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Many Worlds, A Short Story
Frank stared out the window from the hospital bed as a rainbow of leaves danced on the autumn breeze, but he didn't see them. Instead...
The playground was hot, sunny, loud and frantic with kids at recess. Frank's ten year old self sat alone at the picnic table eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The other boys played ball, monkeyed on the bars, and wrestled in the grass. The girls stood around in small groups talking, laughing, some of them jumping rope or playing hopscotch.
Jane broke away from her group and ran over to Frank's table. She sat next to him which scared Frank but also excited him, just a little.
"They dared me to come over here and sit with you, Frank," she said. "They think you're a weirdo, but you're not are you. Just because you're not rough housing with the boys, that doesn't mean you're weird. Are you going to say something?"
Frank struggled to speak but the peanut butter in his last bite of sandwich had found its way to the roof of his mouth and the best he could do was shake his head.
"You never play with the boys," Jane said. "You sit by yourself at recess, you're always writing in that notebook, maybe you are weird. What are you writing in that thing anyway? Get a grip, Frank. Say something, Jeez Louise!"
Frank finally swallowed that last bite and then promptly got choked. He coughed and coughed, teared up and then bent over trying to catch his breath. Just when he thought he'd pass out he felt her hand on his back, not slapping him, just touching his back and he felt calmness spreading. He breathed and looked up in wonder through tear filled eyes.
"You okay now Frank?" she asked standing up.
"You're awesome, Jane!" Those were the first words Frank ever spoke to his future wife. She laughed and ran back to her friends.
Eleven years later, Jane was not laughing.
"Because, you're suffocating," Jane told him. "I want to see the world, Frank. I need to get out of here, you'd be satisfied to stay the rest of your life."
"I understand," Frank said. He didn't.
It was spring. Birds chirped, flowers bloomed, and his world was spinning out of control. She put the engagement ring on the glass table between them. It lay there mocking him,killing him silently. He picked it up, tried forcing it on his little finger but it stopped at the knuckle. He looked up into her eyes.
"I understand," he said it again with a conviction he still didn't feel. She knew it. She knew him better than any human had a right to know him.
Jane stood, walked around the table to stand behind him. She put her hands on his shoulders, leaned over, kissed the top of his head, and whispered in his ear.
"I'll always love you, Frank. But do not wait on me."
She ran, he heard her footsteps fade behind him but sat motionless until he heard her car start. He turned then, facing the sun and the back of her Mustang.
"You're awesome, Jane," he said and tucked the ring into the change pocket of his Levis.
He'd sold his first book six years later and the book tour ended in his hometown. The line at local bookstore finally wound down and he was returning from the restroom when he saw her sitting in one of the chairs in the back row.
"I think he left," Frank said as he walked up behind her with a grin splitting his face. Her shoulders sagged but she didn't turn.
"No, that was me and it's the worst mistake I ever made," Jane said. The folding chair clattered to the floor when she jumped up, but neither of them noticed it.
They were inseparable the next two weeks, but then he called her on a Friday and got her voice mail. She didn't return the call and his texts went unanswered. Finally, late into the afternoon he got a text with a street address in the neighboring town and the cryptic message "I need you."
She still did not answer the phone and it was a panic driven Frank that shakily entered the address in his GPS and blew down the highway to the clinic.
The old nurse stared down her nose through her bifocals at him when he asked for her at the desk.
"Room three, down the hall on your right," she said. "Papers have been signed, she's fine now, just needs a ride."
He turned to head down the hall, but she couldn't let it go."You should have been here," she said her voice dripping with disdain. "Poor thing, she didn't get in that condition by herself..."
He ignored her sarcasm and hurried down the hall.
Lightly rapping on the closed door twice, he heard nothing and eased his head in. Jane sat on the bed fully clothed, shivering with an incongruous sheen of sweat on her brow. She stared at the floor, as if she was unaware of his presence but when he spoke her name she looked up. He thought her eyes seemed lost, like the eyes of those pets from the Humane Society commercials.
"I'm sorry," she said struggling to her feet. He rushed to embrace her and then pushed the wheelchair behind her and steadied it while she sat.
"Let's get you home," he said and under the judgmental eyes of the nurse they rolled out of the clinic and into the rest of their lives.
Other images floated to the surface as he sat in the hospital room like snapshots in an old album: The wedding, the vacations at the beach, the building of the new house and their mostly happy lives there. Then came the three miscarriages, her bouts with depression, his drinking, her wandering away and then returning and finally the doctors visit and the Alzheimer's diagnosis.
A light knock on the door brought Frank back to the present. He slowly slid his stiff legs over the side of the bed and stood up to face the nurse. Diana was the “young” nurse and Jane’s favorite when she first arrived and was still sporadically lucid.
Frank smiled, raised his finger to his dry lips in the universal shhh sign. He stepped away from the bed and over to the window. Diana followed and spoke in a hushed voice.
"How's our patient this fine morning?"
They both turned to look at Jane, asleep now by herself in the bed. She was peaceful, calm, and in Frank's opinion as pretty as the day she'd first spoken to him on the playground six decades before.
"Well, she slept all night," Frank said but he didn't look at Diana, he stared at Jane. He'd slept next to her on his back with his phone's alarm set on vibrate for six AM, never moving for fear of waking her. She had not recognized him in months and waking up in a hospital bed with some strange old guy in bed with you did not make for a quiet blissful morning. More than anything he wanted her last days to be blissful.
"Go get you some breakfast," Diana said. "I'll do her bath while you're gone and fix her hair. She's in good hands."
"I know," Frank said. "Appreciate your kindness."
He had just turned to leave when Diana called him back, asked for his phone. He watched bemused as she handled it as if it were her own then handed it back with a Youtube screen open.
"Just hit play when you get a few minutes. I saw this video last night and the song reminded me so much of you guys..."
Diana brushed a tear from her eye, he nodded and moved away from the window.
As Frank walked to the bed, his wife opened her eyes. She looked up at him without a hint of recognition in her eyes, he smiled down at her.
"I know you don't know me," he said. "but you're awesome, Jane."
Give the song a listen:
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