As I walked down the concrete steps, I decided I would hide in the little nook beside the rhododendrons. Charlie could never pronounce “rhododendron,” despite his well-rounded education. It always sounded like he was referring to a dinosaur instead of a plant.
One day, early on in our relationship, he brought me a picture of a rhododendron bush he printed from a Google images search, pointed at it, and asked, “Pterodactyl? Rhinoceros? Rhubarb?” We rolled onto the floor in a fit of hysterics and painted each others’ bodies with our fingertips.
That was when I knew I loved Charlie.
Yes, he would surely find me in the corner of the garden that represented our most gratuitous inside joke. He would win the game easily and, framed by a patchwork of branches, he’d remember why he loved me.
We’d laugh, go back inside together, and sip the black moscato that we saved for special occasions. It would be a beautiful night. I could feel it in my chest.
My leather sling backs creaked as I walked down the path to our garden and I made a mental note to shop for new ones on Monday. I stole a glance over my shoulder and our grand house loomed behind me, painted silver by the moonlight. On the second floor, the light in Charlie’s study burned bright and I could imagine his deep voice counting aloud. He wasn’t supposed to come after me until he reached 300 Mississippi—I needed the time to get downstairs, get outdoors, and get friendly with our garden—but I knew his patience would start to wane at about 200. I needed to hurry.
When Charlie and I moved into our home in Missouri, I instantly fell in love with the quaint garden in our backyard. As an exchange student in college, I visited the gardens of Versailles in France and as I walked through them, I imagined myself an English girl in the era of Jane Austen’s novels. Surely, Mr. Darcy would be around the next hedge, brooding and lovely and ready to sweep me off my feet.
Our garden was not Versailles, but it did have some magic to it. There were labyrinthine hedges with a delicate fountain in the middle. In other areas of the maze, dead ends provided secluded pockets where flowers grew. The rhododendron bush was in one such pocket.
As I turned the final corner, I smiled, expelled a girlish laugh, and then clamped a hand over my mouth. Charlie had excellent hearing and it would be no fun to give away the game so easily. I crouched by the rhododendron bush and took a deep breath of the night air. I squinted my eyes and cocked my head to one side, straining to hear. I knew that at any moment, I’d hear Charlie’s loafers on the pavement—or perhaps squishing through the grass if he wanted to be stealthy.
I remembered the first time we played this game together, only a week after we’d returned from our honeymoon in Thailand. I was showing Charlie my old college scrapbooks from my trip to France—and specifically the gardens of Versailles—when he interrupted me with, “Hide and seek? In the garden?” He smiled like the Cheshire Cat and I’d never wanted him more.
That first time wasn’t really a game. Feeling liberated by newly-wedded bliss and the crystal moonlight, I shed pieces of clothing while traipsing through the garden. When Charlie followed my silk and cotton breadcrumbs and found me by the fountain, I was naked. He told me the moonlight on my skin made me look like an angel. I believed him.
During our first year of marriage, we played hide and seek in our garden rather spontaneously—on Sundays after the football game—or, irresponsibly, at midnight during the week though we both had demanding jobs. Luckily, we also had an espresso machine—and the delicious secret between us of what had transpired the night before.
During our third year of marriage, the hide and seek requests waned considerably. I found myself hesitant to ask my husband to find me. He appeared to be hesitant, too, and a patch of his dark hair over his left eyebrow started to gray.
So earlier in the night, I was rather surprised when I felt Charlie’s hand on my shoulder and then his hot breath on my ear.
“Hide and seek, my love?”
My stomach clenched. At first, I was afraid to turn around. Our conversation at dinner had been less than pleasant. Charlie couldn’t understand that I didn’t want to share him with anyone else.
“A child isn’t someone else, Annabel,” he said.
“But it is.”
“I thought you wanted this.”
“I’ve always wanted you.”
“So, you lied?”
“Of course not.”
“Just decided to take a trip to the doctor instead.”
“I don’t share well. It isn’t in my genetic composition. Why can’t you understand that?”
There had been whiskey poured and names called and heavy footsteps on the stairs. I made myself some tea and prepared for a chilly night alone in our bedroom.
I was reviewing documents for a case at the oak desk near our bed when I heard Charlie enter the room. Then I felt his touch and knew that everything would be alright despite our nasty argument over pork loin and green beans. Charlie asking me if I wanted to play hide and seek meant that he forgave me. Charlie touching me like that—with tenderness and understanding—meant he was still in love with me. I smiled up at him and then sprinted out of the house.
The night air felt cool on my skin and I tilted my chin up to the pregnant moon. She smiled down on me and I felt blood rush into my calves.
I heard a rustle in the bushes nearby and my heart started pounding. This was it, the moment my husband and I would embrace and remember and forget and laugh. But instead of Charlie appearing from around the corner, a lizard skittered across the brush. And then all was silent.
I cocked my head and listened again. Surely he’d be coming soon.
I started my own count. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi…
When I reached 100, adrenaline throttled through my body and I couldn’t breathe. I jogged through the hedges, retracing my steps, expecting to see Charlie on the landing of the concrete steps. But only the house peered back at me. And the light in Charlie’s study had gone out.