They were both silent for a few minutes.
“What are you going to use your two counts of physical force for?” asked the cat.
“I don’t know,” Alfie felt glum. “I used one touching my wife’s hand. So I guess I only have one left. I really don’t know.” Life would be some much easier if there were no uncertainties he thought to himself.
Persephone led Alfie back to Ivan who was still sitting on the edge of his sister’s bed. Her breathing was regular and steady but her heartbeat was being monitored. Alfie didn’t know too much about cardiographs but he thought he could recognise a strong heartbeat.
“You just missed the whole family,” he told them. “Sarah had a living will drawn up because she knew she was dying. The family knew about it and had accepted it. They even had a good-bye party while she was still well enough to enjoy it. She was supposed to sign it before everyone went home but she collapsed.”
“So it’s legally worthless,” Persephone said.
Persephone jumped up on Sarah’s bed, never taking her eyes off of Ivan. “Why don’t we have a wander around, give yourself some space to think,” she suggested.
Clarice swept the glass from the floor for the second time. She felt hollow inside. Everyone had warned her about Philip but she didn’t listen. Her parents suggested a small registry wedding but oh no, Sarah had to make it into a huge deal: inviting every friend and family member she could think of, a big meal, a way too expensive dress and a honeymoon. And a cake of course. She saved every penny she earned, cleared out her life savings, borrowed money she was still paying off. And she had known about Philip all along—she knew he was lazy but she loved him. She thought a few differences in financial earnings could not come between them.
When Clarice had met him, he was a law student. She would meet him after classes and have meals together. She believed him when he said all his earnings went on tuition so she had said she’s pick up the bill. She didn’t mind as she had her degree in nursing and what else could she do but support him? It was only a temporary set up. Philip had said he would get a good job once he passed the bar exam. The problem was, just after they married, he failed it. Twice. Now he said he wanted to do something in engineering.
And now she was stuck with him. Tens of thousands spent on a wedding to a future junior partner of the city’s biggest law firm. All she had to do was stick it out for a year or so and their lives would be transformed into something better than renting a lousy little student apartment. She just had to be patient.
She couldn’t tell her parents. The humiliation of being wrong would be too much. She could remember how much her mother had begged her to wait until Philip had finished school before she made the commitment. Her father had warned her too. He said she should at least demand that they share bills rather than her put her wages into his tuition fees. But oh no, Clarice knew best. She loved Philip and she could not wait to be his wife.
Putting her hand to her mouth, a little cry escaped from her. What a mess she had made! Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shard of glass that she missed. She reached over and picked it up, turning it over in her fingers. As a teenager, she had the habit of cutting herself. Just little scratches, just enough to make her bleed a little bit. She ran the sharp edge down her forearm, leaving light little lines, then retraced the lines a little harder. She took a deep breath and pressed hard enough to draw blood. It didn’t really hurt too much but it always made her feel better. She did it again so the blood dripped down her arm. Then she flicked the glass away, washed her arm and rolled her sleeve down again.
Beneath her sleeve, the cuts stung but to Clarice, there was some comfort in this. She was angry, there had been blood and pain and now she could move forward again. After making herself a coffee, she went to her room to change into her uniform.
She had wanted to be a nurse when she was a child. Seeing someone hurt and putting it right had always appealed to her. There was a deep satisfaction in alleviating suffering but she could not apply this to herself and the way she felt about things. She would have been mortified if anyone had known she was cutting herself. It was such a stupid thing to do but it made her feel better somehow. Back in high school, she had done it quite a bit but, she scolded herself, she shouldn’t do it now.
Once her uniform was on, she forgot all about the cutting. She picked up her keys and got into her car and thought nothing of it. Just as she was about to pull out, her phone rang.
“Hello?” she asked tentatively. She had not recognised the number.
“Hi Clarice, it’s me.”
Clarice recognised the voice immediately. She had been thinking of Brandon off and on since the morning. It wasn’t every day she fished out a strapping lad from the river. In fact, she had never had to pull some one out of the river ever before—and if she were honest with herself, she didn’t want to again. It was a close call and she always remembered from her high school swimming days that confident swimmers often made the worst rescuers: they took foolish risks that no qualified life guard would make. “Water is a powerful force,” her swimming coach liked to say. “It always wins.”
“Hey,” Clarice said. She put the car into park because she did not quite trust her ability to concentrate when she was talking to Brandon. She had tempted fate twice today, once with the rescue and again with the cutting. She figured a third temptation would be one too many.
“I just wanted to thank you again,” Brandon was saying.
Clarice held her breath. After he recovered, he had been so grateful to her and she had been so taken with him that she had handed over her phone number before she even remembered she was married. Clarice thought about her cut arms. Surely she deserved a little break? She needed a little bit of happiness and there was no way things would ever develop beyond a coffee.
“There’s no need to thank me,” Clarice heard herself saying. She felt disembodied and completely unconnected to what was happening. “I would have done it for anyone,” she said, even though she wasn’t sure it was true. Even in distress, Brandon was very good looking.
“Well, I know a little about the dangers of swimming in a strong current so I also know you put your life at risk to save me. I really thought I was a goner. I should have been dragged downriver.” Brandon paused and Clarice again held her breath. “I wanted to thank you. A thank you from me and my wife.”
Clarice’s heart plummeted. “Oh that’s OK,” she said quickly. The last thing she wanted was to be thanked by his wife.
“I told Janie all about it. She wants to meet you and buy you dinner,” he laughed. “Will you let us do that for you? Please?”
Perhaps it was the way he had pleaded that made her give in. What was she thinking when she thought Brandon might be interested in her? Of course he’s married, she scolded herself again. Without thinking about it too much, she re-opened one of the cuts on her arm.
“I would like that,” she said. And when she really thought about, she meant it too. Maybe Brandon was unavailable but his wife might make a good friend.
He made arrangements to meet her later with his wife after she had finished work and Clarice pulled out of the drive before she could make herself too late.
Persephone looked up at Ivan. “Way to go Love Doctor,” she teased.
“Hey, we just need to give this story some time,” he said.
“Oh yeah, both sides are married,” Alfie said. “I really don’t want to see two marriages fall apart, making four people—plus whatever kids are involved—completely miserable.”
“Who on earth ever said any of them were happy?” asked Ivan.
Tom woke up when the beer he had been holding spilled in his lap. His neck was stiff from resting at an odd angle. There was just enough beer left in the can for two big sips and he had them, then crushed the can.
He had not signed up for this gig of being a father to a handicapped daughter but he loved her as much as he thought a father should. Julie had brought great happiness into his life. But if he was honest, she also brought great sadness too. Long consultations at the hospital, watching Julie endure painful and intrusive testing. Beth was becoming more and more like a zombie as she had tried to care for Julie on her own. The arguments they were having were painful to bear. He did not think he could tolerate another argument like the one they had a few nights previously. Beth had told him to leave—well, that was quite euphemistic.
He did not want to go to bed and feel Beth move herself as far away from his as possible. It hurt so much that he couldn’t communicate with her anymore. He loved her but he just could not go on with this uncertainty. Julie was going to need more and more medical intervention until she was dead. Every doctor and specialist they had met said her illness was degenerative. She was not going to get better. There would be no miracle cure.
Tom paced around the living room for a bit. He and Beth had worked hard on the house. They made plans and decisions together. They had made huge sacrifices to make their lives as stable for a family as they could. There had been times when they hardly saw each other because of the sheer number of hours they had worked. Although they were both teachers, each took on an extra job. Beth became an examinations officer, working late nights and weekends. Tom started his own bar and grill across town and made sure it was run well by watching things very carefully. He had a talent for marketing and probably would have been able to make a career out of it. He liked teaching although it wasn’t very well paid but it was a steady income, unlike the bar and grill whose custom fluctuated depending on the weather, if the Tigers were playing or if a someone had had a bad day and just wanted a place to hang out for a while that wouldn’t get him into trouble with the husband or wife.
Rubbing his head, he decided he would make his bed on the sofa and try to get as much sleep as he could.
When Beth realised Tom was not coming to their bedroom, she decided to get up. She had always thought they could sort out whatever differences they would ever have. They had supported each other all the way through school and agreed that the only way to overcome problems and disagreements was to talk about them, not close down. But neither of them had ever seriously considered what would happen if their first child was born with problems. Julie certainly had her problems: congenital heart disease that extensive surgery had only partially corrected, diabetes and epilepsy on top of severe and irreversible brain damage.
Beth wandered into Julie’s room to check on her. One day she would come in and Julie would be gone. Everyone had told her that. When her mother had her stroke, the same thing had been said and it happened: one morning she went to the nursing home to see her and she was gone. The young nurse who told her had cried too.
Tom had been so good to her during her mother’s illness. He would do the shopping and he hired a cleaner so she could focus on being with her mother. Alfie, her father, had been a cantankerous old bugger of course. He would huff and puff at his wife’s side as if he couldn’t wait for her to die so he could get back to his sports page and tea.
What might have helped Beth was a cup of cocoa but she didn’t want to go into the kitchen and risk waking Tom. She didn’t want him to try to explain himself again or to try to comfort her again or to even look at her again. He would always look at her as if he felt sorry for her because there was something she just wasn’t getting. She turned on the small television next to Julie’s bed as a means of distraction.
Julie was sleeping peacefully. At eight years old, she was a very pretty girl. Her hair was strawberry blonde and she was petite as Beth had been when she was a child. Beth couldn’t resist brushing the curls from her forehead and then touching her check. In her sleep, Julie turned her head towards her mother’s hand and made sucking noises. The doctors called this the rooting reflexes and had patiently explained this was yet another symptom of Julie’s neurological condition.
Watching her daughter sleep was often enough to convince Beth that Julie was just like any other child. How could Tom be so cruel? Yes, the wheelchair was a pain, yes, changing diapers on a child bigger than an infant was difficult, of course the tests showed problems. These were no reasons to give up. Beth could accept that Julie might face limitations but she would get better and stronger.
As she thought this, Julie suddenly let out a groan and her body stiffened then began the convulsions. Beth looked at her watch and reached for the clipboard beside the bed to record the time and length of seizures. Usually Julie’s seizures lasted less than a minute and passed without incident. It was good that she was in bed and not in her wheelchair. The bed could withstand any amount of her thrashing but the wheelchair was dangerous. To keep her from swallowing her tongue, Beth rolled her on her side and moved her to the centre of the bed. Julie’s eyes had rolled up in her head and her legs bicycled.
“It’s OK, Jules,” Beth said. “Mommy’s here.” Of course, she could never be sure if Julie heard her or not but if it had been her having a seizure, she would have liked to have known her mother was nearby.
Beth checked her watch again. A minute had passed. As suddenly as the seizure started, it stopped. Julie opened her eyes and turned to see her mother. “That’s my girl,” Beth whispered. “Welcome back!” she smiled.
A thin trace of a smile came to Julie’s face as she rolled back. Then, as if a cloud had passed over, another groan escaped from her and the convulsions started again. This time, Julie had clutched the blankets and her head shook unnaturally from side to side. She was groaning loudly so Beth tiptoed to the bedroom door and closed it. She did not want Tom to hear and possibly come in to see what he would see as further evidence that Julie should be taken away from her. Dutifully, Beth looked at her watch to time the length of the seizure.
“C’mon Julie,” Beth said as the minute passed. “Come back to me.” She knocked the television remote to the floor.
The seizure stopped and Julie took a huge gulp of air. It was too much air, too soon and she began choking. Beth rolled her on her side again and patted her back the way the occupational therapist had taught her. Julie continued to cough and then, unbelievably, another seizure started.
Alfie looked on Julie’s television which had changed to the channel with the dots. Not knowing if Beth could see the screen or not, Alfie used his finger to trace where he thought Julie was. A single green dot glowed without a flicker.
“She’ll be all right,” Persephone said.