From the author: Winner of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation 2016 Short Story Competition.
Theresa sat in a comfortable chair and rubbed her hands across her dress. Her palms ached, and when she looked down she saw they were red, almost raw. She wondered how long she’d been rubbing them. It seemed like a bad habit, and she resolved not to repeat it.
The television was on, showing some nonsense or other. Bored, she stood up and wandered away. She wanted to take a walk, but—wasn’t this a funny thing?—she couldn’t quite remember where the door was.
She spent a few moments searching for the way out before her attention was drawn to an antique desk in the corner. The top of the desk was cluttered with a herd of miniature animals. Ceramic dogs and bears were arranged in playful poses. Horses and deer stood caught in mid-stride, a frozen gallop across the honey oak stain of the wood.
They seemed so familiar but Theresa couldn’t quite place them, and that bothered her. She rubbed her hands across her dress and was comforted by the feel of the motion, though her palms did seem sore.
A twinkle of light caught her eye, and a glass elephant seemed to stand out from the pack. Its trunk was playfully stretched towards a porcelain cat, who stared back with a look of disdain. One of the cat’s ears was lopped at an angle, perhaps the result of a fall to the floor or a scar from a tussling with another animal.
After a moment’s consideration, Theresa picked up the elephant. Its weight felt good in her hand, its form solid and familiar. She remembered it now. But she didn’t understand how it had gotten here—and where was this place, anyway?
From outside the room, Theresa heard the flush of a toilet. She turned to see a man walking towards her. Did he live here? If so, then he’d stolen her animals.
“Theresa?” There was concern in his voice as he called her name. She couldn’t care less if he was concerned.
She confronted him with his theft, the evidence clasped tightly in her hand.
“How did you get these?” she demanded, pointing at the collection. “These are mine. You have no right to take them.”
The elephant’s trunk jutted between her thumb and forefinger, grinding into the bone. When had she gotten so thin? Theresa shook her head, banishing the thought like a pesky fly. Her hand didn’t matter. She focused on the thief who had stolen her animals
“This,” she swung her hands up and down, “was a gift.” She was vaguely aware of more pain in her hands, and realized she was pounding on the desk top. Her voice rose in pitch and volume.
Two hands cupped hers, preventing her from striking the surface again.
“I do,” the man said. His voice was deep, filled with sadness and frustration. “Because it’s me, Theresa. I’m Ray. I’m your husband.”
It was ridiculous for an old man to say such a thing. Ray was a carpenter, a big man who had framed their house himself, carrying rafters on his shoulder as he scaled a ladder to the second floor.
But something in his voice moved her, and she didn’t fight him as he held her hands. She looked at him, studied his slouched figure and the pained curve of his lips, as if he were so sad about something.
Pulling one hand free, she touched the line of his jaw. He did look familiar. She felt Ray’s face superimpose over this old man’s, and suddenly she could see him clearly. She recognized his eyes first, nestled behind drooping lids and crow’s feet. Gentle eyes the shade of well-worn bluejeans.
How could she not have recognized him before? The lights in the kitchen blurred as she blinked away tears.
“Is it? Ray?”
He smiled, and it was Ray’s smile. He looked at the animal in her other hand, the one nestled in his own.
“Do you remember when I gave you that elephant?” His question was tentative, like a shy child afraid of hearing an unwanted answer.
Her grin grew a bit coy.
“How could I forget? In France. Our Silver Anniversary get-away.”
Nodding, Ray’s lips moved, but no words came out. She marveled at the joy on his face. How long had it been since they’d seen each other?
He tried again, “I bought it in—”
“In that old shop in Alsace.” She laughed. “Do you remember the curator? The funny little man who told us it would bring good luck? ‘An elephant never forgets’ he said.”
Ray embraced her, shocking her with the frailty of his arms. She hugged him back, listening to his heartbeat and breathing in the familiar scent of his aftershave. After a long moment she stepped back, holding his hand as they walked to the couch. The afternoon sun warmed them as they sat and talked, making jokes and flirting like teenagers until Theresa’s side hurt with laughter. Eventually they grew quiet. Ray let out a slow breath.
“I prayed for this, you know.”
She looked around. “What, a sunny day?”
He shook his head. He was crying again. “For a little bit more time.” He ran a finger through her hair, tucking a loose strand behind her ear. “I just want you to know that I’m grateful. For even a little time.”
She wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but Ray always was sentimental. She turned her head into his hand and kissed his palm. She could feel the callouses against her cheek.
“Every beautiful day with someone you love is a miracle,” she said. “Just look at it out there.” Her gaze drifted to the window and, eventually, so did his.
Outside the clouds rolled slowly towards the horizon, white cotton against blue sky, forming shapes that dissolved even as they arrived.
She turned from the window, a smile on her face. A very nice looking man sat beside her. He was smiling too, though there were tears on his cheeks. Surprisingly, the tears only made him look kinder. He had such lovely blue eyes.
“Hello,” she said, as she rubbed a hand across her dress. “My name’s Theresa. What’s yours?”
This story originally appeared in Hemingway Shorts.