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when the sun sets and darkness comes, i only remember your warmth

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1992

Gwendolyn dies on a cold December morning, taking with her all the warmth in the house.

It’s peaceful, she’s peaceful, and wrapped in Mildred’s arms when she goes, just the two of them. They’ve lived an entire exquisite lifetime together.

She bends, presses a kiss to Gwendolyn’s forehead, the paper-thin skin there chilly beneath her touch, and wipes away her own tears from Gwen’s cheek. “Oh, my sweet,” she rasps, her voice catching, “you are my heart and you are my soul.”

She clutches the sleeve of Gwendolyn’s woolen sweater to her nose, breathing in deeply. She doesn’t want to forget this smell for as long as may have left on this earth, orange peel and cigarettes, so distinctly Gwendolyn.

The memories come to her like snapshots of a polaroid then (they say smell is most closely linked to memory).

*

1948

“You have to brace yourself in the stirrups, darling!” Gwendolyn hollers, clutching her hand to her chest. She’s bent over laughing, she can’t help it Mildred is sure, watching her attempt to ride a horse for the first time.

“I told you I wasn’t cut out for this!” Mildred shrieks back, uncharacteristically loose hair billowing behind her as the horse, Honey – something or other, canters around the ring.

Her heart beats wildly in her chest, matching the pace of the great animal below her, and she hates it. Mildred feels as if any second she’s going to fly off the horse and surely injure herself irreversibly. She’d agreed to try though, for Gwendolyn, because horseback riding had been such a large part of her childhood, and she’d wanted to share it with Mildred.

She grips the reins, knuckles white with effort, and grits her teeth. She’s committed (scared).

Later, Gwendolyn helps her off the horse, her eyes shining with delight. She takes a very dusty and very sweaty Mildred in her arms, kisses her on the nose.

*

1950

In the split second after she hurls the teacup in Gwendolyn’s general direction, she’s immediately horrified when it shatters into a million ceramic pieces around her slippered feet.

Mildred gasps, the rage coursing through her blood quickly turning to shame.

Gwendolyn looks afraid of her. She raises both hands, slowly backing away, fear etched in the lines of her face. “Okay,” she whispers, as if in surrender, “okay.”

“Gwendolyn.” Mildred starts towards her. “Oh, god, Gwendolyn, I’m so sorry. Please, I – I’m so, Gwen, oh.”

“No, no,” Gwendolyn stutters, pulling up the hem of her dressing gown. She’s heading for the kitchen door.

Oh, god, Mildred thinks, the very oxygen leaving her body, she’s leaving me.

“Gwen, please,” she begs. “I’m so sorry. We had a fight. I didn’t mean to -  I promise it will never happen again. Please don’t leave me.” She’s babbling. She’s frightened.

A hand on the doorknob, Gwendolyn turns, looks Mildred in the eye. “I’m not leaving you, I’ll never leave you. But if this is going to work, this cannot happen again."

They take a short break then, a little two-month interlude.

*

1951

Outside, she’s composed. She’s Mildred Ratched. She’s composed.

Inside, her heart judders in her ribcage, a bird yearning to escape.

She’s meeting Gwendolyn’s mother, a spectacular woman according to Gwendolyn: generous, inviting, and accepting of her daughter’s ‘condition.’

Gwendolyn squeezes her shoulder. “Go on,” she whispers, “mother doesn’t bite.”

A kindly-looking woman, a carbon copy of her love, or rather Gwendolyn of her, rushes forward to greet Mildred, to tug her into a tight embrace. “It is wonderful to meet you, dear Mildred,” she says, warmly, “I’ve heard so much about you.”

Her first instinct is to stiffen in the woman’s embrace, yet Mildred fights against it, sinks into Lucinda Briggs’ arms. How is it she smells of the same orange peel her Gwen does?

“The pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Briggs,” Mildred replies, pulling away to meet the woman’s benevolent gaze.

They spend an afternoon together, in Gwendolyn’s childhood home, and Mildred takes to Lucinda instantly.

“It’s no wonder you’re as fantastic as you are, Gwen,” Mildred exclaims, later, in the car. She’s warm, contended, grateful to have been folded into Gwendolyn’s family with such ease.

  *

1952

Gwendolyn takes her to the very bar she balked at so intensely years prior.                      

“Come on, doll!” Gwendolyn hoots, twirling her by her hands, catching her when she spins a hair too fast.

Mildred laughs, and it’s a rich, joyous sound. She’s enjoying herself, dancing here with Gwendolyn, surrounded by other women like them. It’s mundane, really, in the grand scheme of things, going dancing, but it feels so good to feel Gwendolyn’s body against hers, swaying gently to the music.

“Why haven’t we done this before?” Mildred questions, a smile splitting her lovely features.

Gwendolyn thumbs away a piece of hair that has fallen from Mildred’s updo, sweeps it away from her sweaty skin. “I tried, remember?” she quips, one precise eyebrow raised.

Mildred laughs again. “Touché.”

*

1953

Mildred traces the silky cheek of the sleeping infant in her arms. She can hardly fathom it.

Jo Ratched-Briggs.

Jo Ratched-Briggs is theirs.

“Look at her,” Gwendolyn whispers, awe coloring the words. She reaches for the baby’s clenched fist, takes it in her own, bends down to kiss the skin there.

Mildred watches her love watch their daughter, and never in her wildest dreams did she think she’d get this. This perfect, cherubic child, and brilliant, wonderful life partner.

The memory of a fearful and lonely nine-year-old Mildred flits across her memory then, and she blinks it away, swallows against the sudden rush of tears threatening to spill.

Little Mildred had known only pain, and she promises in that moment Jo will never know pain a day in her life if Mildred has anything to do with it.

As she takes in the delicate, beautiful face of her child, a great, yawning chasm opens up inside her.

“It’s love,” Gwendolyn murmurs thoughtfully, like she knows. She wraps her arms around Mildred’s middle, chin on her shoulder, bracketing the baby between them.

Jo blinks her eyes open then. Like she knows too.

*

1956

“Shhh!” Mildred hisses, slapping a hand over Gwendolyn’s open mouth.

Gwendolyn laughs around her fingers, a lilting melody. “Darling, everything is just fine! Jo is sound asleep.”

Sighing, Mildred rolls her hips down against Gwendolyn’s, caught somewhere between chasing the desperate ache between her legs, and staying quiet so their child doesn’t walk in on them for the third time that week.

“That’s what we thought last time,” she grumbles, placing her hands on Gwendolyn’s shoulders for leverage.

Gwendolyn moans (it’s kindling, really, and sends a pointed beat to Mildred’s center), when their bodies meet in an intimate press. “Just trust me,” she begs, “and fuck me.”

Mildred adores Gwen like this, spread out beneath her, naked save for an unbuttoned blouse, and keens when Gwendolyn grips her ass to control her movements. It’s enough for Mildred to forget then, about Jo, and she makes exquisite love to Gwendolyn like she asked her to.

In the after, both satiated, Mildred swings a leg low over Gwendolyn’s hip and rests her head on her chest. Heart rate slowing, sweat cooling on her skin, it comes to her then.

“Gwen?”

“Mhm?” comes the sleepy reply.

“You bribed her, didn’t you? To keep her in her room.” Mildred pokes a finger at Gwendolyn’s ribs.

Gwendolyn doesn’t open her eyes. “What’s an extra scoop of chocolate chips on her pancakes tomorrow morning?”

" You’re impossible.”

  *

1959  

It’s domestic bliss, this, Mildred thinks, eyeing Gwendolyn as she stirs the boiling liquid. Even if she’s supposed to be in bed, struck by a seasonal cold, she just wants to watch her love putter about the kitchen. Despite an achy head and scratchy throat, her insides are aglow, and she knows it has nothing to do with the fireplace roaring in the next room.

“Would you please get back in bed, you poor, sick thing?” Gwendolyn beseeches of her. “I know you usually do the cooking, but I promise I can manage a pot of soup,” she chuckles.

Mildred laughs, a pathetic, tinny sounding croak. “I do trust you, Gwen, I just like watching you in the kitchen.”

“And why’s that?” Gwendolyn questions, tossing a dish towel over her shoulder like she’s an old hat.

Mildred is quiet, embarrassment turning her cheeks pink. They’re years into their relationship, child and all, and still she grapples with the depth of her feelings for Gwen sometimes. Clearing her throat, she replies, “It just reminds me that nobody has ever taken care of me the way you do.”

Gwendolyn turns then, her face unreadable. In two strides she’s at Mildred’s side and she’s leaning in to kiss her.

Mildred shrieks, bats her away. “I’ll get you sick!”

“Don’t care,” she murmurs, pressing her lips to Mildred’s. “I’ll always take care of you, Millie.”

*

1964

She’s frightened. She’s frightened like she hasn’t been in recent memory, heels carrying her swiftly along the hospital corridor.

“Gwendolyn Briggs,” she tells (demands of) the young woman at the nurse’s station, eyes wild, “where is she?”

Mildred rushes into her hospital room, chokes on air when she sees Gwendolyn in the bed, bruised, bandaged, and bloody. “Gwen!” she sobs.

“Oh, my love,” Gwendolyn coos, patting Mildred’s hair with her good hand as she places her head in her lap. “I’m alright, I promise.”

“You cannot ever leave me, do you hear?” Mildred breathes, her fear a visceral thing.

“Who said anything about me leaving? The car is totaled, but I’m alright, save for a concussion and some broken bones,” soothes Gwendolyn.

Mildred tastes the salt of her tears, shudders at just how close she came to losing her.  

*

1973

Their daughter is getting married. She’s 20, a wispy, beautiful slip of a thing, all bouncing curls and large brown eyes.

Mildred and Gwendolyn have known nothing but joy raising her. Though not borne of them biologically, she is their child unequivocally, and they have given her just as much as she has given them.

“Mama,” Jo whispers, resting her forehead against Mildred’s, “can you believe today’s the day?”

Mildred’s heart clenches something fierce. She doesn’t want to let her baby go.

“I certainly can, my darling child.” Mildred swallows around the lump in her throat. “You are my everything, but you’re grown, and it’s time you begin making a home of your own with that wonderful man of yours.”

At Jo’s request, both Mildred and Gwendolyn walk her down the aisle, Mildred’s insides ping-ponging between boundless joy and deep longing.

Later, Gwendolyn tells her the pair have finally decided on a honeymoon destination.

“Oh?” Mildred raises an eyebrow. “And to where will our lovely couple be setting off?”

“Rock climbing in Yosemite Valley,” Gwendolyn answers.

Mildred groans. “Gwendolyn, that child is all yours.”

*

1976

Old habits die hard.

It’s a sunny day, the irony of which is not lost on Mildred, when they bury Edmund near a large oak tree.

The years have come and gone and despite her heart growing three sizes in her lifetime with Gwendolyn, when it comes to her brother she’s cool and detached.

Gwendolyn holds her hand, her forever anchor, and something akin to agony grows in the pit of Mildred’s belly. So much of her life’s pain has been wrapped up in Edmund’s very existence, so his death is nothing short of complicated for Mildred.

Eyes shielded beneath sunglasses, it isn’t until they lower him into the ground that the cool, detached mask slips.

She weeps into Gwendolyn’s shoulder, “my brother, my brother.”

*

1980

“Come join me,” Mildred half-demands, arm poking through the bath water.

“Oh, alright,” Gwendolyn acquiesces, undoing the belt of her robe. “Since when can I say no to you?”

Mildred chortles, “that’s right.” She accepts Gwendolyn’s hand, helps her settle into the V of her legs.

“How is it in my old age you still wish to be naked with me?” Gwendolyn ponders aloud, settling her head against Mildred’s chest.

“You are as beautiful as the day I met you, Gwendolyn Briggs,” replies Mildred.

Gwendolyn snorts. “You flirt.”

She sighs, the sound lost to the humid air, as Mildred strokes gentle, familiar fingers through hair that has long since gone gray. The silence stretches between them, warm and comfortable.

It’s just another day.

It’s just another day, thinks Mildred, of a most glorious life.

*

1983

“Getting our affairs in order is not a harbinger of imminent death, dear,” Gwendolyn says gently.

Mildred feels like an exposed nerve.

“I do understand that, Gwen, but all discussion that makes reference to your death truly frightens me,” she explains, throat tight.

Gwendolyn comes to stand by Mildred then, pulls her into an embrace, slots all the curves of their bodies together like worn puzzle pieces. Mildred clings to her love, nuzzles her nose into the crook of her neck.

The sunlight filters in from an open window, bathing the pair in a luminous glow.  

“I know,” she soothes, running tired, old fingers down the length of Mildred’s back, “I just want to make sure you’re taken care of, that Jo and Tom and the little one are taken care of.”

Mildred pulls back, sternly looks Gwendolyn in the eye. “And how is it you know you’re going to go first?”

“Because I can’t be on this earth without you.”

  *

1993

Mildred dies on a cold December morning, taking with her all the warmth in the house.