“There’s a new patient in Room Three,” Doris, the shift supervisor, says while pulling the file and laying it on the hospice counter.
Marcie, a young Island nurse, leans her elbows on the desk and begins to scan, “Robert Crossman, eighty-three, metastasizing liver cancer.”
“Transferred from Plymouth Hospital last night,” Doris adds, “morphine drip, digestive tract shutting down, vitals falling slowly, DNR.”
Marcie glances up. “It’s all here, Doris.”
“Sorry, it’s been a long night. Let’s go sit.”
Room Three is centered in the hospice’s eastern corridor, opposite a bank of picture windows. Against the inner wall, Doris sinks into a black, vinyl lounge chair, looks out to budding maples in the courtyard. Marcie perches on the armrest beside her.
“Is there family?” Marcie asks as she sifts through Crossman’s case history. “No relatives or visitors are listed here.”
“Maybe he’s outlived everyone,” Doris says. “I thought that was odd, too. He’s not that old.”
“Is he using the morphine drip?”
“No complaints of pain,” Doris says, “just that his hand aches from the IV.”
“I’ll take it out then.”
Doris nods. “Mr. Crossman dozes, wakes up, sleeps again. I hold his hand when he’s awake.”
“Is he afraid?” Marcie asks. “Any bad dreams or hallucinations?”
“Don’t think so, but he doesn’t talk much. He was quiet in the night.”
Marcie smiles gently. “Just the sort to leave us with no goodbye.”
“Walk away for a break, come back, he’s gone.”
“Hope it doesn’t happen like that,” Marcie says.
Somewhere nearby, women are talking softly, but I pay no attention.
It’s an early spring morning, scattered grey clouds drift above. Shoulder-high, fence wire encloses a field where raindrops glisten on red clover. The pasture stretches a hundred yards to Lake Maxinkuckee, its far shore cloaked in mist.
A rising sun warms water pooled thinly here on black asphalt. On this lonely county road, painted yellow stripes slope gently northward, wind down to a nameless creek that flows toward the lake. Below a crumbling concrete bridge, bluegills snap at minnows. The stream ripples westward over quartz pebbles, then disappears into shoals of broom grass.
A tall sycamore peeks above the next hill. Beyond the crest there is a century farm house with high walls and green-framed windows, an open summer porch shaded by flowering magnolias.
A white-pawed tomcat hunts in high weeds near the mailbox. A bicycle lies on the lawn next to the front steps. Waiting in the doorway, a woman lifts her hand, then walks out to greet me.
Standing quietly on the stairs, my wife smiles. Eileen’s short-sleeved pullover matches beige, pleated slacks. A small onyx cameo hangs at her throat. Her eyes are green and strands of blonde hair curl above her shoulders. High cheek bones and determined chin, all features arranged in a pleasing oval.
“Rob,” she beams, “you found me!”
She steps down to drape her arms over my shoulders. We kiss, hold each other tight until I must see her face once more.
I follow my wife into the empty farmhouse and we climb its narrow stairs to the second floor. From the paneled landing, three rooms face west and south.
“Remember which bedroom was mine?” she asks.
Eileen’s two younger brothers shared the one on the right, her older sister’s room was to the left. Inside the corner bedroom is a double bed with white cotton sheets and a rumpled blanket. One window faces south, but a bank of three look west, where, at sunset, gulls soar on cool night breezes over the lake.
“Rob, I saw you crossing the bridge,” she says. She draws me toward the dressing table, motions outside the window to the road skirting the hay field. I turn to Eileen, to the woman I have loved from childhood, beyond death.
“I lost you eight years ago,” I say. “Have you been here all along?”
Eileen smiles, shakes her head. “I woke just now, even as you see me.”
“Darling, it’s been years.”
“Not for me, Rob, only a moment.” Eileen rests her palms upon my chest, leans close.
I smooth my hands over her hair, kiss her forehead, feel her caress.
“How old are we?” I ask.
Eileen studies my face. “About thirty-five I suppose. This is how I always think of us.”
“Eileen, I’ve missed you so.”
She turns from me, bows her head to expose the cameo’s clasp. I kiss the nape of her neck, open the tiny catch.
As I place the chain on her dressing table, the back of my hand stings, but quickly Eileen massages away the pain.
“Doris, he’s leaving us.”