The snow began falling two hours ago, slowly at first and then picking up momentum before slowing down again. Tiny flakes swirled down from the sky, coating windswept leaves that were huddled together in the corner next to the gate. The leaves looked more like mulch, a pile of brown and soggy foliage that had lost a battle with the elements during the past month. With an intricate design of fully bloomed roses embedded into the iron, the gate glimmered in black lacquer and looked at least ten feet tall. Despite the remnants of fall leaves, it was obvious landscapers worked here year-round, maintaining the grounds, shrubs, trees, and flowers.
Today was the first snow of the season, and forecasters were already predicting a long winter. The December sky turned from a blissful blue to a large gray mass of billowy clouds. Temperatures dropped, and a light breeze whispered eerily through the trees hibernating in the distance as if ordering birds to fly south. On the other side of the gate, evergreens blanketed in white stood across the highway as still as statues. The highway was a blaze of lights, full of cars with people headed home early from work or to the mall to finish their Christmas shopping. Red brake lights lit up the road like a thousand Rudolph noses, and the pearl headlights of oncoming cars shone like stars in heaven. PennDOT trucks dumping sand and salt crawled by in each direction with orange hazard lights blinking across the snowy mist.
Greg Janera walked slowly, keeping his eyes focused on the ground in front of him. He dusted the snow from the sleeves of his jacket, balancing the plant he carried, and ran his hands through his hair, causing snowflakes to stick to his fingers. Snow fell from his jacket, and the front of his jeans and work boots were coated with the white powdery precipitation. It wasn’t the type of snow for making snowballs or snowmen, but rather the soft, peaceful kind. It was just the way she would have liked it. Greg drew a deep, ragged breath and exhaled slowly, remembering that perfect night less than a year ago with snow just like this. As he walked farther, he took shallow, rapid breaths while glancing up at the lampposts. This helped him stay on the right path. He walked for several more minutes until he reached her. Greg stood still, taking in the feeling of her presence, his eyes glazing with moisture. He hunched over and then looked to the sky, somehow managing to whisper a prayer. Greg shook his head, still not wanting to believe this was real. Then his heart felt a surge, and he squatted down so he could be closer to her. Gently wiping away the snow from the granite stone that rose about six inches off the ground, he saw six yellow roses placed neatly on the ground, their petals covered with snowflakes. Blinking back a tear, he slowly traced his right index finger over her name, one letter at a time. It was engraved in the stone and made his finger tingle from the cold. “You will forever be in our hearts” was etched on the opposite side of her photo. He looked away for a moment and realized he was the only one there. It wasn’t the best weather for people to visit their loved ones, he thought, but he could no longer wait to do this.
The past month and a half had gone by in a blur, and he still felt his mind was playing tricks on him. He turned back and stared at her picture. She wore a bright smile, her eyes gleaming and full of life. He gazed wistfully. She was so happy that day, so full of hope and love. Even though the photo was tucked away at home, he knew every inch—each curve of her face, every strand of her hair, her two precious dimples, her small silver earrings. He could close his eyes and see her smiling and laughing, carefree and happy. The day the photo was taken had been a good day, but knowing there would never be another overwhelmed him with sadness. His heart felt clamped in his chest, and he tried to stop the tears, but they trickled down his face, catching in the stubble on his cheeks and chin. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and then picked up the small poinsettia plant he’d brought and placed it beside her headstone. It was lined in gold foil and had vibrant red leaves. He remembered that four years ago she had had more than a dozen poinsettias in her home. She told him they brightened up the cold, dark days of winter and helped her get in the Christmas spirit. He hoped this plant could somehow comfort her, make her feel she wasn’t alone, make her feel she was still loved.
He stared at the two dates written under her name and shook his head, wanting to believe this wasn’t real, that it was all just a bad dream and he would wake up and hear her say, “See, silly, here I am.” He turned away and put his hand over his face upon realizing this nightmare was real and nothing could undo what had happened. Twenty-nine years old. She was too young to die. She was too beautiful. She had too much life left to live. It shouldn’t have ended like this. He turned back and put his hand on her name and wiped away fresh snowflakes. He stared at her picture again. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
Greg reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out the envelope. The two pages inside were already worn despite the fact that he’d received them just a week ago. He had already read them dozens of times and couldn’t get her words and feelings out of his head. He stared at the envelope, and when he flipped it over, he noticed the tiniest heart in the top right-hand corner. Right, he thought sadly. It had been right. It just could never be, not the way they both wanted it. Greg clenched the envelope in his hands before placing it back in his pocket. Lost in thought, he sat motionless while a gust of wind swirled snowflakes all around him. Despite the cold, Greg felt sweat bead up on his neck and trickle down his back. It would be pitch dark soon, and as much as he didn’t want to leave her, he knew he would have to go home before it got too late.
He wiped away some more fresh snow from her headstone, and just as he was about to tell her everything he should have while she was still alive, he heard footsteps in the distance. Turning, his face fell slightly at the sight of her. She wore a long blue coat, and auburn curls crawled out from under her hat. A matching cream-colored scarf was wrapped loosely around her neck. As she got closer, he noticed tissues bunched up in one hand while the other held a bouquet of flowers. Her face was dotted with tears, and when their eyes met, Greg was once again taken aback by the resemblance. He held his breath, his heart thumping in his chest. His mouth went dry, and his stomach felt woozy. He wondered what she would think of him being there. Would she understand? Could she forgive him? Greg thought about how he could express his sorrow. Would she believe that he held regrets in his heart that he could never undo? Regrets that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He turned back toward the headstone until the sound of her voice pierced the night sky.
“Hi. You must be Greg.”