From the veranda where she had been left to wait she could see the golf course adjoining the hospital grounds. Along the distant hillside, still green from the winter rains, a tiny man in faded suntans was chasing an invisible ball. She had been watching him for some time before she noticed that he handled his club in an unusual way. He was teaching himself to play golf with one hand. She hoped he had been left-handed to begin with.
She forgot the tiny man when she heard Bret’s footsteps behind her. He turned her toward him, holding her by the shoulders in a grip that almost hurt and studying her face. Looking up into his calm eyes, she understood the doubt that lay behind them. She felt it in her own mind whenever she came to see him after a week’s absence, uncertain and bereft, like a relative called upon to identify the victim of a drowning.
Bret hadn’t really changed, but he had taken on weight during his nine months in the hospital. It had altered the lines of his cheek and jaw and made his old gray uniform seem too small for him. She could never wholly free her mind of the suspicion that this Bret Taylor was an impostor, living a healthy vegetative life in a dead man’s clothes, battening on the love she owed to the man that was lost.
She shivered against him, and he tightened his arms around her. She had no right to such fantastic notions. It was her job to bring reality to him. She was his interpreter of the outside world, and she mustn’t forget its language. But even with his arms round her she was chilled by the old terror. During the first few minutes of their meetings she always skated on the thin ice at the edge of sanity. Her whole concern was to keep her feelings from showing in her face.
Then he kissed her. The contact was re-established and drew her back to her emotional center. The lost man had been found and was in her arms.
The orderly who had accompanied Bret as far as the door reminded them of his presence. “You want to stay out here, Miss West? It gets kind of chilly in the afternoons.”
She looked at Bret with the deference that had become instinctive with her. Since he had no large decisions to make, let him make all the small ones.
“Let’s stay out here,” he said. “If you get cold we can go in.”
She smiled at the orderly, and he disappeared. Bret placed two deck chairs side by side, and they sat down.
“And now I’d like a cigarette,” she said. The case in her bag was full, but she preferred to have one of his. Apart from the fact that it was his, which was important, it helped build up the illusion of casualness and freedom.
“They always call you Miss West,” he said when he lit her cigarette.
“Inasmuch as that’s my name—”
“But it isn’t your real name?”
For a moment she was afraid to look at him, afraid that his mind had reverted to the time when he didn’t know her. But she replied in a sweetly reasonable voice: “Well, no, it isn’t. I explained to you that I started to work in Hollywood under my maiden name. I never use my married name except on checks.”
“I didn’t remember,” he said humbly.
“Nobody can remember everything. I’ve even forgotten my own telephone number.”
“I’ve forgotten my own name. My memory’s getting better though.”
“I know it is, every time I come.”
He said with sober pride, like an explorer announcing the discovery of a new island: “I remembered Kerama Retto the other night.”
“Really? That’s the news of the week.”
“The news of the year for me. I remembered the whole thing. It was so real I thought it was happening over again. I could see the rice paddies above the harbor in the glare of the explosion. It was so bright it blinded me.”
She was dismayed by his sudden pallor. Along his hairline there was a row of minute sweat drops that the February sun did not account for.
“Don’t talk about it if it’s painful, darling.”
He had turned away and was looking across the lawn, which sloped down from the veranda into the valley holding the sunshine like a lake of light. Its very peace, she thought, must make it seem more dreamlike to his unpeaceful mind than the remembered terraces of that island off Japan.
The silence between them was too full of echoes, and she broke it with the first words that entered her head. “I had fruit salad for lunch. I had to wait twenty minutes to get into the dining-room, but they do make good fruit salad at the Grant.”
“Do they still put avocado in it?”
“I bet you didn’t eat the avocado.”
“It’s always been too rich for me,” she answered happily. He was remembering everything again.
“We had avocado salad for lunch on Wednesday or Thursday. No, it was Wednesday, the same day I had my hair cut.”
“I like you with your hair cut short. I always have.”
The direct compliment embarrassed him. “It’s convenient for swimming anyway. I didn’t tell you I was swimming on Thursday.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
“I expected to be afraid of the water, but I wasn’t. I swam under water the full length of the pool. I soon get tired of swimming in a pool though. I’d give anything to get into the surf again.”
“Would you really? I’m so glad.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I may have had an idea you’d hate the sea.”
“I hated the idea of it for a while, but I don’t any more. Anyway I could never hate La Jolla.”
The happiness inside her pressed tears into her eyes. La Jolla had only one meaning for her; it was the place where they had met.
“Remember the day the seals came in?” She winced at her word “remember.” It was always coming up, like the word “see” when one was talking to a blind man.
He leaned forward abruptly in his chair, his hunched shoulder muscles stretching his uniform tight. Have I made a mistake? she thought in terror. It was so hard to preserve her balance between a soothing therapeutic attitude and the irrational love she felt for him.
All he said was: “We’ll have to go back there together—soon. It seems incredible that it’s only fifteen miles from here.”
“I know you’ll be able to go soon. You’re getting so much better.”
“You honestly think so?”
“You know you are.”
“Some days I feel perfectly well,” he said slowly. “I can hardly wait to get back to work. Then my mind comes to a blank space, and I feel as if I’m back where I started. Have you ever imagined a total vacuum? A place where there’s no air, no light, no sound? Not even darkness, not even silence. I guess it’s death my mind comes up against. I guess I’m partly dead.”
She put her hand over his taut fingers, which were gripping the arm of his chair. “You’re very much alive, Bret. You’re making a perfect comeback.” But his gloomy tension alarmed her and set her thinking. What if she wasn’t good for him? What if he’d be better off without her? No, that couldn’t be true. The doctor had told her more than once that she was just what he needed, that she gave him something to live for.
“It’s taking a long time,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get out of this place. Sometimes, I don’t really want to. I feel a little bit like Lazarus. He couldn’t have been very happy when he came back and tried to take up his life where he left off.”
She told him sharply: “You mustn’t talk like that. Your life isn’t half over, darling. You’ve only been ill for less than a year.”
“It feels as long as prehistoric time.” He had enough humor to smile at his own hyperbole.
“Forget the past,” she said impulsively.
“I have to remember it first.” He smiled again, not a good smile, but it was something.
“You are remembering it. But you can think of the future too.”
“I’ll tell you what I do think about a good deal of the time.”
“I think of us together. It’s thinking of that that keeps me going. It must be hard for you to be a hospital widow.”
“A hospital widow?”
“Yes. It must be hard for a woman to have a husband in a mental ward. I know a lot of women would clear out and get a divorce—”
“But, darling.” It would have been so much easier to pass it over or to humor his delusion, but she stuck to the difficult truth. “I’m not your wife, Bret.”
He looked at her blankly. “You said you didn’t use your married name—”
“My married name is Pangborn. I told you I divorced my husband.”
She watched the manhood draining out of his face and could think of no way to rescue it. “I thought we were married,” he said in a high, weak voice. “I thought you were my wife.”
“You have no wife.” She didn’t trust herself to say anything more.
He was searching desperately for some excuse, for anything to mitigate his shame. “Are we engaged then? Is that what it was? Are we going to be married?”
“If you will have me.” There was no atom of irony in any crevice of her mind.
He got out of his chair and stood awkwardly and miserably in front of her. His blunder had shaken him badly. “I guess it’s time for you to go. Will you kiss me good-bye?”
“I’d die if I couldn’t.”
His mouth was soft and uncertain, and he held her very gently. He left her abruptly then, as if he could not bear to stay with her any longer after his humiliation. She was proud of the way he went back to his room alone, like any normal man retiring to his hotel room, but his mistake had shocked and worried her. She had had him in her grasp for a moment, and then he had slipped away again, to a place where she did not dare to follow.
Excerpted from The Three Roads by Ross Macdonald. Copyright © 2011 by Ross Macdonald. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.