Taking one last drag, Joe flicked the butt between his fingers out into the yard. He weaseled out his keys, unlocked the front door, and stepped inside his house. The old man was waiting for Joe the moment he walked into the kitchen.
“Don’t say a word, boy,” the stranger murmured. He wore a strange, dull white hospital gown. A bald head covered in wrinkled, loose skin hung from a long, wiry neck. Tiny points of damned gray stared at Joe from within their sunken sockets.
Joe came to an abrupt halt. The harsh rasp of the aged intruder’s voice stopped the welling number of questions—Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my house? —from leaving Joe’s mouth. Stopped him from moving entirely while a sudden weight pressed across his chest, one he couldn’t explain.
“Don’t say a word,” the man repeated. “You don’t get much say with my like, anyhow.”
Riveted where he stood, and his say denied, Joe watched the old man slouched in his seat at the kitchen table. He sat almost doubled-over, as if the accumulation of his apparent age weighed him down—or as if he were a predator that had found a long-awaited, opportune moment. A vulture, that’s what he looked like; a carrion in the form of man. Thin, haggard lips trembled as bursts of breath escaped from somewhere within the old man’s boney torso. The trembles gave way to a resilient, manic smile as the old man spoke again. “Caught you off guard, huh? Bastards like me tend to do that.”
A hand with jagged fingers and taut, pale skin lifted from the old man’s lap. It looked frail, like it would surely tremble with either age or weakness; but it didn’t, rising slowly with measured and purposeful intent. He held the hand out before him, sprawling veins bulging underneath the skin of each digit. The old man stretched his arm towards Joe, flexing his fingers. With each flex, Joe felt the clutch on his insides increase. The pain had gone from throbbing to jabbing in an instant, and his steady breath became choking gasps, a thick fluid rising from within, playing hell with his esophagus.
“These hands of mine . . .” the man continued, “They don’t look like much. But they have their strength. And they don’t let go.”
Joe felt tears brimming as he fought to clear his throat. He swallowed hard, but that wet sensation in his throat wasn’t going away. The fear of choking on it flashed into Joe’s mind, and he struggled all the more to move, but still to no avail. He began coughing, fighting this unknown feeling. Christ, Joe thought, I think I’m gonna’ die.
A gravelly chuckle set the old man’s lanky body to shaking. He set his hand back down in his lap, his posture straightening out a tad bit with mounting confidence. “I never let go, Joe. Mark me on that. The question is: can you hold on?” The old man’s smile grew wider, like he already knew the answer to the question that Joe didn’t understand. The chuckles rose again, just as Joe’s choking threatened to cut off his air. Finding the ability to move again, Joe turned around, stumbling over to the sink. He shoved his head in and began hacking, the echoes of his throes resounding against the metal of the sink.
He felt the tension inside him ease and sensed the liquid in his throat had been coughed out, Joe straightened himself and calmed his breath. Three globs of scarlet lay spattered across the sink.
Joe tore his gaze away from the sink and back to the kitchen table. The old man was nowhere to be seen. But, somehow, Joe knew that didn’t mean the old man was gone.
Joe took in the transparent image hanging on the screen with a growing, numbing sensation. The exam table he sat on seemed to have disappeared, like he was simply floating in the antiseptic air of the hospital room. Dr. Michaels’ words echoed over and over in his head. A moment passed before the doctor spoke up again. “Like I said, Joe, this is just the first diagnostic step.” Even though he said it again, it didn’t have any more effect than when he first said it. “This is far from conclusive—all it proves is that something’s there.”
Joe mustered up a slight nod to show he’d heard the words, not to accept their merit. He kept his eyes glued to the imaging screen on the wall opposite him and the x-ray clipped to it. He traced the outline of the gray-white blur standing out against the image of his insides. The small smudge that lay just above his ribs, both up on that screen and in his body, right now, this very instant.
“We’ll need to take further scans before we’re certain,” Dr. Michaels said, the optimism in his voice still there, still forced. It was gone in his next words. “I strongly recommend further testing.”
Joe sighed and simply nodded again. A knock came from outside the door of the examination room. The door cracked open, a young blonde nurse poking her head through and giving an apologetic smile first to Joe, then the doctor. “Dr. Michaels?” she asked “Dr. Andrews is asking for you, if you’re available.” Both doctor and nurse looked to Joe. Joe gave a small smile and nodded his head, opting for a moment alone rather than more tries at reassurance. “I’ll be right back,” Dr. Michaels said, and he followed the nurse out into the hall. He shut the door behind him, and the stillness returned.
Joe tried looking at the doctor’s station a few feet away, at the floor, his hands, the ceiling -anywhere but the screen. But his gaze always shifted back to the gray-white blur. As he traced and re-traced it, a thought finally entered his mind. Christ, I could use a smoke. But the irony wasn’t lost on him, and he immediately thought better of it. That little, taunting blur was about to change things for him—already had, in fact.
This isn’t right.
Hopping off the table, Joe moved towards the wash station, with its sink and mirror. He hunched over the sink, staring at his reflection, taking in what he looked like, wondering what he’d look like a week, a month, from now. Would the same handsome, black-haired and strong-jawed man be looking back at him a year from now? Would he even be alive a year from now?
This line of thought was quickly interrupted. Motion from behind him caught Joe’s eye in the glint of the mirror. The reflective surface held a dreadful surprise. It was the old man, lurking behind him, smiling. When Joe turned around, he was alone in the room.
Tonight. That was the word that kept coming to Joe’s mind as he lay splayed on the hospital bed. Tonight, only a few hours away. Maybe then he’d be free of the thing eating away at him, free to go back to the ordinary life that had been stolen from him by a diagnosis.
He angled his head to look at the IV drip hanging over his shoulder. For the past three months, this had been what was fighting off the blurs inside him, those discolorations on so many x-rays that were gaining ground inside him. It had done its job, the IV, dripping its way into him and keeping the dogs at bay. But the doctors had long since told him it wouldn’t be enough.
He knew he’d be knocked out for it—anesthetized, that word he’d heard again and again since the scheduling. Still, he wondered what it would be like to feel the scalpel cut into him, the hands of nurses and doctors digging through his insides for those pesky blurs, searching, hoping, cutting. The image of it in his mind looked painful—an hour or two of a graphic, surreal game of Operation. But an hour or two would be a small price to pay to end the months of pains he’d already endured, and the months that could yet to pass. Or the pain of having no months left at all, of being eaten away entirely by what was inside him.
Joe turned back ahead. He looked down at his body, nestled in the bed and covered in a thin, white blanket that didn’t keep him warm. It clung to him tightly, the shrinking frame of his body outlined with stark clarity. The months had passed and his fat had gone away, leaving him rail-thin, pale-skinned, and balding. The handsome, black-haired and strong-jawed man he’d once been wouldn’t have stared back at him in a mirror, now. His failing hunger didn’t help matters; days had passed without so much as a single bite of the hospital’s food entering his mouth. Pork-chops, mashed potatoes, and the like had been untouched, silent sulking and hours of thoughts becoming his paltry nourishment, instead.
It was a lonely thing, this new life of his, if life you could call it. No matter how many visits came from doctors, nurses, and relatives, he still felt alone. But that’s the way he’d grown to want it, especially within the last week, hadn’t he? With each assurance from his mother, father, and sister, each attempt to show their bond of care and love for him, he’d grown distant. At first, he didn’t quite realize he was doing it; he chalked up his own habit of mentally-wandering during his family’s visits and attempts to cheer him to nerves over the coming operation. Though mentally-wandering soon became outright blocking out; innocent lapses in listening to them and responding in kind became refusal to hear or speak at all. With this change in his demeanor came fewer and fewer family visits, and he did not fault them for it. They wanted to see their son, their brother—not this ghost of the man they knew.
It wasn’t until one long, lonely midnight this week that Joe realized why he’d become so closed off, so willingly lonely. It wasn’t because he was bitter about the thing eating away at him, though he most certainly was. Nor was it that his family’s visits were some kind of inconvenience upon his plight or unappreciated by him; he loved them, truly, and it hurt him every time to see them leave, eyes downcast, helpless to help him and their words seemingly not enough to comfort or reach him. But what hurt more was seeing them every day, knowing he may very well never see them again if the procedure went wrong. Or even if the operation didn’t kill him, if anything were missed, left inside him to grow and fester, that would take him away from them all the same, in due time.
He didn’t realize until that night that this was his way of coping with dying. He didn’t realize until then that he didn’t look his family in the eye or speak to them because this was his way of silently letting go, of slipping away in repose rather than in drawn-out, tearful farewells.
He didn’t realize until then that he was saying goodbye. And once you’ve said goodbye, it’s time to be alone. Still, he wasn’t alone enough. The old man had come to see him often.
“And I’ll keep on stopping by,” came the all-too familiar, aged voice.
Joe’s eyes went to the corner of his room, to the lone chair left for visitors. The old man was sitting there, as he repeatedly had during Joe’s stay at the hospital, hunched, wheezing, smiling. He had been Joe’s most frequent visitor, much to Joe’s despair and irritation.
“Even after tonight,” the old man continued, “I’ll still be around to stop in and say hello!” The man spat the last words. He scowled at Joe and then at the room, as if the thought of Joe’s impending evening insulted him, angered him. In his usual hospital gown, the old man had never looked more at home, and that thought had unnerved Joe more than once. A trembling tongue flicked out and wetted the old man’s thin, gray lips before he spoke again. “You know, lying in that bed, looking so worn, so pale, so withered—you and I have never looked more alike . . .”
Joe felt nauseous as he put a mental picture of himself next to the man, realizing the old vulture was sickeningly correct. The loss of his hair, his waning complexion, his brittle form, even the hospital gown – the two were now horribly similar. Joe fought the ache in his throat to throw out a denial, but nothing came, save for a tear at the corner of his eye. The old man must have seen it, known how Joe felt. “Ah,” he whispered from across the room, “A tear. Haven’t seen many of those from you in the past few months. You’ve been stronger than I’d have thought . . .” The gravelly words came to a halt, as if the old man had suddenly plunged into deep thought. “You’ve held on . . .”
The door to Joe’s room opened. The old man disappeared in an instant and without a trace, as always. A nurse stepped in, smiling reassuringly. “It’s time to get you ready,” she said.
Two weeks passed, another surgery was done, and two more weeks of care and being on the mend came. Appetites returned, weight was regained, his constant soreness faded away. At the two weeks’ end, Dr. Michaels proudly said that Joe looked to be in the clear. He no longer had to stay at the hospital. Joe could go home.
The hard fight had been fought, and he’d come out on the other side the winner. He was even given the okay to drive himself home, something Joe greatly insisted on. His car had been left in the lot the other day, and as he walked through the sliding doors of the hospital, he was looking forward to getting behind the wheel again.
He reached his car, unlocked it, and slid in. Sticking the key in the ignition, he looked in the rearview mirror. The old man sat in the backseat, looking sullen and saying nothing. His thin body was thinner than before, nearly nonexistent. His skin was so pale as to be transparent, fading from sight. He looked defeated, sitting back there behind him.
Joe waited for a word from the old man, but nothing came. Then, Joe did something he’d never done in the presence of the old man. He smiled. “I held on,” Joe said, his voice strong, resilient, unwavering. “I held on.” And with that, the old man was gone. Joe started the car and switched it into reverse. A thought, a memory, came to him, though, and he put it back in park. Reaching over to the glove-compartment, he opened it. A half-used pack of cigarettes sat inside. He’d left them there months ago, back when he first visited Dr. Michaels. He reached over and grabbed them, holding them and staring at them in his palm. He sat that way, motionless, staring, thinking, for a solid minute.
Never again, he thought to himself. There are drags and then there are drags.
With a bittersweet laugh, Joe rolled down his window. He tossed the pack out and drove out of the lot, heading home.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com