Holly had gotten into the habit of hanging around after class had finished. She would have to politely shoo off the more earnest students, who would offer to help her clear up the classroom, but mostly she would find a small measure of peace when the cries and shouts of the children were at a remove. When her colleagues were either in their own classrooms or the staff room, and the shadows of the day had grown some length, then she would allow herself to weep.
Holly Mills had entered her sixties with elegance, letting the white hair and the papery texture of her skin accentuate the high cheekbones and regal carriage. She resembled a queen in exile, softly spoken with a smile that glowed like a summer evening. She was softer around the middle but otherwise she had maintained the lean elegance that she had held onto since adolescence.
Which was why she wept in relative privacy.
She had enjoyed forty five years with Gary.
Her husband. Her Bear.
A man not prone to impulse, who rolled rather than walked, never used a cross word even as he had made Mills and Porter into a solid accountancy firm. He read three books a week, had written poetry, earnest solid verse that he would transcribe into handwritten notes that he left for her around the house. One of the most delightful days had been when one of his pieces had made the local paper, and he had idly entertained the idea of putting a book. Their youngest daughter, Rebecca had tried to talk him into self publishing but he had shaken his head, blushing and passing it off as a silly affectation. He was good with his hands, had built the cribs and most of the furniture around their house in the workshop that would be where he would go to find a measure of peace. She knew that his absences were simply part of his way. Three children, all of them conceived and raised with a love that made her blush to think of it. He spoke seldom but whenever he touched her, she would shiver with delight.
Holly had noticed how his silences had changed. Not secrets, but a vague disconnection. Once he had let the pan boil dry as he stared out at the window and she had sworn until he had turned and looked at her, asked her what the fuss was and then, staring past her at the ruined pan, sniffing the air and wrinkling his nose with embarrassed distaste.
‘I’m just tired, poppet.’
She had not said anything at the time. Not even to the children, instead she had made a joke about his cooking. Ordered take out instead and yet in bed that night, he had held her harder than normal, his thick hairy chest rising with each breath and his eyes squeezed shut. She had laid awake, willing the concerns away, shooing them with rationalisations that lacked any real substance.
When he came back from the doctors, he had sat her down in the living room, her pale, fragile hand in both of his. That he had been having gaps in his memory for a while now, and without discussing it, had made the appointment, gone into the MRI even though he had a man’s fear of hospitals and sat there as the specialist had laid out the diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s. Tangles of proteins, like the thorns that crept up around the castle of the sleeping princess. Tearing apart his memories, his capacities and in time, the life that they had built together. His big shoulders shaking with his sobs, scared and all Holly could do was stare at him, wait for someone to pop their head around the door and tell her that this was a practical joke. With the admission, came a progression that soon had him discussing, in his lucid moments, arrangements for his care.
Holly had gone through the brochures with him, looking up reviews on line and dealing with the insurance policy that had been something of a rueful joke between them.
Golden Pines. She had entertained the idea of caring for him herself but he had refused. His eyes were damp as he calmly pointed out how he was beginning to slip away, that he could hurt her or himself without any recollection of it. His thumb spun the wedding band on her left hand as he looked into her eyes.
‘I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, Holly-boo. Don’t put me in that position.’
She had collapsed into his arms and they had cried together.
She did not tell him about where the bruises on her right shoulder had come from. Instead, they made plans. A last Christmas with the family together, too much sadness to truly seize the joy of saying if not goodbye then farewell. In February, he had moved into Golden Pines. She visited every day, endured the episodes where he had regressed to tearful confusion and enjoyed it when he would make wry asides about the other residents.
She cried just as hard in her car, no matter what.
What disturbed her the most was his reaction when one of the orderlies would pass by. A stocky, simian looking man who sneered when he thought no one cogent was watching. Dark blonde hair slicked back and the shadows of tattoos beneath his uniform. Benny.
It was when he was having a bad day that his stoicism receded, that his fear of the sullen young man with the eyes dead like pebbles came to the surface. When she noticed the small burn on his hand, the fingertip bruises on his right wrist. She reported it but Gary was a big man, and dementia had stripped him of the grace that had once charmed her out of her panties, made a more clinical and robust handling of him necessary.
Holly knew her husband though, and she watched him closely when she visited. He made himself scarce in her presence when he was on shift.
It was one of the last times with Gary that he put his hand on hers. Almost like old times, lying in bed, the endorphins of the good, hard love that they made fading and the quiet knot they would tie themselves into. How small she felt with her legs draped over his wide thighs. She wiped her eyes, such was the pain of the memory.
‘I don’t want to go out like this, Holly-Boo.’
She leaned forward, and he asked her. She could not refuse him.
She left the letter on the desk, went straight from school through and on the way, left bland messages for the kids. She loved her children, but she was not sure that she liked them all that much.
She signed in, and found her husband in her room with Benny stood there, his eyes wide with shock at seeing her. His hands were clenched into fists and Gary had the pillow against his chest, eyes screwed shut and a palm print against his cheek. She felt such a swell of love and anger, as she reached into her handbag.
The gun barked twice in her hand, Benny looked in disbelief as Gary’s head snapped back and the pillow exploded in a puff of foam and material.
‘Jesus, lady, what the fuck are you doing?’
She blinked away her tears as she aimed the gun at him. She used the memory of her husband’s tears, the burns and the slaps and all the little indignities that this boy had chosen to inflict on this man. A good father, a great husband, with a kind word for everyone and refusing to burden anyone with his dissolution.
‘No.’ she said.
She fired. He clutched at his throat, blood welling between his fingers as he staggered to his left and looked at her with a disbelief faster than his agony, and even that was not as quick as his passing.
She shut her eyes, brought the gun to her head and looked at her husband. The rest was easy.