art by Seth Alan Bareiss
by Russell James
Her room was on the hospital's fifth floor. He took the stairs. Despite the length of his travel here, he needed just a few final, calming minutes alone.
He did not like the hospital's smell, an uninviting mix of antiseptic and latex. He was sure she didn't like it either. She had always favored perfumes, mostly light floral scents, mixing varieties each day they were together. That was long ago, but he'd found that some predispositions weather the tides of time.
He arrived unannounced, even uninvited, so he carried gifts to soften the impact. In one hand, he held a spray of yellow daisies he hoped would trigger a memory, in the other what resembled a small video player. At the fifth floor, he paused to catch his breath. Fifty years ago, the last time he'd seen her, the trek would not have been so taxing.
His dress shoes clicked on the hallway's polished tile, like the ticking of a countdown clock. He passed a nurse who offered an involuntary smile at the bright yellow flowers. He paused outside room 522.
They hadn't been completely apart all these years. After her family's abrupt move overseas in their senior year, he'd purchased airmail envelopes by the carton. Letters filled with teenage passion crossed each other's transoceanic paths.
But her life near a war zone grew unstable. Dark experiences, ones she would never relate, moved her further from him than their young bonds could stretch. After a second move to an even more remote nation, his mailbox sat empty.
Then, decades ago, a single letter arrived. It spawned an exchange of annual missives, usually tied to one birthday or the other, an update on how their lives continued to unfold. His scientific research. Her rootless wanderings. Of late, the letters had morphed into emails, a more convenient and casual method of communication, though the frequency remained, sadly, unchanged.
He peered in through the doorway to 522. She was alone in the room. She stared out the window from beneath crisp, white hospital sheets. Her hair was gray and there were lines around her eyes he had never seen. Illness had drained the color from her face. He ran his fingers through his own thinning hair, straightened his glasses, then his tie.
Sadly, he was not surprised that she was alone. Her two marriages had imploded, victims of poor husband choices, each a divorce-driven reset to life's lower rungs. Neither relationship had been stable enough to produce children. She claimed there was a degree of freedom with such independence, though he found his own bachelor existence bordered on isolation with age.
He held his breath. Her reaction could be anything, if she recognized him at all. Then what would she say when he showed her…
He gave the door two soft raps.
She turned. Confusion. Surprise. Then joy. Her eyes sparkled in that familiar way, the way they did the day he fell in love with her in seventh grade.
"Richie?" No one had called him that since high school, where he grew into Richard.
"Hey, Pixie." No one else had called her that ever, content that she be Paige.
She smiled wider at the sound of her old nickname. She reached a hand out from under the covers. The IV drip line tugged at her arm.
He approached, shifted the flowers to the crook of his arm, and held her hand. Her grip was fragile, her skin dry as autumn leaves. He kissed her cheek. It was still magic.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I was in the neighborhood."
"You live four thousand miles away."
"My team and I study physics and the galaxy," he said. "To us, being on the same planet is being in the neighborhood."
"And you come bearing flowers?"
"I know, a cliché."
"Not if they're daisies," she said. Their eyes shared their daisy memory. He placed them on the table beside her bed.
They spoke of common things; that morning's rain, the kindness of her doctor. Her words were tinged with sadness, a tone he sensed in their brief online exchanges. And not just in the last one, when she had told him of her illness. Of late, her missives carried a wistful, distant undercurrent of regret.
A nurse entered and stilled their conversation. She recorded numbers from the various monitors and announced the imminent arrival of dinner. The former Pixie sighed as she departed.
"I could bring you in something else," he said. "Sneak it past the guards. Bake a file into it."
"You can't. The diet is prescribed. Most things don't agree with me anymore."
He wanted to tell her she'd be out eating lobster soon, but a platitude is more insult than inspiration when both parties know it's a lie.
She gazed out the window again.
"It doesn't turn out like you plan," she said. Her eyes took on the pewter shade of the sky outside. "Life."
"There are so many paths to choose," he said.
"But my father chose mine for me," she said. She turned to him and gave his hand an anxious squeeze. "Remember when we sat by the pond one Sunday and we made The Plan?"
The Plan started with prom and graduation. It stretched out years into the future through college, marriage, careers, and kids; all pursuits they were then too young to comprehend.
"Of course I remember," he said.
He gripped the strange video player in his hand a bit tighter. He checked the doorway for eavesdroppers.
"I've brought you some entertainment," he said. "It may seem a bit strange at first."
He swung a chair around so they sat side by side. He flipped the screen top up. Below it, three digital displays read all zeroes and a numeric keypad was to one side.
He touched the zero on the keypad and the screen lit bright green. His fingers danced across the keys and numbers filled the three displays. When the last digit appeared, the screen turned to a patchwork of fuzzy colors.
What came into focus was a two-story house with a steep Cape Cod roof. Neat bushes edged the wide front porch. The bright red front door blazed against the white façade.
"Where is that?" she said.
"Near home. Where we grew up."
Richard stepped out onto the porch. His skin was a bit more tan. He had a moustache. Birds sang in the background.
"When was this filmed?" she asked.
He didn't answer.