She heard the far-off sirens howl, even though distance and wind direction dictated she couldn't have. She heard them—and she knew.
She was waiting in the wicker chair on the porch, wearing her coat and her nicest dress, her purse in her lap, when they came for her: the pimple-faced young deputy who was Bill's grand-nephew, and Sheriff Hawkins, gray staining his temples.
"Mrs. Green, Ma'am?" The sheriff clutched his hat in his hands, twisting it round and round, while Deputy Erickson watched them, waiting next to the squad car. "Something bad's—."
"I know, Sam." Heather offered him a weak smile and struggled to get up from the chair. "I want to see him."
Sam cleared his throat. "Maybe you shouldn't—."
She glanced up at him. He was taller than his father had been. "Maybe I shouldn't. But I want to." She made for the porch steps and he sprang forward to help her down. She wasn't so old yet that she couldn't conquer the steps on her own, but she knew the gesture made him feel better, so she didn't shrug off his hand on her elbow.
They drove her to town, slowly, as if wanting to postpone the inevitable. Heather didn't mind; she was in no great hurry. The slow pace gave her a chance to appreciate the farmland stretched out between the old ranch and the town, the earth brown and dotted with fresh green shoots from the first spring seedlings.
At the Med Center—the old brick building long since replaced by a new version, all glass and metal and solar collectors—they took her to a small room on the second floor, with a single bed. She stopped in the doorway, abruptly reluctant to go in, to go toward where a thin, white sheet hid him from sight.
Sam towered behind her. "We think it was a downdraft... a microburst... nothing anyone could've...."
She glanced at him across her shoulder. She didn't really care how it had happened. The final result was all that mattered. "Thank you, Sam. I'd like to be alone for a minute, if you don't mind."
"Of course." He disappeared, and a few seconds later a nurse showed up, a sprightly young thing with a bouncy blond ponytail. The girl folded back the sheet, offering Heather a shy look before scurrying off and shutting the door behind her.
Setting down her purse on a chair near the door, Heather approached the bed slowly. Someone had already cleaned his face, she observed: despite several small cuts and bruises marring his features, Jake looked peaceful.
Eighty-three was a good age, she reckoned. Too old to still be flying solo, of course, as she'd told him more than once. But when had that ever stopped him?
For the first time since she'd heard the phantom sirens, Heather's eyes stung with tears. She dabbed at them with a tissue put ready in her coat pocket. She wouldn't cry. Not now, not here. She'd have plenty of time for mourning later, after she'd called JJ, and Mike, and Lily in Topeka.
She reached out to stroke his jaw. Seeming asleep, with the lines the years had carved smoothed out, he looked younger than his age. She was reminded of the younger man she once knew. Noticing how one of the fresh cuts from the crash intersected with the faded scar on his left temple, she chuckled wryly. How poetic: that the last time she saw him, he would be marked in the same place as the first time she'd laid eyes on him, fifty years ago on that school bus.
Back then, being young, Heather had believed they'd live forever, despite the bombs, and the war, and the hunger and the cold that followed it. And, together, she and Jake had made it through the decades, one after another.
But now, no more....
She leaned down to gently kiss his lips, which were soft and cool to the touch. "I love you, Jake Green," she whispered. "I'll see you again soon."
She knew it was the truth. She hadn't told him yet, but she could feel the cancer eating away at her, deep inside. Fifty years of science, and they still hadn't found a definitive cure. But now that Jake had gone ahead of her, she didn't mind dying so much.
She was just sad for those who'd be left behind: her sons, JJ and Mike; her daughter Lily; their families, all the grandchildren she and Jake had been blessed with....
This was what life was, right? You lived, you loved, and then you died. And you tried to do it well.
She couldn't complain; she and Jake had lived a good life. And as for love.... She pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down, taking Jake's cold hand between hers. A single tear dropped on the sheet.
As for love? By God, how they had loved....