Each day starts off the same.
They turn him during the night so one arm folds limp and loose across his chest and the other lies palm up, with blue veins and pale skin and just the hint of a heartbeat at the wrist. His head nests in the pillow and breaths tumble from him, short and sharp like a drill sergeant’s orders. He sounds like he’s snoring. He looks like he’s sleeping.
I sit beside him and put my fingers in his hand–and he’s hot like he’s run a marathon (but he hasn’t; he’ll never run anywhere again) and damp like summer’s had its way with him. But underneath all that, he feels the way he always did. He’s just him.
His fingers curl around my fingers. A feather-grip, but when I move to pull away: to scratch my nose or find a tissue or just to escape that thickness building up inside, the pressure is too much. And I haven’t the heart to disappoint; to leave those fingers curled around nothing and so I sit there, my hand in his, until someone comes to relieve me.
But no-one does. That’s also part of it.
Hours pirouette past on tiptoes and I’d like to dance with them; to engage and be a part of time again. But I don’t; I sit and let his perspiration caress me and his snores serenade me and his twitches give me hope. But that lasts only moments.
Something changes. A loss of rhythm from his lungs and a loss of consistency from his jaw and a loss of the shifting, sliding movement of his eyes. I lean forward and whisper his name and touch a cloth to his forehead as if it matters and wield my moistened mouth swab as if it can stave off that great winged beast that smiles from the shadows.
He breathes. It continues.
His fingers let me go. They come, then, those faceless angels that touch so softly and hold smiles in their voices and sadness in the shuffling of their feet.
I peel my hand from his and leave the room while they turn him again.
When I return, he’s on his back. Head up (to help him breathe, they whisper) and mouth a hole leaking darkness from inside him. Those eyelids more translucent than the silk dress he bought me in our courtship a lifetime ago and arms cradled on his belly as if to keep something precious inside.
Someone’s tucked a velvet heart in the crook of his arm.
I sit beside him and his breaths fluctuate like the fancies of some complicated composer; quick like the patter of mouse feet and long like a soliloquy and, at times, absent.
At those times, music fills the space he left behind; pianos and harpsichords and voices clear and sweet and bright enough to tease a dollar from a miser’s pocket. And a clock ticks and the sun pounds itself through the windows and somewhere there’s the sound of a car horn. A conversation.
The sound of a world.
I lean forward at those times and my own breath hitches and my own heart waits as if it takes its beat from his. There’s that smell in the air, of ending, and that liquid on his grip-less palms like his life’s leaking out. And I hope that he takes another breath. And I hope that he never breathes again.
But he does.
Air explodes, pulled in by a vacuum born of over-tired muscles and over-tired reflexes fighting to do what they’ve done day in and day out for so many long, uncompromising years. And I whisper that he should let go, that I’m ready, that he’s ready. That out there, somewhere, an eternity of sunsets await. And each one will be orange.
But he doesn’t hear. Or perhaps just doesn’t want to listen.
And then there are gurgles like I’m in a roomful of infants, and gasps like he’s caught by endless surprise, and silence in between those. And the silences grow longer and the heat fades from his skin and the pulse in his wrist fades beneath my hand.
But still he breathes.
And when I wake, everything’s the way it was. Breath strong. Heart strong. Eyes aflutter beneath the lids and that insistence when I place my fingers into his.
Each day starts off the same because once, when I was young and wanted the constancy of love and sunshine and sweet, hot, hand-holding moments, I made a wish. I wished for forever.
And somebody listened.
In the real world, wishes only come in ones.
Marta Salek is a nurse by day and word scribbler at all other opportune moments. She writes predominantly speculative fiction of a darker nature, and her other works have been accepted by publishers such as Aurealis SF&F, Perihelion SF, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Burnt Offerings Books. Her first novel is coming out later this year. Follow her on Facebook or at http://martasalek.com.