Virginia's wife has terminal cancer. It's time to say goodbye - 2 Quill Awards 2018 HMs.
|Virginia Clark choked back tears as she hovered over her wife's deathbed. Morning sunbeams streamed through the window but did little to cheer the hospice room. The bedside monitor bleeped in time with Maria's heartbeat, diminished vital statistics flowing across the screen like an ominous prophecy. Fifty was too young to die, but cancer wasn't discerning. Within the next few hours, Virginia's soul mate would die.
She bent low to kiss her wife's forehead, and her blonde locks brushed against Maria's black tresses. Maria's affliction left her olive cheeks pinched and pale. The stench of antiseptic overpowered her lilac perfume, and bones showed through her skin. Her epic life's journey had transported her from the rain forests of Costa Rica to the salons of Paris, but would terminate here in Atlanta. Though breath yet rasped through her cracked lips, she resembled a corpse.
Maria's eyes flicked open. “Be happy, mi amor. Tonight I'll be in a better place.”
“You can't leave. You promised to grow old with me.”
“Till death do us part, Ginny. Nobody can promise more.”
She held her wife's fragile hand, careful not to squeeze too hard or disturb the IV drip. It frightened her how cold Maria's skin felt in contrast to the warm room.
“I love you, my darling. I'm going to miss you so much.”
“Si. You'll have to brush up on your dating skills.”
“Never. I only want you.”
“Don't say that.”
“Nobody could replace you. If I filled in a perfect woman checklist, you'd tick every box.”
Maria locked eyes with her. “After I'm gone, you must live on. I won't be at peace unless you're happy. Promise me you won't do anything stupid.”
“I'm no fool.”
Virginia sighed. “Okay, okay. I won't be stupid.”
A nurse entered the room. Stephen, she thought he was called. “Excuse me, Mrs. Clark. Father Juan's here.”
Virginia clenched her free hand into a fist. How could she respect the representative of a religion that taught the love she and her wife shared was a sin? But she'd do anything in her power to ease her lover's final hours, and Maria had asked for her parish priest. She wanted to receive last rites.
“You're welcome.” He checked the bedside monitor and adjusted the morphine drip—increasing the rate—then left.
The gray-haired priest entered the room and smiled. She shuddered. In his dark clothes, he reminded Virginia of the Grim Reaper. The fact this parasite had already enjoyed two decades more life than her caring wife seemed unfair.
Maria squeezed her hand—a silent plea for her to hold her tongue.
She took a breath and forced the words out, “Thank you for coming, Father Juan.”
“Thank you for inviting me.”
She released her wife's hand and pulled over a chair. “Would you like to sit?”
“I'm fine standing, but thank you.” He pulled a purple stole from his jacket pocket and draped it over his shoulders. “Are you ready to make your peace with God, mi niño?”
Virginia stepped out of the way. She was torn between leaving the room to avoid this charlatan's charade or remaining within sight of her lover. After some consideration, she backed into a corner while he performed his scam. In spite of her personal doubts, seeing the peace in her wife's eyes, she couldn't deny a feeling of gratitude toward Father Juan and his make-believe god. For the next half-an-hour, the priest and Maria exchanged words on topics alien to Virginia, often lapsing into their native Spanish, but eventually Maria's eyelids drooped. For her, even talking was exhausting.
Father Juan said his farewells to Maria, then took Virginia aside. “I'm sorry for your suffering. If you need anything over the next few weeks, you'll find a welcome at the Sacred Heart Church.”
She nodded and bit her tongue. She wouldn't be seen dead inside a church, but he'd come here today and eased Maria's passage in a way she couldn't. For that, she was eternally grateful. Once he left, she returned to her wife's bedside and sat.
“How are you feeling?”
Maria blinked, her eyelids drooping. “B-better. Lighter.” She smiled. “Soon I'll be with Mamá and Abuelita.”
Virginia didn't believe in any afterlife nonsense, but now wasn't a good time to challenge her wife's faith. If believing that rubbish made her lover more comfortable, she was all for it.
“Hey,” said Maria. “Don't cry!”
She hadn't realized she was. She wiped the moisture from her cheeks and sat straighter. “I'm fine.”
“Be strong for me. I know you don't believe this, but the grass really is greener on the other side.”
Maria's eyelids flickered, then dropped. Her breathing grew steady. Nurse Stephen returned and checked the readouts before adjusting the drip again.
“Do you need anything?” he asked.
“No, but thank you for your kindness.”
She gazed at her wife's peaceful features and reflected on how lucky she'd been to share twelve wonderful years with such a magnificent woman. Never before had she met such a courageous and thoughtful person, and she suspected she never would again. They'd shared every facet of one another's lives, entering into a business partnership so the children's chapter books Virginia wrote were illustrated by her wife. Even her lover's family had proved supportive of their marriage, contrary to her expectations about a traditional Catholic family. She couldn't imagine a different life.
Maria's chest rose and fell, almost like a sigh. The heartbeat on the bedside monitor faltered. A loud, monotone alarm sounded.
Virginia's pulse raced. “No. Not yet!”
Stephen rushed in. He touched Maria's neck and shook his head.
“I'm sorry, Mrs. Clark.”
She screamed, tore at her hair, and made no attempt to stem the flood of tears.
She entered their air-conditioned apartment and shivered. Over the past week inside the warm hospice, she'd grown unaccustomed to normal room temperatures. She tossed her keys into the colorful bowl beside the front door and stumbled into the living room. Maria's breathtaking paintings on the walls reminded her how much she'd lost. Her spectacular sculptures intermixed with Virginia's books on the shelves. How could she live without her?
One particular painting caught her eye, and she shuffled over. The scene from Maria's oldest childhood memories depicted some wooden steps in a rain forest in Costa Rica. The lush green trees and blue skies looked sublime—a veritable paradise on Earth. A warm tear trickled down her cheek. Maria had promised to take her there someday and show her around the village where she lived the first ten years of her life. Virginia didn't even know where in Costa Rica it was. All their grand plans had become ashes. How could she write without Maria to illustrate her books? How could she drive without Maria to navigate? How could she find sleep without Maria by her side?
She shambled into the bathroom and glanced at her reflection. With her hair tangled and her eyes bruised from lack of sleep, she resembled a zombie from The Walking Dead. The medicine cabinet door hung wide open, exposing its contents to the light. She must have forgotten to close it. Maria's Methadose bottle caught her eye, a stern warning proclaiming the danger of taking more than the stated dose, one tablet three times a day.
She grabbed the bottle and popped its lid. Only seven tablets remained, but that might be enough if she took them all at once. They could only be taken in solution. She moved into the kitchen, dropped them into a tumbler, and added water. Because Maria had opted for cherry flavor tablets, the resulting cold solution didn't taste too bad. Soon she'd chugged the whole glass. As she wandered toward the bedroom, her vision blurred. Thankfully, she didn't have far to go in their humble home. She collapsed onto the bed and closed her eyes.
She was standing in a rain forest. It was warm, but not unpleasantly hot or too humid as she'd expected. Ahead, a series of steps climbed deeper into the trees. In such a remote place, surely she should feel lost and afraid, but she only felt at peace. Melodious birds sang in the trees, and a brook bubbled over rocks somewhere nearby. Everything looked so…green. She examined a purple orchid. It smelled amazing, like the best potpourri ever created.
A group of men and women materialized on the steps, all Hispanic and ethereally beautiful. Some were familiar from acquaintance but others from photographs. All were Maria's relatives who had passed away. The group parted, and Maria appeared at their center. But this was not the corpse-like Maria from this morning; this was exactly how her wife had looked on their wedding day—perfect. Maria exchanged a few unintelligible words with her relations then descended the steps to where Virginia stood immobile in shock.
Maria caressed her cheek. “Mi amor, you promised me that you wouldn't be a fool.”
“Wh-where are we?”
“A happier place for me, but you cannot stay.”
“B-but I want to be with you.”
She smiled. “One day, I promise, but not today.”
“I don't understand.”
“You will.” Maria pulled her into her arms, and she was engulfed in that familiar lilac scent.
“I don't want to be where you're not,” insisted Virginia. “How can I carry on if you're not beside me?”
“You must find the strength.”
“But I'll worry about you.”
“Here there's no pain. My worries have gone, and I feel lighter than a feather.” She gestured around. “And I told you it would be greener.”
“Th-then I suppose I'm happy for you.”
“I want you to be happy for yourself.” Maria squeezed her hand. “You're still so young, and you have so much life ahead. Go and live. Then, when you're old and tired, come back to me.”
“How will I find you?”
“Follow your heart, mi amor. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Now go. But this time, keep your promise.”
Virginia's eyes opened to blinding sunlight. She turned just in time to spill her stomach's contents onto the floor beside the bed. The stench of vomit filled her nostrils. What had she done? Maria would be angry, especially after her promise. As she struggled to rise, her skull throbbed like somebody kicked it through the night. This was worse than any hangover she'd suffered, but clearly she hadn't swallowed enough Methadose to induce a coma. Thank God! She considered headache tablets, but the thought of taking more pills caused her to gag.
She dragged her complaining body into the living room and again examined the forest painting. Was it all a dream? Perched on the edge of the sofa, she studied the image. It couldn't be real. She'd seen Maria's creation and then taken the Methadose. Logic suggested this picture had inspired an intense, drug-induced dream. That flower had smelled real, but the idea of life after death was illogical and contrary to her long-held beliefs. As she pondered this, she realized on some level she needed the vision to be true. She wanted to believe in a peaceful paradise where her beloved awaited her coming. If it was real, and Maria was there, she wanted to go. She pressed her palms to her forehead. Oh, she was going insane.
Virginia spied her phone on the coffee table. She needed to talk this through with somebody but who could she call? Perhaps a grief counselor or psychologist. Her phone began to ring. She didn't recognize the number but decided to answer. She needed to hear somebody…anybody…speak.
“Hello, Mrs. Clark.”
“Si. I hope this isn't an inconvenient time.”
“N-no. How can I help?”
“The hospice informed me of Maria's passing. I'm sorry for your loss.”
“I also wished to repeat my offer. I understand you're not a believer, but if there's anything I can do, I'm here to help. Even if you just need to talk with someone. You'll find I'm a great listener.”
WORD COUNT: 2000
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QUILLS 2018 Honorable Mentions in Best Short Story <2,000 Words Category and Spiritual Category.