hands-holdingI did not want to write this. I really, truly did not want to write this, so much so that I actively tried not to write this. I went to sleep last night, not writing it. I woke up this morning and kept not writing it. But some stories just want to be written, even if the writing of them is painful and unwanted. They can be insistent.

So I’ve written it. It’s short, and it hurt, but it’s done.

Promise me one thing, though. If you read this, read it with Neil Gaiman’s voice in your head. Because it was very much in mine as I wrote it, even if my words don’t come anywhere close to his.

You might need to read it twice, because I’ve no talent for narrative. And sometimes, that’s just how grief works.

The Space That Isn’t There

Three delicate knocks strike a door in the early morning hours; the latch clicks after the second one and the door is open by the third. A man slips in, walking with soft steps to the same chair he left last night. He reaches over the bed’s railing as he sits.

Two hands meet. One is old and rough, wrinkled from age and leathered by work. The other isn’t.

Fingers intertwine. The covers stir. Eyelids peel open. Tired lips smile.

“You’re back.”

The man leans forward in his chair, tightening the grip of his hand’s embrace. He sighs and says, “We don’t have long.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“It’s ok.” Another hand emerges from the bed, cupping itself over the others. “I don’t want to go, either.”

Forced grins. Awkward laughter.

“How’s Mary, Chief?” asks the man in the bed, whose name is Peter, but who likes to be called Hoss.

“Bossy, Hoss.” replies the man in the chair, whose name is also Peter, but who likes to be called Chief. “As usual.”

Hoss smiles. “That’s why you’re marrying her.”

“She called me at the hotel this morning, you know,” says Chief. “Wanting to know if I’d ironed my underwear before my flight.”

“Iron your underwear?”

“I know. Who does that?”

“What’d you tell her?”

Chief shakes his head. “I told her I did. But she didn’t believe me.”

“Had you really?”

“Of course not, but we’d have gotten into a fight about it if I had.”

Hoss just stares, letting his eyes ask for an explanation, rather than his words.

Chief sighs, and leans back in his chair. “Remember that time Mom asked me to clean out the garage, and we got into a huge fight about it because I already had, but it didn’t look like it because we had so much stuff in there?”

Between coughs, a weak laugh. “Yeah,” says Hoss. “You just started throwing boxes onto the driveway and she was running around in her nightgown, screaming and trying to catch stuff rolling out into the street.” He pauses and shakes his head. “And I was just trying to calm both of you down.”

Chief laughs. “See? Now if I’d just lied in the first place, I wouldn’t have gotten so mad when she thought I didn’t do what I hadn’t done.”

“You always were stubborn.”

“Yeah, but so is Mary. It balances out.”

Hoss starts coughing again. A machine goes ping.

“What was that?” asks Chief. “Should I call the nurse?”

Hoss shakes his head. “No. It just does that sometimes. I think it’s letting me know I’m not dead yet.”

More awkward laughter.

“When’s your flight?” asks Hoss.

“Couple of hours.”

“You need to get on the road soon, then. Traffic gets bad in the morning.”

“I can come back next week. I just have to close on the house.”

“It’s ok, Chief. We had our time. You’ve got a life to get back to.”

“Yes, but –”

“And I don’t.”

“But –”

Hoss lets go of Chief’s hand. “But nothing. I know you love me, and you’re here now. And that’s enough.”

Chief pulls him back, gripping his hand even tighter than before. “I can close on the house any time. They can wait.”

“No,” says Hoss. “They can’t. How long have you been trying to sell that place? Now somebody finally wants to buy it, you’re gonna go sell it to them. You deserve it, Chief. You and Mary. I like her.”

“Even if she makes me iron my underwear?”

“Because,” Hoss smiles, “she makes you iron your underwear.”

“Mom never made me iron my underwear, you know.”

Hoss smiles again. “I’ll tell her you said thanks for that.” He squeezes Chief’s hand one more time. “When I see her. Now, get going.”

An old and wrinkled finger pushes a call button. Nurses file into the room, doctors trailing behind. Forms are signed. Permissions given. Tears shed.

And then, it’s time.

Chief lowers the railing and lies down, cramming into a space that isn’t there. He wraps his arms around Hoss, pulling him close to his chest.

“Remember how we used to snuggle?” he asks.

Hoss smiles through his own tears. “Just like this,” he replies.

“Just like this,” says Chief.

They hold each other for more time than it seems, which doesn’t seem like enough. Then, Chief closes his eyes and nods toward a doctor. The doctor nods back.

A syringe emerges from his pocket.

And then, it’s done.

Hoss, still clinging to Chief’s chest, begins to fall asleep. “I love you, Papa,” he says. “I love you so much.”

Chief squeezes as hard as his old muscles allow. “I love you more, son.”

“No,” sighs Hoss, his voice thin. “I love you the most.”

“I love you more than that,” says Chief.

“No. I love…” his voice trails off, and his body grows still. His hug loosens. And he’s gone.

A machine goes ping. A nurse switches it off.

The old man lies there for what some might say is too long, but nobody says it. The nurses and doctors leave the room. They can come back later.

Chief, whose real name is Peter, but who misses being called Papa, pulls his son close to him one more time. One last time.

“Remember,” he says, “how we used to snuggle?”

And he cries.

*************

© 2017, Kristian Bland. All rights reserved.