The day her husband died Cheryl stopped attending the non-denominational services that were held twice a week at the nursing home. She never missed them over the eight months that she had been housed there, so Jeffrey noted her absence. While visiting residents at the home he had taken an interest in her case, and he allowed a week of grieving to pass before he went to her room to talk about what had happened.
It was nine-thirty and her roommate was still sleeping on her side, her back to them, her arms wrapped around a pillow, so they spoke softly.
“I missed you at services,” Jeffrey said.
“I won’t go no more.”
She sat in the wheelchair, her arms drawn in as if they were glued to her stomach, and rocked slightly. The curtains were tight over the only window and the ceiling lights did little to cheer the gloomy room. Along with the two beds, there was a featureless dresser and a small flat screen suspended from the ceiling.
“My Stuart never went to church,” she said.
Cheryl had told him that her husband didn’t believe in God. Jeffrey had sought out Stuart Chapelle when he first visited Our Lady of Faith Nursing Home. Though not religious, Chapelle seemed a gentle man, concerned more for his wife than for himself, and frustrated by his own infirmity that had placed him here unable to care for her. After Jeffery had spoken to him a few times, probing for more information about him and his faithlessness, Stuart Chapelle had died of a liver cancer that raced through his body, killing him less than two months after the initial diagnosis.
“I tried to get him to change.” She almost cried as she said it.
“I’m sure you did.”
“But he wouldn’t accept the Lord.”
“He was still a good man. He cared for you.”
“I know. And I loved him very much.” She turned her head as if just realizing Jeffrey were in the room. “I still love him.”
He reached for her hand. “I’m sure you do.”
She pulled away, hugging herself even tighter. “But now I’m not going to see him any more.”
He nudged his wooden chair back and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “You will see him again. We will all see our loved ones again.”
“No,” she said with a shake of her head. “Stuart was a bad man. I loved him and he loved me. He was good to me. But I have to be honest with my Lord and myself. He was a bad man.”
“Don’t say that.”
“A very bad man. He did things. Terrible things.”
He straightened, unsure of how deeply he should probe. Cheryl was in her mid eighties with a weak heart. Though she could walk short distances with a cane, she spent most of her time in the chair. He didn’t want to shock her, or bring back unpleasant memories, but he sensed that she wanted to talk. And he, too, wanted to learn the truth. Stuart had always held back in their talks. “You said he was good to you. Did he ever hurt you?”
“Me? No. He never hit me. We loved each other.”
“Did he hurt you emotionally?”
“Sometimes I cried at night because I knew he was such a bad man. He killed a woman.”
Jeffrey drew back. “No.”
“It was a long time ago. We had only been married a few years and he had a girlfriend.” She bowed her head. “He had lots of girlfriends. I wasn’t woman enough for him. I understood that. But I tried. I really tried. Because I loved him so much.”
“Don’t say that.”
She sniffed back tears. “One of his girlfriends was with child. He couldn’t have that. They argued. He hit her. Hard. Many times. He killed her. At first he told me it was an accident, but then he told me he did what he had to do.”
He swallowed, forcing a boulder down his throat. “Why did he tell you this?”
“He knew I wouldn’t leave him. Where could I go? What could I do? He was the only one I ever loved.”
“The police never found out?”
“It was ruled an accident. He claimed she fell and they believed him.”
Jeffrey leaned forward again, lowering his voice, almost afraid to speak. “Do you know her name? The woman he killed?”
“Of course, I know it. Alicia.”
He felt a stab in his chest, throwing him back, and at the same time he wanted to leap from the chair. This was why he had come to this dismal place all those months ago. The trail had led to Stuart Chapelle, but he had to know for sure. “Alicia Ferretti?” he asked.
“That’s right. How do you know?”
“Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“How could I do that to the man I loved?” Her eyes widened with shock. “I was in love with him. We were bonded to each other, for better or worse. I tried to get him to confess. I told him he had to repent. It was the only way to save his soul.” She turned away and took a deep breath. “But he laughed at me. He didn’t believe. He wouldn’t repent. Even on his death bed, when the doctors told him he only had days, he wouldn’t do it.” Finally one arm came up and she reached for him. “He never said a final confession.” Her fingers splayed as they fell short of him. “Even non believers can be saved, but God knows he did not repent for what he did.”
Jeffrey blinked back tears as he took her hand. “Stuart is gone now. We must worry about you. At this time, you have to hold on to your faith.”
She yanked her hand away. “My faith is fine. Don’t doubt that, Father Jeffrey.”
Jeffrey was not a priest, but she always called him that. Many at the home did. Or Reverend. Or Deacon. But he was merely a compassionate man who served as a counselor as he spent time at the home while tracking his mother’s killer. He was only a child when it had happened, but he later found her diaries. She had had many lovers. It had crushed him to realize she was not faithful to his father, but he wanted the truth. He had sought out several men, but the facts he uncovered led him to Stuart Chapelle. But the more time he spent here, the more he realized that he had found a new purpose in his life. These people needed him. The residents called him by many titles and he gladly responded to all of them. Most important was “friend.”
“My Stuart’s going to hell.” She said it with a vehemence that startled him. “You know about hell, right Father.”
“I’m not a priest, Cheryl.” He started shifting in the chair. “But I know what many people believe.”
“Well, I believed that I would spend eternity in Heaven, Father Jeffrey. I have been a good woman. A loyal wife. But I wanted to spend eternity in Heaven with the only man I ever loved.” She turned away from him now, speaking to the window. “That made life bearable. The thought of eternity with my Stuart. But my Stuart is in hell.”
Where he belonged, Jeffrey thought with less anger than he had anticipated. He rose slowly, his knees creaking, and looked toward the window where Cheryl gazed. The woman on the other bed hadn’t stirred the entire time he was there. Not a sound.
“I want to be with my Stuart. There was only one way I could do that. I had to become evil just like him. A murderer.” Her eyes were wide as she stared at the back of the woman on the bed. “I am going to spend eternity with my husband.”
Jeffrey fumbled for the button on the side of Cheryl’s bed that would summon a nurse. Then he darted to the other bed where the dead woman lay.
Robert Petyo’s mystery stories have appeared in Mystery Time, Hardboiled,P.I. Magazine,The Storyteller, 100 CROOKED LITTLE CRIME STORIES, and on the web at “Blue Murder,” “Alternate Realities,” “Plots With Guns,” “Mysterical-e,” “Mouthfull of Bullets,” and “Thrilling Detective Fiction.” In the deep dark past he had three science fiction novels published under three different names. His romantic thriller “Out of Sight,” is available from Amazon.com. In his other life, he is married, has three children, and works as a Postal Clerk.