They Loved, a short story

What follows is a short story of less than 1,000 words which I wrote for a charity anthology last year, called FRAMED. Here it is for your reading pleasure and/or pain. Thanks to Lisa Fulham for asking me to write this.

***

She waited on a padded, velvet bench.

When she emailed him that morning asking him to see her at the gallery where they had first met, he called back immediately. She told him nothing, only to meet her at six pm, knowing he would have left work by then.

Now, she waited.

Waited.

Shoes shuffled along the slick, waxed, wooden floors, sounding louder than they really were. Whispers. Breaths. Beats of the heart, even—they all sounded louder now.

A different sound broke her mindless inner chatter. His weight creaked the seat.

“Hi Anne.”

“Hey, Glenn. How’re you doing?”

“Not bad. Can’t complain.”

They both looked ahead, not wanting to look at one another. She couldn’t help but glance at his wedding finger. No replacement, not yet, she thought.

“You must be wondering if I’ve lost my marbles?” she began.

The last time they saw one another, they were hovering over the grave of their only child.

Ten years ago, Glenn turned his head for a moment at their favourite fishing lake and six year old Max slipped into the water. It was never explained how he fell in. It happened in the blink of an eye. The investigators had ruled his death accidental and the reeds had trapped Max underwater, long enough to swell his lungs with water, and take his life.

The couple hadn’t spoken since. He just packed his bags and went, too ashamed of what he’d done to her.

“Thought had crossed my mind,” Glenn said, wiping his index finger under his nose. Outside it was a rain-soaked November day.

“I need to tell you something,” she explained, her voice changing so he knew it was serious.

Glenn turned his head and feeling his gaze on her, she turned to look at him. He still had brilliant green eyes. The colour of magic, almost.

She reached for her nerve and swallowed. “I’m dying.”

He sat for a moment, numb, unresponsive. As it began to sink in, he replied, “You’re sick?”

“Yep. I have been for three years. I had treatment after treatment. Nothing’s worked.”

She caught him trying to catch a look at her ring finger, too, but she was wearing leather gloves. All her beauty had gone, slipped away. She was wearing a wig and her bones were empty, her soul drained, her sight not what it once was.

“How long?” he asked, his voice shallow. For a man not yet fifty, he looked ancient in that moment.

“Few weeks. They tried to put me in respite but I refused. I want to die at home, with my things, and my dignity intact. I’ll do what needs to be done before they make me a sad case.”

He gazed at the photograph on the wall in front of them. A girl in a blue dress could be seen stepping into a forest through one mirror, and stepping out of a beach scene through another. He wondered why she had chosen to seat herself in front of this picture. Out of all the images in the place, she chose this one.

Quickly he realised she hadn’t changed much—the woman feeling everything, still denying all who tried to show they cared.

“I’m sorry, of course. I don’t know what I can do, however? We’ve been apart for so long now.”

She took a deep breath and her weak, empty lungs strained against the gallery’s air-con.

“My book royalties…” She twisted at her coat material with her gloves and tried to find the courage to say the rest. “…there’s nobody else I want to give them to. My mum and dad are dead, my child died, my friends all hate me and abandoned me long ago. I wanted to tell you that they will come to you. It’s been arranged already. It’s done. I just wanted you to know, in person. I wanted to ask you to accept them with my absolute and utter blessing. There is nobody else I can think of who deserves them.”

His eyes squeezed tight shut and he couldn’t take it. His lungs collapsed, like hers were, from drawing on that cigarette she loved just a little more than her body could take. She gave up smoking for him, and for their child, but when they were gone the white stick was her only friend, only companion. Now, it had killed her.

He bent forward, head in his hands. He never anticipated this. Never. She’d not forgotten him, either. He started shaking and didn’t know when it would stop. Years of hidden, buried pain flooded his eyes and dripped, snaking down the sides of his face to the floor.

Glenn got himself together and his natural reaction was to reach for her, take her in his arms and pull her tight into his embrace. The rush of emotions was exquisite, the sting of regret a full-body ache, swamping him from head to toe. He’d loved her so much.

His lips began tracing the beauty of her face, along her jaw line, across her emaciated cheekbones and finally, to her lips. His tongue touched hers, one final time.

Forgiveness.

Nothing ever forgotten.

“It’s the same girl, the same one. Wherever you put her, she’s still the same person,” she explained, gesturing at the photo, and he nodded, “but that’s bullshit.”

“I always loved that about you.” Her ability to be real, to see the grit in a fairytale, even.

They had their overdue goodbye, their full stop. Underscore.

They gave her six months to live. She’d hung on for three years.

“Glenn, I’m sorry.”

There, in his arms, she took her last, lingering, most life-affirming breath.

***

It may interest you to know that in the writing of this story, I was influenced by real life tragedies which have happened to people in my life. Please donate what you can to Cancer Charities whenever you get chance. xx

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