Some promises are nearly impossible to keep.

“Archie,” Patricia’s voice shrieked through the plastic mesh of the baby monitor on the countertop. He had installed them to keep tabs on his wife when he wasn’t in her room, and she needed him. All she said anymore was his name and even that was becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. It was if the disease had not only robbed her of her mind, and her memories, but was taking her voice as well.

Doctor Patterson said it would eventually come to that as the disease progressed through its varied stages.

With her sandwich and a pile of potato chips on a Styrofoam plate he placed them on the plastic tray he used for her meals. There was already a Styrofoam cup of lemon water, and a Styrofoam bowl of butterscotch pudding. Next to the plate were two napkins, and the only utensil, a plastic spoon for the pudding. Anything with sharp edges had to be avoided. She was past the physically violent stage, almost completely bedridden, with the exception of her bathroom visits that she insisted on continuing, even though a bed pan was available.

But still one could never be too careful.

With the monitor clipped to his belt he carried her tray down the hall towards her bedroom, and with every step the sadness settled deeper into his heart. She had once been a vibrant, loving, woman. A fiery redhead whose personality matched the color of her hair. To this day he was still in awe of the fact that she had chosen him over the array of suitors who were constantly at her beck and call.

At her door he paused, mentally preparing himself for what waited beyond the closed door. Once he was ready, he stepped into the brightly lit room. The windows were open and a gentle breeze stirred the curtains as the steady sound of the ocean’s waves came crashing through. Birds twittered in the trees beyond the window as life followed its normal course beyond the walls that surrounded them.

She had always loved the sound of the ocean

“Good morning Patricia,” Archie said as he placed her tray on the table next to her bed. The table was the kind found in hospitals, it looked like an angular letter C mounted on four wheels that were capable of slipping under the hospital bed, allowing the surface to be brought close to the patient.

She watched him from the pillows under her head, her once vibrant red hair now the color of the sheets she lay on. Her faced was lined with age, and eyes that once sparkled with a mischievous light, watched him with guarded mistrust as he moved around the foot of her bed, and crossed to the window.

“You promised,” she said, her eyes darting back and forth as she searched for her words.

He was taken back by the comment, it was so out of place when compared to the way she had been acting lately. “I promised what, Sweetheart?” he said, choosing to ignore for the moment this turn of events. He didn’t want to get his hopes up that her condition was improving. The disappointment would be too much to bear.

Her eyes continued to dart back and forth, in search of words that were not forthcoming, her brow creased with concentration as she tried to capture the elusive tail of her comment.

“Is this too cold for you?” He said.

She watched him silently as he pushed the window down, cutting off the sound of the ocean’s waves, and he turned to face her, the smile he’d plastered on his face faltering under her relentless gaze. She was in there somewhere, he knew it, it was just a matter of time before she managed to find her way back to him.

“I’ve brought you your favorite,” he said as he returned to the other side of the table, and settled into his seat as he slid the hospital table across in front of her. She looked from Archie to the sandwich, then back again.

He nodded at the sandwich and she cautiously picked it up from the plate, several pieces of chicken falling onto her sunken chest as she brought it to her mouth.

After he had finished, and she was resting comfortably, he sought the sanctuary of what she once called his man cave. Half the basement had been converted into a den of sorts full of the assorted objects that Archie had come across in his travels.  The upper half of the walls were covered with signs from the past, advertising everything from Standard Oil to Wonder Bread, builds strong bodies eight ways. Beneath the signs, shelves overflowed with assorted small toys from the past, from cast iron to wind up tin toys all gaily painted in a variety of colors though some carried the rust of past neglect.

This was his refuge from the trials of life and many times he would just come down to sit as he admired his collection, and listened to the music of the past, trying to recapture the innocence of the time period much of these items had come from.

His pride and joy was the nineteen forties telephone booth that occupied one corner of the room. It had been painstakingly restored to its former glory, its wood frame glistening in the light from a number of old style neon signs that were mounted here and there among the other signs of the period. Every time he looked at the phone booth he imagined a line of GI’s waiting to use the phone for one last conversation with their sweethearts before they were shipped off the war.

An easy chair sat in one corner, next to a bookcase filled with old volumes, and an old style table lamp whose surface reflected the light from above. Tonight he ignored the easy chair and turned towards the phone booth whose bench seat offered little comfort. The interior still smelled of old smoke, sweat, and the spilled tears of many a brave boy marching off to war. The phone mounted in the corner was black, its box like body designed with an eyes towards function over fashion.

He’d found the booth buried beneath a pile of cast offs in the back of a barn on the vast Kansas plains. The owner had been a man closing in on ninety and had been happy to part company with it for a price that Archie readily agreed to.

Archie’s dad had served in the European theatre in World War II, wading ashore at Normandy on D-Day as Hitler’s finest mounted a stiff defense. Archie himself had served in the jungles of Vietnam, so he understood that need to make contact with those close to you before you stepped into the fight. That final moment to say your goodbyes. He closed the door behind him and settled onto the narrow seat as his emotions overwhelmed him.

The doctors said it wouldn’t be much longer before she required twenty four hour care, and the discussion then turned to his options, which were becoming  limited with every passing day.

Nursing home? Absolutely not!

Twenty four hour in-home care was an option that came with a price tag beyond his ability to pay. Even if he sold everything he had ever purchased in his den, it still wouldn’t be enough. They had some money socked away, but nothing close to what would be needed to provide the care she required. She had reached the end of a life well lived and in a cosmic twist of fate was destined to spend her remaining years a stranger to the life they had built.

Oh how he yearned for the old Pat, the young girl with the mischievous eyes and the quick smile. She was a flirt, even as they grew old together she had that ability to have every man anywhere she went, eating out of the palm of her hand in no time. Yet she had given her heart to him. They’d had a good life together, raising two sons who had gone on to make them both proud. Of course she would have been proud of them no matter what.

A rapping on the glass pulled him from his thoughts and he looked up startled. A young man in uniform stood on the other side of the door, knocking on the glass impatiently as Archie gathered his thoughts, trying to make sense of what was going on.

“Come on, Pops, I’m shipping out soon and I gotta get back, I need the phone to call my girl,” the young man said as he pushed on the center of the door to open it.

“I’m sorry, what? Where am I? What’s going on?” Archie stuttered as he looked around the room. His den was gone, as was his collection of signs and toys. In its place was the smoky interior of a tavern. A narrow bar ran the length of the wall on the left, several patrons, an even mix between civilian and military types, sat at the bar with cold drinks in front of them as tendrils of white smoke rose from what seemed like a cigarette in every ashtray.

“”Let me use the phone just for a minute and you can have it back, I just want to tell my girl I love her before they ship me out.” Archie pushed himself to his feet and opened the door.

“Where are you going?” Archie asked as he stepped out of the phone booth.

“Somewhere in the Pacific, won’t know for sure till we’re on the ship, just hope I get to kill some Japs for what they did in Hawaii,” the boy, no more than nineteen said as he tipped his head and slipped into the phone booth, closing the door behind him.

Everything around him was dark, dreary, not black and white, not quite, it was like a photo that time had taken the color from. Even the neon signs over the bar glowed with a dingy light that had been sapped of any brilliance.

Then he saw her, at the end of the bar, her blue summer dress the only spot of color in an otherwise drab world, her bright blue eyes sparkling with a playful light, her red hair set off by the color of the simple dress she wore.

She got up from the bar, and was walking towards him, when from the baby monitor on his belt she cried out his name.


He looked up from where he was sitting to find himself back in the phone booth, in his den, the memory of that smoky bar slowly fading from his consciousness like a dream half remembered upon waking.

“Archie.” Her voice crackled from the monitor again, a forlorn cry from the wilderness of her disease.

His back was stiff, his buttocks numb from having sat so long, and he struggled to pull himself to his feet.

How long had he been out? He glanced at his watch as a sinking despair overwhelmed him. She had been alone for four hours. How long had she been calling him before he realized it?

Pushing open the door of the phone booth he rushed upstairs to find she’d messed herself. He had no idea how long she had been calling for him, but the look in her eyes, that humiliation of having lain in her own waste, burned with a brilliant intensity.

“I’m, sorry,” he repeated as he worked to clean her up, swearing to himself that he would never forget her again. As he worked he realized that while he was standing in that smoky bar, watching the red head walk towards him, he had completely forgotten, for a brief moment, about his ailing wife. He was surprised when he realized just how liberating forgetting her could be. The thought elicited a deep sense of shame, but his childish side sought to console his guilt by reminding him that she had already forgotten him.

For a week he kept his promise, remaining attentive to her every need, even though it seemed she was unaware of him. Her mind having wandered to a remote place that lay beyond the edge of reason. He tried not to think about the phone booth in the basement, or the strange dream he’d had, a dream that had felt more real that imagined. But it was hard, that brief moment had reminded him of what it felt like to really be alive.  And that mysterious woman continued to haunt his thoughts as he went about his duties.

She had seemed so alive.

Every day he brought her breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the appointed time. Every day she watched him with guarded mistrust. Like he was a stranger in her home, and not the man she had spent over fifty years with. She was slowly becoming like her own mother in her final days, and the thought brought out another memory that had lain buried by sorrow.

The day they laid her mother to rest she had cornered him in the cemetery, in the older section where the stones were not as polished, and the names once chiseled sharply on those granite faces were beginning to lose their sharp edge. Fading into the past like all of them would eventually.

“I don’t want to end like that,” she’d said as they walked among the tombstones. Her once vibrant red hair had already started to lose it luster, here and there the gray of her approaching old age had started to show through. Her steps were not as assured as they once were, and she carefully picked her way through the graveyard, ever watchful for hazards that might cause her to lose her footing.

“Like what?” he’d asked as he followed, noting, not for the first time, that the curvy figure that caught his eyes so many years ago had softened around the edges. It was still there, just not as pronounced as it once was.

“Like my mother,” she said as she spun on him, forcing him to stop abruptly, “I don’t care what you’ve gotta do, I don’t want to end up like that.”

“What are you talking about? What are you saying?”

“You know. “ She looked at him with a hard, unrelenting, stare, her blue eyes as cold as ice. He was forced to look at his feet, the ground, the tombstone to their right that carried the worn name of another. Anywhere but into that unwavering gaze. A part of him noticed the crows feet spreading out from the side of each eye. The way her cheeks had grown just a tad heavier. Her lips a little less defined.

“A bullet to the brain would be preferable to spending the last years of my life confined to bed, unaware of who or where I am, not even recognizing you or the boys. I couldn’t live with myself like that,” she said.

Archie was taken back by the sheer intensity in her voice.

“Promise me,” she said, stepping close enough for him to see the fine lines gathered at the corners of her lips.

“Promise you what?” He asked, but he knew all too well what she wanted. It was what anyone else in the same situation would want. What many already trapped in the illness likely begged for silently every day. An end to the suffering, the not knowing, the loss of self. An end to the indignity of being forced to rely on others for even the simplest of things as they waited for death.

“You know what,” she said, following him step for step as he backed away from her. The backs of his legs came against the curved top of a tombstone and he was forced to put his hands back to steady himself.

“What?” he said again. “Say it out loud, tell me what you want me to do.”

“I want you to kill me, it if comes to it. The doctors say I have a seventy five percent chance of becoming just like my mom. If I do, I want you to end my suffering.”

How? How could he kill the one thing he truly loved. He knew death. Had walked hand in hand with it in the jungles of Vietnam, but that had been war. This was different, this was murder.

“I’m begging you not to let me suffer the same fate as my mom.”

He couldn’t respond, hell he couldn’t even wrap his mind around it. To kill his wife, the mother of his children, the woman he loved. It was too much to ask of another. It was one thing to kill your enemy in a battle. It was quite another to kill your soul mate.

He stood at the foot of her bed as she slept, the memory of that day receding into the dark depths of his mind. It would be so easy. Hold the pillow over her face until she stopped struggling.

Would she struggle?

The direction his mind was taking frightened him and he raced from her room as fast a man his age could, seeking the refuge of the basement. He reached the bottom of the steps and stared across the room at the phone booth as the memory of her sparkling blue eyes filled his mind. Before he even realized he was going to do it he was halfway across the room.

Reaching the phone booth he yanked open the door and stepped in to settle onto the hard wooden seat. He sat there as the stress from the past week slowly drained away, and a heavy sadness settled over him. Lowering his head he cried softly, his hot tears dropping onto his hands.

It was too much to ask.

There was a knock at the door, and he looked up.

She stood on the other side of the glass, watching him with sparkling blue eyes, a faint smile playing hide and seek on full red lips.  His back complained loudly as he pushed himself to his feet, and pulled open the door. She took a step back, her eyes never leaving his, as he emerged from the phone booth.

“Who are you?” He asked.

“Don’t you know? She answered before she turned and walked away, sashaying down the length of the bar to her seat. She stopped, turned, and motioned for him to follow with a crooked finger.

He followed dutifully, moving the length of the bar, dimly aware of the others on their seats. They were nothing more than obscure shadowy shapes that muttered and groaned at each other in his peripheral vision.

Coming abreast of where she sat perched on her bar stool he stopped and gazed at her. She looked so much like the Pat he knew when she was younger, yet there was something missing, some little thing that stood her apart from the woman he loved. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, the thought elusive, hiding right on the tip of his tongue.

She motioned to the seat beside her, inviting him silently to sit down, and the shadows to her left shifted with a faint, yet menacing, growl, to clear a seat for him. As he sat down he realized he still had the baby monitor clipped to his belt, the hard plastic shell digging into his belly as it became trapped against his thigh. Removing it he placed it on the bar in front of him. A harsh white object surrounded by the murky depths of a bar that could be anywhere from a lonely stretch of two lane blacktop in the middle of nowhere, to the bustling center of a crowded city that never slept.

She lifted her hand, her index and middle finger pointing up, and two drinks appeared on the bar in front of them. Emerging from the shadowy depths crowded around them. Above the bar he saw a faint neon light, its brilliance muted by the dense shadows that were as thick as smoke. From his left came assorted growls, moans, and monosyllable grunts that accompanied the muted tinkling of glasses colliding with one another, and the surface of the bar.

“What is this place? What do you want?”

She smiled over the rim of her glass as she took a small sip. Archie followed suit, the amber liquid burning on its journey to his belly, almost taking his breath away, and causing him to choke. That was some powerful stuff.  There was a nuttiness about it that left a strange aftertaste in his mouth.

“Don’t you remember me?” she said as she lowered her glass to the bar and turned to look at him, those sparkling blue eyes shimmering even brighter than before, if that was possible. It was as if sparks were about to start shooting from them.

He shook his head as he struggled to recall who she was, the features of her face  familiar, her name playing hide and seek on the tip of his tongue, frustrating him as his thoughts became a muddled morass of shadowy images much like the indistinct shapes that jostled around them.

He knew her, he knew he should know her, yet every time he tried to put his finger on that elusive name, to pin it in place long enough for him to grab it, it faded into the crowding darkness that was threatening to overwhelm him from within, and without.

Something bumped into his back and he swiveled his head around, an act that seemed to take too long, and peered into the murky depths that pressed in close from every side.

“Hey, watch it,” he said, his words slurred as he peered into the crowded emptiness. A hand shot out, slapping him across the face, hard, and a memory blossomed in his mind. They were supposed to have been home by supper, but hadn’t made it until after dark. He sensed fear and anger, tempered with just a touch of love and caring that all battled for dominance. Something could have happened to you, the sensation trickled through his thoughts as a memory that didn’t belong to him faded into the shadowy recesses.

He spun back around, intent on finding out once and for all who she was, but she had vanished. Her empty stool remained, glowing in a soft light that held the crowding shadows at bay. He spun round on his seat searching for her in the murkiness that was gathering close around him. Shadowy shapes moved through the emptiness around him, bustling and jostling for position as ebony hands darted out of the shadows to snatch at him. He slapped at the shadowy hands that reached out for him.

He reached for the baby monitor as a pair of black hands emerged from the darkness to grab it.  Each finger tipped by an ebony claw that tapped against the plastic case with a sound reminiscent of a bird pecking at a window.

“Archie,” Pat’s voice shrieked from the monitor and he struggled to pull it free of those shadowy hands as one of the claws raked his hand, laying open his finger that bled onto the white surface of the monitor, staining it with his blood.

He yanked on it with everything he had, which wasn’t much, and pulled it free. Spinning around on his seat he slammed his elbow against the side of the phone booth. Pain shot down to his hand as numbness danced across his flesh. He looked around wildly, searching for shadows that weren’t there as the realization slowly dawned that he was still sitting in the phone booth.

It had been a dream bordering on a nightmare.

“Archie,” Pat cried out again, her voice tinny, filled with static, coming from the plastic grill of the monitor.

It was just a dream, he sought to console himself. All the stress he’d been feeling coupled with his horror at his recent revelation had given him a nightmare.

“Archie,” she cried out for a third time and he pushed himself up from his seat, and pulled open the door of the phone booth. As he did he noticed the small cut on his finger, already starting to scab over, as an icy ball of fear slowly unwound in the pit of his belly.

It had been a dream, he sought to convince himself.

But the harsh reality of what he’d experienced was right there on his hand. Maybe he’d cut it in the phone booth while he was dreaming, after all it had to be a dream, it wasn’t possible for that murky bar to be in his basement. At this he pushed open the door and leaned out to gaze at the familiar surroundings of his basement.

It was a dream, nothing more, the stress of caring for Patricia was taking its toll. The time for his decision about her future was drawing closer with every breath he took.

“Promise me!” the memory of their argument that day in the cemetery surfaced in his mind. He took a step back, just as he had that day, the ferocity of her desire threatening to overwhelm him.

What could he do?

“Archie,” her voice shrieked from the baby monitor in his hand and he looked at it as he glanced again at the watch on his wrist. This time he had been gone for nearly six hours. His heart sank at the thought that she had been left alone for so long.

“You promised,” She cried out, the baby monitor vibrating in time with her voice. He raced across the basement, taking the stairs at a dead run, becoming winded before he reached the top. But he pushed on as his heart trip hammered in his chest. Nearly staggering down the hallway he came to her door where he stopped with his hand on the knob as he struggled to catch his breath and compose himself.

When he pushed into the room he found her sitting up in her bed, watching him with the same mischievous expression he’d fallen in love with. Though her face was lined with age, and her hair had been bleached by the passing of the years, she looked more alive than she ever had since the onset of her disease.

“It’s about time,” she said in a perfectly normal voice as he dropped to his knees at her bedside.

“You do recall what we talked about?”

He could only nod silently, his heart filled with joy and sadness in equal measures. She had come back to him, it was a miracle, and then he stopped. Or was it just an extension of the dream he’d been living in the basement.

“You understand what you have to do?”

“I can’t,” he answered honestly.

“But you must.” She slid across the bed and swung her legs over the side, planting her feet firmly on the floor in front of him, then she was kneeling next to him, her small hand hot and tender on his back as she leaned in close. He could smell her, the scent of Ivory soap strong on her flesh, masking the sour stench of her approaching death.

“Don’t let me suffer anymore, I’ve grown weary with this life, this disease has robbed me of my memories, it has taken my past. Please don’t let it win.”

A shadow passed over the day at the mention of her disease and he looked up at the window. The day that had once been bright and cheery had grown dark and overcast, with gray clouds drifting low to the ground, mimicking his sorrow. He felt first one, then another tear as they traced twin paths down his cheeks.

“I can’t,” he said, snuffling into the sleeve of his shirt, “how can you ask me to hurt the one I love.”

“Is it love to keep me like this, to let the shadows take all that I had been?”

“I can’t,” he shouted as he pushed himself to his feet, “you can’t ask me to do this.” He stepped back from her bed where she was sleeping peacefully, a serene expression on her face. The dwindling light of evening retreated from the shadows that were growing long and thick in the corners of the room.

It had just been another dream, her kneeling beside him, talking to him in that lost voice. As he watched her sleep he noticed that her eyes were moving rapidly back and forth beneath her closed eyelids. From outside came the rumble of thunder and the darkness deepened as gray clouds obscured the face of the dropping sun. From the shadowy corners of her room came low growls that grew from the night.

He turned away from her sleeping figure to find himself in that bar once again. She was standing at the other end of the shadowy room, that vibrant blue dress faded somewhat, her red hair had lost some of its luster, lying flat against her skull. Her face was gaunt, withdrawn, her cheekbones more prominent than before, her once sparkling blue eyes were now dull and lifeless orbs resting in shadowy basins.

“You made a promise,” she said, lifting her withered arm to point one crooked finger at him. The shadowy patrons at the bar on his left roiled and growled as she shouted. Outside a flash of lightning whipped across the sky followed by a tremendous crack that split the night sky open and sent a tremor through his soul.

The roof of the bar was ripped away, exposing the dark clouds that churned in a maelstrom above their heads.

“You promised,” she shouted over the rising voice of the wind, her rage shrieking across the dark sky, a thick bolt of lightning dancing across the canvas of agitated clouds. Branching out, dividing again and again until they surrounded them in a prison of bars that caressed the ground and filled the air with the heavy scent of ozone.

“I can’t,” he replied, cringing from the dancing streaks of lightning that were now trapped in the moment of their creation.

On the churning clouds around them flickered the scenes from their past together. Fading in and out of focus as the clouds beneath the images churned. He saw the day they met, he just a clumsy kid too big for his own good. She, as she had always been, quite and demur. Self assured where he was still coming into his own. He saw it all laid out before him, the billowing depths of the clouds serving as a living screen as those moments replayed themselves in brief flashes of light. He saw her walking down the aisle in the little church where they were wed a week before he shipped out to Vietnam. He saw the birth of their boys. Birthdays, anniversaries, and summer vacations stretching out into eternity. As he watched the scenes playing out he came to understand something that at first glance was beyond belief.

He looked from the clouds to his wife, and back again as the realization filtered through his thoughts. He was in her mind, experiencing first hand the loss of self she’d so far endured. His heart was broken when he realized the truth of what he had to do. 

“You must,” she whispered as silence replaced the voice of the storm and he reached out to comfort her, gathering her into his arms.

“Don’t let me suffer anymore.”

He nodded then as he reached out and caressed her lined cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered as he wrapped her in his arms and pulled her close.

With her sandwich and a pile of potato chips on the Styrofoam plate he placed them on the plastic tray he used for her meals. There was already a Styrofoam cup of lemon water, and a Styrofoam bowl of butterscotch pudding. Next to the plate were two napkins, and the only utensil, a plastic spoon for the pudding.  Next to the napkins lay his nine millimeter pistol. Dark and sinister, it’s muted color in sharp contrast with the white napkin. The difference between the two like that between night and day, or life and death.

He turned from the counter, intent this time in keeping a promise he’d made to the woman he loved.

Dateline Cumberland AP - Emergency personnel responded to a 911 call from 1254 Mulberry street where they discovered what at first appeared to be a home invasion, but what turned out to be an apparent murder suicide attempt gone awry. The deceased was identified as sixty nine year old Patricia Halverson, who had been confined to bed as a result of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Her seventy year old husband, Albert Halverson was discovered in the basement of his home, in a vintage 1940’s restored phone booth, with a self inflicted gunshot wound to his chest. He was transported to the Western Maryland Regional Hospital where he is currently listed in stable, but guarded condition.

Police have reported that the weapon used has not been discovered at this time. Next of kin have been notified and no charges have been filed. Local authorities have offered no further comment on the case. A source that asked to remain anonymous reported the initial 911 call came from a woman who would only identify herself as Pat, and was calling from a phone number that has not been in service since the mid-fifties. More details will be released as they become available.

The End

Authors note:  I was trying to find a way to show what it might be like to be in the mind of someone suffering from Alzheimer Disease. I couldn't very well just say, and he slipped into her mind, so I used the promise he'd made and the memory of it to hopefully bring the reader to the conclusion that  Albert was getting a glimpse of what his wife was going through. 

This story had its roots in a news item that appeared in my local paper. Concerning an older gentleman who killed his wife, then tried to commit suicide, failing to do so. They too were an older married couple and it got me to wondering how someone could kill the person they've loved for so many years. I guess it's true what they say. If you really love someone you will let them go.
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