Fall Back, Spring Forward

She was no longer in the gallery, no longer looking at his painting—the painting she had never even known about. Now she was walking gingerly in too-high heels along the cobblestones depicted in the painting, just as she had done twenty years before. And just like twenty years before, her tights were scratchy against her legs, and she wondered now why she’d worn them. Ah, yes, to look attractive for—what was his name, anyway? The boy she’d planned to run away with. Ian. Yes. That’s where she’d been going—to Ian’s house.

A gust blew up several of the leaves on the ground as well as her short skirt, and she pulled the garment down hastily, looking around to make sure no one had caught the flash of thigh. No one had. The owners of the nearby cottage were inside, out of the frigid air and enjoying their first fire of the season.

Then she saw the movement to her left again. He was making his way toward her down the hill. She calculated she'd have ten minutes before he’d reach her. Ten minutes to figure out what she could do differently this time.

Because surely this was it. Her wish had come true. She’d been given the opportunity to change everything. She had willed herself into the painting and back to the past, but inside her head she was still in the present, with all the knowledge she needed to change her destiny.

Lately she hadn't been able to escape the feeling that there was something missing in her life. She was Cate Lyons, age thirty-seven, wife to Jack and mother to Trevor and Emily. Naturally she loved her children, but the passion in her marriage had died out many years ago, and she’d never found the energy nor the desire to revive it. Along with that was the uncomfortable feeling that it had been her fault the love had petered out in the first place. Something to do with her own inadequacies and lingering regrets over the past. And as for a career—well, there had never been one. A handful of customer service jobs and, of course, carpools and PTA meetings; never-ending loads of laundry and casserole after casserole.

She shivered and pulled her pink sweater closer. What had she been thinking all those years ago? She hadn’t been thinking, that was the problem. She’d been seventeen, unhappy at home, unhappy at school. Ian had been her one source of light, but she saw now he’d been rather ordinary—a pimply eighteen-year-old who kissed her clumsily and didn’t care at all about the things she loved: art, literature, nature.

Her pursuer was now close enough for her to see the familiar scowl on his face. She felt a tug at her heart, and she realized she missed him.

He called to her: “Catherine! Come here right now!”

She took a step in the opposite direction and then stopped herself. Funny how she’d fallen into the old habits. She turned back.

And then he was in front of her—his dark hair tousled by the wind; paint, as usual, staining his fingertips. She breathed in sharply, overcome by the sheer realness of him. His smell was exactly as she remembered; a pungent mixture of Ivory soap, perspiration, and paint thinner.

“Catherine Elizabeth, what do you think you’re doing? You’re coming home with me this instant.”

Twenty years ago, they had fought after he uttered those sentences. Twenty years ago, he’d had to grab her arm and forcibly drag her the two miles back home. Their relationship had worsened considerably after that. More fights, more scowls, and then finally nothing. She’d left, this time for good, and a year later he’d passed away from a heart attack, perhaps—no, probably—brought on by their estrangement.

She pushed down the teenage anger that was surfacing against her will, the rebellious answer that was on the tip of her tongue.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she said quietly, and he blinked at her. His glower faded, and she felt a tinge of hope.

“Well, now, that’s all right, I suppose. You’ll be coming home, then?”

She nodded and fell in step beside him.

“How’s the new painting?” she asked after a while, and he stopped walking to turn toward her. She saw the surprise in his eyes, the corners of his mouth slowly turning upward.

“Fair. Not one of my best, I’m afraid.”

“I’m sure it’s good,” she said and noted his look of pleasure.

It came to her then. The answer to it all. The way to change the path of her life forever.

“Dad?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Do you think you could teach me? Teach me how to paint, I mean?”

—§—

She was no longer cold, no longer aware of the wind prickling her face. She was in the gallery, out of the short skirt and scratchy tights and in her most comfortable jeans and tee shirt. She was looking at a painting, but it was not the same one as before, though the scene was the same. She squinted at the bottom right corner, and instead of her father’s name, saw her own signature.

“It’s really one of your best, honey,” a voice said, and she turned to see her father. “It’s almost as good as mine.”

She returned his playful smile, feeling a surge of happiness. The events of the last half hour were slowly fading away, and she found herself wondering what she’d been thinking about all that time. She and her family were going back to her father’s house for their weekly dinner, and then tomorrow she and Jack were off on their annual romantic retreat. She already had ideas for several paintings of fruit trees and flowers. The colors were so very beautiful in the spring.

Ω

Carol E. Ayer  Carol E. Ayer's website lives in Northern California. Her short stories have been published by Woman's World, The Prairie Times, and Sniplits.

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