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Woman Without Cape

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With a sudden gust of cold winter air, Brenda burst through the front door of the café. She seemed uncharacteristically distressed. Looking around for Anne, she located her at a table in the back corner. She was focused on getting to her friend. She pushed past David, causing him to spill the contents of a large mug over the front of his apron. Some splashed onto a customer’s shirt. Brenda didn’t even stop to apologize.

What the hell’s going on, thought Anne. She rose quickly to pull out a chair for her distracted friend.

Anne waited patiently while Brenda shrugged off her ski jacket, mitts and toque, piling them in a jumbled heap on the chair next to her. She sat down and and Anne noticed her smeared, black eye-liner.

“Bren, what is it? Are you ok? Is it your Mom? Has she had a fall? Or wandered off again?”

Brenda’s eyes filled with tears. She reached out, grabbing Anne’s hands in a tight clasp. She began to shake and quietly sob. Her breath came in short, raspy puffs.

“Bren, what is it?”

Brenda tightened her grip and gasped for breath.

“It’s Alix. She’s dead, Anne. She’s dead!”

“Alix is dead? What the hell are you talking about? I talked with her yesterday at the Y. She looked great. I even invited her to join us today. Said she had another commitment. How can Alix be dead?”

Brenda’s words rushed out in a hushed whisper. Anne had to lean in to hear the words.

“Tom found her. I’m not sure of all the details yet. But he tried CPR. It was too late. The paramedics couldn’t revive her. Oh, Ann, it’s all so terrible.”

Brenda’s loud sobs shook her body. People at nearby tables glanced up in alarm. Anne looked around, disbelief etched onto her face. Without thinking, her words, rough-edged with fear and shock, poured into the space between them.

“How…? How did Alix die? Couldn’t have been her heart. Christ, Bren. She runs marathons for god’s sake!”

Anne’s thoughts were jumbled. She needed to say something – as if the sound of the words would bring order and predictability back into her life.

Brenda, still struggling with the emotion of the moment, continued.

“The cops found some empty pill bottles in the kitchen. They think that’s where she took them.”

“What? Wait just a goddamn minute. You’re telling me that Alix killed herself?” Anger flared in her voice.

“No fucking way. She wouldn’t do that. She was okay. I’m her best friend. I’d know if something was wrong. For Christ’s sake, Bren. It’s our Alix. She’d never, ever kill herself.”

“But, Anne… she did. She’s gone. Tom tried to call you when he found her. But you didn’t answer your cell.”

In that moment, Anne remembered she’d turned her phone off before going to bed and hadn’t turned it back on when she left for the coffee shop. And just to make matters worse, at this very moment her damn phone was sitting on the middle console in the car. One of the most important goddamn calls in her life and she’d bloody well missed it!

“Shit!” Anne was at a loss for words.

Bren’s eyes flooded again. Small drops of white snot clung to her nose, threatening to drop off on the table between them.

Anne nodded slowly, despair settling into her eyes.

Suddenly she sat back hard in her chair. It felt as if someone had hit her with a sledge hammer. Right in the middle of her chest.

Her closest friend – dead? They’d known each other since grade nine. Alix had been one of her bridesmaids. And she’d killed herself?

Anne jerked her hands from Brenda. She wrapped her arms tight around her body, trying, not too successfully, to keep herself together. Bren’s face began to blur. An image of a laughing Alix yesterday at the Y slipped quickly into her vision.

How could this have happened?

Anne began to cry. Then moan softly.

Never in her life had Anne felt so utterly alone.

***

Alix’s funeral had been a family-only affair.

But Tom had decided that even though Alix would have been embarrassed by it, he also had to have a community memorial service. A week later, hundreds of folks came to the golf club to celebrate Alix’s life.

Tom asked Anne to say a few words. Try as she might, Anne couldn’t write anything suitable down on paper. She finally gave up, deciding to just speak from the heart about her dear friend. Through frequent tears and some moments of laughter, Anne had managed to share memories that touched everyone very deeply. Afterwards, a tearful Tom had hugged her, whispering a choking ‘thank you so much’ in her ear.

Looking back at it now, Anne was finally able to put her finger on the only question that went unspoken during the memorial.

Why did Alix choose to die?

Her suicide had definitely rocked the community.

She was an accomplished woman with a high public profile. She had been a caseworker at the local child protection agency. Her colleagues respected her passionate work with kids and their families.

Alix was on the investigative side of the service. She was the most senior of the agency’s several first responders. They investigated public complaints about children being neglected, abused or maltreated. Some of the situations were quite horrific.

Alix was a compelling public speaker. She was a popular guest on talk shows and in the local media. Her message always promoted the important work of her agency and the need for a firm but compassionate response to all matters involving the maltreatment of kids.

But oddly, in spite of her quasi-celebrity status, not much was known about her personal life.

Alix was married to Tom Berensford, a lawyer who worked as an Assistant Crown Attorney in Toronto. Both were very career-oriented.

While in law school, Tom and Alix met because of their shared passion for soccer. Both were on varsity teams. They were among the university’s elite athletes. They married in Tom’s last year of law school while Alix completed her final year of graduate work.

Several days after the memorial service, Tom called Anne. After an awkward exchange of pleasantries, he asked if she could meet him for coffee at Pablo’s. ‘It’s important’ he said.

On this particular morning, Anne was immediately reminded of Tom’s passion for soccer. He came to Pablo’s wearing his ratty looking, old blue and white Varsity sweater under an equally grubby leather aviator’s jacket. The one with the permanently stained sheep fleece collar. Anne knew that these two pieces were his favorite casual wear. She felt comforted that in this difficult time Tom had chosen clothes that Alix also loved to see him wearing.

Arriving at the table, Tom gave Anne a quick hug. Then he sat down heavily on the chair opposite. Anne had ordered him a double latte, his favourite, and the steaming mug was waiting.

Never one to beat around the bush, Tom got right to it.

“Thanks for coming, Anne. We really need to talk about Alix’s death.” He paused, his eyes holding steady on her face. “She loved you like a sister, you know.”

Again, Tom hesitated as if carefully weighing his next words.

“Did you have any clue about Alix’s plans? She ever mention anything that made you wonder if she was in some sort of trouble?” He took a deep breath. “Maybe dropping hints about killing herself? I know it sounds silly but I just have to ask if you knew anything.”

He watched Anne very carefully, weighing her reaction.

“No. Alix never, ever mentioned she was having any difficulties. I swear it, Tom. As her best friend, you think I’d know.”

In spite of her best effort, Anne began to quietly cry.

To comfort both herself and Tom, she reached out, gently taking both his hands in hers. His fingers were cold, skin dry like tissue paper.

“I ask myself ‘why’ a thousand times a day. It’s driving me crazy, Tom. I can’t sleep. I find myself going over every detail of our relationship, all the way back to high school, for god’s sake. Nothing jumps out at me. Nothing tips me off to why she did it. Tom, I so badly need to have answers.”

Anne searched his face with no success.

Tom shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He looked down at the dark coffee lying cold in the bottom of the white porcelain mug.

With a deep breath, he began to speak – flat, hushed tones so low that Anne could barely hear him.

“Alix was depressed. She hid it well from everyone. Apparently even you. Her work as a child abuse investigator certainly didn’t help. Did it cause the depression? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. But the shit that she had to deal with every day was slowly poisoning her. I could see the change in the past year. I begged her to give up the job. But she wouldn’t. Said she was born to do it – to rescue abused kids. Her doctor gave her pills to manage the depression. The same pills she used to kill herself. She took them all in the middle of the night. Apparently standing at the kitchen sink. Somehow she made it back to our bed. Lay down beside me. She died.”

Tom rubbed his eyes and took several deep breaths. He reached out again for Anne’s hands, taking only her fingers.

“I… I found her in the morning. I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t answer when I asked about her day. I touched her arm. It was cold. I cradled her in my arms. Somehow I called 911. The paramedics said there was nothing they could do. She was gone. Then the young police officer found the empty pill bottles in the sink.”

Apparently exhausted from the rush of emotion in his words, Tom slumped deeper into his chair. He pulled back his hands, keeping them flat on the table as if for support. He continued to stare distractedly down into the white mug.

Tears that had been threatening to spill, now slowly ran down his unshaven cheeks, falling damply on his shirt.

“Tom. Look at me.” Anne waited. No reaction.

“Damn it! Look at me!”

Anne immediately regretted the harshness of her words. Tom was in an unimaginably dark place and she needed to bring him back to her.

“Oh shit. Listen to me. I’m acting like a bitch. Tom, I didn’t mean to sound so hard.”

“No, it’s ok. Believe me. We’re both in the same boat when it comes to Alix. She left us something, Anne. You and me. I found them in my desk drawer after the cops and everybody were gone. Nobody but us know they exist.”

Tom’s eyes bored into her. “Just us, Anne. No one else. Agreed?”

That’s when Anne realized Tom was on a mission today.

“Yeah. I agree.” But she was thinking she might have to tell her husband. She’d have to play that one by ear.

Tom fumbled with the inside pocket of his jacket. Slowly he pulled out a pale, cream-coloured envelope. “Alix left two envelopes. One for me. This one for you.  She asked me to give this to you. ‘When the time seemed right,’ she said. I hope it’s the right time now, Anne.”

He held it in both hands. It seemed as if it were a sacred thing he didn’t want to give up.

After a few moments, he passed it across the table.

The envelope had her name on it – in Alix’s writing. Even her trademark goofy smiley face was scribbled beside it. She always put smiley faces on her letters, notes, and emails to Anne.

Anne smiled at the memory. She felt the sting of tears forming.

Anne realized that she would never get another smiley face from Alix. This was the last one. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks, pooling briefly and then dropping steadily, making darkening splotches upon her blue denim shirt.

“Jesus, Tom, I ….” Words failed her.

Anne gently brought the envelope to her lips. She kissed it. Her tears wouldn’t stop.

Tom was crying too. He looked at Anne. His voice was flat, no emotion. He was on a mission.

She didn’t know what to say. Once again, words refused to come.

Apparently satisfied his final mission for Alix was over, Tom pushed back his chair, stood and carefully adjusted his bomber jacket. He turned to leave but then stopped. He twisted awkwardly back toward her.

“It will likely be a tough read. Do it only when you feel you’re ready. Don’t be too quick to judge her. Alix was your best friend. Like your sister, even. What she did was so unlike her. She was ill. Remember that. Please, Anne.”

Tom turned, zig-zagging his way back through the full tables to the front door. Then out onto a cold and windy Hunter Street, not bothering to pull his fleece collar tight around his face and neck.

Anne held the smiley face envelope in her hands for a long time. Finally, she got up and slowly made her way out of Pablo’s.

***

Ten days later, Anne was pouring some freshly brewed coffee at her kitchen counter. Steve was reading the Sunday sports section.

“Alix left me a letter.”

She held up the cream-colored envelope with the hand-drawn smiley face.

“Two letters really. Tom’s. And mine.” She waved it gently. “I’m supposed to read it. Haven’t yet.”

Anne knew she sounded odd. She was having trouble getting her words in order. That had been happening a lot since Alix’s death.

The suicide haunted Anne every day. Lately, she often had trouble putting more than two intelligent sentences together. Without warning, she’d often begin to cry for no apparent reason.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, Anne would wake and quietly slide out of bed, shuffling downstairs to the kitchen. In the soft green glow of the stove clock, she would make some tea. Holding the cup in one hand, with the other she would pull Alix’s unopened letter out of the top drawer. She kept it hidden between the folded dish towels. She didn’t know why. Nor did she care. It just was.

Moving to her favourite chair, she would sit for a very long time slowly sipping the hot tea, staring at the envelope. In particular, the hand-drawn smiley face. Most times she would softly cry.

Flashbacks sucked mercilessly at her spirit – some bad times when they’d been totally there for each other. Also many beautiful moments. It all came back unbidden to Anne in those lonely hours of the dark nights.

Almost always, everything ended with a horrific image of her beloved Alix – on the bed, beside her Tom. The beautiful face now just a death mask. In Anne’s vivid imagination, Alix was smiling. Almost like the Mona Lisa except there was a wet trickle of saliva moving slowly down her chin onto the blue flannel nightie. A smiley face had been crudely scrawled onto it in a childish hand with a black marker.

Anne blinked twice to erase the horrible image of her beloved Alix.

Seeing the offered envelope, Steve got up from his chair, moved behind the counter and took it from her. He held it as if it were a fragile baby bird, fallen from the nest. He looked at it silently for a long time then looked back up at his wife. He could see tears forming in her eyes.

“You were her very best friend, Anne. I guess she just wants to have a last conversation with you. She wants you to understand. It may not seem like it right now but you’ll come to see this letter as a gift.”

Putting the envelope down on the counter, he moved to fully embrace her. He felt her quick breaths and the dampness on his cheek. Anne was trembling. She leaned fully into him, seeking his comforting warmth. He held her until it passed.

Gathering herself, Anne stepped back, wiping a hand through her tangled hair and rubbing under her eyes with the sleeve of her sweatshirt.

Steve noticed the logo on her shirt but didn’t mention it.

It was Anne’s favorite fleece. She wore it often. Even more so since Alix had died.

Three summers ago, Anne and Alix had taken their first ‘girls only’ road trip to Newfoundland. Two amazing weeks of exploring, camping and antiquing. It had been a wonderful holiday. Both women had come back with matching royal blue sweatshirts, large white letters printed across the front – ‘Our Past Is Alive’.

Steve wondered if Anne’s decision this morning to wear it might in some way be connected to the contents of the unopened letter.

He decided to say nothing. Anne looked at him. She seemed like a lost child. He waited.

“He … Tom told me Alix was depressed. Taking prescription drugs for it. The same drugs that killed her. I keep asking myself why I didn’t pay more attention to her behavior, to her words before she died. The warning signs must have been there. I just didn’t see them.”

She took a deep, calming breath.

In the many dark moments since Alix’s death, Anne blamed herself for not noticing the obvious symptoms. For not picking up on the clues to Alix’s frightening secret.

Almost every day she beat herself up with sharp, hurtful thoughts. If only… if only she’d been a better friend, Alix would still be alive. If only. If only.

“In his letter, Tom said Alix warned him to only give me mine when I was ready. Whatever the hell that means. So two Fridays ago, we had coffee at Pablo’s. He gave this to me.”

She pointed vaguely toward the envelope with the happy face.

“He didn’t say what was in in his letter. I didn’t ask. When is anyone ever ready for something like this, Steve?”

Anne didn’t expect an answer. She just needed to say the words out loud.

“Alix killed herself for god’s sake. How does anyone – Tom, her family, her co-workers, even me. How do any of us ever make any sense of this crazy nightmare and just move on?”

Anne stopped. Her breath was coming in noisy, scraping swishes of air.

Steve realized that over the past few days, his wife had prepared herself for this very moment.

Anne picked the envelope with the smiley face off the counter, walked over to her Sunday chair and settled in.

Carefully, she sliced the letter open with a fingernail. To Steve, it looked as if she was expecting something scary to jump out–to bite her, maybe even infect her with something terrible.

Inside were several pages of the cream-colored stationery with the fuzzy side cut that Alix so loved to use. Each page had a lot of writing – all of it in her distinctive, scribble-like style.

Anne sat still, taking one slow, deep breath after another. Dabbing occasionally at her eyes with tissues, she began to silently read.

***

The warm June afternoon was a good time for Anne to be sitting in front of the simple, black marble headstone.

Six months ago the monument craftsman had etched Tom’s favorite photo of Alix into the smooth stone face of the marker.

If Tom had asked Anne to choose a photo to best commemorate his wife, it would have been this very one. With long strands of hair blowing wildly in the ocean breeze, her face tilted back slightly over a bare left shoulder, Alix was smiling toward the camera with impish delight.

The original photo had been taken during their trip to Newfoundland. It had been a beautiful, shared moment between the two women. Now it was preserved forever on Alix’s memorial.

Hiking the Oceanside Trail near Cow Point in Gros Morne, Anne and Alix had unexpectedly come upon a deserted cove with a small, sandy beach. In a moment of giddy pleasure, they quickly stripped off their sweaty hiking clothes. Then, with noisy, child-like abandon they rushed naked into the cold waters of the bay. Their screams and delighted laughter repeated many times, echoed off the dark, nearby cliffs.

In a spontaneous moment, Alix had insisted that Anne snap her picture. Alix struck a naked, saucy pose waist deep in the small curling waves. From then on, Alix always self-mockingly referred to the photo as her ‘Woman Without Cape’ moment.

It was their private joke. For the last few years, Anne had been worried about the high stress of her friend’s job. Making light of it while at the same time, delivering a worried, cautionary message to Alix, Anne observed that in her work with abused kids, Alix was like Wonder Woman on a mission. Alix always turned the concern into her own joke. Turning toward Anne with a swish of an imaginary cape, Alix would make swooshing sounds like she was flying through the air.

“Wonder Woman. Have cape, will definitely travel. At your service, 24-7.”

To Anne, it seemed Alix truly believed she was coated in Teflon. Nothing toxic about her job could hurt her. It was silly for Anne to worry about her.

Running from the waves to the beach, Alix quickly built a fire to remove the water’s chill. Anne rummaged in their backpack, bringing out a small bottle of Pinot Blanc and some tangy chunks of old cheddar left over from lunch.

They stretched out side by side, choosing to let the warmth of the fire and the mid-afternoon sun dry their bodies. The bottle passed freely back and forth between them – the dry, soft bite of the wine mixing nicely with the tang of the crumbly old cheddar.

That idyllic afternoon on the hidden beach, the women talked about the love of the men in their lives. They shared dreams of changing jobs to something more creatively expressive and fulfilling. They speculated about how each could more permanently capture the spirit-refreshing experience of hiking and camping in the stunning beauty of Gros Morne. Alix spoke wistfully of her wish to have a baby. To be a stay-at-home mom for a few years. Anne revealed her secret fantasy of quitting her university job and becoming a full-time writer.

Alix and Ann chatted excitedly about maybe opening an antique shop together. They agreed it must have a small, sun-filled loft, lined with oddly tilting shelves crammed full of books. And comfy, cracked-leather chairs for anyone who just wanted to read. They’d serve steaming mugs of herbal tea. Or some of the specially blended free-trade coffee that was Alix’s favorite. Of course, all of this would come with the promise of good conversation.

Since early April, Anne had eagerly watched the spring rains successfully tease out the lush greenery in the cemetery. Birds were nesting in nearby trees, often noisily fluttering down to feed on the tasty grubs and earthworms that could now be easily pried out of the soft earth. Muted sounds from the nearby city streets created a low, steady hum. Anne found the distant whisper of human activity strangely comforting.

Ever since she had first read Alix’s letter, Anne came here quite often – just to be with her.

On each visit, she would bring several fresh white daisies, each with a butter yellow center. Alix had loved the innocence and pureness of this flower. She and Tom would have fresh daisies in their home whenever Alix could find them at the florist near where she worked.

For Alix’s thirtieth birthday, Anne and Steve had given her a large oil painting of daisies growing wild in a field. Tom and Alix had placed it on the mantle above their fireplace. Alix told Anne that often in the evenings, relaxing after a hard day at work, she and Tom would sit cuddled on the sofa admiring the subtle colors and play of light across the whites, oranges, yellows and greens of the canvas.

For the first several months of her visits, Anne angrily paced back and forth in front of the monument. The eyes in the etched portrait of ‘Woman Without Cape’ seemed to follow her movements. The sensation of it creeped Anne out. But never mind, it was still a connection with Alix. Often Anne would cry – deep, body-shaking sobs that sometimes frightened foraging squirrels back into the low hanging branches.

During those moments, Anne would plead with Alix to forgive her for not realizing her emotional fragility. “If only you had told me!” Anne sometimes screamed the words at the stone marker.

“I could have helped you. Supported you. Loved you more. God damn it, Alix. I could have. But you didn’t tell me. Not one god damned word.”

Most days, Anne would bring Alix’s letter and read it aloud. In mourning her friend, Anne believed that if only Alix could hear her own words – the explanations, the pain and anguish in them – she would realize the utter folly of her act. Anne knew it was silly to think this way. But reading Alix’s final words out loud again and again were comforting, reassuring. It was like they were having a conversation of sorts.

Other times, Anne’s grief was so totally overwhelming that she ranted and swore at the stone as if it was Alix in the flesh, not her etched stone likeness.

But every visit always ended the same way.

Before leaving, Anne would kneel in front of Alix’s marker. With her fingertips, she would gently touch the image, tracing the hair, the cheekbones and finally, the laughing but Hollywood-pouty lips. Silently, she promised to love Alix for all eternity.

Then, leaning forward, Anne would lightly kiss the image of her friend.

Wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, Anne would rise, and never glancing back, walk slowly to the car park up the nearby hill.

In the past few months, as the weather warmed and new life returned to the surrounding trees, gardens, and ponds, Anne’s behaviour and feelings softened. While she could never fully understand the reasons for Alix’s death, Anne began to experience a welcome calmness that had been eluding her for many months. It was an unfamiliar experience but she embraced it without ever questioning why it was happening to her.

Intuitively, Anne came to know that Alix was listening, silently offering up comfort and ideas about the career and life issues Anne brought to the marker.

By nature, Anne was not a spiritual person. But she always felt Alix’s warm and wise presence surround her entire body as soon as she drew near to the grave.

At the beginning of June, Anne began bringing some of Alix’s favorite books. Anne read each one aloud to her friend. Anne shared drafts of some of her own short stories. Through the telling to her friend, she would gain helpful insights that enriched characters, expanded plot lines.

And so it was that on this warm and sunny late July afternoon, Anne spread a tartan patterned wool blanket in front of the Woman Without Cape grave marker.

With deliberate care, she laid out two crystal wine glasses, a full bottle of their favorite Pinot Blanc and a crumbly, rough-edged round of aged cheddar.

Opening the wine, Anne poured each glass to half full. She placed one on the grass in front of the stone marker. Smiling, Anne raised her glass to Alix’s likeness as if she was present before her.

Today Anne was wearing her favorite royal blue sweatshirt in spite of the warm temperature.

“To us. Our past is truly alive.”

For some time, Anne sat curled up on the blanket, occasionally sipping from the glass, savoring the sharp bite of the cheddar and reading aloud selections from Alix’s favorite poetry.

Time passed.

Soon evening shadows crept into the cemetery.

Anne folded the blanket and placed her glass, the cheese, wine bottle, and poetry book into the backpack. As was her ritual, Anne knelt before the headstone, lovingly traced Alix’s image, kissed it lightly, then rose slowly to stand in front of her loved friend.

“Goodbye, my dear woman without cape.”

“I’ll return in a few days to talk with you again.”

“Be at peace, my lady.”

 

Short Story

 

Don Herald

Peterborough, Ontario

Canada

I have had short fiction published in the US, Canada and the UK. My published stories can be found at www.donherald.blogspot.com.

 

 

 

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