This story is by Arin Roberson and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I bet you didn’t think you’d die so soon,” Alister said, nail tapping against the patient monitor to the rhythm of her thready heartbeat. A pair of aviators rested on the bridge of his nose, the lens so reflective it was almost like gazing into the surface of a mirror.
Banks had been avoiding mirrors, had avoided gazing upon her pallid complexion, upon her sunken features, her skin tight and sticking to her bones. Avoiding the bruised skin and flesh, the inside of her elbow a dot to dot of needle pricks from IV drips. She was a hollow shell, a bone cage with air rattling about inside.
“Any regrets?” he asked, leaning forward, his thick dark brows rising above the edge of his glasses.
“Glasses, inside? Really, Alister?” she rasped, a dry cracking sound. Banks didn’t wait for him to answer, taking a deep shuddering breath, allowing the oxygen from her nasal cannula to fill her lungs, “Of course I have regrets, not from anything I’ve done, but from everything I won’t get the chance to.”
The grin he gifted her was victorious, his white teeth catching the fluorescent lights.
“And you, Alister,” she had to pause and gather her strength, “any regrets?”
His grin faltered slightly, his lips thinning as he pursed them with something akin to anger. “Many.” His eyes wandered the faded whitewashed walls, the window that opened up onto a full parking lot, the view marred by the adjacent building almost a carbon copy of the one they were currently trapped in.
Uniformity, repetition, stability, an unbroken image of reality that sucks the very will that inhabits your limbs till you simply stop moving, or at least that’s how Alister had always seen hospitals, why he had avoided them so religiously. This particular hospital did nothing to change that opinion, reaffirmed it if anything. Even he was feeling less inclined to exert the effort of speech, but he had a purpose in visiting. If it hadn’t been worth the effort, then he wouldn’t have exerted it. While his time meant little to him, he knew how fragile it was for others.
He had stayed away too long.
“But then Banks, as you know, I have lived a long life.” He emphasized the word life, drawing the vowels out, rolling them across his tongue. She wanted to hate him for it, she couldn’t.
Her eyes roamed his unmarred, harsh, features, his healthy tanned skin, the way his glasses cut into the flesh of his cheekbones, his unchapped lips. His black hair was neatly tailored, with a hint of dishevelment. Her gaze landed on his hand wrapped around the foot of her bed. His long, thick fingers, the pale pink scar on his middle knuckle, the dark hair dusting his forearms.
She rolled her lips together feeling the rough, flaking skin. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to decide what’s worse, lived regrets or unlived ones.”
“Lived regrets mean a continued existence or at the very least a longer one than yours, I’d think it would be the preferable of the two.”
“Shouldn’t you know?”
Alister’s mouth quirked with confusion. “I don’t have any unlived regrets.”
“Shouldn’t you have more than anyone? All the opportunities lost, passed over, the people left behind?”
His laughter was harsh, lacking in humor. “You always know how to set me straight, Banks.”
“So then which is worse?”
She raised one brow, the movement barely perceptible. He took it to be a request for elaboration.
“With lived regrets at least there’s…there’s the knowledge I tried. That I lived.”
“Makes sense.” She sunk heavier into her cushions, eyelids fluttering closed, she struggled to pull them open. “Life is about chances, and success and failures, and trying. Trying so hard to live every minute to the fullest.” Tears pricked at her bloodshot eyes, as she glared at her broken body trapping her to this cotton mattress.
“Banks, my offer still stands, you know that don’t you? Just say the word.”
The tears overflowed, tracing down her sunken cheeks and staining the collar of her white hospital gown, decorated with that infernal blue design. She chuckled as she cried, it quickly devolved into wracking coughs.
“Thanks,” she murmured once she got herself under control.
His head titled with interest, his body leaning forward with hope. “Does that mean you’ve reconsider?”
“Does it only come as a packaged deal?”
“Only way I am offering it.”
“Then not at all, but it’s thoughtful of you.” She offered her upturned palm. She couldn’t see his eyes, but his mouth with tight with frustration and bitterness, his cheek twitched with anger. His hand slid softly around hers, encasing her fragile fingers in his.
“You’re an idiot,” he growled, his left hand a white-knuckled fist, his right a clawed cage around her own.
“Never claimed otherwise,” she muttered, her mouth a soft smile, the taste of her tears on her lips.
“Why not accept then? What do you have to lose?”
The smile she gave him was full of sympathy and a pinch of pity. “Oh Alister, can’t you see all you have lost, all I would?”
She used her failing energy to reach over and pat the back of his hand, it loosened turning into an embrace instead of a prison.
“Death is necessary to life. It’s scary, and terrifying, and coming for me way too soon. But it is something I have to face, be it now or when I was eighty. I don’t want to leave everyone behind. I want to step out the door knowing life is precious and can be taken from me at any moment. I want to appreciate life in the knowledge that it is finite. Immortality is loneliness.”
Alister scoffed, turning his head away. “Do I look lonely to you, Banks?”
“Always.” Her words reverberated through the suffocating room, wrapping them in the heavy truth of their reality, his body growing tense. Silence lasted several long moments, broken only by the sound of machinery. Banks just enjoyed the warmth of his flesh against hers.
When he turned back to her, it was as if she had never spoken, his smile present, his body language casual.
“I have a favor to ask.”
“If I can, I will.”
“Don’t leave me.” He reached up under his glasses pinching the bridge of his nose, his fingers came away wet.
“Everyone leaves everyone in the end.”
“I don’t,” he said, his fingers tightened around hers.
“How many people have cracked the spell for immortality, Alister?”
“You are rather the exception to my statement then.”
“Don’t leave me…please.” She lifted her free hand a few inches, her muscles trembling. He helped, grabbing her fingers in a feather-light grasp, to bring her hand to his face. She cupped his cheek, feeling the rough growth of hair against her palm. Banks only allowed herself a few moments, before pushing up on the frame of his glasses. He acquiesced and placed them atop his head, hand quickly returning to hold hers against his cheek. His eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, tears managing a delicate balance on the tips of his eyelashes.
“Alister,” she breathed, heart clenching as she was finally faced with his grief, her own eyes aching with unshed tears. “I don’t want to leave you. I need you to know that.”
“Then don’t, live forever with me, never leave me.” He turned into her hand placing a kiss to the center of her palm.
“You’d grow tired of me.”
“You’ve never been stuck with anyone for an eternity before.”
“I’ve been stuck with myself.”
“And I believe you have a good deal of self-loathing,” she tried to joke, but the words were thick and coated her tongue.
“Just because I am gone doesn’t mean-“
“If you give me any of that I’ll always be in your heart bullshit, I’ll smother you,” he choked out, his voice breaking under the strain of his grief.
She laughed, despite knowing she shouldn’t, but oh how she had missed him. These last months without him, facing this disease alone, had been bitter. “I was gonna say it doesn’t mean you wouldn’t find someone else to keep you company.”
“They won’t be you.”
He pressed her hand more firmly to his cheek, stroked his thumb across her knuckles. “Alister, there is another option. Don’t make it a package deal.”
His movements froze, he glared at her but held her as close as ever. “Heal you, you mean. So, you can what? Leave me sixty years from now. What’s the difference?”
She took a deep breath, releasing it, letting go of her annoyance. “Heal me and…and grow old with me. We don’t have to be lonely.”