“I’d say he has a week or ten days. Two weeks at most.” The grim-faced doctor excused himself to allow his words to sink in.
“No,” said one of the two women standing near the bed. She placed trembling fingertips against her lips. “That’s too soon.”
Her sister wrapped a comforting arm around the woman’s shoulder. “Betsy, he hasn’t been himself in years. We’ve known this day was coming. It’s time to let him go.”
“That doesn’t make this any easier, Rhoda,” Betsy said with a heavy sigh.
“I know,” Rhoda soothed, stroking her younger sister’s head. “But just look at him. He doesn’t even know we’re here.”
The sisters studied their elderly father, a shriveled shell of the man he once was. He no longer bore a resemblance to the active, vital man he’d been before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“I don’t know about that,” Betsy countered as she watched a tear slip from his eye and roll down his cheek. “I think he’s aware of a lot more than we realize.”
Rhoda grasped her sister’s hand and led her across the room to the narrow sofa where they had slept the past few months. “He doesn’t even talk to us anymore, Betsy. Not really. The only time he speaks, he’s mumbling something about somebody named Alice, whoever that is. We lost him long before this…”
A week or ten days. Two weeks at most.
For most people, hearing that kind of news would be devastating. Not that anyone believed he heard a word of it. But he’d heard it alright, and understood it well enough to know the death sentence just handed down would set him free.
He knew he’d been talking about her. Most of the time he didn’t recognize his own children, but he could summon Alice’s porcelain skin and jade green eyes from the deepest corners of his mind. It was in those shadows that he really lived, and had for the last fifty years.
For all anyone knew, his mumblings were nothing more than the confused rantings of a demented man. But no, Alice was real and had been holding him hostage for half a century. He’d never told a soul about her, not since she ran out on him and left him a broken and angry man.
Except she didn’t run out on him.
She’d run from him, but she wasn’t fast enough. He’d caught her, and the full force of his anger coursed down his arms and through his fingers. Before he realized what he’d done, Alice lay crumpled on the floor in front of him.
He’d tried blaming it on the booze. He knew he was a mean drunk. That’s what they’d been fighting about. She was fed up with his drinking and told him she was leaving. Those were the last words she’d ever spoken.
As he’d cradled her lifeless body, rocking her back and forth saying he was sorry, he vowed never to tell. Alice had said she was leaving, and over time he made himself believe she had.
But now his memories were turning into murmurs, and it was only a matter of time until he confessed what really happened.
A week or ten days. Two weeks at most. Then he’d be free from the torture of knowing his own hands had squeezed the life out of the first and only woman he’d ever truly loved. He’d be remembered as a devoted father and dedicated teacher. A pillar of the community.
There would be a funeral and the mourners would say things like, “He’s in a better place,” and, “At least he’s out of pain now.” His belongings would be sold or thrown away and the memories his friends and family had of him would fade away.
Then one day, the new owners of the house would grow tired of looking at the patch of floor that didn’t quite seem to match. They’d tear it up and then everyone would know the truth. Alice hadn’t walked out on him. She’d been there all along.
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