Summer’s decaying remains crunched under Fran’s back as she settled onto the forest floor beside her granddaughter. A wraith-like arm emerged from the quilted bundle snuggled against her shoulder.
“Look, Gram.” Harley raised her twiggy finger as if it outweighed her and air-traced the looming trunks upward. “Like we’ve seen so many times here. Yet . . . not the same at all.”
Fran gazed up at the gilded canopy, flogged in random crimson stripes. A few green leaves lingered as helpless witnesses to their perishing kin drifting to join the dust.
Autumn kissed leaves into their most beautiful blush as they died. Nature, which once seemed a romantic world, now unveiled a heartlessness which chilled her marrow. Fran never hated fall as much as she did now.
She shifted her stocking-capped head against the frigid ground. Her granddaughter’s wheeze scarred the forest silence and needled into her ear.
“We should go, Harley.” Fran patted the willowy arm beside her. “It’s too chilly out here.”
Harley twined her graying, yet petal-soft fingers around Fran’s age-spotted hand. “No, I want to stay here and share this with you. The temperature won’t change what’s going to happen.”
Fran curled her numbing toes against the fleece lining of her boots. Clawing them to ground her feet in a tangible place. “Was there something specific we came to see?”
“Less specific. But more than just seeing.” Harley coughed. She waved Fran’s hand away from her chest. “The blue of the sky expands forever. Deeper than an eye can dive. Further than any imagination. Even mine.” She added a wink.
The pungent earthy air crackled with the bustle of scavenging woodpeckers and desperate squirrels. She turned on her side and stroked the frail echo of hands which had danced across piano keys at the seventh grade recital. Two years, yet so very long ago.
“Are you afraid, sweetheart?”
Across the pallor and gaunt hollows of her cheeks, a smile bloomed. “Not anymore.”
Fran could not press the word, ‘glad’ through her lips. “G-good. I suppose that’s good. You have peace.”
She rolled onto her back and pointed upward. “Look. I understand it now. But you need to get it, too. Life goes on like that sky.”
Dirt clods pressed against her back as Fran squinted at the clear blue dome overhead. She twisted her head aside. “What do you mean?”
“It’s my time.” A gleam lingered in Harley’s tourmaline eyes. No longer sparkling with a teenager’s frill-crazed dreams, but glowing with something more profound. “But not yours.”
Fran’s heartbeat throbbed in her neck. Her arm muscles tightened. She clenched her fists. “Who told you that? You could get better, with the treatments . . .”
She shook her head. “I saw Him. He told me I’m coming home soon.”
“No, Harley. Not yet!” Fran stood and stomped her numb foot.
“Yes, I am. And I’ll be okay.” Harley grunted, pressing her arm beneath her to prop onto her side. “But this is what I came out here to tell you. You cannot let your heart die because mine lives elsewhere. You have to keep living until your time comes.” With that, she collapsed on the quilt, gasping.
Fran scooped her up in a dirt-streaked quilt cocoon and rushed her to the car. She sped to the hospital, squealing into the emergency drive. After slamming the gear into park, she glanced at her granddaughter’s unblinking gaze. Her lips etched into smile. Harley had gone to live elsewhere.
Fran burst into tears and rocked Harley in her arms until the medical techs pulled her away. She rasped a torrent of angry protests until her voice wore out.
The next autumn, Fran trudged into the forest, rubbing her arms. Fall’s chill bit deeper into her flesh than the year before. The dry air cinched her lungs. Coughing stung memories into her eyes. She struggled to voice her promises, but her throat seized.
It’s so hard. So very, very hard.
She shuffled through the dusky brown losses amid intermittent woodpecker drilling. I promise to study the sky, sweetheart. I’m trying to live. But I need His help.
Cries set her voice free. She wailed up at the glimmering canopy. Squeezing her eyes shut, she held out her hands and wept. A delicate brush against her palm opened her eyes. A golden maple leaf lay across her fingers. And for the first time in a long while, Fran smiled.