I roll myself to the heavy staff quarter’s door and fight an unnecessarily handicapped battle from the chair against the cantankerous closer. Kristine is indifferent to the reason for my clattering, swearing entry. She remains parked on the couch, staring sightlessly at the sleeping baby who has slipped precariously between her slack thighs.
Kristine’s dulled senses are rooted in the sedative offerings I leave for her each morning. The pills disappear as fast as my back is turned but she no longer retreats to her room. This encouraging development has had some undesirable side-effects.
To prevent her dwelling on her troubles I’ve attempted to divert her attention by playing a constant loop of kiddie DVD’s. The TV’s childish cheerfulness also alleviates the unbearable, ticking silence that hangs between us whenever we are in the same room.
I roll the chair to her and watch the flaring colours and plastic characters joyfully solve a minor upset on the screen for a moment. An incongruous soundtrack accompanies their outrageous hyperbole. I’m confused until I see she has the TV sound off and the stereo on.
A female’s soft, mournful voice drones from the speakers. This is partially my fault for not checking the suitability of albums in the stacker. At least she’s managed to get her faculties together enough to turn it on. I’d thought this action was beyond her. Shrugging, I begin my prepared speech.
“I’ve made something for you.”
“All you make are messes.”
Her bitter words are all the encouragement I need. It’s the first time she’s spoken to me in days. Instant tears glitter in her dark-ringed eyes. She grapples with the child and stands unsteadily, ready to withdraw from my sight. But I’m ready for this tactic.
Holding a baby is an encumbrance I can use to my advantage. Totally deluded by my past refusal to raise a hand against her, Kristine is shocked when I firmly take her by the shoulders. Steering her backwards, she collapses into the wheelchair seat with a short scream. I wrap the retraining belt around her waist, securing the clasp behind the chair.
“Owww! What are you doing? Don't touch me, you pig! I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“Just this once, you’re going to do what I say.”
Before she can think about kicking me in the nuts, I move out of range.
“C’mon, let’s get some sunshine.”
She slumps with a frustrated sigh, too depressed, tired and confused to argue further. She occupies herself by cuddling and shushing the baby, who howls in objection to our jostling, while I wheel them to the lift and press the ground floor button.
After pushing them inside I wait until the doors clunk together and then sprint downstairs. Puffing, I reach the ground floor, turning on the speed when I hear the ‘ding’ of its arrival. The doors open and immediately begin to close again. I’m only just quick enough to get a hand between them, slapping the safety buffer while Kristine furiously mashes the ‘Close’ button a few more times. The doors retract and she greets my cheery grin with a scowl.
“Gotta be quicker than that, sister.”
Another deep sigh of resignation and she surrenders to whatever lunacy I have in store. I push them along the corridor, risking an epileptic fit by speeding past the blocks of afternoon sun slanting through security-meshed windows.
We reach the garden, and I slow to allow Kristine’s muddled brain to take in the weld-mesh arch I’ve constructed across the entrance. Flowering vines, planted from seed, are as yet spindly shoots poking from the ground, and are sadly bereft of the bouquets depicted on the packet. I note her head movements and choose to believe she appreciates the intended transformation.
I muscle us along the crushed gravel path that crunches beneath the chair’s wheels and hope she notices the line of flowering shrubs I’d replanted. The result is mismatched, yet pleasing in its waist-high, hacked symmetry.
We reach the focal point. A bark chip strewn mound of dirt in the middle of the lawn, surrounded by youthful trees of eventual shade. Some have been kind enough to open early buds for the occasion after heavy applications of fertilizer. Using my foot, I surreptitiously bruise a few leaves on the peppermint geraniums that skirt the mound. The fresh scent almost covers the animal stink of blood and bone fertilizer.
That scruffy little pine I’d risked all to bring back, limply takes pride of place atop the pile. A commemorative plaque, pried from the building’s entrance, is propped at the foot of the tree. A single word is welded into the ground flat metal, and it glows spectacularly in afternoon sunlight.
It had taken me several tries to get her name right. I hope the grinder marks aren’t too noticeable where I’d forgotten to include the second ‘N’. Twice! Kristine stares, struck dumb and still.
Unable to emulate her frozen state I impatiently tap my fingers on the chairs handles and kick the tyres. I’m not very good at waiting.
“Well! Is it alright?”
She hands me the baby and tries to rise. I tuck the kid under one arm and unsnap her lap belt. Slowly she moves to the plaque, running a delicate finger across the lettering. Tears fall, one after another, splashing burnished steel. Her hand lifts to caress the pine needles of the stunted tree and a small wail escapes her. I’m confident she doesn’t need its significance explained.
“Oh, Sam. It’s so...beautiful, so...perfect.”
She smiles at me through her tears, and the hate, fear, and madness that has muddied her features fades. She cries and gasps deep breaths into cupped hands to hide her anguished face. Her body language asks me to hold her, but I fear a misinterpretation and shuffle my feet uncomfortably instead.
My throat tightens and both eyes mist. Bloody hell, I’m about to start bawling too. She looks up to see my pain and runs the two steps to me. Her embrace closes the remaining emotional gap between us and my heart implodes. We sob together, clinging as though we’ll never let go. Forgiveness leaks from her one tear at a time. The baby eventually ruins the moment by wailing her own upset at being squashed between us. Kristine finally disengages to take the child from me.
As she shyly eases away I reach out to hold her hand. When she lets me, I even pat the kid’s downy head. We stand at Shanna’s grave until the light fades.