He shuffled slowly back into the hospital room one hand around a cold glass of water and the other cupped around a warm polyethylene cup of coffee. He placed them carefully on the bedside table and sat quietly in the same chair he’d sat in all night until the woman in the bed woke up.
Her sudden smile, when her eyes fluttered open and saw him, created wrinkles around her eyes. She quickly ran a hand through her short grey curls and he chuckled. It amused him that even after all this time she still worried about impressing him. He kissed her gently on the forehead and sat back down. Her hand snaked out from under the covers and caught his. He squeezed it gently, knowing that even though her face was a mask of calm and peace she was scared inside.
“The doctor just gave me some pain medication,” her voice was a low whisper and he leaned in closer to the bed breathing in her lavender perfume. “But it hasn’t really kicked in yet.”
He licked his lips nervously, “Want me to distract you?” If only there was some way you could transfer pain from body to body. He would gladly take it from her. But the best he could do now was distract her. That he was good at.
She nodded and propped herself up higher on the pillows, making herself as comfortable as she could get, “Tell me the story of how we met.”
He broke into a grin and shook his head at the floor. He should have known it was coming. She always asked for that story. The story of how they had met. Because he saw her first.
* * *
He lay back in the passenger seat drumming his feet on the dashboard in time with the music. Scotty was supposed to be back ten minutes ago with the pizza and if he'd left the keys in the ignition Daniel would have left by now. Scotty was probably chatting up the waitress and getting nowhere as usual. But as usual that wouldn’t defer him. He was nothing if not persistent.
Daniel sighed and rolled down the window. The blast of hot summer air made him curse the run down car with its broken air conditioning. He’d been pestering Scotty relentlessly to get a new car. For weeks he’d been stubbornly boycotting the car since he helped him push it to a garage. But it was the height of summer and he finally caved. He didn’t particularly want to be on a bus in this weather with screaming babies and heavily sweating overweight men.
The humid heat filled the car and he could hear birds singing outside. Even they sounded tired. He turned off the radio as static blared from the speakers. Rapidly, in the blink of an eye, the tired sluggish peace outside was replaced with people frantically dashing off the pavement and into cars and shops to escape the low roll of thunder and the sudden sheets of rain that followed. Daniel folded his arms and laid back content to people watch.
He watched families almost run into one another in their haste to get out of the rain and couples running hand in hand up the street. As suddenly as the rain had begun everyone had disappeared. He stared at the colorful but lifeless row of shops across the street. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a girl exit a building up the street. He turned to watch what he assumed would be an entertaining five seconds of her shock and rage at being soaked before disappearing back into the building she’d come from to wait out the storm.
But she simply opened a newspaper over her head and began to run down the abandoned pavement towards the little row of shops. Her eyes lit up and her lips curved to reveal perfect white teeth as she stumbled and laughed her way towards the tiny doorway of the closed shop across from him. The newspaper had disintegrated in her hands and he watched, amused, as she didn’t let it fall to the ground but folded it carefully into the pocket of her light blue dress.
Daniel was now fully aware that he was staring but he couldn’t help it. There was something about her. Her big brown eyes framed by perfect dark eyelashes mesmerized him and her smile suggested she shared a joke with the world that nobody else was in on. She shook her long dark wavy hair free of its loose ponytail and held her phone to her ear.
The rain pounded on the roof of the car and he couldn’t hear what she was saying but she didn’t look as happy as she previously had. But he still thought she looked adorable. Tiny frown lines appeared between her slanted dark eyebrows and her mouth pouted a little, almost unnoticeably.
The conversation seemed to improve and her indignant hand left her hip and she smiled and shook her head slowly as she hung up. Her dark eyes scanned the deserted road and he sat frozen in the parked car but her eyes slid past him and instead focused on a middle aged Chinese woman struggling against the rain with a giant navy umbrella. She stopped beside the girl and she must have asked for directions because the girl hesitated for a moment, thinking to herself, and then started to point up the street and gesture wildly in the opposite direction.
Suddenly she stopped, put a hand to her face and waved her hands in a way that made him smile knowing she was starting over. She pointed and gestured slowly this time, even stepping out of the alcove and under the umbrella to better explain herself, as the woman smiled and nodded The woman squeezed her arm gratefully before hurrying on her way and back in the doorway I watched the girl smile to herself. It was getting dark now and the streetlights illuminated the rain as it fell creating an almost shield to protect him as he stared at her in wonder.
He wasn’t the type of guy to just ask a girl out. Usually he hung back and watched as bigger more confident guys strolled up to the girl he’d noticed at the start of the night and walked out with her five minutes later. His usual technique of using comedy and friendship to start the ball rolling wasn’t working for him either because when he finally summoned up the courage they just thought of him as a friend or didn’t take him seriously. That’s not to say he hadn’t asked girls out, he had. It just took him a while. His last girlfriend had been a very assertive girl called Amanda who had asked him out. But she never asked him where he wanted to go for dinner or what movie he wanted to watch or what he wanted to talk about or how his day went and it hadn’t worked out.
But now looking at this girl he felt drawn to her. Like they were two magnets and gravity wanted them to be together. He felt like it wouldn’t be totally inappropriate if he walked straight across the street through the rain and kissed her. Of course it would be. But he just had this feeling that once they looked into each other’s eyes it would click and she’d understand what he was feeling. Suddenly he opened the door of the car and stepped out. At the same time she stepped out of the doorway and his heart gave a leap. Had she seen him?
The rain was soaking his shirt but he didn’t care. She had taken a step up the pavement but he drew in a deep breath and yelled, “You’re beautiful!” Her dark hair whipped around as she turned and her chocolate brown eyes connected with his light blue ones. And…nothing.
“Sorry, I have a boyfriend,” she smiled apologetically and jumped as a car horn sounded at the end of the street. She turned and ran up the pavement towards the expensive looking black car. Whenever he saw that type of car in future it would always give him a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that he wasn't quite able to explain. He was about to slide dejectedly into the Scotty's car but he looked up just in time to see her look back and smile before throwing herself into the passenger seat. The car roared off and she disappeared from sight.
She’d just smiled but he collapsed back into his seat with a stupid grin on his face and ran a hand through his blonde scruffy hair. He knew he shouldn’t feel this happy after being rejected but he couldn’t help it. She’d smiled at him. An idiot in a red t-shirt was jogging towards the car with a pizza box held over his head. Scotty slammed the door behind him and did the victory dance that him and Daniel had made up when they were ten and Maple Saunders, the most popular girl in the class, had let Scotty borrow her colors. Back then that was a sign that you were defiantly in.
“What’s up with you?” Daniel asked, still in a dream like state.
“Oh nothing Dan the hot pizza girl just finally gave me her number! Look,” he thrust his hand out triumphantly in front of him and Daniel looked down at the rivulets of ink that had run down Scotty's arm. “Danm!” Scotty hit the steering wheel. “I hate rain,” he looked darkly out at the heavy grey clouds, as if willing them to make his day worse. “Why are you so happy looking? And why are you wet?”
“I think I’m in love.”
“Really? Who is she?” Scotty asked through a mouthful of pizza.
“I have no idea.”
* * *
The woman smiled at Daniel and he smiled back and gently stroked her poor arthritic fingers with his thumb. He was sure she didn’t remember that day. Even though she swore she did. She always said she’d turned around and there was a poor soaked college boy standing there in the rain looking at her with hopeful blue eyes and it broke her heart to let him down.
“Just out of curiosity, what would you have done if I had followed you to the car?”
“Well Emmet would have gotten out and kicked your ass,” she giggled and gave him a reassuring look. “But honey I’m sure you could have taken him. God I remember he was so possessive of me. That night we went to a party and he got way too drunk. He actually started fighting guys who looked in my direction. Poor Peter Anderson had a black eye for a week. And when Emmet tried to pull me upstairs-"
“You broke up with him, Daniel finished. “But I like to think it was because of that look you shared with that poor soaked college boy.”
Her lips curved in that favorite smile of his and she kissed him grinning mischievously. “That might have had something to do with it.”
“Well then how come we didn’t get together sooner?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Hey cut a girl some slack. I didn’t even know your name-” she stiffened suddenly and even though she didn’t say she was in pain he noticed the barley visible frown lines that had formed between her eyebrows. Over the years he had grown good at noticing these. It helped him prepare when her face was calm but she was seconds away from yelling at him. It helped him know something was wrong. He gritted his teeth and stroked the side of her face gently.
“I’ll tell you how I remember it, will I?” He asked, eager to distract and she nodded.
* * *
The nursing home was buzzing with activity. Normally this wasn’t where Daniel would have chosen to spend his Saturday but there was a week between the two weddings he was photographing and it was good to keep himself busy. Idle hands are the devil's playthings and all that jazz. He pulled up a chair next to a table of three old women and watched, as they looked him up and down before giving each other approving glances and giving him an affirmative nod. The woman at the door had said to talk to them because some people didn’t get visitors. He’d volunteered for numerous charities over the years, fundraising and the likes, but he’d never volunteered at a daycare centre or a nursing home before and he didn’t quite know what to say.
“Hi I’m Daniel.”
“I’m eighty three,” one of the women announced suddenly. Daniel sat there frozen wondering if it was too late to change to another table. She had medium length snowy white hair and glasses that made her eyes look enormous. He wasn’t sure what to say. Did she look young for her age? Old? He smiled nervously.
“Don’t listen to her,” the woman in the middle with a pink knitted cardigan said in a brisk tone of voice and nudged the woman beside her. “Ooh look Agnes here comes your boyfriend.”
Daniel turned around to see an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank being wheeled into the room. He looked half asleep and Daniel was sure he saw him snore. “Oh stop it Margret,” the woman laughed. “The boy’s going to think we’re vultures. Besides you know I like that man in the red sweater.”
“Old sexy ass? Crap he’s coming over!”
“Hello ladies. Is everything okay?” One of the workers said pleasantly and the women snorted with suppressed laughter before nodding hurriedly. They waited until he was out of sight before bursting into fits of laugher and Daniel found himself joining in.
“So do you enjoy living here?” He asked the woman in the pink cardigan.
“How old do you think I am?” She said frostily and he sat petrified, afraid to answer. “I’m just visiting here with my granddaughter. She volunteers every Saturday and I get to see these old bags. Everybody wins.”
“The old bags don’t win,” one of the women muttered under her breath and they exploded into peals of laugher again.
“I hope my grandmother isn’t insulting you,” a voice said behind him and he knew before turning around that the person was smiling.
“Now that you mention it he could do something about his hair,” the woman sniffed and he turned around smiling to greet her grandaughter. And stopped dead half turn. It was her.
* * *
“Then my grandmother introduced us and you finally had a name to put to my face. Kate. You were probably thinking of something more romantic, like Elizabeth or Jane.”
“Katie believe it or not before I met you I didn’t watch many Jane Austen movies or have somebody wake me up in the middle of the night to ask me why I’m not more like Mr. Darcy,” I teased.
“Well he makes grand romantic gestures. I’m lucky if I get flowers on our anniversary.”
“Hey forgetting two out of forty seven isn’t bad, is it? And I am too romantic. Remember our first unofficial anniversary.”
“You mean the anniversary of the first time we-”
“Yep,” he grinned as she smiled lazily and sunk deeper into the pillows.
“That was a good day. Eventually,” Kate teased.
“What? Let me remind you of what I went through.”
* * *
‘I’m late, I’m late for a very important date. No time to say hello goodbye. I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.’ The song the rabbit sung in Alice in Wonderland played over and over in his head like a broken record as he hurried through the store. He grabbed a bunch of scented candles and threw them into the trolley before pushing it as fast as it would go on its rusty wheels. Vanilla candles, Kate’s favorites. He was convinced that if he turned right now he’s leave skid marks on the shiny white tiles. But he was in a hurry.
Daniel flew through the textile section and grabbed an identical fleecy beige throw to the one they’d thrown out last week because Kate's sister had come to visit and her puppy peed on it. They really had to start locking their bedroom door. In the vegetable section he grabbed mushrooms and onions for the beef stroganoff he was cooking tonight. The beef had been marinating in the fridge since five o clock last night.
Their first anniversary was going to be prefect. He had champagne cooling in the fridge, a stack of their favorite CD’s beside the CD player, the table set with Kate’s grandmother’s good china and the atmospheric lighting in the bedroom planned out. Kate was coming home at seven with dessert and had promised to pick up some new lingerie on the way home. She wouldn’t let Daniel come with her but assured him she’d get something he’d approve of.
He glanced at his watch and cursed. It was already half six. He paid for everything and made his way home as fast as possible cursing the traffic. He checked his watch at the apartment door. Ten minutes.
Both of their mothers had said it was too early to move in together. Not just because they’d only known each other a year but because they were only twenty-six. Also they were both only out of college three years and their jobs were so different. Daniel’s job was relaxed because being a photographer he worked his own hours and could pick and choose his clients. Kate’s job was very structured as a music teacher at the local high school and she also taught piano to kids in their homes every evening. But they made it work. As they half jokingly, half seriously explain to people they can’t help it that they fell in love. It was magnetic.
Daniel raced through the apartment picking up underwear and Kate’s numerous shoes and stuffing them into the closet to be cleaned later. Everything was almost ready. He flung the throw at the end of their bed and placed the candles strategically around the room before lighting them to see what they’d look like. The candlelight flickered appealingly and Daniel grinned. Now let her say he wasn’t romantic. A slow knock at the door got his heartbeat racing and combing his fingers through his hair he answered the door.
Kate stood there with her short-layered brown hair looking disheveled and a mischievous grin on her face. She was wearing an overcoat and she pushed him back into the apartment with her lips pressed to his and kicked the door shut behind her. He groaned and scooped her into his arms. Dinner could wait till later.
“I changed in the elevator,” she said breathlessly as he kissed her neck. “And under this coat,” she kissed him hard and quickly, “I’m wearing the lingerie I bought. Wanna see?” He fumbled with the buttons on her coat wishing she’d worn one with a zip. “Do you-do you smell burning?” She asked slowly and he looked up.
Now that she mentioned it he did. He knew he didn’t have the dinner on but even so he ran to the oven. Cold. The hairs on the back of neck stood up as he heard an eerie crackling noise coming from the bedroom. He was already racing towards it when Kate screamed his name.
“Oh god!” He gasped, stopping beside Kate in the doorway. Somehow the bottom of the curtain had caught fire and now the flames licked the ceiling. “Oh god! Quick call 911!” He raced to kitchen and threw everything out from under the sink until he came across the small fire extinguisher they’d gotten when they’d first moved in. He almost tripped over in his haste to get back to the bedroom.
“They’re on their way,” Kate said as he struggled with the pin for a few seconds and then aimed the extinguisher at the flames. It didn’t work. He tried again. Still nothing. The room filled with smoke and Kate began coughing. Daniel threw the extinguisher to the ground and shut the door.
“We have to go,” Daniel pushed Kate in front of him and she ran down the stairs while he pulled the fire alarm and then joined her. By the time they burst out of the main doors there was already a small crowd of residents standing beside the fire truck. The firemen raced into the building and Kate rolled her eyes as Ms. Thompson tried to fix her hair in the shiny red surface of the truck and fumbled with the lipstick from her handbag. The winter night was cold and the residents all shivered as they stood silently waiting for the firemen to reappear. A cold bitter wind blew among them and Kate gripped onto her coat as tightly as she could. Finally the firemen trudged out and a collective cheer went up. The residents shot Daniel and Kate daggers as they filed back inside.
“Honey the firemen want to talk to us,” Daniel said tugging on her arm but she stood rooted to the spot.
“Honey,” she said, in that sickly sweet tone that always meant trouble. “I’ve been standing here in a very light coat and very revealing lingerie for ten minutes, literally freezing my ass off and I’m not going to stay outside where if the wind blows my coat up we won’t need to give the firemen a tip.”
Daniel scanned her face quickly. “Okay go upstairs and put on some warm clothes. I’ll deal with this and meet you back down here in ten minutes.”
“Where are we going?”
“That’s a surprise,” Daniel kissed her freezing nose and winced. “I’m so sorry about the fire. I didn’t know-”
“Dan it’s fine. You didn’t know. Ten minutes, ‘kay?” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him before disappearing inside.
One of the firemen whistled behind him. “I wish my missus was more understanding when I burnt down the house. But don’t worry mate there’s not too much damage. It’s mostly contained to the bedroom and you just need to get a new bed and curtains. Everything else will be easy to repair. There’s still a lot of smoke up there so I’d maybe stay somewhere else tonight. Is that okay?”
I took my credit card from my wallet and tossed it high in the air, “That’s fine.”
* * *
Kate smiled happily. “And you took me to every bed shop in a ten mile radius and we jumped on all the beds until we were kicked out.”
“Then we went to that little all night diner and we had pancakes and syrup,” I laughed.
Her expression softened, “Then you took me to that romantic five star hotel with the stone walls and the fireplaces and the ivy. It was perfect.” She suddenly hissed in pain and he stood up slowly feeling his joints creak. “No sweetie it’s fine. Don’t make a fuss. I’ll be okay in a minute don’t worry.”
“No it’s not okay if you’re in pain. I’m asking that doctor what kind of medication he gave you? The idiot.” He stormed out of the room and up the hall until he found a nurse. The hall was dark except for the flickering overhead lights and the glow from the nurses office. “Excuse me my wife is in room 906 and she is lying there in pain and nobody has come to do anything about it.”
“We’re sorry sir,” she said tonelessly chewing her gum, “I’ll send someone to fix it right away.” She pressed a button beside the desk and they stood there in silence.
“Why can’t you do anything?” He snapped and she sighed.
“Because sir I’m manning the desk. A nurse or doctor will be with you shortly. Please go back to your room.” He marched back up the corridor feeling his hands shaking. He wanted to punch something. He hated hospitals. They smelt of antiseptic and bad food and fear and death. He stopped in the doorway and saw Kate snoozing still sitting up on he pillows. She looked like an angel. Her eyes looked the exact same at seventy-six as they did when they first met when she was twenty-three.
He slid the second pillow gently out from under her and she hugged the covers as she smiled in her sleep. “Sweet dreams,” he whispered and sat back down on his chair. A nurse came in to give Kate her pain medication and glanced worriedly at Daniel.
“Sir you shouldn’t sleep in that chair again. It’s not good for your back. I’ll get one of the orderlies to bring you a bed.”
“Thank you,” he told her and he thanked the orderly too when he wheeled him in a single bed with those starch white hospital covers. At home Daniel sleeps on the left side of the bed. He thought God must have been watching over them because all Kate’s drips and monitors were on the right side of the bed. With some effort he managed to push the beds together to form a double bed. He didn’t want to ask for help. Daniel reached into the bag of Kate’s things he’d brought from home and took out the beige rug. It had become a tradition that every unofficial anniversary they went and bought a new throw for their bed and it had to be beige.
He threw it over the end of the beds and climbed into his bed turning so that his back was to the window and he was facing Kate. The only light came from a crack in the door and the moon outside. It just about illuminated Kate’s face and Daniel stroked her cheek softly.
“We did it Katie,” he whispered softly. “ We managed to successfully live together for three years against all odds and only burnt down the place once,” he chuckled quietly. “We got married at twenty nine at your insistence that you were married before you were thirty. I’m sorry you had to drop so many hints. I'm sorry about Scotty's innaprpriate toast. I should have known better than to have him as best man. You looked so beautiful, you know that? You still are but walking down that aisle on your father’s arm with your lace dress and your hair all up, wow,” he watched her chest rise and fall with each breath and the monitor beeped faintly in the background at each heartbeat. He’d gotten them to turn it down when they came in. He didn’t want to frighten her and he told them he’d be here all the time and alert them to anything unusual.
He smiled at her sleeping face and whispered, “Did I ever tell you your father threatened to kill me? Yeah the first time I met your parents he took me aside and said he had a gun out in the shed. No more, no less. I told Jack that too the first time Amy brought him home. And now ten years later they’re still together with little Scott. He’s really growing up fast isn’t he? They’re visiting tomorrow, you know? That should be fun. I think Scott’s learning about dinosaurs in school so he can tell you all about it. And he’s starting piano in the fall, following his grandmother’s footsteps.”
Kate stirred and Daniel’s eyes snapped to the monitor. Still normal. Just a dream. “Remember Spain when we were twenty eight? I hurt my knee running after you. It was raining and you were wearing that red dress. You just started running and I followed you without even thinking about it. That was the moment I realized I wanted to follow you for the rest of my life. Remember Paris for our honeymoon? You made me try that snail, oh sorry escargot, and I was throwing up for the rest of the night. Then we went back for our sixth anniversary and you were the one throwing up all night. We’d tried so hard to get pregnant. I’m sorry it took so long.”
He could feel the heat from her body and he took her hand in his and pressed it to his face. “And Katie I’m sorry this is happening to you. I’m sorry this is happening baby. I’m so sorry,” his voice got choked but he didn’t bother to clear it. “You’re too young, we’re both too young, for this to happen. It shouldn’t be but it is. You’ve been so great, you know that? Through this whole thing you've been so great. And I love you for that. I love you more now than I did when I first saw you. And that was magic Katie. Like magnets.”