He stood under the salmon sky while the wind slapped denim, skin, hair. She faced away toward the road, skirt flapping over broken dust-colored boots. Her coat ruffled in the thin air. Her locks tattered as she held them captive beneath the hat she pressed onto her head with one hand. In the other she clutched their daughter’s hand.
He stared at grainy dirt, his lips dry and tongue swollen, boots caked in ashen dust. His calloused fingers rasped against his weary shirt when he wiped absently.
“I wish you’d say something,” he said, voice hollow and distant, the voice of a man speaking his last words on his last breath.
“It’s over,” she said, her throat tight. She turned her head, but didn’t meet his gaze. “It’s all been said. There’s nothing left.”
“I’m doing my best.”
“I know. So am I.”
He shuffled, squinted over the mesa ring to the east. The rolling ground swooped from the washes and canyons down into a flat which ran to the western horizon. Saline stung his eyes. He blinked.
“I have to,” she said. “For me. For them.” She dipped her head toward the children. Beside his sister, their son’s eyes glistened under his straw bangs, lower lip quivering. “It’s … I have to.”
“It’s only been three years.”
“Only? You say that to me? Only? Three years. Three years of struggling, fighting for every moment, every inch, every sprout, every grain. Only three years. They deserve more than this. We left more behind. Better than this.”
“It’s going to come, just one or two–”
“Don’t. Don’t say it. You’ve said one or two more seasons for eight or nine seasons. It hasn’t happened. It might. I believe if any man can do it, you can. But I can’t take it anymore.”
Hooves pounding and the racket of wheels and rigging drifted against the wind. He snapped his head to the west, surprised. The coach. He didn’t realize it would come so soon.
He turned back to her. “I’m begging you. Please.” His voice croaked, broke.
“It’s not forever, you know that. When it happens, when you finally break this place open, I’ll come back.”
“I need you.”
“I need you too.” She looked over her shoulder at him then, and her fine, porcelain statue features took his breath away. Her soft, brown eyes, the smooth lines despite the harsh years, her firm, set jaw. His heart jumped in his chest. But the carriage drawing to a stop on the dirt pack in front of her shattered his moment.
The coachman looked down at her, dipped his head and touched his weathered hat brim. “These all the bags, ma’am?” His voice sounded gravelly and cracked as the road itself.
“Yes, thank you,” she said, and her voice danced on the wind into the western canyons.
“Ticket?” the coachman said, and dropped nimble as a sprite to the ground. His team panted and pawed, heads shaking, snorting. “Easy, now,” the driver soothed. “They be edgy this morn,” he said, and smiled through his dense dusty beard.
The man watched helpless as she fished into the bag draped on her shoulder and pulled out three paper rectangles. They snapped and rattled as the wind bent them over and broke them in her grip. The coachman stuffed them into a shirt pocket beneath his heavy jacket and stroked his beard. He nodded, gave her a practiced grin.
The coachman gestured toward the carriage, and pulled at a handle on the underside. A rusty metal step ladder groaned and shrieked outward. The wind tried to rip the curtains off the window when he opened the door.
The man stared with his throat too tight to swallow, to breathe. His son looked back again, a fat tear rolled down his cheek. “Bye, Daddy.” The words stabbed him like broken glass.
“I’ll see you real soon, son,” he said, but didn’t know how he managed to speak. “Real soon.”
He watched his wife lift their daughter into the dark of the coach. The coachman kept the door from tearing off, one of her bags hanging from his gloved fingers. When the man raised his eyes, the coachman offered a brief look of understanding and an almost imperceptible nod.
His daughter vanished into the coach without a sound.
His wife turned to face him. Her eyes shredded him with the pain, the ache they held. “It won’t be forever,” she said, and then kissed the tips of her fingers and blew over her open hand at him.
“No,” he choked, “Not forever. I promise.”
Her face broke. She stifled a sob, and launched herself into the coach. The driver closed the door, danced around the coach placing bags deftly on its top. A moment later he materialized in the driver’s seat and took the reins. The horses seemed more agitated still, but the coachman paid no heed. He stared down at the man for a moment, then gave him a somber nod with that same touch of fingers to hat brim.
The man didn’t respond, but the coachman didn’t wait for one. He prodded the team and snapped the reins, and the coach jerked and then rolled away.
He watched the carriage recede down the hill toward the flat to the east until it became a tiny speck.
His heart spiked when the black form rose just as the sun pierced the horizon, a winged blot of death on the pale sky. His heart froze completely when the dragon spewed wyrmfire in a blazing geyser pouring earthward. A blinding explosion blasted the coach on the road beneath the wyrm. The sound came seconds later as he raced screaming their names until his voice tore loose and flew away in the constant howling wind.
He knew then it would be forever after all.
All original content © 2009 J. Dane Tyler
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