This story is by Jo Jackson and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“What on earth are you wearing?” Michael laughed, which swiftly became a coughing fit.
“I like it.” Sarah pulled at the huge terracotta coloured sweater dwarfing her frame. She wasn’t wearing it because of the way it looked.
“You hated it when I wore it.” He leant back against the pillows with a half-smile as she carefully sat beside him.
“It itched.” She kissed his cheek, “made snuggling difficult.” She frowned but hid it well. His cheek was bristled now, another small sign of how things had changed. Were changing. “So,” she smiled as brightly as she could manage, “good day?”
“Same old, same old.” He let out a long breath and turned his head towards hers. “Nothing much. Doctors. Nurses. Tests.” His smile grew cold. “Lies.”
“Not lies. Hope.” She corrected, banishing the lump rising into her throat as reality threatened to crash around them. “There’s always hope.”
“If that were true, darling, then the word ‘hopeless’ wouldn’t exist, would it?” Michael kissed her nose, his expression softer once more.
“Hopeless indicates less hope than normal, not no hope at all.” She countered, her chin tilted upwards, ending her argument by sticking out her tongue.
They laughed for a while at that, briefly forgetting where they were, why they were there.
She didn’t say goodbye when the time eventually came to leave. For her, saying goodbye was difficult under normal circumstances. Saying goodbye knowing it could be the last time was impossible.
She kissed Michael twice, hugging him close.
“Rest, please, and try to keep the corny lines to a minimum. The night nurses have far better things to do than listen to your attempts at flirting.” Sarah teased with a wink as she slipped out the door. Waves and grateful smiles for the nurses watching over him in her absence and then out into the fresh air, easing her way through the bank of stressed looking smokers lining the walkway until she reached her car.
Sarah kicked the apartment door shut behind her, dropping her keys onto the sideboard and shucking off her shoes. She slowly walked through to the living room and dropped heavily into the armchair before turning on the TV, blue tinged light dancing across the walls. Setting the remote down on the coffee table her eyes were drawn to a photo in a silver frame.
It was a photo of the two of them taken during a vacation to the mountains. He was wearing the sweater she now lived in and she was wearing a matching one in grey. Their faces were bright with joy and excitement, cheeks pinked from the cold and their arms wrapped around each other. She picked up the frame and set it in her lap, running a fingertip gently over the glass. He’d been right. She had hated the jumper she now found herself wearing constantly but she wore it to keep him with her. She hadn’t been able to hold his hand as she drifted off to sleep for the last few months, so she cuddled that god-awful piece of knitwear like a security blanket. Letting memories fill her fleeting dreams, memories of lying together with fingers intertwined. Their hands had always fitted so perfectly together, just as their hearts had. Sarah never failed to feel calmer and safer with his hand in hers. Stronger and braver. Without him she honestly felt part of her was missing. Dying and fading just like Michael was.
Her eyes fixed on Michael’s happy face in the photo. His face was fuller, his eyes sharp and keen. He hadn’t looked that way in a while although she couldn’t quite remember when the change happened. The weight loss had initially highlighted his features, making him look younger. Now he was gaunt and thin, his eyes duller. It was a terrifying transformation to see.
Almost on cue her stomach growled and she begrudgingly set the frame back on the table and padded into the kitchen. She was thinner now too. Stress and worry all serving to curb her appetite. She’d kept hoping that one day they’d turn around and say they were wrong, that he’d be home soon. She knew she was kidding herself but she had to hope. Without hope she’d fold. Crumple like paper and be useless. He needed her hope as much as she did.
She stared blankly at the contents of her fridge, torn between hunger and the nausea she felt at the idea of having to actually eat something. Eventually she made herself a sandwich along with a glass of milk and headed back towards the flickering light in the other room. Half a sandwich later she could feel her eyes growing heavier.
The sound of the TV helped her relax a little and somewhere between a soap opera and a chat show she dozed off, curled up in his sweater.
In the middle of the night the phone rang.
Shrill, unwanted and terrifying.
“Yes! Hello, who is it?” She babbled, her heart racing. A wave of anxious nausea rolled through her while her hand swiped at the remote.
“Sarah, it’s Rachel,” it was the softly spoken night nurse.
“Oh no,” Sarah’s eyes welled up and her voice broke.
“No, not yet but,” Rachel paused, “you should come.”
“I’m coming.” The phone was dropped with no care whether it connected with the cradle or not, Sarah was out of the door in seconds. Shaking hands snatching up the keys as she held back choking sobs that made her body shudder.
The drive to the hospital took an infuriatingly long time. The streets were deserted at that time of night and yet red lights still glowed ominously in her direction. Every stop at a junction meant another minute slipping away. And then another. Tear bright eyes flicked from the latest red light to the dashboard clock and back again.
“Screw this,” she muttered, gunning the accelerator and roaring down the deserted streets, praying she didn’t see blue lights flicker into view behind her.
“I shouldn’t have left.” Her hands slammed against the wheel in frustration. “I should’ve stayed!”
When at last she arrived she left her car across two bays and couldn’t have cared less. The soles of her trainers slapping against the floor as she ran down the corridor, dodging the end of a bed as it wheeled from one ward to another and hurdling the mop of a cleaner.
“Not yet, oh please, not yet.” She chanted, breathlessly, as she ran. Not stopping until she reached his room. The nurse at the desk gave a watery smile.
It was serious, then.
She took a moment to catch her breath, to widen her eyes and try to get rid of any tears creeping into them, licking her dry lips before opening the door.
“What are you playing at, huh?” she smiled, or she hoped she did. The urge to cry rapidly becoming too much to bear. “Scaring the life out of me.” She tried not to see how much paler he looked, how tired.
“You know me,” the words took forever to form and leave his lips, “always loved my drama.”
There were tubes at his nose, fresh lines connecting him to various bleeping machines. She couldn’t sit beside him so she dragged a chair as close as she could get to the bedside, leaning over IVs to take his hand.
“Such a drama queen.”
He smiled and opened his mouth to speak but then either changed his mind or just couldn’t do it.
“Just relax, I’m here now,” she urged softly, trying to keep her voice level while her stomach rolled ominously.
“I was waiting…”
“I know, stupid red lights, I don’t even know why they keep them on at night. It was like every single turn I made, boom, another one.” She rambled, she couldn’t help it.
Anything not to face what was right in front of her.
“Oh hush, don’t,” she swallowed but the lump in her throat wouldn’t go. “don’t be saying that.” Her thumb swiping back and forth across the back of his hand, stroking around the needle buried in the flesh.
“I didn’t want…without you…”
“You never have to do anything without me, ever.”
His hold grew slack, hers tightened. Trying to hold back the impossible. Time. Death.
“Sarah?” Michael’s voice cracked, she felt his body tremble beside her.
“I’m here. I’ll always be here.” Her throat hurt, a sting making it hard to talk at all, but she carried on. “Always and forever, remember?”
“Love you. Always, I love…” All at once his voice sounded like it was coming from far away. Hard to hear clearly, like his words were being snatched away by a wind. Sarah buried her face in his sheets.
“No, please. Please stay,” The first tear ran down her nose and into the bedding, followed swiftly by countless others. “Don’t go…”
The bleeping of the machines slowed and then, he wasn’t holding her hand any more.