Clarice James

Smart, Fun, Relatable Fiction

The Girl He Knew: Chapter 1

May felt more like March as Charlie Dawson fought the wind, lugging three, full canvas totes into the house. Silkscreened with the works of modern architects Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, and Frank Lloyd Wright, his wife Juliette had bought them for him from PBS … or maybe the Museum of Fine Arts … he wasn’t sure which.

Though he was an architect himself, carrying these tributes to the industry icons seemed rather presumptuous—like maybe he thought he was in the same league. Besides, he lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts—not exactly known for its modern architecture. The town’s largest tourist attraction was Plimoth Plantation, a living museum of life in the seventeenth century. The 400-year-old town’s most famous monument was a not-so-big rock in a hole in the ground surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

No, he used these totes simply because doing so made his wife smile.

Today, Juliette needed much more to cheer her up. This morning she’d discovered another month had passed without her getting pregnant, when just last night she’d added Cooper and Liam to their list of boys’ names in their “Before Our Baby Is Born” journal. He’d suggested Cosimia and Kapono for a girl. She hadn’t bothered to write them down. He grinned at the memory.

They both wanted a baby, sure, but the burden to get pregnant seemed to fall more on Juliette than him. Her mood swings over the past many months had reflected that—no matter how much he reassured her. Keeping up with the whole baby journaling thing might be more stress than either of them needed.

Charlie sighed. He hoped her training session today with her father would lift her spirits. This would be her third time competing in The New England Season Opener Triathlon on Memorial Day weekend in Hopkinton. Though a serious ankle injury had sidelined her last year, she’d placed first in her age division the previous two races.

He rushed to put the groceries away before she got home. After church the next day, he planned to surprise her with an organic, vegetarian, and gluten-free meal. All he had to do now was make it taste good.

With time for a quick shower, he took the stairs two at a time to the master suite. When his phone rang, he hurdled the overflowing laundry basket near the bed and raced back down the steps. He reached his phone before the message went to voice mail.

Hey, not bad for a thirty-year-old.

The caller ID read “Colonel Annandale,” as if Colonel was his father-in-law’s first name. Which it wasn’t. His name was Wickford.

Out of habit, Charlie pulled his shoulders back. “Good afternoon, Colonel. May I ask why you’re keeping my wife so late? Didn’t Juliette tell you we have plans with Kyle and Sarah this evening?”

Silence. He took a second look at the phone. “Colonel? You there?”

“Yes, son, I’m here.”

Son? The only time the colonel referred to him that way was when he wanted something or was trying to be nice … because he wanted something. Most recently when he sought Charlie’s approval to train Juliette for her first triathlon since her ankle surgery.

The colonel cleared his throat. “Charlie, it’s Juliette.”

“What about her?” Charlie’s skin prickled. “Is she okay?”

“No, she’s not. We need you at the hospital. Now.”

We? Her father wouldn’t have called unless Juliette had asked him to. Charlie massaged his neck. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. We’ll talk when you get here.” Click.

The six-mile drive to the hospital seemed like sixty. Had she fallen? No, she had quick reflexes. Twisted an ankle? Isn’t that what those new high-performance and outrageously-priced shoes were for? Torn her Achilles or meniscus? Or worse, another stress fracture? When that happened last year, she’d been sidelined and miserable for eight months. So had Coach Colonel.

Smirking at his wife’s private nickname for her father, he ignored the worry that rose inside him. “Please, Lord. Don’t let it be her ankle again.”

He entered through the ER doors. At the welcome desk, a kind-faced volunteer greeted him then led him to a small sitting room off the main hallway. Beyond the closed door, the colonel sat hunched over. A man in a white lab coat sat nearby. They stood when he entered.

His father-in-law staggered toward him, his face pale. “Juliette’s gone, son.”

Charlie’s mind stumbled over the word son before it twisted around the word gone, trying to make sense of it. “Gone? She left? Or did they take her to Boston?”

The colonel looked lost. “No, Charlie, the doctors think the cause may be cardiac related.”

Hands up, palms facing out, Charlie tried to stop him from speaking. “Wait! Cause? What are you saying?”

The doctor extended his hand and spoke in a soothing tone. “Mr. Dawson, I’m Dr. Ivan, the attending physician. The EMTs did everything possible to treat Mrs. Dawson at the scene. We took over here. I’m sorry, sir, your wife did not survive.”

The room spun. Charlie’s stomach spasmed. He slumped to a seat and covered his face with his hands. “Oh God, oh God, no …” He tried to compose his thoughts. “Why? I mean, how did this happen? She was in top shape. Colonel?”

“I don’t know.” His father-in-law looked dazed. “She left me back at base camp while she took to the course again.” His voice cracked, he looked away. “A few minutes later, a woman ran toward me, yelling, ‘Call 911! My phone’s dead.’ I called then took off in the direction she pointed. I had no idea I’d be performing CPR on my own daughter.”

Charlie bowed his head. Let this be a nightmare, please, Lord, please.

Dr. Ivan cleared his throat. “Learning more about your wife’s lifestyle could help us determine the cause. Was she on any medication? Did she have special dietary concerns or allergies?”

“No medications or allergies that I know of.” Charlie was distracted by the sound of his own voice. “She ate healthy, exercised daily, and was religious about taking supplements.”

Dr. Ivan jotted a few notes. “Did your wife ever have a bad reaction to something she’d taken?”

“No … I don’t think so … not that I recall.”

The colonel barked, “Why are you asking all these questions?”

“The more we know, the more it will help the medical examiner when he performs the autopsy.”

“Autopsy?” the colonel growled. “That won’t be necessary.”

Charlie steeled himself. He would not back down. “I disagree.”

His father-in-law reacted like he’d been struck. “Why? It won’t bring her back.”

“Because I want to know what happened to my wife.” Broken, he turned to the doctor. “When will you have the results?”

“The cause of death, maybe in three or four days,” Dr. Ivan said. “The tox screen may take several weeks. A list of those health supplements you mentioned might help.” He handed Charlie a card. “Email or text would be fine.”

Charlie stared at the business card. “Sure.”

The colonel dropped to the chair behind him and scrubbed his face with both hands. “I was too late to save her.” He stared straight ahead then pushed himself up. “I need to get home to her mother. Natalie doesn’t know yet.”

“Go ahead, Colonel. I’ll head over to your place when I leave here.”

Why didn’t I insist Jules take a longer hiatus between races? Would she have listened? Maybe, if I’d stood up to her father

Before he fell apart, Charlie needed to say goodbye to his wife. “May I see her?”

“Of course,” Dr. Ivan said. “Follow me.”

The colorless room was quiet. Like death. No monitors beeping, no alarms sounding. Juliette looked like she’d wake up any minute. He held her hand. Questions flew at him. Did she know? Was it quick? Did she suffer? Was she cold? Juliette hated the cold. He placed her hand between his, trying to warm it.

She’s in heaven now—no better place. I’m supposed to let go, right?

Why can’t I?

Because if I let go now, Juliette might be gone forever.

 

***

 

Charlie pushed the alarm key to find his Jeep Cherokee in the parking lot. Eight rows over, he climbed inside, slammed the door, and slumped over the steering wheel. He couldn’t breathe. A primal groan escaped him. “Jules, oh, Jules …”

Once this round of tears was depleted, he called his sister Edy.

“No, Charlie, no-o … Are you home? I’ll be right over.”

“I’m headed to the Annandales’ now. I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Sure. Should I call Grams and Pop?”

Charlie’s eyes filled again, just thinking about his grandparents. “Maybe we can do that together later?”

“Right. They’ll want to hear your voice.”

He called his best friend Kyle Yates. They’d known each other since second grade. While Charlie had studied to become an architect, Kyle had joined the Marines and done two tours in Afghanistan. After his stint, he’d joined the Plymouth Police Department.

Kyle answered. “You better not be bailing on me, Dawson. We promised the girls a chick flick and a frou-frou restaurant tonight. Don’t make me go without you.”

“Kyle—” He tried to swallow. “Ky-le.” The lump in Charlie’s throat grew. He remembered how huge a deal it’d been when Juliette and Kyle’s wife Sarah became best friends. The guys liked to joke, “We get to hang out more than we did when we were single.”

“What’s the matter? You all right?”

“No, I’m not.” He lost it when he told him about Juliette.

“Aw, Charlie, I don’t know what to say.” He paused. “Where are you now?”

“Hospital parking lot. I’m on my way to see Juliette’s parents.”

“Anyone I can contact for you? How ’bout Pastor Ted?”

“Right. Ted. Thanks.”

Charlie had been a kid when Ted Westfall became pastor. He and his wife Binnie had two sons six or seven years older than him. One was a pastor himself now, the other a science teacher. He and Juliette had shared many a Sunday dinner at the Westfall table, before and after Ted married them.

Now he’d be officiating Juliette’s funeral.

Dark clouds appeared along the route to his in-laws’. The temperature dropped with each passing mile, both inside his Jeep and out. Raw wind and hard rain greeted him in their driveway. It was almost a relief when numbness set in.

But one look at Juliette’s mother brought a new wave of grief.

She hugged him and wept. “Oh, Charlie, what will we do without our girl?”

The colonel led her to the sofa. “Natalie, we need to hold ourselves together now. Charlie needs us. How can we help, son?”

“I’m not sure. Haven’t had a chance to think.”

She wiped her swollen eyes. “Forgive me, Charlie. I didn’t mean—”

“Natalie, you don’t need to apologize. Juliette’s worth our tears, don’t you think?”

She hugged herself. “Yes, but I need to be strong.”

“You don’t need to be any such thing. Not for me.”

She smiled a sad, kind smile. “How about I make some tea, then we can talk about the arrangements. That’s if you want to. We don’t want to interfere.”

How had a sweet woman like her put up with an overbearing man like Wickford Annandale for over thirty-five years? He could stand his ground with his father-in-law, but never with Natalie. “Sure. Tea. Let’s talk.”

They discussed Juliette’s wishes—or what they might have been if she’d lived long enough to express them. How many twenty-nine-year-olds have planned their funerals? Charlie made an appointment to meet with the funeral director on Wednesday. The director would make arrangements with the medical examiner once the autopsy was complete.

“They couldn’t give you a day?” Natalie tore at the tissues in her hand.

“No. The funeral director has to wait on the M.E.” Charlie refrained from looking at his father-in-law.

The colonel stood. “Are you saying we’ll have to wait a week to bury our daughter?”

My wife. “Colonel, I’m afraid it’ll be even longer with Memorial Day weekend complicating things. And, our wishes aside, Dr. Ivan told me an autopsy is required by law when death is sudden, and the person is in apparent good health.”

Natalie patted Charlie’s hand. “We can only do what we can do.” She looked up at her husband. “Isn’t that right, Wick?”

His father-in-law grunted.

Charlie rose to leave. “Edy and Kyle and Sarah are coming over later. Probably Pastor Ted and Binnie too. If you’re up to it, why don’t you join us?”

The colonel shook his hand. “Thanks, we’ll call if we decide to stop by.”

Using the military we was his father-in-law’s polite way of declining the invitation.

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