Maureen O’Leary’s short stories and essays can be found most recently in the anthologies The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women, The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories, and The Monsters We Forgot Volume 2 as well as The Howling Mad Review, The Black Fork Review, Ariadne Magazine, Decomp Journal, and Coffin Bell Journal. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Ashland University. 

by Maureen O’Leary

Ray remembered the vineyard from when he was a kid. He held the memory in the same way he held on to his best marble when he was a little boy, a blue agate with a shock of yellow trapped inside. He remembered that perfect marble as he walked the levee road toward the vineyard on an early October twilight as the full moon rose in an indigo sky. The image he smoothed over and over in his mind spread before him as if in a dream. This memory comforted him during the long days of active duty in a landscape of desert and rock, and though he sometimes wondered if he would ever be able to return, here he was at last. Home.  

Those late summers at home when he was a teenager were filled with moments of perfect peace like this one, when he had been so young and dumb that he took them for granted.  He’d never considered that outside of this piece of paradise the world could be harsh and unkind. He learned about the world when he went to war.

He walked along the vineyard rows, the green valley and big purple sky feeling like home and like heaven. He was so long in a hostile desert he almost forgot how rich the earth could be. He crouched to pinch a bit of loamy soil between his forefinger and thumb, gladness rising in him as if the dirt itself were an old friend. The end of harvest season were his busiest days when he was a teenager helping his father in the long afternoons alongside the other field hands. Some evenings the family who owned the winery served dinner to the workers under festive lights strewn between the oak trees in the yard, and afterward the manager’s daughter Sara played the guitar and sang.  Sara, the girl he loved.

Nostalgia so intense it might as well have been grief overwhelmed him and he raised his eyes to see a white hound loping down a long and narrow row between the vines. Ray tried to pet him but the dog dashed past. He followed it across the road and toward the slough where Sara was sitting on a patch of green grass by the water, looking over her shoulder as if she were expecting him. His heart stopped when he saw her, and he knew his love for her was still strong.

The dog curled by Sara’s side. “Long time, no see,” she said as Ray picked his way down the embankment. He felt clumsy and giant in his boots and Army fatigues. She laughed as if she could tell what he was thinking.

“Is the dog new?” he asked.

“Bogle? He’s always been here.”

Ray had never seen the white dog before but he didn’t want to argue with Sara. He was just so glad to see her. “How’ve you been?” He drew his knees up and felt like as shy as a kid.

“I love this time of year here,” she said. “I just keep coming back. I can’t stay away, you know?”

She was so beautiful with her long black hair and white dress. Even in the dimming twilight he saw that she had barely changed since the summer after they graduated high school.

“I feel the same,” he said and sat down next to her.

She moved closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder. They sat together that way for some time as the moon rose higher in the sky, yellow as the swirl in Ray’s perfect agate marble when he was a boy.

Their last night together before she went off to college, and he to basic training, they sat by the river in the same place. She’d rested her head on his shoulder and he held her hand as they promised they would return to each other, to this place. He wondered if she remembered their childish vows but he didn’t know how to bring it up. That night felt so long ago and he didn’t know if his shredded heart could take the disappointment of her forgetting.

The dog whined as if impatient, and Sara took Ray’s hand in hers.

“Have you gone to see my grandma yet?” she asked. “She and my dad are up at the house. They’ve just had dinner.”

Ray stood to brush dirt from his olive drabs. He held out his hand for her to join him but she shook her head.

“You go ahead,” she said. “I’ll meet you in the rows.”

Sara’s family lived in a small white house at the edge of the property. Heirloom roses bloomed in the yard, still fragrant from the heat of the day. The door to the house was open yet he hesitated, his cap in his hands, shy to show up on Sara’s father’s porch after three years.

During Basic Training and then through active duty, Ray wrote to Sara twice a month. They were friendly letters, no pressure, he hoped. He wanted her to have great times and to experience college without worrying about him performing watch duties and trundling down ambush allies in a foreign desert. Her letters were full of stories about weekends working the farm that made him feel the loam between his fingers again, and the weight of her hand in his. She also wrote of long bike rides along the levees, telling him of the way the water rushed after a big rain, and of how she imagined sometimes he was riding with her at her side.

“Hello?” Ray called into the house. He stepped through the doorway to find Sara’s grandmother sitting at the farm table by herself peeling an orange. Water filled Ray’s mouth with the smell of the zest. He stood in the small room feeling clumsy, wishing he knew what to say.

“Have a seat, Raymond,” Grandma said. She nodded to the chair across from hers, already pulled away from the table. Her gray hair spilled over the shoulders of her dress like the hair of a young woman, though her face was wrinkled in the way of a one who spent her life working in the outdoors. Sara’s family was second-generation farmers and when they were younger Ray envied Sara’s certainty about majoring in agriculture. She was so sure of her desire to take her father’s place as manager when he retired. It took a couple of years of active duty for Ray to understand how good they had it working the land.

“Your father was a good man,” the old woman said. “A hard worker. A loving father to you.”

Ray’s fingers worried his cap. His father died of a quick cancer that swept through him before Ray even had a chance to visit and say good-bye.

“It’s hard.” She sectioned the orange and laid the pieces on a white plate. “The people we love are always taken from us before we are ready.”

“I wanted to make him proud,” Ray said.

“You did.” Grandma pushed the plate towards him. “You are strong and kind as ever, I see. Sara’s dad and me were always hoping you two would get married.” Her laughter had the same bell-like sound as her granddaughter’s.

Ray grinned. Family photographs hung on the wall and Sara’s high school graduation portrait smiled back at him. He always loved her family. He respected her serious, hardworking father. He loved Grandma who tended the roses and offered them lemonade and cookies when they came in from working the harvest. The other workers said she had a gift and she gave palm and Tarot readings sometimes when she was in the mood. There were so many beautiful memories in this place. So many that he’d forgotten a few. He’d forgotten the scent of vanilla and oranges in Sara’s kitchen, and the way her grandmother made him feel as if everything was going to be okay.

“Full moon tonight,” she said, nodding at the orange on the plate. He moved to touch it but when he tried he couldn’t feel the rough pith on the tender skin. Could not lift a piece to his mouth.

He looked again at the photographs on the wall. There was Sara as a child in the arms of her father, and Sara as a young woman in a college sweatshirt, next to a new bike with a big red bow on the handlebars.

“Her father bought her that bike for Christmas last year,” Grandma said. “She would ride for hours; it gave her so much joy.”

The grandmother’s eyes darkened then and Ray thought of dust storms he and his buddies sometimes sighted in the desert looming to the sky from miles away, knowing that in a short time hot dust and sand would burn their eyes and choke their lungs.

“A drunk driver killed Sara less than a mile down the road. She would have been home in time for dinner, but a man had been drinking, a man we never met. He took her from us.”

Sara’s father entered the room from the back of the house to clean his eyeglasses under the faucet. “That’s right, Mom,” he said. “I guess it helps to retell it.” He bent over the sink, and Ray thought he aged thirty years in the last three. His hands shook a bit under the water’s stream.

“She was a wonderful girl.” Grandma’s eyes fixed on Ray and he could not look away.  He was too shocked to speak or cry or do anything but sit at Sara’s childhood table with his hands cupped over an orange he couldn’t seem to touch.

“Do you understand why you’ve returned, young man?” She leaned forward and spoke to him gently, so gently. He closed his eyes and suddenly remembered dust exploding in his nose and throat when the bomb detonated, ripping him apart, silencing his hearing, his breathing, and last of all his heart as he stared up at a sky bleached white by a relentless sun.

“Who are you talking to tonight, Ma?” Sara’s father asked, wiping his lenses dry with the tail of his flannel shirt. He rested his work weathered hand on the old woman’s shoulder now, his voice as quiet as hers. “Who are you telling stories to tonight?”

“Oh, you remember Ed’s boy Ray, don’t you? Sara’s friend?” She patted her son’s hand. “Ed who stayed on year-round to fix the engines. I’m talking to his boy.”

“Ed was the best mechanic we ever had.” Sara’s father spoke slowly, his voice heavy with sadness. “His son Ray? Great kid. Thought we’d be calling him son soon enough.” He shuffled off to the back room, never once looking at Ray sitting at his table.

Outside the white dog howled. “Moon’s full,” Grandma said. “Brings out old Bogle to make sure everything’s right on the land.”

“I loved her,” Ray said, tasting desert sand in the back of his throat.

“So did we,” Grandma said. “And we loved you too. I think that’s why you returned, son. This place and its people loved you and that love was a beacon that brought you here, home, where you belong.”

“I’m so tired.”

“That’s all right, now. It’s time to rest.”

She nodded toward the open door and Ray left the old woman at the table. He walked into the night illuminated by a yellow moon past its largest point, rising in a starry indigo sky. Bogle yipped and lowered his head for Ray to follow and so he did, the whiteness of the dog’s fur nearly glowing blue in the moonlight as he led him down the rows to where Sara waited for him among the vines.