I Am Here

Two weeks ago, I didn’t post a short story because I was working on something else. But here I am again. For this one, I had to work with six words instead of five: pantry, spinach, crossroads, Rubik’s Cube, thermostat and braggart. That’s because this is actually the origin story that started the idea for this 5-word-challenge. I wrote it 2 years ago for a creative writing course. Today, I’m sharing it with you.

Liz is sitting in the pantry with her hands over her ears and her eyes firmly shut. One tear manages to escape and rolls down her cheek. Bill’s shouting is muffled, but audible. “Be calm, sweetheart, just be calm.” She’s not sure whether she’s talking to Bill or to herself.

It all happened so quickly.
They were sitting opposite each other, having dinner. Pasta with chicken and spinach.
She noticed his glass was almost empty. “Bill, would you like some more white wine?”
He looked up from his plate. “Bill? Who’s Bill?”
Liz was taken by surprise, but soon started to laugh. “Why silly, that’s you.”
She saw how the look on his face changed. He was no longer confused. He frowned and pursed his lips. Before she knew it, he banged his fist on the table. “Who is this Bill?! Tell me!” His voice rumbled through the kitchen.
Liz was so shocked that she dropped her knife and fork. “Sweetheart, you’re Bill!”
“Lies! My name is William!”
“Yes, that’s your official name, but I have been calling you Bill for 20 years now.”
“You’re lying! My name isn’t Bill! Who’s Bill? Are you seeing someone else? Are you leaving me?”
“Of course not, sweetheart, I would never …”
She couldn’t finish her sentence. Bill took his plate and smashed it against the cupboard. It shattered into a million pieces, that dropped on the floor like patchwork, together with some leftover spinach.
Liz jumped off her chair. “Bill! What are you doing?!”
“Stop calling me Bill! My name is William!”
Bill stormed out of the kitchen and kept yelling. “I’m William! My name is William!”

Every time this happens, her heart breaks a little. That’s why she hides in the pantry until he’s calm again. But lately, she’s been spending a lot of time in here. She has been taking care of him for ten years now, without him knowing. And every day, she sees a small part of him disappear, without him knowing.

It started when he was 54. He didn’t care about work anymore and started lashing out against his co-workers, who had always considered him the office teddy bear. Three doctors had diagnosed him with burn-out. After five years of tests and examinations, to which Bill had always heavily resisted, the fourteenth doctor called it. Frontotemporal dementia. Chronic and, more importantly, progressive.

Family and friends had offered to help, but she had turned them down every time. “We’ll be fine.” But the last three years, it all had become even harder. Something they also noticed in the nursing home. Liz still put her heart and soul into her patients, but her heart and soul were tired. It was only last week, when Sarah and Nicole confronted her about it. But she answered as she always did: “I’ll be fine.” The call from the head of the Dementia department didn’t come as a surprise, but it still grabbed her by the throat. They had a room for Bill. They wanted to take him in. She could see him during the day, and she could rest and have some time for herself at night. “It’s what’s best for both of you, Liz.”

A second tear rolls over Liz’ cheek. She realises she’s at a crossroads. Does she move on with Bill or does she leave him behind? “You shouldn’t look at it that way”, her mother had said. She shouldn’t look at it that way. But that is what it feels like.

When Liz and Bill got married, nobody gave them a chance. The age difference of 18 years was just too big. Little did they know. Liz and Bill hadn’t travelled to faraway places or gone on any wild adventures. But that was okay. Being together was the greatest adventure for both of them. They could talk through the night. She would listen to his stories, fascinated, for hours, even though he wasn’t a braggart. Now, she might not hear his voice for days. That warm, low voice. “Good morning, Lizzie.” Every day used to start with an armless hug.

Liz opens her eyes. She notices she’s shivering, even with her warmest jumper on. Since a year or two, Bill has been displaying obsessive-compulsive behaviour. A symptom. The thermostat must be on 10 degrees Celsius in every room, even during the winter. When she first saw it, she turned up the heat everywhere. Bill was livid. “Why would you do that? That is too hot! We’ll desiccate!” He couldn’t think logically anymore. Another symptom.

And now the forgetfulness. He doesn’t remember Bill anymore. Maybe because Bill isn’t there anymore. Liz wipes a third tear from her cheek and blows in her hands to warm them. She suddenly realises it’s quiet again. She gets up and carefully opens the door. The kitchen looks like a deserted battlefield. The broken plate on the floor, Bill’s empty glass and her plate with what is now cold pasta.

She doesn’t care. She immediately goes to the living room. There, she finds Bill in his chair, playing with his Rubik’s Cube. He studies two sides and then turns one around. Some squares have lost their colour. Bill bought the cube at one of those green stalls along the Seine in Paris, during their honeymoon. A Rubik’s cube had always been a mystery to him. “Just like you were the day I met you”, he had winked.

Playing with the cube relaxes him. An obsessive-compulsive tic that actually helps him. Liz doesn’t say anything and goes to sit on the couch next to him. She takes her book off the coffee table and starts reading. There’s no point in talking about it. He probably already forgot it happened.

She’s only read two pages when Bill gets up and comes sit next to her on the couch. She looks at him, surprised, because he never does this. He smiles at her, mostly with his eyes. She can feel the warmth wrapping itself around her body. Like an armless hug. She smiles back and squeezes his hand. While Bill ponders over his Rubik’s Cube, Liz makes a mental note. Call back the nursing home and tell them we’ll be fine.

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