The proposal came unexpectedly, in a neat, no nonsense package which left me reeling with shock. All my life I wondered if I could do such a thing. Now I know.
She first came in a couple of years ago – three years, two months and one week to be exact. I remember how her hair swung around her face as she shook it out, a small smile playing on her lips. She isn’t what people would consider a beauty – her size is a little large according to social standards, an inch-long scar twisted her smile on one side, and her eyes were an unoriginal shade of brown. But she was amazing – her intelligence, charm and manners turned her into the woman I had to have. Soon after we had struck a tentative friendship over coffee, I discovered, to my great sorrow, she was married. Needless to say, it left me disbelieving and in a state of acute disappointment – she was married. She was married! And yet, she still came, I still saw her, we kept going out, until the inevitable happened. We fell in love.
We tried to stay apart, we really did – but karma kept throwing us back together. Guilt-ridden, I transferred from my pharmacy to another one without whispering a word to her, only to cross paths with her there and discover that she had been transferred too, and was now working in the building adjacent to mine. Love-stricken, I changed my shifts to the graveyard shift – the same week her boss decided to start keeping her in late hours for a big project and so she could only run errands late at night, when I was on.
How can this end? My heart tells me it can only end with her at my side, as my wife. But my head tells me that there is nothing to do. She gave her vows to someone else, and that’s how it should remain.
Words written in a journal to give oneself courage are often a lot easier to write than to follow. Each time they saw each other, it would get a little harder to resist, his heart would break a little bit more; and his sanity would threaten to topple just a little bit faster. But somehow, they maintained the charade and their decorum until the day she came in with dark sunglasses – on a grey, rainy day. An alarm went off in his head – he knew things would just never be the same again.
“Why are you wearing those?”
She stiffened, lowering her gaze. “I have an eye infection.”
“Then where is your prescription for an antibiotic?”
He knew by the pursing of her lips she was damning the fact he was a pharmacist – her family’s pharmacist nonetheless. But he didn’t care. Something was wrong and he wanted to know what. He hooked a finger on the bridge of her glasses, but she put her hand up to keep them in place. His gaze caught his own in the reflection of the lenses. Although eerie, he kept looking, determined.
“Let it go, Peter.”
“No, Stella, please.”
She hesitated another moment before letting her hand drop with a heavy sigh. Heart pounding, he pulled the glasses down her nose and off her face.
“Did he do this to you?” he gently asked, taking in the bruise and cuts.
Her silence was accusation enough. Usually mild mannered, he started cursing – and quite fluently.
“Don’t get involved,” she whispered, putting her glasses back on. “He isn’t worth it.”
“But you are.”
Her anguished eyes – he knew their expression without even seeing them – met his. “You know the situation, Peter. You know what he is capable of, what he’s done… I can’t let you get involved. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “Don’t despair, sweetheart. There is always a way in which neither of us will ever get hurt.”
She snorted, an unusual, inelegant sound. “Until then, could I please have my beloved husband’s medication?”
That’s when it hit them, both at the same time – the same dark, evil thought that neither had the courage to express. Their eyes met, and they stared at each other, as if daring one another to say it out loud.
“Coming right up,” he said.
He stepped behind the counter and starting furiously typing at the computer, filling out the prescription. His hands were shaking while he sorted out and counted the pills – he felt weak and dizzy, yet curiously empowered. It could be so simple. So many pills looked the same. It was only a matter of a small mistake no one would probably even notice. Then she’d be free to choose whoever she desired to be with, instead of being stuck with a person who treated like a mere possession.
His hand tightened on the metal spatula he was using to count the pills. He could do it – so easy, so simple, maybe not as fast as he’d like – but (he sighed) he’d need to ask her first. And he couldn’t very well go up to her and say: “Stella, there is an easy way to get rid of your husband – permanently. Want to give it a shot?” He’d have to wait until hopefully the idea he knew was in her mind too would spring to life.
“Here you go!” he said, bringing the medications to her.
As he rang them up and she paid for them, their eyes met and slid away in a dance of guilt, hope and shame.
“We could do it,” she said.
“We could. Easily.”
“It would work. But it wouldn’t be good.”
They stared at each other until she finally left, leaving him in an even more turbulent turmoil than usual.
Days then weeks passed, yet no change. She came by as often as usual, they had their habitual banter and she’d leave. Everything had gone back to normal until the day she came in with a limp and an angry, determined expression.
“Peter, hello,” she said, slamming her bag on the counter. “I’m here for the usual renewals, but with the changes you mentioned a couple of weeks ago.”
His heart stopped and restarted only by sheer determination. “Are you sure?”
She met his gaze steadily. “Yes.”
Peter had had the coincidental luck of leaving the counter in a mess, not having had the time to tidy due to a big wave of patients. Who could blame him for making a mistake when he’d been working for so long in one day without the backup of a technician? He had asked himself time and again if he would be able to kill another human being. The answer now seemed obvious.
He didn’t hear from her or see her for two weeks after that fateful day. She came in finally, eyes red-rimmed, face ashen, cheekbones protruding.
“Stella, there is something we need to talk about.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have the time – I have an appointment. I just need his pills.”
She did something she had never done before. She put her hand on the side of his face and gently caressed it. “Not now. Please Peter, I just need the pills.”
He surrendered to her pleading eyes and to the soft touch of her hand and filled out the prescription. It was the last time he saw her.
A month later, he came home to an unusual message on his answering machine. He immediately picked up the phone.
“Hello, Mr Artner. This is Peter Smith returning your call.”
“Ah yes, Mr Smith. Would it be possible for you to come by my office anytime soon?”
“I am free every afternoon of this week.”
“Yes. Would you like me to come in today?”
To his surprise, Mr Artner immediately agreed and gave him directions.
“Could you please tell me what this is in regards to?” Peter asked.
“It’s preferable that I speak to you in person, Mr. Smith. But don’t worry – you are in no trouble.”
They left each other amicably, with Peter puzzled and Mr Artner a little apprehensive.
“Mr Smith, please, come in.”
Peter was glad he’d changed into a fresh pair of slacks and shirt. Everything in this office screamed of money. He shook the hand Mr. Artner offered and sat down in the leather chair.
“Mr. Smith, thank you very much for coming on such short notice. You are probably wondering why you are here.”
Peter nodded, his throat suddenly dry. This couldn’t be good.
Mr. Artner slid his glasses off and started rubbing the lenses clean. “Did you know a Stella Valma?”
Peter swallowed heavily, dread bubbling up in his chest. “Yes. Yes, I did know her.”
Mr Artner nodded. “I am sorry, Mr. Smith, to have to be the one to be telling you this, but Mrs. Valma passed away a week ago. She left a letter with me a couple of hours before her demise with the explicit instructions that it be hand delivered to you today. She also made changes to her will. Everything she owns has been left to you.”
The details that Mr Artner rattled off didn’t register in Peter’s numbed mind. All he could think of was that his beautiful, vibrant Stella was no more: all that was left of her was the big, thick, cream envelope lying in the centre of Mr Artner’s desk.
“How did she die?” Peter suddenly asked, interrupting Mr Artner’s flow of explanations.
He blinked back at Peter through his now spotless glasses. “She overdosed on her husband’s medications.”
“Suicide,” breathed Peter.
You must now hate me for what I had to do. But please give me this one last chance to explain myself.
I know we would have been so happy together. It was in your eyes each time I saw you. How can two people fall in love over a pharmacy counter? I would have said before meeting you that it was impossible, but it happened to us. How ironic that I didn’t come a mere three years ago to get my medication from you – I would have been a free woman. I know we could have been together now that I am a widow. But Peter, this would have poisoned our relationship. I didn’t want to love you only to lose you, so I decided to remove myself from your life. I knew that moving away wouldn’t be enough – you would follow me to the ends of the earth, and even if you didn’t, we would have been thrown together again. You remember how it was.
I have sent you my journals from the day we met to about a week ago. It’s the only thing that I wanted to make sure you received. I left you all my worldly possessions, and I left you my heart.
May you find eternal happiness my love.
Peter walked aimlessly, Stella’s last letter to him tucked haphazardly in his shirt pocket. It was ironic that the reason she’d killed herself wasn’t even valid. He hadn’t been able to do the switch; his conscience had weighed too heavily on him, and he had given Stella’s husband his normal medication. He should have told her, right then and there – but how could he have known the husband would die the very same week? Stella had been right; he’d been a mean bastard until the very last day of his life, his death timed in a way to separate Peter and Stella. And it seemed that Peter had been right about himself all along – he was able to kill, except he had killed the one he loved.
He left the docks very late that night, going home to nothing. How long he’d last was a mystery – and maybe he’d find out he had the strength to take yet another life.