Cold rain dripping from the eaves. Dead calm woods shrouded in winter hues, dull rust carpet of fallen leaves, bare gray trunks marching off in silent columns into the distance. A thin vapor of mist rises in the valleys as the temperature drops. Waiting now, settled into its long rest, the woods stir only with busy squirrels and occasional passing straggles of deer.

She wrapped her arms tightly across her chest and turned away from the cabin window. The rising shriek of the teapot came to full scream by the time she crossed into the kitchen. Bubbling boiling water steamed into the mug, temporarily floating the tea leaves in the strainer before their gray tendrils softened, relaxed, and drifted to the bottom, releasing their tannins and flavors as they fell. Absently, she jostled the strainer, coaxing more from the leaves, thinking of where he might be at this time of the afternoon, this day.

There had been days like this when they were together, days his truck barreled up the long driveway and he crashed into the house with a wide grin. Rained out, he would say, sweeping her up, kissing her with his face still cold. His Levis littered with sawdust, finish nails clumped in his pockets, he would lead her by the hand to the bedside, where he tugged at her buttons with rough fingers, his cock straining the front of his jeans.

“Mmm, it’s nice and warm in here,” he would say, shoving his hands down the back of her pants, squeezing her buttocks, lifting her against him. And he didn’t mean the room.

Time shifted in segments in those delicious afternoons. Quilts drifted off the bed and piled on the floor, pulled back on the bed and warmed them, sated, as they lay against the mound of pillows. The fire died down. He would go, naked, and crouch before the big cast iron stove to peer in at the coals, stir them around, pile in more wood. He would detour through the kitchen, ask about the pot of soup or chili, or the chicken or roast in the oven, all the while stirring and forcing off a bit to taste.

He’d return with wine and a sheepish grin, a telltale smear of chili at the corner of his mouth. They’d talk about their lives, what they remembered, how they felt, what they wanted, hoped for. Evening would drift across the land, deepening in the woods with the thickening mist.

In the last traces of daylight, he’d dress, venture out to carry firewood, to check on weather, inhale the scent of sizzling beef fat as it escaped into the night air. It pleased him to face the cold then return inside to savor the nest he had made for himself, for her, this tidy cottage in the woods where they could live their lives together.

The strainer dripped tea on the counter as she stood again at the window. The place where he had parked his truck had long since sprouted thickets of grass, undergrowth. Only her tire marks kept the drive marked, cleared, to the place her car sat now. Her old gray cat rubbed against her legs, a reminder that time had marched on, moved, escaped in afternoons like this one, until a whole new year, a new decade had arrived without her noticing exactly how. When.