By Kim Mannix
There were ninety steps down to the river from this point. Ollie had counted last year, when the idea first struck to bring Norma here. He’d counted again yesterday when he came just before dawn. He knew it would be tricky at this time of year, with the skiff of snow and the skin of ice that formed on each stair. The city had sanded, but he was thankful for the rail, which he grabbed more than once with his gloved hand. Tomorrow, he wouldn’t have a free hand. He tested how difficult it was to walk with his body hugging the rail, negotiating each step by feel, in case he couldn’t see. He could do it.
The following morning, it was slightly warmer and, as he suspected, the lack of footprints, except for those made by either a coyote or stray dog, meant that they were alone.
Before they left the house, he dressed Norma in her best coat and a blue hat his mother had knitted for her four Christmases ago. Norma had said she liked it then, and Ollie had no reason to believe she’d changed her mind. He slid her feet into the Mukluks she used to wear around the house, noticing how the tread was worn smooth and stained a dark brown.
“Remember how you were worried these might be offensive to wear, hon?” he said to her, smiling. Not that he didn’t admire her concern. Norma really was a good person. He knew she was smiling inside, too.
As they proceeded down the snowy, wooded path, he chatted to her about his first winter in Canada, years before the two of them had met. His breath came out in plumes around his face, and it reminded him of smokestacks by the factories where he grew up. It was cold that winter too. A sharper cold than he’d ever experienced as a kid in Wisconsin. It was the kind of weather that shaped people into being kinder or crueler. Ollie thought he had met his share of both here, no matter what the stereotypes said about Canadians.
When they arrived at the staircase, he stopped and moved to the front of Norma’s chair. He knelt down and looked her right in the eyes. “It’s a special morning. This is a beautiful place, and that’s why I brought you here, hon. Listen to how quiet it is.” He stopped talking and just stared for a moment into her face. Though he hadn’t done so in months, he leaned forward and kissed her pink lips, still pillowy and soft.
“I do love you, Norma. You know that.”
He grabbed her under the arms and hoisted her out of the chair just as he’d been doing for the past three years every time he moved her from the bed to the bathroom, or from the couch to kitchen. He was always muscular, but had become even stronger since her accident. He thought how picking her up seemed no less effort now than carrying groceries from the car. No less physical effort.
He placed her arms around his neck and smelled the fruity shampoo in her hair as he carried her toward the stairs. He would throw away the rest of the bottle when he got home. Scents had always been the thing that brought back the strongest memories for him.
He hesitated, for a moment, at the top step, then looked at Norma’s face and started down slowly, but sure-footed. There was a small landing after every ten steps, and Ollie made it to the second one before stopping to catch his breath.
“Nice view from here, isn’t it Norma?” He could see the tallest buildings of the university across the river, their lights glowing in the semi-darkness of the winter dawn.
He started down again, humming a few bars of the song they’d heard in the car on the drive over. Classic rock, they called it, though Ollie was sure it had only come out a few years ago. It was true what they said about time moving faster once you got older. Ollie wondered how different time might feel without Norma. Maybe slower and sadder, at first. But then quicker, like a blast of cold wind. Refreshing, even as it stung.
“It’s all going to be ok,” he said.
He felt the heat of Norma’s body through his own coat. He made a note to remember the feeling. Holding her. Tight. Warm. Like that night in the cabin on their first anniversary. He decided this was true and real, no matter what.
Ollie could see the last few steps now and the small break in the trees and weeds that led to the river’s edge. He looked around to be sure no one was in sight. In the summer, people often fished here or brought their dogs to swim. He hadn’t seen any signs of tents or homeless people yesterday, but it would be just his luck to have someone turn up now.
He walked toward the bank of the river, not frozen over in this part, but with the water still like glass. His arms ached a little from Norma’s weight, and he was shaking, probably only from the cold. He whispered it again. “I really do love you.” He knew she’d whisper back if she could.
There was a shriek from above, a hawk maybe, and he felt the whoosh as something swooped close to his head. “What the—” he started to say, looking up. The quick movement caused him to lose his balance. He stumbled in the snow, his left foot hitting an icy patch at the drop off into the river. The very place he had stood yesterday, planning. He tried to let go. Tried to send her in alone. But as he fell forward, time moving in some strange, slow-motion way, he was sure he felt Norma grip his neck, pulling him with her into the frigid water.