"In life we all have an unspeakable secret, an irreversible regret, an unreachable dream and an unforgettable love." - Diego Marchi

It's three weeks and four days after the wedding when he sees the photograph framed in silver, sitting on the mantel like a portrait over a casket at a funeral, a silent testimony to a sudden loss.

She's put it there seemingly without thinking, a motion of habit, a buried truth unveiled without the realization that she has stripped her soul bare.

He lifts the picture, studying the man's face. He knows who he is without asking, without thinking. There's only one man she'd keep a picture of after her wedding to another.

He looks at her, face unreadable, expression careful. When he speaks his voice is just above a whisper.

"Why didn't you marry him?"

She answers without thinking, as if reading a line in a play.

"Because I fell in love with you instead."

And he smiles and kisses her, murmuring something about "being the lucky one to steal her heart."

Lying becomes a habit.


Her daughter is six years old the first time she notices the picture. A chubby hand reaches for it, running across the face and darting across the shining buttons of his uniform.

She asks who he is, and she answers, tone light and cheerful. The child considers it for a moment before asking the logical question.

"Why didn't you marry him?"

And she beams at the girl, kisses her on the cheek and tucks the picture back up in it's place.

"Because your daddy was so much more handsome."

She's only a child and too young to understand.


Her son is ten before he asks her about the man in the photograph. He's seen it a hundred times, even touched it once or twice. But one day he asks and she tells him that he was a man she dated before she married his father.

He puts it back where it belongs, and looks up at her.

"Why didn't you marry him?"

She takes off her apron and runs a hand through her hair, brushing back an errant strand as his blue eyes watch her.

"Because his work was too dangerous. I couldn't go through life wondering if your father was never coming home."

He considers that for a second before nodding.

"I'm glad you married Daddy instead." He grins at her, a dimple appearing in his cheek.

Each lie is somehow easier.


It's Christmas and they're decorating the house when a ladder accidentally falls, knocking against the mantel and sweeping the picture off. The glass shatters against the ground, spider-webbing across the photograph, but only one small sliver peirces it, stabbing a tiny hole in the center of the paper figure's chest.

She lifts it carefully, brushing away the glass with a tender touch, and her husband doesn't miss the gesture. He comes and puts an arm around her shoulder.

"I'll get a new glass for it tomorrow." He presses his lips to her hair and she reaches up to him, grateful for his love, his care, his understanding. Hot tears sting the backs of her eyes and she blinks them away before they can escape.

"Why didn't you marry him?" He asks quietly, the last time ever.

She doesn't look up.

"Because I was young and it was only a crush."

Sometimes she thinks she's forgotten the truth.


It's a crisp fall day and the women from the sewing circle are at her house. She's pouring coffee when one of the women remarks on the man behind the glass, the one in the uniform, looking into her after all these years.

"My boyfriend before I met my husband." She extends the pot and the woman accepts with a smile.

"You must have been very much in love to keep his picture all these years." The woman says, not unkindly, but with a note of interest, as if expecting a tale of great tragedy and woe.

She looks up. "I was."

The woman leans forward. "Why didn't you marry him?"

She hasn't practiced the response but it comes unbidden, with the art of one who lies often. It seems to satisfy the woman.

"Because he went away."

He did, after all. He left her. But she didn't follow him.


Her daughter and her husband have been over half a dozen times before her son-in-law notices the photograph, worn and faded but still resting on the mantel as it has for so many years.

He asks first if it's a brother, and she tells him about a town called Mayberry, and of a deputy there she once loved.

He asks the question quietly, curiosity overcoming polite manners.

"Why didn't you marry him?"

She gives a careless shrug of her shoulders, indicating how long ago it was, and how little she thinks of it.

"Because he loved his work more than me."

She's told so many lies she almost believes them herself.


It's summer and she's packing all she owns, preparing to move out of the empty house she came to as a new bride, raised two children in, and returned one day a widow.

Suddenly, without realizing it, she has become old. The hands in her lap are gnarled with age, the face in the mirror lined, the hair snow white. Everything she owns has become an antique. Only the photograph on the mantel stays young and ageless, somehow immortal to the ravages of time.

Her granddaughter sees it, lifts it down, and questions who the stranger is.

"Barney Fife." She says, tasting the name, once familiar words somehow odd after all these years. "He was my first beau, before I met your grandfather."

"Did you love him?"

Thelma Lou gives a faint smile. "Yes."

The girl's head lifts from the picture, focusing on her, searching for the truth. The question is waiting in her eyes.

There are a hundred more answers buried within her, a thousand half-truths and white lies, countless excuses waiting to be given life. But she's told too many, lied too often. The truth can no longer hurt anyone.

"Why didn't you marry him?"

And she answers, voice quiet, etched with the weight of lost years and dead memories, faded, tattered, and but a whisper nearly forgotten.

"Because he never asked me."