“I have something to tell you. Something you need to hear.” The voice was soft, soothing. Deep, but not masculine. Feathery, but not feminine. Familiar, but new.
John was sitting on a park bench, unaware and uncaring of how he got there. He looked up toward the voice but was blinded by the summer sun. The figure was too shadowed to see.
John felt unbelievably good. No pain resided in his shoulders; no pressure played between his eyebrows. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this peaceful.
The figure moved to sit beside him. John tried to look at it, but his eyes involuntarily moved forward each time. He finally gave up and simply enjoyed the sun on his face.
“I know who you are. I know your hopes and dreams. I know your secrets.”
John had a flash to when he was twelve, peeking through a crack in the door to his older sister’s bedroom, watching as she and her boyfriend had sex.
His mind raced to holding a large trophy in high school, a crowd around him cheering, and then watching from the sidelines as a different boy did the same thing, his mind full of longing.
He remembered his wedding day, and the hit he took with his groomsmen behind the church, though Rita explicitly said he wasn’t allowed to get stoned that day.
“…what do you want?” he gasped. The emotions of each memory left him breathless.
“It’s not what I want. It’s what you want.”
John saw his wife in the hospital bed he’d seen her in that morning. She looked so weak, so frail, so – inhuman. Not the powerful, laughing woman he’d known. John’s eyes filled with tears.
“I can fix her.”
“How?” John ached for this to be real, for his life to return to normal, for his wife to come home.
“You must do something first. How far are you willing to go?”
“I’ll do anything,” John whispered, tears rolling down his face.
“A life for a life, John. Your wife will die in thirty days. You must take a life before then.”
John bolted upright, sweating, gasping, habitually placing his hand on Rita’s side of the bed, reaching for her warmth. Cold. Hunching his shoulders, he wept. There’s no way it could be real. But he’d had the same nightmarish conversation with the stranger every night for the last two weeks. He loved his wife desperately, but could he even fathom doing such a thing?
John stared up at the hospital as he absentmindedly gave the barefoot man across the street a dollar. The grey brick walls, the hundreds of windows, the oversized lettering: “MERCY HOSPITAL”. Mercy, my ass, he thought, walking in through the automatic doors. The receptionist smiled at him, and he wondered if she had a family. He spotted a ring on her finger as he finished checking in and thought, Not her, then. He stopped dead in his tracks toward the elevator. How could I think such a thing? Not her? Not anyone. He shook his head furiously.
“Are you awake?” John whispered, entering the bleach-white room.
She breathed a sigh, stirring slightly.
“We missed you today. Ally and Morgan got into another tussle this morning and I nearly blew my top off at them.” He pulled the lightly padded wooden chair closer to her bed and sat.
Rita turned her head towards him from the window, smiling tenderly.
“Don’t worry, everything is fine now. I don’t understand girls, even after being married to you for a millennium.” John’s calloused hand engulfed hers, and he watched his wife’s smile grow.
She chuckled quietly, then coughed violently, her birdlike shoulders shuddering.
“Hush, my love, no need to try and talk. Just rest.”
She pointed to the bedside table. John brought the cup of water closer to her mouth.
Replacing the cup, he said, “Our anniversary is next week; can you believe it? We’ve been through so much.” John choked, turning his face from her. She squeezed his fingers, concerned.
“I’m okay. I promise,” he said after a few moments. “It’s just some days, I miss waking up with you and struggling through a crazy morning with the girls. But you’ll be better soon.”
His wife responded with a smile, a couple tears rolling down her cheeks.
John kissed her forehead, whispering, “Just rest now, okay?”
It wasn’t ten minutes before she was asleep again. It was hard to catch her when she was awake.
“Oh, John, I’m glad you’re here. I need to speak with you,” Dr. Thomas Gladstone said, as John silently closed the door to Rita’s room.
“Tom, hey,” John said, glancing at his watch. “I’m actually running late; can it wait?”
“I’d rather tell you as soon as possible,” the doctor said shortly, steering John into an empty patient room. “It’ll just take a few minutes.”
John sighed, a knot growing in his throat. It was never good news. He took a seat on another wooden chair in the empty room, the doctor leaning on the bed in front of him.
“Rita isn’t improving,” Tom said. The doctor always spoke directly. John never knew if he appreciated it or hated it.
“I know,” John replied quietly.
“What I mean to say is, Rita’s tumor has metastasized. I told you the treatment would give her more time, but it’s looking like she’ll be gone in a month. Two, max.” John stared at the tile floor. “I’m sorry John, but there’s nothing I can do to give her more time.”
Finally processing what he’d said, John looked up quickly, meeting the doctor’s eyes. “Did you say a month? Thirty days?”
“Yes...” The doctor kept talking, but John ignored him, blankly looking down. The doctor is saying a month. What if the stranger is right?
“John?” Tom shook his shoulder gently. “How are you feeling? You’re white as a sheet.”
“I’m okay,” John rasped. He cleared his throat and said again, clearer, “I’m okay.”
“Okay, well …” Tom trailed off, watching John, still pale, get up and rush from the room.
His red-faced, alcoholic boss, Steve, yelled at him for being late. Never mind John had been with the liquor distribution company for nearly twenty years, Steve always found a way to threaten his position. The day passed in a furious, red haze. Before he knew it, he was home, kissing his daughters good night. He didn’t want to go to sleep. He couldn’t bear to see the dark stranger again.
Though it was past midnight, he decided to take a walk. He meandered down the street in the direction of the hospital with hope they’d let him in, though it was past visiting hours.
A hand reached out and grabbed his arm harshly, pulling him into a dark alley. A barefooted figure stepped in front of him, wearing a mask and pointing a gun.
“Give me your wallet,” a man’s voice demanded, waving the gun in John’s face.
John stared at him, not understanding. He remembered the dollar that morning.
“Don’t make me say it again!” The man stepped closer, his hands shaking.
John instinctually twisted the gun out of his hand. What? he thought, surprised at his actions.
“Hey, take it easy.” The man backed away, his hands up, as John lifted the gun. John’s overwhelmed, exhausted mind echoed, “A life for a life, John.” His trigger finger curled.
“Hey wait, don’t …”
John had a blissful, dreamless sleep that night.
In the morning, he received a call from the hospital. The doctor wanted to see him as soon as possible. He rushed his daughters to school, dropping them off early, and sped to the hospital. Did it work? Was the stranger real? he thought hopefully. Will I have my wife back?
“John.” Dr. Gladstone greeted him in the lobby. “Come into my office.”
“Did she get better?” John asked. The doctor only motioned him towards his office. John’s mind kept returning to the figure in the dream. He rubbed his trigger finger with his thumb repeatedly.
“John, I have something to tell you. Something you need to hear,” the doctor said, sitting behind the desk in front of John. “Rita passed in the night.” John stared at him, a smile frozen on his face. “She took a hard turn around two this morning. We did everything we could. She’s gone.”
John sat, gazing out the window at the cold, grey sky, remembering the crack of the gun, the sticky, thick blood on his face, the silent fall of the man in front of him, and the beep of his watch telling him it was 2 o’clock.