This piece is by Elizabeth Nettleton.
The first thing Paul noticed about Miss Johnson was her teeth. They were small, jutting things; some yellow, some brown, and some a color he dared not even try to categorize. There were some that pointed forward and others backwards, and a few nestled between that sat straight on her gums. She showed them off with each broad smile, and Paul found himself smiling back.
“Good news, Mrs. Johnson,” he said. He pressed the stethoscope against the paper-thin skin on her chest.
“Miss, dearie. I’ve never been married. But you can call me Dorie,” she replied. The creases on her face deepened into another smile.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Johnson. Dorie,” Paul corrected himself. Miss Johnson’s heart raced beneath his stethoscope and he timed it against his watch. “Well, the good news is that I think you should be able to go home tomorrow. All your vitals look great.”
“I cannot thank you enough.”
“Do you have someone to pick you up?”
“I’ll call my niece,” Dorie said. She ran a hand through her coarse gray hair. “She and her husband have been living with me, although I’m starting to think it’s time I moved into a nursing home. It’s becoming quite clear that I need more care.” She touched her hip and winced. “Ah well, I was going to leave that big house to my niece anyway. It will be nice to see her family enjoy it!”
“That’s a great attitude to have. And the nursing homes around here are top-notch. I have some friends that work at Wier Park. They love it there.”
“I’ll have to take a look at it then.” She stared out the window and sighed. “Do you have family here?”
Paul’s smile faltered for a moment. “No. My parents live down south, and I’m a widower,” he said. “My wife passed away about…about a month ago. You’re one of my first patients back, actually.”
He replaced the stethoscope around his neck and touched the locket behind it. The necklace was older than Paul was; a gift from his grandparents after he gasped out the news that Emilia had died. It originally held a picture of his great grandmother. Now, his Lia was tucked into its silver frame, forever pressed against his heart.
Miss Johnson gestured at the necklace. Paul placed his hand over the locket, protecting it behind fingers that had grown too thin, but Dorie’s gaze was insistent. Her hand replaced his and Paul found himself unclasping the chain.
She opened the locket and sighed. “Oh, your wife was a beauty. And so young. May I ask how she passed?”
Paul cleared his throat, feeling oddly exposed without the necklace. “Bone cancer. I met her just before she was diagnosed. She was a nurse here, but only came to this ward about a year ago. When I saw her for the first time…she was beautiful, of course, but it was so much more than that. She was…light. She was joy.”
He paused, embarrassed. Miss Johnson urged him on with the slightest inclination of her head.
“She’d just won her fight against breast cancer when I met her, and she had the most incredible perspective on life. All she wanted was to find the happiness in each moment, and luckily, that included me. We’d only been dating for about three months when she learnt the cancer had spread to her bones, and she didn’t have long left. We married two weeks later. Once it became clear that she wasn’t responding to treatment anymore and that her…her time was at an end, she came home and passed peacefully with me and her mom beside her.”
“For one to be taken so young is a tragedy,” Miss Johnson murmured. She twisted her knotted fingers around the locket and sighed. “Perhaps…oh, perhaps…”
“Perhaps what?” Paul asked. He went to take the necklace, but Miss Johnson held it back. She rubbed her thumb over the silver casing.
“You brought me back to life – don’t be modest, I know it’s true. I’m an old woman now, and each trip I take here brings me closer to my last. So, perhaps I could bring Emilia back for you. Now, now,” she said, chuckling as Paul raised his eyebrows. “I can’t bring her back to life. No, not really. But I can take you back to her, just for a little bit. What do you say?”
“With all due respect, Miss Johnson, I don’t believe in magic.”
“This isn’t magic, dearie, oh no. It’s a blessing. Let me give it to you, as a sign of my gratitude.” Miss Johnson pressed the locket into Paul’s hand until the cool, hard silver dug into his palm. Closing her eyes, she murmured words in a language Paul did not recognize. He hesitated, watching her eyes dance behind her fluttering eyelids, and tried to quell his racing heart.
I don’t believe in magic, he reminded himself. I believe in logic and reasoning. I believe in the things I can see. Even so, his hands began to tremble, and his breath quickened. Miss Johnson opened one eye and stared up at him.
“Awaken,” she said.
The morning light pushed itself through the thin white curtains and stroked Paul’s cheek. He stirred in his sleep, frowning as his dreams twisted and pulled until all he could see was the shadow of Miss Johnson’s uneven smile.
His eyes flew open and he bit back a scream.
On the ceiling hung the poster of the universe that Emilia purchased when they went to the space exhibit. He remembered her giggle as she circled Earth, a tiny white dot within the galaxy, in thick silver marker. “You are here!” she declared, grinning. “Tiny, imperceptible, and so very important.” He had kissed her then.
Turning slightly, Paul touched the pillow and bedsheet. It was the same grey set he brought from his house when they moved in together. Emilia had teased him about the lack of color, telling him that there was a time to surround oneself with gray, and it was not when you were about to embark on a dreamed adventure. Dreams demanded color, she said with a smile. It was only when she felt the soft cotton that she changed her mind. “I should never have doubted your judgment,” she joked.
Paul’s heart hammered in his chest. This was his and Emilia’s room. He had not been here since Emilia passed away, tormented by the memory of her life slipping away from her. Squeezing his eyes shut, he took a few deep breaths.
“It’s impossible,” he murmured.
“What’s impossible, Paul?”
The voice was hoarse, yet unmistakably hers. Paul moved his head slowly and found Emilia staring back at him, still bleary-eyed from sleep. She pulled herself to sitting and rubbed her face.
“Lia?” he whispered.
“Oh, Lia,” Paul cried.
He wrapped his arms around Emilia, and their heartbeats found each other once more. He touched her hair, her face and her neck, certain that she would disappear as soon as his fingertips moved away from her, and tears spilled onto his cheeks.
“Paul, are you OK?” Emilia laughed.
He shook his head. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it worked.”
“I wouldn’t even know how to explain it to you. The important thing is that it worked. Oh, it worked.” Paul brought Emilia closer to him again.
He had drawn on his memories of her so often in the past month that he sometimes felt she was still with him. However now, as she lay beside him, bathed in the morning light, he finally admitted to himself how poorly his memory captured her. She was so much warmer and fuller and brighter than even his fondest memory gave her credit, and he begged himself to remember her properly this time. If he could take nothing else from this day, he prayed he could take that.
“What do you want to do today? We could have a picnic in the park, or maybe go on a hike? We could take Joey,” he said.
“Yeah, where is he?” Paul glanced at the dog bed in the corner of the room.
Emilia pulled away from him and frowned. “Are you joking around? Joey is with my mom, and I’d really rather not be reminded how we gave him up because I’m so ill all the time. I feel guilty enough as it is.”
Paul’s mouth became dry. “But we only decided that right at the…right at the very end.”
Emilia’s eyes filled with tears, and Paul realized with a start how sunken her cheeks now appeared. Her hair thinned before him, pulled out in clumps by hands he could not see, and circles darkened under her bloodshot eyes. She gently lowered herself back onto the bed.
“Can you call my mom?”
“No. No, no, no, no. Not today. It’s not today.”
Paul pulled his phone from his pocket and the date glared back at him, one he remembered too well. He shook his head until the numbers blurred together. He had not recovered from the first time he lived through this day; he couldn’t go through it again. Visions of Emilia’s smile and laugh gave way to black suits and white roses, pressing themselves against him until he struggled to breathe.
“I can’t,” he moaned.
Emilia winced and touched a finger to her pale cheek. “Paul, please. I can’t call her myself. You know what to say.”
She wrapped her frail fingers around his, and Paul pulled her hand to his mouth. He kissed her, then stumbled from the room. Leaning against the wall, grief rose from the pit of his stomach, and he threw his fists against the plaster until his hands were raw and bloody.
“I can’t lose her again,” he gasped.
He held his fist to his mouth and screamed into his knuckles.
“Take me back,” he sobbed. “You got it wrong, Miss Johnson! I don’t want to be back here. You got it wrong! Please, take me back.”
His eyes found the front door, and he ran. This isn’t real. This is a dream, a hallucination, something! Taking the porch steps two at a time, he tried to sprint away from the house, but his body felt oddly heavy. He ploughed ahead, driving his feet forward as if he was wading through mud, and the locket began to burn against his chest. The air turned putrid, snaking through his nose and mouth until he retched, and he finally collapsed beneath the letterbox.
“There’s no escape,” he panted. “There’s no escape…”
Every word was difficult for her now. And she doesn’t know, Paul thought. She doesn’t know we’ve done this before. He wiped his hand across his face and took a deep breath.
“I have to do it for her,” he said. “I can’t leave her alone, not today. I have to be there for her. I have to be there with her.” He grabbed his phone and dialed Emilia’s mother. “I’ve gotta do it for her, do it for…oh hi, yes Molly, it’s Paul.” He folded his hand against his face, desperately trying to keep his voice steady. “Yeah, Lia’s asking if you would please come over. She thinks…she…she thinks…”
Emilia’s mother hung up the phone.
“Paul?” Emilia’s strained voice called again from the bedroom.
“I’m coming,” he cried. He strode into the house, no longer encumbered by any force, and knelt beside Emilia. She propped herself up on the pillows, a slight sheen of sweat gleaming across her forehead.
“Hon, can I have a drink?” she whispered.
Paul held Emilia’s water bottle to her lips, and she took a sip.
“I’m here for you. I’ll always be here for you,” Paul said. The words had comforted her once before, so he repeated them over and over until her eyelids drooped and she settled back under the covers.
The front door rattled.
“Baby?” a woman called.
“Mom, we’re in here,” Emilia replied. She dug her fingers into Paul’s hand.
Molly rushed into the room. Her dark eyes passed over Paul and fell onto her daughter.
“Oh, my baby girl,” she murmured.
Emilia’s fingers slipped from Paul’s as she embraced her mother, and then Molly straightened. She guided Paul into the hallway.
“Hello, Paul,” she said.
“Hi, Molly. Thank you for your coming so quickly.”
Molly scowled. “You think I wouldn’t get here as fast as I could? You think I’d let my baby down? Do you, dearie?”
The woman’s lips curled into a smile, and her teeth shifted in her mouth. Some pointed forwards and others backwards, and they turned yellow and brown and colors Paul dared not even try to categorize. Her short brown hair grew coarse and grey, and lines etched themselves upon her once youthful cheeks and forehead.
“…Miss Johnson? Where’s Molly?”
The woman grinned. “I am Molly. I’ve always been Molly. I tried to bless you while I was in my own body, but you didn’t want to see me after Lia died.”
“I was in a really bad place, Molly. I was going to call you in a few weeks…”
“Is that so?”
“I’m sorry.” He staggered forward, but Molly held him back with her hand. Paul hesitated. “You…you took me back to the wrong time. This is the worst day to bring me back to…it’s the very worst day.”
Molly raised her hand and Paul tilted his face towards her. She caressed his cheek, her fingertips soft and gentle, and then twisted his skin between her sharp nails. Paul yelped in surprise.
“You are exactly where you are supposed to be, dearie,” she hissed. She released his cheek and Paul shuddered.
“I don’t understand. This was supposed to be a blessing,” he said.
“There is a fine line between a blessing and a curse, isn’t there?” The words dripped through those jutting teeth like venom.
“You took her from me!” Molly growled. “This was the last year of her life, and all she wanted to do was be with you. Even when she was with me, she was thinking about you. I will never get that year back!”
“I never intended to take her away from you. And she was happy, Molly. I loved her…”
Molly snarled. “Love? How dare you call it love. You’re hurting now, but it won’t be long until another woman catches your eye. You’ll remarry, have children, and Lia will be reduced to a footnote in your life. You’ll move on.”
Paul tried to place his hand on Molly’s shoulder, but she shrugged him away.
“I will never recover from this! I will never be able to move on after I lose Emilia!” The woman’s voice cracked, and for a moment Paul saw the grief within her anger. Then she raised her lip into a sneer, and it was gone. “Now tell me, how long would it have been before you stuffed that beautiful locket into a drawer to avoid upsetting the new girlfriend?”
Paul took a step backwards and the woman’s hair shortened and darkened. Her smile straightened and her eyes lightened, and she was in her own body once more.
“So that’s the curse?” he said. “I lose her again?”
Molly touched the locket, and the silver burned Paul’s chest, searing its fury upon his skin. “The curse is this: you will lose her every day until you can lift this locket from your neck.”
Paul tried to take the necklace off, but it did not move. “I’ll lose her every day for the rest of eternity?” he asked, panicked.
The woman stared up at him. “If I can’t move on, neither can you.”
“And what if I tell Emilia what you’ve done?”
“She’ll be upset with me. And then the day will start anew.”
“But why? Why would you subject yourself to this day over and over again?”
Molly laughed. “After today, I will not be here. Or at least, not this present version of me. No, today is just for you.”
Paul touched the locket. “Until I can lift it from my neck…is there another way to release the curse?”
The woman sneered. “Curses of this kind must have caveats, so there is another way to escape.”
“What is it?”
Molly paused. “You lose your love for her.”
“That will never happen!”
“You may feel that way now, but after watching her die every day for years on end…well, you may find yourself becoming numb to the sight of her suffering. Of course, that would only prove me right; that yours was never true love to begin with, and that you did not deserve her or her time. But, yes. If you stop loving her, you will be able to lift the locket from your neck and leave this day.”
She moved past him and took her place next to Emilia. Paul stumbled in behind her. Emilia smiled weakly at them in turn, her gaze lingering on Paul.
“Paul, Mom, thank you for being here with me. I love you,” she whispered.
Paul choked out a sob. “I love you too, Lia,” he said thickly. The clasps on the locket dug into his skin, pinching and clawing at his thundering heart. He raised his chin defiantly and stared into Molly’s cruel dark eyes. “And I will love you until my dying breath.”
Molly rose and embraced him. She lowered her lips to his ear. “We’ll see.”