He stirs in the night, holding his breath, listening for the beat of his heart within him. Even this slight movement wakes her instantly.
“You okay?” In the darkness her voice is a floating whisper, as if she fears sound itself might trigger something fatal.
He exhales, whispers back. “It’s nothing.”
“Want me to get your medicine?”
“No.” Insistent this time. Her smothering concern chafes him, so he is doubly unhappy he woke her. “Go back to sleep.”
“Yes. I’m fine.” He waits, breathing normally to reassure her. She waits, then lulled by his deception, drifts off again.
He must be more careful in his movements. She is so attuned, so ready to spring like a tiger to his defense. But this edgy preparedness wears them both out, adding to the stress that neither of them needs. Better, he thinks, that at least one of them should sleep. He can worry alone.
For a shadow has come between them, threatening the closeness they have had since he fell ill. He teeters on life’s edge, and she wants new life. A baby. A baby, despite the likelihood that any moment his heart might stop for good this time. A child who might never know its father. The present has absorbed them completely, totally, but she has started to look for a future, something more than just memories. He thinks it irresponsible at best, perhaps even a betrayal of sorts.
Their conversation is earnest, deliberate. They do not fight, do not yell, but the strain of restraint takes its toll.
He fingers his recent history, an angry, puckered scar that starts high up on his chest, just below his throat, and runs like a red highway across his abdomen, down the inside of the leg, all the way to his ankle. Veins that used to be in his thigh now surround his heart. He thinks of the words “quadruple bypass” and imagines a highway cloverleaf with cars speeding everywhere. He has that cloverleaf inside him now, new roads torn from the outlying suburbs to replace the city streets choked with rubble. And the cars, the blood, once more speed around the city, which nearly shut down for good.
It is not fear, he tells himself for the thousandth time, not fear.
He is young, thirty-three now, two years since the incident. He is trim, in excellent shape. He exercises constantly, properly, doing what he can to repair the damage. His legs are taut with muscle, and he can boast of his athlete’s endurance. But to continue life, he must watch every bite he eats.
The list of excluded foods is endless, the things he has given up. His diet is an overflowing vegetable cornucopia, meat unknown, cheese a distant memory. “Nothing that ever had a face,” he says to people. So damn boring, mostly, but she works hard to keep food from becoming monotonous. Thank God he can still eat pasta. His dreams, though, are gluttonous banquets. Thick slabs of juicy, marbled steaks, flanked by foothills of ivory mashed potatoes, in a sea of butter and gravy. Shrimp in rich, white cream sauce with a cheeseburger on the side. Eggs, hundreds of eggs, in omelets, or fried, scrambled, basted, all embroidered with piles of hot, sizzling bacon, sausage, ham, and fried potatoes. And pizza, heavy with cheese, layer upon layer of cheese, covered with half-dollar-sized wheels of pepperoni curled from cooking into little bowls, with their own pool of oily grease. Then ice cream, so cold it hurts the teeth. All this and more, so much more. And all of it death. As sure as putting a gun in his mouth. He almost weeps at times, thinking of the meals he used to have.
Cigarettes. He misses them with a longing for a lost lover, but only occasionally. His fingers keep the memory of holding, his throat the memory of the pleasing tickle of the first puff, his lungs the relaxing warmth. Although he quit four years ago, seven hundred and twelve days before the Big One, the denial of his appetites brings back old phantom hungers. Even sex is almost gone, his desire sapped by the medicines. She is still young and desirable, and always bravely willing when he “forgets” to take his medicine. It is dangerous, but he has not taken the medicine for three days now, the reason for tonight’s stolen pleasure. They made love with a hesitant tenderness, as if he were a fragile teacup. Afterward, they lay together, relieved and grateful.
He dwells on death constantly now. He had technically died already in the clean, white hospital, but they brought him back. For how long, though? The men in the white coats cannot say, and the oracles are silent on when the Fates will cut his thread. He dares not dream of long years, dares not tempt those Fates into noticing that he cheated them already.
A child, he muses once more. To possibly live long enough to feel and see a piece of his broken body made whole in another. To hold a son or daughter to his chest, and feel another set of heartsounds, pumping healthy and strong. To give his wife a life of her own, beyond him. Perhaps the only thing he can do to overcome his fate.
He lies in the darkness, deciding. He sighs, but it is not surrender, just acceptance. He reaches out to stroke her hair and whispers a single word. “Okay.”
Dale Phillips studied writing with Stephen King, has written three novels, and published short stories in Plot magazine, Space & Time, Ethereal Gazette, Big Pulp, Crime and Suspense, Atomjack, Aoife’s Kiss, House of Horror, Sorcerous Signals, Kasma, New Myths, Short-Story.Me, and upcoming issues of Dark Valentine and Fungi #20. He has appeared on stage, television, and in an independent feature film, Throg. He competed on two nationally televised quiz shows, Jeopardy and Think Twice. He co-wrote and acted in The Nine, a short political satire film, available at www.Libertynewstv.com. He has traveled to all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, and through Europe.