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Maggie’s Back Porch  by PJ Acker

The morning tide splashes at the edges of Maggie's dream. The sea air nips at her nose. Cool breeze rustles the curtains above her bed. She welcomes the feel of John's strong arm sliding around her. Mmm, toast and vanilla-spice, he always smells so good. She snuggles into his warm embrace and fights to hold herself in the moment, deep in the sleepy haze, safe and happy.

Their relationship is perfect in its simplicity. She knows his heart and he knows hers. No doubts, no questioning. She slides further down into the foggy haze and exhales a contented sigh. This man was surely and truly her soul's mate. Soon life would demand her attention, her participation. It will be only a matter of minutes. But in these precious moments, drifting in-between the shadows, Maggie truly feels her lover's presence.

Unable to keep the conscious world out any longer, the haze begins to lift. The familiar dread begins to settle in. The truth she’s struggling to keep from remembering wraps cruel finger around her sore heart and squeezes until she nearly cries out before giving in. Maggie is strong and only a faint whimper escapes her lips.

Defeated, she moves the sheet back and places her feet on the cool floor. She looks back to the empty space where his body no longer lies. Placing a frail hand against the flat sheet, she braces herself for the full impact. Once again, reality lands hard. The rush of knowing he’s gone, left her here alone and gone on without her. It collides into her like a roaring train. It crushes her, takes her breath away. Grief floods her body, her mind, her soul. It rolls her under like a tidal wave, she can't find up or down. She just rolls, lost. The panic rises. It’s overwhelming. She can’t do it. She can’t breathe…

Then, a seasoned soldier of a thousand days of battle behind her, she steels herself. Summoning that hidden strength, she slows her breath and forces the panic back down into its cage. Once again, she finds the courage to go on, to be strong, to finish her day, finish her life... without him. She pulls her grief up over her narrow shoulders like a blanket and settles under its heavy weight. And the beleaguered warrior rises to meet another day.

The tidy kitchen greets her, yellow and cheerful. Opening the cabinet, she picks out her favorite china cup then puts on the kettle for tea.

More than anything in life, he wanted her to be happy. But, she's sure it would break his heart if she gave up, gave in to the grief. It would be so easy to just lie down and wait. Wait for the thin veil that separates them to grow thinner until it finally releases her. With a deep sigh, she lets the thought slide away. As the boiling water sloshes against the inside of the cup, she guides her mind into another direction. She begins to wonder, rather, how she's going to fill the many hours of the day ahead.

Walking across the back porch, the wooden slats of the deck creek, creek, creek. She sets her cup of tea onto the glass top of the worn rattan table with a tink. Carefully, she measures a spoonful of honey from the faded porcelain container. She watches the steaming liquid spin in circles absent-mindedly, as she stirs. A smile curls the corners of her lips as her mind replays the memories of she and John laughing, talking. The memories were clear today, sharp. Her faded blue eyes shine with unshed tears, her chest sore from the ache of missing how life used to feel when they were together. She sits and sips the warm comfort of the tea.

Going to the easel at the end of the porch, she sets out her paints. She appraises the half-finished canvas of bright flowers as it waits patiently for her next stroke. She swirls her brush in the watery color, her thoughts far away to another time. She remembers the deep rumblings of John’s laughter rolling across the porch. He liked to read the paper or one of his westerns paperback books while he watched her paint. She'd almost forgotten how that sound used to make her heart flutter and brushed the hair back from her face.

The ocean crashes hard against the beach. It's as if it's vying for her attention, trying to pull her back from the memories.

John was quiet and powerful in a stoic way and she adored his dry sense of humor. She was, on occasion, quite opinionated herself and often spoke her mind. But, it never bothered or intimidated her John. She always found that quality in him so attractive. Had she ever told him that? He was too confident, he had too big a spirit to be so easily ruffled, as some men she’d known had been. In fact, every now and then, with a glint of mischief in his eyes, he would gently provoke her. Then, chuckle as she 'straightened him out,’ he’d called it. She was passionate about injustices, her art, life — he was passionate about her. They were fire and air.

As if on pause, she holds the paint-loaded brush inches from the canvas. The bright yellow pansies stare back at her as if confused. Her mind continues to waltz about the porch with her memories of she and John.

He had never really understood her art. She'd known that. But he'd always supported her love of it and understood that it was part of her. He was a beautiful, simple man, the sort that always made things work. A craftsman, an artist in his own right. His canvas was making all the moving parts of life work—repairing, maintaining, building. He was the engineer and caretaker of their long life together.

She pulls in a long breathe, today was one of the harder days. She was trying hard to be brave, but the flowers in her painting kept blurring through her tears. Suddenly, the brush felt too heavy. She put it on the palette and returned to her chair. Taking up her cup of tea, she swept the escaping hair behind her ear and closed her eyes. John’s smile came to her so clearly. She could see his beautiful chestnut-colored eyes, the eyes she adored so, smiling back at her. She could nearly see him reaching for her. Feel his strong fingers wrapping around hers, lifting her up into his arms. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she snuggles her face against the side of his face and takes a deep breath—Mmm, toast and vanilla-spice.

The whisper against her ear, she hears his voice, soft and low, “It’s all over, Sweetie. You've done well, my love. I'm so proud of how you've carried on all by yourself… my brave Maggie.”

Maggie exhales a long, contented sigh of relief as her John folds her into his embrace.

Later that afternoon, Linda, one of Maggie's dearest friends, stops for a visit. She finds Maggie's body sitting in the porch chair, paintbrush in her hand and a sweet smile on her face. A tear of joy rolls down Linda's face. She is so happy for her dear friend, so happy that one of life's strongest warriors had finally gone home.