By Frank Melton
She doesn’t know the word for the smell, but she knows what it does to her. Tonight, once again, it’s taken her from the dream. Brought forth tears.
She saw him again. Noted the rice paddies. The plastic poncho and the M-16. Boots caked in red mud. And that smile. Always that smile.
She sniffles, swipes at her cheeks, careful not to disturb her slumbering husband, then rolls on her side. Turns her back to him and their seventeen years together.
Through the black rectangle of an open bedroom window, the petrichor continues to sprinkle in, offering the smells of sage and ocotillo, dimpled sand. She breathes in the night’s gift.
Eyes closed, her mind meanders, ferries her back to the year when she was all of eighteen, to that first time with the boy in the dream. The summer before he’d left. She watches him spread a blanket over damp ground, then hold her hand to ease her down. They lie in a kaleidoscope of broken shadows beneath a pair of mourning doves coursing below a bruised sky. The smell of recent rain soon to be replaced by his Hai Karate aftershave. His breath. Their together-sweat.
Reliving the scene, her hands, clutched at her breast, begin to tremble. Her heart flutters and she feels as if she’s on fire, skin as prickly as the cactus with the same name.
Moments later, through the mist of memory, she hears him whisper, again and again, “I love you.”
“It was him again,” her husband says, staring into his morning coffee. “Last night in your dream.”
She jiggles her head no, says, “I was just tired.”
He sips, knows he can argue, as before. Knows that he’s never won. Never will. His breath catches at the harsh thought that he will always be the runner-up, the second placer. The alternate to this boy. To her past.
“You’re going to be late,” she whispers, motioning at the clock on the stove.
He stands, delivers his dishes to the sink. He’s not a bad man, though he often wonders how long a good man could—would—live with the thought of never measuring up to number one. Cup and saucer rinsed, he washes his hands. Flings them as if he’s just touched something dirty.
He steps toward her, leans in, expecting his goodbye kiss. She turns her head. Just slightly.
“I see,” he says.
“You can’t help it.” He gathers up wallet, briefcase and keys. “I don’t think so, anyway.”
She nods. Too quickly, then follows her husband to the front door.
He opens it, pauses at the threshold. Glancing at her gardens of Aspen bluebell and False Forget-Me-Nots, he says, “Your flowers like the rain.”
He doesn’t answer and he can’t see her hand hovering above his shoulder just as he steps away, says, “I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I love that smell.”
* * *
Fred Melton is a 2018 graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program. His work has been seen in Best American Mystery Stories 2002, Big Sky Journal, Oyez Review, Passages North, Front Range Review, and the Bellevue Literary Review, as well as other publications.