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Last Breath

The morning is grey. Pigeons flutter past the window, but the chill of the world still grips everything from the tips of their wings to the zigzag patchwork of brick and stone buildings. Bulging clouds drift listlessly overhead and a light mist fills the air even as rain threatens to fall. For now, the drops of water are held at bay high above the Earth.

In kitchens across town, tea kettles are set on stoves. Matches are flicked against the rough strip of phosphorus on the outside of every match booklet. Flames dance, the water above them beginning to warm and then churn as bubbles rise and pop within the kettle. Steam fills them and a whistle sounds.

This particular whistle wakes the sleeper on the other side of the wall. He hears the whistle of the kettle and shuffling feet followed by the clink of mugs on the countertop. The blinds are pulled aside yet the light filtering in is scant. The man doesn’t have to look skyward to know that the still-rising sun is obfuscated by clouds, and thick ones no doubt.

He stands and pads his way into the bathroom to relieve himself, already looking forward to breakfast and tea to wake him up. Waking two or even three times in the night has grown wearisome to the point rising from bed takes on a strange, loathsome 2 quality, but he tries to keep his eyes forward, to speak metaphorically. His sleep troubles won’t simply pack up and leave, they’re here to stay despite any feeble protests he could offer so he may as well get used to it.

With his hands washed and dried he carries himself to the kitchen, the feet still shuffling about and the muted rattle of plates and silverware filtering in. As he crosses into the kitchen, the owner of the feet is across the room, sliding bread into the toaster. Good morning, she says as he crosses to the kitchen table and takes a seat.

I suppose.

I felt you get up.

Which time?

There was more than one?

The man exhales through his nose, finding some solace in the fact that, of the three times he woke either to empty his bladder or just to pay for the crime of taking sleep for granted as a younger man, only once did he disturb her.

Well it was about three-thirty I think, maybe four, she says.

I hope it wasn’t hard to get back to sleep.

Not at all, but I wouldn’t be bothered even if it were. It’s not as if you have any control over when you can’t sleep.

He shrugs, stifling a yawn. Silence fills the space between them and she continues around the kitchen. She takes down butter and cinnamon from one cabinet, a 3 wooden box from another and then teabags from within the box. Any preference? she asks, holding one of the bags aloft, pinched between her fingers.

Are we low? he asks. She glances into the box again and says, Not especially. Silence again. The sense he doesn’t believe her fills the room. We should be worried more about the sugar anyway, she says, We’ve less of that and tea isn’t as expensive. Maybe we should share a bag anyway. Something she’s held back from saying finally comes out, the man’s insistence pushing her. It’s Thursday, she says. We can stand for some indulgence. The man’s shoulders sink. There’s a part of him that, every Thursday, wakes up knowing full-well what day it is and yet refuses to acknowledge it until forced. I know, he says in a low voice. His head dips and he stares into the knotted wood of the kitchen table before him. And speaking of which, she says, glancing at the clock, we’ll need to be leaving soon. The toaster dings a moment later and she sets the butter, the cinnamon, two knives, two mugs, and the kettle on the table. Wordlessly, the pair make up their breakfast and sip at their tea. Once the last of the woman’s toast is gone she waits patiently for the man’s to disappear as well before setting their plates in the sink to be washed later. Do you mind making up our lunch while I get ready? she asks, to which the man agrees. 4 The woman disappears into the bedroom humming a low tune and the man lifts himself from his chair with a grunt. Their roles reversed, the man criss-crosses the kitchen to get all the necessary ingredients. A short while later, the woman emerges, clipping on an earing, just as the man finishes wrapping their sandwiches in wax paper and setting them atop one another on the counter. Your turn, the woman says. I’ll get everything else together, you get yourself ready. In short order, the pair stands at their front door. The man pats down his pockets, ensuring nothing he needs is left behind on a side table or in another jacket. His keys jingle in his hand, his wallet rests in his left pocket, and his pocketwatch rests heavy inside his jacket. Ready? the woman asks. Ready, the man replies. They open the door and step outside, the woman carrying her purse and their umbrella — so far unopened — and the man carrying their lunch in a small brown sack. The day is still young and the houses around them are quiet, their neighbors still taking solace in slumber. The street lamps have only just dimmed in response to encroaching daylight, but cars glide along the thin and twisting roads with their headlights spearing out beyond them, trying to cut away at the mist that still hangs over the ground. The man and the woman navigate cracked pavement and ill-kempt roads, but none of them for the first time. There’s a wordless acknowledgment as they narrow to 5 single-file when a tree’s roots have exploded up out of the sidewalk and into a treacherous mound seeking to send the unaware into a painful, sprawling heap. The bus stop ahead of them looms out from the mist. An orange pole, a route designation at its top, is easily identifiable even with the less-than-stellar conditions. Unless it’s early we’ll have a few minutes wait, the man says, checking his watch and then slipping it back into his breast pocket. The woman tightens her scarf and says, Okay. Will it get much warmer today do you think? The man glances skyward. Even if it does, I think there’s an equal chance it rains in which case it won’t much matter. You’re right. The pair sit on a bench to one side of the orange pole with its route designation and wait. Cars slip by, cyclists ride on to work or school or what have you, and the odd intrepid dog-walker braves the early hour. And amidst it all the pair sits, peering across the town with the gaze of one enjoying their lover’s beauty. The bus is late by a minute. Its brakes squeal in haughty protest as the driver slows its momentum and the man and woman rise from their bench. They’ve been joined by an office-worker and a student, male and female respectively. The newcomers yield to their elders as the man and woman carefully ascend the bus’ steps. 6 Would you like a hand? asks the office-worker. There’s a stilted quality to their gate, and as the man ascends the first step, the office-worker can’t help but ask if they want help. The man and woman pause and turn to politely decline, saying they’ll manage on their own. Are you sure? asks the office-worker again. We’ll be quite alright, I’ve climbed stairs taller than these measly three, says the man, turning again to address the office-worker. The polite smile of before is gone — or at least changed, a more artificial one now in its place. And with it, the man’s tone is changed, carrying more finality. The office-worker takes an involuntary step back. Did I offend them? he thinks. How could that have been rude? It was just an offer for help. The couple finishes the short walk up the steps and the office-worker motions for the female student to go ahead of him. Perhaps even that seems rude, he thinks as makes the gesture, trying to do right by at least one person this morning. The man and the woman find their way to the back of the bus and sit. Why do they always think we’re incapable of living life without help, the man laments. The woman rests a hand on his and, looking out the window, says, They mean well. He was just a kid, his mother raised him right as far as I can see. The man’s 7 expression softens to something more neutral and he joins the woman in scanning the scenery as it slides by the bus window. It seems with everyone over a certain age they’re only afforded as much grace as those around them of younger generations care to spare. The bus ride home for both the office-worker and the student will no doubt be similar, but after a long day’s tribulations, they won’t be so quick to excuse the older people with a wry smile and will instead, despite the knowledge they’re being unfair, hurry along the glacially slow pensioners who’ve doing nothing. But it’s still early. The office-worker and the student have long days before them, and if an endearing pair of elder neighbors delay the need to start on such a day then so be it. The man and the women are reminded of the measly budget afforded to this route as the bus’ heaters are jammed to full yet seemingly do nothing. The windows are frosted over in the chill of the morning, and the bus driver even wears thick mittens on his hands as he grips the shift lever. Outside the window, below them from their high position in the bus, over the right rear wheel, a motorcyclist sits. The road is two-lanes and the bus has come to a juttering halt at a stop sign, the motorcyclist alongside it. He wears the leathers that will protect him if God directs his attention elsewhere long enough for the rider to come to harm, and a helmet tops his head. The straps that are meant to secure it to his chin 8 dangle freely in the morning air. It’s only a split second that the motorcyclist waits before accelerating away, but it’s enough time for the man and the woman to glance down and see him. The woman’s expression hardens as if defensive before averting her gaze and the man simply looks elsewhere. But both of them look away with the image of the dangling chin straps in their mind, imprinted there with uncomfortable familiarity.

The pair settle in for the journey, trying to think other, unrelated thoughts. The bus winds around cobbled streets, low stone walls, and roundabouts with greenery sprouting from their center islands. As the bus trundles on, the buildings outside the windows start to get taller. The bricks and stone are left behind while more advanced materials replace them. The people that run like ants between the buildings’ roots move with a speed that’s tiring to even bear witness to, so the man and the woman look around the bus at their fellow travelers instead. Such an activity can be entertaining for far longer than most care to realize, so it comes as something a surprise when the man says, This is it.

It always seems so much farther, the woman replies, collecting their umbrella and following him. The bus slows and they hold tight to the railings, resisting the change in momentum. This time they’re unhurried by other commuters as the bus is gorged with people, taking a long time to empty them onto the city streets regardless of the speed of the man and the woman.

Once on the sidewalk, with the bus pulling away behind them, they turn to their right and continue without needing the aid of street signs. It’s a short walk which takes them only a handful of minutes, but on the way the woman asks, They said they were going to move him, weren’t they?

The man nods. They did. They’re renovating a wing, so there’s going to be a lot of shuffling is what they told us before we left the last time.

The woman nods and makes an affirmative noise, remembering now those same words. They’ve hardly finished speaking when they round a corner, a group of tourists breaking around them like water around a boulder in a river, and see the hospital. Its wide double doors slide open as discharged patients are rolled into the morning air, visiting family rush in out of the cold, and doctors and nurses stream in both directions. Any allusions to anthills are entirely correct with constant, bustling motion. Always someone coming and going, everyone on a separate mission. Only anthills are more organized.

They didn’t tell us what room, just that he would be moved, didn’t they? Now it’s the man’s turn to be asking.

Well even if they did tell us, I think we’ve both forgotten, the woman replies.

Forgetfulness becomes a fact of life beyond a certain point and it’s not new to either of them. The woman shrugs it off and smiles it away, which the man parrots, if less enthusiastically it must be said.

Once inside the hospital, the pair aim for the reception desk. The thermostat is turned to something considerably higher than the temperature outside, but the sterility of waxed floors and polished, fluorescent light fixtures has a funny way of maintaining a frosted chill even once inside. So for the moment the pair leave their gloves and coats on, knowing it will be warmer farther into the bowels of the building.

Hello, the man says across the reception desk.

A woman much his junior looks up from a sheaf of papers and repeats his greeting back to him. What can I do for you? she continues.

We’re actually looking for a patient’s room number if you could be so kind.

The receptionist glances at a large, ornate clock set in the wall behind them over the entrance. You’re a touch early for visitor’s hours, she says with an apologetic expression.

The woman smiles broadly, letting the homely comfort of the expression reach even into the corners of her eyes. A well-practiced smile. So what room is he in? she asks, as if the receptionist had instead told them she’d be delighted to help.

But no, the receptionist repeats herself, apologizing once again and unsure if she was misunderstood or plainly unheard.

In response, the woman maintains her smile and offers a surname to aid in looking up the patient’s room number, as if the receptionist had asked for it all along.

Ma’m, the receptionist starts, it would be against policy for…me…

Her words grind to a halt. Even as she starts to apologize for a third time, she can see it’s having the same total lack of effect. She looks at the clock, reasoning it’s only a few minutes early, and then relents with a sharp exhalation. She takes the given name and quickly calls up the patient registry. As she scans the lines of patient names, intake notes, and room numbers, the minor fear grows in her breast that the pair won’t understand what they’ve even asked for. No, she thinks, they’ve asked directly for it, haven’t they? They’ve got to understand.

As a sort of insurance, the receptionist pulls a pad of paper and a pen towards her. She scribbles down the surname and room number and passes it across. You can find him in number 431, she says.

The woman takes the paper as if pleasantly surprised. Oh, well aren’t you kind! Thank you again, she says, pushing herself off the desk and walking away alongside the man. The receptionist looks after them, a small smile flowering on her features. A soft smile, one influenced by that of the woman.

They’re nice together, the receptionist thinks to herself. She then laughs a little bit, watching them amble away and get passed by even those confined to wheelchairs. I’m not even sure why I was worried. They won’t make it to the fourth floor until a few minutes after visiting hours have started anyway.

But like the office-worker and the student, it is still early for the receptionist.

Once a few feet down the hall the man says, beaming, I like when you do that.

The woman chuckles. I never know whether to feel bad about it or to think it’s as funny as you do.

Well if young punks like that kid on the bus want to assume we can’t even wipe our own asses, I say show them what we’re really made of! His words have a violent edge to them, but his tone is light and his smile broad, prompting laughter from the woman.

They stand in front of the bank of elevators, waiting, and soon enough are swept inside by the growing crowd around them. The man presses the button for the fourth floor as he passes, and they find empty space as best they can. Like the bus ride before, the man and woman wait patiently as the elevator stops on each floor, disgorging bodies just as it takes on more, like a ship at port.

In short order the doors slide open and the fourth floor stretches out ahead of them. The man and the woman step beyond its threshold and make their way down the hall, scanning room numbers as they go. The laughter and pleasantness enjoyed in each other’s company a few floors below is suddenly absent. Their faces become silent, contemplative masks as they scan room numbers in passing, waiting to see “431” imprinted on the door frame. Up until now they’ve been outliers, those people who traverse a hospital often enough to be comfortable within its sterile, unfeeling walls. Those that walk the halls with tears in their eyes and handkerchiefs bundled in one hand are the receivers of sympathy. But perhaps they do not suffer the most. The faces that walk the halls blankly, the ones that don’t need to consult signs or room numbers, their familiarity with such an environment belying a greater sadness. To be well-acquainted with Death’s waiting room.

The man and the woman are lost in their own thoughts in this lonely wing until they hear a noise ahead of them. Two rooms down a door swings open and a doctor in his lab coat with a chart in his hands steps out. The man and the woman are passing room number 427 as he does so and the math is done quickly in their heads. The doctor turns to walk in their direction and greets them with a polite nod.

Is it alright if we go in? the woman asks.

The doctor stops, startled, and he abandons the polite, everyday smile of which everyone has their own version. Oh, I’m sorry are you…? he asks, trailing off.

Yes, the woman replies, assuming his question.

Well, the doctor says, clearing his throat, I was just in recording his vital signs. Three times a day, recorded at regular intervals in order to monitor progress. That sort of thing. The doctor’s gaze flicks from the chart to the man and woman before him.

We know, says the man.

Ah, I suppose you’ve been coming for some time, huh. My spiel isn’t the first you’ve heard in that case.

No, the woman says with a tight, joyless smile. Her expression tries as hard as it can to convey a lack of ill-will toward the young ingenue doctor, but now being so close to the room…her capacity for being charitable slackens.

The doctor clears his throat again. Well I shouldn’t be holding you up. Please, pay no mind to me and go in. His mouth opens to say more, his tongue searching for words of comfort that don’t come packaged with being incidentally insensitive, but it comes back empty. Instead he tightens his own smile into one of respect, dips his head, and carries on past the pair.

Lord that could’ve gone smoother, the doctor thinks. Once at the elevators, he glances behind him. They stand still in the middle of the hallway, like statues. He glances down at the left side of his chest, over his heart. You forgot your name tag, he thinks. At least if they are offended they won’t know whose name to include in a complaint. The elevator doors open and even as he steps across the threshold into it, mere moments after noticing his lack of a name tag, he thinks, You might’ve offended them and you’re worried about you? Get a grip. The elevator doors slide noiselessly shut as he gets a final look at the backs of the man and the woman, shaking his head at himself.

Now they’re alone. The oppressive whiteness of the hallway carries an almost sinister air now with the lights buzzing over head and the noise of the elevator shutting behind them as the doctor boards it. They’re only feet from their destination and yet their shoes are leaden.

The man lets out a breath. Do we do this every week, he asks, the question implied from his words rather than his tone. This silly pause before the door, as if it changes anything.

The woman knows what he means. I think we do it most weeks. But that doesn’t mean anything. If it was easy that would mean we didn’t care.

A pause hangs in the air between them, intermingling with the noise of the fluorescent lights and the vague scent of disinfectant. You’re right, says the man with another exhalation, tinging his words with finality.

In silent agreement, the pair decide to move. One foot in front of the other, they walk the final few feet to the door and twist the handle. They cross the threshold and the buzzing of the lights is overshadowed by the rhythmic beep of a heart monitor and an oxygen sensor. It’s not a unique room, it’s a hospital after all. Each room is just a template, modified to accommodate the ICU, the oncology ward, or whatever else is necessary. One such example are the extended rooms meant to house patients in a state of coma. Row after row of beds, all with IVs and heart rate monitors attached. This room is not one of those though. Nicer than the usual ward, with all the other people milling around, the man says. His words come with difficulty, as if his throat is choosing this moment to stage a protest.

The woman just nods.

A window on the far side of the room reveals the city in all its grey splendor. Perhaps it’s a trick of the imagination rather than the eye, but the entire room and its contents seem to take on a two-tone look. The dresser, the lone table and chair. Even the bedsheets.

The man and the woman step farther into the room, towards the bed, the man’s hand resting on the woman’s shoulder just as much for his support as for hers. The perfection with which the sheets have been fitted gives an almost alien feeling. Like a toy wrapped in plastic packaging; artificial, inhumane. But that feeling wouldn’t rear its head were the bed unoccupied.

Lying under the too-perfect sheets is a young man. From his right side, the man and the woman edge closer, finally getting close enough to the bedside that their knees rustles the cloth of the sheets. They stare down on the man’s face, but their eyes look past him. The woman’s chin. The man’s brow. Somehow the cheekbones of both. Were his eyes to pop open, strangers would one day tell him he has the same eyes as his mother only to tell him the next day that his eyes are unmistakably those of his father. The man and the woman scan his features and the woman can feel her eyes pricked with wetness. This is not their usual setting; there’s an added layer of sterility and distance when there are a dozen other patients in the same room and nurses and doctors alike running back and forth with charts to record oxygen levels and brain activity and whatever else.

But this is different. Alone in this grey room the pair both get the uncomfortable sensation of being at a wake. Of taking one final look before the true heartbreak of moving on begins. The woman produces a handkerchief and dabs at her eyes in vain. Her tears are already streaking the sides of her face, collecting at the corners of her mouth and along the tip of her nose. Behind her, the man’s eyes flow as well as he tries his best to hold in the audible sadness that threatens to wrack his body. The woman reaches forward and rests a hand on the shoulder of the young man. She squeezes, her knuckles turning white as if such a gesture will urge him to sit up, to talk, and to laugh off the whole ordeal.

But her gesture does nothing. She lets go abruptly and turns to the man, burying her face in his chest as the tears continue to run down her face. The man tilts his head to the ceiling, trying to blink back his own tears as if they threaten to drown him if he lets too many flow past his lids.

They stand for a moment, intertwined at the young man’s bedside, before the man takes the woman’s shoulders and squeezes them just as she took the young man’s. She gets the man’s implication and they both turn toward the doorway to leave. Their steps are slow and labored. For all the difficulty of bringing themselves to walk up to the door and twist its handle, the same difficulty strikes again as they reverse their steps. Each step carries them farther until just their toes have left the room.

What are we doing? the woman asks in the doorway, stopping and forcing the man to stop too.

What do you mean? the man asks after a pause. You just said it yourself, just a few minutes ago. It’s…it shows we care.

But this…she glances back through the door at the prostrate figure. What is this?

The man falters, looking for a reply. He’s playing devil’s advocate, but only out of a resistance to change and he’s not foolish enough to tell himself otherwise. He wants to tell her that at least there’s life yet in that bed, but of course that’s nonsense. How much life is there really? The life that they want to think is under those sheets isn’t there, it’s in their heads, the subject of memories, distant and untroubled. Memories can be shaped and warped, the contents of the bed behind them can be none of those things. I…don’t know, he finally manages to say.

It’s a weak answer, but it’s the one she anticipated. Her own question came because she had no answer herself, after all. The woman nods and tries to blink away the latest waterfall. Let’s go, she says in a quiet voice, hardly more than a whisper. The man squeezes her shoulders, takes her hand in his, and the pair walk toward the elevator.

The fog of the morning has obscured the sky, but now there’s no question of what it looks like far above their heads. Droplets of rain fall from on high through the misty air and onto the moisture-darkened pavement. Street lights refract in the mist and their reflections are distended along the road. Soon office-workers will break for lunch. Students and nurses alike will steal away moments in their busy schedules to visit cafeterias or just open their lunches at their desks. Doctors will go to lunch with colleagues to discuss patient files, and all the while, the man and the woman are climbing into the bus once again. Settled in the back, the seating more limited now, the pair share a glance with one another. Once out of the hospital doors they had the city streets to focus on, the timing of the bus, and the myriad of of passerby. But now in their seats, nestled in the back underneath the coughing heater that luckily seems to be working, they have time to think. They share a quick glance and a small smile and the man pulls their sandwiches from their paper bag. In silence they unwrap the wax paper and take their first bites. The woman leans to her side and rests her head on the man’s shoulder, and he dips his head to rest on hers. They both smile a light smile. And without seeing one another, they know the other is smiling too.

By Robert Docherty


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