penance

Her hands shake as she puts the kettle on. Her fingers are knotted and swollen with age and she moves slower than she would like.

When the old kettle whistles she fills her favorite cup to the brim, steeping the strong black tea.

She adds three sugars and a splash of cream and places three shortbread cookies on the saucer.

She shuffles into her bedroom and places the cup and saucer on the nightstand. She stands for a moment beside the bed and stares at her heart, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest.

Later she will curl close to him and rub her cold feet against his until he opens up for her, but not now.

Now she will sit until the tea gets cold. She eats one cookie and decides to read for awhile.

As her eyes grow heavy she stares at the tea with intention.

***

“You’re late,” he smirks in the dark.

She gives him a wide smile.

“I’m never late. Here,” she offers the steaming cup of tea and the cookies.

“You ate one,” he accuses her. She shrugs.

“Be glad I brought any. They’re your mom’s recipe.”

He stares down at the cookies wistfully.

“I miss her,” he says. He always says that.

“I know,” she replies. She always says that, too.

“How much longer?”

He shrugs. “Time doesn’t work that way here.”

She is silent for a long while, watching him.

Time has ravaged her. It has thickened her knuckles and thinned her hair. It has amplified her step and silenced her voice.

Time has pulled pieces from her memory and chipped away at her so that she has the task of rebuilding and viewing herself from fragmented memory like a kaleidoscope.

He is frozen in time, still a young man. His skin glows, his smile is perfect. She thinks he does this for her, this presentation of perfection.

Where they meet time cannot follow. It waits for her at the precipice and sometimes he peers over, brow furrowed with remembering. He can’t remember though. He can remember the snapshots but not the whole. Not the painful whole that they on the other side carry.

She supposes this is a gift given to him. If he remembers time then he will remember how little he was given.

“Your mom is close,” she says at last. “Another week or so.”

“I want to see her.”

“You will.”

“Not yet. I’m not finished yet.”

“Well finish. You have time.”

He takes a long sip of his tea, thinking.

“There was a boy in the neighborhood. He was small and weak. I hit him. He was bullying your sister. And I hit him and I liked the way it felt, his cheek in my palm. So I hit him again and again and again. Until his cheek was wet with blood and I was satisfied.

“He wasn’t the first or last. But he smelled. He smelled like stale urine and fear and I recognized it. And I hit him until the only smell was his blood.

“I think about him. I didn’t then but I do now. I’m sorry. I hope his way wasn’t hard.”

She doesn’t respond. That isn’t her way. She is only there to listen. It is his turn to speak.

These are their roles and they do not change. Not here. Not now.

“I think I’ll be ready to meet her. My mom.”

She understands what he is telling her.

“Where are you,” she asks him. She always asks this at the end.

“Just beyond. And close. So close.”

“Tell me again.”

“There is only light. Endless light. There is peace and joy.

“But first there is penance.”

She feels tears blistering her cheeks. They are always here at the end. She stares at him, memorizing his timeless face.

“We miss you here on earth.”

***

In the dark her husband rubs a calloused finger under her eyes.

She cries in her sleep.

With a shaking hand he takes her tea and pours it down the drain, placing the cookies back in the jar.

He brings the empty cup and saucer and places both on her night stand.

He lays gingerly in the bed, arms open expectantly, awaiting her return.

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