Sarah left early, taking her stepson Jacob to see his mother for perhaps the last time.
Upon awakening, John found his wife and son already gone, too late to rescind his permission from the night before. He was upset, not at her, but at himself. John knew how exaggerated his reaction to casual contact with Anne was, yet he remained afraid of his ex-wife’s illness.
He prepared for work, swearing as he cut himself shaving in haste. The front door slammed behind him and the windows vibrated, but there was no one to witness his wrath, save the blackbirds flying off in raucous chorus.
John wanted to scream but felt afraid he wouldn’t stop. He turned the corner to the newsstand. Force of habit.
A byline about Liz Taylor’s celebrity fundraiser for AIDS caught his eye.
He leaned down to view the newspaper and vented. “Go get another facelift, you old bitch. Get married again. Mind your own bloody business.” The anger was misplaced, but he felt a modicum of relief.
It didn’t assuage his guilt as that endured, long-standing. He instigated the affair with Sarah when he and Anne were still married but drifting apart, and left even after he knew his wife was unwell, though without knowing how ill she would become. Would he have stayed if he’d known?
Culpability hadn’t caused a change in his choleric behaviour, but it gnawed at his integrity causing outbursts like the one today at the retailer’s franchise. John knew he owed Anne more, much, much, more. She didn’t deserve him treating her as a pariah.
“It’s probably better Sarah left early.” His voice boomed as if talking to someone a distance away, and he purposefully bumped the side of his shoe against the kiosk when he passed by it.
The vendor at the concession shook his head. “Wing-nut.”
John’s ears echoed a beat, drum. . .drum. . .drum, constantly reverberating and increasing to a violent crescendo. The sidewalk traffic opened up to swallow his heavy footsteps, but John’s emotions travelled a path of their own.
All he could think of was the spiral of life from entry to exit. Death, the frightening final departure unsettled him. The last exodus.
Anne sat on the crumbling steps of the decrepit old relic, now called home.
Her skeletal hands reached out to cup crimson, heart-shaped flowers on the plants crowding the walkway. Planted when she first moved to this house, her own heart bleeding with the loss of a husband and son.
She forfeited the spouse the first moment she gave him the news. He now withheld her son, deeming her too sick. Too scary.
The law school tuition she paid for her husband, working two nursing jobs, allowed him to have the upper hand.
During their marriage, John worked hard to become a partner in his firm. At that time Anne only wanted a partner—now she desperately sought her son.
Hoping to see Jacob before they chiseled her name in stone, Anne was contesting John in a battle for part-time custody, but she didn’t have much fight left in her.
Amazing how one little prick could cause so much agony
Anne had picked up the plastic bottle of wasted syringes at the clinic where she worked. A needle speared through the bottle and into the pad of her thumb.
“My God! Anne!” said Jane, the nurse on shift with her, who cleaned and bandaged Anne’s hand.
If they’d known whose needle it was, they could have tested that person for AIDS. Unfortunately, patients diagnosed with the syndrome attended the clinic.
That anonymity meant she and John must practice safe sex. He played it safe, no sex, not with her anyway.
Not long after they separated, he married Sarah. It was when Anne became quite ill, first diagnosed HIV, then full-blown AIDS, that he refused to let Jacob see her. Anne didn’t blame Sarah. It wasn’t the new wife’s fault, for if anything, she was on Anne’s side. Besides, Anne had no energy to spare.
The phone rang, and the cat jumped out of Anne’s way. Even he sensed the frailty there.
“Oh, Sam,” she said, looking fondly at her companion, an orange tabby.
Slowly, she opened the screen door with weak willing hands, chanting her phone prayer.
“Please don’t stop ringing. Please. Please. Please.”
She got to the phone in time and smiled, hearing Jane’s voice. “Hi. . . .Out on the front porch, and it takes me a little longer to get around. . . .A surprise?. . .Look forward to seeing you. . . .Bye.”
Jane, a treasured and faithful friend, kept Anne abreast of transformations in nursing and helped her with groceries, bathing, cleaning, but most of all, company. Dying was a lonely occupation.
After Anne read the article that Jane provided, she’d suffered from a melancholy regret. The editorial was about new drugs still in the testing stage for AIDS to go with the band-aid. And safer containers for used needles to reduce the number of casualties. These improved prophylactic practices were too late for her. Still, the humanitarian in the once nurturing nurse was happy for the changes that brought new hope for those affected and those working in the field.
Anne started to the kitchen to get the tea sorted but detoured to curl up on the couch, Sam purring at her feet. Just for a few moments, she told herself.
A scarf tied loosely around her head hid the patches of missing hair but not the bony outline of her scalp. Her cheeks were hollow below the sunken sockets, but her eyes still shone. She closed them and dozed—a few minutes of reprieve.
Jane arrived, walking in without knocking. “Hello.”
Anne startled on the couch, roused up. “I’m in here, caught me snoozing.”
Jane set a strawberry shortcake on the coffee table.
“What a large cake.”
“I’ve brought some big eaters with me.”
Jacob and Sarah appeared. Sarah mouthed, “Surprise.”
“Does he know?” Anne asked.
Sarah nodded while Jacob ran and flung himself into his mother’s embrace. Tears ran down her gaunt cheeks. When he gave her pictures he’d made in third grade, Anne smiled the kind of smile that sings out from the soul and lights up a room. So frail, and her skin translucent, this delicate woman was a Chinese lantern, a fragile beauty.
Trembling, she said, “How lovely. You’re a better artist than Mommy. You’ve grown.”
“Taller than anyone in my class.”
My God! Will, I see him any taller?
“Are you going to die, Mommy?”
How quickly children cut to the chase. “Someday.”
“No, not today. We’ll eat strawberry shortcake today.”
Jacob seemed satisfied with this. “Yeah!”
They ate cake and Jacob told them about school. Quickly the time passed, certainly compared to Anne’s lonesome days. Soon Sarah and Jacob were standing on the decaying front step. Sarah commented on the beautiful bleeding-heart flowers.
“You must take one,” Anne told her. “Jane, in the shed is a shovel and a bushel barrel, would you mind?”
“Heck, Miss Daisy, not at all,” Jane laughed.
Anne stuck out her tongue in answer.
They all laughed as Jacob wagged his finger at Anne, and her eyebrows arched.
Jacob started to dig into the ground with the spade. Anne stooped over, then rested on her haunches, and finally knelt to steady herself, showing him where to position the shovel— score the earth and divide the plant.
Sarah snapped a picture with the camera she’d brought for just that purpose. Anne appeared too ghastly to photograph earlier, definitely not a memento Jacob would want. But bent down and slightly turned away with her scarf on, she almost looked like the old Anne.
“Oh, for crying out loud, Sarah, be sure to destroy that picture,” Anne hollered.
“I promise. If it’s no good.” She made ripping motions. “We’ll be back.”
My one-time adversary now my champion, the delicate intricacies of life.
She tipped her head toward Sarah. “Thank you so very much.”
Anne bent down and hugged her son goodbye, her back and heart ached, but a gentle lightness touched her spirit with newfound strength.
John was making dinner when Sarah and Jacob returned home. He nodded quietly. Jacob spoke, his voice ringing out happily, “I saw Mommy today, and she gave us a flower to plant.” He hopped up on a chair at the kitchen table. “Now we got some of her heart flowers. They grow big.” He held his arms out in a circle showing how big. “Big, big hearts.”
John backed away from the stove with lips pursed, and head slumped. His hands covered his face. How could he deny his child the final bit of love his mother had to give?
What kind of man am I?
Sarah moved in behind him. “I’ll finish supper. You two go transplant that bleeding-heart flower.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “You need to see her, closure for you both. Sooner rather than later.” He didn’t say a thing but turned and took her in his arms.
John put his hands over Jacob’s on the shovel, both bowed in devotion to the mission, as in prayer. John, because of the tears brimming in his eyes and the boy’s curly halo, couldn’t see Jacob’s smile. But he felt his son’s joy as tiny hands danced on the shovel handle.
What kind of a man am I?
Anne awoke later that night on the couch with Sam cuddled beside her. She wondered if she dreamed of the visit until she noticed one of Jacob’s pictures. To her lips, she lifted the crayon picture and glossed it along with her kisses.
The colours and textures brought him to her. The whole thing smelled of him. She set it down before her tears stained the paper. She wanted to leave him something of herself.
Sarah and her camera came to mind. Anne thought of doing a rendition of the picture snapped today. No need to see the image to do that. She’d paint it on canvas with watercolours as a keepsake for Jacob. Having weak spells interfered with her painting, but she vowed to complete this portrait and prayed for the time.
Anne pulled out her easel from the side of the room, slowly, sitting once to rest. After a short break, she started with her watercolours to reproduce her version of their day’s activities.
She stopped to consult old photos, and her life spilled out of the pages of the album. With fingers tracing the family pictures, her tears splashed on the plastic page protectors. Pausing a moment, she wiped them off with her shirt sleeve and closed the book, as she knew Jacob’s face by heart. She would use brush strokes to slightly obscure hers.
If what Sarah said came true, Anne would see her son again. She felt life sprouting in her once more—a grateful glide capable of sustaining to the end. It was at least a hope where none had bloomed before.
In her painting, she let the sun cause filtered shadows, Jacob’s face shone in shades of dark and light, and hers almost faded out. Only the colour of the hearts stayed true, waning from vermilion to pale pink.
Jacob shimmered out bright and brilliant from the canvas. Herself almost genuflected, face slightly obscured, showing him how to transplant a heart, where to dig the first furrow.
The picture was shaping up. It pleased the artist and mother in her. Anne touched some water to the canvas, then the tip of her brush with the paint. The colours bled together, joining the hearts in one continuous cascade.
Exhausted but satisfied with her work thus far, she settled onto the couch to rest, dragging the afghan over her tired body with an enormous effort. The visit and the exertion of painting had drained her weak resources. Sam stayed as sentinel purring in the crook of her legs.
A satisfying sensation of contentment flooded over Anne, something unknown to her for many months. “Jacob, my dear sweet boy.” She drifted into a gentle, deep and dreamless sleep.
Something flitted across her cheek, and her eyes fluttered open. Sunlight filtered through the curtains into the room, surprising her with the fact she had slept all night. She reached up and touched a hand so familiar it could be her own. Jacob smiled down at her. She beamed, knowing this was no dream. More light emanated from across the room, causing her to glance in that direction. There John stood, silhouetted in the open door frame.
Mary Daurio is a grandmother who likes to fiddle with words when she isn’t playing her flute or walking the dog. She likes to spend time with friends and family. Presently she is working on a short story compilation about her experiences as a Standardbred racehorse driver.
Her work has appeared in The Fonthill Voice, Grey Borders Magazine, Friday Flash Fiction https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/join-me-by-mary-daurio, Cafelit https://cafelitcreativecafe.blogspot.com/search?q=Don%27t+flatter+yourself , and on Medium. This is her first feature on The Fictional Café.