{This piece of fiction was intended for the MyFaithRadio writing contest but the deadline has passed. It was fun to try fiction again and I’d love to share it with you here, my people. The theme: grace.}

he called me baby

When she looked across the table she saw more than the empty chair. Before long he’d show up and the seat would be filled, at least with a presence.

Yet, something in her heart longed to keep the emptiness just the way it was. She was familiar with it, anyway. Even when he sat near, her heart ached. Despite physical proximity, loneliness had long created a gap which seemed impossible to fill.

Madison wondered, “What will I say this time? I can’t turn back the clock. I can’t erase the days. I can’t wish those choices away. What can I say that hasn’t been said before?”

For maybe the first time in her sixty years, she began to realize how deeply her stubborn heart kept her from receiving what was right before her. Now, he’d be here in person, but was it too late? Had she pushed too far?

She recalled the day at Carmody’s hardware store when her words came out strong and lashed with poison. Madison thought she was doing her husband, Phil, a favor, just by being there. Maybe it would have been a favorable gesture had it not been accompanied with discontent and simmering resentment. The children seemed to know. Their eyes said, “here she goes again”.

Then there were the times he came home late and she used her eyes to tell a different tale. One that spoke daggers without a word. That would do the trick, wouldn’t it? She’d tell him a thing or two about what not to do.

Even when the children left their toys on the stairs, again, and her friends forgot to call her back, again, Madison knew how to respond. Or not.

Like a trip ‘round the same ‘ole mountain it was always about other people causing the problem. Considering that it might be something more, well that was too painful to even consider. Instead, she deflected the arrows before they came. Even if they never would, it felt safer that way.

Madison walked to the restroom to wipe off the tears that were now washing dark down her cheeks. Puffy eyes, swollen cheeks, and a raw heart. They all seemed to fit together.

When she returned to her table she found that chair no longer empty. He was already here.

With a deep breath she closed her eyes and braced herself for what was to come. The tears reappeared and she couldn’t hold it in. He seemed expressionless while she fell apart. That couldn’t be a good sign, could it?

Once she sat down he handed her a handful of cocktail napkins.

“Oh Phil,” she gushed, “I’ve been so foolish. I’ve hurt you in ways that I can’t even comprehend. I’ve chosen to keep my heart isolated and lonely and refused the gift of your affections for far too long. I’m so terribly sorry. You must feel hurt and wounded deeply from the years of word lashings I’ve given you. It grieves my heart that I’ve treated you this way.

“It’s taken these years of separation and much help from others to help me see. But, Phil, God has shown me how much I pushed you away. I pushed Him away too. Why, oh why, did I spend so many years this way.”

Madison collected herself after her apologetic words spilled out. They were unfamiliar and felt strange, almost like robotic utterances from all those days of counseling.

Phil sat stoically, avoiding her eyes while remaining distant. After several long minutes he responded, “Baby.”

That word. It took her by surprise. It had the power of a thousand.

She hadn’t heard him use it in over three decades. The last time was, when was it? She struggled to remember and then it struck her. The last time he called her baby was probably the last time she spoke with tenderness, before the years of strife and bitterness which opened the caverns of loneliness and hurt in her heart.

As Phil raised his eyes to look into her hers, he reached for her hand. He still wore the ring. Softly, he choked the words out again through his own tears.

“Baby,” he sniffed.

Somehow, they both knew then, something new was ahead.