“This must be the very pinnacle of good fortune, he thought. To have every moment of his death observed by those beautiful eyes—it was like being borne to death on a gentle, fragrant breeze.”
It happened the first time during the four a.m. feeding, and Kagome believed she was dreaming. This was not unusual; she almost never slept anymore, and most of her life felt like dreaming, now. She’d already flushed out Joe’s catheter, sponged gently at the pus that dripped incessantly from the tumor that had devoured his upper lip, and replaced the nutrient bag on the IV stand. Now she was sitting quietly, holding his skeletal, freezing fingers in her own. Briney, Joe’s Burmese, lay curled in the permanent indentation he’d made for himself across Joe’s thighs. Once or twice, the cat half-raised one nictitating lid, flicked its stub of a tail back and forth as though sweeping the room with radar, and went back to sleep. Out on the deck, the shadows of the oaks swayed in the winter wind spooling silently down the San Gabriels, and the Nuttal’s woodpecker that never left, even in the snow, knocked once against whichever pine or telephone pole it had lodged in this night.
I am coming, she heard, half-heard, rolling the bones of Joe’s fingers with her thumb.
It was like the interferon year all over again. In a way, despite the realities of the current situation, watching him then had been worse. He’d slept even more, for one thing, sometimes as many as thirty hours in a row, and never less than twenty. But his sleep had been more disturbed, riddled with tremors that wracked him for minutes on end, haunted by dream-demons Joe clearly remembered afterward but rarely described to her. Tall things, he’d murmur. Whisperers.
Sometimes, that year, the moments when he wasn’t shuddering or dreaming were more frightening still. His face had been less drastically scarred, then, but also tended to go sickeningly slack, drain of everything that identified that hawk-nose, these flippy ear-lobes, this slightly up-turned mouth, as Joe’s. Looking into it had been like staring at the drawn shades of a house that had been termite-bombed.
And yet. Back then, there’d also been that one, absurd element of hope. That the interferon regimen might just work. Kill every deadly cell inside Joe but still leave Joe.
Whereas now, hours or days from the end—not weeks, she’d been assured, not even one week—Joe rarely so much as twitched. Sometimes, as she tended to him, his eyelids fluttered, but contentedly. At least, Kagome insisted to herself that was the case. And sometimes, right at this moment, he’d actually awaken and look at her, and she’d see that formidable engine in there fire one more time, all that ferocious fight, all those useless things he somehow knew locking into place behind his retinas. Once, he’d told her he loved her, that she was the only reason he was still battling. Mostly, though, he glanced at the feedbag and said, “Kidney pie. Rock on.” Or, if they had a chemo or oncologist appointment later that day, “Shotgun.”
I am coming to live . . .
She was moving his hand against the inside of one of her wrists, now. Feeling the paper-thin membrane against her smoothness, right where the sleeve of her robe ended. Dazed, she moved his hand to her cheek. Held it there. Stroked once, so gently, down. Back up. Down again. Then she slid Joe’s hand to her neck. Down farther, into the V of her robe to brush one nipple. The other. How long had it been now? Two years? Three? They’d had such sweet touching in the eighteen months before what they’d always known was coming—or, coming back—arrived for good. Such patient touching, as though they’d had all the time in the world. Now his skin—what there was of it—just felt scratchy and hard, like a dried-out loofa.
I am coming to live in your mouth.
She jerked upright and dropped Joe’s hand to the hospital bed that had taken the place of their couch and swung around.
Screaming, she thought. I should be screaming.
She couldn’t see his face. He was standing in the corner, just where the shadow of the tallest oak spilled through the glass sliding door. His stained tan overcoat hung too low, all but brushing the tops of his galoshes, which looked shiny and wet, though there hadn’t been so much as a mist out there yet this fall. He had his head bent low, the brim of his trilby completely shading his face.
“Get out of my—” she started, and his voice overrode her though it was barely a whisper, hollow as respirator breath in an oxygen mask.
I am coming to live in your mouth. Because you never have anything to say.
Then she was screaming, crying, too, “Out! Get out! OUT!”
The figure in the corner didn’t even lift its head, but it was still speaking, or else those words had rung a resonant spot inside her, because she could hear them over her shouting. Coming to live. Never have anything . . .
“What in sweet God’s name?” Mrs. Thiel snapped from the stairway, and Kagome whirled, her own voice choking to silence but that other’s still echoing.
At least the mask was down, Kagome thought, watching Joe’s mother’s razor-thin eyebrows squeeze together like crayfish pincers. For a long moment, she just held Mrs. Thiel’s gaze, then remembered and leapt to her feet, swinging around.
By the sliding glass door, she saw the shadow of the oak shaking slightly, as though ravens had just sprung from its branches. Bare floor. The boxes of sterile needles and spare tubing tucked neatly against the breakfront. Nothing else.
I am coming to live in your mouth.
When she turned once more, she found Joe’s mother smiling. The eyebrows hung in their carefully separated spaces like precisely hung photographs. The mask, in place once more.
“Jasmine?” Mrs. Thiel said brightly. “Help us greet the new day grinning?”
Moving to the stove, ignoring Kagome’s elegant tetsubin tea things arrayed on the shelf by the sink, she filled the utilitarian silver kettle she’d brought with her when she’d finally dropped the pretense and moved in a few weeks before. The kettle made an ugly, banging sound as Mrs. Thiel settled it over the burner.
“Think the newspaper’s here? I’ll get you your crossword. Or is it more a sudoku kind of hour?”
Instead of answering, Kagome gazed down again at what was left of her husband. Her screaming hadn’t roused him. Would today be the last day? Would the next time he opened his eyes be the final one? Good God, had she already had the final one? When had it been? She couldn’t even remember.
She watched Joe’s chest, which just lay flat.
And finally, fitfully, inflated, as though some small child were shoving at it from inside. Joe’s mouth didn’t exactly open anymore, but part of his lower lip quivered as air slipped past it. He gurgled once, and pus ran down his teeth onto his tongue. Then his chest clamped down again.
Kagome glanced toward the corner. With a brief, discreet brush of her husband’s palm with her fingertips, she turned to face Mrs. Thiel. She had no smile in her, and managed one. At least, it felt like she did. “Sudoku, I think,” she said. Without even slipping on her fuzzy robe, she crossed to the front door and stepped out into the icy mountain air to wait for the paper she knew wouldn’t come for at least another hour.
• • • •
But the cold didn’t help. Nor did the shower when she came inside. Nor Mrs. Thiel’s superb slow eggs and salsa. The final proof for just how unsettling her four a.m. encounter had been came as Mrs. Thiel was clearing the breakfast dishes, leaning over her shoulder while Kagome tapped the last unfilled boxes of the Thursday Times crossword with her pencil eraser.
“Mulliner,” Mrs. Thiel said suddenly, and Kagome stared at the puzzle. The answer was correct, of course. Sixty-five down: Old hat, at the Angler’s. Jobs misspelled to make Wodehouse characters, the theme of the day. When, exactly, had Mrs. Thiel started nailing crossword clues like that? Never before, in the time Kagome had known her.
“Get the crazy glue,” Mrs. Thiel said, and Kagome grabbed her hand and almost made her drop the dishes. She could feel Mrs. Thiel’s scowl on her shoulders—God forbid either of them should actually show any emotion other than radiant, resolute hopefulness—but Mrs. Thiel held on, too. For one second, no longer.
Get the crazy glue. It was what Joe said when he turned away from a ball he’d bowled immediately after bowling it, before the ball was halfway down the lane. When he knew he’d rolled a strike, and that the pins would be flying. In the three, maybe four times Kagome had gone bowling with Joe, she’d never seen him guess wrong. “‘Cause there’s no guessing involved,” he’d say. And touch her cheek gently with one finger as he returned to his seat.
I am coming to live in your mouth . . .
The doorbell rang at eleven while Kagome was still combing out her long, black hair and beginning to weave it into the complicated sakkou fashion she’d learned from her mother, and that had always hypnotized Joe. Fascinated him. “Like a wild knot,” he’d said once, slipping his long fingers in and out of the whirl of loops and crosses she’d made. Then, when she’d lain still long enough, he told her what that was, as she knew he would. A knot built out of infinite sequences, with a seemingly infinite number of edges. “In the actual universe—the physical one—” Joe told her, “there’s no such thing.”
Abruptly, she came out of her reverie. Hospice. She’d blocked that out. Forgotten they were coming. Then she heard the door opening, a single strum of out-of-tune ukulele, and her first real smile of the day spread over her pale, exhausted face. Pinning the last twist of her hair into place, she stepped into the hall and caught a fleeting glimpse, galoshes sliding silently around the corner, into the guest room they never used, who would come?
Sprinting for the room, she threw open the door—closed? It was closed?—and found the erg machine Joe had ordered to keep his muscles in shape while his skin rotted off and his lungs shriveled and his organs imploded, one by one. Beyond the bare windows, she saw the tops of trees, all but bare now, swaying.
More ukulele strum from downstairs, and Ryan’s ridiculous, keening laugh, and his croak of a voice. “Going down, chum. Going down hard.” And then that roaring, ripping cough—the cancer growling as it fed—that told her Joe was awake.
Kagome hurried downstairs, ignoring the urge to swing around, just once, to make sure. She’d made sure. And already knew, anyway.
“How long has he been awake?” she asked Mrs. Thiel, who was wiping down the kitchen counters, having already washed every dish and tucked away the supplies from last night’s feeding. Only occasionally did the woman allow herself a glance toward the couch, where her son, propped up, was trying to get his fingers around the Playstation controller and his thumbs into place. Finally, Mrs. Thiel looked at Kagome. And grinned.
Kagome smiled back. They stood together and watched.
Ryan, in his usual holey black Warped Tour skateshirt and Vans, was alternately flipping at his mop of brown hair and fiddling with the television controllers. Eventually, the screen burst into color, and pumping techno music thudded through the room. Returning to his seat, Ryan spied Kagome, waved the ukulele he was still holding by its neck in his free hand, and settled in the chair closest to Joe. On the screen, twin rocket-propelled race cars approached a starting line as the riff in the music repeated itself, then froze as the START NEW GAME? message appeared.
It was hard to remember, watching them, that Ryan had started out as Kagome’s friend. He’d been her intern at Mountain Living. In some ways, he fit the copy editor stereotype even more closely than she did: glasses, nervous twitch to his fingers, permanent pale-yellow cast to his skin. Computer tan. Except he also wore Vans and played the ukulele, told invented shaggy dog jokes that made Kagome laugh—no mean feat, in this particular era of her life—and kick-boxed.
Four months ago, out of nowhere, hunched over his computer in the midst of a particularly gnarly edit, he’d mentioned his Boggle prowess. She’d said nothing, but brought Joe’s travel set the next day and set it wordlessly before Ryan at lunch. It had taken her two rounds to realize he hadn’t been kidding, and seven for him to win the match. Which made him exactly the second person she’d ever met to take one from her. She hadn’t so much invited him to dinner as thrown down the gauntlet. He’d shown up singing “Tiny Bubbles,” Joe had skunked him at Boggle but lost every Playstation game they’d tried and also computer Jeopardy, and that had pretty much been the last time Kagome had spent with Ryan except at work.
When Ryan was at their house, which was almost every night now, he was with Joe. Once the sickness consigned Joe permanently to the couch, Ryan came more frequently, not less. She didn’t think she’d ever been happier about another human being’s existence except her husband’s.
“You’ll be wanting me to say I’m lucky,” Ryan told Joe now. She watched his eyes flick to the tumor on Joe’s mouth. On Joe’s lap, Briney aimed an annoyed glare at Ryan, then hopped down and disappeared upstairs.
“Nnuz nuuuuhne,” said Joe. He couldn’t really turn his head, but Kagome saw his gaze stray in her direction.
“He says, ‘Because you will be,’” Kagome told Ryan. Even Mrs. Thiel could no longer understand her son.
Ryan grinned. “Then you’re admitting defeat before we begin. It’s what I’ve always wanted from you.”
He triggered the game, and on screen one of the racers launched from the start and hurtled out of sight around a curve, while the other spun immediately into a side wall and blew up.
“Nnuk,” Joe said. Ryan grinned wider, and kept going.
Kagome saw the panic first, and moved immediately, silently. Mrs. Thiel was right behind her, and Ryan didn’t even notice until they were already beside Joe, gently disentangling his catheter tube from underneath him and beginning the several-minute process of preparing to help him up.
“What . . . oh . . .” Ryan said, wrinkling his nose at the smell and standing. “It’s okay, dude.” He held out his hands.
“He knows it’s okay, could you get a water bucket and the sponges?” Mrs. Thiel snapped.
“Under the sink,” Kagome murmured. “Thank you, Ryan.”
Somehow, once they got Joe to his feet, he managed to stay there while Kagome and Mrs. Thiel bundled up the mess in the sheets and Kagome scrubbed at the slimy, brown streaks sinking into the pillows. Those streaks seemed so devoid of mass they barely even qualified as shit. When she’d finished, she leaned back on her haunches and brushed her nose with her forearm and looked up at her husband. So thin as to be almost two-dimensional, pale as paper, like an origami approximation of himself. To her delighted surprise, he was fully alert, staring back. And smiling?
“Nnnay nur nuky,” he said.
“I’m lucky,” she whispered, and kissed the bones of his hand.
“How about Tijuana Taco?” Mrs. Thiel chirped as she returned from whatever she’d done with the sheets. Framed them, probably, Kagome thought, then chastised herself for thinking it. “Kagome, green chile for you, right?”
“Just soup,” she murmured. A few chattery seconds later, Mrs. Thiel mercifully left the house on her errand.
Standing for so long had completely exhausted Joe, and he was swaying and shivering more violently than the trees outside as Ryan and Kagome lowered him back onto the home-care hospital bed he’d chosen to die on and settled his heap of comforters and blankets and coats around him. They weren’t enough, and Joe went on shivering even as sleep swallowed him.
Stripping off her rubber gloves, Kagome stood and gazed down at her husband. Behind her, Ryan muted the TV, though from the clicking of the controllers, she knew he was finishing Joe’s race for him. Starting right where Joe’s car had exploded. After a while, he took up his ukulele again, stroked that quietly. The chords he played changed so slowly, she wasn’t sure they were even connected or part of a song until he started half-humming a vocal line, in his strangely sweet croak that was far too old for him.
“Because you never . . . because you never . . . have anything . . .”
She didn’t mean to hit him, of course she didn’t, but the words he had sung didn’t register right away, and when they did, she panicked, spun so fast that the fist still holding the shit-rag smacked across his cheek and her knee drove the ukulele out of his hands and across the room. Stunned, streaked with brown and red across his cheeks, Ryan stared up at her, while her free hand flew to her own mouth.
“What did you just . . .” Her brain was screaming back to this morning, and she was crying again, too, seeing the stick-thin, galoshes-guy in the corner. “Ryan?”
Even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t so. She hadn’t seen the trilby man’s face. But he’d been considerably taller. And even though his shape had been disguised by his trench coat, it hadn’t been Ryan’s shape. No. It had been . . . what? She couldn’t remember. Furthermore, Ryan had been downstairs, just coming inside, at the moment Kagome had seen the trilby man ducking into the guest room. Because he had been there. She was as sure of that now as she’d been that he was imaginary a few hours ago.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, blinking to try to stem her tears. She bent to wipe at the streaks on Ryan’s cheek, and he let her. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
“It’s okay,” he said, though she’d clearly frightened him. “You’ve been through so—”
“That song.” Dropping the rag, she slumped into the wooden chair Mrs. Thiel always sat in, leaving the armchair for Kagome. Precisely the sort of gesture Kagome despised in her mother-in-law, even though it probably had no other motive behind it than kindness. “What made you sing that?”
Now Ryan was staring. “Sing what?”
“What you just sang.”
“I wasn’t singing. I was barely even—”
On the couch, Joe unleashed a cough that lifted his spine off the pillows and convulsed him with shudders but didn’t waken him. Kagome dug under the blankets, found the IV tube, and followed it down to Joe’s hand. Then she held on. After a while, she turned her gaze once more on Ryan. Her eyes had dried, her features settling into their comfortable, familiar impassivity. Mrs. Theil’s wasn’t the only mask, she realized.
“Kagome,” Ryan murmured. “I’m sorry. I was just . . . strumming. Wasn’t I?”
“Yes,” Kagome lied, and her heart banged. “I think probably you were.”
After that, they sat and breathed and watched for Joe’s breaths. At some point, Kagome’s free hand found Ryan’s, and for a fleeting few minutes, she felt a peculiar, suspended stasis. Not peace, nowhere near peace. But there were people in this room who loved her.
And someone else, too, who was coming to live, and Kagome gripped Ryan’s hand and closed her eyes and held still and held on.
“She driving you crazy?” Ryan said. “Joe’s mom, I mean? What’s she so happy about, anyway?”
For a long time, Kagome didn’t answer. Didn’t want to. Despite the waves of panic and loneliness and nausea and fear, she wanted to stay right where she was, propped in place, like a birdhouse with birds hopping around and into it, even though there was virtually nothing left inside.
“She’s never been happy,” Kagome answered. “She just . . . she thinks it’s what Joe wants. You know, he’s never liked even acknowledging that he’s sick. She also thinks it’s why he’s still here. If you don’t look at it, it can’t see you. That kind of thing. I think. Maybe she’s right. You know he’s been told he had less than a year to live since he was seven years old.”
“Does she like you?”
The question startled Kagome out of her half-trance. For the first time in who knew how long, her eyes left Joe’s face. She looked not at Ryan but the mountainside folding into nightshadow as the November day drained away.
Then that voice was in her ears again, and her bones, too, and the soft tissue of her arms and chest, whispering, scratching. I am coming to live in your mouth. Coming to live in your mouth. Coming . . .
“She thinks I’m a vacuum,” Kagome said, and didn’t cry, or squeeze Ryan’s hand. She squeezed Joe’s, though. Hard. “She thinks he married me to have a calming presence near. Because he finally got scared.”
“Does she know you can beat him at Boggle? Does she actually think that calms him?”
“Scrabble. Not Boggle. Not ever.”
Her eyes flicked to Ryan’s face. Behind his glasses, his surprisingly large green eyes seemed to swivel in their sockets like a bird’s. To her immense relief, he was smiling a little. Somehow, in his Warped t-shirt, with his long legs bunched up against the hospital bed and his hair falling over his face, he looked completely adrift on the currents in this room, bobbing like a bottle with a message in it. Whether the message was for or from her, she had no idea.
Hospice arrived a little after five, an hour or so after Mrs. Thiel came back. Rising from the wooden chair where she’d stayed all day—to her mother-in-law’s visible annoyance, and not once had Mrs. Thiel taken the empty La-z-boy—Kagome watched the two nurses and one social worker fan through the room, silent and efficient as the elves in that story about the shoemaker, who come in on a moonbeam. Truly, they were marvels. Even the doorbell when they rang it seemed muffled. Even Mrs. Thiel went quieter when they were here, though her ferocious half-grin never wavered.
The two nurses sponged Joe down, changed his bedding; one combed what was left of his hair while the other washed out the tumor over his mouth with a syringe. The social worker brought Kagome tea in one of her porcelain cherry-blossom cups, and may have spoken to her, too. Kagome might even have spoken back. She couldn’t be sure, knew only that the muttering in her ears and her blood had gone quiet. She could hear it, still, but barely. As though it were out on the deck in the falling dark, and just once she glanced that way, through the sliding doors, and saw only shadow.
I know you, she thought, and didn’t even try to make sense of that.
“You know what hospice does?” Mrs. Thiel had halfway shrieked, when Kagome had insisted on bringing them in. “Hospice kills you. You understand that, right? You think they’re coming to help? They’re coming to kill Joe. They’re the angels of goddamn death.”
And of course, she was right. The smothering doses of morphine and methadone that ate away at the brain, the thousand other little drugs they gave that the body couldn’t really take, all meant to keep Joe comfortable, mask the pain. The words they used, to settle them all. Get them ready. Or, not ready, there was no such thing, and they would never have used so crude a term. Tranquil, maybe. Sort of. Angels of death they truly were. But why did Americans always focus on the death part? What else did they imagine angels were for?
So pervasive was the spell the hospice workers cast that Kagome only noticed the positions they’d taken and realized what they were about to do a few seconds before Joe woke up. Way back in her throat, a groan formed, and though it came out choked, barely even audible, the sound grated against everything else in the room and rattled Mrs. Thiel to wakefulness. And so Mrs. Thiel realized what was happening, too.
“Get away from him,” Mrs. Thiel said, but even her voice seemed to come from under a layer of gauze, as though she’d been gagged. “Get . . .”
Her words sank to nothing as her son’s eyes flew open. For one moment, he lay there, blinking, before rolling with surprising alacrity onto his side. His glare was like a bucket of water flung over the hospice workers. They were human after all, Kagome noted; all three flinched back on the chairs they’d arrayed around the bed so that their medical whites formed a sort of picket fence between Joe and the rest of the room. The life he’d lived. Just like that, they ceased to be angels, and their features resolved into ordinary, comprehensible, human ones. One of the nurses had a band-aid under the lobe of her left ear. The social worker had pretty auburn hair—just moments ago, it had seemed gray, Kagome had assumed that was a required color for the job, like a uniform—clumped in an unflattering working bun at the base of her neck.
It was the social worker who spoke, as a new shiver rippled down Joe’s obscenely articulated bones. The woman’s voice was trained, all right, lulling as a two a.m. smooth-jazz disc jockey’s, but warmer. At once more detached and more genuine.
“Joe,” the woman said.
Beside Kagome, Mrs. Thiel beat her arms against her sides like an enraged mother eagle. But she held her place. Waited.
“Joe, you’ve fought so hard, for so long. For thirty years, is that right?”
To Kagome’s astonishment, Joe answered. And his voice came out fuller, with more of his joyful, prickly Joe-ness than at any time in the past two months. Also with more consonants.
“Thirty-three. Got sick when I was seven.”
“Thirty-three years, when virtually anyone else would have been dead in six months. Incredible. Please know, Joe. All we want is to help you make meaningful use of every meaningful second, and also provide comfort. To you, and your loved ones. We’ve been coming here a month. I’ve never seen anyone fight like you do.”
Was Joe smiling, now? Oh, God, was Joe crying? The tumor seemed to float across his mouth, obscuring it, like one of those black blotches television stations use to blur victim’s features on true crime shows.
“So now. Joe.” This time, as she spoke, the social worker slid forward on her chair. As if on cue, the others edged forward, also, and Kagome almost screamed, it was like watching hyenas dance in from the edge of a clearing.
“What is your goal now, Joe? Can you tell me that?” At this, the woman gave a practiced but mournful glance over her shoulder toward Kagome and Mrs. Thiel. Kagome watched her auburn bun shake. “What do you still want to do?”
There was no doubt anymore. Joe was crying. If there’d been a smile, too, it was gone. “Survive,” he said, in his dead man’s rasp. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.
“You bitch,” Mrs. Thiel murmured, and Kagome started to nod right along with her, wanted to raise both fists in the air and cheer or scream, and then realized her mother-in-law meant her. “I can’t take this,” Mrs. Thiel went on. “I’m going to the movies.” Already, her voice was molding back into its chirp, as though it were pottery clay she was rounding, relentlessly rounding. “I’ll be back soon. Bring you those chocolate stars you like, if they have any, Kagome. Bye, Ryan, see you tomorrow?”
Moments later, she was gone, and hospice, too, leaving a message pad full of numbers to call, anytime, for help or advice, or just to talk. They promised to be back tomorrow afternoon. Kagome returned to her wooden chair and Ryan to the La-z-boy. Ryan left his ukulele on the floor. They stayed there in silence a long time. Full night fell.
Kagome wasn’t sure when she realized Ryan was asleep. He had his arms crossed tight across his thin chest, his head twisted at an ugly angle, as though someone had slipped up behind and wrenched it halfway off. His leg, barely touching hers through her skirt, felt almost hot. So palpably living. Gently, she reached over, lifted his head, and leaned it in what she hoped was a more comfortable way against her shoulder. When she looked up, the trilby man was watching through the window.
For the second time in less than a day, a scream jagged up her throat, but this time Kagome managed to catch it between her teeth, and her tongue and everything inside her sizzled as though she’d bit down on electrical wire. How did she know the trilby man was watching, when she couldn’t even see his face? The hat and the dark hid his features, made her wonder if there was a face under there at all, his head just looked like a blacker circle pasted on the black out there.
Because it wasn’t out there. She was seeing his reflection. He was right behind her.
She whirled, banging Ryan’s forehead with her own. His head rocked back, stars shot across her eyes and she swept her gaze wildly through the room but saw nothing. Wait—near the counter. By the kitchen. But that was Briney, Joe’s cat, creeping back.
Tears poured through her squeezed lashes all at once, as though she’d tipped a vase that had been stored there. She couldn’t stop them, felt the shakes seize her. Then Ryan’s arms were around her shoulders, enclosing her. She let herself fold forward. For long minutes, she had no idea how long, she just leaned into Ryan and shook. He held tight.
The only thing she was absolutely certain of, later, was that she’d started it. And that she’d been looking at Joe when she did. At the stump where Joe’s right ear had been, and the black, ball-shaped scar over the hole in his jaw where the second-to-last of the twenty-three surgeries she’d been through with him had focused. The little tumors swelling all over his face, seeming to wriggle when she looked away, like pregnant spiders scurrying over her husband with their sacs of young.
Partially, it was triggered by the awkward way Ryan held her, with his hands seemingly affixed to her shoulder blades like defibrillator pads he was trying to place. For most of the time Joe had been able to hold her, he’d done so like that. He’d avoided dating, most of his life. Hadn’t seen the point, he said. And so he hadn’t known what to do with his hands, at first. She’d had to show him.
But partially, too, it was Ryan’s heat. His pale arms, with her tears streaking them, and the surprising force of his skater’s thighs pushing against hers. It was like holding Joe, but a different Joe. Joe healthy. Joe capable of expressing the hunger she knew he felt, that was too strong for his frail frame, that he’d been afraid would shake him to pieces every time they touched. She wasn’t exactly thinking any of this, but she was conscious of it all as one of her hands slid down Ryan’s chest into his lap, and her mouth lifted and found his.
It lasted longer than she could have hoped, certainly longer than she expected. Long enough for her to wonder if they were actually going through with it, and to understand that Ryan hadn’t come here only for Joe, after all. His hands had come off her shoulders at last, and they felt so good gliding on her back. His eyes were closed, but hers flicked constantly between this boy’s sweet, helpless face and her husband’s wrecked and sleeping one. It was like touching them both, touching Ryan, yes, but also Joe through him. Their mouths had come open, and she was caressing, probing, had Ryan’s belt unbuckled when she saw the cat staring at her and froze, just for a second.
Which was far too long. Ryan gagged, his mouth snapped shut, and he banged her head again with his own as he scrambled to his feet. “Oh, Kagome,” he said, fumbling at his snap and his belt and not getting either and finally staring down at himself and then her in disbelief. “I’m so sorry,” he said, and burst into tears.
“Ryan,” she said, and started to stand, and then she was just too tired. She watched him and offered nothing reassuring, just leaned her head into the side of the La-Z-boy and let her hair droop almost to the floor. She didn’t cry, didn’t even want to. Mostly, she realized, she wanted to be alone. When was the last time she’d been alone, for any length of time? A month ago? Three?
Ryan kept crying, kept saying, “Sorry.” Not until he was at the door did he say he’d be back. She couldn’t even rouse herself to nod or wave.
Then she was by herself. She closed her eyes and listened. For a moment, she panicked. Even the wind outside seemed to have stilled, and nothing anywhere near her seemed to be breathing, not even her. Then, very low, she heard the rumble of Briney’s purr, and after that a sudden, rattling gasp from Joe, followed by another in no rhythm. Then silence again. She couldn’t even hear the air entering or leaving her own body. Maybe Mrs. Thiel was right, and she was more bonsai tree than wife. Decorative and silent.
And she never had anything to say.
Kagome. Even the name was meaningless, her mother had taken it from some childhood chant.
Opening her eyes, Kagome sat up. She considered dialing her parents in Sendai. But talking to them from this house was like shouting across a mountain canyon. Her mother’s health—and, maybe, her father’s unexpressed sense of betrayal or just loss that she’d decided to settle here—had prevented them ever from coming. And Joe’s health had prevented his going. And years had piled up, like snow in the Snow Country, so deep and so quickly. Kagome didn’t have the strength to traverse them tonight.
I know you, she was thinking, nonsensically. She sat.
At some point, she considered calling Ryan. Telling him he had nothing to be sorry for, that it was her fault. If there was fault. That she loved his coming to the house, and knew his presence was at least as crucial to keeping Joe alive as her own. But then she decided she didn’t need to say this. Ryan was so bright, so intuitive despite his awkwardness. Like Joe was. Had been.
To Kagome’s astonishment, Mrs. Thiel came home raving drunk. She stood swaying a while over her son, glared at Kagome, and Kagome wrapped her in a blanket and took her up to bed. The woman’s hands were rigid with cold, as though she’d shoved them in an ice-bucket for the past few hours. As Kagome flicked out the bedroom light, she heard Mrs. Thiel murmur, “Thank you, Kagome. You are, without question, the easiest person in the world to go through this with.”
Kagome almost threw herself back across the room, shrieked in Mrs. Thiel’s face. I tried to fuck his friend, she almost said. Wished she’d said. Easiest?
Instead, she shut the door and stood a few silent seconds on her balcony, in her silent house. That would soon be empty for real. Silent for good. She didn’t open her eyes until she was halfway down the staircase.
The hospital bed was empty.
At first, the sight made so little sense that Kagome couldn’t process it, couldn’t begin to think what to do. Then she was flying downstairs, all but crashing onto her face as she leapt the last five steps into the living room and stared around at the kitchen, the deck—Shit and God, had he thrown himself from the deck?—and saw nothing, and no one.
“Joe?” she said. Spun back to the stairs, to the deck again, expecting the trilby man to materialize out there, he’d said he was coming, warned them he was.
Then she heard it. One single sob. From the bathroom. Skidding across the hardwood, she rattled the knob, which was locked, beat with her palm against the door. “Joe? It’s me.”
“I killed Briny.”
In mid-beat, with her arm still raised, Kagome froze. “What?”
Sob. Then a sawing, rattling gasp of a breath.
“It wasn’t me. I couldn’t help it.” His voice so clear. As though, right at the end, he’d swallowed the tumor whole, or ripped it off in one last savage spasm of defiance.
Cautiously, squeamishly—which was hilarious, in a way, given what she’d seen and done and immersed herself in ever since she’d married her husband—Kagome glanced around for the cat. Briney was so much Joe’s, she’d never developed a deep-seated attachment to it. But she’d loved the way it loved him.
God, did he have it in there with him?
Sinking to her knees, Kagome leaned her forehead into the door and closed her eyes, willing herself through the wood. “Joe. Please.”
“It’s like I had no control over my hands. Like they weren’t my hands, anymore, I wasn’t even part of it.” Rasp. Rattle. Long silence. Sob.
“I think I pulled her head completely off.”
Kagome stifled a sob of her own, felt her fingers curl into claws, as though she could scratch her way through, opened her eyes and saw the cat. It lay curled sleepily in the impression Joe had left in the hospital bed when he’d somehow dragged itself off it, licking a forepaw, watching her through one half-open eye.
“Joe? Joe, Briney’s fine. She’s right here.”
Silence. So long that Kagome caught herself making loud, bellows-like sounds with her breath, as though she could blow air through the wood, around the tumor and into Joe’s desperate, deflating lungs. She knew what was happening, now. It had happened so many times. One of the new drugs—who even kept track anymore—had reacted with one of the old drugs. Or had built up in his system, or triggered some unexpected reaction. And now he was having an episode. And there was nothing to do about it except talk him through.
“Kagome?” Joe said, and his voice sounded different yet again, so small, like a seven year-old’s. “Kagome, I don’t want to die dumb. Please, I don’t want to be—”
“What? What are you talking—”
“What time is it?”
“Huh? 1:15 or some—”
“Date? What date? How long have I been like this?”
Sick? Sad? Dying? She could hear in his wheeze that he was dying. The rattle had changed, gone heavy in his throat, like a motor shutting down. She started to weep, glanced sideways. The trilby man stood at the top of the stairs.
All she could see of him, really, was his galoshes, the bottom of his coat, his legs up to his knees. No, she thought, shrinking back, looking frantically around for anything heavy. Something she could swing.
I am coming to live in your mouth.
“Won’t,” she heard Joe grunt, his breath bubbling. “Oh, God, not this way. How long? I killed the . . . I won’t. HOW LONG?”
Thumping, as though Joe was pounding his own chest. Or driving his head into the wall. “Joe,” Kagome said, starting to weep.
“I don’t want to be dumb.”
“I want to be me.”
“Joe, You’ve been you since the day I—”
“Date? What date? How long have I just been lying there? I killed the—”
“Never,” she hissed. “Never, for one second, my husband, have you just been lying there.” She blinked, and the trilby man was closer. Three steps down from the balcony, visible to the waist now. Without even moving. I know you. Even as Kagome thought that, he was five steps down. Absolutely still, with his long arms at his sides. Like she was watching a spliced film.
Because you never have anything to say.
Trilby. Trilllll . . .
She was panicking, frantic, wanting to flee the house and unable to move, rolling that word on her tongue. Over and over. Trilby. Useless name, for a hat no one wore. No one she’d ever known. Where had she even learned it?
“I killed Briney. Kagome, WHAT TIME IS IT?!”
“Constantinople,” she said abruptly, heard her husband gasp and go still.
On the stairs, the trilby man winked closer. Still not moving, hands at his sides. She could see the top of the hat now, the head bent down on the chest, obscuring the face.
“Come on,” Kagome muttered. Which of them did she mean? She didn’t know, wasn’t sure it mattered.
“Calcutta,” Joe whispered, voice catching hard, ripping on the teeth of his cough, and Kagome threw her head back, almost smiling. Almost.
“Cheating,” she said, as tears erupted down her cheeks. “Hasn’t officially changed its name yet.”
“Just because . . .” Ripping, ravaging cough. Then the rattle, low and long. “ . . . the west hasn’t acknowledged, doesn’t mean . . .”
“Fine. Chennai.” The trilby man’s rubber soles reached the hardwood floor. Kagome watched him come. I will not move, she was chanting, deep inside herself. I will not move.
“That’s cheating,” Joe said.
Through her tears, Kagome watched the trilby man twitch closer, and gripped the doorframe to keep from collapsing. The grin that broke over her face was different than any she’d ever felt there.
“How so?” she whispered. Knowing the answer. Wanting him to tell her. To have the pleasure. To play, once more. Fight, a little longer.
“It’s . . . the name changed. Not the name . . . it was.”
“Madras,” she said.
“Madras,” said Joe. “I’m sorry, Kagome.”
The trilby man was five feet away; next time he moved they’d be touching. There was nothing to swing at him. Nowhere to run, and even if there was.
Mulliner. Coming to live . . .
“Sorry?” Kagome said, staring at the hat tipped down, the hidden face. I KNOW you. “Joe, you have nothing—”
“For not staying. I can’t stay.”
“Joe. Let me in.”
“Can’t . . . reach the door. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”
Weeping, glaring her defiance, Kagome turned her back on the trilby man, put her mouth to the crack between the door and the wall, and began to whisper. “I love you, Joe. I love you, Joe. I love you, Joe.”
Then she remembered.
Where else would she have heard such a nothing word but from her husband? Tall things, he’d called them, in the year of his interferon dreams. Whisperers, in trilby hats.
Angels of death? Walking tumors, whispering in the blood?
Or . . . What had that doctor said?
From the top of the stairs, there was a new sound, now. A whimper, climbing towards keening.
In her ears, Kagome could still hear the slow song Ryan had sung. Sworn he hadn’t sung. On her shoulders, she could feel his hands, the way they’d moved, and hadn’t moved. And in her mouth, she could taste his tongue. The sweat on his cheek that had tasted so sweet. So sweetly familiar.
Mulliner. Never before, not even once . . .
“Kagome?” Mrs. Thiel sobbed.
“It’s a myth, you know. That we can’t kill cancer. We can kill anything. Just . . . not selectively.” That’s what that doctor had said. “Now, if your husband could oblige by stepping aside, figure a way to climb out of there, just for a month or two . . .”
Kagome whirled, heart hurtling up her chest, borne on a boil of grief and nausea and loneliness and terror and hope?
Mrs. Thiel had reached the bottom of the stairs, was staring at Kagome, at the closed door behind her. The rattling in the bathroom had stopped. Had been stopped for too long now. Kagome glared back, across the empty room, past her mother-in-law toward the pine trees outside. All that empty, useless wind.
“No,” Mrs. Thiel said, and Kagome felt her mouth curl once more, into a snarl she’d never known she had in her. Because it had never been there. She’d seen it before, though. In those rare moments Joe didn’t think she was looking, and the pain came for him, and he somehow roused that fury in there and fought it back one more time.
Whatever was coming, she thought. It was here.
—With special thanks to Norman Partridge for the loan of the nightmare . . .
Spread the word!Tweet