The Saving of Robert Kinston
By Atonia Walpole
In these past six months he had gradually shut himself away from life as he had known it. There was nothing to take its place and so he drifted from one day to the next, still clinging to the house they shared for five years. Grief had been replaced with anger, and anger with nothing. He was already dead.
At first it was though she were still there and, fully expecting to hear her voice, found himself listening for her footsteps on the stairs. Her scent filled his bedroom and bathroom, the aroma of baking bread filled his kitchen. Over time these scents faded and now the air smelled of dust. Robert J. Kinston was slowly leaving this world.
When he chanced to catch his reflection in a mirror he didnít recognize himself. He no longer shaved in the mornings and hadnít seen a barber in months; days would go by before he showered, and more often than not he slept in his clothes wherever he happened to doze off. If it hadnít been for the cat, Milford, he most likely would already be gone. Milford had been Josieís beloved cat, and now left in his care, it was his only companion. The cat ate whether he did or not.
The doorbell had been ringing for some time before he pulled himself from the sofa and padded barefoot to the door, only opening it wide enough to see who was there.
"Oh, Iím sorry! Did I wake you? I was beginning to think nobody was home. I did try to call. IÖ" Shocked into silence the young woman stopped, staring at her idol.
"What do you want?" he asked, blinking his eyes at the bright sunlight flowing into the crack in the door.
"Iím Melody Anderson. Iím your pupil for this semester." She thought he looked ill. "If youíre not feeling well I can come back."
"Pupil?" he ran his hand through his unkempt hair and focused his eyes on her.
"Tutor, youíre my tutor. I took the class you offered on creative writing in the spring, and signed up for tutoring with you for this semester."
His fogged brain began to function. Had he ever taught, had he ever written anything? TutoringÖ. "Iím sorry, Iím not prepared for that right now." He started to close the door.
"Mr. Kinston, pleaseÖIíve so looked forward to this. I can come back at another time when itís convenient with you. I have these papers for you so youíll know where I am and what I need to work on." She pushed the papers into his hand.
"LookÖMelodyÖIím notÖreadyÖIím not well. You should find somebody elseÖI canítÖ"
"There is no one elseÖno one like youÖI need your helpÖplease." She forced him to meet her eyes.
He stared at her for a minute. "Thursday, come back on Thursday same time."
"Thank you, Mr. Kinston, you have no idea what this means to me." She was gushing and couldnít help it. She was going to work with Robert Kinston.
He backed up and closed the door, leaning against the back of it, letting the papers fall to the floor and float wherever they pleased. Righting himself, he walked to the kitchen and put the coffee pot on, glancing at the clock on the stove. It was eleven oíclock and the first time heíd looked at a clock in over a month.
"Milford, Iíve done a stupid thing letting that girl talk me into tutoring. Three days, weíve got three days to get ourselves together. It ainít gonna happen."
Milford tilted his golden tabby head and blinked his golden eyes.
The black trash bags on the curb were evidence he tried to clean up a bit, throwing out months' worth of newspapers and periodicals. His office was a shambles; curling papers littered his desk and dust covered everything. He made a cursory effort and quit. Showered, his beard trimmed, and dressed in clean clothes, he opened the door promptly at eleven.
He couldnít recall what she looked like and was surprised to find a tall, slender young woman with light brown hair curling around her shoulders from a side part. She had a pair of glasses perched on her nose, a striped jersey and jeans, with a backpack slung over her shoulder.
"Hello, guess youíd better come in," he said, holding the door open.
"Thank you, I hope Iím not late."
"Right on time. Ah, my office I guess," and he led the way down the hall. "Excuse the mess. Iím not in here much."
"Youíre not writing?"
"No. I looked over the papers and read your short story. Iím not sure what youíre trying to say with it."
"Why arenít you writing? Youíre brilliant, Mr. Kinston."
He looked up from the papers he held. "Iíve run out of things to say, Miss Anderson. You want to tell me about this story?"
"An author such as yourself never runs out of things to say. Your fans are waiting for the next book."
She saw the flash of anger in his eyes. "Weíre talking about your story here not about me."
"You donít like it do you? I had hoped to make a novel out of it."
"The plot is good and the characters well-defined, but somewhere along the middle you lost it, lost me anyway."
"I wouldnít want to do thatÖlose you." His head came up and he narrowed his eyes across his desk. "If I canít hold your interest then I couldnít possible hold anybody elseís. Where exactly do you drift away?"
He looked down at the paper that heíd gone over and redlined and handed it across the desk to her.
She smiled to herself...the part where he falls in love with the student. "You donít think this could happen?"
"Itís predictable. It's been done too many timesÖ"suddenly he turns and really sees her for the first time, "Öitís junk, MelÖMiss Anderson."
"Please call me Melody."
"Go back and read what you have written about the man. Thatís not something he would do."
"What would he do?" she asked. "What do you think of him?"
"I think heís all too familiar, Melody. You took my writing classÖI donít remember you," He wrinkled his brow, "and I donít like being made a character in your story."
"If I remember correctly the assignment was to write a story about somebody you admire."
He looked toward the window, remembering the classroom. Some good work had come out of that group. Melody Anderson, she wrote poetry also and was pretty good at it, if he recalled correctly. The story sheíd brought him to look overÖshe obviously had a thing for him. Too bad it came out in her writing.
"You write poetry, donít you?"
"Yes, sometimes when Iím inspired." He did remember her.
"I suggest you rewrite this story and find another person to admire. It gets a bit sticky, donít you think?" He smiled slightly.
She blushed and kept her eyes on the paper. "I didnít write it to embarrass you."
"Iím not the one embarrassed. Itís too obvious, Melody. If you canít think of a person, make one up. I canít be that person."
Melody felt tears pricking her eyes and blinked them back. "Iím sorry to have wasted your time." She began stuffing the papers back in her backpack.
"Tuesday, come back on Tuesday with another story and weíll work through it. Youíre a good writer needing a little direction."
"Thank you," she stood up. "This your cat? Whatís its name?" she asked, reaching down to pet the cat winding around her legs.
"Thatís Milford, bossy fella." He stood up and came around the desk.
"Well, Iíll see you on Tuesday. Thanks for giving me another chance."
He walked past her and to the front door,."See ya Tuesday," he said and closed the door behind her. He found his hands shaking and went to the kitchen, pulling a beer from the fridge. It was probably a mistake asking her to come back. He washed the distaste from his mouth with the beer.
Melody clutched the steering wheel, moving out into the traffic. Sheíd made a fool of herself and regretted taking the story to him. There were others sheíd written, better ones she knew. Whatever made her think he would care about her feelings for him? Quietly sheíd sat in his class and quietly sheíd fallen in love with him. She knew about the recent tragedy in his life, his wife getting killed in the accident, the mental anguish heíd been through. There was talk on campus about him and sheíd seen it herself on Monday. He looked better today. Maybe that was a good sign, maybe he was coming out of it now?
Robert Kinston finished the beer and tossed the bottle in the trashcan. His doorbell rang. She was back. Reluctantly he went to open the door.
"Robbie, I saw the trash bags and thought it was time I came to see you."
"Tessie, come in."
"I was on my way to the bistro for lunch. Thought you might want to go with me."
"You have to eat sometime. It's only lunch, Robbie." She tilted her head and smiled.
"Yeah, give me a minuteÖshoes." He half smiled and ran up the stairs.
He looks like hell, she thought. I should have come sooner. Tessie looked around the living room. She hadnít been in it since right after the funeral. Poor Josie would have a fit knowing heíd let himself get into such a funk. Josie had been a good friend to Tessie when her own husband died of a heart attack three years ago. Sheíd been there with her homemade loaves of bread and later over coffee and tears helped her through a bad time. Why hadnít she done the same for Robbie? Absently running a finger across a dusty table, she thought it was because he was who he was.
She smiled as he came back down the stairs, a little disheveled but still handsome. "I like the beard, Robbie. Makes you look a little mysterious."
"I notice you didnít say distinguished." He ran his hand through his hair. "Ready?" He covered his eyes with a pair of sunglasses and followed her out of the door.
She quietly walked beside him up the sidewalk. It was only a couple of blocks down to the main street and the bistro on the corner.
"I had a pupil this morning. Looks like Iím tutoring," he said, cramming his hands in the pocket of his jeans.
"Iím glad to hear that. When did you decide to tutor?"
"I donít rememberÖmust have been after I taught that class."
It would have been before the accident. "I heard you were a success in the classroom. Bennyís son was in there. You remember him, Lee Robins?"
"I guess I doÖsorry my mindís not functioning properly."
"It probably only needs some of Ralphís good, hot soup and a roast beef sandwich."
Robbie smiled, giving her a side-glance. "That sounds good. Iím glad you came by, Tessie."
"Iíve been meaning to for some time, then time gets away from you and it almost becomes embarrassing to do the thing you know you should have done. Here we are, and look whatís on the board today! Hot roast beef sandwiches and potato soup! See, the timing was right after all."
Robbie didnít know about timing but the smells coming from the small bistro had his stomach rumbling. Placing their order at the counter, they found a booth by the street window and sat down.
"Is that your stomach I hear, Robbie?" she asked, settling herself on the seat.
"Yes, Iím afraid it is. I donít think I ate this morningÖmaybe not last night, either." He brushed his hair out of his eyes.
"Now that makes me feel bad for waiting. Iíll make sure you eatÖif you let me." Tessie looked at him over the table. The poor man was starving. She noticed the gray in his beard and shook her head.
"Iím not going to argue with you about that today." He licked his lips as the bowl of soup was placed before him.
Finishing her lunch, Tessie looked out the window. "Itís clouded up. We may get some rain tonight."
"Yeah," Robbie said absently. His stomach full for the first time in days, he pushed the plate away.
"When was the last time you went for a walk?" she asked.
"Walk? I dunno. I really donít know, Tessie."
Should she? She did. "Well, come with me. I feel like a walk and Iíd enjoy your company."
"Iím not good company," he said, meeting her eyes.
"Why donít you let me be the judge of that? Come on, now, unless you have something important to do?"
"NoÖI have nothing important or unimportant to do." He followed her out of the bistro and down the street. Tessie was easy for him to be with. She didnít prattle on with idle talk or try to pry into his inner self where heíd taken refuge. Tessie was his age, maybe a little older, somewhere in the early to mid forties. She had been Josieís friend and therefore was his friend.
He looked up, realizing she had stopped. "I didnít know weíd walked all the way down here," he said, looking out over the river.
"I wanted to see what they had done to the tour houses for autumn and thought it might be nice to walk over the grounds of the palace. You were somewhere else and I didnít want to disturb you."
"Maybe you should have. I might have walked on into the water."
"I would have stopped you, Robbie. Want to sit down for awhile?" She found a bench facing the river. "I love it here. It's so quiet and peaceful."
He stared at the water. "It is quiet."
"I used to come here a lot but not so much anymore. I donít seem to need it."
"You found your peace."
"Yes." She wanted that for him. Turning, she looked at his profile. The long lashes that surrounded the blue-green eyes stared unseeing ahead of him. Truly the light had gone out of his eyes and she ached for him. He had been her neighbor for five years. A newly-wed couple, he and Josie, when they bought the house next door. At least she had Bill for fifteen years before he died.
The first drops of rain began to fall and Tessie looked up, feeling the splash on her cheek. She turned to Robbie. He hadnít noticed the rain so she sat by him as the drops became larger and more frequent. Soon it was raining quite hard and Robbie, finally coming to himself, turned to her.
"Youíre all wet, Tessie. Iím sorry."
"Why be sorry? Iíve been wet before. I could have pushed you off the bench and run for cover."
He stood up. "We can make it to the wings. Thereís some shelter there."
They ran across the grounds of the Tryon Palace, soaked by the time they reached shelter. They sat on a slat-bottomed bench and watched the rain pour down over the grounds.
"Why did you do it, sit in the rain?"
"You were there. I felt responsible because I brought you down here. I didnít know it was going to rain so soon."
"You must know by now Iíve totally lost it, Tessie. Not enough sense left to come in out of the rain."
"Rain is something real and tangible. You can feel it on your face, taste the wetness on your tongue. Maybe you needed it? What do I know?"
He turned to her. "I think you know a lot."
"No, not nearly enough. Iím a perpetual student of life. It looks like the worst is over. Shall we chance it? Weíre already wet."
"Sure, letís go back." They walked mostly in silence until they reached their street.
"Would you like to come in for coffee?" he asked.
"Some other time, and I mean that, Robbie. I need to go home and get out of these wet clothes. Promise me you are going to do the same."
He smiled. "I promise. Thanks, Tessie, for today."
She touched his arm. "Yes, thank you for coming with me." Turning, she ran to her gate and up onto her porch.
Robbie went through his gate and kicked off his wet shoes before going inside. He went upstairs and stripped off his clothes, slipping on a pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt, throwing his wet things in the tub. Back down stairs he made himself a pot of coffee and fed Milford.
"Different day today, Milford, and I think almost too much." He had found a comfortable place inside himself and didnít want to come out to play. Tessie was okay. She was just there without asking anything of him. Friends are like that.
Tessie took her wet clothes down and dumped them in the washer. Tying the fleece robe around her waist she made a pot of tea. She thought it had gone well with Robbie today for a first encounter. Too bad about the rain, though. Taking her tea into the little den off her kitchen, she sat down to think. It had been way too long. Sheíd left it too long. Running her hand through her still damp short curly hair, she considered there was something about a widow showing up at the door with a casserole. She couldnít go there. He needed help. She just had to find a way to give it without him knowing.
Robbie settled back into his funk, surfacing on Tuesday when Melody was coming back for her tutoring.
"Good morning," she said brightly as she came through the door. "I brought you something." She handed him a tin. "Chocolate chip cookies. I made them last night."
"Oh, well, thank you." He turned, looking for a place to set them down and ended up carrying them back to his office, placing them on his desk.
"Arenít you going to try one?" she asked, pulling out notebooks from her backpack.
"Not right now. Iíll save them for later. What have you got there?"
"These are my notebooks that I write in. I thought you might want to see what Iíve done. My handwriting is not that bad. I, uh, trashed the other story, the one you didnít like."
"You didnít have to trash it, just rewrite it," he said, not looking up from the notebook in front of him.
She watched him skim over her work. He had the loveliest eyes and she remembered the way a smile could light up his face. Heíd been very funny in class, but there didnít seem to be any humor left in him now.
"These are very good, Melody. Youíve not finished them?" he said after a while.
"No, theyíre more like a synopsis of stories I want to write."
"Pick one at random and write it, flesh it out, make a story out of it." He handed her back one of the notebooks. "Do you mind if I keep these two until you come back?"
"No, not at all," she said, beaming.
"Iíd like to spend more time reading them. I managed to put together some work for you. See what you can make out of this." He handed her several papers.
Melody quickly looked them over. They were much the same sort of thing sheíd done in his class. She bent her head, using the other side of his desk to work.
Robbie saw how her hair fell over her face, and sat back in his chair watching her for a minute. The scent she wore made its way to him and he closed his eyes for a momentÖa female scent in his office.
"Mr. Kinston? Iíve finished, are you okay?" she wrinkled her brow. Heíd fallen asleep.
Shaking his head and blinking, he sat up. "SorryÖI donít sleep well at night."
"Have you seen a doctor?"
"Thereís nothing physically wrong with me." He picked up her paper.
"Maybe I should go and let you get some rest?"
"Iím fine." He read what she had written and penciled in a few suggestions.
"Mr. Kinston, sometimes a chocolate chip cookie helps." She raised her eyebrows.
He looked at her over the paper. "You think so?"
"Works for me every time."
He opened the tin and took one out, turning it in his hand. "Weíll see. Itís very goodÖexcellent in cookie baking."
"I made them for you. I remembered you like cookies."
He bit slowly into the cookie and met her eyes. "You have a good memory." What was happening to him, getting turned on by a cookie? He felt a stirring in his pants. "I think your time is up. Sorry I fell asleep."
"I donít suppose I can think I slept with Mr. Kinston, can I?" she asked with a half smile.
"No, I donít suppose you can. You didnít sleep. See you on Thursday, Melody."
Melody let herself out and bounded down the steps to her car. The cookies had hit their mark. She'd seen it in his eyes. Patience, Mel, she told herself. Must be patient, but he would be so worth it. She so wanted him.
Wednesday lunchtime brought a knock on Robbieís back door.
"I told myself I wasnít going to do this but there it is. I have. Iíve made lunch for two. Will you come over and join me? Donít feel you have to, Robbie. I can always throw the cutlet over the fence for Alfie next door."
Robbie stared at her for a minute. "Youíd give my lunch to a dog?"
"I will if you donít come and eat it with me."
"You are relentless, arenít you, Tessie?"
"I am!" she laughed and he followed her through the gate in the hedge to her back door.
"Itís been a long time since I was in your kitchen," he remarked, settling into a chair at the table.
"About three years. You were here right after Bill died."
"Has it been that long?"
"It has. Josie came, of course. I miss her, too, Robbie." Now why did she have to go and say that? Piling up the plates with food, she set them on the table. Heíd gone quiet.
"Eat, Robbie. Alfie likes cutlets, you know. Hey, Iím sorry if I said anything to upset you."
"It was just hearing her name spoken like she wasÖ"
"But she isnít, and neither is Bill. Now eat."
Robbie blinked his eyes and ate his lunch. "That was wonderful, Tessie. Youíre a good cook."
"Spoken like a hungry man. Can I get you anything else?"
"No thanks, Iím fullÖready for a nap. I get sleepy after I eat."
"Thatís because you donít eat right and probably donít sleep, either. Thereís a daybed in there in my den if youíd like to lie down. Itís where I take my naps."
"I donít want to take your napping spot."
"Shift work, Robbie. I donít nap until around three oíclock. If youíre still out Iíll wake you. Howís that?"
Robbie grinned, "I think Iíll take you up on that." He wandered out to her den and lay down on the daybed. Before long he was asleep, resting peacefully.
Tessie finished up in the kitchen and tip toed into the den. Pulling an afghan from the back of her recliner, she covered him. She wanted to touch his face and place a soft kiss on his slightly parted lips but she didnít. Instead she picked up her book and sat back in her recliner.
It was getting harder to read and she looked out the window. More rain. Robbie was still asleep and she glanced at the clock on the mantel. Heíd been out for three hours. She didnít mind at all losing her napping spot today. Let him sleep. Poor baby, he needed it so. She went out to her kitchen and made a pot of coffee, quietly carrying it back to her den. It was getting chilly in the room with no sun to warm through the windows so she lit a fire in the fireplace. Still he slept.
Later she heard a soft sound and looked over to the daybed. He was awake and looking at her, "Hey, sleepyhead," she said softly.
"Itís dark out. What time is it?"
"After five thirty. Like some coffee?"
"Um, yeah, I would. Sorry I took your afternoon." He sat up, rubbing his eyes.
"I canít think of anyone Iíd rather have it. You had a good sleep, didnít you?"
"I did, no dreams or anything."
She brought him his coffee mug and he pulled her down beside him. "Youíre good to me, Tessie, and I canít think why. Iím a worthless sod."
"No, you arenít, not to me. I care about you, Robbie."
All of a sudden he wanted to kiss her so he set his cup down on the table beside the daybed and pulled her to him, kissing her softly on the lips. He pulled back, astonished. "IÖI didnít mean to do thatÖI just wantedÖ"
"Iím glad you did whether you meant to or not. You surprised yourself, didnít you?" she grinned.
"Uh, yes, I didÖ" He turned, looking into her eyes. "You surprised me, Tessie." And she had, she had responded to him. "Think we could try that again?"
They did and the coffee went cold in the mug on the table.
"I didnít mean for this to happen, Tessie. I donít want to kill a friendship between us. I felt like I needed to..."
"Be loved? Someone to hold you, someone to kiss you and make you feel human again? Donít start apologizing to me for that. I needed it, too. I needed you, Robbie, and you came through for me."
He held her close, running his hand up her bare back. His emotions were running the gamut today. "Youíre a generous woman."
"Iím greedy," she said against the hollow of his neck, "and I plied you with cutlets. How could you resist my charms?"
"I couldnít, obviously, and you had this bedÖ"
"Ha! And you thought I only wanted you to sleep in it. Be very wary of women with cutlets and a bed."
"Youíre good for me, Tess," he said, nuzzling her ear.
Tessie smiled against his neck. She was going to have to keep this light-hearted or they would both be in tears.
"Would you like a sandwich or something, maybe more coffee since you forgot the cup on the table?"
"No, just you." He took her mouth again and the rest followed.
Tessie lay breathless and limp when he finally sat up and began pulling his clothes on.
"Tess, Iím going home now. I might like to come back sometime."
"My door is always open to you, Robbie. I want you to come back." She pulled the rumpled afghan over her body.
He bent and kissed her on the lips. "Good night, Tess." And he was gone.
Tessie clutched the afghan in her hands and rolled over on her side squeezing her eyes shut so the tears would at least have a problem escaping. He was beautiful! Oh, God, he was beautiful!How did things get so out of hand? She was lost.
Robbie let himself in his back door and was met by Milford. "Yeah, I know itís late. Iíll get your dinner right now."
Milford meowed loudly.
"Hey now, using words like that is not gonna open this can any faster, buddy." Robbie cocked a brow. "You best watch your language."
Robbie wandered into his living room and picked up the notebook heíd been reading that morning, placing it on the coffee table. Melody was a deep thinker he liked the way she wrote. Remembering the cookies, he went to his office and opened the tin, taking one out and munching it as he went back through the house turning out lights. He left the light on over the stove for Milford who was still in his cat bowl and ignoring him now. Locking his doors, he went upstairs to his bedroom and turned on the bedside lamp.
He walked over to the closet and opened the door. A sob from nowhere caught in his throat and he fell down on his knees, clutching at Josieís clothes still hanging by his. He cried aloud for some time before he was able to get up and go blow his nose and splash water on his face. He sat down on the end of the bed, staring at the closet. He knew it was wrong to keep her things there; she wasnít going to be coming back for them.
He got up quickly and ran downstairs, bringing the box of black trash bags with him, and began filling them with Josieís clothes and shoes. He checked her purses to make sure nothing personal was left in them and crammed them in a bag. Her under things and shorts and tee shirts from the drawers followed. In the bathroom he threw out the dried-up polishes and makeup. Her scent bottles he dumped down the drain and the bathroom filled with the scent so heavy it made him dizzy.
He carried the bags out onto the front porch and looked up the number for a charity he knew she used to donate to. He would call them in the morning and then it would be done. Sitting down on the sofa, he buried his face in his hands. He should have done this a long time ago.
He was sitting at his kitchen table with another cup of coffee when the sun came up. He might have caught a couple of hours on the sofa but sleep pretty much eluded him. His eyes glazed over, he watched as the first beams of light reached through the window and tentatively touched the table. He felt so tired, so physically tired. He thought of Tessie and her daybed where heíd slept longer at one time than he had in six months. Tessie was a giver and he felt he was a taker, had taken from her and left nothing behind for her. Oh, God, Tess! He wanted her arms around him; he wanted her comfort.
Checking the time again, it was still too early to call the charity so he went upstairs and showered, pulling on a pair of flannel pajama pants and a tee shirt. He ran his hands through his hair not wanting to look in a mirror this morning, afraid of what he might see there. He felt hollowed out and empty. Milford wouldnít come upstairs with him because of the bathroom. It still reeked with the scent. Robbie didnít know how to get rid of it. He had to get out of here.
Tessie heard the banging on her back door and ran down the stairs, tying her robe as she went. It was Robbie. "Robbie, I didnít think youíd be back so soon. Oh dear, whatís wrong? Come in."
"Iím sorry to get you up, Tess. I didnít know what else to do. I had to get out of there."
"Whatís happened, Robbie? Tell me!" She led him into the den and sat beside him on the daybed.
"Last night, IÖI finally bagged up all of Josieís things." Oh, shit, he was going to cry. "I donít know why I waited so long. I dumped her scent bottles down the drain and now the whole upstairs smells of her."
Tessie put her arms around him, pulling him to her. "Oh, Robbie." She rocked him back and forth, rubbing her hand through his hair. She held him until he became quiet. "Do you want me to go and get rid of the smell? Iíve got some ideas of how to clean the drains. Did you sleep last night?"
"No, not much. I hate to ask you to clean the drains, Tess."
"Hey, thatís what Iím here forÖcleaner of drains, thatís me. Why donít you lie down here while I go take care of it? I promise not to take advantage of you this time."
"Thereís a number by my phone of a charity. Could you call them to come get the bags off my porch?"
"Iíll take care of it, Robbie. Just rest now." Tessie got him settled and went back upstairs to dress. She was worried about Robbie. He was in a state. She checked on him and watched his even breathing before she let herself out the back door with a bucket of hopefully clean drain things.
It took several tries to come up with the right combination but she had killed the scent in the drains. Now to air the place out. She opened his upstairs windows, moving from room to room. He was right. The whole upstairs smelled of Josie. How had he made it though the night? She turned his furnace off until the place was aired out and went back downstairs where the scent was not as strong, but it was still there. Opening all the windows downstairs, she came upon Milford.
"Hey, Milford, Iíll bet you donít have any kibbles in your bowl. No, not a one. What are we going to do with him?" She fed Milford, remembered the charity, and gave them a call. Looking around his house, she noted it needed a good dusting and vacuuming, but she wasnít up for that before breakfast.
He was still sleeping when she came home so she pulled the door to her den closed and made her breakfast and coffee. Sitting with her coffee at the table, she again chastised herself for waiting so long to go see him. She'd had no idea he still had all of Josieís things in the closet. That must have been awful for him, like keeping a corpse there. She had been lucky because some of the women from the historical society she belonged to had come and cleaned out Billís things the day after the funeral. Maybe he would get better now? She would offer to clean his house for him.
It was a little after ten when he woke in the day bed. Opening the door, he went down the hall to the half bath.
"Tess," he said as he came into the kitchen.
"I heard you get up. Better now?"
"Whatís better, Tess? Better than what? I feel like Iím on a roller coaster. I donít ever get off, just move to a different seat."
"Sit down, Robbie, and Iíll fix you something to eat. I turned the heat off in your house and opened all the windows. The drains are clean now."
"Iím sorry you had to go and do that."
"Iím not. Iíd like to think youíd do something similar for me, would you?"
"You know I would." He took the coffee cup from her.
"Toast and an egg?"
"Anything, it doesnít matter."
"Yes, it does. Everything matters, Robbie, what you eat, what you drink, where you go, who you see. That roller coaster is going to come to a stop one of these days and youíd better be prepared for life after the ride."
"Okay, toast and an egg will be fine." He grinned up at her.
"Thatís better." She fried his egg and placed it on top of the slice of toast. Sitting down across the table from him, she remarked, "Your house is going to be cold today. Oh, and I fed Milford."
"Thanks for thinking of him. Did you call the charity?"
"Yes, and theyíve already been. I saw the truck earlier. Lucky you, Thursday is their pick up day."
"Today is Thursday? Oh, shit! What time is it?"
"Iím tutoring at eleven."
"In your cold house? Why not cancel it today?"
"Too late. Sheíll already be here. Besides I like it. Gives my mind something to do."
"Well, you better put some clothes on, lots of them."
"Thank you again, Tess!" He kissed her quickly and ran out the back door to his house.
Running up the stairs to the bedroom, he could tell the scent was leaving the house already, but it was cold. He found a pair of sweats and some heavy socks and a pullover and went back downstairs to see about a fire in the fireplace.
His doorbell went and he opened the door. "Itís cold in here so donít take off your coat."
"What happened? Did your furnace go out?"
"Um, no, spilt something down the sink and Iím trying to air it out. As soon as I get this fire going we can sit in here."
Melody sat on the sofa and watched him teasing the fire into a blaze. She liked him in casual clothes, with his hair longer and finger-combed he looked younger. She was imagining the two of them cuddled on the sofa in front of the fire, maybe a bottle of wine and some music playing. It would be so romantic. He had to be a good kisser.
"Melody?" he was standing in front of her with his hands on his hips.
"Oh, sorry," she grinned. "Lost in thought. Fireplaces do that to me."
"Do they? Maybe you should write down your thoughts?"
"I donít think so. Theyíre not for public consumption. Did you read my notebooks?"
"I did," he said, sitting down on the sofa and tucking a leg beneath him. "I didnít realize you were such a deep thinker."
"That surprised you?" she asked and removed her glasses.
He shrugged, "I guess I hadnít thought about it one way or the other."
She shucked off her coat. He hadnít noticed she had breasts, either, and he averted his eyes, only to come back for another look. They were standing at attention.
"You arenít cold?"
"No," she smiled, "I have my homework here for you to look at and I started on the story."
Good, he had something else to look at and something in his hands. "Hmm, okay. Mind if I read over it?"
"Do you need a pencil to make comments?"
"If you donít mind, theyíre on the desk."
"I have one in my bag." She handed him a pencil, making sure her hand lingered in his for a moment. His hands were warm.
He read, making notes here and there, and she looked around the living room. It was nice, probably decorated by his wife. Nice oils on the walls, bright colors. She shoved her notebooks back in her bag, pleased he had taken the time to read them. Milford joined them on the sofa, looking for warmth, and she petted him, talking softly.
"Just throw him off if he bothers you." Robbie looked up over the book.
"Heís no bother. His fur is cold. He just wants to get warm in here with the fire."
"Whatís this word here?" he asked, and she moved over close to him to see what he was referring to.
"You need a thesaurus."
"I have one. I guess I should have used it." She stayed where she was, letting her arm fall across the knee he had bent beneath him. Her eyes strayed to his chest where she really wanted to be leaning in.
He sat up abruptly, knocking her a little off balance so that she was leaning against his right shoulder when his feet hit the floor.
"Look at the notes Iíve made here and how I think you should rephrase this whole paragraph,"
She didnít take the paper from him but leaned in a little closer. She could feel his hair touching hers. It was hard to concentrate on the notebook he held. She blinked her eyes. He smelled of soap and shampoo. She couldnít possibly concentrateÖ
Robbie was not totally unaware of what she was doing. She turned to look at him and his eyes went to her mouth. He was going to kiss her.
Melody melted into him and the notebook fell to the floor when his arms went around her. He lay back on the sofa and pulled her on top of him, kissing her and letting his hands run over her back and her bottom.
"What are you doing?" he whispered into her hair.
"Iím trying to get this out of my bag in case you didnít have one handy."
The little silver packet brought him to his senses. What the hell was he doing anyway? "Iím sorryÖMelodyÖI donít know whatÖput that away!" He lifted her off him and sat up, running his hands though his hair. "I think youíd better go."
"Oh, pleaseÖIím sorry. I just couldnít help myself. This is what you do to me."
"I donít want to do this to you." He handed her the notebook from the floor. "I enjoyed our work, Melody. I need to work at something to keep my mind busy."
"What are you saying...that I canít come back?"
"Let me think about it, okay. Iím an emotional mess right now. Iíll turn the ringer back on my phone. Call me sometime Monday. Iíll let you know then. Iím really sorry this happened."
"Iím not. You might as well knowÖwell, you probably already do from the first story I brought you, how I feel about you. Thatís not going to change, you know."
"Letís put this in the can, okay?" He stood up and moved around the coffee table, trying to put something between them.
"I think youíre wonderful and Iíll see you again, hereÖor somewhere." She picked up her backpack and let herself out the door.
Robbie grabbed the poker and poked the fire until sparks were flying all over the hearth. He felt totally helpless and out of control.
Tessie had been down to a meeting with the historical society and stopped for a drink with a couple of the women and men. It was nearly dark when she made it back to her street and she looked up at Robbieís house. The windows were still open and no lights were on. The house should have been aired out by now, she thought, and went through his gate and rang his doorbell. She waited and knockedÖstill no Robbie, so she tried his door and it opened.
"Robbie?" It was freezing in the house. His fire had gone out. Milford came running down the hall, meowing loudly. "All right, where his he?" She walked into the kitchen and looked in the back yard then climbed the stairs calling him.
She found him in the bathtub half full of cold water. He was nearly blue and heíd tried to slit his wrist.
"ROBBIE!" she tried to wake him and felt for his pulse. It was there. "Oh, my God, Robbie!" She let the water out of the tub, found a towel and dried him off. "Iíve got to get you out of here." She brought the down comforter from his bed, wrapped him up in it and started closing windows, turning on the furnace as she passed the switch. Downstairs in the bathroom she found a first aid kit, took that back upstairs and dressed the cut on his left wrist. He hadnít bled much, probably because of the cold. She knew she had to warm him up so she tucked the comforter around him tightly and lay down on top of him, wrapping him in her arms. Tessie was afraid she wasnít doing the right thing. Should she call 911? It would be all over that Robert Kinston had tried to commit suicide. There would be reporters, pictures taken of him leaving the hospital. He would hate her for that. She could call her doctor. He might come out to the house once she told him who it was. "Iím going to be right back, Robbie. Hold on for me, okay?"
After some words with her doctor who had agreed to come out, she went back to the bathroom. The house was warming up now and she found the electric blanket she had given them for Christmas two years ago and plugged it in on his bed. "I hope Iím doing the right thing, Robbie, youíve got to help me." Tessie felt the tears on her face and wiped them with the back of her hand. She dropped the steak knife in the clothes hamper.
The doctor came and between them they got him out of the tub and into the nice warm bed. The doctor told her she had done the right thing for him.
"I donít want him to have to go to the hospital if I can care for him here. Just tell me what I can do for him."
"Keep him warm. His color is already coming back."
"He was nearly blue when I found him."
"The cut on his wrist is not deep. Looks like he might have had second thoughts about it. I hope thatís the case."
"You wonít report this, will you? He cut it in the kitchen. It was an accident."
"Now, Tessie, you know thatís not the truth."
"Iíll swear it is. I saw it happen."
"Whereís the weapon?"
"There is no weapon. He doesnít have weapons in his house." Tessie was getting her back up. "I called you out here to make sure he was going to be all right. You act like heís committed a crime."
The doctor finally left though Tessie didnít know what he was going to report. She lay down beside Robbie and snuggled up close to him. He was worse than she thought. She was going to have to take him in hand and get him through this nightmare.
"If you only knew how important you are to me you wouldnít do such stupid things." She caressed his face.
Milford jumped on the bed and marched up, standing on Robbieís chest and meowed loudly a couple of times. "What do you want, Milford? Canít you see heís not well right now?"
"Food, he wants food, Tess."
"How long have you been awake?" she asked, sitting up.
"Since you dragged me from the tub and into this warm bed."
"I am, indeed."
"Iím going to feed Milford and get you a warm drink." She turned at the doorway. "You might think how important being a bastard is to you, Robbie, and what youíve put me through tonight. Iím angry with you."
Tessie fed the cat and made a hot cup of tea with a good shot of whiskey in it for Robbie. "This might warm you from the inside. Go ahead and drink it."
"You should go home, Tess. Itís got to be late."
"Iím not leaving you, Robbie."
"Iíll be all right."
"Thatís not for you to decide anymore. You havenít done a very good job with yourself on your own. What happened to you today?"
He looked up. "Iíve lost control of myself." He didnít really want to tell her about Melody.
Tessie walked around the bed. "What have you done?" He wasnít going to answer. What had happened to him from eleven to five oíclock? ElevenÖthe studentÖfemale student. She ran her hand over her face and through her hair. "Does this have something to do with your student?"
He dropped his head. "Robbie, you didnít rape her, did you?" she asked, holding her breath.
"No, it wasnít rape. I didnítÖI stopped myself beforeÖ"
A balloon had risen in Tessieís chest and threatened to choke her. "You have feelings for this girl?"
"No, I really donít, not that kind."
"Thatís not entirely true is it, Robbie? I should have left you in the god-damn bath tub!" She walked out of the room and down the steps. It hurtÖa physical pain in her chest. She walked from room to room, finally picking up the broom from the fireplace set, she swept the hearth, knocking the black cinders back into the ashes. She sat down on the sofa trying to calm her emotions. She had no claim on him other that what she herself had placed. She loved him and wanted him for her own, but he wasnít hers. He was ill, he wasnít himself, the girl may have taken advantage of him in his present state. Maybe heíd always been this way. Josie wouldnít have talked about that if she knewÖif she had known.
Tessie hadnít realized she was crying until the tears dropped on the back of her hand. She didnít hear him come down the stairs in his sock-covered feet. Heíd gotten up and dressed after she left the bedroom. Feeling like a complete fool he went to find her.
"Go away! I donít want to see you right now."
"Iím not going anywhereÖI live here."
"Oh, well, maybe I should leave since I donít. Iíve taken too much upon myself, thinking I could care for you and help you out of your abyss, bring you back to the man I used to know."
"I donít think Iíll ever be that man again. Iíve hurt youÖIím sorry, Tess."
"Youíve scared me, RobbieÖwhen I saw you in that tubÖI thought," she took a deep breath. "But youíre not, of course, so I think Iíll go home." She stood up and moved to the end of the sofa and he caught her arm, turning her around.
"DonítÖdonít leave, Tess."
"I donít like to be used. I feel like Iíve been used here. You come running to me with your hurts and then go off toÖI have feelings, too, Robbie. I know I shouldnít haveÖI should neverÖ"
"Oh, Tess!" He pulled her to his chest, wrapping his arms around her. "I need you. I canít do this without you. I donít want to be like this the rest of my life. I want to be whole again, to be able to work again. I have feelings for you, too. I canít define them right now. Iím being honest with you. Please just give me some time. Itís only been a week since Iíve even talked to anybody. Iíve been in this house for months and months with only Milford. I swear the only place I ever went was to the grocery store until I found out they would deliver, and then I stopped going out at all."
Tessie listened to him with her face against his chest. Had it only been a week since she knocked on his door? "Robbie, Iím sorry. I think you need more help than I can give. You need a professional to talk to."
He pulled back from her. "I donít want to talk to a stranger, somebody who doesnít give a shit about me, doesnít know me, somebody I have to pay to listen to me. I want youÖyou can help me, Tess."
"If I do and you come out of it whole again, able to function and workÖwhat about me? What about what would be left of me? Thereís a danger here that you donít see, Robbie. I already love you. I want to help youÖyou deserve another chance at life. I donít want to be left in the hole you crawl out of. I donít want your grief transferred to me. Do you understand?"
"You shouldnít love me. I donít have anything to give right now. Iím empty. Iím asking you to take me on faith that I wonít hurt you."
"Itís a little late. Iím already loving you."
"Then fill me up with it, Tess, teach me how, show me how it's done. I need a guide. It's dark in here." His eyes were wet with unshed tears.
"Oh, Robbie, how can I not say yes?" Her arms went around his waist and she held him tightly against her.
They spent the next few days alternating from house to house. He seemed to sleep best on her day bed and she let him spend the nights there. He was affectionate but had not taken her to bed with him. Tess let him find his way.
"Iím volunteering for the next few weeks at the palace as a docent. Thatís where I was the night you tried to off yourself. So youíre going to be on your own from ten until four. Do you think thatís going to be a problem for you?" she asked over dinner Sunday evening.
"Iím sure I will be fine. Iíve got the library books we picked up."
"Iím serious, Robbie. You can come with me."
"No, Iíd just be in the way. I can come over here during the day if I want."
"It's short notice, but I may be able to get someone else to swap with me. I can do that."
"Tessie, Iíll be fine. I know where youíll be. I can come to you if I think I need to."
Robbie had gone home to feed Milford when his door bell rang. He looked at his clock. It was eleven thirty. Heíd completely forgotten about Melody and hadnít turned the ringer on.
"Hi, sorry, I forgot about you today."
"No problem. I started not to come after I couldnít reach you by phone, but here I am and I had an idea. How would you like to go to lunch with me?"
"Oh, I donít thinkÖ"
"I do! Get your coat! I promise to behave," she smiled.
He hesitated and backed away from the door, picking his coat up from the banister. Not a good idea, no not a good idea. He did, however, get in her car.
"I hope you like Italian. I mean real Italian cooking, not this restaurant stuff."
"Where are you taking me?" he asked
"Iím taking you to my grandmotherís house. She lives a little way out of New Bern in an old farm house by herself. I try to get out there at least once a week to see her, and eat, of course. She loves to cook and now thereís only herself to cook for. Are you surprised?"
"Yes, this is probably not a good idea, Melody."
"Yes, it is. Trust me, okay? Do you mind if I call you Robert?"
"Yes, I do. Iím called, Robbie."
"Robbie. I like that. What happened to your wrist?" She noticed it was taped.
"I cut itÖaccident."
"Iím reading your last book again, did I tell you?"
"No. I donít know. Why would you read it?"
"I wanted to see where you were two years ago. Thatís when you wrote it, right?"
"Yeah, mostly. I finished the rewrites last year."
"You have such talent, Robbie. You seduce with words."
"I donít think Iíve ever heard it put quite like that before."
"You do, but then you are a seducer, are you not?"
"Look, Iím sorry about last weekÖ"
"Iím not talking about last week. Oh no, just it's what and who you are. I saw that in the classroom. You seduce with words, with looks, with body language, with your eyes and your smiles."
"Ha, I must have seduced you?"
"Yes, you did. I was well and truly seduced. Still am. Youíve only to push the launch button and Iím yours. I know as much about you as I could find by research."
He looked out of the window. "Well, then you donít know me at all."
"You might be surprised. Here we are, grandmaís kitchen."
She led him in the back door of her grandmotherís house. A short, grayed, round woman came running from the pantry. "Ah, Melody, how good to see you! Oh, and you brought company?"
"Yes, Grandma, this is Robbie and heís hungry."
"Welcome, Robbie. Iím glad you come with Melody. Sit down, please. Everything is ready."
"Thank you," he said and pulled out a chair. A bowl of thick, rich vegetable bean soup was placed before him with a loaf of bread and butter.
"Now you finish all your soup and next is even better." She sat back and clapped her hands
"Arenít you eating?" he asked.
Melody smiled. "She will eat after weíre finished. Itís her way, Robbie. I say itís to see if we fall over from food poisoning first."
"Hah! You never be poisoned in this kitchen, no, no. You want more wine, Robbie? Itís good for you."
After the large and long meal Melody and Robbie left for New Bern.
"I feel like a fat dog. I just want to go to sleep," he said, leaning back against the seat, "Thank you, Melody, for taking me with you. Your grandmother is a fine lady and a great cook."
"I knew you would enjoy it. She makes you feel good, you know?"
"Yes, she does," he thought. Melody made him feel good, too.
"You have a choice to make, Robbie."
"Iím not good at choices right now, Melody. Donít make me."
She smiled at him. "I wonít make you but Iíll throw it out there. Will you come home with me for a little while?"
"OkayÖsee, no problem. I had to ask because I want you, but you know that."
"Yes, I do know that."
She pulled up in front of his house. "Iíll see you on Thursday."
"Em, about the tutoring. Iím not going to continue with that, not right now," he said.
"Who said anything about tutoring? You can tutor me lunch or whatever else might come up," she grinned. "Iíll pick you up and weíll figure it out, okay?"
Robbie got out of the car and waved her off. He felt good and smiled as her car went around the corner. For three hours he hadnít thought about anything except food, Melody, and her grandmother. Heíd almost thought he was normal until he walked back into his house. He felt it like a heavy, thick, sticky smothering thing and it enveloped him. He couldnít stay there and left for Tessieís den.
ON TO PART 5
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