Deborah pauses in the corridor, out of breath from dragging a bale of hay out to the makeshift stable in the rear courtyard. It's the first time since Deborah started at the shelter that they have had a full horse morph in residence and her new charge has made a big impact on her workload.
She sees a light coming from the slightly open door of room 12b. She has never seen this room used before - it is designed for special needs which have not arisen to date. Still trying to catch her breath, she looks in to see what's going on.
The room is unfurnished and uncarpeted, lit by a harsh, bare bulb. The walls are just bare plaster, paying mute testament to the financial struggle involved in keeping the shelter open. A single straight-backed chair sits on the wooden floorboards. The back of the room is filled by a large glass tank. In the gloom the tank looks black, drops of condensation on its surface catching the sparse light like glitter.
A man sits in the chair, watching. Every now and then there is a brief swirl of motion from within the tank, but nothing clear enough to identify. There is no reaction from the man that Deborah can see, but his face is not visible to her. Deborah thinks about talking to him, asking if there is anything he needs, but he looks entirely self-contained. He shows no sign of even being aware of her presence.
Recovered from her efforts, Deborah turns and leaves quietly.
Deborah falls into the habit of looking into the room whenever she passes. Almost every time the man is there, sitting, watching the tank. She wonders if he ever sleeps.
He never even seems to get out of the chair. Maybe it's just because of the pain in her own back from all the physical labour involved in looking after a horse, but Deborah can't imagine how his spine can stand it.
As sorry as the sight makes her she also feels an occasional guilty
pang of jealousy, wishing someone loved her that much.
A few days later Deborah catches sight of Phil, one of the counsellors, entering 12b. It always makes her feel warm and giggly inside when she catches sight of the man-sized anthropomorphic white rabbit hopping around the place. He always looks so earnest. She finds him cute, though, sometimes wanting to scratch behind his ears. Just once she would like to see him look at a fob watch and announce that he is late. She smiles and carries on with her work.
On her way back from the ersatz stables she pauses by the door, listening but not looking, feeling like an intruder. She hears Phil's voice.
"...and sometimes they never come out of it. Given your wife's situation even if she did we may never even realise. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. It's nothing to do with you." The sound of the man's voice is just like Deborah had imagined - soft and gentle. She imagines she can hear the pain in his words and wants to wrap her arms around him and make everything all right.
"Well, sometimes all any of us can do is wait. I don't know if it's a good idea to tell you not to give up hope. Sometimes too much hope can be worse than too little."
There is a long silence. Deborah pictures the man looking longingly at the tank, weighing the hope in his heart.
"Anyway," Phil says, "I'll leave you together. Try to give yourself some time for you, though. It won't make as much difference as..."
Deborah moves back down the corridor hastily, like a naughty schoolgirl,
afraid of being caught.
Later that afternoon Deborah sneaks another peek in 12b. The man is back in his chair, motionless. There is a large smear in the condensation in the centre of the tank. Maybe the man was standing there earlier, in front of the tank, and wiped a patch clear in order to see his lost love better. In her mind Deborah can see him, hands cupped around his eyes, looking in, his expression of pain reflected in the glass.
Maybe he had traced a heart on the glass, or had written some private endearment, and in a moment of charming shyness rubbed it off before anyone else saw it.
Deborah thinks of all the cheap romance paperbacks she has read over
the years. The message is always that love conquers all. Why shouldn't
it be that way in life? Regardless of what Phil told the man she vows to
hold enough hope in her own heart for all of them.
She knows she shouldn't get involved directly, that it's not really her job, but Deborah can't keep her silence. She has stood in the doorway for ten minutes this time, just watching, but she imagines she can feel waves of hurt coming from the man like heat. What kind of human being would she be if she didn't at least say some kind words?
Deborah walks up behind the chair, but the man seems oblivious. She thinks about clearing her throat to attract his attention, so her words won't be too much of a shock, but realises that he must have heard her footsteps coming across the ageing floorboards.
"I think it's beautiful what you're doing," she says. Her voice sounds loud and childish in her own ears. She wishes she weren't so nervous.
The man turns slowly. "What?" he asks. His eyes meet hers with an intensity that almost unbalances her.
Deborah finds herself surprised by the man's face. She had imagined a handsome young face, delicate and prematurely aged by grief. Instead this is the coarse face of a builder or dock worker. The expression it wears is one of hostility.
"This." Deborah waves an arm vaguely, indicating the chair and the tank. "Waiting. Hoping. Loving. Never losing hope."
The man carries on staring at her. His expression becomes less one of anger, but of a terrible coldness. Deborah looks up at the tank to break away. There is a dark stirring inside it. On the glass several beads of condensation gather together into a critical mass and trickle down the chill plane like a tear or a drop of nervous sweat.
A sudden bitter laugh rends the air. "Loving?" The man's face breaks into a smile that never quite reaches his eyes. "Is that what you think?"
Deborah feels herself redden. "But, isn't that why you...? I mean, why else...?"
Slowly the man gets out of his chair. He looks so much larger standing up. A sudden thrill of fear runs through Deborah. She thinks about running or screaming for help, but knows something is happening that she must see through.
The man points at the tank. "How the fuck could I love that? That thing?" His voice never rises above speaking level, but the tone of it scares Deborah more than a shout would.
"But she's your wife."
"Well, lady, I'll let you into a little secret: I didn't love her that much before she was a freak. Now, I mean, can you imagine sharing your life with something that lives in a tank? Jesus fuck!"
Deborah shakes her head, feeling stupid and ashamed. "You're in here every day. How can you...? I mean, why?"
"Why?" The man's face relaxes, becoming almost slack. "OK, if you really want to know. A month ago, I guess she was just getting sick then, I hit her with divorce papers. I figured she'd been screwing around and I sure as hell was and we didn't even talk to each other any more. We'd even started sleeping in separate rooms, keeping different hours at the apartment so as we wouldn't see each other. I couldn't even stand seeing her face. At least that's not a problem any more.
"Then, just as we're about to get free from each other, she has to get the fucking Martian flu. It's almost like she did it on purpose. I mean that would be just like the vicious bitch, to destroy her own life just to take me down with her.
"And now, now she's got me trapped. All right, she's in the fucking tank but I might as well be in there with her. It's funny. I never thought I had a conscience, but every time I think about walking out of here I just get the idea of what it must be like to be stuck there, floating in cold water. Some sick fucking joke, eh?"
Tears welling up in her eyes, Deborah opens her mouth to speak, but can't think of the words to say. There must be some words for this situation. Phil would probably know them.
In a quick burst of motion the man moves to the tank and smacks the flat of his palm against the glass. Deborah jumps, fearing that it will break, releasing its contents into plain sight.
"Why the fuck am I still doing this? I owe you nothing. Nothing!" Another slap. Deborah fancies she can see quick panicked movements inside. "I won't let this make a difference to me any more. I won't let you make me into a hypocrite."
Quietly and deliberately, the man turns away from the tank and walks out of the room. He does not pause to acknowledge Deborah in any way. She can hear his footsteps disappearing down the corridor.
She waits for a length of time that becomes meaningless. The footsteps never return. In the tank something moves alone in darkness.
(c) 1997 XoYo
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