Educated as a scientist, graduated as a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has been a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular performer on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Harlan’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city (land use) planner, among other occupations. Harlan lives, writes, and continues to improve his dzonkha vocabulary and pronunciation in Bhutan but has contemplated visiting the US or Europe to perform and recharge his bank account. He has settled in Bhutan but in previous decades has lived, performed, and taught in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark. Harlan has written four novels, three novellas, three novelettes (two published), and forty-some short stories, of which twenty-three have been published in six countries.


Trigger Warning

“I’ll run errands after the meeting,” Sybil said, as she stood in the kitchen doorway, “so I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“OK,” Toby replied, “just remember that I love you.”

Sybil smiled and waved, as she walked out to her car. As she climbed in, Toby walked out to say good-bye. Sybil lowered the powered window, and Toby leaned in and kissed her gently. “Be careful on the road,” he said, as she backed into the turning area and drove down their driveway.

Toby and Sybil had conducted this same sweet ritual many times in their twenty year marriage—sometimes with Toby the driver, sometimes with Sybil. More often, they went places together. For most of the past year, Sybil had needed to go into town more often, both because of her activities with the Historic Preservation Society and because she and their daughter Brittany had joined a local Contra Dance group. The two did the shopping and ran other errands on Tuesday afternoons, then went to the dance group in the evenings. Wednesdays, Sybil usually went to town by herself, unless one of the kids needed to go for some reason, attended the weekly Historic Preservation Society meeting, then shopped or did whatever other tasks needed her attention.

The past several weeks, Sybil had spent longer in town, driving in earlier on Tuesdays and coming home later on Wednesdays and sometimes driving in on other days to accomplish some errand that could have waited or been done the previous day. If Toby felt any concern, he brushed it aside. He had always been honest and open with Sybil and assumed she would be the same with him.

When Sybil hadn’t arrived home one Wednesday by almost eight o’clock, Toby asked Brittany if she thought he should call the police and report her missing. Not wanting to worry Brittany with his concern, he said jokingly, “Or is she just spending the evening with her new boyfriend?” From the way his daughter looked at him, Toby knew he didn’t need to ’phone the police.

Brittany quickly turned her face away, but Toby had seen enough—enough to know the relationship he had cherished for two decades had come to an end. In spite of Sybil’s not infrequent abuse, Toby loved her with an intensity he had never experienced in any other relationship. He had devoted those two decades to doing everything he could to foster Sybil’s health and happiness. Sharing with Sybil and taking care of her had become the core of Toby’s existence, the central purpose of his life. He was a superb father and took excellent care of his children, but Sybil occupied the center of his feelings and his life.

When Sybil finally arrived home, Toby didn’t yell, didn’t accuse. He made Sybil a cup of herbal tea and said quietly, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Sybil began to say something, then dropped her eyes to the floor and sat, silent, for several minutes. Finally, she said, “Do you remember Andrew, the one I introduced you to at the hearing last month?”

Toby said nothing but nodded.

“I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with him lately, working on submissions to the Historic Places Trust and that sort of thing.”

“That sort of thing?”

“Well, at first it was just that sort of thing, then we started talking about personal topics.”

Sybil stopped, and Toby waited. After several minutes, he said, “And?”

Sybil dropped her head onto her palms and wailed, “Oh, Toby! I’m so sorry.”

Toby stood, silent, looking as if he had been struck a hard physical blow.

“I didn’t do this on purpose,” Sybil wailed. “I think I’ve fallen in love with him. I didn’t mean to, honestly, I didn’t.” She choked back tears and continued, “Oh! I’m sorry, Toby. I’m so, so sorry. I never intended to fall in love. I wasn’t looking for someone else.”

Toby knelt beside his wife and put his arms around her. “Nobody falls in love on purpose, nobody ever intends to,” he said. “You can’t decide to fall in love. Decisions involve thought; love is about feelings. The two have nothing to do with each other.”

Sybil choked back a sob and said, “I really didn’t choose to fall in love with him.”

“I believe you. That’s what I’m saying. I believe you. I know you didn’t do it on purpose. I know a lot about falling in love: I’ve fallen in love with you so many times I’ve lost count. Falling in love has nothing to do with what we think or choose or decide.”

Sybil said, “Thank you. You’re better than I deserve.”

“No. You deserve to be happy. I’ve always hoped you would fall in love one day. Of course, I wanted you to fall in love with me—but I can see the joy in your finally being able to fall in love. I’m aching right now, but I love you and want you to be happy. I wish you could be happy with me, could experience that magic, that special electricity, that romance with me, but if it can’t be with me, I still want you to be happy. Is Andrew in love with you?”

“He says he is.”

“There’s a special chemistry, a special electricity, a romantic magic that exists for two people who are in love with each other. I’ve always wished you and I could share that, but you’ve never been in love with me—”

“Toby, I love you,” Sybil interrupted.

“I think that’s true. But it isn’t the same thing.”

They talked another half an hour, then climbed the stairs to the bedroom they had shared for the past seven years, then talked for another hour. Finally, Sybil wrapped her arms around Toby—she really did love him—and held him while he cried himself to sleep.

Over the course of the next three months, Sybil and Toby had many such conversations. The burden of Sybil’s feelings of guilt for the pain she was obviously inflicting on Toby—or maybe just the glow that comes with being in love—had one positive impact: the tirades and vitriol she had heaped on Toby three or four times a month for the previous twenty years almost completely ceased. Her behavior toward Toby became sweeter and more attentive than he had ever experienced. Even so, his pain never let up.

Sometimes, Toby and Sybil would sit and talk about their relationship. Sometimes, they would sit and talk about her time with Andrew, her relationship with Andrew, her feelings for Andrew. She worried that these conversations would add to Toby’s pain, but they mostly didn’t and sometimes helped. Toby did feel a little extra ache on a few occasions, when Sybil became particularly animated and enthusiastic in talking about Andrew. She rattled off a list of things she had in common with Andrew, which pretty much precisely mirrored the things she had in common with Toby: an interest in gardening and growing trees, an interest in the natural environment and in preserving native animal habitat, an interest in preserving historic places, and so on. The irony didn’t make Toby feel better.

Toby lost motivation for nearly everything in his life. He stopped doing maintenance on the house and vehicles. He stopped playing music. He stopped reading. He often wished he could stop breathing. His children began avoiding him, because he had become so morose, even though he made a point of reaching out to them—offering to read to the younger ones, suggesting activities he could share with the older ones. He kept breathing and woke each morning to another day of unremitting pain.

Brittany had heard her mother screaming abuse at her father several hundred times (she had once calculated), but this was different. Generally, Brittany just tried to ignore her mother’s cannonades, tried to filter them out, pretend they weren’t happening, usually with only limited success. This evening’s screams sounded somehow more urgent, less controlled.

Brittany’s mom screamed “Toby!” and “No!” and other words no less loud but somehow indistinct. Brittany wondered if her father had finally snapped and attacked her mother. No sound of blows reached Brittany, as she ran toward the bedroom her parents now shared as a married non-couple. She knew the sound of blows, because she had heard that sound many times when her mother had attacked her father. Fortunately, Brittany hadn’t heard such blows in the past six or seven years, but she hadn’t forgotten the sound.

What, then? Had her father finally broken under the strain of trying to accept his wife’s love for another man and stabbed her? Had he stabbed himself? The usual soundtrack, since the end of the physical assaults, had been Brittany’s mother’s screams accompanied by Brittany’s father’s voice trying to calm his wife down, trying to reason with her in a normal conversational tone. This evening, the screams reverberated alone through the house, unaccompanied. Brittany hadn’t given much thought to her father’s silence at first, but as she raced up the stairs it began to seem ominous.

Bursting into her parents’ bedroom, Brittany saw her parents lying on their super-king bed. Brittany’s mom half-sat, supporting herself on one arm and looking down at her husband. He lay in a sort-of-almost fetal position, his head near the edge of the mattress. His eyes stared rigidly into space, his hands seemed to claw at the air.

Brittany’s father’s face looked as if he had seen a ghost. Perhaps he had—the ghost of all his dreams of sharing the rest of his life with Brittany’s mom. His face seemed frozen in a look of sheer horror. Brittany’s mother kept screaming “No!” over and over as Brittany quickly crossed the floor to the bed. She made a cursory inspection of both parents’ forms and saw no blood. Kneeling beside the bed, she put her ear against her father’s mouth and felt no breath. Brittany wanted to scream, she wanted to scream “No!” as her mother kept doing, she wanted to scream “you killed him!” at her mother, she wanted to scream out her anguish in a wail that would reach clear to the stars, but she kept it inside.

No longer a rebellious teenager but the bereaved daughter of a man she could no longer reach, Brittany made no sound. She stood and strode out of the room and onto the deck. Outside, she hurried to the railing, vomited onto the plum tree, and stood panting. Then, she gathered every bit of courage and resolve she could muster, took a deep breath, and returned to her parents’ bedroom. There, she found her mother no longer screaming but lying across her late husband’s legs and sobbing. Fighting down the urge to say “you killed him,” Brittany asked, “What happened?”

Brittany’s mother lay in silence for a full five minutes before saying, “I told him I was going to move in with Andrew next week.”

“What did Dad say?”

“He didn’t say anything. He burst into tears and began shaking.”


“Yes! His arms were shaking and his legs were shaking and—” she sobbed twice then continued, “he was shaking all over. Then he sort of groaned—or, like, between a groan and a cry—and just stopped.”


“Yes, he stopped shaking, and the sound stopped, and he just sort of seemed to stop altogether.”

Brittany felt her own tears coursing down her cheeks. She tried to remember when was the last time she’d told her dad she loved him. She wanted to scream, she wanted to run—but to where, and what good would any of it do. Nothing would bring him back. She became aware that her mother was looking at her with a look that implored her to say something. She nodded to her mother and said, “OK,” and thought to herself, At least his pain has stopped, too.

2 thoughts on “Promises, Hearts, & Other Breakable Items

Leave a Reply