What can I say apart from the 'I'm awfully sorry for the long absence.'?
*Cricket noises, a single tumble weed rolling past.*
Therefore, without any further ado... enjoy!
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT: THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM
It was windy.
It was very windy.
Not that there was anything unusual with such weather, no. The wind wasn't only just an occasional guest in Chicago. Quite the contrary; it is the city's almost permanent habitant, largely due to Chicago's placement on the flat shores of Lake Michigan. This was the very reason why Chicago has always been, and widely known as, the 'Windy City'.
But while the wind was usually most perceptible whilst blowing through the narrow streets of the centre and leaving the open spaces with only a touch of a breeze, this time the whole city was affected. The entire coast was being attacked by bone chilling gusts from the East, the type that sneaks under garments and snatches hats off people's heads. It was the type of wind known by the locals as "Hawk Wind" or "Hawkins"- an indication that winter was knocking on their doors. Or, more like, on their windows, for the wind was strong enough to force one open if it wasn't closed or locked properly.
This was exactly what happened in one of the buildings in south Chicago, in the area of vast, rich properties. The grand old building looked as solid as a rock but upon closer inspection, it would reveal that parts of it had weathered out. And amongst them were the old French windows. One of them stood wide open, with one of its wings swinging backwards and forwards uncontrollably. From inside of the room, someone was wrestling to get ahold of it, with both hands struggling to push away the mass of the madly flailing net curtains. The dim light that came from inside the room highlighted this person from behind, making their entire silhouette look like a tall, shadowy figure. When that someone finally managed to wrangle control over the dancing fabric and had gotten a firm grasp of the swaying wooden frame, shutting it closed took merely a second. The shadow didn't disappear immediately after though. It remained by the window a while longer, its arms lifted and the outlines of hands were busy doing something near and around the window knob.
And outside, Hawkins continued to howl on a high note, as if disappointed that its late night prank had been spoilt.
O O O
"Is it the handle again?"
"It is. And as weird as this might sound, it seems a lot looser than before I left."
"Why weird? Things do tend to break, you know? And to me it's simple; it should to be fixed before it gets worse and breaks completely."
"Yes... I guess you're right. It's about high time anyway..."
"Of course I'm right," Candy replied, watching her husband as he stood by the window. The light from the bedside lamp was dim but it was still more than enough for her to see that he shivered. "Now, come to bed, you must be freezing from the wind..."
"Come to think of it, it's not only this window here," Albert continued slowly, thoughtfully, almost as if to himself. His hand still rested on the brass knob and it seemed like he didn't even hear what she had said. "I overhead the maids complaining to Hannah the other day about the coldness in their rooms – and the drafts in the northern wing aren't any news to anyone. This cannot go on any longer. I need to speak to Madsen and arrange with him for a general inspection. We've been postponing it for far too long."
"I agree. I can even remind you. Seriously! Now, are you going to be doing a cost calculation all night or will you finally come to bed?" Candy repeated, this time, more firmly.
The tone of her voice snapped Albert out of his thoughts. "A wife that commands her husband to join her in bed," he mused, his tone much lighter from the one just a moment ago, "what else would a man want?"
"I just..." Candy hesitated suddenly, for a moment looking like she wasn't sure what to say. But she was never one to hesitate for too long. "I just want to… tell you something. And I don't want you to catch a cold, too" she added innocently.
"U-hm. Ever the caring nurse," Albert replied with equal innocence. The fuss of the window suddenly opening under the wind's force had disturbed him when he was just about to get into bed and the discovery of the window's alarmingly poor condition distracted him even further but now, thanks to his wife's words, he was back to his previous mood. He wanted to find himself in bed as quick as possible – and not only because he was cold. He'd only just returned today from a two weeks long business trip – the first one since after his recovery when he broke his leg in Hawaii – and he longed for his wife's embrace.
With only a slight limp betraying his recently healed leg, he crossed the space between the window and their massive marital bed. "Very well, Nurse Candy," he said, as he slipped himself underneath the covers. "Take care of me. Warm me up. I'm cold. So cold. So very... very... cold..." he added, his voice changing from normal to almost a theatrically trembling.
To that, Candy didn't reply; she just laughed quietly and simply opened up her arms for him...
...just to cry out in surprise and jump backwards the very second his hands touched her body.
"My goodness, you're colder than I thought!"
"Scared of a bit of cold, are we?" Albert sniggered, unable to stop his amusement. "Where, oh where is the girl who once loved winter and endless snowball fights more than anything else...? Where is the girl who, merely a year ago, dragged me to her bed and used her own body to warm me up?" he jested teasingly. He rarely missed an opportunity for a joke. "Had I known that she will stop being so caring and protective when she married me, I would have thought twice about this marriage -"
He didn't get to finish. His sentence was cut of short by a slight nudge of an elbow onto his ribs.
"Silly," Candy giggled lightly. "I know you are just trying to make me pity you... Come here... I will somehow bear with your frozen… everything…"
Albert didn't need any more encouragement. "Now, let's find the best spot to warm up on," he announced jokingly and slid into his wife's waiting embrace. She cried out yet again when his still icy cold hands snaked up and under her night gown so he tickled her to make her laugh instead. It worked.
He let his hand roam up and down her body and he marvelled at the perceptible goose bumps that rapidly covered his wife's entire skin and the strong rippling sensations of her muscles under his caressing fingers.
"You are so sensitive…" he noticed. "I don't remember you being that sensitive to the cold…"
"Well… there…" she gasped for air, "is a reason for it…"
"Oh, really? What could that be?"
"Let's just say you should be more careful with where you put your cold hand," she said in a teasing tone. "Because just now," she carried on as his hand rested on her lower belly, "you could, maybe, freeze… your heir."
"I see," he replied absentmindedly. Touching this part of her body wasn't exactly helping him to stay focused. Already now he could feel his blood beginning to stir faster in his veins. It was only after another few moments, somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered the odd choice of her words. "Huh? Freeze my hair?..."
"Your heir," Candy corrected him. "Or… heiress."
This time he managed to get the word right, not that it made him any the wiser though. Something in his wife's tone had told him to stop what he was doing and look her in the eyes.
"I said," Candy offered protractedly, with a tone of mischief clearly trembling in her voice, "don't freeze your heir. Or your heiress."
Only then did it occur to him that her words weren't just some nonsensical banter as he had first thought. But it took him another moment in a complete stillness to understand what she might actually mean.
"Are you trying to say that – "
"I am not trying; I am saying it. You, my love, are going to be a father!"
Propped up on his elbow, he stared in silence at his wife's wide, beautiful smile as the realization slowly sank in full.
"Albert? Say something… Are you… not pleased?"
"Am I not…" there weren't that many situations where he had lacked the proper words but this one was apparently one of them and very high up on the list. "How could I not be? Oh my… But Candy… are you… certain?"
"I am," Candy nodded. "I've had my suspicions... and when I went to see the doctor, he confirmed them."
"About three months through."
"Goodness! This means you must have, –" as best as his momentarily numbed mind allowed him, he counted backwards, "sometime during our honeymoon, right?"
Candy nodded again.
"And now, in a few months..."
"...we are going to have mini Albert with us. Or, a mini Candy," his wife finished with a wink.
"...or three of five," Candy retorted immediately, "but only if you carry them all inside you! I'm happy to start with one."
"Alright... We'll start with one. But be sure I won't stop at just one," he summed up with a meaningful smile.
"Neither will I."
Candy's little declaration left them again in silence, silence that was almost electrified with happiness. He had no idea how they got this far joking about such a serious matter. It felt a bit weird... and yet, still fine at the same time. But now, joking aside, they lied down staring in each other's eyes, smiles full of tenderness, bodies ever so slightly trembling with joyful excitement – and perhaps also under the loving, gentle caresses. His hand still stroked his wife's belly but oddly, he didn't feel the same desire that stirred blood in his veins just moments earlier. Because of the life she carried, his wife suddenly seemed to him as entirely different being, fragile like a porcelain doll. As a person on her own, she meant the world to him; now, she somehow began to mean even more.
"This is just wonderful news, my darling," he spoke softly after a long moment. "You've just made a very happy man even happier."
"Oh, Albert… and what do you think of how I feel? I still can't believe I will be a mother. This is just... no, I have no words to express this... Imagine... a little life growing inside me, a little baby, our baby, you and me combined! He, or she, I keep trying to imagine, will probably have sweet locks, blond like we both are, blue or maybe green eyes... or maybe blue-green..." Candy's smile grew dreamy.
He too, smiled to the image his wife's happy bubbling painted in his imagination. "Well, it's fair to say that it is very likely. We will see in its due time," he said. "I already can't wait to meet this little one."
"Oh, and if only you knew how ecstatic I am about it! And imagine what the others will say!" Candy clasped his hand, "Miss Pony and Sister Lane… And you know, Annie has been hinting that I should do my best to follow her footsteps so our kids can grow up together. And now, they will! Annie will be so delighted! And my dear Patty! And others! I just hope that…" Candy hesitated. "I hope Aunt Elroy will be happy for us, too..."
Albert had no doubts about that.
"Oh, she will be, and don't you think otherwise. I wouldn't be able to count how many times she has asked me about that. My heir will be her dreams finally coming true."
"Well, then she shall have the news that she has been waiting for. Although I'd like for her to see it as a new baby in the family, not just an heir," Candy summed up. "How do you want to tell her? Both of us or do you want the pleasure for yourself?"
"I guess it's only right if we..."
A sudden and loud crack cut his words short. Both winced in surprise, snapped out of the happy, intimate mood, and bolted up to see the cause of the commotion. It was rather clear; the heavy curtains along the window billowed and flapped and from behind it, came the dry, sharp sound of wood smashing against something.
"I swear, that wind is laughing at us," groaning under his breath at such a lovely moment being spoiled, Albert untangled himself from under the sheets and went back to the window, which again forced open by the wind, clattered noisily against the wall outside. He reached out for it, grabbed it and closed it firmly. The powerful, blowing force of the wind now cut off, everything around him went completely motionless again.
When he let go of the brass knob however, the window instantaneously rattled against the frame. It was rather clear to him that it will open again sooner or later. He didn't have the slightest intention to just sit around and wait for that to happen. He was going to do something about it and do it without involving his servants. He didn't want to make a fuss at this time of the night.
He stepped out from behind the heavy, damask curtains and looked purposively around the bedroom, considering any possible solutions. And thank Goodness for his ever so practical mind; this particular solution occurred to him just moments later.
The curtain tiebacks, double twisted silky cords with ornamented tassels seemed like it was long enough, especially after if he lashed both ends together. He was going to tie one end to the faulty knob and the opposite end to the only thing that seemed to be near enough - the tie back holder, which was embedded deeply between the bricks of the wall. Yet, when he attached the lashed cords and stretched them out, the whole thing lacked several inches.
"Albert, what's the matter?" he heard his wife's voice, to his surprise – right behind him.
"Something tells me that this window might open again," he shared his concern, explained in a few words the state of the window and then, showed her the cord. "I'm just trying to tie it to the tie back holder but..."
"..it's too short." she finished his sentence. And before he could say anything else, she darted across the bedroom like an athletic gazelle to the other window, fast enough for her nightgown to flutter behind her. Seconds later, she was back by his side with two more tie backs in her hands.
"Yes, thank you, honey." he told her and quickly got on with tying another knot, "You shouldn't have run though."
"A habit from work, I suppose," Candy shrugged dismissively.
"Well, you will have to change that habit. You shouldn't run, now that you are expecting a baby."
"Of course, you're right... It won't be easy though, not with so much work at the hospital! But I will do my best. Do you need my help here?"
"No, go back to bed; I will be right there."
She did as she was told and he was finishing up tying the makeshift fastening when all of what Candy had just said, fully registered in his mind. He checked the window one more time – it seemed secure enough – and went to join his wife.
"What do you mean by 'so much work at the hospital'?" he enquired, sitting on the bed. "I don't see how it could be related. You're not going to be there anyway."
"I'm not going to be there? What are you talking about?" Candy looked genuinely puzzled. "But of course I will be there! It's my job, my duty. Where else would I be?"
Albert resisted a sudden urge to shake his head, not quite certain that he could be hearing this right. "What do you mean, where? At home, perhaps?" he stated, stupefied, what was obvious to him. "Resting and looking after yourself like any pregnant woman should?"
"But Albert… Pregnancy is not an illness. It's a natural thing! And women aren't as fragile as many people think," his wife went on cheerfully, utterly unfazed by what he had said. "Throughout centuries, pregnant women continued working for as long as they could. Why should I be any different? And I feel really great! I don't even suffer from morning sickness!"
He couldn't believe his ears. He simply couldn't. "Candy, you can't be serious," he protested. "What does not having morning sickness have to do with anything? That is just a symptom! You are not working as some librarian, you are a nurse and this is sometimes a very exhausting job! You can't carry on like this - you have to be careful now!"
"Don't you think I know that? And I'm not the first nurse to continue working whilst pregnant. I've already spoken with our Chief Director. I asked if I could be given lighter jobs and nothing heavy to carry around… He and Dr Jacobs promised me that it was possible and that they will see to it. And they did, right away! They made some rearrangements."
Despite the cold chill in the room, Albert felt a sudden wave of heat surging through his veins. He couldn't remember when the last time was when he felt such anger. He sat there like a stone statue but inside, he was beginning to boil. It was really jarring, considering that just minutes earlier they had shared a truly tender moment indeed.
"The hospital's Chief Director. Dr Jacobs. Your other superiors and co-workers, I suppose," he counted out with forced calmness. "Maybe the entire hospital already knows, too? Shouldn't I perhaps be the first person you involve?"
"But Albert… it's not like that…" Candy protested defensively. "It wasn't supposed to be like that," she immediately corrected herself. "As soon as I got my confirmation from the doctor who examined me, he directed me straight to the Chief Director's office. He said that this is the hospital's rule. But while I was talking to the director, Dr Jacobs came in and overheard a few words. That was enough for him; you know how he is. He worked out the rest. And it just somehow went on from there. I asked if it's safe for me at all to continue to assist in the surgeries and they said yes, I just shouldn't be helping with carrying the patients around. That was this afternoon, just before I came home – and now I'm telling you…"
She still didn't understand!
"My point is, you should have asked me. Asked me," he repeated, "if I agree. Not just inform me about your apparently already made up decision. That's not how it works."
"But Albert… It's not like that…" Candy said again. "I just… Ugh, where are the words when I need them most?" she moaned. "I just never thought we would… disagree on something. We almost always agree! I thought you would understand… You know how much this job means to me…"
"I do," he cut her short. "And you know very well that normally I am the first person to defend your career. But this is the time when we definitely differ in opinion."
"But why?" she insisted stubbornly. "Just hear me out, please. It's not like I'm some spoilt princess who had never worked before. I'm strong, fit and I really feel good! Why would I be different from thousands of other pregnant women in the world who are still working hard even if they are staying at home? Do you think maintaining a household is easy, especially when you already have a few other children around you and no help from anyone? I know such women. I can assure you that this kind of work is equal to many paid jobs! And anyway, it's not like I've been pregnant since yesterday! It's been almost three months and this means that I've spent the first few weeks of it very actively, walking, running, swimming, climbing Hawaiian mountains and carrying quite heavy equipment. Compared to that, the last two months at work was nothing! Of course, I will take leave at some point but why not later? Considering how little I do during the surgeries, I would be less tired than if I stayed at home and running up and down the stairs from boredom! You are at work all the time..."
"I didn't know staying at home, our home, makes you feel bored, Candy," he drawled coolly, trying not to explode.
"Oh, come on, it's only a figure of speech! Please..." she begged, touching his hand lightly. "Only two, three months... When the baby is born I will be here for another few years anyway..."
And it was then, he lost it.
"Are you even listening to yourself?" he shouted and jerked his hand out from his wife's grasp. "You are so about yourself and how you might be bored by sitting at home – but did you think for a moment what is best for this little life you are carrying? You keep talking about your needs – did you think for one split second about what this baby needs is to be born healthy, if at all?"
Even voicing his worry was too much. He sprang off the bed, no longer capable of sitting still. A sting of pain shot up through his healed leg but he ignored it and started pacing angrily between the bed and the window.
"You talk about thousands of working women – you think I don't know about them? You think it is their choice to work? You think they are happy with maintaining their humble households all by themselves? You think they wouldn't like to rest? They don't have a choice like you!" he carried on, raising his voice with each sentence. "You talk about women who worked while they were pregnant and were still fine. Well, let me tell you about an even bigger group of those who keep praying for their husbands to earn enough money so they could rest more and stop losing one baby after another! You think I don't hear these stories from the workers in our factories? I do! Do you really think I would want the same fate for you? I thank God that you're still fine after all those things we did in Hawaii! But sometimes even one little thing could be too much and you should know that! You're a nurse, for heaven's sake!
Feeling that his body would explode if he didn't do something, he walked quickly to the window wall and smashed his clenched fist against its creamy surface. He groaned and then cursed involuntarily as the pain set in his strained knuckles. It hurt, pretty badly but strangely, it made him feel better. At least his anger was being slowly washed away by this pain. Pain was better than…
"I will do as you wish…"
Something in his wife's voice made him turn and look at her –
– and his anger evaporated instantly.
Candy sat on the bed just like before but even by the dim light of the bedside lamp he could see she was trembling all over. And in her eyes that stared at him, wide open, he saw tears – of fear.
"I will do as you wish," she whispered flatly, almost breathlessly again. "Just please… don't yell… Anything, just… don't be angry with me, please… not you…"
Her voice broke and she fell silent.
God Almighty, what am I doing?
Without thinking twice, he walked back to bed, climbed into it and gently wrapped his arm around his wife's trembling shoulders. He felt how her body stiffen up at his touch and in the privacy of his thoughts, he cursed again, this time at himself. What was he doing?! He has never yelled at anyone like that. And now, of all people, at her… Now, when she… he was strident like this wretched wind outside and he scared her to tears!
He sighed heavily. "I'm sorry… I'm so sorry," he apologised as softly as could. "I behaved like a complete idiot. I'm sorry."
He just held her for a bit and breathed out with relief when she finally relaxed.
"I'm sorry; I shouldn't have yelled," he apologised again. Then he reached out to his wife's chin and gently turned her face so she would look at him. He did feel sorry for how he behaved – but not for what he said. And that just had to be addressed. "But I did mean what I said," he voiced his thoughts. "Please tell me you see my point?"
"Of course," she assured him quietly.
Thank God, he thought and squeezed her shoulder gently, with relief. He really hoped that this ridiculous argument was over. "Come here," he said and reclined onto the pillows behind him. He pulled her with him and as she rested on his chest, he slid under the warm, heavy covers. He wanted to be as close as possible to her, hoping that the physical closeness would make up for their fall out. Not that he had anything against having his feet getting warmed up. From standing too long on the cool wooden floor and then pacing back and forth, they were unpleasantly cold.
"It's just... It's just going to feel so weird," Candy murmured after a moment of silence between them.
He didn't understand.
"Not working," she explained concisely. "I've been working ever since I returned from England. This job is what I am."
"Nonsense. You are what you are," he corrected her. Clearly, this conversation wasn't over but at least, she had accepted the inevitable and now was only analysing how she felt about it. That, he could assist her with. "A job, even one we enjoy, is just a job."
"Maybe for you. You do your job because you have to," Candy replied honestly. Her words stung him a little; perhaps it was because she wasn't wrong. "To me, my job means a lot. There was a time in my life when I felt like little Miss Nobody who meant absolutely nothing. I don't think there's anything worse for anyone, feeling like one's life doesn't matter. And this job gave my life a purpose. It made me who I am. I am what I do. Being a nurse, helping others… it defines me," she explained with earnest. "I think I was born for this job. I love what I do and giving it up feels like tearing off a huge chunk of myself. And most of all, I just simply feel bad for disappointing all those who might need me."
This, he could understand. Candy possessed a heart that made her put others first before herself, always worrying that she wasn't doing enough for the world. That was, in fact, one of the reasons he loved her for. It's just sometimes she forgot to also do things for herself. And this is what, he believed, his role in her life was, to remind her.
"I know, it's a good feeling, to feel needed, I really do," he admitted. "We just need to remember who needs us more. And right now, the baby needs you more than anyone else."
"And remember that you're not quitting for good," he added, trying to cheer her up. "When the baby has grown up enough, you can get back to your work."
"And you wouldn't mind?"
"Why would I? I had thought a lot about it and I believe hiring a nanny would be sensible. It's in our family's custom anyway; I had one myself. And I also know how much you've invested in your education. It won't go to waste, I promise. Okay?"
"Okay," Candy agreed amiably.
Glad that they were done, Albert gave his wife a tight, brief hug. With great relief, he allowed himself to close his burning eyes. All of a sudden, he felt overwhelmingly tired, as if something had rapidly drained him of energy. It was no wonder though; the past two weeks had been very busy and arduous for him – and the events of this evening, being anything but calm, ate at the remains of whatever energy he had left. With the warmth slowly seeping into his every limb, he felt his body becoming pleasantly numb. It felt solid, yet at the same time, light. And so was his brain. He felt it spin in circles and lazily but persistently rewinding all that had transpired recently, over and over, as if caught up in a loop. His mind seemed to be packed to the brim with hospitals, cheerful blond babies, malfunctioning windows and the multitude of intercity trains taking him in all directions all at once – all the while, the howling strong winds pulled and twisted everything it reached and the loud rumble in his ears began to fade into the background.
One of these trains took him from New York and delivered him straight to his office. But I should be in bed, his consciousness protests idly. Yet, when he looks down, he can clearly see his hands, resting on the top of his dark, mahogany desk and holding one of many from the mountainous terrain of documents that had been readied for him earlier. And so he reads, page after page and file after file. Contracts. Letters. Stock market reports. International money exchange reports. Stock market predictions. Internal reports. More reports. Reports, reports, reports… It was a never ending onslaught… He could drown in them… George nearby, always – oh, thank God for that man! – revises readings and sharing his opinions whenever he needs him too. With him, he could probably move a mountain. But without him…
Then, images of past meetings etch themselves before his shut eyes. Streams of partners, clients and employers alike, all running towards him all at once like poker chips being pushed towards the winner. The endless stream of gallons upon gallons of tea, coffee, juices and water, all being poured into a never ending line of cups and glasses, all the way to the horizon. Strategies. Decisions. His right hand, tired from endlessly writing his signature. The voice of his typist, Mrs Hudges. The office. More water in the crystal glass on his desk. More paperwork. Piles of them, piles as high and as white as the Lakewood hills in winter. George's voice telling him to take a break and go climbing. Climbing? Oh, why not? The piles of documents mounted up in front of him, raised sky high, so he climbs onto his desk and begins his ascent. He climbs. He climbs high. Higher and higher, and higher still. Somewhere nearby, a horse's gallop reverberates. Its hooves click-clacking away just like Mrs Hudges' typewriter. But when he looks down, he can no longer see the office. Far below him, lies his beloved Lakewood. Everything is brown and white and only in the middle, the bluish eye of the lake blinks playfully at him. Its waters twinkle like crystal, it sings to him through the constant whistle of the wind. His hands loosen their grip momentarily on the mountain cliff face and he falls… Down… down… down… down…
His body jerks and reacts upon hitting the surface but the water is warm, embracing him like a cosy, snug cocoon. It felt like he was suddenly cut off from the world above. It's dark down here and much quieter. The howling of the wind dies down a bit; now all he can hear is just a distant, muffed hum, blending into the background. He feels good. He doesn't need to swim, he just floats underwater, utterly weightless, happy to be where he is.
And then, then came the strong feeling that he wasn't here alone. Something skims across his chest. A fish?
His skin warms up even more under the light touch of someone's fingers. Slim, feminine fingers. Under water?
"…Albert…" he hears the delicate, melodic voice. It sounded like little, magical bells. A mermaid, his imagination provides. But here? In Lakewood? And why not, some distant part of him starts to argue with his reasoning. Lakewood is special…
"Hmm..?" that's all he manages to reply.
He can't see her. It's too dark. But he feels her presence. Her warmth. Aren't mermaids coldblooded? He asks himself. A petite body presses itself gently to his own, soft hair tickling his chest and neck. He can't see her; only his imagination tells him that like every other mermaid he has ever read of, she must have very long hair. And wavy. And copper. Or green, perhaps. Or, maybe, even gold. And silver eyes. Or green…
The thought melts away as unseen, delicate hands glide across his chest, bolder with every second. This feels so wonderful. He wishes so much that he could take a look at this fascinating creature but he can't even open his eyes. He couldn't make any movements, in fact. But he doesn't have to because this lovely creature does all the touching. And she knows what to do. Her hands know where to touch, how to touch. His body responds. Oh, how it responds! Oh… That quickening thrum of his blood, that fire building up from within! Like always! Like every time she…
He swallows hard.
How he would love to touch her now!
With utmost effort, he manages to raise his hands. How wonderfully smooth her skin is!
"…stay… longer… just three weeks…" he hears the mermaid implore. Her pleading voice is hypnotic, just irresistible.
Could he deny this lovely maid anything?
Almost without a pause, he agrees obediently.
"…really…? thank you…"
And just as he smiles at the prospect of so much pleasure at her hands, words had finally caught up with him. Three weeks? Underwater? His mind, even in this weird state of fluid haziness, strived for sense and reason and what she said made no sense. Three weeks? But he wouldn't survive this long! He can't even stay for more than a few minutes. He can't live underwater. He doesn't belong underwater. He belongs…
And suddenly, with sharp clarity, he remembered again who he is and with whom he belongs with. Only one clear thought emerged – this wasn't, isn't right! Get out, go home, to his wife and…
The surface of the water is so near, just above his head… just one move…
When he breaks the surface, his instincts expand his lungs to take a deep breath. And with this strong, deep breath, everything around him changed. It's no longer quiet; he can hear the howling of the wind again. His body no longer feels weightless. But he doesn't drown because the water solidifies around him. Warm waves had ceased to move and now just crested under his palms in gentle, cotton-soft swells.
Swells of cotton.
Swells of cotton bed sheets.
His cotton bed sheets.
He's made it back to his bed.
Quite right so.
And quickly, too!
But there was just one thing…
"I'm so glad you finally agreed. Ava will be glad too, I'm sure."
Agreed? To what?
And why was the mermaid still with him, in his bed? Did she follow him here?
And who on Earth was Ava?
"Whaa-?" he managed to rasp out.
He took another deep breath and held it in for a few seconds, this allowed him to better focus his still clouded mind.
"What do you mean? I've just explained it to you and you agreed with me."
As his brain gradually returned to reality, the ephemeral, melodious ring to the mermaid's voice faded and within the feminine voice that broke through, he now recognised it as his wife's.
"I think I dozed off," he mumbled and forced his heavy eyelids to open. "Tell me again."
"Again?" Candy complained. "Okay, fine. Two of our nurses attended the same anaesthesia course I once had gone to and one of them, Ava, managed to pass the exams. But in order to be employed as a nurse anaesthesiologist, she has to go through a period of working under supervision."
This didn't make him any the wiser.
"Well… I am her supervisor. She was entrusted to me as my trainee. I was given full responsibility to make sure that she is fully prepared for the work."
"She still needs a bit more time. I asked you if I could and you agreed."
"I couldn't possibly have said 'yes' to that!"
"But you did! I asked you if I could work for just three weeks longer and you said yes."
His wife's words melted into the one with the begging of the mermaid from his dream – and all the pieces clicked into place like one, giant jigsaw puzzle. Finally making sense out of all of it, Albert groaned protractedly.
"Candy, I dozed off! I must have been talking in my sleep!"
"Well, I'm sorry, but you didn't look like you were sleeping. You were answering me normally…"
"Well, I was asleep."
"Then what were you dreaming about? You were smiling."
"I can't quite remember," he replied quickly, suddenly abashed. How could he possibly explain that he dreamt of some fairy tale mermaid that had awoken all his senses? And it didn't matter that it was just a dream, that it was probably his body reacting instinctively to his wife's touch. It mattered that his imagination had created someone for him who didn't even have her face!
"…and you were… touching me…" Candy went on. "Did you dream… of me?"
"Can't remember," he quipped quickly, it was just to close the matter. He could admit it, just to pacify her but he couldn't bring himself to lie.
Then, his overtired and confused mind caught up with him again, loudly shouting out at him that they were digressing from the main subject.
"Does it matter, anyway?" he snapped. "We were talking about you, not me. Although I don't see what else is there to discuss."
"But Albert," Candy insisted, however, very timidly, "it would only be for three weeks, not three months. Only three weeks more – and only as an anaesthesiologist. I will ask our Chef Director if I could only assist in surgeries and supervise Ava."
No able to help himself, Albert began banging his head against the pillow.
"Good Lord," he groaned through his gritted teeth. "What have I done to deserve this? Why didn't I marry one of those humble, submissive girls that this world is full of?"
"Do you really mean that?" Candy asked quietly, with a sudden insecurity to her normally vibrant voice.
Of course he didn't. He didn't have anything against shy, submissive females but as a life partner, such girl just wouldn't do. He had always found himself strangely attracted to caring but smart, strong willed and slightly unpredictable women. And Candy was just perfect for him; that, he knew without doubt. It's just there are times when he wished she should know better when not to be stubborn.
He told her just that.
"I know I'm testing your patience right now but please hear me out. It's really important to me," Candy pleaded with him again.
He gave up, fell back on the pillows and decided to let her do all the talking.
"It's about Ava. You don't know her; she is one of my co-workers. She came to America ten years ago with her husband and their daughter. Once here, they had a few more children and his job at textile factory was no longer good enough to provide for all of them. Ava had no choice but to find employment too. Luckily, she did have basic nurse training from her homeland and that helped. But it was just enough to sustain their needs. And last year, she did what I did and signed in for the anaesthesia course. She had to borrow money for that but she did it because as a nurse anaesthesiologist, she was going to get a pay rise, just like me. And then... just as she finished the course, her husband left her for another woman! Just like that, he disappeared, taking all their savings! He left her with four young children and debts to take care of. She is desperate to get this pay rise. And I just have to help her! I was the one who convinced her to take that course, Albert! She was afraid of the costs but I convinced her that the course would be an investment in her future and that it will pay off. And she trusted me! I feel like her debt is in some way on me. She can pay it off – but only if she gets this better position."
Albert kept quiet for a long moment after she had finished, digesting everything that he had heard.
"What about others at the hospital?" he questioned. "St. Camille trains nursing students all the time. Surely, you're not the only one who can supervise her?"
"That's just the thing; I am. Aside from me, the only other person who had finished the course was the doctor who was my supervisor and he no longer works with us. Right now, I'm the only staff member with full training. This is exactly why Dr Jacobs entrusted her to me."
"So why haven't you told me any of this earlier?" he asked a little reproachfully. "Usually, you share such matters with me."
"It all happened shortly after you went away for your business trip," Candy explained, "It's not like I could share all of it over the telephone call, now, could I? I was going to tell you when you got back. It's just… I had more important news to share today… You know… and I temporarily forgot about it…"
She trailed off and Albert didn't press the issue anymore. He has heard quite enough. Instead, he mulled over the whole thing. What Candy told him had changed the situation a bit. He understood that it was no longer just about her work itself but about helping a specific person whose very living depended on this help. He inhaled several times, deeply, trying to focus as best as he could at this late nightly hour.
"How about if I help too?" he pondered aloud, after a long moment of debating with himself. Candy propped herself on her elbow and looked right at him, intrigued.
"What if I somehow helped her pay off her debt?"
"Whaa– ?" Candy nearly choked from shock. "Why? You don't even know her! Why would you pay a debt of someone you don't know?"
"Well, since you say you feel obliged to help, I too, by proxy, now feel involved in it. Maybe if I helped somehow, it would make it easier for you? And, hers does certainly sound like a dramatic situation," he explained his point of view. "That's more than enough for me."
"And you would really help her? For real?" Candy insisted, clearly having trouble believing in what she's just heard. When he confirmed it with a firm nod of his head, she threw her hands around his neck and hugged him tightly. "You're an angel heaven sent, darling, you know that, right?"
"No, don't say that; I am no angel," he protested. "But I do like helping others and you know it well. What would humanity be worth if we didn't help one another?"
"Well, your modesty proves, even more, that you are an angel," his wife argued half-jokingly whilst propping herself up again. "But if you really would like to help Ava in this way, you need to talk to her first," she added, getting more serious. "I can't agree to anything in her name. You see… she is a quiet but very proud woman. When her troubles were revealed to some of us, there were some voices suggesting that she should perhaps seek help from a charity. You know, those people that help women in need. And she felt very humiliated by this suggestion. She later told me that she would rather work till her hands bleed, than be a beggar. So you might need to be delicate. But I'm sure you will know what to do. You always do."
"I'm sure we will work something out," he assured her. After all, he's had years of experience of dealing with businessmen and politicians alike and he knew how to tread gently.
"The thing is though," Candy went on slowly, "even with her debt paid, she still needs that pay rise. Without it, she won't able able to provide enough for her family…"
She didn't say anything else but he understood her unspoken question as well as if it was said out loud.
"…and this is where she needs your help," he finished.
Candy nodded with earnest. "I feel responsible for her," she repeated her earlier explanation. "And I don't think I would ever forgive myself if I failed to help when she was so close," she added with a voice trembling from emotions.
Albert sighed heavily; he already knew that he will just have to let his wife do what she had to. He still wasn't happy about it but it was better than having her so distressed for not helping where she believed she could and should. He knew her enough to know that it will eat at her for a long time – and in a long run, such stress could be of more harm, to both her and the baby she carried.
"Three weeks?" he asked simply.
"Three weeks," Candy confirmed with a similar simplicity.
"And you will be careful?"
"I won't lift anything heavier than my teacup."
He knew that as a nurse anaesthesiologist, she would be carrying slightly heavier things but he didn't say anything. He will just have to trust her.
"Alright," he agreed finally. "Three weeks. But after that, no more, do you understand?"
"Of course. I promise."
"Good. And now," he couldn't stop himself from yawning, "I'm sorry but I need to get some sleep. For real this time," he warned, "so no more taking advantage of my sleep talking. And you should sleep too."
"Ay, ay, my tired Captain!" his wife tried to joke.
But he wasn't exactly in the mood for any type of jest so he just simple gave her a silent, volume-speaking stare. It must have been enough for her because she smiled apologetically and leaned in, giving him a light kiss. And then, she reached out and flipped the main switch of their bedside lamps.
"Sleep well, honey. I hope you dream of something nice," she wished in a soft, warm whisper.
"You too," he reciprocated as she snuggled up closer to him, getting into the most comfortable of positions. But deep down, he didn't wish for any dreams for himself, any at all. He hoped for a deep and dreamless sleep that would give him the best rest. That was what he truly wanted, what he truly needed.
And someone must have been listening to his silent prayer because he got what he needed. He flickered out like a candle and slept a deep, hard sleep. A good sleep. A soundless sleep.
And even if there were some dreams – he couldn't remember any.
O O O
Outside, Hawking's wind eased up a bit on its merciless blasts, as if it knew the game was up. It still whistled sharply as the couple fell asleep in each other's arms but soon, it decided to move on to another part of the city and as it did so, it left behind calmness.
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