The walking stopped. That word 'dead' always ground motion and words to a halt. Kermit searched her face for cues and found far too many. "And, no, I didn't kill her."
"It didn't occur to me that you did." It was a lie. He could see it in the way she deflected her eyes a fraction of an inch. "Was it someone you knew?"
Quickly, he rattled his head back and forth, then started walking again. "I wanted normal and ordinary, Karen, and I got it. No retaliatory strike killed Claire. No stray bullet or explosion." <God....I miss you.> He could hear his heels thumping over the fitted blocks of sidewalk. The sound intensified with his heartbeat. Karen laced her fingers in a more tangled knot with his own. "We were together almost a year. I was breathing again. Nice clean air. Nice clean life. We were happy." Her face played across his memory once again. <I love you, Griffin. I love you, Claire.>
"Claire didn't have a great deal of money," he said, quietly. "But, she always seemed to work things out and would never let me help her. Like so many people, she didn't have health insurance and avoided doctors like the plague. I didn't know she was sick. She didn't say a word. By the time her pain had become too intense for her to cover or ignore...," his voice trailed off before a break could take root, "it was too late. They did an exploratory and stitched her back up within thirty minutes. The cancer was everywhere, eating her alive."
"I'm so sorry, Kermit. It must have been heartbreaking." Now, it was her turn to lead. They reached a grove of trees and detoured off the sidewalk. Karen leaned back on a gnarled oak and offered her expressive face in sympathy. Kermit found a prop and rested himself. The kindness in her features struck him. Her classical face that could assume hard lines of command was now softened. No captain. No mask. Just, Karen. He felt naked, as if that kindness were a weapon. <Point of no return, Kermit. You're out there now. Finish it.>
"She lasted two months. I moved in to take care of her. 'Make her comfortable,' they said and gave me morphine to pump into her. But she didn't want it. Said she wanted every minute to be clear. She wanted to read and talk and listen to music. She tried to sew for a while but had to turn over all the unfinished dresses to someone else." That memory was the worst. "All those white dresses moving out the door seemed to take what glimmer of life Claire had left with them. I'd follow her wishes about the morphine until she was too delirious with pain to tell me no, then I'd give her a shot."
Karen was silent, standing there with long wet streaks painting her face. <Please don't cry. I can't take your tears or mine.> Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a plain white handkerchief and put it into her hand.
"She simply faded away." Soft white skin. Lips paling from rose red to bleached flesh. Eyes misted with pain and longing. "That last day, she smiled once then drifted off to sleep. No dramatic last words. Just sleep. I was grateful that she went easy. She deserved that much."
"I've never lost anyone that way," Karen said, brushing away more tears with his handkerchief. "How did you get through it?"
"I'm not sure. Claire had no family, so I gave her home and her business to the girl who took over those final dresses. I buried her. That's it. The end of a life."
"Where did you go afterward?"
"I rotted for a while," he answered, breathing deeply. "You see, Claire did this nasty thing to me. She left me hanging in limbo. I couldn't go back to....that life of before after being with her. But, I couldn't stay there without her. I actually hated her for a few self-indulgent moments for doing that to me. Luckily, Blaisdell crossed my path and offered me an out. He never asked any questions, just showed me an office and shoved me in it. I could hang somewhere between merc and man and hide out as a cop for a while. I never intended to make it forever."
"Is it going to be forever?"
<Don't ask me that.> He paused, debating not answering at all. "Forever seems an unrealistic goal given my track record."
She moved closer, never touching, just closing the space down to whispering distance. "You loved her very much. I can see that. And I'm sure that Claire wouldn't want you to mourn her for a lifetime. She loved you and she'd want you find some peace."
His voice hardened. "But you see, Karen, that's the sticky part. I'll never get the chance to be sure of that."
"Of which part?"
"I'll never know if she really loved me or not."
To Be Continued....