24 March 2012

Zero Hour

It's 3am and my wife is dying.  Her breathing is slow and labored; the monitor keeps careful, implacable track of her hearbeats: blipblip...blipblip...blipblip.  That steady, electronic pulse has been the metronome of my existence for two months.  Up until now, it hasn't wavered, it has held steady, even as her breath stutters and stops, gasps and resumes, when she sleeps and wakes.

Now, the count is altered.  Blip...blipblip...blip...blip...blip...

It's 3am, and I know what is about to happen.  I have dreaded this moment for months, for a lifetime, for an eternity.  I have secretly longed for it, as well, deep down in the black, Stygian depths of my soul.  I've never told anyone,  but when she finally lets go, floats away, I know she'll be free.  And so will I.

I hate myself for wanting that.  For wondering, even for a moment, in the frail, fraught silence of the hospital room, what it will be like when she is gone.  I curse myself.  I have not left her side for more than a day, in all the time she has lain here, in that mechanical hospital bed, and I wish that dedication absolved me.  But it doesn't.

She would forgive me, I know, but I cannot forgive myself.

A nurse bustles in, checks her monitors, her IV drips.  This is to reassure me.  There is nothing for them to do.  They cannot make her more comfortable.  They cannot save her.  The cancer has spread throughout her lungs, and nothing will slow its appetite. 

My eyes burn, weigh a hundred tons, my brain spins and flits in abstract circles, feeds nonsense through my thoughts.  She moans, low in her throat, almost inaudible, her eyes flutter, see me, whisper to me across the silence.  I squeeze her hand, murmur the reassurances that I have uttered a thousand times before. 

I cannot look at her.  Her head is shorn bald, reflecting the light in dull glimmers; tubes slither into her nose, mouth, arm, [like a tangled knot plastic serpents], pumping venom into her once-lovely body.  The white sheets drape her skeletal form; all that is needed is to pull it over her face, and she will be at rest.  At rest.  No, that is a coating of sickly-sweet sugar: she will be dead.  I say it to myself, whisper it under my breath, trying to make it seem real.  She will be dead.  I cannot form the words out loud, as if doing so would speed the cancer, speed the end.

This hospital room haunts me.  I look around me, take in the features that I have long since memorized: the false-wood floor, easy to clean the blood from, the pastel painting of flowering vines and flittering birds, the machines by the bedside, inscrutable, squat, mechanical demons, blinking and beeping, measuring the spaces between now and death.  I have dreamed, at times, of rising from this hard plastic chair that is my bed and my watchpost, and taking those infernal machines in my sudden-claw hands and hurling them with godstrength through the wall, through the plaster that will fill the air in white snowdust, into the hallway to skid down the tile floors that squeak with nurse-step sneaker-sounds.
Doctors glide in with pure, spotless labcoats that mock mock mock, too clean, too bright, too inconsiderate in this dark, drowsing, sick-stained place; nurses with skin-deep smiles, practiced and perfect, thumbtacked on as they enter the room with purposeless busyness, oozing false sympathy; the well-wishers with their flowers, their horrid, brilliant, colorful, meaningless flowers, their cards full of vapid phrases, frail comfort.

I cannot be angry at her, nor at myself.  We didn't ask for this; we fought this, day in and day out, together, for three years, through remission and relapse, until it was undeniable, and she could no longer fight it.  I do not know who to be angry at.  God?  The gods?  Mother Nature?  [Do any of these things mean anything, in the face of death?]  Can anger at them, or myself, or anyone, mitigate this heavy sorrow weighing me down, bearing upon my shoulders as if I were a failed Atlas, unable to support the titanic weight of the world.  I have tried to let go the anger, but I cannot.  It comes back, arisen from some hidden place, like a spider skritching from a shadowed corner.

She squeezes my hand, oh so gently, almost imagined.  I look up, and she is awake, truly awake, looking at me intently.  I scrape the chair closer to her in a brief, blaring screech of noise that startles me; she struggles to touch my face with her emaciated fingers, a herculean effort.  I help her, lift her feather-light hand to the salt-and-pepper scruff on my face; she hiccups, and I cannot decipher if she is trying to cry, to laugh, or simply to breathe.  I lean over her, touch her cheeks, sunken and hollow, kiss her forehead, her chin, her lips, her dry, cracked, trembling lips.  She kisses back, barely.  Barely.
She draws a long breath, tremulous and tenuous, speaks: “love...you.”  Her voice is an ethereal whisper that barely breaches the space between us, a mere breath of air with delicate shreds of sound woven through.  I hear her, clearly.  Once more, she marshals her remaining strength to speak: “love...again...for me.”

I have to stifle back a choked gasp of disbelieving laughter.  The idea seems impossible, here, in this place.  Love again?  There is no one else, anywhere.  The doctors, the nurses, they are not people, not men or women.  They have no lives beyond the pallid glow of the oncology ward, no loves or desires.  Is there a world, beyond these walls?  I honestly wonder.  Sunlight, moonlight, winking numberless stars, these are vague memories; grass and trees, flowers and pollinating bees, buzzing mowers and spitting sprinklers, snow and ice, these too are residual notions from a past life. 

I have always been here, in room 317B.  I have always sat in this green plastic chair, the one with seven slits in the seat, three in the backplate, and a rusted dent in the front left leg.  I have always eaten cold chicken salad sandwiches from the cafeteria, always drunk burned coffee from Styrofoam cups, sugared with Sweet-n-Lo and powdered creamer.  I have always heard the blipblip...blipblip of the heart monitor, counting away the last hours of her life.

Now, it happens. 

Love?  No, this a portion of my self, slipping away.  Her hand is limp, her eyes drift away from mine, rise up above my head, gaze into nothingness.  She smiles, as if she sees something I cannot, something away in the distance, just this side of forever. 

The flatline tone rings in my ears.  It will always ring in my ears, even when this day is years behind me. 

I fold her hands on her stomach, close her eyes. 

The nurses rush in; they are weirdly silent, moving in syrup-slow motion, lips moving, but I hear nothing. 

I cannot weep, all I can do is sit, slouched and spineless, empty.  They are speaking to me, but I am not here. I am floating away with her.

I look at the clock: 4:01am.  


I have decided to remove the story "Piglet" from the blog, as it did not reflect the kind of story I wanted people to identify me with.  It may have been a well-written story, but it was one that I would want my kids to stumble upon someday.  So upon that note, I hope you enjoy the other stories found here.

Thank You,


03 January 2012


Weird shrieks pierced the humid silence, sending shivers of terror down Alanna's spine. They were coming. She'd been running for three days, stumbling through the Wastes, fleeing the hungry hell-wights known as Scavengers. Her stomach rumbled and twisted in her gut, hollow and aching. She pressed a forearm over her stomach as she ran, wrenching her head around to look behind her. They never showed themselves, staying always out of sight, following her tracks, her smell, her bioelectric signature.

She'd prayed, wished, hidden, run, and now she was at the end of her strength. The Scavengers would get her and she'd be turned into harvest for a power cell. She was alone, now. Mama and Papa were gone, and Louis was gone too, now. She had no one to mourn her, if she died. That thought, more than anything else, is what kept spurring her burning legs and lungs ever onward, over the bare, blasted, naked mounds of the Appalachians, through windblown empty cities echoing with windsong and the voices of ghosts. Keep running, she told herself. Don't let them get you. Make them take you, make them pay for it.

Ahead of her now was the skeleton of a city, gaunt bones of wracked buildings rising into the leaden sky. She was parallel to the road, and she could make out a billboard in the distance, faded letters announcing Welcome to Columbus. If only a city meant refuge. Usually, it just meant vicious, nomadic gangs and hordes of Scavengers. There wasn't much difference between the two. The gangs were, technically, humans, having flesh-and-blood appendages and speaking comprehensible dialects of English, but they were desperation and hunger embodied; they took no prisoners, and weren't above cannibalism, if they were hungry enough.

The ululations were louder now, and they were coming from all directions. They surrounded you just before they took you down, Alanna had been told. She ducked into the gaping mouth-hole of an apartment building on the outskirts of the city. It was a burnt out shell of exposed, blackened rafters and scorched brick, smelling still of smoke. She wandered from room to room, tiptoeing, as if silence or smaller footprints in the dust would make it harder for the Scavengers to find her. It was a pleasant fiction, while she allowed herself to believe it. The problem was, she couldn't keep up the pretense for long: the howls and shrieks had turned to growls and garbled words, steps crunching in the street.

She found herself cowering in the darkest corner, fists clenched around her last line of defense, a two-foot-long metal pipe. Her skin prickled in the twilight chill, her breath coming in ragged panting gasps. A bulky figure appeared in the doorway, mech-light eyes glowing dull orange in the gloom. The figure sputtered an unintelligible guttural command, gesturing at her to stand up. She burrowed deeper into the corner, raised her jagged-ended pipe. Heavy steps thumped closer, crashing hard enough to shake ash down from the ceiling. She could just make out the details of the figure now: it was barely recognizable as human, its legs grafted from an obsolete bot-suit, thick metal jointed pistons, whirring and whining servo-motors, arms assembled from mismatched cybernetic parts, a torso showing sickly, rotting flesh through a tattered shirt. The Scavenger's face was a nightmare vision, a rusted metal lower mandible, a gaping hole leaking mucus where a nose had rotted off, bald scalp peeling scabbed and leprous flesh, orange mech-light eyes oozing pus where oxidized metal met skin. The thing was clearly male, no cloth covering its all-too-human groin.

As it neared her, repeating the stand-up motion, Alanna coiled her legs beneath her, tightened her grip on her make-shift weapon until her knuckles ached. One more step and it was within reach; Alanna lunged at it, swinging the pipe with all of her fading strength. She connected, and the thing's head split open, splattered gore across the room. Mechanized arms still reached for her, carrying out dying commands after the brain was compromised; she bashed at the ovoid head again and again until it was pulp, pulled free of its grasping fingers and stabbed at its chest with the end until it stopped moving. It had an Impulsor pistol in its grip; Alanna pried the gun free, crept away from the foul-smelling corpse and back out into the echoing canyons of the city streets. The rest of the Scavengers were close by, she could hear them calling to each other in their unintelligible language.

A gurgling howl of glee signaled that she'd been seen; she forced herself into a run. She heard at least two behind her, there, two to the right and ahead of her, another on the left. Hopeless, it was hopeless. Alanna sobbed, staggered to a stop, leaned against the rough crumbling bareface cinderblock wall of a bombed-out edifice; the nearest Scavenger was less than ten feet away, growling wordlessly. Alanna raised the Impulsor, fired. The shockwave shook the dust at her feet, rattled her teeth, and the creature lurched, clutched its chest, fell twisting to the ground. She fired again, and another shockwave blasted the silence, another Scavenger fell, the building behind Alanna rumbled, trembled, shook, wobbled; an upward glance showed the building swaying back and forth, chunks of brick tumbled down at her. Alanna threw herself into the street, felt fingers snatching at her arm. She flung her fist out, felt flesh crunch, thrust the muzzle of the Impulsor into the thing's face, fired, felt the shockwave more than heard it, was doused by blood, hot and sticky on her face and in her hair.

Another hand grasped at her, gripped her, squeezed her arm hard enough to make her gasp, yanked her to her feet. She hadn't realized she had fallen to the ground; “move, girl!” a voice commanded, deep, reassuring, human. Alanna scrabbled in the dirt with her feet, pushed off and ran pell-mell, tripping to keep up with the hand pulling at her. Dust was in the air, shards of brick stung her cheeks and back and legs, Scavengers shrieked angrily; she couldn't make out the form of the man in front of her. She hoped he was helping her, rather than saving her to eat her, or rape her. Or the one, then the other. His voice had given her comfort, at least. His presence soothed the terror hammering at her. She held onto the hope that he would be a rescuer, but kept the Impulsor in her hand, ready to defend herself against him.

The crashing roar of the building's fall quieted, but the Scavengers were still ululating behind them, close and loud and vengeful. The man stopped, pulled Alanna into a crouch behind a jagged hulk of masonry: “stay here and keep shut, if you want to live,” he told her, then he was gone into the skirling dust. A few seconds later, she heard series of wet percussive thunks, howls and growls abruptly silenced. She felt a syrupy wave of energy roll over her, something psionic, hugely powerful. Its effects were immediate: the dust whorling in the air skittered, slowed, froze, caught some the gelatinous force, Alanna's matted, tangled, dirty hair stopped mid-lash before her eyes. Alanna could see motes of dust, minute and myriad, spinning in place like a cue-ball on a pool-table. Sounds pulsed in Alanna's ears like sonic sludge: crunches, thwaps, wet plops like blood splatting in the dirt. Time and motion resumed with shocking suddenness. A lone figure strode towards Alanna through the wind-slung debris: tall, dark and handsome. Her heart skipped a beat as he got closer; it wasn't entirely a school-girl-crush kind of beatskipping, it was partially fear. He was feral-looking, primal, despite his modern gear. His hair was black, dreadlocked, falling to his back; broad shoulders, thick arms bare at the biceps, forearms covered by metal and leather vambraces, a cuirass of homemade ringmail over his torso with a thick sleeveless tunic underneath. He wore heavy, dark pants tucked into knee-high boots a wide leather belt slung low with holsters on both hips, and a backpack; handles of arc sticks poked out above the backpack, between the bag and his back. Utilitarian gear, not expensive, but good, well-used and well taken care of. His facial features were what kept her hand on her Impulsor: he did not look kind. His eyes burned with the fire of a man who has survived in the Wastes for far too long; it was the glint of near-insanity, a quickhot anger, a never-dormant hatred for Scavengers, a determination to keep breathing at any costs.
“What the hell are you doing out here alone, girl?” His voice was the same, deep mellifluous rumble she'd heard when the hand had jerked her away from the crumbling building.
“I...I don't have anyone,” she murmured. “My brother Louis was killed, just a week ago. There was a gang, they...they took us. Louis...he fought them off, made me run. I didn't want to leave him, but he...he was sick, anyway. His leg, it was gangrenous, and spreading.” Why was she telling him all this? He was nodding slightly. He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly.
“You did right, I guess. You got away, and you're still breathing. That's what counts. If he was gangrenous as you say, then he was gonna die soon anyhow, and he must've known it.” He looked around, sniffing, listening. “Shit. There's more coming. We'd better get scarce. Come on, girl.”
He pulled her with him into a swift walk, almost a run. Alanna had to trip-skip-stumble to keep up; she yanked her arm away, looked over her shoulder, trotted next to him. “Thank you,” she said.
“Course,” he grunted, uncomfortable. “Couldn't let 'em get you, could I? Name's Dez Marlowe, by the way.”
“Alanna al'Haran. So...where are we going?”
“Well I don't know know about you, but I'm headed towards Detroit.”
“Well then, that's where I'll go.”
“I can't slow down for you, so you'll have to keep up and pull your weight.”
“I'll do my best.”

Dez sat in front of the small fire he'd made under the lee of a massive oak tree. The girl, Alanna, hadn't lasted long. Got up to pee in the middle of the night, went alone, not even twenty feet from the banked fire, and hadn't come back. Nice girl too, it was shame. It'd been too late by the time he'd realized anything was happening.