She feeds him the ice cream, flinching each time the plastic spoon clicks against his bottom teeth. His hand reaches momentarily, shaking, and then falling limply against the sheet. She moves the spoon to the Styrofoam again, and he smiles faintly, a drop of vanilla resting on his bottom lip. She considers telling him about it, but is unsure of whether he can use his tongue better than he can his arm.
He coughs, thickening the air.
The doctor has not come in yet today. She suspects he is avoiding the stench of the dying better than she is.
She is not alone, the raspy breathing reminds her of that, but she might as well be.
"I like vanilla." The words are slow, drawn out, as if he is three years old and just now learning how to use his vocal chords. He is a big, bulky fetus against the whitest of sheets. The industrial-strength Clorox smell has permeated his skin.
"I like vanilla, too, Daddy." She keeps her words short, her syllables few, so that her voice doesn't waver. "Do you want me to get another cup?"
The spoon scrapes against the bottom of the cup, finding no ice cream for resistance.
|He says her name|
She flees down the hall, plaid skirt flying about her knees, graying tennis shoes beating a path on linoleum. She is ashamed of herself for wanting to get away so badly, and her face is salty and wet when she returns with another cup.
Her mother, hard plastic indenting her back, rubs her face absentmindedly, the lines in her cheeks conveying words that will never be spoken. She already knows.
"That's nice of you to feed him the ice cream."
She lets him hold the cup, feels his trembling fingers vibrating, marking it.
He says her name; it is barely audible. He does not want anything, just likes to feel how it bounces against his tongue, how pointedly it splits the air.
The doctor creeps in gingerly, and she moves to let him pass, gives up her chair for her mother.
"More X-rays." He puts them up; the light hums. "As you can see, there are four more lesions around the cerebral cortex."
Her mother slumps.
"But what about the radiation? I thought the radiation was supposed to eliminate the chance of any more tumors."
He, who has never said the word tumor, smoothes his lab coat, looks away.
"It appears the radiation hasn't done what it was supposed to."
No one needs to ask what that means, especially the disintegrating man on the bed, and he says nothing more.
|"I can see you this way."|
She watches his heartbeat on a screen, watches his eyes unfocused and failing, try to locate her. She puts her hand on his arm, and he relaxes.
"I already knew."
That makes two of them.
She sits by her mother. She has never liked coffee before, and still doesn't, but it will keep her awake, and she cannot sleep, so it slides bitterly across her tongue. The acids churn.
"I'll miss riding my bike with him on Sundays in the church parking lot."
Her mother looks at her sharply. Her face sags. She can protect no one any longer.
He holds the metal pole, straining the mess of tubes and tape on his arm. His grip weakens. His temples furrow, and he shuts his eyes violently. This means he has a headache, but he never says anything.
She want to tell him she's sorry, to make this her fault, so that it can be someone's fault. Beep beep beep. She bites her lip.
He touches her face, moving across the few blemishes on her chin, the slightly upturned curve of her nose. "I can see you this way."
Later, when the seizures and MRIs are over, when there are no longer any nurses taking blood pressure at 3 a.m., when room 211 houses a diabetes patient or a heart attack victim, these are the memories that will snake into her mind before all the others. She will never play his guitar.
She dreams for the first time in weeks, feels the cold creeping into her, clutches the blanket tighter. Drenched in sweat, she waits for her mother to tell her what she already knows. Steady waves have become a line.
She becomes smaller.
She clasps her hands over her ears, bracing them, shutting out the whining drone.