A Little Tale Overheard In the Hospital

Submitted into Contest #138 in response to: Set your story on a day when the sun never sets.... view prompt


Romance Fiction Mystery

Josh Whitham, glazed, corners of his waterlogged coat stained with sticky dust, collar turned inside out and hair unkempt, stared at the rusting, swollen, quivering, nervous, bewildered thing sitting in the west corner of the warehouse. The thing that once symbolized fineness and the last glow of youth twenty years ago was now as hoary and old as himself. Most of all, he didn't know if he had the courage to plunge into its icy jaws again, now he was going to do this alone. He wondered whether it would be an exit to liberation or a coffin to absolute death, or both.

It was the last thing Elspeth had ever left him, hours before he signed the contract for her euthanasia. Gastric cancer made her no longer who she was. Infinite pain clouded her vision. Every time she tried to turn to the man she had always cared about, chains closed around her head, mechanical arms vised her eyeballs, as his outline dissolved into thousands of grainy, prickly squares. All she saw, everything she depicted in her brain was but the profile of a monster. So she left Josh this with her reasons, and what he would need the most, right now.

There came, abruptly, an elegant ringing of his phone. It was specially recorded for him by his deceased wife. He hoped, and prayed silently that in the heavy rain of the cold and precipitative winter, the woman who exuded the fragrance of spring, the zeal of summer could again step on the light and her ethereal voice, and take him far to the place where the sun would never set.

Josh clutched the phone tightly. His eyes were filled with reluctance and incompatible distress, but he did not cry for it. He wished he hadn't been a father. Nonetheless, he still became one, though at first merely trying to escape his dark, misted decades.

The voice on the other end of the line was cold, cold and cold and overflown with sympathy. "Mr. Whitham. I have to remind you again. You have henceforward... Six hours. This is Edgeton Island, sir, not the America you used to live in. If we do not receive the final payment within… five hours, it will be rather difficult for us to operate on your son further. We don't want that to happen, do we? Mr. Whitham?"

The rest of the noise began to stutter, presumably about some unimportant piece of information. What Josh cared was the time. The electromagnetic interference nibbled at the rest of the sound like termites, as Josh pressed the initiating button with his arm leaning against the machine, unintentionally. An old, dark yellow halo began to form in and around it. It was incredible. Twenty years since they last used it. Josh could almost hear the faint groan through the dark hole he was about to enter.

Elspeth discovered this when she was sixteen. The day after her mother died of the same cancer. That was what her mother wanted her to discover.

Josh knew he had committed crimes, so it didn't matter now, from the first second he turned on the machine. Suddenly, the image in the hole, pure and bright as a puddle of angel's tears, was no longer the blob of tangerine at the end of the horizon, but rather, the endless illusion and detachment that hung over the face of his own son. He saw beneath the now-emaciated shell, the offwhite fragments of a soul seamed together by the scanty few threads that were left to keep it from sinking into the abyss. And sitting by his hospital bed, absorbed, was his wife, who had never seen their son before. There was also this genial-looking old woman standing beside the bed. Instead of leaving scars on her face, the years restored for her an exotic vitality.

"Hey, Josh." The shining woman in lily stretched out a delicate arm, waiting for another one to link itself through the shadowy illuminant. "Come, and watch the sunset with me."

Josh remained motionless at the entrance. He hesitated. Then he took one last glimpse of the stormy winter at his side, as a corner of his eye left a permanent shadow on the dusty concrete. He didn't know whether to feel comfortable or nervous. But in front he could see the plump sands of the fjord, golden spots rambling on the silky beach reflecting the dusk, clouds congealing in the blue sky as hearts and smiles and inverted sketches of the waves.

He went in, holding the arm. His sanity was instantly diluted. "We were just exchanging pleasantries," Elspeth said. "What a smart little boy he could have been."

Josh looked at his son, a small, timid child curled up in a large hospital gown. He could feel scalding tears spilling from his eyes. But he was not allowed to cry for others' pain. The suffering was supposed to be over. Josh could not imagine how little remained of his son's soul after all his ordeal.

Josh glanced at the time. This was heaven forty-five years later. Meaning he did succeed. He succeeded in reviving his son. And yet he was still young himself. He could smell the freshness of the sea as he caressed every graceful wrinkle on her face, while Elspeth leaned gently against him. "Honey, this is just incredible." She kept smelling the earthly fragrance of earth on him. "You came at last. And finally, we are reunited as family, witnessed by the wind."

Josh chuckled. "No, my little troublemaker. I won't stay long." He immediately felt a chill emanating from his inner cell, but was right away swallowed up by infinite warmth.

"It won't matter." The woman, whom Josh for a moment didn't even recognize, floated out the window while remaining her sitting position, hanging low above the lawn. Below, the tender grass lay slightly on one side, like a carpet. He was feeling a strangeness because, suddenly, the jagged, hollow crystal had turned mellow and complete. The loss of her desire made him no longer recognize the ghost, and their relationship. So he decided to leave the place clean after doing what he had to do. "El, I was wondering… if I could..."

"Hey, Josh. Look at this." Elspeth briskly waved her fingers. Golden stive hence bespread the sky. The clouds were changing color all according to her mood and stopped at one line on the endless list. All at once it was like the warm spring evening of their first acquaintance again. The sun's myriad slender fuzzes fluttered from building to building, laigh and cloud-kissing, hunchbacked and forceful, as the retreat of light and shadow summoned a sleepiness hiding behind the faint shades of the moon.

"El, please, listen... "

But there was nothing he could do about anything. He fell from an empty valley into a muddy swamp, so swimmy he remembered nothing else but the wind loud enough to wake the dead and the void vacuous enough to drawn all living. All he recalled, or, all that was input in his memory box was that he had gone there to steal money, to rob women and gerontic shop owners. But he was so poor and skin and bones he could feel the same low temperature inside and outside his body. Anything could mean a knockdown to him, even feathers. He was so hungry he could not eat for a while. Drugs were his only liquid food.

And the angels were just planted there like auto-induction streetlamps. As the dimmest soul approached, they began to radiate light and heat.

He also remembered that no matter how hard his lady had worked, taking night shifts and morning shifts at the same time, no matter how desperately she had drained her wit to force him to quit using and stealing, his nature of pilferage could not be changed. He never borrowed, not because he was unable to bring it up, but because he knew the movement was unable to fill even one of the million holes in his ruined desire that he could no longer mend, unable to resolve his contradictory, desperately poor actuality, sinking in the center of quicksand. Until a child was born. The child taught him that a man could be poor while still pure and noble.

He felt compelled to continue requesting. The feeling of being dragged forcibly into his now perfected memory of what might had actually been a good time, his best years, almost suffocated him. But the memories continued to play, and soon shown was the first and only day they went to see the eternal sunset together.

That was shortly after they got married. Josh suddenly felt pierced to the heart. It was an extraordinary response. Again, he shouldn't feel any more pain here. In his earthly memories, he could only remember that the weather was exactly the same as today. Outside the window, there was a storm and lightning converging in the wilderness, while in that unreal place, through the soporific hole, it was so warm and cozy they almost melted into the world of marshmallows. Elspeth kept holding on to his hand. Beneath the amaranth color scattered by an endless circle of orange-red that encircled the rotating center, her hand quivered slightly until it was calmed down by the intoxicating whisper of the breeze. Her tears, which had been flowing through the herbage, gradually stopped. Josh then saw her fading into a veil in the moist air.

And that was when it all came back. It was the end of a journey, the day after the birth of the child. Elspeth spent her whole life healing, and in a fairly long dark period, that was her best day. So she decided she was going to linger on that day forever.

"I know what you want, Josh. Because you've tried to do it more than once." Elspeth brushed her fingers across his slightly parted lips. "For you, I can certainly do that, a couple more times, indeed. I just want to ask you the same question, for the one and only thing you would possibly pay me back."

Once again, Josh didn't have an answer. But he got what he wanted, and closed the deal. When he opened his eyes again, he found himself asleep in front of his son's bed. The attending doctor, who could blend pity and evil with contempt in a same eye contact, entered their room empty-handed, doddering.

Josh ignored his presence, as he was about to leave anyway. He squinted through his bleary eyes at his son, who had already been wandering on the brink of death over and over again. Jeffery was smiling back. He was still weak, and pale, and propping himself up after a fashion, but instinct told Josh that this time he had finally succeeded. Then the painful images flashed before his eyes one last time, like the last rising tide of the flaming evening. He saw the kid who had gradually grown into a man, but who had been turned into a helpless boy by inner pain, as if there was a fire burning in his incarnadined chest, while everywhere else was so cold and frozen and covered with frost. He saw Jeffery spend countless nights silently awake waiting for the pain to let go of him, like a corpse that was getting repeatedly whipped. The pain made him shed blood from the corners of his eyes.

Then the pictures all disappeared again, just how they had come. Josh suddenly grew tense. What if this was just all a lie of everything he longed for. He had seen Jeffery clenching his teeth in extreme pain while his inobservant father slept at his vigil. He looked again at the boy's weak smile. Jeffery seemed to realize his father was leaving and gently lifted his hand from the quilt. He looked so free, so relaxed, so painless.

Hence, in the doctor's panic and restrained scream, Josh's figure slowly turned transparent, until he was wrapped in a white gauze slowly floating out of the window, after a long time of sliding finally vanished into a void.

Josh still remembered his last choice clearly. When at the last time he had got what he wanted and slammed the sinful package full of cash into the doctor's arms, the planned miracle did not happen. Jeffery still received the sentence he could foresee at the end of his road, and thus, Josh didn't do what he had promised to. He even got reported and was threatened with being jailed. But he finally learned the simplest truth: life has always been more important than money. It just took him quite a while to realize that again.

Josh and Elspeth sat arm in arm at the end of the field. Facing them was the sunset that would never die away. That was what he had promised his love. The warm sunlight did not create shadows behind the couple, but went straight through them, sketching their backs on the lawn. The breeze blew, as getting fanned, was Josh's long yielding hair that would no longer be soaked in slushy rain and ice, and his fluttering songs.

While in the middle of the night, far, far away, after the sun had long gone and the night had long grabbed fate by his neck, Jeffery finally burst into tears and agony as he watched his father fall into sound, eternal sleep on his bedside, no longer able to be awakened by his whines of coquetry and helpless screams.

March 25, 2022 01:20

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