by Miles Deacon
John Bren stares out of his bedroom window and waits for the rain to stop. In the distance he can see a break in the clouds, white light streaming through a tear in a blanket of dark grey, and he's thankful that today, at least, he survived.
The door to the bedroom swishes inwards across the deep-pile carpet. Sarah enters carrying a wooden tray. Propped up against two thick pillows, John can see the bottle of pills and the glass of water. He can also see the bowl and its steaming contents.
“I'm not hungry,” he says.
Sarah places the tray on his bedside table and draws the curtains.
“Hey!” says John. “It's still light outside.”
“You need some sleep after you've eaten,” says Sarah. “You know that.”
She opens the pill bottle and tips two white lozenges into her palm. He reaches out, hoping to touch her, but she drops the pills from a height and withdraws before he gets close.
“Thanks, love,” he says. He smiles, but her face is stone.
John pops the pills in his mouth, manoeuvres them to the back of his tongue, and takes a sip of water. He gags. He tries again. Eventually the drugs scrape down, but they feel like they're still stuck. Just his luck.
“Well done,” says Sarah. “Now you have to eat.”
She hands him the steaming bowl containing a lumpy grey sludge. It looks like mashed newspapers.
Has it really come to this? thinks John.
Sarah settles onto one hip. John picks up his spoon, digs out a glutinous chunk of his evening meal, and turns the utensil upside down. The sludge clings like a slug on the bottom of a rock.
“It's not fair,” he says, his voice nearly breaking. “I'm only thirty-five.”
“Life's not fair,” says Sarah, checking her watch. She moves to the end of the bed, straightens the bed sheets at the bottom, and then picks up the tray from lunchtime. “Now,” she says, “eat your meal before it goes cold.”
John shakes the inverted spoon. The sludge holds fast.
“Will it taste any worse if it does?” he asks.
Again, Sarah doesn't answer. She leaves the room and closes the door. John sighs.
“I wish you were a chicken tikka masala,” he says to his meal. “With poppadoms and mint yoghurt.”
He takes his first mouthful. It feels and tastes like pureed worms, but he swallows it and digs out another gob of muck.
A pain hits his abdomen like a strike from a baseball bat.
He gasps and drops the spoon, letting the sludge bounce onto the sheets. Recognising the spasm, he grimaces, stiffens, and turns on his left side, knowing that this sometimes helps to reduce the effects.
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” he mumbles, curling around the pain, becoming a tight ball.
The sudden movement squeezes his chest and hot fire rushes into his throat. The previous spoonful of sludge has come back, along with his stomach acids, and he knows his throat is going to burn for days. He should sit up and sip some water to flush the juices back down his throat, but the pain in his bowels is too strong. He gives in. He lies there and moans.
“Rock and a hard place,” he'd told his doctor. “Have to lie down on my side for the bowels, but should sit up for the stomach. Can't go both ways at the same time. Not unless you cut me in half.”
His doctor would nod, unsympathetic as always.
The pain is getting worse and John knows he'll have to shit soon. If he doesn't, the pain will become intolerable. Turning onto his back, tears in his eyes, he reaches for the bedpan and shoves it under his buttocks. Then he waits.
Half an hour later, when he's praying to pass out, he feels his muscles relax and he starts to fill the container. Nausea suddenly swells and rolls over him. His eyesight is speckled with wiggling dots. He's almost unconscious. Hot fluids are crashing into the pan.
Eventually, after hours of silent tears, he begins to feel better. His vision is back. The pain has almost gone. The nausea is receding.
“Christ,” he says, carefully pulling the pan out from under him and smelling its filth. He reaches for the pan towel, drapes it over the metal seat, and tucks the portable latrine back under his bed where, hopefully, the odour may be confined.
Then he turns on his side and goes to sleep.
* * *
When he wakes, Sarah is shuffling around the room. He checks his alarm clock and sees that he's been asleep for two hours. He's thankful for that. The spasms can come on in a series sometimes and he can be on and off the bedpan every fifteen minutes for most of the day. This time he'd got away with it.
“You've been prescribed some new pills,” says Sarah, moving to his bedside and opening a bottle. “They should help with the stomach.”
“Thanks,” says John.
He takes the new blue lozenges out of Sarah's open palm and pops them in his mouth. They're smaller than the other ones. He sips some water and doesn't feel them go down.
“Lucky for you I caught the doctor before he left for the day,” says Sarah.
“Yeah,” says John. Sarah seems to get more out of the doctor than he ever could. She obviously charms the old git. That's why she's been dealing with all the prescriptions; she gets a faster service because she can play cute or something.
John appreciates his good fortune in this matter, but he considers it completely outweighed by his bad fortune in everything else.
“And you're lucky that I've stuck around,” says Sarah.
Oh great. Did she have to bring that up again? He'd said sorry, hadn't he? He must have said it a million times. What more does she want?
He shifts in the bed and manages to sit up again, propped against his pillows. He sees his skeletal hands clenching the blankets and marvels at how much weight he's shed recently.
“I had another attack,” he says.
“I know,” says Sarah. “I can smell it.” She retrieves the bedpan and leaves.
A few minutes later, John hears whispering.
His hands form bony fists.
She's out there with a man, he thinks. She's probably fucking him in this house, in one of the other rooms. And he's pumping away on top of her, behind her, or below her. And she's laughing at me all the time, giggling about the sick freak in the main bedroom and how I'll never get any sex ever again, especially from her. And she's right. I won't get it again because I'm going to die. And then I'll be forgotten. I'll be gone, and no one will care.
He feels his heartbeat quicken and realises that he's become overexcited again. He tries to take it back. Takes deep, slow breaths. Tells his body to calm down before it's too late and another spasm is triggered. But he's panicking, and his pulse is thumping faster and faster. He closes his eyes and tries to recite the alphabet backwards, tries to tune out the panic.
It's too late.
This time the pain is a blow from a speeding truck. It crushes his chest, shatters his ribs, and mashes his eyes in their sockets. He screams, but it's a high, feminine scream, squeezed from a tightening throat. A distant part of him feels ashamed for producing such a noise. He should be shouting like a man, bellowing like a real male, roaring even. But he can't help it. He can't keep it in.
“Sarah!” he cries. “Sarah!”
He rises up, slides off the mattress, and falls on the floor, clasping his stomach as if his intestines were about to burst.
But she doesn't come, and the pain intensifies.
This is it, says a detached voice in his mind. This is the end.
He's on his feet for the first time in weeks, tears streaming down his cheeks. He staggers to the door, makes a grab for the handle, and misses. He falls to his knees.
He's still screaming, but he's distant, as if he's watching this scene through the television. The door of the bedroom opens and knocks him off balance. He falls onto his back. Sarah appears and stares down at him. She's frowning. He lifts a hand to plead for help, but she ignores it.
Then another face appears at her shoulder, an all too familiar face. And it's the first time John has seen the bastard smile.
“Told you that would do the trick,” says John's doctor.
“Yes,” says Sarah.
“Didn't think he'd scream so much,” says the doctor. “Sounded a bit like a girl, don't you think?”
Sarah doesn't reply.
“We've done the right thing, love,” says the doctor, putting his arm around her shoulders. “He deserved it.”
John can't scream any more. He can barely breathe. His whole body is locked solid, his fingers bunched into claws, his toes curling, his lips pulled back. Dark shadows are forming at the edges of his vision.
Sarah is crying.
“It's been nearly a year, Dad,” she says. “A whole year of my life.”
“It was the only way,” says the doctor. “Making him sick any faster would have aroused suspicion. Just be thankful that he won't be doing it again, to you or to anyone. He's done.”
Sarah kneels down by John's stiffening body and runs her fingers through his hair. He can smell the floral scent of her perfume; taste her salty tears falling into his open mouth. The darkness crowds her face, frames it.
He wants her to know. He wants to tell her that she's a bitch, a slut, and a fucking whore. Tell her he's glad he punched her, that she fucking well deserved it like all the bitches out there, and that she's nothing to him.
But the only noise that escapes his lips is the slow, thin hiss of his final breath.
©2004 Miles Deacon
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