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“Skål,” he said, raising the glass to his lips, throwing it and his head back at the same time before banging the glass on the counter, not a drop left. He exhaled with satisfaction.
“Cheers,” said Jean, with hesitation.
She tipped her glass up, allowing a small mouthful to collect under her tongue. Ice and fire. She swallowed, thinking it best to get it over with. The burn in her throat made her eyes water. Fredrik laughed and told her she’d never make it in Scandinavia. He teased her into finishing the rest in one gulp.
Of course their doctor has advised against vodka, coffee too, among other things. But coffee isn’t something either one of them is prepared to give up. Jean inhales deeply, but she can’t smell the coffee brewing yet, even though she is sure that’s the first thing Fredrik will do when he gets to the kitchen.
In the hallway, Fredrik hears Jean muttering. He wishes now that he’d stayed in bed and rolled over to fit his body to hers. They are both so stubborn, set in their ways. He is no more willing to admit his weaknesses than Jean is to admit hers. Particularly those that come with age. They are learning too slowly how to be kind and patient with each other. Each moment they spend being angry is a waste.
There it is — the wall on the far side of the first door. Fredrik feels for the switch. He makes wider and wider concentric circles with his hand where the switch should be. Snowflake has reappeared and does figure-eights around his calves, tramping on his slippers. Fredrik turns to the wall and takes another step. When he sets his foot down there is nothing there.
Snowflake yelps as Fredrik clips her ear with his slippered foot. His other foot is still on the floor but his balance is compromised. He’s gone too far down the hall. He can’t see them, but the stairs to the basement gape in front of him in all their varnished splendour. Solid oak, only three years old. He and Jean replaced the old carpeted stairs shortly after he moved in.
He gropes the wall but there is no ledge to grab onto, only a smooth, flat surface. He pitches forward, then sideways. His shoulder jams the wall. His elbow smashes a stair. He hears something break. The pain is like a flash. A burst. A shock. He tumbles forward. He hits his head on the railing. It impacts just behind his ear. Another burst of pain, more all-encompassing. His head is wrenched to one side. His knee crunches another stair. His hands reach for the railing but catch air instead. Pain radiates from all over his body. There is so much of it that he can’t tell where it’s coming from.
His shoulder lands on something softer than oak. The carpet at the bottom of the stairs. The rest of his body follows and comes to a graceless stop. He lies with his head and one shoulder on the carpet. The other shoulder rests on an angle on the bottom step. His back, torso and legs rise up the stairs above him. He is still wearing his slippers.
Blood pulses in his head and with each throb new shocks of pain jolt him. Gingerly he lifts his arm, expecting pain to arrest his movements, but remarkably, his arm feels good. He moves it slowly across his front to his other arm which lies pinned under him. He reaches for his elbow. It is warm and wet and something sharp pricks his fingertips, a bone? He imagines blood pooling underneath him, sinking into the carpet. He lowers his good arm onto his stomach. There is pain there too. It hurts when he breathes. Perhaps his ribs are broken. He tries his legs. Pain flares as his muscles respond. One knee bends. There’s no use trying the other one. He can wiggle his toes. This makes him inexplicably happy.
He wants nothing more than to get up, but knows it is impossible. Panic flares in his belly and he struggles to snuff it out. He consciously slows his thoughts and focuses on the stairs. He knows, without counting, that there are 13. Thirteen is their lucky number, his and Jean’s. When they met they discovered their birthdays were both on the 13th, his in March, hers in August. They met on the 13th of November. On their first year anniversary, he brought her 13 roses. The clerk at the flower shop looked at him strangely when he requested one more rose be added to the dozen. Jean noticed how many roses there were of course. He wonders if she would notice as readily now.