It had been a long time since Margaret had been a little girl and had entertained herself day after day with her imagination and dreams of how exciting and adventurous her life as an adult would be. Growing up along the Atlantic coast in North Carolina had been happy enough she supposed…she had never known that her folks were struggling to keep their heads above water financially. From her young perspective, it was all she had ever known and just assumed that this was the way it was for everyone. She had plenty to eat, a warm bed at night, and never felt neglected or overlooked from either her mother or father. But the one thing that began to gnaw at her as she approached her teenage years was that they all—her parents as well as all the close relatives that got together regularly at the house—was that they just had no dreams…or ambitions…or any desire to want some excitement entering into their lives.
The more Maggie observed and thought about this the more she was determined not to fall into the same patterns and routines when she was out on her own. She had friends around the neighborhood that she sometimes played with, but overall Maggie preferred the solitary existence of her room with her books and what she could create in her own mind for how her grownup life was to be a roller coaster of nonstop adventure. And for a few years this mindset served her well. But as she did reach her teenage years, her sense of imagination and determination for the vision she had carried inside for as long as she could remember began to fade.
She supposed it was partly the abandonment of what now seemed like childish thoughts and ideas, but also partly that as she was coming to the end of her high school years the reality of life began to intrude and replace her dreams and aspirations for what she had been sure her adult life would have in store for her. Maggie went off to college more focused on resigning herself to mainstream aspirations and fitting into what seemed to be the real world all around her. In the back of her consciousness, she still brought up the occasional memory of what she had once dreamed of when her mind would wander between classes or during times when she just relaxed around campus, but for the most part, her life now was moving in another direction.
After graduation, she moved to the small town of Ambry, TN where Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia converged. In part, she went there for this teaching job she had found out about during a recruiter’s trip to her college campus during her last semester, but also it was where her current boyfriend, Allen Brenner, was headed and they settled into a small and isolated cabin nestled back in the woods where the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests came together. They had been together since they were juniors and Maggie was sure she and Allen would be together forever. Her resignation of putting her childhood dreams and aspirations away in favor of a more realistic adult life was shaken a bit when they met.
Maggie had not been harboring any real intentions of any romantic involvement as a student, but it had been like electricity had shot through her when she first set her eyes on Allen. It was not exactly the same feeling she had once had as she daydreamed about her future as a child, but it certainly a welcome and much-appreciated bit of excitement and adventure in her life that made her tedious and mundane routines as a student bearable. Allen was the first man Maggie had ever had sex with and even though she had nothing to compare it to, she was sure this was as good as it could possibly get. Allen had been hired on as a traveling geologist for the USGS based out of Johnson City but in general, he worked out of a home office when he was in town. The bulk of his work was on the road as he traveled throughout the US and even abroad for various projects they assigned him to.
Maggie was not real thrilled with his long absences, but when he did come home it gave her a high she had never experienced before. His time in between gigs was often extended so he could recharge for the next assignment, and they never failed to make the most of their time together. Maggie’s class at the local elementary school was a combined 5th and 6th grade combo where she taught a little of everything as the school was very small by normal standards. Her job she saw as about as unimaginative and humdrum as it could possibly be, but in her mind, she held on as best she could as she anticipated the excitement and exhilaration as she watched the calendar for Allen’s next return home.
And for a few years this was their life. They were close and committed to one another completely, but neither was especially interested in getting married. The topic had come up once or twice, but both seemed in agreement that the whole institution was just not for them. Much a throwback to the days of their parents’ generation, they just did not see how a piece of paper making their co-habitation “legal” made any sense. Neither did they have any desire for children. They both liked kids fine but seemed again in agreement that it was enough to experience children through friends and relatives. Besides, Maggie often said:
“I get my fill of everyone else’s kids in town 5 days a week…”
But to fill the void for when he was out of town, Maggie did talk Allen into them getting a dog to keep her company. Barstow was a very exuberant and goofy chocolate Labrador Retriever and Maggie felt much better with him around when Allen was away. It was not that she ever felt in any kind of danger or especially vulnerable when she was alone, but Barstow was just good company. She supposed that if anyone had come snooping around that he would alert her, but mostly he was just this amiable and happy-go-lucky shadow that stuck to her side around the house.
As time went on it began to feel to Maggie as if they had been together forever…all three of them… and if this was to be her life in lieu of true adventure and the thrill she had once thought her life would be filled with then she was absolutely fine with it. She and Allen had never had more than a few differences of opinion in all their time together, and nothing that could ever be interpreted as a fight or even a minor spat. When Maggie sat with her girlfriends from town and listened to their stories of woe and angst with their own husbands or significant others, she smiled broadly inside realizing just how lucky she was.
However, one day in late May a year or so later, Maggie’s self-proclaimed luck took an unexpected downturn that she was totally unprepared for. The weather had been unusually warm and sunny all month and Maggie and Barstow had been going out as often as possible when she got back each day from school and on the weekends to enjoy what seemed to be an early summer. Allen had been away for about 2 weeks on a trip out west in California as a consultant for a petroleum speculator. Thus far in his career, it was the biggest job he had yet to come across as the USGS always kept a very keen eye on these explorations. He was due back any day now and she was as anxious and excited as ever to see him again.
But on Thursday when he was due in he did not arrive at home. Nor did he call or email her that he was to be delayed. It was disappointing but Maggie also knew that sometimes these field assignments went to very remote locations and that his access to communication with her was not always perfect. But when the weekend passed by and Allen still had not gotten in touch with her and had not answered any of her texts or emails or calls, Maggie began to get worried. There was not much she could do but it still did not keep her mind from racing with possible explanations…none of which were especially comforting.
Then on Sunday afternoon, just as she and Barstow were getting ready to head into town for a trip to the local dog park and a quick lunch for her at Marianna’s Café, this old, dusty, charcoal-gray Suburban came rumbling along the rough roadway that served as the only access point to their cabin. Maggie could just barely pick out the USGS decal on the side of the vehicle she could see through the dried mud and dust. Her heart leaped with glee as she assumed that someone from the office was just dropping Allen off. But when she saw two men get out and begin a slow walk over to where she and Barstow were sitting she felt her hopes sink.
Allen was not one of them. In fact, she had never seen either of these men before in her life. The closer they got the more clearly she could see the serious looks on their faces. Before they said a word to her Maggie knew this was bad news and she clutched desperately to Barstow’s neck for support.
“Mrs. Brenner…Maggie Brenner?” one of the men asked as they stood near her.
“No…it’s Kingston actually…Maggie Kingston. Allen and I were not married.”
“Sorry…my name is Garrity…Louis Garrity and this is Mark Porter. We’re from the USGS and I am afraid we have some bad news to deliver.”
“About Allen? Did something happen to Allen?”
“Yes, ma’am…I am afraid there was an accident out in the field in California where he was working.”
“Is he OK?”
Garrity came and sat beside her and ruffled the fur on Barstow’s neck.
“There’s no easy way to say this Miss Brenner. I am afraid Allen is dead.”