All Stories, General Fiction

Penance by Mary J Breen

Every morning he takes a Post-It, records exactly what she’s wearing, and sticks it on his desk phone. Today it’s “red blouse, green pants, purple sweater.” This way he can tell the police if he has to.

Escaping is her greatest pleasure. That and colours. He got her a bunch of paint chips from Home Depot, mostly reds and yellows, and she spends hours sitting on the couch looking at them, touching them, smelling them, licking them even.

She can’t remember his name or the names of their children, never mind the grandchildren. She doesn’t know how to make toast or what a toothbrush is, but yesterday she managed to open the front door lock, undo the safety chain and go, all in the ten minutes it took him to sweep the snow off the deck and fill the birdfeeders. She always heads for the mall, but this time she headed right for the far edges of the park. The police found her sitting on a fallen log. Good thing he could tell them to look for a grey-haired woman in a fluorescent yellow track suit. No coat and 20 below.

He can’t help but wonder if she’s always wanted to escape, to be somewhere else, anywhere else. He’s always known she would never have agreed to marry him had she not been pregnant—not when they were so young. Maybe the truth of her life is finally becoming clear, emerging like an image in a photographer’s bath. He listens to the gerontologist’s assurances that “wandering is a common facet of the syndrome” but it still seems like he’s finally seeing her long-buried resolve to get away. And never look back.

Of course, he can’t ask her. She has no more words. She doesn’t even yell anymore. She just stares at him, baffled as she studies his face. Perhaps she thinks they hire a new waiter for each meal. Perhaps the latest one frightened her and that’s why she knocked the supper tray out of his hand last night, the crashing glass and dishes shattering the silence and making her cry as the milk soaked into her orange track pants. He helped her get changed, threw out the chili and the broken bone china, and gave her his helping, piled in a little plastic bowl. She ate it all up, as quietly as a nun.

Then he took out an old photo album, hoping for a glimmer of something, anything to bring her back into her life. The only picture she reacted to was taken years ago at a family party. This thrilled him until, when he started naming everyone—“Caroline, Bill, Bill’s wife Julie…”—she started to growl and slammed the book shut. Surely, she’d never known about him and Julie way back then?

Tomorrow he’s going to see about an alarm system. The gerontologist said it was time. Either that or call Riverview Nursing Home. And he can’t. Not yet. It would be one betrayal too many.


Mary J Breen

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10 thoughts on “Penance by Mary J Breen”

  1. I just loved the conscience in this story which could only become more guilt that would eat away at him.
    Your two stories are poignant, perceptive and recognisable.
    All the very best.


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