B-Sides: Three Meals

MCMThursday, March 26, 2020

B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.

The meal was overcooked, and a little mushy in places, but by the end of it, neither of them cared. They sat there in candlelight, empty plates strewn on the table between them, entranced by the sight of each other in the cool autumn air. Their tiny home felt majestic somehow, just by their being there together.

“And you say you’ve made that before?” asked Rían, with a smile.

“Not for a while, I suppose,” said Maggie.

“So the memory’s fading, then,” nodded Rían.

“Are you saying it wasn’t good?” she asked with a warning smile.

“No, no,” he said. “It just felt like a faded recipe, is all. A vague recollection of a meal you once had.”

She grinned at him. “Like the vague recollection of my affection for you?”

“Ouch!” he laughed, putting a hand to his heart like she’d fatally wounded him. “You’ve a mean tongue, Mrs Kelly. Do you treat all your customers so?”

“Only the ones I suspect will run out on the bill,” she said, and opened her palm to him, grabbing for coins. “Come on, pay up. Earn my affection.”

He made a show of checking his pockets, then let out a melodramatic sigh. “Alas...”

“Alas,” she scowled. “Indeed.”

“I’m short of money at the moment,” he said. “Not a penny to my name.”

“Spendthrift?” she asked.

“No, it’s my wife, you see. She needed some money to prepare me a meal—”

“Oh, so blaming your wife, are you?”

He smiled, and it was the warmest thing she’d ever seen. Made the cool evening air fade away. “Whatever she asks of me, I’ll do. I couldn’t say no if I wanted to.”

She traced a finger along the edge of her plate, lost in their moment together. “She sounds tyrannical.”

“Enchanting,” he countered, and leaned forward in his seat. “The kind of woman you just can’t look away from, because you have to know what she’s going to say next.”

“Talks a lot, then,” grumped Maggie. “Chatterbox.”

“Wise,” said Rían. “And witty. No matter the occasion, she knows what to say. What to do. I’d be lost without her. I truly would.”

Maggie smiled, briefly, but stowed it away. “If you’re so in love with her—”

“And I am,” said Rían. “I am.”

“—then why’d you come ‘round here, eating my food without a penny to your name?”

Rían shrugged. “She’s perfection, it’s true, but her cooking is atrocious.”

Maggie let out a cry and threw her napkin at him with a laugh. “Oh! Oh!”

She got up as if to storm off—though where, exactly, wasn’t clear—but Rían caught her arm and turned her around to meet him. They stood there, face-to-face, in a moment of luxurious silence, just feeling each other breathe.

“Don’t be cross,” he whispered, and gave her a gentle kiss.

She didn’t want it to end. Her eyes stayed closed, face touching his. hand on his chest, feeling his thumping heartbeat. “What would your wife say about this?” she asked.

“I imagine she’d want you dead,” he smiled.

“I’d better flee, then, before she finds me,” she said. She held her hand up to him like she was asking for change, gave him a grin. “Need money for the trip.”

He kissed her palm, pressed her hand to his cheek.

“Can’t pay the coachman in kisses,” she said, then mused: “Well, I suppose I can, but—”

He quieted her with more kisses. And then more and more until their arms and mouths and hands were a blur of brilliant sensations, and the hearth was a distant second heat source to the passion between them.

Rían slid his plate back to the middle of the table, knocking his cup over. Tea spilled out and over the edge, onto Maggie’s coat. She jerked back, brushing it away.

“Careful!” she snapped, working to avert a stain. “This is all I have left to wear!”

He threw his napkin onto the puddle of tea with a disinterested sigh. “It was an accident,” he said.

“An accident?” she said. “An accident’s something unexpected. Unpredictable.” She righted his cup, slamming it down onto the table. “That was just careless.”

“I said I was sorry, Maggie—”

“No you didn’t!” she said. “That’s just it! You didn’t! You never do! Whatever the issue, whatever the cause, you never take responsibility!”

“For spilling tea?”

“For anything! Any of it! For this being my last dress, my only coat, both getting threadbare in the middle of winter, and you—”

“I’m working, alright? I’m working as much as they’ll let me, but—”

“But it’s not good enough, is it?” she yelled. “You’re out there, putting your life at risk every night, and here we are, stuck in this shack with the door that won’t close right, with no wood for the fire, eating meals that—”

He got up suddenly, pacing back toward the hearth, running a hand through his hair as he struggled with his temper. “You can’t blame me for that,” he said. “The meals are your domain, Maggie. Don’t blame me if you can’t do ‘em right.”

Now she was on her feet too, gathering up the plates angrily. “Do ‘em right? You think I can’t do ‘em right?” She took a shaky breath and glared at him, at the back of him. “I’m lucky if I’ve a ha’penny to buy food for a week, Rían. Do you have any idea how hard it is to stitch a meal together on a budget like that? Do you?”

“Other wives make it work.”

“Other wives aren’t so alone!” she yelled. “Other wives don’t sit up all night, wondering if their husbands are going to come home alive in the morning. Other wives don’t spend their days watching the fist fights on Rideau, thinking that might be the man who makes me a widow. Other wives remember why it is they fell in love in the first place.”

He froze in place like he’d been shot, and she did, too. Like her breath had left her. Shocked at what she’d said.

He half-turned his head. “Have you forgot?”

She stared at the plates on the table, spoke quietly: “Sometimes I think I have.”

Neither of them spoke for some time. Him, watching the weak flames crackle away in the hearth, and her, running her finger along the edge of the chipped and faded plate.

“I try,” Rían said, finally. “I try so hard, Maggie, I do. I know this isn’t the life I promised you—”

“It’s not—”

“Let me finish,” he said; not angrily, but not in a tone that allowed any arguments. “I know it’s not easy for you, living like this. I know you do incredible things with what little we have. It’s miraculous, what you do. Don’t think I don’t appreciate it, Maggie, because I do. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God I have you with me on this journey.”

He slumped, leaning his head against the wall like it was all that was keeping him upright anymore. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t regret dragging you down with me.”

“Rían—” she said, but he held a hand out to quiet her. To beg for a little while longer before she spoke.

He still wouldn’t face her, but his voice was cracking enough to know there were tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry you’ve a threadbare coat, and I’m sorry the winter’s turned so bad. I’m sorry there’s no money for food, that we’re always one accident away from ruin. I’m sorry I work so hard, doing so much for so little, and I know—I know it can all go away like that.” He snapped his fingers, holding his hand up and making a trembling, angry fist. “And all you can do is sit and wait for something to give, one way or another.”

She felt so terrible, she took a step toward him, reaching out to soothe him, to make him feel loved again, because—

“But don’t for a second think you have it harder than I do,” he said, and she froze.

He wiped his eyes before turning, and when he did, his face was cold, neutral, impenetrable. “I’m the one going out there, seeing those things. Doing those things. Balancing it all. Trying to find the shortest route between here and where we need to be, and watching it all go wrong, over and over again. I’m the one bridging those gaps, Maggie. The ha’penny doesn’t come from nothing. It comes from me. From what I do.”

He looked at her with his reddened eyes and said: “I’m sorry I can’t make this life better for you, Maggie. But please—dear God please—don’t make it worse.”

Before she could speak, he went to the door, grabbed his coat and hat from the hooks there, and opened the door that never quite closed right. “I’ll be back by dawn,” he said, and left.

Maggie sat back down at the table, and stared at the plates, and her stomach growled.

The food had been cooking for too long, but Maggie was past worrying about that. The cold wind blew again, and the house rattled and shuddered as fine particles of ice rained down all over again; another wave in the endless Bytown winter. She shivered in her fraying coat, pacing back and forth as she waited for—

The door opened and Rían came in, knocking ice off himself as he fought to close the door. He was carrying something large, wrapped up in burlap, but none of that mattered when Maggie saw his face.

“You’re bleeding!” she gasped, and ran to him, touching his cheek where the cut lay. He flinched at the contact, but still gave her a smile.

“Had a rough afternoon,” he said, and then gave her a kiss. She tasted blood, faintly. And smelled beer, not faintly.

“Are...are you alright? What happened?” she asked as he peeled off his hat and hung it back on the hooks. He set his package on the ground and stomped the snow off his boots.

“It was a mess,” he said. “A right mess, and almost worse than that. We...” He sniffed the air and smiled. “Any food left for me?”

She grinned and hurried past him, scooping the broth into a bowl as she talked: “What do you mean ‘almost worse than that’? Than what?”

“Someone tried to steal a keg of beer,” he said. “Nicked it straight off the wagon as it was making its rounds to the taverns. Plop, into the snow, and then they started rollin’ the damn thing away! Like nobody’d see the tracks!”

He laughed, and she laughed, though she still wondered how that laughter ended with him getting hit in the face.

“So I follow ‘em down an alley, and there’s three of ‘em there, tryin’ to get the thing open so they can get down to drinking. Except they clearly have no idea what they’re doing, taking to it with a hammer and a knife—”

She shivered, but he squeezed her arm in a comforting way and said: “No, don’t worry, they didn’t get that far. First lad hits the knife clear inside the keg, and cracks a hole wide open. Beer spraying everywhere, flooding the alley, flooding me.”

He spread his arms wide and laughed. “So I yell: ‘Hey! You all!’ and two of ‘em, they start running, way back into the darker bits. But the last one with the hammer, he stands his ground, yeah? Holds the hammer out at me and then, keepin’ his eyes locked on mine, he kneels on down and starts drinking the beer as it’s pourin’ out of the keg.”

“You’re joking...” gasped Maggie. “Did he know who you were? That you were a constable?”

“Aye, that he did,” said Rían, and gave her another kiss. A greedier kiss. “He drank his fill, dropped the hammer and held up his hands sayin’: ‘That’s to keep me warm in me cell.’”

Rían laughed, and barely flinched as Maggie touched his bruised face. “So how did you get this?”

He laughed even harder, wiped his eyes. “Frozen beer’s a slippery thing,” he said. “Took one step forward and wiped right out. Luckily, my face broke my fall.” He gave her another kiss. “Extra-luckily, I was treated to a mouthful of beer ‘fore I got my wits back about me.”

“Just a mouthful?” she grinned.

“I’m a bit woozy from the fall,” he said. “Hard to be sure.” Then something clicked in his memory, and his face turned into a bigger smile as he bounded back toward the door and scooped up his burlap package.

He unwrapped it, shaking out the fabric inside until Maggie could see what it was...

“A new coat for my lovely wife,” he said, holding it out to her. “Warm as summer, they tell me. A beauty to behold. Especially on you.”

She took it, carefully, and tried not to cry. It felt like an odd dream, and that fact alone made her sadder than she wanted to convey. She hugged it close, tried to mask her regrets with tears of joy.

“How did you...?” she asked.

“The day shift isn’t just livelier, it pays better, too,” he said. “Been savin’ for a few weeks now, but ever since Owens gave me the daylight beat, I’ve been...”

He gave her another kiss, held her close. “I’m sorry it’s been so rough. But I will take care of you, Maggie. One way or another, things are gonna get better for us.”

She kissed him back, and then wrapped her arms around him and held him as close as she could, ‘til the shivers came right out of him, and she smelled of beer, too.

“I believe you,” she said, and forgot all about dinner at all.

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