Martin comes to think of these months as the summer of cancer. The diagnosis comes in June. Surgery follows on the fourth of July. Recovery. Radiation. Chemo. His strength waxes and wanes with the treatment cycles, but the disease stays with him, coiled in the back of his mind like a snake, coming out when he’s almost forgotten and wrapping itself around his throat, squeezing until his breath comes short, until his heart pounds like a jackhammer in his chest. Remember, it whispers. I’m still here. I’ll always be here.
“Wake up, old man.”
Martin groans, rolls half-over and opens his eyes. He’d been dreaming, the same dream that he’s dreamed all summer, and the bitterness of the realization that that was dream and this is reality washes through him, clogs his mouth and nose, fills his chest until he feels he might drown.
He’d been dreaming that this was all a mistake.
“What time is it?” Martin croaks. He’s half-way through his first round of radiation, and his throat feels as if he’s cleaned it with a wire brush.
“Almost nine,” Kara says. “Mom’ll be here soon. Get up.”
Martin sits up, rubs his eyes clear and looks up at his daughter. She’s leaning against the doorway, chin up, shoulders back, long dark hair framing her thin, pale face.
“Fine,” he says, and swings his feet to the floor. “Go downstairs. I’ll be down when I’m ready.”
Before the summer of cancer came the winter of stupidity. Two weeks before Christmas, Martin found a love letter tucked into one of his final exams. The writer was a graduate student, young and earnest and mysteriously taken with her balding, paunchy professor. Martin laughed at the note, showed it to Theresa. Can you believe this? Right in the exam book! But he kept it with him, pulled it out at odd hours over the break, read and re-read it, until finally it started to seem less funny. When the spring semester started, he called the graduate student. On Valentine’s Day, he tearfully informed Theresa that the heart wants what the heart wants. Two weeks later, the graduate student informed him that her heart, in fact, wanted a wrestler named Marcus. So it goes.
“Jesus, Martin,” Theresa says. “You look like shit.”
Martin steps aside to let her enter. She sidles past and into the foyer, shrinking away from him as if she thinks cancer is contagious.
“The house looks like shit too.”
Martin looks around. She’s got a point. There’s a slice of pizza on the coffee table, a half-dozen empty glasses scattered around, and a towel on the floor that looks as if it’s soaked up something vile.
“Sorry,” he says. “I haven’t been prioritizing cleaning lately.”
She folds her arms across her chest.
“This isn’t sanitary, Martin. If you want to keep having Kara over, you’d better start.”
He tries to stare her down, but he doesn’t have the heart. Instead, he sighs and looks away.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he says.
Kara comes out from the kitchen, a bagel in one hand and a glass of juice in the other.
“Ready?” Theresa asks.
Kara shrugs. Martin reaches for her, but she brushes past him and out the door.
“Goodbye, Martin,” Theresa says. She doesn’t close the door behind her.
Martin’s surgery was laparoscopic. Not a big deal, he thought. Just four little holes. When he woke in the recovery room, a pretty blonde nurse asked him who was coming to take him home.
“Nobody,” he said. “I drove myself here.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Well, you won’t be driving yourself home. Is there someone you can call?”
Martin hesitated, then shook his head mutely. The nurse’s face softened, and she patted his forearm.
“That’s okay,” she said. “You just relax. When you start feeling better, we’ll call you a cab.”
After Theresa’s car pulls away, Martin closes the front door. He takes one deep breath, then another. He walks slowly to the couch, drops down onto it, and leans his head back against the wall. He runs his hands back through his hair, then looks down at them and sighs. He may as well have been petting a shedding labrador. He closes his eyes, and pictures the bottles of carefully hoarded pain pills in the drawer of his nightstand. At that moment, they seem like the sensible option. He’s crapped out in this life. Better luck next time.
He opens his eyes again, looks up at the spot where the stairway disappears into the ceiling. The pills are calling to him.
He breathes in deep, lets it out.
Not today, he thinks. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.
For the rest of the summer and into the fall, Martin repeats that thought almost daily. It comes to him when the chemo grinds up his belly and pours it out his ass. It comes to him when Kara tells him that she’d rather not spend weekends with him, because he’s just too depressing. It comes to him in the dead of night, when he wakes in the coal-black darkness to the realization that yes, this really is his life now.
Eventually, though, the thought becomes a sort of mantra, and the pills begin to seem less real.
On the day after Thanksgiving, Martin wakes to a crisp, cold morning, and the sudden realization that he desperately wants to live. He pulls on clothes then, a jacket and gloves and a thick woolen hat, and walks out his back door. The frozen grass crunches under his boots. He closes his eyes against the low, bright sun. The air is cold enough to burn his raw lungs, but Martin doesn’t mind. This is life, he realizes, for what may be the first time.
He opens his eyes.
The morning sun is blinding.
Edward Ashton lives in Rochester, New York, where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about the awful things his research may lead to by night. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Fireside Fiction, Escape Pod, and Daily Science Fiction. His first novel, Three Days in April, was released by HarperCollins in September 2015. You can find him online at edward-ashton.squarespace.com.