Janus and Rob sang along to the Christmas music as they drove through the rural roads. They both disliked holiday music – except when they were together. They then caroled each other constantly, to their friend’s horror. Neither sang well. Their howling dog Sir Barkalot consistently voted loudly with a wail when they sang for too long. In the confines of the small car on a cold winter December 24th, though, they created the perfect repository for their mutual enjoyment.
Neither dared think about their destination. It was enough to continue the tradition, now unbroken for thirteen years. They woke up on Christmas Eve morning, drank a gallon of coffee each, and then wrapped themselves in warm clothing and drove to the same cherished spot.
Because they’d done so for thirteen years, Rob already knew he had to stop about halfway there; otherwise, Janus would howl in mimicry of Sir Barkalot until he did. As they sang “Little Drummer Boy” in raucous unison, Rob noted the mile marker that indicated he would have to turn off the main road in a couple of minutes. Janus must have noted the same thing. As “The Little Drummer Boy” ended, she mashed the audio button to “Off” as they neared the turnoff.
In the back seat, there was a small lunchbox. Inside it: two rocks, one from each of them. Each year, the lunchbox changed to something similar to whatever was popular.
Rob navigated the turnoff and slowed. The gravel road was rough, and almost no one traveled it. Luckily, this year, there was no snow to worsen it.
He recalled spending weekends with his grandparents, who had lived nearby. He accidentally discovered a deep, surprisingly clear pond on his adventure excursions. It was there that he proposed to Janus years later. She screamed, “Yes!” much to the dismay of all the nearby birds.
Rob drove to the poorly-maintained gate and stopped, turning the ignition off. “Are you ready?” he asked Janus. She nodded.
They both exited the car. Rob opened the back door and removed the lunchbox. He looked a bit absurd, he knew.
Despite the cold, he held Janus’ right hand as they passed through the gap in the gate and fence. Within a couple of minutes, they reached the pond. It wasn’t frozen over.
Janus leaned to kiss Rob, who was already expecting it.
He held the lunchbox out and opened it. “Don’t look,” he reminded her. “How am I going to know which rock is mine, then?” she asked. It was their joke each year. She peeked in and removed her rock.
Rob put the lunchbox down on the brown grass and removed his rock.
They walked to the edge of the pond, staring at the water.
Janus looked at her rock to read the name written there. “Jacqueline,” she whispered.
Rob read the name written in marker on his rock: “Suzanne.”
Some years, the names were both boys’ names; never had both been feminine.
Janus threw her rock first. It was an awkward toss but sailed halfway across the vast pond. Rob launched his rock, and it landed within a couple of feet of the other bank.
Janus motioned for Rob to come closer. He stood next to her with his left arm around her waist. She tilted her head onto his shoulder as they both stared across the pond. Both of them were considering a life that almost was.
A few moments later, they both felt the moment pass. They turned to walk back to the waiting car.
“Do you think your mom and dad are tired of Astro yet?” Janice laughed as she asked Rob the same question she’d asked him last night and again this morning.
“Duh! An eight-year-old wants everything. They probably have him tied up on the front porch rocking chair at this point.” He paused. “You know what, though? We should stop for breakfast on the way.”
They both laughed, knowing that they would indeed stop.
By the time they turned around to leave the old gravel road, both were thinking of the beautiful Christmas awaiting them. And how much they had spoiled their adopted son Astro.
They counted themselves among the lucky few. Loss? Yes? But life and love also.
Janus hit the “On” button to resume the Christmas music. They both wanted to howl and sing as one should on such a day.