Our town is laid out like a chessboard. Two powerful families who dominated the place for almost two centuries, the Cassavoys and the Farradays, have fought for control. First they fought over lumber rights. Then it was land. Then the battleground shifted to public opinion. Each had a newspaper of different political stripes. Each had a radio station playing different kinds of music.
The young men from the two opposing sides challenged each other to street races in the night and many died as a result. The Adagio River ran between the two sides of town and the two factions and when the government ordered a bridge across the flow to connect the two business districts, the two families fought over who would build it and nothing was done until the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in and did it themselves.
The common ground, the meeting place, was an island in the river known as Paris Land. Even after the government stepped in and constructed the bridge, there were always issues about who owed loyalty to which family. The Main Street consisted of the business district joined by halves of the Adagio span that drew us together more than either family could, a street where we found our necessities – shops, banks, the hospital, a library, a cinema that kept changing hands and was shuttered every other year, and the short-order restaurants where we would sit, read the newspapers from both sides of the river, and gossip among ourselves. It was important for us to keep up with the comings and goings of the Cassavoys and the Farradays. They were our soap opera, and we were waiting, almost with bated breath, to witness the spectacle of a tragedy in our own backyards.
But despite our best efforts to start our own businesses and live as if there was no divide, our history told the story of two houses, equally opposed, brought together by love and grief. We all knew there were four places where, no matter who anyone was or which family we sided with everyone had to pass through: the hospital where we born; the home for the elderly, Montalet House, where we went to await our inevitable ends; the funeral home; and the town burial grounds. We lived the majority of our lives in a no-man’s-land between the Cassavoys and the Farradays.
The widow, Julia Cassavoy, went willingly to Montalet. Her cousin, Ty, was already there, paralyzed in his right arm from a stroke. On the night of her sixteenth month in Montalet House, Julia decided to hold a masked ball for the residents – even the non-ambulatory ones. She had told her nurse and the others on the organizing committee that the worst thing for someone of advanced years was to hear others having fun without being able to participate. The tables in the dining hall were stacked and set to one side. The periphery of the room was lined with the dining chairs so those who grew tired could simply sit, watch, and enjoy the music. The lights would be dimmed.
On the day of the dance, Ron Farraday arrived as the newest resident at Montalet House. His family decided it was the best thing for him – they wanted him out of the way. He had been fine up until three months prior to his admission to Montalet House. His wife, Rosamund, had been a much beloved figure on her side of the river. She died in a car accident. Ron had been at the wheel. He had also been drinking. He injured his leg, had to use a cane, and had trouble caring for himself. His family told him that Montalet House was his only option.
Just prior to the dimming of the lights for the dance, Julia handed out costume masks, the men’s black with sequins around the edges and the women’s pink with small feathers framing the disguise. The theme for the evening would be commedia dell’arte. The men were Arlequino. The women were Columbina.
Ron Farraday had arrived that afternoon at Montalet House but the few pieces of furniture he brought with him didn’t arrive until supper time. He did not feel up to attending a masked ball but the sound of music filtered through the corridors of the home and drew him to the second-floor lounge. He watched the dance from a juliet balcony above the dining hall. Some of the residents were dancing with their walkers. Some watched from the sidelines. Although it was hard to see in the dim purple light – the glow ball made matters worse – Ron fixed his gaze on a woman dancing with passion and joy, absorbed in the rhythm of the music.
Ron thought of his Rosamund. He remembered how beautiful she was that summer afternoon when she pulled up beside him in the downtown in her pale blue Mustang. They had gone joyriding in the convertible. Ron had come to believe that those who age never really see themselves as they are: they perceive themselves as who they were and wish to remain.
Ron took the elevator to the lower floor and at the door he was handed a commedia mask: Il Capitano, the dashing hero. He laid his cane on one of the side chairs, fearing that he might be turned down by the spritely lady if she thought he couldn’t keep up with her moves. He walked up to Julia, though he did not know who she was, and asked if he could have the next dance. As he held her in his arms, he could feel the warmth of her skin through her blouse, her heart beating and radiating a life he never thought he would feel again after he buried Rosamund. “I’d like to see your face,” he whispered in Julia’s ear.
Julia smiled, cocked her head, and after a moment replied, “You will have to earn that with more than your dancing. I don’t believe I have seen you here before.”
“I’m the new boy in town,” Ron said, leaning into her ear. “Just rode into Dodge tonight. Someone said this is your dance. You’ve done a splendid job.”
“Why thank you,” Julia said, smiling. “You’re a good dancer.”
“Limp and all, eh? Have to keep up with the other inmates. I’ve heard some of these boys can really cut the rug.”
Julia laughed. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but some of them have trouble cutting their food.”
“I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but even with a mask on you are a stunning-looking woman.”
“Widow,” added Julia. “It has been five years now. My family says I need to be here to be looked after, but truth is I am quite capable of looking after myself. I have a nurse, and she flitters around me with this pill and that, but for all the good she does I might as well be taking my own medicine.”
“Isn’t it strange,” Ron said as he looked in Julia’s eyes through her mask, “that after spending our lives looking after so many people, so many who needed us and trusted us, we reach the end no one wants to trust us? That saddens me. Accumulated wisdom ought to count for something.”
“Here, here. I spent my life wanting for nothing, but even now, when my family says I should want for nothing, the one thing I want is my freedom. I want to be able to walk out under the stars whenever I want, to look up, to follow a shooting star and try to say my entire name before it burns out. In the Philippines, they believe a person who can say their entire name in the length of time it takes for a falling star to burn away, will be the luckiest person alive.”
“The lucky ones are those who have short names, I guess. My name is…”
Julia cut him off. “Don’t tell me. I want to know you as my mystery man. I want to know you as the handsome dancer who has come to whisk me away from aches and pains of the present. I want to dance with you and believe that I am young again, and maybe young forever.”
“If that’s what you want. I’m a man who has given everyone I’ve known and loved what they have wanted, so I might as well grant you that. Let us be young forever.”
They danced together for the next ten songs, then Julia held him at arms-length, and looked at him. “Thank you, good sir. You have given me an evening of magic. I need to be about my business now. Duty calls. I must conduct the draw. I am supposed to oversee this event.”
“May I meet you for breakfast in the morning?” Ron asked.
“You’ll have to wear your mask or I won’t know you. Thank you again for a gracious evening. I would love to see you again, and I probably will.”
The lights went up in the hall. The glow ball stopped spinning. Some of the revelers shielded their eyes from the bright lights. Julia climbed up the steps of the stage, and Ron returned to his chair where he had laid his cane before taking to the floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Julia said, raising the microphone to her lips. “It is time for the draw but before we do that, it is time to remove our masks so everyone can see who they were dancing with. Our revels now are ended!” With that everyone reached up and pulled the masks above their eyes, everyone except Ron. He did not want to remove his mask. For him, the mask was magic. For the hour that he had danced with Julia, he had been young again.
Julia’s cousin, Ty, had been eyeing Ron for at least half an hour. He studied Ron though he could not tell for certain he was in the presence of a Farraday. Ty decided it was worth testing to see if the masked man was, indeed, Ron Farraday. He remembered the old taunts shouted across the stone bridge over the Adagio. A Cassavoy never walked away from a fight. If it weren’t Ron, he would apologize. If it were, he would show him a thing or two with his fists. A Farraday in what Ty considered to be Cassavoy territory was an invitation to settle old scores.
“You bastard!” Ty shouted. “Who told you to barge in here and dance with Julia all evening?” Ron had just picked up his cane from the seat and gripped it. A cane was a symbol of infirmity, and at that moment he felt strong enough not to need it.
Ty grabbed Ron by the shoulder and spun him around. Ron lost his balance and fell. Julia sucked in her breath as Ron’s cane bounced off the parquet floor. An old friend of Ron’s, Mark, ran to the fallen Farraday, but instead of pushing Ty away, he picked up Ron’s cane. Then in a fit of anger at the attack, Mark turned and struck Ty across the side of the head with it. Ty gasped and sank to his knees. A trickle of blood flowed from his nose, and then his right ear. He choked, and fell over, fighting for breath through his blood. Ron struggled to his feet and tried to grab for the cane, but an orderly snatched it from him as another attendant bent over Ty then looked up and spoke.
“He’s dead,” the orderly said to Mark. “You’ve killed him.”
Mark staggered back, shaking his head in denial at what he had done, and ran from the hall. He ran through the corridors and onto the driveway before the attendants caught up with him. He ran as hard as he could then clutched at his chest and sank to his knees.
“Calm!” Julia pleaded. “Everyone stay calm!”
Mark got as far as the gate of Montalet House. There his heart had burst. The evening ended with the flash of blue lights from two ambulances. Ron was taken to his room away from the gathering where he gave a statement to the police. Everyone else who had been to the dance dispersed. The lights in the corridors were dimmed, and within a half an hour, the home was silent.
The nurse came into Julia’s room. Julia was weeping.
“There, there, my dear. Yes, go ahead and weep. Get it all out. Ty was your cousin. He was your family here. Ty was good to you.” Julia sobbed and turned her face to the pillow.
“Why, why did it have to happen?”
“Ah, Mrs. Cassavoy, no one really knows. The universe is a terrible and strange place. Here, let me give you something to help you sleep.”
“No, that won’t be necessary.” Julia paused. “It was going so well. It was a beautiful evening, and then the old feud found its way inside these walls. Why can’t the world just let us be?”
“You’re right. You are in your golden years. This is a time for peace when all the passions of the world, love and hate, should be left behind.”
Julia sat up, wiped her tears.
“And what is life, Nurse? What is it? Is it the silence and the stillness before dawn when I know, for certain death is taking its practice aim at all of us? I’ve heard that silence. I’ve heard it speak in its darkness and tell me I am at the end. But I won’t accept that. Why should I go gently? Why should I just lie back and let time run out on me? Why should any of us do that? You weren’t there, but tonight I danced with a beautiful man. I thought I had known him all my life. When we spoke together it was as if he was reading my mind and I his. I’ve never known such a connection with someone yet I felt he’d always been part of my life, a character in the wings waiting to make his entrance on my stage. And he did. Something has touched me. I can’t explain it – something miraculous I always wanted to feel and was denied me. Tonight, I held a certainty in my arms as we danced. Maybe it’s age, but age teaches one what to trust and what not to.”
Ron stood at the window of his room. The night was darker than any he could recall. The moon was hidden. The emptiness of the early hour reached into him and he felt helpless and alone for the first time in his life. Maybe it was the death of Mark. Maybe it was the way Mark had died after stepping in to defend him. The gesture was noble but pointless. Ron could not contain his grief. Everyone was being taken from him.
Heartbroken, Ron slipped out of his room with his mask in the pocket of his dressing gown. The nursing station was unattended. He limped down the stairs and entered the dining hall where the police had just taken down the yellow tape and the final investigators were shuffling out. The tables and chairs had been relocated to their regular places for breakfast. The glow ball was gone. The dining hall had lost its magic.
In the darkness, Ron heard someone sigh and he turned and looked up. Julia was standing at the second-floor balcony. She was clutching her mask in her hand and weeping. She sighed again and Ron donned his mask and moved along the wall beneath the balcony so she would not see him.
“Why?” she said almost silently though Ron could hear her. “Why is my dance ending? I have danced my life away, yet I thought the dance would never end. I would be dancing still, with you my masked man, my hero. And now, they will never let us dance again. Where are you?”
“It need not be,” Ron replied, moving from the wall and its shadows to stand among the tables. “It need not be. I am here. Please, please dance with me.”
Julia looked down, startled that someone had replied to her out of the darkness. “Is it you?” she asked.
“Yes. I am sorry about your cousin. So very sorry. I have no idea why he wanted to attack me.”
“I know,” she whispered. “You’re Ron Farraday and I’m Julia Cassavoy. Our town, our pasts, our families, have dictated we could never dance together. We must occupy opposite banks of the same river, drink the same water, breathe the same air, and yet be separate.”
“But we are two human beings. We’re two people aging and facing that moment when we’ll run out of time and our lives will have been thwarted not by who we are as individuals but by who we are as townsfolk of this place we call home. We’re more than just bodies waiting for our time in this world to end. We’re alive, and we need to embrace life with every moment.”
“If the orderlies find you here, they’ll confine you to your room for a week.”
“Then let them find me,” declared Ron. “Let them tear me away from a vision of life I glimpsed with you this night. They can lock me up. They can medicate me out of my mind, but they cannot take from me the magic I felt when I cast my cane aside and danced the night with you. I was young again.”
“And I, also.”
“Julia, Julia Cassavoy, for I know that is your name – and a name means nothing if it is not worn as a badge of life: I am a Farraday. Why must we be prisoners of the world others made for us when, if we had the right to choose our destinies?”
“I know. I know, Ron. But our families will not permit it.”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow they are letting us go for an outing with a member of our family. I have a plan. Tell your son or daughter or whoever is picking you up, that you want to go to the mall. I’ll tell my daughter-in-law the same thing. At eleven, tell your chaperone you need to use the washroom in the food court. I’ll tell my daughter-in-law the same. Meet me behind the loading entrance. There’s a corridor between the fries stand and the Thai place. Meet me there, and we’ll slip away.”
Julia paused for a moment, then nodded though Ron could not see the gesture. “Yes,” she said. “Eleven tomorrow. And Ron?”
“Bring your meds with you. Adieu.”
The next morning Ron and Julia slipped away from their escorts and met at the door behind the loading entrance. Both were scared. Both knew they were breaking the rules of Montalet house, as well as betraying the trust of their families. But they had to seize the moment. They saw each other without the masks from the night before when the mayhem of the dance’s end left a kinsman dead from each of the two houses. They stood for a moment, hands joined, then kissed.
Ron had a taxi waiting. “Where to?” the driver asked.
“Anywhere,” Julia answered. “Wait, I have an idea. Have you ever been to the Basilica – the monastery is out in the country, far, far away from town?” Ron nodded. “It is beautiful there and no one will find us.”
The taxi drove to Main Street and followed it over the stone bridge where the road branched off toward the Basilica.
“Do you know Father Larry there?” Julia asked. “He has been a comfort to me over the years. He listens. Ron, I think there’s more happening between us than we can admit right now. We’ve just walked away from all the comforts, all the coddling, and all the rules that have surrounded us for years. And in spite of what happened last night, in spite of the decades we have put between us, I feel there is more to come for us.”
Ron squeezed her hand as they left the taxi, entered the church, and stood under the dome of the main aisle. Father Larry appeared. He looked surprised to see them – “Ron, a Farraday with Julia, a Cassavoy!” he exclaimed. He ushered the couple into his study behind the altar and asked them to take a seat on a leather couch. “This is, indeed, a rare day. The elders from two families. Is there peace at last between everyone?”
Ron spoke first. “Father Larry, we’ve come for your help. Julia and I just met. Last night at Montalet House. It was during a masked ball she organized. Last night we discovered the world has stood between us, and we want to be together.”
Julia squeezed Ron’s hand and he intertwined his fingers with hers.
The priest looked at their hands and then in their eyes – and he saw such sincerity and ardour in them.
“I know,” Ron continued, “we’re too old to be married and our families wouldn’t permit it, but would you at least bless our love?”
“Ron and Julia, love is a mystery. It is a divine gift. People like to say it conquers all and heals all wounds. If it can bind the Farradays and the Cassavoys even for a spark of an instant, then the saying is true. Let me ask you a particularly important question. I know you do not want to marry. So be it. But what purpose do you see this union serving?”
Julia spoke up. “Only to say what we have discovered in each other is real, and perhaps worthy of being called holy. We should not have to bear old wounds. We both realized on our way here today that hatred and foolishness kept us from a life of happiness together. We married, and I think I speak for Ron as well when I say our lives were not without happiness or purpose, but they would have been much different had the old hostilities not stood between us.”
“Are you sure this is not merely infatuation? Infatuation strikes hard and fast and it can deceive.”
“No,” said Ron. “I believe, with all my heart, this is real. We have so little time remaining. I want Julia to know I feel a bond to her I have never felt before. I don’t know if that is love, but I know there is something beyond mere words that binds us.” Ron gazed into Julia’s eyes, and she returned the look with tears welling in hers as she smiled. “Father, if this is love it moves in the strangest of ways. Two days ago, we could have been enemies staring across the river at each other, and I would have died an old and bitter man, living with fear, feeling abandoned and lost in the world. Now, she is here with me, and I don’t feel alone.”
“Please, Father,” said Julia, “please don’t leave us alone to wither and fade away, not now, not at this point in our lives. We need what little happiness we can give each other.”
The priest reached for their hands and drew them together. “I cannot marry you. You need to think this over longer. But I will bless you. I see no sin in such a bond if what you feel for each other is all you have. May God bless and keep you, and may He deliver to you the beauty of the love he shares with all things.”
When they left Father Larry’s office, Ron suggested they stroll through the grounds of the Basilica. There were woods skirting the seminary buildings and with warm spring days just beginning to open buds on the trees, the moment grew more perfect for Ron and Julia.
“I even brought my birder’s glasses,” Ron said pulling a small pair of binoculars from his coat pocket.
“I’d no idea you were into birding. That’s been my passion for years. I belonged to the Audubon Society.”
“Me? The Ornithological Association. That’s probably why we never knew we shared a love of birds. Even the two birding societies refuse to share the same ground on the same day – as if the birds really cared.”
They paused on the forest path and she let go of Ron’s hand. “Look,” whispered Julia. “Spring is really here.” They stood in silence and listened to a birdsong. Flecks of yellow darted through the high branches.
“Are those wild canaries?” asked Ron.
“Maybe they are goldfinches.”
“I’d prefer they were wild canaries,” he whispered back.
“Because canaries are a sign that spring is here to stay. The goldfinches arrive earlier but they are just passing through. The canaries tell us life is in full bloom. The summer is almost upon us and soon the days will grow shorter. There is a sadness to the canaries. They tell us that life is beginning again but the days will become darker and we are running out of time.”
“But I do love goldfinches even if they are here only briefly,” Julia said.
“Then let them be goldfinches,” Ron replied, handing Julia the binoculars. “Let them be the birds of a briefer season. We’ll make the best of it no matter how short our time together may be. Let them sing and wake us each morning to a new life.”
“So be it,” said Julia.
“Let’s make a pledge, Julia. Let’s pledge we will love each other all our remaining days. Here,” Ron said, taking his fountain pen from his vest pocket. “I’ll write my name on your hand in banker’s ink, and you’ll write your name on mine, so even if we are separated we’ll still carry with us more than the eight letters of our last names. We will wear the eight letters that are the sum of our first names, Ron and Julia.” She held out her palm and he wrote Ron on her hand. He held out his, and she wrote Julia with the letters flowing along his heart line.
By the time they returned to the Basilica, the police had arrived. The families had tracked the couple through the taxi company. Julia’s son and Ron’s daughter-in-law were shouting at each other across the driveway. The old feud had not abated, though for one blessed afternoon, Ron and Julia had walked in the woods and found a way to leave the world behind. Both were whisked away in separate vehicles and were taken to the hospital at the far end of the main street.
Julia’s family insisted she had lost her mind, and demanded she be admitted to the Psych ward where she was to be put under immediate sedation. Julia’s son shouted at her, “Those goddamned Farradays want to sink their claws into our holdings! You can’t trust them. You can’t. You’re a foolish old woman with delusions, dangerous delusions!”
Hearing the harangue of his daughter-in-law, Ron clutched at his left arm. He felt weak and dizzy and was immediately put into a private room in the cardiac unit. He asked to keep his clothes and his fountain pen. His daughter-in-law saw Julia’s name on his hand and was incensed.
“What were you two thinking?” she hollered at Ron. “Especially after Mark’s death and the terrible news that he killed Julia’s cousin. Are you insane? Have you totally lost your mind? Those Cassavoys could sue us. Or worse, they could manipulate a merger. Just like that! They’d take over our paper and our media company and put us in the poorhouse. I have half a notion, old man, to make sure they shackle you in your bed both here and back at the home where you are going and where you are going to stay! Running away like that! That’s madness, a certain sign of dementia. And do you know what that woman is trying to do? Do you? She’s using you as a pawn for her family. A merger of our publishing houses would ruin us, not them! We’d be the losers! And if you think I’m daft, I heard Mrs. Cassavoy’s son saying the same thing to his brother. I’m getting the lawyer tomorrow to make sure you no longer control your assets. Power of attorney, old man! Power of attorney! You’re not going to ruin what the Farradays have taken a century to build, especially with that Cassavoy woman whispering in your ear. They’d like nothing better than to witness the downfall of our paper and our house.”
Ron kept silent. He did not get into a hospital gown and did not even take off his raincoat or his tweed fedora. He sat on the edge of the hospital bed and stared at the frosted glass window of his hospital room. All he could think about was Julia. When a nurse came in to check on him, he asked about Mrs. Cassavoy.
“Where has she gone? Is she all right?”
The nurse turned on her heel and headed toward the door. He called after her.
“I want to see my priest. I need to talk to my priest. Not the hospital chaplain, but Father Larry at the Basilica.”
The nurse, turned, looked at him, and left the room.
Julia had been taken to the terrible Seventh floor. The Seventh floor had been a common joke when Ron and Julia were younger. If someone said or did something stupid around town, the response was “You’re headed to the seventh floor.” Rumour had it that those who were incarcerated on the Seventh floor rarely came out with their minds intact, and if they did they referred to it as the Seventh level of Hell. Ron had to find Julia. He had to get away from the madness of the hospital and the town.
When Ron and Julia had been taken away, Father Larry followed their ambulances. He read the anger in the eyes of the younger generation who hurried the lovers away from the Basilica. Father Larry was not young himself yet he understood that there was a real though sudden attraction between Ron and Julia. He saw the way they looked at each other as they had sat on the couch in his office. Was it a miracle? He knew that look. It was a look two souls give each other when they are in love.
The priest arrived on Ron’s floor and overheard the conversation between the nurses as he stood at the nurse’s station.
“That old man is inquiring about the woman who came in at the same time with her family, and he is asking to see his priest. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him. His EKG looks fine, too, and the blood work just came back and it looked normal,” one nurse told the other.
“You’ve got to wonder what they are hiding from or being hidden from,” said the other nurse. “Mr. Farraday’s daughter-in-law left strict instructions that he was to have no visitors. That seems kind of cruel. It is like they’re locking him up.”
Father Larry interrupted. “Did I hear you speak of Mr. Farraday? I’m his priest. I was here visiting another patient. I’ve been hearing Mr. Farraday’s confession for years – a sort of spiritual counsellor and golf buddy, depending, of course, on the weather of the day.”
The nurses laughed.
He continued, “It would be grand to see him, if only to say hello and wish him well, if it isn’t any trouble.”
“His daughter said he’s not to have any visitors.”
“Ah, I see. Well, let me know if he asks for me.”
“Father,” said the nurse who had been in Ron’s room, “he did ask for you. Hospital policy permits pastoral visits if the patient specifically requests them. Mr. Farraday said he wanted to see Father Larry from the Basilica.”
“How fortunate! I am Father Larry. Isn’t it wonderful how coincidence borders on miracles?”
One nurse looked at the other, and the two women nodded together. “Alright,” said one. She showed the priest into Ron’s room. Ron stood up as the nurse left.
“You look like you’re about to go somewhere, Ron.”
“Father, you have to help me find Julia and get out of here. I don’t know where she is.”
“I do,” said the priest. “She’s locked up on the seventh floor. I have no idea what they are doing to her up there.”
“Why are they doing this to us? Don’t we have a right to lead our own lives? They say we are old. Yes, we have many years of life behind us and, perhaps not as many ahead of us. But love is not measured in time. When a man and a woman love each other, no matter what age, they will hold on to each. My love for Julia, fresh as it is, is no less than if I fell in love with her when we were twenty. Perhaps it’s greater because we bring to that love an understanding that comes from having stood up to the world and time and all the wrongs we have done and have been done to us. I see nothing in that to prevent us from saying in the face of twilight that we are human beings who are worthy of our humanity.”
“Brave words, Ron,” said Father Larry, “but you are preaching to one who is already on your side.”
“Father, Julia and I have so little time together. Every second is precious. Every second is a second lost if we are not together. I have watched my friends cradle their dying lovers. Their love did not diminish. When their spouses passed away, they did not stop loving them. They reached out, aching, for them, but even in their pain, their love was strong because love is a form of bravery, and only cowards would say it is foolish at any age.”
“I know,” said Father Larry.
Both men fell silent and stared at the frosted white glass window of the room as if it were the horizon of a mystery they could not solve.
Father Larry looked at Ron and put his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“I think I have a plan. I know where the nurses keep the medication tray, and I am aware there are a number of people on this floor who are prescribed sleeping medications. They have told me so themselves. I’ve often followed the nurses on their rounds when I’ve been here to tend to the sick and the dying.”
Ron shook his head.
“Now, don’t get ahead of me,” Father Larry continued. “What I am about to suggest is unethical and dangerous, but I see it as the only way to get you two out of here. I think I can find enough pills, just enough and not too much, to make you appear to be dead, at least with a pulse low enough to trick an orderly. I will tell them you have been pronounced dead. He will wheel you down to the morgue. I will try to find Julia and bring her down there, somehow, if I can manage to free her from the Seventh floor. Then I can bring you around, and you can leave together through the entrance where the hearses pull up to take the bodies away. It is risky. Are you with me on this?”
Ron nodded. Father Larry squeezed his hand and left the room. A few minutes later, the priest returned with several paper cups.
“They’re not paying attention at that nursing station. I could have taken the crown jewels. Now, wait for me to call your room and then take the pills. There’s enough there for pleasant dreams but not enough to kill you. I’m sure of it. I’m on the same stuff myself.”
“Are you certain this plan will work?”
“It’s the best I can do. What’s the extension number on the phone there,” the priest said pointing to the nightstand. Ron didn’t have his glasses on.
“Eight, zero, eight.”
“Good. Wait for my call, Ron. Now to Julia.”
When the priest got to the Seventh Floor to ask for Julia Cassavoy, there was a commotion at the nursing station. A security guard was talking with the nurses. Father Larry drew into the conversation. Mrs. Cassavoy had gone missing. They were certain she was somewhere in the hospital, but where was she hiding?
In the emergency room on the first floor, Julia found an empty gurney and a white sheet. She lay down and pulled the sheet over her head. Several minutes later, an orderly came and wheeled the gurney with Julia in her winding sheet to the elevator. Beneath the sheet, she lay still. She felt cold with anxiety. Her hands became as icy as if she were dead. She heard the bell of the elevator and felt the descent to the basement.
The room where the orderly took her was cold and had the sour scent of antiseptic. “Be still,” she thought to herself.
Someone pulled the sheet back for an instant, looked at her face, and then picked up her wrist and read her wristband. A voice said, “I guess the paperwork is coming down on this one.” Then the sheet was replaced. A moment later, she heard a door open, and felt a darkness surround her as two sets of hands lifted her onto a metal slab. She lay motionless, making sure as she breathed her chest and stomach did not rise and fall and give her away.
“Is death a cold, silent darkness?” Julia wondered as she lay in her crypt.
Upstairs, Ron waited. The minutes passed. Each one weighed on him as if it was an hour. Father Larry had not called. Had he not found Julia? He peered around the door of his room. The nurses were wheeling the medication wagon from patient to patient.
“We’ll be right with you, Mr. Farraday.” And noticing he still was wearing his fedora one of them called, “Hey, take off your hat and stay a while.”
Ron realized that if the nurses found the pills Father Larry had stolen for him, everyone would think Ron had pilfered them to end his life. Ron lifted the top of the tray table beside his bed and poured the pills inside. He set the empty paper cup on top then removed his fedora and tweed jacket and laid them on the bed.
As he passed the bathroom door, he turned on the washroom light, set the handle to lock, and pulled the door shut with all his strength to make the nurses believe he had settled in and was busy in the bathroom. When the nurses were in a room two doors down, fighting with a patient who was refusing medication, Ron slipped down the hall and took the elevator to the basement. He had still not received Father Larry’s call to proceed with the plan.
He wandered through the stark, beige corridors until he saw the sign for the morgue.
Is death a labyrinth? Ron thought to himself.
At the door of the morgue, a gaunt man whose cheeks had sunken in around protruding cheek bones was sitting at a grey metal desk. The attendant was wearing grey hospital scrubs. The man stared. Ron smiled at him.
“Can I help you?” asked the attendant.
“Yes. Has a woman come in here recently, an older woman, grey hair, elegant-looking?”
The attendant stared. After a moment, he asked, “Are you Mr. Cassavoy?”
“What do you mean?”
“They just brought in a Mrs. Cassavoy.”
Ron staggered against the doorframe.
“Hey, you’d better sit down. Are you Mr. Cassavoy?” Ron nodded. “Were you with your wife when she passed?” Ron shook his head. “Would you like to see her?” Ron nodded yes.
The attendant took Ron by the arm and raised him up.
“Are you sure, sir, you are ready for this? I can leave you alone for a few minutes if you wish.”
He led Ron into the cold room. There, the attendant opened a door and slid out the slab where Julia lay.
As she came out of the darkness, Julia was again afraid she would be discovered. She lay still, her eyes closed as the attendant drew back the sheet and left the room. Ron stood over her silently. Then, he reached into his trousers pocket where he had been carrying his meds all day. He opened the steel vial where he kept the nitro pills for his heart condition, and holding up the container whispered, “Here’s to my love!” and swallowed the contents.
At the sound of his voice, Julia sat up, looked into Ron’s eyes and whispered, “No! No!”
Ron sank to the floor. He reached out to hold her hand, her name still written on his palm, and collapsed before their fingers could touch.
Julia raised her hand to her mouth. She heard the attendant’s chair squeak on the floor in the next room and fearing she would be taken from Ron again, ran to the door and bolted it. Then she kneeled beside Ron Farraday, cradling his head in her lap, as he smiled up at her and whispered, “My heart is breaking.” He closed his eyes.
She stroked his forehead, and as her hand passed to the back of his head, she saw his name where he had written it that morning, printed in neat letters across her heart line.
“Ron, my love, what has the world done to us? Why should we feel the weight of the stars and all the darkness around them? Why should it all come crashing down upon us when we thought we both had a chance at the happiness we’d been denied? Oh, Ron. Had we not been separated by a river and our families, had we come to know each other in our youth and not at the last gasp of our lives, we could have been so happy.” Tears poured down her cheeks and her voice broke.
The orderly was banging on the door. She heard Father Larry’s voice from the other side calling to her, pleading with her to open the door. She could not rise to her feet. She lay on the cold grey linoleum floor beside the body of Ron Farraday, and reaching into his shirt pocket, drew out his fountain pen and unscrewed the cap. She held it to her neck. “O dagger of love make your mortal sting. Be true and write the ending to our story!” she said in a clear, strong voice, then plunged the pen into her neck.
When the door was finally opened, when the lock was finally undone, Father Larry stood with the security guards and nurses over the two bodies. The two lovers had gone missing from their wards, and their families had been summoned. The Farradays and the Cassavoys intermingled shoulder to shoulder, staring silently at the spectacle of Julia embracing Ron, both motionless. No one could look away, and none of them could comprehend what they were seeing.
“Stand aside,” said a man in a black suit. “I am the Chief of Staff in this hospital.” He bent and held each wrist, checking for a pulse. Neither had one. He read the names written on each palm.
“How could this have happened? Two leading citizens dead in this way. This is a place where people come to be healed. Not this.”
“They were in love, and their families kept them apart,” said Father Larry. “They were trying to get away. I am so very sorry. I am responsible. I tried to call him in his room. He told me the extension was eight, zero, eight but I couldn’t get through to stop him in time from leaving his room and going in search of her.”
A nurse from Ron’s floor spoke up. “I believe the extension in that room is three, zero, three.”
Father Larry began to weep. “I failed them God forgive what should not be forgiven. I failed them!”
The Chief of Staff stood and looked down on the bodies.
“The old wounds have been open too long. Look at what they have bled. There are no longer two houses. There is only one town and all its pointless, rage, and grief. A shame on both your houses. Were you so incapable of putting aside the old wrongs that two people, regardless of age or family or which side of the river they came from could simply love each other? A shame on both your houses.”
No one said a word but everyone bowed their heads, some to pray and most in shame. The town fell silent that night. The youths from the two sides of the rivers did not challenge each other to races. The shops shuttered and remained closed for three days. United in grief, the Cassavoys and the Farradays met on the bridge. They talked together for several hours and when they parted, they embraced each other and promised they would do everything they could to set aside the past. The Adagio flowed between the two sides of the town and the sun rose and set several minutes later each day until the season changed and darkness settled on both sides of the river as winter arrived.