#52weeks52stories: Week 7
Word prompt: bench
Having the bench in sight gave Ophelia Brubaker an energy boost to make the last few feet to her destination.
With her cane as support, Ophelia eased her brittle bones down onto the bench, grateful she’d remembered a seat cushion this time.
She loosened her light jacket and wiped the sheen of perspiration from her forehead as she caught her breath.
Ophelia looked around the immaculate grounds. The clover green grass had a uniform cut and stretched out around her like an inviting blanket. The trees, birch and oak, provided shade and comfort, their leaves rustling in the light breeze.
“The beauty of this place always takes my breath away, Max. I won’t say it’s wasted because that would be cold and unfeeling… and just plain rude. But, the city parks department could learn a thing or two from the landscapers here.”
She sipped from her water bottle before continuing.
“I spent a long weekend with Loren and his family. Teresa gave birth to his first grandchild Thursday night, and Carl graduated from Southern Sunday afternoon.” She chuckled. “It was quite a busy time. Made me realize how old and tired I am… but I loved every second.”
Ophelia smile faded, replaced by sadness. She looked around the grounds again, her mind prodding, pushing her to stop evading the subject.
At last, her eyes came to rest on the ornate headstone. Tears pooled in her eyes until they spilled down her drawn cheeks.
“You know, my love, I’ve been coming to visit you for twelve years. Updating you on what our children are doing, sharing the names and birth dates of our newest grandchildren and great-children, and telling you which of our friends to expect to see.”
Ophelia pulled an embroidered handkerchief from her bag and dabbed her eyes.
“But I’ve never talked about what was on my mind… what’s always on my mind.” Her jaws tightened. “And it’s been there for over sixty years. We didn’t talk about it when you were here… and I still have trouble talking about it now.”
She straightened her posture sitting erect, hands folded in her lap.
“But we will talk about it today, Max Brubaker. It’s time.”
She stared at the headstone.
“You and I, we had a perfect life together. I loved you with a fierce passion that scared me sometimes. And you… you could read my thoughts, finish my sentences, tell my moods by looking into my eyes. It was wonderful, my love. More than I dreamed I’d ever have.
“When we started our family, our blessings multiplied. I was heartbroken and guilty for the wives whose husbands didn’t come back from the war because mine did. And I was so grateful, Max. So, so grateful.”
“We had sad times. Losing our parents all so close together was difficult. When your cancer was diagnosed in 2004, it almost broke me. And when I lost you in 2006… Max, it did break me. I wanted to crawl into the casket next to you. Only the grace of God and the wonderful children he blessed us with saved me from dying of grief.”
Scooting to the edge of the bench, Ophelia leaned on her cane and stood.
“Some days it hurts to sit as much as it does to stand.” She hobbled around the bench and leaned on the retaining wall.
“The last true bad spot in our lives, Max, was Kerwin.” The name dropped from her lips leaving a grimace in its wake.
“Some families call members like him the black sheep, but Kerwin was so much worse… a cancerous plague spreading and devouring everything it touched.”
She paced the few steps to the end of the bench. “He almost destroyed us, but I refused to give in.” Her gaze returned to the headstone. “And you refused to admit the truth even though you saw it in my eyes. I couldn’t say the words either, too consumed with guilt, shame, and anger.
“But, when you said you had to take your dad to the specialist in Boston and Kerwin would stay with the kids and me and keep the sidewalks and driveway cleared of snow and ice—I’ll never forget that argument.”
“Boston General says the tests take two days. We’ll be on our way back home by Wednesday afternoon.”
Ophelia’s heart broke at the sadness overtaking her husband. “Do they think they can help your dad?”
He sighed, resting his elbows on his thighs. “That’s what the tests are for—to see the exact location of the tumor, how fast it’s growing, and if it’s operable. The only thing Dr. Minor would say for sure is if they do nothing, dad will lose his sight by fall.”
“I’m so sorry, my love. I know Dell is glad to have you with him.”
“I know, Lia. I’m glad I’m here for him too.” Max stood and grabbed another cup of coffee and before standing next to his wife at the counter.
“That winter storm they’re predicting could hit before we get back. I’d feel better knowing you and the kids weren’t here alone, so I asked Kerwin to -”
“No.” She grabbed more vegetables from the fridge.
“I don’t need… I mean there’s no need to inconvenience Kerwin. We’ll manage.”
Sitting his cup down, Max slid his hands around her waist.
“Inconvenience? Honey, he’s my brother. Of course, he’ll help look out for my family.”
She pulled away. “No, Max. It isn’t necessary.”
“Honey, I know you’re not the biggest fan of my brother since he tried to kiss you at Christmas dinner, and I’m sorry for that.”
Max couldn’t see her knuckles whiten as her grip tightened on the butcher knife.
“But he’d celebrated with a bit too much spiked eggnog, is all. He apologized to you when he sobered up.”
Ophelia stabbed at the potatoes and rough-chopped the carrots as though swinging a machete.
“Max, you’re talking about two days. TWO days. We’re two blocks from the children’s school and I’ll postpone any appointments I have. There. See how easy that was? No driving while you’re gone.”
Max stepped away from her, dragging his hand through his stiff buzz-cut. “Don’t mock me, Lia. I’m being serious about- ”
“I’m serious too, dear. The boys walk to and from school every day. If a foot of snow falls, it will take them longer… because they’re kids, and they will play. I can shovel a path to the sidewalk and walk down to the corner and wait for them. See? We’ll be fine.”
“Kids playing?” Max shoved his hands deep into his pockets, stomping around the kitchen. “You’re determined not to take this seriously, Lia. I get it, you don’t like Kerwin. But, remember that storm from last winter? It was supposed to be three to four inches and ended up being nineteen? The city was shut down with power and heating outages everywhere. We were all here together and things still got bad before streets were cleared and power restored.” He slumped against the refrigerator. “I have to know my family is safe. I’m sorry, but Kerwin will stay here.”
Slamming the knife down on the counter, Ophelia Brubaker whirled around to face her husband.
“You’re sorry? You’re sorry?” She walked toward him. “I have to tolerate Kerwin at family gatherings. And I’ve spent years listening to your family make excuses for his bad decisions.” She stopped mere inches from Max, her body shaking from rage.
“You are a wonderful husband and father, but you’re blind when it comes to your brother.” She took two more steps. “I will not have his presence forced upon me in my own home… not even for you. If you think the storm will be a problem, reschedule your father’s appointment- ”
“You know I can’t do- ”
“… then I’ll take the boys out of school for a couple of days and go to my brother’s.”
Stunned by her plan, Max Brubaker grasped for words.
“Lia, I’m just… I need you to work with me. I can’t be two places at once.” He held his arms out to his sides, his brow knitted in confusion. “I don’t know what else to do here, Lia. You act as though you’re afraid of my brother.”
Ophelia didn’t respond, but she held his gaze, fighting to keep her body from shuddering.
But she couldn’t keep the pain from her eyes.
She knew Max saw her pain when recognition dawned on his face.
The seconds ticked by as the couple stood moored in silence.
Embers of relief and hope grew inside Ophelia and calmed her soul. Max knew. At last, he knew. No more hiding her pain. No more fake smiles.
But Max Brubaker held his hands up in front of him… between them… backing toward the kitchen door. “Okay, Lia, you win. I’ll tell Kerwin your brother is coming here instead.”
He turned and walked out of the kitchen.
Tears streamed down Ophelia’s face, remembering that fateful day.
“You broke my heart, Max, and my spirit. If it hadn’t been for the boys, I’d have killed myself. It was too much to live with. Knowing you knew and did nothing. Like your parents, you covered up and ignored Kerwin’s sins, and defended him to anyone who held him accountable.”
She pointed an accusing finger at the headstone.
“Your brother raped me a month before you were discharged! He was smug and arrogant and knew your parents would protect him.” She twisted the handkerchief in her hands.
“I didn’t know what to do… who to tell. I felt responsible for letting him into our home. But he was your brother, Max. I didn’t think…” Her voice trailed off. After several minutes, Ophelia cleared her throat.
“I didn’t want your homecoming ruined, my love. I decided to say nothing until you got home. But even then, I could never form the words. The shame and guilt were just too great.”
“But years later… that day in the kitchen. You realized what I’d been hiding… and ignored it.”
“You put your brother ahead of me… and I hated you for it. Hated you! Do you hear me, Max?”
She clawed at her chest, trying to stave off her own hysteria. She buried her face in her hands, massaging her brow. When she raised her head, her calm had returned.
“I pretended things were okay—normal, even. I’d had a lot of time to perfect fake smiles and false sincerity. The only time I let my guard down was with my children.”
“You pretended too, my love. Pretended you didn’t know—like we’d never had that argument. But, you changed. You never left me alone with him after that and didn’t invite him over the way you used to. I was grateful for that.”
Ophelia paused as a woman a few years her junior walked by.
“Give him hell, honey. He can’t get up and leave.”
The two women shared a chuckle as the younger woman made her way to a bench and headstone of her own.
“We went on, Max. It was hell for us both, but I believe our love is what saved us. My head told me to walk away but my heart wouldn’t hear of it.” She grinned. “So glad I listened to my heart.”
“It all began to make sense right before your dad passed, in a dysfunctional, chaotic way. When Kerwin was arrested for assaulting that woman at his job, your dad stopped all his medical treatments to use his savings for Kerwin’s defense. When the woman dropped the charges, I realized the defense was to pay for her silence.
“It was the admissions your sister made to me when I spent the week in Seattle with her after the Cesarean that brought all the pieces together. I’d often wondered why Katherine made infrequent visits home but figured she was a busy wife and mother. But when she said it was hard for her to visit because she hated her brother, I knew which brother and why. After she told me Kerwin molested her when she was seventeen, and your parents blamed her, your reaction made sense.”
“You weren’t protecting Kerwin with your silence, you were protecting me. If your parents didn’t believe their own daughter, I didn’t stand a chance.”
“It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I did. The aftertaste came back several times over the years, but at least I didn’t blame you… or hate you.”
She took another sip of water, dabbed her eyes one last time and returned her things to her handbag.
“I’ve chided myself dozens of times since you’ve been gone for not telling you, Max… for not forcing the conversation. I just couldn’t make myself do it.”
“Katherine called me last night both happy and angry. Happy because Kerwin died two days ago of heart failure. Angry because he died at home in his own bed. No pain, no suffering. He went to bed and never woke up.”
“Katherine didn’t think it was fair after all the pain he’d brought to so many.”
“I understand why she feels that way, but odd enough, I found an easy peace in your brother’s death. I haven’t seen him since your funeral, yet I always felt as though he was behind every closed door or hiding in the dark waiting for me. It took me sixty years to put everything into place but now I know I was shackled by fear. I hated Kerwin and thought I hated you… but I hated myself more for being afraid.”
A sad smile formed on her face.
“I knew I would come here today and tell you what’s worried my heart for so long.”
Ophelia scooted to the edge of the bench and hoisted her weary body up, braced against her cane. She hobbled across the short narrow path to the granite headstone. She pressed two fingers against her lips then touched the grave marker.
“I miss you, my love, every day. And I forgive you, Max… for allowing me to hide my own pain. It gave Kerwin too much power over me for too long.”
Slow, deliberate steps took her back to the bench. She gathered her things, and with one last smile at Max Brubaker’s headstone, Ophelia left the cemetery for the last time. She would return thirty-seven days later to rest next to her husband… in peace.
©2018 Felicia Denise, All Rights Reserved