"What are you doing?" Luke called out.
"I want to find his letter..."
The passenger side was less damaged and Sophia was able to pull open the door with relative ease. On the floor lay a thermos and a misshapen sandwich. A small plastic bag filled with prunes. A bottle of water... and there, up in the corner, an envelope. She reached in, her feet sliding before she caught herself. She extended her reach with a grunt, grasping the envelope between two fingers. From across the car, she held it up, noting Luke's incomprehension.
"A letter for his wife," she said, closing the door and making her way back to Luke. "That's what he was saying earlier."
"When he was talking about the roof?"
"Not roof," Sophia said. She turned the envelope around so Luke could read it before sliding it into her jacket pocket. "Ruth."
An officer with the highway patrol was the first to arrive. After scrambling down the slope, he and Luke agreed that it was too risky to move Ira. But it took forever for the EMTs and ambulance to arrive, and even when they did, it was clear that there wasn't a safe way to get him out of the car and up the snowy slope on a stretcher. They would have needed triple the manpower, and even then it would have been a challenge.
In the end, a large tow truck was called, which increased the delay. When it arrived and moved into the proper place, a cable was rolled out and hooked to the car's rear bumper while the EMTs - improvising with the seat belts - secured Ira in place to minimize any jostling. Only then was the car winched slowly up the slope and finally onto the highway.
While Luke answered the officer's questions, Sophia remained near the EMTs, watching while Ira was loaded onto the stretcher and given oxygen before he was rolled into the ambulance.
A few minutes later, Luke and Sophia were alone. He took her in his arms, pulling her close, both of them trying to draw strength from each other, when Sophia suddenly remembered that she still had the letter in her pocket.
Two hours later, they waited in the crowded emergency room of the local hospital, Luke holding Sophia's hand as they sat beside each other. In her other hand, she held the letter, and every now and then she'd study it, noting the shaky scrawl and wondering why she'd given the nurse their names and asked to be updated on Ira's condition, instead of simply handing over the letter to be placed with Ira's belongings.
It would have allowed them to continue the trip back to Winston-Salem, but when she recalled the look on Ira's face and the urgency he obviously felt about finding the letter, Sophia felt compelled to make sure the letter didn't get lost in the hustle and bustle of the hospital. She wanted to hand it to the doctor, or better yet, to Ira himself...
Or that was what she told herself, anyway. All she really knew was that the almost peaceful expression Ira had been wearing when they found him made her wonder what he'd been thinking or dreaming about. It was miraculous that he'd survived his injuries given his age and frail state. Most of all, she wondered why, to this point, no friends or family had come bursting through the doors of the emergency room, frantic with worry. He'd been conscious when they'd wheeled him in, which meant Ira probably could have told them to call someone. So where were they? Why weren't they here yet? At a time like this, Ira needed someone more than ever, and --
Luke shifted in his seat, interrupting her thoughts. "You know that we're probably not going to be able to see him, right?" he asked.
"I know," she said. "But I still want to know how he's doing."
She turned over the letter in her hands, still unable to put the reasons into words. "I don't know."
Another forty minutes passed before a doctor finally emerged from behind the swinging doors. He went first to the desk and then, after the nurse pointed them out, approached them. Luke and Sophia stood.
"I'm Dr. Dillon," he said. "I was told that you've been waiting for a chance to visit Mr. Levinson?"
"Do you mean Ira?" Sophia asked.
"You're the ones who found him, correct?"
"Can I ask what your interest is?"
Sophia almost told the doctor about the letter then but didn't. Luke sensed her confusion and cleared his throat. "I guess we just want to know that he's going to be okay."
"Unfortunately, I can't discuss his condition since you're not family," he said.
"But he's going to be okay, right?"
The doctor looked from one to the other. "By all rights, you shouldn't even be here. You did the right thing by calling the ambulance. And I'm glad you found him when you did, but you don't have any further responsibility. You're strangers."
Sophia looked at the doctor, sensing he had more to say, watching as he finally sighed.
"I don't really know what's going on here," Dr. Dillon said, "but for whatever reason, when Mr. Levinson heard you were here, he asked to see you. I can't tell you anything about his condition, but I must ask that you keep the visit as short as possible."
Ira appeared even smaller than he had in the car, as though he'd shrunk in the last few hours. He lay in the partially reclined hospital bed, his mouth agape, his cheeks hollow, IV lines snaking out of his arm. A machine next to his bed was beeping in rhythm to his heart.
"Not too long," the doctor warned, and Luke nodded before the two of them entered the room. Hesitating, Sophia moved to the side of the bed. From the corner of her eye, she saw Luke pull a chair away from the wall and slide it toward her before stepping back again. Sophia took a seat by the bed and leaned into his field of vision.
"We're here, Ira," she said, holding the letter in front of him. "I have your letter for you."
Ira inhaled with some effort, slowly rolling his head. His eyes went first to the letter and then to her. "Ruth..."
"Yes," she said. "Your letter to Ruth. I'm going to put it right here beside you, okay?"
At her comment, he stared without focus, uncomprehending. Then his face softened, becoming almost sad. He moved his hand slightly, trying to reach hers, and on instinct, she reached over and took it.
"Ruth," he said, tears beginning to form. "My sweet Ruth."
"I'm sorry... I'm not Ruth," she said softly. "My name is Sophia. We're the ones who found you today."
He blinked, then blinked again, his confusion evident.
The plea in his tone made her throat tighten.
"No," she said quietly, watching as he moved his hand and inched it toward the letter. She understood what he was doing and slid the letter toward him. He took it, lifting it as though it were an enormous weight, pushing it toward her hand. Only then did she notice Ira's tears. When he spoke, his voice sounded stronger, the words clear for the first time. "Can you be?"
She fingered the letter. "You want me to read this? The letter you wrote to your wife?"
His gaze met her eyes, a tear spilling down his shrunken cheek. "Please, Ruth. I want you to read it."
He exhaled a long breath, as if the effort of speaking had worn him out. Sophia turned toward Luke, wondering what she should do. Luke pointed toward the letter.
"I think you should read it, Ruth," he said to her. "It's what he wants you to do. Read it aloud, so he can hear you." Sophia stared at the letter in her hands. It felt wrong. Ira was confused. It was a personal letter. Ruth was supposed to read this, not her...
"Please," she heard Ira say, as if reading her mind, his voice weakening again.
With trembling hands, Sophia studied the envelope before lifting the seal. The letter was a single page long, written in the same shaky scrawl she'd noticed on the envelope. Though still uncertain, she found herself moving the letter into better light. And with that, she slowly began to read:
My darling Ruth,
It is early, too early, but as always it seems I'm unable to go back to sleep. Outside, the day is breaking in all its newfound glory and yet, all I can think about is the past. In this silent hour, I dream of you and the years we spent together. An anniversary is approaching, dear R
uth, but it is not the one we usually celebrate. It is, however, the one that set in motion my life with you, and I turn to your seat, wanting to remind you of this, even though I understand that you will not be there. God, with a wisdom I can't claim to understand, called you home a long time ago, and the tears I shed that night have never seemed to dry.
Sophia stopped to look at Ira, noting the way his lips had come together, tears still leaking into the crevices and valleys of his face. Though she tried to remain poised, her voice began to crack as she went on.
I miss you this morning, just as I have missed you every day for the last nine years. I'm tired of being alone. I'm tired of living without the sound of your laughter, and I despair at the thought that I can never hold you again. And yet it would please you to know that when these dark thoughts threaten to overtake me, I can hear your voice chiding me: "Do not be so gloomy, Ira. I did not marry a gloomy man."
When I think back, there is so much to remember. We had adventures, yes? These are your words, not mine, for this is how you always described our lives together. You said this to me while lying beside me in bed, you said this to me on Rosh Hashanah, every single year. I always detected a satisfied gleam in your eye whenever you said this, and in those moments, it was your expression, more than your words, that always filled my heart with joy. With you, my life felt indeed like a fantastic adventure - despite our ordinary circumstances, your love imbued everything we did with secret riches. How I was lucky enough to share a life with you, I still cannot understand.
I love you now, just as I have always loved you, and I'm sorry that I'm not able to tell you. And though I write this letter in the hope that you'll somehow be able to read it, I also know that the end of an era approaches. This, my darling, is the last letter I will write you. You know what the doctors have told me, you know that I'm dying, and that I will not visit Black Mountain in August. And yet, I want you to know that I'm not afraid. My time on earth is ending and I'm at peace with whatever comes. I'm not saddened by this. If anything, it fills me with peace, and I count the days with a sense of relief and gratitude. For every day that passes is one day closer to the moment I will see you again.
You are my wife, but more than that, you have always been my one true love. For nearly three-quarters of a century, you have given my existence meaning. It is time now to say good-bye, and on the cusp of this transition I think I understand why you were taken away. It was to show me how special you were and through this long process of grieving, to teach me again the meaning of love. Our separation, I now understand, has only been temporary. When I gaze into the depths of the universe, I know the time is coming when I will hold you in my arms once more. After all, if there is a heaven, we will find each other again, for there is no heaven without you.
I love you,
Through a blur of tears, Sophia watched Ira's face assume an expression of indescribable peace. Carefully, she reinserted the letter into the envelope. She slid it into his hand and felt him take it back. By then, the doctor was standing at the door and Sophia knew it was time to go. She rose from the chair and Luke returned it to its place against the wall, then slipped his hand into hers. As he turned his head on the pillow, Ira's mouth fell open, and his breathing became labored. Sophia turned to the doctor, who was already on his way to Ira's side. With one last glance back at Ira's frail figure, Sophia and Luke started down the corridor, on their way home at last.
s February passed and gradually wound down, Sophia edged toward graduation, while the ranch inched toward its inevitable foreclosure. Luke's winnings in the first three events had bought his mother and him another month or two before they defaulted, but at the end of the month his mother quietly began to approach their neighbors, exploring their interest in buying her out.
Sophia was beginning to worry concretely about her future. She hadn't heard from either the Denver Art Museum or MoMA yet, and she wondered whether she'd find herself working for her parents and living in her old bedroom. Similarly, Luke was having a hard time sleeping. He worried about his mother's options in the area and wondered how he could help support her until she landed something viable. For the most part, however, neither of them wanted to talk about the future. Instead, they tried to focus on the present, seeking comfort in each other's company and the certainty of the way they felt about each other. By March, Sophia was showing up at the ranch on Friday afternoons and staying until Sunday. Often she spent Wednesday nights there as well. Unless it was raining, they spent most of their time on horseback. Sophia usually assisted Luke with his farm duties, but occasionally she'd keep his mother company instead. It was the kind of life he'd always envisioned for himself... and then he'd remember that it was coming to an end and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
One evening in mid-March, when the first hint of spring was noticeable in the air, Luke took Sophia to a club featuring a popular country-western band. Across the scuffed wooden table, he watched her grip her beer, her foot tapping along with the music.
"You keep that up," he said, nodding toward her foot, "and I'll think you like this music."
"I do like this music."
He smiled. "You've heard that joke, right? About what you get when you play country music backwards?"
She took a swallow of her beer. "I don't think so."
"You get your wife back, you get your dog back, you get your truck back..."
She smirked. "That's funny."
"You didn't laugh."
"It wasn't that funny."
That made him laugh. "You and Marcia still getting along?"
Sophia tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "It was kind of awkward at first, but it's almost back to normal."
"Is she still dating Brian?"
She snorted. "No, that ended when she found out he was cheating on her."
"When did this happen?"
"A couple of weeks ago? Maybe a little more?"
"Was she upset?"
"Not really. By then, she was already seeing another guy, too. He's only a junior, so I'm not thinking it's going to last."
Luke picked absently at the label on his bottle of beer. "She's an interesting girl."
"She's got a good heart," Sophia insisted.
"And you're not mad about what she did?"
"I was. But I'm over it."
"Just like that?"
"She made a mistake. She didn't mean to hurt me. She's apologized a million times. And she came through when I needed her. So yes, just like that. I'm over it."
"Do you think you'll keep in contact with her? After you graduate?"
"Of course. She's still my best friend. And you should like her, too."
"Why's that?" He cocked an eyebrow.
"Because without her," she said, "I never would have met you."
A few days later, Luke accompanied his mom to the bank to propose a renegotiated payment plan that would allow them to keep the ranch. His mom presented a business plan that included selling nearly half the ranch, including the Christmas tree grove, the pumpkin patch, and one of the pastures, assuming a buyer could be found. They'd decrease the herd by a third, but according to her calculations, they'd be able to meet the reduced payments on the loan.
Three days later, the bank formally rejected the offer.
One Friday night at the end of the month, Sophia showed up at the ranch, visibly upset. Her eyes were red and swollen and her shoulders slumped in despair. Luke put his arms around her as soon as she reached the porch.
He heard her sniff, and when she spoke, her voice shook. "I couldn't wait any longer," she said. "So I called the Denver Art Museum and I asked if they'd had a chance to review my application. They said that they had and that the internship had already been filled. And the exact same thing happened when I called MoMA."
"I'm sorry," he said, rocking her in his arms. "I know how much you were hoping
for one of them."
Finally, she pulled back, anxiety etched on her face. "What am I going to do? I don't want to go back to my parents. I don't want to work at the deli again."
He was about to tell her that she could stay here with him for as long as she wanted, when he suddenly remembered that wasn't going to be possible, either.
In early April, Luke watched his mom give a tour of the property to three men. He recognized one of them as a rancher near Durham. They'd talked once or twice at cattle auctions and Luke didn't have any sense of the man, though it was obvious even from a distance that his mom didn't much care for him. Whether it was a personal dislike or the fact that the loss of the ranch was getting closer to reality, Luke couldn't tell. The other two, he suspected, were either relatives or business partners.
That night over dinner, his mom said nothing about it. And he didn't ask.
Although Luke had ridden in only three of the first seven events of the year, he'd earned enough points to find himself in fifth place by the cutoff date - enough to qualify him for the major league tour. The following weekend, in Chicago, there was an event with enough prize money at stake to keep the ranch afloat until the end of the year, assuming he rode as well as he had at the start of the season.