The story so far:
Sarah and I settled into the house and within six months, we had it up and running again. We restored the electricity, heat, hot water and I even planted some of my favorite flowers in the back yard: roses and petunias, the smell of which reminded me of Howard. He used to watch me every spring as I gardened, a smile on his face.
“What are you smiling at?” I always said.
“You. Watching you never gets old.”
Sarah caught me laughing; she didn’t even have to ask what I was thinking about. She continued sweeping, giggling at my daydreaming. Cleaning the house was the biggest project, eliminating all the dust mites, cobwebs and crawly critters took the most effort. The days were full of aches and pains, but in the end the house was back to normal, the way it had always been.
Settling into a routine was the hard part. We had been in survival mode for so long, even on the farm, taking the time to actually relax and enjoy life almost seemed impossible. I started by getting Sarah back into school. I enrolled her in middle school, the same school I had attended and in no time she had friends coming over and hanging out with and spending the night. She even had a new Timmy to talk about and all I could remember was the little bouncy 7-year old who I met in the streets of Atlanta. The 7-year old who climbed her way into my heart and never left. She adjusted to her new life better than I could.
Being in the house without Howard was difficult. I spent the first year or so trying to keep myself sane. I wasn’t working. Paul had made me a silent partner at the farm and as his business grew so did mine. I spent my days reading, walking or bored out of my mind. All of which thinking about Howard and our time spent at the house.
“What are you cooking?” he’d ask, coming up behind me and kissing my neck. I always loved when he did that. He’d wrap his left arm around my waist and kiss the right side of my neck, gave me the goose bumps every time.
“Baked Ziti,” I said this one summer night. He continued kissing my neck, hitting the spots he knew I liked.
“Stop that,” I’d giggle.
“Cause you’re getting me excited.”
“That’s the idea.”
I smiled just thinking about that night, the picture in my head ever so clear. The pictures were always clearer since returning home. But then I’d be in the kitchen cooking and I’d wait in anticipation for him and when he didn’t come behind me, I’d start crying.
“Jilly, what’s wrong?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing,” I said wiping the tears.
She hugged me, knowing exactly what was wrong, “he’ll show up, I know he will.”
“I miss him.”
“Look, Jilly, you need to get out of this house. It’s not helping you being cooped up in here. Maybe you should get a job, keep yourself occupied during the day.”
She was right and after that night, I started looking for a job, but there was only one thing I was ever good at and if I was going to be without one love of my life, I would at least have the other. New York had started rebuilding Broadway insisting on returning it to its former glory of musicals and theater shows. I couldn’t sing and never dared to attempt it, so I started auditioning for theater and landed the lead role for a new dramatic show. It was about a woman in her 30s trying to rediscover herself and I was perfect for it. For the first time since returning home, I started feeling like myself again and while I still thought about and missed Howard, things seemed normal again.
Then one day almost a year later, I came home from the grocery store. Paula and Jason were coming for a visit for the first time and I wanted to cook dinner and get the house clean. I took the day off to do so. I walked into the house to find a message on the answering machine. I first thought it was Paula or Jason, but they each had my cell phone number as well as any of my other friends. They would have called it. I assumed it was a telemarketer and ignored the message till I could finish what I needed to do. I cleaned the house and prepped dinner. Once everything was finished, I hit the play button.
“Uh...hello? Uh...Jilly. It's me. Howard.” I froze in mid breath. “Look, I'm on my way to New York and I'm okay... I love you and I hope you still love me. I don't know when I'll get there. Soon, I hope. I'm in Kentucky at the moment, so I'll....” The machine cut him off. I just stood there staring at the black device on my hall table. I don’t even remember how long I was standing there. Next thing I knew Sarah was shaking me and I smelled burnt food.
“Jilly?” I looked over to find Jason with her.
“How…” I said pointing to the answering machine. Jason played the message and Howard’s voice rang through my ears. The looks on their faces matched my own. They guided me over to the couch and sat me down. I was blinking and barely breathing.
“Is she okay?” Sarah asked.
“As soon as she gets her bearings straight,” Jason said.
Which took me all night. Paula cleaned up the kitchen and ordered food as Jason and Sarah “revived” me. I had waited so long to hear Howard’s voice that when I did I almost swore I was dreaming it. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he was truly alive and on his way home to me. I had been through so much in seven years that a part of me wasn’t letting the reality become true. I started protecting myself for the worse. He wasn’t home yet and anything could happen on his way from Kentucky. I numbed myself from the excitement deep inside me. Finding out about my mother’s death was hard enough, but loosing Howard after knowing he was alive would have destroyed me and I didn’t want my new life to become ruined by darkness. Sarah, however, remained excited for both of us.
“Hello?” she said answering the phone two days later, “yep! Jilly! Phone!” I hear her yell to me. I didn’t even think about the possibility of it being Howard.
“Thanks Sarah,” I said. I covered the mouth piece, “did you finish your homework?”
“I’m working on it.”
“You can’t go out until you finish it.” I almost forgot about the phone, “hello?” I said.
“Hello there, beautiful. How's my little Jilly Bean?” I dropped the phone. Sarah came running into the room.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s … How … ard,” I said shaking. My heart was pounding.
Sarah picked the phone off the floor, “talk to him.” I shook my head. It was becoming all too real, but he still wasn’t here yet, he still wasn’t with me.
“Jilly, look at me.” I looked into her once young innocent eyes, “you have been waiting for this day longer than I have known you and now here it is. Do you really want to let this pass?” She placed the phone in my hand, “talk to him,” she said and walked out the room.
We talked all day and well into the night. We talked about it all, my journey to his journey. I told him about the friends I made along the way and the enemies I survived from. I talked about Margaret and Craig and staying with Jim and Paul. He told me about the slave camps and the so-called asteroid. He talked about Emma and Phil and Craig’s death. A fact I was not looking forward to telling Sarah.
“Well, I think it’s time to go to bed, Jilly Bean.”
“Part of me is afraid I’ll never speak to you again.”
“I will see you in a couple of days, I promise.”
“I love you, Howard.”
“I love you too.” We hung up the phone.
There’s nothing like being on stage in front of a packed audience. I sit in my dressing room preparing for the final scene wondering what kind of crowd we have tonight. Will they clap in their seats or give a standing ovation? The anticipation of their reaction gives me adrenaline. I check my hair and makeup, ‘yup, looking good’ I think.’ There’s a knock at the door.
“Two minutes, Jill,” the stage hand says. I rise out of my seat and head toward the stage. I wait for my co-star to say his line, my cue to enter. The scene is perfect, each line received well by the audience. The red curtain closes as the story ends. I can hear the applause. ‘They’re standing,’ I think. I move off to the side waiting for my turn to bow. The curtain opens. First the extras, then the supporting cast. My co-star is next and he bows with a smile. Now it’s my turn. I walk onto the stage and look at the crowd. ‘Shoot, they’re not standing,’ I think, ‘Oh well, this feels just as good.’ I bow once, smile and bow a second time. Then I see him, the only guy standing in the aisles.
He’s carrying roses and petunias. He’s older than I remember him, his face more wise and distinguished. He moves close to the stage as I take my final bow my eyes focused on his. I remember those eyes. I join the rest of the cast and do the traditional group bow, point to the orchestra, point to lighting, take one more bow. Then they push me forward as they do every night. I take one more bow as he stops in front of me. He smiles at me and I forget where I am. I smile back. It’s finally over and I can relax. The curtain closes.