My Darling Clementine: Part 7
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The sound of Mae’s cough reverberated through the hallway, waking Clementine from her fitful sleep. Again. The sound was so painful, and desperate Clem’s own lungs tightened in response. The coughs were followed by a pitiful wheeze that Clementine could hear even from her own room. She had tried everything she could think of to ease her friend’s discomfort, everything the doctor had suggested. And nothing was working.
She took several deep breaths to calm herself, but she couldn’t swallow the lump that had formed in her throat, and her heart continued its panicked flutter in her chest.
Once her father found out they were staying here, she wouldn’t even be able to provide her friend with a place to stay. The last time she had seen him, he was red-faced and sweating as the workers streamed from his factory.
His voice had been steely and calm as he informed her she was no longer his daughter. She would never see another dime of his money, and she could go live with the rabble she loved so much. Her mother stood quietly by his side, but her heartbreak was clear in her face.
Clem rolled over and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to forget the day, but her father’s words were still fresh in her mind. She hadn’t planned the strike, but apparently, seeing his own daughter join the picket line was enough to push him over the edge. To be fair, she had been nudging him closer to it for years.
A last-minute reprieve from his decision did not seem likely.
She would be fine. She forced herself to breathe in the thought. Breathe out. Breath in. She would be fine. Her body softened into the mattress. In. Out. Just fine.
She still had some money left from the jewelry she sold to get them here, and she was resourceful. But what about Mae? James found work at the track, but his wages would never be enough to care for her. Clementine couldn’t allow Mae to go live in the little shacks that tried to pass as homes for the track workers. The horses lived better.
Mae started a fresh round of coughing, and whatever small amount of calm Clem had found quickly evaporated. She rolled out of bed and padded down the hallway to Mae’s room.
Max stood leaning against the wall, his eyes on her door. “What does she have?” he whispered; his brows drawn together.
“We’re not sure.” Clem’s shoulders sagged in defeat.
“Clementine.” The tone in Max’s voice forced her to meet his eye. “Does she cough up blood?”
She winced, still not wanting to admit how bad things had gotten for her friend.
“It’s consumption, isn’t it?”
“We don’t know that for sure.” Her voice was barely a rasp. She swallowed hard.
Max stepped closer, his large hands wrapping around her upper arms, squeezing until she was paying attention. “She can’t stay here, Clem. We could all get sick.”
She shook her head, trying to pull away. “You would have me put her out on the street?” The tears stung behind her eyelids.
“No. Of course not. But there must be somewhere she could go? Something you could do?”
Something she could do with all her heaps of money was what he meant. And there were places she could send Mae, places for her to recover. But she didn’t have heaps of money. And the springs here were the best she could do.
“I’m doing all I can.” She shook out of his grasp. “She’s my friend. I will see to her care.” She stormed back to her own room.
“Clementine!” Max hissed after her, but she didn’t stop until she was behind her door. Frustration and anger, and fear finally spilled out of her. She let herself cry.
He flinched when Clementine’s door slammed shut, leaving him alone in the dark hallway. Mae’s coughs continued behind her closed door.
Max often found himself awake in the middle of the night, but without the comforting blue light of technology to keep him company, he was at a loss. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Some nights, when he was tired of binge-watching Netflix, he would switch to PBS and watch documentaries.
Now, as he stood outside of Mae’s room, all he could see was the black and white footage of body after wasted body succumbing to the illness he was sure Mae had. Tuberculosis. And thanks to his late-night history lessons, he knew there wasn’t a cure yet.
He should have thought of it sooner, seeing how pale and gaunt the woman was, her cough always wracking her small body. A sudden panicked fear seized his chest that she had already infected them all.
He crept back down the hall, not breathing until he was away from the cloud of germs he now imagined lingered outside of Mae’s room.
He knocked softly at the next door. “Clementine?”
A pause. And then, “Go away.”
“Just let me in.” His voice was gentle. He tried the knob, and it was unlocked, so he pushed a little. He heard shuffling and found Clementine in a heap on the floor, her eyes red and her cheeks stained with tears.
“Hey, shh…I didn’t mean to make you cry.” He dropped to the floor beside her, and she allowed herself to be pulled into his arms. He spoke into the top of her head, her damp cheek resting on his chest. “It’ll be okay. We’ll figure something out.”
She shook her head against him and sniffled. “No. It won’t. I thought I could help her. I promised…” Her voice was swallowed by a hiccupping sob, and Max wrapped his arms tighter around her waist.
“And my father…and the money…” she wailed.
He rubbed her back in consoling circles until her sobs returned to sniffles. She sat up and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry. It all hit me at once.” She pushed the hair away from her face.
“You don’t have to apologize.”
“I shouldn’t burden you with all this.” Her legs were still draped over his, and even as she wiped her face and fixed her hair, she made no move to untangle herself from his lap. Her creamy nightgown spread over his legs. His pajamas were more formal than his usual clothes, with a button-down top and pants. Clementine ran her fingers absentmindedly over the buttons one by one.
“It’s not a burden. Your friend is sick.” He brushed an errant curl from her cheek, and she leaned into his hand. He ran a thumb across her face, and she sighed.
“But we do need to figure something out. I don’t want you getting sick too.”
“You’re worried about me?” A small smile tilted her perfect mouth.
“Of course. I worry about all my fake wives.”
She laughed and smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “We’re not married yet. I’m only your fake fiancée for now.”
“I know this is a strange situation we’re in.” The teasing had left his voice, and Clem gazed at him intently. “But I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”
Clementine lowered her eyes and stared at her hands. Her cheeks were pink, even in the dim light of the room.
“Do you want to tell me what else is going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Parading me around for everyone to see, meeting your aunt… You shouldn’t worry so much about what all these narrow-minded assholes think of you.”
She rolled her shoulders back and faced him, her stubborn determination returning. “I don’t worry about it, but unfortunately, the things they think of me directly affect my ability to live the life I want to live.”
“And here I thought you needed me to show everyone you could find a suitable husband.”
“Well, partly. Too bad no one thinks you’re suitable.” Her tone was light and teasing again; the charm turned back on. “And you’re still here because…”
“I like you. I want to help you.” She shifted closer to him and leaned in, so he whispered in her ear. “If it’s okay with you, I’ll stick around until you get this life you want to live sorted out.”
She breathed out as though relieved he was agreeing to stay longer. As if he would go now when she felt heavenly in his lap. Why rush home? To what? His inevitable eviction notice, his debts, his pissed off friends and coworkers?
Clementine’s breath was warm on his neck, her arms wrapped around him, fingers running through the back of his hair. No, this was much better than all that.
“Will you stay with me tonight?” Her voice in his ear sent shivers through his body.
“Seems a little premature to consummate the marriage.”
Her teeth nipped at his ear, and he groaned, his resolve not to dig himself in any deeper weakening. The scent of flowers surrounded him, and she was so warm and soft in his arms.
“You’re not a suitable husband, anyway. And I’m damaged goods. What harm could it do?” She kissed along his jawline until she reached his lips. She quirked an eyebrow as though asking permission.
He leaned forward and pressed his mouth to hers, feeling her smile against him. She kissed him back, deeper, and he could taste the minty sweetness of her.
She broke the kiss to stand and pulled him to his feet. Not letting go of his hand, she led him to the bed.
“One thing,” he said as she unbuttoned his shirt, sliding her hands inside. “When it’s the two of us, like this…” He reached around and grabbed her ass, pulling her closer. “Nothing is fake. Okay?”
She paused her unbuttoning and studied him before agreeing. “Deal.”