She lay in the hospital bed, gray walls surrounding her gray face.
Panic struck. Her wrinkled brow took on even deeper grooves as she worried silently. Beside her bed, an elderly man huddled over her moribund body, eyes closed, his ancient hands clasped in prayer.
I’m dying, she thought through her pain. Now. I am going. This is the last chance. Indecision battled in her mind as her body faltered in its war with cancer. Tell him or not? She knew she had to choose, and choose immediately. Death would take her secret with her otherwise.
With great effort, Martha opened her eyelids. William stared into her foggy eyes, pleading. “Martha, stay. You know I love you,” his gravelly voice choked. “I haven’t been perfect, but I tried to be a good husband. I love you so much, Martha.” His voice faded.
The old woman nodded gently, almost imperceptibly. With concentrated effort, she reached for his wrist. It was impossible to believe she was going, yet he knew she was.
He leaned in close as she opened her mouth, a mouth he had known for decades, the lips he kissed each morning and night. “Will, I – I – love you,” her voice sputtered. “But – I need to tell….” Her voice dropped off.
Perhaps speaking was too much. Perhaps her energy was too little. Perhaps even trying to tell him would steal away her last breaths.
With every bit of strength she could muster in her frail body, she continued in shallow gasps. “Will, I – I wasn’t,” her white head bent, “faithful. I wasn’t always faithful to you.” Tears fell from gray eyes. “Once. A boss, years ago. Ken. In charge of purchasing. It was only once. After the second miscarriage. I knew it was wrong. It was my secret, but I – I still loved you. Love you now.” Tears spilled onto creased cheeks. “I am sorry.”
William shook his head, first in confusion, then in disbelief. Ken? Couldn’t recall any boss she had had, certainly not one named Ken. Unfaithful? Slowly, the image of a man with a red beard and a hearty laugh – a laugh too loud, too bold, came to mind. No, he wasn’t Ken. That was Mark. Or Mike. Not Ken. Unfaithful? Martha?
No time to think.
He held her hand with desperation. Tears pricked at his old eyes; determination livened his weak voice. “I knew, Martha. I knew then and still loved you. I love you now. It’s OK, just stay a little longer. You are forgiven. You were forgiven back then. It did not matter. We had each other.”
Her final breath. Silence.
Tears flowed freely down the old man’s face. “A lie,” he whispered to his wife’s body. “My last words to you were a lie. I didn’t know; I hadn’t known. I never suspected.” In silence, he pressed a button to bring the nurse into the room, to pronounce his Martha dead, to make it all official.
Then he sat surrounded by gray walls and waited beside his wife’s body. She had died the way she’d hoped, with no secrets. Will, gray faced, realized he would not be so fortunate.
Katherine Caswell Hughbanks’s poetry and narrative writing have appeared in Trajectory, Calliope, Kentucky Monthly’s Penned Literary Edition, Kudzu Literary Magazine, and the Louisville Eccentric Observer’s Literary LEO. She currently teaches creative writing in Louisville, Kentucky.