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Vol. 3, No. 1

We're All Dying Here
by Cynthia Hartwig

~

Does he want to go? The question takes him back to a bridge that crosses the Clark Fork River, twenty-five years before his father's illness. His father drives, ferrying Lee to school.
      A white face is turning in black water. An Indian woman has jumped off the Van Buren Bridge, following an empty liquor bottle. The woman's eyes are open. She turns in the current like a child's bath toy moving closer and closer to the drain. Her face is still, her eyes calm, right before she turns under the water for good.
      "Dad. She's drowning," Lee says to his father, who clenches the wheel and stares straight ahead.
      "She jumped, Lee." His father's stern eyes hold his. They are the color of granite under fast-moving water.
      "Will they save her?" Lee asks.
      "I hope they don't."
      Lee swallows.
      "She wanted to go," his father says. "It's her choice. She was ready to die."
      The snow beats a gritty rhythm on the windshield.
      "If I was ready to go," his father says, "I wouldn't want them to save me."

 

~

Lee returns to Wesley's glare. The same ferocity he remembers in his father's eyes. "You're right, he wants to go," Lee says to Wesley. "But just because you and my dad want to die, doesn't give you the right to make that choice for Lois, or Harriet, or Paul."
      "Listen. We're all dying. Every one of us. We all know it."
      "How do you know Paul feels that way? He can't even talk."
      Wesley's face contorts into a grimace of disgust. "He hasn't been able to feed himself either, for more than a year. The stroke wiped out everything except his ability to vomit and shit. And Lois? She's on a higher dosage of Roxanol than your dad. You ever feel bone pain? It's like some son of a bitch is kicking you just for turning your head."
      "Did Lois tell you she wanted to die?"
      "All you gotta do is look in her eyes. How come she's always grabbing your hand and saying, `Can you help me?' She isn't asking for a drink. She wants to be held under."
      Wesley measures Lee, a long judgmental look. "You don't get it, and I don't have time to wait until you're lying in this bed instead of me. We're all dying here. The only question is when. So I'm asking you when." He points to a box of rubber gloves on the nightstand. It blooms drooping finger petals out of its mouth. "Put on a pair of gloves. You leave any stray prints and there'll be too many questions."
      The gloves look like fingers disassembled from a living body. The fingers point him out the door to the 9mm Browning on the cabinet. Even through his second skin, the gun feels cool. It is sleeker than the pistols he remembers from his youth, heavier and colder.

 

~

Lee walks down the linoleum hall. He passes door after door, until he reaches the last one on the left, Paul's room. The surface beneath his feet is no longer familiar and he knows he is lost, the person he once was has disappeared. When he pulls the trigger, he hears nothing. Just a sudden quiet, a clock slipping its spring.
      In the next room, Lois opens her raisin eyes, small and dark with pain. No surprise registers. The dying are used to seeing strangers arrive at their bedside at all hours of the day and night.
      "Can you help me?" Her usual refrain. But the words mean everything now.
      "I'm here to take you home." Lee pats her arm and she smiles her crumpled smile. The strands of her thin white hair reveal the pink of a newborn's scalp. He holds her hand, lets the bullet carve an escape route through her brain.
      In Harriet's room, a wizened child, small and orphaned, is lying in the bed. She sleeps with her mouth wide open, showing pink, toothless gums shiny with drool. He shoots without waking her.
      He pauses at his father's door. His dad lies in a fetal position in the bed, knees tucked up, his breathing thin and sour. In the moonlight, his pale skin has the veining of alabaster, and his body tenses under the thin blanket.
      The Browning drags Lee's arm down and he fights a rising fear. The old man is awake. Does he know?
      "Dad?"
      "What are you doing?" He struggles to enunciate the words, to force the sound above the dull throbbing of the respirator.
      "There's been a robbery. Vera and Liddy are dead."
      "I saw it."
      "You did?"
      "My ears still work. And my eyes."
      Lee turns from the bed. It is a straight shot down the hall to the nurses' station, and he sees that the view from his dad's pillow frames Liddy's twisted white legs. The blood under her has turned the color of a copper penny. "What are you doing?" his father says again.
      Lee swallows spit. He puts out his hand and grips the bed rail to keep his knees from buckling. He rests the Browning on the top of the rail, inches from his father's brain.
      "I just shot three people," says Lee. "Paul. Lois. Harriet."
      His father's pupils narrow to singular points. His expression is unreadable. There's no way to tell if he is surprised or horrified. The only sign he's heard Lee is a faint movement of his Adam's apple.
      "Dad, I just shot three people. I'm going to shoot Wesley. Then you."
      There is a moment of silence. "I know."
      The enormity of his father's knowledge breaks the hold Lee has on his knees. He leans his torso against the bed, but he forces himself to raise his eyes to meet his father's. Tears the color of moonlight, opalescent and luminous, course from his father's eyes down his withered cheeks. "I'm ready." He cries without making a sound. Lee reaches out. Takes his father's hand. He presses the gnarled dissolving bones between his own long narrow fingers. Lifts the palm to his lips.
      "Son." The father whispers the word.
      "Dad," answers the son.
      The old man nods, a rancher's nod, one minute downward tilt of his jaw, before he closes his eyes. His father tightens his grip on Lee's hand, transferring the intensity of his desire to the son who uses his strength to cock the trigger.
      A dry click. A gate latch falling in place. The low thunk of bullet in bone. An exhalation of relief. His father's head falls to the side. A small circle of brilliant red spray on a blue pillowcase. Lee feels the air go out of his own chest and replays the sound back to the whoompf, the final breath rushing out from the lungs.
      The old disappointments crumble like dry sage in his hands. His father walks into the green pasture beyond, no longer stooped and thin. Proud.

 

~

When Lee appears at Wesley's door, the gun at his side, Wesley smiles.
      "Good boy, Lee," he says, now the affectionate father. "But look here," his voice is high and giddy. He sounds like a naughty child about to reveal a secret hoard of penny candy. Lee pulls open the bottom drawer Wesley is pointing to and there, under a stack of pajamas, are a dozen clear vials.
      "Snitched one from the tray every time one of those soft-headed nurses turned their back. Took me six months but I bagged enough to send me out on a cotton-candy cloud the size of Montana." He grins from ear to ear.
      There is a long, long pause, finally broken when Lee asks, "How much should I give you?"
      "I'm at eight milligrams now. Each bolus holds up to two milligrams. Give me ten for good measure, I don't want to come and ask for my money back," Wesley answers.
      Lee nods but stops, transfixed by a hunting coyote framed in the field beyond Wesley's window. He touches Wesley's arm and points. The bushy gray-brown tail of the coyote stands out like a horizontal lightning rod as the predator picks his way daintily across the bare field, intent on a vole in front of him. The sky has shifted to a night blue and a crescent of light catches the silhouette of the coyote just as it arches its back and levitates straight up, four feet off the ground. Lee and Wesley watch it hang weightless in the air, in a moment of perfect suspension, before the pounce.
      "Beautiful," Wesley says, turning on his side so Lee can make the injections in the portacath. "So goddamned beautiful." He smiles, squeezes Lee's hands in thanks. "Stay with me? Please? I don't want to go alone."
      Lee nods and injects one bolus every minute, holding Wesley's hand. After each injection, Lee rubs the waxen palm. The veins below the pale translucent skin are like rivers on a map he can't follow.
      "The perfect crime," Wesley says a few minutes later, already drifting away on the river. "Don't forget to shoot me after." He smiles. It's the last thing he says.
      Lee continues to rub Wesley's hand. Wesley quiets soon after the last injection. His old-person smell floats from his fingers and toenails. In ten minutes, his breathing has slowed. It's quiet and rhythmic for a while, then shifts into a slightly higher gear so quietly that it's hard to hear exactly when the shift happens. But after the gear change, his breathing moves up higher in his chest in the shallow part of his lungs. He pants rapidly--not straining, just panting--when his heart starts fibrillating in his chest. The quivering is like the quivering of an over-heating engine, all its pistons are firing so fast that when one of them can't keep up, it causes the engine to run rough, trembling and quivering in its last-ditch effort to hold everything in its proper place.
      The breath fractures.
      Wesley gasps once and stops for an airless moment. Lee holds his own breath, counting the seconds until Wesley gasps hard again. In the light of the bed lamp, Wesley's fingertips and nails are turning cyanotic purple. The skin around his mouth and nose is dusky green. Lee puts his free hand under the sheet--Wesley's belly is still warm, the blood is rushing inward to its most important organs, its final act of self-preservation. Wesley's tongue moves up to the roof of his mouth and his teeth click. His last autonomic response. It is the tongue touching the top of Wesley's palate that gives Lee the impression of a forming word, though he knows Wesley is already gone. It looks like the word love. Love? Loves what? Life? Death? Which one? But then Lee knows. He says it to the night-blue sky with the finger paring of a pink horizon. Loves you.

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