Second chances come in unexpected guises. (Beyond the Water's Edge flash fiction entry)
|The vacuum echoed loudly throughout the house. Dust bunnies seemed to come out of hiding at the sound of his footsteps. Spring cleaning time again. Foolish, sentimental woman that she was, she couldn’t bear to leave without making the house sparkle one last time. Lord knows he couldn’t be bothered, especially without her around.|
She was leaving. He could hardly believe. All these years of loving and laughing and now she got it into her head that he was having an affair. I’m fifty-seven years old, he thought, and look at least sixty. How on earth could she think a twenty-year old girl would even look in my direction, much less get naked with me? He sighed again.
Lilac, the ‘no-good hussy’, needed a father figure. He was a guidance counselor. It wasn’t anything more than that, not even Margaret could believe that. But ever since she started taking those hormone pills, Marge had been all over the map. Not that he would ever be stupid enough to say so. He had clung to the hope that this would all boil over. Then there was the day she came back from the salon with that ridiculous haircut and too-tight clothes. Now, he would be the first to admit she was a beautiful woman, far too beautiful for the likes of him. But trussed up like a teenager she looked a damn fool.
He hadn’t meant to make her cry. It was the shock of her ensemble which made him tactless. That’s when she first started making noise about leaving. He didn’t understand it. She accused him of caring more about his work than his wife, when anyone with two eyes in their head could see he loved her more than life. I’m not the most expressive man, but goddamn it, one would think thirty-two years of marriage counted for something. He sighed again. Obviously, it didn’t, not to judge by the mess he’d made.
The burning smell brought him back. He had burned the eggs. Here he was, hoping to convince Marge he could learn to pay attention and he burned the damned eggs. He swore softly to himself. Sliding the entire mess into the trashcan, he went looking for the air-freshener. Now the kitchen will smell of tulips and sulfur, he thought, laughing mirthlessly.
The sudden quiet in the house told him she was finished vacuuming upstairs. Her last self-appointed task.
One hour, she had said. You have one hour to convince me to stay. It was such a ridiculous statement, how could he have known she was serious? His hour came and went. Next day, she came home, umbrella dripping on the freshly sanded floor, with two suitcases in hand. Help me pack Robert, she demanded. He refused. There was no way on God’s green earth he was going to lift a finger to help her leave him. Honestly, he was shocked she had the nerve to ask. But then again, he didn’t need to say the things he'd said.
That was a week ago. She hadn’t spoken to him since. Amazing, really, when you consider they were still sleeping in the same bed. Somehow Marge managed it. A woman of indomitable will, she was. The silence felt ominous now. Despite his vow, he trudged upstairs to check on her, maybe even lend a hand if she was so all fired up about leaving. He knew he'd handled the situation in a bad way. Given half a chance and a time machine… but hell, there are no second chances.
‘Marge?’ he called, not wanting to scare her if she had fallen asleep. ‘Sweetheart, you alright?’ Poking his head into the bedroom gingerly (he still had a lump on his shoulder from the figurine she had lobbed at his head two days ago, only his reflexes preventing him from being brained), he stopped suddenly. There she was on the floor, scissors in hand, having cut to shreds the pastel blue suit she wore at their wedding. ‘Woman, have you lost your mind? Put those scissors down!’ But it wasn’t the sight of the dress that brought him short. It was the hopelessness he saw in her eyes. Something was very wrong with Marge. He didn’t know what to do.
Kneeling beside her, he managed to pry the scissors from her grasp. ‘Sweetheart, what’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong.’ She broke then, crying great heaving sobs that would have embarrassed her at any other time. He held out his arms and she came willingly into the embrace, whispering something inaudible against his shoulder. Moving her slightly so they were face to face, he asked her again, with more urgency, what was wrong.
‘I’m dying, Robert. I have cancer. It’s inoperable. They told me I have eighteen months, two years at most.’ And that suddenly, his world collapsed around him. If he could he would cry but that would help no one. She was the healthy one, with her three square meals, vegetables, yoga, Pilates. If one of them had to die, why couldn’t it be me, he thought. Because I am not strong enough to live without this woman.
Then he looked at her. To him, she was as beautiful now as she was at seventeen. He understood that in her own way, Marge had been trying to shield him. By pushing him away now, before the end came, she thought to spare him hurt. How typical. Silly woman. It made him smile regardless. ‘I love you Margaret Allison Jones. You made me a promise when we got married. I intend to make you keep it. For better or worse, we said. Well, seems to me like this here is the worse.’
That got her back up, as he knew it would, bringing color back to her cheeks and a dash of mischief to her eyes. ‘Oh, and just how do you plan on doing that, old man?’
‘First, by getting off this floor. These bones were meant for sitting in chairs not floors.’ He got up, slowly of course because of that damn arthritis, and held his hand out to lift her. Laughing, she got to her feet, sprightly as ever, and kissed him with smiling lips. The sick feeling he’d been carrying in his gut disappeared, replaced by resolve. How ever long she had, he meant to spend the rest of her days making sure she knew how much he loved her. Sometimes, you do get second chances, he thought, and set about kissing her in earnest.