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Authors: Belinda Frisch

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Medical, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction

The Missing Year (8 page)

BOOK: The Missing Year
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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

Mick’s Tavern—a floor to ceiling green, two-room bar that smelled of fryer grease and stale beer—was an Italian’s attempt at an authentic Irish Pub with an “Every day is St. Patrick’s Day” motif.

Ross and Camille had gone to high school with the owner, Luca Stefano, who had purchased the place shortly before Ross and Sarah had left town. Ross looked around thankful Luca was nowhere to be found.

The last thing Ross needed was more pity.

“Luca’s really gone tacky with the place,” he said.

“And filthy, too, but it’s a staple, right?”

“I guess so.”

Mick’s had been the late-night spot in its heyday.

A middle-aged waitress wearing a plaid skirt and a white blouse greeted Ross and Camille at the door with, “Sit anywhere you want.” Easily twice the age of the other girls, the uniform wasn’t nearly as flattering on her. Her sour attitude indicated that maybe she knew it.

Camille surveyed the room and settled on a booth near the corner where the table was still wet. “At least it’s wiped down,” she said, sitting across from Ross and opening the beer menu.

Ross, who had narrowly escaped a bachelor’s spaghetti dinner, went straight for the food. He settled on ordering Shepherd’s pie and set the sticky menu on the table next to his vibrating phone.

“You need to take that?” Camille asked.

It was Mattie again.

“It can wait,” he said, sliding the phone into his pocket. “How have you been?”

“Good. Well, not
good
, but okay. It is the craziest coincidence running in to you. I had heard … I mean, people were saying …”

Ross lifted his eyebrows. “What’s the rumor?”

“That you’re holed up like some kind of crazy hermit halfway across the country.”

“I don’t think it’s quite halfway.”

“And the rest?” Camille said.

“I’d say hermit is fairly accurate.”

“That’s a shame. Sarah wouldn’t want that. You know that, don’t you?” Camille set her hand on his, making him instantly uncomfortable. If he was reading her right, it had been a long time since anyone had touched her—romantically. “You were a great husband, Ross. Everyone knows how much you loved Sarah.”

Love
, Ross thought, seeing no reason to put his current emotion in the past tense. “It’s been a rough five years.”

“I know something that will make it better.” Camille raised her hand to call over the waitress.

Fortunately one of the younger ones answered.

Ross’s stomach bottomed out as he waited for her suggestion.

“Two Guinnesses, please,” Camille said. “That’s okay with you, right?”

“Sure.” Ross wasn’t a beer man, per se, but it seemed a solid order given the location.

“And a basket of sweet potato fries with Melba sauce,” Camille added.

The waitress scratched down the order and left without a word.

“She seem strange to you?” Ross asked.

“Strange? Maybe. She’s quiet, but cute, right?”

“I guess.” The girl had an athletic build, lean and not at all doughy like the over-forty crowd. Her crimson curls contrasted her milky complexion and she was the perfect mix of natural and made-up. Easily the best looking girl in the bar, Ross wasn’t about to admit he’d noticed to Camille who was about as subtle as a Mack truck.

“Are you seeing anyone?”

It took less time than Ross expected for her to ask.

“On and off. Nothing serious.”

“Hard for a girl to date a hermit, right?” Camille smirked.

The waitress set down a frosted pint of beer in front of each of them and placed a basket of greasy fries with dipping sauce in the middle of the table. “Can I get you anything else?” she said, her voice quiet in the loud surroundings.

“No, thank you. We’re all set.” The waitress walked away and Camille dipped a fry in the steaming purple goo. “Remember Sarah’s twenty-first birthday?”

Ross nodded, thankful the waitress’s interruption had Camille changing the subject. “Cosmopolitans,” he said, that night being summed up easily in one word. He had never been one for a pink drink, but Sarah, who had never had a drink in her life, saw a woman at the bar ordering one. The four of them, including Camille’s now ex-husband Adrian, spent the night drinking Cosmos of their own. Three drinks later, Sarah was fall down drunk.

“She couldn’t hold her liquor,” Camille said.

“That never changed.”

Ross had seen Sarah through her share of hangovers. Eventually she had learned her lesson, drinking less and less at social events.

“I hate that the move to Chicago put a wedge between us,” Camille said. “It was like Sarah had another lifetime I wasn’t part of.”

“We intended to keep in touch, but you know how things go. First my mom got sick and then Sarah.”

“I miss her,” Camille said. “I miss having her to talk to.” Camille started to tear up and Ross handed her a napkin. “I think a lot about the time we all spent together before you two moved away. Those were the best days of my life. Today, when I saw you at the grocery store, I thought I was hallucinating. Five years is a long time and for you to come back ….”

“I’m not back.”

“You are for now. I mean, the timing is perfect. Sarah’s birthday is in a week,” she said, as if he had somehow forgotten.

“And?” Ross took a long gulp of his dark beer, finishing half the glass.

“What do you say the three of us get together for old time’s sake? I was planning on bringing flowers to the cemetery for her birthday. Now that you’re here, it would be kind of perfect if you’d come with me. I think Sarah would like that.”

Camille’s proposal made it clear that Ross wasn’t the only one who hadn’t moved on. He finished the beer in three slow sips and considered his answer. He hadn’t been to Sarah’s plot since her burial, and wasn’t sure he could go.

“Please?” Camille said. “I really need this.”

Though Ross wouldn’t admit it, he needed it, too.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

Dinner led to drinks—at least on Camille’s part—and one too many Irish fries for Ross. The two of them talked for hours, long enough that the waitress gave them dirty looks at closing time. Ross left twice the customary tip and called for Camille’s ride home.

“It was so good to catch up. Please don’t be a stranger.” Camille walked across the parking lot with her high heeled shoes in hand.

“I won’t,” Ross said, putting her into a cab. “Text me or something, so I know you got home okay?”

Camille smiled. “Will do.”

Acknowledging their feelings about Sarah’s death had led to a celebration of her life. Ross hadn’t thought about the good times in years. Rather, he had focused on Sarah’s illness and her deterioration, which had been his most recent and lasting memories.

Camille, who had seen Sarah only once before her first chemotherapy session, remembered better times. Seeing Sarah through Camille’s eyes made Ross remember the youthful, vibrant, beautiful woman he had fallen in love with.

It also made him long for her that much more.

Ross took the long way home, needing time to mull over meeting Camille for Sarah’s birthday. The only way he could be assured not to break down was to make a dry run. He headed down the back roads toward his home town, remembering the lesser travelled route with the familiarity of a local. Things had been strangely automatic, muscle memory helping him along with things he was sure he’d forgotten. He rolled down his window less than half way, letting in the crisp night air as he closed in on a string of personal landmarks that transported him back in time.

An old ice cream shop, one with an original soda fountain that specialized in milkshakes, had been his and Sarah’s first official “date.” They were thirteen-years-old and chaperoned by their mothers, who sat at a table across the room. There wasn’t a doubt in either Ross or Sarah’s minds that they were being watched. Sarah’s father had insisted on it. Neither of them let it ruin their time. They sat at the counter, sharing a chocolate malt and talking quietly about the teachers they hoped to get for eight grade. Summer break was romantic in its own way, and they were locked in its grip.

The now defunct Highway Oil gas station reminded Ross of the day he got his first car, a four door, red with black leather interior, 1962 Plymouth Fury his father had garaged before he died. Ross restored the car with the help of his uncle, pouring all of his time and money into it. The car was something to be proud of and Ross felt like the king of the world as he headed to Sarah’s house, high on teen energy. He was so excited for her to join him that he coasted into the gas station on fumes, having not bothered to fill up first.

Ross and Sarah had been inseparable for years before he had decided on medical school, leaving Ross to wonder, in months after Sarah’s death, if he had taken too much time from her. He struggled to strike the balance between time with her and the demanding career she had never once complained about. His being so medicine-focused was one of his biggest regrets. He wondered if Sarah knew, if she could
feel,
how absolutely he loved her, how beautiful she was to him, or how grateful he was for the care she had taken of his ailing mother.

In those final days, when Sarah was asleep more than awake, too weak to talk, and maybe too tired to listen, Ross told her, at length, how much he loved her, continuing a game they’d been playing for months.

“Where are we going?” she would ask.

Ross spent the previous night preparing. “Bali,” he answered. “I booked us a safari.” He hooked his laptop up to a projector, closed the blinds, and turned off the bedroom light.

“What kind of car?”

“A Volkswagon,” he said, knowing she’d never believe him.

“A Volkswagon? You can’t safari in that.”

He showed her the hideous green car he had found online. “No, you can. Right here. And after, we’re going to ride elephants.”

“Bareback?”

“Nope, there’s this teak chair, see?” He showed her more pictures as they researched their excursion for the day, the elephants enormous against the far bedroom wall. “And it’s going to be hot, so make sure you bring a sun hat.”

“Any chance of rain?”

Ross kissed her head. “Never. Every day’s sunny with my girl.”

Sarah had wanted to travel the world, to experience different cultures, and Ross had done his best to recreate foreign destinations through pictures, creating lavish itineraries for trips he knew they’d never take—Bali, Singapore, The Aogashima Volcano in Japan, and the pink sea in Jordan. Each place had its own mystique and Sarah couldn’t wait to hear what came next. The stories were an escape for her, a preview of a life missed and Ross’s way of stretching their time together, keeping her engaged and awake when she’d otherwise focus on her exhaustion and pain.

In the end, the pain became so bad she couldn’t stay awake more than a few minutes at a time.

Ross had tried to fit in everything he wanted to say to her, but somehow he was sure there were things he had forgotten.

Over time he wondered less and less, realizing there were no second chances.

Ross turned onto the county route leading to St. Paul’s cemetery where Sarah was buried, half-hoping that when he got there the iron gates separating the three-acre parcel from the road would be locked.

At least then he’d have an excuse for not going in.

He rolled his window the rest of the way down and turned off the radio as he pulled onto the narrow dirt road entrance. The air smelled of fresh cut grass, the lawn between the headstones flawlessly manicured and leaf-free even in the throes of fall. Ross’s headlights settled on the white marble Jesus at the center of the cemetery, bringing back memories that forced him to slam on his brakes.

Five years earlier, a bulldozer had been parked in the distance, a fresh hole dug and a pile of dirt under a green tarp, as if that somehow made the impending burial less grim. Sarah’s casket hung over the hole, waiting to be lowered. Seeing that place again paralyzed him. The cemetery gates were open, but Ross couldn’t bring himself to pull through them. Sarah was buried less than fifty feet away, hers one of hundreds of headstones simplifying life to a single, cliché description. Ross had gone with “Loving wife and daughter,” the funeral director’s suggestion, at a time when he had been too stunned to form a single original thought. He was functioning on autopilot; in hindsight a means of self-preservation. He remembered sitting in a cramped back office at a Chicago funeral parlor, arranging for Sarah’s body to be flown home. The thought of her being crated and treated like luggage had been unbearable, but burying her in the family plot where her parents and the friends she most loved could visit seemed the right thing to do for her.

Sitting in the car, on the brink of tears, Ross wondered if the distance might not have been the right thing for
him
.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

Few things helped Ross cope better than a distraction. Sitting behind his desk at Lakeside, he focused on helping Lila rather than feeling sorry for himself. According to Mark, Lila had eaten some of her lunch the previous day, most of her dinner, and all of her breakfast that morning. He also confirmed that Lila had, for as long as she’d been there, preferred a window seat.

Ross proposed taking her for a walk, but Mark was skeptical in authorizing one. Lakeside’s rules were considerably more lax than the hospital Ross had come from, but there were boundaries. Mark recommended Ross check with Guy first.

Guy had been impossible to find.

Between meetings with Lakeside’s board, placating Ruth Wheeler, and scrambling to save the center, it was hard to know where and when he’d turn up. Deciding no harm could come from an afternoon walk, Ross headed toward Lila’s room.

“Good afternoon,” he called to her from the hallway.

Lila breathed deeply, sitting in her chair, staring out the window, wearing dark blue cotton pants and a loose pink shirt that hung from her shoulders as if from a hanger, the sides falling straight over her torso. Her hair was pulled back in a neater version of the braid she’d been wearing the previous day.

“Would you like to take a walk with me?” he said.

Lila turned to him—a light in her eyes that, up until that point, had been absent—and nodded.

“It’s windy. You should bring a jacket.”

Ross wore a pair of pleated khakis, a light blue collared shirt, and a navy sweater that was heavy enough for him not to worry about freezing.

Lila pulled a white loose knit sweater over her head and went out in the hall to meet him.

“Thank you,” he said, “for eating something. You really helped me out with Dr. Oliver.”

Lila kept her head down, but Ross could still see the faint hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her lips.

“Have you ever walked the trail by the greenhouse?”

Lila shook her head.

“Then this will be a first for both of us.”

Chelsea looked up from her work as Ross and Lila approached the main entrance. “Dr. Reeves, wait,” she called out. “Dr. Reeves, I—um—I’m not sure the patients—”

Ross waved his hand, reassuring her everything was fine.

“Dr. Reeves, I’m not sure Dr. Oliver—”

“It’s okay,” Ross said, opening the door for Lila. “We’ll be right back.”

Lila lit up the minute she hit fresh air. A smile spread across her face as she kicked through the layer of recently fallen leaves. She held her arms out to either side, moving out from under an enormous oak tree, and tilted her face toward the sun. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The yellow-orange glow of the sun reflecting off the leaves gave life to her pale cheeks.

Ross watched her for a long minute, not saying a word until she opened her eyes. Guy’s note had said, “Listen to the tree,” which is what he planned on doing.

“You ready?” he asked, starting down the path.

Lila lowered her arms and fell in beside him. An uncomfortable silence settled between them, the pressure of someone needing to say something.

Ross knew it had to be him. “I’m not going to ask you to talk,” he said, needing the edge off. “I want you to feel comfortable with me because I’m here to help you. If you want to tell me something, anything at all, I’d love to hear what you have to say.”

Lila grinned, turning an upward gaze toward the trees.

He didn’t need a degree in reading emotions to see that she was at peace.

The breeze rustled the leaves, sending reds, oranges, and yellows raining down on them as they made their way along the worn footpath.

Lila caught a red one in mid-air and tucked it into her braid.

She shuffled along the path, the toe of her slip-on blue shoes catching the uneven edge of a stone, tripping her. Ross held out his hand to catch her. She took it, holding onto him briefly before letting go.

“Be careful,” he said.

A year without any exercise other than moving between her suite and the community room, coupled with the loss of muscle mass and her diminishing weight had her unsteady, like a toddler finding their footing.

“Hang on a minute.” Ross untangled a weathered but sturdy tree branch from the thicket. “Here, try this.”

The wood made a perfect walking stick, the rounded top fitting into Lila’s palm.

Lila nodded in thanks and continued walking, steadier with the bit of help.

“We can turn back any time you feel tired,” Ross said.

But as a quarter mile passed, he wanted to give up first. His stiff, brown loafers weren’t made for nature hikes and the leather bit into his heels. He hobbled along, doing his best to mask the start of a limp.

Lila stopped and held her arm out in front of him.

A quarrel of brown sparrows tossed dirt on their backs in the loose sand on the path ahead of them, bathing themselves in dirt.

Lila stooped slowly to their level for a closer look. The birds held still for a moment before resuming their preening.

Ross hiked up his socks, taking advantage of the brief respite. “Are you ready to go back?”

Lila pressed on, all but one of the birds flying away.

“Guess not.” Ross hurried to catch up with her, the hitch in his step worse as his sock pulled back into his shoe. “Maybe we should quit while we’re ahead? We can walk again tomorrow.” There was no sign she intended to stop. Lila looked around with the wonder of a child, closing her eyes when the sun through the trees landed on her face. “We’re going to have to walk as far back, you know?” He doubted she needed the reminder, but had hoped to drive the point home. His left heel was on fire. “Lila? Can we turn around?” He understood what he was asking her to go back to: a crowd of patients that were nothing like her and a sense of confinement. If their roles were reversed, he wasn’t sure he’d want to go back, either. He sighed with relief when the end of the trail came into view. “Looks like the end of the line, anyway.”

The rocky path narrowed at Mirror Lake’s jagged shore, the water as still and reflective as the lake’s name implied. Bird calls filled the air, the landscape serenely colorful.

Ross stopped to absorb the breathtaking view.

Lila kept going.

“Lila?” Ross called to her as she closed in on the lake. “Lila, be careful.” Lila continued walking, as if she didn’t hear him. “That’s close enough.” Lila dropped the walking stick and held her arms out to the side as she navigated the steep decline to the water’s edge. “Lila, this isn’t funny. Come on. We have to go back.” He limped after her, shouting. “Lila, please. Stop!” He picked up speed as she stepped into the water, her oversized sweater swirling around her. “Lila!”

She was chest deep and still wading, nothing about her indicating she intended to stop.

For all of Ross’s pleadings, she didn’t so much as look at him.

“Lila, please don’t do this!”

He was at the water’s edge when his loafer skidded across a mossy rock. His feet went out from under him. The fall happened so fast he hadn’t been able to break his fall. He landed flat on his back, the rock hitting him hard enough to knock the wind out of him. He tried to draw breath, his chest tight and the air swirling around him. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, but all he could think of was Lila. Wet and muddy, he rolled onto his side to find her gone.

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