MAY 2023, SHORT STORY, 1500 WORDS
During the untold hours, he is all memory and imagination. If he has a body, he is unaware of it. The same was true during certain periods of his life.
What he remembers most about those final years was the fear. They never put it into words, but he could see it in Diane’s face, and in his own in the mirror. Now he cannot see his reflection, and it is just as well. He imagines an appearance with no expression, pebble eyes under a film of gray, a mouth fallen open and full of shadow.
He remembers friends and relatives erased, one now and again, then two or three, then entire groups of everyone he knew, gone. The grief that came after. The numbness. He remembers worrying over what an illness actually meant, a weakness in a limb, a headache, an abdominal pain, a lost thought, a missed connection. He remembers her asking, How do you feel? He remembers taking longer and longer to answer. He remembers getting old.
He remembers wanting to ask her, What was the point? After all that effort, he couldn’t decide how everything added up. She’d always been the optimist, the one with the comforting answers. What did it all mean? But he didn’t ask. He didn’t want to hurt her.
He remembers hearing things in the middle of the night. He could never decide if the sounds were new, or the same noises he always heard. There were always sudden drafts. Was a window open? There were always doors opening and closing.
He remembers smelling smoke. He remembers getting out of bed and searching the house but never finding the danger. Diane slept so soundly, it became his job by default. To turn the lights on. To turn the lights off. To walk through the house like a memory, listening, smelling, trying to find a path through the dark.
They gather outside the windows and beat on the glass. He is afraid they will wake her, but she is oblivious. They want him to come out. They no longer require warmth, or shelter, or food, but they do crave companionship. But his love lies here sleeping, and he is reluctant to leave her side.
He wants to close the curtains, so he doesn’t have to see their faces. Their lack of features is unsettling. He tries to raise his hands to feel his own face, but cannot find either his face or his hands.
Diane remains motionless on the couch. He cannot tell if she is sleeping, or resting, meditating, or dead. She has spent most of the past month this way, body covered, eyes closed. He cannot see below her neckline. Her body could be anything, the body of a fish, or a leopard, the body of an aging woman who needs her rest. The clock, ticking, is the only sound in the room. He waits for her to rise, or leap, or swim away.
He watches her through darkness and through day, until she stirs, first her head and then her shoulders, shifting, slipping from the blanket, her face turning toward him, but not seeing, eyes blinking away dead tears. Her mouth stretches into a yawn.
Her cell phone on the coffee table rings and rings, but she doesn’t answer. Eventually it dies, becoming yet another useless artifact.
Diane climbs from the couch with the blanket wrapping her like a shroud. She is smaller than he remembers, thinner, paler. He is beyond all worry, and yet somehow he worries. A few wisps of colorless hair fall across her forehead. She moves with small steps into the bathroom. He waits outside.
He hears the toilet flush, the water running. He follows her from the bathroom into the bedroom. He waits for her to go to the closet, to put something on, but instead she stumbles to the bed and sheds the blanket, and for a moment she is but a figment of flesh before crawling beneath the covers. He watches the sheets rise and fall. Her breath expands to fill the room. He leaves before she gathers him into a dream.
He remembers leaving this house many times but always returning. He remembers wondering if he would ever leave this house again. He can be in two places at once, or even three. So much is possible when you are done.
The house is smaller than he remembers. It seems much dirtier than before, or perhaps he has more time to notice. He feels the walls, ceilings, and floors bleeding dust into the air, the tiny deteriorations of frame and sheathing, furnishings, and flesh.
A fuzziness collects on the edges of things. Time drifts through the rooms, settles into episodes of decay, moves on. He listens to the creatures beneath the wallpaper, the creatures inside the wood, the creatures above and below. These rooms are never completely dead.
During the long night, he gazes from the windows and cannot see the stars. During the endless day, reflections of nothing paint the walls. Outside their house, birds are frozen in midair. The clouds are unmoving.
He watches their neighbors departing their houses, crossing the lawns, moving along the sidewalks. He cannot remember which are living and which are dead. He wonders at the busyness of the living, their preoccupation with appearances, their almost constant disappointment.
He follows the sunlight as it moves through the house, keen for its touch.
Most of his possessions still remain: books and clothing, a few favorite foods, letters, souvenirs, the old dresser from his college years. He doesn’t know why she keeps them, or if she will keep them for long.
Diane sits at their modest kitchen table, spooning mac and cheese into her mouth, but he can find no pleasure in her face. He is not sure when was the last time she ate. It may have been days. He resides in the chair across the table, his old spot. She still uses her same chair, leaving his open. But it does not feel like an invitation.
He watches her chew. She has difficulty swallowing. He remembers warning her the bites she took were too large and potentially dangerous. More than once he witnessed the blankness come into her pale eyes as she began to choke.
He has a vague memory of how food tasted, although he recalls the warmth of it better, the heat in his mouth and as it went down. He imagines opening his mouth and tasting the departures, all those moments gone and now irrelevant. Feeling foolish, he stops and tries to keep his mouth closed. He has no idea if he has been successful.
She closes her eyes as if she no longer wants to see. He can imagine much, but he cannot imagine what she must be thinking.
Unable to watch any longer, he turns away and moves into the living room. A novel lies on the coffee table, an overdue bill stuck somewhere in the middle as a bookmark. He’d left it beside the bed, never finished. She has moved it here, by the couch where she sleeps and reads. Does she intend to read it? Will she start from the beginning, or from where he left off?
He studies the cover. The words. He can no longer read.
He spends an age watching the light slip away, the shadows which settle and stay. A distant sound finally arrives. Outside the window, there is a sudden explosion and a flash of brilliance. Everything—what lasts, what does not last—is frozen in silver. The rain outside appears impossible. Why did he never realize this before?
He is drenched in memory. He tries to choose but one to take with him and cannot.
She is crying because he said something that hurt her. He was careless and wishes he could take it back. Now he knows nothing can ever be taken back.
The night of her miscarriage she is lying in the hospital bed, heavily drugged, and he hovers over her. He knows she is alive, but her resemblance to what he imagines death must be thoroughly shakes him. They never try again after that.
The jokes that fell flat because he was trying too hard to make her smile. The jokes he was so proud of because they made her laugh.
That day in a bookstore when they first met. He didn’t understand her taste in literature, but he wanted to.
Their first kiss. She kissed him, of course, because he was too shy.
The bright blue dress she bought in Mexico. The spring afternoon they were married in the mountains in front of all their friends. Her parents refused to attend.
That small indentation on the left side of her back.
The many times she forgave him for being a fool.
When they spent hours together in bed.
When they couldn’t stop touching.
All these moments gone to light and air and nothing.
His is an instability spreading everywhere.
Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. He has published over 500 short stories in his 40+ year career. Some of his best are collected in Thanatrauma and Figures Unseen from Valancourt Books, and in The Night Doctor & Other Tales from Macabre Ink. His home on the web is www.stevetem.com.