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Vol. 3, No. 1

We're All Dying Here
by Cynthia Hartwig

  Lee sits waiting for his father to die. In the chrome-railed bed, his father's fingers worry the hem of the sheet. He is sweeping something away. His gnarled fingers sweep back and forth. He's been sweeping for hours, for days, for years.
      Irritation breaks through the wall. "Black toast! Doesn't that damn cook know how to use a toaster?"
      Wesley, the patient in the next room, chews out the only nurse at the hospice who is not afraid to bring him his breakfast.
      "You shut the hell up or I'll put crackers in your bed. That ought to improve the bedsores," Vera says, laughing. This cracker thing is their private joke.
      Lee's father opens his eyes. He is tired from the work of dying. The gray pupils are glazed and the yellowed whites are striated with red. It's hard to tell if he's heard Wesley. His foot twitches up and down under the sheet.
      "Are you in pain, Dad?"
      His father nods, the slightest head tilt. It affirms what Lee already knows. He can only whisper--the cancer has eaten most of his voice box--but his eyes are eloquent on the subject of pain.
      "I'll get Liddy. You're due for another bolus. It's almost seven."
      This room is identical to every other room in the hospice. A hospital bed. A nightstand. An open door with a dead-end view of the nurses' station down the hall. Lee pauses at the sink on his way to ask for more morphine and catches his father's reflection in the mirror above the sink. The jutting cheekbones reflect Lee's own narrow face. His father's skin, once ruddy from a lifetime of Montana ranching, has gone waxen and slack. From this angle, they look similar--the hawk nose, the wiry straight hair, the deep-set gray eyes.
      He follows the deep lines down to his father's mouth. Both he and his father look disappointed. He remembers all the times the subject of the ranch has stopped conversation like a rattlesnake in the middle of a room.
      He plunges his hands under the faucet, splashing water over his face. A moan from the bed hurries him down the hall to find a nurse. Liddy kneels at the nurse's station, rooting around in the steel drug cabinet.
      "My dad's having a hard time. Would you give him another bolus, when you get a minute?"
      Liddy leans back on her haunches and checks her watch, charting the time between injections. The intervals of comfort are getting shorter, beads on a shrinking chain. She has her key out for the morphine drawer before the words are out of his mouth, she's that efficient. "On my way," she says. It's the hospice policy to do everything possible to alleviate pain.
      She snaps shut a drawer with a color wheel of capsules, tablets, and pills. A teeth-clenching sound. Then she slides open the long narrow drawer below it, which is filled with hundreds of small clear vials. She pulls out two, along with a paper-covered hypodermic needle. Her feet slap the floor on her way to his father's waiting veins.

 

~

His father vomits green bile, his body racked by heaves. Lee holds the plastic bin under his chin and closes his eyes. The putrid green color coats the inside of his lids. A gagging sensation churns a path up from his stomach, and Lee follows it back thirty years to an alfalfa field with a gate he's forgotten to latch, along with a small herd of Holsteins fresh from the auction house. The cows are hungry. The scent of the lush, green alfalfa field rises before them and they push their soft black-velvet noses against the gate. In their dim cow brains, they must believe they have come to heaven, all fresh green shoots and moist, tender mouthfuls with a peppery taste. When they eat their fill in the field, they wander down to the river to drink. He and his father hear them bawling like babies in the late afternoon.
      A dribbling river of green-brown slime darkens the ground under them in large, slippery circles. Twenty-two cattle lie foundered in the mud. Bloat has tripled the size of their bellies; there is no place for the fermenting alfalfa and gas to go. They bawl low, thin cries. Some have sunk to their knees in the mud. The heifers rock and snort, shaking their heads and blowing hard, trying to release the growing pressure on their lungs, their four fermenting stomachs now filled to bursting with gas. One animal throws her head, eyes rolling. Shallow breaths shake her whole body. She quivers, trying to clear her constricted lungs, to get more air into her squeezed, strangled chest. Lee can't catch his own breath. He has destroyed the whole herd.
      "Don't you ever think about what you're doing?" His father hands Lee the rifle. "Get Ramsay down here to haul the carcasses when you're done." He heads to the pickup and doesn't look back.
      Lee holds the stock between his thumb and forefinger, the way he would pick up a snake he found in the field. The metal is about the same temperature as a snake. He imagines the hand that lifts the gun belonging to another person, a better one, the one he thought he was before he left the gate open.
      When he approaches the nearest heifer, she shivers, her eyes dumb, dark with suffering.
      One neat shot. The heifer exhales a single whoompf. She kneels, a dark-eyed Madonna with red petals falling from the hole between her eyes. Her head sinks into soft black mud. He walks the field in a circle of death, pumping the lever action with a metal-on-metal thunk after each animal. When he looks back, the lush field is dotted with black shapes. His stomach heaves. He vomits so hard that his vocal cords make a deep hollow bark. It is the bark that brings him back to the present to wipe the spit from his father's mouth.

 

~

At three A.M. Lee is too tired to sleep. He wanders along the bank of the Clark Fork River, a half mile away from the hospice. He shivers. It's 40 degrees, Montana's unforgiving version of spring.
      A chuff-chuff sound breaks over the water's murmur. A persistent smoker's hack. He senses eyes upon him. Glances behind him. Scans upriver. Down. No human presence. In the moonlight he spots a coyote on the opposite bank, standing motionless with a yellow-eyed gaze. Its gray-buff fur melts into the mist suspended over gray water. Its eyes hold Lee's. A long, passionless, predator's stare before it dissolves into shrouded trees.
      In the distance up Mullen Road, car lights carve a yellow arc. The road has been empty for hours. It will be empty until the morning shift at the mill. The car speeds up and slows down, as if the driver can't figure out where he is going. Lee watches closely, stoops under the barbed-wire fence, moves across the barren field on his way back to the hospice. He's wondering what a dark car might be doing on a lonely country road at this hour.
      The car crunches toward the hospice. Wheels spit over gravel. Headlights switch off. In the blackness, the engine thrums. The wheel whine of tires gets louder. At the drive, the dark silhouette of the car turns down the lane toward the small ordinary-looking ranch house. Lee stands still, but his mind is busy.
      Scooting across the field, he sees dim shapes--two? three?--slip around the car and head toward the side door. He moves along the siding and presses his nose against Wesley's window. Wesley, the loud TV-watching cancer patient, and Lee's father are the only sentient residents at the hospice. Wesley has been there two months beyond the six-month limit they've set for terminally ill patients, and he seems to be hanging on for all his irritation and complaining, perhaps because of it. Lee guesses the dark shapes are jimmying the lock. He taps lightly on the glass.
      Wesley sleeps in the bed next to the window, his mouth open. His bandy legs are pulled up under the distended moon of his swollen stomach. A gnarled, iron-haired infant in a steel-wrapped crib. This close to death, he doesn't allow himself to drop too far under. He wakes with a jerk. His mouth snaps shut and his right eye glints in the dim light reflected from the hall.
      "Wesley, it's Lee. Open up."
      Wesley raises himself off the pillow, lifting his thin shoulders with difficulty over his stomach, which protrudes out from under his short pajama top, a malignant pregnancy. He squints suspiciously at the window, then shoves it to the side.
      "What the hell? What are you doing? What time is it?" Wesley fires off questions with the speed of a pepper gun.
      "Shh! Wesley, I think someone's trying to break in. Give me your phone."
      Wesley sucks in his breath, his eyes flaring with interest. "A break-in? What the hell do they want?"
      "They want drugs. Give me your phone."
      Wesley sits up quickly. He grimaces. A heat streak of pain. "Phone's disconnected. Got behind in the payments." He shoves his head and shoulders away from Lee, out over the bedside to look down the hall toward the nurses' station. He leans so far that Lee is afraid he might tumble out. Lee puts his hand through the open window, catches a fistful of flannel from the back of Wesley's billowing pajama top and uses it as ballast to keep him on the mattress.
      "Careful!"
      "There's two guys. They're wearing black masks," Wesley whispers.
      "Can you hear what they're saying?"
      "Hell, I can barely hear you and you're right next to my head." Wesley glares, irritated.
      "Put in your hearing aid."
      Wesley fumbles in the top drawer of his nightstand and jabs the kidney-shaped button in his ear. He adjusts its volume with vicious pokes.
      Wesley leans out, listening intently, then jams his body back in the bed.
      "Shh. One of them's coming this way."
      Lee ducks down below the window ledge. He zeroes in on a sidling step--it has a hop-step rhythm, slow, then fast. It's the slowing down that speeds up Lee's heart, makes the blood buzz in his veins. The old man sucks in a harsh breath and Lee wills him to relax the tightened spring of his lungs in case whoever has stopped at the door is smart enough to know he is faking sleep. A slight pause from the presence at the door, then the steps recede, hop-stepping away into the distance.
      Lee waits. Then he lifts his head back over the windowsill. Wesley is again leaning off the side of the bed. He peers down the hall. When he turns back, his eyes have narrowed and his mouth is set in a hard straight line.
      "They got Vera and Liddy on their knees--there by the drug cabinet. Looks like they're shooting up."
      Drawers open and slam shut. Something metallic rings on the linoleum. Thwack. The sharp sick sound of flesh on flesh.
      "Christ. Oh. Christ," Wesley says.
      "What are they doing?"
      "The big one just socked Liddy."
      Over the house's symphony of respirators and monitors, Lee makes out a human voice. "Please, please, plea . . ."
      ". . . bitch!" Thwack. Another suck of flesh meeting flesh.
      "Jesus, Liddy's agitating them."
      Chuck. A thick spitting sound. The sound of a silencer. Then a quick, strangled scream.
      "They shot her!" Wesley's breath comes in ragged gasps.
      Lee tries to quiet his own lungs so he can hear Wesley. Wesley is still for a long time, his knuckles shining dead-white on the bed rail.
      Crack. A higher, sharper sound reverberates down the hall. It releases the report the silencer sucked up a minute before.
      "Vera. They shot Vera." Wesley lowers his head back to the pillow. In his eight months at the hospice, he must have come to care more about Liddy and Vera than he does about his own family. Lee hasn't seen any visitors.
      Banging. Drawers slamming. A syncopated patter of "Jesus, go! Go! Go! Get it all!" Wesley buries his face in the pillow. His bony shoulders tremble. Lee reaches out to touch his shaking shoulder. Wesley turns. Tear tracks glisten in the deep fissures of his face.
      "Well, they died quick," he whispers, wiping his grizzled cheek. "Beats the shit out of the way I'm going."
      A scream from the unoiled screen door. A slam. The flare of porch lights.
      Wesley whispers, "I think they went out the front. I can't see them anymore."
      Lee walks along the side of the house, crouches at the corner, squeezed behind a scraggly hydrangea. They are giggling, their backs to him, as they bump and weave down the walk like a couple of adolescent girls, good-natured from the morphine. A gnomic figure goes around the side of the car to piss, still laughing. A large slope-shouldered man with a gut climbs into the back and lays his head on the back of the seat. In the blue light at the end of the garage, Lee notes the make--a black Chevy Impala--for the police. He tries to get a read on the plate. It's in shadow so he can only make out the last three letters and he repeats them like a mantra to keep them all safe.
      Seven-two-three, he chants, seven-two-three.

 

~

They pull out of the driveway. The black car sways dreamily from side to side like a top-heavy float in a lights-out parade until its red taillights disappear in the conifers at the bend in the road.
      Lee walks around to the open front door. The smell of cordite floats in the air. In the hall near the dining room, Liddy lies on her back. Her white-stockinged legs twist grotesquely under her. A contortionist's pose. Long fingers of blood ooze on the shiny linoleum. Vera slumps splay-legged in the corner. Snail tracks of blue-gray brain matter drip down the wall.
      Lee steadies himself against the drug cabinet. A 9mm Browning lies forgotten by his hand. The drug drawers gape open, empty. He moves like a sleepwalker toward the phone but stops. Wesley's muffled weeping rises over the burble of the respirators. He walks into his dim room.
      "Vera and Liddy are both dead," Lee says, closing Wesley's window. The old man shivers. His weather-beaten face is the gray color of an old barn. Lee switches on the bed lamp. "They left one of their guns." Wesley's oxygen machine percolates a faint rhythm; the wet wheeze from Lois's tank answers a few doors away.
      A coyote howls in the distance. Wesley cocks his head. After a second, another coyote answers the call.
      "What kind of gun?" Wesley asks from deep in the rumpled bedclothes.
      Lee is surprised by the question. "I don't know. A pistol. A Browning, I think."
      A flash in Wesley's eyes, like a photographer's strobe. "Shoot me. Now's our chance. Before the police show up."
      Lee stares dumbfounded. He listens to the oxygen machines hum and burble and gasp, the humidifier wheeze, the buzz of the fluorescent light in the hall.
      "The early shift will be here pretty soon. Kill me now. Please Lee, while there's still time."
      "Wesley, I can't."
      "What you can't do is leave me here dying one fucking inch at a time. You can't leave me in pain. Get the gun, Lee. It's perfect."
      Lee shifts his feet, startled at the giddy look in Wesley's rheumy eyes. The old man smiles as if he's found the Cracker Jack prize.
      "Do it now. The police won't suspect a thing. They'll think those hopheads did it."
      "This is crazy."
      "It's not crazy. It's saner than what we just saw."
      Wesley pulls the sheet up under his chin. One more pull and it will be a winding-sheet, his final shroud.
      "It's wrong. I can't kill you."
      "You're right. You can't kill just me. Shoot us all. Do it now--just walk down the hall and shoot every damn one of us."
      Lee imagines his father's eyes--dark, dumb, and suffering. The wheeze of constricted lungs. Cattle dropping their bulk to their knees, red blooms falling from their foreheads to shit-encrusted ground. His stomach lurches.
      "You're asking me to kill my own father."
      Wesley's eyes glint with a religious fanatic's zeal. "Well, doesn't he want to go? I've heard the nurses talking about his pain. You keep upping his Roxanol dose. I've heard him begging. Don't you think he wants to go?"

~

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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