by D. Thorsson
A man gets to spend a few extra hours with his wife, thanks to a few special friends.
Butterflies and Goodbyes
Dave Price awoke to a ringing. He rose from the sofa and glanced at the clock over the mantle. 2:23 am. He ran to the bedroom: no Debbie. His bowels turned to ice as he answered the phone.
Doctor Barker's face was grim. With nearly thirty-five years of experience it's never gotten easy. “Mr Price,” he said, “I'm afraid there's no change. The EEG indicates her brain is functioning, but not on a conscious level. Basically she's stuck in a dream state and can't get a link to her higher functions. We can't say for sure if the nerves are damaged or if something is simply blocking the electrical impulses. Either way the result seems to be the same.”
Dave wiped fresh tears away. He gestured to the respirator and heart pump and said, “What about her body? Will she regain those functions?”
The doctor said, “That's what I want to talk with you about. It's been eight days since the accident. She's not getting any better. In fact, she may be worsening.”
“What could be worse than this?”
Doctor Barker looked from Dave to John and Erin Paulson, Debbie's parents. “Her body is shutting itself down,” he said.
John Paulson's voice broke as he inquired about the machines.
The doctor sighed. Now came the part he dreaded. “Technology can never substitute for biology. At best it is a very crude imitation. These computers are pumping Debbie's heart and squeezing her lungs, but in the end it's all up to her. David, Mr and Mrs Paulson, Debbie is dying. I think you need to take some time with her and say goodbye.”
Dave was aware they had all spoken with the doctor for some time after that, but he had no idea what was said. He had an impression that mention was made about turning off the life support, but Debbie's father wasn't ready to go that far yet.
David wandered, aimless, yet he seemed to always arrive at some place or another that brought him memories. He found himself sitting at the pond in Pioneer Park and watching the children play, listening to their tinkling laughter. He found himself smiling. This is where his life began.
“Are you excited about your new school, Davie?”
“I don't wanna go to a new school, Mom,” I said. “Why couldn't we stay in Preston?”
Mom sighed and choked back a sob. I felt bad. Even a seven year-old knows when he's pushed his mother's buttons too many times. “You know why, Dave,” she said. “I had to look for a new job and Blue Haven is where I found one.” She sat on a bench and hugged me. “I know it's hard on you, Baby. We left all your friends fifteen hundred miles away, and you're afraid you'll forget them, but you won't, and you'll make new ones. You're good at that. Just like Daddy was.
Mom shooed me off to the playground where I played – by myself. I was bored, but Mom was talking to another lady and wouldn't want to leave yet.
I saw some children tossing bread crusts to the ducks and geese in the pond and nonchalantly walked over to watch.I felt a shy tap on my shoulder. “You can feed some too,” a girl said as she thrust a small bag of bread at me. I jumped and felt myself falling toward the water. She lunged toward me and grabbed my shirt.
We spent the rest of the afternoon playing together chasing geese, joining a pickup game of “tag”, and defending the playground from rogue pirates and alien invasions.
Too soon I heard those words that strike dread into the heart of every small child, “David, It's time to go home now.”
“Who's that little girl you were playing with?” Mom asked.
I grinned. “Her name is Debbie Paulson, and I'm gonna marry her!”
David stepped into Blues Haven and was immediately greeted by its owner Rosalind Dumar. He let her guide him to an empty table in the corner. Everyone he passed touched him with a sympathetic hand, but nothing was said, nor was it needed to be.
Rose sat across from him and held his hand. “I'm terribly sorry about Debbie,” she said. “I wish I could say you'll get over it, but that's a lie you'll get tired of hearing." She smiled,"I remember your first date. Her outfit was terrific. So much like myself at that age. I fell in love then and there. ”
Dave smiled back. “So did I. She was stunned when you put her picture on the wall.”
I stopped my mom's Jeep in front of Debbie's house and let out a fearful sigh. “Well, here I go,” I told myself. I was fifteen and had just gotten my learner's permit. Mom thought it was time for Debbie and I to have our first date. Did everyone know except us?
Debbie wore a spaghetti-strap black top adorned with midnight-blue butterflies and a black skirt with blue sequined butterflies. Her matching hat had needed some quick repairs (she'd had a baby-sitting accident involving a nap, a small niece, and a pair of scissors) while a pair of black gloves completed the effect. She looked just like flapper from the 1920s. She laughed at my dumb-struck expression, linked her arm in my own and led the way to the car.
The blond angel next to me squealed in delight when I pulled into the Blues Haven parking lot. I wanted it to be special so I brought Debbie here on a night when they would have live music.
An attractive woman approached us and extended her thin hand. “Welcome to Blues Haven,” she said. “My name is Rosalind Dumar, owner and manager. I have just the table for such a fine-looking couple.” She escorted us to a corner decorated in '20s style, including several photos of flappers and silent film stars.
Neither of us were very familiar with jazz, but the band was very good and soon we were bobbing our heads and tapping our feet. My head was buzzing with Debbie's laughter.
Miss Dumar said something to he singer and the band started a slow number. Now was the moment I had been practicing for twice a week. “Debbie,” God, don't let my voice squeak, “May I have the honor of this dance?”
I don't know how long we danced, as time seemed to stop. We were not the only couple on the floor, but we were the only one in the world.
A week of pent up emotions flooded forth and he could no longer pretend he was strong. David clenched his friend's hand and sobbed. He cried long and hard and through it all Rose said nothing.
“Thank you,” he said. “Society says men aren't supposed to cry.”
“Society can shove it up its ass,” Rose said. “You were going burn yourself up if you didn't release. I doubt you've slept since it happened.”
“I can't sleep, Rose. I'm afraid to.” Dave told his friend about the morning's conversation.
Rose sighed and said, “Is there no possibility of her coming out, then?”
“The doctor suggested ending the life support.” Dave felt himself losing it again. “I don't know what to do, where to go. I tried going home but all I see is emptiness. I'm afraid to sleep because she'll leave while I do.”
“David, you have to rest. I understand she's in a dream state, right?” The man nodded and Rose continued, “That is the part of the consciousness that picks up on other people's emotions. If you are a wreck like you are now, you are passing that onto Debbie every time you visit her. She doesn't need that now and she certainly doesn't deserve it. Take one of my guest rooms tonight. You'll both be better for it tomorrow. I'll let Debbie's folks know where you are in case they need to reach you.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but Rose said, “Don't argue with me. It was not a request.”
David went downstairs showered, shaved, and refreshed. “Miss Dumar always knows best,” he said to himself. After a good breakfast (on the house) Dave began the two mile walk to the hospital.
He passed the mortuary and subconsciously averted his eyes.
I was driving Debbie home after football practice. I turned down my own street first to let Mom know I was going to be late.
The street was full of cars and flashing lights. A firetruck and an ambulance were parked askew on the grass. I remember thinking that Mom was going to be really pissed off about the ruined flower bed.
Debbie jumped out of the car and was running to my house before I even had the car stopped. She came out just as I got to the door. She was crying. She led me to the far side of the lawn and held me. “Dave,” she said, “It's your mom. She – she had a stroke.”
I don't think I really understood until I saw Debbie's parents walking toward us. Mrs Paulson hugged me and her husband engulfed me in his huge arms. He was weeping.
My father had died in Afghanistan when I was only four and it had been just Mom and me ever since. Now I was feeling completely lost.
The day of the funeral dawned cold and rainy. Debbie stayed by my side during the entire miserable day, her shoulder always available. I used it well that day.
Rose Dumar set me up in one of her guest rooms and let me work for my room and board. She claimed my money was no good in her establishment.
Debbie's father sold my house on my behalf (I was only 16), making me suddenly very wealthy. But all I wanted to do was share it with my mother.
David passed by the window of Mad Hatter Haberdashery and the short proprietor bustled out to greet him. “Young Master David! It's been a long time. Oh, those clothes!” he said, pumping David's hand. “May I interest you in a new suit today?” Dave was the only one at his senior prom with a stovepipe hat, but what the hell, it was thrown in for free. He had returned a few years later for wedding garb (and another free hat).
“Not right now, Mattie,” Dave said. “Unfortunately, though, I will be back in a few days, I suspect.” He told the haberdasher of his past week.
“I'm truly sorry to hear that sad, sad news, my friend,” the hatter said. “You must do what you must, but you come here when you need to and I'll have a wonderful suit ready for you. No charge. One could not charge for such a dreadful need.”
Dave thanked him and stepped to the store across the street. The sign above the door said “Wonderland.” It used to be Alice's Curio Shoppe. David shook his head. Alice changed the name as often as the proprietor of Mad Hatter did. And don't even mention March Hare Cafe.
He went inside and paused amid the shiny baubles and strange bottles. Aside from the name the store was timeless, unchanging. He could always find what he wanted in Alice's shop (including Debbie's engagement and wedding ring set). Now he hoped she would have something he needed.
Chester Cat lie basking in the window. The fat cat always caused a double-take. He seemed to have an almost chameleon effect, his colors shimmering in the sun and blending slightly with his surroundings. And there was always that eerie smile.
The small woman entered from a back room. “Davie!” she said, running into the man's arms. “It's so good to see you. Is Debbie here?”
Dave said, “Debbie's in the hospital, Alice. She was in an accident a week ago. She's on life support. All I can do is wait for her to die.”
Alice hugged him even tighter. Dave told his friend about the argument he had with his wife. His contracting company had taken a huge hit with the housing crash. Dave had angrily “suggested” to Deb that she might help out by suspending college and “getting a damned job.” The fight escalated from biting sarcasm to yelling at each other. Deb left for a short drive to cool down.
“She hit a patch of ice and went into the river,” David said. “Our last conversation was a fight about nothing.”
Alice's tender heart broke. “I'm sorry. I love her too. I've known both of you all your lives, but I'm not sure how I can help. I would save her if I could.”
Dave said, “I know you would, Allie. I just want to talk to her.” He heard his voice hitch. “I don't want my last words to her to be those of spite and anger. I just want to tell Debbie I love her, that I miss her.” He began to sob again. “Before I can't.”
Chester Cat jumped onto the counter and dropped a clear crystal gyroscope. “What a wonderful idea!” Alice said, giving the toy a spin. “The hatter calls this a psyche-scope. It links the psyche of two people. Or, at least that's how I understand it. Spin it between Debbie and yourself and it will take you to where she lies dreaming.”
Dave held the device and thought about his wife of eight years. He placed the toy on the hospital's nightstand and gave it a twist. Alice had said it would remain spinning as long as he willed it to do so. His attention was soon captured by the swirling rainbow.
The new Mrs. Price twirled on Blues Haven's dance floor, flitting and flouncing among the crowd. Rosalind had insisted on sponsoring the wedding reception, and was a 1920's theme to commemorate our first date. Only Hatter could pull off a tuxedo zoot suit and make balloon pants and a wide-brimmed fedora into fashionable wedding attire.
Mad Hatter Haberdashery had also made Debbie's gown (“I don't usually do pretty dresses, but a bride and her man really should match”). Her pristine white gown was covered with silver butterflies that shimmered and changed color with the light. He created the bride's veil from lace butterflies and attached it to a matching snood long enough to cover Debbie's luxurious hair. He had positively outdone himself. Debbie drew every eye in the house. She was ethereal in her white and silver flapper gown, (“long for the wedding, miniskirt for after”). Alice said she was reminded of a dandelion seed dancing on the breeze; Debbie's niece thought she looked like a faery gathering nectar; my new mother-in-law said she was “just a perfect angel.” Somehow I couldn't disagree with any of them.
David landed with a thud on a stone walkway. Debbie flung her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Davie,” she said, “No, don't speak. I'm sorry about what I said. You didn't deserve it.”
“I'm sorry too, Babe. It shouldn't have happened. I've missed you,” Dave said. “Debbie, god it's good to talk to you.”
“Dave, will you be honest if I ask you a question?” Without waiting for a reply she said, “I've been a little confused since I got here, and my friends don't know much beyond that I was in an accident. Am I dead?”
Dave felt the tears well up again. “Not yet, Babe,” he said. “You're on life support and the doctor says your body is shutting down. I don't know what I'll do without you.”
Debbie wiped a tear from her husband's cheek. “Don't be sad, my Sweet,” she said. “We've had a glorious life together and I would never change a moment of it. And look around: I've been sent to a wonderful place to spend my last days, and I refuse to let either of us be sad.” she grabbed Dave's hand. “Come on, we're late.”
“Late for what?”
“The tea party, of course!” Debbie laughed and dragged her husband into the woods.
“Welcome, my young friend,” said the Mad Hatter. “Are you surprised to see me here, Master Davie?”
Dave laughed. “No, Mattie, actually I'm not surprised at all.”
March Hare bounced around, laughing while complaining about the time; the Tweedle twins danced what might be, with a little imagination, thought to resemble some warped rendition of an Irish jig. Every one was dancing more or less in time, but it was missing a song.
“Why don't I hear any music, Deb?” he said.
Debbie frowned, then, “Oh! The unbirthday cake! If you don't eat it you can only unhear the party.” She dragged her man to the table and in her sweetest voice (the one Dave associated with mischief) she said, “Oh, Hatter, David hasn't had any of his cake yet.”
The short man bounded over. “He hasn't? Oh, my! He must try it. It is his unbirthday cake, after all.” He slapped his walking stick on the table.
SPRANGGG! The cake leaped off the table and all over David's face! His ears were filled with the discordant music playing a rough version of “Happy Unbirthday.” It all made sense now. He twirled with Debbie and jigged with the Tweedles. For the first time in more than a week he laughed.
As one the party members traipsed into the woods, Dave and Deb following. They were going to shuffle some cards (or did they say “guards'?).
He heard a wheezing laugh and looked a the branch above his head. Chester Cat was slowly fading away, that creepy grin the last to disappear.
The lovers stepped through the underbrush, holding hands and remembering. They passed between a couple of trees and were in a giant mushroom circle (no, the mushrooms were giant, not the circle). They looked into each others eyes and all words were forgotten. Debbie pulled Dave's shirt over his head and caressed his bare chest, firm and muscular from years of construction. Dave slipped Debbie's summer dress off her shoulders and helped his wife to the ground.
Later they basked in each others beauty, caressing with eyes as well as hands, whispering their secret thoughts.
“We had better get back,” Debbie said. “There are things that come out at night and the others worry.”
The clearing filled with a sweet-smelling green smoke. “Well, at least one of you will be going back.” The couple looked around but couldn't see the source of the voice.
“Who's there?” Dave said.
“Ah, who, indeed.” said the voice. “A complicated question with no real answer: who am I? Who are you? I know the answer, but have you a clue?”
The smoke thinned and spread into a ring encircling the glade. Atop the largest mushroom was a huge caterpillar. Puffing on a hooka? “Pleased to finally meet you, Miss Deborah. And this must be your man, David.”
Debbie curtsied. “Indeed, we are they, sir. Who might I be addressing?” she said.
“You might be addressing a envelope or a golf ball, but I assure you that you are not. My name is Kater'P-yller, though most just call me Kato. I rather like that. Now, do you know the answer to the riddle?”
The humans exchanged puzzled glances. “I don't understand the question,” David said.
The caterpillar blew a large smoke ring, encircling the couple. He said, “Of course you don't, it's not your riddle to answer:
“The undone one finally is done
Followed by one who she calls 'Hon'
Two would roam the Land of Wonder
Love may stay, though the couple must sunder
The two divide
Though they try to hide
As Deb must make the truthful choice
Dave's heart so yearns, but has no voice
From Alice's hand to the finger of rings
A band of diamond did happiness bring
That, with a hat, from the short and the mad
She may remain, his thoughts always glad.”
Debbie wept. Dave swallowed his heart. “Is it time, then?” he asked.
To Debbie Kato said, “You must choose now: remove Alice's ring from your finger here and you will die with your body. You will be in great pain, but it will be short. You will see your loved ones a for a few days. They will be able to speak with you, but your body will not respond. It will be difficult for them to see you thus.
“Should you wish to remain in Wonderland David will remove the ring from your corpse up top. You will never see him again and he will see you only in memory, though you shall still reside in this dimensional bubble.” David felt a weight in his pocket. “You can never go back, nor can David return to you. He is here now because his need outweighed our own common sense. That need has been fulfilled. Answer the first riddle and you will find the answer to the second.”
Chester Cat materialized above Kato. “Perhaps,” said the cat, “she can learn to be a wishgiver like Alice.”
“It cannot be so, Cat. Alice never died. Wishgivers must retain their bodies, so we simply gave her a 'magic' pill full of nanites to slow her aging.” Kato shook his ponderous head. “As sad as it may be, Chester, our new friend here is leaving her world.”
Debbie took David's face in her hands. “Please tell my parents goodbye. I don't want them to see me suffer in pain. I couldn't bear it. That is my answer. You will always be in my thoughts, my beloved David. I've had a wonderful time with you here, but I feel myself slipping. I will always love you just as I have since second grade, but it's time for you to go home. ” Debbie wrapped her warms around Dave in a tight hug and kissed him. “I'll miss you, my lover.” Kato drew on his hooka pipe and glade again filled with smoke. David felt himself being pulled back to the hospital room.
Alice sat on the edge of the bed holding Debbie's hand as she watched David and the psyche-scope. She quietly sang “Happy Unbirthday” with them at Hatter's cottage and watched as Debbie showed Dave around, introducing him to all her new friends. She tensed as Hatter's group shuffled the Queen's guards, and she blushed when Kater'P-yller winked at her as her friends made love. Perhaps, she thought, it's time for a vacation.
Debbie's equipment began chirping as Chester stepped out of the shadows. “It's time, Alice,” he said.
“It's too soon. They are so much in love. Just look at them.”
“You gave them six hours. That's over a Wonder-week they wouldn't have had.” The cat said, “Alice, the girl is dying. Even our advanced physics can't prevent it, and to put it off is just cruel.” Chester wrapped his tail around the gyroscope to stop it, pulling Dave out of his trance. “It's time for her to go.”
Debbie Price struggled toward consciousness. “Thank you, Allie,” she whispered and expelled her final sigh.
David removed Debbie's wedding ring and smiled through his tears. “Yes, thank you, Allie.”
The young widower sat at Blues Haven's bar. He couldn't stop grinning. Rosalind put another beer on the counter. “Well, David, you're looking a lot better. What do you have there?”
“Just something a friend gave me today.” He waved his hand over the smoke-filled globe and Debbie's image changed with the swirling cloud.