Hospitals always have that one smell: death and decay, barely masked by cheap air freshener and industrial grade sanitizer. I never dreamed you’d be part of the former.
Unfortunately for me, the effect of the odor is strengthened by the fact that the air in your room has long since grown stale with our own emissions. As usual, I am struck by the urge to open the tiny window overlooking the bare asphalt of visitor parking. Maybe I’d jump. But of course, these windows don’t open, leaving me as much a prisoner in your room as you are in your own body.
It is unfathomable, the fact that something so frail could be killing you. That the very thing fighting to see you through to another day, is also the thing that ignited the battle. Cell versus cell, atom versus atom, a civil war with yourself.
I watch the clear liquid drip out of the plastic bag hanging over your head. It drips into your IV line, and I imagine puncturing it with a needle, watching it pop like water balloons on your eighth birthday. Funny how quickly things can change. Just months ago, I surveyed the scene as you weaved your way through a barrage of water-filled grenades, a laugh that I couldn’t hear etched onto your face.
Your laugh. Oh god, your laugh. Like a spark that caught swiftly and softly, bathing everything in the most pleasant kind of warmth. I almost smile thinking about it. Almost. The truth is, I only smile for your benefit now. Only when you’re watching and it might make you smile back.
The starched blankets rustle, and the cheap plastic bedframe creaks, drawing my gaze away from the dark window to which it had drifted. It lingers on your hair, ratty and grease slicked from days of you feeling too weak to shower. And then on your cheekbones, which in good health would come to be the envy of every wannabe teenage model. Ailing as you are, though, your sunken face reveals far too much of that bone structure. And finally, it comes to rest on your haunted eyes. Those that once reminded me of pillow fights and ice cream smeared smiles are now reminiscent of something out of a Poe story.
It is killing me to see you like this, and I silently wish that I meant that literally. What desire have I to live when you are receding from this world like a wave from the shore?
But I tuck those thoughts away, because you are awake now, looking up at me with bleary eyes that are bogged down with the knowledge that their time for remaining open is limited. Eyes that were once stricken with fear and disbelief at the news have since grown numb to the cold facts of your life.
Most people grapple with this fact until it consumes them. We are all going. It is the one battle we must lose, the one defeat we all share. I can accept this for myself, but not for you. And nothing could have prepared me for watching you accept this so soon.
Although, perhaps you had not fully made peace with it, for the first thing you said when you found strength to part your lips was: “I didn’t finish Harry Potter.”
My mouth hangs agape, unsure of how to react. You continue. Quietly. Plaintively. “I didn’t finish it. And I never will. Ever.”
Your phrasing sends me reeling into flashbacks of booze buzzed nights playing Never Have I Ever. I cradle your head in my arms. You can’t finish it, but I have, and I allow the magic of the pages to drift from my mouth like a breeze, guiding you through every plot twist and moment of suspense in an attempt to give you a glimpse—just a glimpse of what you could have seen. I finish and I watch the gears of your mind turn as quickly as they can under such heavy medication. The fact that I have lived much longer, and seen much more catches on, and soon we have developed a bittersweet game: Never Will I Ever.
“Never will I ever: kiss a boy”
So I brush my lips against your cheek, and tell you that it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be. That sometimes they put their tongue in your mouth and it’s so slimy, like a snail. Your face scrunches up, twisted in utter disgust at the thought.
“Never will I ever: get married”
So I go to the bathroom, and return holding a veil of one-ply toilet paper that I drape over your head, hiding what’s left of your hair. I grin back at your weak lipped smile, hand you the pot of plastic flowers that was lying on the sill, and by the power vested in me by the Divine Right Of Those With Dying Loved Ones, I pronounce you the wife of your most dearly beloved teddy bear.
“Never will I ever: get in a fight”
So I lean in and tell you to let me have it. Pop me right in the kisser. You giggle at my phrasing until it turns to a wheeze. And I pretend the strike of your bony knuckles hurts like being hit by a car. Then I let you kiss it better, and I assure you it’s definitely going to bruise later.
“Never will I ever: slow dance”
For the first time, I hesitate. There’s just enough room for me to stand you by your bed and sway you back and forth, but are you strong enough? I see your eyes beseeching me, begging for this one experience, and I can’t say no.
I take you into my arms and gingerly lower you out of your bed, careful not to tug on the IV line. I feel your arms around my neck, tugging me down as you struggle to hold yourself up. Fifteen seconds, I tell myself. Fifteen seconds and I will put you back in bed.
I wrap my arms around your waist, and lead you in tiny steps from side to side. You’ve lost so much weight, your footfalls make no noise. You are almost a ghost. I close my eyes and count down as we sway, holding onto each other in that silent hospital room.
Silent until I feel you start to slide down my body. Silent until you’ve collapsed altogether. Silent until I’m heaving you up to get you back in bed. Silent until the machines start wailing.
The high pitched whining crescendos—it’s so loud I can’t hear myself screaming for help, for someone, anyone to come save you, because all I can see through my pinhole vision is you fading from me. And I can’t feel my hands grasping your arms like vices, can’t feel my knees hitting the ground. No. All I can feel is the burning in my eyes, and the skin of my throat screaming in protest because I can’t shout your name loud enough to keep you awake. And your eyes are closed, and god, oh god, do I wish you were just sleeping, but your face doesn’t contort like that when you’re sleeping. There is no peace here.
I’m being dragged away by unseen hands. I can’t stay here, it’s okay, just remain calm. That’s what they tell me at least. But I rip my way out of their restraining arms. Back to you. I have to get back to you. If I’m there you can’t go, you can’t go, you can’t go. But by the time I’ve drunkenly stumbled my way to the door, clutching at the wooden frame of the window for support, they are pulling the sheet over your head, glancing at the clock, calling the time. And I am falling, sobbing, losing everything.
Never will you ever: wake up.
Never will you ever: open your eyes.
Never will you ever: come back to me.
Never will I ever: recover.
—Kaleigh Longe is a fourth year English major at Bridgewater State University. She recently presented an original story at the 10th Annual Undergraduate Literature Conference at UMass Boston. This is her first published work.