Stella was roused awake by the sound of Beauregard’s croupy wheeze. The room was cold, and their breath was visible in the dim light of a lantern. She woke Beauregard by softly rocking his bony shoulder. When he opened his eyes she had him sit forward and propped some pillows behind his back. Her instinct was to go at him again about moving to town, or at least seeing a doctor. But all her nagging did, no matter how much love and concern she put into it, was to make him angry and irritable. She pulled on her jacket and got up to relight the fire.
She opened the damper, and then walked over to open the door so the smoke wouldn’t build in the room before the fire got a good catch.
“The salt,” he said.
He pointed his finger to a container on a shelf behind her.
“Right. The salt.” The foolishness of it annoyed her, but she took the salt down and spread a line of it across the threshold of the open door. “I’ll fix you something to drink. Some strong black coffee will help that cough.” She dumped a few teaspoons of grounds into the percolator and placed it on the woodstove to boil.
The cabin was small and warmed quickly.
“Come here,” he said, flapping his left hand on the bed impatiently like a fish out of water.
“I’ll be there in a minute. I’m just waiting to make sure the coffee doesn’t boil over.”
Stella hung her jacket back on the hook and obliged.
She stroked Beauregard’s graying hair, as she stared at the glow dancing behind the small pane of glass at the front of the stove. The smell of wood smoke drew a memory of a vague and distant past, maybe a cold and hungry winter before they came and took her from her mother. Beauregard rested a leather hand on her lap, and she had an urge to suckle his frail body like the baby she never got to have.
It had been a long journey where time turned everyone into the opposite of what they had been. The poor girl who patched the holes in the only dress she owned, and did nude shows and turned tricks for someone else’s gain...for Beauregard’s gain, she’d been living the good life for years. Had been around the world. Knew what fork to use. What wine to order. Owned works of modern art. Beau had promised her Hollywood, and anything she wanted to hear, as long as she was his cash cow and giving up the milk. Jacob had vied to be her knight in shining armour. And look at them both. Who set the once tough-assed, hard drinking, shrewd swindler, up with some land of his own, with her inheritance? The land and the accommodations weren't much, true, but she gave as much as the old man would take. And then look at the once dreamy cowboy, with the incorruptible innocence in his eyes. Fucked from a war he never learned how to leave.
They’d forgotten her. All the love they had pledged. But in the end, she was the one who went back for them. Beauregard she found through an army of private detectives, and it was no easy task. And Jacob? She hadn’t thought much about finding him. Fate took care of that when it delivered him one day, strung out and down to skin and bones, to the Veteran’s hospital she was volunteering at. Who had been the savior then? Who stayed by his side and loved him through the darkness? And when he was ready for the world again, who sold him a quiet piece of land in Canada for a quarter of what it was worth, to give him a new start? Still, they both claimed to love her. But she was the one who went back. She was the one who kept them going. And that’s just how she liked the men in her life now. Under her control.
She got up, and with a rag, removed the percolator from the stove, but not before it boiled over. She poured them each a cup of coffee, the grounds mixed in and visible as the liquid left the spout.
“I should be getting back soon,” she said handing him a cup.
“No, stay with me,” he asked, through a fit of coughs.
“It’s getting late and I’ve been gone too long. I’ll come back tonight. Unless…”
The coughing eased and he brought the coffee to his lips. He looked at her over the rim of the cup. ”Unless?”
“You let me take you to see a doctor.”
“Stella. No. I’m going to die. I’m going to die soon. I’m going to die here. I’ve long outlived what I ever should have. You need to make peace with that. But I’m going to die here. Know this, no doctors. They keep people like me and we never go home.”
A shiver ran up her spine. He shoulders were bare beneath the thin spaghetti straps of her dress. Beauregard brushed aside the bright auburn hair that lay on one of her shoulders. “I liked it better when it was dark.”
“My natural colour or the black you made me dye it?” she asked, not really caring what the answer might be.
He wheezed heavily and coughed again. “The rich terracotta chocolate that it was when I met you.”
“Terracotta chocolate? That doesn’t sound very appetizing.”
“But it was. It was beautiful when the sun hit.”
“I’m not sure how you’d remember it. It wasn’t like that for very long.”
“I remember. Every time I hold you and I close my eyes, I remember. I’m so sorry.”
“For changing my hair colour?”
“No. Well, yes that too.” He sputtered again for a long time. “I’m sorry for all the other stuff, mostly. You must have thought I was a demon. I was. I was the demon who destroyed you.”
“You didn’t destroy me. You were a mean son-of-a-bitch, but you taught me how to survive in this world.”
“Bullshit. You knew that long before I came into your life. I could see it in your eyes. It’s why I chose you.”
“And here I thought it was for my beauty,” she teased.
“No. It was the way you looked at me. I saw a fighter in there. I saw a girl full of fire who knew how to work a game.”
Stella didn’t feel like going over it all again. It was what it was. He was a different man then. She’d long since forgiven him. She fished in her purse for her phone. “No call from Jake yet. I guess he’d call if he needed me.”
“Stella, I mean it. I’m sorry.”
“Shhh,” she told him. “Let it be.”
His face became anguished. “When I close my eyes I see other things too.”
“We don’t have to go there. Please, not there.”
“I’m going to suffer right until the end. It’s the evil I put into this world, the things I did to you, and others… that poison has come back to me. It’s in my lungs now. Some days are good days, but it isn’t going to get much better. I’m going to die. And it’s going to get bad. And you need to promise you won’t make me go to town. I need this suffering to absolve my sins. To set the balance right. Let me have my suffering.”
“That’s silly talk,” she assured him. “Could I at least hire a nurse for you?”
“Yours is the only compassion I want. I was a monster in those days. What was it you called me? A wine-soaked, drunken heathen of a damnable Indian.”
“Don’t go there. Not there. OK?”
“I was a monster.”
“You were a shrewd businessman. A shitty card player, but a shrewd businessman. And one hell of a showman." She pulled the blankets up high around him and tucked the edges in. “There were good times too. Don’t they count? I learned a long time ago that the way to get through this world is to only take the good days with you and to leave the rest behind. It’s how I survived.” She rose to get ready to leave.
“I don’t know if I’m going to see you again.”
“You’re too stubborn to die.”
“I need you to promise me you’ll do something”
“I want you to find love. Real love.”
“I have. Twice,” she said putting her jacket on.
“You never had a choice with me. That wasn’t real love.”
“But I do love you. And what about the Colonel? I had a lot of happy years with him.”
“I know you, Stella. You loved the life he gave you and his kindness. But did you really love him?”
“Sure. What more could there be to want? I’ve known what it is to love a man and be loved.”
“I wasn’t talking about a man, anyway. You Stella. Love you. All of you.”
She walked very slowly to her truck, wondering if it was the last time she'd see him alive.