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The Year We Were Undone

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They were a beautiful couple, Thranduil thought, and he loved when he would catch a glimpse of them walking together down the street. The two so in love, believing they were the only ones in the world. They reminded him of a time when his own love was still around; a time before the doctors and the radiation therapies. Although the glimpses he would catch would make him feel warm as he lived vicariously through them, he would also catch himself missing her, wondering what life would be like if his beloved were still alive. The hole in his heart had never felt more open, wide and gaping, begging for relief and wishing to be filled, than when he began to imagine himself and his beloved late-wife as the couple walking down the street together.

He had invited them over a few times in the past, when the fresh scent of his late-wife’s cooking filled the air and the light of the home didn’t seem so dim. Sitting at the dining room table as he enjoyed his morning coffee, Thranduil could still see her sitting across from him. Her long, blonde hair laying gracefully over her shoulder in a braid as she sipped from her own mug. Closing his eyes, he took in the stillness of his home and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee beneath his nose. Although a year had passed, he could still picture her smile perfectly; the way her lips curled, a dimple on the left side. Setting his mug on the table, he heaved a sigh as he opened his eyes, and the sight of her was no more. Tears no longer spilled from his eyes, but his heart still ached like the day she was laid to rest. Hoping to leave the ache behind, Thranduil got up from the table, leaving his coffee behind to wander to the living room.

Drawing the curtains open, he caught a glimpse of a mother loading her young daughter in her car across the street. He chuckled to himself, remembering the days when his wife would take their son to school in the mornings as he took a seat in his armchair. Legolas would always ask to stay home, wanting to spend the day with his parents instead; no doubt their daughter would ask the same. Reaching for the book on the table beside his chair, he opened the marked spot, beginning to let himself slip away into its world.

Meanwhile, Tilda hummed to herself as she sat in her mother’s car, watching out the window as she was driven to school. She could see through the window across the street, getting a glimpse of Thranduil as he read. She watched the passing houses and trees, imagining a little man running alongside the car, and she smiled to him. Her mother glanced at Tilda in the rearview mirror and smiled to herself, adoring the bright smile on her daughter’s face. Mrs. Bowman wondered what her child could be thinking; she wondered what could make an eight-year-old smile on her way to school. She turned the radio on, listening to the banter of radio talk show hosts as she drove, routine being her guide as she mindlessly followed the same roads she always had.

She put the car in park when she pulled up to the school’s walkway, turning to help Tilda gather her backpack and lunch. Tilda gave a quick kiss to her mother’s cheek and asked, “will daddy be home after school?”

“We’ll see,” Mrs. Bowman replied, hesitant to answer at first. Bard had taken a new job in the I.T. department of a large corporation, BioTech Inc., and had been required to travel intermittently for the past three months. Tilda heard that answer before and knew not to get her hopes up. She simply nodded and bid her mother farewell, getting out of the car and walking into school, carrying her lunch in one hand, her backpack in the other.

Mrs. Bowman sighed to herself, watching as her youngest made it safely inside the building. Putting her car in gear, she grabbed her phone to call her husband as she drove. She put the call on speaker, turning her radio down and listened to the ringing as she called Bard. It rang once, twice, a third, and a fourth time before he finally answered.

“Hello?”

She smiled to herself when she heard his voice, replying with her own “hello”. She could hear the joy in his voice as he asked how she is, happy that she was the one who called first this morning.

“I’m good,” she answered, “just dropped Tilda off at school.”

“How is she this morning?”

“She’s good. She asked if you’ll be home today.”

Bard knew that was coming. He anticipated a form of that question the moment he read her name across the face of his phone when it vibrated from her call. He wasn’t mad, though. He understood his family missed him in his absence, and he missed them, too. However, he needed to do what he had to, to provide for them. He sighed, shaking his head to no one.

“Not today, I’m afraid,” he told her, hesitant as he knew his wife wouldn’t like the answer. He heard her heave a heavy sigh, the ticking of her turning signal echoing in the background of the call. “I should be home by Saturday, though,” he said, assuring her he would be home soon, “Friday at the earliest.” It was only Tuesday, and he knew three to four days was a long wait for an eight-year-old. He also knew, however, that their reunion would be well worth the wait.

“It’s been three weeks, Bard-“

“I know, Adalia, I know. I’m sorry. I’ll video chat with you all tonight, though.”

“That’s not the point,” she sighed as she pulled into the parking lot of the supermarket, “I gotta go. I’ll talk to you later.”

“I love you.”

“Love you, too,” she said and hung up. Fighting back tears, she set her phone in the cup holder of the car, sitting in her parking spot for a few moments to gather her composure. It wasn’t fair, she thought, that he had to be gone for so long. Surely the hospitals could figure out their new computer systems without him present. When she felt she was ready and composed, she grabbed her keys and phone and put them in her coat pockets and got out of her car to head inside.

Meanwhile, in another state, in another city, Bard was flipping through the pictures on his phone. He smiled to himself as his children smiled back from the touchscreen. Flipping to the next picture, he chuckled, feeling proud as he saw his oldest daughter, Sigrid, adorned in a beautiful, Prussian blue dress. She looked like a princess as her hair had been dyed a chestnut brown and styled in a royal up-do. It was the day of her senior homecoming dance, and Bard could still feel the gentle touch of the tears that crawled down his cheeks that day. It had hit home for him that his little girl was now a young woman, soon destined to leave home to find her place in the world. Before he could flip to the next picture, he heard a voice calling, “Mr. Bowman!” from down the hall. Sighing, he put his phone in his pants pocket and followed the call, mentally preparing himself to troubleshoot an issue.

Hearing a car door shutting, Thranduil looked up from his book, snapping back to reality as the literary world he was once a part of vanished. He looked out the window, hoping to see his son home from school, wondering just how long he had been sitting and reading for. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been sitting there for long, as it was only Mrs. Bowman, getting out of her car to unload her groceries. He sighed to himself, watching the woman for a moment. He had noticed a slight change in her movements, as though she were flustered by something. Perhaps, though, he was merely making something out of nothing, catching himself living vicariously through her and imagining what his wife would look like if she were still able to unload groceries from her car. He shook his head to himself, looking back down to his book, letting himself get lost in its words once more.

Thranduil hadn’t imagined it, however. Mrs. Bowman really was flustered from her visit to the supermarket. Gathering her grocery bags, she was still trying to figure out what had happened; she was excited, even. She had run into a man. Tawny skin, tall, and his eyes were a light shade of green. She was captivated, and what had sold her was his smile.

They exchanged hellos after she had apologized for running into him with her cart. Adalia wasn’t paying attention, scanning the aisle’s shelves for what she needed. He insisted the only way he would accept her apology was if she would allow him to buy her coffee. Mrs. Bowman was hesitant to accept the offer, thinking of her husband and what he would say if he knew. He wouldn’t, she rationalized, since he would be gone until at least Friday, and so she agreed, exchanging phone numbers with the man.

“Emmanuel,” she said softly to herself, remembering his name. Of course, she liked the way it rolled off his tongue better, his voice deep, smile wide and white teeth glistening in the supermarket lighting. Beginning to put away the groceries, she fought back her feelings of guilt for her excitement, telling herself this is what she’s been missing since her husband took the job with BioTech Inc. For the past three months, Bard had been gone longer than he had been home, and it was beginning to take a toll on Mrs. Bowman. She no longer felt wanted by her husband, believing he cared more for his work than their relationship. Sure, they had three kids, their oldest was preparing for college, and they were getting older, but that didn’t mean they had to feel like it.

Heading for the bathroom, she wanted to see her reflection in the mirror. She wanted to look upon the face Emmanuel had seen. She hadn’t put makeup on that morning as she rushed to help Tilda get ready for school, and merely put her long, thick dark hair up in a ponytail, combing her bangs so they didn’t look a mess. There was no color painted on her full lips, only a thin layer of chapstick quickly applied during her morning rush. She was convinced in that moment that Emmanuel must have seen her natural beauty that Bard had just been over looking after so many years being with her, justifying her actions. Besides, it was only coffee; nothing had to come of it.

Halfway across the country, Bard had just helped a group of ER staff members recover from a dilemma of their own, guiding them through their new charting system created and provided by BioTech Inc. Glancing to his watch, he smiled, sighing softly in relief, as it was lunch time. Before he could be stopped by anyone else, he quickly found his way out of the hospital, only to begin to search for his rental car, a quest that only took a mere three minutes after utilizing echo location courtesy of the car’s panic function.

Navigating his way back to his hotel, Bard had only one thing on his mind; he wanted to call his wife, missing the sound of her voice. He knew their last phone call ended on a bit of a sour note, and he hoped he could reconcile, even with just a few soft words of love and admiration for her. Parking, he got out of the car and walked briskly through both the parking lot and hotel lobby, heading for the staircase to climb to the fourth floor. He didn’t want to wait for the stairs; he wanted get to his room as soon as possible to hear her voice, even for just a moment. Pulling out his room key, he pulled out his phone as well, already dialing her number and putting the phone to his ear as he entered the suite. The phone rang for twenty long seconds before she finally answered.

“Hello?”

“Hello, dear,” he replied. He could hear her sigh, though he could tell she was trying to keep the sound from her phone’s receiver. She was still unhappy with the situation, but he was trying his best to make up for the distance. “I’m on lunch,” he told her, “I have time to talk if you do.”

“I suppose,” she said, aloof and busy sounding. Bard wasn’t sure what she could be doing, but he assumed it would be the normal housework or perhaps she was going through their bills and deciding on which ones were a priority to pay. He sighed, though, sitting on the king-sized bed of the suite, imagining how she must look sitting at their dining room table, papers and envelopes spread about before her. He wondered if she was wearing her glasses to read everything, and smiled to himself at the vision.

“I miss you,” he said.

“Miss you, too.”

“Are Sigrid or Bain home from school yet?” he asked, knowing they came home sooner than Tilda as they were both in high school.

“No,” she answered, and Bard grinned.
“So you’re alone?”

“I am,” she said, though she wasn’t sure for how long she would be, and knew what her husband was about to suggest and shut it down. “I’m not in the mood, if that’s where this is going. You can have the real thing when you finally come home.”

Bard sighed, nodding. “Alright,” he said, “fair enough. How’s your day going?”

“It’s going,” she told him, not daring to tell him about her encounter at the supermarket, “it’ll be better once the kids are home. You know I can’t stand a quiet house for too long.”

“I know. Just a bit longer.”

He heard her sigh once more and pursed his lips. He had to admit, the phone call wasn’t going as planned. It was awkward and she was being brief. He could feel how cold she was being, as though the temperature in the room matched her attitude. His heart ached for the strain he knew his job was putting on their relationship, and an idea came to mind.

“When I come home,” he started, “we’ll go out, you and me. I’ll take you to that nice steakhouse you like, we’ll see a movie. Just us.” He hoped it would entice her to look forward to his return, and he imagined she was nodding to the suggestion.

“You know the first night you have to spend with the kids,” she told him, not seeming to care about his offer. He sighed, laying back on the bed and closing his eyes.

“I know. I know. I wasn’t talking about the first night, Dillie,” he replied, “I meant another night. Perhaps the next night. I just want you to know how special you are to me. I know I haven’t been around much, and I don’t want you to think I don’t care. It’s because I care that I took this job.” Surely, she had to understand.

“We’ll talk about it when you get home,” she said simply.

“Fine. That’s fine.”

“I’m gonna go. I wanna clean up the house a bit before Sigrid and Bain come home.”

Bard nodded.

“Alright. I love you.”

“Love you, too,” she said and hung up.

Bard heaved another sigh, pulling the phone from his ear and staring at the ceiling above. He loosened the tie from around his neck, letting himself breathe a bit while he imagined what she must be doing at home. He could see her gorgeous, thick hair wrapped in a bun and her full lips painted a beautiful fuchsia. Closing his eyes, he watched as she cleaned the kitchen of his imagination. Her caramel skin standing out against the pale marble countertops and white cupboards; she was the very definition of beauty as far as he was concerned. He smiled to himself as he let his thoughts wander from her cleaning to her nestled comfortably next to him on the couch, both listening with contentment as their oldest played a somber song on the family piano. The music of his mind played as though he were with his family. He could feel the heat of the fireplace against his pale skin, the weight of his wife against him, and, for a moment, the scent of freshly brewed coffee lingered in the air.

Opening his eyes once more, Bard was dismayed to be surrounded by the four white walls of the hotel suite once more. He sighed, sitting up to unbutton his shirt, pulling it off after untying his black tie. He moved to put them away, hanging the white button-up in the wardrobe and laying the tie atop the counter space beside the suite’s TV. He glanced to his watch. Only thirty minutes left for his lunch were left, but he simply sat back down on the bed’s edge, remote in hand, and flicked the TV on, watching the midday news to get his mind off home for a moment.

Mrs. Bowman had hung up and finished fixing her makeup. Looking herself over in the mirror, she mentally complimented herself on her contour job. She smirked to her reflection, a brow raising as she reveled in her pride. “Ten years shaved completely off,” she told herself, “good job.”

Still grinning with pride, she grabbed her phone and sauntered to the living room, taking a seat on the couch and beginning to scroll through her phone’s contacts. She stopped when she found Emmanuel’s name, debating if she should already send him a text. Going against her better judgement, she sent a simple “hey” his way, nothing thinking the conversation would go anywhere. Butterflies seemed to have filled her stomach, however, when she heard her phone “ping,” alerting her of a new message. It was Emmanuel. The conversation had taken off, and she had a sense of excitement she hadn’t felt since she and Bard were dating. Her smile was wide as the two exchanged messages back and forth, eventually planning their coffee date for Thursday; the day before Bard expected to come home at the earliest. This moment of bliss ended swiftly, however, when she heard the locks of the front door turn and watched the doorknob turn. Sigrid and Bain were home.

Thranduil had been working on dinner when he heard a car door shut outside. He paused, waiting and hoping to hear the front door unlock and open. Thankfully, it did, and his beloved and only son had returned home safely from school. He smiled to himself, setting down the large, plastic spoon he was using to cook with and making his way out of the kitchen to greet his pride and joy. Seeing his son’s smile, he could have sworn he had seen the smile of his wife, and perhaps that was why he clung to his son, the only memory he had left of the love of his life.

“How was school?”

“You know,” his son replied, tossing his backpack onto his father’s armchair, “school.”

Thranduil chuckled, nodding and watching as Legolas followed the scent of stir fry into the kitchen.

“Perfect, I’m starving.”

“Take your bag upstairs and do your homework and by the time you’re finished, I will be, too.”

Legolas sighed, rolling his eyes as he doubled back to grab his backpack. He was seventeen, nearing eighteen, and still his father had insisted on treating him like a child. He was, though. He was Thranduil’s child. He was their child, and he wanted to take care of him for as long as he could. As his son trekked up to his room, Thranduil watched out the window as the Bowman children, Sigrid and Bain, were also returning home from school, and he smiled to himself. He could only imagine the smiles on their faces as they greet their mother. How tight their embraces must be, he thought, and how happy they must be to see their mother. He believed she was just as overjoyed to see them, too. He knew his wife would be ecstatic to see Legolas after school, and she was. He remembered how she would radiate happiness every day when he stepped inside the house, even on the days she was bedridden. Legolas had made it a point to step into her bedroom just as he would through the front door, just to see her radiant smile. Surely, Thranduil thought, the Bowman family was just as close, just as bright, and just as happy.