by Elizabeth Penn

I was dying. Or at least, that’s what the doctors told me. I had gone in for a checkup for a headache that had lasted for a few weeks, or was it months? It was 6 months since my husband, Bill, was murdered. And while I would have gone in for the pain sooner, the headache was the only thing living in my empty hollow life anymore. Everything felt hollow: my empty hollow house, my empty hollow heart, my empty hollow head. Only, it turned out that my head wasn’t empty. Inside was a tumor. Brain cancer to be more specific.

I stood on the rocky shore of my new backyard, the water lapping at the rocks beneath my feet. Gray, like the sky and the mists that floated hauntingly above the deep black ocean. My new house was nestled into the dark pine forests of Washington state, on the edge of the water. It was fall now, and although the trees were still a rich green, the air was cold, nipping at my skin as it blew passed. My house, behind me, was hidden in the shadows of the towering trees, except for a warm light that glowed from my living room. I wrapped my long brown knit sweater tighter around me, and brushing back my mousy brown curls, I looked out one more time into the swirling haze of gray.

I can’t quite describe the feeling. I was sick, but I didn’t feel sick. I was dying, but I already felt dead. I looked back at the house, its light felt distant, and I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting in my hollow house, empty and alone. It was better, I thought to myself, than my old house. I loved my old house. It was a light blue townhouse on the edge of my beautiful city of Chicago. But after Bill died, it felt abandoned, and so I, too, abandoned it. Part of me wished I would have stayed, but I had no choice in the matter. Or at least, it didn’t feel like much of a choice.

In the city, an hour out from my new Washington cabin, was a specialist: Dr. Bloomberg. And he was to me my savior, my cure. My doctor in Chicago swore by him. So I packed up myself and my things, and left my old life to move out to Washington. I could have lived in the city, if only to decrease the loneliness. But I learned early on in my sickness that being alone and feeling alive is much happier than running into people and having to answer the inevitable question, “How are you?”

That was how Dr. Bloomberg greeted me, and that was when I lost hope. I didn’t understand how someone who was considered a specialist could greet someone with my condition, his specialty, with the same insensitive question that I was greeted with by the barista in the coffee shop, “How are you today?”

I don’t know, doctor, you tell me.

“Incurable” was the answer. I was incurable.

“So, Sara,” he sighed after looking at my brain scans, “the good news is that you are in Washington, so you have options. You can either let the cancer run its course, and we will give you medications to ease the pain and symptoms. These could include headaches, memory loss, blurry vision, hallucinations, mood swings, nausea, or in severe cases, seizures.”

I sat there on the paper-lined cushion of the examination table, emotionless, waiting to hear more before deciding on how I was supposed to feel.

“Or,” he paused, “you can sign paperwork for what we call ‘Death with Dignity’. It is a painless procedure, basically like when you take your pet to be put down. It might shorten your overall lifespan, but it also shortens the pain.”

So, I could die naturally, or I could choose die. It had been a few weeks since I had heard this news, and I still wasn’t sure how that conversation was supposed to make me feel.

My husband Bill and I were sitting in the kitchen having breakfast the last time I saw him. We were eating Fruit Loops, his favorite. I always teased him for it. To see a grown man in a business suit eating a big bowl of Fruit Loops seemed almost satirical to me. I had an orange with mine, but I always had trouble peeling them, so he reached over habitually, and peeled it for me.

“Sara,” he started, smiling more than usual at the mundane task of orange peeling, “I wanted to talk to you.”

“Yes?” I was nervous, we almost never talked about anything serious.

“Well, I know we have both been previously married, and I am a little older than my super-hot 30 year old wife,” he winked at me, “But, I was wondering if you would be okay with having kids with me?”

I leaped from the table, throwing myself on his lap, tears in my eyes. I was so happy. We didn’t even eat our breakfast that morning. But we did use the kitchen table. I kissed his cheek playfully, wrapping his robe around my now naked body as he headed off to work. Maybe I could even be pregnant now, I thought to myself.

I wasn’t.

An hour later, as I finished applying my pink lipstick on my way out the door, I heard my  cell phone buzzing in my purse. I assumed it was the gallery. My giddy mood had made me a little late to work that day. I grabbed my schedule book and threw it into my purse, clomping out the door in my dressy heels and throwing my bulky floral purse into the passenger seat of my Ford Focus. I wasn’t usually late to work, which many people considered uncommon for an artistic type like me.

I had studied fine art at the Art Institute in Chicago when I met Bill. He was in college for business management, and while we didn’t have much in common, we became friends right away. Once we married, years later, after the failing of both of our first marriages, he made me the gallery manager for one of the properties his business had acquired. It wasn’t my dream job, but it gave me the money and experience to further my own painting career. And I had to admit, it was kind of sexy to be married to my boss.

As I started my car, my phone rang again. They weren’t usually this persistent, so I answered. Its wasn’t the gallery. It was the hospital. I can’t remember the exact conversation, or anything that followed. I only remember the facts: Bill had been shot while picking up some coffee at the gas station on the way to work during a robbery. Wrong place wrong time. He was at the hospital when they called, and he wasn’t when I got there.

Walking back to my cabin, I slid the glass door shut behind me, glad to step out of the cold. I decided to take a long shower. The floral soap was calming, and I did my best to enjoy every drop of water that ran down my skin. The doctors had told me that once my disease progressed further, I wouldn’t be able to take showers by myself anymore for the sake of personal safety. I turned off the water as when it started to get cold, and wrapped my towel around me. Stepping over to the mirror, my heart stopped, and I blinked over and over to be sure that what I was seeing was real.

On the mirror was a heart drawn into the steam. Bill used to do that. I was frozen in place, afraid to leave the bathroom at the thought of someone in the house messing with me. But, I decided to be a little more practical than hiding in the bathroom, and looked around the house to be sure I was alone. The house was empty. I went back to take another look at the mirror, but the steam was gone, and so was the heart.

I went into the kitchen in my pajamas to make a sandwich, turning on the T.V. for noise. There was one of those family gameshows on, and I absentmindedly tried to answer the questions as I made myself an early dinner. The sun was setting early in the evening, as it often did there, casting long shadows on across the floor. I put my sandwich down on the coffee table, and after a moment of numbness, I decided that now was as good of a time as any to open that bottle of wine in the fridge. I was saving it,  waiting to see if I would be allowed to drink with my treatment, but now, as it turned out, I could do anything that I wanted. There was no treatment.

I walked into the kitchen, taking out the corkscrew and the fancy bottle of wine with a title I couldn’t pronounce, and set it on the counter. After a lot of effort, I opened the bottled with a loud pop, and turned to throw the cork away. Turning back to the wine, I jumped, falling back, and catching myself on the counter. My eyes were frozen open, my heart pounding. There, on the counter by the wine, were two glasses.

I walked over to them slowly, looking around. I was obviously alone. Reaching down to pick up the glasses, I felt a warm feeling seep into my chest, and a smile spread across my face. I could feel Bill. Tears welled up in my eyes, as I poured both glasses and took them to the coffee table. I looked around half expecting him to be there, but of course, he wasn’t.

I ate my sandwich, drank my wine, and watched my game show. The glow I had felt lingered, and it was the first “good time” I had in a while. Taking my dishes to the kitchen, I poured myself a second glass of wine for dessert. I took it back to the living room, and the glow spread, enveloping my entire body as I saw there, on the coffee table, my dessert: a peeled orange. I sat down, pathetically crying over an orange, unable to eat it, once again distracted by my love. I sat on the couch, smiling silently to myself, watching my show and sipping my wine. After a few minutes, I found myself talking to him.

“I know this one! Oh, what is the word? Bill help me!” I would say, then laugh when they announce the answer. After a few minutes of going on like this, a commercial break came on. I looked over next to me, at the empty seat. Then, taking his glass and bringing it to me, I took a sip, “I miss you.”

And I cried. It was the first time I had really cried since he died. As I started to fall apart, a blanket was around my shoulders, and I felt myself start to sink down, laying on the couch with my head on a pillow. I blinked through my tears, and there he was, Bill, kneeling in front of me. His dark wavy hair and Hollywood smile were blurred through my tears, but it was definitely him. He was in his pale blue button up, slightly open, and his dress pants and shoes, just like when he was getting ready for work those months ago.

“Hey,” I whispered, smiling.

“Hey,” he smiled back.

“I’m scared,” I wept, tears dropping to the pillow.

He brought up his hand, wiping his tears away with his soft fingers. He was warm.

“Of what?” he said smiling softly.

“Of living without you,” I answered honestly for the first time, even to myself.

He took my hand, kissed my forehead, and as I fell asleep in his warm glow, I heard him whisper, “You don’t have to.”

And that was the moment that I found my hope again.

Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student