My wife’s chocolate cake awaits inside upon the dining room table. The wafty scent has long been an established greeting for me at our entrance door. It is my sweet reward for a week of traveling mind numbing sales work. There is a deeper-seated unstated missive connected with the fresh baked morsel. A message that I am loved, appreciated, and deeply missed while I am away. It has always been and always will be my wife’s ‘Welcome Home’ gift to me.
A slightly folded card will be sitting alongside the plate. Written in immaculate artistic and bubbly cursive writing the letter will tell me that after I am finished with the final fudge filled bite to come upstairs, take a shower, and wake her with gentle kisses that creep down her neck. As I hold it in my hand, there will be hints of rose and perfume playing havoc on my senses. The thought of it sends a tingle up my spine and my heart beats a little faster.
All I want to do is rush in and enjoy the moment. Yet, for reasons I cannot explain, my foot will not lift to take a step beyond the threshold and entrance door.
The candle that normally flickers on the kitchen counter has long burned out. For four years it has paved the path to the sweet chocolate prize. Everything within is blanketed in shadows and darkness. Not even a half-lit lamp to guide my way. I have gotten home later than expected. Something in my mind is yelling for attention. I lift a balled fist to the side of my head and pound on it till the scream is down and out.
As I stand outside, a distant memory of our high school prom comes flooding in. A smile creases across my face as her laughter and giggles warms me inside. I am once again twirling her across the waxed layered floor. This was our first date. The moment when I knew the glint eyed girl and I were forever to be together.
I loved her from the moment I set eyes on her. It had started as friends and then graduated to boyfriend and girlfriend. We had gone to each other’s home, done our homework together, and shared our lunches with one another. At the High School Prom, we looked each other in the eye and sealed our relationship with more than an innocent little kiss.
It must be raining. I can feel something like rain drops rolling down my cheeks, down my chin, and landing on the cement walkway beneath my feet. I am still standing here, the door is open, and I still can’t go in.
Why can't I go in?
I bow my head and growl. I curse and mutter. My body sways from one side to the other. There is something wrong with me and I don’t know what it is. I lift a trembling hand, a trembling finger, and wipe the water flowing below my eyes.
Tomorrow, my kids will jump on the bed waking me with hugs and a kiss. They’ll spend minutes telling me this week’s going on. James is the little one with sparkling blue eyes. He’ll have words to say about the bird nest and it’s chirping little babes. Stacy, with her long flowing ebony colored hair, will regard me first with a long deep-seated stare before throwing her arms wide and taking as much of my chest into her arms. Then she too will go on, but this story will be about our cat Benny and how she had to scold him for trying to climb up and feast upon baby bird snacks.
These thoughts bring a smile to my lips. How I have missed them. From far away, I hear a moan and a sob. A part of me wonders who it is. They sound so sad and lonely. I turn and look but there isn’t anyone else here but me, the open door, and the chocolate cake inside.
The black forest cuckoo clock we bought on our tenth anniversary isn’t making the classic tick tock sound. We had bought it during our vacation in the Deutschland High Rhine hills that border the country of France. It was my wife's most treasured prize, and the clock has gone still.
A sullen stuffy silence has gripped my house and home. At these late hours, the background noise should be alive and well. There should be the hum of a refrigerator working overdrive, a near imperceptible rush of air from the air conditioning ducts, and whispers of sleeping breaths making their way downstairs. Instead, a heavy weight of nothingness has killed the life. Something terrible claws it's way into my mind. I push it back and scream against the terrible thing that comes. I take a step, not through the door, but the opposite way.
I can't go in. This is wrong. This isn't my life. I need to leave; I need to run. I turn to go somewhere far when a voice breaks this midnight trance.
“Can I help you?”
The voice I recognize but it takes a moment to get my composure. A minute before I can speak. "Hey Bob," I answer.
The air has become a vacuum. A broken tension has taken form and Bob answers with shaken and shocked surprise, "George?"
He comes to me and drapes his arms in a hug. “Oh, Jesus’ man. Where have you been?”
He’s crying. Why is he crying?
“I was working. I think I was working. Yeah, I must have been working. I’m home now though. Bob...”
“I can’t go in. Christine always bakes a cake and it’s waiting there for me. I know it is. I can smell it, Bob. I can’t… Something is keeping me from going inside. Why? Why can't I go inside?"
The sound of a car pulling up breaks the moment and with it the slamming of its door. I look over and see a police officer walking towards us with one hand resting just over his hip. “We got a report of a possible trespassing issue?”
“This is my home,” I answer. “I do weeklong business trips sometimes and I’ve come home. There is a cake on the table. Christine is upstairs and the kids are in bed. They are there, right? No… no.. no. No! There is… There’s cake on the table.” A sudden earth jolting sob takes hold that brings me to my knees and I don't know why.
Bob stares and pats me on my shoulder not saying a word.
“Tell him, Bob,” I beg.
The police officer reaches out and touches me. “Hey, why don’t you come on down here and sit in the back seat while I talk to your friend. Would that be alright?”
I can't speak so I nod. He’s talking to me but I can’t understand. I recognize the words but the sense of it all is gibberish. He opens the car door and sits me gently down inside.
“For what it is worth, we tried. We tried so damn hard. I’m sorry,” the police officer says.
Sorry, why is he sorry?
The police officer closes the door and walks up the pathway to Bob. I wonder if they know that I can still hear their conversation.
Bob is shaking his head and says, "I was the one that called George that night. I didn't know how to tell him, so I did. Then he disappeared and tonight, out of all nights, he shows up. I really thought somebody was breaking in."
“It was a pretty messed up situation all around. It broke our heart. His parents filed a missing person report and everything. Many of us thought he had gone off and died. It’s been what? A year?”
“A year to the day, actually. Me and Barbra loved watching the little ones play. Sometimes we would baby sit them. We couldn’t have kids of our own and in a way they became them. Look at me crying all over again. God, I can’t believe this.”
“I was there that night. She was alive in that tangled up wreck. I was talking to her, holding her hand, and... They didn’t know that it was keeping her alive. The moment they pulled it apart she bled out. She was asking about the kids almost up until the end. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that they were gone. Damn drunk drivers.”
“It’s a shame,” Bob muttered.
“She was pretty out of it at the end. Shock and blood lost you know. The last thing she asked for me to do is tell George to enjoy the cake and wake her when he gets home. Honestly, I didn’t know what that meant. I do now though. Damn it.”
"Yeah, Christine used to make a chocolate cake for when he got home. She would take us some the next day. It was the best damn cake I ever ate. She was a real sweetheart. Kind, caring, loving. I miss the hell out of her. I miss them all. What are you going to do with George?”
“Going to take him to the hospital. We’ll get him some help. I made a promise to his wife that I would look after him so I will.”
“Could you drop by and let me know where they will be sending him? I would really appreciate it.”
I close my eyes. They’re not talking about me. They can't be talking about me. Standing outside the door, I could smell the chocolate and fudge. No, everything is alright; everything is just fine.
Up in the house, there is a fresh baked cake sitting on the dining room table. Upstairs, my wife sleeps waiting for me to come, wake her up, and cradle her in my arms. In the morning, there will be joyful glees of little children screaming with happiness that I am back. All I need to do is close my eyes, click my heels three times, and whisper for God to take me home.