Grass tips were poking him but he stayed still, lying on his back and his half-empty bag substituting a pillow. It had been a while since he had a good rest, but that was just him being dramatic. The sun was sharp, and moistness was covering him. He was sweating but didn’t budge once.
“Hey!” a voice roared. He finally opened his eyes to look at the intruder. It was a female.
For a second, neither of them said anything and locked in an undeclared staring contest. Her hand was raised to her forehead, but the sunlight still made her cower. He willingly let it attack by lying in its path.
“Do you mind moving to a less obvious location? I would like this spot.”
“Sorry” he mumbled, “I do mind.”
She grouched and confessed she needed the spot for a painting. He smirked, thinking she could have chosen any number of spots but chose to interfere with his little siesta.
Only after a few more minutes of arguing, he finally got up. She stepped back, noticing a flash of red anger on his face. But he simply brushed himself clean, picked up his bag, and strode off. He looked back once to see her set up her board and paints in the spot where he was lying. Her hand was outstretched mapping outlines of their college building, which looked like a Victorian estate from afar.
He didn’t leave but watched from a safe spot as she brushed her magic onto a sheet. He could see she was humming something.
Later that day, he would ask her and she told him it was a song. It inspired the painting she was making. They listened to it together that evening.
“The song doesn’t suit you,” he told her at the end.
“I know” she smiled.
He breathed, releasing a trail of warm air. Winter was not yet done visiting outside, so the breath felt nice. Lying so close, she felt it immediately.
“You can’t sleep either?” she asked.
He jerked his head from the pillow, “You were awake?”
She quietly turned. The lights were out but he knew she was smiling at him.
He fell back onto the bed. Outside, the street lights were cutting through the darkness of the night. No breeze, just a still atmosphere. Someone cried out. Another voice joined and then another, until together, they sounded like a mournful choir.
“Where is that sound coming from?” he asked.
“The cats. They often make such noises around this time.”
“They sound almost like little children. Are you sure they’re cats?”
“I’m sure” she almost giggled. Her head was still resting on the pillow but her eyes were wide open.
“You know everything”
“I wish” she sighed.
He finally got up. After seconds of more pondering, he walked to the door and the lights came alive. She pinched her eyes shut and winced. This made him smirk even more. He remembered the first time he saw the sunlight kissing her. He considered going back in and lying next to her, but she was starting to pull herself up and arch against the back wall.
“The roses are wilting” she motioned.
That’s when he saw them. A slender, glass vase was cradling three red roses in mossy water near the window across the room.
He chuckled, “They look just like the ones your sister gave you after the wedding.”
“You remember those?”
“You don’t give me enough credit.”
She gave him a ‘try me’ expression. She got out of bed and walked to the roses as he watched her. The roses were wilting, and would eventually be reduced to nothing but blackened shreds. But if she changed the water, they might last longer.
So she delicately carried them to the washroom and removed them from the water. She was smiling during the process because he was watching her.
She had asked him a number of times why he kept staring at her in silence. He said it was a hobby, which had now become a habit. The first time he did it, she told him flatly that she was not comfortable with being stared at for so long. He promised her he wouldn’t make it as less creepy as possible.
Another time, she told him that his staring could be complemented with some background music. It would be our own movie scene, she joked. His reply was a few presses on his phone and the song poured out. She giggled then.
There was no one around now, and it was dead of the night. Even the cats were beginning to cease their cries. He treaded to his bedside table and picked up his phone. Eight seconds later, a familiar tune encircled the room.
“Better right?” he asked.
She nodded and smiled without looking at him. It was a frequent gesture but certainly not a mundane one. It was her favorite, but it had been so long since she listened to it with breathing space. She closed her eyes and began humming to it, remembering the rumination in which she made the painting. Returning to the room, she released the roses and the vase back onto the side table. He saw her giggle.
“What was that?” he asked.
“I was wishing it would rain. Then it would be just like the story” she replied.
“The story in the song. It’s set during a single, rainy night in a majestic castle.”
It rang a bell. He turned to the painting hanging above their bed. She had introduced him to it after he asked her why she painted their college so wistfully.
“Do you remember the story?”
“Of the song? No.”
“It’s a dark love story. The Prince arrives at the castle looking for a treasure. But finds that the castle is largely empty save for a few sleeping guards, and a sleeping queen.”
He chuckled, “It sounds like Sleeping Beauty.”
“As I was saying” she announced, “When the Prince comes close he discovers that the inhabitants are not asleep but are all dead. He enters a large chamber where he sees the Princess, awake and standing, and her gown is covered with blood. She claims she killed everyone.”
The story is more vivid now. He remembered the end but wants to listen to her tell it.
“She says the Queen banished her to the tower because the Princess is cursed. The Queen believed that the Princess would be the death of everyone in the castle unless she is locked away for a hundred years. The Princess was stubborn and escaped the tower. And because she did, everyone is now dead.”
She stopped for a second. She sometimes did that, to make sure the listeners were doing their job. There was only one listener here though, and he did his task better than anyone she knew.
“But the Prince didn’t believe in curses” he continued for her.
She smiled, “No he didn’t. And he was attracted to the beautiful Princess. She refused him, but he proposed a challenge: If she was cursed, the Prince ought to die too, for he had chosen to remain in the castle with her. If they survived the night, the Princess promised, she would give in and marry the Prince. ‘But what if you don’t survive?’ she cried to him.”
She paused for a second again there, but just to catch her breath.
“Did he?” he asked.
She looked up at him, with a blank stare.
“Did he survive the night?”
She giggled. “Don’t tell me you forgot the ending?!”
“I’m waiting for you to tell me” He sighed.
“Hmmm,” she said to herself and cheekily smiled at him.
He smirked; once, she had once told him that this expression of his had made her heart race. He was amazed she had the guts to admit it.
“You’ve forgotten the ending yourself haven’t you?”
“I know the ending!” she sparred, “It’s called a dramatic pause.”
He lunged at her, but she had stepped back, laughing, and evaded him. He caught her from behind and pulled her to his chest.
“Did he?” a voice whispered.
He jolted up and turned to see the nurse behind the half-open door. The same nurse who checked in two hours ago. He wondered how long the latter had been standing there.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “I heard whispers when I was passing. You were telling a story and I couldn’t help but…”
The nurse was shuddering. He smiled, hoping that would silently calm the nurse. He noticed then how young the nurse was. The latter looked as though he was still in college, maybe even younger.
“It's fine” he released a chuckle, “I was just retelling one of her favorite stories.”
He turned. Now, his back was to the nurse and absently flicked over the pages of the book in his hand. The nurse wasn’t sure whether this was an invitation or not, and was suddenly reminded of the shift he was still on for the rest of the night.
He thought he heard the nurse take a mute step back. “You can come in. I’m just about to finish the story.”
The nurse sighed with a grin. He strode in and carefully shut the door. A warm breeze filled him; he felt gushed to be invited into the man’s vigil.
He continued, “So the Prince slept in the castle. In a bed chamber that was next to the Princess's. She didn’t sleep all night, for fear that she would have killed another innocent with her curse. And a stranger, no less! Every hour or so, she would steal outside into the corridor and peek inside his room, just to see if he was breathing or not. The third time she went out of her room to see him, she noticed something shadowy looming by his chamber’s door. The Princess froze. She saw a shadow enter the Prince’s room. She let out a scream. It came for her instead and lunged at her throat, to silence her.
But the Prince struck at the shadow from behind. There was only darkness in the castle, but a sudden burst of lightning outside revealed the shadow’s face: he was one of the guards of the castle. The Princess knew him; he was the one who helped her escape the tower in the first place.”
He turned once to see the nurse’s face. The nurse was staring intently, hearing every word that dropped.
“Was it the guard who killed everyone?!” the nurse exclaimed.
He nodded with a gentle smile. “The Guard was in love with the Princess herself. But her heart was too wild. She wanted to leave the castle, but he wanted to keep her to himself. He freed her from the tower but killed everyone to make the curse real. It would frighten her into staying.”
Both, he and the nurse released a sigh.
“He intended to kill the Prince too, in his sleep. But the Princess’s constant surveillance of the Prince foiled his plans. However, the Prince was never asleep. The Prince only pretended to be in slumber through the night. He had already heard someone prancing by his door long before the Princess screamed.”
A victorious grin appeared on the nurse’s face.
“He and the Prince engaged in rough combat. The guard easily overpowered the Prince. In a final move, the guard had the Prince’s own sword at the latter’s throat. But behind him, the Princess threw a vase at his head. He turned around dazed by the attack. Before he could respond, the Princess darted at him. With one powerful shove and pain in her eyes, she pushed him out of a glass window from where he fell to his death in the rainy night.”
He stopped. She would have stopped here too if she were telling the story.
The nurse was a novice, but he picked up the hint and said “She did it because he killed her family right?”
The lines on the sides of his bearded face became deeper. “The next morning, she left with the Prince, never to come back to the castle.”
The nurse inhaled and smiled. Neither of them spoke for a while, and the essence of the tale continued to dance around them. The only sound that now echoed in the room was the beeping of two monitors.
“Can I ask you something?” the nurse said.
When he nodded, the nurse asked, “At the beginning of the story you mentioned that the Prince first came to the castle looking for a treasure. What was it?”
He jerked his head up. He turned to the nurse once but rolled his eyes upwards for a scan of his own mind.
“That’s weird” he mused, “I never thought of it myself, and she never mentioned it either.” He was gesturing to her, as she lay calmly on the bed. Both of them chuckled at one another.
“It’s okay. The story’s perfect as it is” the nurse said.
“Hmm” but he was not done pondering, “Two options: Either there was a treasure in the castle he had heard of and it turned out to be just fictional or he forgot about it because he found something more priceless than a treasure.”
The nurse smirked, “The Princess?” and he grinned in agreement.
“A delusional and naïve Princess?” the nurse joked.
“Hey, she saved his life didn’t she?!”
For the next few minutes, both their laughter lightened the room. The synchronized beeping of the monitors had been demoted to the background. It was the first moment in a long time that he had had a good laugh.
When he sighed at the end, an ache was lurching in his stomach. He smiled and looked at her; maybe it was just his imagination but he thought he saw her lips curl upwards. The nurse noticed this exchange and knew it was time to leave the man to his vigil.
“I should be getting back now,” the nurse said.
“Oh, no problem! Sorry I kept you this long.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about! In fact, I ought to thank you.”
With that and a chuckle that didn’t cease to leave either of their faces, the nurse walked out of the room. He waved him goodbye but didn’t look back. When the latch released a gentle click, he knew the door had been shut. He was alone again; alone with her.
He looked at her pale face more closely; the lines on her face were deepening. Her white hair combed neatly upwards. Her eyelids still firmly shut, as though they were suppressing more secrets. He moved closer to see if she was smiling underneath the translucent oxygen mask or was dreaming again. He sighed and nestled back. The memory of the last smile she gave him slipped into his mind.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered, “The nurse loved the story. And I told it the exact same way you always did, complete with your favorite ‘dramatic pauses’ ”
Now, he moved closer. He pulled the chair along with him and perched next to her chest. It wasn’t moving but he knew that something alive was still in there.
“You were right. The story doesn’t suit us all.”
The windows shuddered. A breeze was looming outside. There were clouds circling above, but they had no intention of letting out the rain. No, they only sent the wind to sing as loudly as it wanted.
The beeping continued. It was beginning to compete with his words for dominance.
“You know, sometimes I wish it were true. I wish I was the Prince who got everything he wanted in a single night: my treasure, my victory, and my Princess. That would be ideal wouldn’t it?”
His hand moved towards her. His fingers stroked her cheek. She was still so soft.
“But don’t worry. I’m not tired yet. I’m going to be better than some treasure-hunting Prince. I’ll fight every day. I’ll wait every night for this curse to lift.” His eyes momentarily lurched at the tubes and wires surrounding her body.
His hand now descended to her open hand in front of him. He pressed his palm into it, interweaving his fingers with hers. He was another wire, another connection hankering to keep her alive.
He closed his eyes shut and rested his head on the sheet next to her hand. Her two fingers bent and patted his knuckle. He felt them and smiled before he dozed off into a siesta.