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Romance Drama Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

A brief warning: this story deals with themes around neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. An illness is not named, but I know these diseases affect many families across the world, so please don’t force yourself to read this if you may find the topic triggering in any way.

Alice peered over the rail, swaying to the tune on the wind.  “Fancy a dance, love?”

Her husband Arley, with his hands stuck in his pockets, shrugged.  “Sorry hon, my two left feet couldn’t hope to keep up with this.”

She sighed, leaning against the rail.  Her eyes trailed the violet waters, sunset overtaking the expected, murky brown of the grand river.  The jazz music grew louder as a steamboat approached.  The great white attraction glowed in the dusk, bright bulbs strewn across its bow and wrapping around its body.  

Tiny specks of people danced along its boards, couples or friends or whatever else grabbing one another to twist and turn to the music.  Trumpets, horns, saxophones, and drums poured out their notes in a harmony that took hold of each person, pulling them into the swaying rhythm of the crowd.

The walkway behind Alice and Arley hosted the wind alone.  Alice shivered, eyes glued to the boat.  “Come now, one little dance?”  She looked up at the silver haired man with a schoolgirl’s grin, one that promised fun and mischief.  “You know I love these tunes.”

The music reminded her of the night they met a lifetime ago, when her hair was black instead of gray and she couldn’t feel an approaching storm in her left knee.  A time when he was a shy teenage boy all but forced to ask her to dance by his friends.  A night that forever changed her world.

Alice hummed the song.  Her fingers thrummed against the cold metal beneath them.  

Arley took one hand out of his pocket to cover her hand, stilling the beat.  “It’s cold,” he said.  “Your hands are ice.  Care for my jacket?”

She nodded.  A moment later, leather warmed by his body wrapped over her shoulders.  She clutched it close, resting a hand on his shoulder.  “One little dance, please?”

He shook his head.  “That knee’s been acting up again.”

“That knee” was the least of his worries.  Alice knew this, cursing the easy excuse.

The boat continued its lazy path through the water, the large propellers plodding through the waves.  It moved at a different rate than the music, which Alice felt was quite rude of the thing.  It had a perfectly wonderful band to match tempo with and chose to resist.  She thought only one person made an off-tempo dance a charming thing, and he was currently refusing to dance with her.

Of course, she knew it was illogical to blame the propeller.  It was the pilot’s fault for setting a speed so the boat traveled at the right pace for the journey.  The people on this boat signed up for only a short time aboard, a few hours drifting over the waves without a care, and they needed to reach the dock at exactly the expected hour.  No time to slow down for dancing.  No time to speed up so the boat matched the music.  No time outside the time set for the ride.

Alice saw more and more of the propeller as the boat continued down the river.  The roaring music began to fade.  

“Love, it’s leaving!”  She huffed, standing tall.

“It has to reach its port,” Arley said.  “It was a pretty sight though.”

“It’s taking our music with it.”  She turned, reaching to take his hand.  Her fingers intertwined with his, and she pulled him close. “Please, love, I want to dance with you.”

Arley smiled, bringing her hand to his lips to plant a gentle kiss.  “Maybe later.  When we get home, I’ll put on an old record.”

They weren’t going home.

Alice fought the urge to scream, to beg, to throw a childish fit for this dance.  He didn’t get it though.  He couldn’t get it.  They only had this one chance, and she wouldn’t let it pass by.

Instead, she reached her hand to his face, pulling him down for a soft kiss.  She lingered there, her hand moving to the back of his head to stroke his hair.  “Arley, I want to dance with you.  Our music’s leaving us behind.”

“We can always play another song,” he said, kissing her again.

“No we can’t.  Arley, the music’s fading.”

“You know I was never much of a dancer anyways.  Not in public.  What’s gotten into you?”

Hot tears pooled in her eyes, but she forced them back.  “I want to dance.”

“Then why not dance?  You’re a wonderful dancer, hon.  Don’t let me hold you back.”

“You’ve never held me back.”  She wrapped her arms around him.  “I’m only my best at dancing when I have you there beside me.”

“I’m here with you; I just don’t feel like dancing.”

A distant cheer sounded from the boat.  The couple looked toward the commotion, the scene hidden by the back of the boat.  Was it a birthday?  A proposal?  Alice would never know.

Arley smiled.  “They seem to be having fun.”

“Until the boat docks and the music ends.”  Alice spared one final, pleading look.  “But they have the rest of the ride to dance, love.  We only have this short time.”

He sighed.  “Alright, one dance.”

Glee pulled Alice’s lips into a bright smile.  Arley took her hands, leading her into a dance well off beat from the fading jazz.  He held her close, the two swaying to a tune not present.  Alice closed her eyes, letting the music and her husband’s clumsy lead and the steps of the dance take her back to a time when she didn’t need to beg for a dance.  Back when she didn’t need to sneak her husband away for a chance to be together.  Back when he didn’t have a little white bracelet snapped around his wrist.

They danced on that empty sidewalk long after the steamboat disappeared down the river.  Alice smiled and giggled like a newlywed, Arley caught up in the same affliction.  His smile made Alice’s grow.  It was the same smile that shy teenage boy had when she first danced with him.  The same smile when he proposed with his grandmother’s ring.  The same smile she had been fighting to find again since his illness got worse.  The smile of the man she loved.

“Mom, there you are!”

The dancing stopped.  

Alice slowly turned to a man wearing a frantic frown, his breath coming in huffs as he bends over.  “I’ve been looking everywhere for you two.  Mom, I told you: you can’t just wander off with him!”

Arley’s brows furrowed.  “Alice, do you know this young man?”

“Young” wasn’t exactly the right descriptor for the man — the crowd feet by his eyes and salt outweighing pepper in his hair color put him far from most people’s description of young.  But to these two, it was accurate.  In Alice’s eyes, he would forever be a child.  But now, in Arley’s…

A familiar stab ripped at Alice’s heart.  

She let out a shaking breath and smiled at her husband.  “That’s your son, love.  It’s Barley.”

Arley’s nose scrunched.  “There’s no way I’d name a child Barley.  Who’d just tack a ‘b’ onto their name and call it a day?  ‘Arley Junior’ would be better, don’t you think?”

That’s exactly what I said when you proposed the name, Alice thought.  She only agreed to it because it was the least horrible name he came up with and she had no idea what name to give a boy.  It only took well over forty-five years — all nearly forgotten — for Arley to see sense.

Barley scowled at her.  “Mom, come on, the nurse has been worried sick looking for him!”

“Just… just one more dance,” she pleaded, looking up to her husband.  “Please, love.”  Please come back to us.

But the smiling, familiar Arley of a moment ago was gone.  The old man standing there wore a face wrinkled with confusion.  His hand slipped from her grasp, and he stumbled back.  He crashed against the rail with a wince.

Barley rushed to him.  “Dad, here let me—“

“Hands off!” The man bellowed.  He leaned up, grasping the rail.  “Who are you?”  His wide eyes landed on Alice, and he frowned.  “You… Alice dear, what happened to you?  When did you get so…”

“Old?” She offered with a weak laugh.  “Years and years ago, love.  Years and years ago.”

He covered his face, a sound of anguish wracking his form.  Alice wanted to rush to his side to comfort him, but it was no use in times like this.  Her window for reaching him had closed.  The music had faded, and the dance was done.

Instead, she slowly walked toward him and offered a hand.  “Love, come with me.  This young man and I can take you home.  We’ll put on a record.”

After a moment, Arley nodded.  “I’d like that.”

She gently took his hand, then fit his jacked back over his shoulders.  Barley kept his distance, his face hollow once again.  Alice took his hand as well, squeezing it reassuringly.

“Mom, you can’t keep this up,” Barley whispered as they walked back to the care facility.  “We barely got him cleared for a family outing.  If you keep stealing him away like this, they’ll keep him locked up in there forever.”

She nodded.  In the past, she had clever retorts or carefully planned excuses.  Today though, she was out of such scripts.  She simply accepted the blame and let silence overtake their walk.

When she inevitably handed her husband off to the nurses, the painful confusion returned to his face.  He looked to her, questioning where they were and who these people were and why she was turning to leave with the young man from earlier.  Alice tried to explain, but it was pointless whenever he was in this state.  He pleaded and struggled toward her, pushing through nurses despite his feeble form trembling through the effort.

He gripped her hand, two nurses pulling him away.  “Please hon, I want to go home and dance with you.”

She glared at the nurses tugging at him, the stare enough to scold anyone into behaving.  The nurses complied, releasing the man.  

“Arley, I’d love to,” she said, looking into his scared eyes.  “But I can’t make it tonight.  How about…”

She thought for a longer moment than she thought would be necessary.  Barley, who sat in the driver seat of the car without facing his father, cleared his throat.  The nurses crowded at the door of the shining facility, the lovely building filled with artworks yet devoid of the warmth their home held.  An impatient breeze nipped at her bones, as though it was trying to force her into the car.

She closed her eyes, focusing on the dying music from their dance.  “Let’s plan a date,” she finally said, smiling up at him.  “I’ll get the tickets for the riverboat, and you’ll dig out that tux.  We’ll go dancing on the river all night.”

Her husband’s smile returned.  “Like the night I proposed?”

“Yes, exactly,” she said, relief washing over her.  It was a tricky memory to get out of him, and a good sign the storm had passed.  For now, at least, he was once again the Arley she knew.  “You know jazz is my favorite.”

“Of course.  That’s the first thing I ever learned about you.  Remember, when I asked you to dance, you leaped at the chance because you were just waiting for a partner.”

She laughed, cupping his face with her hands.  “Yes, exactly.  I was waiting for you to give me a chance to jump in and really enjoy the music.  You… you’re so bad at following the beat of a band, but you set my favorite tempo.”

Here he laughed a laugh Alice hadn’t heard in some time.  Even Barley turned toward it, a hesitant smile on his face.

Arley looked toward his son.  “You fancy dancing, young man?”

“You could say so,” Barley said.  “My parents taught me how, and I dabble every now and then.”

“Enjoy it as much as you can,” Arley said,  he pulled Alice close, his hands resting on her hips as though they were at the center of a dance floor and the band was playing something slow.  “When you get old, dancing hurts your everything, but it also makes everything feel a bit better if you have the right partner.”

“And you’re always the right partner for me,” Alice said, placing a kiss on his cheek.  She pat his chest, grinning like the girl he asked to dance a lifetime ago.  “Next Wednesday, the 5:00 boat.  I’ll be wearing a red dress, and I’ll expect you in a suit.”

He laughed again, pulling her face forward to kiss her.  “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Alice glanced toward the nurses to make sure they heard.  “I’ll be here to pick you up then.”  The nurses nodded back to her, confirming the apparent appointment.  She looked back up to Arley.  “Don’t forget your dancing shoes.”

February 21, 2024 20:04

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1 comment

Mack Crotwell
15:04 Feb 29, 2024

Despite the somber aspect of his illness, this story was still cute. The small moments they share together were so sweet and loving. I really felt the love between them. Awesome job!


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