The Braille Reader
By Deryn Pittar

“There’re feathers all over the floor, again,” Mother said, her voice cross and exasperated. “I’m heartily sick of picking them up.”
Christina shook her head at this utterly ridiculous statement, considering they didn’t have a budgie or a parrot. Her mother had early-on-set dementia and  often became confused. She pondered whether to answer. Finally, having decided it would be rude not to, Christina asked, “What color are they, mother?”
“It varies.  This week they’re pale yellow. Last week they were green. I guess next week they’ll be blue.”
Definitely dementia, “How long have you been finding them?” Perhaps she could isolate when these crazy hallucinations started.
“Ever since you brought home our lodger. You probably can’t see it but he has a very pointed nose and is quite tall and thin. Didn’t you say you found him in the park? I’m not sure about him at all.”
“That’s not very nice, mother.  He had nowhere to stay and he pays a good rental for the spare room. He’s away every day, studying in the city-and he keeps me company all the way to work and home again.”
“Hmmph, that’s his story.  I’m not sure I believe him.  He never seems to do any study or paper work. And where does he get his money from?”
“He says he has a grant from his mentor to do his thesis.”
“Yes, but from whom? That’s what I’d like to know.”
At that moment the tread on the staircase creaked and Aaron’s light footsteps could be heard as he came down for breakfast.
“Can we change the subject, mother? Please. Is the breakfast ready?”
“It’s on the table and I’ve made your lunch. It’s beside your plate.”
Christina made her way to the table with a light touch of affirmation on the various pieces of furniture. Being partially sighted and deemed legally blind, she could distinguish large objects but not details and this morning the glare of the sun through the dining room window didn’t help. If not for her job working the switchboard in Hope’s Emporium she’d go stark raving mad staying at home. The three-storey edifice in the centre city satisfied the craving of fabric-holics and their passion gave her a steady income. Best of all it got her out of the house and away from her mother during the day.
Their family doctor had warned that eventually her mother would need to be in care, but at present except for getting lost on shopping trips and coming up with stupid ideas, like feathers lying around the house, they were both coping. The household’s power base had shifted incrementally until Christina now made most of the financial decisions and her mother’s world appeared to be retracting to within the four walls of the house.  
Since shopping had become a hazardous journey that distressed her mother, causing tears before she even left the house, Aaron the boarder had proved to be very useful.  If he knew of her mother’s need to shop for supplies he’d skip his university lectures for that day and go with her, assuring Christina he could continue his studies of human behavior, while escorting her mother to town and back.
Pity he didn’t know how to drive.  The car her late father had driven sulked in the garage. Sometimes she sat in it, catching faint traces of her father’s pipe smoking habit and missing him terribly. She even held long one-sided conversations with him in the privacy of the garage, asking his advice and hoping for a miraculous reply. Being an only child weighed heavily on her shoulders as her mother’s brain became more addled. The doctor had cancelled mother’s driving licence some months ago and Aaron seemed keen on learning until she’d mentioned a birth certificate being required to sit the final tesa. Even when she offered to pay for his driving lessons he wouldn’t relent.
“Morning all,” Aaron said as he sat down and began to eat his cereal, taking a small amount of fruit but heaps of cereal.  ‘Eats like a bird’ her mother sometimes muttered behind his back.
“Cheap to keep,” Christina would whisper back.
On their way to the bus, with Aaron’s hand tucked under her arm as they crossed the road, she thought back to how they’d met.
It had started when her shoulder-bag fell off the park bench.
She hated it when that happened.  It made her feel so stupid to scramble around on the ground collecting things. But, as luck would have it on that day Aaron had stopped and asked if he could help. He’d retrieved her lipstick, security cards and her phone, handing them to her piece by piece as she filed them back in their correct pockets of the bag. Then he’d sat beside her, chatting while she ate her lunch.
When he discovered she had limited vision he’d regaled her with his view of the park and what people were doing.  His descriptions made her laugh. She imagined what they were actually doing and told him so. Secretly she liked his version better. It was as if she were teaching a youngster about the world around them and the things people did to relax in their breaks. Some sunbathed, some played cricket or kicked a ball in a rudimentary game of football. Frisbees were thrown, youths on skateboards whizzed along the path and children ran, tumbled, became momentarily lost and tried to climb into the fountain. A mother’s frantic rescue actions had amused him and the concept of drowning seemed to puzzle him.
He had no understanding of slang terms and she couldn’t place his accent; from the Colonies perhaps? His vowels twanged at a different pitch to the usual tone, yet it wasn’t Cockney, Scottish or Midlands.
Whenever she asked him where he’d been brought up he murmured ‘out of touch with society’.  Once he’d said Titan so she presumed he was of Greek origin from some small rural town. He explained his daily arrival at the park bench as a break in his study schedule and she’d resorted to taking more sandwiches and extra fruit so he could share her lunch. Four weeks ago he’d told her he needed somewhere to live and did she know of a place he could stay?
Confident in his company she’d offered their spare room. The extra cash would help with expenses and while her mother was still able to cook it would create extra stimulation to have another adult in the house. Aaron had accepted and after assuring her that the contents of his carry bag were all his worldly goods he travelled home with her that evening.
“I’ve learned to travel light,” he’d said and when she stated the weekly charge for board and lodgings she’d expected him to negotiate, but he accepted without a query.
“I have sufficient money.”
He did? That was a new twist. A thread of worry wormed its way into her usually complacent nature and she blurted out, “You haven’t robbed a bank have you?”  
She must have looked concerned because Aaron added, “I’ve been given a large sum for some recent assignment papers I submitted. My employers are pleased and wish me to continue.” His voice became clipped and short.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have suggested that.  It was a weak joke.” She’d placed her hand on his arm, so thin and frail. He needed fattening up. One thing her mother was good at was cooking hearty meals. “You can meet me here after work.” The sun was behind him and she saw him nod. “I brought you this.” She delved into her bag and retrieved ‘Elementary Braille’.  “You can study it.  It’s what I was telling you about. How I read. It’s a language of dots and bumps and sometimes they are placed on things like the buttons in lifts, on public notice boards and in places where blind people could be injured if they go the wrong way.”
He took it. She heard the thick pages flicking and it seemed as if she had handed over a friend. A thread of panic made her utter, “Don’t lose it. It’s my only copy.”
“I’ll read it this afternoon while I’m waiting for you to finish work.”
“You’ll need more than one afternoon to study it.”
“I’m a fast learner.  You’ll see.  Perhaps by tomorrow I’ll be able to write you a message; a private personal message.”
And he did.  The next morning he had a message pricked out on firm paper, laid by her plate at the breakfast table. ‘Thank you for your friendship and hospitality’ it had read. “I will be a good lodger.”
He was. Now, a month later it seemed he’d always been there. She loved having someone to share her books with and leave messages for; private conversations her mother couldn’t read.
Since then life had settled into a new routine. The responsibility of her mother’s wanderings had been eased by Aaron’s willingness to accompany Mother on trips beyond the garden fence. In the evenings they took walks, played board games or watched television; a threesome and a man in the house again. Christina fought the longing in her heart and tried to ignore the lift in her spirits as she walked in the door and heard Aaron’s voice. No young man would be interested in a girl with only partial sight.  A girl who couldn’t even see what he really looked like, except tall and thin; with a beaky nose according to her mother.
****
Weeks later, with life bubbling along and Christina fighting a growing attraction to Aaron, her mother’s health took a turn for the worse. Not just a turn, but a disastrous collapse as far as Christina could see, even with her limited vision.
At dinner, over a meal of meatballs and pasta, with fresh vegetables from the garden Aaron had resurrected, her mother announced, her voice ringing with suppressed excitement. “Chrissie, today we had a space ship in the back yard. I got to meet the driver.  He had funny ears and when Aaron told me his name I couldn’t remember it, so I called him Spock.” Her mother waved her fork in the air. The light glinted off it as it passed Christina’s nose. “You know – that Spock, from the T.V.”
Christina’s stomach contracted at the sheer lunacy of it. No good arguing. Mother had been known to throw her dinner into the air when crossed in conversation.
“That’s nice,” she said instead.
“You are being patronizing,” her mother snapped. “You think I’m crazy.  I’m not. It was a small green spaceship and when I went up the short ladder to get inside it seemed much bigger once you were in it. Like the Tardis in Dr. Who.”
Her mother’s fantasies seemed to follow the theme of television series. This was a new twist.  She gave in. “Tell me about it, Mother. Sounds very exciting.”
“It was. It was.” There was a pause with only the scratching of their knives and forks on the dinner plates. Christina suspected more nonsense would follow, but couldn’t resist trying to puncture her mother’s certainty. “Did the neighbors see it?”
“Luckily, no. Once it rises more than ten feet off the ground it disappears. Spock told me. Besides, we have a tall hedge around the backyard. That’s what happened when it left. Didn’t it Aaron?”
Now her mother drew Aaron into the story.
“Mmmm,” he answered. Very much a ‘neither confirm or deny’ answer; of no help at all.
“Then,” her mother pushed her chair back.  It screeched along the polished wood floor as she stood. “Best of all, Chrissie, Spock gave me a pill.  He said it will help with my forgetteries.  Won’t cure me, but should stop me losing any more memories.”
If only. However, the hope and joy in her mother’s voice prevented Christina from saying anything more than, “That’s nice, Mother.” She turned to Aaron. “What do you think, Aaron? Can a pill help mother? Even one from an alien?”
“Quite possible,” he said.  “Worth trying – and Spock is a Titan, not an alien per se.”
Per se? Was Aaron being pedantic or facetious?  Was Spock from Greece? Did he really exist? Who was losing their mind around here? Could dementia be catching and now Aaron had it. The thought of being responsible for two wandering adults in the household brought tears to her eyes.
“Why are you crying?”
She heard him stand and move around the table toward her. His thin arm wrapped around her shoulders, his warm cheek pressed against hers as he bent to whisper.
“You are so pretty, and crying will make your eyes red.  Don’t do it.”
“I can’t help it.” She gulped and took a breath. “Mother’s mind is becoming so full of holes and now her imagination is running riot.” She felt for and grasped his hand. “You’ve been such a help with her, but I have to say that siding with her when she tells tall stories like this doesn’t really help me cope.” She sniffed, fiddled around to find her handkerchief and blew her nose more loudly than a lady should. ‘Besides, if she gets too crazy you might leave and I’ll miss you terribly.”
He grasped her hands in his and pulled her to her feet, wrapping her tight against his chest.  She could hear his heart beating rapidly; such a comforting sound; strong and regular like an energetic clock counting off the seconds.
“I don’t intend leaving, Christina.  May I call you Chrissie? I note that your mother does.”  She nodded.  His chest rose as he took a breath. “Actually, Chrissie, I have an admission to make myself.”  Her stomach clenched. What had she missed seeing? Damn this poor sight. “I’m from Titan as well.”
“Yes, you told me before.  Whereabouts in Greece is it?”
“It’s not in Greece.  It’s a moon that circles Mercury.”
“You mean the planet Mercury?”  Now he was purporting to be an alien. “Truly?” It couldn’t be true.
“Yes, I’m here studying human behavior.  You know this.  I told you when we first met. My reports go back to the mother-ship and occasionally Spock, which isn’t his real name of course, visits me. He gives me money and catches up on my progress.”
To gasp and faint away seemed a bit extreme, especially as Aaron had his arms around her.
“I want to stay here with you and your mother. It’s secure and pleasant and I’ve become very fond of you both.  This is why I asked our Expedition Commander Thanglenphiiphlop…”
“Spock?”’
“Yes Spock…, if he could help with your mother’s dementia. It’s an experiment and I hope you don’t mind because it could work.”
Did she mind? An alien living in their house, curing her mother’s dementia and growing vegetables like a professional. Not to mention being good around the house. As her mother gave up housework, Aaron had picked up the slack. No-one in the village had commented badly about his appearance or otherwise, except to say what a lovely young man they had living with them.
Weighed against coping on her own, living with an alien seemed a small price to pay.
“I’d love you to stay, Aaron. At least until your study time expires.”
He held her at arm’s length. “I think I can make it stretch out for many years.”
Relief coursed through her and tired of resisting her attraction to him she slid her hands under his shirt front and wrapped her arms around him to stroke his back.
Under her fingertips his feathers rippled. Feathers?
Well that explained her mother’s complaints.
“We might be able to do something for your sight as well,” Aaron murmured and her heart tried to jump out of her chest.
“It would be great to see the spaceship not to mention seeing the feathers you wear.” She trailed her fingers down his spine again.
“Hmmm. We’ve mastered making most things with our 3D printers but can’t seem to get rid of the occasional band of feathers.”
“I love the feel of them.” They slipped like silk under her fingers. The sensation calmed her.
A cough brought her back to the present.  
“Excuse me you two love birds, but your meal is getting cold.  I don’t slave over a hot stove to have my cooking ignored.  You can cuddle later.”
Mother appeared to be getting her mojo back.
THE END

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