Selah March

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DARK OF THE DAY

by Selah March

Copyright (c) SELAH MARCH, 2006
This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or business establishments, events or locales is coincidental. All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever with out written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

~~~

One

~~~

Nothing ruins a perfectly good Tuesday like finding out you’re a dead woman walking. Or a dead woman sitting in a cushy, leather-upholstered chair in the middle of an oncologist’s office, as the case may be.

“How long?”

Dr. Keffler licked his lips and ran a hand over his old-man-delivering-bad-news grimace. “You must understand, Ms. Albright, there are no guarantees-”

“How. Long.”

He shrugged. “At the rate the tumor is growing now? Twelve to twenty weeks. But you’ll lose the use of your limbs before that, and then control of your various bodily functions. And before that happens-”

“I’ll lose my mind?”

He nodded and looked away. I felt sorry for him. Delivering a death sentence to a twenty-eight-year-old couldn’t be easy. In fact, it pretty much sucked for everyone in the room, including the nurse stationed in the corner who was doing her best to blink back the tears that kept welling up in her big, blue eyes.

“You won’t experience the cognitive impairment as a steady decline,” he said. “More like fits and starts. Good days and bad days.”

I gathered my bag and the folder containing the various brain scans and documents that recorded the dismal failure of the chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and stood. “Thank you, Dr. Keffler. You’ve been very thorough, and very kind. Please be sure to have your billing department contact me promptly. Very promptly.” I couldn’t help the way the corners of my mouth twitched as I said it, but I felt bad again when the nurse gasped.

“Ms. Albright – Robin – if you’d simply listen to reason about the surgery-”

“I’ve listened to reason, doctor. I’ve listened to all your reasons. They’re very good reasons, but I have a few of my own.”

His grimace got positively gruesome. “At the very least, we need to discuss your care. We need to plan for a point in time when you may be delusional or incapacitated-”

I smiled in what I hoped was a comforting way. “I have a plan, thank you. Everything is in place.”

He followed me out of his office and into the empty waiting room, trailed by the nurse. “In place? But your final prognosis is four hours old. How could anything be in place?” His voice rose, growing shrill as it climbed. “You have no support system-no family or close friends in the area – you said so, yourself. We must discuss your moving to a hospice facility, or perhaps a live-in nurse, if your finances allow.”

I turned to look at him, and something in my expression made him step back and tread on the toes of the nurse. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I prefer to keep my final arrangements private. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

I pulled open the door, stepped into the hallway beyond Keffler’s office, and took a deep breath. It was the first day of the rest of my very short life.

~~~

Two

~~~

The first time I saw Thann, I was standing on the back porch after sunset. I’d gone out to watch the bats emerge from under the eaves of the abandoned house next door. By that point – three weeks after my last visit to Dr. Keffler’s office – dusk was the only time of day I could bear to be outside. The headaches were bad, and bright light had become my enemy.

The bats swooped and dove, and I watched their air show while leaning against the splintery railing, sipping a cup of tea and waiting for the pills I’d tossed back to take effect. I sucked in a deep breath and nearly choked on the scent of wet leaves and smoke. A symptom of the tumor – my sense of smell sharpened to the point where the most benign aromas nearly knocked me down.

The meds began to kick in. As my ears started to ring and my hands grew numb, I glanced around the overgrown backyard. That’s when I spotted him, standing in the far east corner under a weeping willow.

At first I assumed he was just what he looked like – an indistinct shadow in the general shape of a tall, broad-shouldered man. Not real. Twilight has a way of playing tricks on even the sharp-eyed, and my vision was no longer good.

Plus…the drugs.

So…just a dark man-shaped place against the foliage. A little more solid than your average shadow, but nothing to get worked up over.

Until he turned away and walked into the patch of woods beyond the yard
Still, I couldn’t be sure if I’d really seen it. I stared after him for a long while, as night descended and my tea got cold. After a good twenty minutes of pondering, I decided to take it as a sign that things – and by “things,” I meant the growth of the tumor pressing on my brain and destroying my ability to think clearly – were progressing faster than expected.

I’d looked up first-person accounts of death by my particular brand of brain tumor. One guy described it as being smothered from the inside out by a big, soft pillow in his head that came between him and his perception of the world. When he wasn’t in pain, he was fighting to see and hear and think. The epilogue to his story had been written by his wife. She said that in the end, the man had been a vegetable. Worse – the empty husk of a vegetable. A hollow pea-pod. A dry, crackling corn husk.

Yeah. Him, but not me. No way in hell. I had a timeline worked out, and at the first sign of my brain failing, I’d be gone. The one favor I’d asked of Dr. Keffler had been an extra-generous prescription of pills.

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he’d said when I called the office. “I could lose my license.”

“I appreciate that, but there’s no risk. I’ll be sure to make it look like an accident-”

“Don’t say another word. I don’t want to know.” His voice was cold. I guess I’d put him in a bad spot. I wish I could say I cared more.

I went back into the house and shut the door, the phantom shadow already half-forgotten. What remained was the sense that I’d better get my ass in gear or I’d be too fucked up to carry out a simple suicide.

~~~

Three

~~~

The next time I saw Thann, he came into my house and lied to me.

Four days after the incident on the back porch – on a Thursday afternoon, it was – I was sitting in the big green leather chair in my living room, composing a letter to an old friend. It wasn’t going well. Couldn’t seem to find the words to say “so nice knowing you, have a good life, goodbye.” Everything I wrote sounded cheap and empty.

Simon and Garfunkel warbled their greatest hits on the stereo in the background, underlining the pointlessness of my effort. The minor chords in Scarborough Fair drilled into my head and made a lump rise in my throat. There was the acid burn behind my eyes of tears trying to escape, but I refused to go there. I wasn’t going to grieve over losing what had been a fairly shitty life in the first place. Fuck the world, anyway. What had it ever done for me but screw me over? I dropped the letter on the floor next and curled into a ball against the back of the chair.

The knock on the front door made me jump. I’d had no visitors in weeks. Not even the meter-reader. It was like everyone knew, like everyone spread the word all over the little town-stay away from Cancer Girl, she’s on her way out. Even the trick-or-treaters had avoided me.

When I looked through the peephole, I saw a young man with longish, shaggy brown hair and hazel eyes that made me think of a big tabby cat, for some reason. He knocked again, and I wanted to turn away. To go back and curl up in the chair for a nice, long wallow in my own misery. But self-pity is weak-weak and lame, goddammit. I wouldn’t be that person.

I opened the door.

“What do you want?” My tone pretty much guaranteed he wouldn’t hang out on my front porch for long.

“Hi,” he said. And that was all.

I stepped back and took in the total picture. He looked to be in his very early twenties. High cheekbones, a straight nose and a cleft in a strong chin. Tall, and wickedly broad through the shoulders. Dressed in jeans, a black tee shirt and a gray hoodie, with heavy motorcycle boots on his feet. A good-looking kid, and fairly average for the neighborhood. But it was the expression of gentle kindness on his face and his air of profound concern that caught my attention.

“Can I come in?” he asked after a few seconds. “Can we talk?”

I put my hand on the knob and pushed the door closed a few inches. “Did Keffler send you? Are you from the Hospice service, some kind of death counselor? Because if-”

“Yes. That’s right. I’m a death counselor.” His voice was so damned deep, I swear I could feel the vibrations through the floor when he spoke. I let it distract me for a split second and the next thing I knew, he was inside the house. Standing in the foyer, taking up way more space than he should have, even with his exceptional size.

I took a breath and let it out, trying not to lose my temper. “Look. I’m sure you’re very good at what you do, Mr.-”

“Thann.”

“Mr. Thann? I’m sure you’re-”

“No,” he said. “Just Thann. Short for Nathaniel.”

I ran a hand over my head and realized I’d left my baseball cap on the floor next to the chair, with the letter. My hair felt bristly under my fingers. I must’ve looked like absolute shit, with my sloppy, growing-out crew cut and the nearly black circles under my eyes. But if this guy worked for Hospice, he’d seen worse. I took another breath and tried again.

“You can tell Dr. Keffler I appreciate the gesture, but this isn’t necessary. I don’t need counseling. I’m…” I’d started to say I was fine, but come on – who was I kidding?

He just stood there and looked at me with that same small, kind smile.
I tried a different tack. “You look awfully young to be working for Hospice.”

“Did I say I worked for Hospice?”

I blinked at him, and a prickle of discomfort shot up my spine. He sure didn’t look dangerous, but… “Okay, what’s going on? Who are you? Do I need to call somebody?”

“Who would you call?” The smile got wider.

“The cops, genius. Who are you and what do you want?”

At this point, a little voice in the back of my head started whispering evil things. What if he was dangerous? A drug addict, looking to rob me to pay for his habit, maybe? A serial rapist? A baby-faced, psychopathic killer?

What better way to go? Talk about absolving everyone – Keffler and his three separate prescriptions for pain relief included – of guilt. Plus, I wasn’t sure I had the guts to off myself, when it came right down to it. This would take the matter out of my hands.

It was then, in the tense silence between us, that I noticed Simon and Garfunkel still droning on about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. When had I put that tune on “repeat?” Answer: I hadn’t. Not that I could remember, anyway. But I’d popped a couple of pills a good forty-five minutes before, and things were getting more than a little fuzzy around the edges…

Thann reached out and laid his hand on my bare arm. It looked as big as a horseshoe, but felt warm and light, like the perfect blanket for a chilly autumn day. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said.

I can’t say why I believed him, but I did. Maybe the tumor had already eaten up the tiny area of my brain devoted to telling the truth from a lie.

~~~

Four

~~~

I don’t know when I invited him into the kitchen for a cup of tea. That part remains a blank. It wouldn’t be the last time I lost a minute or two in his presence.

“Earl Grey, if you’ve got it,” he said and pulled a chair from beneath the table, letting it scrape loud and long across the worn yellow linoleum.

I winced. Not only because the sound made me want to bite through my tongue, but also because…Earl Grey? Like drinking lemon-scented soap. But something about the way he looked at me from under his floppy bangs made me forgive the lapse in taste.

“Fresh out, sorry. Chamomile or Lipton, take your pick.”

He shrugged. “Whatever.”

I set the kettle to boil and stood by the stove, looking at him. Why was he in my kitchen? What the hell was going on here? A surge of dizziness smacked me in the back of the head, and I leaned against the stove, waiting for it to pass.

“So,” he said. “Brain tumor, huh?”

His tone was so…casual. He might’ve said, “So, sucky weather we’re having, huh?” with the same degree of polite disinterest.

I couldn’t help it – I laughed. He flashed a killer set of dimples at me, grinning like he’d scored a point somehow.

“Yeah,” I said. “Brain tumor. Inoperable.”

His eyebrows rose and one side of his mouth went down – the picture of skepticism. “Really?”

So much for levity. “Yes. Really.”

I turned back to the kettle and willed it to boil. A voice in the back of my increasingly-buzzed brain whispered, “Just tell him to leave, why don’t you?”

“Because that’s not what I heard,” he said. “About your tumor, I mean.” He stood, pushing back the chair and making it screech against the floor again. “I heard-”

“Why don’t you just shut up?” There. Maybe that would…shit. Another surge of the dizzies, and this one wasn’t playing around. I sagged backward, trying to avoid the blue flame beneath the kettle and the kettle itself. An instant later – less, really – he was behind me, cradling my body against his.

When he spoke, his voice seemed even deeper, if that was possible. “I’ll shut up if you’ll sit down and let me make the tea.”

It sounded like a good deal, so I let him escort me to the table. But really…I should be telling him to leave. In another ten minutes, I’d be ready to pass out. He was a guest, and you don’t pass out on a guest. It just isn’t done.

Yeah, I was babbling. Out loud, apparently. Because he laughed, and God…the sound of it. Like a bell, tolling long and low and true.

“I’m not a guest,” he said, “I’m a friend.”

“My friend?” I didn’t even have the strength to feel annoyed about how small and young my voice sounded. Plus, the table was looking so good. So flat and sturdy, and a lot like my bed, except closer. My bed was miles away. Light years, even.

I put my head down. The pitted wooden surface of the table felt cool against my cheek.

The kettle chose that moment to whistle, drowning out…Christ, what was that? That endless two-part harmony, sounding more and more like a dirge every second. Who sings about herbs, anyway? What the fuck kind of subject is that for a song? If I could’ve just lifted my head and maybe opened my eyes, I might’ve been able to locate the source of that never-ending-

And then…silence, soft and perfect, and I did open my eyes.

Thann? Was that his name? He’d pulled the kettle off the burner and was pouring the water into the two mugs I’d left on the stained counter tiles. And the music was gone. Switched off? I was pretty sure neither of us had left the kitchen. Had it only been in my head the whole time?

He carried the steaming mugs over and set them on the table. “It’s a song about death. About soldiers on the battlefield, and lovers passing over to a place where nothing is impossible.”

“Huh?” My lips were numb, and my tongue felt mossy and thick.

“Scarborough Fair. It’s-” He leaned down and looked at me. “Never mind.”

I let my eyes fall shut again when he touched me. The last thing I recall of that Thursday afternoon was the feel of his shoulder beneath my head as he carried me out of the kitchen, down the hall and up the stairs.

~~~

Five

~~~

I woke long after midnight on Friday morning, alone and half-convinced I’d had some sort of bizarre, waking dream.

Which was worse? Letting some strange guy into my house for no good reason, or hallucinating that I’d let a strange guy into my house for no good reason? Under the circumstances, both options sucked.

But when I finally hauled my ass out of bed and down to the kitchen, evidence of the former sat on the table, plain as day: two servings of room-temperature Chamomile. I was afraid to pour the tea into the sink – afraid to slip my fingers around the handles of the mugs. What if they weren’t real? What if I was still delusional?

“Christ, Robin, get a grip on yourself.”

Biting my lip till I tasted copper, I grabbed the damned mugs and tossed them into the sink. The stoneware made a thud against the cheap aluminum, and it echoed through the shadowy kitchen. I pressed my hands to my face. Pain threatened somewhere deep behind my eyes, but I didn’t want to take a pill – not yet.

“You should eat something.” His voice came from the other side of the room, near the back door.

He hadn’t been standing there the previous second. I knew it.

I knew it like I knew my name, and that I likely wouldn’t live to see Christmas.

“What the fuck-”

He took a step toward me. “It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“That’s what you said before.” The phone was closer to him than me. No way I could reach it. I could dodge into the living room and try for the front door, but my legs weren’t feeling particularly steady beneath me. My only real option was to stand my ground and hope like hell this was some fucked-up by-product of the meds after all. Or even a symptom of the tumor’s progression. Anything would be better than-

“Well,” he said. “I haven’t hurt you, have I?” Like it was the most reasonable thing in the world.

I shook my head. “How did you…where did you come from?”

“That’s complicated.”

“Really? I thought it was a pretty straightforward question.”

“Yes, but the answer is-”

“Complicated.” The pain behind my eyes got a little sharper. “Look, I don’t know what you want-”

“I told you. I want to talk with you.” He stepped up to the table and pulled out chair. “Sit. I’ll make you something to eat.”

And this? Had to be a narcotics-induced dream. Or a very vivid delusion of the Dr. Keffler-patented “fits and starts” variety. Because having a good-looking guy show up in the middle of the night offering to make a meal? Didn’t happen. Not in my life, anyway. Maybe it was an average occurrence in other people’s lives – normal people. I wouldn’t know about that, having never done “normal.”

I decided to go with it, if only to see how it would play out. I padded over to the chair, still dressed in the jeans and sweatshirt of that afternoon. Then I realized I’d left my hat somewhere…in the living room? I reached up to touch my hair and before my hand made it halfway, he glanced at me and said, “You look fine.”

I snorted. “Yeah. A true natural beauty.”

He tilted his head at me like he was confused, but said nothing.

In the next fifteen minutes, he proceeded to create the grilled cheese sandwich of a lifetime, complete with honey-mustard and minced scallions. Just the way I liked it. More proof of the whole “druggie dream” phenomenon, as far as I was concerned. Or maybe “wish-fulfillment delusion.” Who knew? Who cared?

“Chamomile?” he asked, his eyebrows raised disappearing under his shaggy bangs. The boy really needed a haircut.

“You really need a haircut,” I mumbled around a mouthful of toast and cheese.

He smiled. “You offering?”

The bread lodged in my throat and I gasped. He was next to me in a second, pounding me on the back. When the glob finally worked its way loose and down the proper pipe, I looked up at him through teary eyes. “You’re not shy, are you?”

“Should I be?”

I shrugged. “That depends.”

On what, I didn’t know. What was it they said about dreams? That every character was actually a part of the dreamer…isn’t that right? Some reflection of the “self?” Which made no sense in this instance, because I’d certainly never been anything like this outgoing, self-confident kid. Guy. Man.

Whatever.

I shrugged again and coughed to clear my throat. “Sure. I’ll cut your hair.”

He smiled again, like this was the best news he’d ever heard. His hand, which had remained resting on my back, made a slow circle against the fabric of my sweatshirt. I felt my cheeks flush – a sudden, surprise rush of heat I could easily blame on…well, no. I hadn’t taken any meds in a good twelve hours. So it wasn’t the first glow of a nice buzz.

Down, girl. This was weird enough without adding sex to the equation.

~~~

Six

~~~

By the time I had him sitting in a chair and draped in an old sheet, I’d done an about-face on the subject of whether or not any of this was really happening. Because there’s vivid delusion and then there’s vivid delusion, and I don’t care how fast that fucking tumor was growing – my brain couldn’t make this shit up. I’m not that creative.

I couldn’t make up how he smelled, for example. Like candy from the depths of the one and only Easter basket I ever received as a child. But also like the cold, still air late on Christmas Eve the year the St. Francis Mission took us in off the streets just when I was sure we’d be spending the night on a subway grate. And when I bent to pin the sheet at the back of his neck, I caught a whiff of high summer in Tennessee, like the one we spent with Mama’s uncle before she went off her meds and tried to torch his barn.

“When was the last time you trimmed this mop?” My voice sounded scratchy. I cleared my throat and reached for the shears.

He tilted his head back and smiled at me. “I don’t remember.”

His hair felt like…well, like no hair I’d ever touched before. Not like silk, exactly. Wavy, yes. And soft and thick and all the good things hair can be but…I dunno. Whatever adjective I was missing, it wasn’t in any thesaurus I’d ever read.

I wanted to bury my face in it to see if it smelled as good as the rest of him. I restrained myself.

I’d begun to work on the bangs when he said, “Let’s talk about your tumor.”

I froze in the middle of a snip. “Oh, let’s not.”

“You said it was inoperable,” he went on, like I hadn’t answered. “That’s not strictly-”

I yanked at a piece of hair attached to the top of his scalp. “I don’t want to discuss it.”

“We have to. That’s why I’m here.”

“You’re here to discuss my tumor?” I stepped back and looked at him, shears angled up in one hand, comb in the other.

“Well, no. Not exactly. It’s-”

“Let me guess. It’s complicated?” And just like that, I was back to wondering if I’d crawled inside my own head and was currently sitting in a corner somewhere, rocking back and forth and drooling while my brain made pretty moving pictures.

Because the look on his face was so…knowing. Like everything about me was painted on the walls of my kitchen – my past, my present, my all-but-nonexistent future.

It creeped me out.

I dropped the shears and comb on the table behind me. “I think it’s time for you to go.” I moved to put some distance between us, but his hand closed over my wrist before I could get more than a step or two away.

“Robin.” He sat still as a pool of dark water, and my name dropped like a stone, sending perfectly symmetrical ripples to the edges of…of everything. Just…
Everything.

“Who are you?” I didn’t pull away, or try to twist my wrist out of his grasp. The heat from his touch bloomed up my arm and over my chest and shoulders and back. “What are you?”

“I’m here to help you,” he said and flinched when I bared my teeth at him.

“Fuck you. Can’t you give me one direct answer to a simple question?”

He swallowed. I watched his Adam’s apple rise and fall in the long line of his throat. “I’m…like you said, I’m a death counselor.”

“Bullshit.” I tugged at my wrist then, and he let go. “I call bullshit on this whole thing. You’re not even real. You’re just a-”

“Robin,” he said, his voice soft and so, so kind. It made my chest hurt to hear the sympathy…the pity. “Listen to me.”

“No.” Like a four-year-old, I clamped my hands over my ears and shut my eyes. “No, you can’t make me.”

But he kept speaking, and I could hear him just fine.

“Robin, it’s going to be okay,” he said. “You don’t need to be scared. You just need to listen.”

I opened my eyes and saw…my God. His lips weren’t moving. He wasn’t speaking out loud, but I could hear his voice in my head. He just sat there, looking at me with that same thoughtful, compassionate expression that was going to drive me shrieking, batshit crazy any second now…

“Stop.” I dropped my hands from my ears. “Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that again.”

“All right,” he said. Out loud, thank God. “I’m sorry.”

I looked around the kitchen. There was nothing to suggest that this was a dream. Everything looked as solid and tangible as it ever had, from the water-stained ceiling to the ugly linoleum. The ancient refrigerator gurgled and groaned in the background, and the wind kicked up some leaves against the window over the sink. The clock on the microwave blinked the time: 3:54 AM.

I was here. This was happening.

I reached over and picked up the shears and comb. Then I leaned down and began again with his bangs. Couldn’t leave them half-done, after all. He’d look like an idiot.

“So,” I said, going for conversational in my tone and missing entirely. “Are you, like…the Grim Reaper, or what?”

~~~

Seven

~~~

He jerked in the chair and made a funny noise – something halfway between a choke and a yelp.

“No! I mean…no. I’m not the Grim Reaper.”

“Quit fidgeting,” I said. “Are you sure? About being the-”

“Yes.” His voice lost its panicked edge and went back to its usual even, mellow tone. “There’s no such thing. Death is an event. It doesn’t have a personality. And there’s nothing grim about it.”

I stepped back and squinted, measuring his bangs. “Says you. Try it from this side of the street sometime.”

There was a pause. I went back to snipping. After a few seconds, he said, “You’re very angry.”

“Captain Obvious to the rescue.”

He sighed. “You don’t need to be. It’s not necessary.”

“Again – says you.” I was clenching my jaw now in an attempt to hold onto my temper. Pain flared behind my eyes. “You don’t know anything about me or my-”

“I know everything about you, Robin,” he said in that “if you believe nothing else, believe this” way he had of speaking. “Everything.”

“Yeah?” I stepped back again and crossed arms over my chest. Because this, I could tell, was going to be interesting. “Then how dare you tell me I have no right to be angry? I mean, if you know so much about the pile of garbage that’s been my life-”

“I didn’t say you didn’t have the right. I said it’s not necessary.”

I stared, at a total loss for words.

He sighed and ran his hands through his bangs, making them ruffle up in an appealing sort of way. “You’re holding onto so much – so many bad memories. There’s no room inside you to make new ones. Better ones.”

I smiled at him, and if the way he recoiled was any indication, it must not have been a very pretty thing to see. “Then I guess I’m fucked, aren’t I? Because there’s no time to make new, improved memories. My life is over – and you’re the proof of it.”

“I…what? I’m the proof of what?”

The confusion on his face was almost satisfying to me. I didn’t know why I suddenly wanted to hurt this…person? Spirit? Twisted figment of my poisoned imagination? But I did.

“Well, you’re either the tumor’s way of telling me it’s having a growth spurt, or you’re Hell come to breakfast, so-”

His eyes flashed, stopping me cold.

“I’m not a symptom of your tumor,” he said, sounding almost angry for the first time, “and I’m not Hell, either – or any representative thereof.”

“Then what are you?” I bent down and made my face level with his. “What are you, Thann? I think I need to know.”

He looked down, leaning forward in the chair and resting his elbows on his knees. “You won’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“I…” He looked up at me then. His face was drawn in lines of perfect misery. “I can’t, Robin. You just have to take it on faith that I’m here to help you. But if you won’t – if we don’t get past this point, I’ll have to go.”

He sounded so young in that moment…so young and so sorry. I couldn’t stand to see him like that. Reaching out to smooth his bangs back into place, I said, “Yes. Fine. Whatever.”

Not the most gracious surrender, but it was the best I could do.

His smile felt like sunshine without the attendant searing pain in my head. The ache behind my eyes gave one final throb and let go. I reached behind me and picked up the shears and comb once more.

“What was that before, when you said ‘Hell come to breakfast?'” He sounded genuinely curious.

I worked my way around to the left side of his head, cutting and combing as I went. “It’s a line from an old Clint Eastwood movie. You know Clint Eastwood?”

“Is he dead?”

“No.”

“Is he about to die?”

“I doubt it.”

“Then probably not.”

I finished the rest of his haircut in silence. When I was done, I brushed the stray clippings off the sheet and reached for the safety pin at the back of his neck. As I struggled to unclasp it, I said, “Does everybody get a visit from someone…something…like you? I mean, when it’s their time to die?”

There was another pause, as if he was considering how much to tell me. Finally, he said, “Only those people who have unfinished business. Or those who have a choice to make.”

“I don’t have unfinished business.” I ignored the second part of his answer. I wasn’t ready to deal with choices yet.

“You don’t think so?”

I said nothing, putting all my energy into getting the damned pin to come unstuck. When it finally popped open, I was unprepared and the point gouged the flesh at the spot where his neck met his shoulder. He grunted. Red blood welled in the pinprick.

Whatever else he was, his body seemed to be human.

“Sorry.” I pulled the sheet away and bundled it under my arm.

He turned his head to look up at me and repeated, “You don’t think you have unfinished business? Or a choice to make?”

“The only choice I’m interested in making right now is between Cap’n Crunch and Frosted Flakes.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled. “I’ll take Cap’n Crunch. But you know, we’re going to have to talk about-”

“Yeah. I know.” There was a distinct air of inevitability in everything about this guy. Like something I couldn’t escape, no matter how hard I tried.
I found myself wanting to try less and less.

I put the sheet aside, walked to the closet and grabbed the broom and dustpan. “Here. Make yourself useful.”

He took them without comment. While he cleaned the floor, I set out bowls and cereal boxes on the table, and put the kettle on to boil once more. Then I turned and watched him bend to sweep the last of the clippings into the dustpan.

“You say you know all about me. Everything there is to know?”

He looked up and nodded.

“Then you know there’s nothing romantic about me. I’m not some tragic heroine out of a book or a movie. I don’t paint or sculpt or play the piano like Ali McGraw.”

He nodded again, this time with a dropping of his brow that said he didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about with the Love Story reference, but he was agreeing with me anyway. Whatever. I needed to get this off my chest.

“I became a bookkeeper because I like to deal in numbers – black and white. No shades of gray. No maybes or what ifs.”

He stood and took a step toward me. “Robin-”

I held up my hand. “Something either is or isn’t in my world. It either adds up or it doesn’t.” I turned and looked out the window over the sink. The cold light that precedes the sunrise threw the maple trees into hard, black silhouettes.

“And you?” I said. “Don’t add up.”

I heard the broom and dustpan clatter to the floor a bare second before I felt his huge hands descend on my shoulders. “I think we can work around that. Don’t you?”

I felt his voice more than heard it, rumbling up from some place that seemed farther away than his physical presence. I leaned into him, surrounded and overwhelmed by the warm scent radiating from his body. “Do I have a choice?”

“You always have a choice. That’s rule number one.”

We weren’t talking about his helping me through my existential crisis anymore. His scent intensified and gained an edge of something darker. I recognized it as arousal and realized I wanted him as much as he apparently wanted me. But I had to choose.

I turned to face him, and his arms came around me like he’d been waiting to hold me since the moment I opened my front door.

I wanted to say that I couldn’t choose. That it was too hard. That I’d already used up my lifetime quota of difficult choices by the time I was fifteen, and shouldn’t have to make them anymore.

But the kettle broke into its high-pitched squeal, interrupting my brief wallow in self-pity. Thann glanced in the direction of the stove, and the blue flame extinguished itself. The kettle’s whistle dissolved into long gush of steam that fogged the windows instantly.

“Robin?”

I looked up at him and nodded, afraid to speak. Afraid I might laugh or cry or do something else to ruin it.

When he kissed me, I tried not to think about anything more than how he felt against my mouth and under my hands and pressed up tight against my body. I tried not to think…and it got easier and easier the more he touched me.

By the time we made it to my bedroom, I’d forgotten how to do anything but feel.

~~~

Eight

~~~

As good as Thann smelled to my overactive olfactory function? He tasted even better. Like some exotic fruit from a tree not seen on earth in the thousand years before I was born. That’s what I remember, mostly. The taste of his skin and the feel of his hands and the sound of his voice murmuring against my neck, between the kisses.

And I remember wanting to go faster – wanting to get down to the good part.

He laughed and said, “I don’t want to hurry. I want to show you how it can be when you treat it like the gift it is.”

A gift? I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to-

But he was still talking… “…make it last, because this is time out of time. You need to remember that.”

“Right, time out of time, got it. Now take off your clothes.”

He laughed again and did as he was told. Which turned out to be a mistake, because I found I couldn’t look at him. Too much, all at once, all that beautiful stretch of unmarked skin – it hurt my head, worse than any high-noon sun. I had to shut my eyes till he switched off the light.

And then it was just us in the dark. I could almost make myself believe he was human, in the dark. If I forgot the burner’s blue flame extinguishing under his gaze. But the way he touched me…making me cry out from sensations I didn’t even know I’d been missing till it was his hand, his mouth, showing me what I could feel. It only made me crazy-hot for more of the same.

“You don’t have to be so gentle,” I whispered. “I’ve done this before.”

“That makes one of us.”

I took a pause, letting that sink in. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Well, I know where everything goes, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“But you’ve never-”

“Shh. It doesn’t matter. Just lie back and let me…” His voice dipped into a lower register and then faded away into a groan. I let myself dissolve in the heat, like sugar turning to syrup at the bottom of a teacup. Let him do whatever he wanted, explore where he would. No longer in any rush, because it was all the “good part.”

Finally, he pulled me up to straddle his lap and whispered, “Please, would you…?”

“What? Anything, just say it.”

“My back,” he said. “Touch my back. Please.”

I lifted my hands and ran them up the length of his spine. When my fingers reached the wide strip of flesh between his shoulder blades, he let out a sound that made me quiver. I raked my nails in circles over the spot and felt him shake in my arms, his lips forming silent, wet shapes against my cheek and ear.

His head fell back, and he arched into my touch. “Like that, just like that.”

I felt the muscles beneath my fingers harden and sort of…bulge, as if they might break the skin. He shuddered once more, with enough force to move the bed. Then he gathered me close and lifted me against him as he sat back on his heels.

I sank down on him. At first, it was enough to be joined, with my arms and legs wrapped around him and his muttered groans vibrating the air around my face. His voice broke, losing its measured, even tones. If I were a different kind of person, it might’ve thrilled me – this sudden power over someone…something…so plainly greater than I.

But all I wanted to do was pull him closer and keep him there.

We began to move, together and against and inside and push and pull and rub-slick-hot-more and…and…and there was no space to think. Just the edge of the cliff looming closer. It took nothing – the merest shift of his hips and the sound of my name, thick and garbled on his tongue. I cried out and dug my fingers into his back again. He twisted and arched into me as I rode him, all animal now. No thought beyond mine and yes and never stop.

I felt his body coil in on itself, muscles tensing. His movements grew sharp even as the shattered sounds working their way up from his chest softened and faded. Then he fell silent and still for a long, perfect moment.

And in silence he shook, all over, vibrating like the earth in the grip of a tectonic shift. I rocked him closer, keeping my hands on his back, pressing in as if I could hold him together. He gasped once, a tearing sound that seemed to suck all the air from the room, and we fell together against the mattress.

We lay quiet for a long time, wrapped around each other, still joined. When he spoke, it was to say this: “This is time out of time. We stole it, and we’ll have to give it back.”

“Time out of time,” I repeated, obedient and lazy in his arms. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t care.

~~~

Nine

~~~

Four hours later, I was washing dishes as he sat yet again at my kitchen table and proceeded to piss me off.

“You can’t,” he said. “It’s a bad choice.”

“But it’s mine to make. Rule number one, remember?” I squeezed the dishcloth out and let it drop into the hot, soapy water. Then lifted it and squeezed it out again. Repetitive motion, excellent for calming and centering the mind in moments of high stress. Thank you, nameless, faceless social worker of my youth.

I didn’t have to look at him to know he was scowling. Less than twenty-four hours’ worth of acquaintance, and I already knew him that well. But not as well as he knew me, apparently.

“It’s cowardly. And really…” He paused, as if searching for the word that would sting the most. “Lame.”

“Fuck you.” Yes, please. Let’s go back to the fucking. I liked that part. A literal no-brainer, and that’s what I wanted – no thinking. Just feeling.

He sighed. “I know you think you’re getting shafted, here. Your life has been-”

“My life has sucked. Unequivocally.” I wiped my hands on a towel and turned to face him. “Give me one good reason to stick around through the bitter, painful end.”

He held up a single, long, beautiful finger. “The only reason – it doesn’t have to be the end.” He rose out of the chair and took a step toward me. “Take the chance. Have the surgery.”

“The surgery?” I heard my voice rise into shrill and unattractive territory. “The surgery has a twenty percent survival rate. And even if I make it through the actual butchery to my brain, there’s a fifty percent chance I’ll be left a drooling turnip.”

“It’s worth the risk.”

“On what planet?” I knew I edging fast from shrill and unattractive into snarky bitch, but…come on. What he was saying made no sense. “Let’s see – given the choice between dying a quick, relatively pain-free death with all higher brain functions intact, or spending a decade or two strapped into a hospital bed, fed through a tube and diapered like an infant? Five out of six little men from Mars would take the pills, Thann. Why should I be the optimistic fool?”

His tight expression didn’t change. He just looked at me, saying nothing.

“Unless…do you know something I don’t?” That possibility hadn’t occurred to me. Maybe he was trying to tell me the surgery would be a success. Maybe he knew-

“No,” he said. “The chance you’d be taking is real. I can’t make any promises.”

Damn. That one, brief flare of hope left a sharp pain when it was blown away.

“Then forget it. You may think my life is worth the risk, but you’ll never convince me.”

I turned back to the dishes. He was quiet for a long while. When he finally spoke again, he took a tack I didn’t expect.

“Let’s talk about your mother.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Think about how she’d feel if she knew-”

“Stop it.”

“Don’t you think she’d want-”

“Shut up!” I whirled from the sink, the plate in my hand made slippery by the soapy water. It flew outward, narrowly missing him, crashing into the wall behind the table and shattering into shards.

We both ignored it. “Don’t do that, Thann. You don’t know-”

“I do know. How much you loved her, how you took care of her from the time you were a little girl. What it did to you, how it robbed you of everything a child can expect from life. How, when they finally put her in a hospital – how you grieved. How lost you were.”

I pressed my wet hands against my face. “Stop. You don’t know.”

“I do.”

“No.” I let my hands drop. “You only think you do. Nobody knows.”

“Robin-”

“I think it’s time for us to end this.”

He froze, his face falling into an expressionless mask. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I don’t want to talk about this anymore right now.”

He opened his mouth to speak, and I held up my hand. “Later, okay? I promise. We can talk about it later.”

He stepped up to me, his eyes darker than I’d seen them. “There is no later, Robin. All I can give you is now.”

“I’ll take it.” I pulled him against me and held on tight. He relaxed, letting out a huge exhalation. It sounded like relief.

I knew he hadn’t given up. I could tell by the by the way he stroked my hair and made comforting noises as we held each other. He hadn’t given up because I hadn’t given in. Whatever else he was, my fine young stud was persistent. Stubborn.

A lot like me, in fact.

~~~

Ten

~~~

“Thann?”

“Mmm?”

“What are you?”

We sat sprawled together in one of the big Adirondack chairs on the back porch, deep into Saturday afternoon. The weather had changed, growing breezy and humid, like Indian summer shown up six weeks late. The sun hid behind a thin rill of clouds, not even bothering my head. I had no pain. Hadn’t taken a pill in nearly forty-eight hours.

I felt his breath on my neck as he answered my question – with another question, of course. “What do you think I am?”

I shrugged. “You look and feel like any other guy. But I know you’re not…” I couldn’t force the word off my tongue.

“Not what?”

“Um. Human?”

“But I am,” he said. “I’m totally human.”

I shifted on his lap till I could look at his face. “Bullshit.”

He laughed and leaned forward to nuzzle the back of my neck. I pulled away, not wanting the conversation to get sidetracked. “Answer me, please.”

He was quiet for a long moment. I began to wonder if he even had an answer for me.

Then he said, “This body is human. I’m just borrowing it for a while.”

Okay, that was…unexpected. “Borrowing it? Doesn’t the owner need it?”

“He won’t notice. Time out of time, remember?”

Right. Still didn’t really understand that. “What else are you borrowing? His voice? I mean, you sound human. Even the way you phrase things – very Early Millennium Joe College.”

He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Everything. I’m borrowing everything. Down to and including his soul. He’s me, and I’m him, for the moment.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to. It’s not important.”

“I bet the person who owns the body would feel differently.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. He’s sort of an exceptional individual in a lot of ways, which is why I chose him.”

I thought about it for a few minutes. Thann remained silent, his head lolling against the back of the chair. A sick suspicion crept up on me, but I didn’t know how to phrase it.

“You…uh…you’re like…possessing this guy? Is that right?”

He snorted. “I guess you could say that, yeah.”

Okay. This was going to require some consideration. I’d never been what you’d call a spiritual person – the only churches I’d ever attended were those attached to homeless shelters. But I knew possessing people wasn’t cool. Not something the good guys did, right?

He must’ve guessed what I was thinking, because he put his hands on my shoulders and twisted me around to face him. “Robin? Do you believe I’m here to help you?”

Always with the hard questions, this guy. “I guess.”

His eyes narrowed. “Have I done anything to hurt you yet?”

“That depends on your definition of ‘hurt,’ doesn’t it?”

I pulled aside the neckline of my tee shirt and let him take a gander at the huge-ass hickey he’d left on my collarbone in a moment of high ardor. That one had been part of our general debauching of the living room sometime before dawn.

I had others, in less easily accessible areas – blotches of blue and purple where he’d worried my skin with his teeth, as if he wanted to eat me up. When it was happening, I was all for it. Totally onboard with the nibbling and sucking and even the outright biting. Did my best to leave a few marks of my own, in fact, and was disappointed when they faded almost instantly. Now, however…with these new revelations come to light…

I pressed my fingers into the bruised place just below my throat and shivered.

But he was smiling, apparently oblivious. “I like how you taste,” he said, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.

And I couldn’t help it – as I often couldn’t help it around him. I laughed. Because really, what had I been thinking? Stupid thoughts.

Thunder rumbled in the west, thick and low. I let myself lean against him again. After a few minutes, he began to speak.

“I have a job to do here, Robin.” His voice was as serious as I’d ever heard it. “I’m not making much progress, and if we don’t get to the point pretty soon…” He trailed off.

Dread trickled down my spine at the sudden change in his demeanor. Without looking at him, I knew his face had gone somber. “Go on, then. Say what you’re going to say.”

He sighed beneath me, long and resigned. “I’ve been watching you a long time. Two years, I think.”

“You think? You don’t know?”

“Time is a relative thing.”

God, more of that I didn’t need to hear. If he said “time out of time” once more…

“Hey,” I said, sitting up again. “If you’ve been watching me for two years, then you knew about my tumor. Two years ago?” He started to speak, but I cut him off. “Why didn’t you warn me? An anonymous phone call, a letter in the mail. Spam my damned email account-”

“Robin.”

“What?” I sounded belligerent. Hell, I sounded outraged.

“That’s not how these things work. I’m not allowed to do stuff like that.”

“Oh, you can possess somebody, but it’s against the rules to tap a chick on the shoulder and say, ‘Psst, hey you, see a neurologist, those headaches aren’t migraines.'”

He sat in silence for a few seconds. His body felt tense under me, like he was struggling with something. “Does it really matter now?” he asked.

Damn him. He had this way of slicing right to the heart of the issue. Because really – it didn’t matter. And it likely wouldn’t have mattered then. My tumor was in a bad place, and finding it early wouldn’t have made that much of a difference.

I moved off his lap and went to lean against the railing. The thunder rumbled again, louder this time. “No. I guess not.”

He seemed to relax a little. “Can we talk about why I’m here?”

I nodded, staring out into the backyard. I wanted to shut down. Didn’t want to hear a word of it, because I knew I wouldn’t like it. No matter how much I enjoyed his company and his laughter and his touch on my body, inside and out – no matter how he soothed me and made me feel whole for the first time in a long time…maybe ever…I knew I wouldn’t like the reason he was here.

He let out another sigh and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. I noticed that his hair was in his eyes again…and how was that possible? Good grief, it hadn’t even been two days since I’d cut it. Also, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him shave since he’d been in the house, and yet…no stubble. Not even the slightest shadow. Another shiver assaulted me, and I wrapped my arms around myself.

He began to talk. And I’d been right – I didn’t like it.

“You can’t give up, Robin. You can’t kill yourself. And you have to take the risk and have the surgery.”

“This again? I told you-”

“Yes. You told me. And now I’m telling you.” His voice was flat and hard. I’d never heard it so expressionless. “Life isn’t something you just toss away, like it has no value.”

“Maybe other people’s lives have value. Not mine.”

“How would you know?” he said, and now he sounded angry. “Yes, you were dealt a bad hand, but you’ve never even tried. You’ve never even lived.”

I stared at him, utterly speechless. The nerve of this guy.

But he wasn’t done yet. “You’ve missed out on everything good, and you think that’s a reason to give up. But it’s not – it’s a reason to hang on. To fight, and never give up fighting until the very last.”

I felt my mouth curl up in a smirk. “Go for the gusto, in other words.”

He ignored my attempt at sarcasm. Just kept right on haranguing me. “You’ve never held a baby. You’ve never flown a kite. You’ve never seen the ocean – you’ve never even gone dancing.”

“Yeah? What of it?” We were really getting down to the nitty-gritty of it now, weren’t we? “I doubt I’ll do any of those things if I’m hooked up to a respirator for the rest of my life, either.”

He rose from the chair, and for the first time I felt intimidated by his sheer size. “It’s a sure thing you’ll never do it if you’re dead.” He took a step toward me, and I felt myself cringe back against the railing. It stopped him in his tracks. “But all that stuff is just background music, anyway.”

“Huh?” Now he’d lost me.

“Yeah. The ocean and the sky and the flowers and the stars, and all the other things you’ve missed are just…background music. Harmony and backbeat. The melody is the stuff that happens between people who love each other – the connection. And you’ve never even had that, have you?”

“I loved my mother.” I sounded defensive, but that’s a pretty good description of how I was feeling.

“I know. But she’s been gone a long time.” His voice had lost his edge, and suddenly he didn’t seem quite so tall and broad. He held out his hand to me. “You haven’t heard the melody for too long. That’s why I’m here – to let you hear it again.”

I froze in the act of taking his hand. “So what you’re saying is I’m just a job to you, right? Probably one among…what? Thousands? Millions?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Then what’s it like, Thann?” I wrapped my arms around myself again and stared at him. “And if you say it’s complicated, I swear I’ll-”

“But it is. I don’t even understand it.”

And I believed him. I didn’t want to. But he hadn’t lied to me yet, had he? The thunder sounded closer now. The wind blew raindrops against the back of my neck.

“Let’s go inside.”

He reached for my hand again, and I let him have it. But when he kissed me, it was different somehow. His touch felt almost…desperate. As if he were the one fighting to stick around.

It scared me a little.

~~~

Eleven

~~~

We sat at the kitchen table over what felt like our tenth shared Chamomile experience. The rain lashed though the screen of the open window, but the air remained humid and warm.

I took a deep breath and tried not to let my voice quiver. “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I choose to go through with my original plan.”

He flinched. “Robin-”

“Hey. You had your turn to talk.”

“All right.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m listening.”

“Well, I’m wondering…maybe you could do it.”

“Do what?” But the way his left eye twitched told me he knew exactly that I meant.

“Take me early. You know – just do your mojo thing, and let me slip this mortal coil a few weeks before my actual appointed hour.”

He shook his head. “That kind of thing is a little above my pay-grade.”

“So you’re really not the Grim Reaper after all, huh?”

“No,” he said, with an insincere smile. “I’m really not.”

“Well, tell me this…what will happen to me if I go through with it myself?”

He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. The silence in the kitchen, marred only by the rain and the fading thunder, began to feel like that pillow in that other man’s brain. The one that eventually smothered him.

Thann sat forward, his eyes burning holes through me. “I could try to scare you into choosing to fight for your life, but it would be a lie. And I can’t love you into it, either, though God knows…” He paused and wiped a hand over his mouth. “It’s a free will kind of thing.”

“Yeah, well – free will sucks, and so do your rules,” I said, making my voice as sharp as I could. I wanted to cut him. I wanted to see him bleed.

“You can say that because you have it. If it was mine – if I had a choice…” He bit his lip as if to shut himself up. I saw blood well in the place his teeth pierced, black and wet in the shadowy kitchen. Then it was gone, as if it had never been.

“What, Thann? What would you do with free will if you had it?”

He growled. It startled me, if only because it was the darkest sound I’d ever heard him make. And his eyes, how they glowed. Like that tabby cat he’d reminded me of, the very first time I saw him.

“If I had free will, I’d force you to have the surgery. I’d force you to try. I’d make it happen, and I wouldn’t let you and your stupid cowardice stop me.”

Wow. He’d degenerated to name-calling. It should’ve made me angry, but he so obviously meant it to show how much he cared. I sat there, wishing I could care half as much about myself as he did.

But I didn’t. And that’s just facts, baby.

His face softened. “Don’t you get it, Robin? If you survive and recover, you’ll have your life. The whole thing. You can do anything you want.”

“Yeah, but I’ll still be alone, right? It’s not like you can stay…” I knew my face showed that little spark of hope. “Right? I mean, you can’t stay, can you?”

He swallowed, and I watched that Adam’s apple bob up and down for maybe the hundredth time. It never failed to get to me.

“I think you know the answer to that question.”

And then, all at once, I was angry. Furious – filled with a cold kind of rage that fueled certainty.

“Then you never should have come here, Thann. All you’ve done is make it worse, giving me that little taste of what I’ve never had, and never will have.” I stood, grabbed his mug from the table and took it to the sink. The sound of the still-warm liquid gurgling in the drain was loud in the quiet kitchen. I turned and faced him. “And now I think you should go.”

He sat motionless, staring at me. “You’re really going to do this?”

“I have no choice.”

“We’ve covered that. You always have a choice.”

“Rule number one, right?” I nodded, cold and decisive. “Fine. Then this is it. This is what I choose.”

The look on his face…like I’d betrayed everything he’d ever believed. I had to turn away. There was no sound as he came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. I held perfectly still, refusing to lean into his touch. He pressed a kiss to the top of my head and let me go.

“I’m sorry I failed you,” he said. And if his face had been a heartbreaker, his voice was ten times worse. It made me turn and reach out to him. Because he hadn’t. He hadn’t failed me, and he couldn’t go away – back to wherever it was he’d come from – he couldn’t go away believing that. I couldn’t let him.

But he was already gone, and I was all alone. For real this time.

~~~

Twelve

~~~

The wind picked up and blew cold through the window-screen, turning the kitchen icy in under ten seconds. But the rain? Was gone. As I cranked the window shut, I looked out onto the porch and beyond to the backyard. Damp, as it always was this time of year – but not wet. No puddles, no dripping eaves.

“Weird.” I muttered it, not really caring. A change in the weather was hardly earth shattering under the circumstances.

I walked into the living room and stopped dead. There, next to the green chair, lay my baseball cap and the discarded letter. But I’d picked them up early that morning…I distinctly recalled doing it, right after Thann and I tested the ability of the creaky old chair to withstand vigorous, wake-the-neighbors sex. Thann had said…he’d said…what had he said? Something about the way my voice sounded when I…

Whatever he’d said, it was gone. Just like him. And what did it matter if I misremembered what I’d done right after the very last time we made love?

Answer? It didn’t. Nothing mattered.

I stalked over and picked up the letter and hat, and tossed them onto the computer desk in the corner. The action bumped the mouse, and the monitor clicked on, flooding the room with cold light. My browser booted up automatically. I glanced at the screen and made a hard gasp that fell short of a scream only because I didn’t have quite enough air to back it up.

The lower corner of the open window blinked the date and time. Thursday, it said. November fifteenth. Three-thirty PM.

Somewhere along the line, I’d misplaced the two days I spent with Thann.

Not possible. I was losing it. It was happening now, just like Keffler said it would – fits and starts, and this…this was a start and a fit all rolled up into one.

And then? Oh, and then the stereo came to life with a low, grinding hum. And guess what spilled forth from the speakers? That fucking dirge about herbs, with its counterpoint in minor chords that made my head hurt so bad…

Pain. Real and blinding and God, so severe I could taste it. Could almost touch it, in a cloud around my head. I did scream, then. I fell to my knees and screamed and sobbed, my face pressed against the carpet. Because I finally got it – time out of time.

“We stole it, and we’ll have to give it back.” That’s what he’d said.

After a minute or two of that torture, I dragged myself to my feet and over to the stereo, flicking it off with a violence far out of proportion to its crimes. Then I stumbled to the mirror on the far wall and yanked my tee shirt away from my neck.

No mark. No bruise, no evidence of bite or suck or God-Thann-please-don’t-stop.

Like he’d never been here. Never existed. And maybe…maybe that was the truth of it, after all. Maybe none of it had been real. Perhaps…and just follow along with me for a minute, if you can…perhaps the whole episode had been my poor, tormented brain’s way of saying goodbye before it shut down for good.

I put a hand on either side of my head and pressed, hard. The pain pushed back, harder. But it was nothing compared to the hole in my chest, gaping and black.

“Where my heart used to be,” I muttered.

And how pathetic was that? But it felt real – as real as the pain. Once upon a time, I’d thought I knew all about despair, but this? This was it, baby. The jackpot, winner takes all.

I bumped and staggered around the house, checking the locks on the front and back doors. Then I made my way upstairs, stopping to grab a tumbler of water from the bathroom. I hauled myself up on my disheveled bed and reached for the pill bottles. They looked smaller than I remembered. Amazingly tiny for something that held the power of final oblivion.

I reached out and unplugged the phone. No one other than Keffler had called me in weeks, but who wanted her suicide interrupted by a telemarketer? Then I leaned back against the pillows, and for one scant instant the scent rose up to overpower me. Easter basket, Christmas Eve, Tennessee high summer. I choked on it, flopping onto my stomach to bury my face in it before it could fade. That last, tangible remnant…

Real. He’d been real…but I already knew that, didn’t I?

After a while, I sat up and reached again for the bottles. I looked around the room, wondering what I’d forgotten. Was there any good reason to stick around, even a day longer? If it existed, it wasn’t jumping out at me.

Sixty pills. Half the tumbler of water.

The clock in the corner sounded so damned loud as I lay back and made myself comfortable. It took twenty minutes for the nausea to hit. I’d been expecting it – had done my research. I gritted my teeth and held on. If I could keep the pills down another twenty minutes, I’d be home free.

“Home free,” I whispered. “I can do this.”

At some point between minutes sixteen and seventeen, the clock quit ticking. I opened my eyes, swallowing back yet another surge of queasiness. And there, in the murkiness at the farthest corner of the room, was a shadow in the shape of a man. I could barely make out his face…just his eyes and the sad twist of his lips.

“Thann?”

He didn’t speak or move, but the waves of sorrow rising from him and crashing against me were tangible, pressing me back into the bed.

“Thann…please.” I reached out my hand to him. To feel him one more time. To have something warm and bright to take with me into whatever gray place I was sure to be headed next.

I felt a hand on my face – the barest touch.

He’d gone away because he couldn’t watch me kill myself, but he’d come back because he couldn’t leave me to die alone. Was that love? I couldn’t say for sure, but it was closest thing to it I’d known in a hell of a long time. And how did I repay it? By making him watch me struggle to keep the fucking pills in my stomach long enough to shut down my body. By making him witness the one thing he’d fought so hard to prevent.

“I’m sorry, Thann.” I tried to push the words over my tongue. The effort sent another bolt of nausea through me. I gagged and squeezed my eyes shut against the horror of it – poisoning myself in the dark of that endless, awful day. In the bed we’d shared.

“No…” His voice. Not in the room, but in my head. Pleading, broken, like I’d never heard it. And I wanted to take it all back – I did. But it was too late. The nausea was passing, and the shadows had me in their grip. Like warm water closing over my head. Like the easy choice. Like the way of the lame and the cowardly.

“I’m such a fucking fool.”

There was a buzzing sound, like a thousand bees swarming in my brain, and I thought it was the drugs. Had to be, except it sounded a lot like a dial tone. With a supreme effort, I opened my eyes. Lying next to my head, on the pillow, was the phone’s receiver. Turned on.

But I’d unplugged it. Hadn’t I?

I thought about lifting my hand. Thought about it hard, because that’s what it took to get it up there, to the phone. Thought some more about the three numbers I’d need to push…thought and thought, and it took two tries, but finally…

“Nine-one-one operator, what is your emergency?”

She’d asked, so I told her. “I made the wrong choice, and I want to take it back.”

And I told her to hurry, because I was pretty sure it was getting harder to breathe.

The last thing I knew of that day was the rustle of wings, as something large and beautiful took final flight.

~~~

Thirteen

~~~

Nothing like having charcoal forced down your throat to make you rethink your position on suicide. And the psych ward is no place for a brain tumor patient. Let me go on record about that right up front, so there’s no confusion.

By the time Keffler got everything straightened out and had me moved to the oncology wing, I’d pretty much recovered from what I was calling my “wrong choice.” I was up and walking around when he came to see me a week later, at my request.

“When can you schedule the surgery?” I said.

He seemed surprised. Maybe it was my lack of prefacing the question with polite chit-chat – so unlike me. But he went for it, good man that he was and is, and signed me up for a spot of brain-butchery just four days later.

“You remember what we talked about?” he asked. “The risks involved? Assuming you survive the initial trauma.”

Heh. Trauma. I didn’t even twitch. Thann would’ve been so proud.

“I’m aware of the statistics, doctor. Really,” I said. “I’m good to go.”

He seemed delighted. Didn’t even stop to scold me again about trying to do myself in and, in the process, potentially destroy his career. I thought that if I made it through and retained use of my higher brain functions, I was going to have to write him a hell of a thank-you note.

They performed the surgery on a Monday. I lived, big surprise.

Not only that, but when I came out of the anesthesia, I cracked some stupid joke at the recovery room nurse. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember her laughing. That’s a good sound to wake up to. I could get used to that.

And this is where it gets harder, because no matter how well you survive having your cranium cracked and your gray matter sliced and diced, there’s always the part that comes after. For me, that time was spent in the “brain injury rehabilitation unit.” Otherwise know as Disney World in Hell.

“You can do it, Robin! Just one more set, gotta keep those muscles toned. Can’t let ’em atrophy. Come on, dig in!”

Dig this, asswipe.

It hurt, goddammit. Everything hurt. Learning to walk again, and feed myself. Learning to bathe and dress. Speaking came easy, and in that I was lucky, because I could tell everybody and their sister to fuck right the hell off whenever I felt like it. Amazing people that they were, they took it all and kept smiling. Kept cheering me on.

“You can do it, Robin. We have faith in you.”

It’s hard to live around that much optimism and not have it rub off on you. Try to avoid it as I might, I started making…friends. First among my physical and occupational therapists, and then among the other patients. That whole “soldiers bonding in time of war” thing turned out to be true, and as we battled back together to the land of the living, I began to understand a little of what Thann had been talking about. I began to hear it – the melody.

Sometimes the notes were sharp with suffering, sometimes flat and dull with the boredom of having to haul my ass out of bed and face yet another day. But it was something to hold onto, that connection between me and the people around me. It kept me afloat, especially after the nights when Thann walked my dreams, calling out to me even as he grew smaller and farther away.

And even in that pain, there was something beautiful and comforting. Because at least it was real. Not a shadow of life. Not a pale facsimile.

“You had another nightmare last night, didn’t you, girlie?” That was Mr. Schotz, the stroke patient who bunked next door. What he lacked in tact, he made up for by spitting liberally when he spoke. I liked him quite a bit.

“Did I disturb you, Schotzie?”

“Disturb me? You had the whole floor awake, with your yelling for that Thann fellow. What kind of name is that for a boy, anyway?”

“It’s short for Nathaniel.”

He smiled at me. “Nathaniel. I had a brother by that name.”

I patted his arm and continued down the hall to my appointment with Keffler.

The good doctor was concerned. I knew this because he said to me, “Robin, I’m concerned. I understand you plan to travel to the coast upon your transition to out-patient status.”

“My therapists all agree that I’m fully capable, and losing a few days of work won’t hurt my long-term prognosis. And I’ve never been on an airplane. Or seen the ocean.”

His expression softened. It probably had something to do with the wistful note in my voice that I couldn’t seem to control. Lame. But sincere, nonetheless.

“You’ll be careful, won’t you? And you’ll call me if you need anything.” He sounded positively paternal. I barely held back the tears as he ushered me out of his office.

Like I said…lame.

Five more days, and then I would be home free. For real this time.

~~~

Fourteen

~~~

When I finally do buy the farm, I hope heaven looks like Cannon Beach, Oregon. Preferably in the hour just before dawn, in the month of June.

I hadn’t been able to sleep, which was nothing new for me. Between the meds I was taking to help my recovery and the dreams, morning couldn’t come too soon most times. So I’d left my motel room to walk along the beach, a ways south of Haystack Rock.

The sky glowed pale in the east and still dreamy blue and starry in the west, out over the water. The wind whipped at my hair, which had finally grown out enough that I wasn’t instantly identifiable as a cancer survivor.

The surf rushed up to meet me as I strolled, soaking the hems of my jeans and spraying the sleeves of my sweatshirt. The occasional jogger bounced past, and I offered each and every one a smile and a greeting, whether or not they made eye contact. Yay for me, huh?

In the far distance, I spotted another runner. He came from the south end of the beach, preceded by a pair of dogs. Big, clumsy beasts they were – a yellow and a black. I didn’t know much about dogs, but they looked friendly enough. When their owner was still too far away to make out more than his gender, I squatted and waited for the animals to reach me.

They hit me hard. Two against one, and my balance wasn’t what it used to be. I fell on the wet sand, my sweatshirt sucking up saltwater and dog slobber as they danced around me, barking. I felt like a fresh kill. It only got worse when I struggled to my knees and they went for my face with their sloppy tongues. If I hadn’t been laughing so hard, I might’ve been able to fend them off.

“Sophie! Parker!” I could hear him shouting. Seconds later, I heard his feet pounding the sand, and then his harsh breathing as he finally reached us. “Down! Bad dogs…get down!”

“Don’t holler at them, it’s my own fault for being-” I wiped the slime and sand off my face and looked up at him.

And shut my eyes.

And opened them again. To see his tall, broad-shouldered body and his tabby-cat’s eyes in a young man’s face. To look at his longish, silky brown hair, windblown and damp with the spray.

“Let me help you up,” he said and reached down to take my arm.

I knew his touch – felt it right down to my bones. He looked at me oddly, squinting his eyes in that way he had.

“Are you okay? Those big goofs didn’t hurt you, did they?” He gestured toward the dogs, who were chasing each other in the surf. The affection in his voice made me smile.

“No, I’m fine. Just a little overwhelmed.”

It’s not him, I told myself. Not him. But I heard his voice in my head, even as he continued to talk about his dogs.

“Everything. I’m borrowing everything. Down to and including his soul. He’s me, and I’m him, for the moment.”

He held out his hand again. “I’m Nathaniel,” he said. “But my friends call me Nate.”

I took his hand and held it in both of mine. So familiar. “Hi, Nate. I’m Robin.”

“It’s good to meet you, Robin.” He tilted his head, considering me. “I mean…do I know you? Have we met before? Because you seem…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it. The echo of my thoughts on his tongue.

“…so familiar.” He smiled, full of expectation and kindness. For a moment, I was on my own back porch, feeling Thann’s body…this body…Nate’s body…warm against my back. “He’s sort of an exceptional individual in a lot of ways, which is why I chose him.”

He hadn’t made a move to pull his hand away. I gave it a squeeze and said, “No, we haven’t met, and yes, you know me. Annoyingly well, as a matter of fact.”

His brow lowered in confusion, again so familiar. “Beg pardon?”

I laughed and let go of his hand. “Never mind. It’s…complicated.”

“Okay,” he said and shrugged. Then, “Would you like to get cleaned up and maybe get some breakfast?”

In that moment – that perfect, suspended crystal of time – it could have gone either way. Free will, my choice. Rule number one.

“I’d love to. I’m dying for a hot cup of tea.”

He grinned at me. “You look like a Chamomile kind of girl.”

“And I bet you like Earl Grey.”

His eyebrows disappeared beneath his shaggy bangs. “Are you sure we’ve never met before?”

I tucked my hand beneath his arm and said, “Ask me again sometime, Nate. When we know each other better?”

His eyes crinkled up. He looked pleased with himself and the world. “I like that plan.”

We walked up the beach together into the waiting day.

~~~

The End

2 Comments

  1. […] can find it here on my site, or you can get it free at All Romance Ebooks in PDF or HTML, complete with cover […]

    Pingback by FREE STORY: “Dark of the Day” « Selah March — November 16, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

  2. […] can find it here on my site, or you can get it free at All Romance Ebooks in PDF or HTML, complete with cover […]

    Pingback by FREE READ: “Dark of the Day” « Selah March — November 16, 2008 @ 8:39 pm


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