"I miss you so much."

Noelle reached a hand up to lovingly trace the name on the light gray marble headstone. She read the two words engraved in the center. "Forever Beloved."

A small, sad smile touched her lips, but didn’t quite reach her eyes. "You are forever beloved. I didn’t… I didn’t know how I could go on without you, but the last few months have shown me I can. And it’s all because of your love for me. I never thanked you, did I? I’m so sorry for that. But I hope you can see into my heart, see how much I love you and always will."

Noelle paused, swallowing against the lump in her throat and wiping a tear away. Her voice caught on a sob with the next words. "I want you to know that… that I’ll always carry your love with me, always carry your memory in my heart. But I can’t… I can’t stay like this forever. I have to move on. I won’t ever forget you, I won’t leave you here all alone. I promise. But I have to get on with my life. Please… please don’t think I’m leaving you. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t."

Noelle took a deep breath and expelled it on a long sigh. Then she got to her knees facing the stone. She reached over and picked up the small trowel, preparing to plant the flowers she had purchased at the nursery.

"I know you know what happened these past few weeks at school," Noelle with another small grin, "but I hope you won’t mind if I just talk about it a bit." She stopped talking, instead digging the first hole to the left side of the gravestone.

"I’m going to plant a whole bunch of Canterbury bells on both sides, okay?" she asked after a while. "You probably already know what they are, but they’re really pretty. And tall. The little bells grow all up and down the stem, and they’re pink, white, and lavender-bluey. I bet you’ll be able to hear them tinkling when the wind blows. In the middle I’m going to plant snow-white petunias. They don’t grow so tall, so I’ll still be able to see you."

Hands were busy digging the small holes in the dirt for the little peat squares that held the flowers, while a mind was lost in memories.

"It was kinda crazy the past few weeks, wasn’t it? I mean, yeah, it’s only the middle of May now, but things were crazy last month. We were getting ready for playoffs, then Tom went nuts. Jesus, when those guns went off… Oh God, it was the worst day of my life. All that blood…"

The blonde’s slim shoulders slumped and she closed her eyes against the pain of the memory.

Molly coming up over that last step with the police… Tom lifting the gun… deafening shots… blood… so much blood… screaming… "Molly!!!"

Noelle walked into Tom’s hospital room. The sight of the young man handcuffed to the bed brought tears to her eyes.

The officer sitting next to the bed looked up when he heard her sniffle. "Hello."

Only able to nod, Noelle didn’t say anything, she just stared at Tom. She was barely aware when the officer moved to stand near the door, presumably to give them some time together.

"Why’d you do it, Tom?" she asked in a whisper, stepping next to the bed, resting a hand on the rail.

Tired eyes opened and looked up into hurt green.

"Why did you do it?" she repeated.

Tom closed his eyes, his fists clenching against the sterile white hospital sheets. "I… I was tired. Tired of being hurt all the time," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. He didn’t look like a man who had just shot someone in a calculated hostage situation. He looked more like a lost little boy, his red hair tossled and his shackled hands picking at the blanket.

"Who, Tom? Who hurt you?"

"It started to seem like everyone… my mom’s boyfriend, Jilly… those other as- kids. At first it was only… it was my mom’s boyfriend. He beat my mom, and when I stepped in, he would do it to me. Some nights it hurt so bad, and not just on the outside."

"Oh God, Tom. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t do something about it."

The boy shrugged. "That’s okay. I thought my mom…" Tom’s voice broke on the words, the hurt and anger he was feeling evident. "I thought mom would’ve stopped him, would’ve made him stop. But I think she was just looking to save herself, I guess. I don’t know."

Noelle laid a comforting hand on the narrow, gown-covered shoulder. "Tom, there’s help out there. I swear to you there is. You only have to ask. It’s not too late. It never will be as long as you want the help."

The small woman’s heart broke as she watched Tom gather his strength, his attitude around him like one of the blankets that covered him. Afraid she had run out of time, she began to speak in earnest. "Tom, I didn’t think I could ever come see you, talk to you, much less forgive you for shooting Molly… Ms. Cartwright. Not ever." The thought of what he did to the woman she loved almost made the anger, and the pain and fear, come back. "You shot her… but I forgive you. I forgive you, Tom. And I promise you that you won’t always hurt this badly. Just take the help, okay?"

She waited until she saw the barest hint of a nod, then she leaned in and kissed the young man on the forehead. "Always remember I care, Tom."

Without another word, Noelle left the hospital, never to return.

"I couldn’t believe he did it, he actually fired that gun… I know that you knew all along the love that I felt, but all I could think of was that I hadn’t ever said anything out loud."

Noelle leaned back on her heels and looked around her. "It sure is pretty here. I didn’t think so last time, but it is." With those words spoken, Noelle fell silent, simply taking in the tranquility of the scene around her.

The trees surrounding the cemetery were wearing their new, bright green leaves, and the early morning sun streamed through the branches in places, the long rays connecting heaven and earth with quiet strength. Everywhere she looked, the world looked brand new to Noelle. The light green of the leaves blended beautifully with the clear light blue of the sky.

With the wind rustling through the leaves, the trees looked almost as if they were shaking winter out of their leaves and stretching up tall to the sunlight. It was such a calm, serene scene, and Noelle felt it flow through her. She smiled then, looking down at the headstone.

The heart-breaking grief she had felt only weeks ago finally seemed to lift.

In its place a less crippling ache took root. It was something Noelle knew she'd always live with, the grief, but she also knew, with a new surety and strength, that she'd be able to go on.

"I love you," she whispered. "I should have told you that more often. But you knew it, didn't you? Thank you. For everything. I've realized that I have someone who finally taught me what love’s about, how it’s supposed to feel." Noelle smiled. "It’s warm and soft and strong. And you showed me where to find it. She's wonderful. I have to go to her now, but remember that I love you. I always will."

In a silence filled with hope and peace, Noelle finished planting the Canterbury bells and petunias. When she completed her labor of love, she stood up, brushed her hands off and dusted off her pants.

As she stood quietly gazing at the flowers that now prettied the headstone, she felt a familiar presence behind her. She closed her eyes, leaning back into the strong body.

"You okay?" a husky voice asked.

Noelle nodded, pulling strong arms around her waist. "Yeah. With your help, I'm just fine." The blonde looked again at the names on the headstone. Mary and Joseph Potter. She grinned, thinking of the original Mary and Joseph. Then the grin grew into a full-fledged laugh. "I’ll be back soon, Ma."

"I love you, Noelle Potter."

The small woman turned into the warm body, smiling up into beautiful, clear eyes. "And I love you, Molly Cartwright. Forever."


The end

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