I’d already saved Laurence Saunders a number of times over the years, small insignificant salvations. On December nineteenth, I managed to save him twice.
That last day, Laurence slipped unnoticed from his home sometime between noon and three p.m., the three hour space between the meals-on-wheels delivery by Mrs. Heflin and the arrival of the nurse’s aide. Despite the tragic circumstances, no blame was ever cast on either woman. After all, Mr. Saunders had been found wandering numerous times before.
No one considered my involvement, not even once: not the police officer who coordinated the search and rescue, not the other neighbors on our street, not even the dogs they eventually brought in from the mainland, though, perhaps, they would have if they’d bothered to check my boots.
Laurence was my closest neighbor, his front porch no more than forty feet from mine. Five years ago I’d watched his wife’s coffin carried down the steps of that front porch after the wake. Later I’d watched him sit on that same porch for hours, alone, day after day, only the fraying of his bathrobe marking the passage of time.
With his wife, Suzie, gone, I was his only companion. Laurence and I were separated by forty feet, two walls, and a growing silence that neither of us could shake. For me, the silence shouldn’t have felt any different from when Suzie was alive. But it did.
I had never been one of the Saunders’ flock of visitors. The August barbeques with the overflow of pick-up trucks and coolers full of beer had always seemed like just so much unnecessary noise. Since Suzie’s death, that kind of noise had gradually ceased. Laurence started losing people’s names about three years ago. Started losing other words about a year after that. Now that the silence had infected his house, few visited anymore.
I watched, I listened, and, at night when Laurence fell asleep in front of his flickering TV, I slipped in and turned out the lights. It felt good to be needed.
Ten years ago I’d left my husband, Peter and his three basset hounds back in Portland and moved across the bay to China Island and Aunt Eveline’s old clapboard house. The twin occurrences of Aunt Eveline’s death and the demise of my marriage felt somehow linked. My true path finally revealed.
“Good luck, Sarah,” My ex-husband had said on that last day, shaking my hand as we stood outside the courthouse. He seemed almost relieved to see me go.
Eveline’s death offered me a new beginning. Between the house and an old savings account, she’d left me enough to almost squeak by. And somehow or other the island always provided.
Then December nineteenth arrived and Laurence Saunders wandered into the woods.
That day the snow fell like it often does in Maine. Soft puffy flakes hung from the bare branches of the birch and maple trees. Snow-topped pines loomed like towering movie props while the clouds coated the sky a dull and bitter gray.
Early in the morning I stood by my kitchen window watching the birdfeeder, a tall pole that separated the Saunders’ house from my own. The birds swarmed down, the jays chasing the smaller sparrows and finches away. Hungry birds. A storm was coming. That’s when I noticed Laurence heading out to his mailbox, just like he did every day. No coat, of course, or boots, though he’d remembered his cane. I watched his cane catch on the railing, his arms wheeling as he slipped on the edge of the porch steps. It almost seemed as if he were about to fly, his arms extended, and then he toppled backward, his body sprawled out across the wooden floor.
Feet still in leather slippers, I dashed out my front door and across the snow toward his house.
“Laurence,” I called, wanting to reassure him. “Mr. Saunders.”
Laurence glanced in my direction.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled, legs kicking like a fallen turtle. His robe had fallen open, the cotton, striped pajama top the only thing separating his thin chest from the winter air. “Get on home. It’s cold out here.”
“Mr. Saunders,” I repeated as I stepped onto the porch. “Let me help you.” I bent down and grasped him under both arms. Laurence tried to shift away, but I hung on, tugging. It seemed for a moment like it wasn’t going to work, and then we were both standing. Laurence’s knotted fingers quickly pulled my hands away.
“I’d better go and find Suzie,” he muttered, red faced, his eyes avoiding mine. “Good to see you, Eveline.”
Damn him. Despite all his other losses, he’d always remembered my name, at least until today. Sarah not Eveline. Sarah. Even as a girl, when I’d just been another of Aunt Eveline’s summer visitors, he’d always known who I was. When I moved in to Aunt Eveline’s house, Laurence Saunder’s had been the first person to greet me.
“Hello, Sarah with the long butter-colored hair,” he called from the open window of his truck. He’d given me that nickname back when I was only six and visiting Aunt Eveline for the first time. My hair was darker now, not that it seemed to matter. From my very first day up until his very last, I watched over Laurence Saunders, and he watched over me, too.
Used to be, when Suzie was alive, I’d call at the Saunders’ house every Saturday night. It even seemed like Laurence and Suzie welcomed me, despite the intrusion. It was almost like shoveling out someone’s driveway, a very neighborly act.
Some things hadn’t changed at all from my childhood visits to China Island. Every week Laurence came home bawling drunk, his pickup skidding along the curves of the road, the sea’s edge no more than ten feet on one side, the woods not much farther on the other.
Every week I would hear him stumbling across his porch as I lay in my wallpapered bedroom. And always he sang that same song. “Wake up little Suzie. Wake up.” The words starting before he’d even reached the entrance, the banging of the porch door following soon after, and then the lights flashing on throughout the house. The brightness of those lights drove through my curtains like sunlight.
Of course, I was awake. Just like Suzie.
I always imagined his wife, Suzie, waited until the very last moment before turning on the bedroom lamp. Like me she’d been in bed for hours, both our houses dark with only the far off gleam of the mainland lights for company.
Sometimes, on summer nights, I heard their laughter, too. Heard the music he turned on as he clattered into their bedroom. I imagined the two of them dancing, gray-haired and smiling, as the moon slowly traveled overhead. Those nights it seemed I could never get to sleep, my restless legs finally pulling me out of bed, my hand on the beige telephone. And, somehow, it always ended the same way. I would hear the ringing phone through my open window. One ring, two rings, ten rings. And then, just as I was about to hang up, Laurence would answer.
“Sarah, just go to sleep,” he’d murmur, more distracted than upset. “Suzie, I’m coming,” he would call, and then the line would go dead. Laurence and Suzie busy with their own concerns.
All that changed once Suzie died. No more clattering truck, no more out-of-tune songs, no more phone calls. All the noise emptied from the Saunders’ house.
On December nineteenth, for the first time in years, Laurence’s driveway was full once again; the pick-ups lined up one behind the other. Men in work boots and heavy coats called out to each other as they wandered about Laurence’s property and the surrounding woods.
The noise reminded me of those old September barbeques and Suzie bringing me something on a paper plate, slipping between our yards, her face serene as she held my door open.
“I know you like ribs, Sarah. Just take ’em. We’ve got plenty.”
“Sarah, here. Take it.” The plate already set down on my kitchen table, a folded paper napkin beside it.
And then I would feel Suzie’s hand squeezing my shoulder before she slipped back outside.
Veronica Dunphy, the nurse’s aide, was the first one to spread the news of Laurence’s disappearance, calling China Island’s lone police officer when she found the empty house and still open door. The rescue party arrived soon after, most of them men from the volunteer fire department.
I stayed inside. Didn’t want to hear what they were saying. Didn’t want to see. Laurence was a skinny man with hardly an ounce of fat left on him. How long could he survive in the December cold, the snow now falling thick and fast? I watched as the huddle of men dispersed in all directions only to return in ones or twos, faces increasingly grim.
As dusk set in, more trucks pulled up to the Saunders’ house. More neighbors, too. People arriving to offer their help. I could see Georgia Loomis and Nick Dimeo, neighbors from about a half mile down the road. I could see Tony Bergmann, Laurence’s closest neighbor on the other side. From his Day-Glo jacket and black tights, it was clear he’d been heading out on yet another run when he’d noticed the crowd.
I watched as he talked to the small cluster of men who hovered around a blue Dodge Ram—no hats, despite the cold, maps and radios spread across the hood of the pick-up. Then Tony shook someone’s hand and turned toward my house, moving steadily through the foot of snow that separated the two yards. Clearly, he had seen me watching.
I slipped on my boots and stepped out onto the porch.
“Sarah,” Tony called out in greeting. “Did you happen to see Laurence today?”
The sun had fallen below the tree tops. The temperature must have dropped at least five degrees in the last hour. It was only going to get colder.
“Not since morning.”
Tony had reached the bottom of my porch. I could see the downward creases at the edges of his mouth. His brown eyes completely unguarded.
I glanced at the huddle of volunteers in Laurence’s driveway.
“I could help search. I know the woods round here pretty well by now….” It felt more like a question than I’d intended.
“I think they’ve got enough people,” Tony replied after a slight pause. “Be helpful if you could keep an eye on his house, make sure he doesn’t slip back somehow while we’re all out scurrying.”
We both knew he was worried about something else entirely. Tony was like a lot of the island men, careful of their women. He didn’t want me to be the one to find Laurence’s body, curled and frozen, the stripes of his thin cotton pants covered in a layer of fresh snow.
The flakes were falling quickly, now. Island storms always seem fiercer than those on the mainland. No mountains to slow them down. No towns to the north or south where you can hide until they pass. The storm, in the end, has to be faced. Pure. That’s China Island.
“I better get going,” Tony said after a moment, glancing at darkening sky. “Perhaps someone further down saw him.”
“I just wish I had more to tell,” I murmured as Tony turned toward the road. I’m not sure he even heard me; his stride had already broken into a run.
And I do. I wish I could have told them all. Wish I could have mentioned the dim lights in the woods, uncertain, like the edge of a sunset. And Laurence’s shuffling steps as he headed toward those trees. His voice creaking out the words, “Wake up little Suzie. Wake up.” I could have mentioned so many things. My boots were already covered with snow when I finally stepped out to meet Tony. Did I mention that? No? Though the snow was more puddle at that point.
Two hours is a long time. A long time for snow to melt, a long time for someone in house slippers and a robe to be out in the cold.
No wonder Tony Bergmann ran so fast.
“Laurence, dear. Why don’t you take my arm?” I paused for a moment, letting him process the words.
His eyes moved slowly over my face. His lips creased slightly in confusion.
“I don’t mind, honestly. We’ll hold each other up.”
“Eveline, shouldn’t we head back?” His voice was so hesitant, not like the old Laurence at all. “The snow’ll be here soon.”
I glanced up through the trees.
He was right, of course. The flakes were falling steadily, now.
“It’s alright, Laurence. We’ll head back in a bit….” I let the words trail off, his arm still firmly wrapped through mine. I didn’t stop walking.
After all this time, had he really lost my name?
Laurence and I were deep in the woods now.
The light kept changing the closer we got to it. The light was like honey, as dark as it was bright. And from overhead in every direction came the creaking of frozen branches. I could hear a rustling as the wind pushed against the snow and leaves, pushed against my hair and cheeks, as well. How could Laurence stand the cold?
In the woods it was like the ocean didn’t even exist, nothing but trees and the crunching of my boots, Laurence’s own slippers making almost no sound. There was just a scattering of snow on the ground; the pine branches acting as a rough sort of roof. Once the storm started and the snow truly began to fall, it would be hard to follow either of our footprints.
I had made sure to meet Laurence in the woods, wandering down the street a ways before finally slipping through the trees, letting him take those first steps alone. The snow in his yard, I knew, would show only one set of prints. One set of footprints and the marks of his three-pronged cane.
My own little walk? If anyone noticed, well, I walked the woods most days. People knew that.
“Sarah?” Laurence said, his voice almost yelling over the wind.
I glanced over in surprise.
The woods were like a wall in front of us spreading out in both directions. And the sounds. I could hear voices now. Words anyway. “Hurry. Faster. Don’t forget.”
A woman’s voice as angry as it was determined.
And then Laurence started to laugh. The slackness in his eyes gone. Now I was the one being tugged forward. Laurence’s voice calling out to the trees.
“Damn it, woman. I said I’d be back soon. Just got caught up for a bit is all.”
Just like those Saturday nights when Suzie was still alive. Me listening in, so hopeful for them both.
The wind was whipping against my face now. The clattering of the branches mixed with the swirling of the dead leaves. And, somewhere, more words. Still too hard for me to distinguish easily. I thought I caught “late” and perhaps even “bastard.” I hadn’t known Suzie Saunders swore.
“Sweetheart. Suzie.” Tears were running down the old man’s face as we stumbled against the now roaring wind. “God, damn it. It’s alright. I’m here. Haven’t even taken off my work clothes and you’re already going at it.”
And then he was dropping my arm that cane of his swinging out, sailing toward the trees, toward that light that flooded behind.
I stumbled, falling to the ground, Laurence falling, too. Spittle on his lips, his old man’s skin grey-blue against the dark ground and the light powdered snow.
“Suzie,” he muttered as he tried to push himself up. “Suzie.”
I started to shiver. God, it was cold. The tie of his robe had come undone, nothing but that worn cotton top covering his skin. I wanted to cradle him in my arms with his old-man body and half-empty eyes.
His lips were a little blue, but Laurence’s heart was just fine. Unraveling for years, Suzie was all that was left. Those memories burned so deep, canyons raging through the empty landscape.
Laurence was crawling now, but not for long. Gnarled hands, knotted and arthritic, pressed against rough bark as he used a nearby tree trunk to pull himself upright. His breath was like a cloud, spreading out to meet the light.
“Suzie,” Laurence said. His voice was low now. He glanced back at me. “You shouldn’t be here.”
The wind hadn’t so much settled as decided to wander elsewhere, my hair no longer whipping across my face. The tree branches were silent.
Laurence pulled the tie of his robe back across his waist. The worn pajama top was now hidden underneath. He ran his right hand through his still-thick hair, steel-grey, the edges hanging down over his ears and collar.
And then he turned and looked at me, looked right at me, his eyes holding mine.
“Time for you to go,” he said. And he meant it. His voice firm, like that time I found Suzie on the kitchen floor leaning against the refrigerator, a houseslipper on one foot the other slipper clear across the room, resting near Laurence.
“Don’t worry. We’ll call you soon,” he’d said then. And I’d nodded, glancing from one to the other, the empty plate left on the counter. No other words spoken.
He said it again now. “We’ll call you soon, Sarah.” The trees and that honey-dark light stretching out behind him.
And after all, wasn’t that why we’d wandered into the woods to begin with, so he could find that light?
I nodded once and then turned to go, leaving Laurence leaning against the old tree, his song clear as I followed the trail back to the edge of my house. “Wake up, little Suzie. Wake up.” The creaking of the trees was his only accompaniment. The light didn’t fade, though. Just like on those summer nights all those years ago. In the end, Suzie always ended up turning on that light.
Julie Day recently graduated from the Stonecoast M.F.A.program. She also has a B.S. and M.S. in Microbiology. By day Julie work as an IT business analyst. She also volunteers at Small Beer Press and hosts their occasional podcasting series.