This story is by Gabriel Pena and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The soft leather satchel that his father used before him reminds John Vareth that he is a legitimate medical doctor now. It also reminds him that he alone carries the family name, which scares the frail young man to the point of hot sweat flashes and motion sickness in a slow-moving carriage in mid-January. While his colleagues must first establish themselves as trustworthy physicians, John is already on his way to the Claire Estate to tend to Aimee’s slight case of blurry vision accompanied by an occasional nosebleed and dizziness. “Nothing too serious”, the letter carrier tells him.
This estate is an extraordinary place that reminds him of the Garden of Eden, as he remembers playing the role of Adam while the youngest member of the Claire family, Shaye, assumes the role of Eve. These days of innocently pretending and keeping company to a girl eight years younger than him are dead and gone. He now envisions this paradise as a purgatory that he is not prepared for. Deep down though, he has the normal tendencies of a man in his late twenties, spurred on by the thought of how good Madame Aimee used to look. The way she would say “Jonathan” instead of John and those thighs were the main things that stuck with him off and on throughout the years.
It is time. The carriage stops at the black and gold gates with the “CC” embedded in the middle. John already has the satchel in hand, the carriage door unlatched, and his feet cocked as if he is in position to run a race. Sagging tulips greet him in the walkway, weighed down by so much cold rain, followed by the familiar sights of Amos, the longtime steward and craftsman. His callous hands welcome in the skinny young doctor. He feels relieved for mere seconds until he sees Shaye. That rather annoying girl that he forgot about so many years ago, is now a perfect likeness to the way he remembers her mother, only better. He tenses up all over again, afraid to lift his arms or take off his jacket and reveal the pools of sweat. Her eyes just about leap out of socket at the sight of John, taking and squeezing his clammy hand. Unable to let go, she leads him up to the master bedroom, a place he has only dreamed of entering, and there is Mrs. Aimee Claire, rocking gently back and forth under a blanket. She puts down the charcoal pencil and sketchbook and tries to get up to greet John. He just stutters as Shaye beats him to it, telling her not to get up. She sure has aged, but her natural beauty is still there. The mother and daughter focus all their attention on John, admiring that he has made it this far, not just the journey, but in his career. He tries to focus on why he is here- to examine Aimee.
Everything seems normal, but he is determined to find and fix the problem at once. He perfectly executes the standard procedures that he knows in his sleep, and some relief is in sight after finding no pressing issue with her motor skills, nor a lump or rash anywhere on her. His next job is to follow her the next day just in case. It is time to wait for Mr. Claire who is due to arrive in the evening, and all that is left to do is pass time in the foyer visiting with Aimee and Shaye.
The minutes turn to hours of catching up on a life that reassures him of the happiest moments that he had ever had, yet he is not sure why. His visits as a child while his father made the house call were boring, especially with the close eye that Amos always had on Shaye and him. It must have been the country life that he had never really experienced and the smells of nature that he never noticed in the city.
Visibly tired from talking, Aimee arises to relieve herself. John almost hopes that she would get up too fast and have to sit back down. This way, he would feel useful and give her more doctor terms that he has only scratched the surface of. Yet it is Amos who comes in and grabs her arm. “It’s time to go ahead and eat. You need to get some hot foods in ya. All of ya”. John kicks himself inside, knowing that he should have been the one to suggest that she eat.
The mammoth dining room table swallows the three up to the point that John must raise his voice to feel heard. As the dinner wears on, still no sign of Mr. Claire, and it worries all of them. Aimee asks Amos to get the aspirin from the cupboard, as the long day has triggered a small headache. John leaps inside as he hears this, remembering that he has some pain medication of his own that he plans to recommend to the household.
He asks to be excused and heads anxiously toward his satchel. Amos brings the silver tray in and lays it out before Aimee. She looks down at her reflection and sees the red bead drip from her nose and splatter in a thousand tiny domes. She grabs the napkin off her lap and places it on her nose while Amos sets the tray down to help her. John stumbles in and sees the scene. He places his own tablets back in his pocket and begins to put pressure on her nose.
As the nosebleed finally passes, they all decide to retire. He takes Aimee up to the room and debates in his head if she needs any medicine or not. After he makes one last salutation to her, he takes his hand off the door and reaches inside his pocket.
She encourages John to rest after his long journey, and swallows the tablets. He feels his confidence build for the first time and then exits the master bedroom to be greeted one last time by Shaye. He makes no mention of the medicine to her because she has brought up another subject. “If it’s not so cold tomorrow, we can go down to the stream”. Is this the beginning of something? he trembles in his thoughts. However, he knows at this stage of life not to jump to any conclusions and instead mildly agrees with her. She playfully rolls her eyes and tells him not to worry about her mother. “She is just going mad from the harsh winter and will recover once my father returns”.
Cool, refreshing water cleanses John’s bony feet as he sits at the handmade dock that Amos built almost two decades ago. Shaye comes up behind him and hands him a glass of lemonade. They watch the perfect spring-like day pass under the shade, yet John wonders how. The question sits at the back of his mind as he feels her feet touching his in the water. He hears the footsteps in the soft grass behind them, and he somehow knows it’s Aimee. He sees that she’s wearing the same white gown as last night and urges her to go back to the house for fear that she will catch pneumonia. She smiles at him and gives that look again like she was looking at her own son. She nods her head and turns back in to the tall grass and fades away.
John wakes up to the firm touch of Mr. Claire. Still wearing his winter coat and gloves from the trip, he tells him that Aimee never woke up this morning. John says nothing as he looks around trying to figure out where he is. He is a long way from that spring-like day as the blizzard slams the windows of his room. Mr. Claire stares at him with tears rolling down his still frozen cheeks. He hears the echoes of Shaye’s crying down the hall and looks at his leather satchel nestled perfectly at the foot of his bed.