Now, with things worse than they have been for me, with the pain and pukes and runs uncontrolled, with food being something to force...the possibility of the miraculous becomes real.
The veil has been lifted, and I can see across forever, and see that the transcendent really can break in.
I thought I knew that before; I though I believed, but even in the midst of cancer, it was an acaemic belief, something ry and book-learned.
Now in the blood and mire, it's visceral.
It can happen. I can feel the pull to the divine.
Will it happen? That's up to God.
But maybe...just maybe...the miracle's alreay here, in the clarity of posibility.
I really guess this is the place,
knot tied in end of fraying rope
where despair meets abject grace
and fear becomes combined with hope.
The nights, they last forever;
the days have angry eyes,
but though it’s heavy weather
I may yet hold surmise
of something waiting round the bend,
placed by the heart of God,
and while I will then fain pretend
to be shocked and awed,
I know (and have known) all the while
that ‘just in time’ is His true style.
Music from Switchfoot, with This Is Home, from the sountrack of Prince Caspian.
Rather than my usual book adverts, I'm going to try an experiment, if you'll bear with me...a kind of survey.
In May of this year I started writing another novel, but after a short time just got too sick to go on.
It has, however, been nagging at me, the question of whether it should be finished. So I shall put it to you...worth going on, or not? The bit below is where it stands now.
If you have the patience to read through (it's about 6000 words, maybe 10% done, as it stands), I'd truly love to know...do you want the characters and the story to go on? It'll take a lot out of me to keep going, but if you guys think it's worth it, I'll have a go. (And no, this is not a long slow workup to a GoFundMe appeal. Money won't help. Prayers for strength will.)
And if you think, man, this is awful, please say so as well. I think all my fiction is pretty bad, so we'll be in agreement.
And no, there is no title yet, even a tentative one.
The library vibrated with the anxious silence of finals week, and in the confined late-spring air there was a faint but pungent odour of too many people and too little showering.
Beth tried to block her nose from the inside, to little avail. She wanted to find an open desk, but her luck did not seem to be in, and she resigned herself to a spot on the floor, books spread around, back growing stiffer by the hour.
She turned to scan the study room one last time, and saw him, just a few feet away. Leaning back in one of the few and prized cozy circular carrels, ballcap tilted forward, blond hair tousled over his shoulders…asleep, as usual.
Just like every day in o-chem, in the back row, chair propped back against the wall, skateboard leaning next to him. The chair had slipped, once, and she remembered the clatter of that day.
The Dude, for that was what she thought of him, could at least have had the decency to doze somewhere else, and leave a seat open for…
Not asleep. One eye opened, and seeing Beth, he smiled. “Pssst!”
Beth shifted her bookbag from her right shoulder to her left, and returned the smile, faintly.
“You look like you need a place to sit.”
Beth shook her head. “Just stretching my legs. It’ll be a long night.”
The Dude closed the single book on the small built-in desk, took an illicit can of soda from under the seat, and stood. “Then this one’s up for grabs.” He looked at Beth more closely. “I know you.”
“Riiiight. Front row. Got it. But you…something’s different. Your hair?”
Feeling her face warm, Beth shook her head, still unaccustomed to the lack of her long auburn hair. “I had it cut. For summer.”
The Dude nodded. “Looks OK.”
“Looks better short.”
Beth felt the warmth in her face increase. “Well, I guess I’ll take the seat, if you’re going.”
“Sure.” The Dude moved out of the way, soda in one hand, book forgotten on the desk.
“Uh, your book…” Beth pointed.
“Oh, yeah. Don’t want to leave that.” He picked it up. “It’s a good read.”
Beth tilted her head to read the title…Two Years Before The Mast, by Richard Henry Dana. “You’re not studying? Just reading?”
The Dude raised his eyebrows,”One more night of organics won’t help me pass.”
Sliding her bookbag onto the carrel’s floor, Beth said, Well…good luck.” Then she put out her hand. “I’m Beth. Beth Collins.”
“OK, Beth Collins.”
“What’s your name?” Beth already knew; it was a small class in a small school. She wanted to hear him say it.
“Make it TJ.”
“Just TJ?” She tried to keep from smiling.
The Dude sighed. “Tiberias Jeremiah Johnson. TJ’s better.”
Now Beth released the smile. “Tiberias?”
“My parents were teachers here, classics.”
“And Biblical Studies?”
TJ shook his head. “No, they were hippies, too. Jeremiah’s from the song, you know? ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog…’ Three Dog Night?”
“Oh, my!” Beth tried to keep from laughing.
“Yeah. I guess they liked the movie, too, with Robert Redford? Jeremiah Johnson?”
Beth shook her head. “I’ve never seen it.”
“You should. It’s a classic.”
He wasn’t smiling now, and Beth caught something in his face. “Wait…I don’t mean to pry, but you said they liked…”
TJ nodded. “Past tense. They’re dead.”
“I am so sorry, I didn’t mean…” She bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey. It’s OK. Well, sometimes it’s OK.” He moved to leave. “Well, it was good to meet you, Beth Collins. Finally.”
Finally? What did he mean by that?And the way he said my name, as if he liked it..?
“So why’d you choose chemistry?” The question was out before Beth realized it.
TJ had turned away, then turned back. “I have no idea. I just do what I do, I guess, until I figure it out.”
Beth frowned. “Don’t you know what you want to do with your life?”
“When I grow up? No. Not really.” He hesitated. “I like to sail.”
“I have a boat. I live on it, actually.”
“Wow.” Beth had never met anyone who lived on a boat, and she was still very young.
“My parents died at sea. They wanted to sail to Hawaii. They didn’t make it.”
“So how can you…”
“Still go out? Call of the sea, or something.” He waved Richard Henry Dana’s timeless book. “Romance, whatever. I try not to think about it much.”
“Wow,” Beth said again, and winced. She knew how young she sounded.
“You could come along, sometime. If you want.”
“I can’t. My boyfriend…”
“He can come too. It’s a big enough boat.”
“He gets seasick.” Beth tried not to giggle, and failed completely.
TJ gave a small smile, and nodded. “Well, I guess not…”
“I guess…” said Beth, but he had turned and was gone.
When Beth returned to her dorm room, her mind was elsewhere, and at first she didn’t notice the note taped to her door, in her roomate’s familiar handwriting telling her to phone an unfamiliar College number.
When you get this note, call. Em was not one to waste words.
Beth opened the door, and from the darkness of the room came Emily’s sleepy voice. “Beth? I’ll be right there…”
The floor phone was on a desk at the end of the hallway. Emily appeared as Beth picked up the receiver and dialed.
It was nearly midnight, and the voice on the other end of the line sounded tired. “Laughlin.”
“Hi, this is Beth Collins…I had a note to call this number…”
“Beth, yes…this is Gerry Laughlin…I’m the Dean of Students...”
What have I done? Am I in trouble?
“I need to speak to you, right now…can you meet me outside the front lobby of your…uh, Hagen Hall? Your dorm?” It was a womens’ residence.
“Sure. Yes. OK. I’ll go right down. We’ll go right down.” Beth tried to keep the nervousness out of her voice, and her hands still shook.
She looked to her taller friend, with a question in her eyes.
Emily said, “He wouldn’t tell me.”
Five minutes later a large red-faced man in a hastily-thrown-on suit coat, accompanied by a petite woman she took to be his wife, approached the girls from the warm night. “Beth? Gerry Laughlin…my wife, Bea…look, I’m very sorry, but there’s been an accident. Your father…well... accident at his factory? Bad accident.”
The Collins family business was a small machine shop. Yes. An accident. Beth winced. “Is he all right?”
Bea Laughlin took Beth’s hands. “No, dear. He’s not going to be all right. You need to go home now.”
The unspoken words hung in the air, If you want to say goodbye.
Beth didn’t hear them. “My exams…”
Gerry Laughlin shook his head. “That’s taken care of. You have a fine record, and you’re getting your final grades on that basis. Straight A’s.” He hesitated, and said awkwardly. “Well done, young lady.”
“I’ll go pack, and then..?” The reality was sinking in, and Beth felt her mouth dry. Something was happening. Her world had changed.
“No, dear.” Bea moved to put an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “The College charterd a plane; it’s waiting. I’ll be flying home with you. We’ll have your things packed and sent along.”
“I’ll do it,” came Emily’s voice, as if from far, far away.
Beth closed her eyes, and had a sudden incongruous feeling of being on a boat, salt spray in her face, the deck moving beneath her feet.
And then the deck came up to hit her in the face, for she had fainted.
The next morning, TJ Johnson walked into the small bright classroom in which the organic chemistry final would be held, and noticed who was not in the front row.
Strange. She’s usually ahead of time.
The exam started, and the seat TJ watched remained vacant.
It was vacant at the end, and when TJ walked bemusedly from the room, a tall redheaded girl approached him, and tentatively asked, “Are you TJ?”
“Yeah. Do I..?”
“I’m Emily, Beth’s roommate? Beth Collins?”
“She wasn’t here for…is she OK?”
Emily shook her head. “She had to fly home last night. Some…family problems.” She looked as if she was about to say more, and then did not.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I don’t know her, not really…but…well, if there’s anything…”
The girl frowned, and blinked. “No. Well, yes. Before she left, she asked me to give you something.”
Then she stepped close, kissed TJ lightly on the cheek, and walked quickly away.
Thirty Years On
Once she had seen the house, perched a bit precariously on a ridge overlooking the broad sun-splashed bay, Bethany Collins Yang knew it was the place she had to live, for the rest of her days. It called to her.
“Mom, wow…” Ronnie Yang’s passenger-side window hissed down, and he moved to get a better view. “The pictures didn’t do it justice.”
He turned to her, and in his eyes she saw his father’s impish spirit, and keen business sense. “Well done.” They shook hands in mock seriousness, and then he hugged her.
Beth felt a surge of joy, and a bit of pride. “That means a lot. Thanks.”
She pulled the Mercedes into the driveway, next to the realtor’s crew taking down the ‘For Sale’ sign. One of the men walked over. “Are you the happy new owner?”
He held out the ‘Sold!” sign, smiling. “Souvenir.”
Beth took it, and said, “I can really have this?”
A part of her was still very young.
A car horn sounded behind them. “Mom!”
While Ronnie was the image of his father, with straight black hair and ark eyes, Clarissa took after Beth, with auburn lights in her hair, and paler skin than her brother.
She came running up the drive, followed more slowly by her husband Dave. Dave was not moving as fast because he carried baby Rex, Beth’s first grandchild.
“It’s just, oh, fabulous, just…right, Dave? Fabulous?”
Dave brushed his hair out of his eyes, an habitual gesture. “Fabulous. Good choice, Mom.”
Ronnie asked, “Where’s Dad’s study going to be? Ocean view?”
Beth nodded, and pointed to the left-hand corner of the second story. “There, I think. The bay’s visible from both windows, and there’s some north light.”
Her children’s eyes followed her direction, and Ronnie moved onto the lawn for a better look.
“Yeah,” said Clarissa. “He’ll like that.”
The kids went home, the movers came and went, and the house was bright and airy, and it was then that Beth saw The Eye.
She was walking in the landscaped yard (the previous owners’ gardeners stayed on the job, for continuity) and was enjoying the low buzz of the bees among the small stand of lemon trees when she looked north, to the privacy fence.
And there, peering through a knothole, was an eye.
It quickly vanished, when it caught her return gaze.
Probably a child.
She’d asked about the neighbours, but the estate agent had given her a rueful shrug. “We can’t talk about neighbours or neighbourhoods any more. You know how it is.”
“Actually,” Beth said, “I didn’t know that.”
The agent looked around (which wasn’t necessary, but the theatrics were appreciated) and said in a low tone, “Nice people around here. Quiet. You’ll like them.”
She might have mentioned the peeping child.
The next day, she saw The Eye again. It was blue, and bright.
This time, Beth strode to the fence, and with a leap levered herself up to peer over the top, straight into the upturned laughing face of an Australian Shepherd.
“And hello to you, too,” Beth said. She hung on the fence for a moment, enjoying the guilty pleasure of looking into a neighbour’s yard for the first time.
It was neat but unostentatious, save for some examples of amateur topiary. She saw a bush that looked like to could be either a lion rampant, or a ballerina. She couldn’t tell which.
There was a basketball backboard, with a bare hoop.
Under the Aussie’s gaze she dropped back to her own side, and brushed her hands against her jeans.
Smiling, she looked up to Chia-Ming’s study window, and waved.
The wave carried across the years, and across the miles.
And if only he were alive to wave back.
She saw the neighbours to the south often; a large and cheerful family, with cars and motorcycles and young people and grandparents coming and going, and occasionally stopping to chat at the mailbox.
But to the north, there was a bit of mystery. The house was well-kept, and the dog was friendly, but whoever lived there was rarely seen, driving out from the garage, and coming back the same way, with the automatic closer keeping the secret.
The only thing Beth could say for sure was that the resident was female, from the silhouette she sometimes saw in the modest silver sedan.
There was an occasional delivery of medical gasses, and sometimes an unmarked van.
Mysteries are beguiling, and sometimes the key is right before one’s eye.
And so Beth bought a large box of dog biscuits, and when she saw The Eye, she would throw one or two over the fence. and listened to the delighted munching from the unseen side. She never climbed up for another look; that would have been crass, but the quiet human presence to the north would one day take notice, and she might well find Beth’s indirect overture a subject of interest.
But in many ways, Beth was still very young.
One day, The Eye became a Voice.
“You’re making my dog fat.” The words reproved, but there was high bright laughter in them.
“Sorry,” said Beth. “He watches me every day.”
“Oh, that’s all right. I think you’re the highlight of his day. He’s Rufus, by the way.”
“I’m Bethany.” It was strange talking to someone she couldn’t see, but whose voice she liked.
“Hi, Bethany, I’m Aubrey. You’re pretty.”
The Blue Eye had been replaced by a brown one, and there was a laugh.
Beth blushed, and said, “Well, thanks.” She cast for something else to say. “I just moved in. Have you lived here long?”
“I don’t really live here. I’m a hospice nurse; I’m here all the time, now.”
“Do you play Scrabble?”
Strange question. “Sure. Why?”
My charge, she really likes to play, and I’m not all that good. Maybe someday, if you have time…” There was emotion and appeal in Aubrey’s voice.
“I’d love to. Can you let me know when?
“How about now?”
“I’ll meet you at the front door?”
Aubrey laughed again. “Unless you want to climb the fence.”
Never one to resist a challenge, Beth climbed, and was met by Rufus’ rough paws and lolling tongue, and by Aubrey’s smile, bright in a dark mahogany face.
“So…Bethany?” Aubrey put out her hand. “Thank you for this. Really.”
“It’s no trouble. I like Scrabble.”
“So do I, but we’ve played so much…she knows most of my vocabulary. She’s good at blocking me.”
Beth smiled. “We’ll see how it goes. I’m not all that great at it, but I’ve always enjoyed the game.”
“Aubrey!” It was something between a cackle and a shout, from the house.
“Who is that person standing in my yard?”
Aubrey answered, soothingly, “It’s your new neighbor, ma’am. She’s come to play Scrabble with you.”
“Does she not know how to ring a doorbell?”
Aubrey looked at Beth, and giggled. “She likes to climb fences.”
They walked across the back lawn, and through a set of French doors, standing open to admit the light breeze.
A woman stood by a polished table, one hand on the back of a chair, the other holding a cane for support.
The breath choked in Beth’s throat. “Emily.”
Emily’s hair was more grey than red, and her eyes held no recognition. “Yes.”
Aubrey toughed Beth’s shoulder, very softly.
Beth cleared her throat. “I’m Bethany. I just moved in next door.”
Emily took a step forward, steadying herself on another chair. She extended a hand with skin like old rice paper. “How do you do.”
“I’m fine, thanks. Uh, how are you?” Beth felt like an idiot when the question came out.
She also felt a touch of abashment, for she never known that Emily was regal.
“Oh, child, I’m dying. But for all that…Aubrey, would you set up the game?”
They played for over an hour, and Emily’s spirit was bright and active. She won.
Beth feigned frustration, and as Aubrey walked behind her chair the nurse patted her shoulder.
“Bethany, thank you for this.” Emily rose shakily to her feet. “Would you give me the honour of helping me to my settee?”
“Uh, sure.” What’s a settee?
Aubrey pointed to a sofa in the next room, and Beth helped her old, old friend. Rufus curled up at Emily’s feet.
“Thank you, child. Will you come back tomorrow, to play again?”
Beth swallowed a huge lump in her throat. “Yes. I’d love to.”
“Ah, good.” Emily closed her eyes. “Then she opened them again, and looked at Beth. “Please thank your husband for letting me take you away or the afternoon.”
“Actually, I’m a widow.”
“My child, I am so sorry. Come here.” Emily held out a regal arm, and Beth obeyed.
“Bend down to me, child…yes.” Then she put her dry and formidable hand on Beth’s forehead, and it felt like a blessing.
Aubrey ushered Beth to the front door. No climbing fences, now. “I owe you an apology,” the nurse said.
“Apology? What? Why?”
“Look. I just found out this morning that she was your roommate, in college, OK? I should have told you. I couldn’t find the words.”
Beth froze her face to contain the shock. “It’s OK.”
“No, it’s NOT. I should have prepared you!” Aubrey was in tears.
“OK, yeah, maybe.” Beth was back in control. “What’s done is done. I’m just glad to help.”
“They told me this morning. They said I should handle it.”
“You did good.” Beth hugged the girl. “You did good.”
“You’ll come back?”
“Child, have you walked upon the water?”
Emily’s question came out so naturally that Beth wasn’t sure that she had heard it right. “Come again?”
“Have you walked upon the water?” Emily was looing rom the Scrabble board to her tiles.
“Well, no. Not really. No.”
Emily placed three tiles precisely, for a triple-word-score and another win. “Ah. Pity.”
As she was leaving, Beth said to Aubrey, in a low voice, “Emily had kind of a strange question for me today.”
Aubrey stifled a giggle. “’Have you walked upon the water?’”
Beth nodded, somehow relieved that the query was just a tic in a dying mind.
“I thought it was a weird thing to say.”
Smiling, Beth nodded.
“Until she showed me how.”
“Showed you…um, what?”
“Well, not walk, exactly.” Aubrey looked down, and smoothed her blouse. “But I did stand an water in a bathtub.”
They were at the door, and Beth bolted through it.
“You’ll be back tomorrow?”
It wasn’t easy to return to the House of Voodoo (as Beth nicknamed it in her mind), but the bonds of old companionship are strong, and it seemed it just couldn’t be an evil place, with its bright airy rooms and cheerful Australian shepherd.
And besides, Beth loved puzzles, for she was still very young.
As Emily laid down another set of winning tiles, she asked, “Child, would you like to walk upon the water?”
Beth had been expecting some reference to the previous day’s conversation, but she still started, and knocked over her glass of diet soda, ice cascading across the Scrabble board. “No.”
“Why on earth not?” Emily looked straight at her.
Beth felt like she had just committed the worst of faux pas before the Queen of England. “I just don’t…I’m not religious…I mean, I was, but…I know Jesus, and the guy in the boat…”
“Are you afraid you can’t, or are you afraid you can?”
Beth had no answer to exactly the right question.
Emily rose to her feet, with a steadiness that had not been there before. “Aubrey! Run the bath, please.”
“Yes, ma’am!”, from somewhere back in the house.
Beth shook her head, almost violently. “No, I really have to go. I…”
Emily’s face, which had been royally stern, softened. “We won’t hurt you, Bethany.”
“Of course not,” Beth said. “I just really have to go.” In fact, Beth had a quick vision of being hit over the head and drowned in the tub. Anything could happen.
“Aubrey!” Emily called again.
“Dispense with the bath. Fill two pails, please, and bring them to the front porch. “Will you try this, Bethany, in public view?”
“I’m not religious. I told you that.”
“Religion has nothing to do with faith.”
“I’d rather…well, all right.” Beth changed her mind because she had to believe in something, and chose now to believe in friendship.
Beth followed Emily to the door and onto the porch. From around the corner of the garage Beth heard the bright sound of water being hosed into a pail.
Aubrey appeared, lugging the water and grimacing as the wire bails pinched her hands. She spilled a bit from one. Placing them on the porch, she said, “I’ll even them up. Better footing for you.”
Beth fought back an urge to laugh, and a stronger urge to run.
It was such a normal day! The sun shone from a clear sky, the bay sparkled in the distance, and among distant trees Beth could see the red-tile roofs of the college where they had met.
“Step in, child.” Emily’s voice was kind.
Beth placed one foot in one bucket, and the other in the second one. Her feet, of course, went all the way to the bottom, and the buckets’ sloping sides cramped her toes. “I guess it didn’t work,” she said.
“Think of Peter.”
Beth’s mind went back, to a different Peter.
He was still alive when Beth got there, and Bea Laughlin supported her at the shoulder as they walked to the ICU.
A doctor stopped them. “Bethany Collins? Peter’s daughter?”
Beth nodded. Bea stepped away, to lean against a wall.
“What happened?” Beth asked.
The doctor shook his head, almost angrily. “A piece of steel in a lathe came apart. The cutting tool hit a ‘granular inclusion’, they said…well, it was like shrapnel.”
“Like metal fragments from a bomb. Anyway, his aorta was lacerated, and there’s just not enough to put back together. We…I tried. I really did. But he’s bleeding to death, and we can’t stop it.”
“Everything we put in comes back out. We’re transfusing him now, keep him alive until you got here. But…no. I’m sorry. You better go in. He may know you’re there.” He hesitated, and then opened his arms.
Beth hugged him, hard. He smelled of sweat and aftershave and the coppery musk of blood.
Beth’s mother and sister were sitting in drawn-up chairs outside a curtained alcove. Something was beeping. Their eyes were red and dry and exhausted. “Hurry,” Beth’s mother said.
Bea released her. “I’ll be right here.”
“Come with me?” Beth had never seen death before, and she was scared. The older woman ws a sudden intimate comfort.
Bea looked to Beth’s mother for permission. “All right, Beth.” Her arm went around the girl’s shoulders again.
Peter Collins was a large tall man, but he was hidden beneath tented blankets and bandages and tubes, and only his face was clear to see. He was wearing an oxygen mask, and his eyes were closed. One hand lay on the edge of the bed.
“Take his hand,” whispered Bea. “I’m right here.”
Beth awkwardly went to one knee on the cool tiled floor, and took her father’s hand. It was cool to her touch, and she knew what she did not want to know.
His finger moved slightly, a single light touch.
The tapping continued, alternating with slightly longer pressure.
Peter Collins had been in the Navy, and he had taught his daughters More, and the special Navy-speak abbreviations.
Their secret language.
Bravo zulu. “Well done.”
Beth put her free hand to her eyes.
The tapping paused, then continued.
And then the finger relaxed, and a machine which had been beeping let go with a sad flat final tone.
Beth closed her eyes, and wept.
Bea gasped, and pressed Beth’s shoulder, hard. “Look!”
A light was moving, under the tent of blankets, under the bandages, toward Peter Collins’ head.
And there it paused, illuminating his dead features in the warm embrace of life…and the light rose to the ceiling and vanished, leaving a small bright fading halo.
Beth had closed her eyes, remembering.
And now the water in which she stood organized itself, like warm ice forming beneath her feet.
And presently, she stood on its living surface.
And then, the greater miracle.
Emily was back.
The queen was gone, and the sparkling eyes of the college girl looked out from a face that was lined, and circled in grey, but the eyes were happy.
For how long? Even a minute was glorious. “Em!”
Frail and familiar, Emily put her hand out to touch Beth’s cheek. “Oh, Beth.”
And then she closed her eyes, and collapsed like house of cards, a happy smiling falling flutter.
“I think she just overdid it,” said Aubrey, after they had carried Emily to her bed and tucked her in. “She’s fainted before. But I’ll get the doc to come out.”
“Has she…has this...?”
Aubrey shook her head. “Not while I’ve been with her. She’s lucid and she does well day-to-day, but she doesn’t remember her past. I know some of it, so I can help if something comes back, but it’s never happened.”
“What happened to her? Her life? We lost touch.”
“I can’t tell you. HIPAA, privacy stuff, you know? I would if I could.”
Beth sighed, hoping that her friend would wake, and could tell her.
Aubrey touched her on the arm. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said softly.
“I feel bad about this…the water thing…” Beth couldn’t bring herself to say ‘walking on water’; besides, she’d only stood on it. “It took too much out of her.”
“What do you mean?”
“She used up, you now, the force, inside her…”
“Beth, uh…no. It wasn’t her, that did it.”
Next morning, Beth walked up to the door with trepidation as her companion.
Would she meet Roomie Em, or Queen Emily?
Would Emily even be awake?
As Beth was about to knock, he heard a voice, behind the door, a male voice, obviously talking on a phone.
“…yes. The minute she wakes. I’ll let you know, Dad. And we’ll go from there…yeah, I agree, God is great, OK?”
Beth rapped on the door. It was opened by a bearded blond man in a ratty t-short and a rattier ballcap.
“Well, it’s good to see you, Beth Collins. Finally. Again.”
“TJ? You remember…how?” Beth did not consider that her remembering TJ also meant that he might remember her. “And what are you…here?” She felt queasy, and short of breath.
TJ smiled, and the years fell away. “Well, first, I’m here because I’m Em’s husband.” He held up his left hand. “And second, Beth…how could I forget?”
“I didn’t forget, either.”
There was an awkward silence, then TJ moved aside, saying, “Em’s not awake yet, but come on in. If you’d like to.”
“Sure.” Beth moved as if she were pushing her way through cobwebs. both hating the feeling and savouring it, and she didn’t know why. “It’s Yang, now. Beth Yang.”
“I know. I’m sorry, if my using your maiden name offended…and I’m so sorry for your loss.” TJ looked over his shoulder as he led her to the dining room table, on which the Scrabble board still rested. “Truly sorry.”
“I wasn’t offended.” Dizzied, yes, by going back in time to those words I’d held in my heart.
“Was he the only who got seasick? The boyfriend?”
Beth smiled. “He was. He…well, he really stood by me when Daddy…my father…died. Stood by my family.”
“I’m glad. Good men aren’t easy to find, or so they say.”
“My family, my mom and sister, well, they were a bit worried at first.”
“Well, until they met him. They thought, maybe they’d have a hard time understanding him, maybe he’d have a taste for weird food…”
“I thought everyone loved Chinese!”
“Chia-Ming didn’t. He was a burger-and-fries guy. And he spoke English better than they did. He saved the shop, really. Turned us into a specialty place, making parts for off-road bikes. We sold it after he died.”
“Do you ride?” TJ sounded intrigued.
“I tried a few times. Ronnie, my son, he’s really good.” She hesitated, and then shyly went on. “We had, uh, have two kids, Ronnie and Clarissa. Clarissa just had a baby. I’m a mimi.”
“Oh, right…duh! Well, congratulations.” TJ pulled out a chair, and then moved to sit opposite her. “Can I get you something? Coffee, soda, juice? Beer?”
“Beer for breakfast?”
“Just kidding, on that one.”
“Diet anything would be great.”
TJ got up, and went to the refrigerator. “Ice?”
“Please. How about you? Do you have kids?”
TJ’s back was to her, and he grew very still. “We had.”
The word had was operative. “I’m sorry.”
“It was a long time ago.”
He brought back a drink for each of them, slid hers across the table, and sat down again. He was still wearing the ballcap, and suddenly said, “Sorry, rude of me,” and swept it from his head.
Beth was prepared to wince; she knew that some men affected headwear to cover up their balding, and she didn’t want to see The Dude of her memory looking middle-aged. She closed her eyes, not intending to.
“Beth? You can open your eyes.”
Relief. He wasn’t bald, and only showed a bit of grey. Unlike me, but he’s not the type to colour it away. “Sorry.”
“Glad you’re not going bald, either.”
Beth felt her face grow warm. “The cap looks familiar.”
TJ turned it over in his hands. “I saved it. For the memory.”
“The time we talked? The library?”
He nodded. “The one and only.”
Men do that? She changed the subject, intentionally. “Why didn’t I see you here before? Em never mentioned a husband, and Aubrey didn’t say anything.”
TJ hesitated. “Beth, Em doesn’t know me. She gets…got..agitated when I was here, so I pretty much stayed away. And Aubrey, well, she’s here because she’s good at keeping things private. And a good nurse. Both.”
“So you’re here now, because maybe, if she remembered me, she’ll remember you?”
“I hope it works out.” She paused, not knowing how to go on. “There’s something I need to tell you, about…”
“Walking on water. Yeah. Well, standing on buckets. I know.”
Of course he’d know. “It was all so weird,” Beth said helplessly.
“Have you ever..?”
TJ laughed, but there was something besides humour there. “No.”
Beth willed herself not to ask, and then asked anyway. “How..?”
“Does she do it? She doesn’t.”
Not enlightening. “That’s what Aubrey said.”
Beth felt a chill, and not from the ice in her soda. She reached to take a sip, and sent the drink and ice splashing across the Scrabble board. Again. “Sorry.”
Beth got up, and took a towel from its rack. “Let me…”
TJ had been looking down at the cap he still held, then raised his head and leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Beth, just what do you know?”
“Know?” She concentrated on drying the board, to avoid thinking.
Wasn’t it obvious? “Nothing, except that she’s got some kind of dementia, that she’s really good at Scrabble, and now, that you’re married to her. Well, and she can make people walk on water.”
TJ sighed. “There’s a story there.”
Beth didn’t know if she wanted to hear it.
“Do you want to hear it?”
Then came Aubrey’s voice, with quiet smiling urgency, from the hallway. “TJ? She’s awake.”
TJ’s glass tipped as he quickly stood, and more ice flooded the Scrabble board. “And?”
Aubrey’s face shone. “She asked for Beth.”
“Ah. That’s good, very good.” TJ’s face was impassive, bracing against what he might yet learn.
“And then she asked for you.”
“You go,” said Beth, stepping back.
“She asked for you. And maybe…” TJ bit his lip.
“Maybe seeing you will help her remember me better.”
“Of course. But you go in first…” Beth’s voice trailed off.
TJ shook his head. “We’ll go together.”
Emily was sitting up in bed, wearing a pale-green nightgown, with a matching ribbon in her freshly-comber hair. “I wanted to be my best or you.” She looked from TJ to Beth. “Or something.”
“Em.” TJ was standing rigidly, and conflicting emotions, delight and fear, crossed and recrossed his face. “Em.”
Emily held out her arms to him. “Yes, dear heart. Come here.”
TJ walked stiffly over, and sat on the edge of the bed, and Beth thought he looked like he was scared that if he touched his wife, she’d shatter, or disappear in a puff of smoke.
‘You can hug me. I won’t break.”
Opening his mouth to speak, TJ only let out a low choking moan, and gently hugged Emily.
“I’m sorry I’ve been away, dear heart. But I’ll be staying now,” Emily said into TJ’s chest.
Do you know how long…” TJ stopped, knowing the question was pointless.
“Five years and some change. I remember everything. It’s all right now. I’m all right now. Well, except that I’m dying. But we’re OK.” She squeezed her husband. “It’s really all right.”
“I don’t want to lose you, Em. Not now.” TJ’s words came out thickly.
“Oh, silly man, you won’t lose me…I’ll die, that’s all.” She put her hand under his chin, and raised his head, to look into his eyes. “I once was lost, but now am found…” she sang.
Beth caught Aubrey’s eye, and started sidling her way to the door.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Emily was looked over TJ’s shoulder, which was shaking.
“You guys should really…”
“God gave me two arms so I could hug the both of you, Beth.”
Beth sat next to TJ, and Emily shifted so she could hug them both. Then she started to laugh.
“What’s funny?” TJ said in a voice that still shook with emotion.
“Do you realise, you two who have been so important to me…this is the first time we’ve ever been together, in the same place?”
She looked at Beth, eyes dancing with mirth. “And do you remember the message you told me to give TJ?”
Beth’s face flushed. “I remember.”
“Well, then…now I have a message for TJ to give you.”
TJ was confused. “Huh?”
“Go on, TJ, a kiss on the cheek, for this dear heart who brought us together.” And as the message was delivered, Emily clapped her hands in delight.
Emily tired quickly, and Aubrey ushered Beth and TJ from the room, extracting from Beth a promise to return the next morning.
Beth looked to TJ. “Absolutely,” he said. “Come on, I’ll walk you out.”
They went out the front door, and TJ asked, “You still want to hear the story?”
“Hmm?” In the emotion of the past few minutes, Beth had forgotten that she had walked, well, stood on water, and that there was a story behind it all.
“The water thing.”
“Oh.” Beth felt like an idiot. “Yes. Of course.”
“Tomorrow, then…if Em’s up for it, she should say her part…” His words slowed. “Her perspective.”
“I don’t want to overstrain her, I mean, it’s like she just woke up.”
“Well, we’ll see. I have a feeling, she’ll want you to know.”
They had reached Beth’s driveway, and as TJ stopped, a car arrived.
“Ronnie! TJ, this is my son…Ronnie, this is…”
The young man slowly got out of his car, staring past his mother, at TJ. “I think I know you…”
TJ was silent.
“Yeah, five years ago, at church…you and the other guys were going to talk, and then the cops showed up.”
“Ronnie, what? “ Beth was perplexed.
“It was a memorable night” TJ said drily
“What happened?” Ronnie’s youth informed his directness. “You guys were arrested, right?”
“Well, sort of.”
“Love to hear it, man.”
“Someday.” TJ put out his hand, and Ronnie shook it. “Promise.”
“Cool!” Ronnie turned to his mother. “I was just gonna drop these papers off, the ones you gotta sign, the mutuals?” He handed Beth a large envelope.
“Thanks.” Beth kissed him on the cheek. “Saved me a trip to the brokers’.”
“No prob. Hey, I gotta split.” He turned back to TJ. “Hold you to that promise, man.” Then again to Beth. “See what you missed, not going to church with me and Clar?” And then he was gone.
“It wasn’t actually the police,” said TJ.