The City of Mirrors Page 86

Vicky had retired to a small, wood-frame house on the east side of town. A lot of the neighborhood was empty, folks having cleared out long ago. It was getting dark when he stepped onto the porch. A single light was burning in the front parlor. He heard footsteps; then the door opened to reveal Meredith, Vicky’s partner, wiping her hands on a cloth.

“Peter.” About sixty, she was a petite woman with sharp blue eyes. She and Vicky had been together for years. “I didn’t know you were coming.”

“I’m sorry, I should have sent word.”

“No, come in, of course.” She stepped back. “She’s awake—I was just about to feed her some supper. I know she’ll be happy to see you.”

Vicky’s bed was in the parlor. As Peter entered, she glanced in his direction, her head jerking side to side against the elevated pillows.

“Ssss…bout tahm…Misss…ter…P…p…reeee…sa…dent.”

It was as if she were swallowing the words, then spitting them out again. He drew a chair to the side of her bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Toooo…day…n…not ssso…b…b…a-duh.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been away.”

Her hands were moving about restlessly on the blanket. She gave a crooked smile. “Thasss…oh…k…kay. Aaas you…caaan see…I…fff…been…bizzz…ee.”

Meredith appeared in the door with a tray, which she placed on the bedside table. On the tray were a bowl of clear broth and a glass of water with a straw. She cupped the back of Vicky’s head to lift it forward from the pillow and tied a cotton bib around her neck. Night had fallen, making mirrors of the windows.

“Do you want me to do it?” Peter asked Meredith.

“Vicky, do you want Peter to help you with dinner?”

“W…w…why…n…n…not.”

“Small sips,” Meredith told him, and patted him on the arm. She gave him the faintest of smiles; her face was heavy with fatigue. The woman probably hadn’t slept a solid night in months and was simply grateful for the help. “If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen.”

Peter began with the water, holding the straw to Vicky’s lips, which were flaked with dryness, then moved on to the broth. He could see the tremendous effort it required for her to swallow even the tiniest amount. Most of it dribbled from the corners of her mouth; he used the bib to wipe her chin.

“Sss…sss…fun…neee.”

“What’s that?”

“You…ffff…fff…eed…ing…me. Like…a…bay…beeee.”

He gave her more of the broth. “The least I could do. You spoon-fed me more than once.”

Her neck made a sinewy pumping motion as she tried to swallow. It exhausted him, just watching it.

“How…ssss…the…cam…p…p…aign?”

“Not really gotten started yet. Been a bit tied up.”

“Yyyyy…you’re…f…full of…sh…sh…shit.”

She had him dead to rights, but of course she always did. He fed her another spoonful, without much luck. “Caleb and Pim left for the townships today.”

“You’re…j…j…ust…blue. It…will…lll…passss.”

“What? You don’t think I can farm?”

“I…I kn…know…you…P…eter. You’lllll…go…c…c…craze…ee.”

She said nothing else. Peter put the bowl aside; she’d consumed only a fraction. When he looked up again, Vicky’s eyes were closed. He doused the lamp and watched her. Only in sleep did the restless turmoil of her body cease. A few minutes passed; he heard a sound behind him and saw Meredith standing in the kitchen doorway.

“It happens like that,” the woman said quietly. “One minute she’s there, the next…” She left the thought unfinished.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Meredith placed one hand on his arm and met his eye. “She was so proud of you, Peter. It made her so happy, watching all you’ve done.”

“Will you call me if you need me? Anything at all.”

“I think this was a perfect visit, don’t you? Let’s let it be the last one.”

He returned to Vicky’s bedside and lifted one of her hands from the blanket. The woman didn’t stir. He held it for a minute, thinking about her, then leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, something he had never done before.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

He followed Meredith to the porch. “She loved you, you know,” the woman said. “It wasn’t the kind of thing she said very often, not even to me. That’s just how she was. But she did.”

“I loved her, too.”

“She knows you did.” They embraced. “Goodbye, Peter.”

The street was silent, no lights burning. He touched a finger to his eye; it came away wet. Well, he was the president, he could cry if he wanted to. His son was gone; others would follow. He had entered the era of his life when things would drop away. Peter tipped his face to the sky. It was true, what they said about the stars. The more you looked, the more you saw. They were a comfort, their watchful presence a force of reassurance; yet this had not always been so. He stood and looked at them, remembering a time when the sight of so many stars had meant something else entirely.

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