Thanks to my friend Kim - who told me to shut up and write, damnit. Figure that's pretty good advice. Gratitude for inspiration goes out to Maurice Sendak and Toad the Wet Sproket. (Thanks Calla) The title comes from them, as does the song Ive been humming and cant remember.
Disclaimer: Characters from "The Magnificent Seven" were used without permission and this story in no way signifies support of, or affiliation with, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment, CBS Worldwide, Inc., or their affiliates. No copyright infringement is intended. The story itself and any non-Magnificent Seven characters belong to the author. This story was written for personal entertainment and will not be sold for any reason.
The phone rang.
As he knew it would.
Not his cell phone, but his home phone. Because the person calling knew he'd be home, as he always was on this day. This night.
Last year this time found him much as he was now. Barefoot. Sweatpants. Threadbare undershirt that he always pulled out from the bottom drawer. Everything silent but for the shrill peal of the telephone.
Only, last year he was still drinking. Had still been drinking. Drinking more often on more days than was sensible. Drinking more that night than was safe for anyone with a gun. Drowning more things than well-worn sorrows and a rage so deep he couldn't remember what it was like to live without it. Although that wasn't really true.
Better, then, that what he truly couldn't live without wasn't resigned to a vacant slot of memory.
That had never been one of his chief virtues, thanking God. Though there were those who would scorn to think him a man of any virtuous qualities, and most of the time he would agree with them.
He was no saint, he knew. Neither were most people, he knew.
Neither were most people he knew.
But he'd had always given himself an out. An excuse. Something he didn't grant to anyone else. No one had suffered like he'd suffered and everyone else could go to hell.
His bad temper, his apathy, his seething condescension. That he had no use for and no time to suffer the myriad fools that paraded through his windowless life. Gladly, or otherwise.
For these things he made no apology.
His life had made him what he was, and his grief kept him company like the whiskey in his glass. So he told himself, and so he let himself believe. And everybody could put up with it or get the hell out of his way. Out of his life.
And so last year when the call came, it found him drunk and maudlin and spitting profanity. Railing against the heartless sonofabitch who dared to call Himself God. What Father would tear a wife and son from a man's arms while he screamed? What merciful God would deny him his vengeance, would refuse him an answer to the only prayer he had prayed in four years? To find the men responsible and lay them in their graves.
But that's how it works. God doesn't have to explain Himself. He doesn't have to do shit. He just has to sit back and watch and remain silent. One of the perks of being God.
Ezra always said there were two kinds of people in the world those who saw all the good in the world and gave thanks, and those who saw all the bad and gave blame. Chris had always been a third kind. He took the good for granted until it was taken. And then he laid blame.
If God was so all-mighty, all knowing and all seeing, then He could damn well own up that he'd been a fucking pathetic failure just when He'd been needed most.
The phone was still ringing.
Chris trotted across the hardwood floor. Barefoot silence in the rest of the house and a clarion call sounding in the living room. Heralding the same thing that always happened on this day. Something he'd always taken for granted all these years.
"Hey, pard." The plastic receiver was cold against his ear. But the voice answering was warm. A warmth that hadn't waned over time despite the angry words of countless arguments. Despite the clenched fists that used to try to knock the warmth right out of his mouth when arguments failed.
Time was he hated the man for daring to be happy, for daring to live in the light when darkness pressed so hard it smothered.
"Hey Chris. How ya doin'?"
Same question as last year and the year before. Same question as always. Imbued with a far deeper concern than the casual words, lugging behind it carts of baggage reminding Chris how often his response had been ugly. Or snide. Or a flat-out lie.
An honest question demanding on honest answer.
"I'm looking through the photo album." That was saying a lot. More than any explanation of feeling or statement of being.
Chris unfolded the thick volume on his lap as he sat down on the floor, back resting into the couch, legs stretched out in front of him on the cool, dark wood. Some of the pages had lost their glue, photos hanging on by force of habit. Just like their owner had for so many years, selfishly bleak in the face of comfort.
Corners were bent from frequent thumbing, the spine battered from many flights across the room. There was hand-print wear on the cover, hours of sweaty palms cradling the folio fading the dark leather and rubbing it bare. Old wrinkles puckered the most familiar pages. Evidence of too many tears, eyes lingering over the pages long past the point of clear sight.
"Which page are ya on?"
"Page ten," Chris replied, knowing that Buck knew the album as well as he did. By heart. They had put it together, the two of them. A gift for Sarah who always took more pictures than Chris ever thought necessary, or thought he'd ever know what to do with.
Too few pictures by half, now. The rest of them shelved in boxes in the bedroom closet, shelved in his memory where he could return to them without looking.
"Hmmmm," came the quiet buzz from the phone.
There was a sound of remembrance there. The contented sound of a smile creasing a peaceful face, eyes closing in vivid recollection of the stories clasped tight, held fast against the fading of time. Fading like the leather cover, like the oldest pictures of Adam as a baby, like the sunlight in her hair the last time Chris saw her.
"I loved that trip. I still can't believe Adam replaced your bug spray with sugar water."
"Yeah, and I still blame you," Chris retorted, knowing a lie when he heard one, "Showing him The Parent Trap. I swear every bad idea he ever got was from you."
"Now, his ideas weren't bad. Just creative."
"There's a euphemism if I've ever heard one."
They chuckled, quiet, brief, Chris trying to remember the last time he'd allowed himself to laugh about his son.
Two years ago the only laughter was caustic, biting, perverse. The kind of sound heard by villains in old westerns as they plan the violent death of the hero. Chris had been slurring drunk, drinking straight from the bottle, hands unable to hold the photo album without shaking. It had ended up face down on the berber rug and so had he.
Like clockwork, Buck had shown up the next morning, had cleaned him up, cleaned up his puke, and put him to bed. Then he'd taken care of the horses, fed and watered them, set them out to pasture, had brought in the morning paper, and had carefully placed the folio back in Adam's bedroom. On the bookshelf. Below the Narnian Chronicles and Treasure Island, and the little toy cars, and the bear named Buckey whose fur had been loved off long ago.
By the time Chris had gotten out of bed, the house was empty again, empty as it always was, but full of all the little signs that Buck had been there. And would be there again. Would keep coming back, and keep holding a part of Chris that only Buck could carry.
That took a strength Chris had never found.
"You remember how proud he was, Chris? To catch that trout?"
"Yeah. I think he told me twenty times that he'd done it all by himself." Chris grinned. He could see his boy standing there, smiling so wide, so strong and alive. He knew full well that Buck had done most of the catching, but details like that didn't matter when a child of five comes running up to you holding a wriggling fish on a wire up to your face and squeals with delight.
"And then he cried when I told him we were gonna eat it. He held onto that fish for dear life. I never told him that it was already dead by the time we got it back in the water."
"I know, Buck. He always had such a gentle heart. He was so much like Sarah that way. Didn't like to see anything hurt."
Chris stopped then, feeling the tears creep up, knowing that he couldn't hold them at bay for long. His voice hitched and trailed off, and they shared silence over the line, Buck knowing he needed it, Chris knowing he'd be given it.
For a year after their deaths, the silence had been deafening, terrifying. The house had echoed with the lack of life. An icy monument of emptiness like a tombstone without words.
But now if it was frightening, he could bear it. There was warm asylum on the telephone, reassurance beyond words. Beyond distance and memory. He could crawl inside the line and be held there, allowing at last someone else to share his pain. Forgiving Buck for knowing just how much he hurt and accepting that Buck was hurting just as bad.
They'd shared in it, all of it. From the day he met Sarah, to the day his son was born, to the day they buried them both. Weekends at the ranch, trips to the lake, Sunday chicken and dumplings, vacations like the one to Yellowstone.
Chris could almost hear the wind in the tall trees rustling through the still colors of the photograph, dappling a patchwork quilt of light on the faces of his wife and son, as happy there as he'd ever seen them. As happy as he could tolerate remembering.
"What was that song Sarah would hum when she cooked? You picked it up on that trip and you didn't even know it. You hummed it as you cooked over the fire and I can see her standing behind you, all the love in the world showing on her face." Buck stopped himself short, unsure yet how far he was allowed to reminisce. Years past, he couldn't even speak her name, and not just because it broke his own heart to do so.
"Something she learned as a child, in church," Chris answered on a sigh. "I always asked her to write it down, and she never did. Knew it by heart though. Funny, I haven't thought of that in years." He hadn't. First because it was too painful, then because he couldn't quite recall it, and now because it was so far gone he wasn't sure it would be her voice he heard.
Soft and low he heard it then, clear as anything, a gentle hum over the phone. It was a song of praise, but somehow lilting and sad. A tune piercingly beautiful in its simplicity. Just like Sarah. Simple in all the ways that counted. Honest, strong, true. Tough enough to call Chris' bluff and make him admit when he was wrong, and soft enough to kiss scraped knees and blow runny noses when Adam was being too brave to show his father he was crying.
"It's hard, Buck," Chris broke in, not knowing if he could stand to hear that song, not knowing if he could stand not to, "I can hardly hear her voice anymore. I have to work at it, to be able to remember what she sounded like. What she smelled like."
A laugh came across the line, and Chris wondered what the hell he'd said that was remotely funny.
"Turn to page fifteen, Chris. Now tell me you can't hear her in the second picture on the right."
The leather spine creaked as the pages turned, and there on the right was a candid shot Buck had taken at one of Chris' birthday parties. Sarah with frosting in her hair and cake on her cheek, four- year old Adam grinning like a little fiend, sharing a very conspiratory glance with the man behind the camera. And Chris looking fit to bust a gut he was laughing so hard.
It was true. Chris could suddenly hear her like she was in the same room.
Christopher Adam Larabee! I forbid you to laugh at this! She sounded so pissed and trying so hard not to laugh at the same time. They had all ended up wearing cake, as had most of the appliances in the kitchen. He and Adam had spent an hour cleaning it all up. Then he had put Adam to bed and carried his wife to theirs, making long, slow love to her and talking about having another child.
He couldn't help himself, he laughed too. He laughed against his tears and raised his face to the ceiling, blinking in the dark at such a bittersweet thing as sharing this laughter once again with a woman whose own voice had been silent for years. Four years. To the day.
Though maybe not so silent as memory would have it. He could hear her laughter in the hall, chasing Adam for his evening bath. Their music in the bedroom where they slow-danced and slowly undressed one another. Singing by an evening's fire. Standing in the wind on the rim of the Grand Canyon where they promised they'd love one another until they day they died.
"How many times did we read Green Eggs and Ham, Buck?" His voice was shaky, on the jagged knife edge of happiness and pain.
"Heh. And Where the Wild Things Are."
"The night Max wore his wolf suit. And made mischief of one kind. And another." Chris could still recite it. And Goodnight Moon. He could hear Adam giggle as he pretended to be King of the Wild Things, Chris always telling Buck that the boy was on his way to stealing that title from Buck.
"He'd be in third grade by now." Buck said after a pause, like he was just adding it up. He didn't say more, letting that settle quiet between them, faint background noise fuzzing on the line.
Adam would be nine. He'd be able to ride his own horse, able to help Chris with chores in the barn, able to fish on his own and swim, and be wanting Buck to teach him how to shoot.
"Do you suppose he is nine? Wherever he is?" Chris hadn't ever given thought to it in those terms. Silly, he supposed. The only time that he measured were the days he was forced to spend without them. The nights of sleeping on the couch in his office because he was so alone and so lonely in the tomb of his own home.
"Yeah, I reckon. Though I don't figure it's measured like that."
"Time, you mean?" Chris shifted on the floor, crossing his legs in front of him and moving the phone to the other ear, taking the time and effort not to get choked up. "I mean, do you think that he'll be older when I see him? What if, what if I get there and I don't recognize him?"
"I don't know, pard." Buck's tone was mellow, pensive, as soft as he was unbending in the constancy of his presence. "I guess, if I had to guess, I'd bet that they're waiting to see you just as they were, just as you were the last time you saw them. I doubt they'd go and grow old without you. And if anybody could make time stand still, it'd be Sarah."
Chris smiled, even as he pinched his eyes closed and felt warm tears slide down his cheeks, he smiled. He'd said that same thing to Buck the day he met her. As if time stood still for her and his world moved at her command.
"C'mon," Buck chuckled again, "You really think she'd stand for letting her boy grow up without his dad to see him? His first big teeth, his first baseball game, his first date. Nah. She'll be waiting for you. I bet she could out-sass St. Peter himself."
"Yeah." The syllable came out on a forced breath, Chris wondering just when he'd gotten so philosophical. Heaven was a vague concept to him, something people with far more faith gave name to so that they'd have a word for their version of afterlife.
Though the less angry he became, the more he admitted that he believed in it regardless. Regardless of reasons for it or against it. He had to believe that there was a place warm enough with people kind enough that they could heal the blackened skin of a little boy who didn't deserve to burn to death.
They could give him a new body, just like the old one, and new clothes, just his size. And the new four-wheeler that Adam had wanted but Chris had said was too expensive and too dangerous.
There wasn't anything he wouldn't give to be able to go back and buy his son that stupid machine. Let him drive it all over the ranch and make big mud tracks by the corral and come running in all covered in muck.
Let him drive it all over Heaven and wait for his daddy to come home.
"You want any company?"
Every year Buck offered, and every year Chris turned him down. Before, he said no because he wanted to be alone in his misery, compounding his anger and his desperate loneliness, too ashamed to let anyone see him as he would end up. But of late, it wasn't that, not in a year or more.
"Nah. I'll be okay. Just want to spend some time alone with my family."
"Ok, Chris. Just checking. Say hi to `em for me."
Chris could hear a sniffle on the other end of the line, and he knew by this point, Buck would be failing to fight his tears just as Chris was losing the battle with his.
"Ok. Will do." His voice not much more than a whisper now. "And Buck?"
Chris could never say the words. Why, he didn't know. Maybe it didn't need saying. Maybe he was too much of coward. Maybe it was something to enormous to paraphrase.
That he was lonely there, but not alone anymore. That the loneliness would pass. That the emptiness had been filled even in the face of all the holes Chris punched in himself. That they could never truly be taken from him as long as Buck was there on the other end of the phone to share them.
That he understood maybe God had answered his prayers all along, even before he ever prayed them.
To have someone who knew him to his core and still thought he was worth the fight. To have been given so much love in one lifetime was nothing he'd ever asked for. And still
"Yeah, me too, pard."
That answer would have to do, and it always did. Chris imagined Buck had figured it out way before he had and was content with the silence, content with the sure knowledge that he'd long since earned his soul's salvation.
He could hear the teasing in the voice and see the sparkle in the blue eyes as Buck would say, 'God knows I love you Chris, cause sure as shit no one else does.'
Wasn't that the truth. The greatest blessing he'd ever been given and never yet given thanks for. The one thing he knew he couldn't live without.
"See you tomorrow?" Buck always asked the same question at the end of his yearly anniversary call, and he didn't disappoint, the inquiry as sincere as it always was.
"Yeah." And the day after. "See you tomorrow." And the day after that.
For the long stretch of years to come, all the days complete, Buck would still be there. And one of those days Chris would have to tell him just how much he loved him. Tell him he no longer took these things for granted.
But not tonight.
His words struggled with themselves a moment. "Say a prayer for them will you?"
"Always have, Chris. Always."
The click on the receiver no longer sounded hollow. It sounded just as warm as the voice that preceded it, as the memories that lingered on it.
Chris held the phone to his chest as he stroked his fingers over the worn pages of the album, tracing the contours of the faces, every outline of love they attested, visions out of time.
And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. He closed his eyes, moist lashes locking, fresh tears squeezing, not fighting them or the small sobs they brought forth. And carried the phone with him to bed.