Gaius Stewart is handsome, smart & charismatic.
Elizabeth Anderson is beautiful, selfless & caring.
Atheist boy meets Mormon girl.
It couldn’t be, no, no, no. The directions said the additional line could take two to three minutes to show up. The extra blue line showed immediately, before she even set the testing stick on the bathroom counter. It was probably a faulty test. An error. Her heart pounded so hard it was causing a headache. With shaking hands, she fumbled with the box as her anxiety escalated to panic. She dialed the 800 number the packaging provided and pleaded with the call representative to tell her the test was mistaken.
The agent explained, “The only time they’ve ever been wrong is on occasion the test will say negative and it’s really a positive, but if it says positive, they’re accurate every time.”
As she hung up the cordless handset her body retched as if adding confirmation of the test results. This was not the way her perfect summer was to end. Damn. A part of her longed for her mother. Would it be easier or harder to have her parents here for this crisis? Would they be thrilled to be grandparents or upset she had gotten pregnant with someone she barely knew?
Was she in love? Puppy love, summer love, call it whatever you want, but it was a love that had made a baby. She was almost twenty years old and virtually on her own. After applying for a government internship and not getting it, she took a temporary job for the United States Park Service. There were up sides and down sides to every job, but this one had more up sides. The biggest plus was they provided housing wherever she ended up, the bad side was she never knew where she was going to end up. The most recent assignment had been in a remote and relatively unknown national park in central Utah.
It was beautiful there, picture perfect, like living inside a postcard. The terrain was somewhere between mountain and desert. The cedar trees and wild sage gave a pleasant aroma to the dry air and the colors of the earth were different than she had ever seen. Red, verging on purple in places. The weather was extreme and she loved that too. It had become her favorite national park. Some days truly felt magical, especially after meeting the tall, dark and handsome local boy. They had fallen fast. In love? Lust? In bed.
Although they didn’t know each other that well she knew he was going to want to get married. He would want to ‘do the right thing’ and walk her down the aisle. They would buy a house in the little town he was raised in; they would probably live a few doors down from his overbearing parents. Holiday get-togethers, PTO meetings, soccer games, chickenpox, playdates, strollers, car seats and all the other countless responsibilities she would have to face became foreboding in her thoughts. None of it sounded appealing. Besides, she had only known the baby daddy a short time, not long enough for a lifetime commitment. Gagging, she dry-heaved into the sink.
Her heart ached for her mom. Regardless of how her mother would have felt about her current predicament, she would have offered comfort and assured her she was loved; optimistic and positive no matter what. Sadly, her parents were dead, killed by a drunk driver just a year and a half before. Who knew that only a few months after she moved out, they would both be gone? This baby situation was something she was going to have to figure out herself. Maybe settling down in the middle of nowhere Utah was just what she needed to do for the unborn child she was now responsible for.
Needing to get out of the claustrophobic cabin she currently called home, she bolted out into the sunlight and headed into the little town to find her baby’s dad. He was working so she left him a note to meet her at ‘their spot’ when he was done with his shift at the local Frosty Freeze. Deliberately the note was vague, she was sure he would have shown up even if she had left a detailed essay.
‘Their spot’ was the farthest campsite at the top of National Park’s campground. It was used for overflow and wasn’t often occupied. The most appealing part was the privacy. The hidden site was where they had made love the first time and where they had spent the majority of their time together throughout the summer. To assure no one else would be there, he had booked it over the fourth of July holiday so when she could steal away from her job duties, he would be there waiting for her. They had a candlelight dinner that night and he told her he was falling in love. That memory brought tears to her eyes. The wind whipped her hair as she gazed into the cloud dappled sky. They seemed to be smiling down at her, as if to lighten her mood
The idea of becoming a parent was overwhelming and the thought of an abortion was crushing. She sat on the picnic table and waited. He showed up on time, all smiles. Damn, he really was striking with his irresistible boy-next-door sweetness. He looked like a modern-day Prince Charming with his angular jawline and adorable chin dimple. And those eyes, so dark blue the irises were lost. Without warning he wrapped her in his arms and started to kiss her neck. While he nuzzled her, she blurted out the truth in the simplest two-word sentence.
Pulling away from her she could see his eyes dancing, no apprehension, and no worries. Holding her hand, he immediately went down onto one knee. It had been expected. She shrugged, not saying yes or no.
“I love you, Sue.” He said still holding her hand, she remained silent. He continued as the idea of parenthood settled into his face. “Heck, yea. A baby. Our baby! Dang! My folks are going to be…” He hesitated, a look of dread flashed on his face before he continued with a forced smile. “Let’s not tell them about-” his eyes dropped to her stomach, “Um, in fact, let me deal with them. We’ll just tell them we’re getting married, okay? I’m supposed to go on a mission, but instead we’re going to have to set up the missionary lessons and get you baptized.” He smiled with reassurance. “When will you start to show? Oh honey, I’m stoked. Eventually we can be sealed in the temple, but that’ll be down the road. Dad’s gonna be royally bummed, but we’ll figure it out…” She noticed a troubled look that had taken over his handsome face. It had knotted into nervousness, he was rambling. What have I gotten myself into? She thought.
As he stood in the Memorial Garden it felt as if he was in a dream. His black hair hung over his face as he looked at the small marker to honor his mother. ‘In loving memory.’ She had written her own obituary, picked the memorial placard, prepaid the cremation. Basically, she had planned her own funeral down to the last detail. Her face materialized in his mind, her crooked smile and friendly eyes. He recalled the conversations they had regarding her final wishes. She had explained to him she didn’t want to be buried: no cemeteries, no coffins. But still there should be a place to come together for friends and family when the time came. She was always thinking of others. More importantly, she had told him that when he wanted to talk to her there needed to be a place he could visit. Not just any place, but a peaceful place; not creepy like cemeteries so often are. A place full of nature where the sky looked big and wasn’t obstructed by buildings or cityscapes. In the memorial garden by the cement bench, under the pine tree.
Tiny water droplets rolled off his nose and hair, fitting since it had rained all day. It was over. The funeral made it final. It was as if he was on auto-pilot, just going through the motions. The people around him were calling the get together a celebration of life. Everyone was reminiscing about her, recalling their favorite times with her, toasting their drinks to the air. “To you, Sue.”
In his mind, it was indeed a funeral, an ending of the life he had known for so many years, and a final farewell to his favorite person on the planet. He let Toni steer him back to her car, and they drove through the rain out of the memorial park and back to his neighborhood. Walking through the front door of the small house, he felt as if it wasn’t really his home anymore, as if the essence of it was gone, as if her death had stolen the breath of the structure itself.
Gaius took a paper plate of food from someone he remembered meeting when he was a child but couldn’t place her name, he put a forkful of casserole into his mouth. The food tasted bland, his stomach was in knots; he felt like crying. He tried to engage in conversations with her friends, their neighbors, and the blur of unknown sympathizers; but he could not recall who he talked to, nor what he had said.
Now the guests had meandered out, the old house was quiet and he was alone. He started to go through the envelopes people had been handing him all day. Many had money in them, and the accumulated total was enough to pay the mortgage and utilities for a month. Sighing, he read the signatures and comments in the cards, the one large card from work had dozens of signatures. She had touched so many people’s lives.
‘Such a neat lady. Work won’t be the same without your smiling face.’
‘Going to miss you Sue! You were truly one of a kind.’
‘You were an inspiration. Beautiful inside and out, I’ll miss you.’
‘Our thoughts are with you during this difficult time.’
‘So sorry for your loss. Please call if there is anything we can do.’
‘You’ll be in our hearts forever, Sue.’
Soundlessly, the tears started to flow. It wasn’t like he didn’t know this day was coming. Sue had been dying since he was a kid, or so it seemed, on and off for seven years. Not once, but twice the doctors had diagnosed her terminal; they told them both she wouldn’t see another birthday, yet she marched on and on until she couldn’t anymore. Now her precious life was over. Gaius had only her memories now and the life lessons she had taught him. He heard her voice in his head clearly.
‘Remember son, there are only two things in life that are for sure…’
That thought made him giggle, the laughter turning to something else as his eyes refilled with water. His silent tears turned into a torrent, then full blown sobs. Everywhere he looked he saw her, younger, healthy, happy. Standing at the stove cooking chocolate chip pancakes, the Mr. Coffee she had for a decade even though the carafe had to be replaced four times, the curtains she had made with sheets she had bought from a yard sale, the few small throw pillows for the worn out couch she had made with the matching pillow cases, the coffee mug collection, the 60’s style Formica table, the worn out swivel chair and ottoman with the tall antique lamp that was her grandfather’s. Flashes of her over the years bounced in his mind. He could picture her sitting in her chair doing crossword puzzles, needlepoint, reading paperback books, watching TV, crocheting him a throw for his bed and eventually a throw for the chair. Picturing her talking on the phone, a landline with the cord stretched from the kitchen, he remembered her drinking coffee, drinking wine, laughing, sleeping, and crying; all from the chair. He couldn’t remember the living room without it.
There was also the house itself, full of a lifetime of stuff; stuff memories are made of, stuff that some say defines the person. Gaius knew those things didn’t make his mother. Those things didn’t define her. He knew what made his mother so special was her soul, her attitude, and her kindness. She was a terminal optimist. There was always a bright side to everything and everyone. Sue saw past the flaws of most people. As Gaius matured, he wasn’t sure this was a positive trait. He had once heard that a person’s greatest strengths and their greatest weaknesses were the opposite sides of the same coin. He never fully understood that until he grew to be a young adult and witnessed his mother’s forgiveness of stupid people over and over again.
Sue loved people, genuinely. It was her greatest strength. She would offer someone the shirt right off her back as the old saying goes. Sue loved people, genuinely. It was her greatest weakness. She was forever drawing the wrong types of people into their lives. Damaged men, emotionally unavailable women, or vice versa. Part of the problem was people also loved Sue. They were drawn to her goodness. They hung around due to her generous manner and good humor.
Sue’s best friend, whom Gaius had known as ‘Aunt Toni’, had been known to chastise Sue for being ‘a goddamned saint’. She was definitely the more cynical of the two. Crass and blunt, she was one to never sugarcoated anything. Toni’s voice had the unmistakable roughness of someone who smoked their whole life, and although she was the same age as Sue, she looked at least twenty years older.
“What?!” He recalled Toni’s voice sharp and irritated; he was reminiscing about a heated conversation years ago after an ex-lover of his mother’s had stolen her bank card and all the cash in the account. “Of course you’re going to press charges! You think you can save the world, Sue? What are you a fucking saint or something? Feeding the masses with two loaves of bread you bought with your EBT card? For fuck’s sake kiddo, save yourself first!” Toni had finish her lecture with a long toke from a Camel cigarette, or maybe it was a joint, he couldn’t recall.
There had never been religion in their house, so sometimes Gaius didn’t understand Toni’s references and ribbing. Sue had said she lived and practiced her own religion. Often she had joked she could become tax exempt if she just turned their living room into a place of worship. In her everyday life there were basic what goes around comes around rules with Pagan roots, plus a lot of spirituality as she called it. Sue had referred to God as a ‘her’ or ‘she’ and stated that organized religion missed the whole point. She taught Gaius pre-Christian Pagan rituals like decorating trees for the Winter’s solstice and decorating eggs in the spring. His mother had taught him about the sun, moon, stars and ancient practices before organized religion ‘messed everything up’. Gaius enjoyed the science aspects of it.
“Pagan,” Sue explained one day, “means ‘Country dweller that isn’t baptized into a specific religion,’ so technically, we’re Pagans.” She declared this fact with a full smile on her face, eyes dancing. Her stance on life in general was to leave the world a better place than one found it, that included people, places and things. Gaius K. Stuart had adopted many of her philosophies, although not necessarily her beliefs.
At an age when most young men were starting school or a family, he had committed to her when she had gotten sick. The cancer seemed to never fully flow out of her, and each time it returned it seemed more ravenous than the time before. The doctors and nurses had told him on several occasions, her prolonged life was partially due to his abilities to care for the sick. He had learned to cook for her and made her vegetable smoothies