…and lose his own soul

1

It was a cold November afternoon, the sky grey and heavy with clouds.  The park was practically empty except for the little girl dressed in her warm winter best on the swings.  She propelled herself through the air, knowing full well she was supposed to go straight home from school once the final bell had sounded for the day.  But when the park, the playground, was on your way, what was a ten year old to do?  It was a temptation too great to ignore, especially when your parents wouldn’t be home for two hours yet, so there was no chance of being missed.

The girl sliced through the shearing air, with an eye always on the car.  A black car, old looking to her, one her dad would call a muscle car, “an American classic” in his words.  It was parked in the lot, where the soccer moms unloaded their teams in the Spring and where the senior citizens and joggers parked to walk the bicycle path.  The black car was idling in the empty parking lot, pointed in her direction, and had been for the past twenty minutes.

The girl stopped the swing and stared, unable to see who was inside.  She removed a glove and fished her cell phone from her pocket, never taking an eye off the car.  She wasn’t too far from home, it was just a couple blocks beyond the playground.  She was sure she was safe, but just in case she didn’t want to risk it.  The car had been there for quite a time now, and this was possibly one of those things her parents had preached into her head.

She pressed 3 on the phone, one of the speed dial numbers her mother had programmed on the cell.  She watched the car, waiting for movement; she watched the parking lot, waiting for other cars of people who might enjoy the park despite the weather.  She watched and waited until the ringing stopped at the other end of the connection and a voice answered, “Police Department.”

#

Officer Jim Hult drove the cruiser into the parking lot.  The only car in the lot was the black one, just as dispatch had informed him.  Hult whistled as he parked slightly behind the 1976 limited edition Ford Gran Torino.

Hult radioed dispatch and got out.  The little girl who had called, one Leslie Wallace, was still motionless on the swing.  Officer Hult waved and Leslie pointed to the car, nodding her head.  Hult waved her on home, dispatching having promised she wouldn’t be in any kind of trouble with her parents, which Leslie seemed more worried about than the idea of this being a person who may do her some harm.

Officer Hult watched the girl scamper across the playground and down the sidewalk, gone from view by the hedges and trees.  He approached the idling car cautiously.  Through the window he could see a man inside, slumped in the driver’s seat, sleeping.

Hult rapped a knuckle on the window, then again, harder, when the man didn’t stir.  Hult slapped the car roof until the man jerked awake.

Chris looked up at the policeman staring down at him through the window.  The car was so warm, and, he had to admit, the seat so presently comfortable, he wished he could ignore the law enforcement officer.  He sat up, body aching, that familiar pain that was, lately, all too constant in his stomach.  He wondered how long he had been out.

Chris rolled the window down.  “Yes, officer?”  He wiped sleep from his eyes, vision clearing, focusing.

“Good evening, sir,” the policeman said.  “Driver’s license, please.”

Chris pulled his wallet from his coat pocket, handed over his license.

The officer looked it over.  “Mr. Linney.  What are you doing sleeping in your car, sir?”

Chris tried to shake a fuzziness from his head.  “I was on my way home, officer, and I got sleepy.”

“You got sleepy?”

“Yes, sir,” Chris said.  “I’m on medication.  One of them is new.  I guess I haven’t got used to it yet.”

“What medication is that, Mr. Linney?” the officer asked.

Chris reached to the passenger seat and held up a gallon freezer bag of prescription pill bottles.

“May I see those, Mr. Linney?”

“Sure,” Chris handed them over.

“Give me a minute,” Hult said and walked back to the cruiser, inspecting the pill bottles through the plastic.

Chris leaned back in his seat.  His head had begun to swim a little, the world rotating slowly around him.  Circling, see-sawing.  He felt the urge to vomit, but that quickly passed when a cold breeze, that actually felt nice, burst through the window and froze his face.

He looked at his watch.  “Almost an hour,” he muttered.  The nap had been good, though, if now slightly troublesome.

In the rearview mirror, he could see the police officer in his car, cell phone to his ear.  He was watching Chris, nodding to something whoever he was talking to was saying.  The officer’s expression had changed, softened from the hard professional it was before.  Chris recognized that look the policeman was wearing.  Sympathy.  Pity.

Officer Hult walked back to Chris’s car, handed the bag of meds and his driver’s license back to him.  “Mr. Linney, if you are unable to drive, you should get someone to drive for you.  It is dangerous driving while impaired, not just for you but for others too.”

“I know, officer.  I thought I was okay,” Chris said, “but it just kind of came over me all of a sudden.  That’s why I stopped here at the park.”

“I understand,” Officer Hult said.  “You scared a little girl somewhat,” he smiled uncomfortably.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, I guess.”  Hult shifted on his feet, hands on his hips.  “I’m going to let you off with a warning, this time.  Are you okay to drive?  If not, I can take you home, or you can call someone to pick you up.”

“I’m good now,” Chris said.  “I feel much better.  I’m okay to drive.”

“Okay, Mr. Linney.  I can follow you home if you like,” Hult offered.

“I’m okay, I don’t live too far away,” Chris said.

“You have a good evening, then,” Officer Hult said.  Before he turned away, he added:  “I spoke with the pharmacy.  They told me what kind of medicine….  I’m sorry, Mr. Linney.”

“Thank you,” Chris said.  He stared ahead of him, at the row of trees that bordered the park from the neighborhood beyond.

#

The microwave beeped and Chris removed the plate of leftovers from the meal his sister had brought him three days earlier, on Sunday.  Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese.  He sat down at the table, fork in hand.  It smelled wonderful, mouthwatering, but he just had no appetite.  He sipped at his apple juice, which was all he found that tasted the way it should anymore.

He poked at the meatloaf, then ran the fork through the potatoes.  A small bite of meat with a little mashed potato on it was in his mouth, chewed, then swallowed.  If asked, he wouldn’t be able to really describe the taste, just that it was the rich flavors he knew from history.  He had some kind of medicine, or was it a combination little wonders , to thank for destroying his taste buds, and his appetite; he wasn’t sure of the particular culprit or culprits.  Truthfully, he wasn’t sure if it was a drug or something else.

Chris scraped the food off the plate into the garbage can.  He washed the plate, fork, and glass (he did drink all the juice), dried them, then put them away in their proper places.  In his room he sat down on the bed; the bag of meds on the nightstand.  He opened his pill organizer and emptied the evening dose into his hand, forced them down with a bottled water.

He’d have to go to the doctor tomorrow after skipping out on his appointment today.  He thought it was mildly funny that he didn’t go to the doctor today because he hadn’t felt well.  Chris had driven half way to his physician’s office before being overcome with such a wave of nausea and drowsiness.  He turned the car around and headed for the house; he saw the park and decided to stop.  Good thing, in hindsight.  The nap was nice, and even though it wasn’t yet seven o’clock, fatigue had claimed him and he was ready to call it a day.

He dreaded what tomorrow would bring with it, other than the doctor visit.  Every day now brought some new malfunction in his body.  In the bathroom mirror, Chris noticed he had lost a little more weight.  His shirt hung looser, not much, but enough for him to notice.  His face looked thinner.  He didn’t quite look like a kid in an adult’s clothes, but it wouldn’t be long.

But he wouldn’t look like a kid, would he?  He wouldn’t look like a young man, not at all.  He already looked old, advanced beyond his years.  Wrinkles were developing, his skin was ash already.  The color was gone.

Chris fell down at the toilet and puked.  He opened his mouth and out it came, like squeezing the last bit of toothpaste from the tube.  His body tensed, throat convulsed.

He slumped to the floor.  A trembling hand reached up and pulled the lever.  The bloody water was drained away.

I’ll have to tell the doctor, Chris thought just before he passed out.

 

2

Chris sat on a rolling stool, back against the wall.  Upton Bruer, or Uppty as Chris, and all their friends, had called him since childhood, sat on the examination table.

“Then what?” Uppty asked.

“What?  After I puked blood?  I passed out on the floor,” Chris said.

Uppty slung his stethoscope around his neck and ran his hands down the front of his white lab coat.  “I don’t think it’s all the medication.”

“I didn’t think it was either,” Chris said.

“This is to be expected, though, Chris.  I’d still like to try this new med-“

“No,” Chris said.  “I basically just take the pain pills anyway.  I don’t want anything else.”

Uppty stared at him thoughtfully.  There was a pleading rage building behind his eyes.  “As your doctor I would like to ask you again to reconsider treatment.  The prescriptions are only attempting to treat the symptoms, not the cause.”

“I know,” said Chris.  “This is how I want it.”

The doctor’s jaw clenched.  “How do you expect me, or anybody, to sit back and watch you die like this?  Chris, there’s a good chance we can still beat this thing.”

“No there’s not,” Chris said.  “I don’t want to anyhow.  It would only delay the inevitable.”

“Chris, you don’t know that.”

Chris snapped, “Neither do you, Dr. Bruer.”

Uppty jumped down from the examination table.  “I’m your doctor,” he huffed.

“What do you advise as my friend?”

“Treatment,” Uppty said.  “I can understand, Chris.  After everything that’s happened, I can understand this goddamn death wish you have.  But I think you know that is evidence of a mind no longer thinking properly.”

“Are you calling me crazy, Uppty?”

“Yes,” Uppty replied.  “I think you need a lot of help, Chris.  That’s my opinion as your personal physician, and as your friend.”

Chris swiveled away from him.

“Do you still have it?” Uppty asked.  “And don’t play stupid.”

Chris smiled briefly at him.  “I have a lot of things, Uppty.”

Uppty crossed his arms.  “When you were first diagnosed, and I mentioned treatment-“

“You have nothing to worry about, hell,” Chris sighed.

“Were you serious?”

“No.”

“Be honest, Chris,” Uppty said.  “We’ve known each other a long time, and I never thought you could, but…but I don’t know about now.  You said your .38 special was the only treatment you needed.  Were you serious?”

“Uppty,” Chris met his friend’s gaze as best, as honest, as he could.  “I didn’t mean it.”

“I don’t think I completely believe you.”

“You can rest easy,” Chris said.

“You’ve made that too difficult already,” Uppty said.

“I don’t expect you, or anybody, to support my decisions,” Chris said.  “I know you think this my out.”

“Isn’t it?  Isn’t that exactly what this is, Chris?  This is your way of moving on.  You’re a conceited bastard, you know that,” Uppty spat.  “You’re making everyone who cares about you stand by while you wither away, make us look at you suffer day after day all because you don’t want to live.”

Chris cleared his throat.  “Will you stop calling my sister and telling her my private information.  I know it’s you.  Isn’t that illegal?”  He smiled, trying to diffuse the tension that had filled the suddenly very suffocating room.

“We all miss Penelope,” Uppty said, ignoring Chris.  “I don’t want to lose you, man.  I don’t want you to die, too.”

Chris shook his head.  He didn’t want to cry, but felt them coming, felt his face flush.  “I’m sorry,” he said, strangling on the words.

#

The sun actually broke free and the clouds dissipated to paint a smooth blue sky.  The day became what the meteorologists on the evening newscasts would inevitably deem “unseasonably warm”.  The beauty that had become Thursday saw the park busy with joggers and stay at home parents pushing strollers, chatting, and keeping watchful eyes on toddlers and preschoolers.

Chris’s head began to swim as soon as he stood from the car.  He breathed a minute.  A bench was just right there, just a few feet away.  He could make it, he had faith.  The world tilted, rising and falling like waves on the ocean.  Chris slid onto the hood of his car, reclined against the windscreen.  The sun was warm on his face.

It hurt to lay there, but when did he not hurt?  Everything was uncomfortable these days, everything was painful.  Living was constant agony.  He had his own idea of pain management.  He knew it wasn’t for everyone, he knew his family and friends were worried, angry, and sad.  He knew they loved him, but hated him for the decisions he had made.

Just torturing yourself, his sister, Judy, had told him.  Maybe he was.  Maybe he would regret everything in the final moments.  Sometimes he regretted some of it already; he wouldn’t have long to live with regrets, though.

The dizziness passed.  There was a lightness still clogging his head when he moved, but that was something he had learned to live with.  Pain killers equaled little to no pain, but they also equaled a high.  The fuzzies, medicine head, the world in slow-mo, mind and body in no gravity.

He sat up, rubbed his stomach.  His bowels gurgled.  He watched two little kids, a boy and a girl, run around the slides, kicking up sand.  He listened to them laugh, their delighted squeals when they bumped into each other.  It made Chris smile.  He and Penelope had planned to have a child, possibly two, maybe three.  They had discussed it.  They had talked about it often.

Chris zipped up his jacket and stood on stronger legs.  Determination was fueling him, and he felt nearly invincible, or an approximation of it with an Achilles heel of a killer spreading throughout his body.  Aches and pains be damned!

He reached into the car and weighed the gun in his hand.  It felt heavier than it ever had.  He put it in his coat pocket, hand resting on it, and slammed the car door.

Chris walked across the playground at a leisurely pace.  He couldn’t really hurry if he wanted to, despite how determination was firing his pistons.  Foggy head, weak limbs—slow and steady would win the race.

The kids were laughing, screaming with joy as they slid down the tall slide.  Their mother was clapping, cheering them on.  Chris smiled as he passed them, but they didn’t notice him.  No one did, none of the other children or adults paid him any heed.  Didn’t notice, or chose not to see him, either way it didn’t matter.

He crossed the playground, and at the edge of the park where the trees stood sentry and kept the park from the residential area, he marched on.  He looked up at the house before him; a nice place, affluent but not too flashy.  Big backyard, two car garage, in-ground pool, barbecue pit.  Firmly upper middle class.

There was warm saliva flooding his mouth and he spat.  His tongue felt thick, hairy.  He bent over, mouth opened and let the spit fall freely.  He had the urge to wretch, but swallowed it back and shrugged off the icy perspiration that broke out like a rash.

Chris picked up a decorative stone from the flower bed.  Turning it over he saw the latch of the secret compartment and opened it.  Inside was a key.  He took the key and tossed the hideaway stone.  He let himself in the back door, thankful there was no security system; he knew a lot, but not an alarm code.

The house hummed like all homes do in private.  The refrigerator whirred, the fish tank bubbled, a board settled here, a clock ticked there.  The kitchen let into the dining area and Chris sat down.  The walk had exhausted him.  The excitement tired him, the anticipation drained him.  He was trembling.  His scalp itched.  Frosty beads of sweat down his face.

He eased the gun from his pocket and rested it on the table, clutched in his grip.  His knuckles were white.  The nausea rose.  A blackness crept across his vision.  Chris stumbled to the kitchen and heaved what little was left inside him, which wasn’t much.  It was blood that spewed and splattered the sink.  His knees buckled and he collapsed on the floor, gun still in his hand.

When he couldn’t lift his head, he gave up and closed his eyes.

 

3

Chris woke up.  He was cold, bleeding, and shivering.  He hurt all over.  The taste of dirt in his mouth, the smell of exhaust in his nose.  There was a red light beside his face.  His eyes were blurry and it was dark.  He tried to reach for the light, whatever it was, but his arm didn’t want to move at first.  He had to wriggle his fingers, to let feeling come back one pin prick at a time.

Finally, his arm moved.  The traffic baton.

“Penelope?” he moaned.

It came back to him slowly.  The relay, the marathon.  They were helping at the checkpoint.  It was over with, time to pack up and go home.

“Penelope?” he called, louder.

They were walking up the road to the checkpoint, to the middle school parking lot.  A truck had come.  It was foggy.  It swerved-

“God, oh God,” Chris crawled from the ditch.

-it swerved, crossed the highway, over the line, and he had tried to pull Penelope out of the way, he had her hand in his-

“Penelope!”

Frantic voices were running to them, blue lights quickly advancing.

-the truck had hit Penelope and pulled her from his grasp, tossing him aside.

The truck was nose-down in the ditch, taillights flashing.

Penelope was sprawled on the pavement.  Chis crawled to her, on his hands and knees, through her blood.  Her arms were splayed at an odd angle, one leg bent back, her neck twisted-

“Oh, God!”  He touched her cheek.  He wanted to pick her up, to hold her, but drew his arms back.  “Oh God!” he cried.

Chris tried to stand; his ankle snapped and he fell.

“You bastard,” he crawled for the truck, dragging his leg.

“—an ambulance now!”  Voices and lights were everywhere.

“Bastard!” he screamed.  Hands were on him, holding him down.  Voices were telling him to stay still, to remain calm.  Someone was crying.  Someone else was getting sick.

A man in a reflector vest was looking in the truck.  “He’s alive!”

Chris fought against the helping hands and clawed the pavement, screaming, crying, and yelling until his throat was sore and his voice hoarse.

#

Judy was sitting at his bedside.  Her arms were crossed; she looked tired, worn out from worry.  Her eyes red and puffy.

“Sis,” Chris mumbled.  He felt paralyzed, the world completely out of focus and his body nonresponsive.  His arm flopped like a fish, IV in the back of his hand.  He knew he had been drugged, even before the ambulance on the accident scene had left for the emergency room, they had stuck a needle in his arm and shot him up with something.

“Don’t move, Chris,” Judy told him and placed his hand on the bed.

“Penelope,” he said.  His mouth was dry, and he thought his tongue was cracking open.  “Where is Penelope?”  He was in a private hospital room, not an ER exam station.  “Where is she?”

“Try to rest a little,” Judy said.

“She’s hurt,” Chris said through tears.  “She was hurt, Judy.”

Judy stroked his hair.  “I know.”  She wiped away tears, hers and his.  “I know she was.”

Chris moaned.  “No,” he said.   “No, she’s okay, she’s gonna be okay…”

Judy patted his hand and sobbed silently.  “Chris, I’m sorry.”

#

Walter Green.

Chris had come to the conclusion that grief was mathematical.  It added up.  Penelope was gone, that was the worst of all possible things.  The funeral arrangements had multiplied the pain.  Visiting the funeral home, making the choices…yes, it added up.

Deciding on a coffin (navy with white interior) plus the casket cover plus her dress (the blue one she wore ever anniversary- a total of five for them) plus purchasing plots at the cemetery (two, one for her and a place for him, eventually, side by side) all equaled torment and hollowness.  He was a shell, and he believed he was all cried out until the actual funeral, and then he not only cried some more, but Chris cried harder than he ever had before in his life.  He broke down, he collapsed, he wailed.  He was alone empty of life, he was alone.

He was alone now, in house, shut off from the world, looking at the flowers that had been delivered.  A simple message was written on the accompanying card:

“We are praying for you.  Our sympathies, Walter and Debby Green.”

Chris knew the name.  Walter Green.  He had first heard it muttered while he was still laid up in a hospital bed.  Judy had told him.  Walter Green.  An elderly man, about seventy, and a heart patient.  A “heart attack survivor” were Judy’s words.  He had suffered a massive heart attack  behind the wheel– he was the man driving the truck that ended Chris’s world.  It was an accident, just one of those chance things that happened and this time it happened to Chris and Penelope.  Penelope was dead and Walter Green was a free man.

“He’s lucky to be alive.”  Judy’s words again.  Lucky to be alive.  “Just like you,” she had added.  But not Penelope, Chris had thought.

“Walter Green.”  Chris repeated the name each time he read the card, and he read it over and over.  He tossed the flowers in the trash, found a box of matches and watched the card burn.

“Walter Green.”  The more times he said it, the more it stung.

It was as simple as looking in the telephone directory.  There were several Greens listed, but, miracle of miracles, only one listing for, thank the heavens, Walter and Debby Green.  Walter and Debby.  No mistake.  1626 Matthew Street.

Chris found himself in the car.  It had begun to snow, small flakes swirling and blowing, dusting the trees.  It was beautiful, and he drove around town just looking at how nature was painted.  He didn’t consciously seek out the Green residence until he looked up and saw the street sign.  Then it was a matter of turning the steering wheel and coasting down the lane.

GREEN was stenciled on the mailbox.  The truck was in the drive.  Lights were on.

Chris drive by, and turned.  He pulled into the park, and, just as inexplicably as finding Matthew Street, found himself standing in the falling snow on the playground.  The trees were bare to the bark and he could see through them to the houses on the other side.

He could see the rear of the Green home.

He found himself coming to the park more often.  Before work.  After work.  His days off.  He strolled the playground and the trails, the house always in his sight.  He saw the Greens come and go, saw how Mr. Walter Green had recovered from his bad ticker, the progress he made.  Chris watched them living their lives together as husband and wife.  Leaning on each other for support.  Walter had Debby, Debby had Walter.  Who did Chris have?

A knot developed in Chris’s stomach.  Each day he came to the park and watched the house, the knot tightened.  It was a sore that festered and eventually infected his entire body and being.

He didn’t know when the thought first took root, maybe it had always been there.  But the thought consumed him, and, if he were to confess it, that dark passion, its boiling persistence, is probably what promised to take his own life.

“It’s cancer, Chris,” Uppty had told him after all the tests were done.  “It’s…” and Uppty had not been able to finish, but Chris filled in the blanks.  Fast, spreading, and terminal.  Cancer, according to Uppty, was what was wrong, why the results of his blood work were abnormal, why he couldn’t keep food down, why he was losing weight and in nearly constant pain.  But Chris knew the real reasons; it was a cancer all right, but it was cancer of anger and hatred.

He was most certain the thought had been there since the instant the old man passed out and drove his truck across the double yellow line and murdered Penelope.  It had been there long before he learned the driver’s name or that Mr. Green would walk because there was no criminal activity committed.

Killing Penelope was not a crime.

Green had “suffered” a heart attack.  Chris wondered if the man had really suffered enough.

Chris knew what he would do before this disease that was killing him struck the death blow.

He would take Mr. Walter Green’s life, love, and support.  Before he left this world, he would kill Debby Green.

 

4

Chris woke up.  It was dark.  He was still lying on the kitchen floor.  In an instant he realized that what had broken through that quiet, black, slumber was the burst of noise.  An automobile door had slammed shut.

He rolled over and pain coursed a winding river through him.  He was faded and wasted, and there was nothing much left in these muscles at the moment.  He pulled himself upright with the help of the kitchen counter.  The gun was still in his hand, heavier than ever.

He hoisted himself to his feet, dizzy in the dark and feeling like a blind man.  He stumbled to the wall and put his back to it.  He felt hot bile rise in his throat.

The front door opened then closed.  A light came on in the front of the house.  Footsteps clomped over the floors.  Heavy steps.

A hand came around the corner in the shadows.  The lights came blindingly on and Chris lunged at the figure that stepped into the kitchen.  He raised the gun and fired right beside a startled Walter Green’s head.

Green fell to the floor, holding his left ear, yelling in pain.  Chris fell to his knees beside him, trying to raise the gun again with both hands.  He gave it everything he had, but the gun wavered in the air.  Chris pulled the trigger a second time, surprising himself that he accomplished the task.  The bullet struck the floor far off from the intended target.

Chris coughed up blood then lurched over, landing face down on the floor in a crimson puddle.  He labored for breath, he twitched in agony.  The gun was lying next to his hand, but his hand wasn’t able to obey the command to grab it.  He watched his fingers tremble and flex, but that was the extent of their mobility.

“Sweet Jesus,” the older man said.  The world grew still and silent.

Chris felt hands on him, and then he was being turned over.  His eyes fought to focus.

Walter Green wiped blood from Chris’s face with his bare hand; he stared from the mess on his shaking hand to Chris lying limp on the floor.  “Mr. Linney,” Green breathed.  “Sweet Jesus, are you okay?”

Chris’s arm flopped.  He attempted to sit up, to roll over, to do something, but his jelly limbs didn’t cooperate and were as coordinated as strings in the wind.

“Penelope,” Chris whispered.

Green stood up and disappeared, a blurry vision retreating.  Chris turned his head and could make out the gun just inches from him.

#

Walter Green hurried down the hall to the closet.  His ear was still ringing, and he had a hell of a headache.  He flung the closet door open and jerked a blanket from the top shelf and a pillow from the bottom corner.  He stopped in the bathroom and turned the faucet on full blast.  His chest was aching, his heart trying to beat its way out.  Walter wet a wash cloth, and then headed back for the kitchen and the intruder on his floor.

He was sure the neighbors heard the gunshots and the police would have been called.  Chris Linney on his kitchen floor.  He was wondering how he was to explain all this when he rounded the corner to the kitchen and stopped.  A pillow under his arm, a blanket in one hand, a wet cloth dripping cold water on the floor in the other, and he stood in the kitchen stone cold still.

“Chris…Mr. Linney,” Walter said.  He felt as if he had eaten a bottle of powder his mouth had become so dry.

Chris had crawled to the door and had made it no further, leaving a trail of smeared blood.  He was slumped against the door, gun lying in his limp hand.  He had no strength left to even raise his head.

Walter set the pillow and blanket down.  “Chris,” he knelt, and grimaced as his knees popped.  He noticed a quiver run through Chris’s body, a trembling in the extremities.  Chris’s finger itched at the trigger.

Walter wiped blood from the corner of Chris’s mouth.  His head flopped to the side.

“The police will be coming,” Walter said.  “Probably an ambulance, Mr. Linney.”  Walter ran the cool cloth over Chris’s lips.

Chris tried to lift the gun.  Walter easily took it from Chris’s hand,  prying it gently away.  He stood with a grunt and sat at the table.

Walter looked the gun over and laid it on a homemade placemat.  “I thought I knew exactly what I’d say to you if we ever met,” he said.  “For such a long time I expected you to show up on our doorstep.  But there was that part of my mind, too, that was sure you would never show up.”

Chris shifted.  He was still trembling with pain and weakness, but he managed to raise his head and rest against the door.  The room had stopped spinning, now it only swayed like a boat on still waters.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Linney,” Walter said.  “That’s all I know to say.  I know it’s not enough.  I know that.  I know that my apologies for what happened, my words, won’t bring your wife back.”

“Penelope’s dead,” Chris whispered.

Walter nodded.  “She was your world, wasn’t she?  I know she was.”  The old man’s voice broke.  He spread his hands over the placemat, tracing the design, the stitches.  “My wife made this, made all of them.  Little towels, and doilies, and knitted socks for the kids and grandkids.  My wife is my world, Chris.”

Walter picked the gun up.  He studied it intently.  “I thought sometimes, if you ever did show up, that you would hit me.  You know, punch me on the jaw.  I never dreamed you would show up at our house ready to….”

Walter ran his hands over the metal, checked the chamber.  “There have been several times in the last few weeks that I’ve thought of putting a bullet in my brain.”  He swiveled around in the chair.  “If you do it, it would save me the trouble, Mr. Linney.”

Chris swallowed down the taste of blood in his mouth.  He wanted to talk, but breath was so precious.

“You don’t look like you’re in any condition to kill somebody,” Walter said.  “My wife is my world, too.  Or she was.”  He put the gun back on the table.  “Or I don’t know.  Chris, you’re the first person I’ve talked to in the last two weeks that isn’t a doctor or a nurse or an insurance rep or….”  Walter sighed, deep and long and mournful.  “Debby doesn’t even know my name anymore.”  His eyes went beyond the walls for a moment.

Walter tapped his fingers on the gun.  “She doesn’t even recognize me.  My own wife.  It’s the disease, her mind is gone.  Can’t dress herself.  She can’t even remember to eat.  My wife is gone, too, see.  That’s what it feels like.  She’s in a special home right now, just for people like her.  They know how to take care of her.  They don’t get short with her.  I don’t mean to, I never have before, but…My Debby is gone, too.”

Chris couldn’t breathe.  His lungs were burning.  His stomach twisted, his guts knotted together.

“What do I have left?” Walter asked.  “I know how you feel, Mr. Linney.  The world is over.  Done.”

“Yes,” Chris coughed.

“I’m truly sorry,” Walter said.  He held the gun in his hand.  “I’m sorry.  Killing me won’t bring your wife back.”

The faint sound of a siren floated through the evening.

“I guess they’re coming.  Took them long enough,” Walter said.

“I miss her so much,” Chris said.  “So much.”

“I know,” Walter said.  “I do too.”

Chris closed his eyes, stray tears seeping free.

“I’m sorry,” Walter said.  “Nothing can bring them back.”

Chris managed to raise his head.  “Two…bullets,” he said between breaths.

Walter studied the gun.  “Yes,” he said.  “Two bullets would be enough.”

Previously published in The Bacchanal.