Caution: This is not a love story. Well, it kind of is. But mostly, this is a story about losing a life without dying, but never losing hope.
Thin fingers shook the crochet needles, one against the other, as the man, thirty going on sixty, looped then pulled at the thick forest-green yarn with pink crochet needles. One was pink anyway. The other was missing some of its coating, giving it a blotchy pinkish-gray appearance as he circled it it deftly around and pulled another loop through. His breath came in bursts of steam that hung in the air far too long, protected from the strong winter gusts by the thin material of a city-issued tent. Cars rumbled across Highway 205 just overhead. At this time a day, probably trucks instead, now that he thought about it.
A cough, weak enough to make his eyes water, broke through the methodical clinking of his needles. He let out a sigh that sank to the floor between his hunched up knees. The woman beside him wheezed out something like a whimper as he tried to straighten his back, only to be reminded that the tent, as generous an offer as it was, was far too small to allow him to stretch it far enough to pop like it wanted. Instead, he settled back down and resigned himself to accept the dull throb between his shoulder blades for the countless time that day.
“Come to bed,” a strained voice called out from the mound of blankets that he’d insisted she use, including his own in the pile. The way she said it, the way the words were still hers, even after all these years, pulled on his memories. They twisted and yanked at the edges of his remembrance until he wasn’t in the frigid tent anymore, and was no longer a castaway of society. He was a man, once, and he remembered.
He remembered her teeth first, shimmering white between her lips, this time beneath silk instead of rags. Her head rested against Egyptian cotton sheets and her lips still held a thin sheen of lip gloss, because she felt naked without something covering her lips no matter how badly it stained their pillows.
“Are you coming to bed?” She asked, in a strong voice. It wasn’t her courtroom voice, with the authoritative edge that forced compliance, but her voice had power to it that had faded with their son.
“Just checking the alarm, Nance,” he responded as he shuffled out into the hallway. He shambled through the living room, and cut a corner into a hallway, bypassing the alarm system altogether. First, he wanted to check on his son. The headstrong child was still awake, staring out into the night.
“Daddy,” the boy called, his voice trembling with fear. “Daddy, are zombies real?”
Reginald smiled as he looked over the sleeping boy who still hadn’t uncovered his head or turned away from the window. The curtain was drawn and the moon hung in the sky like a bloated pearl.
“No,” he said. “Zombies aren’t real.”
And just like that, the boy was brave again. He turned and his face glowed with confidence.
“If they were real, I would kill them.”
Reginald considered whether or not zombies could be killed, and decided that maybe it qualified if you decapitated them and they stopped moving. That was good enough, and it would have been a hard conversation to have about how the undead were really “un”-dead. So he let it go, and instead rewarded himself with a hug. The child’s tiny arms wrapped around his neck and he felt their clutching pull at his pajama top collar. The strength of his grip surprised Reginald. He tried to put the boy back down on his pillow, but he wouldn’t let go.
“Is it something else, Bobby?”
He heard a sniffle then, and thought he felt a bottom lip quiver. Reginald slowly and carefully pried the arms away.
“What’s the matter?”
“Are you going to die?”
To this, Reginald had only laughed, and that’s all he had to do. He laughed so boisterously that the child laughed too. Once the laughter subsided, Reginald tickled the boy’s tummy and then tucked him under the heaping blankets, stretched into a tall pile. The old house had been almost as drafty as the tent — but it had been their permanent home.
It was a sweet memory, and it should have stopped there. But more than most people, Reginald couldn’t control his own mind. His memory continued, and as the history of he punched in the four digits for the alarm code, his eyes drifted to the back door, visible from the hallway. A shape flitted past, and then another. Then a hundred of them pounded into the door. With a crack that shook the house, amorphous animals flooded in through the door and circled around him. He beat them back the best he could. There were too many. He curled up on the floor and only uncurled once he saw his wife’s face peering down.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you see them?!”
“There’s nothing here, Reggie. You scared Bobby so bad he’s sleeping with us tonight.”
Reginald found himself back in the tent finally, muttering to himself that they weren’t real. They couldn’t have been real. He knew that now, but it had taken their life savings to find it out. Even now, he got glimpses sometimes. A flutter in a corner, or a succession of quick taps against the outside of the tent. He muttered to himself some more about their non-existence, and listened more to his wife’s quiet, erratic breathing.
He picked the needles up from where he had dropped them in his delirium. Loop, tuck. He went back to work. He was very near to completion. When he’d started, his wife said he would never be able to do it all, but her actions said other things. The yarns she’d found on the corner of Grant and Constitution, mostly clean, had been a great find. He remembered when she’d brought it back during the summer. It had been a glorious day full of sunshine. They’d gone to the Willamette River and bathed naked in the sunshine, almost getting stopped by police. But they’d been clean for a day, and it had felt so good.
But that was also when she started getting sick. He didn’t know what it was that rattled around in her lungs and shook her so violently at night. They hadn’t had a tent then, not yet. The tent came later. All they’d had were each other, and the soup kitchen on 15th Avenue. That’s where he thought she caught it. David had had a new cough. It wasn’t the same chronic bronchitis that Reginald carried with him. This cough had meat to it, and would bend him over in the long line, leaking fluid through his mask.
The river bath came after that. They’d been close enough to touch David, and Reginald’s wife had said that she felt dirty. The river was close, but finding a private enough place to clean oneself that wasn’t already taken — that took work. They invested half of that day into finding solitude.
She rattled. He wanted to take her to the hospital, to get treatment, but they’d already wasted all of their money on him. The unsuccessful operation to remove his brain tumor had taken their life’s savings. And working was impossible for him. No matter how hard he tried, it was difficult to ignore the winged demon that liked to sit with he opposing counsel. Especially when the demon objected to everything he said like a petulant child.
Reginald closed the loop on the end and tied it off. He held the sweater up before him, checking it for quality. Crochet was a hobby that he’d taken up when he’d first become jobless, and when they’d still had a house. He was good at it, and for a while, had managed to sell some things online. But that wasn’t the purpose. The extended focus and work kept his mind occupied and off of other things, like faceless corpses walking down sidewalks.
“You’re still up?”
He turned his face toward the pile of rags to see her button nose — he’d always loved her button nose — poking out.
“I am,” he said as a ghost whispered by outside. His eyes tried to launch toward the opening, but he stopped them. She pulled her blanket down over her head and peeked out with her coal-black irises. Sometimes the black filled in the rest, but he was pretty sure that was only his hallucinations.
“Did you finish it?”
He nodded and his lips curled into a smile.
“Do you think he’ll like it?”
“Oh, Reggie,” she said just before erupting into a cough. “I bet he would, yes. And the love that went into it.”
She pulled the blanket back up over her head. He watched the blanket rise with her breathing, and fall. The blanket then began to shake in slow spurts as he heard another whimper come from beneath the pile.
“What’s the matter?”
The shaking stopped, but she said nothing. They needed water, he knew, and he was going to go get some. With any luck they’d get a bit of snow and he could melt some — somehow — for her to drink. But that would be later. He tried to stand and hit his head on the tent.
“I love you, Reginald,” she said as he put down his needles. He picked up the sweater that he’d knitted and gave it another quality inspection. After looking, he placed it on the pile of previous ones that covered her where she slept.
“He’ll like this one,” Reginald said. The sweater was exactly the right size for a young boy of seven, the last time he’d seen Bobby. He remembered the smell of his hair and holding him in his arms. He remembered those big eyes looking up at him with all of the love and expectation in the world.
And he remembered what he didn’t want to, too.
He remembered the day they’d made the decision, reduced to poverty and being pushed out of their now foreclosed home, to send Bobby away to live with his grandparents. He remembered how much he had cried that night, and every night since for almost a month. He remembered how at first, he kept forgetting that Bobby was gone.
But he was confident that one day, sometime in the future, when Bobby came to visit them under the overpass, Bobby would see those sweaters, and he would know that his parents had never stopped loving him.
He listened to his wife's slow breaths as they hissed their way from her lungs to the open air. And then, they stopped. But that was okay. She would start breathing again, he thought. He waited and waited, and then got tired of waiting so pulled out the next bag of yarn. This one had been stolen from a dumpster behind a craft store.
Reginald knew exactly what to do. He would make a sweater for her so when she awoke, she would finally be warm. The cold air formed mist around his mouth as he breathed out.
She would be warm, he thought. And when she was warm, that cough would go away. Once she was warm, they could leave the tent and maybe move back into their house. The people who bought it only rent it out now anyway. They could move back and then Bobby would come back, just like he’d always told them.
“Mom, Dad… I’m going to live with you forever.”