Today was definitely not going to get better for Al. He, too, had needed information on someone and knew of only one place to get it. After being chewed out, he headed towards the location and suspected he was going to get another tongue lashing. But, it needed to be done.
The apartment Al was looking for was located in a dirty brick building in the textile district. The stairs creaked and moaned as he took flight after flight until reaching the fifth floor. Like the rest of the floors, the walls were dingy and the air smelled of coal, oil, and of rooms lacking proper sanitation.
Al stood before the door, his stomach seizing. Inside he heard a woman coughing and a child crying, followed by yelling. Stalling won’t make it easier, he thought, and knocked.
Burdet answered the door and Al was shocked by the change a half-year had wreaked on her. She brushed the stray hairs from her pale face, gaunt and waxy. Her eyes were bruised and glassy, staring through him for a few moments before finally meeting his gaze. “What do you want?”
“I came to see how you and Marnie were doing,” he said.
“Fine,” she said and started to close the door.
“May I see her?”
“No, and I need to be going.”
He looked into the cramped room to see one bed pushed against the wall, a wood stove rigged to blow exhaust out a hole cut in the window, and clothing strewn about. Marnie jumped up from the bed and ran past her mother, throwing her arms around Al.
“Dada!” she said.
He used Burdet’s fresh coughing fit to pick her up. “Hi, Marnie!”
“Dada go home,” she said, pointing behind them.
“You’re not taking her. She’s not yours,” Burdet said, trying to grab Marnie from his arms, who wriggled away and clung to Al.
“Burdet, I’m not taking her. I just wanted to see her.”
“Why? She’s not yours.”
“Leave!” she said, shoving him. “You’ve had your lark. I get that you’ve come back to rub it in my face that if only I had been…a good housewife…and…” She began hacking into a cloth again, doubling over and resting against the door frame.
“Burdet… How long have you been sick?” he asked, shifting Marnie on his hip.
She looked like she wanted to snap at him again. Instead, she collapsed into a worn chair by the door and gasped for air. He was alarmed to see the cloth she was coughing into was stained red with blood.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
She shook her head. “Can’t afford it.”
Al reached into his pocket and grabbed the pouch of spending money he had brought, a little under ten gold in various coins, and handed it to her. “Take care of yourself. See a doctor.”
“I don’t want your charity!” she yelled, slapping the purse to the ground. Her eyes flashed, finally something that he recognized as his ex-wife.
“Then don’t take it for you; take it for her. You need to be well so that she has a mother. She needs food and better clothing. You’ll need to put her in school in a few years, so you’ll need to save for that.”
“I can’t do it,” she whispered.
“You can. You have to.”
She put her face in her hands. “Can you come home?”
He sighed. “No, but neither of us want that, anyway.”
She nodded, then stood, taking a very reluctant Marnie back. “I need to drop her off downstairs while I work.”
“You still have the job at Benstick’s?” She nodded. “Good. That paid well.”
“Not enough to pay for everything.”
“I’ll send money when I can.”
She nodded and closed the door behind her without any farewell. He heard Marnie cry from inside and he sighed.
Could he have done more? He had to admit that he hadn’t thought about Burdet much since he’d left, even though he knew he had saddled her with the debt of the house, taxes, and the remainder of his loans for Amandorlam. It had been easier to forget about it while he was off on his adventure, earning hundreds of gold and spending it on good food, clothing, and entertainment.
But, there it was, right in his face. Burdet was ill and living in what amounted to a hovel in the city. Marnie was miserable. Not that her life had been great before, but Al had noticed the bruises on her arms and face. Frankly, Burdet was a terrible mother and she had never really wanted Marnie. The right thing to do, what he should do, is return and take care of them. It was the reason why he had stayed in the first place.
He couldn’t. He knew then and there that, while he cared for his step-daughter, he couldn’t go back to his wife. Just the thought of it robbed him of any sense of happiness, instead filling him with the bored sensation of watching a clock, of waiting at a doctor’s office or of spending five more minutes in that depressing building. He couldn’t.
He walked back to the stairwell, feeling more than guilty about his decision, when he saw a dark shape to his right and startled, his mood souring. “Why did you follow me here?”
“Because you were acting suspicious, Wizard,” Raulin said, taking to the stairs next to him.
“Go ahead, then. Go ahead and lecture me on hypocrisy and abandonment. I’m sure you heard and saw everything, about how I’m a terrible husband and father, about how I can’t do anything to help them.”
Raulin sighed. “Wizard, why do you always expect the worst between us? I did see everything and I’m not lecturing you on anything.
“What I saw was a man returning to a woman who treated him with contempt because he felt beholden to. And, if I’m not mistaken, that little girl is too light-skinned to be yours. Yet, you gave your ex-wife money so that the both of them could have a better future, despite the fact that she had another man’s child. That speaks highly of your character to me.”
“But it’s only because Marnie was one of the few people to bring me happiness when I lived here. I only gave Burdet money because she’s the sole caretaker of Marnie. I don’t…I don’t care…” He stopped bobbing down the stairs for a moment.
“Husbands and wives fall out of love all the time,” Raulin said quietly, waiting for him to move again. “And all they have left is the promises they made to each other. When that is broken, there is nothing.”
“It doesn’t matter. I promised that I’d care for her,” he said, continuing his trek downstairs. “That’s me. That’s how I live. You are…you.”
“Only one on Yine.”
They left the building. “Well, I mean, you’ve never been married.”
“No. And I probably shouldn’t be giving advice on things I’m not experienced in. But, I think it’s just one of many things experienced in life and that, at least, I can give my opinion on. If you feel that it’s better to canvas, though, there are two other people back at our hotel whom I’m sure wouldn’t mind talking to you about this.”
Al nodded, still full of thought, but at least he had an outlet.