Again and again, I say it with no response, and I bite back tears. How many times when I was a kid had he told me, even as a little boy, my “whisper” could drown out a lion’s roar? Reaching up, I adjust my hearing aid and bit by bit the chirps, clicks, and electronic voices of the hospital equipment enter my world.
“Stephen?” Cole’s eyes flicker open, the once deep brown iris now milky with cataracts.
How many stunts have those peepers caught me ready to commit through the years?
His voice tightens around my heart and when I answer him, my words catch on the rubble of ancient emotion. “I’m here Cole. When I make a promise, I keep it. You taught me that.”
His cracking lips curl up at the edges, unseeing gaze weighing on me. “Why are you here?”
Taking a deep breath, I wait a moment and see his mind shuffle through memory for his answer. “Camilla?” He says. “My little girl?”
I hold his fingers tighter, wondering how to delay the moment a little longer. He’s waited fifty-five years with his hope of finding her.
“What do you remember the most about her?” I say.
His head tilts to the right in thought over the sheets pulled up under his chin. “Her laugh.”
He blinks away sudden tears and I squeeze his shoulder, my knuckles popping with arthritis.
“I remember her belly deep laugh,” he says, “especially when you two would play. You could make her laugh like no one else.”
“It was easy enough. She’d laugh for any Tom, Dick, or Harry.”
“My dear Martha always thought you two would end up married,” he smiles.
“And you didn’t?”
His brows sink together, his sightless gaze flicking back and forth in panic. “She—”
I stroke his hair, his heart rate monitor sounding a screaming alarm. “There, there, old rooster. The hens are all safe, the foxes are gone, you have nothing to worry about.”
A young nurse runs in and soon enough, he’s dozing peacefully.
“You might want to go home and rest yourself, Stephen,” she says, smiling kindly at me. “He’ll be out for a while.”
“Thank you, but I’d like to stay.”
She casts a careful glance from Cole to me, and back before nodding. “You’re the only one he has left anyway.” Gently, she pushes white wisps out of his eyes. “He was telling me about his wife and daughter the other day, but he didn’t seem to remember where they are.”
“Is his memory loss because of his medication or the tumor?”
“I’ll ask his doctor, but it’s most likely a combination of the two, along with his age.”
I thank her, stroking the skin, weathered thin, on the back of his palm.
My stomach growls like a rabid pit-bull.
Pausing at the door, she looks over her shoulder. “When was the last time you ate?”
Scratching my chin, I try, unsuccessfully to remember.
She motions for me to come with her. “I’m about to go on my lunch break and I hate to eat alone.”
I hesitate, but finally, push myself up and follow her.
When we enter the cafeteria, I wince, my hearing aids beginning to scream. Yanking the tuner from my shirt pocket I bring the noise of the room down to a dull roar.
A hand comes to rest on my shoulder and I find the nurse blinking at me. “What did you say?”
“I asked you how you met Cole.” Picking up a tray, she heads for a pizza station along the far wall.
Pizza sounds pretty good.
“He delivered me,” I say, choosing a slice of cheese pizza.
“Delivered you from what?” She sucks in her cheeks, puckering her lips.
“Is that a joke?”
When she shakes her head “no” I can’t help but wonder how she became a nurse. Had they started just slapping a degree on anyone who asked for one?
Digging in my wallet, I give the cash for my lunch to the cashier. “From my mother’s womb.”
The nurse’s cheeks flush red and I find myself picturing what she’d look like if she put some effort into her herself.
“So,” she says as we take our seats away from the noisier area, “do you know what happened to his family?”
I shrug. “Why do you want to know?’
“I like to know as much as I can about my patients.”
My heart punches my ribs. “What gives you the right?”
She appraises me without blinking. “Nothing,” she says finally. “I have no rights to his past beyond what affects his health. But, when he’s alone and panicking, calling for his daughter, then for his wife, I wish I had something to tell him.”
Looking at my calloused hands I decide she’s as good of a dry run, or partial one as any. I push my pizza away. “His daughter, Camilla, and I were born three days apart. I’m older. His wife, Martha, was a homemaker and absolute beauty. Just like her daughter.”
My vision clouds and I wipe the memories from my eyes.
“My own mother died a few days after I was born and Martha started caring for me while my dad tended our farm. So, Camilla and I were just—” My throat closes around the words, “—like siblings.”
The nurse leans forward, her lunch forgotten.
“When we were 12, she started talking about this boy she liked. She was smitten. She was amazing, bright, bubbly, sweet, everything a girl should be. One day, after school, she refused to let me walk her home.” I close my eyes as Camilla’s scream echoes in my ear. “The police found her beaten to a pulp. Her face was unrecognizable. Her left leg and right arm were broken, her pelvis shattered.”
The nurse covers her mouth, her eyes closing. “Did she survive?”
“The boy didn’t kill her, but she was never the same again.”
“What happened to her?”
“Her face was disfigured, she scared little kids, and she could never run or walk right. When she was 15 she left home in the middle of the night, leaving her parents a note saying she loved them, but asking them not to try to look for her.”
“Did they try to find her?”
I sip my iced tea and nod.
“And?” She says.
A bead of sweat rolls down my nose.
“Her remains were discovered a week ago in a lot that was being dug up for a new apartment complex.”
She gasps in horror and my innards twist.
“Does Cole know?” she says.
I shake my head and push myself away from the table. “But he deserves the truth while he might still understand it.”
I sit silently by his side, my heart speeding like a V-8 engine.
When his eyes open, I take his hand and see his mind clear. I know I can’t protect him, or myself, anymore.
I watch his face shatter a little more with every word I say, the lines in his forehead deepening as his lips tremble.
“Was it,” he says through gritted teeth, “the same man who beat her?”
When I don’t answer, his grip on my fingers tightens enough to make me wince.
“The man who ruined my little girl’s life, did he finish her?”
Water pours from my eyes and for the first time in fifty-two years I don’t try to stop it. “No,” I say, “I didn’t kill her.”
As the realization dawns on him, I take back my hand and leave him alone with the monster I really am.