On Holiday

Leah Browning

She fell in love with a man. They’d never met in person, but they had spent several months exchanging messages and phone calls and even, occasionally, talking face to face as they each sat in front of their respective computer screens. He had short, sandy blond hair and an easy laugh. He lived in Milwaukee and owned a small (one-man) business; she was a schoolteacher with no tenure and no remaining vacation days. Next summer, they agreed.

In late November, just before Thanksgiving, his mother called. The two women had never spoken. The man had gone into the hospital for something very routine, practically an outpatient procedure, and he had never woken up from the anesthesia.

The woman cried on the phone with his mother. She couldn’t get away for the funeral, but she made a donation to the animal shelter named in the obituary and sent his mother a card.

Her parents lent her some money. She bought a plane ticket and flew to Milwaukee over the Christmas break. She rented a car at the airport and drove to his parents’ house. They’d hired a service to empty and clean his apartment, and someone else was living in it now. The furniture had been donated, but everything else was in their basement, packed in boxes.

The mother had made the bed in the guest bedroom and left a set of clean towels in the bathroom. She let the woman see his childhood bedroom and go through the photo albums. He’d told her all the stories of his childhood—church on Sundays, sledding with his siblings, a minor accident requiring stitches—and here was the evidence to back up this Midwestern fairy tale. One of the boxes in the basement had photos she’d sent him, photos of her, and a book she’d sent on his birthday with a handwritten note in one of the margins. Ask her, he’d written, but the pencil had smudged and she couldn’t read the rest.

She went to see his doctor, a youngish woman who also had short, sandy blond hair. (She was in a strange place, she hadn’t been getting enough sleep, and in this state she wondered if it might be him, come back in another form, and she looked lovingly at the hands that could be his hands and the face that could be his face.) This wasn’t the doctor who had performed the surgery, but the one who had made the referral. The doctor spoke to her gently. It was a tragedy, the doctor said. There wasn’t anything they could have done.

The woman goes back to his parents’ house. It’s Christmas Eve. His sisters have come over with their families. The tree is draped in lights, and a fire is burning in the fireplace, and there are candles on the mantel. Everyone is drinking hot chocolate with little marshmallows. One of the children is begging to open a present, any present, or at least have a candy cane off the tree. Someone has brought a dog, and it keeps barking and running back and forth. It knocks an ornament off the tree—not one of the sturdy, Sunday school variety, but a delicate silver bauble that shatters on the floor—and a baby starts to cry.

His mother goes to the kitchen and gets the woman a mug of hot chocolate, and someone moves over to make room for her on the couch, but the conversation stalls, and soon the woman excuses herself and goes to the guest room. She’s afraid that his family has grown tired of her, or they’ve become tiresome to her, or some combination of the two.

The morning of her flight, his father makes her pancakes with pats of butter and a generous swath of maple syrup. His parents walk her outside, and she kisses them goodbye. In the car, before she drives away, she looks back at them, still standing on the porch with their arms around each other, waving. Several times on the way to the rental place, she has to wipe her eyes.

She returns the car and boards the plane. The sunshade next to her seat has been pulled down, and she doesn’t push it back up. There is a voice over the loudspeaker. She looks up, but no one is calling her name.

The flight takes off. An attendant pushes a cart down the aisle and offers everyone drinks. Someone jostles the back of her seat. All of the people on the plane are on their way to and from somewhere, and she is no different. She goes back to Colorado and resumes her teaching job and her life without him.

Author Portrait

Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and four chapbooks. Her fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Superstition Review, Newfound, The Homestead Review, Santa Ana River Review, Flash Flash Click, Bellows American Review, First Class Literary Magazine, Waypoints, Chagrin River Review, Clementine Unbound, and Coldnoon. Browning’s work has also appeared in several anthologies including Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (White Pine Press), The Doll Collection (Terrapin Books), and Myth+Magic (Sugared Water/Porkbelly Press). In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review.