Julia Maddox finished washing the last breakfast dish, stretched her aching back, and looked out the kitchen window just in time to see her husband fall off the porch roof. She continued to stare out the window, unable to process what she had just seen. Her brain finally sent a message to her feet and Julia banged open the door and rushed out into the yard.
Her husband was curled up in a fetal position, struggling for breath, and moaning in pain. The ladder remained in place against the side of the house.
Julia knelt beside the man she had been married to for forty one years and opened her mouth to speak. A wheezing rush of air was all that emerged. She tried again and said, "Don't try to move -- I'm calling 911. Where does it hurt? What happened? Why didn't you use the ladder?"
"Calm down, Julia," the injured man managed through clenched teeth. He drew a shallow breath and tried to continue but his wife was already on the phone.
"The ambulance is on the way," Julia announced as she ended the call. "Stay still," she ordered. "I need to keep you warm. I'm going to get a blanket." Julia got to her feet and in one fluid motion whipped off her kitchen apron and spread it over her prostrate husband. "Back in a minute," she panted.
Julia's husband gingerly turned his head and looked at the apron that was draped over his body. He started to laugh and then swallowed a scream as white-hot pain tore into his ribs.
A moment later the kitchen door slammed and Julia Maddox hurried back to her husband's side. She gently retrieved her apron and replaced it with the comforter from their bedroom.
Unable to think of anything else to say or do, Julia sat on the ground, stroked her husband's head, and waited. A siren wailed in the distance.
"Mountain Easter!" a voice exclaimed.
With some effort, Easter Maddox raised his head from the gurney in patient bay number two of the emergency room.
"Nobody calls me that anymore," he growled, referring to the nickname bestowed upon him in high school by the boys from town who found his backwoods ways hilarious. The name had stuck, but the teasing had stopped when he stepped onto the football field. The young man from high in the Blue Ridge Mountains managed to set a couple of school records that remained unbroken forty four years later.
"Hey, Thrill," Julia Maddox called as Dr. Kenneth Hill entered the room.
The internist walked over to Julia and hugged her. "Nobody calls me that anymore, either," he replied with a smile.
The doctor turned his attention to the man on the gurney and said, "So, you retired from the paper mill less than a month ago and now, here you are. What's a sixty-two-year-old man doing climbing around on a roof, anyway?"
"Had a high wind last night up on the mountain," Easter gasped. "Checking for loose shingles."
"Well, you're pretty lucky, Easter," Hill said. "You've got a cracked rib and some bruising, but nothing else. The ribs will heal on their own. If you were twenty years younger I'd send you home right now with a prescription for some pain medication."
"You're admitting him?" Julia asked in alarm.
"Just a precaution," Dr. Hill replied. "I'll be back in the morning."
"Julia, why don't you go check on my room and pick up a newspaper," Easter asked. "I imagine I'll be along shortly."
As soon as his wife was gone, Easter turned to his friend and said, "Something's coming, Thrill. Something bad."
The words turned the internist's skin to goose flesh. Ever since their days as high school teammates, Easter had claimed to have Second Sight with telepathic ability, a "gift" he had supposedly inherited from his mother. Hill had initially dismissed it, but over the years he had seen enough unexplainable things to make him wonder. As a man of science, he continued to reject the concept, but he had come to realize that Easter Maddox was probably the most intuitive and self-aware person he had ever met.
Dr. Hill didn't waste time with empty reassurances. "Can you see it?" he asked.
"It's dark," Easter replied. "Dark and heavy."
"Your lungs and heart both look good," the internist responded.
Easter remained silent.
"When?" the doctor quietly asked.
"Soon," Easter answered. "Maybe tomorrow."
"I'll leave orders for the nursing staff to check on you throughout the night," Hill said. He laid his hand on his friend's shoulder and said, "I'll see you and Julia in the morning."
Dr. Kenneth Hill left his patient and headed for the parking lot. It was not until he tried to retrieve his keys that he realized how badly his hands were shaking.
The pneumonia had found a place to hide beyond the sight or sound of modern medical technology. Around midnight it began to probe the pulmonary system of its host with the enthusiastic persistence of a timeshare salesman.
Dr. Hill got the call at 3:00 A.M. and gave medication orders to the nursing supervisor. Dawn was still an hour away when he pulled into his hospital parking space.
Julia Maddox sat in the hospital room chair where she had spent the night and let her mind drift. She had first met Easter when she was sixteen years old and had known immediately that he was the one for her. It had taken him a little longer, being a teen-age boy and pretty full of himself. They had married young and raised two sons who were both married with families of their own. It had been the best forty-one years of her life.
She watched through red-rimmed eyes as her husband dozed fitfully.
He looks so old. Well, of course he does, Julia. He is old. So are you. What had her friend, Karen, told her? You're still middle-aged assuming you live to be a hundred and twenty four.
Julia shifted in her chair, fighting to stay awake. What will become of us? We're back up in the mountains, miles from town, no close neighbors. The boys live halfway across the country. It would kill Easter to sell the house and move to town. Probably couldn't find anyone to buy it in this economy, anyway. God, I'm scared.
"Morning," someone whispered softly.
Julia's head snapped up and she nearly fell out of her chair.
"Oh, morning, Thrill," she said with relief. "He had a bad night."
The doctor studied Easter's chart and then examined him briefly.
"Why don't you go home and get some rest, Julia," Hill said when he was done. "I'm going to move Easter to another room. He'll be in good hands."
"I guess I'll grab a quick shower and change of clothes," Julia said, standing. "I should be back in a couple of hours. Where will he be?"
The internist placed his hand gently on Julia's arm. "Intensive Care," he said.
Julia's life quickly took on a daily routine of days spent at the hospital with her husband as he fought to defeat the pneumonia. She learned to eat the food in the hospital cafeteria and was on a first name basis with the nursing staff. The endless nights were spent lying in an empty bed waiting for daybreak. Julia found that sleeping on Easter's side of the bed did provide a small measure of comfort. Housework, grocery shopping, and other errands became a distant memory. Life became surreal. Julia felt hollow inside. She occasionally pinched herself to see if she could still feel physical sensation.
"Knock, knock," Sarah Jane Howard said as she entered the intensive care unit and walked over to Easter's bed. "How's the patient today?" she asked.
"Ready to go home," Easter said. "If they keep me in this ridiculous gown much longer I'll be so depressed they'll have to transfer me to the psychiatric ward."
"He's a lot better, Sarah Jane," Julia agreed. "We'll see what Dr. Hill has to say."
Julia was very fond of the younger woman and grateful for her daily visits. Sarah Jane and John Howard owned Wild Pony Ranch and were their nearest neighbors. Sarah Jane was a volunteer at the hospital, visiting patients, delivering newspapers and magazines, and generally assisting the staff any way she could. Her five-year-old daughter, Emma, sometimes accompanied her and could always be counted on to brighten everyone's day.
Julia's hopes rose as her husband continued to grow stronger. Then another Friday came and her spirits sank again. Weekends in the hospital were the worst. The place took on the sepulchral air of a funeral home, as a skeleton staff waited for the real work to begin again on Monday.
Dr. Hill stopped by late Friday afternoon. "Ready for a big weekend?" he asked Easter.
"Very funny," Easter replied.
The doctor grinned. "I just finished your paperwork. You can go home in the morning."
Julia shot out of her chair and wrapped the internist in a bear hug. Tears stood in her eyes.
"That's more like it!" Easter exclaimed.
Dr. Hill turned to go.
"Hey, Thrill," Easter said. "The fish are still biting up at the lake. Come on up to the house next Saturday and we'll go catch some. I'll try to talk Julia into packing us lunch."
"You should be relaxing and taking it easy," the internist advised.
"That's why we're going fishing," Easter replied with a smile.
"Sounds perfect," Hill said. "I'll see you Saturday morning."
"Thrill?" Easter continued. "You know, I ..." A hard knot of emotion clogged Easter's throat, blocking the rest of his words.
"I know," the doctor replied in a husky voice. "I'll see y'all soon."
Julia felt like a child on Christmas Eve. She was too excited to go home and sleep. She straightened Easter's room, packed his belongings, and sat down in her chair to wait for morning.
The night seemed endless. Finally, around 6:00 A.M. she ordered breakfast for her husband and squirmed in her chair like a four-year-old in church while Easter ate.
Easter finished his toast, pushed aside his tray, and reached eagerly for his clothes.
Thirty minutes later they had said their goodbyes to the staff and checked out of the hospital.
Julia brought the car around while her husband waited with an attendant.
"Miss Julia, Miss Julia," a small voice cried. Julia looked up to see Emma Howard running across the parking lot toward her and Easter. Sarah Jane followed close behind, trying hard to keep up.
"I brought you something, Mr. Easter," Emma said, holding up a bag. "It's Halloween candy. I was saving it for something special."
"That's very thoughtful, sweetie," Easter said, "but, I don't want to take something that you were saving."
Emma gave him a confused look. "But, this is something special," she insisted, handing Easter the bag. "You should eat lots of candy, Mr. Easter," Emma continued. "It always makes me feel better."
Easter laughed and hugged the little girl. "Thank you, Emma. And thank you, Sarah Jane, for your company and encouragement. I'd like to do something for you. Can you think of anything?"
"Can you make my husband clean out the utility shed attached to the barn?" Sarah Jane laughed. "It's turned into a junk room. I've been asking him for a month, but he keeps making excuses."
"Mama's going to make it an office," Emma said excitedly, "and she said I could be her assistant."
"Consider it done," Easter said. "I'll call John on the way home."
"He doesn't have his cell phone with him," Sarah Jane warned.
"That's all right," Easter replied with an enigmatic smile.
The drive home was quiet. Julia glanced frequently at her husband who seemed to be staring intently into the distance.
Once she caught her husband's eye and a warm smile spread across his face. Time suddenly spun backwards and Julia caught a glimpse of the handsome, awkward young man who had walked out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into her heart nearly fifty years ago.
Who knows what the future holds? Julia thought. Whatever happens, I have Easter with me and that's all that matters.
Emma and her mother returned home later that afternoon. Sarah Jane looked down the hill to their barn and was stunned to see her husband cleaning out the utility shed.
"I can't believe my eyes," she called out. "Did Easter Maddox call you?"
John Howard gave his wife a funny look. "Nobody called me," he said. "I don't have my phone with me."
"It must be your guilty conscience," Sarah Jane laughed.
"I guess," her husband answered. "I kept hearing this voice pounding in my head telling me to clean out the shed now."
Sarah Jane and Emma stared at each other with their mouths agape.
Julia pulled up in front of the house and turned off the engine. "Home," she said softly.
Easter Maddox turned to the only woman he had ever loved and said, "Thanks."
Julia took her husband's hand and sat quietly listening to the woods and the wind; the sounds of home.
Easter suddenly burst out laughing. He was staring into the distance again.
"What is it?" Julia asked, smiling.
"You should see the look on Sarah Jane's face," Easter said.