Sam and Lila had had a fairly good run, all things considered, and they were nearing retirement age. It hadn’t been easy – they had both worked hard in challenging careers, and their relationship had been strained at times, but here they were, still together despite the economic and emotional scrapes. Their two children were launched and on their own, and for Sam and Lila life was comfortable, if not exactly luxurious.
They were both healthy, for the most part, but Sam had grown more sedate with the years, and knew he wasn’t as much fun as he’d been when they were younger. He also sensed that Lila wanted something more out of life. So he was somewhat relieved when she started developing some hobbies of her own, becoming more of “her own woman,” as she liked to say.
She’d developed a strong interest in gardening, for example, especially herbs. She had met an older woman who lived down their street, a widow named Elaine who knew quite a bit about herbology, and they spent many pleasant afternoons together drinking herbal teas, talking about plants and plant lore, and comparing gardening notes. Her work with herbs spread into the kitchen, and greatly enriched her culinary skills. For this Sam was quite grateful – not just for the wonderful meals she cooked, but for the obvious satisfaction that Lila was deriving from the activity.
Sam wasn’t into gardening very much himself, though when asked he was happy to help with some of the manual labor involved. His was the life of the mind, of books and music, art and philosophy. They used to have frequent political discussions when they were younger, but now Lila had grown disillusioned with politics, and lost practically all interest in current events. Sam’s earnest pronouncements on the state of the world and the things that ought to be done would now garner little more than an exasperated sigh. But they did occasionally spend quiet time reading on rainy weekends, and Sam cherished sharing those moments with his wife.
Sometimes he’d steal a glance of her over the top of his magazine – she’d be curled up on the sofa, their cat on her lap and a cup of tea on the table, deeply involved in one from the stack of mystery novels that she checked out from the nearby library. The library’s mystery book club was another pleasure to which Elaine had introduced her. Lila even kept a notepad nearby while reading, jotting down plot elements and clues as she tried to outguess the book’s protagonists. Sometimes he’d hear her mutter approvingly, “Well, now, that was clever, wasn’t it?” when she stumbled on a new insight or interesting plot twist.
One summer, Lila told Sam that Elaine was going to spend a couple of weeks out West visiting family, and had invited Lila to accompany her. Sam approved wholeheartedly, although he told her how much he’d miss her cooking. “Oh, don’t worry, sweetheart,” she said, “I’ll leave you a few things to tide you over.”
So now here’s Sam, a week after her departure, pulling a Pyrex dish full of her amazingly delicious wild mushroom strudel, one of his favorites, piping hot from the microwave. And here he is, in the quiet dining room, having an irresistible second helping and one more glass of wine. And here he is, going to bed, looking forward to his wife’s return in a few days.
And finally, here he is, sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night, sweating profusely, feeling the neurotoxin’s icy fingers wrapping around his heart, and suddenly understanding everything.