Romance Fiction posted September 9, 2016


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Fate Keeps Score.

Romancing Mr. Bryce

by Jay Squires


Only the upper part of his broad, pale forehead and his full head of white hair rested outside the sheet. Now, with the click of the door, one bushy brow emerged along with an inquisitive silver-blue eye that flickered like mica when he saw her. Then brow and eye dove again, down below with his smile.

“Mr. Bryce is playin’ hide-n-seek from Millie.”

Her voice prickled him, made his body tingle under the sheet where he would keep his smile from her a while longer.

“Millicent,” he corrected, feeling his breath come back hot. Why did she …? He blinked under the sheet; felt a tightening around his chest.

“You win. Millicent, then.”

That was it! What I meant. Why’d she say Millie?

“Oh, I’m going to miss you, Mr. Bryce.”

Miss me? Her voice moved, came now from the right side of his bed. He dragged the sheet midway down the bridge of his nose, and turned only his eyes toward it.

“Shoot! I shouldn’t have said that.” She flattened her palm on her one-piece, white smock, just above her breasts. Her forearm pressed one of them down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bryce—”

“Wal-ter.”

“Walter. I shouldn’t have. It’s important you have a good day. Any minute now, Mrs. Bryce will be here.”

He tightened his eye muscles at her and huffed. “Don’t know …”

She waited a reasonable time, then she said, “You don’t recognize her? I know, dear. But today you might.”

Dear. She called me. He brought the sheet down to his shoulders and turned his head to her. “Miss me?” he squeezed out. Flat. Exhausted. Defeated. He meant to shout it out as a question. Instead, it came out spent. Weak.

“Truth is, I will. I was wrong to tell you. Like that. But I will miss you … Walter. Of all the residents, it’s you I’ll miss most. Even on your bad days, the light’s never off behind those eyes of yours. It sounds silly, but sometimes when I’m talking to you, I forget you’re sixty-eight. You know? I take care of residents here younger than you.” She counted them by touching her fingertips. “Two, three, four—and one is under fifty. But in all fairness, he had a stroke. Still and all, the lights are out. But not you … even on a bad day, you know, when you have, well, some trouble stringing words together, your mind’s flashing a hundred bright colored lights behind your eyes.” She tittered and put her hand over her mouth. “I swear, Walter, sometimes, even on a bad day, I-I blush on account of the way you look at me."

She stood at the side of his bed, waiting. As they all waited. Faces questioning. Eyes flitting to his eyes or his mouth. Waiting. Expectant. Like that … tennis. The ball bouncing toward him … while there tumbled inside his head swirling half-thoughts, fiery, undefined angers and such bleak, frightened emptiness. He … he couldn’t, he dared not. No, he couldn’t tell her; he needed to show her. Withdrawing his arm from beneath the sheet—it was like someone else’s arm, rather, and he was an observer—he watched it reach out and rest its hand on her waist. She needs to know. His pinky finger rested on the ridge of her hip. Recognition came first to her eyes and her arching brows. No, Millicent, don’t. Why? He felt it through his palm the instant she made the decision to jerk away from him, and he tightened his grip against it.

“Ouch! You pinched me, Walter.” She stood there a moment longer, outside his reach, and just stared at his hand dangling off the mattress. They both heard and turned their stunned attention to the rapping on the door. “I’ll be back when she leaves,” Millicent said, her words clipped and hoarse. She took quick steps to the door. Massaging her waist with her fingertips, she turned back and gave him a weary look, like she would a puppy who’d been naughty.

It wounded him. He’d preferred she’d screamed at him, or slapped him, even—but that look. He flipped to his side and pulled the sheet back over his head.
#

He heard her, where Millicent had stood, but lower. The woman was sitting, then. She kept going on, but his thoughts were on the bruise he left on Millicent’s waist. He could never hurt her. Not on purpose. He needed to remember to tell her that. So hard sometimes. I couldn’t hurt you. I couldn’t hurt you. Over and over, so when she came back in … I couldn’t hurt you. I couldn’t hurt you.

“Can’t you at least come out from under that sheet, Walter? I mean, do you know how that makes me feel? Don’t you even care? Walter?”

She stopped. I could never hurt you, Millicent. Now she was making wet sounds, little slurps of air.

“What’s the use? What’s the damn use of it all? If I wanted to talk to the sheets, I’d plan my visits at two a.m.” Another quiet spell, and then, “Is that it, then—I put you to sleep?”

More strange sounds—crying sounds? Is that what she’s—? I could never … Millicent, I couldn’t … He shuddered at a light pressure on his sheet-covered shoulder. He’d have drawn away, but she started rocking his shoulder back and forth. Then the gray twilight gave way to sudden glare as the sheet yanked away from him, and he was left staring at a face; mouth gnarled in surprise and guilt, like she’d just been caught committing a crime. He showed a row of teeth to her. And the act of his doing that puzzled him.

“Well … well,” she stammered, “at least it got a smile out of you.” Her eye sockets were pasty and wet, and her hazel irises glistened. “I’ve missed that smile, Walter.” The ball cleared the net, took a hop …. She waited.

He took in a noisy breath and fluffed up the pillow.

Her eyes were trained in, watching his mouth. “That smile.” She looked to the ceiling, the corners of her mouth twitching, eyes blinking. “Thirty-seven years ago, last June, I stood at the window and watched you turn the corner and race down our block. I’d called the office and told you the pains were two minutes apart. When you pulled in the driveway, you had the biggest grin.” She laughed. It was warm and full of the joy of remembering, and he felt a sharp stab at the base of his throat that would have turned to a cry if he didn’t swallow it back. He wanted so much to remember. It was one more page of his life randomly ripped out, crumpled up, flushed … flushed … he’d heard the story so many times he could almost adopt her memory of it as his own. Pages. So many pages. Toilet. Yes, that was it … like they were flushed down the toilet.

“Sor-ry,” he managed, and he meant it, but it sounded flat to his ears. There were times when her words gave him a certain … sense … of … being part of … something. He could never be sure, though, whether what he felt was his memory trying to poke through, or if it was her memory she was pressing on him.

“Why don’t you try?” she begged, and at once apologized with a horrified expression. “I know you are … but, but he’s thirty-seven years old now.”

“That one …?”

She nodded when she realized he wouldn’t finish. “… that came in, yes. And turned around and left after you kept asking, ‘Doctor? Are you the doctor?’”

I couldn’t, Millicent … I couldn’t hurt you.

“Jacob. That’s his name, Walter. It doesn’t ring …?”

He watched, curiously, her jaw’s tiny spasms. No place to hide.

“Walter?” She glanced over at the door, then squared her chair to better face him. She leaned in so close her chin nearly touched the mattress. “Walter, today’s my birthday.”

She waited for him to say something. It was important to her that he say something, he knew.

After a moment, she inclined her head to the door again and turned back. “And three years. To the day. From when I left you.”

That struck him as funny, and he put words to it, though he knew he shouldn’t. “Because I … didn’t … remember?”

His words stunned her. She pulled back from the bed, sat up straight, her eyes gleaming like the sidewalk after a rain. “My birthday, you mean? That’s funny. I’ll have to mention that to the doctors. It’s a kind of small victory.” She chuckled and then, while she was quiet a moment, he thought again she would cry.

I couldn’t hurt you, Millicent.

“The doctors would have a conniption if they knew what I’m going to say.” She lowered her voice. “‘Always keep it upbeat,’ they warn. ‘Don’t ever say anything that’ll bring him down.’ Well, I’ve been doing that, Walter—trying to do that. They want me to gently nudge a memory out of you. But … but meanwhile I’m just—” She stopped and her eyes filled “—being eaten up by—by guilt.” She grabbed the bunched-up fingers of one hand with the other and kneaded them like a cow’s udder. Then she looked down at her hands and stopped doing it. “You don’t remember,” she said, already shaking her head, “my words when I walked out, do you? Three years ago?”

He tried—he really tried to remember. It meant a lot to this woman, at times sitting so close to him he breathed in the smell of spearmint from a dissolved lifesaver—this woman who was familiar to him only through the accumulation of her visits. He was desperate to remember. “No,” he muttered, shaking his head.

Tears sprang once more to her eyes. “I said—” and two gasps escaped her, one on the tail of the other as she put her hand on her throat. “What I said … I told you that you weren’t the man I married, Walter. I-I-I said, ‘I don’t know you anymore.’”

“Did I …?”

Again, she waited. “Nothing. You said nothing. I think—no, I can tell you truly, I only wanted you to stop me. But you didn’t. You didn’t.” She clamped her mouth shut and blew a stream of air through her nose and stared at him without blinking until the tears slipped over the lower rims and down her cheeks. She looked very old, tired. Worn out. She wanted to tell him more. He sensed that. But she was having a hard time starting. “What I never, never ever, said to you was that I didn’t love you.”

“Did—you?” he said in a very small voice.

“I just needed to be cherished, Walter. Cherished. Now it all seems so ironic. I said to you, ‘I don’t know you anymore.’ But I did. I mean, I still had the memories.” She smiled through her tears. “Those precious memories of us with the kids at Disneyland. Every one of our Christmases together. Birthdays …” She smiled, remembering. “Oh, the P.T.A. meetings I dragged you to. The school concerts. The flutophones! Remem—?” The smile faded with a shake of her head and a deep breath. “Thousands on thousands of memories. No, I knew you, Walter. I always did know you. And … and when we were in our first year of marriage … when we didn’t have two pennies to rub together; somehow, somehow, I managed to surprise you when we drove to the mall and I bought you an ounce of your favorite pipe tobacco ….”

“Chocolate,” he heard, without realizing it had come from his own throat. He puzzled over it, but not long, for just then he felt the weight of her pressed down on his shoulder, pushing him onto his back, and the spearmint breath of her planting her red lips on his mouth.

She pulled back, crimson to the roots of her hair, and grinned down at him. “You do! You remember the tobacco I bought you.”

“Chocolate. The smoke.” He took a long breath through his nose, recaptured it. “Chocolate.”

 
#

“It’s not like I don’t deserve it. I mean, I suppose I do deserve it or they wouldn’t be giving me notice, you know? What’s a twenty-seven year-old single mother to do? Tell me that. Sure, there’s unemployment insurance. But I can’t live off that.”

“Wh-why?”

“Why? Oh, for firing me? People talking. Rumors starting. I think I know. They said if I pressed them to tell me, they’d be forced to terminate me immediately.”

His mind formed an image of her with her hands in the money drawer. Rejected it. Slipping an old lady’s bracelet into her pocket? No. Not Millicent.

“Me and my little girl, we’ll make it. We always do. We’re tough.”

When she'd entered earlier, she helped him sit up in bed, punched life into the pillows and slipped them behind him for support. He kept his eyes on her as she made her way around the room, talking as she bent to pluck by its edge a used tissue that must have fallen from the other woman’s pocket. Her calves and the backs of her thighs the hiked-up smock revealed were tanned and muscular. She deposited the tissue in the waste basket by the door and returned, giving him a little smile while tugging down either side of her smock where it had puckered on her hips. She was trying to read his reaction.

She knew I’d watched. He smiled, and then his gaze slipped from her face to her tummy.

She stopped at the foot of the bed, tilted her head and squinted as she seemed to regard his smile—that, or she’d followed his eyes to her tummy. Then, as though it made no difference, she rounded the bed and stood beside him. “Walter had a good day after all?”

“En-joying it ...”

“Oh, you are, are you?” She gave him a tightlipped smile. “You dirty old man.”

He felt the band tighten around his chest. He could cry.

“Now, you know I’m kidding.” Her face blanched. “Honestly. That wasn’t the pinch of an old man. I’ll tell you that.”

He’d forgotten! Oh Millicent. I could never

“I checked it out in the little girls’ room just before I came back in. A nice little thumb-shaped bruise.”

For as long as she stared at him, he figured his face was stricken.

“You don’t believe me, Mister?” She took a look over her shoulder at the door. “If I show you, will you say you’re sorry?”

She didn’t wait for his answer. Keeping her smiling eyes on his face the whole while, she grasped the hem of the left side of her smock and worked it up her leg, past her knee to mid-thigh, then slowed for a moment while she glanced back at the door; continuing to gather more and more of her smock in her hand, she worked it up to the lavender bottom line of her panties and continued up past the three-inch strip covering her hip. Here, she lifted that side of her smock up high enough above her panties that he found himself following, instead, the gentle descent down to the darker lavender patch of her crotch. He felt a warm stirring in his stomach.

“The bruise is up here, Mister.”

Her voice rattled his concentration.

Above the hipbone a purpling bruise, indeed thumb-shaped, looked oddly out-of-place against her creamy-white waist. She let the folds of her smock fall to the floor, gave the wrinkles a shake and trained her eyes back on him.

“Well, what do you have to say about that, Walter?”

“I’m—I … am sorry.”

“Will you forget about it tomorrow, you naughty boy?”

His mind delivered a funny thought. “I hope … not.”

“I hope not, too. I don’t want you to forget me, Walter. I don’t know why ….” She flattened her hand just under her neck and started patting. Her mouth twisted, and then her eyelashes started fluttering until they squeegeed out two wet mascara trails to her nose.

“Are you—?”

She waved off his truncated sentence, sniffed and finished. “Not pretty,” she mumbled. From her pocket she withdrew a handkerchief, daubed her eyes, then wiped away the mascara trail.

He needed somehow to fill the silence that followed. “Can you …?”

“I was going to ask you to let me give you a goodbye kiss, Walter.”

The other kiss. It hung like a bulb, flickering from a frayed electrical cord, shimmered briefly, then slipped, with the familiar weight of her, into a very personal darkness. How long had he been staring at Millicent but thinking of the other kiss?

“Oh, I am gonna miss you, Walter.” She produced a smile. The lashes of one eye dipped, then sprang back.

Just by turning his mind to it, he could smell the chocolaty smoke. He did it now. Then without trying, the pressure of her lips on his comingled with the chocolaty smoke, and he smiled.

Millicent leaned into him, cradled his head in her hands, and gently pulled him toward her. She brought her mouth down, brushed her lips against his forehead, then after a moment, pressed them there. Then she pulled back.

“Your woman loves you, Walter,” she said.  She removed the handkerchief from her smock pocket. Refolding it until she found a clean surface, she swiped it across his lips, then held it out with a grin, for him to observe the red smear. “Walter had a good day … a two-kiss day.” She touched his forehead with her fingertips and turned to leave. At the foot of the bed she turned back to him, put her hands on the rail. “Even though you don’t remember her …” She stopped, but her mouth seemed to form some more words, and she continued, “just let her maybe … loan you her memories. Though it may seem like a stranger sitting next to your bed … cherish her, Walter.”

“What? What?”

Her repeated words drifted over her shoulder, and “cherish her” resonated like a mantra well into the night until, at last, sleep shepherded it in to repose with other fragments of the day’s memories.
 

 


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It's a little long, but Confusion say: "Short love sucks." Thank you Liilia for allowing me the use of "Relic."
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