Clearly, I’d known from the start that it was not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when.’
I felt bad that I’d never taken Alice to Paris like she’d hoped. I was being a typical guy with the guttering- I’d get to it someday, but not today. I’d promised her we’d go when we were sapling newly weds, on our honeymoon in New Zealand. I knew she had wanted Paris and it was on her mind when she remained in silence after we’d made love in the leaky motel. So I leaned over the sweat soaked sheets and told her that someday soon, we’d be there.
But now we could never be. I’d delayed it 25 years and was betrayed by the security that my wife would last as long as time itself. For the long blonde hair that floated so gently down her shoulders had worn with age- patches missing, more hair appearing on the pillow than ever before. Her condition building to an ungodly crescendo. Her right cheek seemed almost punctured, her red ruby lips faded to a baby pink. Her whole face paler and more worn. She was haggard, tired, and couldn’t do it anymore.
I’d talked with her once about the batteries of life, and what they meant. Alice had her own batteries, but they were vintage and expensive. When we first met, they were charged and ready to roll, and I didn’t think to stock up on more for her. But now, as supply had dwindled, so did her life. There were odd days. Sometimes the batteries worked, and other days they delayed, and sometimes it seemed as though they had run flat. At first I used to be terrified for these days; terrified she would leave me. Of course I still had the children- but it did not compare. I would beg her to snap out of it when her circuits delayed, and most of the time, she would. But as time wore on, I realized I should just be aware that when the batteries ran flat, they ran flat. Her time was fading out, and it was then I realized that it was not a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘when.’
We adopted two children, as Alice and I found out she couldn’t conceive quickly after marriage. I had always wanted to be a father, and hadn’t even let the process of adoption sway me when we adopted our children. But the real pain for me now was that I had wanted to be a father with Alice by my side. What on earth was I supposed to do alone? How was I going to be strong for them if she wasn’t there?
Alice’s farewell could not have come at a worse time in regards to our children. Our son Robert had barely been adopted, and although it had been months, his face seemed frozen to us, forever a newborn baby. How was I to raise him all alone? I had Annabelle- my teenage daughter, but she was in a world of her own grief and hardly spoke. She remained in her bedroom; slumped over her desk, arm resting under her chin for what seemed like weeks. She didn’t go to school as we had chosen to home school her, but with Alice’s illness I hadn’t had the time to teach. I liked to think she was writing up there, because whenever I passed her room and peeked inside it was always the same notebook. Maybe she was dealing with her grief in the way only a writer could.
We were a quiet family. Nobody on our street really knew us- and in a way, we preferred it that way. Alice seemed silent and embarrassed about her condition, which gave me the instinct to keep her safe from the public eye. I knew she secretly feared a battery drain in public, and especially didn’t want the children to see it happen. So for most of the time she remained in bed- hooked to a potato. It sounds ridiculous, but it really isn’t- getting energy from a potato was one of the only options we found worked. And although it did nothing but increase her life inch by inch, volt by volt, she seemed to like it, and it was all a matter of making sure she was comfortable. We had gone through around five hundred potatoes in the last month, and there was only so many potato bakes I could make before the children complained of repetition. It put a heavy strain on our savings, the savings we had put toward Paris, but now that didn’t matter.
I carefully and quietly tiptoed up to our bedroom that morning, nibbling a crust of toast. Alice never ate, and it had practically become non-existent during her illness, so I just grabbed the odd slice of toast to energize me for the day. After all, I had batteries too. Batteries that would need fuel not only to get through the day and care for Alice but also to raise two children on my own.
I decided to get Robert up first, as I knew Alice would enjoy seeing him, even if her arms were so haggard and torn that she couldn’t hold him. As I padded up the stairs silently and into the baby blue room, I knew I wouldn’t be expecting a loud cry. Robert was a dream baby, silent as stars, quiet as a mouse. I often thought if his tiny mind knew instinctively what was going on because he was so good for me.
Sure enough, he was still asleep in his cradle. His tiny hands were balled into fists and pressed against his face, as his expression was one of delightful annoyance. I didn’t mind though, as Robert had always slept this way. It didn’t matter whether he was unhappy or sad, he would always sleep with such an expression. I stuffed the remaining shard of toast into my mouth, before gently picking up Robert with both hands and lifting him out the cot. His expression didn’t change, but his little head tipped back slightly as he was lifted. I pressed him to my shoulder, patting his back as I swayed back and forth gently. With the free hand, I grasp one of his many tracksuits for the day. I’m not sure how Alice used to do it while I was away at work, but I manage to lay out a fresh one suit, blue with a jumping smiling lamb, on his changing table. I decide to change him later. Routine was out the window, like everything else was since Alice began to drain.
I carry Robert up the remaining stairs, feeling how heavy yet light his little body feels while clinging to me. I was going to have to do everything alone with him. I would have to cook his meals, tell him to clean his room, drive him to school or soccer and tell him to go to bed all alone. I was going to have to be brave without Alice there- would my son like me as he grew up? Would he have wished I had run flat instead of her?
I pass Annabelle’s room, and pause to sway over the open crack in her door she still left open because of the fear of monsters. I hoped, like every normal sixteen year old, she had at least gone into her own bed, but alas- she was still there, hunched over her notebook.
‘Annabelle?’ I find myself whispering. She does not turn.
I know exactly why, of course. During the difficult dealings with Alice, and trying to get my work life together, I found out that Annabelle had been garnering the attention of the local boys. In fact, I caught my daughter outside the back of the tool shed with one. She had been stripped and he was displaying his masculinity. He had the audacity while I yelled at her to refer to my daughter as only a ‘Doll’, as if her femineity was nothing. Since then I have changed the locks and grounded her. But to her, I’ve stirred up her whole world.
‘Mum was feeling a little better this morning.’ I try to sound joyous, but she does not turn. I know it was wrong of me to tell her that her mother would pass on without a doubt, but what else could I say? So to Annabelle, no news I can say now is good news, unless there’s been a cure for Alice’s haywire dying batteries.
‘Keep up the writing…’ Is all I can murmur, before closing her bedroom door. I know it’s the only thing she really wants now.
I reach our bedroom, grasping the doorhandle while trying to keep Robert still in my arms, and quietly enter.
Alice is awake, which surprises me. Tubes and wires of all sorts are tangled around the bed in a heap, potatoes bulbing at each end. She can’t talk or move now, as it is too painful and too much energy for her, but her eyes open gives me the signal that she’s happy to see us.
‘I brought the baby…’ I say quietly, gently ‘it’s been a while since you’ve seen each other, eh?’
She doesn’t respond, but doesn’t go back to sleep, either. I put Robert in her line of sight, and let her stare at him for a few moments- taking in his beauty, and his little sleeping expression. All of a sudden there is a jerk of her lips, and a low moan creaks out, although it is distorted and cracked as the batteries circuit. I put Robert quickly down on the bed and grab her cold clammy hands.
‘Don’t worry, don’t panic.’ I chant to her gently ‘Just relax. It’s alright.’
Her eyes flap shut, and for a minute I swear she is gone, as this has been the most she’s moved in days. But after a while, I put my ear to her chest, and can hear the cogs of her heart whirring and struggling. Still alive, still kicking.
‘I think that’s the most you’re going to get out of her today, little man.’ I tell Robert, picking him back up ‘I think tonight is the night.’
I go about the day as usual, trying to forget that something so daunting and frightening is going to happen. I change Robert and take him into the kitchen where I go to get Annabelle up to tell her the news. She does not take it lightly, as seems to go even more limp as before. I find myself practically carrying her down the hall to the kitchen. She seems to heavy for such a finely tuned body, but then I recall she came from the same place her mother came from, and Alice also seemed to weigh heavier than she looked.
I have breakfast with the children, one chair still open for if Alice decided to leap from her bed sheets and prance downstairs. Annabelle is quiet, looking over her cereal, while Robert decides to remain snoozing. I clean up and take Annabelle back to her room, where I decide to attempt to teach her English to break up the day. Annabelle takes in all of the lesson quietly, then sets to work on her latest piece when I leave.
Work was no doubt out of the question, and although my work colleagues never really knew, they were extremely surprised and sympathetic when I phoned. I spent a lot of the afternoon with Robert dozing in my lap, reading aloud The Paper Doll for Alice, which was her favourite. After the book was finished, I finally made the choice to take away the potatoes from Alice. She wouldn’t need them anymore. I cut them off, one by one, and if anything, it seemed to make Alice even drowsier. I took them into the kitchen, washed them, and set about preparing dinner with them while I parked Robert in front of the television to watch Toy Story, which he was promptly asleep for.
I eventually got Annabelle into Alice’s room to eat dinner. Eating in bedrooms was something normally banned in our household, but tonight was certainly not normal. I went to the effort of sprinkling sprigs of rosemary on the potatoes I had cooked from Alice’s treatment. She was smart enough to figure out, even if she wasn’t going to eat it, that it was silent sign that I would remember her.
After dinner it was just talking. Mostly on my part, telling Alice how much she was loved and how we would indeed miss her, but we didn’t want to see her suffering anymore. For our sake, it just wasn’t worth it.
At around ten that night, it happened. I had been slowly thinking that perhaps it wouldn’t be tonight, but it was. I was rocking Robert in my arms, speaking to him, when suddenly Alice’s eyes flickered open, as if she were brand new again. Her eyes were at the ceiling though, not on mine, and there was an exhausted moan from her body as it suddenly drained to its last volt of energy. She simply stopped, opened her eyes, let out a sigh, and died. It was simple as that. I removed the children quickly from the room afterward, opening up the whole book of instructions on how to live that I had been stored in my head. I grieved with them in the hallway, all of us. We were now alone.
Authorities stepped in a few weeks after Alice’s death. I had stopped working, and there had been no funeral, which had ignited the concern of my workplace. Social workers were sent in for the children, and they found us, almost exactly as we were, except alone as a family. I was trying my hardest to care for them, and the social workers gently told me that it was time to go. Go where? I didn’t know.
They took my children from me when I arrived at the social worker home. Where they took Alice, I begged to know, and they gently told me she had been removed and dealt with respectively. I wanted to see my children badly, but they didn’t understand.
‘Mr Darning, do you HAVE children who can come visit?’ One worker, Mindy, asked me.
‘YES! YOU SAW THEM!’ I exploded for the hundredth time ‘They lived with me, a boy and a girl!’
Mindy shook her head, checking a notepad for signs of them.
‘There were no children.’ She said gently ‘We were surprised we even got the call for children. Are- are these the other dolls that were in the house?’
‘THEY AREN’T DOLLS!’ I snarled at her ‘they’re my children! I need them here- I promised Alice!’
My new home was too clean and white for me; I needed the mess that only children could provide. I wanted to hold Robert close, and I wanted to assure Annabelle it was all right.
‘I can see you’re very distressed.’ Mindy said, taking down notes ‘the situation is that the house is abandoned, and its very lucky you weren’t targeted by the teenage youths who like to stalk around there. We will try to get your Love Doll and Reborn Baby doll back to you, Mr Darning, if that’s what you want.’
‘It wasn’t abandoned!’ I growl ‘it was a beautiful two storey home, for Christ’s sake! I don’t care about that- just give me my kids back!’
I began to realize how much I hated the real world, and why I had asked for Alice’s hand in marriage in the first place. My children were truly now the only things who felt real to me, even if everyone tried to tell me the opposite. I didn’t understand why I had to be taken away, as I was happy there. I had lost a wife, but I was happy. We were happy.
One day, while I sat in my tiny little house, the door opened and Mindy came in, followed by two removal men who held my beautiful babes in arms. I leapt to my feet with joy, rushing to them. I laughed out loud as I noticed that Robert was still asleep, probably oblivious to the whole thing. I fell with them in a heap, hugging each other for dear life.
‘You’re here, you’re here!’ I kept saying over and over, overjoyed ‘we’re going to move on from this, children. We’re going to live. We’re going to make mummy proud of us.’
Sure enough, we did. We were let out of the social worker home when I was accessed to be a fit father. I honestly thought I didn’t need the assessment, but they were stern. As soon as we were cleared, I realized that our home had been thoroughly trashed by the time we got home. For my children’s sake, I decided it was time to move and start anew. I decided, taking a lock of hair from Alice’s once beautiful head that I kept underneath my pillow, we should go where she would want.
And so we went to Paris.
This story is dedicated to my father, who had to find the strength to go on.
Words by Bethany Lawrence