Short story: Fantastical horror love story
In my head is the dim far-off image of a mother crying, a hawk ripping at a mouse’s belly, the final exhale of a possum in its den. Across from me, he tells me with a seriousness I find almost comical that he has cancer.
“Stage four, terminal.”
My fingers brush stubble as I take a drag on my cigarette. Damn, I forgot to shave again.
When I say nothing, he clears his throat. I realize too late I’ve made him uncomfortable, responding with my cigarette. I stamp out it out in the cheery blue ashtray.
“I wanted to tell you.” His cheeks flush under my steady gaze. “You know, before this went any further.”
I blink. A beetle is mauled by the grain thresher. The waitress appears, presenting mug of coffee and pot of tea. It gives me time to gather my thoughts.
“How long do you have?” I ask, wrapping my hands around my mug, letting it sear my fingertips.
He swallows hard. “Four months to a year. The doctors aren’t optimistic though.”
“Well that’s four months to a year we’ve got then.” I sip my coffee so as to make the statement appear casual. A robin falls frozen from underneath a roof awning.
He smiles briefly; a flash and it’s gone. Gazing intently into his empty teacup, the pot untouched, he says “It’s not that simple. There’s chemo, and meds. Hospital stays. My grandma had it. It gets really rough.”
“I know.” I’m looking directly at him now, unflinching. “I can handle it.”
A great white moves its fin one last time, and swims no longer. These aren’t symbols; they’re just what happens at the time. Okay, listen…
There are people who believe they’re someone or something else in some other universe or dimension. That they are a being residing in two bodies at one time. That they have this psychic connection with some creature or being. A tiger, a bird, a better person.
A wolf. Always with the wolves.
Some of them are right. Some of them are tigers and birds and even the goddamned wolves, but more are really just goldfish or cockroaches or ants.
Would that I were an ant.
I’m something else. Someone else. I witness the end of everything. I feel life drained and recycled, I sense the fallen and the destroyed, the gentle final breaths and the desperate last gasps.
In that other world or dimension or space beyond space, I am Death.
He stands before the window, taking in the sight below. Our hotel is on the Strip, though neither of us can really afford it. We don’t care. It’s like a honeymoon but without the commitment, only got this one chance, go for it. It’s what I love about him.
The sun’s still below the hotel horizon, metal rising up across the landscape. He’s watching the people below rush back and forth, preparing for a day of gambling and hustling and passing out call girl cards. I’m watching the shadows on his back as a housecat falls lifeless into a pool of its own vomit.
“Let’s stay in,” I say. I don’t expect him to agree.
“And miss all this?” He’s practically indignant, turns to me with a hand on a hip. “I want to gamble.”
“You want to lose all your money?”
“Maybe I won’t though. Maybe I’ll win something good.”
He looks out the window again, but at an angle where I could see his face. His eyes are wistful.
A squirrel has deemed one of her children not worth keeping, tumbling it to the moss below. A rat is there, as if waiting. He races away with the kit between his incisors, as it squeaks and bleeds out in a trail left behind, and I follow it.
We go gambling. He bets ten bucks and wins twenty and quits, happy. He says he had just wanted to try it out, as long as we were here. We go see the Bellagio fountain that night, that patchwork orchestra in water. As it spouts out America the Beautiful, he stares at it in wonder, eyes full of stars. When it’s over, a rabbit spasms with a final kick and bleeds out onto snow, and I kiss him. He’s so surprised he laughs.
Four days later he’s puking in my toilet. He won’t let me go with him to the clinic, says he doesn’t want me to see him like that, all strapped to the IVs. Doesn’t even want me in the waiting room. Not for me, but for him. I wonder how true that is. Either way, he shuts the bathroom door when he runs in to throw up, as if that makes it so I don’t notice. When he comes out his face is red, and I figure some of it is from embarrassment.
“Sorry,” he says.
“You say that as if it wasn’t expected,” I say.
“Well, I didn’t expect it to start so quickly.” He sits on my couch, cradling his head in his hands.
“You want something? Tea or something?”
“I don’t think I could handle it.”
“You should stay over. I don’t think you should drive.”
A swallow hits a window, snapping its neck. I wonder what it matters all of a sudden, whether he drives. Whether his focus is diverted.
He looks up and scoffs. “Cause you totally need me throwing up in your bathroom all night.”
“A perfect evening,” I shoot back.
The nausea doesn’t pass, and he ends up staying over. Not because he wants to but out of necessity. He apologizes constantly despite my telling him constantly that it’s fine, and it takes some convincing to get him to cuddle when we go to bed.
“My breath is awful,” he says.
I kiss him regardless, and he smacks me away playfully.
“You really don’t mind all this, do you.”
It’s a statement more than a question, so I don’t answer. A newborn foal struggles in its last breaths and is gone, the mother whinnying over it and nudging it with her nose. Its twin is already standing.
I can’t control that part of what I do. Who I am. It’s like watching a movie, but it’s in high-def 3D and I can feel my own coldness of hand and mind and heart. I can feel the pain of taking a life but the pleasure as well, the satisfaction of a job well done. A job that needs doing, that serves a purpose greater than any office worker’s or carpenter’s or even a doctor’s job, because a doctor saves perhaps one life a day while I keep the balance of hundreds of lives each second. After all, not everything can live, and nothing can live forever. It’s a good job. It’s a good life in that other life. But on this side, I’m still human. And every once in a while, I wish I could change things over there.
But I can’t. I can only watch. And feel.
We’re in Patterson’s Steakhouse, and he’s gaunt and covers his bald head with a winter cap. He tears the wrapping off each present painfully slow. Even this action tires him. It’s his last birthday, and with that in mind his friends have splurged on books and music and every season of West Wing. Things to pass the time. Gifts for an end.
He opens mine last as a trucker has fallen asleep at the wheel and plows over a cliff. His limbs mangle and bones shatter as his cab hits the ground. The wrapping parts to reveal a cigarette carton. His friends lean back and exchange glances as he flips it open. Inside are two rows of neatly rolled slips of paper. I’ve written something I love about him on each one. When he makes to take one out I put my hand over it and tell him they’re for later.
It’s a callback to last month when he hid a paper in my cigarettes that said “What I like about you is you don’t know how to dance, but you dance anyway,” which was a reference to that song coming up on shuffle whenever we were together in the car.
He tries to explain all this to everyone at the table, but they only give me icy attempted smiles and an icier goodbye at the end of the dinner.
“I don’t think your friends like me,” I say when we break out into the chill fall air. At the same time, the air is stifling hot as a male lion mauls a cub that isn’t his.
“No, they…” He sees me looking at him out the corner of my eye and shrugs. “They don’t know you.”
“I should have gotten you something better. Sorry.”
He elbows me weakly so that I barely feel it. “Don’t say that. Yours was my favorite. Can I look at them when we get home?”
“No, save them. They’re for when you need them.”
He grins like a child, bumps into me again. “You’re too much.”
We walk on for a bit. A couple of shops already have Christmas lights out.
“I didn’t tell the story well,” he says. “About when I stuck that paper in your carton.”
“You had to be there.” I smile at him, and he links his arm with mine. A forestfire is raging, obliterating countless creatures. Screaming, they fall to the flames.
I lose my smile.
Four weeks pass in a flurry. He goes downhill. The doctors had been right after all, to not be optimistic. His friends pass in and out of his hospital room, all of them surprised to see me there. They aren’t as frosty to me on these days. One tells me they hadn’t expected me to stick around, but they’re glad I did, that he had been happier for it. As they say this a gun fells a dog and a little boy finds himself unable to swim in a pool and wasp poison takes a bee.
He and I don’t say much to each other. Everything’s been said already. It’s very quiet when he falls asleep, only the machines beeping out his heartbeat. I watch his chest rise and fall and I take life after life and I’m numb. I haven’t cried. I don’t know I could, if I’m capable of that.
I don’t know why it matters.
I feel It arrive, and I grip his hand as if to protect him. As if I can tether him to me. And It does halt, does waver for a moment, watching me. Recognizing me as two of a kind recognize each other. We are not one, we are not connected in any way. Its self is not that other half of me. The dimensions separate these. But It knows.
“Not this one,” I whisper. “Please.”
Its voice comes in my mind, dark and even and unwavering. Cold and cavernous, telling of futility in eternity, of lives blinking in and out of existence. It would drive any other person to madness, but I’m used to it. It is the same as mine, worlds away. You know this must be done. It is the same for every living thing.
“But it’s too soon, I still – ” My voice breaks and I can’t finish.
It is time.
I have no more words. I know I can’t change anything, no matter how much or how long I argue. I rise and lean over him and look over the deep thin lines on his face that weren’t there all those months ago when we sat down for coffee and tea. I kiss him one last time. And It lets me, waits out of mutual respect. Then he’s gone.
For a full minute I pause, and take nothing.