The Riverview Restaurant was on the first floor of an 1880s Victorian House that was the cornerstone of the town of Wild Rose, Wisconsin. The upper two floors had six quaint rooms designed for guests who wanted the peace and quiet of a time and era long past; no televisions or phones or wifi. Conversation and board games were strongly encouraged. So was reading.
The house was painted soft yellow, had coral trim and sat on a hill across the street from the Mississippi River. For fifty years it had drawn dinner guests and couples on getaways from all over the upper Midwest. Its motto “Come for the food, stay for the beauty” was their hallmark catch phase.
It was a quiet Thursday in early October when Marge Lange, longtime hostess at the restaurant, glanced up when a couple came in through the front door. The lady hung up her jacket while Marge smiled a distracted smile and went back to her dinner reservation list. Wait a minute. She looked again and unconsciously brought her hand to her throat. Oh, my, god, she thought to herself. Those poor people.
She’d seen a lot in her thirty-five years in the hospitality business, but never anything like what just walked in. He was nicely dressed in a dark brown suit which was fine. Most guests did dress up. But his body, his poor body, was twisted like a corkscrew. It was so bad, he used two canes to walk, if that’s what you could call his shambling gait, tossing one leg and then the other forward. It was a marvel he didn’t kick anything over. His face had ragged scars that his sparse beard couldn’t hide. Yuck. Then she noticed his eyes. His eyes, though, were clear and lively, intelligent looking, almost gleaming, like he knew what she was thinking. She blinked and tried to put neutral thoughts into her mind. And failed.
Embarrassed by her response to the man, Marge quickly looked at his companion and immediately wished she hadn’t. Oh, lord! She had to stop herself from gagging. Where he was obviously some sort of a cripple, the lady with him was just plain ugly. A rail thin, skinny woman, a head taller than him, she was completely devoid of any shape or figure at all. She wore an obvious wig, cut short and the color of a sun-faded pumpkin, and a shimmering dark blue dress that hung limp on her featureless body. The definition of a broomstick came to mind, and Marge almost laughed out loud. But didn’t because her eyes were locked on a hideous purple birthmark that covered the entire left side of the woman’s face extending down from her hair line and encompassing her nose and mouth all the way to her neck before disappearing beneath the collar of her dress.
Marge coughed into her fist to cover her discomfort. She had never seen people like them before in her life, let along two of them together. I wonder if they’re from a circus freak show? she thought to herself. But as far as she knew, most of the traveling circuses in the region had headed south after Labor Day which had been a month ago.
No matter how disturbing they looked, though, a paying customer was a paying customer. She mentally pinched herself to get focused and pasted on a smile, “Hi. Welcome to The Riverview. How may I help you?”
The man smiled a ghastly (in Marge’s mind) smile and said, “Good evening. I believe you have reservations for my wife and I.” He set his canes aside and took his companion’s hand. “Dinner at 5:30 if I’m not mistaken,” he added, glancing at an expensive looking wrist watch. “I’m Bryce, by the way, and this lovely lady is Abigail. I call her Abby.”
Abby extended her hand, “Pleased to meet you.”
Not one to enjoy touching people, let alone freaks, Marge made herself briefly shake hands. Nice to meet you, too.” She checked her sheet. Yep. There they were. Mr. and Mrs. Mason. “I’ve got you right here,” Marge added, nodded to Bryce and Abby. “Right this way. I’ve got you at our best table. It’s overlooking the river, just like you requested.”
“Great,” Bryce said, picking up his canes and indicating with one of them. Lead the way.”
Once at their table, Bryce held the chair for Abby. then sat down himself, leaning his canes against the wall. Both of them looked out the large window. “This is wonderful,” Abby exclaimed to Marge, “Thank you.”
Somewhat surprised that the woman’s comment, Marge responded, “Well, that’s quite all right. I’m glad you like it.” She looked out the window. Not fifty yards away, a pair of bald eagles were soaring over the river. Trees on both the near and far shore were turning red, yellow and orange with their fall colors, and the setting sun was casting long shadows across the water. Marge had to admit it really was quite lovely.
“Your waitperson will be with you shortly,” she told them, turning to leave.
“Thank you,” Bryce said, pulling his gaze away from the view of the river and smiling at her. “We’ll be right here,” he joked.
Marge nodded in acknowledgment, then left them to themselves, thinking, what a strange looking but surprisingly nice couple.
A minute later, their waitperson, who introduced himself as Ronny, came by and filled their water glasses, recited the evening specials and gave them each a menu. He was a stocky man in his mid-twenties who had short cropped hair, a trimmed beard and an engaging smile. “I’ll be back shortly for your order,” he said with a grin, not put off at all by their appearance. “Or would you rather take your time?”
“I’m in no hurry,” Bryce said.
“Me neither,” added Abby.
“Sounds good.” Ronny looked around the empty dining room. Just give me a wave when you’re ready, okay?”
“Will do. Bryce grinned.
As Ronny walked away, Abby took Bryce’s knarled hand. The car accident that had killed his parents when he was only three years old had crushed his back and left him badly crippled. His hands had been badly broken as well, but a lifetime of operations and therapy had brought them back so they were nearly one-hundred percent useful. She looked him in the eyes. “This is just perfect. I’ve always wanted to take a getaway like this and you’re making it happened.”
Bryce smiled. “It’s my pleasure, sweetheart. But we deserve it. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary, our silver anniversary, and we owe ourselves something special.”
She leaned across the table and kissed him longingly on the lips, then sat back. “I actually am pretty hungry.” She smiled coyly at him. “In more ways than one.”
Bryce laughed and stroked her face, the left side where the birthmark was. “Me, too.”
They ordered dinner and ate slowly, savoring every bite. Bryce had grilled salmon glazed with mustard sauce, and Abby opted for broiled rainbow trout garnished with a tasty dill sauce. While they ate, a few more guests entered the dining room. Marge sat them away from The Freaks as she thought of Bryce and Abby. They both noticed her reticence toward them, but it was no big deal. They were used to it. Besides, they were here for each other, not for other people.
“So,” Bryce said, smiling and savoring his salmon. “Twenty-five years for us. Quite the ride. Here we are forty-seven years old.”
Abby set down her folk, took a sip of water, dapped her lips with her napkin and reached for his hand. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
“Me too.” He paused, “Are you still okay not ever having any kids?”
“I’m fine. Especially now.”
“Yeah.” A cloud passed over his eyes, remembering the real reason they had come to Wisconsin tonight. He put his hand in his suit jacket pocket to check on the bottle of pills. It was still there. “I hear you.”
“There, there, dear. Don’t worry about it.”
Bryce squeezed Abby’s hand, “I’ll try not to.” He knew she needed him to be strong for both of them. For what lay ahead.
“Do you remember when we first met?” she asked, changing the subject.
He brightened and grinned, “Back at the University of Minnesota. Yah, you bettcha,” he said, joking to relieve the tension with a mock Norwegian accent that made her laugh. “I’ll never forget it. How about you?”
“Absolutely. I was just starting as a librarian. It was my first job. And you came in…”
“Gimped in…” he laughed.
“Yeah, you gimped in and I thought it’d take you forever to get to the desk.”
“Slow and steady wins the race, I always say.”
Abby grinned. “You’ve got that right.”
Since he’d lost his parents at an early age, Bryce became interested in genealogy as he got older. He’d been brought up by his maternal grandparents and was able to use them and some of their records and memories to trace his lineage back to Sheffield, England, in the 1660s where one of his ancestors had been a tinsmith. Armed with that new knowledge, he was hooked. Instead of going to college, he started doing independent research and then enrolled in an online course that gave him accreditation. Soon after, he started his own business, “Your Family Tree”, and by the time he was twenty-two, when he and Abby met, he’d been living alone for two years in a small apartment near the campus.
“How about you?” Bryce asked, taking a sip of water. “All things considered, have you been happy?”
She leaned over and brushed a lock of hair off his forehead, “Absolutely.” She pointed to her face, “Most people just couldn’t get beyond this. By the time I met you, I was resigned to being by myself.”
“People can be real jerks and idiots.”
“Well, whatever…You, though…You didn’t see that, did you? You saw beyond it.”
Bryce laughed, “I saw the real you!” He caressed her hand. “I still do.”
Abby grinned. “See. You always make me smile.”
And it was true. Growing up was hard on her. Kids in school were mean. She withdrew and by the time she was in seventh grade, she had been marked as an anti-social wallflower. In truth, though, by then she didn’t mind. She’d discovered books at an early age, became an avid reader and even had written some poetry. Not very good, she’d be quick to admit, but it was a start. Growing up, her books and her writing kept her busy and kept her from thinking too much about how lonely she was.
She went to college at the University of Minnesota and got a degree in library science and interned at the Wilson Library on campus. The head librarian liked her and offered her a job. A year later she met Bryce. Two years later she had her first book of poetry, “The Secret Smile”, published, and, over the years, nine more were to follow.
Yes, she would have to say, it had been a good life. All the way up until earlier in the year when she’d be diagnosed with cancer. Ovarian. Inoperable. Deadly.
Bryce took both of her hands in his. “Penny for your thoughts?”
She brought his hands to her lips and kissed them, not wanting to lose the wonderful feeling of this, their last meal together. She put on a bright smile, “I was just thinking about how nice some dessert would taste.”
Bryce grinned and signaled for Ronny. “I thought you’d never ask.”
They shared a delightful crème brule.’ They didn’t say much, just gazed affectionately at one another enjoying the moment and occasionally caressing each other’s hand. Watching them, Marge said to Ronny, “God, why don’t they just get a room?”
Ronny laughed, “What’s your problem? They’re nice people. Friendly. They told me she’s a librarian and he does family history research. I like them.”
Marge knew she was not being what folks called politically correct, but she couldn’t help herself. The two freaky looking people crawling all over each other made her uncomfortable. “I just don’t like looking at them.”
Ronny shook his head. “God, Marge. Get over yourself. They’re people. They can’t help how they look. They’re living a good life. Cut them some slack.”
Marge glanced at Abby’s birthmark and quickly looked away. Nope. Hard to ignore. It was not going to work.
Ronny watched her and shook his head. “Well, you should get your act together.” Then he left to check on the couple. Marge watched, wishing they’d just hurry up and leave.
Later, Bryce paid for their meal with a credit card and left a generous tip for Ronny. On their way out he made it a point to speak to Marge. “I just wanted to say thank you for such a lovely evening. We don’t get out much and this getaway has been wonderful for us.”
Abby smiled and added, “You’ve got a lovely restaurant. The food was delightful.”
Ronny was standing next to Marge. He smiled and said, “It was great serving you.” Then he nudged the hostess.
“Yes,” Marge said, as if it pained her to do so. “Thank you for your business.”
Ronny rolled his eyes, and stepped forward. “Here, I’ll get Abby’s jacket and the door for you.”
“Thank you,” Bryce said. He used his canes to follow, Abby keeping pace next to him. As they left the restaurant, he winked at Ronny and glanced over his shoulder, “Good luck with her.”
“Thanks. “Ronnie grinned.
Outside in the parking lot, Abby walked slowly next to her husband. The air was crisp and cool, almost cold. Bryce’s canes and his shuffling feet moving across the gravel were the only sounds. She looked up at the sky. High clouds were drifting past the moon and a slight breeze was blowing. A few bright stars were visible. There was the aroma of burning leaves in the air. An unexpected tear formed in the corner of her eye that she furiously wiped away. This was no good.
Abby stepped in front of Bryce, suddenly, causing him to pull up short.
“What’s going on?”
She blurted out, “I just wanted you to know that I had a wonderful time tonight.”
Bryce watched her, unsure of where she was coming from. The breeze ruffled the hair on her wig and she pulled her jacket tightly against her thin body. His love for her was as strong as it had ever been. Maybe stronger. All he could say in response was what was in his heart, “I did, too, my dear. It was unforgettable. Just like you are.”
Abby stepped to him and wrapped her arms around him, holding him close, “I’m not sure I’m ready to go through with this.”
Bryce expected her to let him go, but she didn’t. Instead, she squeezed him tighter. He dropped his canes and held her. “Are you okay?”
“No.” Tears suddenly began streaming down her cheeks. He could feel them wet against his face. “I’m not ready to give up. Not yet. I’m not ready to leave you.”
Bryce’s heart raced with joy, “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Yes. Let’s keep those pills for another time. We can use them whenever we want. Right?”
Bryce had been saving his pain medication for years. He knew he had enough for both him and Abby when the time came. It was supposed to have been tonight. He had the pills in his jacket pocket. Tonight, they were going to have a nice meal, drive to a spot high above town overlooking the Mississippi River, take the pills and go to sleep. And that would be that. Since Abby had cancer and was going to die anyway, Bryce wanted to go with her. Now with her change of mind, they had a reprieve. He’d never been so happy. They would stay together. At least for a little while longer. At least for tonight.
Abby released Bryce from her embrace and looked him in the eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay with that?”
“What a thing to ask!! Of course, I am.”
To prove it, he hugged her tightly, and she hugged him in return. For a long, long time. Both of them secure in the knowledge that for now, for at least a little while longer, they would stay together, almost like this night would never end, and go on and on and on. And that was all they needed to know.
Later, back in the restaurant, the door opened. Marge looked up and gasped. “Bryce and Abigail!” she exclaimed. “Back so soon?”
Bryce smiled, “Yes we are. We had such a nice time this evening, we decided we wanted to book a room for the night. Do you have one available?”
Marge knew the place was empty and momentarily thought about lying and saying it was full. But then Ronny’s words came back to her, Get your act together. She cleared her throat and said, “We do. We’ve got a nice room overlooking the river. How’d you like that one?”
Bryce and Abby spoke in unison, “We’d like it just fine.” Then they both laughed.
Marge couldn’t help it. She laughed with them.
Jim is an award-winning author whose stories and poems have appeared in over three-hundred online and print publications. His collection of short stories Resilience was published in March 2021, by Bridge House Publishing. Short Stuff a collection of flash fiction and drabbles was published in October 2021, by Chapeltown Books. Periodic Stories and Periodic Stories Volume Two were published in July and September 2021, by Impspired. Dreamers a collection of short stories was published in March 2022, by Clarendon House Publishing. Something Better a dystopian adventure novella was published in July 2021, by Dark Myth Publications. His short story “Aliens” was nominated by The Zodiac Press for the 2020 Pushcart Prize. His story “The Maple Leaf” was voted 2021 story of the year for Spillwords. He lives in a small-town west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. All of his work can be found on his blog at www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.