Strands of Christmas lights twinkling overhead lit Guido’s Pizzeria. I sat at our table in the back corner twirling my engagement ring around my finger.
I unfolded the postcard clutched in my hand and read it again. “I’m not dead. Meet me tonight at Guido’s Pizzeria. Tell no one. ” My heart tightened like it had a month ago when Ryan went missing.
When he didn’t return home to our shared apartment from his hunting trip in the woods on time, I wasn’t overly concerned. Ryan was no unseasoned rookie out hunting in the woods in the winter for the first time. He made weekend trips every season in heavy snow and freezing temperatures with no problems. He always packed a thermal blanket and MREs, just in case he got turned around.
After he was two days late, I notified the forest service. They sent out a search and rescue team. I thought he’d be found, injured in a snow cave he built, waiting for help. They located his abandoned car near one of his favorite hunting grounds. There were no tracks and the forest was dense. They brought in search dogs but never picked up his scent.
After a week, they called off the search. Even an experienced outdoorsman couldn’t survive that long in subzero overnight temperatures. There was no hope of recovering his body until after the spring thaw if scavengers didn’t consume it first.
Still, I kept waiting for him to walk through the apartment door and yell, “Surprise!”
He had a penchant for practical jokes. When we first started dating he made me dinner and put that stuff that stains your teeth black in the chocolate cake. He laughed and laughed. I had no idea until I went to the bathroom to freshen up. I stormed out of the apartment, through with him. Then he showed up at my work with a dozen roses and puppy dog eyes. I melted.
His proposal three months ago was classic Ryan. He waited until I was asleep, put whip cream with the ring buried inside on my hand, and tickled my nose until I smeared whip cream all over my face and scratched myself with the ring. By thenI was used to it and head over heels.
We were to be married in the spring. Right after the thaw when the flowers would be poking through the dirt, fighting their way toward the sun.
Instead, I sat at Guido’s, alone on my birthday, a week after his memorial service, folding and refolding the postcard and jumping each time the bells over the front door tinkled.
I heard the waiters singing “Happy Birthday to You”. One carried a piece of chocolate cake with a trick candle flickering in the icing. They approached my table. The waiter with the cake was dressed like an Italian gondola driver and had a thick fake black moustache stuck under his nose. It took me a minute to register it was Ryan.
I began to cry as they finished the song. The real waiters applauded, smiling that they were in on the plan, while Ryan sat across from me.
I reached across the table, yanked that ridiculous mustache off his face and kissed him like he was soldier returning from war. I started fluttering around, making sure he was okay while I barraged him with questions.
“Ryan! Oh my God! I can’t believe it! You’re alive! Are you okay? Have you seen a doctor? How did you survive in the woods for so long? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“No. No trouble at all” he said. “I was never lost. I planned this whole thing so you could have the best birthday surprise ever!”
I sat back in my chair and stared at him. The candle sent little spurts of fire into the air.
“Happy Birthday, Baby! Isn’t this the best birthday ever?”
I gathered my purse. Rising silently I headed for the door.
“Meredeth, wait! Aren’t you happy? I’m alive!”
I stopped, my back still facing him, and twisted the engagement ring off. It clinked on the tile floor as it bounced.
“No. You’re dead.”
Construcive criticism is very much wanted and appreciated. Help me grow as a writer.
There were two prompts this week for the Red Writing Hood meme. I chose: “One week after attending the funeral of a close friend, you receive a postcard in the mail with the words, ‘I’m not dead. Meet me tonight at Guido’s Pizzeria. Tell no one.’ “