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And all was quiet. The sun setting over the hills, the wheat fields fallow in the red rolling earth, the whisper of the leaves in the autumn breeze. Even the windchimes from the edge of the roof fell still, respectful, almost. The dogs lay down in the blue shadows of the porch roof and slept peaceably for once, not barking crazily at any cars up the dirt road.

Not that there were any. Wouldn't be for a month now, what with Mary gone off with the museum. Chance of a lifetime, that, catching butterflies in strange lands, but it meant a quiet farm, quiet dogs... a quiet dinner alone at the table in the old kitchen with the avocado-colored appliances.

Richard, getting on towards sixty, didn't like it, not too much, no. He didn't like the silence, and Mary always came in with a rush of her sharp suit jacket and glasses, chattering about new displays, new projects at the museum in town. He didn't much care for the butterflies Mary caught either (fragile, quiet things), but he loved to watch her eyes flash as she talked, loved to rotate around her like the moon to the Earth, chopping vegetables for her stew, handing her the knife, stirring the pot when she had to rush off to answer her phone.

No, it was a beautiful evening, but too quiet and still for him. The car was parked in the garage, the fields were mostly in for the year. There was the old vacuum tube radio on the table his grandfather had milled and built so many years ago (next to Mary's desk and computer equipment, all of it strange to him), but he only put it on so they could dance sometimes. Without Mary to spin around the room, her heels flying, without her laughing, he didn't much like the idea of the music.

They'd argued before he left, again, her about how he needed to get away from the farm more, him about how she still couldn't help with the two dairy cows or the chickens. It was a small kind of argument, really, an old worn path they walked when they were too tired or worried to fight about anything worth arguing over. In the pauses between their words, they'd both heard the words really said.

I miss you, come back to me.

I love you, I promise I will.

Stay with me.

I have to go, but I promise I'll be back.

Make it soon.

Now, bucketing around the house, with the wind too quiet, he thinks about the loud receptions at the museum, the ones where he wears the fancy suit (Mary insisted, and had dragged him to a tailor for it) and stands in the corner, uncomfortable, uncouth. He thinks about Mary in her pearls and bright blue dress, her silvering golden hair elegantly upswept, and the bevvy of sycophants around her. Thinks about the men who hover to refill her glass, to flatter her. Thinks about her smiling bright and clear across the room to him and their dark scowls.

He thinks about how she laughs too loudly so the party stills around her, drawing him out of his corner to her and unsettling all the men who, flushed and flustered, scatter like so many chickens in the coop to the corners of the room. Remembers how the entire loud, busy night recedes as he leads her by one upraised hand out to the battered old Ford truck.

The memories crept in with the silence, but they weren't enough to fill the space where Mary was. Richard scowls and paces the floorboards, hoping the creaking will stir the dogs, but they're still out waiting for their mistress to come home, and he can't begrudge them that.

Church bells ring, incongruously, rising and falling, and he fumbles towards Mary's desk where she's left one of her cellphones amidst the other clutter. It's making a racket, filling the silence. Outside, the dogs are beginning to bark in confusion. One of them, an old tick hound, pushes the door open with his nose, poking it in to investigate what Master is up to.

Richard's not good with cellphones, only owns an old flip-phone Mary insisted on for when he's out in the field. (In case he's hurt, she'd said. In case he's trapped. They'd argued about it for months.) He fumbles with the phone, fingers stabbing at the slick screen until the thing does what he wants.

There's a message from Mary, and he freezes for a moment, then grins wide. She'd told him not to expect any calls, but there it is, a short missive from oceans away. I love you it says, with a little heart. And something else is there too. Richard fumbles with the phone, cursing and grumbling until it opens, and then he chuckles, low and quiet.

It's a butterfly with bright blue wings outspread, caught mid-shot in a net. Somebody has taken a picture of Mary with the net, all smeared with mud and her hair pulled back into a ponytail, beaming at the camera.

She looks even more beautiful than she does in the pearls and her bright blue dress, and he drinks her in, grinning a bit. The tick hound nudges at his thigh, begging for attention, and he puts the phone down, scratching behind the old dog's ears.

He sits down that night and listens to the old jazz station on the radio, staring out the window into the dark fields with the hound's tail thumping quietly on the floor and the sound of saxophone and piano echoing in the empty house.

Even with most of the harvest in, there's still work to do out on the farm, and there seems like more of it, even, with the dogs busy chasing each other in restless dog games. They're on edge too with Mary gone, but they get their attention well enough circling him like chaotic asteroids. And each night, Mary sends him a different picture and the same message, and it doesn't seem quite so lonely.

Still, he's restless, he's tired, and the dogs sleep out on the porch, waiting for their mistress. They're all waiting now.

One day in late November, Richard wakes up as the old tick hound lays itself down on his feet, and he grumbles, mumbling and kicking it down to the old headboard. It moves amiably enough, grumbling just like Master as it settles in a warm spot.

Someone's stumbling loudly, grumbling with a suitcase down the hall, and Richard smiles, eyes still shut in the dark as the suitcase goes thump-thump into the closet, as clothes make whispering noises to the wooden floorboards.

A weight dips the bed, and Mary, smelling of some sweet-scented foreign thing, wraps herself around him. He grumbles at her like she's the tick hound and she laughs, tells him she loves him, nuzzles in, asks if he's missed her.

"Go to sleep, woman." he grumbles, rusty voice quiet under her trying to tell him all about it. "Got enough time for that in the morning."

She laughs, then, bright and pleased, and he turns, takes her in his arms, listens to the hound snoring at their feet and the late fall wind.

And all is still.

LoveQuest 2011

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