked her
body until anger and fury replaced her sorrow. A final look at an
image pasted into one of the letters sent her over the edge, and
she began to sweep the entire computer system onto the floor.
But as the printer slid off the desk she saw herself reverting to
the crisis-driven, fists-at-the-ready person she was before Paul,
and she slumped over the keyboard, crying as hundreds of pages
of B’s swept across the screen.
The next day was more productive. A few hours of work, a
broom, a dustpan, and $3,327.98 later, all was nearly as good
as new. All except for the gouge in the wooden floor where the
old TV landed . . . and the mangled computer. Three days later
her two oldest children and her son-in-law arrived with their
youngest sibling to help their mother survive her first wedding
anniversary as a widow. They actually seemed pleased to see
the changes, assuming them to be signs that their mother was
showing interest in her home and life again.
“The place looks great, Mom,” gushed Wes with surprise.
“Cool flat screen. I’m glad you’ve finally done something for
The phrase “You have no idea” rattled around in her mind,
but steel-willed Avery said innocently, “Thank you, Wes,” as
she offered her cheek to receive the kiss her unmarried, twentyfour-
year-old son offered, never missing a beat as she whipped
the egg whites for meringue.
The buzzer went off on the oven and Avery began wiping
her hands so she could retrieve the yams.
“I’ll get them. You sit down,” insisted Jamie, taking hold of
her mother’s shoulders and leading her to a chair. “You look
The concern in Jamie’s voice brought a protective Luke
rushing into the kitchen. He took one look at the meringue and
squawked, “Forget the pies! You don’t need to make pies!”
Avery noted the new tone in her children’s voices when
they addressed her—the worry-driven, slower-tempo,
higher-pitched as-if-they-were-talking-to-a-child tone that
annoyingly rose even higher at the end of each phrase,
particularly when it included the word “Mom.” It was
different with Luke. Only nineteen and quiet by nature, he
now tended to express his emotions with volume. Avery saw
the same thing in other high school students, particularly
the boys. She called it the “Rahhh” principle. Fear, worry,
disappointment, hurt—it all came out as “Rahhh!!!” Yes, she
could see through Luke.
She tried not to think about it but knew that something
monumental—no, something cataclysmic—had happened to
them as well on the day their adored father died, and it was more
than merely losing a father. It was as if the universe had shifted,
placing each of them in a new orbit of sorts. Wes had become the
self-proclaimed head of the family, Jamie now wanted to hover
protectively over Avery, and Luke instantly catapulted himself
out of latent adolescence and into adulthood. It was time, of
course, but the rapid shift in her youngest’s perspective on life
was a rude awakening for both mother and son.
“Mind if I check my email?” asked her twenty-nine-year-old
son-in-law, Brady, already seated in front of the computer.
“Uh . . .” she stalled, but it was too late.
“Hey, Avery—” Brady began as he walked back in carrying
the mangled remains of a USB cord whose end had been ripped
away. He chuckled as Avery hurried over to him, grabbed the
wire, and smiled sheepishly as she shoved the contraption into
the pocket of her apron.
“I don’t think you gave the poor thing a fighting chance,
Avery,” Brady teased, seemingly unaffected by the glares his
wife was shooting him from across the room. “I can fix it for
you. I’ve got some parts from the store out in my car. Would
you like me to work on it?”
Avery cringed with each word. The more attention he
focused on the problem, the wider her three children’s eyes
grew. “Sure, Brady. That’d be just great,” she muttered in
monotone as she hurried over to sauté some Brussels sprouts.
The rest of the day progressed uneventfully. Wes stepped up
to say the blessing, and everyone fell silent as that patriarchal
landmark was crossed. The meal was accented with light
banter—reminiscences of days past—though Avery noted
the conspicuous way her children avoided mentioning Paul,
as if their father was not only gone but had never existed at
all. Feeling as if the best portion of her own life was being
obliterated, she folded her napkin with such deliberateness
that she brought the conversation to a complete halt. When
she looked up, she saw eight worried eyes riveted on her.
“Are you all right, Mother?” Jamie asked softly.
Avery noted how her daughter now consistently referred to
her as “Mother” instead of “Mom.” She could barely speak,
so she initially responded with a rapid series of nods. “It’s all
right to talk about your father,” she finally managed to say.
“Avoiding his memory doesn’t ease my sorrow. In fact, it
makes it worse.”
“We just—uh—” mumbled Luke.
Pulling herself together again, Avery said, “I know, I
They played board games after supper. Then, while she
and Jamie did the dishes, Avery noticed the guys huddled
near the TV. She didn’t give it much thought other than to
wince at the extravagance of her purchase, a flat screen, which
she had selected because an upgrade seemed the only covert
justification for replacing the old set that still worked just
fine. Around seven, when Brady caught Avery yawning and
suggested they leave, she saw a new level of worry wash over
Jamie, knowing she was panicking about leaving her mother.
Wes wrapped his arm playfully around his mother’s
shoulders and gave her an exaggerated shake. “Up for some
Mario Kart Wii, Mom?”
“Some other time, pal,” Avery laughed. “The cook is ready
to hit the hay.”
With the tension eased sufficiently to allow Jamie to make a
guilt-free exit, the young marrieds left, and Avery went inside
and began turning off the lights. In the office where the small
desk lamp glowed brightly, she gazed at the bookshelves where
fifteen Avery Elkins Thompson first editions stood. They were
Paul’s proudest possessions, and Avery knew he had read each
one at least three or four times, curled up in the big lounger by
the bay window. They brought her no pleasure this night, nor
had they any night since her muse died.
She sat at the computer. Just seeing its screen lit again seemed
to mock her pain. There would be no sweet notes waiting in her
email file, no links to exotic destinations they fantasized about
journeying to. As she clicked the final command to shut down
the computer, she noticed a little pile of USB connectors with
a sticky note in Brady’s handwriting. “Just in case,” it read.
Avery smiled. She adored that son-in-law of hers, though he
was a challenge sometimes, seeming to function better in his
techno-babble world where logic revealed the answer to any
problem, than in the messy world of illogical human drama.
Jamie and Brady were a mismatched pair, and Avery knew
it was as much circumstance as passion that drew her perky
daughter to the TA, seven years her senior. He was tall. She
was short. He was gangly; she was graceful and lithe. She was
always comely and neat, where Brady was equally at ease in
wrinkled polyester or four-day-old sweats. Still, he was kind
and he was steady, two elements common to the weakening
father Jamie had been steeling herself to lose. That fear had
made her tough and rigid at times, a woman exerting control
over a universe slipping away from her, and sweet Brady
yielded to her as much as possible.
“She is not her mother,” Avery sighed as she switched the
light off. She checked the lights in the downstairs bathroom
and passed the “wall of fame,” where all the kids’ photos were
on display. Cookie-cutter faces, she mused. She and Paul
were very different looking, and yet their children looked
undeniably similar, all fair complected and brown-eyed like
her, all possessing various shades of Paul’s dark, wavy hair
and trademark pouty smile. You could pick the three of them
out of any crowd.
“Did you say something, Mom?” asked Luke as he poured
a glass of milk to wash down his second piece of pecan pie.
“I’m just enjoying watching you eat my pie.”
“Your cooking is the best,” Wes chimed in.
Avery eyed them skeptically. “Why are two handsome,
single guys hanging around Logan with their mother? Surely
there are some nice young ladies who would appreciate your
company.” She eyed Wes carefully, watching for any sign she
had struck a nerve. “Wes?”
Wes backed away into the family room near the TV. “Talk
to me, Mom,” he urged as he pulled her along.
“Wes—” she protested.
“It got to you today, didn’t it? Dad’s death, I mean.”
Avery stuttered and smiled, trying to deflect the worry
imbedded in the question. “I’m . . . I’m fine.”
Wes reached behind the cabinet and retrieved some shards
of glass that had eluded her. “What really happened here,
Avery knew his question wasn’t intended to be intrusive
or judgmental, yet if she answered truthfully, it would lead
them through a portal from which they might never fully
return. Wes could handle it—the acceptance that his mother
was fragile and frightened by the prospects of widowhood.
And Avery knew somehow that Jamie was already aware of
that disconcerting fact. It was Luke, whose sad eyes darted
from hers to the floor and back, that she knew would be
crushed by the revelation, and for him she would maintain
the pretense of stoicism and carry on.
“All right,” she began hesitatingly, “I admit it. I was
trying to move the darn thing and dropped it on the floor.”
She looked at her boys to gauge the success of her
subterfuge. Wes appeared dubious, but a spark of hope
lit Luke’s eyes, so she continued to add more plausibility
to her tale. “I know I shouldn’t have, but . . .” She was a
terrible liar. It was the last “talent” the pious woman’s kids
would imagine her honing, but here she was, going for the
blue ribbon. “I hadn’t cleaned back there for months, not
Wes tipped his head sideways as he weighed the story, but
Luke jumped right in, relief evident in his voice. “See, Wes. I
told you.” He turned to his mother, chuckling under his breath
as he exited the room. “And Wes thought you were losing it.”
Avery sighed, realizing she had temporarily dodged the
bullet with Luke, but Wes wouldn’t let it go. “What about the
vacuum cleaner? I can understand replacing the VCR. Dad was
the only one who could make it work anyway, and I know the
Kirby vacuum cleaner was from the Neanderthal period, but it’s
in about eight pieces out in the garage. What’s that about?”
Avery tried to dream up more excuses, but she was too
wrung out to play that game any longer. “Please, Wes,” she
begged with a cracking voice, “I’m trying to be strong.”
“For who, Mom?” he asked incredulously, shooting a look
in the direction his brother exited. “For Luke? He’s not a kid
“You don’t understand. You and Jamie had more life
experiences to prepare you for this.”
“Mom!” Wes turned on her with frustration and then quickly
backed down. “No amount of life experience can prepare
anyone for this.”
Avery stared at her son in utter confusion. “Dad’s health
was failing for years, Wes. Surely you knew.”
“That he was going to die?” His voice was bitter. “Sure, I
knew that. We all knew that it would happen eventually. Heck,
it’s just about all we’ve talked about for the last three years.”
Avery sank into the chair and Wes rushed to her side. “I’m
sorry, Mom,” he said as he knelt beside her. “We’ve all talked
about how losing Dad has affected each of us, and all of us,
even Luke, can see how hard this has been for you.”
Avery stared straight ahead, musing at her folly in trying to
hide such a thing from her sensitive, astute children. “I thought
I’d been so strong. I didn’t want to burden you.”
“You’ve been great, Mom, the way you’ve carried on,
but it’s just not normal. People are supposed to lean on those
they love when they grieve. We’ve had each other to vent and
grieve with, but because you were trying so hard to move on,
we didn’t feel we could come to you.”
Avery gasped and turned to her son to be sure she had heard
him correctly. “I . . . I’m so sorry,” she said as tiny tears wet
“No, Mom, no. We’ll be fine. We know why you handled
things the way you did. We’re just saying that we’re not kids
anymore. Let us help.”
Avery bit her trembling lip to still it.
“I’ve been offered an internship in Florida this semester. My
construction program hooked me up with a nice opportunity
outside Orlando, working on a resort. If things go well there I
might finish the rest of my courses online and relocate. I’d like
you to think about coming down with me. A change would do
us both some good.”
“Florida? I could never—”
“Why not?” Wes interrupted. “I know you love the
water, yet you haven’t visited the Baltimore condo in years.
Remember how much you and Dad loved Anna Maria Island
those summers when I went to Bradenton for tennis camp?
The island is only two hours from Orlando. We can see each
other plenty, spend weekends together.”
For a second the idea brought back pleasant memories of
splashing along the beach with Paul and the kids, but the thought
of going alone made Avery’s stomach knot, and she stood
abruptly. “Thank you, Wes, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”
“Why not?” he asked softly.
Avery looked at the floor and shook her head. “I wouldn’t
feel right. Not without Dad.”
Wes gritted his teeth so hard his jaw bulged. “You shouldn’t
punish yourself because of Dad’s choices, Mom.”
Avery heard the accusation in her son’s voice and spun
around to stare at him. “What are you saying?”
Wes quickly backpedaled. “All I’m saying is that Dad
did what made him happy.” The acrid tone was still there.
“Wouldn’t he want you to do the same now?”
Avery knew that wasn’t all he had been trying to say, but she
couldn’t get into this discussion—not this night. “I’m going to
bed, Wes,” she said firmly as she headed for the stairs.
“Just think about it, okay?” he called after her.
Avery headed over to the mirror on the wall at the top
of the stairs to look at her reflection. She wondered if the
overwhelming fatigue overtaking her was as apparent on the
outside. It had been so bad lately that she had gone to see
the doctor to be sure her own heart wasn’t failing. Surreally,
the thought didn’t frighten her, not at first, anyway. Life had
become so daunting, and the promises of eternity were so
sweet that joining Paul in paradise seemed fine to her. That
was until she considered what losing two parents would do to
her children, so she made the appointment and saw the doctor.
As soon as she knew her heart was fine the rest of the diagnosis
“You’re depressed,” the doctor declared.
Ya think? she felt like saying, but she simply closed her
eyes and nodded politely as two prescriptions were shoved
into her hand.
She studied the image in the mirror, vaguely recognizing
the face. It was a nice face, not beautiful but pleasant enough.
She noted that her mouth now fell into a natural frown unless
she made it a point to smile, and she was distressed to note
that her eyes were now droopy too. Removing her glasses, she
stood nearer the mirror to better see herself. The past few years
had doubled the lines surrounding those forty-eight-year-old
eyes, around which she had previously spent years slathering
anti-aging cream. She stared at her disappointing reflection
again. Her hair was a drab brown, neither long nor short, her
brows bushy and her complexion pale. Why had she let her
appearance go? She knew the answer was the same as it was
to every other thing that had gone awry in her life. Because
Paul is gone.