THE SEA OF red robes caused the two waffles with syrup, not as digested as he’d thought, to swim through Jim’s stomach like it was a pond full of pollywogs. Despite the heat and the dizzying effect of all that red, he wouldn’t allow himself to feel ill.
Yet, sitting through long-winded speeches, the roll-call of graduates — 532, according to Ellen — made him tired even before the afternoon sun had a chance to whip up sweat on his neck and forehead. But it was worth it. The whole event was worth it — he loved her so much he ached. Once this was over, they could proceed with their lives. Or that’s what he’d thought until last night.
IN HIS LIVING room, filled with candles, he’d opened a bottle of champagne and presented her with a diamond ring.
While she gazed at her hand in his, he slid the ring onto her finger. She was silent for a moment. Then, a drop of blood fell on her third knuckle.
She lifted her head and looked at him. Blood oozed out of her left nostril.
He jumped up and ran to the kitchen. He grabbed a clean towel and rushed back. She pressed it to her nose. It took quite some time to staunch the flow, and by then, the atmosphere had shifted. She became vague, chattering about her career, the uncertainty of the future, asking whether he had enough remodeling jobs lined up for the summer. Occasionally, she touched the edge of her nostril, then looked at her finger.
HE FOUND A chair on the center aisle near the back. The moment the full weight of his body made contact with the chair, the left rear leg sank into the lawn. He had to sit with perfect posture in order to remain semi-stable. He wriggled the chair to find a firmer spot of earth. The leg sank further. He crossed his arms and gazed out again on the red-robed crowd.
Thinking of his body pushing the chair into the soil made him irritable. He was faced with two hours of feeling as if he were falling, squirming to get comfortable, growing angry when he saw no one else was bothered by the absurdity of folding chairs on grass.
Ellen would have said something in an icy voice if she’d seen him wrestling with the chair. She accused him of being short-tempered, a perfectionist, prone to explosive anger at the slightest discomfort. You’re the type who could murder someone in a rage. He’d said he wasn’t, but she stared at him until he looked away.
He patted his left leg. His pocket knife was where it always was. He patted his right leg, keys were in place, along with a clip that held three one hundred dollar bills. Very classy — that clip. He patted his shirt pocket, the gold bracelet wrapped in tissue paper was secure. He patted each spot a second time as the Elgar music filled the stadium. The graduates began striding down the aisle, their movements timed to the slow cadence of the melody. Ellen was near the front, last name Carothers.
She walked beside a male. Jim twisted in his seat to get a better look. Her face was turned toward the guy. Her hand gripped his bicep. The triumphant notes swelled and the guy’s pace slowed, as if he were waiting for Ellen to catch up. There was a tender smile on her face.
They passed by. Ellen hadn’t noticed him seated on the aisle, his chair leaning precariously close to the marching graduates. He studied their backs. Her hand still had a choke hold on the guy’s arm. She wasn’t wearing the diamond ring.
She was dumping him! Like this! A college degree and all that chatter about careers and the deliberate questions about his jobs for the summer, such disdain. So that was it. She was too good for him now. Moving on and out of his life.
WHEN THE CEREMONY ended, he saw her, unmistakable with her waist-long dark hair. Standing near another female with long brown hair. He shoved himself out of his chair. It collapsed on the lawn with a crash. He jogged to the end of the aisle and along the back row.
He charged at the women. His face grew hot, his eyes burned. He loved her. He would not allow her to be so shallow.
The two women looked at him. They turned and began running. Ellen glanced back, her face whiter than it had been when she’d seen her own blood. She turned forward and increased her speed.
He chased them down a corridor, around the massive library, and into a small alley. He grabbed at a flowing sleeve. The fabric tore. He lunged again and grabbed the robe. She fell on her knees and cried out. She turned her head. It wasn’t Ellen, but her friend — Carla.
“Stop. I need to tell you . . .” Carla grabbed his wrist but he shook her off. “You and Ellen . . . it’s not a good fit. You have different lives, she has an education, career opportunities. Let her go.”
“No.” He ran to a small alcove at the end of the alley. He grabbed Ellen’s hair and yanked her head toward him. Those eyes, so empty, but accusing, or something he couldn’t read. He plunged the blade of his pocket knife into her stomach. He pulled it out and stabbed again. He lost count of how many times.
When he was done, he looked up and saw Carla.
“Thank you,” she said.
“The cancer. She knew you’d release her.”
Jim fell to his knees and placed his hand on Ellen’s side. He’d thought the blood would be invisible on the red gown. But it was darker, thick and wet. He removed his hand and stared at his fingers. He would have taken care of her until her last breath, if he’d known she loved him.
Copyright © Cathryn Grant 2013