Thanks to mouse/maud dib/alphabete/etc for letting me use her blog to post my stuff on. A quick short story for #thursdaytales. The title is, I suppose, “Death.”
Somewhere clean, smelling of disinfectant and freshly laundered sheets, a young girl is dying. She is surrounded by her family and friends, lying on a bed with tubes and wires running from her to various mechanical contrivances designed to prolong her ordeal in this world, ostensibly to give her more time with her family. Though, in reality, these last, painful, lingering moments are a comfort to no one. As her mind and her body fail her, her last thoughts and emotions are not of the supposed passing on to other worlds, or the shallow comfort provided by those around her. They are of the simplest, purest terror. As she dies she reaches ahead of her, into the air, to grasp at nothing at all.
Some of those standing around her that day were devastated at the loss of someone they had known and loved. Some wept and howled, while others stood and stared numbly on, all emotion hidden behind a wall of shock. Others had their deepest fears dredged up by her death, pulling to the surface anxieties about their own, limited mortal lives. Still others saw this moment with relief. They had been anxious, not precisely for her death, but to return to worldly obligations, jobs and bills and children and pets. Her illness had been an inconvenience, one that was finally drawing to a close. They had known her, or her parents, merely well enough to make it rude to not show up.
At the moment it became clear the girl would not breathe again, her mother began to sob. Mutters of disbelief grew into screams, and she railed at God and sickness and no one at all for taking her child from her. She sobbed and wailed and grasped ineptly at the front of her daughter’s hospital gown, and pressed her face against the child’s unmoving flesh, as it faded slowly to an ashen grey.
Behind her, her husband stared dumbly forward, and had to sit. His mind was blank, and though he had known for months that this was the only possible outcome, at this moment, he couldn’t believe it had occurred. The emotions were there, somewhere, hidden away by a protective mechanism, one his mind had developed to cope with him witnessing and causing death on foreign battlefields. His emotions would come to the surface eventually, in inappropriate ways, as bouts of anger and depression, and he would drink until they sank back down into the depths. But that was later. Now, he placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, and leaned forward until his forehead rested on her shaking back.
Richard did not know the girl he had just seen die, or the woman he had watched sob and scream. His wife, Susan, did, however, and had insisted they both go the moment she’d heard. She had been the girl’s teacher in her last year of life, and had expended more time and energy on the girl than the rest of her class combined, all because the child was dying. Richard had always thought this was foolish on multiple levels. It wasn’t as if the child would use anything she’d learned, and it didn’t make sense to him to become emotionally attached to something which would not be there long. He knew his wife had a soft heart, though, and he indulged her foolish choices.
Now that the child was dead, though, he was ready to leave, and was glad this obsession which had taken his wife was at last drawing to a close.
He touched her shoulder, causing her to turn about suddenly, tears in her eyes. She held him tight for a while, dampening his shirt, before he broke free of her, holding her shoulders, and looked at her.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked her, not quite keeping the impatience out of his voice.
“What?” she croaked, looking up at him, phlegm and emotion breaking up her voice. “No,” she said, finally registering what he had said. “I’m going to see her mother.”
“Ok,” he said, glancing at the turmoil in the room wish detached distaste. “I’ll be waiting in the car. Come out when you‘re ready.”
He turned and walked from the room, leaving his wife and all thoughts of the girl’s death behind him in the hospital room.
Sam had been a Baptist pastor for nearly twenty years. He had said prayers and blessings over the sick and dying, and had spoken at more funerals than he could count, often times not knowing the deceased very well at all, inventing pleasant lies about them, always assuring everyone present that their loved one was happily wiling away their infinite hours in the presence of the almighty. While many times lies were small, they were always there. And the wicked were always spoken well of, no matter how callous or hate-filled they might have been. Scoundrels in life were saints in death, and all present created clever excuses for why the things they did weren’t so bad after all, forgetting the trespasses and remembering the few good moments.
But here, today, was something alien, and unsettling. This child was not a broken and selfish adult who needed to be lied for. She was sinless. She was innocent. He had watched as she died, not in anticipation of the afterlife, but in abject terror of her own death. He had nothing to say, nothing to rationalize it with.
He had spent time with her over the past year. Her mother had called him, asking him to ensure her child’s to salvation in her final days. While he was there, she asked questions. Simple, childlike questions. “At church, they say anyone can talk to God, and he’ll answer,” she said. “When I talk to God, why doesn’t he answer? Why can’t I hear God?”
The usual answer, of course, was that those that didn’t hear God chose not to. But this wasn’t someone who didn’t want to believe. This was a young child, making an honest attempt, because she was capable of nothing other. So he told her she wasn’t listening hard enough, and tried hard to believe it himself.
“If God loves everyone,” she asked him one afternoon, “then why does he send people to Hell?”
Sam tried to explain that God was perfect, and no one could live up to his perfection, but it was beyond her, and the more he tried to explain it, the less sense it made to him, as well. The rationalizations he’d used to reconcile God’s love and mercy with eternal torment had lost the sway they had once held with Sam. The more he used them, the more worn and transparent they became.
Each day new questions would come, and each would chip away at the foundations of his faith, which no longer had the resilient strength it had once had in his youth. In those days, he was full of passion, ready to believe any mote of emotion which floated his way during a prayer session was God’s voice speaking to him. But time brought wisdom, and wisdom brought the realization that he didn’t apply the same standards to his beliefs that he did to other people‘s beliefs. He would have preached of the sins of false prophets once, but now he could see no difference in their prophets or his own, could not see what made his any more convincing.
The year he spent ministering to this child had fractured the final justifications and explanations he’d adopted for propping up of his faith. Now he stood at a few feet from the child’s too still form, as her mother was approaching, wanting consolation that he could not give, wanting assurance that her child was somewhere better, when she was still in the room, dead. The child’s mother stopped a pace from him, looked at him with her bleary, tear-stained face, and held out her damp, clammy hands to him, which he took.
“Help me,” she said, simply.
“Help her, then. Pray for her.”
“I can’t, Judith. She’s dead.”
“Sam, pray for her. I need you to, Sam. She needs you to.”
“There’s nothing left to pray for, Judith.” He dropped her hands, and turned and started walking.
The girl’s mother followed him as he tried to walk away, to escape.
“What do I do now?” she called after him, loud enough that others turned to look. “What do I do? Help me, Sam.”
“I don’t have any answers for you, Judith. There‘s no lesson to be learned, there‘s nothing to be gained. She‘s dead, and there is nothing else.”
And Sam left.
He went not to his church, or home, to pray, but instead stopped at a gun store and purchased a revolver and a box of ammunition. He paid for a motel room, and sat in it, with the loaded pistol, but couldn’t bring himself to complete the act. He instead went home to his wife, full of fear and doubt, finding little reason to live, but too afraid of death to complete the act. He lived a long life, and died as the child had, terrified, but for the first time in his life, honest.