Chapter 58 - Epilogue

"Stanley… I thank you again," Pauline repeated gratefully as her friend helped her sort out the groceries he volunteered to pick up for her. Pauline was working her all-day shift again at the café while Stanley babysat her son Mario, and he lingered around to clean up the kitchen. The tiny apartment was cluttered and needed to be tidied however Pauline, still labouring to pay her bills, was working over-time and too exhausted for the task. So Stanley stepped in.

"Don't worry about it," he replied, placing canned goods in the run-down cupboards. The hinges creaked as he closed them.

Stanley, a cousin of Mario and Luigi, mostly resembled Luigi in height and frame and shared the same messy brown hair and blue eyes. Unlike his missing cousins, he didn't have a mustache. He wore faded jeans and a buttoned shirt bearing the logo of a pest control company he worked for.

Pauline glanced at the instant chicken soup spinning in the microwave and poured fresh orange juice. A bottle of children's cough syrup plastered with the words "GREAT GRAPE TASTE" lay on the table.

"Is Mario getting any better?" Stanley asked casually, although, even after all these years, he felt it was odd to say the name when referring to Pauline's son.

"His fever is down, which is good. A few days ought to do it. It's a hassle to give him the medicine though. He's so fussy unless it comes to food."

Stanley chuckled, remembering his gluttonous cousin. Pauline must have thought the same thing – her voice cracked near the end and she looked suddenly fragile. Even after all those years, Pauline was still madly in love with her missing fiancé, and Stanley wondered if she would ever notice him and his continuous support. Stanley had been by her side since day one of Mario and Luigi's disappearance. He watched her deteriorate from a radiant, ambitious lady to a haggard woman with a low-wage job and struggling to raise her son. He knew if she didn't have her son to provide she would completely waste away.

Despite all his efforts and comfort, his warm affection and concern never seemed to reach her fully, her gaze fixated on the hope that her fiancé would return, overlooking Stanley and his growing infatuation. The lovelorn feeling was almost unbearable…

The microwave beeped, indicating the soup finished warming up and Pauline placed the steaming bowl on a tray with the juice and medicine. Before he knew it, he reached out and pulled Pauline close to him, her chest pressed against his.

"Stanley –" she started but fell silent. His hands caressed her back and he leaned over until his head was above her thin shoulder.

" I know you're still in love with Mario and all but…" his voice stumbled, trying to express his harbored feelings for her, "he's not coming back alright? I – "

"He'll come back. He has to be alive –"

"Pauline, don't think I don't know him. We grew up together and I know him inside and out. He isn't the type that would ever leave a woman in distress, especially not you, Pauline, not the person he wanted to marry and spend the rest of his life with you. And… I can't replace him but I… I love you and it's difficult to see you like this. I hope one day you'd consider me…"

Stanley let go, and looked away, half-shamed half-relieved he revealed his true feelings for her.

"I won't pressure you," he added, "even if you don't share the same feelings I'll still support you entirely, and you know that…"

Pauline nodded, almost expressionless, deep in thought. She was so obsessed with the belief that Mario would return that it was almost fanatical and inflexible. The very idea of Mario no longer living was inconceivable. However Mario would never leave her willingly… Her whole heart knew that.

But we searched and searched and we found no bodies…

"I… I guess it's time I should move on," Pauline mumbled, although she only partly agreed with her words. "However there's always that chance – "

"I'm not saying you should give up hope of his return, but don't let it consume you and prevent you from living normally. You don't care for yourself as much as you did before his disappearance."

Her face fell realizing the truth. She felt her entire life had stopped; her original career goals, her social life, her desire to live happily and it would only resume once Mario returned. Although her son was one of her greatest joys and kept her going, she knew that was only reason why she kept living: to care and love her son and watch him grow. But did that have to be the sole reason?

Maybe I should try to find other means of happiness for myself…

Before Pauline was aware she was crying, Stanley embraced her simply. The hug lasted mere seconds, and ended quicker than Pauline wanted.

"I better get going," he mumbled. "Just gimme a call if you need help with anything else."

"…Sure."

She heard his footsteps fade accompanied with the occasional jiggle of car keys as he opened and shut the front door. Pauline stood there, her eyes darting, as she pondered on Stanley's words.

The chicken soup was still warm and she entered young Mario's room. Her son was sitting up, his eyes focused on the TV screen, his hands fumbling with the video game controller. The console was obsolete since Pauline couldn't afford to provide Mario with the modern luxuries but he seemed content with the simple game.

"Aren't you supposed to be resting?" she said in a mock stern tone.

"I'm in bed like you told me to," Mario pointed out, pausing the game and putting down the controller. He stared at his mother with his vivid curious blue eyes hidden under his wavy brown hair.

Pauline tiptoed in his room, stepping over various action figures and scattered clothes, and placed the tray on his desk. She picked up the medicine and poured the syrup into a spoon, and the son looked on in disgust.

"I know you wish there was a tomato sauce flavoured medicine but this was the best I could find."

Mario accepted the medicine and quickly drank the orange juice to rid the repulsive aftertaste.

"Soup's on the table," Pauline said, giving her son a kiss on the forehead. "Once you get better I'll take you out to a nice restaurant."

"Will Stanley be there?"

Mario was fond of him. Stanley was like his surrogate father, and a skilled baseball player – Mario loved the sport and had various posters of athletes and sports teams on his wall.

"Of course," she said then looked at the still TV screen. "What game are you playing?"

"Sonic The Hedgehog™"

"Well eat your soup before playing unless you want a lukewarm meal, alright? I'll be back to check up on you."

"Okay, mom."

Pauline retreated to her bedroom, and glanced at her bed – one that she and her fiancé used to share. The nightstand beside it had a picture of the separated couple and an old note from him. She probably reread it over a hundred times, the simple, but sweet, words comforting her in a bittersweet way. The bedroom did not change once – it still kept the same design, beige wallpaper, and even the pictures from when she and Mario were living together. It was almost as if Mario never left and he would be coming home any minute…

Stanley is right. I'm so fixated on the past, and this bedroom's atmosphere doesn't help.

Her hand felt heavy as she touched the framed picture on the nightstand. A younger Pauline and Mario smiled back, both dressed formally for a special occasion – their anniversary. The humble plumber surprised her with an evening dinner on a yacht cruising the local harbor.

Sighing, she moved the frame facedown, hiding the picture and covering the note. Fingering her engagement ring, she slowly grasped it as if prepared to slide it off. The ring symbolized their dream to be husband and wife, to love each other endlessly through all challenges and joys life would throw at them and yet that dream was cut short. However she would feel she betrayed Mario if she stopped wearing the ring.

But I can't dwell on the past forever. Mario would probably be shocked if he saw my state now… He didn't fall in love with an exhausted, lifeless, gaunt girl after all. He'd asked what happened to me and why I halted my life for him. He was always so self-sacrificial and never once asked for anything in return… save for a home-cooked meal.

I'm sorry she thought as she finally pulled the ring off her finger. It was almost a spiritual release from a prison she locked herself in for years and years. The ring looked so tiny in the palm of her hand, and she carefully placed it in her jewelry box. Tears began to flow, but she was glad Stanley helped her open her eyes. Maybe she always knew subconsciously inside but refused to face the truth that Mario might not come back and she was wasting her life away waiting for him.

She felt oddly better – like a burden taken off her shoulders, and it was a breath of fresh air.

Maybe I'll ask Stanley to help me redo the bedroom, she contemplated. And maybe, just maybe, he could help fill the void in my heart.

XXXXXXX

OOC: Ok, there, what people have been asking me ever since they read the story: "What happened to Pauline?" originally I wasn't going to include her – since the story was mostly from Peach or Luigi's point of view and there would be no way that they'd know how Pauline is doing after the adventure. It was supposed to leave a sense of incompleteness because of it, but I guess it didn't settle well with some people. So Pauline, and Stanley the bug boy, make an appearance and it gives a little hope that Pauline might move on after all.

Anyway this story was finished BEFORE Pauline returned for Mario vs Donkey Kong: March of the Minis, but I'm glad to see her return. Personally I want Pauline to be a total opposite of Peach for variety, but we'll see.