Amelia’s pleading tone makes Marta pause; she doesn’t want to intrude.
“Please stay in, please. I miss you”
“I can’t, sorry,” Richard replies, “but I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”
Marta aches with empathy for her patient. On her deathbed and still she can’t get her husband’s attention. Richard appears in the doorway. He brightens when he sees Marta there.
“Marta! I thought I’d missed you.”
“I swapped shift for today. Rosy has party for her daughter.”
As always, Marta feels his gaze is just a little too intense and that he’s just a little too friendly, but it’s nothing she can put her finger on. She moves towards Amelia’s room. She’s forced to squeeze past when he doesn’t move, and her breasts crush against him.
“I’m glad it’s just for today. I’d miss our chats, they really help me cope, you know.”
His face is etched with pain. Marta chides herself for her suspicious thoughts: grief can do strange things to a person.
Richard and Amelia were two lost souls adrift in a sea of teenage hostility when they met aged fifteen. With their outcast status to bind them, they found that by clinging together they could make headway in the world, and soon became inseparable.
As soon as they both turned eighteen, they announced to their parents they were getting married, and did so a few weeks later with little fuss. It seemed like the most natural thing: of course they would be together forever, how could they survive apart?
Amelia’s face is turned to the wall when Marta enters with the clean bedpan. There’s nothing much to her, although the pictures around the house show that before this illness she was what the papers would call ‘curvy’.
“Just us girls tonight,” Marta says brightly. “Shall we get some ice-cream and watch a movie about shopping?”
She busies herself with the necessary chores of her job; checking the drip, adding notes to the chart.
“Amelia? What do you say? Girl’s night?”
“Why don’t you just give me too much morphine instead?”
“Hush!” the nurse rounds on her patient, “Don’t talk like that!”
“Why not? Richard wouldn’t care. He’d probably give you a bonus.”
Marta is stern.
“Don’t even think that. He cares. He loves you. It’s hard for him, too, not knowing what’s wrong, not knowing how to fix it. He tells me all the time how much he loves you.”
“Really?” She wants to believe. “He’s so different now, he really still loves me?”
Despite herself, Marta has to look away from the plea in Amelia’s eyes to respond.
“Of course! You are…twin souls, he said.”
Amelia’s smile is dreamy, casting way back to far away times.
“Did I tell you? When we were at high school we made a pact in blood to be together until death and beyond. We knew we wouldn’t be allowed to get married until after school, so we pledged our souls.”
Marta’s seen the photos of them both at that age, all in black with white make up. Crazy goth kids. Still…
“See? How can you talk about leaving him?”
“You’re right. You’re right. Til death and beyond” The frail girl rallies her energies. “OK. But I get to pick.”
Richard and Amelia’s bond let them sail through the treacherous waters of university. While their peers squeezed study around toga parties, booze cruises and social and sexual experimentation, they floated along in their little bubble, working hard and doing well. They became ambitious for their lives, and shed their gothic skins in favour of something less distinctive, more ‘normal’.
It was when their success floated them into the world of work that things changed. Somewhere along the way Richard found his feet and started to stand on his own. He started joining in with things at work; a charity event, a company picnic and drinks after work. Amelia was always invited but mostly declined. More of her nights were spent alone, longing for the weekend when it could be just the two of them again.
The house is dark and quiet. Richard checks Amelia: her ragged breath and the hum and beep of the monitors tell him he’s safe. He pads down the hall to the room the nurses use. Marta. He tests the handle, ever so quietly. Locked. He leans against it, inhaling deeply, trying to catch a hint of her scent, something clean and antiseptic over the warm musk of her body. ‘One day,’ he thinks.
He drags himself away and goes out to the shed. He removes a small glassine envelope from its hiding place and measures out a portion of amber crystals.
“Not much left,” he says. “Getting more could be a problem.”
He thinks about this for a minute, before re-folding the packet and putting it carefully back in place. A wetsuit hanging in the corner, a reminder of an earlier, abandoned plan catches his eye.
“That would have been much easier.”
Back inside the house he listens carefully for any movement before he adds the crystals into Amelia’s organic soy milk. Job done, he goes upstairs to his room and turns on the TV. He flicks through the channels to Babes on Demand. There’s a brunette that reminds him of Marta. He watches her gyrating on the bed and releases his pent-up sexual energy, imagining its Marta bent over on the bed in front of him.
The more Richard experienced of the world, the less he needed Amelia to help him navigate his way through it. His confidence grew and grew and it became apparent to him that where once she had helped keep him afloat, now she was an anchor dragging in the sand and holding him back.
The more he struck out on his own, the more she clung to him. She started to disgust him. On the rare occasion Amelia agreed to come out with him, Richard was embarrassed by her dowdy clothes and lack of social graces. He tried to get her to change: took her shopping and showed her pictures of women he thought she should emulate. Nothing worked. On the contrary, she just got fat, and the gap between them turned into a gaping maw that threatened to suck both of them in and Richard knew the only way he would survive would be to cut himself free.
The realisation that he intended to kill his wife was only slightly shocking to Richard. In the end, he believed he was doing Amelia a kindness. She’s precious, fragile. She could never survive on her own and wouldn’t want to. But he knew she would want him to be happy, to fulfil his potential. They vowed to be together until death and beyond. He would keep that vow: he’d be true to her while she was alive and he would honour her memory and live out their dreams. He just needed to give her peace, first.
Marta holds Amelia’s hand tight as the ambulance wails through the busy streets. Amelia’s barely conscious but some instinct has her searching for Richard, her unfocussed gaze darting about the cramped space. The nurse tries to calm her and silently prays that Richard will turn up.
He’s there almost as soon as the paramedics clatter the trolley into the emergency room. His distress is clear. Marta again chides herself for doubting him. He wants to stay with Amelia but the staff insist he leave. Marta follows him to the waiting room and his brave face collapses as he clings to her for support.
“This is it, isn’t it Marta?” he says, sobbing. “This is the end”.
“Maybe,” she says gently. “Maybe she’ll surprise us. She wants to be with you, she’ll fight”.
The big double doors swing open and Richard looks up expectantly. Amelia’s parents enter, her father pushing her mother’s wheelchair. The sight of Richard’s distress makes them freeze: is it the worst?
Richard pulls himself together and goes to them, apologising for not taking better care of their daughter. They are soon comforting him, their own fear and grief pushed aside. The doors open again, and this time it is the doctor. Marta steps back to allow the family space: she can tell by his demeanour the news is bad.
“We did everything we could but her heart was so weakened, she just couldn’t take the stress of the intervention. I’m terribly sorry.”
Richard drops to the chair, his body shaking, head in hands. Amelia’s father lays a strong hand on his shoulder.
“Are you any wiser to the cause?”
“No, I’m afraid not. We can now run…other tests to try and get to the bottom of it. Tests we can’t run anti-mortem.”
The euphemism hangs in the air.
“Cut her up?” Richard springs to his feet. “No! I won’t, I can’t. Hasn’t she been through enough?”
His protests are heard. There will be no autopsy, no post-mortem.
Poison, as a method, was slow and cruel, but after two failures Richard needed to control the risk. It worked better than he hoped. He thought about stopping when Amelia got thin, she almost looked hot. But then she started talking about having babies and he got that old millstone feeling again.
He couldn’t believe his luck when she got so sick that she needed a nurse and the agency sent Marta. That’s the sort of woman he deserves. Ripe. Passionate. But he’s too smart to let on how he feels; there can’t be any suspicion. To the world he’s stoic, brave in the face of a bewildering tragedy. Only once in a while would he break down, and let Marta fold him against her welcoming breasts, making his body surge with a lust he disguised as anguish.
“Look. It’s a perfect day. I think she’s watching us.”
Marta looks out across the sea. He’s right, it is perfect. A soft sunrise. Crisp, cool air. Birds singing in the trees. Marta thinks of her frail charge, whose short life ended in such pain and sends out a silent prayer that she is at peace.
Richard’s pulling things out of his backpack: a blanket, glasses, champagne.
“You bought drinks?” She can’t help sounding offended.
“I…I thought we could toast her memory.” He looks downcast. Marta sighs. Why did she let herself get talked into this?
“I have to go to work. I’m sorry”.
Richard nods and put it all back, save for an ornate urn.
He stands up, brushes the dirt of his knees.
“This is it Marta, time to say goodbye,” he says, tears welling in his eyes. He reaches out for a hug and holds her just a little too long. He turns out toward the ocean and wipes his eyes on his sleeve. Marta stands beside him, solemn.
“Amelia, you were my rock. My life. I vowed we’d be together until death but I thought we’d be old.” Richard steals a glance at Marta. “I give you now to the wind, and we will always be together, because you’ll come to me every breeze.”
He unscrews the lid of the urn.
“Twin souls Amelia!” he cries, voice thick with emotion. But as his wrist tilts, a sudden wind whips up. The pinkish-grey ash swirls upwards like a will-o-the wisp and seems to dance on the currents before it wraps itself around Richard’s face. He stumbles back from the edge, clawing at his face. The ash is clogging his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Marta is frozen on the spot. Later she’ll swear that the ash was attacking him, that there was purpose and intent, like some malevolent spirit was moving it.
Richard falls to the ground uttering strangled cries. Marta’s training pushes her into action and she tries desperately to clear an airway but the thick, gritty ash seems to slip through fingers like sand. Richard convulses; once, twice and then he’s still.
Amelia wondered about her illness. She was too smart, too certain of her status as an outsider not too entertain the thought that perhaps there was a connection between Richard’s need for company other than hers and this mysterious illness. But she was too dependent on him to face it full on. But she had a strong will and every night she was left on her own she would repeat their vows to herself as a mantra. Until death, Richard. ‘Til death and beyond.