John poured another cup of coffee, and took a sip, knowing it was too hot. Looking out his kitchen window, he saw Peggy’s car coming into the driveway. Moments later, she walked into the kitchen, smiling broadly, as always. “The changing of the guard!” she laughed, toasting his coffee mug with her own take-out container. “How’s our girl?” she asked. “No change”, he said. As always. The woman in the spare bedroom was a constant presence, despite her silence.
“When did she live here?”
“Back in the 50s, I think. Moved away as a girl, never been back.”
“I imagine she’s in for a surprise”, Peggy chuckled.
“Or a disappointment,” John winked. “North Platte is good at that.”
“Well, hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go”, he singsonged as he rinsed out his cup. “Call me if there’s any change”.
There never is, Peggy thought. “Sure thing.”
After he left, Peggy looked in at Mary. After all these years, she had the complexion of a young girl. Of course, she seldom went outside, and to get wrinkles you needed to laugh and frown, and Mary didn't do either. She moved her limbs a bit, mostly in her sleep, and sometimes even opened her eyes and looked around. She appeared to see and hear, but Peggy couldn't remember a time when she responded. Living but not alive. Here yet not here. There had been once friends who stopped by and visited, but most had moved away or passed on long ago. Now there were just the three of them. John, Peggy, and Mary. The strangest triangle ever.
There was a time when everyone expected John and Peggy to be a couple, and get married, but they both knew that was off the table. John and Mary had been schoolyard sweethearts. The entire town, who knew him as a confirmed bachelor, assumed he was being faithful to his third-grade love. Peggy, two years younger, had been Mary’s very best friend from the day she moved into the little white stucco bungalow across the street. They’d slept over at each other’s houses, walked to school together, and played every childhood game from cowboys and Indians to jacks. When Mary finally woke up, Peggy would be her memory, filling in any blank spaces after the accident. What else are best friends for? So she came over to spend half the day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, for all these years, to wait for the moment when Mary opened her eyes, saw her face, and smiled in recognition. Between that and her shift at the diner, what time was there for a social life, much less dating? Maybe in high school, when Mary had been in a nursing home, but even then she spent so much time at her bedside that all the boys were scared off, and looked elsewhere.
Besides, it wasn’t so bad. Her shift ended at midnight, and John didn’t have to go to work until ten in the morning, which gave her eight hours of sleep. When he got home at five, she’d change into her uniform right there and head to work. Weekends were easier; John was there the whole time, and she only needed to be available if he had to go out of town or got sick, both rare occasions. They’d stopped going to church years ago; God wasn't listening to them, anyway, and there was more fellowship in that little house with Mary than in any church. So what if the rest of town considered them loners and oddballs? Every town needed a few eccentrics, and she and John were happy to oblige.
Settling into the recliner next to Mary’s bed, Peggy opened her book and began to read aloud. Mary had loved books, and some of their best times had been when they’d make a tent out of sofa cushions and sheets on rainy days and Mary would read to her. Mary was two grades ahead of Peggy and a good reader. Her face was expressive she could do all the different characters’ voices, even Pa in the Little House books.
Today she was well into Little Town on the Prairie, and she lowered her voice just enough to summon the calm gentleness of Ma Ingalls:
"This earthly life is a battle,' said Ma. 'If it isn't one thing to contend with, it's another. It always has been so, and it always will be. The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and more thankful for your pleasures."
“Ain’t that the truth”, Peggy chuckled ruefully, looking at Mary’s placid face.