California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch
2016 Short, Short Story Writing Contest
Third Place Winner
by Doug Fortier
As I have each of these sixteen mornings since I brought Bareth home from the hospital, I open the nightstand drawer cradling the pistol to touch the cold steel and tell myself today is not the day.
“Today?” she whispers to my back.
My gut recoils with her acknowledgment of our lifelong agreement to die together, our love so great we didn’t want to live without one another. I’m surprised she’s awake after night-long bouts of breathlessness aided by oxygen pumped into her lungs.
In these sixteen days I’ve been trying to deny my promise regarding the last day. Bareth believed when her body finally broke from slow asphyxiation, and I called the ambulance to come, they’d find two dead.
The abrupt downturn of her health, then the hospital stay, forced me to denounce the romantic ending I’d defended, and to realize the toast honoring our love, “Together to the end,” had become a tribute to my death. Hand in hand at her hospital bedside, I slipped into a memory of late summer, seventy years ago, the moment I fell in love with Bareth. I’m fifteen and ignoring the crowd toting umbrellas and towels while I clear sand from the boardwalk in front of my parent’s soda shop. A pretty girl my age wearing a yellow dress doesn’t move as I sweep closer. She smiles and asks my name, then stands uncomfortably close, speaking softly, never moving her eyes from mine.
Clicks of plastic valves pushed the fleeting giddiness from my chest and returned me to the bright hospital room and the flowers I’d brought.
“I saw,” she breathed, “you smiling.”
“It was the day we met, but it could have been our wedding day, or your—”
She let her head fall back. “It makes. Me think. Too much.”
Our home meets her needs, yet it has taken longer each morning to move her from our bed to a bath that cannot renew her ebbing flesh, an intimacy eroding memories of her vigor and beauty.
Bareth smiles and points to my flannel pajamas on the hook. “Please?” I want to capture that smile as I have in hundreds of photographs filling our bedroom and the house. Instead, I wrap her warmly and slide her feet into wooly slippers.
She watches from the family room while I make breakfast in the kitchen, the oxygen pump cycling with the rhythm of her breathing. Unbidden anger roils inside me, feeding on fear of my impending end and regret that I’m still healthy with good years ahead of me. While I collect her pills, prune juice, and tea, I’m soothed by reminders of our long life together in pictures and pieces of art from our travels
Bareth lies quietly for several hours in her reclining chair between the kitchen and the silent TV, with strength only for breathing. In a rare moment away from her, I close the bathroom door behind me and focus on myself in the mirror to connect with my creator on the other side. Ignoring my blotched and wrinkled skin, I stare beyond my eyes in the reflection and take a deep breath before I speak. “Please, Lord, return Bareth to me whole, and I’ll tell the world of your miracle. Take a year of my life and give it to my love.”
When I return to the chair by Bareth’s side, her breathing is raspier, and a few minutes later the gauge measuring her blood oxygen moves lower. Tears form in her eyes. An upwelling of grief clenches my chest, urging me to scream, yet I will not make this harder for her. Sharing her tears, I sit motionless in my anguish, resisting the unfolding reality.
Lunchtime comes and goes, neither of us stirring from our vigil as Bareth’s skin becomes grayer. I lower the blinds when twilight overtakes the day, and she looks up when the oxygen monitor pings faintly. With her hand in mine, the closeness we’ve shared these years is a source of comfort.
The monitor’s alarm startles me awake, my skin to hers, Bareth is cold, and I’m plunged into sadness. Moving to hold her, cheek to cheek, I tremble as each part of me fills with grief.
After unplugging everything, I kiss my love one last time and dial the number I’ve memorized. Once the questions are answered, I draw myself to the nightstand and look at the gun one last time.