Joel stood outside on the porch, holding the screen door open, saying goodbye to the woman caller. Ellie could only hear one side of the conversation and it seemed the woman was reluctant to go. It wasn’t until Joel said, “Well, okay then. Guess we’ll see you tomorrow,” that the woman finally said goodbye and left.
He stepped back into the house, looked at Ellie and shrugged. She was sitting on the floor next to the sofa, a cup of tea in her hands.
Joel plopped himself into the cushions. Their eyes met… she was waiting for him to say something, to address this latest turn of events. He fidgeted uncomfortably. Finally, he made a gesture to where the woman had stood on the porch.
“You sure you’re okay with this?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes and said, “Puhlease. It’s about time.”
Joel considered her response and eased himself into the sofa cushions. She watched as he seemed to struggle with a decision. Finally he nodded to himself and rose abruptly to his feet. Ellie lifted her head, her curiosity piqued.
“Wait here a sec. Got somethin’ I wanna show you.”
She watched anxiously as he disappeared into his bedroom, heard him fumbling around in his closet. When he returned, he was holding something that filled her heart with joy.
“No way!” she said.
In his hand was a guitar.
“Easy,” he warned her. “Don’t go gettin’ your hopes up.”
“Is that your old one?” she asked excitedly, propping herself up on her knees.
“No, no,” he said, sighing. “I’m afraid that one’s long gone. Tommy gave me this one.”
“When were you gonna tell me?”
He looked at her and shrugged.
She settled back, her heart full of anticipation. Finally, after all this time, Joel was ready to make good on his end of the bargain.
He was going to sing for her.
The den was dark, the evening air filled with the sound of crickets. A cool summer breeze swept in from the porch. They were alone, living in his brother’s compound, and for the first time in a long time, they didn’t have survival on their minds.
Joel plucked a chord, it resonated in the air, melodious. He tilted his head to concentrate, his hand poised expertly on the tuning screw. He twisted it a fraction of an inch, plucked again. Then, satisfied, he nodded to himself.
He took a deep breath and began to play, and Ellie watched his hands move in a way she’d never thought possible: delicate and gentle. She watched as the tips of his fingers danced across the strings. The music rose slowly at first, and soon it had a life of its own. It filled not only the room, but her aching heart as well.
And then Joel sang.
“Delta Dawn,” he sang, slowly, in a voice so mellifluous she didn’t think it belonged to Joel, “What’s that flower you got on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? And did I hear you say, he was a’meetin’ you here today, to take you to his mansion in the sky…”
And as the tears welled up in her eyes, she knew he was singing for her.
He filled the empty den with a soulful melody and his voice carried across the room.
He sang for Sam and for Henry. He sang for Tess. He sang for all the people who had suffered so deeply and had lost so much. He sang for those who had grieved and those who had died.
He sang for Sarah, his little girl.
But most of all... he sang for himself.
She couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. She thought of Riley and the funny way she felt when her best friend looked at her with that mischievous smile. And although she cried, her heart wasn’t filled with sadness, but rather with joy. She felt a peace within her lungs she hadn’t felt in a very long time...
The last of Joel’s lyrics lifted in the air and in her heart, and he sang the words slowly, lost in them, and lost in his own memory: “To take you to his mansion in the skkkkkyyyyy.”
The note lingered in the air, slowly fading into silence.
Joel put the guitar away and looked down at the girl kneeling at his feet, the tears rolling down her cheeks. He padded the cushion next to him.
Ellie rose and slid under his waiting arm, and they sat together and she cried. She could feel Joel’s chest shudder, heard his stifled cry. She felt the warmth of his tears roll down her arm.
He had fulfilled his end of the bargain, and now at last, he was whole.