Martin adjusted the overhanging lamp, barely noting the sting of the flame’s heat bleeding through the green shade and scorching his fingers. The amber pool of light on his worktable shifted, and he brought his magnifying glass to his weary eye.
The bulbous slug lying before him seemed to cringe. With his tweezers, Martin nudged the gastropod, elongating its striped form. The chestnut spots and gray flecks appeared ten times their normal size in the round lens but Martin tromboned his arm, gaining a sharper view.
From beyond the world of his worktable, he noted footsteps nearing.
“He’s been in there for days. Ever since….”
Martin recognized Adele’s voice, but the Cook’s tone carried an unfamiliar, nervous quality. Shrugging off the curiosity, Martin flipped the slug over and peered at its parched underbelly.
A round of tentative raps broke his study’s quiet. Wincing, Martin leaned closer to the specimen, his curls brushing against the lamp and sizzling.
The knocks rapped again, and then the door knob squealed.
“Mr. Adams?” The hinges squeaked, and the papers piled before the entrance tumbled as Adele opened the door. “Oh, Mr. Adams!”
Adele scurried to the collapsing piles and began propping up towers about to teeter while herding those spilling across the carpet.
“Don’t mind those,” said Martin.
“But sir. The mess!”
Martin shook his head. Plucking the slug between the tweezers, he deposited the creature back into the terrarium.
“Adele,” said another voice.
His accent scratched at the edge of Martin’s memory. A face failed to emerge and enlighten him, so Martin put the oddity aside and watered the potted ferns cluttering one side of the container. Their tapered leaves drooped, he suspected from a dearth of sunlight. Martin flinched at the idea, and set the watering can aside.
Adele huffed as if regaining her feet and flapped out her skirts.
“Mr. Adams,” she said, coming to his elbow. She clasped her wrinkled hands at her aproned waist and a mask of serenity settled on her features. Her gun-metal gray bun wobbled as she gestured behind him. “You have a visitor.”
“I don’t want a visitor,” said Martin.
He caught the drop threatening to fall from the watering can’s spout and wiped his finger clean on his dress shirt. The fabric rubbed against his chest like a second skin and exuded a faintly musty smell. He focused his thoughts on categorizing the aroma, settling on a mix of sweat, dirt, and leather.
“Why don’t you go brew some coffee, Adele,” said the accented man.
“Are you sure, Father?”
Adele’s title inspired Martin’s recollection and in his mind’s eye Father Bernard’s face coalesced. The Priest’s lean visage presided at stone alter, flanked by bouquets of lilies wrapped in indigo ribbons. Laying on the platform before him—
Martin diverted his thoughts to the bookcase alongside his worktable. Running his fingers along the spines he selected one on gastropods, and began searching for an identifying image for the slug within his terrarium.
Meanwhile, Adele shuffled out, pages crumpling under her feet. The door failed to close behind her, and the flame in the oil lamp flickered with the escape of the room’s stuffy air, making the text on the book’s splayed pages waver.
Martin scowled and readjusted the lamp. “Would you mind closing that on your way out?”
“I thought we could have some coffee,” said Bernard.
“I’m not interested.”
“Then suit yourself.”
Martin thumbed through the essay on garden slugs, and another on exotic species found in the rainforests by the Equator. None fit his specimen, and he thumped the book shut. Shelving the volume, he search for another, one on local flora and fauna he remembered wedging between two others after a brisk read.
“Would you mind if I sat?”
Martin jolted, reminded of the Priest’s presence. He glanced at Bernard.
The Priest motioned with a slender hand to one in the pair of leather-backed chairs tucked by the curtained window. A mountain of journals occupied the cushions.
Martin recalled reading through the last twelve issues during the night. He frowned, trying to calculate how long ago that had been. Last night? The previous night? His mental computation leapt to a week ago, on Sunday, after the ceremony—
“No,” said Martin.
He discarded the book in his hands, strode to the other side of the room and examined his globe. Laying his fingertips on the chest high orb coated with shades of blue, green, and brown, he spun until the South American rainforests lay in view.
“Martin,” said Bernard. “Come back to us.”
Between Martin’s hands the continents, lines denoting rivers, and colors marking various countries swirled. He heard Bernard shifting, piles landing with soft thuds on the carpet.
“How about some light, hum?”
Martin hunched his shoulders as Bernard pulled aside the thick, velvet curtains. Afternoon light streamed around him, casting a shade of his form on the mahogany paneling the room.
Martin shrugged. He glanced to either side, but found his worktable and more clutter pinning him in the corner, and providing no route of escape.
“Why don’t you join me,” said Bernard, “and we can talk?” He grunted and Martin envisioned the twiggy man hefting one of the thicker tomes from the second chair.
Bernard gave a tinny yelp before the tumbling books made the lamp rattle in its perch.
“Sorry about that, Martin.”
“It’s nothing. It’s all nothing….”
“It’s not nothing,” said Bernard. The leather groaned, flexing as it caught his figure on the seat cushion. “Death happens, Martin.”
Martin snapped his hands back from the globe, and pocketed both, hiding the ring threaded on his finger in his slacks.
“You should be relieved she went as quickly as she did.”
Martin wheeled, his hands sudden fists trapped in tweed. “What!?”
“Beatrice was in pain. She went swiftly to a better place, a more peaceful place.”
Martin scowled. “Is that all you’ve come to tell me?”
“No,” said Bernard. He scooted to the chair’s lip, balanced his knobby elbow on similarly peaked knees, and clasped his hands. “I came to help you live again.”
“I’m living fine,” said Martin.
He stormed to his worktable and slapped his hands onto the counter. His shoulders warmed beneath the lamp’s glow, adding to the fueling fury swirling in his chest.
“You’re dying. Slowly,” said Bernard. “You can’t think she would have wanted you to be like this.”
“She didn’t want to die either.”
“Of course not,” said Bernard. “Some things can’t be helped. Others can. You have a choice here.”
“Choice?” Martin snorted. “Some choice.”
“It’s yours to make. You can stay cloistered in here and from what Adele’s told me, probably starve yourself to death. Or you can pick up your pieces, grieve, and move on.”
“Move on?” Martin spun, and the room seemed to chase itself. He covered his eyes with one hand until physics regained command, and then refocused his glower on Bernard’s passive figure. “How am I supposed to move on? This is not how it was supposed to be.”
“Nothing is supposed to be anything,” said Bernard.
Martin ground his teeth, gnashing the placating tone dribbling from the Priest’s lips and staining the air.
“Life is what it is,” said Bernard, his cadence oozing. “You still have yours. Think of the effect you might be able to have on hundreds, maybe thousands if you returned to your work. Your colleagues have been asking about you, your students too. Are you going to let them down?”
“The only person who’s opinion I cared about is gone, so what does it matter?”
“How do you know she’s gone?”
“Because I saw you put her into the ground,” said Martin, his voice crackling as readily as the tremble in his arm pointing with accusation at Bernard’s hawkish nose. “You covered her with dirt, you….”
Clamping his mouth shut, Martin sagged onto his worktable and dropped his chin to his chest. Since the ceremony, tears had already come and drained him dry. Even his shoulders failed to waver with the echo of sobs wracking him in the present. A hushed silence embraced him, marred only by the rustle of papers.
“Oh…Excuse me,” said a high baritone.
Martin put his back to the door, half spying the young Mr. Johnson, donned in a crisp khaki suit and carrying a silver tray with coffee pot and flock of china cups.
“Ms. Adele told me to bring these up.” The young man’s voice warbled around his hesitation. “But perhaps I should—“
“It’s all right,” said Bernard. “Set them here.”
A shuffle denoted more sheets being gathered and piled onto the floor. Saucers clinked against one another as Johnson placed the tray onto the side table sprouting between the two excavated chairs.
“Eddie Johnson,” said the young man.
“Father Bernard. You must be one of Mr. Adam’s pupils.”
Flesh smacked with their handshake.
“Yes sir…ah Father.”
Martin stiffened as he sensed both men’s gazes upon him.
“I wanted to stop by, Mr. Adams,” said Eddie, “and let you know some news.”
Martin raised his gaze from the worktable and drifted over the bookcases. “News?”
“Yes sir, great news, sir.” Eddie’s words started racing. “I got my acceptance letter to the University. They let me in. I thought…given everything that’s been happening you might like to hear about it. And I wanted to thank you as well. I couldn’t have gotten in without your recommendation, without all of your tutoring.”
Martin pivoted slowly, wary of the room sprinting around again. Eddie stepped back as if stunned by something in his face or eye.
Martin worked to smooth his features, and even gained a quirk to his lips. “You did the work,” he said and offered his hand, minor trembles and all. “Congratulations, Eddie.”
Eddie leapt over and cupped Martin’s hand in both of his. He pumped vigorously as if unsure how to stop once he’d started.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you.”
Retrieving his limb, Martin listed back against the support of his worktable. “I hope you’ve spread your news around.”
“Oh, I have, sir. And I found out Paul Vends is looking at the same program. I told him you might be able to help him, like you did for me.”
Martin frowned, while Eddie’s mouth finally stopped into a fishy gape.
“Vends, huh?” Martin frowned, working up what he recalled of the young Mr. Vends academic record and personality.
Meanwhile Eddie chewed on air, working up his next onslaught. “I was also hoping….hoping you might be able to guide me during first quarter at least. I’m afraid of getting overwhelmed with all of the medical details.”
Eddie’s request glided over Martin’s diverted thoughts.
Vends had a head for numbers, Martin recalled in the sudden quiet, although he had a tendency to wander especially when a female student or two neared.
Martin smirked at his chastisement. If it hadn’t been for your own wandering eye, he chided, you might never have met Beatrice.
The thought of their first meeting flooded in his senses. Ankle-deep mud squelched around their boots, and their mutual preoccupation with the snails emerging from the muck remained engrossing, until they had butted heads leaning toward the same spiraled mollusk.
Martin’s chest tightened as he saw Beatrice, her heart-shaped face damped by rain and cheeks flushed with a complimentary rose. Her smile lingered, the heady gleam in her mossy eyes sparkling. He heard her words that day as clear as if she whispered in his ear.
She had motioned him forward on the snail’s trail. Instead, he’d held out his hand, and after a brief moment of consideration, she’d slipped her fingers onto his palm, and they’d gone forward together.
Eddie’s voice plunged Martin back into his study. He dropped his gaze, and dove into the soil-dark carpet revealed through the scattered pages and tomes. A passageway led from his loafers through the clutter and Martin found his eyes locked upon the open doorway.
“Go ahead,” whispered against his ear.
Martin gulped a sudden swell of grief twined with unexpected relief. He raked a hand over his face, and then turned to Eddie and Bernard, both waiting with concerned expressions.
“The first rule to avoid overwhelming yourself in the first quarter,” said Martin, “is coffee.” He gestured for Eddie to pour. “We’ll start there.” He met Bernard’s gaze and dipped his head in a brief nod of thanks. “I’m sure Father Bernard wouldn’t mind staying. He seems overflowing with good advice today.”
“It would be a pleasure,” said Bernard.
Martin stuffed his hands back into his slack’s pockets while the glug of the dark brew filled the cups. Fingertips seemed to brush his skin and he clasped tight, bent on keeping hold no matter where his next step lay.