It was summer, 2017. I was between gigs, sitting at home, and came across a writing contest put on by the website, Short Fiction Break. I'd never entered a competition before, but for some reason, it caught my interest. So I read the rules, sent in my entrance fee and took a shot. I don't know if I'd ever finished a story before, outside of a classroom.
How did I do? Well, my entry tied for 2nd place. I won a hundred bucks, and got published. But more importantly, I discovered that apparently, I could write.
I was hooked and haven't looked back.
In half an hour, she would end it.
This had been their bedroom. Now, it was his – what? She paused. Funny, she thought. There’s no word for the room where people wait for death.
She moved efficiently. Clinically, like a nurse. In truth, that had been her role for some time now.
He’d lingered for months, getting weaker each day. Each day, more dependent on her. Less himself. Bit by bit, his affliction claimed pieces and then scrapped them.
His sense of humor — the miraculous thing that made her fall in love with him — was one of the first things to go. It crumbled, like stucco from an aging house, exposing the decayed structure within.
From a bowl on the nightstand, she grabbed a warm, moist washcloth and cleaned the shriveled, dead skin around the catheter. Made sure it was secure. She couldn’t see any redness. No blood in the bag.
“You’ve had a good day, Mr.,” she said.
She glanced at her watch. Twenty-five minutes now.
They’d been so happy at first. He’d literally charmed the pants off her. His charm was veneer, it’s true. But what a veneer! It was almost like he knew the combination to open her heart and her legs. No one ever took an interest before.
“Okay, up and over.” She leaned him forward, fluffed the pillow behind his head, then carefully laid him back down into the bleached softness.
Her friends at the lab threw her a combination wedding shower and goodbye party. They’d been girls like her. Bookish. Sharp. Dedicated. It hurt — letting them go, but that was the bargain. She’d traded camaraderie and independence for wedded bliss.
She grabbed an IV bag and replaced the exhausted one on the stand. Twenty-two minutes. She had to stop looking at her watch, she thought to herself. He’ll notice.
On her way out, she turned and paused in the doorway, surveying the room that had once been. Matching pieces of clean maple furniture superimposed in ghostly relief over the horror show of tubes and electronic machines. Her chores completed, she stepped into the living room, now cluttered with the bedroom set.
Bourbon. Yes, a nice bourbon to calm her nerves. She stumbled through the clutter to retrieve a glass and his prized bottle. So much of her inheritance gone to feed his indulgences. She poured. Just enough to smooth the edge, not enough to blur it. Its fire burned like panic in her mouth, then scorched her throat as she swallowed.
Her watch showed eighteen minutes. Exasperated, she forced her arm back to her side. She was making herself crazy. Time enough for a second drink she decided and took it to the sofa.
She’d resigned herself to her work years ago — lab coats, sterile vials, exacting work — it suited her. Never the girl anyone sought out in school, she’d found her place in science. The natural world. She understood the crawly things that repelled others. Their beauty lay in their quiet, deadly abilities. Their venom held such promise.
Animals killed because they had to. There was no intended cruelty. So unlike people. At school, the pack ruled. If you weren’t part of one, you were prey. Punished constantly for the crime of being different. Not good enough. Never accepted. Unforgivable.
So she built a life of her own. On her own.
He’d found her in the produce aisle one weekend and struck up a conversation. Sweet. Apparently lost in the neighborhood market. In short order, he’d invited himself for dinner, and made it seem like it was her idea.
Her plan weighed heavily on her. With a sigh, she tried to recline into the cushions.
Her parents loved him from the beginning. With their encouragement, she’d accepted his proposal.
Their wedding album taunted her from the coffee table. If only they’d lived to see her now. She reconsidered. It’s better they hadn’t.
It brought her back to her wedding day. Her happiest day. The day she knew would never come. And yet … For that day, she forgot the awkwardness that set her apart. Her parents looked both proud and relieved. The attendees gazed at her in her white dress and were enchanted. An evening wedding. So elegant. Who’d have believed?
The reception was all laughter and music and dancing. Michael insisted on the best of everything — paid for by her parents, of course. She remembered it all, through a lovely, champagne-hued fog. One perfect day.
Just five years ago.
Her eyes drifted back to her watch. It read 5:50.
Without her income, they’d quickly burned through their money. She needed to be home, he said. The dutiful wife. At the time, his needs had been more carnal. Almost passionate. That faded quickly though.
She’d traded her lab coat for the wedding gown, and that in turn, for a house dress. The exacting processes of research swapped for recipes.
His personality could’ve filled their accounts with cash had he the drive to harness it.
But no, he used it in other ways.
She first heard the whispers at church. Saw the shared looks of the other women.
For a short time after the wedding, they accepted her as one of them. Invited her to club meetings. No more. His infidelity made her unwelcome. Pariah.
To some, his dalliances were small things. Things she should forgive. After all, what was she to expect? He was too good for her, anyway. She should be grateful that he came home at night.
She drowned in humiliation. Self-loathing. Familiar waters.
It was school all over again. Worse! He shoved her face into the truth that she didn’t deserve the love and fidelity others took for granted.
She’d borne him no children. He didn’t want them. She’d borne his insults, though. His belittling. Even his beatings. But the betrayal. That was too much.
Suck it up, honeycup.
In desperation, she reached out to her old colleagues. Let’s get together. A reunion at the commissary. How she missed this life — the person she’d been. Independent. Intelligent. Driven. Over chef salads, they envied her, but there was so much they didn’t know. Her bargain was for life. No take-backs. No refunds. Fine. On an impulse, she rescued a tiny bottle. Dropped it into her pocket. A simple thing. They never saw.
She was done being a cliché.
Just a quiet injection in the night. A slight pinch. The bite of a gnat. Not even a twitch as she pushed her venom in. Then she watched as, over the months, it devoured his charm. His future. His life.
The doctors puzzled over his ailment. As the pieces crumbled, they tested, and discussed, and probed. In the end, they watched too, as his world slowly collapsed.
He’d endured so much pain at first, followed by numbing of the tips — fingers, toes, his manhood. Like a plant over-saturated with water, the extremities darkened, dried, curled upon themselves and then — useless — dropped off.
Little chunks on the sheets to be collected in the morning.
The shriven, helpless husk spread out on the sheets took up far less room than he used to. Still conscious. He was a horrified spectator to the disintegration of his own body.
Neighbors stopped her at church and the grocery store to tell her how brave she was. Such a good wife. Such a rock. The congregation contributed casseroles and macaroni and cheeses. He couldn’t enjoy them, of course. You can’t taste without a tongue. She’d take the plates into the room that had once been theirs, to let him smell the aroma and watch her enjoy.
His eyes pleaded. Let me die.
Her gaze drifted down to her watch. 5:58. It was time. She’d almost missed it!
The doctors sought to help. They’d provided the morphine. The release.
She stepped into his room, displaying her merciful shot. Her heart racing, she wondered if she really had the courage to follow through.
She moved next to him and stared into his eyes. Was that gratitude? Hope? He watched as she slowly inserted the needle into the bottle, inverted it, and drew out the fluid. The look on his face. Yes! He believed she’d do this for him.
Five years ago tonight — this very minute, she’d begun the walk down the aisle that led her here.
She took a breath to summon her resolve, then stabbed the needle into her own arm and pushed. Smiling, she casually tossed the empty syringe onto the bed. “Happy anniversary, Dear.”
Through a warm, luxurious fog, she watched his look turn from hope to shock, as he realized his horror would continue. No way to scream. No one could hear.
She crumpled to the ground, knowing that his torment would continue for a time without her. Lying in his own waste, his bags drained dry, throat parched and belly starved, he’d finally fade, knowing he’d been the author of his own demise. Feeling the true consequences of his actions.
She died, satisfied and smiling. Knowing she’d be waiting for him in Hell.
DL Strand lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He's a Husband, Dad, Writer, Filmmaker, Entrepreneur & Hoodlum.
-You can find more of his work at storytellerspub.com