Bill Archer was a tall and very handsome man and strikingly dissimilar to his girlfriend Carlie Marston.
She was rather a plain looking girl. But then, she had the brightest sparkle in her eyes that suggested grit and determination hidden deep within their dark depths. Many within his family and friends’ circle scratched their heads and wondered what he had found in Carlie that had brought him to his knees. She wasn’t rich and she wasn’t pretty – at least pretty in the usual way that society considered girls pretty. She was pretty nice looking and well educated, that was all.
But they looked up at her in awe as well. Carlie was a writer. Though she wasn’t published yet, the very fact that someone could write, when many young people didn’t think it necessary to even read, unless it was a comic or a newspaper, made her in some manner awesome.
Bill himself often wondered about it himself. No matter which way he looked at it, she was always rational and reasonable, while he tended to be passionate and almost fanatical. She was quiet and thoughtful most of the time, and he was rather loquacious and sociable. But and Bill signed when he thought of it now, with that fantastic talent to write just about any kind of story, there was nothing to indicate that she wouldn’t go…wouldn’t have gone far.
Now it was highly unlikely...she would never be able to sit up straight again, let alone walk!
Only yesterday he had received a letter of appointment from a company overseas, inviting him to join their work force as a senior sales man; and the details of the pay had almost made him stagger. He felt his pocket now and briefly touched the letter.
It was either this job now or Carlie Marston there, lying immobile on a hospital bed after a terrible road accident.
She smiled at him and he wondered at her strength; he reached down, kissed her forehead and whispered:
“I’ll be back. I need to call home.”
With that he left the room quickly, swallowed back a painful catch and tried to blot out the image of the pale girl on a hospital bed with a book before her and a pen – what story would she write now?
He found a phone booth, and dialled the number to his home.
“Mum,” he said clearing his throat. “She won’t walk again. She’s paralysed from her hips down.”
“How sad,” said his mother as the touch of pity in her voice deepened to something akin to impatience. “Poor Carlie. Poor, poor Carlie.” Then she sighed deeply and added, and there was a strange hardness in her voice. “Bill, I cannot let you go through what I went through with Dad.”
“I don’t want to Mum,” he said softly. "Ever again."
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know Mum,” he replied. “I’ll think of something.”
Bill left the booth, sank into his car and smoked a cigarette, thinking. He remembered his dad had been a paraplegic as well and taking care of him had been back-breaking.
It took him four days of deliberation, of discussions with his mother, arguments with Tony, his best friend, and reading, and re-reading that letter. It took him four days to strap himself free of any guilt. He was 25, with a bright career ahead; and the appointment letter that he looked at again seemed to come alive before him.
To give him his due, he thought of Carlie too. He had fallen in love with her because of her keen sense of dignity, of respect for self as well as for others; he had been attracted to her because in her own subtle way, she had some hidden determination that made her stand out, and that added power to her personality.
He was never going to get one like Carlie again he realised. She was smart, intelligent, educated, and determined, and a talent that made heads turn. One always thought of writers as mere names on books – he actually knew someone who wrote!
But he made up his mind. It was Carlie or his future.
Bill Archer chose his future.
In a month, he was on a flight overseas to join his new workplace. He thought of Carlie as he settled back in his seat. Out there back home, Carlie Marston had most likely been discharged from hospital and was probably picking up the pieces of her shattered life. His friend Tony had offered to break the news to her, because he just couldn’t buck up the courage to do it himself.
And so, ended that chapter in Bill Archer’s life.
Life can pass you by in slow motion, or it can whizz by in a blink. Having settled into his job, Bill brought his mother over to stay with him, then married a girl he had known in college and settled down to what life had to offer.
But the recession happened and Bill Archer who had climbed the many ladders of success, lost his job and slid down the snake of downfall; coming through its belly and out from its rear, a lost man with the bleak prospect of having to start all over again.
At 44 now, with very little savings, because one usually thought of investments and pension only after one turned 40 or thereabouts, Bill had no one to turn to except his wife. She was now a rotund, unsightly woman before his eyes, with a huge double chin and eyes that appeared bigger and bulgier than ever, sparkling arrogantly within their folds of skin. An unemployed man at home, clinging to the apron strings of his mother is the most unattractive of all creatures on earth, and his wife had come to realise that. She distanced herself more and more from her husband, spitting contemptuously on him and at his unsuccessful attempts of finding permanent work. Odd jobs took up his time – repairing gables and kitchen pipes or painting a wall or a fence for a daily wage. Working a supermarket till or delivering post during the festive season when temporary work force was needed, also helped pay his keep, but he deeply felt the shame of it all.
To add to this disgrace, social media, accessible from a smart phone had now become the rage. Through this he had glimmerings into his friends’ lives and their successes and he felt cold and shrunken.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, he made it to a bar one evening and bought himself a stiff drink. Then he downed one more and then another and staggered home late, singing to himself and thinking of an old girlfriend.
By the end of that week, Bill Archer had looked at Carlie’s social media profile at least a hundred times.
He then sent her a small note and impatiently waited for a reply. When it came, weeks later, he had been exuberant, and yet strangely piqued. Carlie had been so in love with him; Carlie always put him first. Carlie never made him wait!
He replied immediately, asking how she was doing and if she was still writing; and if she could share a phone number so he could call and catch up.
Once again, her response took its own time. When it came, it was casual, easy and utterly astonishing!
“Writing and running,” she had messaged. “Here’s my book reveal video – I’m a published author now,” and this was followed by a three-minute film of a published book which carried her name, Carlie Marston displayed in bold font, “and here’s a picture of me, taken by my husband.”
Husband? His brow crinkled, but deep inside him he felt a squirm – some man had had the strength, the courage and overall, the unconditional love to stand by her when she couldn’t stand at all. Some man had had the grit to say "I do, till death do us part" to a girl crippled in a wheelchair.
But it was the picture that made him almost fall off his chair. It was the photo of a slim, athletic girl, in riding shorts and running shoes, smiling hugely as she held a bicycle high above her head in triumph after winning the second place in a duathlon, which she had taken part in.
And finally, the last message that came in before she blocked him out of even having the freedom to message her was:
“The doctor said I wouldn’t walk again. I didn’t.”
Bill Archer had to read that message two or three times before he could finally understand what she actually meant to convey. He desperately tried to reply to her, to get more information, to ask for her phone number again, to try to rekindle an old ember, but found to his mounting dismay that he couldn’t.
Carlie had ended that chapter in her life many, many years earlier. Her responses to Bill had been only final footnotes.
© Cindy Pereira
Winning Story: Contest #19
The following stories are the Outright Winning Entries for the Monthly Short Story Contest
March 2020 onwards