Today's Reading

"All this because of a burn?" he asked her.

"And this." She showed him the patch of pale skin on the back of her hand.

Charlie removed his gloves. He brushed his thumb over the spot, sweeping down and along the thin scar hidden beneath her silver bracelet. Then he drew her finger closer to his face and examined the burn. "You didn't—er—burn yourself on purpose, did you?"

Mirielle yanked her hand away. "Of course not."

Silence yawned between them. Charlie picked up the paper, perused the front page, then flapped it open to the sports section. Mirielle didn't care which horse had won in the Excelsior or how the U.C.L.A. freshmen fared at the latest track competition. Her gaze drifted to the window instead. But the cloudless blue sky reminded her of summer. Of picnics on the beach and lawn parties and children splashing in the pool. Splashing until they didn't. She turned her attention back to the dingy room, crossing her arms over her chest to still the tremble.

"There's a leper here at the hospital," Charlie said some while later.

"A leper? That's ridiculous. People like that exist only in the cinema."

He tapped the paper and held it wide for her to see. WOMAN LEPER ADMITTED TO COUNTY GENERAL the headline read. "Says she's here until they can arrange transport to some leper home in Louisiana."

"Good God," Mirielle said. "Does it give a name?"

"A Mrs. Martin, I believe. Do we know any Martins?"

"No, I don't think—" She grabbed the paper from Charlie and scanned the article. Not Martin. Marvin. A Mrs. Pauline Marvin. Mirielle's entire body went cold. She dropped the paper. The pages fluttered apart, landing on her lap and across the floor. "Charlie, that's me."


CHAPTER THREE

They said their goodbyes at the hospital. Too risky for Charlie to be seen at the train station with her. The nurse secreted her down an empty stairway and out the back, snapping, "Don't touch anything," when Mirielle reached for the handrail. Outside, the early morning air was cold and pregnant with mist. Beneath the thin silk of her dress, Mirielle's skin prickled with gooseflesh. But at least she was out of that quarantine cell. Charlie waited in the alleyway beside his shiny roadster, the seat piled high with her wardrobe trunks and hatboxes, as if they were spiriting away on some delightful holiday.

It made the truth all the more bitter.

He kissed her quickly on the cheek, then shrank away, out of reach. It was the sort of distance her grandmother would have called chaste. But Mirielle wasn't some blushing debutante and he a bashful stag. They'd never been those things—blushing and bashful. When, in their ten years of marriage, had they come to stand so painfully far apart? She wanted to blame the disease—a disease she didn't have no matter what the doctors said—but she remembered months back sitting beside him in the front pew at the funeral. Their knees had brushed, a whisper of a touch, and she recoiled like he were a stranger. Maybe that had been the beginning.

She caught the scent of smoke carried on the heavy air and saw an orderly with his cigarette at the end of the alley watching them. Charlie saw him too and angled his hat down to obscure his face. The hospital and its ancillary buildings crowded around them, keeping them shadowed in the fledgling dawn. But soon, the sun would rise, revealing them to whoever looked out their window.

Charlie checked his watch and cleared his throat. They'd already worked out the details of her departure—what excuse he'd make to family and friends, where she might secretly send him letters, which of her hats and dresses and shoes she needed for the journey. What else was there to say?

"And the girls?" she asked at last. Part of her wished he'd brought them, despite the doctor's warning. She needn't touch them, only blow kisses and tell them goodbye. A final look to imprint their faces on her memory.

"They're with the nanny," he said, tugging on the cuff of his suit jacket and surreptitiously glancing at his watch again. "Evie misses you. Helen, too, I'm sure."

Hearing their names made every part of her ache. She hadn't nursed Helen in months, not since the accident, but even her nipples tingled with pain. Perhaps it was best he hadn't brought them. "Sure could use a drink."

Charlie frowned, but withdrew a flask from the inside pocket of his suit, handing it to Mirielle after a quick look around. Pigeons roosted on the eaves above them. Rats rustled in the nearby trash cans. The orderly smoked his cigarette. Otherwise they were alone. She unscrewed the cap and took a long pull. This was the good stuff, smuggled down from Canada, and the fire it lit in her empty stomach a welcome friend. Another sip and soon enough her pain would dull.

She handed the open flask back to Charlie. He brought it to his lips, but stopped short of drinking, replacing the cap and tucking it back into his pocket with an almost imperceptible wince.

"Good grief! I'm not sick. These doctors are buffoons."

"I know," he said, even as he wiped his gloves on his trousers. So much for being a great actor.
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