I’ve been talking here and there about short fiction. A few years ago, I wrote this short story. I would consider it romance in the way Nicholas Sparks is romance (hint: no happy ending).
It’s funny, all of my short stories are very depressing and all of my novels are, of course, happy endings. I wonder why I can’t write happy in a short space.
Nothing Dies With Me
Rachel’s laughter could still send darts of excitement through me. It always had, but she was so weak now that the strength and force of her laughter startled me.
The carnival was not my idea. For her “last night on the town”—as she called it—I would have chosen a much different evening. But, she had said she wanted to be outside, wanted to remember what it felt like to be a kid and she insisted that you couldn’t miss the last carnival of the summer… although I knew that was a veiled way of saying it was her last carnival—ever.
She clutched my arm with her icy, long fingers. ”Rob, a funhouse!” she squealed in delight.
”Are you cold?” I asked, taking her hands into my larger, warmer ones. So cold, a chill swept into my heart, freezing it from the inside out, making my chest ache. Why was this happening?
She gave me that look—that look that reminded me of a scolding mother. “Rob, we made a deal.”
”None of your overprotective worrying. We’re going to enjoy ourselves tonight.” With an authoritative air she grabbed my hand and led me towards the funhouse.
Outside, the small, ramshackle building was a fading blue wall decorated with white clouds and what had once been colorful hot air balloons. It was in desperate need of repair, but you couldn’t have told that by the awed expression on Rachel’s face.
”It’s perfect,” she breathed, clasping her hands together as she examined the outside. “I always hated those scary ones,” she said, smiling and tracing the outline of one peeling balloon. “The Flying Funhouse…isn’t it wonderful, Rob?”
How could I possibly disagree with her now? “Very nice.”
”I hope it has a magic carpet ride. The one I went to in the summers when I was little had one. It was my favorite part. It was a storybook one. And…” she trailed off, looking back at me. She smiled, holding out her hand. “Let’s go in, sugar.”
I’d always hated when she’d called me that in public before. Hated the way my friends snickered and made fun of me. Now, I didn’t care. She could call me sugar a million times in front of Jack and Mark and I wouldn’t care… if only she’d be around to do it. I took her hand, swallowing the lump that was forming in my throat.
She coughed slightly as I put my hand in hers. “Oh Rob, what I wouldn’t give for the chance to repaint the outside myself.”
”Always the artist,” I teased, squeezing her hand, hoping to give it warmth.
She coughed again as I handed the carnival worker our tickets. This time her coughing fit lasted for a few minutes. The inner alarm that was on overdrive lately began to sound. This was a mistake. She was tired and—
”I know what you’re thinking and I’m fine,” she said firmly once the coughing had subsided.
We took another step towards the funhouse, the entrance was a barrel with a blue and white design creating the illusion of a spinning sky. Rachel swayed slightly, letting out a short gasp.
I linked my arm around her waist. “Rach-“
She tried to take a ragged breath, but all I could hear was a bloodcurdling choking sound.
”Rachel,” I said frantically, looking her in the eyes. Pain and fear swirled in their brown depths. “Rachel, can you-“
She collapsed into a heap before I could finish. For a brief terrifying second I was frozen by fear and pain and shock.
I found my voice, yelling for help as I knelt down next to her unconscious body. She was breathing. Oh God, she was still breathing. A shot of hope and adrenaline raced through my veins.
Not yet. He wasn’t taking her yet.
One of the carnival workers had called 911 and after what seemed like an eternity an ambulance pulled up to the entrance of the funhouse. “She’s breathing,” I offered weakly to the EMT who brought the stretcher over to us.
The seconds, minutes, hours that followed were a blur. Flashes of light, void of sound, the only clear image was my hand firmly grasping hers. So cold…still breathing.
The next clear memory I have is the doctor approaching me. The white of his coat was distracting against the blur of activity around him.
”Rob,” he began. It unnerved me how he called me by my first name, an intimacy I didn’t want to share with the man who couldn’t save her, couldn’t make it all go away.
”How is she?” Breathing. Breathing.
”She’s…” The doctor looked down and shook his head. I saw the attachment there, a lack of professionalism that Rachel could bring out in anybody. She was so warm, so open, everyone fell under her spell. “Not well.”
My thoughts plummeted from the thought of her breathing to the feel of her icy fingers against my warm ones.
”It’s…only a matter of time… I…” His voice broke. His pain did nothing to ease the breaking of my heart. How could I feel sorry for him? In a few months Rachel would go into the recesses of the doctor’s memory. In a few months she would still be all I’d ever had, all I’d ever wanted or needed or really held. What else but her mattered?
”I’m so sorry, Rob, but you should probably…say your goodbyes soon.”
I nodded, swallowing once, then twice, but the burning lump of pain in my throat would not go down. A tear slipped onto my cheek and I struggled to wipe it away. Guys don’t cry. Even when their world is ending.
I stumbled into her room and took my seat next to her hospital bed. A million pictures flashed before my eyes. Rachel healthy and glowing, smiling and alive. I touched her short hair remembering its dark golden color and the way the length of waves had cascaded across the white pillow the morning after the first night we’d made love.
To think that she’d never be anywhere but here again crashed inside me. I didn’t care that guys didn’t cry because in that moment I wasn’t a guy, I was nothing.
Somewhere through my sobs I heard her stir. I wiped away the tears that clouded my vision, ignoring the ones that had soaked my cheeks and the edge of her blanket.
”Hi,” she said, trying to smile, but pain was clearly etched across her face.
”Hi,” I replied. I didn’t ask her how she was, though it was on the tip of my tongue. I was too afraid she would answer in her open manner and say ‘I’m dying, Rob.’
”Thank you,” she whispered.
”The magic carpet ride was lovely. Always been my favorite. What was your favorite?” she asked, her voice airy and strange.
She chuckled weakly, followed by a short coughing fit. “Let me guess, the mirror maze. You’re so good at that. You can always see right where the trick is. I always bump into things.” She chuckle-coughed again. “I hit the wall and you kept going. I-“
Her face twisted with pain and she shifted wildly as if she could wrestle away from it. “I tried to follow you,” she said as she settled.
My breath caught in my throat. I couldn’t tell if she was delusional or if she was trying to create some strange, artsy parallel.
”But you missed the magic carpet ride. It was beautiful. The walls were so blue. The exact blue I would have chosen. It really felt like flying. Oh, Rob, you missed it.”
I couldn’t look at her anymore and a sob caught in my throat. “Rachel, God, Rachel, this isn’t happening,” I choked out, burying my face into the iciness of her palm.
She brushed my cheek lightly with her free hand. “Things happen. But I’m most grateful that you happened. Do you even know how wonderful you are?”
It was then I finally realized she KNEW she was dying. She was dying and she had resigned to that fact and she wanted me to be okay when she was gone. All I saw was pain in my future, but a compassion that only Rachel could have taught me swept over my self-absorbed self. SHE was the one facing true pain. A pain unimaginable to me. She had to struggle with leaving everything behind to change without her. She had to struggle with a physical pain, and for what? For death?
”You’re wonderful,” I whispered. “You’re everything. You- I love you.” My tears wouldn’t stop. Time wouldn’t stop. Life wouldn’t stop- for me.
She smiled. “I love you too. Remember that, sugar,” she said, still smiling. Smiling through her pain. “I love you because you’re wonderful, Rob. I can’t wait for you to fall in love again and really see how much you can give a person.”
”No,” I croaked, squeezing her hand, wanting to scream. “No, I won’t ever be in love again. Not ever.”
”That’s what they all say,” she laughed.
”You have so much life left, Rob. You know I wouldn’t be happy if you let that die with me.”
How could she be so rational and sensible at a moment like this? How could she think and speak of a future that didn’t include her? It wasn’t fair.
”I love you, Rob. And, I know you love me. But love isn’t like something solid. It doesn’t go empty, you can’t run out. You always have love to give and receive. Nothing you have dies with me.”
”Everything I have dies with you,” I said with a sob. “EVERYTHING.”
She smiled. “I’m sleepy,” she said, her eyes closing slowly as she yawned. “Just say goodnight, Rob. Say goodnight and we’ll sleep. And that’ll be that.”
I swallowed. This was her goodbye. I wanted to scream, to fight it, to do anything but watch her slip off into death.
But she didn’t need to be alone or upset. She’d been that so much of her life she should be able to go in peace.
So I held her hand and with great effort to keep my voice steady said, “good night, Rachel. I love you… I’ll always love you.”
She smiled, her eyes closed. “Right back at ya’.”
I tried to laugh, but couldn’t. At that moment I couldn’t do anything but love everything she had been to me.