The following post is a guest submission by Elaine Zentner. Elaine was a freelance correspondent for a national Buddhist newspaper for several years. She is focusing on completing a YA novel and editing several short stories for publication. Her first acceptance appears in the August 2015 issue of The Fable Online.
He lay huddled in his bed barely conscience, barely alive. The faint, dirty yellow light forcing its way through the grimy window fell onto his frail, sweat-drenched body. His breathing was slow, raspy. A thin, pink ribbon of blood inched its way from his nose across his paper-thin lips and onto his sallow cheek. His rheumy eyes focused on a blotch of dirt on the sheet he clutched to his chest. He tried to find patterns in its ruddy hue in an effort to ignore the betrayal of his body.
Soon his sister-in-law would come in. For weeks, maybe months, he couldn’t tell, she had attended to all his needs. When she came she would bring a cool washcloth for his head and the juice he would sip through a plastic straw. More important were the pills she brought that silenced the screams of pain that constantly tortured him. It seemed it had been much too long since her last visit with his pills. Most likely she would be right on time, but it was clear to him he needed them more often now. He wished she would give him more at a time and more often. His thoughts were always on them. When would they get there? How long until they gave him a measure of relief? The short-lived reprieve as their influence flowed through his body.
He thought he could hear her walking down the hall. He could never be sure anymore. Even sound was a betrayer now. His mind played such nasty tricks. He sometimes heard what he wanted to hear only to be disappointed many times a day.
This time, though, he was right. She walked through the door with his washcloth, juice and drug. He welcomed her warm touch as she gently lifted his head off the pillow and supported it with her arm. Barely opening his mouth he received the capsules as a communion, pursing his lips to allow her to put the straw in place. As he sucked down the juice and pills together he realized the fluid’s cool sweetness was one of the few joys left to him. He had come to expect that the taste of the juice would soon bring the numbness that would dull his misery. He anxiously waited. She murmured something to him. He didn’t know what. All his senses were used in watching for signs that relief would come. Even that effort drained him to exhaustion.
He gazed upon her face and noticed she looked tired. Her hair was tied back with a plain rubber band. A strand hung lifelessly on her cheek. Sweat lay on her face like a veil. The eyes that he remembered as being so clear and bright were bruised with dark circles. As she smiled at him he had a moment of clarity and he realized how grateful he was for all she did. He wished he had been better to her when he was still healthy.
She called out his brother’s name. He sensed the slightest touch of urgency in her voice. He could be wrong. It was hard to tell these days. There were plenty of days when he thought she sounded urgent or any number of other things. He never knew why. He just accepted that she had some reason for her feelings as he accepted everything else. He had no choice.
He heard his brother’s approaching footsteps in response. He had to strain to hear. These visits were another one of the pleasures still left to him. As the door opened he saw the expression on his brother’s face. It said volumes, but nothing he wanted to hear. For some reason he felt the need to comfort them, his brother and sister-in-law, but in truth he could barely speak. The best he could do was a feeble smile and a low, soft moan.
As his sister-in-law mopped his brow she spoke to his brother. “I think he’s ready for it now.”
He knew she was referring to the Harley Davidson sitting outside the bedroom window; his Harley, the one he had spent over a year customizing and coddling into its own life. There was a kind of resolve in her voice. She continued to apply the cool washcloth to his head. She bent and gently kissed him on the forehead. It felt nice, warm, comforting.
“No, “her husband groaned. “You know what will happen. You remember what we told him. No, not yet. He’s not ready. I’m not ready.”
He wished he understood more of what was happening.
She looked over at her patient. He saw the worry lines etched in her face. He sensed her dread and resignation. He seemed to remember they had all made some sort of pact. He vaguely recalled it, but he couldn’t concentrate. Burning pain ran through his chest like a freight train, but at least now the drug was chasing it down a dark tunnel.
“Okay,” she sighed. “Take a few minutes with him, but don’t make him suffer just because you can’t face this. He needs rest. He needs release. He needs peace.” She rose and went to her husband, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “Sit here for a while. I’ll be back in in a minute. He knows you’re here. He enjoys your visits. Talk to him. Let him know how much you care.”
She came back to her patient and, with the same tenderness she had kissed her husband’s cheek, planted the same soft kiss on his. She turned and left the room, leaving the two brothers.
His brother came to the edge of the bed and softly sat down. As his sat he plucked at the corner of the blanket hanging out of the bedding. Then he smoothed out the bed spread. His brother’s eyes darted this way and that, but occasionally he stole furtive glances at him. His brother rose and paced the room.
“Hey, remember when we did that run across the desert? That was some fun, huh? That dust storm kicked up and we had to pull off to the side of the road. Had to have a couple of beers just to wash down the dirt. Hey, you know what? We’ll do that again real soon. Just wish you’d get up outta that bed and stop foolin’ around.” With that his brother turned away, but not before the glint of a tear appeared in his eye. When he turned back a moment later he had composed himself and he wore a faint half-smile like a badly made mask.
He couldn’t speak so he tried very hard to smile back. He hated the idea that he was causing his brother so much pain. He wished that just once he had told him how much he meant to him, but he had never said it in so many words. He had said ‘Love you, bro’ as he hit him in the arm or playfully jabbed him in the stomach. But he never said it without horseplay, never said it in earnest. He desperately wanted to try now, one last time. He willed his body to yield to his command. He felt his cracked lips slowly move and saw his brother bend over him, putting an ear to his lips. He forced the breath between his teeth and whispered, “Love…you…bro.”
This time he had no need to look. His brother’s tears fell unrestrained onto his face and down his neck. His brother gently lifted him and cradled him in his arms. He could hear the other man’s sobs and his name being called.
His sister-in-law hurried into the room. “What’s wrong?” What happened? She went to both of them and kneeled next to the bed beside her husband. She looked at one of them and then the other without speaking.
At that very moment another trainload of searing pain ripped through his chest. This time there was no chase of the drug riding behind to dull it. He knew his face must have twisted horribly because his sister-in-law was crying, clutching her washcloth like a ragdoll. It was strange how the two of them seemed so far away. They hadn’t a second ago. His breathing became more labored and shallow, each movement causing a new wave of anguish. He calmly wondered if each was his last breathe. It didn’t matter much. Pain came again, but he didn’t mind that either. It passed and left him sweating and exhausted.
“Now,” she commanded, looking over at his brother. “Not a minute longer. Now.”
His brother rose and walked silently out the door. His footsteps sounded heavier as they faded down the hall and out on the porch. He heard them again as his brother approached his bedroom window outside where his bike rested.
Then he heard the Harley being taken off the stand. He heard the tires as they slid across the grass. He heard it being eased onto the driveway. For a moment there was nothing but the sounds of her sobs. He hadn’t been aware of that. Then he saw an unexpected sight. His Harley was pushed through the bedroom door.
There it stood. For him it was the gleaming red and chrome perfection of a goddess. The bike that had been his friend, his companion, his soul mate when all else seemed lost. He couldn’t believe his brother had brought it right into the bedroom, right to his bedside. It was like a vision. He thought fleetingly that it really was a vision, only another trick of his mind.
The engine was kicked over. He could hear the low grumble that was her heart. The scent of gas and oil was as sweet to him as any woman’s perfume. The damn freight train was on a nonstop course through his chest now, but he did all he could to ignore it. He only wanted to sit for one last time on his ride, to feel the cold chrome and hold the leather grips. His lips curled into a faint smile at the thought of what it would be like to take her out on the road again.
Her engine quietly thwump-thwump-thwumped in rhythm with his own heartbeat. His brother strode to the bed, leaving the bike on the kickstand. As his brother picked him up and cradled him in his arms, he wondered why there was no more pain. He felt almost giddy. He was aware that something very important was about to happen. He would be allowed to sit on his bike again, but there was something else. He couldn’t define it; he only knew this was really something.
“Bro, I love you. You’re going to go out the way you want. One last ride, okay, man?”
His brother carried him to the bike and, with her help, managed to get him astride. They put his hands in the grips and wrapped his fingers around the leather. They draped his leather jacket over his shoulders and she worked to get his boots on his feet. When she stood she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tight. Her tears fell freely onto his jacket.
As his brother revved the bike a little he felt all pain leave his body. He saw the open road right ahead of him, felt the wind on his face. He wondered briefly what he had been afraid of. He was healthy and alive. He was riding again. He drifted down the road free and happy. Up ahead he saw an easy corner. As he rounded it he was aware of a brilliant white light directly in front of him. It was the most natural thing in the world to ride right into it.