“I told them all that I’d give you up in a minute,” I said, “if you asked.” I folded my arms, tucking my hands into my armpits. I was beginning to feel the chilliness again. “I did wonder why you never asked—but I supposed it was because of Brianna.”
His face had gone quite bloodless now, and showed white as a skull in the dimness on the other side of the bed.
“Well,” he said, with a poor attempt at his usual self-possession, “I shouldn’t have thought you minded. It’s not as though you ever made a move to stop me.”
I stared at him, completely taken aback.
“Stop you?” I said. “What should I have done? Steamed open your mail and waved the letters under your nose? Made a scene at the faculty Christmas party? Complained to the Dean?”
His lips pressed tight together for a moment, then relaxed.
“You might have behaved as though it mattered to you,” he said quietly.
“It mattered.” My voice sounded strangled.
He shook his head, still staring at me, his eyes dark in the lamplight.
“Not enough.” He paused, face floating pale in the air above his dark dressing gown, then came round the bed to stand by me.
“Sometimes I wondered if I could rightfully blame you,” he said, almost thoughtfully. “He looked like Bree, didn’t he? He was like her?”
He breathed heavily, almost a snort.
“I could see it in your face—when you’d look at her, I could see you thinking of him. Damn you, Claire Beauchamp,” he said, very softly. “Damn you and your face that can’t hide a thing you think or feel.”
There was a silence after this, of the sort that makes you hear all the tiny unbearable noises of creaking wood and breathing houses—only in an effort to pretend you haven’t heard what was just said.
“I did love you,” I said softly, at last. “Once.”
“Once,” he echoed. “Should I be grateful for that?”
The feeling was beginning to come back to my numb lips.
“I did tell you,” I said. “And then, when you wouldn’t go…Frank, I did try.”
Whatever he heard in my voice stopped him for a moment.
“I did,” I said, very softly.
He turned away and moved toward my dressing table, where he touched things restlessly, picking them up and putting them down at random.
“I couldn’t leave you at the first—pregnant, alone. Only a cad would have done that. And then…Bree.” He stared sightlessly at the lipstick he held in one hand, then set it gently back on the glassy tabletop. “I couldn’t give her up,” he said softly. He turned to look at me, eyes dark holes in a shadowed face.
“Did you know I couldn’t sire a child? I…had myself tested, a few years ago. I’m sterile. Did you know?”
I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.
“Bree is mine, my daughter,” he said, as though to himself. “The only child I’ll ever have. I couldn’t give her up.” He gave a short laugh. “I couldn’t give her up, but you couldn’t see her without thinking of him, could you? Without that constant memory, I wonder—would you have forgotten him, in time?”
“No.” The whispered word seemed to go through him like an electric shock. He stood frozen for a moment, then whirled to the closet and began to jerk on his clothes over his pajamas. I stood, arms wrapped around my body, watching as he pulled on his overcoat and stamped out of the room, not looking at me. The collar of his blue silk pajamas stuck up over the astrakhan trim of his coat.
A moment later, I heard the closing of the front door—he had sufficient presence of mind not to slam it—and then the sound of a cold motor turning reluctantly over. The headlights swept across the bedroom ceiling as the car backed down the drive, and then were gone, leaving me shaking by the rumpled bed.
Frank didn’t come back. I tried to sleep, but found myself lying rigid in the cold bed, mentally reliving the argument, listening for the crunch of his tires in the drive. At last, I got up and dressed, left a note for Bree, and went out myself.
The hospital hadn’t called, but I might as well go and have a look at my patient; it was better than tossing and turning all night. And, to be honest, I would not have minded had Frank come home to find me gone.
The streets were slick as butter, black ice gleaming in the streetlights. The yellow phosphor glow lit whorls of falling snow; within an hour, the ice that lined the streets would be concealed beneath fresh powder, and twice as perilous to travel. The only consolation was that there was no one on the streets at 4:00 A.M. to be imperiled. No one but me, that is.
Inside the hospital, the usual warm, stuffy institutional smell wrapped itself round me like a blanket of familiarity, shutting out the snow-filled black night outside.
“He’s okay,” the nurse said to me softly, as though a raised voice might disturb the sleeping man. “All the vitals are stable, and the count’s okay. No bleeding.” I could see that it was true; the patient’s face was pale, but with a faint undertone of pink, like the veining in a white rose petal, and the pulse in the hollow of his throat was strong and regular.
I let out the deep breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “That’s good,” I said. “Very good.” The nurse smiled warmly at me, and I had to resist the impulse to lean against him and dissolve. The hospital surroundings suddenly seemed like my only refuge.
There was no point in going home. I checked briefly on my remaining patients, and went down to the cafeteria. It still smelled like a boarding school, but I sat down with a cup of coffee and sipped it slowly, wondering what I would tell Bree.
It might have been a half-hour later when one of the ER nurses hurried through the swinging doors and stopped dead at the sight of me. Then she came on, quite slowly.
I knew at once; I had seen doctors and nurses deliver the news of death too often to mistake the signs. Very calmly, feeling nothing whatever, I set down the almost full cup, realizing as I did so that for the rest of my life, I would remember that there was a chip in the rim, and that the “B” of the gold lettering on the side was almost worn away.
“…said you were here. Identification in his wallet…police said…snow on black ice, a skid…DOA…” the nurse was talking, babbling, as I strode through the bright white halls, not looking at her, seeing the faces of the nurses at the station turn toward me in slow motion, not knowing, but seeing from a glance at me that something final had happened.
He was on a gurney in one of the emergency room cubicles; a spare, anonymous space. There was an ambulance parked outside—perhaps the one that had brought him here. The double doors at the end of the corridor were open to the icy dawn. The ambulance’s red light was pulsing like an artery, bathing the corridor in blood.
I touched him briefly. His flesh had the inert, plastic feel of the recently dead, so at odds with the lifelike appearance. There was no wound visible; any damage was hidden beneath the blanket that covered him. His throat was smooth and brown; no pulse moved in its hollow.
I stood there, my hand on the motionless curve of his chest, looking at him, as I had not looked for some time. A strong and delicate profile, sensitive lips, and a chiseled nose and jaw. A handsome man, despite the lines that cut deep beside his mouth, lines of disappointment and unspoken anger, lines that even the relaxation of death could not wipe away.
I stood quite still, listening. I could hear the wail of a new ambulance approaching, voices in the corridor. The squeak of gurney wheels, the crackle of a police radio, and the soft hum of a fluorescent light somewhere. I realized with a start that I was listening for Frank, expecting…what? That his ghost would be hovering still nearby, anxious to complete our unfinished business?
I closed my eyes, to shut out the disturbing sight of that motionless profile, going red and white and red in turn as the light throbbed through the open doors.
“Frank,” I said softly, to the unsettled, icy air, “if you’re still close enough to hear me—I did love you. Once. I did.”
Then Joe was there, pushing through the crowded corridor, face anxious over his green scrub suit. He had come straight from surgery; there was a small spray of blood across the lenses of his glasses, a smear of it on his chest.
“Claire,” he said, “God, Claire!” and then I started to shake. In ten years, he had never called me anything but “Jane” or “L.J.” If he was using my name, it must be real. My hand showed startlingly white in Joe’s dark grasp, then red in the pulsing light, and then I had turned to him, solid as a tree trunk, rested my head on his shoulder, and—for the first time—wept for Frank.
I leaned my face against the bedroom window of the house on Furey Street. It was hot and humid on this blue September evening, filled with the sound of crickets and lawn sprinklers. What I saw, though, was the uncompromising black and white of that winter’s night two years before—black ice and the white of hospital linen, and then the blurring of all judgments in the pale gray dawn.
My eyes blurred now, remembering the anonymous bustle in the corridor and the pulsing red light of the ambulance that had washed the silent cubicle in bloody light, as I wept for Frank.
Now I wept for him for the last time, knowing even as the tears slid down my cheeks that we had parted, once and for all, twenty-odd years before, on the crest of a green Scottish hill.
My weeping done, I rose and laid a hand on the smooth blue coverlet, gently rounded over the pillow on the left—Frank’s side.
“Goodbye, my dear,” I whispered, and went out to sleep downstairs, away from the ghosts.
It was the doorbell that woke me in the morning, from my makeshift bed on the sofa.
“Telegram, ma’ma,” the messenger said, trying not to stare at my nightgown.
Those small yellow envelopes have probably been responsible for more heart attacks than anything besides fatty bacon for breakfast. My own heart squeezed like a fist, then went on beating in a heavy, uncomfortable manner.
I tipped the messenger and carried the telegram down the hall. It seemed important not to open it until I had reached the relative safety of the bathroom, as though it were an explosive device that must be defused under water.
My fingers shook and fumbled as I opened it, sitting on the edge of the tub, my back pressed against the tiled wall for reinforcement.
It was a brief message—of course, a Scot would be thrifty with words, I thought absurdly.
HAVE FOUND HIM STOP, it read. WILL YOU COME BACK QUERY ROGER.
I folded the telegram neatly and put it back into its envelope. I sat there and stared at it for quite a long time. Then I stood up and went to dress.
Joe Abernathy was seated at his desk, frowning at a small rectangle of pale cardboard he held in both hands.
“What’s that?” I said, sitting on the edge of his desk without ceremony.
“A business card.” He handed the card to me, looking at once amused and irritated.
It was a pale gray laid-finish card; expensive stock, fastidiously printed in an elegant serif type. Muhammad Ishmael Shabazz III, the center line read, with address and phone number below.