by Ronald Paxton
“I want to be cremated,” Julia Maddox announced. Easter Maddox glanced over at his wife. “Now?” he asked. Julia smiled at her husband of forty two years. “I'm serious,” she said. They were on their way home from the funeral for Julia's father. Her mother had died five years earlier and Julia was an only child, so she and Easter had been forced to occupy the front pew alone and endure the minister's interminable homilies and assurances that Jack Richards was now in a better place.
In life, Julia's father had been a devout, God fearing Christian, a good provider, and a disinterested husband and parent. Jack Richards' life had been all about Jack Richards, and Julia had never forgiven him for it. Easter had talked his wife into attending the service, hoping it would bring some closure for Julia to see the man who had spent a lifetime withholding his love and affection removed from the face of the earth.
“Okay,” Easter replied as he stopped for a traffic light, “but I'll probably go first. The husband usually does.”
“Have you thought about what you want if that happens?” Julia asked gently.
“No,” her husband replied, accelerating as the light turned green.
They rode in silence for the next several minutes.
“So?” Julia began.
“Cremation,” Easter replied.
“Really? I'm surprised,” Julia replied.
Easter glanced away from the road and gave his wife an odd look.
“Why are you surprised?” her husband wondered. “You want to be cremated, so I want to be cremated and have our ashes spread on the same spot.”
Easter felt his wife staring at him. “So we'll always be together,” he added. Julia made no reply.
Easter risked another glance and noticed fat tears sliding down his wife's face. “I'm sorry,” Easter said. He had no idea what he had done wrong, only that it took a poor excuse for a man to make his wife cry on the way home from her father's funeral.
“What?” Julia managed.
“I'm sorry I made you cry,” Easter replied.
Julia smiled. Forty two years of marriage and he still doesn't recognize tears of joy. “Don't be sorry,” she said, placing a soft kiss on her husband's cheek.
Easter reached for the last photo album and opened it. Five year old Emma Howard sat beside him on the sofa flipping through a lifetime of photographs. John and Sarah Jane Howard and their daughter, Emma, were Easter's closest neighbors and had been there for him throughout the nightmare of the past few days. It had been a special Christmas. Julia was delighted when she learned that the boys were coming for the holidays. The prospect of seeing her sons and grandchildren had quickly dispelled a cloud of depression that still clung to Julia three months after her father's death.
The children brought along an early winter snowstorm that covered the high country of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a perfect white blanket that belonged on a Hallmark greeting card. They had spent the entire week on the mountain sledding, building snowmen, pelting each other with snowballs, taking long hikes through the woods, drinking coffee and hot chocolate, and eating way too much. The boys talked about taking a trip into town but never got around to it. There was too much to do on the mountain.
Easter had been worried that his sons and grandchildren would quickly grow bored and restless. They lived in a major metropolitan area and were used to the pace, convenience, and stimulus of urban living. He was pleased and a little surprised to see both of his boys easily re-enter the world they had known growing up. He had been even more surprised when his grandchildren had readily abandoned their computer games in favor of a romp in the snow with their grandfather.
The day after the children left Easter spent the morning splitting wood. If the recent storm was any indication they were in for a rough winter. He returned to the house around 11:00A.M., ready for some hot coffee and an early lunch. Julia was lying motionless on the floor. Easter stumbled across the room and dropped to his knees, feeling for a pulse, checking for respiratory activity, anything that would indicate his wife was still alive. Blood roared in his ears as he dialed 911. The rest was a blur. It was too late by the time the ambulance arrived. The doctor at the hospital told Easter that Julia had suffered a massive heart attack, probably around mid-morning, and had almost certainly died instantly. My wife died alone while I was outside chopping wood. We never got to say goodbye.
“Mr. Easter?” Emma asked. “May I look at the album you have in your hand?” Easter handed her the album and returned to his thoughts. He had honored Julia's wish to be cremated. The urn containing her ashes sat on the living room mantel. Easter had no idea where to scatter them.
“I want to be surrounded by music,” Julia had told him. “Scatter my ashes where I can hear songs for eternity.”
“I might be arrested if I scatter your ashes in a music store,” Easter had joked. Julia had laughed and punched him on the arm.
“Wherever I scatter your ashes a wildflower will grow,” Easter had said. He had tried for a light tone but his voice had betrayed him.
“And what about you?” Julia had asked softly.
“Kudzu,” Easter had replied.
“Kudzu!” Julia exclaimed. “You'll choke me to death!”
“No,” Easter said quietly. “I'll just hold you tight.”
For the second time that day Easter Maddox made his wife cry.
“Time for us to go, sweetie,” John Howard said to his daughter.
John and Sarah Jane said their goodbyes and headed for the door. Emma trailed behind her parents, still holding the photo album. “What's this picture, Mr. Easter?” Emma asked. Easter examined the picture and caught his breath. “Eagle Roost Campground,” he said in an unsteady voice. “It's on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That's where I first met Miss Julia back in the summer of 1965.” As her parents opened the door Emma turned to say goodbye to their neighbor. Easter Maddox was standing in the middle of the room staring at the picture in the album. Without another word Emma closed the door softly behind her.
Dawn was still an hour away when Easter kicked off the sheets and blanket, too excited to remain in bed. He dressed quickly and loaded the truck. The morning was bitter cold, made worse by a truculent wind that had scaled the Blue Ridge mountains overnight and descended on Shenandoah County. Easter made a final trip inside for his wife's urn.
“I have a plan, Julia,” Easter said. “I think you'll be pleased.”
Easter drove slowly as the fierce wind buffeted his truck. He had driven nearly five miles before he saw another vehicle on the road. The parkway was deserted. Easter passed several overlooks and rest areas without seeing a single vehicle. January was normally a very quiet month on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Park Service operated most of their programs and facilities on a seasonal basis. Winter was a season that attracted very few visitors. Still, Easter was surprised he hadn't at least seen a Park Services vehicle. Facilities required maintenance and upkeep even when they were closed. Easter saw the sign for Eagle Roost Campground and turned into the parking lot. He sat in his truck staring in shocked disbelief at the remains of the campground. The building that housed the restaurant and small campground store had surrendered to the forces of nature. The structure was almost completely covered in weeds and vines. Most of the windows were missing and several large tree limbs had collapsed the roof.
The parking lot bore the look of a place that had been abandoned for some time. The asphalt had buckled badly, providing a home for an army of weeds. Ancient beer cans, shattered liquor bottles, and other debris offered testimony to man's capability for defiling even the most pristine of natural settings.
Budget cuts, Easter reflected. That explains the absence of Park Service vehicles. Fewer facilities and less staff to maintain them. Well, what did you expect, Easter. You haven't seen the campground in nearly forty years. Things change. The driveway leading into the campground had grown in and was now little more than a path. Weeds and overgrown branches brushed against Easter as he entered the familiar site. The road inside the campground was laid out in a figure eight design with campsites at precisely placed intervals. The road, like the parking lot, had been overtaken by weeds, fallen branches, and trash. The bathhouse was little more than a ruin. Despite the years and the state of the campground Easter had no trouble locating the campsite where he had first seen Julia Richards. On that hot summer afternoon back in 1965, Easter had caught her eye and quickly looked away. When he worked up his nerve for another look he found Julia looking straight at him wearing an encouraging smile.
Easter had played it cool, strolling toward her in a nonchalant manner until his shoe caught on a tree root and he landed on his knees in front of the prettiest girl he had ever seen.
“It's too soon to propose,” Julia had said, trying hard not to laugh. “I don't even know you.”
Easter took care of that in a hurry. They spent the week together talking, walking the trails, wading in the creek, and kissing. Julia was a great kisser. Of course, Easter had never kissed anyone but his mother and grandmother, but he couldn't imagine anything better than kissing Julia Richards. They had married four years later, when they were only nineteen, and had never regretted it. Easter dropped his sleeping bag on the campsite and hurried back to the truck for the cooler he had filled with food and drinks. He made one final trip for his wife's urn.
“I hope this is what you wanted,” Easter said in a breaking voice. “You asked to be surrounded by music. Remember? When I kissed you for the first time it was like the sound of fireworks and a hundred bands playing exploding in my head. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. I hope you felt the same thing. That's why I brought you here. We'll spend one last night night together until it's my time to join you.” Easter found the spot where he had first met his future wife and slowly poured her ashes onto the hard, rocky ground. He spent the rest of the day sitting quietly in the deserted campground, reliving the magical week that had changed his life. The food and drinks were gone by the time darkness enveloped the campground. Easter closed his eyes and dreamed of a girl from forty six summers past. Something cold and wet landed on his nose, causing him to sneeze. Easter opened his eyes to a world of pure, blinding white. The high winds from the day before had cleared the way for a winter blizzard that rolled into Shenandoah County around midnight. Easter found himself nearly buried in snow. With some effort he emerged from the sleeping bag and struggled to his feet. Tree branches creaked and moaned from the weight of the fresh snow.
“Time for me to go, Julia,” Easter said. “I love you.”
Easter made his way slowly out to the parking lot. He was wet, cold, and hungry.
There had to be a foot of snow on the ground already and it was still coming down. He climbed in the truck and turned the ignition key, eager to be on his way before conditions worsened. Nothing. Just the buzzing sound of a dead battery. Easter swore. He dug out his cell phone and dialed. Nothing. Dead. He had forgotten to re-charge it.
A chill that had nothing to do with the weather raced down Easter's spine. No vehicle. No phone. No food. Ten miles from the main road. And no vehicles on the parkway. Does anybody know where you are, Easter? No. Easter got out of the truck and returned to the campsite. “I'm back, Julia,” Easter said. “I guess I always knew I wouldn't be able to make it without you. Looks like we'll be together sooner than I thought.” Easter settled himself on the ground beside his wife's ashes and waited.
“He's not answering,” John said. “I better take a run up to his house, see if he needs anything.”
“Easter can take care of himself, John,” Sarah Jane objected.
John shook his head. “He's in his sixties, Sarah Jane, his wife just died, and there's a foot of snow on the ground. He could have lost power, fallen in the snow, or had a heart attack. I'll be back soon.”
“I'm going, too,” Emma said.
The fifteen minute drive to Easter's house took forty minutes thanks to the slick roads and the snow that continued to fall in sheets.
“The truck's gone,” John noted as he pulled into the driveway.
“Where are the tracks, daddy?” Emma asked.
“Good question, sweetie,” her father replied. “Mr. Easter must have left before the snowstorm. Where could he have gone?”
“He might have gone to the campground, daddy,” Emma answered. “The one where he met Miss Julia. He was looking at that picture yesterday and I could tell it made him sad.”
A bolt of fear hit John. Eagle Roost Campground had been closed for at least five years. If that's where Easter had gone he was completely isolated and almost certainly would freeze to death. John wondered if that was what Easter had planned all along. John turned around in the driveway and started back down the mountain. He called Sarah Jane to let her know where he and Emma were going. Sarah Jane started to object but John cut her off. “If we find him we'll probably need to go straight to the hospital emergency room. I'll call you back.”
The weather continued to worsen. The snow, now mixed with sleet, was being driven by a merciless wind that pounded John's windshield and rocked the sturdy truck. A curtain had been draped over Shenandoah County.
“Whiteout,” John murmured.
“What did you say, daddy?” Emma asked.
“Nothing, sweetie,” John replied.
The parkway sign was barely visible. John bent over the steering wheel, feeling his way up the exit ramp leading to the parkway. Without warning, John hit the brakes hard and felt the back tires try to break free. Somehow the truck held the road and came to a shuddering stop. John took a deep breath and looked over at his daughter. Emma was as white as the world that surrounded them.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” John asked anxiously.
John turned his attention to the wooden sawhorses that blocked access onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. A superfluous “Parkway Closed” sign was affixed to one of the barriers.
Emma watched as her father got out of the truck and moved the sawhorses. It took them another thirty minutes to reach the campground. “There's Mr. Easter's truck,” Emma pointed. Fear gnawed at John's insides as he stopped next to Easter's truck. He turned to his daughter and said, “I need you to stay in the truck until I get back, Emma. Okay?”
“Yes, daddy,” Emma said. John could read the fear in his daughter's eyes. He kissed her quickly and got out of the truck. John opened the door to Easter's truck with shaking hands. Nothing. He exhaled shakily and looked around. Movement caught his eye. John watched as a human figure draped in white emerged from the campground. The sight was surreal. The figure stumbled and fell, spurring John quickly across the parking lot. Easter Maddox looked up at his friend and neighbor and tried to speak. The words refused to come before he closed his eyes.
The day was exceptionally warm for early May. Easter made his way along the narrow path and entered the private world of Eagle Roost Campground. He stopped when he reached the campsite. Easter lowered himself to the ground and stared in wonder at the spot where he had scattered his wife's ashes. Purple violets covered the ground.
Easter felt goosebumps cover his body. Violets had been Julia's favorite flower.
“You're here,” Easter said. “You're really here.”
Easter sat quietly gathering his thoughts. He marveled at what he saw.
“When I was lying beside you in the snow I heard a voice telling me to go back. That was you, wasn't it?”
The violets produced a scent that reminded Easter of Julia's perfume. He inhaled deeply, trying to hold onto the smell.
“I almost didn't make it, Julia,” Easter continued. “John Howard found me just in time. I spent a few days in the hospital. John knows about my wishes. I showed him this spot and he promised to scatter my ashes here when the time comes. He's a good man.”
Easter inhaled again. The scent of Julia's perfume was stronger.
Easter closed his eyes and felt the warm sun on his skin. A gentle breeze tickled the canopy of leaves that covered the campground. Julia's scent was in his nose. He smiled as he heard the flirtatious laughter of a teenaged girl. Something was pressing against his lips. Easter's mind exploded as the taste of mint mingled with the smell of perfume. Bands were playing, fireworks were exploding, and he was with the only girl he had ever loved.
Easter Maddox smiled and listened to the music.